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The Originals Vol. 15 – Elvis edition 2

January 28th, 2009 3 comments

Big Mama Thornton – Hound Dog.mp3
Freddie Bell & the Bellboys – Hound Dog.mp3
Elvis Presley – Hound Dog.mp3

RCA Studios, New York. Monday, 2 July 1956. Elvis turned up for his third and final recording session there to lay down the tracks for Hound Dog, Don’t Be Cruel and the ballad Any Way You Want Me. By now, Elvis had become confident enough to take charge of the session, for all intents and purposes acting as the producer. He had decided which songs to record, and would run through as many takes as necessary for the perfect recording. Occasionally, when a backing musician would make a mistake, he would sing a note out of key or commit another error, forcing another take. In the seven-hour session, 31 takes of Hound Dog were recorded (and 28 of Don’t Be Cruel). Elvis listened to them all, narrowed down the choices. Eventually, he settled for take 18 of Hound Dog (some sources say it was number 28).

elvis-hound-dogBefore the session, the story goes, RCA had procured the first recording of the Leiber/Stoller composition, Big Mama Thornton’s blues rendition. Everybody was aghast: they thought it was horrible, unable to comprehend why Elvis would want to record that, as Gordon Stoker of the vocal backing group The Jordanaires later recalled. Stoker and the other puzzled people in the studio obviously did not watch TV. A month before the recording session, Elvis had performed the song on The Milton Berle Show, more or less the way he was going to record it on 2 July (Video clip). DJ Fontana had already introduced the drum roll between the verses, and Scotty Moore the guitar solo. He performed the song again on TV the day before the recording session: the performance on the Steve Allen show (VIDEO) when, wearing a tuexedo, he had to sing the song to a bemused, top-hatted basset hound (Elvis was a good sport about it, at one point even laughing at the absurd set-up. Allen had a way of humiliating Elvis. Another time, he had Elvis playing an inarticulate hillbilly [!] in what by all accounts was a particularly tasteless sketch). The Berle performance, seen by a reported 40 million people, had created a storm of protest by the guardians of morality at Elvis’ “vulgarity” (just see his movements 2:04 into the video to understand why it might have been controversial in the mid-1950s). Could anybody really have been so oblivious as to regard Rainey’s record as a demo, as if Elvis had no idea what to do with the song?

freddie-bell-the-bellboysThe truth is that Elvis didn’t base his version on Big Mama Thornton at all, but on the cover by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, An Ital0-American band he had seen during his discouraging concert engagement in Vegas in April/May 1956. Having ascertained that Bell wouldn’t mind, Elvis quickly included Hound Dog in his setlist. He probably was aware of Thornton’s version, and perhaps heard some of the country covers that had been released. But Elvis’ Hound Dog is entirely a reworking of the Bellboys’, incorporating their sound and modified lyrics (“Cryin’ all the time” for “Snoopin’ round my door”, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine” for  “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more”), but happily dispensing with the lupine howls.

big-mama-thornton-hound-dogBell and his band enjoyed a mostly undistinguished recording career, with only one real hit, Giddy Up A Ding Dong (which was much bigger in Europe than it was in the US), also in 1956. Bell got no writing credit for Hound Dog. The writing credit remained entirely with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were still R&B-obsessed teenagers when they were commissioned by the producer Johnny Otis to write a song for Big Mama Thornton in 1952. They did so in 15 minutes (when the song became a million-seller for Elvis, Otis claimed co-authorship. He lost that case). Thornton’s recording became a #1 hit on the R&B charts in 1953 (Video). Her 12-bar blues inspired a plagiarised response song, which turned out to be the first ever record released by Sun Records, Sam Phillips’ label which would go on to produce Elvis.

Three years after Thornton’s hit, Stoller honeymooning on board of the sinking Andrea Doria. His life was spared (and, like Leiber, he is still with us), and returning to New York, he was greeted at the pier by Leiber with the news that Hound Dog had become a smash hit. “Mama Thornton?” Stoller asked. “No, some white kid named Elvis Presley,” replied Leiber. The songwriters, R&B purists, resented Elvis’ version. When, inevitably, they were commissioned to write for Elvis a year later, for the Jailhouse Rock film, they were not particularly happy. As a form of revenge, Leiber wrote for Elvis to sing the line in the title track: “you’re the cutest little jailbird I ever did see.” The prison in Jailhouse Rock was not co-ed. When they finally met Elvis, the songwriters realised that Elvis was a kindred spirit who genuinely shared their love for R&B, and they became good friends. Stoller even appeared in the film, as a piano player.

Elvis’ Hound Dog went on to sell 4 million copies in its first release in the US; it’s flip side, the wonderful Don’t Be Cruel, also reached #1. In Britain, the critics were not enthusiastic, even if Hound Dog became a big hit there too. The jazzheads at the venerable Melody Maker were particularly unimpressed. In an exceptionally scathing review, which described Hound Dog as being possessed by “sheer repulsiveness coupled with the monotony of incoherence”, Steve Race opined: “I fear for the country which ought to have the good taste and the good sense to reject music so decadent.” He had no advice as to how one might repel the Rock ‘n’ Roll tide, but with regard to Elvis, he rather deliciously offered to leave him  “with his ‘rectinbutter houn dogger’ and merely echo his last and only comprehensible line: ‘You ain’t no friend of mine’.”

Also recorded by: Billy Starr (1953), Tommy Duncan (1953), Eddie Hazelwood (1953), Jack Turner (1953), Cleve Jackson (1953), Gene Vincent (1956), Scotty Moore (1964), Everly Brothers (1965), The Easybeats (1967), Jimi Hendrix (1967), Nat Stuckey (1969), Ross McManus (1970), Albert King (1970), James Burton (1971), John Entwistle  (1973), Sha Na Na (1973), Johnny Farago (1977), Ral Donner (1979), Shakin’ Stevens (1983), Tales Of Terror (1984), The Residents (1989), Eric Clapton (1989), Züri West (as Souhung, 1990), Jeff Beck & Jed Leiber (1992), Marva Wright (1993), Bryan Adams (1994), Big Time Sarah and the BTS Express (1996), The Lord Lucan Quartet (1999), Jimmy Barnes (2000), Status Quo (2000), Etta James (2000), The Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio (2003), Robert Palmer (2003), Porterhouse Bob (2005), James Taylor (2008) a.o.

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Tippie & the Clovers – Bossa Nova Baby.mp3 (new link)
Elvis Presley – Bossa Nova Baby.mp3

tippie-the-cloversAnother Leiber & Stoller composition, Bossa Nova Baby has been unjustly regarded by some as a bit of a displeasing novelty number from an Elvis movie (1963’s Fun In Acapulco). Even Elvis is said to have been embarrassed by it. If so, he had no cause: it may not be a bossa nova — it’s too fast for that — but it has a infectious tune and a genius keyboard riff which begs to be sampled widely. Perhaps it was the lyrics which had Elvis allegedly shamefaced, but the lines “she said, ‘Drink, drink, drink/Oh, fiddle-de-dink/I can dance with a drink in my hand’” are not much worse than some of the doggerel our man was forced to croon in his movie career as singing racing driver/pineapple heir/bus conductor. Or perhaps Elvis was embarrassed by the idea of including a notional bossa nova number in a movie set in Mexico.

Tippie & the Clovers, who were signed to Leiber and Stoller’s Tiger label, recorded it first in 1962 to cash in on the bossa nova craze. Apparently the composer’s preferred the Clovers’ version of Elvis’. These were the same Clovers, incidentally, who had scored a #23 hit with Love Potion No. 9 (also written by Leiber & Stoller and later covered to greater chart effect by the Searchers) on Atlantic in 1959.

Also recorded by: Cosmic Voodoo (2007)

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Jerry Reed – Guitar Man.mp3
Elvis Presley – Guitar Man.mp3

jerry-reedJerry Reed was a country singer who toiled for a dozen years before scoring a hit in 1967 with Tupelo Mississippi Flash — a song about Elvis. The same year Elvis chose to record Reed’s Guitar Man (the composer is listed as Jerry Hubbard, the singer’s real surname), and Reed played guitar on it. In 1968, Elvis also had a hit with Reed’s US Male, originally written in 1966. Reed, who died last August, had enjoyed some success as a songwriter before (such as Johnny Cash’s A thing called love) and later became a three-time Grammy winner, including one for his 1970 LP of duets with occasional Elvis associate Chet Atkins, and part-time movie actor, usually as a Burt Reynolds sidekick.

For Elvis, Guitar man was a redemption of sorts after the degradation of Clambake. His performance of the song at the Elvis ’68 Comeback Special is one of the best moments of the show.

Also recorded by: Bob Luman (1969), Jesus and Mary Chain (1990), Junior Brown (2001)

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Bing Crosby – Blue Hawaii.mp3
Elvis Presley – Blue Hawaii.mp3

waikiki-weddingWe’ll take a look at the more famous hit from Elvis’ 1961 movie Blue Hawaii — one of his most popular and the one with his best-selling soundtrack — in the next Elvis Originals Special on Friday.

Blue Hawaii was written by Leo Robin & Ralph Rainger (who also wrote Bob Hope’s signature song Thank You For The Memory) for the 1937 movie Waikiki Wedding, starring Bing Crosby and Shirley Ross. Crosby recorded it for the movie and scored a #5 hit with it that year. Robin’s other great contribution to music was to author the Marilyn Monroe hit Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.

Also recorded by: Frank Sinatra (1958), Willie Nelson (1992), David Byrne (2008)

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Brenda Lee – Always On My Mind.mp3
Elvis Presley – Always On My Mind.mp3

brenda-leeDepending on where you live and how old you are, this may be Elvis’ song or Willie Nelson’s, or perhaps the Pet Shop Boys’ (who had a hit with it in late 1987 after earlier performing it on a TV special to mark the 10th anniversary of Elvis’ death). Originally it was Brenda Lee’s, released in May 1972. It was not a big hit for her, reaching only #45 in the country charts. Somehow Elvis heard it and found the lyrics expressed his emotions at a time when the marriage to Priscilla was collapsing. He recorded it later in 1972. Released as the b-side to the top 20 hit Separate Ways, Always On My Mind was a #16 hit in the country charts. In the UK, however it was a top 10 hit, and became better know in Europe than in the US.

The song was co-written by the singer Mark James, who will feature in a future instalment of the Elvis Originals series with a song which also articulated Elvis’ marital emotions. Another co-writer was Wayne Carson (Thompson), who a few years earlier had written the ’60s classic The Letter, a hit for Elvis’ fellow Memphians the Box Tops.

Also recorded by: Willie Nelson (1982), Big Daddy (1985), David Hasselhoff (1985), Pet Shop Boys (1987), Alvin & the Chipmunks  (1988), The Starsound Orchestra (1992), James Galway (1994), David Axelrod (1995), Chris de Burgh (1995), Caroline Henderson (1997), Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (1998), David Osborne (1998), James Last (1998), El Vez (1999), Willie Nelson, Jon Bon Jovi & Richie Sambora (2002), Anne Murray (2002), DJ QuickSilver presents Base Unique (2002), Jade Villalon (2002), B.B. King (2003), Fantasia Barrino  (2004), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2004), Ryan Adams and The Cardinals (2005), Julio Iglesias (2006 – what took him so long?), Michael Bublé (2007), Roch Voisine (2008) a.o.

More Originals

Rudolph – Victim of prejudice

December 15th, 2008 7 comments

We have seen the story played out in countless movies: a marginalised and victimised member of a society finding inclusion after turning his handicap into a communal benefit. So it is with Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer.

Rudolph, a victim of prejudice, and his boss.

Rudolph, a victim of prejudice, and his boss.

We don’t know much about Rudolph. The song reports that due to a birth defect or medical condition the reindeer has a shiny, virtually luminous red nose, quite in contrast to his black-nosed peers. These evidently have taken to numerous ways of bullying Rudolph, presumably on account of his red nose. The bullying seems to take on the form of abuse directed at the physical non-conformity as well as deliberate marginalisation from social activities. It may well be that the alienation is prompted by other, perhaps related factors. Perhaps Rudy is excessively shy (a disposition which in itself may be rooted in physical differentiation), or perhaps he is rude (a defence mechanism). Perhaps his unglamorous name influences the group dynamic; like children, reindeer can be cruel, and if your name is as dreary as Rudolph, it may be difficult to gain acceptance in a clique which comprises individuals with such remarkable names as Donner, Blitzen and German favourite Vixen which would not be out of place in the line-up of a glamorous heavy metal band.

But we don’t know. All the song tells us is that Rudolph is being bullied, almost certainly on account of his red nose. But then circumstances beyond the group’s control intervene. Bad weather seems to preclude the execution of an important task: the annual delivery of presents to all good children in the world (an inaccurate characterisation, of course; many good children receive no gifts, and many unattractive juveniles will benefit richly from material bounteousness; as Bob Geldof reminded us in poetry when he reminded us that, departing from metereological norm, there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime). The CEO of the organisation hits on an unlikely plan: Rudolph’s incandescent nose can double as a headlight, aiding the navigation of his transporter in unfavourable weather conditions. As we learn, the innovation works. Rudolph, having saved the day, finds immediate acceptance, and even a level of celebrity, among his peers. The heavy metal singers presumably act with magnanimity, perhaps patting Rudy on his back and letting him play the bass guitar.

Superficially, the song celebrates the conquest of social exclusion as a response to deviation from the norm. It celebrates the notion that everybody has something to offer to the common good. These are commendable sentiments. However, we ought to question why these impulses to exclude others from social structures on grounds of defects, inherited or caused by illness, exist in first place. How much more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas might the song be had it addressed this specific characteristic of social dynamics more constructively?

Moreover, how much more valid a testament to the season of reconciliation might the song have been had Santa Claus, apparently an equal opportunities employer, taken concrete action to put a prompt end to Rudolph’s discrimination when the problem initially arose. His failure to afford Rudolph protection is aggravated by his opportunistic exploitation of Rudolph’s perceived defect. The episode’s conclusion — Rudolph’s acceptance into the group — is purely accidental. Santa used Rudolph’s distinctive attribute for purposes other than effecting that outcome (though he may well have welcomed it).

Without due intervention, Rudolph’s social rehabilitation could not have taken effect otherwise. But with poor Rudolph there must reside a bitterness that the imperfection that once assured his exclusion is now the cause of his celebrity. He is not being received into the group on his own merits, but on basis of a deep-seated hypocrisy. Moreover, he had to prove his usefulness to the group before being incorporated into it. In other words, the other reindeer’s acceptance of him is not founded in their regard for Rudolph, but in his usefulness to the group. Should Rudolph’s nose lose its luminescence and instead turn, say, green, would he lose his new-found status in the group?

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is one of reindeer’s cruelty against reindeer, managerial failure and the alienation of the reindeer soul. This, I submit, calls not for the upbeat musical treatment of custom. It should be expected that the song be performed as a two-bar blues, a sad country number, or an emo lament, preferably incorporating a verse or two telling the story from Rudy’s perspective, including his contemplation of reindeer suicide.

Mr Martin, shame on you for the cheer with which you invest the distressing tale of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Shame indeed.

Dean Martin – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

The Temptations – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

Gene Autry – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

Bing Crosby – Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

The Originals Vol. 1

August 28th, 2008 11 comments

Inspired by a propitious confluence of a long discussion about cover versions we didn’t know where covers and a generous correspondent whom we’ll know as RH e-mailing me a bunch of rare originals of better known covers, we are now at the cusp of what will be a longish series. Any Major Notebook now includes two pages worth of almost 100 shortlisted songs that in their original form are lesser known than later versions. In some cases that reputation is entirely subjective. There will be people who think that the version of Lady Marmalade perpetrated by Christina Aguilera and pals was the original. But people of my generation will long have been familiar with LaBelle’s 1970s recording. Until a day ago, I thought that was the original, but RH has disabused me of my error. The real original of Lady Marmalade will feature later in this series. In a very few cases, I will not present the original, but the earliest version available (I will note these instances accordingly). And we’ll kick-off with a heavy-duty dose of 10 originals. Tell me which songs you were surprised to learn are in fact covers, and let me know whether you prefer the originals or later versions.

(All original songs re-uploaded on March 31, 2009)

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Leon Russell – This Masquerade.mp3
Carpenters – This Masquerade.mp3
It makes sense to start this series with the Carpenters, who made it a virtue of picking up relatively obscure songs, and re-arrange and appropriate them. Think of (They Long To Be) Close To You, which despite legions of competing covers has become the Carpenters’ signature song as much as Richard’s arrangement has become the best-known, indeed primary incarnation of that song. For another good example of Richard’s rearrangement genius, take This Masquerade. Covered only a year after it originally appeared on Leon Russell’s 1972 Carney album, it becomes quite a different animal in the Carpenters’ shop, doing away with the long movie-theme style intro. Oddly, both Russell and the Carpenters’ used the song on b-sides of inferior singles. George Benson’s 1976 Grammy-winning version from the Breezin’ album is also worth noting.
Also covered by: Carl Tjader, Sergio Mendez, Helen Reddy, Shirley Bassey, No Mercy, CoCo Lee, Nils Landgren a.o.
Best version: The Carpenters’s version has a flute and Karen’s voice, beating Benson into second place.

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Randy & the Rainbows – Denise.mp3
Blondie – Denis.mp3
Here’s one I didn’t know until a few days ago: Blondie’s 1977 burst of pop-punk was in fact a cover of a 1963 hit. For Randy & the Rainbows, Denise represented a brief flirtation with stardom. It reached #10 on the Billboard charts, but after the follow-up barely scraped into the Top 100, that was it for the doo-woppers from Queens. For Blondie, on the other hand, Denis was something of a break-through song, at least in Europe. The French verse in Denis was necessary to explain away the object of desire’s gender-change. Thanks to my friend John C for the original version.
Also covered by: nobody worth mentioning
Best version: The original is very nice indeed, but Blondie’s cover is just perfect pop.

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Bing Crosby – Try A Little Tenderness.mp3
Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness.mp3
My kind friend RH, who helped inspire this series, has made me aware of many originals that have surprised me. It was not news to me, however, that Try A Little Tenderness was in fact an old 1930s standard, when RV sent me this Bing Crosby version. And yet, of the many songs I have received from RH, I was particularly delighted with this one, because among its crooned renditions I had heard only versions by Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. It needn’t be pointed out that once Otis was through with the song, with the help of Booker T & the MGs and a production team that included Isaac Hayes, it bore only the vaguest semblance to the smooth and safe standard it once was. Redding didn’t want to record it, ostensibly because he did not want to compete with his hero Sam Cooke’s brief interpretation of the song on the Live At The Copa set. Incredibly Otis’ now iconic delivery was actually intended to screw the song up so much that it could not be released. Bing’s 1932 version is actually not the original, but the song’s first cover version following the Ray Noble Orchestra’s recording.
Also covered by: Mel Tormé, Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Jack Webb, Frankie Lane, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Nancy Wilson, Percy Sledge, Nina Simone, Three Dog Night, Etta James, Al Jarreau, Rod Stewart, The Commitments, Michael Fucking Bolton, Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, Diane Schuur & BB King, Von Bondies, Michael Bublé a.o.
Best version: Otis.

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The Arrows – I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.mp3
Joan Jett – I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.mp3
The Arrows were a short-lived English band on the RAK label, which also gave us the likes of Smokie, Hot Chocolate and Racey, and so were produced by the semi-genius of ’70s pop, Mickey Most. After two hits – though not this song – and starring in a couple of brief TV series on British TV, they disappeared. Joan Jett also seemed to disappear after the break-up of The Runaways in the late ’70s, suddenly reappearing with the largely obscure I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll, which she had previously recorded with members of the Sex Pistols. Apparently Jett had known the song since 1976 when, while on tour with the Runaways, she saw the Arrows performing it on TV. Jett had another hit with another cover version, and that was her solo career over. The song found a new generation of admirers in 2001 with Britney Spears’ redundant cover.
Also covered by: Allan Merrill, Hayseed Dixie, Queens of Japan (no, me neither)
Best version: Jett gives it beery attitude.

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Everly Brothers – Crying In The Rain.mp3
Cotton, Lloyd & Christian – Crying In The Rain.mp3
A-ha – Crying In The Rain.mp3

Before she was all dreamy and barefooted hippie cat lover, Carole King was a songwriter in the legendary Brill Building. One of the many hits she churned out was Crying In The Rain, with which the Everly Brothers scored a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 1961. It was periodically revived on the country circuit, but is best known to many as the A-ha hit from 1990 – and the many would include me. In between, it was recorded in 1976 by an obscure outfit called Cotton, Lloyd & Christian. I have no idea how their version landed up in my collection, but here it is, serving as a missing link between the versions by the Everly Bothers and A-ha.
Also covered by: Sweet Inspirations, Crystal Gayle, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams a.o.
Best version: A-ha, by a whisker

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Liza Minnelli – New York, New York.mp3
Frank Sinatra – New York New York.mp3
The Theme from New York, New York has so much become a Sinatra cliché, it is often forgotten that it came from a rather long and boring Scoresese film with Minnelli and Robert de Niro. In the film, Minelli’s version is a source of some melancholy viewing; Sinatra’s 1979 take, recorded two years after the film, gets parties going with the hackneyed high-kicks and provides any old drunk with an alternative to My Way on karaoke night. If proof was needed that Sinatra trumps Lucille 2, consider that the NY Yankees used to play the Sinatra version after winning, and Minnelli’s after a defeat. Minnelli objected to that, understandably, and gave the Yankees an ultimatum: “Play me also when you win, or not at all.” Now Sinatra gets played even when they lose.
Also covered by: Michael Fucking Bolton (imagine that!), Reel Big Fish, Cat Power a.o.
Best version: Frank’s version is A-Number One

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Four Seasons – Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye).mp3
Bay City Rollers – Bye Bye Baby.mp3
The Four Seasons will be occasional visitors in this series. At least those people who grew up in the 1970s will be more familiar with cover versions than the Four Seasons originals. Bye Bye Baby was written by band member Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe, making it to #12 in the US charts. A decade later the Bay City Rollers scored their biggest hit with their decent but inferior version. The story goes that the Bay City Rollers were oblivious of the Four Seasons orginal, choosing it because Stuart “Woody” Wood had the 1967 cover by the Symbols. I have no idea what the Symbols did with the song, but the BCR arrangement certainly owes nothing to the more sparse original.
Also covered by: Apart from the Symbols also by something called the Popguns
Best version: Always the Four Seasons

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Fleetwood Mac – Black Magic Woman.mp3
Santana – Back Magic Woman.mp3
From Fleetwood Mac’s 1968 debut album, Black magic Woman is “three minutes of sustain/reverb guitar with two exquisite solos from Peter [Green],” according to Mick Fleetwood. Carlos Santana covered it on 1970’s Abraxas album and retained its basic structure and clearly drug-induced vibe, but changed the arrangement significantly with a shot of Latin and hint of fusion, and borrowing from jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo’s Gypsy Queen. It became one of Santana’s signature tunes, while Fleetwood Mac had to remind audiences that the song was actually theirs. The vocals on the Santana version are by Greg Rolie, who later co-founded Journey. And the who is this Black Magic Woman? According to legend, it was a BMW of that colour which the non-materialist Green fancied.
Also covered by: Dennis Brown, Mina, the Go Getters
Best version: Santana’s, especially for the use of the congas

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Scott English – Brandy.mp3
Barry Manilow – Mandy.mp3
Although he is a talented songwriter, Barry Manilow is a bit like the Carpenters: he appropriated other people’s songs by force of arrangement (and, obviously, commercial success) – including a Carpenters song, which will feature in this series. If we need proof of how much Bazza owned the songs he didn’t write, consider his giant hit Mandy. It was a cover of a ditty called Brandy by one Scott English, which was a #12 hit in Britain in 1971 (the tune was written by Richard Kerr, who wrote two other hits for Manilow, Looks Like We’ve Made It and Somewhere In The Night). Manilow’s renamed version was the first cover. None of the subsequent recordings are dedicated to Brandy. English’s version is not very good. To start with he couldn’t sing, and the production is slapdash. Manilow recorded it relucantly, not yet sure about singing other people’s music. He slowed it down, gave it a lush arrangement, and we know how it ended. Quite hilariously, Manilow is not popuar among some people in New Zealand who think that he stole the song from a local singer called Bunny Walters, who had a hit with Brandy in his home country while the actual songwriter’s version failed to dent the charts there.
Also covered by: Johnny Mathis, Starsound Orchestra, Helmut Lotti (urgh!), Westlife
Best version: Mandy trumps Brandy.

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Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.mp3
Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.mp3
The first time ever you heard this song probably was by Roberta Flack, whose performance on her 1969 debut album was barely noticed until it was included in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film Play Misty For Me. Those who dig deeper will know that it was in fact written in the 1950s by folk legend Ewan MacColl, for Peggy Seeger with whom he was having an affair and who would become his third wife. For MacColl, the political troubadour, the song is a radical departure, supporting the notion that he didn’t just write it for inclusion in Peggy’s repertoire. Followers of the ’60s folk scene might have known the song before they heard the Flack version; it was a staple of the genre. The Kingston Trio even cleaned up the lyrics, changing the line “The first time ever I lay with you…” to “…held you near”. After the success of Flack’s intense, tender, sensual, touching and definitive version – which captures the experience of being with somebody you love better than any other song – there was an explosion of covers, with Elvis Presley’s bombastic version especially infuriating MacColl, who compared it to Romeo singing up at Juliet on the Post Office tower. It does seem that he did not take kindly to the intimacy of his song being spread widely and, indeed, corrupted. And Peggy Seeger never sang the song again after Ewan’s death
Also covered by: Smothers Brothers, Peter Paul & Mary, Harry Belafonte, Marianne Faithfull, Bert Jansch, Gordon Lightfoot, Shirley Bassey, Vicky Carr, Andy Williams, Engelbert Humperdinck, Johnny Mathis, The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Timmy Thomas, The Chi-Lites, Mel Tormé, Barbara Dickson, Alsion Moyet, Aaron Neville, Julian Lloyd Webber, Lauryn Hill, Celine Dion, George Michael, Christy Moore, Stereophonics, Johnny Cash, Vanessa Williams, Leona Lewis a.o.
Best version: I’m waiting for Michael Fucking Bolton to do his version before I commit myself…
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