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Murder Songs Vol. 8

January 30th, 2012 4 comments

In this trio of murder sings, we deal with a horse-loving psycho, a mother-loving psycho and a couple of miners for whom three was a crowd.

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Willie Nelson – The Red-Headed Stranger (1975).mp3
Ah, the follies of the blonde woman! As the song begins, we are told what the “yellow-haired lady” doesn’t know: don’t mess with the red-headed stranger and, whatever you do, don’t try and steal his pony (here we must assume that Nelson actually means a young equine). And since she doesn’t know not to mess with the red-headed stranger and since she does covet the pony, she initiates a tragic chain of events.

First she makes friendly with the red-headed stranger (we presume here that the colour describes his hair, not a sunburn sustained by a bald head subjected to the ultraviolet rays piercing the Montana air). He doesn’t respond to her flirtatious ways, even gives her money to go away. Fatefully, the blonde is not going to be deterred by otherwise compelling suggestion. She follows the red-haired stranger outside and touches the pony, presumably in ways that hint at an act of larceny. The red-headed stranger firmly puts forward a conclusion to the problem by putting a bullet in the women’s head.

We should have no moral dilemma here. By all reason, the red-headed stranger did something very wrong. Strangely, Willie Nelson and the local judicary, seem to disagree: “You can’t hang a man for killing a woman who’s trying to steal your horse.”

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Eddie Noack – Psycho (1968)
Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Psycho (live, 1981).mp3
Who’d be the mother of a psychopath? We first encounter the hungry Declan (for want of a better moniker, the song doesn’t name his narrator, so let’s go with Costello’s maiden name) afflicted with a headache in the family home. The baby’s crying, which doesn’t exactly lighten Declan’s mood as he recounts to his mother an encounter with his ex-girlfriend the day before. “She was at the dance at Miller’s store. She was with that Jackie White, Mama. I killed them both and they’re buried under Jacob’s sycamore.”

As he speaks, Mama makes the schoolgirl error of handing her psycho son a puppy (puppy lovers, look away now). The puppy doesn’t survive Declan’s attention, but we learn that Dec is quite aware of his mental state and the need for institutionalised therapy. Things don’t get much more cheerful, and you don’t really know whether to be repulsed at Declan, or feel sorry for him.

Psycho was written by Leon Payne (whose I Love You Because was recorded by the young Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, George Jones and John Prine), and first recorded in 1968 by Eddie Noack to no particular attention, but became a hit five years later for Jack Kittel.

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The Buoys – Timothy (1971).mp3
So, imagine you’re trapped in a coalmine with your colleagues Joe and Tim. And soon hunger sets in, and thirst. The reader blessed with sherlockian powers of deduction will by now have worked out that by the time the rescue is completed, only two miners emerge blinkingly into the daylight — and the eponymous Timothy is not one of them.

“Hungry as hell, no food to eat, and Joe said that he would sell his soul for just a piece of meat. Water enough to drink for two, and Joe said to me: ‘I’ll take a swig, and then there’s some for you.” Knowing that Timothy didn’t survive, we have a sense of foreboding. “Timothy, Timothy – Joe was looking at you. Timothy, Timothy – God, what did we do?”

Well, you don’t really know what happened next (or so you say). “I must’ve blacked out just ’bout then, ’cause the very next thing that I could see was the light of the day again. My stomach was full as it could be and nobody ever got around to finding Timothy.” You and Joe ate Timothy’s bones and hair as well? Yuk!

The song, banned on US radio on its release, was written by Rupert Holmes, who also gave us the regrettable Escape (Pina Colada Song) and the much more brilliant Him. Despite that (or perhaps because of it), it reached #7 on the US charts.

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More Murder Songs

In Memoriam – March 2010

April 13th, 2010 7 comments

A little later in the month than previously, here are some of the music people who died in March (since then, of course, Malcolm McLaren has joined the great recording studio in the sky). The Grim Reaper took two notable frontmen from us, Alex Chilton and Mark Linkous, as well as the blues singer Marva Wright (whose version of I Will Survive is as glorious as Gloria’s) and grievously underrated folky Lesley Duncan (featured here with one of the few songs Elton John ever covered). Most bizarre was the death of Serbian pop star Ksenjica Pajcin, who apparently was shot dead by her boyfriend who then killed himself. Her 2006 greatest hits compilation featured the legend, “My boyfriend is out of town”. A few names appear here without tribute track — that’s because I have nothing by them.All listed songs can be downloaded in one file.

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Ralph Martin, 70, singer with doo wop band The Willows (or The Five Willows), on February 19.
The Willows – Church Bells Are Ringing (1956)

Lolly Vegas, 70, singer of Native-American rock group Redbone, on March 4.
Redbone – The Witch Queen Of New Orleans (1970)

Ron Banks, 58, singer of soul group The Dramatics, on March 4.
The Dramatics – Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get (1972)

Johnny Alf, 80, Brazilian singer and composer, on March 4.
Johnny Alf – Rapaz de Bem (1990)

Fred Wedlock, 67, British Western singer, on March 4

Andy Johnson, 62, guitarist of British blues band Sam Apple Pie and sound engineer for the Pogues, U2 and others, on March 5
Sam Apple Pie – Something Nation (1968)

Mark Linkous, 47, frontman of alt.rock act Sparklehorse, on March 6.
Sparklehorse – Don’t Take My Sunshine Away (2006)

Micky Jones, 63, singer-guitarist of Welsh prog rock band Man, on March 10.

Lesley Duncan, 66, singer-songwriter and backing vocalist for Pink Floyd (on Dark Side Of The Moon), the Alan Parsons Project, Dusty Springfield, Walker Brothers a.o., on March 12.
Lesley Duncan – Love Song (1971)

Carol Clerk, 52, British rock journalist (Melody Maker), on March 12.

Jean Ferrat, 79, French singer, on March 13
Jean Ferrat – Potemkine (1965)

Kevin Neill, 78, bassist with the Karl Denver Trio, on March 13.
Karl Denver Trio – Wimoweh (1962)

Cherie De Castro, 87, member of The DeCastro Singers, on March 14.
DeCastro Sisters – Teach Me Tonight (1954)

Ksenjica Pajcin, 32, Serbian pop star, murdered on March 16.
Ksenija Pajcin – Vestica

Alex Chilton, 59, singer with the Box Tops and Big Star, on March 17.
Big Star – The Ballad Of El Goodo (1972)
Box Tops – Cry Like A Baby
(1968)

Marva Wright, 62, big-voiced blues singer, on March 23
Marva Wright – I Will Survive (2004)

Johnny Maestro, 70, singer with doo wop band The Crests, on Marc h 24.
The Crests – Sixteen Candles (1958)

John Ciambotti, 67, session bass player for Elvis Costello, Huey Lewis, John Prine, Lucinda Williams a.o. and chiropracter, on March 25
Elvis Costello – Alison (1977)

Herb Ellis, 88, legendary jazz guitarist, on March 28.
Herb Ellis & Joe Pass – The Shadow Of Your Smile (1968)

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The Originals Vol. 30

August 7th, 2009 8 comments

In this instalment in the series of the lesser known originals, we look at Killing Me Softly With His Song, He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother, Evil Ways, (Ghost) Riders In The Sky, and I Wanna Be Loved, an obscure ’70s soul song covered a decade later by Elvis Costello. A vote of thanks to my friends Walter, RH and Mark for feeding me some of the music featured here (the latter a very long time ago).

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Kelly Gordon – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1969).mp3
The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1969).mp3
The Persuasions – He Ain’t Heavy/You’ve Got A Friend (1971).mp3
Donny Hathaway – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1972).mp3
The Housemartins – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother (1986).mp3

kelly_gordonThe Hollies’ guitarist Tony Hicks was desperately looking for a song to record when he was played a demo of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. The band decided to record it without great expectations, with Reg Dwight (who would become Elton John) on piano. Of course, it became a mega-hit and pop classic. But the Hollies were not the first to record it. The song had already been released by Kelly Gordon in April 1969 — five months before the Hollies’ version — as a single and on his Defunked album (the single’s b-side was That’s Life, a song Gordon had co-written five years earlier, but had been recorded before and made famous by Frank Sinatra). The original of He Ain’t Heavy by Gordon, more active as a producer than a singer, is slower and more mournful. Based on his interpretation, the publishers thought it would be a good song for Joe Cocker to record. And it would have been, but Cocker turned the song down.

He Ain’t Heavy was written by Bobby Scott (who wrote A Taste Of Honey) and the older veteran lyricist Bob Russell (Little Green Apples), who was already ailing with cancer and died at 55 in February 1970, just after the song had become a worldwide hit. There is much speculation as to the origin of the title; most commonly it is believed that the line was inspired by Father Edward Flannagan, the founder of Boys Town, who had adopted it as the organisation’s motto, reputedly after spotting a cartoon of a boy carrying another in a corporate publication named Louis Allis Messenger, that was captioned “He ain’t heavy Mister – he’s m’ brother!” It was not a new line; it had been used in literature and magazine articles before, and supposedly provided the punchline for a Native American folk story.

persuasionsThere have been many covers of the song. I have several favourites. Donny Hathaway’s soul interpretation tops the Hollies’ pop version. Then there are two fine a cappella versions. There are three such recordings by the Housemartins are in circulation: on the compilation Now That’s What I Call Quite Good, as a bonus track on the London 0 Hull 4 CD, and unofficially on the 1986 BBC Saturday Live sessions. It is the latter featured here. It might very well have been inspired by the magnificent version released in 1971 by the a cappella band The Persuasions, who recorded it as part of a medley with You’ve Got A Friend — which the Housemartins also recorded a cappella. (Edit: See the message by former Persuasions frontman Jerry Lawson in the comments section.)

Also recorded by: Neil Diamond (1970), I Ribelli (as Il vento non sa leggere, 1970), The Ruffin Brothers (1970), The Osmonds (1971 & 1975), Glen Campbell (1971), Ramsey Lewis (1971), Cher (1971), Donny Hathaway (1971), Gladys Knight & The Pips (1971), Melba Moore (1971), Johnny Mathis (1972), Brotherhood of Man (1974), Olivia Newton-John (1975), The Housemartins (1985/86), Al Green (1987), Bill Medley (1988), Gotthard (1996), Rufus Wainwright (2001), Helmut Lotti (2003), Pentti Hietanen (2005), Barry Manilow (2007) a.o.

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Lori Lieberman – Killing Me Softly With His Song (1972).mp3
Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly With His Song (1973).mp3

lori_lieberman(Text has been edited since it was first posted)

There are two stories describing the genesis of Killing Me Softly With HIs Song. The more widely-spread story has folk-singer Lori Lieberman so moved by Don McLean’s live performance of the song Empty Chairs that she wrote a poem about, calling it Killing Me Softly With His Blues. The composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, who were taking time out from their impressive TV theme production line (Happy Days!) to write songs for Lieberman’s self-titled debut album, used her poem as the basis for the song which she would be the first to record in 1971, releasing it the following year.

Or so Lieberman says. Norman Gimbel’s recollection is very different, though much less known. In an e-mail to this blog (which will go up fully reproduced on Sunday), he explained how it was a book he was referred to years earlier by composer Lalo Shifre that featured the line “Killing Me Softly With His Blues” (the title of the poem Lieberman says she wrote). He like the idea and stored it away for a few years until he needed lyrics for the Lieberman album which he and Fox were writing, changing the word “blues” to “song”.

flackAlthough Lieberman didn’t score a big hit with the song, Flack stumbled upon it in 1972 while in air. After reading about Lieberman in the TWA airline magazine and her interest piqued by the title of the song, she tuned into the song on the in-flight radio, and decided to record it herself. Over a period of three months, Flack experimented with and rearranged the song, changing the chord structure, adding the soaring ad libs and ending the song on a major chord where Lieberman did with a minor. Her remake made an immediate impression, topping the US charts for four weeks and reaching #6 in Britain. Her version won Grammys for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance.

Almost a quarter of a century later, in 1996, Killing Me Softly – its full title by now routinely castrated – made an unwelcome return to the album charts in the form of the Fugees’ cover (it wasn’t released as a single so as to boost album sales). Lauryn Hill’s vocals are fine, though the hip hop arrangement negates the confessional intimacy of Flack’s, or indeed Lieberman’s, version. And that would be adequate; the mood of a lyric often is disengaged from a song’s sound to little detriment (think of all the great upbeat numbers with morose lyrics). Besides, the Fugees had conceived of the song as an anti-drug anthem with the revised title Killing Him Softly, a plan that was abandoned when they were denied permission for such modification. The whole exercise becomes something of a prank thanks to Wyclef Jean’s repeated intonation of “one time” and “two time”, as though he was auditioning for the role of parody DJ on Sesame Street. No matter how affecting Hill’s vocals, Wycount von Count’s antics render the Fugees’ version one of the most deplorable covers in pop.

Also recorded by: Johnny Mathis (1973), Rusty Bryant (1973), Tim Weisberg (1973), Perry Como (1973), Bobby Goldsboro (1973), John Holt (1973), Anne Murray (1973), The Ventures (1973), Shirley Bassey (1973), Woody Herman (1973), Katja Ebstein (as Das Lied meines Lebens, 1973), Vikki Carr (1973), Lynn Anderson (1973), Rune Gustafsson (1973), Lill Lindfors (as Sången han sjöng var min egen, 1973), Marcella Bella, Lara Saint Paul, Ornella Vanoni (all as Mi fa morire cantando, 1973), Andy Williams (1974), Mike Auldridge (1974), Charlie Byrd (1974), Petula Clark (1974), Engelbert Humperdinck (1974), Ferrante & Teicher (1974), George Shearing Quintet (1974), Charles Fox (1975), Hampton Hawes (1976), Cleo Laine & John Williams (1976), Mina (1985), Lance Hayward (1987), Al B. Sure! (1988), Donald Brown (1989), Casal (as Tal como soy, 1989), Linda Imperial (1991), Yta Farrow (1991), Joanna (as Morrendo de amo, 1991), Luther Vandross (1994), Ron Sanfilippo (1994), Michael Chapdelaine (1995), Mahogany (1996), The Fugees (1996), Victoria Abril (1998), Joe Augustine (1998), Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers (1998), The BB Band (1999), Anthony Arizaga (2000), Hank Marvin (2002), Eric Hansen (2002), Kimberly Caldwell (2003), Raymond Jones (2004), Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass (2005), Omara Portuondo (as Matándome suavemente, 2006), Helge Schneider (2007), a.o.

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Burl Ives – Riders In The Sky (1949).mp3
Vaughn Monroe – Riders In The Sky (1949).mp3
Peggy Lee – Riders In The Sky (A Cowboy Legend) (1949).mp3
The Ventures – Ghost Riders In The Sky (1961).mp3
Deborah Harry – Riders In The Sky (1998).mp3

burl_ivesRiders In The Sky, sometimes known as Ghost Riders In The Sky, is one of those standards which is famous mostly for being famous. It has been recorded many times, and most people know at least its melody (I knew it first in the The Ventures’ 1961 guitar-driven instrumental version), but there seems to be no artist to whom the song is universally and specifically attached.

The song was written in 1948 by Stan Jones, a California forest ranger by trade who wrote western music as a sideline, also contributing music to film classics such as The Searchers and Rio Bravo. Riders In The Sky was first recorded in February 1949 by Burl Ives, still to be outed as a supposed communist fellow traveller and a few years from becoming friends with the McCarthyist defenders of freedom. Two months after Ives, Vaughn Monroe recorded it with his orchestra, and scored an international hit with it. The same year, Gene Autry sang it in a film, also titled Riders In The Sky, and Peggy Lee did a version, adding the parenthetical “A Cowboy Legend” to the title. The song made a comeback in the British charts in 1980 with the instrumental take by The Shadows, covering ground previously traversed by The Ventures and Dick Dale. And in 1998, Deborah Harry, formerly of Blondie, issued her electronica version.

Also recorded by: Bing Crosby (1949), Peggy Lee (1949), Gene Autry (1949), Spike Jones (1949), Eddy Arnold (1959), The Ramrods (1961), The Ventures (1961), Dick Dale (1963), Frank Ifield (1963), Frankie Laine (1963), Lorne Greene (1964), Duane Eddy (1966), The Englishmen (1967), Tom Jones (1967), Elvis Presley (live, 1970), Dennis Stoner (1971), Mary McCaslin (1975), Riders in the Sky 91979), Johnny Cash (1979), The Shadows (1979), Outlaws (1980), Fred Penner (1980), Milton Nascimento (1981), Marty Robbins (1984), The Trashmen (1990), R.E.M. (as Ghost Reindeer in the Sky, 1990), Michael Martin Murphey (1993), Johnny Cash & Willie Nelson (1998), Deborah Harry (1998), Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman and The Blues Brothers Band (1998), Ned Sublette (1999), Concrete Blonde (2004), Peter Pan Speedrock (2006), Me First and the Gimme Gimmes (2006), Die Apokalyptischen Reiter (2006), Spiderbait (2007), Dezperadoz (2008), Children of Bodom (2008) a.o.

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Teacher’s Edition – I Wanna Be Loved (1973).mp3
Elvis Costello – I Wanna Be Loved (1984).mp3

teachers_editionFor a prolific songwriter, Elvis Costello has covered songs widely. His best known cover perhaps is George Jones’ A Good Year For The Roses, itself a country classic. I Wanna Be Loved, a Costello single in 1984 which appeared on the otherwise underwhelming Goodbye Cruel World album (and features Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside on backing vocals), was plucked from obscurity. That’s what Costello said, and he was not exaggerating. I have been able to find nothing about Teacher’s Edition or about Farnell Jenkins, who wrote the song, except that it was released in on the Memphis-based Hi Records (which counted Al Green, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright among its roster) in1973 as a b-side to a song titled It Helps To Make You Strong, and enjoyed popularity in the Northern Soul set. Jenkins, now 67, now seems to be a Chicago-based writer of Gospel songs.
Also recorded by: nobody else, it seems

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Willie Bobo – Evil Ways (1967).mp3
bobo Santana – Evil Ways (1969).mp3
This month, you may hear it incidentally mentioned, marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. For Santana, the festival was the great break-out moment. Within a few months of Woodstock, the group had a hit with Evil Ways, the first of a string of covers by Carlos and his shifting band of chums. Evil Ways was recorded first by Latin jazz percussionist Willie Bobo, who would later collaborate with Santana. It was written by Bobo’s guitarist Sonny Henry, who is also doing vocal duty. Bobo died young, in 1983 at 49 of cancer. His son, Eric Bobo (the family name is actually Correa), also became a percussionist, with Cypress Hill.

evil_waysThe vocals (and the organ solo) on the Santana version are by the band’s co-founder Gregg Rolie, whose keyboards and vocals were also so integral to Santana’s version of Black Magic Woman (featured in Vol. 1). Rolie proceeded to co-found Journey with former Santana bandmate Neal Schon. In Journey, Rolie was initially lead vocalist, but ceded frontman duties when Steve Perry joined.

Also recorded by: Johnny Mathis (1970), Cal Tjader (1971), Carlos Santana & Buddy Miles (1972)

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In The Originals Vol. 22 we looked at The House Of The Rising Sun. In the interim, our friend Walter has sent me the first known recording of the song, by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster, recorded in 1933. I have added it to the original article, and post it below:

Ashley and Foster – Rising Sun Blues.mp3

Those interested in more versions of the song will be well served by this post on the fascinating Merlin in Rags blog, which specialises in old folk and blues.

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