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Covered With Soul Vol. 10

February 8th, 2012 8 comments

We reach a decade of Covered With Soul mixes with interpretations of songs better known in versions by the Mamas and the Papas, Rolling Stones, Randy Newman,  The Righteous Brothers, Brook Benton, Ben E King (or Shirley Bassey), Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick, The Shirelles, Frankie Laine, Frankie Valli, Jimmy Cliff, Blood Sweat & Tears, Bob Dylan, Chicken Shack (or the late Etta James),  Kris Kristofferson,  Gil Scott-Heron, Carpenters, Doobie Brothers, Bread and Abba.

Even if you are a casual observer of soul music, you will know at least one voice here among the lesser known singers: Dorothy Morrison. She was the lead voice on Oh Happy Day, the mammoth hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. A superior singer, Morrison never hit the big time as a solo artist – she had one Top 100 hit in 1970 with All God’s Children Got Soul –  though she was much in demand as a backing singer with acts like Boz Scaggs and Rita Coolidge, and continues to perform as a gospel artist. In 1970 she backed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell at the Big Sur Folk Festival, which yielded the Celebration album, from which Merry Clayton’s version of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ comes. Clayton will, of course, always be associated with the Rolling Stones for her spine-tingling vocals on Gimme Shelter (her solo version of the song featured on Covered With Soul Vol. 1). A Stones song is also represented in this mix: Labelle’s fantastic take on Wild Horses, which might actually eclipse both the Rolling Stones and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ version, which was released before that by the Stones.

Tommy Hunt features here covering Kris Kristofferson in 1976. He had a mammoth hit some two decades earlier, as a member of The Flamingos with I Only Have Eyes For You. We have also met him in The Originals as the first performer of Bacharach/David’s I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself (see The Originals 36). Even at 78, Hunt remains very active in show business, as his website  proves.

 TRACKLISTING
1. Vessie Simmons – Dedicated To The One I Love (1971)
2. Labelle – Wild Horses (1971)
3. Maxine Weldon – I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (1971)
4. Vivian Reed – You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (1970)
5. Hearts Of Stone – Rainy Night In Georgia (1971)
6. Dee Dee Warwick – I Who Have Nothing (1969)
7. Melba Moore – People (1971)
8. Gladys Knight & The Pips – Theme From Valley of the Dolls (1968)
9. Cissy Houston – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (1972)
10. The Ebonys – I Believe (1973)
11. The Manhattans – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You (1970)
12. Martha Reeves – Many Rivers To Cross (1974)
13. Dorothy Morrison – Hi De Ho (That Old Sweet Roll) (1970)
14. Merry Clayton – The Times They Are A Changin’ (Live) (1970)
15. Margie Joseph – I’d Rather Go Blind (1973)
16. Tommy Hunt – Help Me Make It Thru The Night (1976)
17. Esther Phillips – Home Is Where The Hatred Is (1972)
18. Jimmy ‘Bo’ Horne – They Long To Be Close To You (1979)
19. Candi Staton – Listen To The Music (1977)
20. The Whispers – Make It With You (1977)
21. Carol Douglas – Dancing Queen (1977)

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More Covered With Soul

The Originals Vol. 43

August 11th, 2011 3 comments

In this instalment we look at the lesser known originals for five hits from the 1970s. Regular readers with exceptionally good memories might have a déjà vu movement: two of the songs I’ve done before. But I was not satisfied with one, and recently was sent by a kind soul a crucial sound file for the other.

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Johnny Bristol – Love Me For A Reason (1974).mp3
The Osmonds – Love Me For A Reason (1974).mp3

Johnny Bristol is probably best-remembered for his excellent mid-’70s soul hit Hang On In There Baby. We have encountered him previously in this series, in The Originals Vol. 37, as one of Johnny & Jackie who co-wrote and recorded the first version of Diana Ross and The Supremes’ Someday We’ll Be Together.

A producer of many Motown records and after 1973 for CBS (where he produced such acts as Randy Crawford, Boz Scaggs and Marlena Shaw), he resumed his recording career in 1974. Among the tracks on his rather good Hang On In There, Baby album was Love Me For A Reason, a song Bristol co-wrote with David Jones and Wade Bowen.

Bristol recorded on MGM records where the prolific producer and arranger Mike Curb ran he show. Curb was, it is fair to say, a man of uncompromising conservative opinion. He later became a Republican politician, but while at MGM, he fired a reported 18 acts from the label for using or supposedly promoting drugs. Among them were Frank Zappa and The Velvet Underground.

One act in no danger of Curb’s axe was The Osmonds, the squeaky clean and impossibly toothy Mormon brothers who had produced a string of hits for MGM. Their version of Johnny Bristol’s hit became a US #10 pop hit in 1974 – their last. In Britain it topped the charts (and they’d have another top 5 hit there in 1975), inspiring a hugely successful cover version 20 years later by Boyzone, the Ronan Keating-led band that traded in unwelcome remakes of old hits.

Also recorded by: The Hiltonaires (1974), Boyzone (1994), Studio 99 (1999), As We Speak (1994), State Of The Heart (1996), Bruno Bertone (2000), Fabulous 5 (2003)

Gene Cotton – Let Your Flow (1975)
Bellamy Brothers – Let Your Flow (1976)

It might have been a hit for Neil Diamond. Written by one of the lamé-jacketed star’s roadies, Larry E Williams, it was offered first to Diamond. He declined to record it (as did Johnny Rivers), which perhaps was just as well. Instead the song came to country/folk singer-songwriter Gene Cotton, who recorded it for his 1975 album For All The Young Writers.

While Cotton’s version went nowhere, Neil Diamond’s drummer suggested it to his friends David and Howard Bellamy, the country duo The Bellamy Brothers. Their recording became one of the biggest hits of the decade and gave the brothers’ their international breakthrough hit. In West Germany Let Your Love Flow topped the charts in summer 1976 for six weeks until it was knocked off by its German version by Jürgen Drews, formerly of the Les Humphries Singers, which went by the peculiar title Ein Bett im Kornfeld (A bed in the wheat field).

Also recorded by: Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn (1976), Jürgen Drews (as Ein Bett im Kornfeld, 1976), Roy Etzel (1976), Les Humphries Singers And Orchestra (1976), Lynn Anderson (1977), Del Reeves & Billie Jo Spears (1977), Karel Gott (as Běž za svou láskou, 1978),Joan Baez (1979), John Holt (1982), Ray Charles (1983), Audrey Landers (1986), Solomon Burke (1993), Tom Jones (1998), John Davidson (1999), Dana Winner (2001), Jan Keizer (2001), Tamra Rosanes (2002), Dream Dance, Inc. (2005), Collin Raye (2005), Fenders (2006) a.o.

Art Reynolds Singers – Jesus Is Just Alright (1966)
The Byrds – Jesus Is Just All Right (1969)
The Doobie Brothers – Jesus Is Just All Right (1972)

In the 1970s there was a fashion of rock groups singing songs about Jesus. Perhaps it was a fashion inspired by the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Or maybe some really were just into Jesus. So the Doobie Brothers, a band named after a synonym for a joint, had a hit with Jesus Is Just All Right in 1972.

The original of the song was recorded by the Art Reynolds Singers in 1966. It was written by the band’s leader, Arthur Reid Reynolds, apparently as a riposte to John Lennon’s “The Beatles are more popular than Jesus” comment. Present at that recording session was Gene Parsons, the drummer of The Byrds, who introduced the song to his bandmates who in turn recorded it for their 1969 LP Ballad Of Easy Rider.

The Byrds’ version provided the template for the Doobie Brothers 1972 cover. The Doobies added a middle section to the original, with new, even more emphatically Christ-supporting lyric, sung by guitarist Pat Simmons: “Jesus, He’s my friend; Jesus, He’s my friend; He took me by the hand, far from this land; Jesus, He’s my friend.” Oddly enough, none of the Doobies were known to be Christians, but the Christians loved it, throwing Bibles on to the stage at Doobie Brothers gigs and making the One Way (up) handsigns.

Also recorded by: The Underground Sunshine (1970), 1776 (1970), Sister Kate Taylor (1971), Ronnie Dyson (1972), Exile (1973), DC Talk (1992), Shelagh McDonald (2005), Robert Randolph & The Family Band feat Eric Clapton (2006), Eric McFadden (2010)

Jim Weatherly – Midnight Plain To Houston (1972)
Cissy Houston  – Midnight Train To Georgia (1973)
Gladys Knight & the Pips – Midnight Train To Georgia (1973)
Neil Diamond – Midnight Train To Georgia (2010)

In 1972 former All-American quarterback Jim Weatherly released a country song that told of a girl whose fading dream of stardom in Los Angeles led not to a life of waitressing or pornography, but ended on a plane back to her home in Texas. In fact, Weatherley initially wanted his protagonist’s dreams shattered in Nashville, for his genre was country music.

The choice of Houston as the failed star’s home was inspired, according to Weatherley, by the actress Farrah Fawcett, who at the time was more famous for dating Lee Majors than her thespian accomplishments. “One day I called Lee and Farrah answered the phone,” Weatherly later told songfacts.com. “We were just talking and she said she was packing. She was gonna take the midnight plane to Houston to visit her folks. So, it just stayed with me. After I got off the phone, I sat down and wrote the song probably in about 30 to 45 minutes.”

Some months later, the Janus label sought permission to record the song with Cissy Houston, but asked whether they could adapt the lyrics to make the destination Georgia (seeing as Ms Houston going to Houston might seem a bit awkward). Weatherly accepted that, as well as a change in the mode of transport.

Whitney’s mom’s lovely performance became a minor hit in 1973. Gladys Knight heard it and decided to record it with her Pips. Houston’s endearing version might have been the template, but Knights’ cover demonstrates the genius of the sometimes unjustly ridiculed Pips. What would Gladys Knight’s interpretation be without the interplay with and interjections by her backing singers: “A superstar, well he didn’t get far”, “I know you will”, “Gotta go, gonna board the midnight train…” and, of course, the choo-choo “Hoo hoo”s?

It was fortuitous that Georgia was also Knight’s homestate. The song also sparked a collaboration with Weatherley with whose songs Knight populated the Imagination album on which Midnight Train appears.

Also recorded by: Ferrante & Teicher (1974), Connie Eaton (1974), Lynn Anderson (1982), Indigo Girls (1995), Sandra Bernhard (1998), Renee Geyer (2003), Jasmine Trias (2004), Paris Bennett (2006), Human Nature (2006), Joan Osborne (2007), Emma Wood (2009), Neil Diamond (2010), Sandrine (2010) a.o.

Larry Weiss – Rhinestone Cowboy (1974)
Glen Campbell – Rhinestone Cowboy (1975)

Larry Weiss was, and still is, a prolific songwriter (we read about him recently as one of the singers of the theme of Who’s The Boss). In the 1960s, he co-wrote hits such as Bend Me Shape Me, Hi Ho Silver Lining and Spooky Tooth’s Evil Woman. Sporadically he also recorded his own songs. One of these was Rhinestone Cowboy, inspired by a phrase he had overheard in a conversation. The song appeared on Weiss’ Black And Blue Suite album, and it was released as a single (at least in West Germany).

The story goes that Glen Campbell heard the song on the car radio as he was on his way to a meeting with his record company, and thought about suggesting to record it. But before he had the opportunity to do so, the record company presented their own bright idea: how about this Rhinestone Cowboy song by Larry Weiss.

In the original version, Weiss sounds much like his old Brill Building chum Neil Diamond. Campbell made the song his own, with that soaring voice which expresses such a forfeit of hope. Released in May 1975, it went on to top the pop and country charts simultaneously, the first time that had been done since 1961.

In 1984, Weiss finally got a project he had been working on realised – a movie starring Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone. Its title: Rhinestone.

Also recorded by: Slim Whitman (1976), Bert Kaempfert (1976), Charley Pride (1977), Tony Christie (1978), White Town (1997), David Hasselhoff (2004), Jan Keizer (2004) a.o.

More Originals

Songs about fathers

June 21st, 2009 7 comments

fathers day beerI don’t really care much for Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day, mostly because I’ve had neither mother nor father since I was 18. Still, as a father I damn well expect to get breakfast in bed today. High hopes… Fathers’ Day, of course, does bring to mind my late father, who died suddenly when I was 11. It has occurred to me that I am now at the same age he was when I was born, the fifth of his six children. He doubtless was far more mature than I am now. He probably wouldn’t have written blogs about moustaches in pop and the twattery of Michael Fucking Bolton. But then, I didn’t fight in World War 2, my brother did not die in war, my father was not persecuted by the Nazis, and I’ve never been widowed. Of course he was more mature than I will ever be.

My father was not quite an absentee father, but he was away a lot. The little time he had free, he needed to share between relaxation and a little socialising, wife, and, lastly, children. When he spent time with us, he was very loving, but there never wasn’t enough of him. I’ve learned from my father to make career sacrifices so that I could be a constant presence in my son’s life.

For a few years after my father died, I had occasional dreams that it was all a hoax; that he faked his death and was now coming to fetch us. About a decade after he died, I dreamt about him. He was hugging me, and I could smell him, a scent I had long forgotten (and never thought of). That was the last of my hoax dreams. In fact, twenty years or so on, I don’t think he has ever appeared in my dreams again.

Here then a few song about fatherhood, inspired by a recent series on the subject on the fine Star Maker Machine blog.

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Everything But The Girl – The Night I Heard Caruso Sing.mp3idlewildNot so much a song about parental relations than one of despair and hope. Released on 1988’s Idlewild album, the singer notes that just where his father lives in Scotland, the military has set up a missile system. That persuades him that he does not want to be responsible for bringing a child into this ugly world. But then he comes across something of great beauty — a recording of early 20th century opera singer Enrico Caruso — and it changes his notion of fatherhood, about his unborn child and about being the child of a father. It is a very beautiful song from a desperately under-appreciated album.

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Cardigans – Don’t Blame Your Daughter (Diamonds).mp3
cardigans_segThis quite brilliant 2005 track is an indictment of a really shitty father who seems to have abandoned his family. The song drips with bitterness and anger and sarcasm and a healthy shot of self-pity. “Your autograph’s worthless so don’t send me letters, and don’t mail me cash ’cause your money is no good. What’s left in your mattress is holes that lack of love left, some hair from a horse and none of it is yours, man.” Somebody has Daddy Issues…

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Loudon Wainwright III – A Father And A Son.mp3
loudonLoudon’s children, Rufus and Martha, evidently are not great fans of his parenting style, as we’ll see in the next song. Here, Loudon addresses his teenage son, recalling his own difficult relationship with his father, suggesting that volatile filial interactions are hereditary. He’d rather not fight with his son: “I don’t know what all of this fighting is for; but we’re having us a teenage/middle-age war.” Presumably father and son don’t hold back when screaming at each other. And yet: “This thing between a father and a son — maybe it’s power and push and shove; maybe it’s hate…but probably it’s love.”

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Martha Wainwright – Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.mp3
martha_wainwrightPerhaps Loudon can persuade his son, but daughter is disenchanted. He has clearly caused Martha (and, it seems, her mother) so much pain that the breakdown in their relationship is complete: “I will not pretend, I will not put on a smile, I will not say I’m all right for you…” And then the repeated outburst: “You bloody mother fucking asshole. Oh you bloody mother fucking asshole.” No breakfast in bed for Loudon on Fathers’ Day then?

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Gladys Knight & The Pips – Daddy Could Swear, I Declare.mp3
gknightAh, a father after my own heart. A man of my height (what do you mean “only” 5’7, Gladys) who knows how to swear and a short fuse. But he loved his children. This song, from 1973’s Neither One Of Us album, should resonate with adult children remembering their father through the medium of anecdote: “Ooh, my brothers and sisters still talk about how Daddy lost his temper that day. You see, he built a picket fence from the garage to the house. Well, Sam, tell me what I say, the same day the garbage man backed into the fence and the whole darn thing gave way. You should have been there…”

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Johnny Cash – Daddy Sang Bass.mp3
cash_stquentinThe family that sings together, stays together. Until somebody dies. Johnny Cash didn’t have a particularly happy family; his father blamed Johnny for the accidental death of his older brother. In this song, written by Carl Perkins, the family enjoys harmony, despite poverty. “Daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor. Me and little brother would join right in there.” Now, however, they’re all dead. Cash remembers the closeness and has the religious convictions to presume meeting them again in the afterlife: “Singing seems to help a troubled soul. One of these days, and it won’t be long, I’ll rejoin them in a song.” Cash died 34 years after recording the song at San Quentin jail.

Any Major 60s Soul Vol. 2

June 5th, 2009 5 comments

60s_soulHere is the second volume of ’60s soul tracks. Some of these songs are pretty well-known, but many others are hidden or forgotten gem. Eddie Holland’s track is as much a gem as it is a historical curiosity; it’s one of the few records he released on Motown before Berry Gordy decided that Eddie, with Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, should work exclusively as one of the label’s in-house writer/producer teams, in particular for the Supremes and the Four Tops . Read more…

The Originals Vol. 8

October 5th, 2008 1 comment


Jackie DeShannon – Needles And Pins
The Searchers – Needles And Pins
Last night I watched The Commitments on DVD, with the scene at the wedding where the singer belts out a cheesy version Needles And Pins. What struck me is how difficult it is to mess the song up. Even Smokie’s 1977 version was quite good. It is, of course, regarded as a classic in its incarnation by the Searchers (a group I used to confuse with the Seekers, featured above). It was written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nietzsche and first recorded by the vastly underrated Jackie DeShannon in 1963, crossing the Atlantic the same year in Petula Clark’s version before the Searchers finally scored a hit with it in 1964 (actually, DeShannon’s version, while not a hit in the US, topped the Canadian charts). The story goes that the Searchers first heard Needles And Pins being performed by Cliff Bennett at the Star Club in Hamburg and immediately decided that the song should be their next single. It became the second of their three UK #1 hits. They did retain DeShannon’s pronunciation of “now-ah”, “begins-ah” and “pins-ah.
Also recorded by: Petula Clark (1963), Buddy Morrow & his Orchestra (1964), Cher (1965), The Wallflower Complextion (1967), Smokie (1977), The Ramones (1978), Crack The Sky (1983), Tom Petty & Steve Nicks (1986), Mr. T Experience (1998), Willy DeVille (1999), Raimundos (2001), The Commercials (2001) a.o.
Best version: DeShannon’s original has a great energy, Smokie’s I have a nostalgic attachment to, but the Searchers had a moment of pop perfection with their version.

Jackie DeShannon – Bette Davis Eyes
Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes
In 1981, my half-sister’s boyfriend went on holiday to Colorado. For us in Germany, that was tremendously exotic. Although we had by then travelled through much of central Europe, America seemed another world. Where we had medieval churches, all of American architecture seemed to be mirrored skyscrapers (cf. the Dallas titles montage), and where our forests were populated by Rumpelstiltskin, granny-eating wolves and poisonous mushrooms, American woods were run by Grizzly Adams. And, most significantly, new LPs were available in America before they came out in Germany. So when our man came back from Colorado and told of his adventures (in what probably was boring suburbia), his tales were soundtracked by Juicy Newton’s Angel Of The Morning and Kim Carnes’ Betty Davis Eyes. The former has long been pencilled in to feature in this series, the latter joined the list only when our friend RH sent me the original.

I hadn’t known it was a cover version: neither did the song’s subject, who went out of her way to thank first Carnes and then the songwriters for introducing her to a whole new generation (including myself) and giving her cool status among her grandchildren. Davis and Carnes remained friends till the actress’ death. As noted above, Jackie DeShannon was not just an underrated singer, but also a songwriter. She co-wrote Bette Davis Eyes with Donna Weiss, and recorded it in 1975 in a country-boogie woogie style. Her version attracted little attention, but seven years later Carnes’ cover became one of the biggest hits in US chart history, spending nine weeks at #1 (a week less than the year’s top-seller, Olivia Newton John’s Physical). As for the titular eyes which warranted a song, apparently they were the product of a thyroid condition Davis suffered.
Also recorded by: Gwynneth Paltrow (for the film Duets, 2000), Crash Test Dummies (2001), Handsome Devil (2004), Space Cadet (2005)
Best version: The Carnes version reworks the song entirely. The guitar, synth and the somewhat sleazy drums complement Carnes’ raspy voice in the slowed down. That production evokes Davis’ (public) personality better than the original does.

The Highwaymen – Whiskey In The Jar
The Seekers – Whiskey In The Jar
The Pogues & the Dubliners – Whiskey In The Jar
“Musha ring dum a doo dum a da” is gibberish, apparently. And “Whack fol the daddy O” is not slurred ’50s slang. Whiskey In The Jar is an old Irish folk song about a girl betraying the highwayman who loves her. Folk historian Alan Lomax (who among many other things did that recording of Black Betty featured earlier on in this series) suggested that the song goes back, in some form, to the 1600s and might have inspired John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera. When the folk revival hit in America in the 1950s and ’60s, Whiskey In The Jar, which had long enjoyed popularity in the US, was among the many traditional tunes to be performed by the likes of The Limeliters and Peter, Paul & Mary. The oldest recordings that I’ve been able to turn up are thise by The Highwaymen from 1962 (thanks to caithiseach of The Great Vinyl Meltdown) and from 1964 by the Seekers. The song is, of course, more famous now as a rock song, thanks to Thin Lizzy’s iconic 1973 interpretation (which took some liberties with the lyrics). The Dubliners, whose 1967 hit with the song returned it to its native land, re-recorded it to fine effect with the Pogues in 1990. Some people talk highly of Metallica’s 1998 Grammy-winning take, but since I boycott those Napster-busting fuckers, it won’t feature here.
Also recorded by: The Dubliners (1967), Jerry Garcia & David Grisman (1995), Pulp (1995), Metallica (1998), Brobdingnagian Bards (2001), Belle & Sebastian (2005), Gary Moore (2006), as well as Roger Whittaker, Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, The Irish Rovers, the Poxy Boggards, Seven Nations, King Creosote, Axel the Sot, and Smokie (a.o.)
Best version: The Dubliners and Pogues nail it.

Albert Hammond – The Air That I Breathe
The Hollies – The Air That I Breathe
I feel very old when Albert Hammond needs to be introduced as “The Dad of the dude from the Strokes”. Hammond Sr is of course the more significant figure in pop, having scored hits on his own and written many more for others. The Air That I Breathe, composed with frequent collaborator Mike Hazlewood, is among those (and at least one more will feature in this series). Hammond’s 1972 recording on his debut album, It Never Rains In Southern California, went by fairly unnoticed. It starts of uncertainly, but mid-way through hits a strange stride. Perfect it is not, but interesting it certainly is. According to Hammond, it was written for a physically unattractive girl while Hazlewood came up with the title upon glimpsing LA’s smog – I rather like that story. The song was then recorded by Phil Everly in 1973, but became a hit in the hands of the briefly resurgent Hollies a year later. Subsequently Hammond and Hazlewood received an unexpected songwriting credit on Radiohead’s Creep for its resemblance to The Air That I Breathe.
Also recorded by: Cilla Black (1974), Olivia Newton-John (1975), José Feliciano (1977), Hank Williams Jr (1983), Julio Iglesias (1984), Steve Wynn (1995), Barry Manilow (1996), k.d. lang (1997), Simply Red (1998), Patti LuPone (1999), The Mavericks (2003), Blue Mule (2005), Tom Fuller (2007)
Best version: It’s a great song to interpret (as Thom Yorke would agree), but the Hollies version is just lush.

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The Originals Vol. 2

September 2nd, 2008 No comments

Roger Miller – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Kris Kristofferson – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3
Janis Joplin – Me And Bobby McGee.mp3

first-editionIt is odd when a legend of popular music ends up covering his own song. So it is with Kris Kristofferson who was commissioned to write Me And Bobby McGee by a record label boss.

The song’s first version was recorded by Roger Miller in 1969. His was a mid-tempo country-pop number, rather bereft of emotional engagement, an entirely misjudged drumtrack and, in the carnivalesque “la la la” part some ill-advised ’60s horns and some background whooping. It failed to set the world of music alight, making it to #12 in the country charts, and failing to dent the pop charts. Things could only get better. The next version was by the First Edition, featuring Kenny Rogers, who even in 1969 looked like your middle-aged uncle. If one doesn’t know that version, one can imagine Rogers performing the song in his languid way, the gravelly baritone drawing out all the gravitas of the lyrics. But imagination can be treacherous: the treatment here is light and quirky and much faster than one might think. A bit like Miller’s original.

The following year Kristofferson finally recorded it himself. Introducing a live version of it, KK seems unsure whether it is a country song or not, deciding that if it sounds like it is, then it must be. A couple of country types mucked about with it over the following few months, before Janis Joplin – a former lover and friend of KK’s – decided it was really a blues-rock number. Recorded just a few days before her death, Joplin is initially restrained before launching into a climax of screams and groans, as was her wont. Her take is not lacking in poignancy, especially given the circumstances, and many would regard hers as the definitive version, but – as with much of Joplin’s output – I distrust the notion that histrionics necessarily express true emotion. Indeed, Me And Bobby McGee is a country song; it tells a story whose narration requires no excessive emoting (especially if, as Willie Nelson claims, Bobby McGee is actually a guitar). In the space of three years, the song would be recorded 15 times.
Also covered by: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Haley, Dottie West, Loretta Lynn, Grateful Dead, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam The Sham, Olivia Newton-John, Charlie McCoy, The Statler Brothers, Lonnie Donegan, Gianna Nannini, Skid Row, Willie Nelson, LeeAnn Rimes, Anne Murray, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Alison Crowe, Dolly Parton & Kris Kristofferson, Arlo Guthrie a.o.
Best version: Kris Kristofferson nails his own song by delivering a tender, sadly resigned narrative of loss and freedom.

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Kingston Trio – Sloop John B.mp3
Beach Boys – Sloop John B.mp3
kingston-singersOne of the biggest Beach Boys hits was in fact an old Caribbean sea shanty about the ship John B which was sunk in a Barbados harbour in 1900. Borrowing from a 1935 recording titled Histe Up the John B. Sail, folk pioneers the Weavers first recorded it 1950 as The Wreck of the John B. But it wasn’t that version from which the Beach Boys borrowed their tune, but the 1958 take by clean-cut, stripey-shirted folk singers the Kingston Trio, who were the first to record the song under its now established title. The Kingston Trio’s version has an appropriate calypso lilt, giving it a lightness that invites a spot of finger-snapping.

One’s digits are safe from being used as a rhythm section in the hands of the Beach Boys, equally famous for their striped shirts (Pendeltones, fashion fans) before adopting the excessively hirsute line of appearance. Al Jardine suggested the song to Brian Wilson on to the song. Legend has it that Brian didn’t know the song, a myth peddled by Wilson himself. The great Kingston Trio fan Wilson of course knew the song — there reportedly are tapes of a young Brian singing the tune with high school friends.

Wilson was initially reluctant to adapt Sloop John B., but eventually mapped out the complex arrangement within a day, one which made the Kingston Trio’s attractive version seem very dull indeed. Its recording and single release preceded the recording of Pet Sounds by a while; which might explain the misguided resistance to Sloop John C by many fans of the album – because it feels out of place on an otherwise coherent set. It was included at the urging of the Beach Boys’ record company, Capitol, who apparently could not see much by way of hit singles on the groundbreaking album, other than the traditional Beach Boys sound of opener Wouldn’t It Be Nice. Sloop may be a cover version, but it is as autobiographical of Brian Wilson — then under the thumb of his Dad-from-hell Murry and the hectoring Mike Love (who did not dig the Pet Shop vibe at all), and quickly disappearing into the world of drugs — as any track on the album. The line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” reflects the mind of the tortured artist; the desperation in the line “I want to go home; please let me go home” anticipates the growing frustration and alienation of Wilson, the genius who was being told how to arrange his music by the musical hack Murry and pressured to keep writing about surfing, girls and cars by cousin Mike — a conflict that came to a head with the aborted Smile album.
Also covered by: Lonnie Donegan (as I Want To Go Home), Tom Fogerty, Roger Whittaker, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, Dick Dale, Relient K, Okkervil River a.o.
Best version: You can’t get passed the harmonies of Brian Wilson’s arrangement, even though vocals include the loathsome Mike Love.

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Gladys Knight & The Pips – I Heard It Through The Grapevine.mp3
Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine.mp3
gladys-knightGladys Knight believes she has good reason to be pissed off. There Gladys and her Pips had delivered an excellent dance number with I Heard It Through The Grapevine, scoring a US #2 hit in 1967, and Motown’s best-selling single up to then. And yet, a fair number of readers will be surprised to know that the song was in fact not a Marvin Gaye original. One has to feel for poor Gladys, but Marvin’s version is flawless in every way. Released a year after Gladys’ hit, it was at first just as an album filler. Marvin appropriated the song, investing himself into it so much that nobody can conceive of it as anything other than a Marvin Gaye number. Look at the list covers: would you really need to hear any of them in any way other than out of curiosity?

If you feel jaded by the song, as I once did, sit down and listen to it carefully again; I still find little surprises with every airing. Written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, several Motown stars – including Marvin Gaye as well as Smokey Robinson and the Isley Brothers – tested for the song before Gladys Knight’s version was approved for release. If she had not been upstaged by Marvin (whose single release pipped, as it were, her Motown sales record), her version, not Marvin’s, would feature prominently on all those Motown compilations. Instead it is a neglected stepchild, a point of trivia. It deserves better, but how can it compete against one of pop music’s rare moments of absolute genius?
Also covered by: Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, King Curtis, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Chi-Lites, Ike & Tina Turner, Young-Holt Unlimited, Ella Fitzgerald, The Undisputed Truth, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Earl Klugh, Average White Band, Joe Cocker, The Slits, The Flying Pickets, Ben Harper, Emmerson Nogueira, Michael McDonald, Kaiser Chiefs a.o.
Best version: I have made my case and hereby close it.

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The Nerves – Hanging On The Telephone.mp3
Blondie – Hanging On The Telephone.mp3
the-nervesIf it is not widely known that Blondie’s 1979 hit Hanging On The Telephone is a cover, then it probably is because the original performers, The Nerves, only ever released a four-track EP in 1976, which included the song. And having obtained it recently, I think it’s a very fine EP it is, too. The Nerves – a trio comprising songwriter Jack Lee, Paul Collins (who’d later join The Beat) and Peter Case (later of the Plimsouls) – were a heavy-gigging LA-based rock band which despite their extremely recording career proved to be influential on the US punk scene. The members of Blondie surely have were aware of the song. A year after The Nerves split, Debbie Harry and pals picked up the song and enjoyed a huge worldwide hit with it. The original hasn’t aged much: it reminds me of the Von Bondies or The Killers.
Also covered by: Mephisto Waltz, Scheer, L7, Germ Attack, Johnny Panic, Cat Power, Def Leppard, Girls Aloud
Best version: Much as I love Blondie, The Nerves’s original is superior. Though I’d like to hear Cat Power’s take.

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Bruce Woolley – Video Killed the Radio Star.mp3
The Buggles – Video Killed The Radio Star.mp3
bruce-woolleyThis slice of sci-fi flavoured nostalgia, inspired by a JG Ballard story, was co-written by Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes (then new members of horrible prog-rock band Yes) with Bruce Woolley. So it seemed right that it should be recorded by the two parties – the Yes contingent and Woolley – in 1979. The latter got in there first, with his Camera Club. It is a breathless version with much energy and a quite nice guitar solo at the end, but none of the bombastic detail which made the Buggles’ synth-fiesta a huge hit. The Buggles version is sometimes considered a bit naff, which does great injustice to a catchy song which does everything that is required of a very great pop song. The video of the Buggles version was the first ever to be played by MTV. But the Woolley version is all but forgotten.
Also covered by: Ben Folds Five, The Presidents of the United States of America, Erasure, Jimmy Pops, Rocket K, The Feeling
Best version: The Buggles single is one of my favourite singles of the 1970s…

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James ‘Ironhead’ Baker & Group – Black Betty.mp3
Ram Jam – Black Betty.mp3
james-bakerMy latest greatest chum RH sent me this me. Black Betty is an old African-American folk song favoured by labour gangs. The recording here is the oldest in existence, preceding that by Lead Belly, who often is credited with writing it, by six years. Indeed, it probably dates back to the 19th century. This is a 1933 field recording made by the musicologists John and Alan Lomax in 1933 of the convict James “Ironhead” Baker and backing band of prisoners at Central State Farm in Texas. The Ram Jam version wasn’t even the first rockified adaptation. In 1976, a year before the Ram Jam hit, it was recorded by an outfit called Starstruck, which included future Ram Jam member Bill Bartlett.

Civil right groups boycotted the song because it was thought it insulted black women. Anthropologists are undecided what exactly a “Black Betty”, perhaps a rifle, or a bottle of whiskey, or a whip (as Lead Belly claimed), or a penitentiary transfer wagon, or indeed a prostitute. In the Ram Jam lyrics Betty clearly is a woman, probably of African-American heritage (from Birmingham, Alabama). But it’s difficult to see how they are offensive.
Also covered by: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (going back to the song’s roots as an a cappella blues), Mina, Tom Jones, Spiderbait (#1 in Australia in 2004, non-antipodean fact fans) a.o.
Best version: Oh, I bet ole’ Ironhead would have loved to kick ass with the song as Ram Jam did.

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The Age of the Afro: '70s Soul Vol. 3

March 14th, 2008 12 comments

After a hiatus of a few weeks, we return to the age of the Afro, the glorious times of sunny soul which talked about love and preached social-consciousness. Read more…