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In Memoriam – May 2012

June 5th, 2012 4 comments

The Grim Reaper wreaked havoc in May. Robin Gibb, Donna Summer and Adam Yauch were the headliners, but there were also members of The Dillards and Crowded House who left us. Two blues and soul guitarists died: Charles Pitts, who played on so many of Isaac Hayes’ records (his guitar helped make The Theme of Shaft such an iconic track) and Pete Cosey, who played on many Chess records.

In April we lost Andrew Love, who was involved in creating the iconic intro for Otis Redding’s Try A Little Tenderness. In May we lost another co-creator of a famous Otis intro: Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, who died at 70, provided the driving bass of I Can’t Turn You Loose. Fans of the Blues Brothers will know that intro; it’s played during the long introduction of the band as Jake and Elroy are trying to make to the stage. And on that stage was Donald “Duck” Dunn, the bassist with the white Afro and beard, appearing as himself. Check out the man’s discography.

We also lost Doc Watson, who did much to revive and keep alive the flame of traditional country and bluegrass at a time when the genre was tending towards the glossy pop sound.

First on the list this month is Jim McCrary, one of the rare non-musicians who warrant inclusion in this series. His contribution resides in album covers and rock photography. His LP cover portfolio includes Carole King’s Tapestry (and album cover which I will deal with in a couple of week’s time), the Carpenters’ Offering and Now And Then, The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Burrito Deluxe and The Flying Burrito Bros, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen. He also took the famous series of photos of Gram Parson in the Nudie suit.

I had never heard of Masud Sadiki before, hut was saddened to hear of another young singer who saw no way out of depression but by committing suicide. The reggae singer from St Kitts leaves a wife and two young children, compounding the tragedy.  Two other mostly unknown musicians are included because they were killed in a shooting in a bar in which they frequently played, alongside three others.

Jim McCrary, 72, photographer of more than 300 LP covers, on April 29
Carole King – So Far Away (1971, live)

Charles Pitts, 65, soul guitarist for Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes a.o., on May 1
The Isley Brothers – It’s Your Thing (1969)
Isaac Hayes – Theme from Shaft (1973, live at Wattstax)

Lary Donn, 70, rockabilly singer, on May 1
Larry Donn – I’ll Never Forget You (1963)

Lloyd Brevett, 80, double bassist  of The Skatalites, on May 3
The Skatalites – Confucius (1966)

Edith Bliss, 52, Australian pop singer and TV presenter, on May 3

Bobby Thomas, 70, singer with the Vibranaires, Vibes, V-Eights and Orioles, on May 3

Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, 47, rapper with the Beastie Boys, on May 4
Beastie Boys – Pass The Mic (1992)
Beastie Boys – Ch-Check It Out (2004)

Mort Lindsey, 89, orchestra leader, pianist, composer and musical director, on May 4

Jose ‘Tonico’ Perez, 95, member of Brazilian duo Tonico e Tinoco, on May 5
Tonico e Tinoco – Chico Mineiro

‘Sweet Joe’ Russell, 72, singer with a capella group The Persuasions, on May 6
The Persuasions – The Whole World Is A Stage (1970)

Michael Burks, 54, blues and soul guitarist, singer and composer, on May 6
Michael Burks – Make It Rain (2001)

Ernest Warren, 78, doo wop tenor with The Spaniels, on May 7
The Spaniels – Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite (1954)

Everett Lilly, 87, half of bluegrass duo The Lilly Brothers, on May 8
The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover – Sinner, You’d Better Get Ready (1962)

Clive Welham, British drummer and early bandmate of Syd Barrett and Dave Gilmore, on May 9

Celso Chavez, 44, guitarist of alternative rock band Possum Dixon, on May 9

Bernardo Sassetti, 41, Portuguese jazz pianist and film composer, on May 10

Donald  ‘Duck’ Dunn, 70, bass guitarist on Stax, and with The Blues Brothers and Booker T. & the M.G.’s, on May 13
Otis Redding – I Can’t Turn You Loose (1965)
The Blues Brothers – She Caught The Katy (1980)
Stevie Nicks & Tom Petty – Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (1981)

Belita Woods, 63, soul singer, on May 14
Belita Woods – That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You (1970)

Doug Dillard, 75, bluegrass & country musician with The Dillards and Dillard & Clark, on May 16
The Dillards – Lemon Chimes (1965)
Dillard & Clark – Train Leaves Here This Mornin’ (1968)

Chuck Brown, 75, funk singer and musician, on May 16
Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers – Bustin’ Loose (1978)

Donna Summer, 63, disco and pop singer, on May 17
Donna Summer – Last Dance (1978)
Barbra Streisand & Donna Summer – No More Tears (Single Version, 1979)

Peter Jones, 45, drummer of Crowded House (1995-97), on May 18
Crowded House – Sister Madly (live, 1997)

Robin Gibb, 62, member of Bee Gees, on May 20
Bee Gees – Marley Purt Drive (1969)
Robin Gibb – Gone Gone Gone (1970)
Robin Gibb – Another Lonely Night In New York (1983)

Robert Nix, 67, drummer of the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Classics IV, on May 20
Atlanta Rhythm Section – So Into You (1976)

Carrie Smith, 70, blues and jazz singer, on May 20
Carrie Smith – Some Rainy Day (1983)

Eddie Blazonczyk Sr, 71, polka musician and founder of The Versatones, on May 21

Masud Sadiki, 37, reggae and calypso singer from St Kitts & Neves, suicide on May 21

Kuly Ral, 35, member of English-Asian group RDB, on May 23

Roy Wilson, 72, member of Jamaican duo Higgs and Wilson, on May 26.

Doc Watson, 89, bluegrass and folk musician, on May 29
Doc Watson – Talk About Suffering (1964)

Pete Cosey, 68, guitarist for Muddy Waters, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock a.o., on May 30
Muddy Waters – Tom Cat (1968)

Joe “Meshuguna Joe “ Albanese and Drew ‘Shmootzi the Clod ‘ Keriakedes, members of Seattle folk group God’s Favourite Breakfast, shot dead on May 3

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In Memoriam – April 2012

May 2nd, 2012 4 comments

The name Andrew Love will probably mean little to most music fans; but as a leader of the Memphis Horns (with Wayne Jackson), everybody will know at least some tunes the tenor saxophonist played on. The Memphis Horns were part of Stax’s session crew, and they also recorded on Hi Records. You’ll know them from tracks such as Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds, Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together and Dusty Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man. They are believed to have played on something like fifty #1 singles! This year they received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, sadly an award that is now mentioned only as an aside.

The marquee death of the month probably was that of US TV icon Dick Clark, a man who in the music industry seems to have engendered respect more than affection. No doubt his American Bandstand show helped make rock & roll mainstream, and probably a bit more square. Clark acknowledged that, but defended it in 1985: “But I knew at the time that if we didn’t make the presentation to the older generation palatable, it could kill it.”

Finally, the collector of Bruce Springsteen curiosities might enjoy The Dictator’s Faster & Louder: he provides the count-in.

Jimmy Little, 75, Australian singer, on April 1

Barney McKenna, 72,  member of Irish folk group The Dubliners, on April 5
The Dubliners  & The Pogues – Rare Old Mountain Dew (1987)

Jim Marshall, 88, founder of Marshall amplifiers, on April 5

Cynthia Dall, 41, singer songwriter, on April 5
Cynthia Dall – Aaron Matthew (1996)

Jim Niven, keyboard player of Australian groups The Sports and The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, on April 9
The Sports – Who Listens To The Radio (1979)

José Guardiola, 81, Spanish crooner, on April 9

Richie Teeter, 61, drummer of The Dictators, on April 10
The Dictators – Faster & Louder (1978)

Hal McKusick, 87, American jazz saxophonist, clarinetist and flautist, on April 11
Dinah Washington – Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat (1958, on alto saxophone)

Andrew Love, 70, half of the Memphis Horns, on April 12
Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness (1966)
Dusty Springfield – Son Of A Preacher Man (1969)
The Memphis Horns – What The Funk (1977)

Rodgers Grant, 76. jazz pianist, on April 12
Mongo Santamaria – Yeh-Yeh (1963, as co-writer and pianist)

Teddy Charles, 84, jazz vibraphonist, keyboardist and drummer, on April 16

Chris Gambles (aka Slip), 49, singer of English band Audio Rush, on April 16
Audio Rush – She’s Got Them Looks (2004)

Dick Clark, 82, legendary TV producer, on April 18
Chuck Berry – Sweet Little Sixteen (1958, American Bandstand reference)

Levon Helm, 71, singer, drummer and composer, member of The Band, on April 19
The Band – The Weight (1978)
Levon Helm – No Depression In Heaven (2011, recorded 2008, vocals by Sheryl Crow)

Greg Ham, 58, flautist and saxophonist of Men at Work, body found on April 19
Men At Work – Who Can It Be Now? (1981)

Bert Weedon, 91, English guitar pioneer and composer, on April 20
Bert Weedon – Guitar Boogie Shuffle (1959)

Duke Dawson, 83, blues drummer, on April 20

Joe Muranyi, 84, jazz clarinettist and producer, on April 20
The Village Stompers – Washington Square (1963)

Iküzöne, 46, bassist of Japanese rap group Dragon Ash, on April 21

Tom ‘Pops’ Carter, 92, blues musician, on April 22

Chris Ethridge, 65, bassist of The Flying Burrito Brothers, on April 23
The Flying Burrito Brothers – Lazy Day (1970)

Tommy Marth, 33, backing saxophonist with The Killers, suicide on April 23

Billy Bryans, 62, Canadian producer and drummer of the Parachute Club, on April 23
Parachute Club – Rise Up (1983)

Éric Charden, 69, French singer and songwriter, on April 29
Éric Charden –
Le monde est gris le monde est bleu (1967)

Kenny Roberts, 84, country singer, on April 29
Kenny Roberts – She Taught Me To Yodel (1965)

 

 

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“But I knew at the time that if we didn’t make the presentation to the older generation palatable, it could kill it.”

Copy Borrow Steal Vol. 4

May 18th, 2010 7 comments

In the fourth instalment of this series we’ll look at Chuck Berry’s hit that deliberately borrowed from a country tune, a song that made a four-stage transition from crooner standard to soul classic, and Bob Marley’s possibly unintended homage to a kids’ TV show. I should stress that I’m not suggesting plagiarism or other unethical actions by anybody (let’s save that for the inevitable mammoth Led Zep post).

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Dykes Magic City Trio – Ida Red (1927).mp3
Bob Wills
& his Texas Playboys – Ida Red (1938).mp3
Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys – Ida Red Likes The Boogie (1949).mp3
Chuck Berry – Maybellene (1955).mp3

Chuck Berry himself said that he based Maybellene, his debut record, on country musician Bob Wills’ vocal version of the traditional fiddle number Ida Red, recorded in 1938. Released on Chess in July 1955, Maybellene was a breakthrough song for the nascent rock & roll genre. Berry’s debut single was the first rock & roll record performed by a black musician to break the Billboard top 10 (those were pioneer days; bear in mind that Elvis was still a regional star and yet to sign with RCA).

Playing the piano at that session was Johnny Johnson, who had given Berry something of a break in 1952 when he let him join his Sir John Trio, and to whose prodigious drinking Berry’s later hit Johnny B. Goode was dedicated. One of the trio’s staple songs was a take on Ida Red, based on Wills’ 1938 recording. Berry, already brimming with charisma and showmanship, had taken that song to Chess in Chicago, and signed for the label as a solo artist. Pragmatically, Johnson and the third member of the trio, drummer Ebby Hardy, became members of Berry’s backing band. Now Leo Chess suggested that Ida Red be remodelled as a 12-bar blues, with different lyrics. Johnson reworked the arrangements, and Berry came up with the lyrics about the car and a girl, those rock & roll staples.

Bob Wills claimed that he played rock & roll decades before the genre was invented. He can’t have meant the sound itself, but the fusion of musical influences from across the racial divide, and the innovative use of instrumentation in the western swing sub-genre of country which Wills helped pioneer. On Ida Red, which preceded Wills breakthrough hit New San Antonio Rose by two years, Wills used drums, which were very unusual in country music (a term which wasn’t even known yet). The song, one of several riffing on the Ida Red character, had first been recorded  in 1924 by Fiddlin’ Powers & Family, and to greater public attention by the Dykes Magic City Trio in 1927. Wills put the tune to a 2/4 beat and gave the it new lyrics, which borrowed from a 1878 song called Sunday Night, written by Frederick W Root. In 1949, Wills revisited Ida Red with a sequel titled Ida Red Likes The Boogie.  Berry and Johnson may well have known that version, and one can imagine how it might have served to inspire Maybellene (just listen to the guitar), but it is the 1938 recording only which they have credited as the template for the song.

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Ruth Etting – Try A Little Tenderness (1933).mp3
Bing Crosby – Try A Little Tenderness (1933).mp3
Little Miss Cornshucks – Try A Little Tenderness (1952).mp3
Aretha Franklin – Try A Little Tenderness (1962).mp3
Sam Cooke – Medley-Try A Little Tenderness/(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons/ You Send Me (1964).mp3
Otis Redding – Try A Little Tenderness (1966).mp3

Before it became a soul standard, Try A Little Tenderness was a standard, first recorded by Ray Noble and his Orchestra in 1932, and a year later by Ruth Etting, then by Bing Crosby, and subsequently by vocalists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Jimmy Durante.  Otis Redding is being credited with reinventing the song as a soul tune, but his take was only the fourth (and final) stage of the tune’s evolution as a soul classic.

Before Otis, Sam Cooke recorded a fragment of the song as part of a rather lovely medley on his 1964 Sam Cooke At The Copa album. It was in fact that fragment which gave Stax executives the idea that Redding should cover it in 1966. Otis did so with great reluctance, not because he hated the song, but because he felt he could not measure up to his by now deceased hero Cooke. Produced by Isaac Hayes and backed by Booker T & the MGs, Redding did all he could to mess up the song so that it could not be released. He failed, and the song is now irrevocably his.

Redding apparently knew only Coke’s version (hence the abridged lyrics). Cooke in turn had decided to include Tenderness in his medley having heard the song on Aretha Franklin’s 1962 album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin. As fine as an interpreter of songs as Franklin would become (and already was at the age of 20), her version — soul-inflected vocals backed with an easy listening string arrangement — seems to have drawn from that by the forgotten Little Miss Cornshucks, whose 1951 recording was the first to Try A Little Tenderness the R&B treatment.

Born Mildred Cummings in Dayton, Ohio, in 1923, Little Miss Cornshucks came to the notice of future Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun while performing in a Washington club during her 1943 US tour, where her stage appearance was based on the rural shtick her name suggests, wearing the shabby dress she would later sing about. She was the first artist he recorded, and thereby the impetus for what would eventually become Atlantic Records (on which Aretha Franklin would record, though in 1962 she was on Columbia). Little Miss Cornshucks broke through as a recording artist in the latter years of the 1940s, particularly with her signature song So Long. Soon her star faded. In 1952 she recorded on three different labels, including Columbia. Her version of Try A Little Tenderness, however, was released in late May on Coral, a subsidiary of Decca, for whom she had recorded So Long.  Little Miss Cornshucks soon drifted away, just as her imitator Miss Sharecropper started to find success on Atlantic as LaVerne Baker. She died in 1999. (Read the full story of Little Miss Cornshucks at the excellent No Depression archives)

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Banana Splits – The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana) (1968).mp3
Bob Marley – Buffalo Soldier (1980).mp3
This series was inspired by Timothy English’s books Sounds Like Teen Spirit (website and buy), a collection of “stolen melodies, ripped-off riffs”. The book includes a number of surprising instances of soundalikes. One of the least expected is the connection between the theme song of a late 1960s US television kids’ show and a Bob Marley hit.

Buffalo Soldiers, a song about a regiment of black soldiers who fought in wars against Native Americans on the side of their oppressor, was recorded during the 1980 sessions for  Marley’s Uprising album (it was a posthumous hit in 1983 after inclusion on the Legend album). English writes that “in the middle, and again at the end of Buffalo Soldier, Marley breaks into a wordless note-for-note rendition of – of all things – the Banana Splits Theme.” He is referring to the woy-yoy-yoy ad lib, which does indeed sound exactly like the beginning and chorus of the theme song, written by Mark Barkan, who also wrote Manfred Mann’s Pretty Flamingo, and Richie Adams, both of whom also contributed to The Monkees and The Archies (other writers for the Banana Splits show included Gene Pitney, Al Kooper and Barry White).

The Banana Splits Adventure Hour was a late ’60s kids’ TV show modelled loosely on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Monkees, with stuffed animals taking the parts of the musicians (yeah, I know). English alleges no plagiarism on Marley’s part, but speculates that a little known passage in the life of Robert Nesta Marley  might have implanted the relatively obscure TV theme — it just scraped into the Billboard top 100, peaking at #96 in February 1969 — in the great man’s head. Periodically, the pre-fame Marley would live with his mother Cedella in Wilmington, Delaware, working at the Chrysler assembly line. One such spell, with his kids in tow, was half a year from April to October 1969, just as the Banana Splits show was running on Saturday morning TV and its theme possibly received some residual radio airplay…

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More Copy Borrow Steal

Revisiting ’60s Soul

November 29th, 2008 11 comments
I don’t think I’ve so much fun putting together an Any Major Mix as I had with this one. So much great music to choose from, so much great music I hadn’t played in a while. As always, the mix is timed to fit on a standard CD-R.

This mix is not a representative overview of ’60s soul. Some essential artists are not represented here: Sam Cooke, James Brown, Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield (well, he is very much present on Major Lance’s deceptively titled track. And the Five Stairsteps, with a song released four years before their famous Ooh Ooh Child, evidently have heard a Curtis song or two before). There are some well-known tracks on here – hopefully not too obvious, though – complementing some less famous tracks. Perhaps some songs will provide surprises. Dionne Warwick takes time out from bacharaching to provide a nearly camp girl-band type song. Johnny Adams gives Release Me, most famous in its Engelbert Humperdinck rancid cheese version, the soul treatment, showing that this is in fact a great song. Read more…

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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The Locomotion: 60s Soul – Vol. 3

January 18th, 2008 5 comments

The third and final part of the ’60s soul series opens the way for my real passion: the soul music of the ’70s, when the sharp suits, raw sexuality and growls of the ’60s gave way to afros, falsettos and flamboyant outfits. In the meantime, enjoy the final eleven classics of ’60s soul. Read more…

Albums of the Years 1960-65

November 15th, 2007 2 comments

Continuing the series of albums of the year, I am condensing the years of the ’60s prior to that of my birth. It was not a time for albums yet, at least not in pop. There were classic jazz albums, such as Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, an essential album of the decade with which I have never been able to close a friendship. In the ’60s the great Sinatra left Capitol and Nelson Riddle to become a crooner for the people following him into middle-age. There was one final great Capitol album, some goofing with the Rat Pack, then straight into bloated easy listening territory. Sinatra became so bland, he made Engelbert Humperdinck seem like the muse for the New York Dolls.

But the early ’60s also saw the rise of the Beatles as a pop band which could churn out good albums at an alarming rate. Consider that between the ropey debut of Please, Please Me to Rubber Soul, not quite three years passed. Only two years after Rubber Soul came the ludicrously influential Sgt Peppers. Two years later, the Beatles were finished. Such a rich body of work and astonishing artistic growth in seven years. Think about it: an act starting out in 2000 and breaking up about now, leaving behind a legacy like that. No wonder the Beatles are represented in this top 10 three times, with some consideration for two of the remaining three albums.

As ever, my top 10s are also not representative of the “best” albums of the year. Some are, but others will be included simply because I like them, knowing well that they are not as innovative or influential as others I have listed.

1. The Beatles – Help (1965)
On Sunday I bought the new DVD set. The movie looks and sounds great. Its cinematic merits aside (it is a bit ropey), Help! the film is a fascinating time capsule, coming after The Goons and before Monty Python. Add to that the Fab Four in action, and the songs, and it is a richly rewarding DVD, at least for the Beatles fan. And the album is my favourite Beatles set of all.

Help was the culmination of the Beatles’ innocent period, before lyrics started to acquire deeper meanings; before musical innovation became a hallmark of Beatles albums; before George Harrison was given the opportunity to express himself. Notable is the Dylan influence on both Lennon and McCartney — on “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” (my all-time favourite Beatles song, by John) and on the country-flavoured “I’ve Just Seen A Face” (Paul). “Ticket To Ride” and the title track hint at the leap the group would make just a few months later with Rubber Soul. For now, though, the songs were mostly still uncomplicated and sometimes even a bit goofy (”You’re Going To Lose That Girl”, “Another Girl”, Ringo’s cover of Buck Owen’s “Act Naturally”).

Perhaps because Help was recorded just as the Beatles became musically more adventurous, but before such innovation turned up some aberrations, it is their most perfect pop album. Even the inappropriate Dizzy Miss Lizzy, a throwback to the first three albums that should have been replaced by I’m Down (b-side to the single release of Help), cannot detract from the album’s perfection — positioned, as it is, at the end of the album, one can just switch it off.
The Beatles – You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.mp3
The Beatles – You’re Gonna Lose That Girl.mp3
The Beatles – I’ve Just Seen A Face.mp3

2. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
In preparation for this post, I listened to the three Beatles albums under review. I was going to rank Rubber Soul higher, but was reminded that there was more guff on that album than there is on the Beatles’ first soundtrack album. Somehow, my respect for Beatles albums tends to be based on the quality not of the singles but that of the tracks that were neither singles nor included on the 1973 red and blue compilations (a question of overfamiliarity, probably). And the album tracks on A Hard Day’s Night are just great: Anytime At All (how was that never a single?), I’ll Cry Instead, If I Fell, I’ll Be back. The singles/red album numbers – the title track, Things We Said Today, I Should Have Known Better, Can’t Buy Me Love – are outstanding as well. Oh, and the movie was really good as well (“He’s such a clean old man”).
The Beatles – Anytime At All.mp3

3. Vince Guaraldi Trio – A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)
The soundtrack to the Peanuts Christmas special. It is a sublime film and a sublime record. Both are immensely comforting, I find. This might be the only jazz album which people who hate jazz can love, and which jazz lovers can forgive for being loved by jazz novices. Nominally it is a Christmas album. If one is familiar with the Peanuts film, it will evoke Christmas. If not, it might well do so anyway, but it works at any time of the year. Listen to O Tannenbaum, a cool bass and piano driven version of the quintessential German yuletide song (Silent Night is Austrian, don’t you know?): it extends far beyond the Christmas spirit and fir trees. And yet, if you want it to be about Christmas, it can and will be. Even the 4 minute version of the Peanuts theme song (properly titled Linus And Lucy).
Vince Guaraldi Trio – O Tannenbaum.mp3

4. Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain (1960)
First off, I love the album cover. But if that were enough to qualify, Herb Alpert would be included in this post. Sketches Of Spain delivers what it promises: Davis interpreting Spanish music. Rodrigo’s classical Spanish guitar piece Concierto De Aranjuez gets the trumpet treatment, with Gil Evans’ luscious, deeply affecting arrangement producing 12 minutes and 43 seconds of utter bliss. I have said it before, to appreciate Miles Davis’ powers of innovation, one must look to his subtle works, certainly not to the jazz fusion wankery of Witches Brew. On Sketches Of Spain, things sway gently one moment, next a jolt as the tune segues into a film noir mood before it regains its whispering, ominous beauty. It is indeed a sad album, perhaps the saddest instrumental album I know besides Morricone’s wonderful soundtrack of Once Upon A Time In America. It is a rare and special thing when being a passive participant to such sadness can make one glad to be alive. Listen to this track, and, for the sake of experiment, cue your favourite upbeat pop song to follow it. My bet is that you will resent the pop song for crashing in on the afterglow of the emotion Davis has created.
Miles Davis – Concierto De Aranjuez.mp3

5. The Beatles – Rubber Soul (1965)
Never mind Revolver, it was Rubber Soul that represented the quantum leap in the Beatles’ artistic trajectory. Suddenly all kinds of strange instruments – especially George’s sitar – crept into the music, and the lyrics became increasingly surreal and, at times, cynical. Lennon seemed to be a bitter chap at that point. Run For Your Life, even by his own admission, is a nasty song, and Drive My Car is far from the polite tone of previous records (though Another Girl on Help is pretty mercenary). Some of the generic lyrics are still evident on the songs by Paul and George; it is John who first breaks out of the easy-going ghetto. Two songs stand out: the nostalgic In My Life, which seems to have been written by a man twice Lennon’s age, and Girl, which fuses a beautiful melody with much exasperated bitterness. The latter also has the best single sound on the album: the sharp intake of air through closed teeth, which serves to emphasise the protagonist’s frustration. The counterpoint is McCartney’s Michelle, an atrocious song which the greasepot crooners quickly latched on to as they had done with Yesterday and would do with Something. But where Yesterday is a brilliant song (spoiled by overexposure) and Something is sublime, Michelle is just horrible.
The Beatles – Girl.mp3

6. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto – Getz/Gilberto (1964)
When I picked this album up in a charity thrift shop in the ’80s, I had no idea what a classic I was buying. To be honest, I had no idea who Gilberto was, only a vague idea about Getz, bossa nova was a mystery to me, and I regarded The Girl From Ipanema as a cheesy elevator muzak tune which punk forgot to kill. I bought the album solely because I liked the cover. I need not explain what happened when I played the record, at least not to those who love it as I do. This is a late-night, kick-back record, intimate and warm. It is a great lovemaking record, I imagine (I’ve never thought of testdriving it for that purpose). Astrud Gilberto may not be the greatest singer of all time (she was roped in only because she could sing in English), but her relaxed and cute voice, when it appears, provides the varnish to Getz’s cool sax, Joao’s warm vocals and Jobim’s astounding compositions.
Getz/Gilberto – The Girl From Ipanema.mp3

7. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963)
I am not a Dylanisto. To me, not every Dylan album is a masterpiece, even as I have most of the older ones. This one, however, is superb, with the relative sparseness of the music (in contrast to Highway 61 Revisited anyway) all the more emphasising Dylan’s poetry. There are some songs one may happily overlook when compiling the definitive Dylan anthology (Down The Highway!), and the inclusion of two self-referencing songs smacks of egotism. But when Freewheelin’ hits, it hits so well. The hits are obvious – Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s…, Don’t Tink Twice… – but lesser known tracks like Corrina Corrina, Girl From The North Country and the quite funny I Shall Be Free are very good indeed. The surprise track is Talking World War III Blues, a song that engrosses the listener with its sermonising and satirising storytelling – despite the unappealing title, Dylan’s terrible vocals and the overbearing harmonica. I suppose the astute Dylan fan might wonder why, if I like that, I am not a Dylanista. It just ain’t me, babe.
Bob Dylan – Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.mp3

8. Otis Redding – Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul (1965)
It is tantalising to imagine what might have become of Otis Redding had he not died in a plane crash in 1968. Would he have adapted to the smoother sounds of ’70s soul? Would he have dabbled in disco? Might the future of soul music been shaped along a different path by this great singer’s influence? Or would he have gone the way of many of his contemporaries, into oblivion and largely excised from public consciousness until the ’60s soul revival of the ’80s (Londoners may well recall the Friday night club at the Kentish Town & Country Club, the Locomotion). The question I’m really posing is this: is Otis Redding a legend because of his music, or because of his dramatic death when he was in his prime? On the evidence of this album (the title and cover of which suggests that Otis was a country singer dabbling in soul as Ray Charles did in country), I’m inclined to think that Redding is a legend because he is. Redding took the Stones’ Satisfaction, and replaced Jagger’s great insolent vocals with mature emotion (the story goes that Otis had never heard the song before recording it). There is Respect, the original, done so in such a unique way that Aretha Franklin could take the song and shape it in her own image. There is the Temptations’ My Girl, no longer a cute spark of sunlight, but deflowered by the soulman. Redding even manages to nearly match Sam Cooke’s soaring A Change Is Gonna Come. But the highlight is I’ve Been Loving You Too Long, which Redding co-wrote with the great Jerry Butler (a song Isaac Hayes should have covered in a 15-minute epic). Redding’s performance of it at the Monterrey festival shortly before the plane crash is even more fantastic. And so I’m offering that live version rather than the one on the album.
Otis Redding – I’ve Been Loving You (live in Monterrey).mp3

9. Frank Sinatra – Nice ‘n’ Easy (1960)
This album (which I bought at the same charity shop as the Getz/Gilberto LP) marked the beginning of the end of Sinatra’s glorious Capitol/Nelson Riddle era. A few albums on the label followed, but the decline was beginning to set in amid a rapidly changing musical landscape. The besuited swing stars of the ’50s were beginning to fade, and a new batch of groovily clad and chesthaired poseurs like Humperdinck and Tom Jones were taking their place. All the more the pity. The killer track on this album is the title song, with the great spoken line, “Like the man said, one more time”, symbolising the last great hurrah of Sinatra’s credibility, just one album before he recorded Old Mac Donald, for crying out loud. But while the title track swings , the rest of the album is Sinatra in relaxed balladeering mood. It might have been false advertising, but the listener is not being cheated. Tracks like I Got A Crush On You, That Old Feeling and Try A Little Tenderness (just a few years before Otis Redding totally revamped and appropriated the song) showcase Sinatra’s capacity for investing himself into a song, before he descended into the greasepit of covering Yesterday and Something for our mothers’ uncles.
Frank Sinatra – Nice ‘n’ Easy.mp3

10. The Rat Pack – Live At The Sands (1963)
I am cheating now. This album was released only in 2001, presumably to cash in on the Rat Pack retro hype inspired by the remake of Ocean’s 11 and fed off by the likes of Robbie Williams trying to capture some of the cool. Oh, but the Rat Pack dudes were cool (it was Humphrey Bogart, of course, who founded the original Rat Pack, of which Sinatra was not a member). At least on stage they were cool. This collection captures the three principal members, the vocalists, on a great night. The banter is very amusing (though by today’s standards definitely not politically correct), with zinging teasing taken in good spirits and reciprocated. I have appropriated Sammy’s line: “…and these are the best friends I have”. Sammy Davis Jr certainly has his wits about him when he tells Dean Martin during a set of impressions to “be nice…or I’ll do Jerry [Lewis]”, with whom Martin was famously feuding. Sammy’s impersonations are great – especially that of Dino (“just having a little bit of fun folks”). It takes guts to impersonate somebody while that somebody is watching you. The vocal performances on the album are fine, but it is not enjoyable for that primarily; as Dino tells the audience: “if you want serious, buy a album”. It is just great fun, with three witty pallies riffing off one another. I was sad to note that Joey Bishop, the comedian of the Rat Pack, died last month at 89.
Sammy Davis Jr. – All The Way (impressions).mp3