Beware of phone calls in the night that wake you up with a start.
My air-conditioning was on the blink, it was eighty degrees in my sweltering furnished hovel of an apartment, and I was determined to ride out the misery by sleeping, the rotary phone sitting queenly on my bedside table differed. The jingle-jangle clanging produced a predictable cold-water effect; I emerged from my lake-like bed in a start.
“Shaun, sorry to bother you, this is Joe Dawson from the Jacksonville Little League Association, and I am calling you to see if you are still interested in coaching one of our teams this spring. You reached out to us earlier this winter, but we had nothing available then. So now – we do – and it’s, well – a special circumstance for us.”
I caught my breath and then intently listened when Joe summarized the problem. A handful of boys had just been cut from the local Arlington section of Jacksonville’s Little League. Nevertheless, they still wanted to play even though, according to Joe, they…“weren’t very good. As a matter of fact, some of them are terrible.”
I listened intently, and acknowledged his honesty.
“I know that this isn’t an optimum situation, Shaun, but these boys need you. Would you coach them? Your squad will play in the Arlington Little League, and we’ll call them ‘The Reds.’ The local Lions Club will sponsor them. How about it? “I informed Joe that I would be thrilled to be their coach. I also smiled at the number of who would constitute my team – thirteen, of course. When I hung up, I already knew that I loved the grit that these boys possessed. They might have been cut from Little League, but they still yearned to play. Resilience comes from within, and even if they might not be very good, they had the kind of fortitude that surmounts rejection. Because I had only been a player and had never coached anyone on any level, I hoped that I could measure up to their pluck. It was already apparent that I would have some tough little nuggets under my tutelage.
The following Saturday, I drove into the Fort Caroline Little League Field parking lot, situated in the one section of Jacksonville with discernable hills. Named after the historic French fort first constructed in 1564 and taken over by the Spanish the following year, the field was expansive and lushly green, with droplets of water framing its surface after an early morning shower.
As I alighted from my well-worn 1969 Dodge Dart with an equipment bag ladened with news balls, used bats, helmets, and some battered catcher’s equipment provided by the Lions Club, an energetic pack of boys circled around me.
A beaming wheat-colored boy with deep blue eyes, promptly introduced to me as Bobby Rice. He was a veritable stringbean with a broad smile and a confidence that I found beguiling then asked if he could help carry the equipment to an awaiting baseball diamond.
“Sure can,” I smiled. “Let’s take the other end of this bag and carry it over to the bench over there.” Like a covey of quail, twelve other boys followed Bobby and me onto the field. If my mother had been there, she would have exclaimed, “There goes Shaunie and his little ducklings.”
After we all introduced ourselves – most of the players didn’t know one another as they were from different neighborhoods in Arlington – I got down to business. “Boys,” I exclaimed, “I know why I am here, and you are here to prove to a bunch of adults that they were wrong. So let’s go out and work on that!”
As I glanced into their intent faces, I observed that my little troupe of merrymakers represented the demographics of Jacksonville itself. Five of them were white, five were African-American, two of them were Hispanic, and one was an Asian American.
After I asked them to sprint out to their favorite position – if they had one – I conducted an infield/outfield drill to teach them the fundamentals of the game. Almost instantly, I recognized why they had all been cut. Many of them had never played the game on any level. Joe Dawson had been right; some of them had sufficient ability, but the majority of them were downright awful.
After pondering my narrow options as their coach, I gathered the squad together on the pitcher’s mound. “Guys!” I barked. “I am going to provide an instant neighborhood pick-up here. We’re going to do nothing but play the game as you would if you lived on the same street and there was a park at the end of the road. I will stop and teach you when you need some guidance. Otherwise, let’s go out and have some fun. After all, that’s what this game is all about!”
Thereafter, Reggie North, my waggish and effusive first baseman, would greet me, “Let’s check out our neighborhood, Coach Shaun!”
Why did I choose to focus almost entirely on them actually playing the game? Because those of my generation had learned to play sports through the process of leisurely pick-up games. We garnered a mountain of experience just playing. We had learned on the go; those of us who grew up that way knew that failure, an essential part of playing sports, was the condiment that gave success its flavor. Given their novice abilities, it would take some time for them to give other teams a competitive game.
Over the next month, I held more than two dozen 90-minute practices betwixt a 12 games, all of which we lost. I set modest goals for the boys at the beginning. If they made less than five errors a game, that would be considered a victory. If the dreaded mercy rule – if one team were ten runs or more ahead by the fourth inning – the game would end then – that too would be considered a win. If we kept a team under ten runs or made five runs ourselves, we would consider it a team triumph.
Little by little, the 1978 Arlington Reds Little League Baseball Team commenced playing some decent baseball. My guys began to position themselves correctly, employed cut-offs and back-ups with precision, threw the back more accurately, and even commenced to hit a bit. Eventually, a few of the parents approached me and said, “You know, Coach Shaun, they just might win a few games this spring! This has been terrific watching their evolution!”
At the end of each practice or contest, I continually emphasized the team sport element. I also frequently reminded them that baseball was based on overcoming many failures more than any other sport. “You are doing that every practice, every game, and it is beginning to show, Gentlemen!” I told them that any player who razzed another for making an error would not only be taken out of that game immediately but would then sit for the first four innings of the next contest. I also enforced what I called, “The Kelly Rule.” Every player would not only play at least one inning in every game but also have at least one time at bat – no matter the circumstances. Finally, at the end of every practice and game, I had Team Captain Reggie North bark in a huddle-up: “WE WIN AS A TEAM; WE LOSE AS A TEAM; WE ARE A TEAM!”
However, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t have comical moments of ineptitude that made us all smile or even laugh out loud.
My slowest runner, Terry Daniels, swore up and down that if he ever got to first base – he was an uncertain hitter at best – he would steal second easily. When the big moment came in our seventh game – he had gone 0-20 previously, Terry took off on the first pitch. He then did a signature Pete Rose headfirst slide into second. To my horror, however, Terry began his dive halfway between the two bags, slid, and then stopped ten feet in front of the bag. Still prone on his stomach with his arms outstretched as if he were flying, Terry was effortlessly tagged out by the second baseman, who was hysterically laughing when he walked over to him and tagged Terry on the back. When he came back to the bench, he exclaimed, “The slide was perfect, Coach Shaun!” When I look at him in wonder, Terry commented, “If it had been an ice surface out there, I would have been easily safe!”
In another contest against the Braves, our loquacious first baseman, Reggie North, struck a scorcher down to third that was mishandled by the defense and ruled a hit. He immediately skirted to first, took the lead, and began chattering with the first baseman without so much as even looking at the pitcher, who promptly picked him off. In the end, Reggie was called out about five feet off the bag while he was still stammering away about his hit to his opponent, who promptly tagged him smack on the stomach. “But I was in the middle of my sentence!” Reggie clamored to me when he came back to the bench. “How darethey!” he cried.
And then, there was the bird saga of Tommy Quirk. Our intrepid right fielder, (“Coach, just put me somewhere where I can hide from the ball”) suddenly began screaming and racing in one game after a called third strike on an offending batter. Why? Because a passing seagull had deposited his lunch all over Tommy’s baseball red cap, which was now partially white. I had an extra hat in our equipment bag and gave it to him. Tommy then raced again out to the outfield to the applause of the people in the stands. As one of my friends said later on, even the birds shat on your team.
Even though my charges weren’t very good, they seemed to always show up on time, raring to go. Because I had graduated from college the previous spring and barely made enough money to cover my expenses, the boys knew when my Dodge Dart approached the parking lot for a practice or game that Coach Shaun was in the house. At the time, I had a hole in my muffler, and I didn’t have the money to repair it. (I smile now when I recall one time that May that I was down to $10 on a Tuesday – and payday was on Friday that I ate nothing but canned soup for the next four days). The grinding sound of my wheels was the clarion call to everyone at Fort Caroline Little League Field that Coach Shaun was approaching. Reggie North, in particular, LOVED my car and called it “ a badass.” I eventually realized that the Dart was a metaphor for my team – it was a wreck, but it worked and could even “get it done” if it had to. “Boys, the car and the team will survive whatever comes down the pike!” I informed them one afternoon after we had still another contest.
With three weeks left in the season, when we played the Twins, another rickety squad who had won only two games themselves in the sixth week of the season, I swelled with hope. Ultimately, we beat them legitimately by a 12-7 score – the kids mobbed me at the bench at the game’s conclusion! For our first 14 games, all losing efforts, I had divulged to the gang, “Every dog has his day, and they had theirs.” As we huddled up after shaking hands with the Twins, Reggie North began to bark like a hound dog!
In retrospect, the accumulation of experiences as fledgling players had finally paid off; the boys beamed as they left for their awaiting cars that afternoon. When we then secured two more victories over the next two-plus weeks, we now stood in second-to-last-place, one game ahead of the Twins! This was largely due to the pitching of lefty Kenny Edwards and the stealth hitting of the Rice twins, Bobby and Johnny. Our most accomplished player, Bobby Rice, admitted to me as we left the field after our third win, “If we DON’T finish in last place, that will be like winning the pennant!” Thanks to his experience on the Reds that spring, Bobby had not only developed into a decent ballplayer, but he was now an existentialist.
As the last days of our eight-week adventure wound down to a precious few, I took a final glance at our schedule and began shaking my head in exasperation. We were scheduled to play our last contest against the dreaded Dodgers, a squad that was undefeated and had already begun practicing for the States, the first in their quest to be the National Little League champions. “Quite a way to end the season!” I bellowed to the boys before our second-to-last contest.
“Wow, Coach Shaun,” Johnny Rice, Bobby’s twin brother, muttered when I informed them. “I hope they don’t steamroll us.”
After we lost a reasonably close game to the Yankees, 7-4, which made our record 3-20, we conducted our final practice on a dank Friday night at Fort Caroline Field. The boys were visibly tight before the first pitch that evening. They knew that their concluding game would be played in front of an immense crowd; the Dodgers’ team was now the talk of the town, and each of their contests was attended by a veritable sea of family members, friends, and local fans.
On an impulse, I asked Reggie North, our oldest and most gregarious player, to speak to the Reds squad. “They are looking at us as ‘a scrimmage game’! They aren’t even playing their best players! I was cut from the Dodgers two months ago. I’ve got friends on that team. They told me that they view playing as a reward to their scrubs for sitting on the bench. We need to kick their ass!”
I let Reggie say the last words and whispered to Kenny Edwards, our fiery lefthanded pitcher that he would start the game on the mound against them. “Get some rest, my friend, and we’ll show them all what we’re made of!”
“They won’t know what hit ‘em!” Kenny quipped.
Reggie North’s confidential information proved to be true. The Dodgers pitched their right fielder that day, a youngster who had never thrown on the mound. Their backups all played the primary positions – the infield, catcher, and center fielder – while keeping two starting outfielders intact. Meanwhile, my little merry band of Reds were playing the game of their young lives. Not only had we not committed an error, but Kenny was pitching the game of his life and had only given up three runs in the first five innings. We rallied in the bottom of the fifth and scored two runs to make it a one-run game.
By this time, I had put “The Kelly Rule” into effect. Even though we were down by a run with just two innings to play against the best team in the city, I inserted our “most challenged player,” Mikey Sutton, into the contest. Mikey wasn’t too bad in the field, but he was 0-25, with 24 strikeouts. A tiny wisp of a fellow, he seemed half the size of his peers and was inherently overmatched whenever he stepped onto the playing field. Indeed, Reggie had once told me that he could have probably eaten Mikey for lunch.
When we held the Dodgers to no runs in the sixth and seventh innings and were down by just one in the bottom of the seventh, I gathered the boys together and whispered, “Boys, a few breaks here and there, and we could BEAT these guys. Let THEM get nervous; they haven’t played a close game all season.” I had taken an exhausted Kenny Edwards out of the game after six, but Bobby Price had held them in check in the seventh. I knew that I had Kenny in reserve to hit if need be.
In the bottom of the seventh, Johnny Price led off with a single for us, and after Greg Davis sacrificed him to second, Brian Hopkins skied a flyball to left that the Dodger outfielder nearly let fumble out of his glove. Irving Furguson then hit a little tapper that no one could get to, and we suddenly had runners on first and third with two outs!
I glanced at Kenny Edwards, who motioned to his bat that he was ready to hit. Mikey Sutton, swinging a few bats in the middle of the on-deck circle, seemed like the loneliest person on the planet at the moment. A mix of trepidation and chagrin framed his expansive face. I waved Kenny back to the bench. “You haven’t hit yet today, Mikie,” I reminded him. “Now go up there and win us this game!” He nodded affirmatively and then tiptoed toward home plate.
“You understand why I am doing this, Kenny – right? We win together, and we lose together, and everyone gets to play and have at least one turn at-bat.”
“I get it, Coach Shaun,” Kenny replied. “Mikie’s gonna come through for us. You watch!”
The first pitch to Mikey was right over the plate, a called strike one. I inwardly groaned, thinking that Mikey would simply watch three strikes whiz by when suddenly, THWWWACCCK, he proceeded to hit a scorcher over the third baseman’s glove. The umpire immediately turned around, and we watched as the blurred sphere hit two inches from the foul line. The umpire immediately belched: “Foul ball!”
Our two baserunners had scored, and Mikey had already pulled into second. The expression, “Close only counts in horseshoes,” was never more apropos than at this precise moment. After two close pitches called balls, the Dodger hurler crossed Mikey up and threw a curveball that buckled his knees. When the umpire screeched, “Strike three!” Mikey dejectedly walked back to our bench, where Reggie West was waiting for him. He then playfully tossed Mikey’s hair and roared: “MY MAN – you damn near won this game for us! That was a rocket you launched down the third-base line!” Mikey’s grin was still evident as he began to line up to congratulate the Dodgers and wish them well in the playoffs. Many of them keenly congratulated our players, who still had stars in their eyes that they had nearly won a contest against the immortal Dodgers. Happily, my players had finally learned that respect is usually not given in life – but earned.
After I congratulated the Dodgers and their coach, Joe Dawson, the Commissioner of The Little League Association, approached me. The man whose phone call had awakened me ten weeks earlier then pressed his left hand on my shoulder and declared: “Shaun, on behalf of the coaches, players, and parents, I want to thank you for all you did for these boys. They did deserve to both be part of this team and this experience. What you did at the end of the game reminded us all that honor is always more important than winning.”
After profusely thanking him for the genuine honor of coaching such an outstanding group of boys, I gathered the team together for one final chat. The team’s parents and friends formed a chaotic semicircle as I spoke to the Arlington Reds for the last time. “We might be 3-21, but – thanks to the Twins’ loss earlier today, we ended up in second-to-last place!” The boys and parents whooped together in a choir of authentic exultation. I then took a deep breath and exclaimed, “You boys are all winners both on the field and in life. You never gave up, and you proved that you could compete with anyone – even the best.”
After I thanked my team and our family members, Reggie North interrupted, “Coach Shaun!” he barked. “We have a little something for you. On behalf of the Arlington Reds Team, I would like to present you with a ball with our names written on it. We can’t thank you enough! We will never forget you – or this season.”
I blinked away a few tears and hugged each player and their folks before leaving Fort Caroline Field forever. The entire team escorted me to the parking lot, and when I opened the front door of my Dodge Dart, Reggie bellowed, “Don’t sell those wheels ever, Coach Shaun! After all, it’s the Official Motor Vehicle of the Arlington Reds!” I chuckled heartily as I got into my sweltering junkheap.
I then started up the Dart, put it into reverse, and the car began to rumble down the exit lane. The boys all commenced to sprint alongside me, shouting, “THANK YOU, COACH SHAUN!” their tinny voices echoing off the glazed gravel. Ten days later, I left Jacksonville and returned to Boston for good.
I never saw them again.
More than 40 years have come and gone, and “my guys” would now be in their early fifties. Some of the boys might even be grandparents by now. To me, though, they will always be twelve and searching for a team to call their own. While I have coached more than 60 squads from elementary school through high school in five different sports, the only artifact from all of those squads I’ve kept is a faded Arlington Reds autographed baseball. These days, it sits proudly in my classroom at school, an enduring reminder that occasionally in life, you might just have to fight a battle more than once in order to win it.
When John F. Kennedy flew to Texas to begin his reelection campaign for the presidency on Thursday morning, November 21, 1963, the number-one band in the US consisted of five teens from Southern California called, appropriately enough, The Beach Boys. A heady mixture of cousins, siblings, and neighbors ranging in age from 17 to 23, the fledgling band had already released four long-playing records between 1962 and ’63, with their latest album release, Little Deuce Coupe, establishing itself as one of rock’s first “concept albums.” Within 18 months of their arrival onto the pop musical scene The Beach Boys had already manifested themselves as quintessentially American in style, concept, and sound.
Why then did such an improbable collection of kids from a working-class suburb of Los Angeles grab hold of the imaginations of millions in such a short time? It’s fairly simple: The Beach Boys’ were blessed to be led by the group’s lead vocalist, bass player, and primary composer, Brian Wilson. A musical wunderkind whose tastes ranged from Beethoven to The Kingston Trio, Wilson had been influenced by such disparate composers as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Chuck Berry, and the R&B songwriting duo of Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller.
At first glance, Brian Wilson’s initial songs from that time period were decidedly sophomoric – his content centered principally on surfboards, cars, and girl. Still, there was a profound wistfulness to such lingering ballads as “The Lonely Sea,” “In My Room,” and “A Young Man is Gone.” The underlying pathos that consumed The Beach Boys’ leader to the point of mental paralysis was the result of the relentless verbal and physical barrage that he received from his eternally envious father, Murry. In retrospect, the eldest Wilson son was so bullied and badgered by his father to produce more, better, and marketable songs that, for the most part, he did.
While the canon that Brian Wilson generated between 1962 and 1963 seamlessly captured the still firmly entrenched innocence of 1950s America, the guileless tunes he crafted back are now conspicuous cultural fossils to a different time when we fervently believed in our leaders, our institutions, and our futures.
Consequently, when John Kennedy flew to Dallas on Friday morning, November 22, 1963, the 1960s, as we now think of it, commenced. The dividing line was the assassination of a beloved president whose youth, vitality, humor, and promise were so pronounced that Martin Scorsese once compared his murder to a national car crash. After John F. Kennedy was buried on November 25, 1963, on a sloping hilltop in Arlington, Virginia, Americans entered an entirely different continent in which everything was up for grabs and where capriciousness had replaced certainty. The shadow of darkness that descended upon the nation then is still with us all these years later.
As a result of this shattering historical reality, Brian Wilson, who had already come to embody what it means to be an American, would then compose decidedly different fare, including such classics as “Don’t Worry Baby,” “California Girls,” Good Vibrations,” “Till I Die,” “Heroes and Villains, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “Caroline, No,” and “Surf’s Up.” Each of these masterworks, written, produced, and released between 1964-1967, turned out to be some of the most sublime ballads generated by one of the most talented composers of his generation.
While I have long been in awe of the brilliance of The Beach Boys during their mid-to-late sixties renaissance, their meteoric rise to prominence was what made me first love them. When you listen to their early musical catalog 60 years later, there’s an authentic luminosity to their music that is almost magical. Many of their earlier numbers consisted of major-key primal guitar patterns and bendable, doo-wop harmonies wrapped around a kaleidoscope of melodic, gorgeous hooks. As Brian Wilson became more accomplished as both a songwriter and producer, he began to mess around with the formula, making unexpected chord changes and writing complex vocal harmonies that go beyond the strains of a mini male glee club and enter into the sound he’d ultimately write on Pet Sounds with its Sondheimesque chord changes. While most music fans recognize and even adore the numbers from the band’s initial period, they have never taken them very seriously.
One of the characteristics that made The Beach Boys so recognizable was that they were vocalists first and musicians second. (Remember, the vast majority of their classic recordings were backed by LA’s legendary studio group, The Wrecking Crew). Brian Wilson, who began writing songs in 1960, was a fledgling musical sponge/genius who seemed to have a knack for uncovering the invisible link between disparate things. As a teen, he had spent years deconstructing the four-part harmonies of the popular Midwestern vocal pop group, The Four Freshmen, whose Eisenhower-era hits, “Day By Day” and “It’s A Blue World” were top-ten hits before the rock era had commenced. One only has to listen to their biggest hit, 1955’s “Graduation Day,” to recognize their influence on young Brian Wilson:
Consequently, when the oldest Wilson brother began composing original songs, those luscious harmonies, based on the Four Freshmen’s barbershop quartet format, formed his musical template. The Beach Boys’ vocal influence ultimately impacted an emerging pop group from Liverpool, England. “We began to hear their four-part harmonies in 1963 and were instantly impressed,” The Beatles’ Paul McCartney commented in 2018: “Their singing was unique and so layered, and we attempted to incorporate that into songs such as “This Boy,” ‘Tell Me Why’ and ‘If I Fell.'”
(As an aside, my favorite Beatles-Beach Boys’ story takes place in the remotest of locations, Rishikesh, India, where Mike Love and The Beatles were studying Transcendental Meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Indian Ashram during the winter of 1967-68. One day, Paul McCartney approached Love and told him that he was composing a Chuck Berry-like rocker called “Back in the USSR.” After Sir Paul played him the first verse of the tune, Love suggested to Paul that he then write a bridge that would talk about the girls all around Russia, the Ukraine, and Georgia. The stuff of legend often comes from happenstance.)
Gifted in crafting complex melodies, Brian Wilson began to chart out based on everyone from Bach to Ledbelly; once he started to add the rhythmic sound of Chuck Berry, he ultimately created a distinctive, multi-layered sound that was both hypnotic and sustaining. Consider that one of the Boys’ most significant early hits, “Surfin’ USA,” was actually the melody of Berry’s iconic “Sweet Little Sixteen” with updated, surf-related lyrics and doo-wop-ladened vocals. (As veteran singer/songwriter Terry Cashman wrote in a 1976 ballad called, “The King of Rock and Roll”: “And out in Hawthorne – just a little bit south of LA/’Sweet Little Sixteen’ became ‘Surfin’ USA!”)
As he evolved as an enterprising composer who wrote about topics that a typical adolescent kid from Southern California was consumed with in the early sixties – girls, cars, surfboards, and high school life – Brian Wilson’s songs nimbly captured both time and place with aplomb.
The Beach Boys’ first album, Surfin Safari, which was released on October 1, 1962, by Capitol Records, included nine original Brian Wilson compositions including “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “409.” and “Ten Little Indians.” The group, which centered around the three Wilson brothers, Brian, Dennis, and Carl, their first cousin, Mike Love, and their high school buddy, David Marks, was based in their hometown of Hawthorne, California, a suburban enclave approximately 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles, and five miles east of Manhattan Beach. (After a fight with Murry Wilson, David Marks would leave the band in the fall of 1963 and be replaced by another Hawthorne native, Al Jardine, who would become a staple in the band thereafter).
While “Surfin’,” the band’s first hit, and “Surfin’ Safari,” their second, famously catapulted the surfing sound genre of rock and roll beyond the West Coast to the rest of the world, it was the band’s third single from the album, “409,” that remains unique.
A canticle to Chevrolet’s 1962 vehicle, dubbed “The Bel Air,” Brian’s original number, “409,” paid homage to the car’s massive, 409 cubic-inch engine. As my “car-crazy-cutie” pal, Philly Alberice, recalled recently: “It was a beast of a car, which had a single Carter four-barrel carburetor that supplied enough fuel-air mixture to provide hot-rodders with more than 400 horsepower in a nation where street-racing was still quite popular.”
In hindsight, when Brian Wilson moved from sea to land with this song, he transported the Beach Boys’ sound to it. Composed with producer Gary Usher, a car-junkie at the time, there was even humor in it, with the hysterical refrain: “Giddyup, giddyup, 409!” forming the bridge to each verse.
Happily, “409” contained infectious melodies, crisp harmonies, and a rhythm track worthy of Eddie Cochran. While the band would be forever associated with surfing, “409” triggered over two-dozen “car songs” in their catalog, a number larger than their surf-related tunes. As Brian Wilson admitted years later: “‘409’ proved that we were not going to be just one-trick-ponies focusing on surfing. We could write or sing about most anything.” Even more significantly, the ballad was emphatically optimistic – an ode to American exceptionalism in rock form. After the release of “409,” Capitol Records subsequently signed the band to a formal contract.
A little more than five months later, on March 25, 1963, The Beach Boys released their second long-playing disk, Surfin USA. It proved to be the biggest-selling rock and roll album of 1963, sold more than two million copies, and brought the group newfound national success. While their first LP had been patchworked together, this was the first album with which Brian Wilson became a force to be reckoned with throughout the LP’s production.
As he recalled in 2013 on the fiftieth anniversary of the record’s release: “By the time I got to the album, Surfin’ USA, I was more experienced at producing. The Surfin Safiri album was practice for me… This album showcased our voices. We were just kids, but we were serious about our craft. The point is that when you are given a chance, you do your best… I think that I was a good coach for the boys. I didn’t like second-rate vocals. It was either the best or nothing, in my opinion. The boys picked up. We had a good understanding between us, and I was their leader. We got it done relatively fast in the studio. … On this album, we had gotten into a fast pace: almost athletic in nature. It was because the single, “Surfin’ USA,” was such a smash hit on the radio. It meant the big time for us.”
Like the first record, Surfin USA contained nine original Wilson songs and three covers. The title track, “Surfin’ USA,” went to #3 nationally in May of ’63, while another car-centric tune, “Shut Down,” would stall at #23 that summer. Because it far outsold their first record nationally, the California mythology that would frame the band and then the decade of the 1960s began here. Ladened with a patchwork of surf-related tunes, its foundational centerpiece was the seemingly endless beach that seemed to incorporate all of California for folks outside the region who first imagined it through numbers such as “Noble Surfer,” “Stoked,” “Surfin’ USA,” and the underrated “Lana.”
However, Brian Wilson’s pensive “Lonely Sea” turned out to be the most enduring song on the album. Critic Dave Marsh once claimed that it was the first draft of “Surf’s Up” – a haunting, chills up-and-down-the-spine kind of number. When you hear it all these years later, it is a stunner; it aches; it is what heartbreak sounds like on wax. For many longtime Beach Boys’ fans, it remains their favorite group song. Ultimately, “Lonely Sea” would be a harbinger of the ballads that would make Brian Wilson a rock legend by 1966 and the release of Pet Sounds.
Just five months later, on Labor Day, 1963, Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys released their third album in less than a year, another record named after a single entitled Surfer Girl. While it was not as wildly popular as Surfin USA, it was an even better album, producing such early gems as the jaunty “Hawaii,” the effervescent “Catch A Wave,” the broody “Your Summer Dream,” and the venerable title track, “Surfer Girl,” which soon became an anthem for an entire generation.
The most significant thematic notion in “Surfer Girl” is that the most precious things in life are cursory. Frankly, the ballad is nothing less than a snapshot at the moment that captures the essence of youth, which will eventually fade away. It was the first Beach Boys song where Brian Wilson was credited as the solitary songwriter and producer, which is astonishing when you recollect that he was just 21 and had worked as a recording artist for a little over a year. In a radio interview a-decade-and-a-half after the song was first recorded, Brian admitted that he was just 19 when the melody to “Surfer Girl” popped into his head as he was driving to a local hot dog stand in Hawthorne. He rushed home, sprinted to the piano, and completed the number in less than an hour.
While The Beach Boys recorded a pedestrian version of the ballad back in 1962, it was their much more polished 1963 version that gained worldwide fame during the fall of the Kennedy assassination. In terms of musicianship, The group’s ethereal harmonies support it like a pillar. Not surprisingly, Brian Wilson famously takes the lead and ultimately delivers the kind of mournful, love-begotten elegy that he would churn out like butter a few years later. “Surfer Girl symbolized a mystical place that I have never been to but sung about,” Wilson said 40 years after he recorded it. “Maybe I was there; I don’t know. I could have been – and not known it.”
“Surfer Girl” isn’t just a song about time – it is also a paean to hope -and the notion that any dream is attainable as long as you don’t know it’s impossible.
If “Surfer Girl” symbolizes love in one fleeting and iridescent moment, then Brian’s other significant anthem on the album, “In My Room,” is a lament emerging from a wellspring of loneliness that began to define American teenagers in the post World War II world. Clothed in the most succulent four-part harmony that The Beach Boys ever recorded, the tune’s lyrics border on the traumatic. In the end, this immortal ballad reminds us all that music is what happens between the notes.
In 1974, Guy Peelaert, a Belgian artist who began selling his work in Paris in the late 1960s, produced an illustrated history of the genre in paintings in a volume he called Rock Dreams. Each depiction captured a rock artist or group at work or play. The images were visually striking and captured the essence and the mythology of rock and roll in its first two decades. When I leafed through the book when it was published, Peelaert’s painting of Brian Wilson was incredibly evocative – looking chubby, aloof, and melancholy as he sat at his piano in his bedroom in a private space where his adolescent fantasies had become his own generation’s summer dreams by 1964. The painting captured the essence of Brian’s “In My Room” so poignantly that I called it “heartbreakingly accurate” in a review of the newly published book in my collegiate newspaper.
If you actually sit back and listen to “In My Room,” there is a hushed, trance-like near-religious quality to it that reminds us that there are times when music can transcend human emotion beyond laughter or tears. In a song that is barely two minutes long, Brian Wilson brings melancholy and joy together as the flipside of a coin where loneliness is omnipresent, and yet the comfort and security of one’s room is also ubiquitous. One of my friends, the son of a unforgiving alcoholic, once told me, “Dad would beat the shit out of us, but we had Brian and this song, and it worked like a balm, which repeatedly saved me.”
Understandably, this masterwork had a revival once COVID-19 set in, as one music fan posted on YouTube recently: “With the pandemic raging on, forcing us all to stay inside our rooms, this tune has a particular meaning these days. It is the perfect musical single for our time.”
The fourth and concluding Beach Boys album that appeared during the Camelot years was released just three weeks after the Surfer Girl LP on Monday, October 7, 1963. If Surfer Girl was all about the beach, then Little Deuce Coupe covered the parking lot adjacent to the ocean. To the delight of many of the group’s fans, the record was a compilation of five of the band’s “car songs” that they had released previously, with seven new numbers added to form a seamless concept album, a genuine rarity prior to Sergeant Pepper. Besides the title track, “Shut Down,” “409,” “Our Car Club” and “Be True To Your School” were featured, with additional numbers “Ballad of Old Betsy,” “Car Crazy Cutie,” “Cherry Cherry Coupe,” “Spirit of America,” “No-Go Showboat,” “A Young Man is Gone,” and “Custom Machine” rounding out the disk.
For a multitude of Beach Boys’ fans, myself included Little Deuce Coupe LP remains a personal favorite. Although four singles provided the core, there were a handful of classics within the record’s margins. One of them, “Spirit of America,” a reverent ballad that formed the centerpiece of Side 2, paid tribute to Craig Breedlove. The famed American race car driver turned out to be the first person in history to reach 600 miles per hour by using a series of turbojet-powered vehicles at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, all named Spirit of America. On August 5, 1963, Breedlove became the first human being to travel over 400 miles per hour on a measured mile on land. Brian Wilson and Roger Christian, his then-new writing partner, composed “Spirit of America” to honor Breedlove’s achievement.
As a musical number, “Spirit of America” is a seamless representation of “the early Brian Wilson” at his best. The lead singer of the ballad, Brian’s four-octave range, drives the engine here (no pun intended) and features some of his recording career’s best solos, amidst the backdrop of 1950s doo-wop, and armed with a lots of axle grease. Brian’s distinctive falsetto in prominent throughout, a vocal tour de force that The Bee Gees’ Robin Gibbs later called “…as good as Frankie Valli ever did – and maybe even better.” Ultimately, this is a car song so good that you’d expect it to be sung in a cathedral; Roger Christian’s lyrics match the musicianship: “Once as a jet – it played in the skies; “But now on the ground – it’s the king of all cars.” Brian’s cry/refrain that harmonizes with the group, who sings the refrain, “Spirit of America….” is as good as any call-response harmony he ever produced.
To conclude Little Deuce Coupe, Brian and the band added a new number that put an exclamation mark not only on the LP but the first phase of their career. Almost laughably short – just 1:36 minutes in length (there were plenty of great tunes in the early rock era that were under two minutes including “Not Fade Away,” “From Me To You,” and “The Letter,”) “Custom Machine contained all of the elements that made the early Beach Boys so enticing. A melodious hook, a hypnotic rhythm section, winsome lyrics, and soaring vocals.
The lyrics, of course, almost bordered on parody, especially as The Boys reverently sang: “Well with naugahyde bucket seats in front and back; Check my custom machine; Everything is chrome, man, even my jack; Check my custom machine).” When the band then concluded each verse by chirping; “When I step on the gas she goes wa aa aa….I’ll let you look but don’t touch my custom machine!” It was something akin to an entire nation checking itself under the hood and liking what it sees.
From the moment “Custom Machine” was first released in the early-fall of 1963 to when Jack Kennedy’s 1961 Lincoln Continental entered Dealey Plaza in Dallas, America’s age of innocence had just 46 days to play itself out.
On the evening of November 21, 1963, as President Kennedy spoke to a throng of supporters in Houston before flying on Air Force One to Fort Worth, Mike Love and Brian Wilson were huddled together in Brian’s recently purchased bungalow in Hawthorne working on a melancholic number akin to “Lonely Sea” and “Surfer Girl.”
In an essay in The Huffington Post in 2013, Mike Love recollected: “Brian began playing a haunting melody on an electric keyboard; I began to add some lyrics to accompany that melody. I was drawn to the melancholy sounds emanating from that keyboard. And Brian continued to play — and as we worked out the intro, the verse and the chorus — an incredible feeling of sadness washed over us. Lyrically, I was inspired by this idea of lost love — where your feelings are suddenly not reciprocated. Maybe it was your first love and she broke your heart. Maybe it was a deep love that faded before you were ready to let go. Maybe it was the love you never felt but always longed for. Regardless, it’s the kind of love that lingers… long after she’s gone. Brian and I ended up finishing ‘The Warmth of the Sun’ in the wee hours of November 22, 1963.”
The last song of the Kennedy Era for The Beach Boys would turn out to be the opening salvo to the 1960s as we came to know it. As Mike Love poignantly recalled: “A few hours later on the morning of November 22nd, Brian and I were awakened to the news that President Kennedy had been taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. For a bunch of carefree guys in our early twenties, who, until this point, had been mostly living a life of fun, fun, fun — our innocence was lost. Our nation was in mourning. The whole world was in shock. How could this have happened? What a profound tragedy and deep loss — the repercussions of which are still being felt to this day. In the weeks that followed, that song written in the wee hours of November 22nd was recorded in a studio charged with emotion.”
As if to turn the page on an era before advancing forward, the Wilson-Love ballad was largely recorded on January 1, 1964 at Western Studios in Hollywood. In 2015, Brian Wilson recalled: “’The Warmth of the Sun’ was the end of an era – and the beginning of something new...for all of us.”
Frederich Nietzsche once wrote: “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” And while the sun’s warmth will never die, people that we love and admire invariably do. Just 33 months after “The Warmth of the Sun” was recorded, Brian Wilson had already composed and recorded “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows,” “Caroline, No,” and “I Wasn’t Made for These Times.”
The world as we knew it had changed beyond comprehension.
Not surprisingly, when I sit back and play those early Beach Boys’ albums on Spotify these days, I can’t help but smile. They harken back to impossibly sunny days in which anything seemed plausible, and in a corner of time in which our collective prospects seemed both limitless and unshakeable. Of course, the surfer girl of our dreams is now more than 75 years old and is most probably on both Social Security and Medicare. How wonderful, though, to listen to the songs of a budding genius in a once-in-a-time world where cars, waves, and girls were all within reach. In the end, the sea still beckons, and most of us who grew up to music of The Beach Boys still yearn to take the plunge into the baptismal waters of the ocean like children – for as long as we can.
On March 15, 1943, my parents, newlywed for less than a year, decided to attend a musical production preview at Boston’s Colonel Theatre entitled Away We Go! It was wartime then, and Dad knew that he would soon be off to fight in the South Pacific. Accordingly, Mom got them the best tickets available.
As my parents got settled into their front-and-center seats, they soon noticed that sitting in the row in front of them was the production’s songwriting team, the venerable Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Dad, who was wearing his Lieutenant Commander’s Navy uniform, greeted them both excitedly, exclaiming, “We’re very much looking forward to your show!”
The musical duo shook my father’s hand warmly, greeted my mother profusely, and they all chatted for a spell.
Mom and Dad on April 11, 1942 – their wedding day.
As the Overture to the Away We Go! began, both composer and lyricist commenced taking copious notes throughout the two-act program. When a melodic yet sedated love ballad entitled “People Will Say We’re In Love” concluded the show, the audience, including my parents, sat in stunned silence and then commenced to clap vigorously. My mother, who was an intensely curious person, then overheard Richard Rodgers bellow out to Hammerstein: “Oscar, we definitely need an upbeat song to conclude the show. ‘People’ just doesn’t work as an ending here!”
Later that evening, after further encouragement by choreographer Agnes De Mille, Rodgers and Hammerstein gave in and began to compose a decidedly more upbeat number. Toiling away in Rodgers’ suite at the Statler Hotel overlooking Boston Common, Hammerstein later said that he hoped that they could bring all of the show’s themes together “with more muscle” as Agnes De Mille stated years later.
By the following morning, they had retitled Away We Go! with the name of their brand-new closing tune, “Oklahoma!”
When Dad returned from the South Pacific in the fall of 1945, my parents attended Oklahoma on Broadway on their way to a planned vacation in Virginia. “I am curious to see if the show we saw in Boston is any better now that they added a closing song!” Mom quipped when she purchased the tickets to what had become part of Americana, an incomparable theatrical production which had broken all records for musicals for that time.
“This is even better than Away We Go!” Dad joked as they left St. James Theatre on 44th Street. As Mum guffawed, he joked, “This version just might do some decent business.”
Four years later, on April 24, 1949, my parents strolled into the stately Shubert Theatre located at 263 Tremont Street to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most recent musical at the time. My father, in particular, couldn’t wait to see the show. After all, he had ended up serving in the South Pacific as a Naval officer and had seen action at both Iwo Jima and the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Three hours later, after Mary Martin, Enzio Pinza, and the cast of South Pacific had taken their fifth and final curtain call, Dad turned to Mom and stated, “I don’t think Rodgers and Hammerstein will have to tinker with this one at all!”
Decades later, when I played Columbia Records’ Original Cast Recording of South Pacific on their old stereo on Cape Cod, my mother told me this story. “Every time I hear “The Overture” to South Pacific,” she smiled wistfully in 2004, “it’s almost as if I am listening to the soundtrack of my generation.” By that time, Dad had been dead for 18 years, and my mother would pass on a year later.
When I think of my parents these days – and it is nearly every day – I inevitably hear the strains of South Pacific or Oklahoma! playing in my head. As I have come to comprehend over time. music replays past memories and awakens our forgotten worlds to such an extent that those who have died are suddenly alive once more.
The unconventional is frequently a window into another dimension. This is especially true if you end up doing something out of the ordinary in a locality that has already been narrowly defined. Thus, when I ended up skating one frigid February afternoon on the frozen surface of a cranberry bog back in February 1973, I felt that I had somehow tinkered with time itself.
My mother and I had come to Cape Cod for public school for February break. As the vacation commenced, I impulsively tossed my hockey skates into the trunk of her car just as we left our driveway in Wellesley for our grandfather’s cottage in Eastham, 103 miles to the southeast.
When we arrived two hours later, I took note that an inch or two of snow had covered the scrub-pine needles that framed the driveway and our backyard. A banditry of chickadees greeted me as I began to shuffle down the partially-frozen sandy path that led to my grandfather’s cranberry bog that had a working one for nearly 70 years. In 1973, it hadn’t been harvested by workers for five autumns. Nevertheless, the bog, which had been left to grow wild, still produced a few bushels of premium cranberries each fall. For the past few Thanksgivings, our holiday table had featured cranberry sauce grown from Cape marsh.
As I approached the marsh after a two-minute trek, I saw something I had never seen – a sheet of rectangular ice nearly a fourth-of-a-mile in circumference was sitting there like a glistening jewel. It was the most beautiful natural skating surface I had seen inyears.
I raced back and gathered my skates, a Boston Bruins’ stocking cap, and my hockey gloves. When I informed Mom in the kitchen that I was off to skate, she smiled and exclaimed, “Get your skating in today, Shaunie. Don Kent just said on Channel 4 that a warm front will hit the Cape tomorrow with temperatures in the 40’s!”
I nodded and headed back to the cranberry bog with an afternoon sun peeking through the arctic-like conditions. A flock of seagulls flew overhead, and, off in the distance, a bleached Cape Cod Bay reminded me how close I was to saltwater. After sitting on a fallen pine trunk adjacent to the frozen marsh, I fretfully laced my hockey skates, adjusted my gold-colored hat on my head, and put my skates on the edge of the bog’s surface.
As I planted my left skate on the surface, I noticed red orbs of cranberries frozen in the ice, six inches below the exterior. The first few thrusts on the ice were bumpy, but as I maneuvered away from the bog’s edge, it became glass-like. The winter chill bit at my cheeks as I continued to swirl around in one gigantic circle that took more than four minutes to complete.
I was part of some new world that I had only viewed from afar. As I skated in the middle of the bog, the dirt road that surrounded the bog seemed to serve as a picture frame. Off in the distance, the Cape Cod Central Railroad’s discarded tracks completed more than a hundred years previously now stood like a silent witness to history. From 1865 to 1966, the Old Colony Railroad had extended from Boston to Provincetown until it was discontinued. In 1977, those tracks would be ripped up and replaced with a first-rate bike trail that would bring thousands of bikers and walkers to its path and become formerly known as the Cape Cod Rail Trail.
When I completed my circle and commenced going around once again, I felt both exultant and rejuvenated. As the sun began to descend over Cape Cod Bay, a waxing Gibbous moon slowly appeared above the pine-scrub-forest on the other side of the bog like a nightlight. The lyrics to a Top 10 song that week played in my mind as I skated. “We get it almost every night; when that moon get so big and bright; it’s a supernatural delight; everybody’ was dancing in the moonlight…”
A few minutes later, I headed for the fallen pine tree where my boots lay. I returned to our Cape cottage to another rarity – a crackling fire in our hearth that heated me from the winter chill of the bog.
Mom was right. A southwest wind brought warmer temperatures, and by the end of the week, the bog had largely reverted to its usual watery existence. Still, we did one more extraordinary thing that February vacation – we attended a professional hockey game on the Cape as the Cape Cod Cubs, a Boston Bruins farm club from 1972-77, coached by former Bruin Bronco Horvath, played a regular season Eastern Hockey League contest. We ended up watching them defeat the Johnstown (PA) Jets, 3-2, at the old Cape Cod Coliseum in South Yarmouth.
While simple pleasures were all of the pleasures I knew as a boy growing up, I now know that life is like driving on a long rather highway. Every once in a while, you see or experience something that remains extraordinary – and that is what makes life worth living.
Nearly all of my dreams these days revolve around my years growing up. Like a 1950s slide viewer that shows pictures of scenes, my memory Rolodex has proved to be a balm that has soothed me through these COVID-laced times. This has all been about self-preservation. I am at “the highest risk” due to the fact that I’m nearly 66, and yet I have not missed a day of school while teaching 60 eighth-graders in person in a building housing more than 300 students and 70 faculty members and staff. I smile when my younger colleagues admit that their parents, who are my age, are on lockdown because of their senior status. It is not then surprising that my internal defense mechanisms have steered me back when everything in my life was both unshakeable and stable.
Consequently, when I hear a particular song these days, I am often transported to a moment in my past whose colors still brighten up the sky for me. When I walk in the fall or winter chill, the wind will rustle in swirls, and I will be then swarmed by imaginary leaves that laced my family’s long-departed lawn. I will close my eyes and imagine myself then hurling my nine-year-old body into a prodigious pile of leaves.
As the pandemic began to spread like unhurried fog, I inevitably ventured back to my earliest memories almost as a reflex. I found myself Googling members of The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Show, a staple for me from 1957-60 when people like Karen and Cubby, Darlene and Annette, and Jimmie and Roy held forth each afternoon on ABC, Channel 7 in Boston from 5:00 – 6:00 pm. I began listening to both the Sirius 50s and 60s stations without considering any other option. During the summer months, I went to sleep listening to radio broadcast baseball games, often involving the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, this is Vin Scully coming to you from Flatbush as the Dodgers take on their rivals, the New York Giants, here at Ebbets Field.”
One weekend in October, I watched the entire Time Tunnel TV series, my favorite show as a sixth-grader on YouTube. When my wife and I recently discovered an untraveled pathway in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, it reminded me of my youth’s pine-scrubbed, sandy terrain at my grandfather’s place in Eastham. For an instant, it was as if I was ten once again. In retrospect, of course, I needed to venture to my fixed-star past in order to deal with our erratic, treacherous present.
COVID-19 affected me in both expected and unanticipated ways. For more than six months, I wrote nothing on my blog, mostly out of a rampant combination of dampened fear and mild depression. After a prolonged case of Achilles tendonitis, I didn’t walk for more than three months, and when I then did, it became a sporadic activity. During a four-week stretch this summer, I saw no people in person except my wife, younger son, and two neighbors. The bookends of 2020 – an ongoing pandemic amidst a presidency run amok – slowly began to gnaw away at my insides. In sporting terms, I feel as if my team has been a man short with a five-minute major penalty ticking on the scoreboard above my head.
Not surprisingly, it has all taken everything in me to show up each day to compose inspiring lesson plans and instruct with fervor and constancy since we opened up as a school to in-person learning on September 7, 2020. The weight of keeping on top of unremitting grading and assessments, scrubbing desks free of germs at least ten times a day, washing hands relentlessly while reminding my students to do the same. Meeting, eating, and conferring with my advisees during our extended lunch hour, always held in my classroom and not in our dining hall, created an entirely different reality. It was the only time my 10 charges and I were unmasked, exposed, and vulnerable to one another. In addition, I assisted in the supervision of our 125-student-member Middle School Chorus – and helped them produce a holiday video even as we cast for an upcoming production of High School Musical. It is no wonder then that when I arrive home each afternoon just before dark this fall, I hopped into bed by 8:00 pm. I was nearly always spent – and then succumbed to an all-embracing sleep within minutes.
Five such months await me when I return to the classroom beginning on January 6.
Happily, I have heard from friends I haven’t connected with for 40-plus years. When we have conversed via Zoom or email, the gap between the years we last spoke invariably melts away like ice cream left out on the front step. When the Corona-Virus struck like a capricious tremor last spring, I hosted three different high school and college reunions on Zoom, which sustained us all during those dark times. While we all provided updates to what we were up to these days, these unique connections reminded us that you never feel as close to anyone in life as the people you knew and loved when you were growing up.
Later on in the summer, I heard from a long-lost friend who had learned that my family house in Wellesley had burned down after being struck by fire. “I fondly recall staying there in that beautiful white home, especially in cold weather, and feeling that your house was very cozy inside,” she wrote. “And your mother gave me a scented soap as an overnight guest—so hospitable – and so very much her!”
Another buddy, whom I’ve known since childhood, emailed me on December 25: “Merry Christmas, Kell!!! We have known each other for a long time! I am proud to call you, my friend!” His brief but heartfelt message was as if a perpetual fog had lifted for a spell. This past week, I sent a two-word message to a high school classmate. “I care,” is all that I wrote. She responded to me a few hours later, saying that she would somehow persevere and that I was about the tenth friend to write that to her in recent months! To put on a pun-spin on Benjamin Franklin’s famous words when he signed The Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together – or we shall all hang separately.”
Perhaps all we have to combat such malignant bookends as COVID-19 and our current political tumult is the roadblock of love. When I ran into a former teacher colleague – now retired – she sighed as she pondered over our collective troubles and sighed, “Our red badge of honor during this time is unfettered endurance.” As the 1990s band Wilson Phillips sang in their increasingly relevant hit single, “Hold On,” thirty years ago: “Don’t you know? Don’t you know, things can change – Things’ll go your way! If you Hold on…just for one more day.”
The next weeks and months will be framed by the certainly of variability. Despite the physical distances of response people, we can get through a significant pandemic by reaching out, checking in, and embracing the words of the Cherokee, “To give dignity to another is above all else.” As the winds of change sweep Washington, as more and more people receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and as the days and months become warmer and less variant, this too shall all pass. Life WILL be different, perhaps exceedingly so, but if we weather the storm by remembering that love and family and friendships are all that truly matter, then we would have not only endured…but changed for the better.
At the corner of Pond Road and Lake Farm Road in Orleans, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the backyard of a residential home, you can find remnants of a former baseball field where hundreds of boys played competitively from 1930 to 1984. A traditional Cape Cod cottage now sits in the former outfield, with weathered shingle siding, a centralized chimney, and double-hung windows and shutters.
Recently, after explaining my connection to the property, I asked the owner if I could walk about his yard a bit. After listening to my story, he smiled and nodded affirmatively.
“It would be an honor for me if you did so,” he replied.
The land of the former camp that I walked on that day had an inspiring beginning. In the fall of 1929, Mrs. Margery Plimpton Felt, a veteran New York City private school teacher, felt the need to bring some of her Manhattan-resident students up to her Cape Cod summer home and give them a summer experience on a country farm with animals.
Ultimately, eight boys opened the camp in 1930, which was situated less than a mile from downtown Orleans, a modest, picturesque community on the forearm of the Cape, 30 miles south of historic Provincetown. As Lake Farm Camp grew, buildings were added. Each camper had his own garden and participated in a variety of animal-related jobs. Activities included riding, swimming, arts and crafts, and baseball.
In July 1966, when I sauntered onto the baseball field at Lake Farm Camp as a visiting pitcher representing Namequoit, a nearby residential summer camp, I was 11, tall for more age, gangly, and steeped in the wellspring of what was then America’s national pastime. It was a gusty summer’s day when my teammates and I showed up to play an afternoon contest against rival Lake Farm. I quickly surmised that the field there was uneven, ladened with a sandy undertow in the outfield, and contained a rickety backstop that pleaded for restoration.
Within minutes, my coach, an effusive counselor from Long Island named Sandy informed me that I would be the starting pitcher that afternoon, and that I should promptly begin to warm up. A minute later. I motioned to my buddy, Teddy Friedman, Namequoit’s unswerving catcher, to commence tossing the ball back and forth with me in warm-ups.
That afternoon, I wore a blue baseball cap with an N for Namequoit on the bill. A fresh and saltwater sports camp for boys 8-15 since 1925, Namequoit was subsequently directed by the venerable Art Farnham, who would serve as the camp’s Philosopher King for more than four decades. Sailing, swimming, and tennis were featured with sailing instruction and racing held in nearby Pleasant Bay. Baseball was one of the primary athletic land activities for most boys, with tennis, riflery, and archery being the others. In 1966, campers hailed from more than 30 states and 10 foreign countries. At the time, locals viewed Namequoit as a stately Lincoln Chrysler in contrast to Lake Farm’s unpretentious Dodge Dart.
After the Namequoit nine got off to a quick start with three runs in the top of the first inning, I loped out and began scraping on the plastic rubber on the mound. Instantly, I noticed that the ground there was hard-topped and flat. It reminded me of pitching on my driveway back in my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts. “Home advantage,” I thought. I then quickly dispersed the first three batters easily.
Like a cloudless, warm summer’s day without humidity, the days that you can call “perfect” are few. (In retrospect, it seems as if by accident or Godly intervention when everything appears flawless.) Nevertheless, a couple of times during each baseball season, my performance level mirrored those rare, unblemished days that come around as if by happenstance. I grinned inwardly as I left the mound after easily striking out the side in the first.
It was going to be one of those days.
As the innings flew by, I began sprinting out to the mound and started pounding the required seven warm-up pitches to catcher Teddy Friedman. On that day, I had the eyes of a killer. My self-confidence was supreme; this evidential factor clearly intimidated the opposing batters who reluctantly approached home plate as if they were about to have a cavity filled without Novocain. Later on, when I dispatched all three Lake Farm batters with three more strikeouts in the fourth inning, Coach Sandy patted me on the shoulder and bellowed, “All right, Kell! 12 up, 12 down – all K’s!”
By that time, of course, I knew that something special was occurring on the little ball field at Lake Farm. I not only had perfect control of my fastball, but my “wrinkle,” a cut slider I had literally learned how to throw in a book on baseball techniques, was unabating. For most Lake Farm batters who had never seen any movement in their young lives, it must have been terrifying, especially given the fact that I was throwing from 46-feet -the standard Little League distance at the time.
For much of my four-decade plus pitching career, I characteristically pitched defensively and used control and changing speeds to counteract any hitting prowess. (When my youngest son, Max, asked me how I pitched in high school, college, and beyond, I replied, “Nibble, nibble, nibble.”) On this day, however, I was not only blowing people away but getting batters out with a slider that inevitably broke over the plate at the last instant. More than a few batters ran away from my slider as it approached Teddy Friedman’s chocolate-brown catcher’s mitt. In the vernacular of modern baseball lingo, the Lake Farm batters were “decidedly overmatched.”
In the bottom of the fifth, safely in front by seven runs and having not given up a hit or walk at the time, I became careless after an easy first strike. When I then hung a slider that perished at the plate and was subsequently whacked by a grateful batter down the left-field line, I disgustedly ran off the mound and bore in on my left fielder. When the rocket landed a foot foul, I breathed a visible sigh of relief. I then called time, took a deep breath, and then reverted to my previous mindset. Nothing else mattered now but the next pitch. A moment later, I struck out the offending hitter on a fastball, which tied him up on the inside part of the plate.
As I began my trek to the mound to begin the last inning, Coach Sandy, whose enthusiasm was such that he discarded the ancient superstitions of baseball and reminded the team out loud that I had struck out every batter thus far, I winced reflexively. He then motioned to the boys on the bench to root like crazy for me. I huddled with catcher Teddy Friedman and informed him, “Nothing but fastballs now. They are looking for the slider.” Less than five minutes later, I had not only struck out the side, but I had done so on nine pitches.
A perfect inning to end a perfect game.
As the last strikeout was called, my teammates swirled around me like lemmings and hoisted me into the air – the only time I would ever be carried off any baseball field. Coach Sandy, who would eventually lose his innocence along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in January 1968, hugged me hard as we headed for the camp van. “You will never have another day like this one, Shaun,” he exclaimed. He was right. Out of the crooked timber of life, I had briefly stumbled upon that one straight line. On an obscure baseball field in Orleans, Massachusetts, I experienced unadulterated perfection by striking out every batter I faced.
These days, when I now find myself caught between the harrowing bookends of a worldwide pandemic and the deterioration of a traitorous, bigoted president, I sometimes find myself tossing and turning at night. I then close my eyes and imagine that I am an eleven-year-old boy once more, fearless, unvanquished, and divine as I pitch against Lake Farm Camp one more time. Considering that Lake Farm and Namequoit both closed down as camps more than three decades ago when tax-assessment prices began to skyrocket on the Cape, such dreams are far-fetched at best. Usually, though, I drift right off to sleep.
Given all of the faulty, second-rate days I have experienced since July 1966, I now realize that perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible. My many defeats and a handful of victories prove that I have inevitably been a player. However, because I experienced authentic magnificence for a brief, shining moment in July 1966, I also know that the baseball gods temporarily welcomed me to the rarefied air of immortality for one brief and shining moment.
All of these years later, it still feels like heaven.
From January 1, 2020 to December 31, I posted the following musical sketches on my Facebook page. As always, it was music that got us through such perilous times. The King of Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, once wrote in Rolling Stone: “Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel. I have always needed Fuel. I am a serious consumer. On some nights I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” These particular tunes, which I focused on here gave me more fuel throughout this momentous, disturbing, and tragic year. Maybe they will for you as well.
“Feeling Good,” Nina Simone, 1965. Initially written for the Broadway musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, this uplifting tune became Nina Simone’s when she recorded it on her 1965 album, I Put a Spell on You. At the time of the album’s release, “Feeling Good” actually wasn’t as a single. However, when the tune was used as a fabric softener advertisement in the Great Britain 1987, it was subsequently released as a single, which reached number 40 on the UK charts. From there, it found its way across the ocean, where American jazz and soul DJ’s began to play it on their stations with renewed appreciation. Hearing the words: “It’s a new dawn/It’s a new day/It’s a new life for me/I’m feelin’ good,” by the great Nina Simone is enough to get off the couch and do something you’ve always wanted to do in life. Happy New Year’s Day to you all!
“Save Me,” Fleetwood Mac, 1990. The last single that the supergroup ever had that reached the US Billboard Top 20, “Save Me” was the feature cut from their 1990 album, Behind the Mask. A Christine McVie-penned ballad, it followed the model of both their Fleetwood Mac and Rumours releases, with a California-pop sensibility, scorching lyrics, and a melodic hook. While Lindsey Buckingham had temporarily quit the band by then, Fleetwood Mac’s crisp musicianship is still very much in evidence here. In the end, “Save Me” is a palpable reminder of how brilliant a songwriter Christine McVie was during her prime.
“Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” B. J. Thomas, 1970. The number one song in the US and Canada on January 7, 1970, Burt Bacharach and Hal David composed this much-beloved ballad for the film Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, starring the late Paul Newman and his pal, Robert Redford. The first million-seller for the songwriting duo, it was actually Dionne Warwick who suggested to Bacharach and David that they have B. J. Thomas record it. “It needs a strong male voice, and B. J. would do a fabulous job with it,” she informed Burt Bacharach at the time. What Warwick didn’t know then was that Bob Dylan and Ray Stevens had already turned down recording the song. As fate would have it, Thomas quickly flew to Los Angeles and recorded it, backed by the Wrecking Crew. A year later, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” won the Oscar as Best Original Song at the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony.
“Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Rupert Holmes, 1980. Rupert Holmes has written several Broadway plays, including Say Goodnight, Gracie and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. He has also composed ballads that have been performed by Barbra Streisand, Judy Collins, and Britney Spears. He created a television series called Remember WENN and even authored a well-received novel, Where The Truth Lies. Ultimately, his works have won Tonys, Emmys, and Edgars. Despite his everyman-like credentials, Rupert Holmes is best known for this singular novelty tune, which was the number one song in the US and Canada four decades ago this January. As he said in a New York Times article a few years ago, “If the worst thing that can be said about me is that I am a failed Renaissance Man, then my life has been a success.” Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.
“Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad?” Derek and the Dominoes, 1970. Eric Clapton’s pulsating string work is matched by Duane Allman’s seamless slide work in one of the more underrated pieces of a nearly perfect album. An original Clapton composition that was co-written with the vastly talented Bobby Womack, “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?” was Clapton’s at his best, an artist whose musical aptitude finally reached the potential that he had shown previously as a member of the Yardbirds and Cream. Astonishingly, his work is overshadowed here by Duanne Allman, who steals the tune like a thief in the night. As always, genius is talent sent on fire.
“Mr. Blue,” The Fleetwoods, 1960. The follow-up to the high school trio’s “Come Softly to Me,” “Mr. Blue” was a Top 5 hit in January 1960. To the overproduced music of the twenty-first century, this single is quite a contrast to the purposeful flattened-response sounds of today. Why drench the vocals in reverb when it can sound this clear? That said, this musical fossil harkens back to a simpler, optimistic, more scrubbed-up time. In retrospect, our parents had experienced 16 years of stress between the Great Depression and World War II, so they were more than allowed to put their collective heads in the sand for a spell. After all, it felt good – and that was the point.
“Boomerang,” T-Bone Burnett, 1980. The lead song from one of the truly underrated LP’s of the 1980’s, T-Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay, “Boomerang” should have catapulted the veteran singer-songwriter-producer to Top 10 status, but sadly, the single fell flat at the time. A ditty in the best Sun Records tradition, guitarist Billy Swan rocks here while T-Bone’s vocals sound as if Bob Dylan had just inhaled helium. In addition, the bridge in “Boomerang” contains the bookends to one of the best hooks of the early 1980s. If you’ve never listened to this album, it is your loss.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Billy Joel, 1990. While Billy Joel once described this unique number-one song as “terrible musically – it’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head” – “We Didn’t Start the Fire” still made it to the #1 position in the US charts 30 years ago this January. The lyrics, of course, are a stream of consciousness list of events that the Piano Man felt his generation was not responsible for at the time. A lot of the references are to the Cold War – a problem that his generation inherited. Joel composed the song after a conversation with John Lennon’s son, Sean, and then wrote out the list in a rat-ta-tat style similar to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I am one of perhaps 100,000 history teachers who have used Billy’s lyrics from “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to teach the twentieth-century American narrative to students. Joel’s allusions, by the way, are both broad and brilliant: “Little Rock, Pasternak, Mickey Mantle, Kerouac/Sputnik, Chou En-Lai, Bridge on the River Kwai…” It should be noted that in concert, “The Piano Man” began to tinker with some of the names and events in updated versions. For instance, he replaced “payola and Kennedy” with “payola and Perry Smith” because, after all, JFK was mentioned later on. (For the uninformed, Perry Smith was the central killer of the Clutter family of In Cold Blood fame). “We Didn’t Start the Fire” became a go-to song for Billy Joel whenever he toured thereafter.
“Nite Owl,” Tony Allen and the Champs, 1955. This doo-wop classic is tough as nails –the fool has become wise, oh, those heartbreaks in the night, and then there’s a flip of the finger. The “strolling” vibe is used as a reversal against the nite owl– yeah?? Why keep comin’ home late?? Well, seeya, “So long, call me maybe.” To complete this little gem, the chorus mocks Tony Allen by sounding like, well, owls. The wonderful irony here is that as New York City tough as Tony Allen and the Champs sound, they hailed from Southern California and were nothing like our heroes here. While “Nite Owl” was a Top 20 hit 65 years ago this winter, I have never heard it play on any oldies stations but Sirius 50’s in recent years. As the late Kookie Byrnes would say, “It’s the ginchiest!”
“Remember,” Free, 1970. The legendary English blues-rockers were the musical comets of a generation. They only released three albums and were really only together for four years until they disbanded and formed two other groups, Bad Company and Back Street Crawler. Still, the next time you’re taking the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, recall that Paul Rodgers, one of the greatest pure singers in rock history, is not there. Paul Kossoff’s killer lead-guitar playing, and the vastly underrated bassist Andy Fraser fierce underpinnings, brilliantly frame Rodgers’ searing vocals. In retrospect, “All Right Now” gave Free a hit for the ages. “Remember,” a more sedate follow-up, proved worthy in every way. Released 50 years ago this January, the number would ultimately be featured by the band at the legendary Isle of Wight Concert later on in the summer of 1970.
“Monday Morning Rock,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1983. Crenshaw famously portrayed Buddy Holly in the 1987 film La Bamba, but he has more in common with the ’50s rock and roll legend than just the glasses and handsome but boyish face. If Holly had not died tragically in one of the music’s most infamous air disasters and had continued to develop his career through the ’60s, it’s easy to imagine that his work might have sounded like this rollicking, guitar-rich tune, which would undoubtedly be a major hit if it was released in, let’s say, 1966. Not surprisingly, Crenshaw’s vocal style soars in an organic fashion similar to Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day.” In every way imaginable, “Monday Morning Rock” is a stellar rock and roll song.
“One More Time,” Sam Cooke, 1960. On what would be his 89th birthday, here’s a somewhat obscure Sam Cooke single, which didn’t do that well when it was released 60 years ago today, January 22, 1960, and yet has aged, like so many of his recordings, like fine wine. A voice made from silk and velvet, Sam’s earnestness moves this tune into the realm of soul, a genre that he helped to invent. Aretha Franklin once called him the most handsome man she ever knew, and an individual worthy of a voice that only God could create. That’s all you need to know about Sam Cooke.
“The Story in Your Eyes,” the Moody Blues, 1970. One of the most underrated bands in rock history with one of the truly great singer-songwriter-guitarists at the helm, Justin Hayward, wrote, played the lead guitar, and sang the lead vocals on this track from the exceptional album, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. If you take the time to listen to it, you will note the layers of instruments, the layers of backing harmony vocals, the overlapping complementary tones, the infectious melody, and the overall propelling quality of the composition. The listener’s attention is never on one instrument for more than 8-10 seconds, and can quickly be drawn away to at least two other layers. Music is not made this way anymore because artists are specialists; it took a Renaissance figure such as Justin Hayward to construct anything this elaborate and creative. Like Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Moody’s ended up producing seven amazing albums in five years (from 1967-72) – and then crashed and burned. Thankfully, they did regroup and produced three more solid albums over the next decade. Here’s one longtime Moodies’ fan who loves “The Story in Your Eyes” as much today as when it was first recorded a half-century ago today!
“Flip, Flop, and Fly,” Big Joe Turner, 1955. It’s always crazy when you discover a song recorded on the day you were born, and so here’s mine. A few years ago, I was informed by a longtime music pal that the revered R&B rock pioneer, Big Joe Turner, recorded one of his more famous hits at the legendary Atlantic Studio, which was then situated at 234 West 56th Street on the afternoon of January 28, 1955 – my birthdate. A walking, singing antidepressant, Big Joe could coax away any storm cloud with his heady combination of swing, R&B, and rock and stomp. I was fortunate enough to see him perform live at a Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revival concert at the old Boston Garden in 1972. He was introduced by Bo Diddley and was followed up by Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Shirelles, The Coasters, The Five Satins, The Drifters, and Chuck Berry. It was like a Founding Fathers Convention minus Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley!
“Children of the Night,” Richard Marx, 1990. Richard Marx wrote this song after learning about the Children Of The Night Foundation, which works to help victims of sex trafficking and to save children forced into prostitution. Privately funded, it was started by the sociologist Dr. Lois Lee, who took action after seeing kids on the streets of Hollywood who had been left behind. Proceeds from this song helped fund the Children Of The Night Home, opened in Van Nuys, California in 1992. To this day, the shelter provides schooling in addition to shelter and other services for kids age 11-17 who were forced into prostitution. Dr. Lois Lee, the founder of the foundation, said recently in a recent LA Times interview: “Thousands of children have Richard Marx embedded in their hearts and their memories because of his generous gift that helped build the Children Of The Night Home where over 3,000 children to date have lived. Many of the children still talk about Richard and their experience in the studio singing with him on the ‘Children Of The Night’ song.” As someone who knows and relishes the width and breadth of twentieth-century music, I have long known that there are very few mediums, such as music, which can bring a spotlight to injustice. I wish more twenty-first century artists would take note on issues such as bigotry, intelligence, global warming, and economic inequality. In retrospect, “Children of the Night” turned out to be a prodigious single for Richard Marx 30 years ago this winter.
“Psychedelic Shack,” The Temptations, 1970. When you think about it, the Temptations were one of the most socially-conscious bands of the mid-to-late 1960s groups. Their care and empathy rang true in all of their music, which was inevitably both enthralling and evocative. In retrospect, “Psychedelic Shack” could be seen as a unification anthem, welcoming all people in this all-encompassing, welcoming place where you can free your mind and be accepted for who you are. The band’s composers at the time, the underappreciated Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, composed the ballad for the Temps, and purposely got at least one line of lead vocals for each of the band members, including the Temps’ revered bassman, Melvin Franklin, who appropriately sang the…”so low you can’t get under it” riff here. And, yes, this single, which stalled at #2 fifty-years-ago this week, became the inspiration for the B-52s “Love Shack,” a little more than 19 years later.
“The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” Spoon, 2005. Despite hailing from Austin, Texas, Spoon’s sound has always been decidedly British New Wave – ala Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and The Squeeze. Some critics compared the sound to the Beatles’ “Glass Onion,” from The White Album – a deft comparison, especially in the tune’s psychedelic bridge, which sounds right out of the Lennon/McCartney and George Martin playbook. Interestingly, Spoon’s emerged from the long-term aesthetic partnership between the lead singer and songwriter Britt Daniel and drummer Jim Eno, in whose Austin studio the band rehearsed and prepared most of their numbers. This is rock ‘n roll at its finest.
“Hey Bulldog,” The Beatles, 1968. Because of the simultaneous demands of a musical soundtrack, a movie that was in post-production, and the fact that the Beatles needed a B-Side to “Lady Madonna,” the band spent ten hours on February 11, 1968, composing and recording one of their more unheralded numbers, “Hey Bulldog,” a filler that turned out to be something much more. Because they were clearly under the gun, the recording was a joint effort between John and Paul, based on a lick that Lennon had previously worked on but hadn’t completed entitled, “Hey Bullfrog.” The songwriters ended up consciously writing it in the style of Barrett Strong’s legendary 1960 soul twisting, “Money,” famously covered by Lennon in a kick-ass Beatles recording five years before. “We wanted to rock out on that track as we had in Hamburg and at the Cavern Club. We wanted to blow out a tune; no holds barred,” Lennon told journalist Lester Bangs years later. To further emphasize the casual ambiance of the song, John scribbled down some lyrics while Paul furiously worked on the remaining musical chords. At the beginning of the session, when Paul played a Paul Jones’ rocker to John called “The Dog Presides,” which featured a series of dogs barking, McCartney began to howl playfully as well. Lennon liked it so much that they changed the title and then added the yelping at the end of the number. “The producers of Yellow Submarine were clamoring to finish the song in order to put it on that album, plus we wanted to get ‘Lady Madonna’ out as a single, so we were in a full-out sprint that day,” McCartney admitted in The Beatles Anthology. For one line in “Hey Bullfrog,” Lennon had scribbled, “Some solitude is measured out in news.” When they sang from the lyrics’ sheet as they recorded the tune, the band misread John’s chicken-scratch as “some kind of solitude is measured out in you.” Because they were working against the clock, they kept the mistake in the final version, much to the delight of Lennon, who loved the unintentional error. “Paul’s bass line on ‘Hey Bullfrog’ was probably the most inventive of any he’d done since Pepper, and it was well played. Harrison’s solo was sparkling, too – one of the few times that he nailed it right away. His amp was turned up loud, and he used one of his new fuzz boxes, which made his guitar absolutely scream,” wrote the late Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ longtime engineer in a memoir written four decades after the group had disbanded. Ultimately, they had patch-worked a tune that reminded us all that they could still rock with the best bands on the planet. “Hey Bulldog” would be a precursor to the heavy rock they would produce in both the Let it Be and Abbey Road sessions. As Mick Jagger later exclaimed, “When we first heard the song, I thought, ‘That’s a record that we would have made.’” For any other band this would be their most famous song. For the Beatles, it’s a throwaway filler for a cartoon.
“Send One Your Love,” Stevie Wonder, 1980. Stevland Hardaway Morris entered the decade of the ‘80’s with this faultless recording, which was the number one song in the US and Canada 40 years ago this February. Like so many of his soul classics, this one unfolds musically, lyrically, and spiritually. The ultimate optimist, Stevie once said, “Being blind, you don’t judge books by their covers. You go through relatively insignificant things, and you pick out the more important things.” Berry Gordy, who worked with Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross, once professed, “Stevie was the most innovative person that I’ve ever known. But also unique with his tones and his voice quality. He cannot be duplicated.” When all is said and done, his canon of music will be compared to Berlin, Porter, Ellington, and Ray Charles.
“You’ve Got What It Takes,” Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, 1960. The initial collaboration of two iconic early figures in rock history, this infectious single, released 60 years ago this winter, launched a side-career for both soloists, who would subsequently release more than 15 numbers together until Washington’s untimely death in December 1963. (By the way, Washington was married to NFL great, Dick “Night Train” Lane at the time). Please note that at the 2:00 mark of “You’ve Got What it Takes” – after the end of a bridge lyric that Brook sang – he comes in on Dinah’s line. Benton then makes a funny comment, and she keeps singing! After completing the line, she states, “Now, it’s you.” They both assumed the sound engineer would erase this, but veteran producer Clyde Otis liked the ad-libbed byplay, and it became part of the released version. Marvin Gaye later said that Washington and Benton’s teaming inspired Marvin and Tammi Terrell to record soul-inspired duet hits together in the mid-to-late 1960s. Talk about the ultimate compliment.
“Buddy Holly,” Weezer, 1995. I have always loved this upbeat tribute song to Buddy Holly and the era of the 1950s, composed and recorded 36 years after his tragic demise by the LA-based pop band Weezer. This heralded video of the song spliced footage from the 1970s television sitcomHappy Days with Weezer performing in a remade “Arnold’s Drive-In.” The video achieved heavy rotation on MTV and went on to win four MTV Video Music Awards, including Breakthrough Video and Best Alternative Music Video, and twoBillboard Music Video Awards. The video was also featured on the companion CD for the Microsoft Windows 95 computer operating system! Not surprisingly, Bill Gates was an enormous Buddy Holly fan growing up in the late 1950s.
“Handyman,” Jimmy Jones, 1960. While many people think that James Taylor first sang this infectious number originally, it was actually Jimmy Jones, a veteran R&B singer who first had a hit with it 60 years ago this winter. If you take the time to listen to Jones’ seamless version, you will note that he sang “Handyman” in a smooth yet soulful falsetto modeled on the likes of Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke. Interestingly, Jones composed “Handyman” in 1955 and recorded it back then to very little acclaim. As he joked later on, “I had to make a cover of my own song for it to gain any attention.” Jimmie’s new version went to number #2 on the US charts, and his follow-up single, “Good Timin’,” went to #3. In 1977, seventeen years after Jones’ falsetto classic, James Taylor took his more sensuous version of the song all the way to number 1.
“Crazy Thing Called Love,” Queen, 1980. Freddie Mercury reportedly wrote this single during a 10-minute flash of inspiration. John Lennon said that hearing “Crazy Thing” on the radio in his New York City apartment inspired him to get back to writing and recording. Mercury, using his self-described, limited guitar-playing abilities ended up crafting a fantastic rockabilly number worthy of Elvis Presley himself. Given his prodigious talent, Freddie plays the role of “the King” to the fullest vocally as well, crooning in a low register so playful you can practically see the curled lip and slicked-back hair. As an added attraction, he coaxed his Queen band members to sound like the Jordanaires as a reassuring backdrop. I love that Freddie insisted on having this hit single recorded in 1950’s mono. How apropos!
“Sixteen Reasons,” Connie Stevens, 1960. The desire of countless teenage boys while she played Cricket Black on the popular television detective series,Hawaiian Eye, Connie Stevens had a side music career as well, where she had four Top 10 hits in 1960-62. “Sixteen Reasons,” her best-selling-hit, which reached number 3 on the Billboard Top 40 sixty years ago this February, was typical fare for the times – teenage angst coupled with the bookends of fantasy and desire. Her breathy voice was intentional and probably caused another 100,000 people to buy this 45/single. To her enormous credit, because of her All-American sexuality, Stevens became a regular performer on subsequent Bob Hope USO Shows. For a spell, Connie came to symbolize …“the girl back home.”
“(I Wanna) Rock With You,” Michael Jackson, 1980. A teenaged Michael Jackson at the start of his out-of-space-and-time solo career, “Rock With You” was his second short film, filmed in 1979 for the second No. 1 hit single from Off the Wall. The Bruce Gowers-directed short film, featuring Michael dancing in a sequined jumpsuit and matching boots against a set of shimmering lasers, was ranked No. 6 on a list of Michael’s 20 greatest videos by Rolling Stone Magazine. During the winter of 1980, there was simply not another song in existence that was played more around the world than this one.
“Box of Rain,” The Grateful Dead, 1970. Because Phil Lesh was at his very best vocally even as the Dead is at its height musically, it is no wonder, then, that this country-folk tune has withstood the clutches of time. 50 years ago this month, Lesh’s father was dying of cancer, and he yearned to write a song for him before he died. After composing the musical part of the ballad, he gave it to Dead wordsmith Robert Hunter, who then added the lyrics. Happy, Phil was able to perform it live to his Dad in his hospital room. “His smile was as big as the room itself,” Lesh remembered later. While we all seem to reside in a box of rain these days, we still provide the sun and the moon amidst such capriciousness.
“Tonight I Fell in Love,” The Tokens, 1960. The legendary doo-wop group was initially known as the Linc-Tones when they formed in 1955 at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, which also included the likes of fellow students Neil Sedaka and Carole Klein (AKA Carole King). By 1960, newly formed, the Tokens were signed by Warwick Records, where they then recorded “Tonight I Fell in Love.” This sugary single was recorded 60 years ago this winter, but it took several months for it to garner national attention, reaching the Top 10 that fall. Over the next seven years, the Tokens would have nine more top 20 hits, including their beloved, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but it was this quintessential soul-tinged number that launched the group’s popularity as a national vocal quartet. This is one of those ballads that remind us all how very different music was in pre-Beatles America.
“I Can’t Tell You Why,” The Eagles, Live – 1980. On July 15, 1982, I attended a Jimmy Buffet summer outdoor concert on Boston Common. An hour into the show, Buffett introduced his bass player that evening, Timothy B. Schmit. The former Eagles bassist then performed a seamless version of “I Can’t Tell You Why,” which he had composed and also then sang lead vocals on the single two years previously. Before computers made music by algorithm, songs were composed by the human heart. On this exquisite love-sonnet, Schmit’s quivering vocals tug at the soul while Glenn Frey’s swirling guitar solo puts a bow tie on the entire affair. To Jimmy Buffet’s everlasting credit, he stood in the background while Schmit took over that night for this one breathtaking ballad. When I heard it performed live on historic Boston Common, I wish it could’ve lasted forever.
“No Time,” The Guess Who, 1970. Composed by the Guess Who’s famed lead guitarist, Randy Bachman, and featuring lead singer Burton Cumming’s mournful-tenor voice, “No Time” was a Top Ten hit for one of Canada’s more prominent bands 50 years ago this February. From this lens, “No Time” served as a kind of mini- epitaph to the 1960s, a tune about moving on and finding one’s true calling. Originally inspired by the Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman” and “Hung Upside Down,” the lick to “No Time” later became the inspiration for the theme song of TV’s Law and Order! (Yes, Randy Bachman received partial writing credits for the theme). As The Guess Who’s vocalist-songwriter stated years later, “Music is all about sharing and then creating your corner of such a world.”
“Harbour Lights,” The Platters, 1960. No doo-wop group did covers better than the incomparable Platters, one of the mosy beloved doo-wop groups of the Eisenhower Years. In “Harbor Lights,” they took this 1937 standard first recorded by Frances Langford and created an entirely different tune. Of course, it was Tony Williams’ aptitude as a crooner who drives the bus here, but the orchestration by the then-fledgling Wrecking Crew adds the essential ingredient here that makes this number a veritable classic. (Not a bad day for the Wrecking Crew. After they cut “Harbour Lights,” the session-musician band then backed up Sam Cooke on “Wonderful World” two hours later. Wow!)
“Smooth,” Rob Thomas with Carlos Santana, 2000. Rob Thomas and Itaal Shur specifically wrote this for Carlos Santana, thinking that the late George Michael would be the tune’s lead vocalist. As fate would have it, however, Thomas decided to record his vocals as a demo with Satana’s distinctive guitar riffs providing the framework to a single that was the number one song worldwide twenty years ago this month. The ultimate irony is that the vocals don’t sound like Thomas at all. He was imitating how he thought Michael would have sung it had he provided the lead. While this was Santana’s first number one song in more than a decade, it turned out to be a career-maker for Rob Thomas, whose solo career then took off after the release of “Smooth.” Characteristically, George Michael was flattered by Thomas’s “imitation” and thought that it was “truly brilliant.”
“Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time,” The Delfonics, 1970. Written by legendary producer, composer, and arranger, Thom Bell, and his musical partner, William Hart, this much-beloved 1970 soul hit is the quintessential example of the Philly Sound, which was embodied in Bell’s groups, the Delfonics, the Stylistics, the Soul Survivors, and LaBelle. In this memorable 1971 Soul Train appearance by the Delfonics, their TV version here captures the majesty of the ballad, especially in the vocal performance of William Hart, a performer who also had a hand in the careers of other Philly artists from Billy Paul to Hall and Oates. (Yes, he lip-syncs, but they all did on Soul Train.) I once heard Laura Nyro do this number live – and I thought I had gone to heaven. Of course, if I had had the privilege of seeing the Delfonics perform it in person, I would have been in the upper reaches of nirvana. In every conceivable way, “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” is a consummate single.
“Little Jeannie,” Elton John, 1980. Released 40 years ago this March, “Little Jeannie” was one of the few Elton John megahits that he didn’t compose with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. The lyrics came from his friend, songwriter Gary Osborne. In 1978, Elton wrote the songs for his LP, A Single Man with Osborne, while Bernie Taupin worked on the Alice Cooper album, From The Inside. Elton’s 21 At 33 record contained tracks from both Osborne and Taupin, and most of Elton’s subsequent output would have words by Bernie. Looking back at his time away from Taupin, Elton said that while there was some friction between them, it was not a breakup, but more of a sabbatical, as John was in London and Bernie was residing in Los Angeles at the time. From the great groove Sir Elton concocted here, he added a delicious mix of acoustic and lead electric guitars, a tenor sax, three trumpets, and a Moog synthesizer to the entire affair. A seamless production from an artist on top of his game.
“Pennies From Heaven,” The Skyliners, 1960. Take a standard big band song, rev it up to a rock and roll beat accompanied by a group who was the forerunner of the Manhattan Transfer; insist that one of the most underrated vocalists of early rock, Jimmy Beaumont, sing it; install Lou Adler the song’s producer; ask LA’s Wrecking Crew to provide the orchestral accompaniment, and you have musical magic in every conceivable way. While this number was a Top Ten hit 60 years ago this year, “Pennies From Heaven” has recently received significant airplay on Sirius ’50’s over the past few years. I have long asked myself, “Why didn’t this song make it to #1?”
“Who’ll Stop the Rain?” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970. John Fogerty composed this much-admired ballad, which, for an entire generation, was interpreted as a protest song against the Vietnam War. Given the decidedly apocalyptic lyrics, this assumption was understandable. However, 40 years after the tune was recorded, Fogerty told interviewers that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” was actually about Woodstock! An attendee who also performed at the legendary music festival in August 1969, John witnessed, firsthand, the festival-goers dancing in the summer rain, muddy, naked, cold, huddling together as the showers “kept on pouring down.” Consequently, when Fogerty arrived back home in California after that weekend, he sat down and composed, “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” making it not a Vietnam protest at all, but the recounting of the Woodstock Festival experience that Creedence performed so brilliantly five decades ago last August!
Longtime music fans might recall that “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” was actually the B Side to the great rocker, “Travellin’ Band,” which contained one of my favorite lines in rock history: “Listen to the radio/Talkin’ ’bout the last show/Someone got excited/Had to call the state militia.” Ah, the magic of double-sided hits. They were like baseball doubleheaders when you paid for a single admission ticket – unexpected, welcomed pleasures.
“Nice and Easy,” Frank Sinatra, 1960. Recorded on March 12, 1960, this was another seamless collaboration between The Voice and his bandleader extraordinaire, Nelson Riddle. Sinatra’s understated vocals here contrast magically to the pulsating score, deftly arranged by Riddle. Like so many great Sinatra numbers, there is an effervescence – a passion here – that is both light and “gay” (in the old sense). “Nice and Easy’s” subtle shading of darkness is also there to remind listeners that the ride is never permanent – so enjoy it while you can. Even on a rainy March day, this one will make you beam like a summer moon.
“Morning Morgantown,” Joni Mitchell, 1970. The opening salvo from her groundbreaking 1970 album, Ladies of the Canyon, “Morning Morgantown” is a paean to everyone’s hometown, a nursery-like dirge to the comings and goings of a community at the rise of day. Joni Mitchell never lived in Morgantown, West Virginia – so let’s put that to rest. (It’s much more about her hometown – North Battleford, Saskatchewan). Like the impressionistic songwriter she was at the time, Joni’s sonnet reminds us all that you cannot find peace by avoiding life. While Ladies of the Canyon was released 50 years ago this winter and included such masterworks as “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” and “The Circle Game,” I have always thought that this vivid and enchanting hymn was the perfect launch to an extraordinary album.
“Cathy’s Clown,” The Everly Brothers, 1960. While many remember their near-two decade split, the music remains. In 2004, Phil Everly said famously, “Don and I are infamous for our split, but we’re closer than most brothers. Harmony singing requires that you enlarge yourself, not use any kind of suppression. Harmony is the ultimate expression of love.” In that vein, “Cathy’s Clown” is indicative of the Brothers Everly’s timeless entries; there are memorable melodic hooks, impeccable harmonies, and spotless musical accompaniment. Of course, Phil and Don Everly were admired by everyone from Buddy Holly to Sam Cooke, and their Nashville-tinged productions proved to be the launching point for country rock. 60 years this March after this infectious single hit number one on the Billboard Top 40, the Everly Brothers still rock!
“Danny Boy,” Eva Cassidy, 1990. Take an old Irish standard, which had been covered by more than 1000 artists, record it for your parents on St. Patrick’s Day at a local Maryland recording studio in 1992, and scratch out a cover, which no artist before or since has ever surpassed. Ultimately, Eva Cassidy was an authentic songbird. When you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, lift a cold one up to Eva Cassidy. In every way, she was an Amhrán Éireannach.
“Please Let Me Wonder,” The Beach Boys, 1965. 55 years ago today, on March 19, 1965, this exquisite Beach Boys ballad was released by Capitol Records as an A-Side.. While its accompanying single, “Help Me, Rhonda,” far outsold it, nevertheless, this remains one of Brian Wilson’s most beguiling tunes. “Please Let Me Wonder” not only spotlights Brian’s seamless composing abilities, but it also highlights his astonishing vocal range as well. In a 2011 interview, Brian recalled: “I wrote this at my apartment in West Hollywood. As soon as I finished, I felt I had to record it, so I called up my engineer, Chuck Britz, and woke him up. ‘Please Let Me Wonder’ was then recorded at 3:30 in the morning. I drove to the studio in the middle of the night and recorded it. That song was done as a tribute to Phil Spector’s music. It definitely has an excellent straight-ahead feel to it. I knew I loved that song from the moment it was finished, and I’ve loved it ever since.” So have many others.
“What I Like About You,” The Romantics, 1980. This retro tune was released 40 years ago this winter and ended up being played continually throughout the spring – mostly on FM stations at the time – who adored its undertones. An authentic attention grabber, “What I Like About You” could well have been recorded by the Kinks or the Zombies 15 years previously. Given that The Knack had just touched on the same ground months earlier, a lot thought that it was a Knack release at the time, but to The Romantics’ credit, they do a stellar job here, especially lead singer and drummer Jimmy Marinos, who ended up giving his best Ray Davies impersonation.
“Girl,” the Beatles, 1965.On November 11, 1965, the Beatles laid down the last track of arguably their best album, Rubber Soul, with John’s emphatic answer to Paul’s “Michele,” a brazen forerunner to the 1980s Europop style entitled simply, “Girl.” Until he met Yoko Ono, John’s dream girl was distinctly German, working-class, and resembled the very real Astrid Kirchherr, a doe-like, flaxen-colored beauty from Hamburg who, during the band’s time in Hamburg, had not only helped the Beatles with their image but pushed them into such previously unexplored areas as existentialism. A photographer by trade, Kirchherr stumbled upon the Beatles one spring night in the spring of 1960 – when they were performing as the house band at the Kaiserkeller Club – and became immediately smitten by “their talent, humor, and intelligence.” Within a month, Astrid began dating Stuart Sutcliffe, John’s best friend from Liverpool Art College, who had joined the group as its bassist three months previously. By necessity, the Beatles had let their hair out – they were continually in short supply of cash overseas – so Astrid decided to give them stylized cuts, which shaped their unwieldy manes into mop-like locks. Thus, the legendary Beatle hairstyle began in Hamburg in 1960 because of the artistic flair of Astrid Kirchherr. Over the years, Beatle fans have pointed out that both Cynthia Powell and Patti Boyd, John Lennon and George Harrison’s first wives, eerily reassembled Astrid, who ended up living with Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg, until he tragically died of a blood clot a year after the Beatles returned to England for good. “All of us liked Astrid – and were in love with her as well,” admitted George Harrison three decades later. Musically, there’s a lot to love about “Girl.” The tune moves from a C minor verse to an A major chorus, with a whiff of an accordion provided by the irreplaceable George Martin. The ballad almost sounds like a waltz – it had a quality to it that harkens back to the band’s fifteen months that they spent in Germany in the early sixties. The “tit tit tit” vocals that frame each bridge in “Girl” are decidedly sophomoric and teasing. “We were just trying to see how far we could go to pull another fast one on the censors at the time, and the song was about a girl after all,” Harrison admitted in a 1987 Rolling Stone interview. However, the girl that John sings about turns out to be intelligent, in control and is both elusive and confounding. Because Lennon’s untamed mother, Julia, and his steadfast Aunt Mimi, were the two most significant female figures growing up and were also exact opposites, the female species, in general, remained mysterious to him. Ending up with someone as paradoxical as Yoko Ono, then, was actually no surprise. “It was as if you put Julia and Mimi in a blender – and out came Yoko,” McCartney once commented. Of course, John and Paul have a particularly inspired duet on the refrain of “Girl, “which is accompanied by a series of audible intakes. There is a story there. According to John, Astrid used to shampoo her hair using strawberry extract, a forerunner to the fruit-scented shampoos that would come out on the market a generation later. John so loved the aroma that whenever he saw Kirchherr, he would race up to her and begin impulsively smelling her blonde locks. John later claimed that “Girl,” a haunting ode to an unknown woman, was his subconscious reminding him that there was a female out there who would one day match the object of desire he sang so reverently about. Incredibly, John would meet that individual, Yoko Ono, a year to the day that this ballad was recorded. One final moving note – on September 22, 1980, at the Hit Factory Studios in Midtown Manhattan, a follow-up to the tune entitled “Woman,” an elegy to the girl who had grown up was recorded. It would be the second-to-last song that John Lennon would produce before he was assassinated. When John airmailed the final outtake to Paul in England, McCartney reportedly burst into tears, especially when he heard the Beatlesque underpinnings that framed that song. (How ironic that I posted this on Facebook just hours before it was announced that Astrid Kirchherr had died in Hamburg at the age of 82. RIP to the Fab Four’s ultimate “Girl.”)
“Into the Mystic,” Van Morrison, 1970. One of Van’s most unwavering ballads, “Into the Mystic” an Otis Redding-style reverie with acoustic guitar and horns, was featured on his epic 1970 album, Moondance. While this is supposedly about a sailor yearning to come home to land to his beloved, “Into the Mystic,” in a metaphoric sense, expresses the notion that life is infinite. Accordingly, the acceptance of that is inevitable, especially if love has been your clarion call all alone. Thus, there is nothing to fear. Van recently said that as he was writing this, he changed the line from “Into the Mist” to “Into the Mystic.” It’s the little things that go into making an undisputed masterpiece.
“Theme from A Summer Place,” Percy Faith and His Orchestra, 1960. Old folks like me will remember that “Theme From A Summer Place” was actually a hit in the late winter and early spring of ‘60, with the co-release of the movie by the same name. The irony, of course, is that in the minds of those Americans who remember, this saccharine, melodic instrumental embodied everything good about the 1950s. As the legendary writer-historian, David Halberstam, pointed out, however, below its placid surface, there was a palpable social ferment occurring in the 1950s, from the civil rights movement through the sexual revolution to the rise of rock-and-roll and the beatnik generation (which begot the 1960s hippies). Still, as long as America’s grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was in charge, the hamburgers were on the grill, the Oldsmobile was warming up in the driveway, and it was time to take Johnny to his Little League game and Suzy to her Brownies’ meeting. In this age of Trump, that sounds incredibly reassuring.
“United Together,” Aretha Franklin, 1980. Forty years ago this April, amidst languishing record sales, Aretha left Atlantic for Clive Davis’s Arista Records with the desire to revive her commercial fortunes. Her first single under the Arista label was “United Together,” a poignant and yet searing ballad, which reached No. 3 on the R&B charts in the fall of 1980. These days, outside of her legion of fans, “United Together” is vastly underrated. That is a travesty because this is a ballad that will warm your heart in every way! Happy 78th birthday to the late Queen of Soul.
“Sink The Bismarck,” Johnny Horton, 1960. Sixty years ago this April, the late Johnny Horton’s ballad, “Sink The Bismarck,” which was the title song hit by the movie of the same name was a top ten hit in both the US and Canada. As a five-year-old at the time, I was entranced by this single – from the repeated, big-gun-sound to Johnny Horton’s Elvis-like snarl. The historical narrative of the tune was my first foray into the genre: “In May of 1941, the war had just begun; The Germans had the biggest ship, they had the biggest guns; The Bismarck was the fastest ship that ever sailed the sea; On her deck were guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees.” Sadly, Horton, who had already enjoyed two international hits with “The Battle of New Orleans” and “North to Alaska,” would be dead just six months after “Sink The Bismarck” was released when the Chevy he was driving collided with a truck near Shreveport, Louisiana. He left three children and his widow, Billie Jean Jones, the widow of Hank Williams, Sr. Johnny Horton was just 35 years old when he died on November 11, 1960.
“Call Me,” Blondie, 1980. Written for the film, American Gigolo, this became the all-time bestselling single for Debbie Harry and Blondie, reaching number one in the US 40 years ago this spring. While the tune is about a prostitute, it summons images of a six-lane highway, an open convertible, and a-Debbie-Harry-like woman behind the wheel. Some musicologists have called it the last authentic single of the disco era.
“A Rainy Night in Georgia,” Brook Benton, 1970. Composed by the late Tony Joe White of “Polk Salad Annie” fame, this much-admired soul classic proved to be a powerful comeback for Brook Benton. At the time, he had been a significant soloist in the late ’50s and early ’60s but hadn’t had a Top 40 hit in more than six years until he released this single 50 years ago this spring. Brook’s impeccable interpretation of the lyrics here is such that you actually feel the wet and cold in his voice. “A Rainy Night in Georgia” is an enduring masterpiece in every way.
“Frenesi,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1940. “Frenesi,” which was the number one song in the US 80 years ago on April 10, 1940, where it remained like a fixed star at that position until mid-June. I’ve had more than a few musical friends say to me that while Benny Goodman played music, Artie Shaw played the clarinet. While I think that they were both geniuses, Shaw, in my mind, was the best jazz clarinetist thus far. Not long before my mother died in 2005, she recalled seeing Shaw and his Orchestra performing this in concert at the legendary Totem Pole at the old Norumbega Park in Auburndale, MA. “That music was all so sublime,” she sighed. Yes, Mum, it was.
“That Girl Could Sing,” Jackson Browne, 1980. Released 40 years ago this spring, this vastly underestimated rocker turned out to be Brown’s emotive dirge to a former girlfriend, the legendary singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro. While Nyro was typically silent about their 1970 relationship, Jackson ended up paying tribute to her a decade after their romance had ended.“Talk about celestial bodies/And your angels on the wing/She wasn’t much good at stickin’ around/ but boy she could sing.” Two shimmering talents who found a planet to share for a spell
“The City of New Orleans, Steve Goodman, 1970. The late great John Prince once called Steve Goodman’s “The City of New Orleans”… “the best damn train song ever written,” and I emphatically agree. The astonishing thing is that Goodman, a singer/songwriter from Chicago was just 22 when he composed it and featured it on his first solo LP when it was released 50 years ago this spring. While another buddy, Arlo Guthrie, enjoyed a significant cover of it two years after Steve came out with the original, there is an unmistakable fidelity here, which makes Goodman’s version even better. According to legend, Steve scribbled the lyrics on a sketch pad after his wife fell asleep on the Illinois Central train, where they were going to visit his spouse’s grandmother. Goodman wrote about what he saw looking out the windows of the train and playing cards in the club car. After he returned home, the fledgling songwriter heard that the train was scheduled to be decommissioned due to a lack of passengers. He was encouraged to use this song to save the train, so he retouched the lyrics and released it on his much-admired debut album. Sadly, Steve Goodman, who battled cancer on and off for much of his short life, died of leukemia 12 years after he recorded this unqualified masterpiece.
“Stuck On You,” Elvis Presley, 1960. The first single that The King recorded after he left the Army for good, “Stuck on You,” was released on March 2, 1960, and rocketed to #1 six weeks later. Featuring the legendary great Scotty Moore on lead guitar, the underappreciated D. J. Fontana on the drums, and the great Floyd Cramer on the keyboards, “Stuck On You” was recorded at RCA’s Nashville Studios and produced by the brilliant Steve Sholes. Six decades later, “Stuck on You” remains my favorite Elvis song ever – and that’s saying a hell of a lot. After all, how can you beat the King crooning, ”A team of wild horses couldn’t tear us apart”? Ultimately, Mr. Presley’s maple-syrup-baritone sounds so good here that you swear that it was recorded at the Sun Records Studio in Memphis by Sam Phillips. As one of my friends once said, “‘Stuck On You’ would have fallen flat with nearly every singer out there. It turned out to be great because only Elvis knew how to sing such a song with such constancy. He was an American original.”
“Color Him Father,” The Winstons, 1970. Fifty years ago this month, “Color Him Father” was a top-ten hit in both the US and Canada, a searing ballad to both fatherhood and the notion of “doing it right.” Produced by the Winstons, an integrated rock-soul-funk group from Washington, DC, “Color Him Father” featured the combined tenor saxophone and vocals’ prowess of Richard Lewis Spencer, who once was a member of The Impressions and later backed up Otis Redding. Five decades later, “Color Him Father” has happily become a staple on the Sirius Soul Town Sirius Channel!
“Sara,” Fleetwood Mac, 1980. One of Ms. Nicks’ most beguiling songs, metaphorically, this ballad is like a crowded, messy attic where Stevie has thrown all of the stuff that had consumed her life the previous decade – unexpected fame, the failed love affair with Lindsey Buckingham, her aborted child with Don Henley, a love triangle relationship with Mick Fleetwood and his wife, Sara Recor, and her emerging cocaine addiction all rolled into one. The brilliance of her poetry is at work here – Nicks has long called “Sara,” her alter ego – was so captivating to her loyal fanbase that it remains her most cherished ballad among them. Incredibly, “Sara” was 16-minutes long when Nicks wrote it. They had to edit it down to under five minutes for the album, but Stevie claimed the “real version” has about nine more verses and tells the entire story. “There’s no mayhem in the long version,” she claims, “just pathos.”
“The Fool on the Hill,” The Beatles, 1967. Paul McCartney got the idea for “The Fool on the Hill” in March 1967, on the day the band completed recording, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” During a protracted lunch break from the Sargent Pepper sessions, Paul began humming the song with nonsense lyrics. (He had done so previously when the working title of “Yesterday” was hysterically called “Scrambled Eggs”). As McCartney looked out onto Cavendish Avenue in the Saint John’s Wood section of London where he resided, John Lennon, who had accompanied him to his house, stated, “You better write the song out, or you will forget it.” Paul assured him that he wouldn’t. Six months later, on September 25, 1967, the group began to record “The Fool on the Hill,” which would then be a featured number on their Magical Mystery Tour album. The tune describes a savant, whom most outsiders view like an idiot but who, in reality, is filled with enormous wisdom. At the time, Beatle fans thought that Paul was singing about the Maharishi Yogi, the Indian guru whose transcendentalism had vastly influenced the group that year. (The band then spent ten days with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, India five months later, where they observed him disingenuously hitting on an impressionable Mia Farrow. Lennon then penned the uproarious “Sexy Sadie,” in response). According to Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, however, the tune had a few different geneses. “Paul, his dog, Martha, and I had an early morning walk on Primrose Hill in the winter of 1967. We watched a particularly beautiful sunrise from the very top of the hill when Paul suddenly realized that Martha was missing. We turned to try to find her when suddenly there was a middle-aged man, very respectfully dressed in a brilliant raincoat, who smiled at us. We were sure that he hadn’t been there a moment before – we were rather startled to see him – but we greeted him, and he greeted us very warmly. A moment later, we saw Martha come bounding up the hill to rejoin us, and so we ventured back to where we had just been. To our astonishment, there was no sign of the man. Because we were on top of the hill and could easily see down on all sides, this was an impossibility. Paul and I then tried to speculate where he had disappeared, but we couldn’t make any sense out of it. Of course, we immediately felt that something mysterious, even spiritual, had just occurred. Paul began to work on ‘The Fool on the Hill’ later that night. The next day, he began to hum the song to John and completed it later on that spring.” The ballad that they recorded captured nearly all of the band’s most innovative musical elements that they had perfected as a studio band for the previous six years. In the final version of “The Fool on the Hill,” the Beatles incorporated eight strings, a trio of flutes, a standup bass, an acoustic guitar, a mouth harp, a set of maracas, finger cymbals, and a harpsichord. Producer George Martin, who constantly prodded them to explore the vast reaches of classical music, stood in awe in the producer’s sounding room at Abbey Road Number 2 Studio as they commenced to build musically upon the song. “It was the group at their very best,” Martin commented in The Beatles Anthology, “They played off each other, experimented, added things, pared things down, and created a masterpiece together. It was Paul’s song, but they all played a big part in it. It was obvious they had now transcended rock and roll and had entered a territory that no rock band before or afterward has ever visited.” In his voluminous tome on the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, writer Ian McDonald comments, “The timeless appeal of ‘The Fool on the Hill’ lies in the paradoxical air of childlike wisdom and unworldliness, an effect created by a melancholy revolving harmony in which the world turns in cycles and rest, shadowed by clouds drifting indifferently across the sky.” For longtime fans such as me, I distinctly remember hearing “The Fool on the Hill” for the first time in mid-December,1967, and thinking, “So this is what they are now up to these days!” For all of us under their spell at the time, each single and LP release was the musical equivalent of Christmas morning.
“Tempted,” Squeeze, 1980. A truly iconic single in the UK when I lived in Great Britain during the early 1980’s, “Tempted” was composed by band member Chris Dillford as he rushed in a cab heading for Heathrow for the band’s first continental tour. The Squeeze’s duo of brilliant but quirky songwriters, Dillford and Glenn Tillbrook – along with the band’s producer, the even more talented Elvis Costello – were considered by many British rock fans and critics at the time to be the successors to Lennon and McCartney. While their reign as popmasters proved to be somewhat short-lived, their body of work was prodigious. Band member Paul Carrack sings the lead on “Tempted,” backed up by Dillford, Tillbrook, and Costello. After this fetching Top Ten single was released, many Squeeze fans would throw toothbrushes in Rocky Horror-style onstage when Carrack sang the opening line: “I bought a toothbrush…”
“Love On a Two Way Street,” The Moments, 1970. In an era when soul classic after soul classic was released, this massive hit, which held onto the number one spot for five weeks 50 years ago this May, turned out to be the apex for Washington, D. C. ‘s, The Moments. Featuring the Eddie Kendrick’s-like vocal performance of the late Johnny Moore, at least 20 other significant artists covered it afterward, including Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Still, no one could reach the depths that Moore hit here – one of the most heartfelt and searing vocal performances in soul history. If you were making a greatest hits package of the musical year, 1970, you would have to include this ballad as one of the premier songs of that period.
“Mona Lisa,” Nat King Cole, 1950. Seventy years ago this spring, Nat Cole’s signature song was by far the bestselling and most played tune in both the United States and Canada. You could hear it in barbershops, in local diners, in car radios, and as the opening song at high school proms everywhere. (For instance, it was the initial number played at Sylvia Plath’s 1950 Wellesley High Senior Prom at the legendary Maugus Club in Wellesley, Massachusetts). Before this monstrous hit, which was produced by the great Nelson Riddle, Nat King Cole was better known as a renowned jazz pianist. “Mona Lisa” helped establish his reputation as a top vocalist of the era, although many Jazz aficionados also consider Nat one of the best piano players of the time. The timelessness of Cole’s version of this ballad is so profound that it still sounds as if it was written and recorded today. In the end, all that is not eternal is eternally out of date.
“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” The Walker Brothers, 1966. Released 54 years ago this spring, this Righteous Brothers-tinged single cemented the US born, British band Walker Brothers’ teen idol status in a time when such entities were a very big thing. A clip of a lip-synched Tops of the Pops performance from that year showcases the brilliant Scott Walker’s luminous frontman abilities. He’s young and good-looking — prerequisites for pop stardom — but it’s his emotional distance that made him irresistible to such young fans at the time as David Bowie and Elvis Costello. “Loneliness is a cloak you wear,” Walker croons soulfully into the camera. “A deep shade of blue is always there.” Walker’s baritone is opulent, and his moves are hypnotic. He’s overarching without overstatement. There’s a distinct murkiness to him, with his upraised, grasping hand – a gesture that seems to say, “Life as you perceive it will always be slightly out of your grasp.” Mercy.
“We’ll Meet Again,” Vera Lynn, 1940. Eighty years ago this April, English singer Vera Lynn formally released this World War II standard as a single in Great Britain, which was then bracing for the Blitz. In the end, Dame Vera was the original “Forces’ Sweetheart,” providing World War II soldiers and families left at home with some positivity and spirit when they needed it most. “We’ll Meet Again,” proved to be one of Dame Vera’s most tear-inducing tracks, referring to the thousands of men who served and died – and their families at home who waited and kept the home fires burning. Eight decades later, lyrics such as “Keep smiling through, just like you always do,” strike a chord in today’s 2020 COVID-19 climate, reminding us that history often repeats itself in unexpected ways. How incredible that Vera Lynn, now 103 years old, recently released this standard as a single in the UK. Here’s hoping – and knowing – that we’ll all meet again. (Sadly, Vera would die a few weeks after I posted this overview. What a life!)
“Ride Captain Ride,” Blues Image, 1970. From its enchanting lyrics to its rhythmic bass and percussion background to its counter-cross keyboards to its searing vocals by Looking Glass lead singer, Mike Pinera, who later joined Iron Butterfly, this inimitable single was the number-four hit in the US and Canada 50 years ago this May. The proverbial one-hit wonder, the group broke up later on in that summer, but for a few weeks in the spring of ‘70, “Ride Captain Ride” proved to be one of the most cherished singles of a celebrated musical year. Also, what a tremendous opening salvo: “Seventy-three men sailed up from the San Francisco Bay/Rolled off of their ship, and here’s what they had to say.” I dare you to play this and not fall in love with it once again!
“Nothing Compares To U,” Sinead O’Connor, 1990. Prince wrote and recorded this song in 1984 but didn’t release it. As fate would have it, Sinead O’Connor came out with her follow up album to The Lion and The Cobra six years later, which featured this cover to Prince’s “Nothing Compared to U.” Initially, it got a lot of play on college radio, earning the Irish balladeer a small, but devoted fan base. As it began to be cycled on FM stations across the country, the word spread, and O’Connor suddenly found herself with a mega-hit. Understandably, this thrust her into the spotlight, and the attention had some deleterious effects on the singer. Sinead claimed she hated the fame the song brought her, and that she struggled with the commercialization of her music. From religion to her lifestyle to her views on the music industry itself, O’Connor has remained an iconoclast. Despite her misgivings, the single eventually went platinum. Controversies aside, Sinead O’Connor has a pure and beautiful voice, which brilliantly frames this haunting song.
“Sweet Nothings,” Brenda Lee, 1960. All 4 foot 9 inches of Miss Lee provided more power than an eight-cylinder, ’57 Oldsmobile, as demonstrated here by one of her more formidable hits, the infectious, “Sweet Nothings.” Incredibly, she was just 15-years-old when she recorded this, two years after Brenda, as a 13-year-old, recorded her most famous hit, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Until the mid-1960s, Lee, like the great Connie Francis, produced hit song after hit song, until her prowess in rockabilly turned into a more serious country phase, which sustained her career until the mid-1980s. Like Wanda Jackson, Lee could wail with the best of them, which is why she was sometimes called, “The Girl Elvis.” And when she belts, “Uh, oh, honey,” here, it’s the equivalent of taking out the pin of a hand grenade before the ensuing explosion of sound.
How could I not include the great Marshall Crenshaw’s tribute to Miss Lee, which he reverently composed and recorded this song 25 years after her biggest hit, “I’m Sorry,” hit number one.
“Pennsylvania 6500,” Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, 1940. My mother would probably say that it seems impossible that 80 years ago today, “Pennsylvania 6-5000” was the number one song in North America! One of the great swing band standards of the pre-war era, younger listeners might not know the reference to Pennsylvania and the series of numbers afterward. Before area codes were enacted, the first two numbers were called the “exchange code,” and were represented by a word whose first two letters were used as the numbers. Thus, “Pennsylvania” signified the PE exchange code, which translated to the number 73 (P=7, E=3). By the way, if you use this number today, 212-736-5000, you’ll still get the main switchboard of that legendary hotel across the street from Pennsylvania Station in Midtown Manhattan! In terms of the tune itself, it was composed with accompanying lyrics and recorded as a vocal song by the legendary Andrews Sisters. Glenn Miller’s much more famous version featured his band members shouting out the refrain, “Pennsylvania 6500!” and then filling in the verses and bridges with infectious swing-jazz instrumentation. A personal note – my father once told me that my parents danced to this song by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra at Boston’s legendary Cocoanut Grove, not long before it burned down back in ‘42.
“Mill Valley, California,” Miss Rita Abrams and Her Fourth Grade Class, 1970. The #90 song listed in the end-of-the-year Top 100 for 1970, this ballad is, without a doubt, is one of the most unlikely hit songs of the modern pop era. As saccharine as cotton candy and almost nauseatingly upbeat, “Mill Valley, California” was composed by Miss Rita Abrams, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts who ended up teaching in suburban San Francisco. “After the gloomy winters of my Massachusetts upbringing, Mill Valley turned out to be a revelation, which is why I wrote a song about it,” she stated years later. To my knowledge, this is the only Top 40 song in history featuring a teacher and her class!
“American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz, 2000. Fifty years ago this June, the Canadian rock band, The Guess Who, burned up the pop charts with hits like “American Woman,” which they claimed was a love letter to the women of their own country. Lenny Kravitz’s powerful, updated version won for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance 30 years later. I saw him perform it live at a Bob Dylan Concert at Carnegie Hall, where Kravitz performed as the opening act. Ultimately, Lennie Kravitz proved that a cover could sometimes be more memorable and sustaining than the original.
“Wonderful World,” Sam Cooke, 1960. In between marriages, Sam Cooke was rooming with then-novice producer Lou Adler, who heard him play a Cooke tune in their apartment one day. “Oh, that’s a song I cut with Bob Keane that was never released,” sighed Sam. At the time, Keane, Cooke’s former producer, was suing Sam for a breach of contract. For six months, Adler could do nothing about it, and so the future standard was gathering dust in their apartment until Sam moved to RCA where it was subsequently released. A million copies later, Sam had himself another Top 5 hit sixty years ago this June. For Lou Adler, who would go onto produce everyone from The Mama’s and Papa’s to Carole King, this proved to be “the great lucky break” of his 60-year career as a music executive. Indeed, “Wonderful World” is one of those ballads whose timelessness seems to define musical gravity.
“Body and Soul,” Billie Holiday, 1940. Recorded 80 years ago on the afternoon of June 3, 1940, this seminal Johnny Green standard featured the heavenly combination of Lady Day, at the height of her powers, and the legendary trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who riffs off Holiday here as if they’ve been working together forever. “My days have grown so lonely,” sings the greatest blues singer of all time, “for you I cry, for you dear only/Why haven’t you seen it?I’m all for you body and soul.” What else can you possibly say?
“Overture to Tommy,” the Assembled Multitude, 1970. A concoction of studio musicians from Philadelphia came together and produced a collection of instrumentals from 1969-70, which included The Who’s “Overture to Tommy.” In June 1970, this inspiring and infectious single made it to number 16 on the US Billboard Top 40. Produced by local musician Tom Sellers, who also served as The Assembled Multitude’s spokesperson, most of the band later formed MFSB, the backbone of Philadelphia soul, working with producers Gamble and Huff, and Thom Bell, and artists such as The O’Jays, Billy Paul, The Stylistics, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. During the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band reverently used Multitude’s interpretation of “Overture to Tommy” as their opening number in several East Coast venues. From this vantagepoint, “Overture to Tommy” is an exceptional cover in every way.
“Hold On,” Wilson Phillips, 1990. This galvanizing ballad has probably saved scores of people over the years, thanks to its powerful lyrics and the shimmering vocal-play of Brian Wilson daughters, Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson, and the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mama and the Papas, Chynna Phillips. In retrospect, “Hold On” is not another California Pop song, but White Girl Rock & Soul at its very best. 30 years after “Hold On” was the number 1 song in the US, the tune’s impassioned refrain, “Hold on for one more day,” ought to be our motto for the harrowing times we now live in these days, which have been framed by both Donald J. Trump and the CoronaVirus he refused to abate.
“In the Summertime,” Mungo Jerry, 1970. How about this giddy, guilt-free pleasure of a one-hit-wonder track to launch out a bountiful of summer-laced tunes? Of course, this beloved solid gold nugget from 1970 still smacks of effervescent summertime fun five decades after it was first released. “Have a drink, have a drive/Go out and see what you can find,” is not exactly PC, but what about summer-fun really is? The mainstream British rock group, Mungo Jerry, fronted by the talented Ray Dorset, never had another substantial hit again, but the revenge here is that it has become a staple of “best summer songs” over the past half-century. According to YouTube, “In the Summertime” has been listened to nearly a billion times on its website over the years. Incredible.
“I’ve Got A Crush On You,” Ella Fitzgerald, 1950. This classic George and Ira Gershwin tune, first composed in 1928 for the Broadway musical, Treasure Girl, has been recorded hundreds of times over the last 92 years, most notably by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, whose 1950 recording made it a jazz standard, primarily of her astonishing vocal repertoire. The way she caresses each note, it almost makes you want to blush. In a 50-year career where she recorded more than a thousand songs, “I’ve Got a Crush On You” is one of Lady Ella’s most accomplished performances.
“Devil or Angel,” Bobby Vee, 1960. When Buddy Holly tragically perished in a plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959, he was supposed to play in Moorhead, Minnesota the following evening. A local Fargo, North Dakota rocker, Bobby Velline, then 15 years old, hastily assembled a band of Fargo schoolboys, calling themselves the Shadows, and volunteered to fill in for Holly and his band at the Moorhead engagement, which was across the river from their Fargo homes. Their performance there was a success, setting in motion a chain of events that led to Velline’s career as a famous singer. Liberty Records later shortened his name to Bobby Vee, and he began churning out single after single – starting in the fall of 1959. Over the next dozen years, Vee had ten Top 20 songs and six gold records, including this chestnut, a cover of the Clovers old doo-wop hit, which reached number 6 on this day 60 years ago. Yes, Bobby homogenized it a bit, but that was the entire point after all.
“America’s Farm,” Levon Helm, 1980. When Levon Helm’s criminally underappreciated LP, American Son, was released 40 years ago this June, this idiosyncratic cut captured the essence of the modern American farmer in a sublime three-minute track filled with passion, pluck, and spunk. Four decades later, “America’s Farm” remains one of my favorite Levon Helm numbers – including his nearly flawless work with The Band.
“Alley Oop,” The Hollywood Argyles, 1960. When every song had a certain swagger – “a mean motor scooter,” and life was as good as it got when we were in the throes of “The American Century.” Thus, groups such as The Hollywood Argyles cranked out songs like “Alley Oop” in the assembly-line -format of Top 40 radio – just like General Motors! The Argyles, a local LA-based group, consisted of Ronnie Silico on drums, Gaynel Hodge on piano, Harper Cosby on the bass, and Sandy Nelson (of “Teen Beat” fame) on the tambourine and, yes, a garbage can for this number! Hodge provided the lead vocals while Sandy Nelson produced the famed vocal scream in the song. Even those of us in Kindergarten at the time walked around our classroom at the time, spouting: “Alley Oop Oop, Oop Oop Oop!”
“Make it With You,” Bread, 1970. Composed by Bread’s lead singer, David Gates, this number one single, released 50 years ago this summer, came to define the new genre, which became known as “soft rock.” A featured single on the band’s second album, this was the first international hit for Bread. Interestingly, though, David Gates had previous success as a songwriter, most notably as the composer of 1964’s Top 5 single by The Murmaids, “Popsicles and Icicles.” I have to admit that I like this song then and I love it now. I apologize; it’s one of my many weaknesses.
“Life is a Highway,” Tom Cochrane and Red River, 1990. No, Rascal Flatts didn’t do this first. 30 years ago this month, it was the Canadian rocker, Tom Cochrane who composed, sang, and produced the first version, which was a number-one song in his native country. The rollicking Red River Band does a stellar job here supporting Cochrane’s infectious ballad. Happy Canada Day, everyone!
“America,” Neil Diamond, 1980. As some of you remember, Neil Diamond starred in The Jazz Singer, a 1980 film which was a remake of the Al Jolson classic from 1927. Ultimately, this original song from the soundtrack turned out to be the proverbial keeper, a ballad that is still regularly played at citizenship swearing-ceremonies on the Fourth of July. This poignant ballad captures something about our country we all can identify with as Americans. With Neil Diamond’s emotive vocalization, every listener connects with it regardless of ethnicity. “On the boats and on the planes/They’re coming to America/Never looking back again/They’re coming to America…” Happy Fourth of July to all – black, brown, red, yellow, and white.
“I’m in the Mood For Love,” The Charlie Parker Quartet, 1950. Featuring Miles Davis on trumpet, Errol Garner on piano, Teddy Kotick on the bass, and Max Roach on percussion, this sublime interpretation of the old standard by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields was released 70 years ago this summer. Given the number and the musicians involved, it turned out to be one of The Bird’s most evocative records. As with many of Parker’s releases, there is a double-edged sword here – the music is pulsating with life even as it breaks your heart. If Vincent Van Gogh could have played the alto saxophone, he might have well sounded like Charlie Parker.
“Hitchin’ a Ride,” Vanity Fare, 1970. Released by the English band, Vanity Fare, in November 1969, “Hitchin’ A Ride” took more than nine months for the US to embrace this pulsating, fetching ballad where it eventually surpassed the British in both song position and sales. 50 years ago today, July 12, 1970, this was the number 5 hit on the Billboard Top 10, where it remained until August. Many teenagers that summer sang the tune’s refrain, “Ride, ride, ride – just a hitchin’ a ride,” as they drove their Dodge Darts and Chevy Camaros to the beach or the local amusement parks, or, like me occasionally, stuck the old right thumb out to go somewhere adventurous. A one-hit-wonder, Vanity Fare never approached the success they had with this exuberant sing-a-long tune.
“Fantastic Planet of Love,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1990. One of a handful of unsung singles that should have garnered the most underrated rock performer of the 1980s a million in sales, here, Marshall pays homage to one of his favorite bands growing up, The Moody Blues, in a reinvented ballad to kick off the 1990s. There are so many things to love about this unencumbered rocker – the kick-ass guitar work; the wildly infectious melody; the hip lyrics; the seamless vocals supported by a world-class group of backup singers; the impeccable drum work of the great Kenny Aronoff; and the sustained, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…” which ends the song with a nod to such Moody Blues’ albums as Every Good Boy Deserves Favour and To Our Children’s Children’s Children. One of the greatest pop vocalists of all time, Marshall Crenshaw here sounds like a heady combination of Buddy Holly and The Grassroots’ Rob Grill.
“Think for Yourself,” The Beatles, 1965. For some Fab Four fans, this number was an afterthought, a little ditty buried within the brilliance of Rubber Soul. But it turned out to be much more than that. In John Lennon’s most personal Beatles album, “Think for Yourself” was a subconscious love letter from George Harrison to John himself. For George, the youngest and most impressionable of the Beatles, Lennon not only filled the big brother/mentor role the moment he met him at fifteen in 1957, but John turned out to be “the best teacher I ever had.” From the time he joined John’s band, the Quarrymen, in the summer of 1957 – when he was just fifteen – George Harrison absolutely idolized Lennon. For George, the most spiritual of all four musicians, Lennon was his first guiding light before he found God in the late 1960s. “John was the center of my world for more than ten years,” George wrote in his autobiography. Despite Lennon’s vast contradictions – “he unknowingly hurt me with his sharp tongue hundreds of times,” Harrison once admitted – Lennon was, after all, the individual who wrote, Love is a promise, love is a souvenir, once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear. “John could be idiosyncratic, unpredictable – but his heart was almost always in the right place,” Paul McCartney told Dave March in a much-quoted Rolling Stone piece 15 years after Lennon’s death. Not long before he succumbed to cancer in 2002, George commented, “In a world in which violence and misunderstanding and war were often the final result, it was John who wrote, ‘All You Need is Love.” It’s a pretty astonishing legacy to leave to the world.” Not surprisingly, then, George’s first stab at songwriting consciously mirrored Lennon’s lyrics – ponderous, ironic, substantive. However, in “Think for Yourself,” recorded on November 8, 1965, the good student now yearns to sprout his own wings after latching onto John’s back for the previous decade. As in the best works of both Lennon and McCartney, Harrison’s subconscious prevails in the number: “Although your mind’s opaque/Try thinking more for your own sake/The future still looks good/And you’ve got time to rectify/All the things that you should.” Musically, as far back as George’s 1963 tune, “Don’t Bother Me,” Harrison often overlapped major and minor harmony with an emphatic circle progression that made his own sound distinctive from both John and Paul. He does so as well in “Think for Yourself,” a warm-up to his first authentic masterpiece, “If I Needed Someone,” which George would compose nine months later. 15 years after “Think for Yourself” was first recorded, I ended up playing it over and over again in the early morning hours of December 9, 1980. Like millions and millions of lifelong Beatles’ fans, sleep was an impossibility when I learned that John Lennon had been senselessly murdered a few hours previously. Filled with overwhelming sadness, I played Rubber Soul – John’s favorite album, over and over again until the dawn light sifted through my bedroom curtains. I mourned when I listened to “Girl” and wept when I played Lennon’s searing “In My Life.” But when I got to George’s “Think for Yourself,” I ended up listening intently. Through the ghostlike presence of John Lennon, George Harrison left a calling card for all of us to ponder on the day that the leader of the Beatles had perished: “Do what you want to do/And go where you’re going to/Think for yourself/’Cause I won’t be there for you…”
“A-Rockin’ Good Way,” Dinah Washington and Brook Benton, 1960. Dinah and Brook were at the pinnacle of their musical careers when they recorded four songs together in 1960, which would serve as a harbinger for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell a few years later. “A Rockin ‘Good Way,” a Top-10-song in the US 60 years ago this week, this is nothing less than two members of the rhythm and blues royalty having an almost indescribably rollicking time cutting this pop standard together. In the end, this number is so evocative of the era that you can picture teenagers at the time dancing to this rollercoaster of a number.
“Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” Stevie Wonder, 1970. Stevie Wonder had just turned 20 when he composed, produced, supported, and sung this iconic anthem, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.” Not surprisingly, it spent six weeks atop the American R&B chart and garnered Wonder his first Grammy nomination. In the pantheon of tunes that Stevie has produced over the years, this flawless single would rank near the top. On July 22, 1970, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” was the number one song in all seven continents.
“Shining Star,” The Manhattans, 1980. One of the last terrific R&B pop group standards by the vastly underrated Manhattans, this silky-soft, sexy single conjures up memories so sweet and unforgettable for those of us who danced to it back then that you still check the floor after it is finished to make sure that you didn’t just melt through the floor. Originally from Jersey City, the Manhattans had a sustained musical career, with a bevy of Top 40 songs from 1964 to 1986.
“Let’s Have A Party,” Wanda Jackson, 1960. “The Girl Elvis” struck gold 60 years ago on July 31, 1960 with her iconic rockabilly hit, “Let’s Have A Party,” entered the Billboard Top 40. A favorite single of both Boston’s beloved deejay, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg and New York City’s “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, this rocker stalled at #37 nationally despite being a top-ten hit in the Northeast, thanks to these two regionally beloved radio announcers. Composed by veteran R&B songwriter, Jessie Mae Robinson,” who had previously written songs for Louis Jordan, Nina Simone, Charlie Brown, and Sarah Vaughn, the lyrics to “Let’s Have a Party” were of quintessential garage-band quality: “I’ve never kissed a bear, I’ve never kissed a goon/But I can shake a chicken in the middle of the room!” Given that the tune was initially recorded and performed by Elvis back in 1957 for his movie, Lovin’ You, it turned out to be poetic justice that “The Rockin’ Wanda,” whose tough-girl screech throughout “Let’s Have a Party” clearly “out-Elvised” The King, would enjoy her most substantial rock hit in 40 years of recording mostly country tunes. The late rock and roll critic, Lester Bangs, once commented that the next song featuring a woman “who had balls” after Jackson’s “Let’s Have A Party” was Grace Slick’s and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” seven summers later.
You’re No Good,” Linda Ronstadt and Band, Live in 1980. Happy 74th birthday to a national treasure and my old girlfriend (I wish). While Linda famously recorded this in 1974, her live performances of the Clint Ballard, Jr., rock standard, first written and recorded in 1963 by Betty Everett, was to die for in every way. As you will discover here if you watch this clip, there’s her power-pack vocals, for sure, but it is Danny Kortchmar who steals the song for a spell with an incredible guitar solo. When you have one of the greatest female kiss-off tunes ever with the incomparable Linda Ronstadt delivering it live – watch out. This will make your day. I promise.
“I’ll Never Smile Again,” Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, 1940. Sinatra’s first national hit with TD after leaving Harry James after a two-year stint, “I’ll Never Smile Again” also turned out to be “Old Blue Eyes’” first number one hit. As Sinatra said decades later, “I learned everything about phrasing from both Tommy Dorsey and Billie Holiday.” Anecdotally, when one of my former students, a doctor, visited a nursing home to check in on one of her patients, she observed a circle of old folks huddled in one of the conference rooms listening to the old songs. “When ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ was played to them,” she recalled, “there was not a dry eye in the place.” When the song ended, with tears streaming down their cheeks, one of the patients laughed, “I think the singer of this ballad just might go places!”
“G. I. Blues,” Elvis Presley, 1960. When The King returned to the US after his two-year stint as a GI in the US Army (1958-60) in West Germany, he quickly made a film, whose title song, “GI Blues,” recorded at the RCA Victor Studios in Hollywood with his old standbys, Bill Black, Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana, and The Jordanaires. It proved to be a Top Ten hit 50 years ago this month. When my older brother bought the LP, a certain nearly six-year-old named Shaun couldn’t get enough of it. And, of course, there were the words: “They give us a room/with a view of the beautiful Rhine/They give us a room with a view of the beautiful Rhine/Gimme a muddy old creek/in Texas any old time/I’ve got those/hup, two, three, four/occupation G.I. Blues/From my G.I. hair to the heels of my G.I. shoes/And if I don’t go stateside soon./I’m gonna blow my fuse…” Given that there was a sustained military draft in the United States from 1940 through the beginning of 1973, this song is a veritable cultural fossil in more ways than one. Interestingly, Bruce Springsteen wrote in his autobiography, Born to Run that “Born in the USA” was the counter-cross to “GI Blues.” Yup.
“Don’t Ask Me Why,” Billy Joel, 1980. Billy Joel at his most adventurous, “Don’t Ask Me Why” contains all acoustic and Latin percussion instruments performing in an Afro-Cuban rhythmic style. Within the context of the number, there is an eclectic, instrumental “Latin Ballroom” piano solo, played over the bridge section after the second verse. Billy later claimed that the mix for the midsection included, “15 pianos overdubbed on top of one another.” “Basically, I wanted to create the ultimate summer-sound-song that framed my childhood growing up in the late fifties and early sixties.” This single, which reached number one on the Billboard Top 100 forty years ago this August, did just that.
“Image of a Girl,” The Safaris, 1960. A song readymade for success, this single featured lead singer Jimmy Stephens lilting baritone, and the Safaris’ sterling backup vocals blared out from countless transistor radios on inummerable American beaches 60 years ago this summer. As one of my longtime friends said to me about “Image of a Girl,” “It’s the kind of ballad that just refuses to go away because it’s just too damned good.”
“I Want It That Way,” The Backstreet Boys,” 2000. Composed by Swedish music producers Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson, the words hardly make sense, which is logical because Martin and Carlsson barely spoke English at the time. Nevertheless, “I Want It That Way” dominated the airwaves 20 years ago this August and became one of those beach tunes, which ended up defining the season because of its cloy effervescence. As an active father of two children in 2000 who also loved the song, I had no problem listening to it despite its dopey lyrics simply because they loved all of its unexpected hooks and melodies. When I hear “I Want It That Way” these days, I am the Dad of a nine and six-year-old once again!
“Spill the Wine,” Eric Burdon and War, 1970. Before they renamed themselves War, the California-based soul group had backed up Los Angeles Rams immortal Deacon Jones, who yearned to be a soul-singer in the off-season. Veteran record producer Steve Gold got them together with the Animals former lead singer, Eric Burdon, who had just moved to California. Consequently, Eric Burden and War were subsequently conceived. The Latin-induced rhythms came from War; Burden, who had just composed an ode to women, merged his melody and vocals to suit the beat. “Spill the wine, take that girl/Spill the wine, take that pearl,” eventually became the oft-repeated chant for a generation. 50 years ago this August, “Spill the Wine” was the number 4 hit in both the US and Canada. It would deservedly remain a Top Ten hit throughout the rest of the summer of 1970.
“It’s An Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Brian Hyland, 1960. If you were listening to AM radio 60 years ago this August, it seemed that nearly every other song played on transistor radios beaches throughout the United States was Brian Hyland’s “It’s an Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Composed by veteran songwriter Paul Vance, this classic novelty tune was composed after Vance watched his 2-year-old daughter, Paula, at the beach in her new bikini. Kapp Records executives felt that the single would best be sung by a newly-signed 16-year-old high school sophomore named Brian Hyland. On August 15, 1960, “It’s An Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” hit number 1 on the US Top 40 and remained a Top 10 hit through October. A few years later, it became an annoying commercial jingle for Coppertone. “1, 2, 3, 4 – tell the people what she wore!”
“Emotional Rescue,” The Rolling Stones, 1980. Ah, this single has become such a dividing line single for Stones’ fans! The older R&B set detested it because it sounded as if the boys had given into disco, and then Mick was quoted as saying, ‘We were just doing dance club music, you know. It was just a dance music lick I was just playing on the keyboard. Charlie has a really nice groove for that.” And then, of course, there was Mick’s falsetto. Interestingly, Keith Richards loathed it so much that he kept it off “The Rolling Stones 50 Greatest Hits List,’ which the band concocted for their official website back in 2013. Given the fact that “Emotional Rescue” sold more than two million songs, that omission was decidedly intentional. 40 years ago this summer, you either loved it or hated “Emotional Rescue.”
“Mule Skinner Blues,” The Fendermen, 1960. Originally composed and recorded in the spring of 1930 by “The Singing Brakeman,” Jimmie Rodgers, this country classic became a signature tune for Bill Monroe a decade later. His energetic cry “Good Moooooorning, Captain!” opened the yodeling tune about a proud mule skinner trying to land a job. Fast-forward two decades later, and the tune would not only be updated by the rockabilly group, The Fendermen, but reinvented as a rock ‘n roll rebel song. Indeed, their uninhibited and unfettered cover of the old classic enabled them to achieve their only Top 5 hit 60 years ago this August. Of course, there’s enough energy in this version to launch a Redstone rocket into space. A shout-out to my big brother, Chris, who bought this 45 and turned me onto it as a five-year-old! At the time, our parents thought that the Fendermen’s version of “Mule Skinner Blues” was some kind of Soviet infiltration on America’s youth.
“Beads of Sweat,” Laura Nyro (with Duane Allman), 1970. From her vastly underrated LP, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, this under-the-radar number is utter brilliance, with Laura’s layers of vocals both mournful and lilting while Duane Allman’s jaw-dropping guitar work supports Nyro’s vocal and keyboard work like a well-constructed basement. I am left without words today hearing it as I was a half-century ago when it first came out.
“Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” Hank Williams, Sr., 1950. According to Hank Williams’ friend, songwriter Vic McAlpin: “We left early one early spring day in 1950 to drive out to the Tennessee River where it broadens into Kentucky Lake, but Hank had been unable to sleep on the trip, and was noodling around with the title of a song in his way throughout the entire drive. Already frustrated with Hank’s preoccupation, I called out to him, ‘You come here to fish or watch the fish swim by!’ Suddenly, Hank had the key that unlocked the song for him. ‘Hey!’ he said. ‘That’s the first line of the song!’ The follow-up to his initial number one song, “Lovesick Blues,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” would remain on the Billboard Country Top 40 for 21 weeks throughout much of the spring and summer of 1950. “Somewhere a hound dog is howling out of sadness.” Hank was not only a musical pioneer but a poet. This is for my longtime music buddies, Mike Shackelford and Kent Lindsey.
”Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1970. Yes, I know, Gladys sang it better, and the great Marvin Gaye personally owned it, but CCR’s version turned out to be savagely good as well. A featured single from their brilliant 1970 LP, Cosmos Factory, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” featured John Fogerty’s searing vocals, stellar guitar playing, and Doug Clifford’s pulsating percussion work. 50 ago today, August 27, 1970, the abridged version of this remarkable cover entered the US Billboard Top 40.
“The Warmth of the Sun,” The Beach Boys, 1964. Composed by a wistful Brian Wilson on the evening of November 22, 1963, the leader of the Beach Boys wanted to compose a song about theprofound shock that consumed everyone after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. (Martin Scorsese later called November 22, 1963…”a national car crash.”) “I ended up composing a song about endings but also about beginnings,” Brian Wilson admitted years later. (Interestingly, the other great pop song composed that day about Kennedy’s death, Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny,” took a decidedly different approach). The Beach Boys recording it in early 1964, with most fans then interpreted “The Warmth of the Sun” as an ode to the end of the summer months. “What good is the dawn/That grows into day?/The sunset at night/Or living this way/For I have the warmth of the sun/Within me at night.” For those of us who live in New England and face another fall and winter before spring comes around again, “The Warmth of the Sun” hits us a little harder than most people. For almost six decades, “The Warmth of the Sun” has remained one of my five favorite Brian Wilson compositions.
“Band of Gold,” Freda Payne, 1970. When Freda Payne recorded this ballad 50 years ago, Marvin Gaye almost did a double-take. He had just buried his singing partner and best friend, Tammi Terrell, and he swore to friends that “Tammi had recorded one last song” before she succumbed to a malignant brain tumor. Gaye soon discovered that it was Freda Payne, an arising singer who had just signed with the former Motown songwriting team of Holland, Dozier, and Holland. Composed by Motown legend Lamont Dozier, “Band of Gold” was a controversial release in 1970. As Dozier said years later, “It was about this guy that was basically gay, and he couldn’t perform. He loved her, but he couldn’t do what he was supposed to do as a groom, as her new husband.” Of course, is a truly great song, and it made Freda Payne a star.
“It’s Now or Never,” Elvis Presley, 1960. When The King was stationed as an Army private in Germany between 1958 and 1960, he heard the Italian standard, “O Sole Mio,” on the radio while on patrol. When Elvis was discharged, he asked RCA to compose an English translation for him, a task that went to composers Aaron Schroeder and Wally Gold. While Presley was a baritone, he amped it up and recorded it as a tenor. In an oft-repeated story connected to the singer, composer, and arranger, Barry White, when he first heard this song, he was in jail for stealing tires. Consequently, Barry was so inspired by Elvis’s recording that he vowed to go into the music business once he was released from prison. “That song opened the door to the rest of my life,” White said later on to Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus. For me, I recall hearing “It’s Now or Never” on the antique clock-radio in the kitchen of my grandfather’s cottage on Cape Cod as the summer ended before the start of Kindergarten. After al, music triggers a wellspring of memories, which often bring tears and smiles together as close as they can be.
“Into the Night,” Benny Mardones, 1980. How were we to know that this catchy single would encapsulate the kind of music that would come to define the1980s? From sketchy lyrics to melodic infectiousness to over-dramatic musical accompaniment to bad haircuts to an over-pretentious production, this is why hardly anyone ever thinks back on the decade as the good old days in music. To his enormous credit, however, “The Blue-eyed Souler” was able to hash out a 35-year career in the music business, and while he never had another substantial hit after “Into the Night,” he kept up performing through his 60’s. Sadly, on June 29, 2020, Benny Mardones died of Parkinson’s Disease. What a truly shitty year 2020 has been.
“Patches,” Clarence Carter, 1970. In the vein of the late O. C. Smith’s “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,” veteran soul artist Clarence Carter’s “Patches” was actually a cover of a Chairman of the Board soul single, which failed to make much of a mark earlier that year. Recorded at the famed Muscles Shoals Studio in Alabama under the direction of the multi-talented Rick Hall, Carter’s version was more up-tempo and strident, which made the juxtaposition of the story that much more noticeable. In the end, “Patches” won a Grammy for Best Rhythm and Blues Song for 1970. In every way, this is the quintessential, “woe is me” ballad.
“Across the River,” Bruce Hornsby and the Range, 1990. The last of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s Top 10 hits – he and his backup band scored 6 such singles between 1987 and 1990 – “Across the River” is typical Hornsby fare – searing lyrics, brilliant musicianship, and seamless production. As most Deadheads probably know, Jerry Garcia plays the lead guitar here, adding even more luster to an already faultless recording. 30 years ago this September, you could find such timeless songs sprinkled throughout the American Top 40.
“Volare,” Bobby Rydell, 1960. While Bobby ‘Rydell’s version of “Volare” was much more homogenized then Italy’s Domenico Modugno’s original two years previously, there also was more kick behind it, a nod to Rydell’s rock and roll roots. A prodigious cover hit throughout the late summer and early fall of 1960, everyone from Sinatra to Clooney to Martin recorded versions closer to Rydell’s version thereafter. As one acclaimed critic called Bobby Rydell, “plain white toast without anything on it,” and yet, his version of “Volare” was magnifico.
“Upside Down,” Diana Ross, 1980. Nils Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the bookends of the disco supergroup, Chic, wrote, performed, and produced this later-period Diana Ross classic, which proved to be the bestselling single of her post Supremes career. Nils’ guitar work here is impeccable as is the percussional backdrop provided by the rest of Chic. Miss Ross later complained that the funky instrumentation overshadowed her voice, but the general public obviously disagreed.
“Chain Gang,” Sam Cooke, 1960. Back in the spring of ‘59, while on tour through the American South, The King of Soul’s tour-bus passed by a chain gang on Highway 147 just outside of Reidsville, Georgia, very near the infamous Georgia State Prison. He was so moved by the image of the chained prisoners working alongside the highway that he ordered the driver to pull over. Sam Cooke then shook everyone’s hands and passed around a few extra cartons of cigarettes. This searing incident then became the catalyst of his worldwide hit a year later, “Chain Gang,” which was a Top Ten hit for the King of Soul throughout much of the late summer and early fall of 1960. “All day long they’re singin’/Hooh-aah! Hooh-aah!” Bassist extraordinaire Carol Kaye of the Wrecking Crew said that the band…“had a blast” backing up this incredibly original number. I bet!
“Wake Me Up When September Ends,” Green Day, 2000. The backstory of this tune is decidedly poignant: Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s father died of cancer on September 1, 1982. At Mr. Armstrong’s funeral, Billie cried, sprinted home, and locked himself in his room. When his mother subsequently knocked on the door to his bedroom, Billie bellowed, “Wake me up when September ends!” It doesn’t feel like a sorrowful song about hoping September comes and goes quickly. It should be a perfect autumn track, but it’s as melancholy and contemplative a tune as the very month in the title. Sadly, it also could be the theme to the year, 2020, as well.
“25 or 6 to 4,” Chicago Transit Authority, 1970. Robert Lamm, the longtime keyboard player of Chicago, was living in a broken down house in the Hollywood Hills when he woke up very early one morning in January 1970. As he recalled in Rolling Stone: “I wanted to try to describe the process of writing the song that I was writing. So, ‘waiting for the break of day, searching for something to say, flashing lights against the sky’ – there was a neon sign across the city. That song came from the fact that it was 25 or 6 to 4 a.m. when I looked at my watch – I was looking for a line to finish the chorus. “Of course, what evolved was one of the superband’s most revered songs ever – a galvanizing tune, which featured Chicago’s fabled horn section, trumpet player Lee Loughnane, sax player Walter Parazaider, and trombonist James Pankow. With Peter Cetera singing the lead, and lead guitarist Terry Kath’s groundbreaking use of a distorted, wah-driven guitar line, “25 or 6 to 4” ended up being the number 2 track of the third side on their most celebrated album ever, Chicago II.
“Stardust,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra,” 1940. Eighty years ago this week, Artie Shaw’s version of “Stardust” was the number one song in both the US and Canada. The immortal Hoagy Carmichael originally composed this standard after giving up his law career in 1927. According to lore, Carmichael came up with the song when he went for a stroll under the stars at his alma mater, Indiana University, and started thinking about his former Bloomington girlfriends. On this recording, “The best clarinetist who ever lived,” (according to Louis Armstrong) is nearly matched by the brilliance of trombonist Jack Jenny, who is a revelation throughout. One of the greatest twentieth-century recordings in any genre, this recording defines the word, sublime.
“The Letter,” Joe Cocker, 1970. It doesn’t seem possible that Joe recorded this incomparable live version of the Box Top’s original single 50 years ago this month as part of his legendary Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour. Not only is Leon Russell’s work on the keyboards seamless, but Joe’s vocals here are as good as anything he ever recorded. Salutations as well to Rita Coolidge, Donna Washburn, Claudia Lennear, Denny Cordell, Daniel Moore, whose choral work here has given me goosebumps for five-decades plus.
“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Leon Redbone, 1975. Another authentic classic from Leon Redbone’s best album, 1975’s On The Track, features his honking-gander voice juxtapositioned with some seamless guitar plucking and a bevy of ragtime strings, which create a melody that’ll make your foot tap and your mind swoon. For the most part, Mr. Redbone is faithful to the legendary 1929 Fats Waller original, although his added vocal accompaniment only makes the song more fetching to contemporary listeners. As Leon said in a 2012 interview, “I recorded this to remind the listener that he or she is never alone as far as music is concerned.” A year after his death, I still can’t believe that the great Leon Redbone is not with us anymore.
“Only the Lonely,” Roy Orbison, 1960. Originally, Roy composed this iconic single for his Sun Records pal, Elvis Presley, but Orbison’s demo was so good that Monument Records decided to press it. Recorded at Nashville’s RCA Recording Studio B, the legendary “Nashville A-Team” of session musicians – Floyd Cramer on piano, Buddy Harmen on drums, Chet Atkins on guitar, and producer Bob Moore on bass – accompanied Orbison on the recording. 60 years ago this fall, “Only the Lonely” went to number one on the Billboard Top 40. Wenty-seven years later, Roy would author a sequel to it, “Lonely No More” for the Travelling Wilburys. In 1975, Bruce Springsteen would immortalize the ballad to a new generation of rock fans in his magnum opus, “Thunder Road”: “The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves/Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays/Roy Orbison singing for the lonely/Hey, that’s me, and I want you only/Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again…”
“Working Class Hero,” 1970. Featuring old Kaiserkeller pal, Klauss Vormann on the bass guitar, and Ringo Starr on the drums, “Working Class Hero” has remained one of John Lennon’s most misconstrued songs. “It’s about the ride, the process, and nothing else,” he confided to George Harrison years later. A few days before his death, John recollected to journalist Jonathan Cott: “The thing about the ‘Working Class Hero’ song that nobody ever got right was that it was supposed to be sardonic – it had nothing to do with socialism, it had to do with ‘If you want to go through that trip, you’ll get up to where I am, and this is what you’ll be.’ Because I’ve been successful as an artist, and have been happy and unhappy, and I’ve also been unknown and ignored in Liverpool and Hamburg and been happy and unhappy.” In reality, this is about the fragile child who hid behind both sarcasm and art after his father deserted him at four. It’s about the wise-ass student who was put in the front seat by his teachers. It’s about a boy whose mother, Julia, couldn’t raise him because of her own issues. It’s about the death of his Mum – the victim of a drunken driver – and all the pain that caused him just as they were reigniting their relationship. It’s about a volcanic artist who couldn’t decide whether he’d be a painter or a musician. It’s about eating spam sandwiches in Hamburg because he couldn’t afford anything else at the time. It’s not about the seven years of fame that John Lennon had enjoyed the year he recorded it. It was about the 23 years that preceded it. 50 years after it was first recorded, “Working Class Hero” still burns to the touch. Happy 80th birthday, John.
“Once in a Lifetime,” The Talking Heads, 1980. David Byrne, who has long been attracted to “big themes” takes on a humongous one here – not being happy with the things you have. The budget for this iconic video was less than $10,000 – and other than the green screen and Byrne’s suit – it’s all about what’s behind the visuals. As Byrne stated years later: “We’re largely unconscious. You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, ‘How did I get here’?” Ah, the eternal question.
“(Her Name Was)” Joanne,” Michael Nesmith and the First National Band, 1970. Michael Nesmith of The Monkees fame, took an intentional break from “the boys” to produce a well-received debut solo album, which featured this haunting country classic that he both wrote and produced with his backup group, The First National Band. “Joanne” ended up charting the highest of his singles as a solo recording artist where it reached #21 on the US Billboard chart for the week of October 14, 1970. Later on that fall, it was the #1 hit in New Zealand, #4 in Canada, and #7 in Australia. The San Antonio, Texas native, who was raised on Hank Williams and the Carter Family before venturing into the rock ‘n roll world, displayed his C&W chops in a song that was one of the best singles of 1970. “Her name was Joanne, and she lived in a meadow by a pond/And she touched me for a moment/with a look that spoke to me of her sweet love.”
“Late in the Evening,” Paul Simon, 1980. When Paul Simon was a kid, he dreamed of being a rock and roller. Idolizing Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, he and his boyhood pal, Art Garfunkel, even had a 1957 national hit by the made-up, “Tom and Jerry,” entitled, “Hey Schoolgirl, which turned out to be a nod to both Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. 23 years later, Simon composed this dreamlike rocker in which the narrator is listening to the radio as he falls asleep, and the next then the singer knows, he’s dreaming about playing the lead guitar in a band. Simon composed this single for One-Trick Pony, a semi-autobiographical movie he wrote and starred in 40 years ago this fall. This is one of the few numbers in his incomparable musical career that Paul is packing some serious heat. Fortuitously, I saw him perform live in New Haven, Connecticut with Bob Dylan singing harmony and rhythm guitar back in the summer of 1999! Let’s say ol’ Bob sang the harmony on “The Sounds of Silence” very differently than Artie Garfunkel.
“Midnight Blue,” Laura Nyro, 1976. After a five year break following the release of Gonna Take a Miracle, Nyro returned in 1976 with Smile. On “Midnight Blue,” Laura used a smoky, jazzy groove as the centerpiece of an arrangement where her vocals were simultaneously tender and forceful. Lyrically, “Midnight Blue” offered some of Nyro’s most vivid imagery: There’s smoke in the kitchen, shrimps curled / The sun on black velvet and high stars / At the bottom of the world / Smile all you want / But you know that I’m fine in the warm hands of midnight blue. On what would have been her 73rd birthday, the late Laura Nyro sounds as fresh as ever.
“Something To Talk About,” Bonnie Raitt, 1991.The daughter of a Broadway legend, this folkie Radcliffe graduate who used to play for spare-change at the old Harvard Square T stop in front of the iconic Out of Town News, was a veteran rocker by the time she hit international superstardom at 41 years old. By then, Raitt’s country-rock sound, which featured her bluesy slide guitar breaks, had become her trademark. 30 years ago, Bonnie’s platinum-selling album Luck of the Draw, which won three Grammy Awards in 1991 included “Something to Talk About,” became an iconic number for her when it went to #1 worldwide. As Graeme Connors said later on: “Bonnie Raitt does something with a lyric no one else can do; she bends it and twists it right into your heart.”
“That’s How Strong My Love Is,” Candi Staton, 1970. This soul classic has been covered dozens of times, but no one, not Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, or Aretha Franklin ever did it better than Candi Staton. Originally nicknamed “The First Lady of Southern Soul,” Staton was signed by Clarence Carter and had minor hits with remakes of “In the Ghetto” and “Stand By Your Man.” Her pop/funk/soul album, “I’m Just a Prisoner,” released 50 years ago this fall, has become an often-played standard. Later on, of course, Staton had a number of disco hits, including “Young Hearts Run Free.” In the 1980s, she returned to her Southern Gospel roots and has won four Grammys for Christian Music over the years.
“A Thousand Stars,” Kathy Young and The Innocents, 1960. An early doo-wop classic by The Rivileers back in 1954, Kathy Young’s cover proved to be even more popular six years later when it reached the #3 position in the US Billboard Top 40 in late October 1960. Just 15-years-old when she recorded it, Young’s reverent version of “A Thousand Stars” soon became a sock-hop slow-dancing favorite both in the US and Canada. While she never had a hit that sold as many copies again, Kathy Young has performed regularly on the oldies’ circuit for years. Some say that Karen Carpenter based her entire career on what Miss Young was able to do in just this one song.
“Lately,” Stevie Wonder, 1980. From his underappreciated album, Hotter Than July, Stevie’s original ballad, “Lately,” was the fourth single released from the LP and barely made it to the US chart. However, the single is now generally perceived as the greatest love song ever composed by Wonder, an artist known for his astonishingly memorable ballads. Although his singing here is as good as he ever did on any number, it is the key changes here that break one’s heart every time. Like many of his releases back then, “Lately” was performed by Stevie playing multi-instruments while providing all of the vocals as well. The R&B group, Jodeci, came out with a stellar cover of the tune, which went to number #3 in the US 13 years after Wonder’s original was released.
“Election Year Rag,” Steve Goodman, 1972. This parodic gem was recorded and released 48 years ago this fall by one of the authentic musical geniuses of our time – the late great Steve Goodman. In retrospect, it is a nod to both Randy Newman and John Prine, two contemporaries who also deeply admired Goodman’s work. As you will hear, not one word of the comedic piece is irrelevant today. The morethingschange, themoretheystaythesame. Please, Dear God, let Joe Biden win this election!
“April in Paris,” Count Basie and his Orchestra, 1940. Composed by Vernon Duke with lyrics by Yip Harburg in 1932 for the Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster, this masterful jazz standard became Count Basie’s signature song after he recorded it eight years later. While everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Coleman Hawkins recorded it over the years, it was Count Basie’s swing version here that remains the meilleure version de la chanson. 80 years ago today, “April in Paris” was also the number one song in both the US and Canada. Many of you might fondly remember Count Basie’s remake of it in 1974’s Blazing Saddles! Count Basie’s “April in Paris” remains an absolute classic, which was deservedly inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985.
“Where Do the Children Play?” Cat Stevens, 1970. Cat opened his career-defining album in the US, Tea for the Tillerman, with this rundown of totally crummy things about the late ’60s and early ’70s – such as war, poverty, and environmental devastation. Yes, it might have been first recorded five decades ago, but the same things that plagued us then still consume us now. Thankfully, there are still a few troubadours to remind us that bullying never wins out. Some of you might also recall that “Where Do the Children Play?” received an added boost as part of the soundtrack to the hit cult movie, Harold and Maude.
“Woman,” John Lennon, 1980. According to Beatles biography Mark Lewisohn, when John Lennon sent Paul McCartney the copy of this ballad, he said to his old songwriting partner, “Here’s the sequel to ‘Girl.” Although Lennon produced a handful of extraordinary singles on his 1980 comeback album, Double Fantasy, “Woman” remains the most enduring of them all. Not surprisingly, it is the most Beatlesque-sounding single John ever produced in his ten-year solo career. In a Rolling Stone interview conducted three days before his death, Lennon commented: “‘Woman’ came about because on one sunny afternoon in Bermuda, it suddenly hit me what women do for us. Not just what my Yoko does for me, although I was thinking in those personal terms… but any truth is universal. What dawned on me was everything I was taking for granted. Women really are the other half of the sky, as I whisper at the beginning of the song. It’s a ‘we’ or it ain’t anything.”
“Goodbye, Saigon,” Billy Joel, 1982. In a 2014 interview with Howard Stern, Billy Joel recalled that a veterans’ group in Long Island originally asked him to compose a song honoring those who had served in Vietnam. Given that the singer-songwriter was a contemporary of scores of friends who were drafted and served in Southeast Asia, he yearned to get it right. “I wanted to do justice for my friends who did go to ‘Nam. A lot of them came back and really had a hard time getting over it, and still to this day, I think a lot of them are having a hard time readjusting to home life. They were never really welcomed back here, and whether you agreed with that war or not, these guys really took it on the chin. They went over there, and they served, and they never really got their due. ‘Goodnight Saigon,’ then, was all about them and depending on each other. When they were in Vietnam, they weren’t thinking about mom, apple pie, and the flag; they were doing it for each other – to try to help and save each other and protect each other.” Ultimately, this is one of the most emotionally wrenching songs that Billy Joel ever released – from the haunting sounds of a helicopter starting the ballad to his requiem-style piano work and potent vocals, to drummer Liberty DeVito’s machine-gun-like percussion work. And the simple yet terror-filled lyrics: “We had no homefront/We had no soft soap/We wanted Playboy/They sent us Bob Hope/We dug in deep/And shot on sight/And prayed to Jesus Christ/With all of our might.” On this Veterans’ Day, we remember such men who experienced such pathos with gratitude.
“I’m Your Puppet,” James and Bobby Purify, 1966. One of the best soul songs released in a year in which Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” dominated the airwaves, this classic R&B riff was one of the more conspicuous singles 54 years ago this November. While brothers James and Bobby Purify never hit much success thereafter, “I’m Your Puppet” deservedly brought them enough royalties to sustain them for a lifetime. Kudos to Muscle Shoals’ extraordinary producer, the underappreciated Dan Penn, whose soul-tinged handiwork is all over this timeless soul standard.
“More Than Words,” Extreme, 1990. A veritable throwback 20 years ago this month when it was a Top 5 hit, the simplicity and timelessness of “More Than Words” harkens back to the music of the Everly Brothers and, later on – Simon and Garfunkel. The ballad turned out to be a directional turn away from Extreme’s funk-metal-style, which had defined them previously. Nevertheless, the band ultimately embraced “More Than Words” and featured it at virtually every live show.
“Save the Last Dance for Me,” The Drifters, 1960. “Before the Drifters,” Bruce Springsteen once said famously, “the last dance was the one nobody ever stuck around for.” Ultimately, this elegant rhythm and blues single made the end of the party seem like heaven. Composed by the legendary Brill Building team of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman and subsequently produced by Leiber and Stoller, Ben E. King sang this single for the group he had fronted since 1958. Everyone from Leonard Cohen to Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen to Adele has sung the ballad in concert over the years. Not surprisingly given its pedigree, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” was the #1 song in the US 60 years ago during Thanksgiving Week.
“Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving,” The Vince Guaraldi Trio,” 1973. Vince Guaraldi, whose jazz work extended well beyond the Charlie Brown-soundtrack releases – his “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” remains a beloved jazz/pop standard – captures the bookends of both expectations and joy associated with Thanksgiving in 2:02 seconds. Happy Thanksgiving 2020, and may the smiles outflank any tears or frowns on this most cherished of days. God bless and keep you all at this turbulent time.
“You Can Never Go Home,” The Moody Blues, 1970. From their transcendent album, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, the Moodies once again seamlessly answer the bell in this unheralded but awesome single. There are two significant themes that the band addresses here. First, you really can never go home back once you’ve left. Oh sure, you could go physically although it would never be as it once was. Secondly, especially for those of us centered in New England, this sweet and sorrowful ballad reminds us all that the most exquisite of seasons, autumn, will lead into a Frostian white death until spring comes round once again. Count on it.
“You Talk Too Much,” Joe Jones, 1960. Composed by Fats Domino’s brother-in-law, Reginald Hall, Fats made a rare mistake and turned it down to record. Instead, it was veteran singer and producer Joe Jones who took the novelty song all the way to the #3 position in North America 60 years ago this December. Jones, who served in B. B. King’s band for years and would later produce the Dixie Cups of “Going’ to the Chapel,” never had another significant hit as a soloist. Still, ol’ Joe made a pile of money composing jingles for MacDonald’s and Wendy’s later on in his career. For those of us who remember this number, we regularly sang the refrain to any one of our classmates who, of course, talked too much!
“Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” Chicago Transit Authority, 1970. In this slightly extended version, which includes an extended piano introduction, the familiar refrain of horn section members Walter Parazaider, James Pankow, and Lee Loughnane, then chime in, which ultimately leads to one of the most infectious openings of any single in the rock era. “Does Anyone Really Know What Time It Is?” is also a very cerebral lyric, which asks the kind of existential question commonly on the lips of the Generation of Woodstock. Robert Lamm wrote the number and sang the lead after an usher in a Brooklyn movie theatre asked the question to him one day at a matinee. This was Chicago’s first studio effort as a full-fledged band. Not a bad way to begin what would become a prodigious recording career!
“Here Today,” Paul McCartney, 1982. As I write this review on the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination, I recall John’s assertation that he professed to Jonathan Cott not long before he died. “I’ve only really been married to two people in my life,” John told the journalist on December 6, 1980, “Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney.” It took Paul two years to compose a tribute to his Beatle co-leader, but when he did, it proved to be one of his emotive original songs that he’s ever written. “Here Today,” from his highly acclaimed album, Tug of War, was perhaps the most talked-about single of the 1980s. As he told GQ later on: We had a great relationship and like any family, there are always arguments, there are still disputes, but in the end, we loved each other, and I wanted to write a song where I actually said, “I love you,” to John, so that was ‘Here Today.” Of course, I’m talking to John in my head in the song. It’s a conversation we didn’t have. It’s quite emotional because it came from a real feeling about him, and I wanted to correct the record in my mind as much as in anyone else’s mind. There were some photos from that period which were really beautiful, and there’s just him and me working and you could see we loved each other. So, once all these rumors go about, you almost buy into them yourself. So that song helped me set the record straight.” Sir Paul never wrote more searing lyrics than when he concluded the single with these words: “And if I say I really loved you/And was glad you came along/And you were here today/For you were in my song.” So that nobody might misconstrue the meaning of “Here Today,” Paul dedicated it to the memory of the incomparable John Lennon.
“Green-Eyed Lady,” Sugarloaf, 1970. First and foremost, who was that green-eyed lady? According to Sugarloaf’s lead singer and keyboardist Jerry Corbetta, it was his girlfriend at the time, Kathy Ann Webster, who his bandmates referred to as the green-eyed lady. Sugarloaf, who many believed at the time hailed from Maine, thanks to the longtime popular ski resort, were actually from Denver. While the band had another Top 5 hit in 1975 with their “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You,” this bluesy classic, with a memorable bass line, searing vocals, prodigious keyboard solo, and a distinguished title, combined to give the band almost legendary status based on one song. Haven’t we all had some form of a green-eyed lady with honey-colored hair as the receptor of our dreams sometime in the distant past?
“Look What You’ve Done to Me,” Boz Scaggs. 1980. Composed by David Foster, who also composed “After the Love is Gone,” “The Best of Me,” and “Glory of Love,” only Boz Scaggs could sing this timeless ballad so resolutely and strong. As I have gotten older, I have come to realize that the worst part of being old is remembering when we were young. “Look What You’ve Done to Me” is that kind of WunderSong. A top ten hit 40 years ago this December, this was just one more single, which Boz recorded that featured his silky voice nailing a love song in the lower register.
“Sleigh Ride” by the Ronettes, 1963. A featured single from Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You,” Sleigh Ride” is part of a compilation of arguably some of the best studio sessions in music history. Recorded over just a few weeks in 1963 in Los Angeles, the album had the misfortune of being released on the very same day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, which then directly affected album sales that year. Thankfully, it was later re-released in 1972 by Apple Records (yes, THAT Apple Records) and started to garner the attention it deserved. Incredibly, Rolling Stone recently ranked it as the 142nd greatest album of all-time regardless of genre. Director Martin Scorsese utilized vast chunks of this album to astonishing effect for different scenes in one of the greatest films of the last 30 years, Goodfellas. The Ronettes’ version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” first made famous by the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1943 is to die for. Ringalingaringaringadimdomring!
“I Want to Come Home for Christmas,” Marvin Gaye, 1972. Written and recorded by Marvin in 1972, just seven months after he released his LP masterwork, What’s Goin’ On, the musical legend ends up producing one of the truly great Christmas soul ballads ever recorded. The premise for the tune came to songwriter Forest Hairston after he saw people tying yellow ribbons for American troops who were prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. When he mentioned it to Gaye, Marvin changed the melody and lyrics, added a more appropriate bridge, and recorded it in one session at the Motown Recording Studio, Hitsville West, in LA. At even a first-listen, it is obvious that Marvin Gaye’s profound empathy for others came before his own struggles. How we need his voice and sagacity today.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” James Taylor, 2002. When I heard this for the first time 18 years ago, it literally stopped me in my tracks. James had taken one of my favorite standards and claimed it for himself. In my little world, it became the father to the mother to the grandmother (Karen Carpenter and Judy Garland) of all versions of a timeless, beloved ballad. Merry Christmas to you, my friends, students, and classmates, may you have the very best of Christmases!
“Hey Nineteen,” Steely Dan, 1980. Ah, to bragabout some frat exploits and then try to set the mood with some Aretha, only to find that his companion doesn’t “remember the Queen of Soul!” God help us all! The ultimate yacht-rock refrain, “Hey Nineteen” from the underrated album, Gaucho, was pure satire and was also Steely Dan at its finest.
“New Orleans,” Gary “U.S.” Bonds, 1960. Because Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ “New Orleans” became famous simultaneously when Chubby Checker released, “The Twist,” one could certainly argue that such pulsating singles such as this one and “Quarter to Three” were as responsible for the dance craze that hit America 60 years ago this winter as old Chubby’s singles were. The Norfolk Sound, as Bonds’ music was called at the time (as in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was based), enabled him to achieve five Top 20 hits through 1963. After dabbling in R&B and country-western, Gary Bonds made a well-publicized return to his rock roots in 1981 collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, and the E Street Band, when he recorded the Boss’s “This Little Girl” and “Out of Work,” which both turned out to be Top 20 hits 21 years after Gary first hit paydirt. The bottom line – Gary Bonds’ “New Orleans” is one of the great rockers of 1960!
“All Right Now,” Free, 1970. While “All Right Now” was released in the spring of 1970, once Free performed it live for the first time at the legendary Isle of Wight Concert on August 31, 1970, the hyperkinetic dynamism that frames the song caught on with both the audience and music executives alike. At the time, however, I imagined that AAll Right Now” echoed throughout the hallways of my high school, where it spilled onto the streets, spread across the state, captured the US, and then took on the world. At least that’s the way I thought back then. May 2021 be the breath of fresh air we all need. Take it easy and ride to the end of the line.
The idea came to Sam Cooke on the evening of April 12, 1962, when he appeared at Atlanta’s Rhythm Rink while on an extended Henry Wynn Supersonic Tour of the South. The King of Soul was headlining a lineup that included blues legend Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Dee Clark, B. B. King, and Dion DiMucci (of Dion and the Belmonts’ fame).
At that time, racial tensions were percolating just as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Thus, a “mixed-race tour” in the Old Confederacy was generating a wellspring of controversy. As Cooke’s biographer, Peter Guralnick, remembered: “Sam was the soothing influence who kept that tour together. ‘He was a kind of champion for… cooling everybody out,’ said Dion DiMucci, and, as on the earlier tour, some of Dion’s most treasured memories were of singing with Sam backstage—” he was always so full of music.'”
According to Sam Cooke’s friends, the notion for the song had been stirring around in the singer/songwriter’s mind for weeks. The idea’s inspiration had actually sprung from Charles Brown’s 1959 R&B single, “I Want to Go Home,” a standard 12-bars blues number ladened with traditional call-response that had also been sautéed in a barrel full of soul.
Cooke, who had been a gospel music prodigy before he was 18, had spent much of the preceding ten years on the road, though he now made Los Angeles his base. For someone who was a Chicagoan for more than half of his life, home had become not a physical place for Sam – but it was “about the people you left behind.” This was especially evident to him because he had lived his musical career out of a suitcase.
As Sam Cooke rode in a rented limousine to the concert that evening in Georgia’s capitol city, it all came together for him. He yearned to write a gospel-tinged blues song, featuring call-response in the form of a “backside” duet – a lead-singer in concert with a strong vocal response. Of course, this wasn’t some new form of music for him. Instead, Cooke instinctively yearned to compose the same style of music when he had joined gospel’s legendary Soul Stirrers beginning in 1949 before he had finally crossed over to the dominion of rock-pop with 1957’s “You Send Me.”
While the white public hardly knew of Sam Cooke during his halcyon years as a gospel icon, he had already achieved mythical status to millions of African-Americans around the country while he was the leader of the Soul Stirrers. In 2016, Aretha Franklin recalled Cooke’s magnetism as a gospel star:
“Sam and I met at a Sunday evening program that we had at our church back in the early ’50’s. I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder, and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle. And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them — Sam – and his younger brother, L.C. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive, not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so prior to the program, my soul was kind of being stirred in another way. And then, Sam sang, and he left everything, everything out on the stage. He was the most beautiful man I ever saw.”
Sam Cooke’s live performances as a gospel lead-singer became so renowned that he was compared in real-time to Frank Sinatra in terms of influence, magnetism, and sheer luminosity. Thus, when he eventually entered the world of pop and soul, his loyal gospel fans viewed him as a Judas. However, once he began churning out such original standards as “Wonderful World,” “Chain Gang,” “(She Was) Only Sixteen,” Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” “Sad Mood Tonight,” “Cupid,” Twistin’ The Night Away,” and “Feel It,” all was eventually forgiven.
Thus, when he alighted from the limousine that night in Atlanta and rushed for the stage, Sam couldn’t shake this “back home idea” as he called it. Cooke knew that he had to compose and record it quickly. After the concert that evening, he composed much of it in his downtown Atlanta hotel room. Like the vast majority of the numbers he wrote, the refrain section of the song came to him first: “Bring it to me, bring your sweet lovin’, bring it on home to me.”
Once he completed the number, Sam felt that it had a bluesy, almost hypnotic feel, which so excited him that he sang it to performer Dee Clark, whose single, “Raindrops,” had been a significant hit the previous summer. Clark wasn’t impressed at first, but Cooke felt he had something, so he then called his producer back in California, Luigi Creatore, who immediately loved the concept. Sam kept emphasizing that he wanted to sing and record it in the vein of his old Soul Stirrers gospel hits, and Creatore readily agreed.
Given that the singer/songwriter had already composed a ready-made single, “(We’re) Having a Party,” Cooke and his producer thought that the now-titled,“Bring It Home To Me” would fit nicely as its B-Side.
By the time Sam made it back to Los Angeles from his Southern tour ten days later, the number was ready for recording. On April 26, 1962, Cooke entered RCA’s Recording Studio Number 1 in Hollywood, anxious to record both “Having a Party” and “Bring It Home To Me.” Awaiting him were the customary Wrecking Crew musicians, including Tommy Tedesco on lead guitar, Adolphus Alsbrook on the bass, Ernie Freeman on the keyboards, and a bevy of acclaimed string players who had long backed up Sinatra on such hit albums as In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely.
The assemblage of musicians began the session with Sam’s “(We’re) Having a Party,” the designated “A-Side,” which was the musical stepchild of his smash hit, “Everybody Loves To Cha Cha Cha.” Cooke’s longtime arranger, René Hall. had not only transposed both numbers to be accompanied by six violins, two violas, two cellos, and a saxophone, but he had added a seven-piece rhythm section to the mix as well. “We wanted musical power to match Sam’s vocal potency,” Hall remembered years later.
That night, Cooke was joined by the Sims Twins, a novice vocal group he had signed with his newly-formed SAR Records the previous year. At the last minute, Sam also asked one of his childhood friends from Chicago, Lou Rawls – whose plush bass-baritone voice had been in constant demand in recording sessions around LA since he moved to the West Coast in 1959 – to sit in on the session as well. “We might need you, Lou,” he winked to his longtime friend as he entered the studio.
After pushing through the infectious “Having a Party,” which took 13 takes to “make right,” Cooke huddled up with René Hall to continue the good vibes and momentum after they recorded, “Party,” with “Bring It Home To Me.” He told his former producer, Lou Adler, later on, “We were after the Soul Stirrers-type thing, trying to create that flavor in a classic rhythm and blues recording.”
“Let’s get to it! “Sam exclaimed to the musical entourage assembled at the studio . In just two takes, that’s exactly what they did. Cooke reflected later that it was probably because he yearned for a “live feel” to the ballad. “I wanted it to feel just like a Soul Stirrers’ performance on stage.”
Sam and his production team encouraged renowned pianist and bandleader Ernie Freeman to provide the number’s “intro” with a blues riff that would instantly capture the attention of any listener. After fiddling around on his keyboard for a spell, Freeman crafted a hypnotic, primal introduction that ultimately became a chilling calling card to Sam’s distinctive tenor. Freeman’s bluesy keyboard riff was then supported by the counter-punching percussion chops of Frank Capp, a veteran Wrecking Crew drummer. This pulsating ostinato proved to be an electrifying prologue to one of Sam Cooke’s two or three most revered vocal performances of his storied career.
“If you ever-er change your mi-ind
About leavin’, leavin’ me behi-ind
Oh-oh, bring it to me
Bring your sweet lovin’
Bring it on home to me-ee…”
Just four bars into it, you knew it was Sam Cooke. While he earned the moniker, “The King of Soul” after his untimely death in 1964, even then, in the spring of ’62, you could have predicted that such a dominating vocal performer paved the way for a thousand branches. Like the chiseled knife that can cut your soul in two, the singer’s vocals throughout the ballad are wrapped in a cornucopia of both fidelity and pain.
To put the finishing touches on the gospel-like feel, Lou Rawls not only sings harmony with Sam, but he then bestows a series of muscular call-response “yeahs” throughout the recording as well. In the end, Rawls’ heady vocal conviction and entusiasmo are such that he nearly hijacked the tune from Cooke in the process.
Once the last note was played in LA’s RCA Recording Studio Number One, everyone involved knew even then that they had cut something special. It had taken them only two takes to get it right. This was not Sam Cooke, pop star to a largely white audience. This was Sam Cooke, master of both gospel and soul. As Peter Guralnick remarked in his exceptional biography on Sam Cooke: “What comes through in ‘Bring It Back Home To Me’ is a rare moment of undisguised emotion, an unambiguous embrace not just of a cultural heritage but of an adult experience far removed from white teenage fantasy. There was nothing to add or subtract.”
Arranger René Hall recalled years later. “There was minimal post-production that went into that song. We took it out of the oven, and it was ready for wax.” In the end, it had taken less than 30 minutes of studio time to craft a definitive soul ballad sung by two of the greatest R&B performers of all time, even as it was superbly backed up by LA’s celebrated Wrecking Crew. Of course, enduring artistry is never an accident.
Released along with “Having A Party” on May 21, 1962 by RCA Victor, “Bring It Back Home To Me” was “discovered” by a legion of deejays who methodically played Cooke’s “B-Sides” in case there was something there.
By the early summer of ’62, “Bring It Back Home To Me” began to enter national top-ten lists, reaching as high as #2 on the R&B list and #13 on the pop charts. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was an avowed Sam Cooke fan, cried, “My goodness, what a sound!” to his friend, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, when the two civil rights leaders drove to a conference outside of Atlanta one afternoon that summer and heard it on the radio.
Over the years, “Bring It Back Home To Me” was famously covered by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney during their post-Beatles solo careers. It also found favor in both the recording studio and/or onstage with the likes of James Brown, The Animals, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, UB40, Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and the Ashbury Jukes, Al Jarreau, Goerge Benson, and U-2. While Sam Cooke was tragically murdered less than three years after this seminal recording, “Bring It Home To Me” is still so revered by musicians that Tom Petty called it, “sacred,” when he chatted about its timelessness on his Sirius Radio show back in 2016.
In retrospect, gospel drove Sam Cooke through his most celebrated songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. Like the legendary Nat Cole, Cooke had an incomparable voice that is as distinctive as a fingerprint. In retrospect, Sam could sing anything and make it work. As the late Lester Bangs once famously wrote in Crawdaddy, “It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing, which made him immortal.”
Of course, Sam Cooke could have sung out the names of the street signs in his hometown of Chicago, and it would have sounded great.
It all started because of a word that has often been used in countless threads on the popular Boston Red Sox message board, “The Sons of Sam Horn,” over the years.
Mojo, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is a noun with an intriguing denotation: “A magical power or supernatural spell.”
After the last out of Game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, nearly every member of SoSH – some 1900 strong at the time – had called upon whatever mojo they could muster to help their Sox stave off the shackles of elimination against their arch-rivals, the New York Yankees who, at the time, had a seemingly insurmountable three games to nothing lead and had just humiliated the Red Sox at Boston’s Fenway Park, 19-8.
From the inclusion of the complete text of Act IV, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”) to the publication of a series of montages depicting heroic players from Boston’s sports past, nearly every poster had beseeched the sporting gods on behalf of their beloved baseball team.
As a Red Sox fan who had followed the team on a pitch-by-pitch basis since 1963, I had experienced enough pathos to turn me into the ultimate oxymoron – a raging existentialist. In my forty years of following the team, I had seen them come perilously close to winning the final prize, only to see them stumble, often in inexplicable, even comical circumstances. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox had not won a World Series since the year President Woodrow Wilson had proposed the Fourteen Point Plan. Thus, there were more than three generations who never knew what it was like for the organization to be the sport’s best. Still, as the 2004 playoffs unfolded, I, like countless other Sox fans, didn’t allow myself to wallow in abject misery this time.
The next morning, I appeared on a local New York radio station and proclaimed: “Listen, folks, there has never been a curse that began with the trading of Babe Ruth from the Sox to the Yankees. The only reason we haven’t won it previously is that we’ve always lacked the pitching needed to win. This year, we have the pitching. If we can somehow win Game 4 of this series, the Yankees will be in trouble. We CAN win these next four games. You watch.”
William Jennings Bryan once wrote, “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” I wore a Red Sox baseball cap to work each day that week.
Miraculously, the Red Sox won the next three games, two of them in extra innings, to tie up the series.
Accordingly, at 11:25 am on the morning of October 20, 2004, I sat down at my teacher’s desk in Room 7 of the Upper School at The Greenwich (CT) Country Day School and began pounding away on my then Dell laptop keyboard, crafting my own particular mojo that – I hoped – would ultimately defeat the despised Yankees.
I called the thread, “Win it For.”
“Win it for Johnny Pesky, who deserves to wear a Red Sox uniform in the dugout during the 2004 World Series, I began. “Win it for the old Red Sox captain Bobby Doerr, who, through the sadness of losing his beloved wife, Monica, would love nothing more than to see his Sox finally defeat New York in Yankee Stadium. Win it for Dom DiMaggio, the most loyal and devoted of men. If he hadn’t gotten hurt in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, Enos Slaughter never would have scored – and the Red Sox would have been the champions.”
I then urged my SoSH compatriots to win it for other Red Sox icons and personal favorites – Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, Tony Conigliaro, Jack Lamabe, Luis Tiant, Dewey Evans. For Red Sox announcers who had helped hone our love for the team before they had passed on – Ned Martin, Ken Coleman, Jim Woods, Sherm Feller.
I encouraged them to win it for our cherished Red Sox friends, and for other SoSH members who had devotedly followed the fortunes of the franchise, each of them marking their own time with each passing season.
And finally, most of all, I urged them to win it for my father, James Lawrence Kelly, 1913-1986, who “always told me that loyalty and perseverance go hand in hand. Thanks, Dad, for sharing the best part of you with me.”
As I looked over my copy on the SoSH website, I realized that there may be a few others who’d want to dedicate a possible championship to those individuals in their own lives who had loved the Red Sox through thick and thin.
I was right.
In the end, the original thread would contain hundreds of tributes from the populace of Red Sox Nation. Ultimately, 51,000 entries were submitted by posters and lurkers from 47 different states, 39 foreign countries, and six continents. By the time the “Win it For” thread was purposely shut down eight days after it began, each poster had added something unique to what became an utterly compelling Red Sox mosaic. Later that winter, it would be converted into a bestselling book with the proceeds going to both the Jimmy Fund and Curt Schilling’s “Pitch for ALS.”
In an ESPN column paying tribute to the thread, Bill Simmons, deftly crystallized the uniqueness of it that week: “Plow through the ‘Win it For’ posts and it’s like plowing through the history of the franchise – just about every memorable player is mentioned at some point – as well as the basic themes that encompass the human experience. Life and death. Love and family. Friendship and loss.”
What made the thread were the assorted posts that poured out of the hearts of Red Sox fans across the globe and reminded us all that the bonds we had created around the team had never died.
“Win it for my grandfather (1917-2004), who never got to see the Red Sox win it all – but always believed. And for my Dad who watches each and every game wishing his dad were there to watch it with him.”
“Win it for my mother who died of ALS in 1999. The only personal item I have left of hers is her Red Sox visor.”
“Win it for my ten-year-old son, Charlie, who fell asleep listening to Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS assuming the Sox would win. When he woke up the next morning, he asked me eagerly, ‘Did we win, Dad?’ When I told him, gently no, we did not win, his anguished moan startled me. I knew I had raised him as a Red Sox fan, and I began to question whether that was a good thing.”
“Win it for my grandfather, who succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease in 2002. In one of my last conversations with him, he asked me how Ted Williams was doing. During Game 7 on October 20 against the Yankees, his birthday, he was smiling down on the Red Sox.”
“Win it for the elderly Sox fan that I hugged at Yankee Stadium last Wednesday night after Game 7 of the ALCS. Seeing the look of relief and jubilation on his face was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever been through. Yes, baseball has the power to unite generations of strangers.”
“Win it for my Little League coach, Ralph Retera, a tough man who landed on Omaha Beach, and yet a tender man as well who always gave on extra pat on the back of those of us who frankly weren’t very good. ‘Baseball is a game of failure, boys,’ he’d say, ‘look at the Red Sox. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give it our best!’ Coach Ralph used to wear a grungy Red Sox cap that he bought in the 1950’s and would take us to games at Fenway when we played for him. When he died in 1988, Coach Ralph’s tattered Bosox hat adorned the top of his flag-draped casket.”
“Win it for my boss, a dear friend, who lost his dad unexpectedly in March of this year. More than once this season, I’ve seen him glance at the phone after a game, half expecting his father to commiserate, rejoice, or just shoot the breeze about the game that just ended. I’ve seen the sadness in his eyes as he realizes that the call isn’t coming. Win it for his dad, a lifelong fan who never had the opportunity to witness his beloved team taking it all.”
“Win it for my buddy, Brian Kelly, who worshiped at the feet of Tony Conigliaro growing up. He even used to copy Tony C’s swing and was devastated when Jack Hamilton almost killed him. Brian’s favorite time as a Red Sox fan was that magical summer and early fall of 1967, two years before he went off to Vietnam. If the Sox win this whole thing, I plan to go on down to the Vietnam Memorial Wall where you can find Brian’s name. God, he would have loved this team.”
“Win it for my aunt, God rest her soul, who, at her funeral, the priest said, ‘She was a woman of great faith. She believed that she’d see a Red Sox championship in her lifetime.”
Within 48 hours of the inception of “Win it For,” political columnist, Andrew Sullivan linked it on his highly popular political blog. Newspaper reporters from Kansas City to Tampa, San Francisco to Baltimore began to write comprehensive pieces on the thread. Before Game 1 of the World Series, the gang on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight began to refer to the magic of “Win it For” as “the Red Sox’ secret weapon.” Radio commentaries on the thread surfaced in Dallas, New York, Los Angeles, Albany, Seattle, and Atlanta. The thread itself garnered more than fifteen-million Internet hits.
On the evening of October 28, 2004, the day after the Red Sox had swept the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-0, to win their first World Series in 86 years, Peter Jennings ended his nationally televised ABC News Tonight broadcast with a piece that paid tribute “to the power of an emotive Internet thread and its eloquent posters, followers of a championship team that came to define the word – hope.”
Six weeks after the season ended, author Leigh Montville dedicated 33 pages to “Win it For” in his narrative on the 2004 Red Sox, Why Not Us? He entitled Chapter 7 of his book, “The Story of the Amazing Thread.” In an interview after the publication of his remembrance of a remarkable season, Montville maintained that…“at the very least, one-hundred years from now, ‘Win it For’ will be THE historical record of what happened here. The other works – mine included – will have faded away, but the ‘Win it For’ thread on the Sons of Sam Horn website will remain as the voice of all voices concerning the 2004 Boston Red Sox.”
What made the thread so unique were the individual anecdotes that connected generations of fans together. In page after page, the singular stories of Red Sox fans formed bookends to the notions of both loyalty and passion:
TrapperAB: “Just like last year, there will be an empty spot on the couch as I watch Game 7 of the ALCS tonight. Dad cheered for the Sox from the age of eight in 1930. He went to games at Fenway with his father and told me about it when he took me to the most glorious stadium on God’s green earth. My father passed away in 2001, which means, of course, that he never saw the Sox win one in his lifetime. One of his final moments of clarity was seeing Rivera blowing a save and the D-Back’s winning the World Series that year. That was also his last smile. I believe that my father has been busy lately, along with a lot of other fathers and grandfathers and brothers and sons – helping umpires see the truth and helping David Ortiz lead the way. That hand that Curt Schilling talked about last evening after Game 6? It was the legion of dearly departed Red Sox fans – of which my father was one. Once again this year, there will be that empty spot on the couch…reserved for my Dad. I can only hope that he’s sitting there with me.”
Monbo Jumbo: “Shaun – add my old man to your list (1909 – 2000). He saw Ruth pitch, and he saw Pedro pitch. And now, he’s upstairs playing gin rummy with Joe Cronin between games.”
Sooner Steve: “Win it for my old man, who taught me how to love the game and this team; who taught me what it means to be a man; who, even in his darkest hours facing the end, still wanted to talk about his team; who never saw them win it in his lifetime, but who loved every minute of the Impossible Dream to Morgan’s Magic; who worshiped ‘The Splendid Splinter’ and extolled the virtues of Yaz. Win it for me so I can pay a visit to Dad’s grave and toast that title we always dreamed about. Here’s to you, Pops – in loving memory…DW Gibbs (1936-1993).”
Norm Siebern: “Win it for my Granpa Harvey (1974) who would rise up from his seat along the right-field line in the grandstand and defend Scotty from the boo birds, even if Boomer was only hitting .170 in 1968. Win it for that seven-year-old kid who fell in love with a game and a team that long ago magical summer of 1967. And for that eighteen-year-old young man who sat in the left-field grandstands and watched a little popup hit by Bucky “Bleeping” Dent nestle into the screen on October 2, 1978.”
Ramon’sBrother: “Win it for a certain nineteen-year-old who cried himself to sleep in the early morning hours of October 17, 2003.”
An unknown lurker: “Some morning next week, in the hours just before dawn, the cemeteries all over New England will be filled with middle-aged men, standing by ancestral graves marked – whatever the headstone – with the same bronze veterans’ plaques at the foot – First Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, PFC, served some range of years beginning with high school graduation and ending with the year, 1945. We will be reading aloud from tear-stained newspapers, sharing our first too-early libation of the day. (A Gansett? A Ballantine Ale?) We will be drinking to Cabrera’s defense; Foulke’s grit; Damon’s grace; Ortiz’s incredible sense of timing. MAYBE we will even have a reason to toast Manny. We will be waving the bloody sock – thanking God and Theo Epstein for sending us Curt Schilling, on whom all our hopes rested, and did not die in vain. Remembering all those who came so close but did not get there, like Yaz and Boomer and Rico and Hawk and El Tiante and Dewey and Jim Ed, even Nomar. Remembering all those who did not live to see us get there, like Ted and Tony C and my Granpa Dan. The clock will be unwinding; the pages will be flying off the calendar; the earth will tilt slightly on its axis. I will be there. My brothers will be there. Get there early. It’s going to be crowded.”
Tedsondeck: “Win it for my brother, Johnny, who left Boston in 1944 for the South Pacific, a Red Sox hat planted firmly on his head. He was a nineteen-year-old kid who loved three things – the Red Sox, Fenway Park, and Ted Williams. He lost his life in a hellhole called Okinawa. There hasn’t been a single day that hasn’t gone by when I don’t think of him. This one’s for you, JB.”
SFGiantsFan: “Win it for the people of Red Sox Nation. You people are the legacy of what this great game is all about – or should be about…the love and support of your team through good times and bad. People like you, and teams like this one, have brought me back to baseball after the shame of 1994. Thank you all. You truly deserve this.”
PUDGEcanCATCH: “Win it for my brother, who worked on the 94th floor of the North Tower, and who died on September 11, 2001. He used to look out the window and stick his tongue out in the direction of the Bronx. Above his desk, he had a framed picture of Fenway with two baseball cards scotch-taped to the bottom, Reggie Smith and Pudge Fisk, his two favorite Red Sox players growing up. Many times when he worked, he would proudly wear his Sox hat. After the plane hit his building, I have a strong hunch that he then put his Sox hat on for the last time.”
BasesDrunk: “My mother-in-law was as diehard a Red Sox fan as they come. She died of cancer in February 2003. My wife was born on October 7, 1967, literally in the middle of Game 3 of the World Series against the Cardinals. Her mother kept asking the nurses for updates while in labor. No doubt she now wants revenge for St. Louis ruining an otherwise perfect day.”
Lurker OregonSoxFan: “Win it for my dad who passed away on 10/20/93. When I was a seven-year-old boy, he introduced me to – and shared – the Impossible Dream, which was where my love for this awesome team began. Last night, I watched the greatest Sox victory (so far this year) with his eight-year-old grandson, Jeremiah, who, in turn, is catching the fever. We talked about Dad and all that he taught me about the game. Mom called after the game, and we shared tears of joy, and a tear of grief.”
BoSox Lifer: Win it for that little boy who was sitting with his dad and his uncle at Game 7 at Yankee Stadium last October. With him crying as the game ended, I leaned over, and holding back my own tears, I told him with as much conviction as I could muster to cheer up because next year we were going to win it all. Somewhere I know – that little boy is smiling today…”
Curtis Pride: “I want the Red Sox to win it for my mother. She became a fan in 1967 and has followed them faithfully via radio to this very day.”
“I was born deaf, so growing up was difficult for me. But then I discovered the Red Sox in 1977, and my parents took me to Fenway that summer, which made me a Sox fan for life. And since then, I would sit with my mother by the radio while she listens to the Sox and relayed the events to me as they unfolded.”
“We still discuss the Red Sox today, but I want them to win so that she can experience that sweet taste of victory that has been denied her for so long. I know how it feels to finally overcome an enormous obstacle, and I want her to feel that as well.”
Cheekydave: Win it for my father, who had a love for numbers and baseball and passed it on to me; it was the only way we could communicate. But it was always a safe haven, and at least there was ONE way to communicate between us. He died last year on his birthday, October 20th, one year to the day that the Red Sox beat the Yankees! Also, win it for my mother, who died when I was nine on October 2, 1967, the day after the Red Sox won the pennant, and the day I became both a Red Sox fan and also a single parented child.”
A lurker from Australia: “Win it for all of you New Englanders who deserve at least one warm winter.”
“I became a Red Sox fan when I first read Roger Angell’s account of the Impossible Dream team; I became an official citizen of Red Sox Nation when I walked into Fenway on a dreary night in 1985.”
“I ended up living in Boston until 1993 when I returned to Australia. October is the spring down here, but not a baseball season has passed by without me thinking of you hardy New Englanders preparing for a winter that most of my countrymen couldn’t even comprehend; dreaming of Spring Training, and thinking that maybe next year will be ‘the year’ for the Red Stockings.”
“Well, next year is here! This week, all of your dreams will come true. And when it’s time to rake the leaves and put up the storm windows, you’ll be thinking, “Next year – back to back…”
Lurker Nomarfan31: “Win it for my mom, Mary, who died of lung cancer on July 9, 2003, and who loved to declare, “They’re gonna lose,” while inside wildly rooting for them to win. I cried when Nomar was traded, not because it wasn’t time for him to go (sadly, it was) but because it was the loss of another link to Mom, who always call me whenever he did something spectacular in a game.”
Red Sox Owner John Henry: “There was a point during this season that was very, very tough. But I came here, Shaun, and read your Bandwagon thread, and was uplifted by the depth and breadth of your faith. It was at the time the best thing we were reading anywhere. These guys – I’m so proud of them – they refused to lose for the faithful this week. I’m proud of everyone who refused to get off the bandwagon.”
Sargeiswaiting: The Mekong Delta is a long way from Boston. During the summer of 1969, I found myself as a private in the army, fighting in a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular at home. When I was homesick for Boston, a fellow private named Kevin, born and raised in the Boston area, kept my spirits up. We used to listen to the radio after the hell of a patrol. There was one song by Neil Diamond that we used to love listening to on the outskirts of the jungle. We would scream it out at the top of our lungs. The girl in the song was the girl in our dreams! Kevin was a big Sox fan. He especially loved the Boomer, George Scott. Kev got Agent Orange and began to fade away in the early eighties. The war eventually killed him years after he returned home. Earlier this August, I attended a Sox game against the White Sox. It was cold as hell for a summer afternoon, and the Sox lost in disappointing fashion. Still, at the bottom of the eighth inning, I began to hear the strains of that song that Kev and I sung so well back in Vietnam –‘Sweet Caroline.’ Jesus, Kevin’s favorite, playing at Fenway. The tears are flowing now as I write this. Win it for Kevin. Win it for Sweet Caroline!”
In early November 2004, ten days after the last out of the 2004 World Series, I received a note from a most perceptive lurker to the website. He wrote: “You know, Shaun, I really believe that the ghosts that we all beckoned, our dearly departed fathers and grandfathers, sisters, brothers, neighbors, coaches, and friends, had a hand in the astonishing two weeks that we’ve just experienced. In a way, it was their last loving act to us. And we, in turn, responded as only we could…in the posts that we ultimately submitted.”
I concluded the “Win it For” thread on the morning of October 28, 2004, with the following entry, written seven hours after Keith Foulke had stabbed Edgar Renteria’s one-hopper for the third and final out of the ‘04 Series:
“In the end, people talk about the ghosts Red Sox fans live with, but they have it all wrong. It isn’t the ghost of Babe Ruth or Bill Buckner or all the names associated with a curse that never really existed. Instead, it is the ghosts we can still see when we walk into Fenway Park. It is our fathers and mothers and grandparents. It’s our next-door neighbors and our baseball coaches and our aunts and uncles. Those are the ghosts that matter to us. Those are the specters we see, huddled together, watching their team and the game so intently.”
“For those of us who have followed the fortunes over an extended period, a Red Sox World Series championship marks a beginning – and an end. While we have made peace with all of our relatives and friends who have passed on over the years, there was always a little unfinished business between us – and them. Now with this incomparable victory, that too is complete.”
“And so, after all of these years, we can finally have a clean goodbye to our dearly departed. Perhaps that is why so many tears were shed in living rooms all over New England and beyond in the early morning hours of October 28, 2004.”
The “Win it For” thread, a small idea in the beginning, was formally inducted as a literary entity into the writer’s section of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in the summer of 2007.
“Win it For’ seamlessly connected six generations of Red Sox fans together as no other document ever has,” wrote a publicist for the Baseball Hall of Fame upon the thread’s induction. Even today, 16 years after it first was published, the original “Win it For” thread still has the capacity to bring tears and smiles together as close as they can ever be.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was seldom at a loss for words. Three days previously, he had nominated the most prominent Irish-American at the time, Joseph P. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to be the United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The President was amused that he had appointed “someone so Irish” to the second most prestigious position in the State Department as the new Ambassador to England.
Much to his chagrin, however, FDR soon began receiving a plethora of outraged phone calls disputing his controversial appointment, mostly from indignant Irish-Americans. Roosevelt looked baffled as he took still another call from an irritated Irish-American official.
He glanced over at his very Boston-Irish secretary, Missy LeHand, and muttered, “What is the matter with you people? The minute one of you accomplishes anything – there’s always another fellow behind him with a rock, more than eager to bring him down.”
Missy LeHand merely smiled.
As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today, those of us who are Irish would surely nod their heads in an endorsement of Roosevelt’s allegation if his testimonial could be magically circulated throughout the Irish world. A case in point: some years ago, I ran into my elderly, Irish-American father as he was coming out of our local high school to vote in an important general election in Massachusetts. His eyes twinkled as he glanced at me.
“Shaunie!” my father hollered, “are you here to cancel my vote?”
“I am, Dad,” I replied.
Without even so much as a hint of irony, he barked, “Good for you!”
Dad then gave me a thumbs-up as I strutted into the polling place to negate all of his political preferences that year.
“The Irish,” H. L. Mencken once observed, “have a logic all their own.” There is a famous story often told among Irish circles concerning the famed dual clock towers situated in Ballyhough. The two clocks disagreed at the correct time – one was six minutes faster than the other. When a visiting American asked one of the community’s locals why the town would have two such splendid clock towers that told conflicting times, the man replied, “And what would we be wanting with two clocks if they told the same time?”
Legendary British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once stated, “You never know what is going to spew forth from an Irishman’s lips. They are a completely unpredictable lot.”
Disraeli’s thesis could certainly be applied to an incident that occurred in June 1963 during President Kennedy’s visit to Europe, which included stops in Germany, England, and Ireland. Pope John XXIII had died suddenly during JFK’s first stop on the trip – West Berlin. By the time Kennedy neared the end of his stay in Europe, Pope Paul VI had already been installed as the latest Bishop of Rome. John Kennedy decided to pay the new pontiff a visit.
The nation’s thirty-fifth president contacted his old friend, Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, and instructed the Catholic leader to meet him as Air Force One rolled onto the runway at Rome’s international airport. Ultimately, Cushing drove to the airport with two aides; all of the other cardinals in the American delegation had already returned to the United States. As President Kennedy stepped into view from his plane, he noticed Cushing standing alone at the bottom of Air Force One’s ramp.
“Jack! Jack!” cried out the Cardinal to his most famous parishioner. “The American cardinals have left! They’re all a bunch of goddamn Republicans!”
President Kennedy, according to eyewitnesses, collapsed in spasms of laughter.
“The Irish don’t get back – they get even,” stated Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, the legendary Boston congressman, in his spellbinding autobiography, Man of the House. The notion of the famous “Irish grudge” could best be summed up with the words of a traditional Irish curse which goes something like this: “May none of their race survive/May God destroy them all/Each curse of the psalms in the holy books/Of the prophets on them fall. Amen.”
The capriciousness of the Irish was also evident when I stood in line to have acclaimed Irish-American author, Frank McCourt, sign a copy of his Pulitzer-Prize-winning tome, Angela’s Ashes. Throughout the memoir, humor and pathos had been the constants of a childhood of poverty that left the reader laughing despite the tragedies. After his “shiftless, loquacious, alcoholic father” who deserted the family during their time of most need, McCourt’s Pa was found two decades later working as a cook at a monastery.
“Then food must have been their penance,” McCourt wrote.
So here I was in line at a prominent bookstore in Stamford, Connecticut waiting for the great man to sign a copy of his book. when I finally reached his table, he smiled brightly at me and exclaimed, “And whom do I make this out to…my lad?” McCourt.
“To me, Sir. My name is Shaun Kelly,”
“Acchhhh,” he sighed, “May God forgive you.”
From the get-go, the Irish have always loved a good fight. When the Irish fought the English hundreds of years ago, the legend has it that the Anglo-Saxons could not believe how the Celtic Warriors absolutely delighted in the all-consuming passion of hand-to-hand combat. “Their savagery was beyond normality; waves of ecstasy shone from their eyes,” wrote a mystified English chronicler.
In modern times, James Michael Curley, the legendary Boston Irish politician who was immortalized in Edwin O’Connor’s classic novel, The Last Hurrah, embraced the Irish ferocity mindset throughout his colorful fifty-year political career. Curley, who was elected twice from jail, was the quintessential Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor – but he also took ten percent off as a surcharge. Loquacious, opinionated, and flamboyant, the Mayor could charm any bird from a tree.
Despite his obvious rascality, however, Jim Curley was, according to legendary Speaker of the House, Congressman Tip O’Neill, “a man who did a tremendous amount of good for the people of Boston. As mayor, he provided thousands of jobs while improving the schools and the playgrounds, paving streets, expanding the subway, establishing public beaches, putting up affordable hospitals, tearing down slums, and doing favors for an untold number of people who truly needed help.”
According to O’Neill, however, James Michael Curley detested the ruling Yankee aristocracy, pronouncing them as “our Brahmin overlords.” Obviously, the mayor loved to get back at them whenever he could. Once, when an important project that would benefit the poor in Boston was blocked because the local business establishment, virtually all of them controlled by “Yankees” at the time, the mayor personally visited one of them, the defiant owner of Filene’s. “I want you to know,” Jim Curley informed the Filene’s CEO, “that the city’s water ‘main’ goes right under your fancy building here. If you don’t know where it is, your building manager can surely tell you. If I don’t have that money by this very afternoon,” the mayor exclaimed, “then I’ll open the valves and flood Filene’s Basement in an instant.”
The City of Boston received its loan that afternoon.
Self-effacing humor is another quality that is held dear by most Irishmen. In the quaint vernacular of the Irish, a wheelbarrow is called an Irish ambulance, a diaper is known as an Irish flag, and a rock is sometimes referred to as an Irish diamond. Two of the most popular modern presidents used self-effacing humor to disarm their political opponents. It is no coincidence that John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan were both proud Irish-Americans. When an infuriated reporter tried to nail President-elect Kennedy as to the meager qualifications of his then thirty-four-year-old brother, Bobby, after JFK had appointed Bobby as the nation’s new Attorney General, Kennedy replied, “I don’t see what’s wrong with Robert gaining a little government experience before he goes on to establish a practice in law.”
In 1962, when a reporter commented to JFK that the Republican National Committee had formally concluded that he was pretty much a failure, the President flashed his legendary smile and replied, “Well, I am sure that such a proposal passed unanimously!”
President Ronald Reagan possessed the same talent for self-mockery. After he was shot in an assassination attempt in March 1981, he told a friend, “I’ve been shot at many times in my life, but in Hollywood they always used blanks.”
When Reagan entered the operating room to remove bullet fragments from his chest, he proclaimed to the chief physician, “Let’s just hope you are a Republican!”
Both Kennedy and Reagan could laugh at themselves because they both possessed such obvious self-confidence and panache. Politicians in both parties have tried unsuccessfully to emulate them since their presidencies but have been unable to capture the magic of their particular brand of drollery and wit.
“The Irish,” observed T. H. White, “are rank sentimentalists. Their prose and verse drip with a mawkishness that would be unsettling to most other cultures. And yet, I continue to find myself deeply moved by their poems, novels, and lyrics. “Danny Boy,” for instance, still brings tears to even the most stoic of individuals.
The following prayer was recited at the christening of John F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1961:
We wish to the new child
A heart that can be beguiled
By a flower
That the wind lifts
As it passes.
So fleetingly, so fragile.
If the storms break for him
May the trees shake for him –
their blossoms down
And in the night that he is troubled
May a friend wake for him
so that his time be doubled,
And at the end of all the loving
and all the love,
May the Man above –
Give him a crown.
38 years later, the same poem was recited at his funeral by his grieving uncle.
May the wayward winds be with you on this Saint Patrick’s Day!