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 percolated just as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Thus, a “mixed-race tour” in the Old Confederacy generated a wellspring of controversy. 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 of the song had been stirring around in the singer/songwriter’s mind for weeks. The idea’s inspiration had actually sprung from soul singer Charles Brown’s 1959 R&B single, “I Want to Go Home,” a standard 12-bar 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 capital 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 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 ’50s. 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 it had a bluesy, almost hypnotic feel, which 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 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 also added a seven-piece rhythm section to the mix. “We wanted musical power to match Sam’s vocal potency,” Hall remembered.
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 constantly demanded 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.” Later on, he told his former producer, Lou Adler, “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, 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 are wrapped in a cornucopia of both fidelity and pain throughout the ballad.
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, a 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 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.” 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 & 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.
Recently, when I was recovering from a bout of Covid that hit me like a nor’easter, I had a chance to catch my breath for once. The irony was that I came down with a mild case of the coronavirus on the day of our school’s spring vacation. (Nice timing, Teach). As I slowly recovered and tried to keep my wits about me, I came to the conclusion that the antecedent of pain – kindness – might just be the abiding answer to the avalanche of problems we face collectively and individually.
Like you folks, I have observed that millions and millions of people have been swallowed up by the enduring anxiety that has assaulted our culture for the past two years plus. The irony, of course, is it has often been masked in braggadocio or it’s-all-about-meism. We have lost the notion that human dignity is a virtue without borders and comes without compromise as it is draped in goodwill and empathy. Sadly, in the pain that all of us have experienced as a nation – the coronavirus and the threat to our democracy – gratitude, grace, and humility seem to have disappeared like a summer fog.
I recently conversed with a veteran teacher at a local school who said that she used to receive 30-40 handwritten thank you notes from students and teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week. This year, she received one such note. When I recently held the door at Dunkin Donuts for a young man, he exclaimed, “Thank you! People don’t seem to do that to one another these days!”
Yes, we, YOU can be the solution and not the problem, and it starts with such minute acts of decency as I exhibited when I opened up the door for a stranger at Dunkin Donuts. But we could – especially if we remembered that everyone is on their personal liferafts for survival in a world gone amuck. After all. it’s the unexpected gestures that bring about the most pleasure in life. As many great philosophers have written over the past three millennia, you have no idea what burdens people carry in life – and they probably have more on their plate than you have.
Over the past 67 years, I have met many influential people who were presidents, literary legends, great scientists, fabled musicians, and Hall of Fame baseball players. Still, none of them touched me to my core more than an amiable, intelligent, and engaging bookseller at my local bookstore in Wellesley, Massachusetts. For two decades. Barry Hoberman greeted each customer effusively no matter the circumstance and made sure that their needs were met – with an earnestness that glistened like gold.
When Mr. Hoberman died last year, his former place of work, Wellesley Books, published this poignant memorial in their monthly newsletter: “Beloved by staff and customers alike, Barry held court at our front register for over twenty years—he was proud of having been hired on the very first day the bookstore opened on Central Street in 1999. Considered by many the unofficial mayor of Wellesley, he took a genuine interest in those around him, warmly greeting customers (and their dogs) by name and recalling every detail of previous conversations. Barry was a gifted writer and a formidable scholar, possessing a deep knowledge of history, religion, baseball, and music. He always relished the challenge of helping a customer track down some esoteric and often out-of-print treatise on one of his favorite subjects. We will miss his sense of humor, affectionate banter, freely-expressed opinions, extraordinary intellect, and kind heart.”
In the end, Barry Hoberman served as a role model for our times. He cared. Kindness can extinguish someone’s melancholy with a burst of light that can cast away the darkness.
On a mid-afternoon in Liverpool, England, in 1982, I checked the tour guide book one last time and broke into a smile. I reverently approached the street as an unwieldy southwestern wind blew from the River Mersey, less than two miles away.
And there it was—the shelter in the middle of a roundabout.
I promptly skirted across Penny Lane and quickly sat down at the front entrance of the bus shelter, expecting to see a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray.
Seven weeks previously, I had begun working as a teacher at an American school in Surrey 215 miles to the southeast. Now, I was fulfilling a longstanding dream – to visit The Beatles’ home city of Liverpool, England.
I sat there for twenty minutes as the traffic flowed unsteadily by, and a gaggle of bikers whizzed around the rotary as I took in the scene. Even in the most cinematic of songs that framed both an era and a moment, time had moved on like an unyielding gale from the Mersey. The barber and the fireman with an hourglass were all gone. Still, I felt as if I was “in a play anyway.”
More than a half-century after they recorded their last songs together in Abbey Road Studio B in August 1969, the luminosity of The Beatles’ music beckons as brightly as the North Star. This past year, millions celebrated The Fab Four anew with the release of three astonishing works of art: McCartney 3, 2, 1 – a six-part retrospective on the music of both The Beatles and Wings with both Paul and veteran producer Rick Rubin; The Lyrics – 1956 To The Present – a reflective celebration of the creative life and the musical genius of Sir Paul through 154 of his most meaningful songs; and, of course, Get Back, the mesmerizing six-part documentary by filmmaker Peter Jackson of the recording of the 1969 album previously known as Let It Be.
So why is the world refocusing on The Beatles once again? It’s simple, really. In 2021, we all need their music and their message more than ever before. After all, the bookends of ignorance and intolerance have framed our times like a bad painting in a rundown motel. Sadly, one of the best-selling bumper stickers in the United States these days proclaims: “Guns Are THE Answer!”
In contrast to such insanity, the most talented and influential group of musicians in the past seventy years declared emphatically that love, not hate, is the answer. Ultimately, The Beatles did not take sides in their art; they referred to people as “we” or “us” – and they continually implied that we are all in this thing called life…together.
In 2021, the shelter in the middle of the roundabout is no longer a bus terminal but a bistro. Happily, though, the spirit of The Beatles remains to the hundreds of visitors who make the pilgrimage to Liverpool each day. As I did back in 1982, they gaze out onto Penny Lane in wonder, praying that in the end, the love they take will be equal to the love they make.
“Penny Lane,” The Beatles, 1967. Recorded in seven separate sessions commencing on the morning of December 29, 1966, and concluding in the late evening on January 17, 1967, the idea of “Penny Lane” as the subject of a song began during the Rubber Soul sessions 16 months earlier when John Lennon, looking for ideas, began jotting down various places that had framed his life early on. When he showed the list to his bandmates, “Penny Lane,” a road situated three blocks north from Lennon’s childhood home, he immediately struck a chord with his longtime chum, Paul McCartney. As teenagers, McCartney and Lennon often met at the Penny Lane junction in the Princes Park area of Liverpool in order to catch a bus to the center of the city. “As a lad, John was habitually late, so there were many times when I waited for him at the shelter in the middle of the roundabout,” Paul explained in a Rolling Stone interview in 1997. In its final form, the tune works like a kaleidoscope of images that McCartney recalled as a child – the bank, the fire station, and the nurse who sold poppies at the shelter of the roundabout on Remembrance Day. While the sun shines brightly in the first half of the ballad, later on in the song when “the fireman rushes in from the pouring rain,” it reminds the listener that McCartney’s lyrical patchwork, like time-elapsed photography, is not framed at a solitary moment – but over time. Happily, when I first visited Liverpool in 1982, Penny Lane was mapped out exactly as Paul had described – a veritable time capsule that seemed stuck in its own Brigadoon. Besides the inspired lyrics, there are also several sound effects throughout the number; most memorably, the fireman’s clanging handbell in the fourth stanza and the little roadster can be heard spinning around the communal roundabout. Lastly, the ballad’s jaunting triplet melody is impeccably supported in the final verse by David Mason’s soaring piccolo trumpet solo. (Mason, a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra legend, was paid 27 quid for his work; his horn that he used for the recording sold for a hundred times that amount in 2011.) “When ‘Penny Lane’ was recorded,” recollected Sir Paul, “we were no longer four blokes from Liverpool. Instead, we were arguably the most famous people in the world. And yet, we longed to go back to those simpler days. It had all happened so fast.” This is most evident in the middle of the ballad when Paul points out that the nurse: “…feels that she’s in a play…she is anyway…” Interestingly, one part of the tune that gave McCartney fits was how to segue from one verse to another. Lennon, who always saw life through the broadest possible lens, came up with the inspired bridge refrain…“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes/There beneath the blue suburban skies/ I sit – and meanwhile back…” As producer George Martin stated later on, “It was the perfect interlude that connected the separate elements of the song altogether.” At the crossroads of recording Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles poignantly admitted in “Penny Lane” that their once everyday lives had gone helter-skelter. In January 1967, each of them seemed to be living in a state of suspended animation.
“Hungry Heart,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1981. I joined more than 15,000 fellow Bostonians as Bruce Springsteen held out his mike and had the audience sing the entire first verse of this iconic song from his stellar double-album, The River, which had just been released that fall. I was in the midst of a breakup with my girlfriend at the time, and when he crooned, “I took a wrong turn, and I just kept going,” I just nodded my head and danced in the aisles. In Bruce’s autobiography, he recalled that women were mostly absent from his concerts until the release of this single. After “Hungry Heart, however, “they started showing up in droves.” Here’s a live version that mirrors the Boston Garden crowd in which “Hungry Heart” was featured, recorded just two weeks later at the old Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island.
“Perfidia,” The Ventures, 1961. If you ventured back in a time machine to January 1961 and turned on the radio to a classic rock station such as WINS in New York, WMEX in Boston, or KBW in Buffalo, you would have undoubtedly heard this instrumental classic by the kings of the instrumentals. Ultimately, more than 100 instrumental songs were Top 10 singles from 1955-64, with The Ventures securing an astonishing 14 songs in the Billboard Top 40. The band, a quartet who hailed from Seattle, Washington, recorded all of their singles without a vocalist and popularized the electric guitar during the 1960s. Not surprisingly, Jimi Hendrix was a passionate fan and often attended their concerts in the early days. The group was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana, 1991. Released more than three decades ago, “Smells Like Teen Spirit “ended up wiping the lingering mindlessness of the 1980s from the consciousness of most music listeners almost instantaneously. The song turned out to be a clarion call to consciousness, Kurt Cobain’s wail against corporate America’s invasion of the youth culture, condensed in his refrain: “Here we are now/Entertain us.” The single, named after a deodorant brand for girls, was, according to Courtney Love, her husband’s attempt to write the ultimate pop song using the incongruent sound of his favorite band, The Pixies. The vulnerability in Cobain, of course, can be heard in his quivering voice.
“The Big Hurt,” Miss Toni Fisher, 1959. The greatest popular tune about angst, pain, and true self-pity of its era, the shuddering orchestration, and Fisher’s remarkable “phasing” combine here to add a palpable sense of foreboding to the proceedings. In a very special way, this became a musical fingerprint for the Wall of Sound production that made Phil Spector a household word by the mid-1960s. After all, “The Big Hurt” is featured a “flagging effect,” when mixing engineer Larry Levine—who went on to help Spector later on—inadvertently mixed the mono and stereo versions of the song together but out of sync; a happy accident with enormous ramifications.
“Some Kind of Wonderful, Carole King, 1971. The forerunner to the music found in Tapestry, “Some Kind of Wonderful,” finds a confident Carole in excellent form, singing a heralded Goffin-King tune that they wrote the previous decade for The Drifters. Happily, this much-revered pop standard has become a staple in the Broadway musical. Beautiful, a musical extravaganza based on King’s incredible life. A poignant, enduring ballad, Carole’s version of “Some Kind Of Wonderful” was recorded on January 10, 1971, just prior to her legendary Tapestry sessions.
“For the Good Times,” Ray Price, 1971. One of the great Kris Kristofferson’s most revered compositions, this seamless cover, sung reverently by country and western veteran Ray Price, was number one in the country charts and then crossed over and made it to #11 on the pop Top 40 in January 1971. It’s one of those classics that makes you stop whatever you’re doing to take it all in. A country music fan friend once called Ray Price, “The Sinatra of the genre.” If you take the time to listen to this tear-jerker, you’ll hear why. The way Price croons, “…for the good times…” it comes off as the sigh of sighs.
“I Could Never Miss You More than I Do,” Lulu, 1981. Recorded in 1979 and released in 1980, this single by the British vocalist, Lulu, finally made it to the North American Top Ten in January 1981. As someone who adored her 1967 release, “To Sir With Love,” it was fantastic to hear that her sultry voice was still very much intact. A single with disco overtones and new-wave implications, I always thought that “I Could Never Miss You More Than I Do” was a precursor for reviving the kind of soul music that such singers such as Al Jarreau and Anita Baker made careers out of ultimately. A vastly underrated, bell-weather song, which has aged very well over time.
“He Will Break Your Heart,” Jerry Butler, 1961. Composed by Jerry Butler, Calvin Carter, and Curtis Mayfield, during the summer of 1960, this beloved early soul ballad was recorded by Butler and released as a single – peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart throughout the winter of 1961. Butler and Mayfield, who, along with their mentor, Sam Cooke, formed the Chicago Soul Sound centerpiece, would continue to produce several standards over the ensuing decade. In 1975, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s cover of the tune, retitled, “He Don’t Love You,” would make it to number one that spring. While it was good, it didn’t have the duende of the original version.
“Johnny Appleseed,” Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, 2001. I heard this first 20 years ago, loved it, forgot about it, and then heard it again a decade or more later on Tom Petty’s “Buried Treasure” Sirius Radio Show. Like nearly all of his releases, there is a wellspring of meaning here that can be found in Joe Strummer’s lyrics (“If you’re after getting the honey, hey/Then you don’t go killing all the bees…”). Two decades later, the purposeful discordance of the musical track only makes it more apropos these days. Sadly, The Clash’s revered co-founder perished much too young of a heart defect just a year after this brilliant single was released. In retrospect, Joe Strummer’s “Johnny Appleseed” remains a fixed star in the musical heavens.
“Lonely Days,” The Bee Gees, 1971. After their dramatic break up in the winter of 1969, 15 months later, after their largely unsuccessful solo albums had been released, The Bee Gees reformed and began composing songs together. One day in the summer of 1970, Maurice Gibb began to riff on his piano while his brothers were preparing for lunch. Robin and Barry chimed in from the opening chord, and within two hours, they had produced one of their most stimulating and memorable singles. Incredibly, the brothers then composed a future number one hit, “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” that same afternoon! Recorded on August 21, 1970, in London, “Lonely Days” was released in mid-November. After a slow start in North America, it took off and became a Top 10 hit, peaking at number 3 for the group for the week of January 26, 1971. As critic Dave Marsh once wrote, the Brothers Gibb were always about collaboration, syncopation, and finding new avenues to express themselves musically. Happily, “Lonely Days” turned out to be one of the more iconic singles of their brilliant, four-decade-plus career.
“Shop Around,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1961. While Smokey Robinson composed this classic Motown single for Barrett Strong (of “Money” fame), Motown President and Producer Berry Gordy insisted that he and the Miracles record it. When Gordy then heard the single on a local Detroit radio station for the first time in November 1960, he thought the song sounded too slow. “Smoke, I want you and the boys to come back to the studio and put some “oomph” into it. They speeded up their tempo and then released it as a single. It soared to number 1 on the US Billboard charts in January 1961. Can you say the word fortuitous?
“Peggy Sue Got Married,” Buddy Holly and The Hollies, 1959 and 1993. The Hollies, including Graham Nash, who joined his former band specifically to make this extraordinary recording, speculate here what Buddy might have sounded like if he had recorded this follow-up single with the technology afforded to artists a generation later. Given that they named themselves after him, it seems clear that the Hollies channeled him here as they ended up producing something magical and infectious. This bit of musical speculation – how would Holly have sounded two decades later with his old material – both fun and melancholic.
“You Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” The Righteous Brothers, Live on Shindig!, 1965. Every once in a while, you find a nugget on YouTube that needs to be seen by as many music fans as possible. This is one of those chestnuts – a rare, 1965 appearance on Shindig! by the Righteous Brothers in which they perform their number-one “Wall of Sound” masterwork live. (For the uninformed, Shindig! was a weekly musical variety show on ABC, which was broadcast nationally for three years, from 1964-66). Given their prowess as soul singers, it’s little surprise that they do the Phil Specter-produced ballad justice.
“Far From Me,” John Prine, 1971. As singer-songwriter Joe Henry once wrote in The Washington Post: “There are other songs its equal on John Prine’s astonishing debut album in terms of stopping time upon a knife’s edge, but this was the one that first cracked my heart open. The scene it draws is a small one: a young man sits in a café late in the evening, waiting for the woman with whom he is entangled — the solitary waitress — to close up and walk out with him into the humid summer night of his dream’s debasement. We listen and learn, as he does, that all is lost; that if she ever truly loved him, that love has cooked beyond reclamation like the dregs of the long day’s first coffee.” The verses here are pure journalism, recounting with the dispassion of a courtroom sketch artist the details of inertia and fragmentation. However, the chorus is untethered and blooms employing pure poetry and hovers above the ground, offering if not good news, then the hard-won truth that frequently we see what we most want to see — and fool ourselves long before anyone else might ever have an inkling. “And the sky is black and still now/on the hill where the angels sing/ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle/ looks just like a diamond ring?” Damn! Of course, John died two years ago from COVID-19. His songs, however, remain firmly entrenched in the consciousness of a country that he had a lover’s quarrel with throughout his fifty-year public career as a balladeer and provocateur.
“I Love a Rainy Night,” Eddie Rabbitt, 1981. The veteran country singer/songwriter found joy in something usually taken for granted. Artistically, that is often a recipe for success. Eddie Rabbitt first got the idea for the song in the late ’60s when he was sitting in his small apartment on a rainy night and began to bellow impulsively, “I love a rainy night, I love a rainy night,” into a tape recorder. Inexplicably, he didn’t complete the ballad until the fall of 1980, when he discovered the tape in his basement. Eddie finished the song with the help of fellow songwriters Even Stevens and David Malloy. This crossover hit made it to the number one position on both the country and pop charts simultaneously in 1981. Rabbitt, who later died of lung cancer in 1998, claimed that the rediscovered tape would pay for his children’s college education. It did.
“Learning to Fly,” Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, 1991. Composed by Tom Petty and his Traveling Wilburys bandmate, Jeff Lynne, Petty told Billboard later that “I wanted ‘Learning to Fly’ to be a redemptive song – but only in the vaguest way.” Julien Temple, who also filmed Petty’s “Free Fallin’ directed the video, which shows a young boy in various key moments of adolescence, as he gets his wings. Bob Dylan performed “Learning to Fly” live the day after Petty died, calling his fellow Wilbury, “A man full of light.” Yes, he surely was.
“God Bless the Child,” Billie Holiday, 1941. This masterwork from the American Songbook was written in a rage after Billie Holiday’s mother refused to give her a small loan at a time when Lady Day was fronting her recently opened restaurant in New York. “She wouldn’t give me a cent. I was mad at her; she was mad at me . . . Then I spat at my mother, ‘God bless the child that’s got his own,’ and walked out,” Holiday wrote in her autobiography. As Tony Bennett commented, “When you listen to her, it’s almost like an audiotape of her autobiography. She didn’t sing anything unless she lived it.” According to the tome, Lady Sings the Blues, the singer/songwriter stewed over the words for three weeks until she rushed to her then Greenwich Village apartment and wrote it like a prayer. In February 1941, “God Bless the Child” was released. It would become Billie Holiday’s masterpiece. As Jazz singer Phyllis Montana-Leblanc stated a few years ago, “When you sing from your soul, ‘God Bless the Child’ is what it sounds like. Billie’s pain, suffering, pure strength to fight through the obstacles and faults, made her Lady Day.”
“Runaway,” Del Shannon, 1961. In Tom Petty’s much-admired classic, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” he sings, “It was a beautiful day, me and Del were singing, a little runaway.” Given the pathos of the song, it’s no wonder that Del Shannon, who admitted the ballad was autobiographical (“I was always running away from relationships,” he admitted to Dick Clark) lived a tragic life. On January 21, 1961, Shannon recorded “Runaway” at the Bell Sound recording studios in New York City, with veteran Harry Balk (“Red River Rock,” “Oh, Happy,”) as producer. The ballad, co-written with keyboardist Max Crook, who invented the clavioline-based electric keyboard called the Musitron, provides the eerie harmonic sound throughout the single. By mid-February, the tune had entered the Billboard Top 10. By early March, it was the number one song worldwide. 29 years after “Runaway” was released, Del Shannon committed suicide after battling depression for a number of years. Songs such as “Runaway,” “Hats Off to Larry,” “Little Town Flirt,” and “Keep Searchin’,” are his legacy. Not bad for a kid from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who never thought he was good enough to break into the music business.
“After the Goldrush,” Neil Young, 1971. This breathtakingly timely song, recorded only six months after the first Earth Day, is both poignant and apocalyptic; a cry for sanity amidst the ages against a species set out to destroy us all. Its refrain – “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970’s” – foresaw a planet on fire, underwater, and in great peril. 40 years later, here we are – the Amazon rainforest is being burned while the CEO of Amazon Corporation made 30 billion dollars last year tax-free. As Neil Young would say, “The loading has begun.” Like many high schoolers at the time, when the Beatles broke up, Neil Young saved me for a spell even as he opened up my eyes to the shadows beyond my soul.
“Where the Boys Are,” Connie Francis, 1961. Composed by the Brill Building’s Neil Sedaka and his lyricist partner, Howie Greenfield, this was the movie’s title song by the same name. Connie Francis thought the song was somewhat idiotic – “Who would ever ask, ‘Where the boys are?” Nevertheless, the song made it to number 4 on the US Billboard Top 40 for the week of March 1, 1960. Neil Sedaka later admitted that…”Where the Boys Are” is the only one of his 700-plus musical compositions not composed with any intent of his singing it himself. As he said years later to Rolling Stone’s Phil Crewe: “People think I wrote [a lot of] songs for others, but the truth is I wrote them all for me to record. Other people then picked them up and recorded them themselves.” The film, Where the Boys Are, became the prototype for spring break films after that, also did very well in the box office throughout the winter and early spring of ’61.
“If You Really Love Me,” Stevie Wonder, 1971. The number 8 hit in the USA on March 4, 1971, this was one of those R&B singles that Stevie began to churn out like butter throughout the 1970s. “If You Really Love Me” was one of the last to feature Motown’s iconic background band, The Funk Brothers. After its release, Wonder left the Hitsville USA studios in Detroit and ended up recording his future LPs in both New York City and Los Angeles; throughout the seventies and eighties, Wonder played most of the instruments himself. Despite the Funk Brothers’ luminous presence here on “If You Really Loved Me,” Stevie still played the Moog bass synthesizer, drums, and piano. The late Mary Wilson recalled in a 2019 NPR interview that…“we used to peek into Motown’s studio and watch Stevie play virtually every musical instrument in the room with such prowess and ease that it took your breath away. I was there one time with Berry Gordy who then smiled and said, ‘There’s our musical genius.’” A final note – when Wonder sings the words, “ways” and “go” in “If You Really Loved Me” it should be noted how challenging it was to change the pitch on those words/notes and make it sound good. This proved how incredible his voice was at that time. In retrospect, Stevie proved to be a once-in-a-generation talent.
“Rocket 88,” Jackie Brenston and His Dala Cats, 1951. Recorded on March 6, 1951, in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records Studio, “Rocket 88” soared to number one on the-then rhythm and blues chart later on that year. Many rock historians consider this to be the first rock and roll song ever released. While that can be fodder for discourse, its influence was immediate and sustaining. The late Jackie Brenston was Ike Turner’s saxophone player in his original ensemble. He created the original melody and the orchestral beat; he later wrote lyrics and sang the original – supported by 19-year-old Turner and his King of Rhythm Band. Of course, the tune is a paean to the new Oldsmobile 88 that had just been released by General Motors in September 1950. From this lens, “Rocket 88,” the first passage in rock’s Book of Genesis, is more complex than you’d expect. As music historian Bill Dahn recalls: “Drawing on the template of jump blues and swing combo music, Ike Turner made the style even rawer, superimposing Brenston’s enthusiastic vocals, his own piano, and tenor saxophone solos by 17-year-old Raymond Hill. The song also features one of the first examples of distortion or fuzz guitar and feedback ever recorded, played by the band’s guitarist, Willie Kizart. The legend of how the sound came about says that Kizart’s amplifier was damaged on the legendary Highway 61 when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee. An attempt was made to hold the cone in place by stuffing the amplifier with wadded newspapers, which unintentionally created a distorted sound.” The sound that was made in Sam Phillips’ iconic studio in Memphis 70 years ago this month was singularly unique and changed the way “race music” would progress thereafter. As Bruce Springsteen recently said on his SiriusXM radio show, “It all started with ‘Rocket 88’.”
“Clubland,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1981. Perhaps on some distant planet eons from now, Elvis Costello’s genius as an eclectic musician and songwriter extraordinaire will receive its proper due. A composer of impossibly catchy melodies, the modern-day lyricist who could be mentioned in the same breath as Oscar Wilde, a slashing guitarist of a profoundly accomplished band, The Attractions, Elvis Costello could do it all. Here, he somehow manages to blend such sounds as salsa, Merseybeat, and jazz, creating a hypnotic single that captured the club scene of the revitalized London that I came to know and love when I resided there in the early 1980s. A must-listen.
“Just My Imagination,” The Temptations, 1971. The illustrious Eddie Kendricks, who had sung the lead vocals on the group’s first national hit in 1964, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” sings the lead here in his last song with The Temps. Indeed, when “Just My Imagination” hit the top spot in both the pop and R&B charts, Kendricks had left the group for a solo career. The much-admired ballad, written by the luminous songwriting team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, was also the last single for group member Paul Williams, who sings the “Every night on my knees I pray,” line. It should be noted that all 11 Funk Brothers produced the musical track, which was recorded on November 24, 1970. Kendricks ended up working on his vocals for eight hours after the band retired for the night. At Motown Records, it was all in a day’s work.
“Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, 1961. The legendary Ben E. King purportedly drew inspiration from Psalms 46:2-3 when writing his 1961 hit ballad, “Stand by Me,” with legendary songwriting team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. (“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil.”) With more than 400 recorded versions, this iconic ballad has hit the Billboard Top 100 more than any other song in existence, becoming a testament in its own right by musically staring down life’s woes by reminding us all that we are all in this thing called life. According to BMI, King’s version of “Stand By Me” was the fourth most-played track from 1961-99 on both American radio and T.
“Tupelo Honey,” Van Morrison, 1971. “Tupelo Honey” is an unreservedly mystical take on the domestic happiness Morrison had found since he’d married his then-wife, Janet Rigsbee, a California-born Texan who resided throughout their married life in Cambridge, MA. She’d already been his muse for several of Morrison’s earlier songs – and “Janet Planet,” as Morrison called her, provides the core for “Tupelo Honey.” This song remains one of the truly great love songs in rock history. It is almost shocking that this ballad – and the LP it was named for – was released more than a half-century ago this spring.
“I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” The Dropkick Murphys, 2005. An Irish-American rock and roll classic? Of course! Let Boston’s Dropkick Murphys perform what would become their signature song on the waterfront in Eastie while hanging with assorted hooligans and runnin’ from the Boston fuzz. “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” must be played while drinking from a tall Guinness Stout as a requirement for listening. I did so at Fenway Park when the Dropkick Murphys played the ballad live from the right-field bullpen before a Red Sox playoff game in 2007.
“Surf’s Up,” The Beach Boys, 1971. This revered ballad is more than a song; it’s an existential prayer that asks you to close your eyes, open your mind, and let every instrument, every voice, every echo wash over you and elevate you. Its sorrow transformed into hope through the joy of enlightenment and the sight of God. It’s about the life you’re left with after daddy takes your T-Bird away. It goes beyond any definition of pop music that existed in the ’60s, and the full expression of the potential Leonard Bernstein saw when he featured Brian Wilson in a TV special not long before this song was conceived. 50 years to the month this version was recorded, the ballad’s overriding aspiration, profound beauty, and relative obscurity are still hard to comprehend. Years later, when Wilson was asked to encapsulate the tune into a single theme, he sighed and said, “Nothing good can last.” While many think that “Good Vibrations” or “God Only Knows” are his best, in my mind, “Surf’s Up” is Brian Wilson’s masterwork.
And, of course, there’s the demo for this that Brian recorded in 1967 that might be one of the two or three best things recorded in that magical musical year. A tour de force.
“The Winner Takes It All,” Abba, 1981. Given the fact that Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus wrote this powerhouse number after separating from his wife, Agnetha Fältskog, and that she sang the lead here, no wonder millions of people view this ballad with its heartbroken lyrics, swelling crescendos, and sudden lulls as the definitive Abba single! Like many of their works, it has aged incredibly well and has become the signature song of Mamma Mia! The final Top 10 hit for the superband in the US, “The Winner Takes It All,” reached its zenith in the States during spring break -1981.
“Angel Baby,” Rosie and the Originals, 1961. Rosie Hamlin, the lead singer of Rosie and the Originals composed this classic early-rock single when she was 14 years old. It began as a poem about a boyfriend and was based on “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” by The Penguins. Hamlin’s vocals here are seamless – a tour de force in sincerity and clarity. Mark Sten, who wrote the book, Rock Almanac, described the instrumentals as “generating a robot mantra devoid of embellishment or variation, the perfect underpinning for Rosie’s piercing, disembodied-siren vocal. With ‘Angel Baby,’ rock had regressed as far as it could, some nameless dread loosed within the collective Top 40 mind had run its course and spent itself in a lost mournful wail. ‘Angel Baby’ was the final moonlit flowering of rock’s medieval phase, a paean to purity and innocence no longer possible in the real world.” John Lennon so loved this recording that he recorded it for his Rock and Roll album, saying, “I could never do homage to Rosie and her band – but here it is.” A gem of a tune in every way, Brian Wilson once called “Angel Baby,”…the perfect record.
“Just The Two Of Us,” Bill Withers and Grover Washington, Jr., 1981. The epitome of smooth jazz, this quintessentially soulful piece was decidedly collaborative. Ultimately, renowned jazz saxophone player Grover Washington, Jr., and the revered pop-soul singer/songwriter Bill Withers ground out the tune along with Washington’s longtime writing partner, Bill Salter. At the time, “Still Bill” was thrilled to work with Washington after hearing a laudable instrumental cover of his classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Like many of his best vocal performances, Wither’s voice in this classic recording simmers irresistibly, as if cooking over a low flame. Given that both artists are gone – Washington in 1999 and Withers last year – this sublime ballad proves that great art remains forever in the present tense.
“How Many More Years?” Howlin’ Wolf, 1951. Recorded by the great Howlin’ Wolf more than seven decades ago, this early rock classic was the first record to feature a distorted power chord, played by Willie Johnson on the electric guitar. Four years before the supposed birth of rock and roll, Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years?” proved that the genre was well into the forming stage.
“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971. The number one song in the world on March 15, 1971, “Brown Sugar,” was initially recorded on December 3, 1969. Various contract problems and pure laziness ensued, and what would be a defining single was ultimately released 13 months later. The classic rocker was partially inspired by a black backup singer named Claudia Lennear, one of Ike Turner’s Ikettes. Jagger scrawled three verses on a pad in the legendary Muscle Shoals Studios’ backroom, while Richards supplied an impossibly raunchy riff. Also of note, the late Bobby Keys’ solo on the number is one of the definitive saxophone performances in rock history. His approach throughout the number seemed more influenced by the “down and dirty” vocabulary of blues guitarists than by the overtly virtuosic, speed-driven side of the saxophone tradition. Keys achieved maximum effect with relatively few notes through his raw, plucky tone and insistent inflections. Add some exultant punctuations, and you have a Stones concert staple to this day.
“Take The ‘A-Train, Duke Ellington, 1941. Originally recorded on February 15, 1941, at the old Victor Studios at 155 24th Street, Manhattan, this epochal theme was composed by Duke Ellington’s brilliant pianist-arranger, Billy Strayhorn. The idea came to him when he took the NYC subway line to Harlem’s famed Sugar Hill district. It was so easy for Strayhorn, he said, that it was “like writing a letter to a friend.” Fans of the song are undoubtedly familiar with the trumpet solo performed by the great Ray Nance. It is frowned upon in jazz, which prides itself on an improvisational style of music, to repeat an ad-libbed solo. However, Nance’s solo is the definitive one, and Ellington said no trumpet player could play the song without borrowing from what Nance offered. Ultimately, “Take The ‘A-Train” served as the signature opening piece for Duke Ellington & his Orchestra for more than three decades. It still captures the vibrant essence of New York City at its finest.
“Dancin’ Party (Tonight),” Chubby Checker, 1961. At the height of his popularity – and no one was bigger musically than the former Ernest Evans was six decades ago – “Dancin’ Party (Tonight)” proved to be his fourth straight million-single seller in 13 months. A Dick Clark protégé from South Philadelphia, Chubby Checker debuted this rollicking nugget on ABC’s American Bandstand to a wildly receptive American audience. I had the distinct honor of seeing Chubby perform twice in person. At one memorable concert at the old Cape Cape Coliseum, which featured Bill Haley, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, Chubby led off his show with “Dancin’ Party.” For the remaining 30-minute set, we never stopped dancing! Of course, that was the point.
“Bang A Gong (Get It On),” T-Rex, 1971. Composed and recorded by T-Rex leader Marc Bolan during the British band’s first tour of America in April 1971, “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” was the group’s attempt to break into the US Top 40 market. The single, which was not released until January 1972 in the States, featured the recognizable backup voices of Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, who were the heart and soul of The Turtles and who, by then, were recording as Flo and Eddie. One of the early instances of glam rock, “Bang A Gong (Get It On) ” that puts an immediate smile on your face. Many years ago, I was playing it in my classroom when a “very distinguished parent” walked in, saw me alone, and then pretended to smoke an invisible bone. She then blushed like a giant red star. This tune will do that to you!
“Travelin’ Man,” Ricky Nelson, 1961. When singer-songwriter Jerry Fuller composed this in the fall of 1960, he hoped that the great Sam Cooke would record it. After recording a demo of him singing it, a version in which featured a young Glen Campbell on guitar, it ended up in Ricky Nelson’s lap in the most unlikely of ways. Fuller subsequently played it to Sam Cooke’s manager, J. W. Alexander, Nelson’s bass player, Joe Osborn, heard it through the walls of the music building next door and thought it would be an excellent song for Ricky Nelson to record. “I just threw the tape away,” J. W. Alexander admitted to Osborn when asked about it later that day. “You can have it.” Nelson and his band (including the Jordanaires) recorded it a week later, where it became a number one song in the US and Canada sixty years ago this April. Of course, travelogues as songs are hit-or-miss propositions, but in this case, when you combine it with teenage angst and “a girl in every port” fantasy, which remains just that, how can you miss?
“Medley – “Venus, Sugar, Sugar – and the Beatles Themes,” Stars on 45, 1981. A tune that most of you said that you hated at the time and then gleefully sang to it in your car was originally a sixteen-minute extravaganza, which was edited down to under five minutes for, well, 45-single purposes. Each number in the medley was recorded separately and edited by Jaap Eggermont, the former drummer of Golden Earring of “Radar Love” fame. This not only knocked Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” off the number one spot in the US 40 forty years ago today, but it instigated the “medley craze” in the recording industry. Within a year, medleys from the Beach Boys, Abba, and the 1950’s rock and roll pioneers all were compiled and entered the Billboard Top 40 at various times in 1981-82. I dare you to play this tune today and not have a slight smile on your face!
“C’est Magnifique,” Ella Fitzgerald, Recorded Live in May 1961. You know someone is a great singer if listening to their live songs sometimes beats listening to studio-recorded tracks. This enthralling rendition of the Cole Porter standard that was recorded live 60 years ago this week will give you goosebumps and make you lament that youʼll never get to hear “The First Lady of Song” live in concert. Of course, it’s not a bad circumstance to have Count Basie and His Band back you up while you’re doing your thing. For my incredibly talented former student and friend, Thana Alexa, who is bringing such faultless jazz vocals to the forefront all over the world these days.
“Everything I Own,” Bread, 1971. In 1970, David Gates, the lead singer and founder of Bread, was at the graveside of his father when a longtime family friend whispered into his ear, “Your father, Dave, was so proud of what you were doing.” Gates agreed and said later on: “My success would have been so special to him as he was my greatest influence. So I decided to write and record ‘Everything I Own’ about him. If you listen to the words, ‘You sheltered me from harm, kept me warm, gave my life to me, set me free,’ it says it all.” While many critics felt that this song, the precursor of the soft-rock era, dulled the genre’s edge, a song is a song, period. Five decades after it made it to number one on the US Billboard Top 40, “Everything I Own” still resonates with many – including me.
“Copperline,” James Taylor, 1991. Twenty-one years after I wore out his seminal album, Sweet Baby James, the singer-songwriter released this track, the title song of his 14th LP. Ultimately, it was so good that it was like finding a nugget of gold in the local lost and found. Indeed, James’ kaleidoscope view of his childhood in North Carolina is almost cinematic: “Tore a page from a romance book/The sky opened, and the Earth shook/down on Copperline/Took a fall from a windy height, I only knew how to hold on tight/and pray for love enough to last all night, down on Copperline/day breaks and the boys wakes up/ and the dog barks, and the birds sing/, and the sap rises and the angel’s sigh/Down on Copperline.” James later said that this was inspired by his idyllic North Carolinian childhood and was written for his big brother, Alex Taylor, who sadly died two years after this single was released.
“Time Out of Mind,” Steely Dan, 1981. Like “Peg” and “Hey Nineteen,” Becker and Fagin turned out another deceptively upbeat tune with “Time Out of Mind,” which was a top-ten hit 40 years ago this May. As free-flowing and unencumbered as this number sounds today, it took 46-takes for the renowned perfectionist duo to get it right. No wonder they took a break from each other for a spell after this was recorded! Still, with Michael MacDonald’s flawless background vocals here as the breeziest sound imaginable supporting the sarcastic-ladened lyrics, what’s not to like here? As one of my high school buddies said recently, the music of Steely Dan ages incredibly well.
“Too Young,” Nat King Cole, 1951. Seventy-five years ago this spring, “Too Young” dominated the American pop charts and became the top-selling song of 1951. What could go wrong with an anthem for people marrying young in the season of weddings, sung by the most sublime vocalist in the country at that time – and supported by Nelson Riddle and The Capitol Records Orchestra. Raise your hand if this ballad was played at your parents’ wedding?
“One Toke Over the Line,” Brewer and Shipley, 1971. One of the more conspicuous anthems to the joys of marijuana, this much-loved folkie ballad proved to be Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley’s only hit, but it was a big one, reaching the US Top Ten 50 years ago today. While Jerry Garcia was brought in to play the steel guitar on their sessions, he didn’t perform on “One Toke Over The Line,” contrary to popular myth. However, the Grateful Dead frontman was prominently featured on its B-side, “Oh Mommy’ (I Ain’t No Commie).” In 1971 “One Toke Over the Line” was performed live on the Lawrence Welk Show by the wholesome-looking couple Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, who had NO clue what a “toke” was. After the performance of the tune, Maestro Welk remarked famously: “There, you’ve heard a wonderful modern spiritual by Gail and Dale!” Those of us who saw it live on ABC TV at the time literally guffawed as Grandpa and Grandma looked on with alarming perplexity.
And the legendary Lawrence Welk version of “One Toke Over the Line.”
“Raindrops,” Dee Clark, 1961. The number-two hit in the American Top 40 sixty years ago for the week of May 15th, veteran soul singer Dee Clark was driving in his native Chicago one night in the fall of 1960 when a heavy rainstorm struck. Not surprisingly, the opening and closing of “Raindrops” feature heavy rain and thunder sound effects, with the finish augmented by Clark’s powerful, swooping falsetto. This is truly one of those tunes that you could call both timely and timeless. (For you trivia buffs out there, Dee Clark was the first person Sam Cooke sang the newly composed classic, “Bring It On Home To Me.” Clark thought it was “okay.” Dee, listen to it again, dammit all!)
“That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon, 1971. Carly’s first single was released 50 years ago this summer, and it ultimately made it to #10 on the US Billboard Top 40 charts. Given that her collaborator, Jacob Brickman, wrote most of the lyrics here, Simon came up with the melody. It is almost astonishing that he could capture verse-form feelings clearly from a woman’s point of view. However, the ballad came out of Simon’s conversation with Brackman one afternoon in New York. He was going through some relationship troubles similar to Simon’s: His girlfriend moved in with him, and he was worried about giving up some of his identity and personal space as he felt an infringement on his territory. Simon’s vocals brilliantly capture the heady mix of fidelity and passion that made this tune an instant classic a half-century ago. (This is for my lifelong friend, Eileen Simendinger, who sang this song as well as Carly back in the day, and for my dear, late Wellesley High School classmate and friend, the brilliant Mindy Jostyn, who was a brilliant musician and who was happily married to Jacob Brickman until she died much too young of cancer in 2005).
“Cedar Lane,” Mindy Jostyn, 1997. With the help of her husband, Jacob Brickman, old friend Mindy Jostyn – we went to high school together – wrote the perfect ode to our childhood in Wellesley, Massachusetts (our former telephone ID was CEDAR). An accomplished singer-songwriter with a loyal and unwavering following, Mindy died much too young of cancer in 2005. Mindy, you captured it so well here, my dear friend.
“Being With You,” Smokey Robinson, 1981. Smokey originally composed this for Kim Carnes, but producer George Tobin convinced the Miracles’ former frontman to record it himself. It became one of Smokey’s most significant solo hits, charting #2 in the US and #1 in England 40 years ago, during the week of May 20, 1981. By the way, that’s Smokey’s wife, Claudette, and Robert John (of “Sad Eyes” fame) singing the background vocals. Because he was now residing on the West Coast, Robinson could no longer depend on the Funk Brothers. Instead, he let George Tobin produce a West Coast band that had just recorded “Bette Davis Eyes” and whose individual members all revered Smokey Robinson. In every way, “Being With You” turned out to be a lovefest.
“Cry For Help,” Rick Astley, 1991. Arranged by gospel star Andrae Crouch, Rick Astley composed this haunting single with one purpose in mind – that we all need to talk to someone because we’re all carrying too much that needs to be processed. As Astley recalled in 2018: “‘Cry for Help’ is observational. It’s that thing that you can go through in life, and you can be around someone, and you know that there’s something wrong, you know there’s something going on, but they don’t want to say anything. They don’t want to do it.” This was the Merseyside singer-songwriter’s last major American hit; he “retired” from the business for more than two decades, believing that fatherhood and family were more important than his career. In 2016, Astley made a triumphant return to music with his bestselling LP, 50, which included his wildly popular “Keep Singing.” Astley still dabbles in music these days and hosts a much-listened-to BBC radio show Sundays in Britain.
“Long Promised Road,” The Beach Boys, 1971. The Boys first released the ballad “Long Promised Road” 50 years ago today, May 25, 1971, – and it did not chart. It was then released on their transcendent album, Surf’s Up, and was re-released as a single, with a different b-side, the brilliant “‘Til I Die,” that October. This time it made it to No. 89 on the Billboard Hot 100. Aside from a few guitar instrumentals written in the band’s early days and collective co-writing credits, the song is Carl Wilson’s first solo composition. He plays almost all the instruments himself on the ballad. As Richard Williams wrote in Melody Maker, “Long Promised road is, quite simply, the best’ inner quest’ song I’ve ever heard, and it lacks nothing in terms of jeweled arrangements.” From this lens, the late Carl Wilson was one of the truly underappreciated classic rock-era figures.
“I Apologize,” Billy Eckstine, 1951. Imagine melted milk chocolate being poured into a glass of brandy. From this lens, that best describes the essence of Billy Eckstine, whose voice had such an unusual, beautiful vibrato/timbre–that it was instantly recognizable to anyone who listened to popular music from 1932-57. Sam Cooke once said that Billy Eckstine was the grandfather of soul music because “it all came from his innards.” 70 years ago this May, “I Apologize” was the number-one song in both the US and Canada.
“Ole Buttermilk Sky,” Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, Featuring Mike Douglas, 1946. The number-one song in the United States 75 years ago this May, bandleader Kay Kyser takes an old Hoagy Carmichael standard and dresses up with a jazz band, which is decorously supported by his young vocalist, Mike Douglas, who would later host one of the better TV talk shows in the 1960s on the old Westinghouse Network (and the singer of the 1966 novelty song, “The Man In My Little Girl’s Life.”) In an age of conformity, this charming ballad created no new waves but was another warm wind gently blowing in through our bedroom curtains. At the height of the American Century, I am sure that those listening to this number thought, “What could ever go wrong with us?”
“Delilah,” Marshall Crenshaw, 1991. This is another brilliant retro song from rock’s most unheralded genius, Marshall Crenshaw, from his criminally underrated 1991 album, Life’s Too Short. While the singer-guitarist-songwriter was paying homage to all the girl-named songs of his childhood, his decidedly more modern instrumentation points to a man stuck in two disparate moments. As usual, the melodies are fetching, the lyrics are lyrical, and the instrumentation is seamless. What’s not to like?
“Sweet City Woman,” The Stampeders, 1971. While this proved to be their only international smash fifty years ago this spring, Calgary, Alberta’s Stampeders were much more successful in their native Canada, where they had seven top-ten hits between 1970 and ‘77. Like many of the songs from the wellspring of the late sixties and early seventies, “Sweet City Woman” proved to be a heady mixture of melody, rhythm, and innovation; it cut across genres and made you want to sing along. No wonder it’s still played with such reverence all of these years later.
“Moon River Demo,” Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, 1961. This recently discovered demo of “Moon River,” a ballad that dominated the charts later that year, defines the word fidelity in my mind. You will hear only two instruments here – composer Henry Mancini’s understated piano and lyricist Johnny Mercer’s quivering voice. Whenever I hear anyone sing, “Waiting ’round the bend/my huckleberry friend/moon river – and me,” it gets me every time. However, to hear the composers sing it and play it as they wanted to be performed is its own kind of specialness. Ultimately, the Mancini version of “Moon River” won an Oscar for Best Original Song from the film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“Waiting On A Friend,” The Rolling Stones, 1981. Initially recorded in the spring of 1972 during the sessions for their album, Goats Head Soup, “Waiting For A Friend” didn’t make the cut but was repackaged and released on Tattoo You nine years later. “Waiting On A Friend” was eventually released as a single, and it did very well in the US and Canada, primarily thanks to the advent of MTV that was thrilled to have a new video by a rock band of The Stones stature. While many interpreted this as a thoughtful and mature Jagger, in 1972, Mick was still on heroin, so many Stones fanatics have said that “the friend” here is his dealer. Like most great songs, it works on many compelling levels, and if it’s simply about friendship, few tunes do it better justice.
“Daddy’s Home,” Shep and the Limelights, 1961. The poignant followup to the 1957 doo-wop classic, “A Thousand Miles Away,” by the Heartbeats, who were fronted by the late great James “Shep” Sheppard. Four years later, Shep and his new backup group, The Limelights, recorded “Daddy’s Home,” a soul-ballad extraordinaire, which became a significant top-ten hit in the US and Canada 60 years ago this June. This is the kind of ballad that instantly puts you inside your car at the nearest diner where the air smells like burgers and you check your pocket to see if you have a couple of nickels to put in the counter jukebox inside. That Shep Sheppard ended the ballad by singing the memorable phrase – “I’m not a thousand miles away!” – was nothing but a wink-of-the-eye to a whole bunch of savvy listeners.
“Jealous Guy,” Roxy Music, 1981. Yes, this is a most-admired cover of John Lennon’s original ballad, released less than a year after his tragic death. In the original, of course, it was Lennon confronting the green-eyed monster in this song, where he sings about the fits of jealousy that controlled him in the early 1970s. Few people can come within a mile radius of John Lennon when one thinks of musical icons. But while Lennon’s real talent lay in songwriting, for Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, it was all about the performance, and their cover version married the aching intensity of the song with Ferry’s incandescent performance. It ended up truly being a match made in heaven.
“Blue Skies,” Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra Featuring Frank Sinatra, 1941. Six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Francis Albert Sinatra was already an emerging star in Tommy Dorsey’s stable, and “Blue Skies,” which had been composed by the incomparable Irving Berlin in 1926, was already considered an American standard. This musically delicious cover has fidelity to it that’s both undeniable and sustaining. A nod here to the underappreciated Sy Oliver, who produced and arranged the song – while breathing new air into it. In retrospect, everything about this particular recording is sublime.
“Want Ads,” Honey Cone, 1971. The singing trio known as Honey Cone was the first act signed to the Hot Wax label. Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland (Holland-Dozier-Holland) formed the label after leaving Berry Gordy Motown at the end of 1969. Considering the trio of songwriters had composed the vast majority of hits for the Supremes, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, this was big news, indeed! Edna Wright, the sister of the great Darlene Love, fronted the vocal group, with Motown veteran backup singers Shelly Clark and Carolyn Willis supporting her. A half-century ago this June, “Want Ads” became Honey Cone’s only Top 10 hit, making it number one on both the Billboard and R & B charts. This vibrant soul single is now very much a “go-to” number on Sirius’s 70’s Soul Town stations.
“You Make My Dreams Come True,” Hall and Oates, 1981. Daryl Hall and John Oates wrote this keyboard-driven classic with Sara Allen, Daryl’s girlfriend, and the subject of the 1975 ballad, “Sara Smile.” 40 years ago this summer, this was one of the most beloved records on the dance floor, where it also hit as high as number #5 the week of July 4). Interestingly, according to the BBC, it was the most requested single from 1981 in their 2018 reader’s survey – another number that has grown in stature over the years. In the October 16, 2009 issue of Entertainment Weekly,Daryl Hall listed this as one of his Top 5 Hall & Oates songs. He explained: “It’s funny – it’s ubiquitous, especially now. I think because it’s such a happy song, just a pure expression of joy. And it’s set to a really old-time-gospel kind of groove. The fact that they use it in a pivotal scene in (500) Days of Summer... I’m very flattered.” In retrospect, this is rock and soul at its very best.
“Cupid,” Sam Cooke, 1961. It is stunning to realize that this beloved oldie actually didn’t chart that well when it was released 60 years ago this summer. Incredibly, “Cupid” went only as high as #17 on the Billboard Top 40. In the spring of 1961, Sam’s longtime producers, Luigi Creatore and Hugo Peretti had asked him to compose a song for an unknown starstruck girl they had seen on the old Perry Como TV show who seemed to embody the fountainhead of innocence. “She didn’t do anything but just look up at Perry Como in the most wistful-type manner,” said J.W. Alexander, Cooke’s business adviser recalled. When they got around to recording it with LA’s Wrecking Crew in May 1961, it was the singer’s idea to drop in the sound of an arrow being fired “straight to my lover’s heart.” The arrow sounds were made by backing vocalists – and twins – Kenneth Simms (leaving the bow) and Bobbie Simms (hitting the target). Like many of Sam’s singles, “Cupid” never went out of favor and has remained a favorite for R&B and soul fans for six decades. Timelessness was Sam Cooke’s game, so it makes sense that this ballad has grown in stature, popularity, and reverence over time.
“Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes, 1981. For nine weeks in 1981, Kim Carnes’ ode to Bette Davis and the power of women was actually a cover version of a tune originally composed and recorded by the great Dusty Springfield seven years previously. Despite Dusty’s natural bite, she played it subtle in her original recording, which sounded both campy and jazz-tinged. To her everlasting credit, Kim Carnes added some plucky sensibility and muscle to it and recreated it as a New Wave 1980s anthem. From the opening synth sounds to the claps during the later verses to Kim’s perfect vocal performance, “Bette Davis Eyes” is pure pop perfection. 40 years ago this June, it seemed to be the only ballad played on the radio. “Bette Davis Eyes” eventually won a Grammy for both the “Record of the Year” and the “Song of the Year.” Unlike many songs from that era, it has aged very well.
“Carey,” Joni Mitchell, 1971. From this lens, Joni’s magnum opus, Blue, was the best LP from the classic singer-songwriter era of the 1970s. “Carey,” which was released as a single 50 years ago this summer, was one of the confessional, lyrical sonnets on that LP. Recorded in Los Angeles with the help of friends James Taylor and Carole King, it captured Joni’s memorable stay at a European hippie commune in the caves of the island of Matala, Crete, during the summer of 1969. Carey Raditz, of course, was real – an individual Joni met in Matala. Friends recalled that he had flaming red hair and often wore a turban on Matala. They met, recalled Mitchell, when Carey “blew out of a restaurant on the island, literally. Kaboom! I heard, facing the sunset. So I turned around, and this guy is blowing out the door of this restaurant. He was a cook; he lit a gas stove, and it exploded. Burned all the red hair off himself right through his white Indian turban. And then he opened his mouth – and out spilled a North Carolinian drawl! He captured my attention right away.” The ballad features one of Mitchell’s most popular refrains – “You’re a mean old daddy, but I like you” – and one of her most playful melodies. Given the heavy-ladened other numbers on Blue, it was an unexpected and delightful exhale of an album filled mainly with intakes.
“America,” Neil Diamond, 1981. Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of a Top Ten appearance on the US Billboard Top 40, “America” was Neil Diamond’s paean to the American Dream as seen through the lens of an immigrant. Neil’s grandparents came from Poland and Russia, and because he spent his childhood amongst immigrants in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he wrote it for the 1980 remake, The Jazz Singer. In addition, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis used it as his theme song when he was the 1988 Democratic nominee for president. In the end, “America” turned out to be one of Diamond’s most sustaining and beloved original songs and is often played as a celebratory anthem at July 4th celebrations. Happy Birthday, America!
“Power of Love/Love Power,” Luther Vandross, 1991. The number 4 song on the Billboard Top 40 during the week of July 7, 1991, the late, great Luther Vandross’s Power of Love/Love Power,” was a medley of two songs, including “Love Power,” which had been a Top 20 hit for the American R&B group, The Sandpeebles, during the summer of 1968. Because of his distinctive, omnipresent pipes, you knew it was a Luther Vandross song immediately. People who say that there have been no soul singers since the 1970s have never listened to his music. Even though he died much too young in 2005 from both diabetes and hypertension, Luther Vandross’s impressive catalog of songs remains etched in the hearts of his millions of followers.
“American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz, 2000. Fifty years ago this spring, 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.
“Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” Curtis Lee, 1961. Composed by Brill Building veteran Tommy Boyce, who later wrote many of the hits for the Monkees, this much-beloved, blue-eyed soul ballad was produced by the incomparable Phil Spector. According to Boyce, he was under orders from his publishing company to write a hit for Curtis Lee, who was an up-and-coming singer at the time. When Lee visited Boyce in New York in the fall of 1960, he asked Lee to think up a title for a song he would then write for him. Lee immediately thought of a girl whom he had just met in Florida with “pretty little angel eyes.” Given that as an inspiration, Boyce and Lee then sat down and wrote the song together in less than two hours. Phil Specter, who loved the song from the get-go, decided to give it a decided doo-wop feel while featuring Lee’s quivering tenor. A shout-out to the late Arthur Crier, the bass singer of the legendary Wrens, who provided the memorable “Pretty Little Angel eyes!” doo-wop refrain throughout the number! Ultimately, “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” proved to be Curtis Curtis Lee’s only Top 40 hit.
“East of the Sun, and West of the Moon,” Frank Sinatra, 1961. A friend emailed me recently and asked if I could name and then post one Sinatra song for the uninformed; what might it be? I replied that because his music was so universally acclaimed, that would be almost impossible. However, on this “old chestnut” that Old Blue Eyes first recorded with Tommy Dorsey in 1940, he “reconsiders it” (Sinatra’s words) 21 years after he first recorded it. Sinatra’s updated version of “East of the Sun, and West of the Moon” was subsequently recorded sixty years ago this week as a featured number on his first Reprise album. Arranger and producer Sy Oliver, who worked with Sinatra and Dorsey two decades previously, provides the seamless instrumentation and choral arrangement here. Of course, the impeccable, crisp musicianship is supplied by the fabled Wrecking Crew. Movingly, Frank also pays homage to the late Glenn Miller at the very end of the recording with two unexpected encores (similar to “In the Mood.”) From this lens, The Chairman of the Board never sounded better.
“High Time We Went,” Joe Cocker, 1971. In a world of four-cylinder cars that struggled to keep up with the traffic at the start of the soft rock era, Joe Cocker was like a barrelling Sherman Tank in the left lane chock-full with a silo-full of testosterone. Like a summer hurricane, I distinctly remember hearing this for the first time 50 years ago this summer and thinking, “You’ve gotta be shitting me! Wow!” This gem has an infectious groove, unimaginably passionate vocals, and seamless musical accompaniment. Yes, that’s Joe’s pal, Leon Russell, on the keyboard. But, of course, Joe Cocker sang every song as though it would be his last.
“Everything I Do I Do For You,” Bryan Adams, 1991. The number-one song worldwide on July 28, 1991, “Everything I Do For You,” still holds the UK record for most consecutive weeks at number one to this very day. While we might have gotten bored of it thirty years ago this summer, it remains one of the greatest love songs of all time. Although the ballad was the lead song of the popular Kevin Costner movie, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, there was no reference to the film in the number. These days, Adams is somewhat embarrassed by it, but “Everything I Do I Do For You” ended up paying for his daughters’ education.
“Colour My World,” Chicago, 1971. Composed by the supergroup’s trombone player, James Pankow, and sung reverently by Chicago’s lead guitarist and vocalist, Terry Kath, this became a Top Twenty hit for Chicago almost a year after their brilliant album, Chicago II, was released. “Colour My World” was the fourth section of a 13-minute suite entitled, “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon.” This proved to be the bookend for the suite’s opening number, “Make Me Smile,” which led off the musical agglomeration. The legend is that the band members drew straws to see who was going to sing “Colour My World” in the studio, and the loser had to sing it, so Terry Kath ended up singing it. According to Robert Lamm, Kath drank nearly a bottle of Jack Daniels before he sang it. He then sang it in one take. By the way, if you haven’t slow-danced this with the one you love in your distant or recent past, you need to do so asap.
“You Can Have Her,” Roy Hamilton, 1961. A major recording star whose voice was stilled by tuberculous, Roy Hamilton, who was an unlikely combination of Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson, and Brook Benton, enjoyed his last significant hit 60 years ago this week with “You Can Have Her.” Hamilton, who was shaped by the fertile black gospel music tradition of his youth, ended up having seven top-ten singles in a career that lasted eight years. In “You Can Have Her,” Hamilton sang, “Life without love is mighty empty/But confession is good for your soul/I’d rather have love for just one hour/Than have the world and all of its gold.” While his original work was largely confessional, his greatest success occurred when he brought soul to such American Songbook standards as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Ebb Tide,” and “Unchained Melody.” In July 1969, Hamilton suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at his home in New Rochelle, New York. A heartfelt message of condolence from Elvis Presley was read at his funeral.
Yes, It Is,” The Beatles, 1965. While John thought this ballad was second-rate, “a watered-down version of ‘This Boy,'” it is, in actuality, one of The Fab Four most evocatively beautiful songs and the last tune they sang in three-part harmony until 1969’s “Because on Abbey Road. The flipside to “Ticket To Ride,” “Yes, It Is” became a top-ten hit in the Boston market when a group of DJs on WMEX 1510 AM began to play it one afternoon and evening during the summer of 1965. When the band played at Boston’s Suffolk Downs the following summer, Paul McCartney thanked them, saying, “You’ve always had great musical taste here.”
“Last Nite,” The Strokes, 2001. A not-so-subtle musical nod to both Tom Petty’s guitar riffs from “American Girl” and Lou Reed’s urban-grunge vocals, “Last Nite” was such a musical throwback that it supposedly ushered in what became known as “The Lower East Sound.” It was playing in the cabs and clubs of Manhattan throughout the summer of 2001 until September 11th, when the world of New York City changed forever. To The Strokes’ credit, the Manhattan-based rock band carried on and has been pioneers in the indie rock movement for almost 23 years.
“Never Ending Love for You,” Delaney & Bonnie, 1971. A somewhat ragged, chaotic folk number that sounds like it could have been a track from The Plastic Ono Band, this lullaby-like paean to love remains a favorite to people 50 and over. Of course, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett had quite a band in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with such prodigious talents as Duane Allman, Leon Russell, George Harrison, Bobby Whitlock, King Curtis, and Dave Mason joining in on the fun. Delaney was the house band leader for ABC’s contemporary music show, Shindig, in 1965 and ‘66; Bonnie had been a backup singer for Ike and Tina Turner. Their daughter, Bekka, was a member of Fleetwood Mac for a time in the 1990s. While their group came and went like a summer thunderstorm, this track – along with “Only You And I Know,” remains as well-played dirges on Sirius and Spotify stations and playlists.
“The River Is Wide,” The Forum, 1967. On August 1, 1967, one of the more underappreciated covers by the LA backup group, The Forum, was released, “The River Is Wide,” a “Wall of Sound” version of The Kingston Trio ‘61 single. This was the quintessential regional hit – you had the group’s obscurity, the proverbial one-hit wonders – but in 1967, DJs in major cities still ran the bus and not program directors. Thus, when three of the nation’s most popular jockeys, Arnie Ginsberg, Cousin Brucie, and Wolfman Jack, listened to the demo of “The River is Wide,” loved it and began playing it in Boston, New York, and LA, it turned out to be a Top 20 hit in those cities during The Summer of Love, 1967, and also in a few other markets, including Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle. The ‘69 Grassroots version, which was a hit based on The Forum’s interpretation, wasn’t nearly as good.
“Queen of Hearts,” Juice Newton, 1981. Let me get this out of the way. I initially loved this country-western pop standard written by Hank DeVito when it appeared on the great Dave Edmunds’ 1979 LP, Repeat When Necessary. Juice Newton’s reverent cover did the original justice, even if it didn’t quite capture the rockabilly nature of Edmunds’ single. Nevertheless, this version dominated the US Top 40 forty years ago this summer and reached as high as #2 in mid-August of 1981. Like any great summer song, “Queen of Hearts” makes you drive faster on the highway – with the top down, of course.
“Tossin’ And Turnin’,” Bobby Lewis, 1961. Bobby Lewis, a veteran r&B solo artist from Indianapolis, moved to New York City in 1960 via Detroit and soon became part of a staple of singers who regularly performed at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. When Beltone Records producers encouraged him to record an original number he had sung and danced to at the Apollo called “Tossin’ and Turnin’,” he readily agreed. Ultimately, it became the most prominent single throughout the summer of 1961 when it was at #1 throughout July and August. Lewis later claimed that his music formed a bridge between Chubby Checker and The Ronettes, and I concur. After all, one cannot deny this single’s spontaneity and hypnotic nature. While Bobby Lewis had only one other hit after this, “One Track Mind,” he lived to the age of 95 and died of pneumonia last year in his adopted hometown of Newark, New Jersey. A great run, Bobby.
“Listen to the Band,” The Monkees, 1971. Recorded in 1968, released as a single in early ‘69, and subsequently re-released two years later during the summer of 1971, this was one of those “rebound singles” that were actually quite frequent in the formative years of rock and roll. (Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” for instance, was a #1 single in 1960 AND 1962). “Listen To The Band” was written by the vastly underrated Mike Nesmith, who also sang the lead vocals – a rare occurrence for him as Mickey Dolenz on Davy Jones usually did the honors. In retrospect, the tune was so un-Monkee-like that many group fans put “Listen To The Band” in their top 10 Monkees singles of all time. By the way, the lull at 1:37 and the break at 1:48 – one of the best moments in pop music ever. If, for some reason, you missed this tune the first time around, give it a listen. You won’t be disappointed.
“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” The Smiths, 1991. Composed by lead singer Morrissey and guitarist John Marr, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” originally appeared on the Smiths’ transcendent third album, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead, but wasn’t released as a single until 1991—four years after the Smiths had disbanded. Brimming with desperation and devotion, the tune gripped the hearts of critics and fans alike—Marr himself remarked in a 1993 interview for Select magazine, “I didn’t realize that ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’ was going to be an anthem, but when we first played it, I thought it was the best song I’d ever heard.”
“Teardrops From My Eyes,” Ruth Brown, 1951. As part of her musical legacy, which is prodigious, the late Ruth Brown was known as “The Queen of Rhythm and Blues” and was the kingpin of Atlantic Records, the foundational pillar of both R&B and soul (AKA “The House That Ruth Built.”) Given that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted her in 1993 and that Bonnie Riatt pegged to be the one to introduce her at that ceremony, it’s no wonder that her musical catalog aged well over the years. As Bonnie said at the time, “Ruth was both a diva and a fighter, a glamorous R&B singer and a tireless advocate for musicians’ rights.” If you think that rock and roll began with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock,” then all you have to do is rewind the clock four years earlier and listen to “Teardrops From My Eyes.” You’ll instantly realize it began years previously, thanks to pioneers such as this legendary figure. All you have to know is that Little Richard said that everything he learned about singing was thanks to Ruth Brown.
“Lady (You Bring Me Up),” The Commodores, 1981. Another hot summer single from Lionel Ritchie, who was catching his stride to such an extent that he generated more Top 10 singles than any artist in the first half of the 1980s. In retrospect, “Lady” is a potent cultural fossil from early MTV. The single is a pulsating, rhythm-induced track replete with sexual innuendo and wordplay, filmed in chalky video with a cameraman who never seemed quite to capture Ritchie’s dance moves. This would be the last major single for Lionel with the Commodores before he would emerge as a solo artist. The music has aged well here – but the men’s shorts – hmmmm. Imagine that The Commodores are wearing shorts shorter and tighter than women’s at the time.
“Michael,” The Highwaymen, 1961. If music frames your memories, I would like to share the vision for a folk ballad that was one of the most beloved from the summer of 1961. At the end of each summer at the Chatham, Massachusetts Beach Club, situated at the elbow of Cape Cod, the employees who toiled there each summer would host an evening clambake over Labor Day Weekend. (While schools in New England still open up in early to mid-September, back then the vast majority of American public schools opened up the day after Labor Day. In New England states, they still do). As I galloped down the wooden stairs to the beach for the clambake on a scrubbed-up early September night in 1961, I quickly observed an enthusiastic group of counselors and workers from the Beach Club gathered around a campfire, singing this American classic. I did not know at the time that “Michael” was a nineteenth-century folk song composed by slaves who resided in the islands off of Georgia and sung as they ventured to their plantation on the mainland by boat each day. I also wasn’t aware at the time that The Highwaymen were a college vocal group originating from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Arranged by the group’s lead tenor, Dave Fisher, the ballad reached #1 just as the doors to America’s public and private schools were opening for another academic year in September. All of these years later, I remember that group of staff members heartily singing this tune. They would be in their late seventies by now. Jesus.
“Summertime Sadness,” Lana Del Ray, 2012. Some of you might be shocked, but I have always loved Lana Del Ray’s musical output. I agree with Bruce Springsteen – she might well be the next great songwriter, and her film noir-kind of voice and obsessions are perfect for our time. We’ve all felt regret in the most joyful of seasons; it is almost a requirement when it seems to be at an end. Of course, given the fact that the former Lizzy Grant composed this ballad about a friend who had committed suicide makes it even more profound.
“Riders on the Storm,” The Doors, 1971. The posthumous single that went to #14 in the late summer of 1971, six weeks after Jim Morrison died in Paris. Recorded in LA in December 1970, the ballad, a heady mix of soul, psychedelic, and gothic music, was the last song that all four members of the original Doors recorded together. The tune has often been viewed as an autobiographical account of Morrison’s life. As Stephen Davis wrote in his much-acclaimed biography of Morrison: “In 1962, while Jim was attending Florida State University in Tallahassee, he was seeing a girl named Mary Werbelow who lived in Clearwater, 280 miles away. Jim would often hitchhike to see her. Those solitary journeys on hot and dusty Florida two-lane blacktop roads, with his thumb out and his imagination on fire with lust and poetry and Nietzsche and God knows what else – taking chances on redneck truckers, fugitive homos, and predatory cruisers – left an indelible psychic scar on Jimmy, whose notebooks began to obsessively feature scrawls and drawings of a lone hitchhiker, an existential traveler, faceless and dangerous, a drifting stranger with violent fantasies, a mystery tramp: the killer on the road.”
“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty, 1981. While Stevie was and remains an accomplished songwriter, Tom Petty wrote this number specifically for Nicks’ solo LP, Bella Donna. This turned out to be the biggest hit thus far for either Stevie Nicks as a soloist or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers when it reached #3 in August 1981. Five years later, Petty and Nicks would reunite to do a cover version of The Searchers’ classic, “Needles and Pins,” which ended up being another Top 40 hit for the rockin’ duo. Produced by veteran Jimmy Iovine, the bass player on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” was Donald “Duck” Gunn of Stax Records and Blues Brothers’ fame! Stevie and Tom would perform it several times over the years to appreciative audiences, including in 2017 in London, three months before Petty died suddenly that fall.
“Sixty Minute Man,” Billy Ward and the Dominoes, 1951. One of the pioneer songs that is now considered an early example of rock and roll, lead singer and pianist Billy Ward wrote the single, which crossed over from the R&B chart to the mainstream Top 40, where it went to #17. In retrospect, it crossed the boundaries between gospel and the blues while carving a niche in early doo-wop. Ward, who was Juilliard-educated and a brilliant keyboardist, recruited Clyde McPatter and Jackie Wilson, among others, to form his supporting band. In addition, “Sixty Minute Man’s” lyrics pushed the limits of what was deemed acceptable, and it appealed to many white and black listeners. It has held up very well over the years and is now considered a veritable classic.
“The Rising,” Bruce Springsteen, 2002. The Boss wrote the track about 9/11, taking the viewpoint of a New York City firefighter entering one of the Twin Towers (“Can’t see nothin’ in front of me …”) before unleashing the gospel-tinged chorus, which frames this truly haunting, powerful ode. This turned out to be the title track from his concept album on 911 that was initially intended to help his fans cope with the tragedy. “The fundamental thing I hear from fans is, ‘Man, you got me through — whatever it is,” he told Rolling Stone in 2002, the year that The Rising – both the song and the LP – were released.
“These Dreams, Jim Croce. 1973. This understated and yet harrowing lament is one of the gems that the extraordinary singer-songwriter released in his short but storied musical career. Produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West, “These Dreams” was recorded and released in the spring of ’73, just five months before Jim’s untimely death at 30. Also of note is that the great Maury Muehleisen, who also died with Jim in the plane crash that took his life in September ’73, provides the acoustic bridge that helps make this ballad so poignant. Of course, there’s also that voice and those lyrics as well.
“Something To Talk About,” Bonnie Raitt, 1991. Originally composed and recorded by Canadian singer-songwriter Shirley Eikhard in 1985, Bonnie’s cover version not only went to #5 worldwide in September 1991, but it won a Grammy for Raitt when it was awarded the Best Female Pop Performance later that fall. It was great for those of us who were longtime Bonnie fans to see her get recognized as the queen of the slide guitar who also has the voice of a soulful angel. This joyful rendition still is a pick-me-up three decades after it was first released.
“Hit The Road, Jack,” Ray Charles With The Raelettes, 1961. The winner of the 1961 Grammy for Best Male Rhythm and Blues Recording, this was Ray’s second number-one song (“What I’d Say” was the first) and was written by Charles’ close friend, Percy Mayfield, an up-and-coming R&B singer who was severely disfigured in a car accident soon after he started performing. Ultimately, Mayfield cut back his touring and made his mark as a prolific songwriter, with many of his compositions performed by Charles thereafter. Of the nearly 1000 recorded songs that Ray Charles released in a 60-year-plus public career, “Hit The Road, Jack” is probably his most renowned. As Sam Cooke said at the time, “How can you not immediately move when you hear this song? It’s impossible.”
“I am Woman,” Helen Reddy, 1971. This ballad was a cultural touchstone a generation ago as it underscored the burgeoning feminist movement at the time. I not only actively supported the Equal Rights Amendment, but I also continued to be attracted to intelligent, thoughtful, and strong women long after this hit song started to be played as an oldie. As Anne Frank wrote back in 1944: “I know what I want, I have a goal, an opinion… I know that I’m a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage.” Words to live by then – and today. Rest in peace, Helen Reddy, who died much too young in 2020.
“The Mountain’s High,” Dick and Deedee, 1961. God, there were some great songs that were hits when I was growing up. Dick and Deedee’s “The Mountain’s High” never even made it into the top five in the fall of 1961, and yet I just loved it then; I love it even more now. As a nearly seven-year-old at the time, I adored the pulsating drum patterns that framed the song. Today, it conjures up the innocence, expectancy, and capriciousness of the times. It was the kind of music that spilled out of our radios like cascading droplets at the height of an early spring cloudburst.
“Smiling Faces Sometimes,” The Undisputed Truth, 1971. At the time, this was just one more excellent soul standard that was part of the wellspring of classics sprung from what we thought was an endless firehose of such works. Like everything else in life, the well ran dry, and so The Undisputed Truth’s cover of a Temptations’ original started to get serious airplay and recognition years after it was first released. Composed by Motown veteran songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, the Temps version, recorded in April 1971, didn’t sell, mainly because it clocked in at 12:30 and was part of an ambitious (and brilliant concept LP entitled, Sky’s The Limit. However, when the songwriters encouraged another one of their groups, The Undisputed Truth, to condense the ballad to 3:20 and then release it as a single, it went all the way to #3 fifty years ago this week. Norman Whitfield assembled The Undisputed Truth in January of 1970 in an effort to bring some new blood to Motown. The male singer in the quartet turned out to be veteran soul singer Joe Harris, who had been in a popular Detroit group called The Fabulous Peps. The female singers included Brenda Joyce Evans and Billie Rae Calvin, who sang backup for Motown on various Supremes and The Four Tops tracks. In the end, “Smiling Faces” ended up being the group’s only substantial hit. Yes, that’s the incomparable Funk Brothers providing the superb musical score here.
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Joan Baez, 1971. While many artists have recorded this Civil War-era classic first released by Robbie Robertson and The Band in 1970, Joan’s 1971 version proved to be a veritable tour de force – and the most successful single of her illustrious career (it made it to #3 in October 1971 and turned out to be the folksinger’s sole gold single record). A featured tune on her bestselling LP, “Blessed Are….” it was nominated for a Grammy for Best Song that year. As Bob Dylan said later about Joan’s version, “You can hear the heartbreak in every sigh as she sings it.”
“Under The Bridge,” Red Hot Chilli Peppers, 1991. As many of you know, this turned out to be the most substantial hit for the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, but it certainly wasn’t typical of their sound. Instead of the hard rock or funk sound, the supergroup produced a ballad with a harrowing topic – heroin addiction. Originally penned by lead singer Anthony Kiedis as a poem in tribute to a friend who had died of a drug overdose, producer Rick Rubin encouraged Kiedis to write music to it – which he did – with the help of his bandmates.. Thirty years ago this month, “Under The Bridge” was the #2 song in North America.
“Bristol Stomp,” The Dovells, 1961. During the dance craze launched by Philly’s Chubby Checker – with a nod to impresario Dick Clark – local groups such as The Dovells, also managed by Clark, began to perform their own dance-influenced tunes. The “Bristol Stomp” was written about a group of teens who were dancing a new step called “The Stomp” at Good Will Hose Company Dances, held in Bristol, PA, a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia. The Dovells, who were fronted by Len Berry, who later had a solo hit with the great, mid-sixties ballad, “1, 2, 3,” knew that with the backing of Dick Clark on American Bandstand, their single would soar. It did – and went all the way to #2 in the US and Canada in October ’61. Here, their hero, Chubby Checker, introduces them, then they take over – led by the effervescent Len Berry. An unadulterated classic.
“Start Me Up,” The Rolling Stones, 1981. In the spring of 1975, The Glimmer twins commenced working on a somewhat ragged reggae number called “Never Stop,” but ended up chucking it. They returned to it three years later while working on Some Girls, and transformed it into a rock tune with a killer new riff from Keith Richards. But it didn’t make the cut, and in 1981 producer Chris Kimsey dug through the vaults looking for material they could release on Tattoo You and stumbled upon it. The group finally saw potential in the tune and kicked off the album with it. To their good fortune, the song not only soured to number one worldwide, but it entered their classic musical canon to such an extent that “Start Me Up” is often the tune the group starts its live concerts with all these years later.
“Glory of Love,” The Five Keys, 1951. There have been over 1000 cover versions of this big-band standard composed in 1936 by Billy Hall and famously debuted by Benny Goodman the same year when it went to number one on the Billboard Top 40. From Bette Midler to Steve Goodman to Peggy Lee to Tom Rush, each version has tried to capture the essence of a song whose melody is as brilliant as its lyrics. However, The Five Keys’ beloved doo-wop version, recorded and released in 1951, hit the top spot in North America for four weeks running in October of that year. Featuring two of the greatest balladeers of the early rock era, Rudy West and Dickie Smith, their 2/4 time version proved to be a heart-stopper. While the Velvetines’ 1957 cover was also a Top 5 hit, I prefer the subtlety that makes this record irresistible and timeless.
“Flim-Flam Man,” Laura Nyro, 1967. If she were alive, it would have been her 74th birthday this past Wednesday, but, sadly, such is not the case. Nevertheless, this is one of my very favorite Laura Nyro tunes from her faultless debut album, More Than A New Discovery. Recorded in February 1967 when she was just 19-years-old, Nyro composed the song for the movie of the same name. “Flim-Flam Man,” of course, is the quintessential charmer and con artist who “pays his monthly rent with daily charm.” On her next album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confessional, Nyro alerts us to another no-good man who’s about to roll into town in “Eli’s Coming,” a Top 10 hit for Three Dog Night. The vocals here – especially the harmonies, which are as exquisite as a fall morning – and the melodic orchestration is superb as well. If you haven’t heard this tune, which only made it to #82 in the US in October 1967, you’re in for a treat.
“All Of Me,” Billie Holiday, 1941. Written in 1931 by the songwriting team of Gerald Marks (“Is It True What They Say About Dixie”) and Seymour Simon (“Shine On Harvest Moon”), “All Of Me” was a hit later on that year by the renowned Paul Whitman Orchestra with crooner Margaret Bailey singing the vocals. Even though the jazz standard has been recorded more than 1500 times over the years, Billie Holiday’s 1941 cover version remains the gold standard. Ultimately, Lady Day staked a claim of ownership that no one has managed to dislodge in subsequent years. As she proved continually over her remarkable singing career, simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance. A musical tour de force.
“A Man Needs A Maid,” Neil Young, 1971. The first time I heard this Neil classic 50 years ago this October, it loomed over me like enduring mist from the ocean. I was wrung wet from its pathos. His refrain, “When will I see you again,” is sung as a mournful sigh; it chokes your heart when you take it in entirely and realize that the one light in his life is now extinguished forever. While many feminists have been critical of the word maid, the songwriter uses maid in an old-fashioned way – as a loving caretaker. One of my friends interpreted “A Main Needs A Maid” as… “an elderly man’s lament for his lost life partner. My father-in-law is 79 years old and lost his wife seven years ago, and now his life is in shambles, his house is a complete mess, there’s rotten food in the fridge, his car is dinged up – he is a sad, incredibly unkempt, rickety, person. He needs his maid – the woman who cared enough to make him breathe in the rarified air of love and selflessness.” Reportedly, Neil wrote this with his then-wife, actress Carrie Snodgrass, in mind. The late Jack Nitzsche, who played piano with The Rolling Stones and wrote soundtracks for such movies as One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, produced the track, which was a featured number on Young’s masterwork, Harvest. The London Symphony Orchestra of Days of Future Past fame provides an impeccable backdrop. And then, of course, there’s Neil’s piano accompaniment, which are the tears to the sadness that permeates the ballad. In every way, this is a gemstone.
“Chains of Love,” Big Joe Turner, 1951. Another example of an early R&B classic that could also be called a rock-and-roll fossil was the great Big Joe Turner’s national hit with Atlantic Records. Written by the legendary Doc Pomus, who sold it to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun for $50, “Chains of Love” made it as high as #2 on the US Billboard R&B chart 71 years ago this November. A classic.
“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” The Police, 1981. Written by Sting in the mid-1970s, this was the first demo he performed for his future Police bandmates. Initially, it was an acoustic number, but “we punked and rocked our way to this version,” commented Sting years later. The Police didn’t record this version until their fourth LP, Ghosts in the Machine, at Sir George Martin’s Montserrat studio. By the way, Stewart Copeland’s percussion work here could serve as a masterclass in drumming.
“Town Without Pity,” Gene Pitney, 1961. “The Rockville (CT) Rocket” enjoyed his first international hit sixty years ago this November when the title song to the 1961 movie of the same name was released. Eventually, “Town Without Pity” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song and led to Gene Pitney becoming the first pop singer to perform at the Oscars in 1962. Pitney, an accomplished songwriter, musician, and vocalist, remained a favorite of his peers for the rest of his life, which ended in 2006, when he died of a massive heart attack after performing in Cardiff, Wales. When he auditioned for a record contract in 1961, Al Kooper fondly recalled his appearance: “…this guy walks in wearing a salt and pepper jacket, heavily greased-down DA hairdo, and white bucks. Three dressing schools tied together; very strange. The creature was quickly ushered in, sat down at the piano, and proceeded to mesmerize us for two uninterrupted hours with his incredible songs and bizarre voice.” In every way, Gene Pitney was an American original.
“When She Was My Girl,” The Four Tops, 1981. Their first release on Casablanca Records after spending nearly two decades with Motown, “When She Was My Girl,” went to #1 on the American R&B chart on November 7, 1981, while simultaneously making it to its highest position on the pop charts at #11. As usual, the release contained the vital Four Tops’ formula for excellence that had made the group legendary by this time. Levi Stubbs’ vocals are truly inspired, and the supporting members bolster a Stevie Wonderesque framework that came to define soul music in the late sixties and seventies. Their top 40 showing on “When She Was My Girl” made the quartet one of the few acts with top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 for three consecutive decades.
“Hello in There,” John Prine, 1971. This heartbreaking ballad could only have been written by someone who served, in this case, an American Master, the late John Prine, whose Jacques Brel-like homage to old people reminds us that the elderly that we see and ignore could once have been young and made sacrifices for future generations that have since forgotten them. This may not be completely associated with Veterans’ Day, but it has everything to do with being a veteran. It seems astonishing to me that this gem of a ballad was released 50 years ago this fall.
“Come On,” Chuck Berry (with Martha Berry), 1961. One of the great Chuck Berry’s greatest singles, this original rocker, sung with his sister, Martha Berry, should have been the template for his sixties output. Indeed, the duet here with sister Martha sounds like Dee Dee Sharp’s work with Chubby Checker. If only he had written and recorded more songs like this with his sister instead of as a one-trick pony, his popularity would have sustained him during what turned out to be a tough decade for Mr. Berry. In the end, “Come On,” which was later covered by the Rolling Stones, is one kick-ass single.
“We’re In This Love Together,” Al Jarreau, 1981. A veritable throwback – one reviewer commented that this soul ballad is the kind of single that Nat King Cole might have recorded had he lived another decade – veteran jazz vocalist Al Jarreau’s 1981 unexpected delight left listeners with proverbial smiles on their faces each time deejays played it. Initially crafted for Johnny Mathis, who decided not to record it when it was written by songwriters Roger Murrah and Keith Stegall, Jarreau was more than happy to oblige. The soul-jazz ballad became a staple on the US Adult Contemporary Top 40 for 24 weeks. “Like berries on the vine, it gets sweeter all the time.”
“Have You Seen Her?” The Chi-lites, 1971. Composed by Eugene Record and Barbara Acklin, who also wrote they Chi-lites other monster hit, “Oh, Girl,” this faultless call-response soul classic was not originally supported by the group’s label, Brunswick, until a gaggle of R&B dee-jays in the Northeast began playing it on the air during the fall of 1971. By late November, it entered the Billboard Top 10 and later went all the way to #3 that December. The ballad was inspired by Issac Hayes’ 1970 Hot Buttered Soul LP. All these years later, this tune still melts the heart even as its soulful rhythm makes you tap to the beat.
“Gemini Dreams,” The Moody Blues, 1981. After their exhausting seven-album-output in four-and-a-half years from 1967-71, The Moodies slowly emerged in the late seventies and early eighties with a canny update of their core sound, inspired by former Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, who joined the band after Mike Pinder left them in 1978. An original Justin Hayward and John Lodge tune, “Gemini Dream,” was a synth-powered top-ten hit forty years ago this November from their bestselling LP, Long Distance Voyager. This tune not only influenced Asia and Yes to redefine themselves, but it served as an influential template for groups such as Toto, who made a living in the 1980s with the same kind of ethereal, harmonic sound.
“Crying,” Roy Orbison, 1961. In a flawless concert at the old Jonathan Swift’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge some forty years ago, the late, great Roy Orbison explained to the those of us fortunate enough to see him live in such an intimate setting that he wrote the epic ballad, “Crying,” as the result of an encounter he had with an old flame with whom he was still in love. “Fortunately,” Roy laughed, “I met my wife not long after, and she turned out to be much better in every way!” The follow-up to his classic ballad, “Running Scared,” this much-beloved lament would eventually land to #2 in the USA in the late fall of 1961.
“Centerfold,” The J. Geils Band, 1981. For those who frequented the local bars in Boston and its suburbs in the early 1970s, this single was NOT anywhere near the blue-tinged rock that J. Geils performed when the band was our little secret. Ironically, “Centerfold” mirrored the new wave sound that amplified another Boston band, The Cars. Composed by J. Geils’ keyboard player, Seth Justman, who teamed up with Peter Wolf on most numbers on Freeze Frame, the LP that “Centerfold” was featured on when it was released by EMI. The single was the group’s most prodigious hit, dominating the Billboard Top 40 as the #1 song forty years ago this November and December.
“Runaround Sue,” Dion, 1961. Sixty years ago today, December 3, 1961, Dion’s Magnus Opus, “Runaround Sue,” was the #1 song in North America. While the classic later appeared on Dion And The Belmonts Greatest Hits, it was actually a solo release after Dion went out on his own. A local New York City doo-wop group, The Del-Satins, backed him up on the single recorded at the Bell Recording Studios in Manhattan on September 7, 1961. A half-century later, Dion was asked how this doo-wop, rocking masterwork came to be: “It came about by partying in a schoolyard. We were jamming, hitting the tops of boxes. I gave everyone parts like the horn parts we’d hear in the Apollo Theater, and it became a jam that we kept up for 45 minutes. I came up with all kinds of stuff. But when I wrote the song and brought it into the studio to record it, well, her name wasn’t actually Sue. It was about, you know, some girl who loved to be worshiped but as soon as you want a commitment and express your love for her, she’s gone. So the song was a reaction to that kind of woman.” How incredible that Dion, now 82 years old, just released a superb new album entitled Stomping Ground, featuring artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Boz Scaggs, Joe Bonamassa, Mark Knopfler, Peter Frampton, and Rickie Lee Jones. Rock on, Dion!
“Moonglow,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1941. My mother once astutely declared that she and her generation the day Pearl Harbor was attacked – 80 years ago this morning. It’s almost providential, then, that this iconic swing masterpiece was the number 1 song in the US the day we declared war. New Haven, Connecticut’s Artie Shaw proved to be one of the more underrated big band leaders, a pioneer in Third Stream Music, a heady combination of classical and jazz motifs that lies at the heart of this brilliant number one single. How cool that my parents danced to this at the old Totem Pole at Norumbega Park in Newtonville, Massachusetts, when Artie Shaw and his band played there not long after they got married in April 1942., Nearly everyone who remembers the attack on Pearl Harbor is now gone. As fellow New Englander Emily Dickinson once wrote, “That it will never come again/Makes life so sweet.”
“Theme From Shaft,” Issac Hayes, 1971. Fifty years ago this December, you could walk down the streets of your city or hometown and hear this pulsating instrumental ricocheting from house to house and store to store, a musical boomerang with panache. The legendary theme song from the film, Shaft, the song was the work of the indomitable Issac Hayes. A longtime supporting musician and songwriter for Stax Records who wrote such Sam and Dave classics as “Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Coming,” Hayes recollected how such an infectious instrumental came to be in an NPR interview in 2001. “The character, Shaft, was explained to me: a relentless character always on the prowl, always on the move. I had to create something to denote that. Otis Redding’s ‘Try A Little Tenderness,’ – I had a hand in arranging that. At the end of that session, Al Jackson was doing some stuff on a hi-hat, and I thought if I sustained that kind of thing on a hi-hat, it would give a relentless, dramatic effect, and it worked. I never forgot it and put it as the driving force behind ‘Shaft’ a few years later.” As a result of the entire score of the movie, Issac Hayes became the first African-American in Academy history to win an Oscar for both Best Song and Best Musical Score.
“I’m A Fool to Want You,” Frank Sinatra, 1951. On his 106th birthday, December 12, there is no Sinatra ballad more devastating than this one, which was so raw and authentic that even the Columbia Records musicians in the studio looked away as The Voice recorded it. Sinatra recorded the song with the Ray Charles Singers on March 27, 1951, in an arrangement crafted by his Columbia producer, Axel Stordahl, Gay Talese wrote in a legendary Esquire Magazine article years late: “He did the song in one take, then turned around and walked out of the studio and that was that….'” Nelson Riddle added: “It was Ava Gardner who taught Frank how to sing a torch song. That’s how he learned. She was the greatest love of his life – and he lost her.” That is what “I’m A Fool To Want You” is all about.
“Our Lips Are Sealed,” The Go-Gos, 1981. Go-Go guitarist Jane Wiedlin wrote this rollicking anthem with musician Terry Hall, the lead singer of The Specials when the British band visited Los Angeles and shared the stage with The Go-Gos at The Whiskey on Sunset Strip during the fall of 1980. They ended up having a fling, and when The Specials flew back to the UK, Hall sent Wiedlin the lyrics. She ultimately added the music. In the end, “Our Lips Are Sealed” became The Go-Go’s first major hit, which was cemented by constant play on MTV throughout the winter of 1981-82.
“Please Mr. Postman,” The Marvelettes, 1961. This is one of those rare times when the original and a cover version of the song could both be classified as classics. As the Christmas season of 1961 was in high gear, The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” became the first Motown song to reach #1 on the US Billboard Pop Chart 60 years ago this week. Songwriter William Garrett claimed that the single was a riff from Elvis Presley’s hit, “Return To Sender,” but he originally wrote it as a blues number. Eddie Holland speeded it up, and the Marvelettes did the rest, making it their first and only number-one song.
A year-and-a-half later, The Beatles recorded their famous cover version at Abbey Road Studio Number 2 on July 30, 1963, for their second Parlophone LP, With The Beatles. It would later be featured in the US on the Capital release, The Beatles Second Album. George Harrison felt it was one of John Lennon’s ten greatest vocals.
“Family Affair,” Sly and the Family Stone, 1971. There were so many rock and soul hits to choose from in 1971 that we took songs such as “Family Affair” for granted. Infectious, meaningful, and animated, the single was Sly Stone’s ninth single and third to make it to number one on the US Billboard Top 40 in December 1971. While a drum machine provided the tune’s percussion, it is rumored that Sly played all of the other instruments on the song himself. Given the intensity of the lyrics, the ironically-named “Family Affair” was a precursor for the difficulties he would face throughout the rest of the 1970s as drug addiction and mental illness. In 1971, no pop artist was hotter than Mr. Stone. Five years later, he was a musical footnote. Still, for a time, he and his band took us higher and wider and deeper than any band of that era.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” The Tokens, 1961. An African hunting song originally sung in Zulu and first recorded by South African singer Solomon Linda in 1939, Pete Seeger and The Weavers eventually recorded it with English words in 1952. Seeking a new record label in 1961 after their initial success with “Tonight I Fell In Love” the year previously, The Tokens rewrote the folk ballad, giving it the title, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” To the group, it was merely an audition tape for a record company – not a worldwide smash as it proved to be in December 1961. Credit Boston’s legendary deejay, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg, for playing it relentlessly to the point that it became a Top 10 single in New England that fall. From there, it literally took off.
“Christmastime,” The Smashing Pumpkins. 1997. One of the most touching Christmas ballads produced in the last 30 years, the reverence behind the words and the message help make this an instant Christmas classic. Who knew that the Smashing Pumpkins could pull this off?
“Peace Train,” Cat Stevens, 1971. “Peace Train,” Cat Stevens, 1971. As 2021 fades into the twilight of history, here’s hoping that 2022 signals a new direction for us all. We need to all ride the peace train that Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam envisioned when this single from Teaser And the Firecat entered the US Top 10 fifty years ago this New Year’s Day. “Cause I’m on the edge of darkness/There rides the Peace Train/Oh, Peace Train take this country – Come take me home again.”
It usually occurred when I opened up the clasp on a specially-made frame that held my grandfather’s Currier and Ives calendar where “the feeling” would sweep over me. At the end of each month, it was my job to take the 22 x 16-inch prints for the year, locate the ensuing month, and then insert it in the front where it would then be the up-to-date centerpiece of our dining room.
When I carefully slotted August’s scenic picture of calendar dates into place, that feeling – another school year beckoning – would suddenly sweep over me like a sudden afternoon squall.
As the eighth month of the year progressed, endless summer days of treks to the beach, Cape Cod League Baseball games at Orleans’ historic Eldredge Park, and isolated jaunts to gather blueberries at a patch situated at the edge of my grandfather’s property in Eastham, that feeling never subsided. Schooltime was approaching, and, despite relishing the nirvana of a Cape summer, I secretly couldn’t wait to start anew.
As I hiked along the refined grains of sand at Nauset Beach, I noticed that the afternoon sky would darken earlier. An occasional scrubbed-up, fall-like day and the fact that the tides seemed higher in our local marsh would be clarion calls to us all. We would stay on the beach almost until supper time, usually adorned in sweatshirts because of the coolish weather.
When we finally loaded up our summer things in our station wagon at the end of Labor Day Weekend and then crossed over the Sagamore Bridge to Route 3 and home to Wellesley, my hometown, the reality of a new academic year was omnipresent.
When our packed car finally stopped in our garage at 48 Radcliffe Road, I burst through our darkened kitchen, shades all drawn from our summer on the Cape, and was assaulted by the distinctive smell of our Wellesley house.
The following day, when I raced downstairs for breakfast, my stomach was already churning with excitement. Not only was I going to see my neighborhood friends for the first time in weeks, but school was literally just around the corner. It was time for another beginning, for reestablishing ties to peers and teachers who mattered, on grounds manicured and disinfected for the school opening.
This tidal wave of expectation would sweep over me, especially on day one, when the possibilities seemed endless, and the world seemed to be swept enough, like a terrace after a good brooming. Like many people, I’ve always loved the first day of school better than the last day. Firsts are best because they are beginnings, which is why “that feeling” rings so true.
As a teacher, that feeling has remained the same for the past forty-one years – like a familiar Christmas carol you hear at the local mall in December. The perspective from student to young teacher to veteran instructor has altered my view as I have gone from a little boy to a semi-elderly man. In 1980, when I began teaching at the same elementary school I attended as a child, Tenacre Country Day School, I continually asked, “How am I doing?” More than four decades later, I now frequently ponder, “How are the children doing?”
Still, I view it as a minor miracle that I still begin to get “that feeling” each year around the middle of August until it builds into a crescendo over Labor Day Weekend. This time around has its own challenges and sadnesses – the surge in COVID numbers, protocols resuming, and, much more devastating, the recent death of a mentor and dear friend, Jack Jepson. Nevertheless, if the academic schedule is a connect-the-dots-to-one’s-past moment it is also a calendar that is both personal and etched in the future tense. In the end, school is a building with four walls with tomorrow inside.
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 like a queen on my bedside table differed. The jingle-jangle clanging produced a predictable cold-water effect; I emerged from my lake-like bed with 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 need you – and it’s a special circumstance for us as a league.”
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 who would constitute my team – thirteen.
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 fortitude that surmounted 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.
When 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 himself to me. Bobby Rice was a veritable string bean with a broad smile and a confidence that I found beguiling. He flashed a broad grin and 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.” 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 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!”
For the rest of our time together that spring, Reggie North, my waggish and effusive first baseman, would greet me, “Let’s check out our neighborhood, Coach Shaun!”
Why did I focus almost entirely on them actually playing the game every practice without much drill work? 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 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, they would take some time to give other teams a competitive game once they got the feel of playing baseball.
Over the next month, I held more than two dozen 90-minute practices betwixt 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 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!”
I continually emphasized the team sport element at the end of each practice or game. 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 laugh aloud.
My slowest runner, Terry Daniels, swore up and down that he would steal second easily if he ever got to first base; not surprisingly, he was an uncertain hitter at best. 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 looked 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 even so much as glancing 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, even Mother Nature herself shat on your team!
Even though my charges weren’t very good, they always showed 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. I had a hole in my muffler at the time, 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 “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, I swelled with hope when we played the Twins, another rickety squad who had won only two games themselves. 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 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, an undefeated squad, and had already begun practicing for the Florida 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.”
We conducted our final practice on a dank Friday night at Fort Caroline after losing a reasonably close game to the Yankees, 7-4, which made our record 3-20. 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 butts!”
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 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 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.
I had put “The Kelly Rule” into effect by this time. 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.” After six innings, I had taken an exhausted Kenny Edwards out of the game, 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 leftfield 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. 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, 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. My players had finally learned that respect is usually not given in life – but earned.
After congratulating 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. Here, on this field, playing the best team in the city, you proved 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 music 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 girls. 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 resulted from the relentless verbal and physical barrage 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 he did for the most part.
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 where everything was up for grabs and 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, 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, selling more than two million copies and bringing 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 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 Safari 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 19 when the melody to “Surfer Girl” popped into his head as he drove 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, their much more polished 1963 version 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 flip side of a coin where loneliness is omnipresent. Yet, the comfort and security of one’s room are also ubiquitous. One of my friends, the son of an 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, a handful of classics were 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 lots of axle grease. Brian’s distinctive falsetto is 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 on the LP and 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 the 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, attended a new 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 venerable songwriting team, 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. For the next several minutes, they chatted amicably while the Colonel Theatre’s filled up behind them.
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 for two minutes. 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 De Mille recalled later on.
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 October 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 that 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, my father quipped, “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 in Boston 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. He wore his Captain’s uniform that evening and smiled at the number of Naval officers and enlisted men who had crowded into the Schubert to see the show.
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.