For the past 8 years, I have regularly posted “musical thoughts” in connection with both time and place giving credence and perspective to songs that deserve to be reexamined and pondered about all these years later. Enough of my loyal followers have asked if I could publish these “asides” regularly, and so, I am giving it a try. I promise to add to the mix weekly. For your convenience, I will do so at the very top of this blog entry. Enjoy!
August 22: You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Vanilla Fudge, 1968. Take a Motown hit composed by Holland, Dozier, and Holland and originally recorded by the Supremes, combine Garageband sensibilities with psychedelic overtones, and you’ve got Vanilla Fudge’s remake of “You Keep Me Hangin On.” The band’s drummer, Carmine Appice, recalls: “In 1966, when I joined the band, there was a thing going around the New York area and Long Island that was basically slowing songs down, making production numbers out of them and putting emotion into them. The Vagrants were doing it, they had Leslie West in the band. The Hassles were doing it, they had Billy Joel. It all started with The Young Rascals. We were all looking for songs back then that were hits and could be slowed down with emotion put into them. ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ lyrically was a-hurtin’ kind of song, and when The Supremes did it, it was like this happy song. We tried to slow down the song and put the emotion the song should have into it with the hurtin’ kind of feeling the song should have. We then made it sound like Procol Harum. It obviously worked – and we sold a million copies of it.” By the fall of ‘68, the Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” had morphed into the quintessential “makeout” song. Whatever. Being 14 forever sounded good until you really thought about it. Then it didn’t seem like such a great prospect.
August 19: “Love Will Find a Way,” Pablo Cruise, 1978. Inevitably, some songs frame our summers, and Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” is one of those ballads that unequivocally captures the essence for those of us who were young and impressionable 40 years ago this August. Not to be confused by the rock anthem by Yes with the same title, Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” not only has beautiful hooks but the musician here, especially bass player Bruce Day and lead guitarist David Jenkins, drive this single to the moon. To hear David Jenkins croon, “Once you get past the pain…” is to remember that time in dreams remains frozen forever. In the end, “Love Will Find a Way” proved to be one of those freezeframe songs, which came to define the summer of 1978.
August 17: “Give a Damn,” Spanky and Our Gang, 1968. One of the truly astonishing songs that emerged 50 summers ago, “Give a Damn” did not receive any airplay in several markets because of the “curse word” in its title. Thankfully, though, the ballad was exceedingly popular in the Northeast, the Industrial Midwest, and the in the San Francisco and LA radio markets. The week after it was released, Spanky and Our Gang performed the song live on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, resulting in CBS’ Standards and Practices division receiving numerous complaints about the song’s title being used during “family viewing hours.” One such complaint reportedly came from President Richard Nixon (of course). Partly because of that, “Give a Damn” then become progressive Republican John Lindsay’s campaign song during his successful run for mayor of New York. After all of these years, this is still a powerful vendetta against inequality. When one of my students asked me about it after listening to it, she said, “If you have no empathy, you have literally died inside.” Thank God for the wisdom of the young!
August 16: Aretha Franklin passed on early this morning. The Queen of Soul ironically died on August 16, the same death date as The King of the Blues, Robert Johnson (1939), and The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presey (1977). (That Babe Ruth also succumbed to cancer on August 16, 1949, means that the heavens seem to seek American Masters for membership into their permanent union). That Miss Franklin could sing random names from your town’s phone book and make them sound reverent. However, because each of the tunes she sang in her 60-year career captured an element of either truth, joy, sadness, salvation, or pathos, her voice invariably moved mountains. In the rock and roll era, Aretha had no peer vocally; in the end, she was rock and soul’s Billie Holiday, finishing ahead of such giants as Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Marvin Gaye. When the great Otis Redding, who wrote “Respect,” first heard Aretha’s 1967 cover version, he famously turned to guitarist Steve Cropper and said, “Damn, that girl just stole my song!” If you take the time to watch this short clip when Miss Franklin was at the very top of her game, you will see a once-in-a-lifetime talent soar to the heavens even as she invites us to take a ride with her. We were truly blessed to have Aretha in our midst for so young.
August 14: “Summertime, Summertime,” The Jamies, 1958. 60 years ago this week, virtually every jukebox in America was playing this hit novelty song, a tune where doo-wop met kitsch. In my mind, it conjures listening to it blaring from a rickety transistor radio on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach as the smell of onion rings and fried clams came wafting upon us from the legendary eatery, Philbrick’s Snack Shack. It’s hard to believe it, but it’s true – the Boston Red Sox legendary public address announcer, the late Sherm Feller, wrote “Summertime, Summertime,” and made a small fortune off of it!
August 11: “The Look of Love,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. First of all, there’s that unique arrangement, which made this underappreciated group so memorable to those of us who listened to pop music back then. From the get-go, Sergio Mendes’ music was “easy listening personified” and combined such disparate sounds as psychedelic pop, light jazz, and bossa nova. Mendes and Brasil ’66 (which featured Mendes on keyboards and a revolving cast of two female vocalists, bass, guitar, drums, and percussion) never sounded better than here on this Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic, first made famous by the immortal Dusty Springfield. In the end, this version of “The Look of Love” remains one of the greatest cover recordings of the 1960s. As Professor Dumbledore exclaimed to Harry Potter in The Goblet of Fire, “‘Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here!”
August 8: “Wavelength,” Van Morrison, 1978. This ode to early American rock ‘n roll proves to be kinetic, infectious, and emotive. In the title track of a highly underrated album, which was released 40 years ago this month. From the Smokey Robinson prelude to the Eddie Cochran-inspired chorus, Van pays homage here to the music that literally saved him physically and spiritually throughout his Northern Ireland upbringing. As he later admitted on an extended in-studio interview on WBCN Boston, “Everything I learned about music came from the radio, and everything that truly mattered to me came from listening to American rhythm and blues songs. That music saved me.” As the Irish Bard sings in the song: “When I’m down you always comfort me/When I’m lonely you see about me/You are everywhere you’re ‘sposed to be/And I can get your station/When I need rejuvenation – Wavelength!” I agree, Van, and I can relate totally.
August 5: “Classical Gas,” Mason Williams, 1968. One of the truly great instrumentals of the 1960’s, Williams’ ballad went to #1 a half-century ago this week. Later on, it was nominated in the Song of the Year category at the 1968 Grammys. If you asked the legendary Wrecking Crew members if they had a number one hit on their own – they ended up having 41 number one hits with artists as disparate as Sam Cooke, Sonny and Cher, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Ronettes, Lou Rawls, the Mamas and the Papas, Nat Cole, and the Righteous Brothers – they would unanimously respond, “Of course. ‘Classical Gas’.” While guitarist Mason Williams fronted them on this recording, Williams had long been a member of the Wrecking Crew. Some of the luminaries who support him here include percussionist Hal Blaine, bass guitarist Carol Kaye, rhythm guitarist Glen Campbell, and pianist Leon Russell. Ultimately, 13 members of the most significant instrumental group of the rock era produced a neo-pop-classical masterpiece, which has been re-recorded by more than 100 bands and artists since the song was released 50 years ago this summer.
August 2: “One Summer Night,” The Danleers, 1958. This doo-wop quartet from Brooklyn, New York released this timeless summer song 60 years ago this month where it soared to the number three spot on the Billboard Top 40. The ballad’s sanguine premise was that the warmest of seasons automatically triggered a semblance of romance. Who didn’t want to fall in love during the summer? And why wouldn’t you listen to these sweet harmonies as you readied yourself for your first kiss, listening to the Danleers’ lead singer Jimmy Weston croon: “You kissed me, oh, so tenderly/and I knew this was love/and I as held you, oh so close/I knew no one could ever take your place, ohhhh.” I have to admit, that “ohhh” at the end always got me. Ultimately, this exquisite 45 conjures up a ‘57 Convertible under the blazing street light at a local filling station framed by such Eisenhower-era artifacts as hoop skirts, saddle shoes, ducktails, and penny loafers.
July 31: “Eternal Flame, “The Bangles, 1988. The Bangles were not known for emotional depth, but this plaintive ballad from the girl group’s 1988 album, Everything, takes the bop out of their usual teeny bopper sound, leaving only a piercing distillation of self-absorbed, teenage angst. If love here burns like the sun, it is set against the storm of “a whole life so lonely.” And the girlish tremble of Susanna Hoffs’ vocals, which flip into a vulnerable head voice for most of the higher notes, poignantly embodies the song’s yearning for security.
July 28: “Begin the Beguine,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1938. I once heard Jonathan Schwartz introduce this American Songbook standard by calling it “a perfect offering, which reminds us all when swing was really swing.” For the uninformed, Artie Shaw’s instrumental version of “Begin the Beguine” utterly dominated the airwaves in prewar America when this single was filmed 80 years ago this weekend. The Connecticut native and his legendary arranger, Jerry Gray, spent two mind-numbing weeks arranging the classic Cole Porter standard and ended up producing a cover in “four-four time that ‘bended’ the Charleston,” (vernacular for making it danceable). Shaw then filmed it in front of a live studio audience in Manhattan, where it was later shown on thousands of screens in cinemas via Movietone. What resulted, of course, turned out to be unadulterated magnificence. I concur with the late jazz critic, Leonard Feather, who once said famously that while Benny Goodman was clearly the better bandleader, Artie Shaw was the greatest jazz clarinetist of all time, surpassing Goodman and everyone else.
July 25: “Changing of the Guards,” Bob Dylan, 1978. What is there to say about this hypnotic, puzzling, pulsating song except to say that it’s quintessential Bob Dylan. The opening number to Street Legal, we find our hero here with patches of lyrics that he throws against the wall in order to see if they might stick. Like “All Along the Watchtower,” Dylan is stuck in the Middle Ages here, which makes it even more exhilarating for the listener. As critic Tony Atwood writes, “Bob’s lingering fascination with all the possibilities of rhyme at this time, and that quite possibly is the heart of the matter – the song is about rhymes and how they can be manipulated in a five line poem. The music is the same for each verse, but what happens in the lyrics changes, changes and changes again just like that half-remembered dream.” In such a scenario, the lyrics don’t really matter, what matters is the feel, and feel is what we get layered on with the sax and the chorus repeating certain words as we go along, for reasons that will never become clear. Needless to say, this is Mystery Bob doing his best to push the envelope as he has done throughout his public career.
July 23: “Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream, 1968. Released 50 years ago today as a single, bassist Jack Bruce and Pete Brown came up with “Sunshine of Your Love” toward the end of an all-night session, which inspired the opening line: “It’s getting near dawn/When lights close their tired eyes.” The killer riff was inspired by none other than Mr. Jimi Hendrix, who was fiddling around with Eric Clapton one day and started playing the chord as a backdrop to Clapton’s improvisation at the time. Eric later added the memorable chorus hook while drummer Ginger Baker laid down a gargantuan, tomtom heavy beat to complete the sound with aplomb. For those of us who remember, “Sunshine of Your Love” was popular just when rock ‘n roll began to feel its oats and break out of its own shell into something close to a revelation. Tom Petty once claimed that this number launched the concept of the genre that became known as “classic rock.”
July 21: “Racing in the Streets,” Bruce Springsteen, 1978. 40 years ago this week, I was obsessed not only with Darkness on the Edge of Town (the Boss’s latest album, which had just been released six weeks previously) but, most especially, this heartrending ballad, which ended the first side of the album like a cry in the night. At the time, two years before I became a teacher and in-between jobs, fearful that I was caught in the clutches of waiting to die – just like the protagonist in “Racing in the Streets” – this ballad bore through me like a power drill. In retrospect, what always grabbed me about this tune was the last two minutes following from the defiant last verse, where pianist Danny Federici and Bruce let the music continue to tell the story without even saying a word. It always came off as sad but hopeful, “like they ain’t done yet.” When I hear it these days as a 63-year-old, a person who is still working, still finding my groove, it makes me miss my old friends from high school when we used to listen to Bruce, drink beer, and have a good time, hanging out and hanging on to one another for dear life.
July 18: “Roll With It,” Steve Winwood, 1988. Because he was in his 25th year as a recording artist (and barely 40 at the time), ol’ Stevie could still dial it up with the best of them. Here, he pulls off a rarity – by paying homage to the old Motown Sound through the lens of a very techno eighties feel. This single dominated the airwaves throughout the summer of 1988; for goodness sakes, it even sounds like summer. By the way, “Roll With It” holds the distinction of being the last number one song of the late Casey Kasem’s 18-year-run as host of American Top 40. That seems very appropriate – given the song and the artist.
July 15: “This Guy’s in Love With You,” Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, 1968. As Doctor Seuss once wrote, “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because the reality is finally better than your dreams.” That is why the earnestness of Alpert’s voice overcomes his lack of virtuosity as a singer and makes this single both searing and memorable. A classic Burt Bacharach/Hal David number, this song, the number one tune in the US 50 years ago this week, remains as fresh and intense as it was when it was released a half-century ago.
July 13: “Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” Frank Sinatra, 1958. This searing ballad has become one of Sinatra’s most enduring numbers since it was first released 50 years ago this summer. While he was known as “One-take Frank” in the movie business, his fastidiousness when making music was legendary. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” took almost a day of precise outtakes to get it right, according to chronicler Will Friedwald. As he did on all 12 tracks of his masterwork, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, Sinatra would inevitably enter the studio; greet the musicians individually; saunter up to the front of the room; make notations on the sheet music, and then patiently walk through what he wanted to hear from each musician. “Every time you saw him enter the studio to record, it became a workshop into how to make a textbook record,” Quincy Jones said near the end of Sinatra’s career. There are mythical bootlegs of Sinatra’s precise directions to his supporting musicians in scores of sessions out on YouTube. Like an experienced traffic controller, you hear him patiently walking his band through a maze of notes that eventually evolves into a highly imaginative, intuitive sound. When I first heard such outtakes, thanks to New York radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, it reminded me of Leonard Bernstein’s sagacious entries that framed his epic Young People’s Concerts Series back in the sixties. In “Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” the orchestra and the singer create a symmetry that is indistinguishable, two forces of nature that have merged seamlessly. As with every ballad on this album, the storyline means everything here. Sinatra is a chronicler weaving out a story that grips your heart and hurls it into the abyss. It all leads to a Casablanca-like ending: “’Yes’ – somebody said/ ‘Just forget about her’/So I gave that treatment a try/And strangely enough/I got along without her/Then one day/She passed me right by/Oh, well…..” When the tune ends, you feel as if the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock has just gone out for the last time.
July 11: “Last Dance,” Donna Summer, 1978. Roxbury, Massachusetts’ own Donna Summer was the number one act in the world in 40 years ago, a period in which she had twelve top ten hits over a span of three-and-a-half years. This infectious number-one tune from the summer of 1978 was arguably the best of the bunch, a disco tour de force, which is one of the few singles of the genre to be later inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In every way, “Last Dance” remains a terrific song!
July 9: “The Flame,” Cheap Trick, 1988. In a decade dominated by anthems – a harbinger of American Idol and all that was to come – Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” was the kind of song that you could hold up to the window as archetypal of the kind of overblown but seductive music that dominated the airwaves three decades ago. Given the time period, then, it was not at all surprising that this was the number one song in the US 30 years ago this week.
July 6: “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” Meatloaf, 1978. Described as a “beefy loser” at the time, a marketing ploy that ended up working brilliantly for the former Marvin Lee Aday, who, in reality, had a drop-dead gorgeous wife by his side, Meatloaf ended up taking this affecting song to the top of the singles chart 40 years ago this week. To his enormous credit, the singer-songwriter’s sense of urgency is evident throughout here. With Todd Rundgren in the producer’s chair, coupled with a string of evocative chord changes and an infectious melody, what’s not to like here? Of course, any song that contains the line, “But there ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box,” has my total attention – if not my admiration.
July 3: “Twilight Time,” The Platters, 1958. “Twilight Time,” one of the most revered doo-wop tunes in early rock history was actually composed in 1944 by songwriter Buck Ram and was then recorded by The Three Suns. Originally released three days before D-Day, the original version of the song went to number 8 on the US Billboard Top 40 as the Allies marched into Paris later on that summer. Irving Berlin once stated famously, “Every great song has a second shelf life,” and such was the case for “Twilight Time.” 14 years later, the classic doo-wop quintet, the Platters, rerecorded it, and, because of the exemplary quality of both the production and the group, it soared to number 1 in the early summer of 1958. Former opera singer Tony Williams sang the lead on the updated version of “Twilight Time” (he also soloed on “My Prayer) and provided the essential ingredients to make a lovely ballad even more sustaining. In 1998, the Platters’ “Twilight Time” was formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the song category.
July 1: Dressed Up Like Nebraska,” Josh Rouse, 1998. This turned out to be the first significant hit for one of my favorite contemporary singer-songwriters, the vastly underappreciated Josh Roush. Like everything that he has produced after this initial single, the musicianship is well-crafted, clean, and exhilarating. In my mind, Roush has always sounded as if he came out of the same can of hash as Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and the late Jim Croce. Some critics have chastised him for that, but why lash him to the pole if he was born 30 years too late? After all, Rouse’s best album, 1972, essentially said the same thing in 12 memorable songs. A suggestion: if you are looking for a marvelous way to be formally introduced to the greatness of Josh Rouse, may I suggest that you go to YouTube and listen to his entire 2013 album, The Happiness Waltz? You won’t be disappointed. I promise.
June 30: “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Little Richard, 1958. 60 years ago today, this renowned early rock classic was released as a single by Specialty Records in LA. In every way, it was most assuredly “the devil’s music,” something that Little Richard knew, ran away from, and finally embraced during a six-decade public career. Of course, when this iconic recording was released, white kids all over the country laughed to themselves that the decidedly unhip and racist white sensors were clueless that he was singing, “Good Golly, Miss Molly – sure like to ball!” You could well argue that the ensuing generational gap began right then and there.
June 28: “Lovely Day,” Bill Withers, 1978. Sun, rain or hurricane, it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, you need to check out this classic nugget from revered soul man, Bill Withers, and you’ll agree that it is indeed a lovely day. Near the end of this original tune, “Still Bill” holds a single note for 18 seconds, which is purportedly the most extended note in a U.S. Top 40 single in history. I presume that the ballad’s unflappable buoyancy is what energized him to such an epic feat! Happy 80th birthday to one of the greats – the fabulous Bill Withers.
June 26: “The Lonely Sea,” The Beach Boys, 1962. The common misconceptions of those skeptical of the artistic value of The Beach Boys’ music is that the group didn’t show signs of progress until Pet Sounds. This is emphatically not true; some of their best work was written and recorded between 1962-65, including my favorite Boys’ LP, Little Deuce Coupe, which contained 12 cloying songs about girls, cars, and the summer. “The Lonely Sea,” recorded when Brian Wilson was just 19, has an arrangement that is as sparse as could be – some lightly brushed drums, an almost apologetic bass, and a gently picked, heavily-tremeloed lead guitar that supports Brian’s evocative lead vocal and his brothers/cousins’ impeccable backups. A haunting way to kick off the summer, but after all, Donald J. Trump is president, so I am rather glum these days.
June 23: “Sweet Blindness,” Laura Nyro, 1968. A stellar original song, which Laura wrote and recorded and then passed onto the Fifth Dimension, who made millions off her work (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Save the Country,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” and “One Less Bell to Answer”). This gem was actually composed not long after Nyro graduated from high school. Ultimately, “Sweet Blindness” was one of the featured numbers from Laura’s celebrated second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. On the her website, a fan recently posted this sprite number and added, “The brilliant complexity of Nyro’s songs, the beautiful melodies, and her soulful, joyous, gorgeous voice/singing invariably casts me in a sustained rapture, longing that she was still with us.” As former New York Times critic, Frank Rich, once noted, Laura Nyro’s time changes were as complex as Sondheim, and her melodies were as lush as Carole King.
June 20: “Someday, We’ll Be Together,” Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 1978. A Phil Spector, “Wall of Sound” production wrapped around Roy Orbison vocals, a Righteous Brothers backup, Dave Clark percussion, and a melody right out of the Goffin-King songbook, this was one of 70 songs (holy fuck!) that Springsteen wrote during his most prodigious year as a songwriter. While everyone who knew and loved Bruce had heard this on one bootleg or another, it turned out to be one of the signature songs of his 2010 retro release, The Promise, which included many of the numbers he composed during that incomparable year. From my perspective. everything about “Someday, We’ll Be Together” is a revelation.
June 18: “For Your Precious Love,” Jerry Butler, and the Impressions 1958. The spiritual tenor of the vocals came from the Impressions’ church roots. At the beginning of their professional careers, both Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield had sung together in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Eventually, the Impressions became an outshoot of their church male choir. Interestingly, the lyrics were drawn verbatim from a poem Butler had written in high school and then immortally incorporated into this R&B classic, which was later recorded by the great Otis Redding years later. While Mayfield has always gotten his just due, Jerry Butler has somewhat flown under the radar screen over the years. In my mind, he should be recognized as one of early rock’s genuine immortals. One of the iconic soul performances of the 1950s, Butler’s version of “For Your Precious Love” was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a single in 1998.
June 15: “Miss You,” The Rolling Stones, 1978. The Stones were in Toronto jamming with Beatles-blues legend Billy Preston when they came up with this infectious riff that had been inspired by a harmonica player they had just heard “in a Paris bar about three in the morning.” In the end, the Glimmer Twins had their first number one song in five years. The disco riffs’ notwithstanding, this is the group at its very best.
June 13: “Stupid Cupid,” Connie Francis, 1958. Recorded 60 years ago today, this Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield number was given to Connie Francis, despite the fact that the then 19-year-old Sedaka felt that the ballad was much too juvenile for the sultry Francis. Actually, Connie ended up having a ball recording it and toyed with the vocals to such an extent that she eventually asked Sedaka to consider writing a sequel to it. One of the most playful singles of the 1950s, Francis felt that this ballad was a career saver – “Everyone thought I could only sing stuff like ‘Who’s Sorry Now,’ but ‘Stupid Cupid’ proved them all wrong.”
June 9: “Sugar Mountain,” Neil Young, 1968. When Joni Mitchell heard the rough cut of this early masterwork from fellow Canadian Neil Young, she immediately composed, “The Circle Game,” in response. For that alone, this ode to childhood and impending lost innocence should be heralded by any serious music lover. 50 years to the day after it was first recorded. its colors still light up the sky: “Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain/With the barkers and the colored balloons/You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain/Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon/You’re leaving too soon…” In retrospect, there is no modern popular songwriter who has done more great things with the notion of the passage of time than Neil Young. Long may he run.
June 7: “If I Can Dream,” Elvis Presley, 1968. Recorded 50 years ago today for The King’s legendary comeback special, Presley never sounded or looked better in his lifetime. It would be a long, agonizing decline downhill over the next nine years, but for this one evening, Elvis was on top of his game, reverently singing a ballad about hope, perseverance, and wonder. In a fascinating, what-if, moment, when the Beatles watched this performance on the telly back in England, they immediately contacted Colonel Parker with the hope of composing an album of songs for Elvis, which they would then backup at the Abbey Road Studios. Parker, one of the true villians in rock and roll histroy, said no. Can you imagine if the Beatles had choralled Elvis into the Abbey Road studeos to record an album of original Lennon-McCartney music? Good God.
June 4: “Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty, 1978. 40 years ago this month, the late Gerry Rafferty’s iconic, “Baker Street” became a top-five hit in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom – and for a good reason. If there were an official anthem for loneliness, it might well be “Baker Street.” First and foremost, there was the hypnotic saxophone refrain of the late Raphael Ravenscroft who provided a brushstroke of pathos to the entire affair, and then there was Rafferty’s quivering vocals singing lyrics that seemed to draw blood. When I later lived in London and frequented Baker Street on occasion, the Bogartesque mystery I had imagined was largely missing. I realized then that the number was entirely internal and left open to the imagination of each person. In other words, pure art.
June 1: “Reach Out of the Darkness,” Friend and Lover, 1968. Anytime the word, groovy, turns out to be the centerpiece to the opening phrase of a song, it is an instant attention-grabber. That “Reach Out of the Darkness” entered the Billboard Top 10 fifty years ago this week seems utterly incomprehensible. It seems like yesterday to many of us, of course, but in an era of peace, love, and understanding, it was evident that we needed music like this ethereal anthem that spring. After all, Martin King had died in early April and Bobby Kennedy would perish the week that “Reach Out of The Darkness” reached its zenith on the charts. Two months later, our politics ended up spilling out onto the streets of Chicago.
May 27: “Parker’s Mood,” Charlie Parker, 1948. Recorded 70 years ago today, “Parker’s Mood” was produced for the Savoy label with the Charlie Parker All Stars, comprising of Parker on alto sax, Miles Davis on trumpet, John Lewis on piano, Curley Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums. This classic was deservedly selected by Harold Bloom for inclusion on his shortlist for his tome, American Sublime, a book of the greatest works of American art produced in the last century. As Bloom wrote about Parker, “The man dripped with genius – and it shows throughout ‘Parker’s Mood’. Can you imagine listening to a tune where Miles Davis served as just a pure prop in any musical number?”
May 23: “Free,” Train, 1998. The band’s first single, which was released 20 years ago this week, made it to the Billboard Top 10 and featured memorable lyrics, an infectious hook, and crisp musicianship. In every way, it would serve as a forerunner to all of the fantastic songs that came after that from Train and its talented frontman, Patrick Monahan. This is for my lifelong friend, Liz Pepper, who died unexpectantly three years ago today and who included this pulsating song on a CD she sent to me back in 2011. I will always love you, Liz!
May 21: “Well, All Right,” Buddy Holly, 1958. Recorded 60 years ago this afternoon, this classic acoustical foray into folk music by one of the Founding Fathers of rock and rock is another example of why Holly’s genius prevails all these years later. A single so influential that Bob Dylan said that he tried to model his first four albums on its “haunting simplicity,” the original Crickets backed him up here, minus rhythm guitarist Nicky Sullivan. The flipside to “Heartbeat,” this single, like much of Holly’s work was more popular in the UK, where a young John Lennon tried to hash out the chords with the help of his mate, Paul McCartney. By 1959, the Quarrymen included “Well, All Right” in concerts at Pete Best mother’s Liverpool venue, the Casbah Club. Oh, to be a fly on that wall!
May 19: “The Weight,” The Band, 1968. The Band were underground legends before their debut album even came out. They backed Bob Dylan during his confrontational 1966 British tour and recorded a bunch of classics with him at their house in Woodstock, New York. Just like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, released in late 1967, The Band’s Music From Big Pink is covered in rustic Americana with a heap of hippie sprinkle dust on top. ‘The Weight,’ the album’s timeless classic, is still reinvented by new generations of artists a half-century later. Songwriter Robbie Robertson has long claimed that “The Weight,” one of the few Band numbers in which Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel all take turns singing lead, is about the impossibility of sainthood. As music critic Tom Moon wrote recently, “Sounding less like a polished choir than a wandering militia, they appear displaced, out of time. They might as well be selling elixirs from the back of a horse-drawn rig, moving at the slow, deliberate pace of backroads rural America in the days before [farm-to-table] artisan shallots.” No wonder Music from the Big Pink was named by the Smithsonian as one of the 100 best albums of the twentieth century.
May 15: “Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman, 1988. How can something so simple scrape to the bottom of one’s heart so quickly and profoundly? There’s genuine magic in this great ballad, which was released 30 years ago today. From my vantage point, it has the same feeling that Springsteen emitted a few years previously, “Now I work at the carwash/where all it ever does is rain.” And to think that Tracy got her start in the Harvard Square T Station with an open guitar case and a stack of pitched quarters – her take-home-pay for the day. I remember her first during those fledgling days, and I am glad that I invariably threw a quarter into her guitar case every time I passed by. She always threw me a smile. Always.
May 12: “MacArthur Park,” Richard Harris, 1968. Here are seven “weird facts” to help you put this incomparable song in its proper context: Weird Fact 1 – yes, this was the future Albus Dumbledore singing the most unlikely pop song of the 1960s. Weird Fact 2 – yes, this was composed by the eccentric but truly gifted Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Wichita Lineman,” “Up Up and Away,” and “For All We Know.” Weird Fact 3 – the ballad, which was once called by legendary rock critic, Greil Marcus, as ”the worst song ever composed,” was written as part of a cantata. Ultimately, “MacArthur Park” was one of the few pop songs ever produced that followed a classically structured style. Weird Fact 4 – Jimmy Webb has always claimed that the ballad’s lyrics were not an ode to psychedelia. As he exclaimed to Terry Gross of NPR in 2014, “Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. … Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.” Weird Fact 5 – yes, that is actually Richard Harris hitting that final falsetto note in which he bellows, “Oh, no!” Weird Fact 6 – this is the longest number one song in pop history at 7:20. “Hey, Jude” is second at 7:11. Finally, Weird Fact 7 – has anyone in history ever left the cake out in the rain?
May 10: “I’m So Young,” The Students, 1958. Recorded 60 years this afternoon this doo-wop classic became a staple for the Beach Boys when they began performing publicly in Southern California in 1960. While it barely made it onto the Billboard Top 40 six decades ago, its prominence came to life when the Beach Boys continued to perform it as an oldie, particularly in their most prolific live performance era – the mid-1970s. Yes, that’s jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery supporting the four lads from Chicago. Who knew?
May 8: “With a Little Luck,” Wings, 1978. 40 years ago this week, this was the number one song in the US. Paul’s songs after his Fab Four days could be annoyingly infectious; you’d have the tune in your head for the rest of the day and plead for an exorcism, but nothing worked. It was entrenched. Of course, my friend, Howie Edelstein, would argue that it’s Sir Paul’s genius as a “melodic savant” that was behind it all. Try to get this out of your head: “With a little luck we can help it out/We can make this whole damn thing work out/With a little love we can lay it down/Can’t you feel the town exploding?” What then follows is a luscious orchestral follow-up that you can’t help but love. As a lifelong “John person,” I often rolled my eyes and then ended up admiring Paul’s fetching duality.
May 5: Art & Dotty Todd, “Chanson d’Amour,” 1958. This most unlikely married singing duo from Baltimore had an enormous hit on their hands 60 years ago this May with a song written by composer Wayne Shanklin (“The Big Hurt,” “Primrose Lane,” and “Jezebel”). Shanklin ended up giving it to the couple when they were performing at the Chapman Park Hotel in Los Angeles. Before they knew it, they were singing it live on the Dick Clark Show. As one of my buddies once said to me, this was the kind of song that young adolescents danced the fox trot to at in the late fifties and early sixties at school-sponsored get-togethers!
May 3: “Play with Fire,” The Rolling Stones, 1965. A truly astonishing track from 1965’s Out of Our Heads, the song was initially released as a B-side on “The Last Time,” and songwriting credit is given to the entire band (when this was the case, they used the pseudonym, Nanker Phelge.) On this track, Jack Nitzsche plays the harpsichord, Phil Spector plays bass, Jagger plays tambourine and sings vocals and Richards plays acoustic guitar. Said Jagger in 1995, “’Play with Fire” still sounds amazing – when I heard it last. I mean, it’s a very in-your-face kind of sound and very clearly done…there’s a fidelity there that’s lacking in our earlier works.” The ballad describes a girl that’s high up on society’s ladder, and is known for the lyric, “so don’t play with me cause you’re playing with fire.” They were always a dangerous band, and they resort to playing with fire here. Of course they did.
May 1: “Stormy Weather,” Lena Horne, 1943. 75 years ago today, this iconic single was released in conjunction with the film of the same name. Originally written in 1935, everyone from Astaire to Bessie Smith to Sinatra to Fitzgerald to Armstrong ended up recording it. However, it has always been “Lena’s Song.” As an aside, I recently played “Blue Skies” by Bing Crosby and Lena’s version of “Stormy Weather” as cultural flipsides. The buoyancy of 1925’s “Blue Skies,” was cast aside by the enduring gloom that prevails in 1935’s “Stormy Weather.” I’ve invariably found it exhilarating to teach history to teens through the lens of art. Ir works like a charm.
April 27: “Everybody Knows (I Still Love You”), The Dave Clark Five, 1964. This underrated number remains one of my favorite Dave Clark Five numbers, a single so infectious that it should have its own zip code. From the unforeseen chord changes to the incredible instrumentation provided by saxophonist Denis Payton and lead guitarist Lenny Davidson, it is Dave Clark himself who drives the bus here with his propelling percussion work. The song is bridged together by the group’s version of Lennon-McCartney-Harrison-like harmonies, led by alpha dog vocalist, Mike Smith. Like most DC Five fans, I have never tired of listening to this indelible single after 54 years.
April 25: “Slip Away,” Clarence Carter, 1968. Released 50 years ago today, this sweet-soul-music single is as timeless today as it was the day it came out. Like so many of Atlantic’s releases that year, it was recorded at the iconic Muscle Shoals Studio and was produced by the legendary Jerry Wexler. Yes, that’s the great Steve Cropper on lead guitar and the inimitable Donald “Duck” Gunn on the bass. Carter, who was an Otis Redding protégé, wrote and sang the lead vocals here, which went to number 3 on the Billboard charts. Producer Rick Hall of Muscle Shoals fame, later called, “Slip Away,”… “a seamless number by a collection of artists at the top of their game.”
April 22: “Thunder Island,” Jay Ferguson, 1978. Ah, a prototypical mid-spring jingle-jangle to remind us that summer will be upon us soon enough! Joe Walsh provides the essential guitar licks here, while the late, great Leon Russell provides the seamless keyboard and the seamless production work. Not a bad combination to have if you are going to produce a one-hit wonder, which Jay Ferguson achieved 40 years ago this month.
April 19: “Tighten Up,” Archie Bell and the Drells, 1968. Recorded on October 17,1967, it took the Drells’ recording company, Philadelphia International Records, 20 weeks to release it, but it was obviously worth it, as “Tighten Up” turned out to not only be a million-single seller but was the soundtrack of a dance craze that went worldwide after that. Archie Bell later claimed that this was the first disco song ever recorded, and while I disagree – there’s too much funk and soul it – I get the connection. By the way, Archie Bell served in Vietnam not long after this single was released.
April 15: “Just One Look,” Linda Ronstadt, 1978. Another early-’60s R&B cover released 40 years ago this month by the sublimely talented Ms. Ronstadt in a decade full of them from her. This time, the tune came from Doris Troy, and it made for yet another approachable remake for Ronstadt — who had the highest charting remake of this song ever. Throw in a ’70s-cool satin outfit and roller skates on the 45 cover’s image, and how could this not succeed? I will admit it: I will never get over my unabiding love for Linda Ronstadt from the moment I saw her on television fronting the Stone Poneys back in 1967!
April 12: “Unwind,” Ray Stevens, 1968. In the great lost 45 category, Ray Stevens’ “Unwind” would surely be in the top 100. Of course, it only made it to number 22 on the Billboard charts 50 years ago this week and then disappeared into the abyss. Perhaps because it wasn’t a “funny” song by the Al Yankovitz of his day, no one took it seriously. When I played it to a friend recently, though, he asked if Stephen Sondheim had written it. “It sounds like an outtake from Company,” she said with all sincerity. I laughed and said, “You know, you just might be right.” The melody is out of this world; the orchestration is superb. Even Stevens, normally not a crooner, does an admirable job here.
April 9: “Any Old Time,” Billie Holiday and Artie Shaw, 1938. 80 years ago this past January, the great Artie Shaw was convinced that 23-year-old Billie Holiday had “the perfect swing voice” for his then-fledgling big band and hired her to sing. What made that so remarkable? Well, Holiday had just become the first African-American vocalist to front an all-white jazz ensemble. Her tragically short life was a mess, but Holiday banished misfortune every time she opened her mouth to sing. No artist is perfect, but she came damn close. As with any of her recordings, this is pure magic. Happy 103rd birthday, Lady Day!
April 7: “Don’t,” Elvis Presley, 1958. Phil Everly once stated that this was his favorite Elvis recording, and there have been more than a few Elvis fans over the years who have said the same thing to me. Because the oldies stations have largely ignored it, this Lieber and Stoller classic sounds as fresh and impassioned as it did when it was released as a single 60 years ago this morning. In the end, there was only one Elvis.
April 4: “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye, 1968. Legendary Motown producer Norman Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of Berry Gordy’s acts, changing the arrangement and the timing in order to make it “sound brand new.” This annoyed many of the label’s artists, especially such acclaimed songwriters as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye, but in this case, Gaye thankfully acquiesced. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” a major hit in 1967 for Gladys Knight and the Pips was given to Gaye to redo. Whitfield and co-writer Barrett Strong set the track in a slower, more mysterious tempo, which enabled Marvin’s version to become the best-selling Motown single of the 1960s. On Rolling Stone’s list of all-time greatest singles in the rock era, Marvin’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is number 81. Not bad for a “cover.”
April 2: Win Your Love for Me,” Sam Cooke, 1958. Sam Cooke reached down deep into the depths and brought up pure soul for all of us to love for the rest of time. He had a rare ability to do gospel – his original musical genre, which made him a star, the way it’s supposed to be — authentic, clean, straightforward. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. Like Nat Cole, Cooke had an incomparable voice. Ultimately, Sam could sing anything and make it work. As the late Lester Bangs once wrote in Crawdaddy, “It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing, which made him immortal.” 60 years ago this week, Cooke came out his follow up to “You Send Me,” the vastly underrated, “Win Your Love for Me.” Of course, Sam Cooke could have sung out the names of the street signs in Boston, and it would have sounded great.
March 28: “The Sky’s the Limit,” The Duprees, 1968. Amidst the avalanche of psychedelia, soul, funk, and guitar-driven hard rock of 1968, the Duprees, an incredibly successful Doo-Wop group from Jersey City, released this incredible throwback just as Jimi Hendrix was putting the finishing touches on a Band of Gypsys. When I first heard it 50 years ago this month, I thought that it was a lost 45 from 1958. It might as well have been.
March 26: “26 Miles (Across the Sea),” The Four Preps, 1958. A memorable Spring Break Song emerging from the depths of the Eisenhower Years, replete with four-part harmonies, white-frat-boy voices, and inconvenient getaways. For an often snowbound New England boy, this song always conjured up all of the bright-light-heat images of California in one fell swoop. Given the production team, and the time period, it is not surprising that this proverbial nugget turned out to be the number 1 song in the US and Canada 60 years ago this week.
March 24: “Love is Like a Baseball Game,” The Intruders, 1968. One of the best songs ever written and recorded about America’s pastime by one of the truly underrated R&B groups at the time, this Philly Soul classic experienced a revival when it was released as a single 25 years after it was first recorded. Not surprisingly, it still resonates. Well done, Intruders. Play ball and go Sox!
March 21: “Good Kisser,” Lake Street Dive, 2018. In 2009, four New England Conservatory grads get together to form a band. Four highly received albums later (and with a fifth about to be released), they are still going strong, mainly because of the vocal prowess of the group’s lead singer, the incandescent Racheal Price. That each of their songs has a heady combination of economy and soul just adds to the luster. As one of my friends said to me recently, “Lake Street Dive produces the kind of music we listened to when we grew up in the sixties.” I would take that as a supreme compliment.
March 18: “Shame, Shame,” The Magic Lanterns, 1968. I wonder how many of you remember this classic 1960 ’s song, which you could certainly call ultimate cultural fossil? Hint – it was recorded by a one-hit-wonder group from England, it reached #21 on the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this week. “Shame, Shame” possesses all of the ingredients of a 1960’s hit – an infectious melody; inspired melodies, clean musicianship, and an emphasis on harmony.
March 13: “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1978. Can we all agree that ELO was way ahead of its time? That Jeff Lynne understood that gorgeous melodies, infectious harmonies, pulsating rhythms, and interesting lyrics could produce something sustaining? No wonder ELO invariably recorded in Abbey Road Studio Number 2. For a spell, their productions were worthy of Lennon, McCartney, and George Martin.
March 10: “Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin, 1968. 50 years ago this month, soul music was at its zenith and Aretha was The Queen. Here, she performs her smash hit, “Chain of Fools” live in a London television studio, which included a worshipful Mick Jagger who came to personally pay homage to her. As Jon Landau later wrote in Rolling Stone, “In the end, the sign of Aretha Franklin’s artistry is that she always leaves her mark – first – on the music – and then on us.”
March 7: “Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy, 1958. From his vintage LP, Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel, this top ten hit reached its peak 60 years ago this week. I would describe this instrumental as a cultural fossil – a seamless mesh of time, place, and circumstance. By the way, George Harrison, who was born 76 years ago this winter, always claimed that this was the first song he ever performed publicly to an audience with as a member of the Fab Four. “I was up there on stage in Liverpool doing my Wayne Eddy thing as a 15-year-old, trying not to look at John, who was 17 at the time, and so much more hip than I was at that moment.”
March 4: “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” John Prine, 1978. From his brilliant album, Bruised Orange, which was released 40 years ago this afternoon John Prine provides an unforgettable mixture of humor and pathos into the real life “Elephant Boy,” an actor from India who starred in British adventure films of the ’30s and ’40s. Ultimately, this song turned out to be one of Prine’s most existential, and yet hysterical, ballads he ever recorded. Indeed, this byzantine song imagines the decline of the actor’s fortunes as times change around him, leaving him not fighting obsolescence, but rather riding its inevitable slide into a dusty descent in the jungles of America. Finally, the ballad also contains the single most absurd refrain in modern recorded music: “Hey, look Ma– here comes the Elephant Boy/bundled all up in his corduroy/headed down south towards Illinois/from the jungles of East St. Paul.” From this lens, John Prine is a national treasure.
March 1: “Tomorrow,” The Strawberry Alarm Clock, 1968. Even though this was the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s obligatory follow-up to their 1967 smash, “Incense and Peppermint,” I’ve always felt that this song was an infinitely superior tune. Perplexingly, it only made a slight blip on the screen when it was released 50 years ago this week, ultimately becoming the proverbial “Lost 45.” How can a psychedelic tune with lots of major 7th chords not be enduring? Historically, of course, “Tomorrow” foreshadowed Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525″ by a year-and-a-half. By the way, the Strawberry Alarm Clock was right about 2018 at least. These days, we do indeed live…”in a world of carnivals and clowns.”
February 25: Native New Yorker,” Odyssey, 1978. With a Love Unlimited Orchestra-like opening, an irresistible melodic hook, a pulsating disco beat, culminating in a paean to the City at the height of the Studio 54 days, what could go wrong? At the time, I hardly knew New York. While this was recorded and released in December 1977, it literally took off as the winter of 1978 commenced, where it was a top ten hit through mid-March. After having lived in the NYC metropolitan area for nearly three decades, however, I now get why there’s no place like it.
February 23: “Reelin’ and a-Rockin’,” Chuck Berry, 1958. Released 60 years this morning, this authenitc early rock classic was actually the flip side to “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and while I always adored that exemplary single, I played the B-Side of the 45, even more, growing up. 13 years after the eminent Leonard Chess released the double-sided hit on his record label, Berry’s 1971 live version of “Reelin and a-Rockin’” on The London Berry Sessions sold more than a million copies worldwide based on the reinvented lyrics that played havoc with American censors at the time. (“Well, I looked at my watch, and it was quarter to ten/you know she turned me round/and we had me do it again!”) Still, it was the original version that I still harken back to all these years later.
February 19: “I Wish It Would Rain,” The Temptations, 1968. The number 1 song in the US 50 years ago this week, the lyrics of this harrowing song about a heartbroken man whose woman had just left him were penned by Motown staff writer Roger Penzabene. The lyricist had just learned that his wife was cheating on him, and in his lingering sorrow, Penzabene wrote both this and its follow-up, “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You).” Tragically, the bereft Penzabene committed suicide barely a week after the single’s release. David Ruffin, who sang the mournful lead here, called this ballad, “The best thing we ever did as a group together.” I agree. As an aside, the legendary Boston DJ, Bud Ballou, once introduced “I Wish it Would Rain” on 1510 WMEX Radio by saying, “This sounds like February.” One of my dearest friends refused to listen to this ballad after her mother died in February 1968 because the song and the tragedy were intertwined. The power of music once again.
February 15: “Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne, 1978. The opening cut, title-track and first single from Browne’s live concept album turn out to be a perfect metaphor for both the LP and Jackson’s increasingly demanding life on the road at the time. It’s one of his most autobiographical songs — check out the years and ages he runs through in the ballad — are a harbinger of things to come for all of us. “I don’t know where I’m running now/I’m just running on” turns out to be a whole lot of truth.
February 11: “I Second That Emotion,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1968. One of my all-time favorite Smokey songs, and the number one song in the US 50 years ago this week, this sprite number gets the short shrift by most musicologists when they review Robinson’s scintillating career. In songwriting circles, this one is often studied for its use of secondary rhymes and melodic intricacy. Smokey sprinkled in words like “notion” and “devotion” to compliment the title, all while rhyming verses with phrases like “kisses sweet” and “no repeat.” The guitar line also perfectly accents the vocal. Smokey has always credited Motown founder Berry Gordy for his songwriting evolution. FYI, Gordy was a songwriter before he started the legendary record label – he was Jackie Wilson’s chief composer in the ‘50’s – and Berry taught Robinson how to write sophisticated yet accessible tunes.
February 7: “It’s Only Make Believe,” Robert Gordon, 1978. Featuring the legendary rockabilly guitarist, Link Wray, the early rock revivalist Robert Gordon completely outdoes Conway Twitty’s original, belting out this quintessential 1950’s ballad with such reverence that you swear it must have been recorded in the Sun Records Recording Studios in Memphis with Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and the Jordanaires. Do yourself a favor and take a listen. You will be blown away if you do. Promise.
February 3: “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” Jimmie Rodgers, 1958. Jimmie Rodgers took an old Weaver’s’ standard, updated it, and made it to number one 60 years ago this week. From this lens, Jimmie Rodgers acoustic folk ballads in the 1950s turned out to be a foreshadow of the folkies who came to dominate the ensuing decade. Here was a man before his time – whose singles such as “Honeycomb” and this one – made him a rich man by 1960. (By the way, I love this particular YouTube version on an fan’s old record player. As Ringo once stated, “If it doesn’t have a scratch in it, then I don’t trust it.”)
February 1: “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Joni Mitchell, 1971. From her masterpiece, Blue, Joni ended the album with this heartrending ode that turns out to be a perfect storm of lyrics, vocals, and musicianship. While we did not know it at the time, it was actually a paean to her old boyfriend, Graham Nash, who, ironically, had just written his classic, “Our House,” in honor of Joni. As usual, her highly crafted lines are sung in a voice that is lilting, uncompromising, elegant, and heartbreaking. “I gave up hiding behind bottles in dark cafes a few years ago now. Was told too many Lies. I grew my gorgeous wings and flew away…” From this lens, Joni Mitchell is a Nobel Prize for Literature waiting to happen.
January 28: “Honky Tonkin’,” Hank Williams, 1948. Could it be that this Hank classic was recorded 70 years ago today? As Hank said famously at the time, “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” His tragic death at the age of 29 on January 1, 1953, still leaves one in wonder at the breadth of music he wrote, published, and recorded in a very short lifetime. In the same interview, Hank exclaimed, “I was a pretty good imitator of Roy Acuff, but then I found out they already had a Roy Acuff, so I started singing like myself.” And that’s the key to success in life. Be yourself.
January 24: “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1968. From the best vocal duo in pop history, this single was the last major hit for the incomparable Marvin-Tammi partnership that included five Top Ten singles in 14 months. “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” was recorded just two weeks before Terrell’s career virtually ended when she collapsed into Gaye’s arms as the two performed at a concert at Hampden–Sydney College on October 14, 1967 (Terrell was later being diagnosed with a brain tumor). 50 years ago this week, “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” reached number three on the Billboard Top 40 chart. Sadly, Tammi, who was the sister of boxer Ernie Terrell, ended up having eight unsuccessful surgeries before succumbing to the illness on March 16, 1970, at the age of 24. Of course, Marvin Gaye never fully recovered from the tragic loss of his vocal partner and soulmate.
January 18: “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” Jimi Hendrix, 1968. With its unforgettable harpsichord intro, wah-wah guitar effects and studio trickery, ‘Midnight Lamp’ hints at the elaborate production methods Hendrix would later use on his ‘Axis’ and ‘Ladyland’ albums. It’s also notable for being his first tune to feature wah-wah guitar effects, which then became a staple of his live performances. As Freddie Mercury said succinctly in 1988, “Jimi epitomized, from his presentation on stage, the whole works of a rock star. There’s no way you can compare him. You either have the magic or you don’t. There’s no way you can work up to it. There’s nobody who could have taken his place.” All in all, Hendrix was an unfettered genius who released this tune as a single 50 years ago today.
January 15: “Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis, 1958. 60 years ago this week, the Killer’s “Balls,” as he later referred to the single, was the number 1 song on the US Billboard Top 40. Like Lewis’ previous hit, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” this classic, written by the great Otis Blackwell, is ladened with sexual innuendo, which was shocking for a white Southern musician in 1958 not named Jerry Lee Lewis. After the song was recorded, producer Sam Phillips called out from the Sun Studio control room, “There’s no follow-up to this, Jerry Lee!” Indeed, there wasn’t.
January 7: “Everything That Touches You,” The Association, 1968. The Association attempted to compose an anthem of love, peace, and understanding – and succeeded with aplomb – only to be ignored by a weary teenage population that was growing ever more cynical due to the raging Tet Offensive that dominated the news a half-century ago this month. That this incandescent ballad hit its zenith at number 11 on the Billboard Top 40 in the winter before Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered says a lot about the troublesome days and nights we experienced back then. Still, if you lift the covers of history and just focus on the music, there’s so much to relish here. Luminous harmonies, deft lyrics, superb musicianship (thanks to LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew), and a production that was worthy of Sir George Martin, all combine to generate the Association’s most underrated classic. Sadly, it was also the band’s last substantial hit.
January 5: “Too Much of Nothing,” Peter, Paul, and Mary, 1968. A supposed throwaway song that Bob Dylan originally composed during his hiatus with the Band in 1967, this ballad found legs when Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, shared it with one of his other clients, Mary Travers. Within a few months, Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded their version of “Too Much of Nothing,” which turned out to be a top ten hit for them 50 years ago this week. I have long felt that this is one of the group’s more radiant interpretations of Dylan’s music, especially in the haunting, three-part-harmony refrain: “Say hello to Valerie/Say hello to Vivian/Give them all my salary/On the waters of oblivion.” Give yourself a listen.
January 1: “Smile Please,” Stevie Wonder, 1974. Yes, there is so much that has occurred over the past year that would make us all permanently downcast, like a perpetual shroud of pea soup fog blocking the sun. As an eternal optimist, however, I chose to believe that somehow the best days are ahead of us. Whenever I am down, I go to my default artist, Stevie Wonder, who continually reminds us that even in the darkness, we can see the stars. Thus, let’s start 2018 right with a song, which proclaims, “They’re brighter days ahead!” As always, thank you, Stevie!