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