Ten days after President John F. Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, made his first public appearance at a local elementary school in Washington, DC. A horde of national and local reporters attended the event, although the press kept a respectful distance from President Kennedy’s grieving younger brother.
When the Attorney General entered on a crowded first-grade classroom, a five-year-old boy suddenly raced up to Bob Kennedy and shouted, “Your brother’s been shot! Your brother’s been shot!” At that instant, every adult in the room flinched and then looked downward, too anguished to even see the response of the Attorney General. The little boy, knowing that he had somehow just said something terribly wrong, burst into tears and began sobbing despondently.
Bobby Kennedy reached down, grabbed the five-year-old by the shoulders, kissed him on the cheek, and whispered to him. “That’s all right, son. I’ve got another brother.”
The Attorney General then asked the first grader to take him to his seat and show him what he had been working on earlier that morning. For the next five minutes, Mr. Kennedy sat next to the little boy, who proudly showed him his arithmetic work as Bobby looked on intently, his arm around the young man’s shoulder.
50 years after his tragic assassination, everyone from Ben Sasse and Joe Scarborough to Kamala Harris and Michael Moore have paid homage to RFK for virtually the same reason: Robert F. Kennedy was the epitome of a politician who possessed an abundance of emotional intelligence. It is why Americans have a lingering fondness for leaders across the political spectrum who had it – Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and George H. W. Bush. More than any political factor over time, emotional intelligence has served as the great dividing line between good and bad leaders. There are a plethora of candidates who are steeped in emotional intelligence running for office these days. As a voter, it is up to you to vote for them.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of emotional intelligence in a bestselling book 23 years ago. It is, according to the author himself, “being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people – positively and negatively – and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure.
When you vote this fall, ask yourself if the candidates you are voting for are true to themselves. Know who they are. Follow the Golden Rule. Take criticism as an opportunity for reflection. Think before they speak. Listen as well as they pontificate. Have the courage to admit that they can be wrong. Possess innate decency.
Admit their past mistakes and don’t resort to covering things up, especially if they have hurt others in the past. Are empathetic to the degree that they take the time to walk in the shoes of others. Say “we” and “us” much more readily than “I” or “me.” Have the audacity to change. Possess the courage to stay the course even if is unpopular. Have the fearlessness to forgive, and, just as importantly, have the courage to ask for forgiveness.
Possess enough humility to say “I’m sorry” when they are wrong. Have the capacity to keep their commitments. Help others without the expectation that it will be helpful to themselves. Remember the needs of the most vulnerable—children, the infirmed, the disabled, the sick, immigrants, and the elderly.
Finally, we need elected officials who embrace the time-honored Cherokee principle, to give dignity to others is above all things.
If every American voted for those candidates with the highest emotional intelligence, then our great Republic would enter a more enlightened period of history in which our leaders will make decisions that would benefit the next generation as much, or even more, than their own. It is no accident that the President with the highest emotional intelligence, Abraham Lincoln, also proved to be our greatest.
As usual, it is up to you, the voter. After all, the power in this great country of others is derived, thankfully, from We the People.
With the Boston Celtics 2018-19 season about to begin, I found myself recently recalling the exploits of the team’s late broadcaster, the legendary Johnny Most, who held forth “high above courtside” from 1953-90. Ultimately, his unyielding, theatrical narrative – an ongoing saga in which the good guys were forever attired in green and white – was “must-listen” radio. His gravelly voice – thanks to smoking a silo full of Camels over the years – was easily the most imitated voice in New England for two generations.
A well-seasoned storyteller who was well-read and loquacious Most was able to describe in excruciating detail the heroic plight of a “warranted championship team” that even malevolent referees and hooligan thugs couldn’t conquer. As one Boston sportswriter once commented, “Johnny didn’t broadcasting a basketball game. He thought he was narrating The Passion Play.” When he died, sports broadcasting homerism in extremis died with him.
Unlike the sedan-like quality of such lyrical baseball announcers as Vin Scully, Red Barber, and Ned Martin, Johnny Most’s voice sounded like a car crash at a demolition derby. He would sit, emperor-like, in his haughty perch just below the rickety third balcony at the old Boston Garden, inhaling non-filter after non-filter, creating a minefield of smoke that shrouded him in a perpetually dimming stupor. For more than two hours, Johnny then would inexorably describe the proceedings taking place on the historic, parquet floor below, whining over the inequalities of life even as his team won a gaudy 16 championships in 30 years.
Amidst Buick-sized rats, plastic beer cups, and drunken louts, his grating voice and discriminating commentary became a welcomed adhesive for legions of Celtic fans in what might have been the most flourishing Off-Broadway production in history. There were very few critics; nearly every Bostonian seemed to warm to his antics like a warm southerly breeze. An uncompromising original, Johnny Most made even the most irrelevant game in November seem important.
It is also certain that Johnny’s hyperbolic storylines knew no bounds if he was into it that night. His habit for glorious embellishment would invariably be replicated the very next day in countless schoolyards across the Route 128 area:“Tall Paul Silas snags the rebound, and gets absolutely cuffed in the stomach by Kareem! Oh my goodness! But, of course, Jake O’Donnell isn’t calling anything because there’s no blood on the court! Do you believe that?”
Even the immortals wore black hats in Johnny’s unambiguous world: “Oscar Robertson gets the rebound…… and puts his left elbow right in the face of Satch Sanders! Right in the face! And Manny Sobel has the audacity to call a foul on Satch! Well, ladies and gentlemen, those of us who have been blessed to see ‘The Lord’ in the flesh know that Oscar Robertson would never, ever commit a foul!”
One night, I actually heard him bawl: “Gene Shue just gave his Bullets’ players an armful of tire irons so that they may attack anything out there in green and white….knowing that Mendy Rudolph will call it ‘justifiable homicide!’”
Some of the more unique Mostian broadcasts occurred away from Boston when opposing fans learned to unmercifully bait such a polarizing figure with aplomb. Inevitably, after being peppered by coffee cups and cigarette butts throughout much of the game, Johnny would growl, “I just got hit by a bagel! They’re throwing things at me, ladies and gentlemen, because the miserable fans here at the Civic Center are frustrated that their shabby, less-than-mediocre team always loses to the Celtics!”
It’s not to say that John didn’t have a sense of humor. His recurrent cackle sounded like a Ford Falcon attempting to start on an arctic January morning. When Detriot’s Dave Bing was traded to the C’s in the mid-seventies, Johnny couldn’t wait to sing out, “The ball goes out to Dave Bing. He backs up to the right of the key as Big Red clears the way. It’s Bing from the corner – Bing……..bang!”
In the end, though, Johnny Most’s calls were both original and extraordinary. His signature phrases became compulsory axioms for an entire region of basketball fans:
“This is Johnny Most high above courtside.”
“Cousy fiddles and diddles – now he daddles.”
“Outside to Sudden Sam Jones – SWISH!”
“Russ blocks Wilt and then gets the rebound all in one fell swoop! What a play by Bill Russell!”
“Jarring John tricky-dribbles with the ball…”
“DJ dishes it off to Larry for the three-pointer. It’s Bird-time!”
And, of course, his nightly sign off, “This is Johnny Most – bye for now.”
In every way, Johnny Most was our Puck to Vin Scully’s Hamlet.
He walked alone with a single spotlight following him to a stool that was placed downstage nearly at the lip of the platform. The audience around me erupted with glee, a vocal lava that spewed forth a series of BRUCE!!!!!!!!!!! The refrains echoed off the old arena walls, which basketballer Larry Bird once called an oversized gym.
Despite the mayhem, he sat down quietly in front of a boom mike and an electric guitar placed beside in its own stand like a gun in its holster. At first glance, he seemed like a scruffy waif who could use a little food. Of course, there is nothing in a caterpillar that remotely suggests that it will turn into a butterfly. Nevertheless, the young man who just wandered onto an expansive stage holding a newspaper had somehow captured the attention of 15,000 people instantaneously.
As the cries continued to resound throughout the bulging and shabby edifice, the spry performer in the spotlight took out that day’s edition of The Boston Globe, September 25, 1978, and began to methodically peruse through it. The audience became transfixed and began to hush themselves to a semblance of quietude. In the meantime, the urchin on stage continued to read the local daily newspaper as thousands looked on with reverent silence.
Suddenly, as if struck by an electrical surge, Bruce Springsteen shot upright, hurled The Globe skyward, lunged for his guitar, grabbed it in one fell swoop, and then screeched into the mike, “Have you heard the news? Everybody’s rockin’ tonight!”
13 months after the death of the first King of Rock ‘n Roll, we who were in Boston Garden at that moment recognized that standing before us was Elvis Presley’s successor. For the rest of the evening, those of us in the ancient arena hardly sat. We danced, sweated, jumped, and swayed along with a performer and his band who seemed immortal at that moment.
In retrospect, this was just another evening in an extraordinary year that would prove to be Bruce Springsteen’s version of Picasso’s Blue Period. After a three-year gap between albums brought on by contractual obligations and legal battling with former manager, Mike Appel, the Boss had finally released a follow-up to his seminal disc, Born to Run. On June 2, 1978, Darkness on the Edge of Town was released to universal acclaim. Unlike the adolescent exuberance of Born to Run, “Darkness” was primarily an adult album, a disc whose ballads described a never-land where expectations and dreams were often swallowed up by life’s obligations.
Because he could not legally release the album until that date, the contractual restrictions triggered a wellspring of creativity within Springsteen. Over an 11-month period, Bruce Springsteen wrote a staggering 70 songs, enough to fill five albums (much of The River was composed at this time as well; the rest of these tunes were eventually released years later on Tracks, a 64-song retrospective). In addition, he had churned out a gaggle of original tunes like pieces of candy to both soloists and bands who then gratefully recorded them that year. These included Patti Smith’s searing cover of “Because the Night,” the Pointer Sisters’ evocative treatment of “Fire,” Greg Kihn’s infectious recording of “Rendezvous,” Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ rollicking version of “The Little Girl,” and five indelible tracks, which Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes included in their most successful album, Heart of Stone.
Springsteen even gave Welch devotee Dave Edmunds, a revered new wave producer and performer, a genuine chestnut to record, “From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come.” When I first heard Edmunds’ Freddy Cannon-like version in August 1978, a dirge about a young beauty who becomes a waitress and attracts the attention of a well-connected young man, which included the line – She took his order – then she took his heart…” I turned to my girlfriend at the time and exclaimed, “Bruce Springsteen had to have written that!”
What made all of these songs so intoxicating is that they presented people who resided in a shades-of-gray world, and yet when an explosion of colors suddenly hit them out of nowhere, it gave them a star of hope. It reminded me of the hordes of Beatles fans who fervidly sang along with John Lennon throughout a live performance of “I’m a Loser.” In the final analysis, the assorted singles that Springsteen ground out like coffee turned out to be about all of us. “The great challenge of adulthood,” Bruce would write decades later in his 2016 autobiography, “ is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”
Beginning on May 23, 1978, at the Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo and ending on December 31 at the Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed to 114 audiences from intimate settings to arena-sized venues. Throughout the seven-month tour across both the US and Canada, he performed with his just-as-famous backup group, who were at the height of their individual musical powers. That, of course, meant Clarence, “The Big Man” Clemons on tenor sax; Roy Bittan on piano; Danny Federici on the organ and accordion; Garry W. Tallent on the bass; “Miami Steve” Van Zandt on both rhythm and lead guitar, and “Mighty Max” Weinberg on the drums.
At the time, Bruce Springsteen was just 28-years old. Buff; ambitious; and unswerving, he was a bandleader who prided himself and his group into normally producing four-hour concerts. Given that reality, you would attend such performances with expectations that were off the charts and still be transformed afterward into an oasis of personal emancipation that was both moving and unexpected.
As Los Angeles Times critic, Robert Hilburn wrote later on, “I realized the faith I was beginning to put in Springsteen the December day in 1978 that I drove 400 miles to Tucson, Arizona, to see him in concert – for personal reasons, not as a professional assignment. The show was part of a short western swing near the end of the ‘Darkness Tour’ that skipped Los Angeles…. [a] swell of emotion came to me during Bruce’s concert in Tucson … seeing Springsteen push himself so hard on stage and listening to the eloquence of his songs made me forget about doubts and think about my own dreams again.”
As Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band crisscrossed North America that summer, the word got out that he and his bandmates were putting on a show that was so good that even if you had to sell your soul to see it, you made sure that you did so. Consequently, I took the T to the Garden the day that tickets went out on sale, and secured two of them in a loge section 100 feet away from the stage.
In the meantime, Bruce Springsteen, perpetually attentive to his fans, agreed to have a few of his 1978 concerts broadcast live on local FM radio stations in the Northeast. Through a stereo loudspeaker at home, one could easily feel the indefatigable energy of both the band and its audience. As biographer Dave Marsh wrote, “The screaming intensity of those ’78 shows are part of rock and roll legend in the same way as Dylan’s 1966 shows with the Band, the Rolling Stones tours of 1969 and ’72, and the Who’s Tommy tour of 1969 – benchmarks of an era.”
On September 19, 1978, the Boss performed a particularly enlivening homecoming concert live from Passaic, New Jersey to listeners on such radio stations as WBCN in Boston, WNEW-FM New York, WIOQ-FM Philadelphia, and WIYY-FM Baltimore. This now legendary broadcast, expertly mixed by producer Jimmy Iovine, was listened to by hundreds of thousands of fans across the I-95 corridor. Within a year, a pristine bootleg of the radio broadcast, Piece de Resistance, would be sold in record stores in both the US and Canada.
Six evenings later, after the Boston Garden crowd stood up for Springsteen’s reverent version of “Everybody’s Rockin’ Tonight,” Springsteen and his band broke into “Badlands,” the ballad that opened Darkness at the Edge of Town. Racing into it at a breakneck speed, as if daring his band members to keep up, we all knew that we were all in for some kind of special experience that night. As he belted out the first stanza of the song, Bruce reminded us all of the crucibles of adulthood, admitting: “I’m in a crossfire/that I don’t understand.” Like thousands of other young men in the Boston Garden audience, I was then an angst-ridden young man who wanted to change and take control of my life. As I wrote in a review of the album earlier that summer, “Right out of the gate, ‘Badlands’ hits the listener smack between the eyes.”
The Boss then went to familiar territory, an audience participatory version of his 1973 classic, “Spirit in the Night,” which featured the familiar call-response echo from the Garden crowd, who repeatedly shouted, “ALL NIGHT!” to his refrain. By the last stanza, even the ushers were bawling, “All night!”
Springsteen then purposely toned it down and dutifully sang a deferential version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The title song of his then-new album, Bruce was somehow able to cut to the core of contemporary American ennui, which often stemmed from systemic financial and societal alienation in a nation where one’s hopes and dreams were often defied by reality. This was followed by another poignant ballad about loss and absolution, “Independence Day,” a staggering number about letting go even as one took on the mantle of supposed freedom. As Springsteen wrote decades later in his autobiography, “Our children are never really yours; they’re on loan until they’re all on their own..”
The Boss then revved it up and introduced his first single from “Darkness,” “The Promised Land,” a version that both kicked butt and took names. A veritable rock ‘n roll encyclopedia, Bruce dedicated his harmonica solo that began the piece to the great Delbert McClinton, whose work on Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby,” back in 1962 inspired John Lennon to imitate it on the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do.” For many, including me, the pulsating saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, which formed the bridge of the ballad, turned out to be the proverbial icing on the cake.
In a concert of astonishing moments, one of them occurred near the beginning of the song when Bruce motioned to the audience to sing the chorus of the song acapella. Given the fact that the album had only been out for three months, this was a ballsy thing to do, but the Garden crowd was up to the challenge. Ultimately, they nailed it perfectly.
The dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land!”
For his next musical foray, Bruce Springsteen decided to remind his Boston audience that we were not only his captives but his lovers for the evening. Accordingly, he and the E Street Band broke into one of my favorite numbers on Darkness on the Edge, “Prove it All Night.” The number was launched with a flamboyant riff from pianist Roy Bittan, and then Springsteen took over for a stellar guitar solo that lasted three minutes of unadulterated brilliance. He and the band then broke into the recognizable opening refrain, and the song literally took off from there. Not only did he then prove it musically, but his gymnastics throughout the number turned out to be utterly jaw-dropping.
“Goddamn!” shouted one fan in front of me when Bruce sprint across the stage jumped five feet up onto one of the large speakers, began serenading us from there, jumped down, took 10 steps at a full run, and then slid across the stage on his knees while still playing the lead guitar. I remember thinking at the time that Bruce Springsteen was a musical centerfielder, and, like Willie Mays, he could get to every ball hit his way.
After such an explosion of sustained effervescence, it was predictable that Bruce would subdue it once again, but to do so with the signature song of “Darkness” bordered on the sublime. Roy Bittan initiated “Racing in the Streets” with an emotive piano introduction, which was not only a stroke of genius but actually set us up for the radiance to follow. As we were constantly reminded that evening, Springsteen was an old-fashioned balladeer who sang about the plight of “every-man,” individuals whose compromises and decisions led them to settle for the best they could make of their lives. Bruce wasn’t singing about the mapped-out lives of the well-connected, but about the vast majority of us who simply make up the lives we had on the fly. When he got to the crescendo of the number, a young woman below me began to weep as The Boss crooned:
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She sighs, “Baby, did you make it alright? “
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn,
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
For all the shutdown strangers and hot rod angels,
Rumbling through this Promised Land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands.”
As Bruce Springsteen sang the haunting ballad, the E Street Band purposely backed in reverence as he completed it on his own. When she reflected back on the highlights at the concert, my girlfriend recalled that winter, “Now that was a moment.”
After the obligatory “Thunder Road,” “Kitty’s Back,” and “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” which the audience lapped up, clapped along with, and sang it all back to a jubilant Springsteen, he closed the first half of the show with a transcendental version of “Jungleland,” featuring the incomparable saxophone work of “The Big Man,” Clarence Clemons (from 3:42 – 6:05). Amidst a flurry of helter-skelter chord changes and infectious guitar riffs, Springsteen’s poetry dripped forth images that bored into one’s soul, from “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain,” to “outside the street’s on fire/in a real death waltz/between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy.” At the end of the anthem, when the entire group sprinted off the stage like schoolboys to cool off, you thought they would live forever. Sadly, Danny Federici would die of melanoma in 2008. The seemingly immortal Clarence Clemons would succumb to a stroke three years later.
After a 20 minute break in the action, Bruce Springsteen and his bandmates came back onstage for the second set, which began with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” a sprite holiday tune that he had just begun to include in his sets that fall. The Boss deftly used the brilliant arrangement that Phil Spector first incorporated on his 1963 Christmas album with the Crystals, turned up the energy a bit, and let the mirth of the song take over. As “The Big Man” began to “ho ho ho” during the song’s bridge, fake snow began to fall from the rafters, covering the Boston Garden stage! Magic.
From his bag of tricks, Springsteen then rolled out five disparate tunes, which he had both written and recorded earlier that year, including “Candy’s Room,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Streets of Fire,” and “Something in the Night.” Except for the newly-composed ballad, “Point Blank,” which he would include on The River album in 1980, the hyperkinetic participation of the crowd was so intense that Bruce had us sing the chorus lines to every song.
The next number of the set, “Fire,” a hit song for the Pointer Sisters that fall, instantly turned 8,000 women in the Garden that evening into weepy, sweat-soaked sirens all intent on slaying the Odysseus-like figure singing to them. That was followed by The Boss’s smoking version of “Because the Night,” which put Patti Smith’s cover into the proverbial dust in the process. After a Santana-like guitar solo to begin the ballad, Bruce’s distinctive baritone took over:
“Take me now baby here as I am
Hold me close, try and understand
I work all day out in the hot sun
I break my back till the evening comes
Come on now try and understand
I work all day pushing for the man
Daylights gone, take me under your cover
They can’t hurt us now
Can’t hurt us now, can’t hurt us now
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us!”
Of all of the songs that Bruce performed that evening at the Garden, “Because the Night” proved to be the one that most lingered in my memory, mainly because his band matched his passion and his prowess.
The E Street Band then went back to the well for two beloved numbers that had been staples in the group’s repertoire for almost four years to that point. “Incident on 57th Street,” one of the great story-songs from Bruce’s highly underappreciated second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, focused on Johnny and Jane, two Hispanic-Americans, who found themselves wrapped in the charms and clutches of the New York City gangland. A Scorsese-like plot then unfolded all the way to an unexpected conclusion.
Springsteen then followed this with a non-fictional account of how his own band formed in his hallowed song from Born to Run, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” When Bruce hit the autobiographical third verse and cried out, “When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band/From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raised their hands!” the Garden crowd literally erupted with spasms of delight. An overhead spotlight shone on an ivory-suited Clemons throughout this stanza, which inspired him to project an extra bit of sound from his tenor sax. This caused the audience’s screams to then reverberate to the rafters high above the stage.
Bruce then followed his signature song with two iconic masterworks, “Rosalita,” followed by “Born to Run.” While his version of “Born to Run” was to die for, it was the group’s performance throughout “Rosalita,” that put another exclamation mark on the evening. When the young bard finally punched out the climax of the number at the 4:20 mark, the audience was there, bellowing out the lyrics in unison.
Now, I know your mama, she don’t like me, ’cause I play in a rock and roll band
And I know your daddy, he don’t dig me, but he never did understand
Your papa lowered the boom, he locked you in your room, I’m comin’ to lend a hand
I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man
Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny
But now you’re sad, your mama’s mad
And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money
Well, tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance
Because a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!
Even as Bruce played on, a string of girls climbed onto the Garden stage and kissed him, one of them avec vigueur. Steve Morse of The Boston Globe later wrote that he had never seen such joy onstage. None of us had!
Exhausted and yet clearly exhilarated, The Boss ended the second set with Eddie Floyd’s 1967 soul anthem, “Raise Your Hand,” later made famous by Janis Joplin. For this one, Springsteen played the role of a lounge singer and worked the audience with an old-fashioned standing mike as his main prop. That he ended up singing on top of the stage’s tallest speaker system, some 15 feet off the ground, made it even more remarkable! While Bruce was dancing, crooning, and carousing, it was the translucent sax work of “The Big Man”, who drove the musical bus on this number to the last note.
After five minutes of an entire Boston audience screaming, “BRRRRUUUUUUUCCCEEE,” Springsteen and the E Street Band came on for a mindblowing rendition of Gary “U. S.” Bond’s 1961 top ten hit, “Quarter to Three.” Forever a zealous fan of early rock ‘n roll, Bruce was determined to conclude the evening playing from the genre’s Book of Genesis. When the last note was struck and the audience enveloped him in a wall of sound that was somewhere between a scream and a cry, The Boss shouted out, “Thank you, Boston! As always – keep rocking!
20 minutes later, I poured into an impossibly crowded subway car and headed back to the Woodland T-stop feeling as if I had just pitched a nine-inning shutout. Dripping with sweat – we all were – people commenced high-fiving one another as we boarded the train. As if on cue, many of the passengers, all of whom had just attended the concert, spontaneously broke into their own version of “Prove It All Night” as we rolled on into the Boston night on the Green Line.
Often times in life, we invest way too much passion in the stuff of dreams that we sometimes fail to love what is right in front of us. In the end, life is not about searching for the things that can be found, but it is about letting the unexpected happen and finding things you never searched for previously. As he had done throughout the legendary “Darkness Tour” during the last seven months of 1978, Bruce Springsteen ended up giving all of us who had attended his concert that evening a reason to believe.
Sometimes, people and/or events unfold in today’s news that leaves most in stunned silence, and a scintillating quote from a literary bard captures it with aplomb: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
This is why great literature is always relevant.
Edith Wharton once wrote, “People either choose fear or love to guide their lives.” It seems as if 37 percent of the American public has chosen fear. And now it seems that all of the guilty will either be saved by a presidential pardon, or in the case of Individual Number One, a compliant Republican Congress. Of course, when Anne Boleyn arrived at the scaffolding to be beheaded, she kept looking around, believing until the last moment that Henry VIII would come in and save the day. Of course, he never came.
History is like an old skipping record. It continually repeats itself. Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York are just too damn smart to think that anyone is going to get away with selling our country to our greatest adversaries.
As 25 Daysailer boats veered toward the final turn of my first – and what would be my last race at Stage Harbor Yacht Club in Chatham, Massachusetts. – I felt the spray of salt water splash on both my face and forearms as I instructed my hearty crew of two to literally “stay the course.”
For some still inexplicable reason, I had been appointed as skipper on a modest Daysailer on the last race of the summer season for the “12 and unders.” Not only did I not deserve the honor; it was actually dangerous to put me anywhere near a boat except as a handler of the jib as part of a well-seasoned crew. But my brother, Mark, just two years older, was, at the time, a forbearing and discerning sailor, so “the powers that be” probably surmised that I had the same DNA. In retrospect, however, if my brother was Jimmy Carter, then I was his younger brother, Billy.
While Mark took to the sport like butter on toast, I was baffled by the anachronistic lexicon, the sketchy edicts, and upper-crust mores that defined sailing. As a foreshadow of what was to come, Mark, a future headmaster, was a confident patrician, while I was an outright plebeian. Half the time, I literally didn’t know what to do, so I just winged it to whoever was in my boat, using my enduring wit as a deflective measure. “Okay, guys, ready about – ‘hardly’.” Everyone would then guffaw and shake their heads at the jokester guiding the boat.
After our sailing lessons, my dutiful sibling would come home discussing the significance of studying the sea pattern to windward as a way to tack correctly. I would then comment that the Stage Harbor Yacht Club had purchased two dozen “Daysailers,” from the boat’s renowned designer, George O’Day, “at a good price” according to the Program Director, David Hovey. “It must have been a good sale!” I remarked to my mother.
“Oh, Shaunie!” she laughed, probably wondering how she could “spawn” two such distinctly different boys 19 months apart.
As usual, Mummie had the best of intentions when she signed her two youngest children up for sailing lessons. After all, she had learned to be a proficient sailor at the same club 30 years before, and as someone whose ancestors had lived and died in Chatham at the elbow of Cape Cod, our mother yearned for us to at least had a semblance of ability in such an enhancing life skill. “Boys, it’s in your blood,” she would say as she drove us down Route 28 from our cottage in Eastham.
Situated on the northeast shore of Nantucket Sound, Stage Harbor, a semi-colon-shaped body of water, was flanked by hilly terrain dotted with stunning summer houses with red-rose covered white picket fences, which gave it an otherworldly feel.
One month and some 40 hours of lessons later (including a wealth of experience sailing in the intimate Chatham harbor), my brother and I sauntered down to the dock for the big race of the season on the last day of the summer season. When Mark was assigned to lead a boat of three, I was not at all surprised. After all, he was competent if not really good at everything he did, and this was his tangible reward for a job well done.
However, when I observed that I too had been assigned as skipper to two twin boys a year younger than me, I thought that it must have been a misprint. I almost flew up to the Stage Harbor Manager, the affable Dave Hovey, to inform them that they were making a giant miscalculation. In the end, however, I kept my mouth shut, thinking… maybe they know something that I don’t?
When the horn sounded to begin the race, at least 20 or more Daysailers crossed the starting line, and we were all off. My modest crew consisted of two identical twins named Harry and Pete, were a year younger and just as inexperienced as I was. Despite my ebullience, they seemed edgy as we skidded out into the deep-blue waters of Stage Harbor. The water was placid that morning, and there was a hint of wind blowing from the southwest. All three of us squinted our eyes as we headed north toward the first main buoy where we would turnabout.
In Secretariat-like fashion, our little wooden sailboat unfathomably sprinted out in front and led all other boats as we approached the buoy, which would signal that a port tact was in the offering. “Hey, guys, we’re in the lead!” I bellowed. The boys in the boat didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry; you could smell their fear as clearly as the shifting ocean tide. For me, it was a “roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair” kind of moment, and for a brief interlude, I felt as if we were on top of the world.
As my crew and I approached the initial buoy, I reminded my charges that we would see turnabout soon. At the time, the twins seemed up to the challenge. Timing is everything in life, however, and as we approach the red-and-white-painted marker, the wind, which has pushed us to the lead, stopped as suddenly as a cab at a school crossing. It was as if all of the air in our balloon was instantaneously released.
Out of sheer momentum, we passed the marker and began to drift towards the north along with the current, which seemed invigorated that it was taking three passengers with it. I looked back and observed every other boat successfully tact to port and continue on the racecourse.
“If only we had a motor attached to this boat!” I shouted to my crewmates. They didn’t seem amused and began to panic as our Daysailor continued to dawdle far away from the rest of the boats. I looked ahead and saw that we were methodically heading towards far-flung Morris Island.
“Ah, guys, we might off to push off from there!” I exclaimed to Harry and Pete.
Instead of agreeing with me, they both burst into a harbor of tears (pun intended) and began crying out for their mother.
Oh, boy. Or perhaps I should say, oh, boys.
Later on, my mother explained to me that we had hit “the irons,” and that that was not a good thing. I learned that a sailing craft is said to be “in irons” if it is stopped with its sails unable to generate power in the no-go zone. If the craft tacks too slowly, or otherwise loses forward motion while heading into the wind, the craft will coast to a stop. In my case, I simply looked for a “coast” – meaning Morris Island – to stop the boat.
Unfortunately, I let my humor and my prevailing sense of optimism get the best of me at that moment. “There we are, guys! An island to land on! Get ready to ditch this boat for safe land!”
You would have thought that I had asked them to give up sugar. Their subsequent cries could be heard all the way to Nantucket.
A few minutes later, after moving the Daysailer to dry land, I convinced the twins to start walking the secluded beach of Morris Island in search of help. I knew that we would have to be there a while until high tide began to come back and help us cast off the little peninsula. Both kids continued to bellow; Harry continually called out for his mother as if he were about to walk down death row to be electrocuted by Old Sparky. Eventually, we did run into one old sprite Chathamite who said, with typical salty New England humor, “Well, gentlemen, this is not a bad place to spend the winter.”
I chortled immediately, but my comrades were now bereft thinking that they had ultimately landed in an unrelenting gulag.
In the meantime, the boats back in Stage Harbor had all come into port safe and sound, and my brother, Mark, and his boat – of course – had finished among the top handful of boats. After the last Daysailer had arrived, Mummie began looking for me, thinking, of course, that I had somehow scurried by her and toward our car, which would then take us to the local beach.
On the dock, a plainly distraught woman, you got it, Harry and Peter’s mother, was frantically looking out in the ocean for any sign of a boat with three boys in it. She accosted David Hovey, who recounted the boats and bellowed, “They’re all here!” What he didn’t know was that an extra Daysailor had been added to the usual fleet that day for the race. There was still one more boat out there – and it was safely ensconced on Morris Island.
Over the next hour, both mothers searched everywhere for their lost ones, but my mother typically was much cooler and casual about the entire affair. “Oh, Shaunie will show up somewhere, and it there will be a funny story attached to it,” she exclaimed to her longtime friend, Betty Kennedy, who too had begun to look for me.
To make a long story short, Mummie whose confident demeanor intimidated most everyone she came across, convinced Dave Hovey to “give the harbor another glance” with his high-powered range binoculars.
By this time, Harry and Pete’s mother wanted to the Coast Guard, but Mr. Hovey, another practical Cape Codder, would have none of it. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he declared, “I see three specks, they must be boys, walking in single file on the beach of Morris Island! And there is a boat out there – stuck in the irons.”
Within a half-hour, Dave Hovey had motored to us, attached the Daysailer to the stern of his Boston Whaler, and had shot us home, a streaking arrow of white zooming across the blue waters of Stage Harbor.
As we alighted from the boat, Harry and Pete sprinted towards their mother on the dock and enveloped her as if they had been away at sea for three years. The trio heaved spasms of tears that flooded the dock like a prodigious nor’easter.
In contrast, I took my sweet time and profusely shook Mr. Hovey’s hand as I embarked from the Daysailor, which seemed to sigh in relief as it was tied to the mooring, I observed Mummie standing adroitly in the modest parking lot adjacent to the dock. With her hands resting assuredly on her hips, she was clear-eyed, chuckling to herself, and obviously amused that her baby had gotten himself into another kerfuffle entirely of his own making.
I skated past the overwrought rendezvous of Harry, Pete, and Mama on the dock, and climbed up the ladder to the parking lot with a cheery, bemused expression on my face.
As I neared my mother, I gleefully bellowed, “Well, Mum, you can’t win ‘em all!”
Her wheezed cackle could be heard all the way to Orleans.
The greatest “super-group” of them all: The Travelling Wilburys in June 1987.
“High School USA, Tommy Facenda, 1958. Were we once this innocent? The ultimate novelty song, which was released in December 1958, Facenda eventually recorded “regional versions” of this single, focusing on the high schools in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, and Philadelphia. A go-to dance song at hops across the nation during the academic year 1968-59, “High School USA” has probably not been played at any dance since. In the end, it defines the notion of a lost 45.
“How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” Al Green, 1978. Working with his longtime collaborator Willie Mitchell, The Rev pours on the soul with haunting strings (who doesn’t love that moment when they try to match the feeling of a light wind just after he sings, “I can still feel the breeze”?), a roiling organ line, and superbly utilized background singers. Through it all, Green sounds like he’s on his last legs, near defeat but with that small sliver of hope in his soul that’s keeping him crawling forward. A nearly flawless cover version of the old Brothers Gibb classic.
“Time Passages,” Al Stewart, 1978. One of Stewart’s many strengths as an artist was the brilliance of his supporting band. As was the case in “Year of the Cat” and “On the Border,” the guitar, violin, and saxophone work here seamlessly support Stewart’s incandescent keyboard work. And, then, of course, there’s the lyrics – Well I’m not the kind to live in the past/The years run too short and the days too fast/The things you lean on are the things that don’t last/Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these/Time passages/There’s something back here that you left behind/Oh time passages/Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight.” 40 years ago this Christmas, this great tune was the number 8 song in the US Billboard Top 100.
“It Doesn’t Have to be This Way,” Jim Croce, 1973. “Regrets are as personal as fingerprints,” sighed Hemingway after he was informed of the death of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In this 1973 nugget by the late great Jim Croce, an old lover wishes to get back together with his “beloved” – at this, the most personal of seasons, Christmas. Somehow, Croce pulls it off here in three minutes of regret, anguish, and humility. To anyone who has experienced this kind of deep love, keep your hope alive. After all, the best things in life are those that are unexpected.
“Every Night I Pray,” The Chantels, 1958. In the early days of the Beatles, this single was performed by them in a plethora of different venues in Liverpool and environs with John singing the lead and Paul and George as the doo-wop backups. Early rock and roll girl groups have always gotten short-changed, none more so than the Chantels, whose vocal prowess was so pronounced that when their microphones blew out one night in a concert in Chicago, they sang wireless and still blew the audience away. I was so fortunate to see them in person years later at a Richard Nader Rock and Roll Revival at the old Boston Garden. Such haunting ballads as these remind me of a searing Maya Angelou quote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
“Things I’d Like to Say,” New Colony Six, 1968. Recorded and released in the fall of ’68, this heartfelt tune made it to the Billboard Top 20 during that winter, peaking at number 16. This single is for all those who ever lost at love and still carried the torch many years after, especially to those who remain tortured by the dream of what could have been, should have been, but was somehow mysteriously prevented from happening. The resolute sadness of this melody prevails, despite the uplifting string variation suggesting there is still hope for the broken couple, only to return to a somber reality and the unique and haunting piano ending. A stunningly beautiful love song from the quartet from Chicago, this is the kind of Lost 45, which makes you say, “They just don’t make music like this anymore.”
“Since I Don’t Have You,” The Skyliners, 1958. The number 2 song in the US 60 years ago this week, this is nothing less than the perfect blend of doo-wop sensibility and romanticism to satisfy both young and old alike. I wonder how many proms in the spring of 1959 used this as its closing number? Thanks to George Lucas and American Graffiti, “Since I Don’t Have You” had a revival and entered the Top 40 once again in January 1974. The backstory is plausible: The composer of the song, with the improbable name of Joe Rock, wrote most of the lyrics while sitting in his car between stop lights. There’s no one who has ever sung the word, you, with such longing and sorrow than vocalist Skyliners’ Jimmy Beaumont, especially in the last stanza of the song. It might have been 1958, but love hurt just as much back then as it does today.
“Motorcycle Mama,” Neil Young and Nicolette Larson, 1978. One of my favorite Neil Young tunes ever, this rollercoaster-ride number features the transcendent harmonies of the late, great Nicolette Larson, who hijacks the song, much to Young’s delight. From his acoustic masterwork, Comes a Time, Neil veers from the soft rock that framed the album and produces a scorching rocker that became a staple at concerts after that. If you’ve never listened to this tune, do yourself a big favor. You won’t be disappointed!
“Fire,” The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, 1968. Growing up in England after World War II, Arthur Brown spent time around people whose lives were destroyed by the war, many of whom were suffering from PTSD. When he started making music, instead of writing about girls or surfboards, Brown came up with a concept of an inner journey, developing a story about a man who faces his demons, heading into an authentic fire. Along with this journey, he encounters the “God of Hellfire,” who shows up in “Prelude/Nightmare,” the first track on The Crazy World of Arthur Brown concept album. As he falls into an abyss, the character returns, telling him: “I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…fire.” Running 2:52 with the ear-catching spoken intro, it was a tasty, digestible slice of a much more complicated, troublesome work. Ultimately, this proved to be Arthur Brown’s one foray into stardom; by 1976, he had left the music business entirely. Still, “Fire,” which was produced by the Who’s Pete Townshend, is one of those songs that not only resonates but can bring back a time and place with aplomb.
“Whenever I Call You Friend,” Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks, 1978. Kenny Loggins, of Loggins and Messina fame, actually co-wrote this with Melissa Manchester, but he ended up singing it with the great Stevie Nicks. Loggins had the good fortune of being Fleetwood Mac’s opening act for 18 months while they were touring behind their Rumours album, and this gave Kenny a lot of exposure. It’s also how he got to know Stevie Nicks, who didn’t get official credit on the song until the album was reissued in 1997. During Thanksgiving Week of 1978, this made it to the number 3 position on the Billboard Top 100.
“Come On, Everybody!” Eddie Cochran, 1958. Released as a single 60 years ago this November, this revved-up rocker seamlessly combined elements of R&B, country, swing, and rockabilly to make it one of the most influential singles of the 1950s. “Come On, Everybody,” and not the much more celebrated “Summertime Blues,” turned out to be Cochran’s most revered hit among rockers before he was killed by a speeding English taxi driver on the A-4 near Heathrow in 1960. The grandfather of punk and heavy metal, Eddie Cochran was an enormous influence on the Beatles, who saw Cochran perform live in Liverpool back in 1958. In his short life, he played with everyone from Buddy Holly to King Curtis to Chuck Berry to Gene Vincent. In every way, Eddie Cochran was a Founding Father.
“Be Thankful,” Natalie Cole, 1977. Singer Natalie Cole had just reached the top 10 on the album chart for the first time in 1977 with Unpredictable when she followed it with the album Thankful late in the same year. It included the top 10 pop hit single, “Our Love,” as well as the upbeat, “Be Thankful,” which encourages everyone to be thankful for what they have. This is one of my favorites from a singer who should have taken more bows than she did in her shortened life.
“Albatross,” Fleetwood Mac,” 1968. Released 50 years ago today, and featuring the brilliant work of the legendary Peter Green on lead guitarist and Mick Fleetwood on percussion, “Albatross” proved to be the largest selling instrumental in the history of the UK Top 40. Green always claimed that his original tune here was inspired by the Beatles’’ “Sun King,” on Abbey Road. I have long felt that a great Chuck Berry instrumental from 1957, “Deep Feeling,” had many of the same compositional elements that Fleetwood Mac used on “Albatross,” including a riveting call-response style of guitar playing and an enduring bass line in the background. Chuck Berry, of course, was a significant influence on a host of British musicians, and this all proves once again that even the most original of songs in music are hybrids.
“Madame George,” Van Morrison, 1968. The most ambitious ballad on Astral Weeks, which was released 50 years ago on November 17, “Madame George,” is nothing less than a nine-minute excursion into the life of a Belfast boy who soaked up a wellspring of images growing up and who attempts to make sense of it all, including the people he observed along the way who marked his individual passage in time. In an album dominated by stream-of-consciousness lyrics, this song is the most impressionistic and emotional of all eight musical numbers. Heartbreaking and evocative, “Madame George” remains the personal favorite for many devotees of Astral Weeks. The rawness of the song is so over-the-top that it is almost voyeuristic. Coldplay’s Chris Martin admitted recently in a New York Times interview: “A few years ago, I was going through some personal shit, and I put Astral Weeks on, and it just tore right through me, especially ‘Madame George.’ I had to stop – turn it off. Of course, I’d heard it before, but this time it just hit me deep. I can’t remember ever having a reaction quite like that to an album. I haven’t listened to it since. I almost have a few times, but I felt oddly afraid of it.”
“Snow Queen,” The City, Featuring Carole King, 1968. The same magical team that created Tapestry three years later first got together in the fall of 1968, not long after Carole King moved from her native Brooklyn to the West Coast and began to collaborate with LA producer Lou Adler – he of Sam Cooke and the Mamas and Papas fame. When Adler suggested that Carole form a band around her emerging talents as a performer, she was soon joined by legendary session player Danny Kortchmar on guitar & vocals, her future husband, Charlie Larkey (The Fugs) on bass, and the vastly underrated Jim Gordon ( Derek and the Dominoes) on drums. They called their group, The City, mainly because all four performers hailed from the New York City metropolitan region. The gemstone of the album turned out to be “Snow Queen,” a somewhat jazzy, gloriously melodic pop-rock tune with an inspired lead vocal from Carole as well as luminous harmonies by the other three members of the band. Written by King with her lyricist and former husband, Gerry Goffin, “Snow Queen” is truly one of the most underappreciated songs of King’s amazing career. When I sent Carole a tweet a few years ago and commented to her that I thought that “Snow Queen” sounded like the forerunner to the 1970s version of Fleetwood Mac, she immediately tweeted back and said, “You just made my day!” As usual, Carole will make your day here as well if you give it a listen!
“Come On, Let’s Go,” Ritchie Valens, 1958. One of his more palpable hits before his incredibly untimely death at 17, this is one of those numbers, which reminds us all what we lost when he died along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper 60 years ago this coming February 3. For you Bostonians out there, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg broke this single into the Boston market on the old WMEX 1510 AM the night before Thanksgiving 1958. Poor Ritchie – he was still in high school when he perished in a plane in an Iowa cornfield in February 1959. Oh, the talent we lost that night!
“Forever Autumn,” Justin Hayward, 1978. Originally featured in Jeff Wayne’s rock opera, War of the Worlds, which was based on H. G. Wells’ novel, this evocative single turned out to be a top ten hit for Hayward and the Moody Blues, the band that he had fronted for more than a decade at that time. (As an aside, Justin Hayward is one of the most underrated lead singers of any band in rock history. Very few could have pulled this one off with such fidelity). Since it was first released 40 years ago this year, “Forever Autumn” has remained one of my favorite ballads ever recorded about this most melancholic of all seasons. It reminds you that the fall carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons combined. To call “Forever Autumn” hauntingly beautiful doesn’t do it justice.
“Unwanted Number,” Elvis Costello, 2018. The former Declan Patrick MacManus has returned after a 13-year hiatus from producing original music and has produced a masterwork in the process. His new release, Look Now and Then, has already started to appear on critics’ “Best Album of 2018” lists, Given that it was released just two weeks ago, that is saying something. Here is a solid representative number from the album, “Unwanted Number,” originally written 22 years ago, which gets a kick-ass treatment by his band, The Imposters, featuring former Attractions keyboardist extraordinaire, Steve Nieve. As usual, Elvis Costello’s’ quirky and brilliant lyrics provide the backdrop to a single that is both infectious and seductive. A sublime and most welcomed comeback.
The 50th-anniversary release of The White Album is crazy good. Giles Martin, the son of legendary producer George Martin, has done it again (as he did for last year’s 50th-anniversary release of Sergent Pepper). For Martin, who has now remixed three of the Beatles’ most beloved works, his main objective was to give listeners a peek into its creation via the outtakes included in the deluxe set. “There’s a poignancy to when you have a take with a single voice on it,” Martin explains. “They’re such a great vocal band, as we all know. With the early take of ‘Glass Onion,’ for instance, we tried to push up the acoustic guitar as much as possible because John is singing along with his acoustic guitar with George and Paul fully supporting him on their electric guitars and, of course, Ringo, whose playing throughout is stellar.” From this lens, it sounds awesome; at the zenith of their career, its the Beatles live and unfettered, without any overdubbing whatsoever. It’s “the paint is still drying” approach that makes each number sound brand new. Martin’s use of surround-sound crystalizes each sound on all 30 songs are so powerful that you start to listen to things like Paul’s bass playing or George’s riffing and realize how tight they really were and what magic was unfolding that was beyond even what they thought they could produce at the time. In 1969, James Taylor put in all into perspective: “For $7.99, I can’t think of a better investment of that kind of cash than buying ‘The White Album’.”
One more example – this time on the take that the band actually used on the original album. It sounds utterly brand new here.
“It’s All in the Game,” Tommy Edwards, 1958. This vintage early rock ballad was based on an early 20th-century classical violin and orchestra piece called “Melody in A Major,” which was composed by a fledgling composer named Charles Dawes, who later who later became Vice President under Calvin Coolidge! 26 years later. Songwriter Carl Sigman penned lyrics to the melody and changed the song’s name to “It’s All in the Game” by borrowing the phrase from another song he was working on at the time. Tommy Edwards, an accomplished singer, pianist, and songwriter recorded his first version that same year – in 1951. Seven years later, under an MGM recording contract by this time, Edwards re-recorded the song in this updated “symphonic pop” version. Incredibly, it reached #1 in both the US and Great Britain the same year and sold more than 3,000,000 copies! The template for future love ballads in the 1960s and 1970s, this now beloved standard has been a revered classic since it was first released 60 years ago this fall!
“Spooky,” The Classics IV, 1968. One of those semi-novelty songs released about Halloween, which eventually became a top ten hit, “Spooky” featured the smoky voice of the late Dennis Yost and the sprite saxophone work of veteran band member Mike Shapiro. Kudos to the legendary Mussel Shoals Band for making this beloved single even sound like late October. 50 years ago this fall, “Spooky” was the fourth most played song on America’s AM radio stations. “In the cool of the evening and everything’s gettin’ kind of groovy…” You had to have been there but it really was very groovy.
“Reminiscing,” Little River Band,” 1978. Expressive lyrics, a pleasing melody, and superb musicianship are guaranteed to produce an instant musical classic, which occurred for the Little River Band 40 years ago this week when this Beatlesque single went to number one. Unlike many bands in the late seventies, the Little River Band’s members actually played on their singles and sang flawless harmony as well. Consequently, the band from Australia was a veritable throwback to the kind of attributes that defined most British Invasion groups ten years previously. These days, “Reminiscing” is one of those songs that doesn’t just remind you of love; it makes you young once again. After all, nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.
“For Once in My Life,” Stevie Wonder, 1968. Originally, this was a tune that Stevie composed specifically for Frank Sinatra to record, but his demo was so good that Motown ended up releasing it as on their own. The Funk Brothers, Motown’s legendary band, backed up Stevie so flawlessly here that “even Nelson Riddle couldn’t have touched it,” according to keyboardist Ivory Joe Hunter. Interestingly, if you were to chart out Stevie’s career from beginning to end, this effervescent single proved to be the dividing line between Little Stevie Wonder and Stevie Wonder. The number 1 song in the US 50 years ago this week, “For Once in My Life” is one of those timeless ballads that sounds as fresh today as it was the day it was first released.
“M.T.A.” The Kingston Trio, 1958. Recorded 60 years ago this September, this classic novelty song turned out to be the quirky but delightful follow-up to “(Hang Down Your Head), Tom Dooley,” and brought the Trio much fame and airplay as a result. The ballad has become so entrenched in Boston lore that the Boston-area transit authority named its electronic card-based fare collection system the “CharlieCard” in tribute to this classic. The transit organization, now called the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), held a dedication ceremony for the card system in 2004 which featured a performance of the number by the Kingston Trio, attended by then-governor Mitt Romney. By the way, you can’tgo to the Kendall Square Station and change for Jamaica Plain, but who cares about the details? This single still induces smiles and tapping feet all these years later.
“Stardust,” Willie Nelson, 1978. 40 years ago, I was obsessed with both this legendary Hoagy Carmichael song and Willie Nelson’s triumphant homily to the Great American Songbook in his album by the same name, Stardust. Composed in 1927 by one of America’s most revered songwriters, “Stardust” was composed by Hoagy while he was on the campus of his alma mater, Indiana University. Carmichael began whistling the tune, then rushed to the Book Nook, a popular student hangout, and started composing. He worked to refine the melody over the course of the next several months, likely in Bloomington or Indianapolis. Ultimately, it became the most recorded song of the twentieth century with over 1,500 versions released, an average of 21 “Stardust” covers a year! While everyone from Satchmo to Lady Ella to Ol’ Blue Eyes to DerBing recorded the tune, Willie Nelson’s sparse and reverent version remains the very best.
“La La Means I Love You,” Laura Nyro, 1994. While she was primarily known as a prodigious composer – Nyro wrote eleven Top 10 songs between 1967-72 for other artists – she was also a luminous interpreter of other performers’ works as well. When she was a teenager growing up in the Bronx, Laura would venture down to the Fordham Road Subway Stop and join African-American doo-wop groups to harmonize during her free time. In 1971, after she became an iconic rock figure, Nyro eventually recorded a spotless album of such tunes with Patti Labelle and her backup group, LaBelle. 23 years later, Laura recorded “La La Means I Love You,” the Delfonics 1968 classic R&B hit, which Rolling Stone later called Nyro’s version, “one of the great cover songs ever recorded, period.” Laura Nyro, who died much too young of ovarian cancer at 49, was indeed one of a kind, and a well-deserved member of both the Rock and Rock and Songwriter Hall of Fames.
“Handle With Care,” The Travelling Wilburys, 1988. While working on his comeback album, Cloud Nine, George Harrison called on a few pals to help come up with a B-side to his single, “This Is Love.” He was joined by Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan at Dylan’s home studio in Malibu, where they recorded “Handle With Care.” When the powers-that-be at Warner Brothers Records heard the song, their executives knew it was too good for a B-side and suggested a larger collaborative project. The makeshift band took on fictitious names in a group initially called the Trembling Wilburys. There have been many supergroups formed throughout the 64-year history of rock ‘n roll, but the Travelling Wilburys were, from this lens, the very best. Thankfully, they ended up producing two stellar albums over a three-year period. It’s mind-numbing to realize that another Wilbury member, Tom Petty, died a year ago this month (Orbinson died in 1989; George Harrison in 2002). What remains, of course, are such infectious and affirming ballads as “Handle With Care,” which was released 30 years ago this October.
“Tears on My Pillow,” Little Anthony and the Imperials, 1958. The doo-wop group’s first and best-selling single, they ended up using the same backing tracks as the Penguins’ classic, “Earth Angel.” This was done as an economy move as the record company barely had enough money for the session tape. (Listen to both songs and compare – and you will most assuredly smile). After a somewhat up-and-down career, Jerome “Little Anthony” Gourdine and the Imperials were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, 23 years after they were first nominated. I had the pleasure of seeing them at Boston Garden at a rock ‘n roll revival. To their enormous credit, they could still bring it 20 years later!
“Little Green Apples,” O. C. Smith, 1968. Originally recorded by Roger Miller who was given the tune by legendary songwriter Bobby Russell, it reached number 18 on the country charts in the winter of ‘68. However, when soul singer O. C. Smith rerecorded it later that year, “Little Green Apples” literally took off and ended up with Grammy nomination for Best Song of the Year after selling more than a million copies. At a supper club where he was performing, I sauntered up to O.C. Smith one evening in the early 1980s and told him, “I always imagined that you channeled Nat Cole when you recorded, ‘Little Green Apples’!” He beamed brightly and replied, “I would like to think that I did! Thanks, My Man, for the ultimate compliment.” “Little Green Apples” and its follow-up, “The Son of Hickory Hollow’s Tramp,” enabled Smith to have a flourishing career on the tour circuit until he died at 79 in late 2001. For those of us old enough to remember, this little gemstone went to number 2 on the Billboard Top 40 a half-century ago this September.
(“I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1978. After My Aim is True, Costello assembled the Attractions to be his backup band and recorded, This Year’s Model. ‘(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea’ is its standout. Ultimately, it proved to be a potent combination of chaos and skill, featuring Bruce Thomas’ propulsive bass, Steve Nieve’s Vox Continental organ fills, and Pete Thomas clattering away behind the drums as Elvis plays the jagged riff on his trademark Fender Jazzmaster. In the end, only a handful of rock musicians produced such luminous work in their first 12 years in the recording studio as the great Elvis Costello did from 1976-88.
“I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round),” Alicia Bridges, 1978. This fetching disco classic, which was released 40 years ago this fall, centers on a woman who has better things to do than listen to her man’s empty platitudes. She tells him to kiss off, and that she’s going to get some “action” at the disco, where she can boogie all night. Ah, the Disco Era! The irony, of course, was that Bridges detested the genre and refused to record an album ladened with dance songs. Not surprisingly, then, her follow-up single, “Body Heat,” was much more in the rock/R&B mold and topped out at #86 on the US Billboard charts. “I Love the Nightlife (Disco Round)” remained her only top 40 single and put Alicia Bridges squarely in the one-hit category. We should all be so fortunate.
“Fallin’,” Alicia Keys, 1998. First and foremost, “Fallin’” is the very epitome of a timeless ballad. In three minutes-and-40-seconds, Keys creates a soul-classic worthy of Roberta Flack or Gladys Knight. What is not well-known is that she studied artists such as Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart when she was an emerging pianist in her early teens. Thus it is not surprising then that Alicia riffs a musical phrase from Chopin in “Fallin’,” which provides the centerpiece for the music to follow. She then soars on the refrain and takes us on a beautiful ride to Loveland. The ultimate joy ride.
“Hush,” Deep Purple, 1968. Interestingly, while this has always been thought of as a classic English blues number, “Hush” was originally written as a C&W song by Joe South, who also wrote “Down in the Boondocks,” “Games People Play,” and “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.” By the time that Deep Purple recorded it, however, the band had literally transformed it from the original and made it their own. Of course, Ritchie Blackmore was one of the guitar greats in rock history, but Deep Purple would have never been the group it was without Jon Lord’s incandescent organ playing. His choice of the organ rather than the piano or synthesizer was unique and had the advantage of being amplified, which meant that his keyboard produced as much power and volume as anyone. I once chatted with a young Vietnam veteran in a classroom who was visiting my Humanities class in Wellesley High back in 1972 who recalled hearing “Hush” blast out from a receiver on Armed Forces Radio while his swift boat cruised along the Mekong Delta. His name? Future Massachusetts Senator and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
“Werewolves of London,” Warren Zevon, 1978. 40 years ago this September, this now iconic song was released without much fanfare. It would make Warren Zevon a rich man by the time he died 25 years later. According to legend, Zevon wrote it with legendary session strummer Robert “Waddy” Wachtel, Linda Ronstadt’s longtime lead guitarist. Back in the late 1970’s, when Zevon was working with the Everly Brothers, he hired Wachtel to play in their backing band. At one point, Phil Everly asked them to write a dance song for the Everly Brothers called “Werewolves Of London.” Wachtel and Zevon were good friends and were tuning guitars when someone asked what they were about to play. Zevon impulsively replied, “Werewolves Of London,” and Wachtel started howling. Zevon then came up with the line, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand,” and they traded lyrics back and forth until they had their song. As Brue Springsteen once wrote, “From small things, big things one day come…” When I taught at TASIS England in 1982, my seniors and juniors in the dorm would venture into London with me, and we’d sing it as we strutted across Westminster Bridge. at that moment, we were fab in every way.
“Those Were the Days, My Friend,” Mary Hopkin, 1968. Long compared to Gale Garnett’s wistful ballad, “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” this old-fashioned English pub song, produced by Paul McCartney for the newly-formed Apple Records, proved to be an unexpected giant hit for the fledgling singer from Wales who went to number 2 on the US charts with it 50 years ago this September. Of course, in the press releases at the time, we all learned that the ballad was based on a Russian-Georgian folk tune initially written in 1925. We also were also informed that the versatile McCartney played the acoustic guitar, banjo, and drums on the recording and that it was recorded in Abbey Road Studio Number 2. While she never had another hit again, Mary Hopkin has made a career on this one ballad, traveling the four corners of the earth to sing it each year at various oldies’ concerts. This song has been played at countless funerals ever since.
“(Where are You) Little Star?” The Elegants, 1958. The veteran doo-wop group from Staten Island, New York hit paydirt 60 years ago this summer when they hit the number one spot on the Billboard Top 40. How appropriate of the Elegants to list Mozart as one of the songwriters of the tune, especially given the fact that old Wolfgang wasn’t a member of ASCAP! (I wonder if they shared any residuals with ancestors?) I agree with Miami Steve Van Zandt, who once said that every time he hears this classic doo-wop ballad, he fancies himself in a Ford convertible with the roof down and the stars above impossibly bright. When you listen to this doo-wop classic six decades later, there’s an unmistakable innocence throughout the number that was eventually lost at the corner of Elm Street and Houston in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Thus, “Little Star,” is a rear-view-mirror kind of ballad, which embodies an exceedingly different time in an America that is almost unrecognizable today.
“Light My Fire,” Jose Feliciano, 1968. One of the two or three greatest cover versions in rock history, Jose Feliciano’s “Light My Fire” reached #3 in the US exactly one year to the day that the Doors’ original version hit number 1 the previous summer. That both versions became dominant singles one summer apart speaks to the potency of both cuts. A lot of younger rock listeners at the time didn’t know how to react at first when a cover for “Light My Fire” by newcomer Jose Feliciano hit the airwaves and jukeboxes, but after just one listen of the singer/guitarist’s immaculate interpretation, we were left with a heady sense of awe, admiration, and surreal delight.
“Count on Me,” The Jefferson Starship, 1978. The late Marty Balin, the co-lead singer of the Jefferson Starship, could write and sing melodious, memorable tracks as he did with his songwriting partner, Jesse Barish, on “Miracles,” “With Your Love,” and here with “Count on Me.” Elton John, who was visiting the Starship’s recording studio when they were recording the single, volunteered to play the piano on it. The exuberance of his play provides the frosting on the cupcake here. As always, the great Paul Kantor’s guitar work is a revelation.
“You’re All I Need to Get By,” Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, 1968. Despite the tragic arch of both of their lives that cut them down at their pinnacle, when these two Motown legends sang together, the earth stood still and everything was seemingly possible. Gaye’s and Terrell’s seventh and last duet hit in 21 months, it was assumed that the two would sing together for the next 30 years. Instead. Marvin sang this acapella at Tammi’s funeral just two years later after she succumbed to a brain tumor at the age of 24. A classic Motown composition by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, this song also features the legendary Funk Brothers who revel in the magic chemistry that Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell obviously had. “There’s no, no looking back for us/We got love sure ‘nough, that’s enough/You’re all, You’re all I need to get by…” Truer words were never sung with so much conviction.
“Midnight Confessions,” 1968. A top five hit 50 years ago this August; the Grassroots were in the midst of a three-year hot streak that would see them become an internationally beloved band who churned out hit after hit. The late Rob Grill’s most fulfilling hit, this ballad is not only the group’s most polished, but it was later nominated for Song of the Year at the 1968 Grammy’s. Mick Jagger later said famously that he thematically based, “You Can’t Get What You Want,” on the Grassroots’ “Midnight Confessions.” Like many LA-based bands, the Grassroots used the Wrecking Crew for their musical accompaniment. A nod here to the great Carol Kaye for producing one of the great bass lines-and-fills in wax.
”Rave On,” Buddy Holly and the Crickets, 1958. Sonny West, a childhood friend of Buddy’s and fellow recording artist, wrote this single and gave it to Holly’s producer, Norman Petty, who scheduled the Fireballs to record it. Buddy Holly knew how good the tune was and said, “No way, Norman, I’ve got to have this song!” His intuition paved off. 60 years ago this summer, “Rave On” was the number one single on the Billboard Top 40 for the week of August 21. A few years ago, when Bob Dylan played the number on his Sirius radio show, he exclaimed, “Buddy Holly’s version of ‘Rave On’ is the epitome of rock and roll.” I would agree.
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” Vanilla Fudge, 1968. Take a Motown hit composed by Holland, Dozier, and Holland and originally recorded by the Supremes, combine Garageband sensibilities with psychedelic overtones, and you’ve got Vanilla Fudge’s remake of “You Keep Me Hangin On.” The band’s drummer, Carmine Appice, recalls: “In 1966, when I joined the band, there was a thing going around the New York area and Long Island that was basically slowing songs down, making production numbers out of them and putting emotion into them. The Vagrants were doing it, they had Leslie West in the band. The Hassles were doing it, they had Billy Joel. It all started with The Young Rascals. We were all looking for songs back then that were hits and could be slowed down with emotion put into them. ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ lyrically was a-hurtin’ kind of song, and when The Supremes did it, it was like this happy song. We tried to slow down the song and put the emotion the song should have into it with the hurtin’ kind of feeling the song should have. We then made it sound like Procol Harum. It obviously worked – and we sold a million copies of it.” By mid ‘68, the Vanilla Fudge’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” had morphed into the quintessential “makeout” song. Whatever. Being 14 forever sounded good until you really thought about it. Then it didn’t seem like such a great prospect.
“Love Will Find a Way,” Pablo Cruise, 1978. As we have all learned over time some songs frame our summers, and Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” is one of those ballads that unequivocally captures the essence for those of us who were young and impressionable 40 years ago. Not to be confused by the rock anthem by Yes with the same title, Pablo Cruise’s “Love Will Find a Way” not only has beautiful hooks but the musician here, especially bass player Bruce Day and lead guitarist David Jenkins, drive this single to the moon. To hear David Jenkins croon, “Once you get past the pain…” is to remember that time in dreams remains frozen forever. Ultimately, “Love Will Find a Way” proved to be one of those freezeframes, which came to define the summer of 1978 for us all.
“Summertime, Summertime,” The Jamies, 1958. 60 years ago, virtually every jukebox in America was playing this hit novelty song, a tune where doo-wop met kitsch. In my mind, it conjures listening to it blaring from a rickety transistor radio on Cape Cod’s Nauset Beach as the smell of onion rings and fried clams came wafting upon us from the legendary eatery, Philbrick’s Snack Shack. It’s hard to believe it, but it’s true – the Boston Red Sox legendary public address announcer, the late Sherm Feller, wrote “Summertime, Summertime,” and made a small fortune off of it!
“The Look of Love,” Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66. First of all, there’s that unique arrangement, which made this underappreciated group so memorable to those of us who listened to pop music back then. From the get-go, Sergio Mendes’ music was “easy listening personified” and combined such disparate sounds as psychedelic pop, light jazz, and bossa nova. Brasil ’66 (which featured Mendes on keyboards and a revolving cast of two female vocalists, bass, guitar, drums, and percussion) never sounded better than here on this Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic, first made famous by the immortal Dusty Springfield. In the end, this version of “The Look of Love” remains one of the greatest cover recordings of the 1960s. As Professor Dumbledore exclaimed to Harry Potter in The Goblet of Fire, “‘Ah, music, a magic beyond all we do here!”
“Wavelength,” Van Morrison, 1978. This ode to early American rock ‘n roll proves to be both kinetic and emotive. In the title track of a highly underrated album, which was released 40 years ago this July. From the Smokey Robinson prelude to the Eddie Cochran-inspired chorus, Van pays homage here to the music that literally saved him physically and spiritually throughout his Northern Ireland upbringing. As he later admitted on an extended in-studio interview on WBCN Boston, “Everything I learned about music came from the radio, and everything that truly mattered to me came from listening to American rhythm and blues songs. That music saved me.” As the Irish Bard sings in the song: “When I’m down you always comfort me/When I’m lonely you see about me/You are everywhere you’re ‘sposed to be/And I can get your station/When I need rejuvenation – Wavelength!”
“Classical Gas,” Mason Williams, 1968. If you asked the legendary Wrecking Crew members if they had a number one hit on their own – they ended up having 41 number one hits with artists as disparate as Sam Cooke, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, the Ronettes, Lou Rawls, the Mamas & the Papas, Nat Cole, and the Righteous Brothers – they would unanimously respond, “‘Classical Gas’.” While acoustic guitarist extraordinaire Mason Williams fronted them on this recording, Williams had long been a member of the Wrecking Crew. Some of the luminaries who support him here include drummer Hal Blaine, bass guitarist Carol Kaye, rhythm guitarist Glen Campbell, and pianist Leon Russell. Ultimately, 13 members of the most significant instrumental group of the rock era produced a neo-pop-classical masterpiece, which soared to number one during the summer of ’68. Later on, it was nominated for Record of the Year at the Grammys the following winter.
“One Summer Night,” The Danleers, 1958. This doo-wop quartet from Brooklyn released this timeless summer song 60 years ago this July where it soared to the number three spot on the Billboard Top 40. The ballad’s sanguine premise was that the warmest of seasons automatically triggered a semblance of romance. Who didn’t want to fall in love during the summer – especially back then? And why wouldn’t you listen to these sweet harmonies as you readied yourself for your first kiss, listening to the Danleers’ lead singer Jimmy Weston croon: “You kissed me, oh, so tenderly/and I knew this was love/and I as held you, oh so close/I knew no one could ever take your place, ohhhh.” I have to admit, that “ohhh” at the end always got me. Ultimately, this exquisite single conjures up an image of a ‘57 Convertible under the blazing street light at a local filling station framed by such Eisenhower-era artifacts as hoop skirts, saddle shoes, ducktails, and penny loafers.
“Eternal Flame, “The Bangles, 1988. The Bangles were not known for emotional depth, but this plaintive ballad from the girl group’s 1988 album, Everything, takes the bop out of their usual teenybopper sound, leaving only a piercing distillation of self-absorbed, teenage angst. If love does burn here like the sun, it is set against the storm of “a whole life so lonely.” And the girlish tremble of Susanna Hoffs’ immaculate vocals, which flip into a vulnerable head voice for most of the higher notes, poignantly embodies the song’s yearning for security above anything else.
“Begin the Beguine,” Artie Shaw and His Orchestra, 1938. I once heard Jonathan Schwartz introduce this American Songbook standard by calling this famed cover of “Begin the Beguine, “a perfect offering, which reminds us all when swing was really swing.” Of course, Artie Shaw’s instrumental version of “Begin the Beguine” utterly dominated the airwaves in prewar America when this single was filmed 80 years ago over the Fourth of July weekend. The Connecticut native and his legendary arranger, Jerry Gray, spent two mind-numbing weeks arranging the classic Cole Porter standard and ended up producing a cover in “four-four time that ‘bended’ the Charleston,” (vernacular for making it danceable). Shaw then filmed it in front of a live studio audience in Manhattan, where it was later shown on thousands of screens in cinemas via Movietone. What resulted, of course, turned out to be unadulterated magnificence. I concur with the late jazz critic, Leonard Feather, who once said famously that while Benny Goodman was clearly the better bandleader, Artie Shaw was the greatest jazz clarinetist of all time, surpassing Goodman and everyone else.
“Changing of the Guards,” Bob Dylan, 1978. What is there to say about this hypnotic, puzzling, pulsating song except to say that it’s quintessential Bob Dylan. The opening number to Street Legal, we find our hero here with patches of lyrics that he throws against the wall in order to see if they might stick. Like “All Along the Watchtower,” Dylan is stuck in the Middle Ages here, which makes it even more enthralling for the listener. As critic Tony Atwood writes, “Bob’s lingering fascination with all the possibilities of rhyme at this time, and that quite possibly is the heart of the matter – the song is about rhymes and how they can be manipulated in a five line poem. The music is the same for each verse, but what happens in the lyrics changes, changes and changes again just like that half-remembered dream.” In such a scenario, the lyrics don’t really matter, what matters is the feel, and feel is what we get layered on with the sax and the chorus repeating certain words as we go along, for reasons that will never become clear. Needless to say, this is Mystery Bob doing his best to push the envelope as he has done throughout his nearly 60-year public career.
“Sunshine of Your Love,” Cream, 1968. Released 50 years ago this June as a single, bassist Jack Bruce and Pete Brown came up with “Sunshine of Your Love” toward the end of an all-night session, which inspired the opening line: “It’s getting near dawn/When lights close their tired eyes.” The killer riff was inspired by none other than Mr. Jimi Hendrix, who was fiddling around with Eric Clapton one day and started playing the chord as a backdrop to Clapton’s improvisation at the time. Eric later added the memorable chorus hook while drummer Ginger Baker laid down a gargantuan, tomtom heavy beat to complete the sound with aplomb. For those of us who remember, “Sunshine of Your Love” was popular just when rock began to feel its oats and break out of its own shell into something close to a revelation. Tom Petty once claimed that this number launched the concept of the genre that became known as “classic rock.”
“Racing in the Streets,” Bruce Springsteen, 1978. 40 years ago, I was obsessed not only with Darkness on the Edge of Town (the Boss’s latest album, which had just been released six weeks previously) but, most especially, this heartrending ballad, which ended the first side of the album like a cry in the night. At the time, two years before I became a teacher and in-between jobs, fearful that I was caught in the clutches of waiting to die – just like the protagonist in “Racing in the Streets” – this ballad bore through me like a power drill. In retrospect, what always grabbed me about this tune was the last two minutes following from the defiant last verse, where pianist Danny Federici and Bruce let the music continue to tell the story without even saying a word. It always came off as sad but hopeful, “like they ain’t done yet.” When I hear it these days well into my sixties, it makes me miss my old friends from high school when we used to listen to Bruce, drink beer, and have a good time, hanging out and hanging on to one another for dear life.
“Roll With It,” Steve Winwood, 1988. Because he was in his 25th year as a recording artist – and barely 40 at the time – Stevie could still dial it up with the best of them. Here, he pulls off a rarity – by paying homage to the old Motown Sound through the lens of a very techno eighties feel. This single dominated the airwaves throughout the summer of 1988; for goodness sakes, it even sounds like summer. Interestingly “Roll With It” holds the distinction of being the last number one song of the late Casey Kasem’s 18-year-run as host of American Top 40. That seems very appropriate – given the song and the artist.
“Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” Frank Sinatra, 1958. This searing ballad has become one of Sinatra’s most enduring numbers since it was recorded 50 years ago this May. While he was known as “One-take Frank” in the movie business, his fastidiousness when making music was legendary. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” took almost a day of precise outtakes to get it right, according to chronicler Will Friedwald. As he did on all 12 tracks of his masterwork, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, Sinatra would inevitably enter the studio; greet the musicians individually; saunter up to the front of the room; make notations on the sheet music, and then patiently walk through what he wanted to hear from each musician. “Every time you saw him enter the studio to record, it became a workshop into how to make a textbook record,” Quincy Jones said near the end of Sinatra’s career. There are mythical bootlegs of Sinatra’s precise directions to his supporting musicians in scores of sessions out on YouTube. Like an experienced traffic controller, you hear him patiently walking his band through a maze of notes that eventually evolves into a highly imaginative, intuitive sound. When I first heard such outtakes, it reminded me of Leonard Bernstein’s sagacious entries that framed his epic Young People’s Concerts Series back in the sixties. In “Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” the orchestra and the singer create a symmetry that is indistinguishable, two forces of nature that have merged seamlessly. As with every ballad on this album, the storyline means everything here. Sinatra is a chronicler weaving out a story that grips your heart and hurls it into the abyss. It all leads to a Casablanca-like ending: “’Yes’ – somebody said/ ‘Just forget about her’/So I gave that treatment a try/And strangely enough/I got along without her/Then one day/She passed me right by/Oh, well…..” When the tune ends, you feel as if the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock has just gone out for the last time.
“Last Dance,” Donna Summer, 1978. Roxbury, Massachusetts’ own Donna Summer was the number one act in the world 40 years ago, a period in which she had twelve top ten hits over a span of three-and-a-half years. This infectious number-one tune from the late spring of 1978 was arguably the best of the bunch, a disco tour de force, which is one of the few singles of the genre to be later inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In every way, “Last Dance” remains a terrific song!
“The Flame,” Cheap Trick, 1988. In a decade dominated by anthems – a harbinger of American Idol and all that was to come – Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” was the kind of song that you could hold up to the window as archetypal of the kind of overblown but seductive music that dominated the airwaves three decades ago. Given the time period, then, it was not at all surprising that this was the number one song in the US 30 years ago this June.
“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” Meatloaf, 1978. Described as a “beefy loser” at the time, a marketing ploy that ended up working brilliantly for the former Marvin Lee Aday, who, in reality, had a drop-dead gorgeous wife by his side, Meatloaf ended up taking this affecting song to the top of the singles chart 40 years ago this week. To his enormous credit, the singer-songwriter’s sense of urgency is evident throughout here. With Todd Rundgren in the producer’s chair, coupled with a string of evocative chord changes and an infectious melody, what’s not to like here? Of course, any song that contains the line, “But there ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box,” has my total attention – if not my admiration.
“Twilight Time,” The Platters, 1958. “Twilight Time,” one of the most revered doo-wop tunes in early rock history was actually composed in 1944 by songwriter Buck Ram and was then recorded by The Three Suns. Originally released three days before D-Day, the original version of the song went to number 8 on the US Billboard Top 40 as the Allies marched into Paris later on that summer. Irving Berlin once stated famously, “Every great song has a second shelf life,” and such was the case for “Twilight Time.” 14 years later, the classic doo-wop quintet, the Platters, rerecorded it, and, because of the exemplary quality of both the production and the group, it soared to number 1 in the early summer of 1958. Former opera singer Tony Williams sang the lead on the updated version of “Twilight Time” (he also soloed on “My Prayer) and provided the essential ingredients to make a lovely ballad even more sustaining. In 1998, the Platters’ “Twilight Time” was formally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the song category.
“Dressed Up Like Nebraska,” Josh Rouse, 1998. This turned out to be the first essential hit for one of my favorite contemporary singer-songwriters, the vastly underappreciated Josh Roush. Like everything that he has produced after this initial single, the musicianship is well-crafted, clean, and exhilarating. Indeed, Roush has always sounded as if he came out of the same can of hash as Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and the late Jim Croce. Some critics have chastised him for that, but why lash him to the pole if he was born 30 years too late? After all, Rouse’s best album, 1972, essentially said the same thing in 12 memorable songs.
“Good Golly, Miss Molly,” Little Richard, 1958. 60 years ago this May – just when school was about to be out for the summer – this early rock classic was released as a single by Specialty Records in LA. In every way, it was most assuredly “the devil’s music,” something that Little Richard knew, ran away from, and finally embraced after he impulsively retired from music for a spell a year later. Of course, when this iconic recording was released, white kids all over the country laughed to themselves that the decidedly unhip and racist white sensors were clueless that he was singing, “Good Golly, Miss Molly – sure like to ball!” You could well argue that the ensuing generational gap began right then and there.
“Lovely Day,” Bill Withers, 1978. Sun, rain or hurricane, it doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, you need to check out this classic nugget from revered soul man, Bill Withers, and you’ll agree that it is indeed a lovely day. Near the end of this original tune, “Still Bill” holds a single note for 18 seconds, which is purportedly the most extended note in a U.S. Top 40 single in history. I presume that the ballad’s unflappable buoyancy is what energized him to such accomplish such an epic feat! Happy 80th birthday to one of the greats, the great Bill Withers.
“The Lonely Sea,” The Beach Boys, 1962. The common misconceptions of those skeptical of the artistic value of The Beach Boys’ music is that the group didn’t show signs of progress until Pet Sounds. This is emphatically not true; some of their best work was written and recorded between 1962-65, including my favorite Boys’ LP, Little Deuce Coupe, which contained 12 cloying songs about girls, cars, and the summer. “The Lonely Sea,” recorded when Brian Wilson was just 19, has an arrangement that is as sparse as could be – some lightly brushed drums, an almost apologetic bass, and a gently picked, heavily-tremeloed lead guitar – that ultimately supports Brian’s evocative lead vocal and his brothers/cousins’ impeccable backups. While summertime has long been about collegiality and impetuousness, lonely souls such as Brian Wilson occasionally remind us that all of that might ring hollow.
“For Your Precious Love,” Jerry Butler, and the Impressions 1958. The spiritual tenor of the vocals came from the Impressions’ church roots in the South Side of Chicago. At the beginning of their professional careers, both Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield had sung together in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Eventually, the Impressions became an outshoot of their church male choir. Interestingly, the lyrics were drawn verbatim from a poem Butler had written in high school and then immortally incorporated into this R&B classic, which was later recorded by the great Otis Redding. While Mayfield has always gotten his just due, Jerry Butler has somewhat flown under the radar screen over the years. In retrospect, he should be recognized as one of early rock’s genuine immortals. One of the iconic soul performances of the 1950s, Butler’s version of “For Your Precious Love” was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a single in 1998.
“Miss You,” The Rolling Stones, 1978. The Stones were in Toronto jamming with Beatles-blues legend Billy Preston when they came up with this infectious riff that had been inspired by a harmonica player they had just heard “in a Paris bar about three in the morning.” In the end, the Glimmer Twins had their first number one song in five years. The disco riffs’ notwithstanding, this is the group at its very best.
“Stupid Cupid,” Connie Francis, 1958. Recorded 60 years ago this April, this Neil Sedaka & Howie Greenfield number was given to Connie Francis, despite the fact that the then 19-year-old Sedaka felt that the ballad was much too juvenile for the sultry Francis. Actually, Connie ended up having a ball recording it and toyed with the vocals to such an extent that she eventually asked Sedaka to consider writing a sequel. One of the most playful singles of the 1950s, Francis felt that this ballad was a career saver – “Everyone thought I could only sing stuff like ‘Who’s Sorry Now,’ but ‘Stupid Cupid’ proved them all wrong.”
“Sugar Mountain,” Neil Young, 1968. When Joni Mitchell heard the rough cut of this early masterwork from fellow Canadian Neil Young, she instantaneously composed, “The Circle Game,” as an artistic response. For that alone, this ode to childhood and impending lost innocence should be heralded by any serious music lover. 50 years to the day after it was first recorded. its colors still light up the sky: “Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain/With the barkers and the colored balloons/You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain/Though you’re thinking that you’re leaving there too soon/You’re leaving too soon…” Indeed, there is no modern popular songwriter who has done more great things with the notion of the passage of time than Neil Young. Long may he run.
“If I Can Dream,” Elvis Presley, 1968. Recorded 50 years ago this spring for The King’s legendary comeback special, Presley never sounded or looked better in his lifetime. It would be a long, agonizing decline downhill over the next nine years, but for this one evening, Elvis was on top of his game, reverently singing a ballad about hope, perseverance, and wonder. In a fascinating, what-if, moment, when the Beatles watched this performance on the telly back in England, they immediately contacted Colonel Parker with the hope of composing an album of songs for Elvis, who they would then back up at the Abbey Road Studios. Parker, one of the true villains in rock and roll history, said no. Can you imagine if the Beatles had coaxed Elvis into the Abbey Road studios to record an album of original Lennon-McCartney music? Good God.
“Baker Street,” Gerry Rafferty, 1978. 40 years ago, the late Gerry Rafferty’s iconic, “Baker Street” became a top-five hit in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom – and for a good reason. If there were an official anthem for loneliness, it might well be “Baker Street.” First and foremost, there was the hypnotic saxophone refrain of the late Raphael Ravenscroft who provided a brushstroke of pathos to the entire affair, and then there were Rafferty’s quivering vocals singing lyrics that seemed to draw blood. When I later lived in London and frequented Baker Street on occasion, the Bogartesque mystery I had imagined was largely missing. I realized then that the number was entirely internal and left open to the imagination of each person. In other words, pure art.
“Reach Out of the Darkness,” Friend and Lover, 1968. Anytime the word, groovy, turns out to be the centerpiece to the opening phrase of a song, it is an instant attention-grabber. That “Reach Out of the Darkness” entered the Billboard Top 10 fifty years ago this spring seems utterly incomprehensible. It seems like yesterday to many of us, of course, but in an era of peace, love, and understanding, it was evident that we needed music like this ethereal anthem that spring. After all, Martin Luther King had died in early April and Bobby Kennedy would perish the week that “Reach Out of The Darkness” reached its zenith on the charts. Two months later, our politics ended up spilling out onto the streets of Chicago.
“The Weight,” The Band, 1968. The Band’s reputation as underground legends was already intact before their debut album even came out. After all, they had backed Bob Dylan during his confrontational 1966 British tour and recorded a bunch of classics with him at their house in Woodstock, New York. Just like Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, released in late 1967, The Band’s Music From Big Pink is covered in rustic Americana with a heap of hippie sprinkle dust on top. ‘The Weight,’ the album’s timeless classic, is still reinvented by new generations of artists a half-century later. Songwriter Robbie Robertson has long claimed that “The Weight,” one of the few Band numbers in which Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Richard Manuel all take turns singing lead, is about the impossibility of sainthood. As music critic Tom Moon wrote recently, “Sounding less like a polished choir than a wandering militia, they appear displaced, out of time. They might as well be selling elixirs from the back of a horse-drawn rig, moving at the slow, deliberate pace of backroads rural America in the days before [farm-to-table] artisan shallots.” No wonder Music from the Big Pink was named by the Smithsonian as one of the 100 best albums of the twentieth century.
“Fast Car,” Tracy Chapman, 1988. How can something so simple scrape to the bottom of one’s heart so quickly and profoundly? There’s genuine magic in this great ballad, which was released 30 years ago this April. From my vantage point, it has the same feeling that Springsteen emitted a few years previously, “Now I work at the carwash/where all it ever does is rain.” And to think that Tracy got her start in the Harvard Square T Station with an open guitar case and a stack of pitched quarters – her take-home-pay for the day. I remember her clearly during those fledgling days, and I am glad that I invariably threw a quarter into her guitar case every time I passed by. She always threw me a smile. Always.
“MacArthur Park,” Richard Harris, 1968. Here are seven “weird facts” to help you put this incomparable song in its proper context: Weird Fact 1 – yes, this was the future Albus Dumbledore singing the most unlikely pop song of the 1960s. Weird Fact 2 – yes, this was composed by the eccentric but truly gifted Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Wichita Lineman,” “Up Up and Away,” and “For All We Know.” Weird Fact 3 – the ballad, which was once called by legendary rock critic, Greil Marcus, as ”the worst song ever composed,” was written as part of a cantata. Ultimately, “MacArthur Park” was one of the few pop songs ever produced that followed a classically structured style. Weird Fact 4 – Jimmy Webb has always claimed that the ballad’s lyrics were not an ode to psychedelia. As he exclaimed to Terry Gross of NPR in 2014, “Everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. … Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.” Weird Fact 5 – yes, that is actually Richard Harris hitting that final falsetto note in which he bellows, “Oh, no!” Weird Fact 6 – this is the longest number one song in pop history at 7:20. “Hey, Jude” is second at 7:11. Finally, Weird Fact 7 – has anyone in history ever left the cake out in the rain?
“With a Little Luck,” Wings, 1978. 40 years ago this spring, this was the number one song in the US. Paul’s songs after his Fab Four days could be annoyingly infectious; you’d have the tune in your head for the rest of the day and plead for an exorcism, but nothing worked. It was entrenched. Of course, my friend, Howie Edelstein, would argue that it’s Sir Paul’s genius as a “melodic savant” that was behind it all. Try to get this out of your head: “With a little luck we can help it out/We can make this whole damn thing work out/With a little love we can lay it down/Can’t you feel the town exploding?” What then follows is a luscious orchestral follow-up that you can’t help but love. As a lifelong John person, I often rolled my eyes and then ended up admiring Paul’s fetching duality.
“Chanson d’Amour,” Art and Dotty Todd, 1958. This most unlikely married singing duo from Baltimore had an enormous hit on their hands 60 years ago this April with a song written by composer Wayne Shanklin (“The Big Hurt,” “Primrose Lane,” and “Jezebel”). Shanklin ended up giving it to the couple when they were performing at the Chapman Park Hotel in Los Angeles. Before they knew it, they were singing it live on the Dick Clark Show. As one of my buddies once said to me, this was the kind of number that young adolescents danced the foxtrot to during late 50’s at school-sponsored get-togethers.
“Stormy Weather,” Lena Horne, 1943. 75 years ago this March, this iconic single was released in conjunction with the film of the same name. Originally written in 1935, everyone from Astaire to Bessie Smith to Sinatra to Fitzgerald to Armstrong ended up recording it. However, it has always been “Lena’s Song.” As an aside, I recently played “Blue Skies” by Bing Crosby and Lena’s version of “Stormy Weather” as cultural flipsides. The buoyancy of 1925’s “Blue Skies,” was cast aside by the enduring gloom that prevails in 1935’s “Stormy Weather.” I’ve invariably found it exhilarating to teach history to teens through the lens of art. It works like a charm.
“Tighten Up,” Archie Bell and the Drells, 1968. Recorded on October 17,1967, it took the Drells’ recording company, Philadelphia International Records, 20 weeks to release it, but it was obviously worth it, as “Tighten Up” turned out to not only be a million-single seller but was the soundtrack of a dance craze that went worldwide after that. Archie Bell later claimed that this was the first disco song ever recorded, and while I disagree – there’s too much funk and soul it – I get the connection.
“Any Old Time,” Billie Holiday and Artie Shaw, 1938. 80 years ago this past January, the great Artie Shaw was convinced that 23-year-old Billie Holiday had “the perfect swing voice” for his then-fledgling big band and hired her to sing. What made that so remarkable? Well, Holiday had just become the first African-American vocalist to front an all-white jazz ensemble. Her tragically short life was a mess, but Holiday banished misfortune every time she opened her mouth to sing. No artist is perfect, but she came damn close. As with any of her recordings, this is pure magic.
“Unwind,” Ray Stevens, 1968. In the great lost 45 category, Ray Stevens’ “Unwind” would surely be in the top 100. Of course, it only made it to number 22 on the Billboard charts 50 years ago this March and then disappeared into the abyss. Perhaps because it wasn’t a “funny” song by the Al Yankovitz of his day, no one took it seriously. When I played it to a friend recently, though, he asked if Stephen Sondheim had written it. “It sounds like an outtake from Company,” she said with all sincerity. I laughed and said, “You know, you just might be right.” The melody is out of this world; the orchestration is superb. Even Stevens, normally not a crooner, does an admirable job here.
“Don’t,” Elvis Presley, 1958. Phil Everly once stated that this was his favorite Elvis recording, and there have been more than a few Elvis fans over the years who have said the same thing to me. Because the oldies stations have largely ignored it, this Lieber and Stoller classic sounds as fresh and impassioned as it did when it was released as a single 60 years ago this winter. Ultimately, there was only one Elvis.
“I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Marvin Gaye, 1968. Legendary Motown producer Norman Whitfield had a reputation for recording the same song with a number of Berry Gordy’s acts, changing the arrangement and the timing in order to make it “sound brand new.” This annoyed many of the label’s artists, especially such acclaimed songwriters as Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye, but in this case, Gaye thankfully acquiesced. “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” a major hit in 1967 for Gladys Knight and the Pips was given to Gaye to redo. Whitfield and co-writer Barrett Strong set the track in a slower, more mysterious tempo, which enabled Marvin’s version to become the best-selling Motown single of the 1960s. On Rolling Stone’s list of all-time greatest singles in the rock era, Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” is number 81. Not bad for a “cover.”
“Win Your Love for Me,” Sam Cooke, 1958. Sam Cooke reached down deep into the depths and brought up pure soul for all of us to love for the rest of time. He had a rare ability to do gospel – his original musical genre, which made him a star, the way it’s supposed to be — authentic, clean, straightforward. Gospel drove Sam Cooke through his greatest songs, the same way it did for Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding. Like Nat Cole, Cooke had an incomparable voice. Ultimately, Sam could sing anything and make it work. As the late Lester Bangs once wrote in Crawdaddy, “It was his power to deliver — it was about his phrasing, the totality of his singing, which made him immortal.” 60 years ago this March, Cooke came out his follow up to “You Send Me,” the vastly underrated, “Win Your Love for Me.” Of course, Sam Cooke could have sung out the names of the street signs in Boston, and it would have sounded great.
“The Sky’s the Limit,” The Duprees, 1968. Amidst the avalanche of psychedelia, soul, funk, and guitar-driven hard rock of 1968, the Duprees, an incredibly successful Doo-Wop group from Jersey City, released this incredible throwback just as Jimi Hendrix was putting the finishing touches on a Band of Gypsys. When I first heard it 50 years ago this winter, I thought that it was a lost 45 from 1958. It might as well have been.
“26 Miles (Across the Sea),” The Four Preps, 1958. A memorable Spring Break Song emerging from the depths of the Eisenhower Years, replete with four-part harmonies, white-frat-boy voices, and inconvenient getaways. For an often snowbound New England boy, this song always conjured up all of the bright-light-heat images of California in one fell swoop. Given the production team, and the time period, it is not surprising that this proverbial nugget turned out to be the number 1 song in the US and Canada 60 years ago. Ah, such innocence!
“Good Kisser,” Lake Street Dive, 2018. In 2009, four New England Conservatory grads get together to form a band. Four highly received albums later (and with a fifth about to be released), they are still going strong, mainly because of the vocal prowess of the group’s lead singer, the incandescent Racheal Price. That each of their songs has a heady combination of economy and soul just adds to the luster. As one of my friends said to me recently, “Lake Street Dive produces the kind of music we listened to when we grew up in the sixties.” I would take that as a supreme compliment.
“Shame, Shame,” The Magic Lanterns, 1968. I wonder how many of you remember this quintessential 1960 ’s song, which you could certainly call ultimate cultural fossil? Hint – it was recorded by a one-hit-wonder group from England, it reached #21 on the Billboard Top 40 fifty years ago this February. “Shame, Shame” possesses all of the ingredients of the kind of song that dominated popular music back then – an infectious melody; inspired melodies, clean musicianship, and an emphasis on harmony.
“Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” Electric Light Orchestra, 1978. Can we all agree that ELO was way ahead of its time? That Jeff Lynne understood that gorgeous melodies, infectious harmonies, pulsating rhythms, and interesting lyrics could produce something sustaining? No wonder ELO invariably recorded in Abbey Road Studio Number 2. For a spell, their productions were worthy of Lennon, McCartney, and George Martin.
“Chain of Fools,” Aretha Franklin, 1968. 50 years ago, soul music was at its zenith and Aretha was The Queen. Here, she performs her smash hit, “Chain of Fools” live in a London television studio, which included a worshipful Mick Jagger who came to personally pay homage to her. As Jon Landau later wrote in Rolling Stone, “In the end, the sign of Aretha Franklin’s artistry is that she always leaves her mark – first – on the music – and then on us.”
“Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy, 1958. From his vintage LP, Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel, this top ten hit reached its peak 60 years ago this February. I would describe this instrumental as a seamless mesh of time, place, and circumstance. By the way, George Harrison, who was born 76 years ago, always claimed that this was the first song he ever performed publicly to an audience with as a member of the Fab Four. “I was up there on stage in Liverpool doing my Wayne Eddy thing as a 15-year-old, trying not to look at John, who was 17 at the time, and so much more hip than I was at that moment.”
“Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” John Prine, 1978. From his brilliant album, Bruised Orange, which was released 40 years ago this January, John Prine provides an unforgettable mixture of humor and pathos into the real life “Elephant Boy,” an actor from India who starred in British adventure films of the ’30s and ’40s. Ultimately, this song turned out to be one of Prine’s most existential, and yet hysterical, ballads he ever recorded. This Byzantine song imagines the decline of the actor’s fortunes as times change around him, leaving him not fighting obsolescence, but rather riding its inevitable slide into a dusty descent in the jungles of America. Finally, the number also contains the single most absurd refrain in modern recorded music: “Hey, look Ma– here comes the Elephant Boy/bundled all up in his corduroy/headed down south towards Illinois/from the jungles of East St. Paul.” In every way, John Prine is a national treasure.
“Tomorrow,” The Strawberry Alarm Clock, 1968. Even though this was the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s obligatory follow-up to their 1967 smash, “Incense and Peppermint,” I’ve always felt that this song was an infinitely superior tune. Perplexingly, it only made a slight blip on the screen when it was released 50 years ago this January, ultimately becoming the proverbial “Lost 45.” How can a psychedelic tune with lots of major 7th chords not be enduring? Historically, of course, “Tomorrow” foreshadowed Zager and Evans’ “In the Year 2525″ by a year-and-a-half. By the way, the Strawberry Alarm Clock was right about 2018 at least. These days, we do indeed live…” in a world of carnivals and clowns.”
“Native New Yorker,” Odyssey, 1978. With a Love Unlimited Orchestra-like opening, an irresistible melodic hook, a pulsating disco beat, culminating in a paean to the City at the height of the Studio 54 days, what could go wrong? At the time, I hardly knew New York. While this was recorded and released in December 1977, it literally took off as the winter of 1978 commenced, where it was a top ten hit through mid-March. After having lived in the NYC metropolitan area for nearly three decades, however, I now get why there’s no place like it.
“Reelin’ and a-Rockin’,” Chuck Berry, 1958. Released 60 years this winter, this beloved early rock classic was actually the flip side to “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and while I always adored that exemplary single, I played the B-Side of the 45, even more, growing up. 13 years after the eminent Leonard Chess released the double-sided hit on his record label, Berry’s 1971 live version of “Reelin and a-Rockin’” on The London Berry Sessions sold more than a million copies worldwide based on the reinvented lyrics that played havoc with American censors at the time. (“Well, I looked at my watch, and it was quarter to ten/you know she turned me round/and we had me do it again!”) Still, it was the original version that I still harken back to all these years later.
“I Wish It Would Rain,” The Temptations, 1968. The number 1 song in the US 50 years ago this February, the lyrics of this harrowing song about a heartbroken man whose woman had just left him were penned by Motown staff writer Roger Penzabene. The lyricist had just learned that his wife was cheating on him, and in his lingering sorrow, Penzabene wrote both this and its follow-up, “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You).” Tragically, the bereft Penzabene committed suicide barely a week after the single’s release. David Ruffin, who sang the mournful lead here, called this ballad, “The best thing we ever did as a group together.” I agree. One of my dearest friends refused to listen to this ballad after her mother died in February 1968 because the song and the tragedy were intertwined. The power of music once again.
“Running on Empty,” Jackson Browne, 1978. The opening cut, title-track and first single from Browne’s live concept album turn out to be a perfect metaphor for both the LP and Jackson’s increasingly demanding life on the road at the time. It’s one of his most autobiographical songs — check out the years and ages he runs through in the ballad — are a harbinger of things to come for all of us. “I don’t know where I’m running now/I’m just running on” turns out to be a whole lot of truth.
“I Second That Emotion,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, 1968. One of my all-time favorite Smokey songs, and the number one song in the US 50 years ago this January, this riveting number gets the short shrift by most musicologists when they review Robinson’s scintillating career. In songwriting circles, this one is often studied for its use of secondary rhymes and melodic intricacy. Smokey sprinkled in words like “notion” and “devotion” to compliment the title, all while rhyming verses with phrases like “kisses sweet” and “no repeat.” The guitar line also perfectly accents the vocal. Smokey has always credited Motown founder Berry Gordy for his songwriting evolution. FYI, Gordy was a songwriter before he started the legendary record label – he was Jackie Wilson’s chief composer in the ‘50’s – and Berry taught Robinson how to write sophisticated yet accessible tunes.
“It’s Only Make Believe,” Robert Gordon, 1978. Featuring the legendary rockabilly guitarist, Link Wray, the early rock revivalist Robert Gordon completely outdoes Conway Twitty’s original, belting out this quintessential 1950’s ballad with such reverence that you swear it must have been recorded in the Sun Records Recording Studios in Memphis with Bill Black, Scotty Moore, and the Jordanaires. Do yourself a favor and take a listen. You will be blown away if you do. Promise.
“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” Jimmie Rodgers, 1958. Jimmie Rodgers took an old Weaver’s’ standard, updated it, and made it to number one 60 years ago this January. Of course, Jimmie Rodgers acoustic folk ballads in the 1950s turned out to be a foreshadow of the folkies who came to dominate the ensuing decade. Here was a man before his time – whose singles such as “Honeycomb,” “Secretly,” and this one – made him a rich man by 1960. (By the way, I love this particular YouTube version on a fan’s old record player. As Ringo once stated, “If it doesn’t have a scratch in it, then I don’t trust it.”)
“The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Joni Mitchell, 1971. From her masterpiece, Blue, Joni ended the album with this heartrending ode that turns out to be a perfect storm of lyrics, vocals, and musicianship. While we did not know it at the time, it was actually a sonnet to her old boyfriend, Graham Nash, who, ironically, had just written his classic, “Our House,” in honor of Joni. As usual, her highly crafted lines are sung in a voice that is lilting, uncompromising, elegant, and heartbreaking. “I gave up hiding behind bottles in dark cafes a few years ago now. Was told too many Lies. I grew my gorgeous wings and flew away…” From this lens, Joni Mitchell is a Nobel Prize for Literature waiting to happen.
“Honky Tonkin’,” Hank Williams, 1948. Could it be that this Hank classic was recorded 70 years ago this year? As Hank said famously at the time, “You got to have smelt a lot of mule manure before you can sing like a hillbilly.” His tragic death at the age of 29 on January 1, 1953, still leaves one in wonder at the breadth of music he wrote, published, and recorded in a very short lifetime. In the same interview, Hank exclaimed, “I was a pretty good imitator of Roy Acuff, but then I found out they already had a Roy Acuff, so I started singing like myself.” And that’s the key to success in life. Be yourself.
“Everything That Touches You,” The Association, 1968. The Association attempted to compose an anthem of love, peace, and understanding – and succeeded with aplomb – only to be ignored by a weary teenage population that was growing ever more cynical due to the raging Tet Offensive that dominated the news a half-century ago this month. That this incandescent ballad hit its zenith at number 11 on the Billboard Top 40 in the winter before Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered says a lot about the troublesome days and nights we experienced back then. Still, if you lift the covers of history and just focus on the music, there’s so much to relish here. Luminous harmonies, deft lyrics, superb musicianship (thanks to LA’s legendary Wrecking Crew), and a production that was worthy of Sir George Martin, all combine to generate the Association’s most underrated classic. Sadly, it was also the band’s last substantial hit.
“Too Much of Nothing,” Peter, Paul, and Mary, 1968. A supposed throwaway song that Bob Dylan originally composed during his hiatus with the Band in 1967, this ballad found legs when Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, shared it with one of his other clients, Mary Travers. Within a few months, Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded their version of “Too Much of Nothing,” which turned out to be a top ten hit for them 50 years ago this January. I have long felt that this is one of the group’s more radiant interpretations of Dylan’s music, especially in the haunting, three-part-harmony refrain: “Say hello to Valerie/Say hello to Vivian/Give them all my salary/On the waters of oblivion.” Give yourself a listen.
“Smile Please,” Stevie Wonder, 1974. Yes, there is so much that has occurred over the past year that would make us all permanently downcast, like a perpetual shroud of pea soup fog blocking the sun. As an eternal optimist, however, I chose to believe that somehow the best days are ahead of us. Whenever I am down, I go to my default artist, Stevie Wonder, who continually reminds us that even in the darkness, we can see the stars. Thus, let’s start 2018 right with a song, which proclaims, “They’re brighter days ahead!” As always, thank you, Stevie!
So he takes a ladder, steals the stars from the sky
Puts on Sinatra and starts to cry…
– Stephen Bishop, “On and On,” 1977
There it was, another brief item buried in the Google News feed connected to Frank Sinatra’s centennial year three years ago. The opening sentence instantaneously garnered my attention: “The first pop music concept album ever released, Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning is celebrating its 60th birthday this week.”
In a time when the world continued to reexamine the significance of Frank Sinatra, this was but an infinitesimal, blip-on-the-screen item when it was published in December 2015. And yet, the aftershocks of a disc that was recorded back in 1955 are still being felt all these years later.
A three-in-the-morning rumination on misery, In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning, captured Sinatra’s emotional nose-dive after he and second wife Ava Gardner’s marriage began to crumble. Despite its prevailing gloom, the disc’s influence became so widespread that it is now credited with setting the standard for all concept albums thereafter.
Previously, Sinatra had made a name for himself by generating flashy, big-band-backed records beginning in 1939. In real life, however, the winds never blew in one direction for Frank Sinatra. They inevitably swirled. ”Being an 18-karat manic-depressive, and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions,” Sinatra once admitted. “I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation. Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant. When I sing, I believe, I’m honest.’” Ultimately, In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning was nothing less than a 52-minute hymn to pathos.
Consequently, it made perfect sense that the mercurial Sinatra followed such a depressing album a year later with the ultimate buzz: his 1956 hyperkinetic release, Songs for Swingin Lovers, which featured such beloved chestnuts as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Old Devil Moon,” and “You Make Me Feel So Young.” As Bruce Springsteen said years later, “When I need a pick-me-up, my default has long been putting on Songs for Swinging Lovers.”
Thus, when Frank then came out with another “downer” concept record 19 months later, critics and fans alike braced themselves for one of Frank’s emotionally harrowing, roller-coaster rides. But Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely wasn’t merely a 1958 follow-up to In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
It turned out to be his masterpiece.
More than two decades after his death, the widespread appreciation for Sinatra as an artistic immortal has reached universal affirmation. When historians list Frank Sinatra’s assorted “firsts,” his place on America’s musical Mount Rushmore is now rock-solid. After all, he was the first pop superstar of the modern era. He possessed the most recognizable singing voice in the world. He was the most significant male vocalist to bridge jazz to the wider pool of mainstream music. His incomparable “phrasing” set the standard for musicians of all stripes. He publicized such future leviathans as Billie Holiday; Count Basie; Buddy Rich, and Nina Simone when they were struggling to be heard. Because of his association with the fledgling Capitol Records, Sinatra, along with Nat Cole, moved the epicenter of the American recording industry from New York to Southern California. He was the founding father of Reprise Records, a company “created by artists for artists,” something the Beatles tried to replicate years later with Apple Records. Finally, it was Frank Sinatra who was the originator of what would become known as “the concept album.”
For the uninformed, a “concept album is a studio record where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.” Those of us who grew up in the 1960s could easily rattle off a seedbed of concept albums that are now considered classic rock’s “must-have” discs. A short-list might include Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon; the Moody Blues’ In Search of the Lost Chord; David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust; Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going’ On, and the Who’s Tommy.
Casual rock fans believe that the idea of the concept album surfaced somewhere around the time of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In actuality, it was Sinatra who turned out to be the consigliere of the genre when he introduced the notion a dozen years earlier with In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. Whereas that 1955 recording was certainly extraordinary, it is the brutal honesty, utter despair, and lingering regret of 1958’s Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely that hangs like a shroud over every other concept album released since then. Only Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks come close to it.
Of course, creating the very idea of a concept album was no reach for someone like Sinatra, who had famously sung for both the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey-led bands at the outset of his career. Not surprisingly, Sinatra came up with the novel idea through the process of osmosis. After all, his work as a frontman in the 1940s with both Harry James and Tommy Dorsey gave him an education in the musical bookends of sequence and connotation. When he started traveling around the country as part of a big band, Sinatra learned that there had to be a connection between the orchestra and its audience. As he became a seasoned “front-man,” he learned that thematic scheming was an essential part of any successful musical “package.”
This idea eventually led him to become increasingly obsessed with the order of his songs that comprised his old 78 RPM albums as a Columbia artist in the forties. (As an aside, Sinatra has long been credited with being the first recording artist to come up with the idea of interchanging “fast songs” and slow ballads in order to sustain the attention of the listener).
When the industry came out with the 33 RPM long-playing album in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had become even more obsessed with the process.
From his perspective, the songs had to make sense in terms of arrangement, theme, and sound. Thus, when Ava Gardner officially divorced him in 1957, he knew that he had to produce an album capturing “the blues” he felt at the time. The genesis of Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, then, is largely biographical. Consequently, in May 1958, Sinatra, renowned arranger and producer Nelson Riddle, and conductor Felix Slatkin entered the famed Capitol Studios at 1750 Vine in Hollywood to record the follow-up to In Wee Small Hours of the Morning.
While Sinatra and Riddle had already reinvented contemporary music by creating a sound that was inimitable, their customary big band sound would not be the musical centerpiece for this particular record. At Sinatra’s request, classical maestro Felix Slatkin, a significant talent as well, brought with him a gaggle of orchestral musicians with him to the studio. As he had done years earlier with his first celebrated producer at Columbia, Alex Stordahl, Frank would be the main instrument backed by a minimalist orchestra that would play off the singer’s voice. Over the next eleven days, the collected ensemble repeatedly heard two phrases directed at them from Sinatra himself: follow me and less is more. In recalling the celebrated sessions that encompassed Only the Lonely, jazz guitarist Al Viola recalled, “Classical musicians don’t normally riff, but for Sinatra, they did, and it worked. They played off each other like it was the most natural thing in the world for them to do.”
In a canon of 14 torch songs that comprise Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, an astonishing eight undisputed masterworks provide the crux for the album. The title track, written by longstanding Sinatra pals Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, serves as the quintessential splash-in-the-face that promptly triggers emotive anguish. Even at a casual listen, it is the fidelity one hears that makes this opening salvo so powerful. Part of that comes from Sinatra’s peerless facility for phrasing – his ability to seamlessly articulate each word and expression.
As Pete Hamill once famously pointed out, it was Frank Sinatra’s exquisite phrasing that taught more people how to speak English as a second language than any other person in human history. Even more remarkably, Sinatra’s aptitude to insert distinctive musical punches into each syllable separates him from everyone else. Finally, the tonal quality of his singing is unmatched. His voice sounds as clear as a bell on every word and phrase he sings.
But as any vocalist knows, phrasing is more than just pronunciation. It also contains another potent vocal element – breath control. Sinatra, like nearly every other great jazz and pop musician of his time, learned that indispensable element from the great Louis Armstrong. In addition, there is the lilt, the playfulness, the dragging out of words to bring the meaning powerfully to life. As songwriter Sammy Cahn once observed, “When Frank sings ‘lovely,’ he makes it sound love-e-ly as in ‘Weather-wise it’s such a love-e-ly day’ in ‘Come Fly with Me.’ Likewise, when he sings ‘Lonely” as in ‘Only the Lonely,’ he makes it such a lonely word.”
The second ballad on the album, “Angel Eyes,” is so fastidiously arranged by the brilliant Nelson Riddle that Sinatra’s voice serves primarily as the lead instrument here. Because both arranger/producer and singer were notable collaborators, teamwork lay at their heart of their musicianship. As Sinatra and Riddle inevitably seemed to do whenever they worked together, their considerable egos were pushed aside, and “the song became the thing.” Thus, “Angel Eyes” is nothing less than a three-minute narrative that tells a profoundly heartrending tale. “Sinatra’s ability to tell a story had consistently gotten sharper as the voice grew deeper and the textures surrounding it richer,” claims musicologist Will Friedwald. Certainly, when Frank was a young pop star in the ‘40’s with a vibrant tenor, his voice was the equivalent of a new spring day. On “Angel Eyes, however, Sinatra, now 43-years old, sounds like finely crafted wine whose “chops” have been fermenting in a keg for years. He is not some young pup who is aching; Sinatra’s been around the block more than a few times, so the heartbreaking is even more palpable.
Bob Haggart’s and Johnny Burke’s beloved American Songbook classic, “What’s New” is given an entirely new interpretation by Sinatra in the album’s fabled third song. Previously, the standard had been interpreted by scores of singers in a condescendingly melodramatic way. The effect was comparable to leaving a cake in the oven 10-minutes too long. In contrast, Sinatra’s version is both understated and coy, making it even more wrenching. Linda Ronstadt, who recorded “What’s New” with Nelson Riddle 25-years later, said that she “tiptoed” around ballad at first before agreeing to record it. She freely admitted to Larry King in a celebrated 2003 interview, “How can you top Sinatra?” The orchestration as charted by Riddle is evocatively restrained. To add to the gloom, trombonist Ray Sims plays off Sinatra’s voice like a mournful wail in pea-soup fog. It is one of those numbers that stays with you well after the song is over.
“Willow, Weep for Me,” the record’s fifth number, is composer Ann Ronell’s heartbreaking, cause-and-effect breakup song – the musical equivalent of the aftereffects of a major nor’easter. It is no accident that Frank, who long revered Billie Holiday, wanted to record one of her more acclaimed ballads. Six months before he released Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, Sinatra stated famously that…“’Lady Day’ is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular music in the last 20 years. With a few exceptions, every major pop singer in the United States during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius.” In the end, Sinatra not only gives a nod to Holiday in “Willow, Weep for Me,” but he ends the tune with the enduring plea: “Murmur to the night/Hide its starry light/So none will find me sighing/Crying all alone/Weeping willow tree/Weep in sympathy/Bend your branches down along the ground – and cover me/Listen to me plea/Hear me willow – and weep for me.”
Of course, when Frank recorded the number, “The First Lady of Jazz” would have only a year to live. In 1959, Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver at 44 in her bed at New York City’s Metropolitan Hospital under house arrest, poverty-stricken and despondent. Of course, it was Sinatra who not only paid off all of her debts but then ended up funding Holiday’s entire service – the largest, most celebrated funeral in the city that year. In “Willow, Weep for Me” Sinatra’s haunting voice throughout the dirge is nothing less than a poignant foreshadow of Billie Holiday’s impending demise.
“Blues in the Night,” the classic pop standard composed in 1941 by the celebrated songwriting team of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, proves to be a solitary inhale in an album ladened with exhales. The seventh ballad in the album, this extraordinary version should be Exhibit A as to why experts such as Wynton Marsalis have long claimed that Sinatra is “a jazz singer in all respects.” Recorded on June 24, 1958, there is no counterfeit swooning in Frank’s version of “Blues in the Night.” Instead, his voice sweeps; dips; soars, and propels like a turbulent ocean. As Billy Joel once stated, “Sinatra’s voice expresses more eloquence that I can ever say in mere words.” Years ago, when I played the ballad for a fellow musical pal, he sighed: “Frank sings ‘Blues in the Night’ so persuasively that it makes me want to ditch my girlfriend, go to a bar, and cry into my beer.”
“Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” the album’s most searing tune and the ninth song on the record has eventually become one of Sinatra’s most enduring numbers. While he was known as “One-take Frank” in the movie business, his fastidiousness when making music was legendary. “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” took almost a day of precise outtakes to get it right, according to chronicler Will Friedwald. As he did on all 12 tracks on Only the Lonely, Sinatra would inevitably enter the studio; greet the musicians individually; saunter up to the front of the room; make notations on the sheet, and then patiently walk through what he wanted to hear from each musician. “Every time you saw him enter the studio to record, it became a workshop into how to make a textbook record,” Quincy Jones said near the end of Sinatra’s career. There are mythical bootlegs of Sinatra’s precise directions to his supporting musicians in scores of sessions out on YouTube. Like an experienced traffic controller, you hear him patiently walking his band through a maze of notes that eventually evolves into a highly imaginative, intuitive sound. When I first heard such outtakes, thanks to New York radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, it reminded me of Leonard Bernstein’s sagacious entries that framed his epic Young People’s Concerts Series back in the sixties.
In “Guess I’ll Hang My Teardrops Out to Dry,” the orchestra and the singer create a symmetry that is indistinguishable, two forces of nature that have merged seamlessly. As with every ballad on this album, the storyline means everything here. Sinatra is a storyteller here weaving out a story that grips your heart and hurls it into the abyss. It all leads to a Casablanca-like ending: “’Yes’ – somebody said/ ‘Just forget about her’/So I gave that treatment a try/And strangely enough/I got along without her/Then one day/She passed me right by/Oh, well…..” When the tune ends, you feel as if the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock has just gone out for the last time.
“Spring is Here,” the record’s 10th song, is an old Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart standard that had long bordered on schmaltz until Sinatra reinvented the song in a tour de force rendering. Previous to Frank’s version, it was considered a novelty tune without much substance to it. When such accomplished singers such as Jo Stafford, Bing Crosby, and Billy Eckstine sang it prior to Sinatra, their individual versions sounded slightly repentant; all three artists seem reluctant to even sink even their toes into its misery. Not Sinatra. He grabs a hold of the song at the first note, plunges in head first and then plummets to the muck at the very bottom. In so doing, he claims it as his own and produces an authentic classic in the process. Of course, it is that personal touch that separates Sinatra from nearly every other artist. As songwriter Frank Military once declared, “When you listen to Frank, you always believe that he is singing directly to you.”
I can personally vouch for this for when I saw Sinatra perform live at the Jacksonville Coliseum back in 1976. I swore he was belting out number after number to me alone in a coliseum full of people. No wonder that one of his longstanding staples was entitled, “This Song’s For You.”
The concluding ballad of the album, “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” is, for most Sinatraologists, the greatest thing he ever recorded. An over-the-top purist, Frank felt that the Arlen/Mercer standard was written especially for him and that only he could do any justice to it. Because of his rank perfectionism, Sinatra ended up recording the ultimate male torch song an astounding six times in four different decades. Nearly everyone agrees, however, that the version he inserted to conclude Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely was his best. Miles Davis always claimed that Sinatra “…sounded fundamentally soulful on that number, which is why nobody has ever touched it.” Ella Fitzgerald used to perform regularly “One for My Baby” to live audiences, invariably referring to it as “Frank’s song.” Out of sheer respect, Tony Bennett refused to record it for more than 35 years until he finally gave in and included it as part his 1993 tribute album to Sinatra, Perfectly Frank.
So what makes “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road”) so magical? For most fans, it is the forlornness in Sinatra’s voice; the intentional hesitation in his phrasing; the crushing refrain; the heartbeat-like, call-response provided by pianist Bill Miller, and the pillowed strings that are flawlessly layered to precision by Nelson Riddle and Felix Slatkin. All of these elements fuse into one, creating a genuine chef-d’oeuvre. People living centuries from now will continue to listen to this song in wonder. In my mind, it is the perfect ending to a perfect album.
Although the record ultimately made it to number one on the Billboard album chart in October 1958, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely was subsequently awarded just one Grammy the following winter. Inexplicably, it was for the disc’s perplexing cover, an original painting of Sinatra by Nick Volpe, depicting a morose Frank as a Pagliacci-like wag. To correct the obvious faux pas, the Grammy powers-that-be inducted Only the Lonely into their Hall of Fame a year after Sinatra’s death in 1999. By then, Time Magazine had already named it one of the Top 100 musical albums of the century. That same year, critic Jim Emerson wrote, “The bleakest and blackest album of popular songs ever recorded in a hundred years, so quietly powerful it can leave you slumped in your chair with the ice cubes still rattling in your glass. Every single “suicide song” (as Sinatra liked to call ’em) on Only the Lonely is a stunner that will take your breath away.” A few years later, Amy Winehouse called the record, “The single greatest album ever recorded, period.”
And, so, 60 years after the release of Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, the hurt still burns; the regrets still linger, the music remains set in the present tense. The singer seems to be at the point of death in each and every number, and yet there is no other album out there in which you feel more alive after listening to it.