Saturday Single No. 51

Originally posted January 19, 2008

When my attention is brought to the early 1970s while I’m wandering through my reference books or listening to the RealPlayer, I’m continually reminded of how many difference places I heard rock and pop music during my college days.

“Let’s Stay Together” immediately places me in a small lounge in the tallest dorm on the St. Cloud State campus, sharing a quiet Sunday afternoon moment with a young lady in early 1972 while Al Green sang from a nearby radio.

The tinkling introduction of “Precious and Few” puts me in another dorm room a few months earlier with about five of my friends, with four of us trying to continue the conversation and not roll our eyes as the other two shared a moment, having adopted the single by Climax as their song.

When I hear the insistent and thumping intro to Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up,” I’m not even in St. Cloud. I’m in the St. Paul Auditorium – now the Roy Wilkins Auditorium – listening with my friend Cookie as Rod Argent and his lads open the show and eventually give way to the Doobie Brothers.

The place I thought about today was the television studio/classroom in the Performing Arts Center at St. Cloud State. It was a small place, fitting for a mass communications program that was just getting off the ground, with four rooms: the studio itself, the control room, a work room/editing room and a small office. A short stairway led from the building’s main hallway down to the studio. And that stairway was where we often gathered between classes, listening to the radio on the desk in the small office.

There are several songs that trigger that location for me: “Me and Mrs. Jones” by Billy Paul, “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” are just four of a large group. But the song that most strongly takes me back to between-classes bull sessions on that short stairway is a Carly Simon tune.

We spent what seems – looking back – an inordinate amount of time during the early days of 1973 discussing what might be one of pop music’s all-time great questions: Just who was it that Carly Simon was singing about on “You’re So Vain.” The topic usually came up when the song floated up the stairway from the office, and it did so quite often, as Simon’s song spent fourteen weeks on the Top 40, three of them at No. 1

Over the years, it seems that the possible answers have boiled down to two: Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty. At least, that’s the tale that Fred Bronson tells in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits. And we considered those two names. Some folks dismissed Jagger as a candidate.

“He sings back-up on the song, for chrissake! It can’t be about him,” they’d say. And the first part of that was true; Jagger’s voice is unmistakably there. But those in the Jagger-as-subject camp would point out that Mick might have enough of a sense of humor to take part, if he even knew the song was about him.

And those in the Beatty-as-subject camp would make another point. And those in neither camp would bring some alternative choices from left field, suggestions that were dismissed as quickly as they were offered. Eventually the discussion would trail off into silence. More than once, someone in the cluster of students on the staircase would ask, “But who else could it be about?” And we’d shrug our shoulders and listen to the song once more, having run out of ideas.

As I remembered those discussions this week when “You’re So Vain” came up on the RealPlayer, I did some checking, and I learned that not only had the single been No. 1 during this week thirty-five years ago, but the album it came from – No Secrets – had hit the top spot as well, starting a five-week stay at No. 1. As I wasn’t all that thrilled about selecting “You’re So Vain” as something to share here – too obvious and too omnipresent – I went to the stacks and pulled down the No Secrets vinyl and began to look at the credits.

And the next-to-last track on the album provided an interesting list of names. It was written by James Taylor, whom Simon married in late 1972. The track had Nicky Hopkins on piano, Jim Keltner on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass and Jimmy Ryan on guitar. Also present were Ray Cooper on congas and Bobby Keys on tenor sax, giving the track the benefit of some of the great studio musicians of the time (and of all time, perhaps). The backup singers were good, too: Bonnie Bramlett and Doris Troy, and then a couple identified only as Paul and Linda.

They were, of course, the McCartneys. In The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, Craig Rosen notes that the McCartneys were recording “Live and Let Die” in the adjacent studio and popped in for a visit. (While the musicians no doubt all knew each other, it might be worth noting that McCartney and Voorman had been friends for years, dating back to the Beatles’ early days in Hamburg, Germany.)

The track turned out to be pretty good. And all that is why “Night Owl” is this week’s Saturday Single.

Carly Simon – “Night Owl” [1973]

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