‘Playin’ On The Radio . . .’

Originally posted March 28, 2008

A stranger looking through my music collections might have a hard time figuring out which type of music is my favorite. And that was true even before my record collection became somewhat of an archive, back when it was a personal collection and nothing more.

The music that I love makes a long list, so long that it’s easier to list those genres and varieties that aren’t all that well represented among the 2,900 LPs, 700 CDs and 25,000 mp3s. So far as I know, there is no opera. I’ve been to one opera, and I enjoyed it, but that was in the Vienna Opera House and functioned more as a cultural and historical note than as a musical experience. I wouldn’t mind going to another opera if the circumstances arise, but listening to opera at home doesn’t interest me.

I have very little heavy metal, rap or hip-hop. Those genres aren’t entirely shut out; I have a few metal LPs and collections, and I have some rap and hip-hop – more of the latter – among the mp3s. And I enjoy those genres in small doses.

Pretty much any other genre of music is fairly well represented on my shelves and in the external hard drive: Blues, lots of classic and some current R&B, lots of rock and pop-rock, some standard pop (Al Hirt, Frank Sinatra et al.), soundtracks, some classical and a little bit of gospel. (Oh, I forgot to mention another genre that’s absent: polka music. It was kind of a kick, though – memories of vacations spent on the farm in southwestern Minnesota – when Tom the Barber happily popped his new polka CD into the player during my last haircut.)

Why am I running though this now? Because today’s album – compared to the things I generally share here – is an anomaly. Yet it’s one of my favorite records and it has been since I bought it in 1975, when my collection was still in its formative stages.

I still lived in my parents’ home in July 1975, and I was sitting on my bed, leaning back against the wall. The sounds of a quiet summer evening came through the window: cars making their way down Kilian Boulevard, their headlights casting the shadows on my bedroom walls that had at times frightened me when I was much younger; the occasional footsteps of folks walking in the late twilight; and likely the sound of a horn and a train engine as a Burlington Northern freight neared the crossing next to the Dew Drop Inn, the beer joint just down the way.

I was most likely reading and putting away a dish of vanilla ice cream liberally sprinkled with chocolate Quik – a snack choice that’s come with me through the years – as the radio played softly. The station was WCCO-FM, the sister station to the AM powerhouse in Minneapolis; these days, the FM station is WLTE, and it plays light rock. I guess that’s what it played then, too, but in memory, its playlist was more adventurous than it is now.

And the DJ began to interview a singer/songwriter – I missed the name – scheduled to perform the next evening in downtown Minneapolis. Being a songwriter myself, and interested in music in any case, I listened as the writer – who had an odd, wispy voice – talked about his writing process, which he said was sometimes hard work and sometimes serendipity (an assessment of any kind of writing that I agreed with then and agree with today). He singled out a song of his that was one of those he’d just blundered into, as if it had been waiting for him to find it.

The DJ cued up the song and I fell in love with it, with its seemingly perfect marriage of sad, reflective words and a quiet, somewhat mournful melody and arrangement. It was indeed light rock, so light it almost floated out of the speaker. When the DJ named the song, the artist and the album, I made a note of it before I turned off the light and the radio for the night. And the next evening, after getting home from school, I headed out to the mall and brought home a copy of Paul Williams’ Just An Old Fashioned Love Song and its opening track, “Waking Up Alone.”

Overall, I’m not a big Paul Williams fan. I haven’t cared at all for the vast majority of his work. But that single album – with its songs of love gained and lost, love found unexpectedly or love never found at all – spoke to me that summer. I was twenty-one; I’d lost loves, and the fact that I was young and had much to learn didn’t make those losses hurt any less. So I suppose those songs might have been balm for those wounds. Whatever it was, I listened to the record a lot that summer.

The record followed me around as my life went on. During the Eighties and Nineties, when I made a lot of mix tapes for friends, I pulled songs from it on occasion, but I noticed that just the general wear over the years had created some surface noise. It was one of the first albums I put on my list of records to replace with a CD when I moved that direction. But I never found the CD; it turns out to only have been available as an import for years, and even when A&M put out a domestic copy, it disappeared. So when I was able to rip mp3s from my records, I tried to do so with Just An Old Fashioned Love Song, but there was more noise than I liked.

Happily, a fellow member at a bulletin board I frequent had a better vinyl copy, and in February, he (or she, I suppose) shared it. (Thanks, raphph!) So I’ve been listening to an old friend for a couple of months now, wondering if I should share it here. It’s light, it’s frothy, it’s wispy, and it’s sweet and sentimental. And it’s one of my favorites.

The highlight track for me is still “Waking Up Alone,” with the resignation in Williams’ words and voice being among the saddest things I have ever heard. I wish the record had credits because I’ve wondered for more than thirty years who’s playing the great saxophone break at the end of the song. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Jim Horn.

Other highlights? I like “That’s Enough For Me” and “I Never Had It So Good,” two of the songs of love found and held. And Williams does a very nice cover of Graham Nash’s “Simple Man,” the only song on the record Williams didn’t write.

The rest of it is nicely done as well, and still carries the same emotional impact it did more than thirty years ago. So it’s difficult to assess the record. I should note that the album also includes “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which began its life as a bank commercial and ended up being a No. 2 hit for the Carpenters in 1970. The title song, of course, was a No. 4 hit for Three Dog Night the following year.

When I did some digging online, I discovered something pretty interesting about that title song. Here’s Williams discussing it, as presented at a website called Songfacts:

“I had a date one night, a young lady named Patti Dahlstrom, she was a songwriter. We were going to go out and have dinner. And right before I left for the date I had gotten a phone call that I had a gold record. And I walked into her house, and I said, ‘Well, got a gold record for such-and-such, it just went gold. Kid did it again with another old fashioned love song.’ It just came out of me. And I went, wait a minute. I went over to her piano and I sat down, and it’s the quickest I ever had a song come out of me. And it sounds like it. It’s a really simple song, I wrote it in like 20 minutes. And it was a big hit.”

Given that I shared a Patti Dahlstrom record last week and that I have three more of her albums waiting to be ripped, well, the world turns in small circles, I guess.

Here’s the track list:
Waking Up Alone
I Never Had It So Good
We’ve Only Just Begun
That’s Enough For Me
A Perfect Love
An Old Fashioned Love Song
Let Me Be The One
Simple Man
When I Was All Alone
My Love And I
Gone Forever

Paul Williams – Just An Old Fashioned Love Song [1971]

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