Archive for the ‘1976’ Category

Barry Beckett, 1943-2009

October 30, 2015

Originally posted June 15, 2009

Not quite two weeks ago, I wrote about the song “Loan Me A Dime” and my explorations of its genesis. What I didn’t write about at the time was my visceral connection to the song.

As I’ve mentioned here a few times, I played in a recreational band from about 1993 through 2000, playing a couple parties a year and a few gigs, though mostly playing for the joy of it. We played blues, R&B, vintage rock, jazz – whatever any of our members brought to the table over the years, and, combined, our musical interests ranged far afield.

One of the songs I brought to the band’s attention was “Loan Me A Dime,” as interpreted by Boz Scaggs on his self-titled 1969 debut album. I didn’t sing it; our lead singer was a better blues singer than I am. But we pretty well replicated the instrumental backing brought to the album by the crew at Muscle Shoals, starting with the performances of drummer Roger Hawkins, bass player David Hood and rhythm guitarist Jimmy Johnson. For a couple of years, we had a guitar player who’d made the study of Duane Allman’s performances one of the major efforts of his life. And for twenty minutes every couple of weeks – and during every one of our performances – I got to be Barry Beckett.

I posted it here just twelve days ago, but here’s Boz Scagg’s “Loan Me A Dime” once more. Listen to the piano part Beckett plays, from the slow bluesly stuff in the intro and the body of the song to the exquisite runs and triplets near the end of the song, when all hell is breaking loose.

And then take a moment. Barry Beckett is gone. He crossed over last Wednesday, June 10, at his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He was sixty-six. Several news reports said he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and later with thyroid cancer; he also suffered several strokes, including one in February from which he never recovered.

In 1969, Beckett and Hood joined Hawkins and Johnson in forming the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama. The four had worked together for Rick Hall at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. Beckett stayed with the Muscle Shoals Sound until 1985, when he left to become an agent and then a music producer on his own.

The list of Beckett’s credits from his long career is remarkable. Starting with his early work with John Hammond, Etta James, Cher and Boz Scaggs and many more, Beckett’s work as a musician and a producer was part of the sound of American music for more than forty years.

I’ve written occasionally about my admiration for the Muscle Shoals crews, especially Beckett, and my love of the music they all created, together at Muscle Shoals and later on. There are plenty of remembrances and eulogies out on the ’Net, and I’m not sure I have any words to add to the discussion today. Probably the best thing I can do to pay my respects to someone whose music influenced me greatly is just to offer some of that music.

Here are a few early things from Muscle Shoals and a bonus track from the first years after Barry Beckett left Muscle Shoals.

A Six-Pack of Barry Beckett
“People Make The World” by Wilson Pickett from Hey Jude, 1969
“I Walk On Guilded Splinters” by Cher from 3614 Jackson Highway, 1969
“I Won’t Be Hangin’ Round” by Linda Ronstadt from Linda Ronstadt, 1972
“Hello My Lover” by Boz Scaggs from My Time, 1972
“Breath” by Johnny Rivers from Road, 1974
“Sailin’” by Kim Carnes from Sailin’, 1976*

Bonus Track
“Damn Your Eyes” by Etta James from Seven Year Itch, 1988*

*(Also produced or co-produced by Barry Beckett)

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On to YouTube!

June 5, 2015

Originally posted June 11, 2009

Looking for a video of Rolf Harris perfoming “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” I found something that, to me, is astounding. It’s a recording – with no video, but that’s okay – of Harris singing his hit song with the Beatles, most likely in 1963. It’s a little ragged, but the best thing is that the lyrics have been changed to reflect the session. Give it a listen:

Here’s a television performance by Dave Dudley of “Six Days On The Road.” It’s from his appearance on the National Life Grand Old Opry on October 28, 1966.

And to close the video portion of today’s post, here’s George Harrison and Leon Russell performing “Beware of Darkness” at 1971’s Concert for Bangladesh:

Bonus Track
In yesterday’s post, I said of Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” that there were probably hundreds of songs in which the narrator realizes how good things were at home “but I doubt if any of them are as twangy as Bare’s.” Frequent commenters Yah Shure and Oldetymer suggested several songs with similar themes, and Oldetymer added that Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia My Home” might top Bare’s song for twang.

I don’t have a recording of Dickens performing the song on her own, but I have a version she recorded with her frequent partner, Alice Gerard, from the 1976 album Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerard. And it’s pretty down-home.

When I made my comment, I was actually referring to the guitar figure that opened Bare’s record, but Oldetymer has done a service by reminding me of Dickens and her music, which is very much aligned with the sounds and places from which she, and country music, came. When you listen to Dickens, you’re hearing what a great deal of American music sounded like in 1927 when the Carter Family – A.P., Sara and Maybelle Carter – made their ways from Maces Spring, Virginia, to Bristol, Tennessee, for their first recording sessions, sessions that are said to have been the birthpoint of country music records.

There is, thus, an entirely different aesthetic to the music Dickens has recorded. (She turned seventy-four earlier this month.) Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the sound of the past:

Ten From The Seventies

June 28, 2013

Originally posted May 27, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve looked at some of the numbers surrounding the mp3 collection, so I thought I’d do that today. (Actually, I did a post of that sort in February, but it disappeared that day; those things do happen from time to time.)

As of this morning, the collection (I’d considered calling it a “library,” but that sounds a bit, well, pretentious) contains 37,849 mp3s. The earliest recorded is “Poor Mourner,” performed by the Dinwiddie Colored Quartet in Philadelphia on November 29, 1902. I have a number of things recorded (or at least released) this year, the most recent purchase being Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life, which I got early this month (and quite enjoy).

Most of the music comes from the 1960s and 1970s, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who stops by here. Here’s a breakdown by decade from the middle of the Twentieth Century onward:

1950s: 1,152
1960s: 8,820
1970s: 13,445
1980s: 3,327
1990s: 4,525
2000s: 5,319

As I expected – and said above – the 1960s and the 1970s dominate, because that’s where my musical heart and major interests lie. And I have demonstrably less interest in the 1980s than in the music that’s come along since, which is no surprise. Taking things a step further, I thought it might be instructive – or at least interesting – to pull the Seventies apart and see how each year is represented in the collection:

1970: 2,627
1971: 2,513
1972: 2,175
1973: 1,556
1974: 1,107
1975: 1,038
1976: 802
1977: 674
1978: 528
1979: 425

Well, that’s about how I thought it would curve. Maybe I’ll look at other decades in the future. But for now, here’s one recording from each year of the 1970s, selected more or less randomly.

Ten From The Seventies
1970: “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead from American Beauty
1971: “Finish Me Off” by the Soul Children from Best of Two Worlds
1972: “By Today” by Batdorf & Rodney from Batdorf & Rodney
1973: “Come Strollin’ Now” by Danny Kortchmar from Kootch
1974: “Ramona” by the Stampeders from New Day
1975: “Get Dancin’” by Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony from Disco Baby
1976: “I Got Mine” by Ry Cooder from Chicken Skin Music
1977: “People With Feeling” by the Three Degrees from Standing Up For Love
1978: “Rover” by Jethro Tull from Heavy Horses
1979: “One Way Or Another” by Blondie, Chrysalis 2336

The best known of those, likely, are the two that bookend the group: the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” and the Blondie single.

The Soul Children have popped up here from time to time. “Finish Me Off” is a great vocal workout by a group that I think was in the shadows as Memphis-based Stax began to fade in the early 1970s.

Batdorf & Rodney was a singer-songwriter duo that had a couple of good but not great albums during the years when there were similar duos on every record label and in every barroom. Batdorf & Rodney wasn’t among the best of them, but neither was the duo among the worst.

Danny Kortchmar was one of the more prolific session guitarists of the 1970s; his list of credits is impressive. For his 1973 solo album, he pulled together a number of the other top session musicians, including Craig Doerge on keyboards and horn player Jim Horn. (I think that’s Horn on the extended solo in “Come Strollin’ Now,” but it could be Doug Richardson.)

The Stampeders of “Ramona” are the same Stampeders who did “Sweet City Woman,” a No. 8 hit in 1971. The banjo is gone, and so is the quirky charm that it lent to the group’s sound. “Ramona” sounds like the work of any other mid-Seventies band. Oh, well.

Two of these are aimed at getting us out of our chairs and onto the dance floor. The Van McCoy track does a better job of that than does the track by the Three Degrees, maybe because McCoy has no other aim than to get us dancing. The Three Degrees, on the other hand, were trying to put across a serious message in the lyrics. By that era of the Seventies, though, it was pretty much about the boogie, not the words.

The Ry Cooder is your basic Ry Cooder track: rootsy and a little sardonic and fun. This one comes from one of his better – and most varied – albums. The Jethro Tull track comes from an album I tend to forget about when I consider the group. And every time I’m reminded of it, I remember that Heavy Horses has aged better, it seems, than most things in the Tull catalog, certainly better than Aqualung (which I love anyway).

‘Outside, The Rain Begins . . .’

June 20, 2012

Originally posted April 28, 2009

Well, I just spent an hour combing through ten different versions of Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone,” the gorgeous song that’s the closer to Scaggs’ 1976 album Silk Degrees.

Feeling a bit like Andy Rooney this morning, I’ll just note that Silk Degrees – though I’ve certainly become accustomed to it – is an odd name for an album. What does it mean? How many degrees are there in silk? I wonder if sometime, somewhere, Boz Scaggs told the story.

Anyway, looking for a cover version to share, I just listened to the original version of “We’re All Alone” and nine covers. And none of them really blew me away. One of the things that I did find interesting when I began to look for covers through All-Music Guide was the evident popularity of the song in the Pacific Rim. I found versions by Japanese singers, by singers from the Philippines and by a Hawaii-based duo named Cecilio & Kapono, and I saw listings at AMG for more versions of the tune from that area of the world.

Unhappily, none of those versions seemed to add anything to the song, and that’s too bad. The song is one of those that can get inside my head and whirl around for an hour or so, one of the most tolerable of earworms. I almost certainly heard the song for the first time not long after Silk Degrees was released in 1976, when I was living in the cold house on the North Side of St. Cloud, about two blocks from both the rail yards and a neighborhood beer joint called the Black Door Club.

(The owner of the bar said the name didn’t signify anything: “When I bought the place,” he told a few of us over a pitcher of Grain Belt one Saturday afternoon, “the door was painted black. I thought that was strange, but I wasn’t gonna repaint it. And then I was tryin’ to come up with a name for the place, and the best I could do was the Black Door Club.”)

Anyway, one of my three roommates in the autumn of 1976 brought home Silk Degrees and began playing it – a lot. At least daily for three weeks, he dropped it on the stereo in the living room or the stereo in his room. It didn’t take long before I knew the record very, very well. Kevin moved out at the end of fall quarter and headed off into adult life, taking the record with him. At that time, I didn’t have a list of music I wanted to collect. When I felt like getting something new, I headed to Musicland or Shopko and rifled through the bins, or else I headed to Axis downtown and looked through the used records, and I bought whatever I found. I imagine if I’d run across a copy of Silk Degrees, I would have bought it.

But my album log says that I didn’t bring Silk Degrees home until December 1, 1977. I remember buying the record as a celebration. That day had seen the publication of the first edition of the Monticello Times with my byline in it. And when I played the record in my small apartment that evening, I realized how much I had missed hearing it. Oh, I’d heard the singles, of course: “Lowdown” had spent fifteen weeks in the Top 40 in the late summer and fall of 1976, reaching No. 3, and “Lido Shuffle” had peaked at No. 11 during a nine-week stay in the Top 40 during the spring of 1977, and both continued to get some airplay. (The first chart single from the album, “It’s Over,” had gone to No. 38 in the spring before I moved to the north side; a fourth single, “What Can I Say,” failed to reach the Top 40.)

It was sweet that evening to hear my own copy of the album. And over the years, it’s an album I go back to time and again. In fact, in a post here in June 2007, I put Silk Degrees on a list of my thirteen favorite albums. Lists like that are often fluid, and if I did a similar list now without referring to the earlier list, there would likely be some changes. But Silk Degrees would stay there, I’m sure.

Is “We’re All Alone” the best track on the record? Maybe. Beyond the singles, which are almost too familiar to assess, I like “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” and “Harbor Lights.” But I keep coming back to “We’re All Alone” as my favorite on the record.

Scaggs’ version of “We’re All Alone,”, even though it’s the original, likely isn’t the best known: Rita Coolidge’s cover of the song went to No. 7 in the latter months of 1977, but I’ve never cared much for Coolidge’s version. Others who have covered the song – according to All-Music Guide – include Joe Augustine, Acker Bilk, the Matt Catingub Orchestra of Hawaii, Linda Eder, Lesley Gore, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bob James, Steve Lawrence, Johnny Mathis, Reba McIntire, Natalia, Newton, the Romantic Strings, Lars Roos, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Frankie Valli, the Ventures, the Walker Brothers and the West Coast All-Stars.

As I mentioned above, I’ve heard eight covers of the song, and none of them blew me away. But two of them, I thought, were pretty good. The Three Degrees, the Philadelphia R&B trio that showed up on MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia” (No. 1 in 1974) and had a good career on its own (“When Will I See You Again” went to No. 2 in 1974), covered the song for its 1977 album Standing Up For Love. And Pieces Of A Dream, a long-lived Philadelphia jazz/R&B group, covered “We’re All Alone” on its 1994 album Goodbye Manhattan.

“We’re All Alone” by Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees [1976]

“We’re All Alone” by the Three Degrees from Standing Up For Love [1977]

“We’re All Alone” by Pieces Of A Dream from Goodbye Manhattan [1994]

The Plumbers Are Here!

June 20, 2012

Originally posted April 22, 2009

The best laid plans and all that . . .

As I mentioned yesterday, I had planned to pull tracks from six of the records in the unplayed stacks for today’s post. But yesterday afternoon, our landlord called: He’d scheduled the long-awaited work on our water pipes.

So this morning, the cats are sequestered upstairs and the plumbers are pulling down pipes in the basement. We have plenty of bottled water in the fridge. I have my thermos of coffee in the study, and I am – as is my tendency – pretty well distracted.

The morning’s events, did, however, remind me of my one attempt to work with plumbing and similar fixtures. Sometime during the late 1970s, the float and attached mechanism in our toilet tank quit working. Even a relative novice like me could see that it needed to be replaced. Assuming that my ability to diagnose conferred upon me an equal ability to repair, I stopped by the local plumbing store and told the clerk what I’d seen.

He agreed with my diagnosis and showed me some options for replacement of the worn-out parts. I bought the package of stuff that fell into the midrange, and on Saturday morning, carried my minimally stocked toolbox into the bathroom, turned off the water and proceeded to take the offending pieces of equipment out.

And I then realized that to install their replacements, I needed a wrench larger than anything I had in my possession. The lady of the house was watching my progress from out in the corridor, and I could tell from the look on her face that she’d come to the same realization I had: I needed help. “What are we gonna do?” she asked.

I told her what I planned, and she nodded. Then I did what every I’d guess nearly every young homeowner does the first time one of his handyman projects exceeds his grasp: I called Dad. I’m not sure what he was doing on that long-ago Saturday, but without hesitation, he gathered his tools – including the large adjustable wrench – and drove the thirty miles from St. Cloud to Monticello. About twenty minutes after his arrival, the toilet was reassembled and working.

George the Plumber tells me that he and his assistant will finish the work sometime late this afternoon. Water will flow once more. So here’s a selection of songs that fit today’s events:

A Six-Pack of Water and Plumbers
“Wade In The Water” by Ramsey Lewis, Cadet 5541, 1966
“Hot Water” by the Ides of March from Midnight Oil, 1973
“No Water In The Well” by Wishbone Ash from Locked In, 1976
“You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell, Stax 116, 1962
“You Left The Water Running” by Maurice & Mac, Checker 1197, 1968
“The Plumber” by the Ovations from Sweet Thing, 1973

I have two versions of the Ramsey Lewis track. In these days of reissues and bonus tracks, I’m not sure that either of the two – one runs 3:36 and the other about 3:46 – is the original Cadet single. I’m posting the track that runs 3:36. (Yah Shure? You got this one covered?) Either way, it’s a delightful track that went to No. 19 in the summer of 1966.*

As I clicked from track to track with the word “water” in their titles, I didn’t expect much from either the Ides of March or Wishbone Ash. Both surprised me pleasantly. “Hot Water” turned out to be a mid-tempo rocker that owes maybe a little bit to Bachman-Turner Overdrive; it doesn’t sound a bit like a track from the same band that did the horn-heavy “Vehicle” three years earlier. “No Water In The Well” is much more melodic and atmospheric than the usual work by Wishbone Ash (although that’s true of about half the tracks on Locked In), and the group pulls the song off with more delicacy than I would have anticipated.

The William Bell and Maurice & Mac tracks have been anointed classic soul singles long after the fact and in spite of chart performance. Bell’s single was hardly noticed when it came out: It went only to No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100. But that was a better fate than the one that fell to “You Left The Water Running.” The Checker single didn’t even enter either the Billboard Hot 100 or the magazine’s R&B chart. Writer Dave Marsh notes in The Heart of Rock & Soul that the single did spend three weeks in the lower portions of the Cash Box R&B chart. (Thanks to Caesar Tjalbo for the Maurice & Mac track.)**

I know nothing about the Ovations. All-Music Guide says: “Despite having only one Top Ten R&B hit, the Ovations were a superb Southern soul trio. The original group featured Louis Williams and made some great ballads that were sung so vividly and produced in such raw fashion that they never reached the wider soul market. Though they reached the R&B charts twice during the late ’60s (with ‘It’s Wonderful to Be in Love’ and ‘Me and My Imagination’), the group eventually disbanded. By 1971, a new trio had resurfaced, with former Nightingales Rochester Neal, Bill Davis, and Quincy Billops, Jr. A remake of Sam Cooke’s ‘Having a Party’ in 1973 gave them their lone Top Ten R&B hit.”

Sweet Thing, from which “The Plumber” comes, was recorded in the late 1970s, according to a note at AMG, but I’ve got three tracks from the album (without having any idea where I found them), and I’ve seen a 1973 date for them. Anyone know anything?

*Yah Shure did in fact come through. His assessment of the versions of “Wade In The Water” is at the bottom of the post here. The version in the original post was not the single; the linked video is. Note added July 1, 2013.

 

** Caesar Tjalbo is still online, but there have been no new posts there for almost two years. Note added June 20, 2012.

Fun With Sedatives

March 25, 2012

Originally posted March 25, 2009

A couple of years ago, I began having some difficulty getting to sleep. Every ten weeks or so, I’d have four or five consecutive nights where sleep eluded me until three or four o’clock in the morning. Tired of having my body clock miscalibrated and wanting to be awake during the same hours as the Texas Gal, I went to Dr. Julie. She recommended Ambien, which I take to this day.

I’ve read – as I’m sure my readers have – about folks under the influence of Ambien wandering away from home, driving vehicles, or cooking and eating meals without recalling anything. I’ve had no difficulty with those things or anything like that . . . until Monday evening.

Generally, I take my pill about forty minutes before I retire, than play a few computer games and call it a night. But just after eleven o’clock Monday, with the Ambien beginning to do its work, I stopped by The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, the blog where my pal jb hangs his hat. I downloaded his offering of the day, “Annabella,” a more-or-less lost single from Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds. And I left a comment.

I only vaguely remember doing that. I do remember having difficulty typing, my fingers feeling as if they were as large – and as responsive – as bratwursts. In the morning, with those vague memories circling, I went to see what I had written at jb’s blog.

I found:

“‘Annabella’ is a fine song, but this is — unaccountably — my first hearing of. That means that the nearly four-decade headstart the other hits have takes effect. I likely would have loved “Annabella” had I heard it regularly way back. But I didn’t, and ‘Don’t Pull Your Love’ stays in the top spot in my utterly figurative radio statiom. [sic] Nice look at a group that tends to get ignored.”

Relieved that it wasn’t utter gibberish, I sent a note to jb, telling him of my Ambien-influenced adventure. He replied, noting that I’d used “some interesting sentence structure.” He concluded: “Lucidity is often overrated anyhow.”

I haven’t yet gone back to “Annabella” to see if it sounds as good as I thought it did.

A Six-Pack of Sleep
“Tired of Sleeping” by Suzanne Vega from Days of Open Hand, 1990
“Sleeping in the Ground” by Blind Faith, unreleased, 1969
“Sleep” by Crack the Sky from Crack the Sky, 1975
“Sleep Baby Jane” by Over The Rhine from Eve, 1994
“Talking In Your Sleep” by Crystal Gayle, United Artists 1214, 1978
“Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” by Jackson Browne from The Pretender, 1976

I listened to a lot of Suzanne Vega’s work when she first came to attention in the late 1980s, especially her Solitude Standing album. I’ve kind of lost track of her in the past few years, but I still like her early stuff. “Tired of Sleeping,” with its plucked strings (mandolin, I think) and its organ, has a rootsier sound than a lot of Vega’s stuff. The lyrics are precise and literate, as always, and the vocals are a little austere and somehow distant, which makes for a nice contrast.

“Sleeping in the Ground” is from Eric Clapton’s Crossroads box set and comes from the Blind Faith sessions, with Steve Winwood handling the vocal. From time to time, Clapton returns to the song, credited on Crossroads to Sam Myers. (I’d check it on All-Music Guide, but that site seems to be having problems today.) Clapton and Winwood are on tour this spring and summer, and I wonder if “Sleeping on the Ground” is on the set list.

“Sleep” is the epic closing track on the self-titled debut album by Crack the Sky, a group described at Wikipedia as a “progressive rock band” (though who knows what that really means). The group, which came out of West Virginia, has continued to record, says Wikipedia, albeit with some changes in personnel. I’ve not listened to a lot of the group’s work, but from what I have heard, I hear bits of Styx and Journey and, I think, Jefferson Airplane.

Over the Rhine is a Cincinnati-based group that I came across through the budget stacks at a St. Paul bookstore, finding a copy of the group’s Good Dog, Bad Dog, which I enjoyed a lot. The group – essentially the husband-and-wife team of Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist, backed by whoever they happen to find, I guess – continues to release albums, the most recent being The Trumpet Child, which was independently released. “Sleep Baby Jane” has the dreamy and disturbing sense that seems to pervade a lot of the group’s work.

“Talking In Your Sleep” is no doubt pretty familiar to most readers, and it marks the second time Crystal Gayle has showed up here in less than a week. Even after nearly thirty years, I remain astounded at the purity of Gayle’s voice. “Talking In Your Sleep” went to No. 18 on the pop chart and was No. 1 for two weeks on the country chart in 1978.

Jackson Browne’s The Pretender haunts me still, from the opening strains of “The Fuse” through the end of the title tune. “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” precedes “The Pretender” and remains sweet and sad as it tells of those moments we all have one night or another: “Sometimes I lie awake and night and wonder . . .”

Found In The Unplayed Stacks

March 25, 2012

Originally posted March 9, 2009

At a guess, I’ve listened to eight-five to ninety percent of the LPs that reside in my study. Those I’ve not yet put on the turntable fall into two categories: Records that were my dad’s – mostly classical with an added mélange of show tunes, Swedish folk music and a few odd things – and records that I bought mostly at garage sales that got put into a pile and never got taken out.

Those garage sale records sit in bins atop the main stacks here, and I rarely find a reason to go digging to see what’s there. So let’s take a look:

In the first bin, I see, among others, Chilliwack, Bob James, Steve Forbert, Carly Simon, the Electric Light Orchestra, Asia, Devo, W.C. Fields, Weird Al Yankovic, Amy Grant and the soundtrack to the 1962 film Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison). The second bin brings us a selection that includes Prince, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Anthony, Archie Bell & the Drells, Tina Turner, Patsy Cline, Richard Harris, Madonna and the Looking Glass. And in the third bin, our trove includes Whitney Houston, the Willmar Boys Chorus, Head East, Artur Rubenstein, Culture Club, Al Martino, Chester Thompson (and the Pop Sound of the Great Organ, says the jacket), Sandler & Young and the soundtrack to the 1962 film How The West Was Won.

Despite temptations, I selected none of those records for this morning’s frolic. I chose instead six other albums for today’s music. None of them, alas, were quite as odd as the Willmar Boys Chorus. Willmar – pronounced WILL-mer – is a city of 18,000 or so that lies about sixty miles southwest of St. Cloud; I got the two-record set of that city’s boys chorus at a garage sale here in St. Cloud about five years ago. (Chester Thompson’s album came in the same haul.) The Willmar record could have popped up; I simply went to the stacks and pulled six records out at random.

Having pulled the LPs, I let the records make my selection for me: Using a method I got from Casey at The College Crowd Digs Me, I ripped the fourth track of each record. So what did we get this morning?

A Six-Pack From The Unplayed Stacks
“You Never Miss A Real Good Thing (Till He Says Goodbye)” by Crystal Gayle from Crystal [1976]
“Marcie” by the Four Seasons from Rag Doll [1964]
“Love & Emotion” by Gino Vannelli from Brother To Brother [1978]
“My Heart Echoes” by Kitty Wells from Heartbreak U.S.A. [1962]
“Headlines” by Melissa Manchester from Help Is On The Way [1976]
“Killer Queen” by Queen, Elektra 45223 [1975]

This is not entirely awful. It doesn’t thrill me, but neither did I wince. Probably the best thing here is “Killer Queen.” As it came from Queen’s Greatest Hits album, I went ahead and tagged it with its catalog number as a single. The record went to No. 12 in the spring of 1975, the first of fourteen hits for the group. (“Bohemian Rhapsody” counts as two hits, as it went to No. 9 in 1976 and then – after its inclusion in the movie Wayne’s World – to No. 2 in 1992.)

Other than “Killer Queen,” nothing here really stands out. Maybe the Crystal Gayle tune, which might have been a single. It’s pretty decent late-Seventies country. The Kitty Wells’ tune, on the other hand, is a good example of the blanding of country that took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the mass chorus and the less-than-downhome piano licks. (Though I do not have session information for the Kitty Wells album, I’d bet that the piano was manned by Floyd Cramer.)

The Gino Vanelli track is all right, inoffensive but bland, and the Four Seasons’ “Marcie” is a typical Bob Crewe Half-Wall of Sound production, and it’s okay for an album track. Then there’s “Headlines.” I never was a huge Melissa Manchester fan, although I did like her first hit, 1975’s “Midnight Blue.” But “Headlines” – which Manchester wrote – is a very strange song. A few more listens, and it might fall for me into the category of odd songs by so-so performers that I like nevertheless.

As I was ripping these albums and writing this post, I was under great temptation. So I yielded. Here’s a bonus:

“Ebb Tide” by Chester Thompson from The Pop Sound of the Great Organ. [Prob. 1964]

There are some clicks in this rip, but I decided it was odd enough of a track to put up with them. The record, says the notes on the jacket, was the first ever recorded on the giant Wurlitzer organ in Plaza Studios above New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. There’s no issue date on the record, but a reference to “Java” and “More” as “instrumentals of the past year” puts the record almost certainly in 1964.

I departed from vinyl and from the Track Four method for today’s second bonus. I pulled Alfred Newman’s soundtrack for How The West Was Won from the bins and slipped it on the turntable just to get an idea what kind of shape it’s in. And there was just too much noise to work with the record. But the film’s overture blew me away.

An overture, you ask? Yes, films that wanted to be taken seriously offered overtures before the show started, just as Broadway musicals did (and perhaps still do?). Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia are two other films I recall that had overtures. (Anybody recall any others?)

So what grabbed me about this overture? It’s just odd and amazing in its choral approach: At first it sounds almost like a Soviet choral piece celebrating the glory of labor, and then it becomes more American, if still a little odd. It’s a track very much of its time, and though I remember it only vaguely, I wanted to share it. So I went and found a digital copy. Thus, here’s the overture to How The West Was Won, featuring the MGM Studio Orchestra along with the Ken Darby Singers and Dave Guard & The Whiskeyhill Singers.

“Overture: I’m Bound For The Promised Land/Shenandoah/Endless Prairie/Ox Driver” from the soundtrack to How The West Was Won [1962]

The Music Behind The Movies

March 21, 2012

Originally posted March 11, 2009

My long-time fascination with film soundtracks began – as I shared here in the first few months of this blog – with Goldfinger, the third of the James Bond films. As I wrote, my parents were reluctant at the time – I was eleven – to let me either see the movie or read Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. But the soundtrack to Goldfinger was available through our record club, and I spent hours listening to it.

By the time I saw the film, maybe a year later, I practically had the score memorized, and I was fascinated with the way the music enhanced the movie, highlighting passages and underlining transitions. I began to pay close attention to the music whenever I went to a movie.

And I have done so ever since. Sometimes I felt like the only one. “Did you notice the music during the scene when they’re taking the car to Syracuse?” I’d ask my friends over a post-film drink.

“What about it?” one might reply.

“It echoed the main theme and also brought in the theme the composer created for the girl from Jersey.”

“Oh. No, I didn’t really notice.”

I kept listening and buying the occasional soundtrack LP (and later on, CD). My library of them isn’t large – I’ve focused far more over the years on rock, pop and soul – but generally, it’s music I still find interesting. Some of the soundtracks haven’t aged well. I bought the soundtrack to Country, the 1984 film that starred Jessica Lange, Sam Shepard and Wilford Brimley, just days after I saw the film. But the New Age music – the musicians on it recorded frequently for the Windham Hill label – hasn’t worn well, I don’t think. Some others have lasted. And I think those include the three soundtracks that I absolutely love.

The first of those is the first soundtrack I owned: Goldfinger. Written by John Barry, the score for the third of the James Bond films provides a lesson in contrasts, from the blare and rumble of the main title to the insistent music that accompanied the film’s dawn raid on Fort Knox, followed by the hushed background to the arrival of a nuclear weapon before the pounding countdown begins. Matching the music, which I knew well, to the action on the screen was like reading a primer in film-scoring.

(I dabbled with the idea of scoring and soundtrack work as a career, but nothing came of it except a deeper love for the craft.)

The second of my three favorite soundtracks is Bill Conti’s work for Rocky, the first in what became a ridiculous series of films. Conti’s use of repeated motifs, often identified with one character, remains astounding, as does the variety of moods and arrangements he finds for each motif. How much of my affection for the score is a result of the film’s ultra-romantic story of the man who was almost destined to be “just another bum from the neighborhood”? I don’t know. I have a suspicion that it might be just as accurate to say that my affection for the movie is the result of the score. Rocky might have the prefect symbiosis between story and score: Each enhances the other.

The last of the three scores that sit atop my list is Randy Newman’s work for the 1984 film, The Natural. It’s true that the film’s story – especially its ending – bears only a passing resemblance to the Bernard Malamud novel from which it was adapted. (In the novel, given a chance at redemption, Malamud’s Roy Hobbs strikes out at the critical moment and his life and career unravel.) But given the producers’ decision to make Malamud’s cautionary tale into the Great American Fable, Newman came up with a score that was tragic, triumphant and Coplandesque.

So here is one selection from each of those soundtracks and four more from soundtracks that I enjoy, if not to the degree I love the first three:

A Six-Pack of Soundtrack Selections
“Dawn Raid on Fort Knox” by John Barry from Goldfinger [1964]
“Lara’s Theme” by Maurice Jarre from Dr. Zhivago [1965]
 “No Name Bar” by Isaac Hayes from Shaft [1971]
“Going The Distance” by Bill Conti from Rocky [1976]
“Blade Runner [End Titles]” by Vangelis from Blade Runner [1982]
“The Natural” by Randy Newman from The Natural [1984]
Bonus Track
“Hymn to Red October (Main Title)” by Basil Poledouris from The Hunt For Red October [1990]

Already On My Turntable

March 16, 2012

Originally posted March 6, 2009

During my youth and early adulthood, it wasn’t often that I’d hear something playing on the radio and be able to say, “I have that record!”

Once I started listening to Top 40 radio in the late summer and early fall of 1969 – before that, I heard Top 40 all over the place but I never really listened – that happened occasionally. It was most frequent, of course, with the Beatles, especially once I made it my first mission in life to collect everything the Beatles had recorded for Capitol and Apple. I’d hear “Come Together” – or, as happened late one night when I woke up after leaving the radio on, the riff-glorious “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” – and know, “That’s from Abbey Road. I have that!”

Beyond the Beatles, though, it wasn’t often that I’d hear a song on Top 40 radio that I had on record. If I did – and this held true for a lot of the Beatles’ catalog as well – it was generally records that the radio stations were playing as oldies. I was usually a few years behind in buying music. (I still am, and I know I’ll never catch up, given the musical riches that exist.)

And during my college years, especially after I came back from my year in Denmark, I didn’t listen to a lot of Top 40. At school, in the student union, we’d sometimes plug quarters into the jukebox and hear current singles, but that – and brief bits of driving – were my only exposure to current hits. At home, I listened to radio stations that played deeper tracks, either St. Cloud State’s KVSC or another St. Cloud station, long gone now, its call letters gone for years from my memory. And when I bought music, I was catching up on the catalogs of the Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, Joe Cocker and more, so when I listened to records at home, I’d never hear a song that was getting current radio play.

As time passed and radio stations changed or disappeared, I tuned my radio once more to more popular fare. But my buying habits remained fairly consistent. So I still rarely heard a song on the radio that I had on a record. That’s why I recall a morning in early March 1977 so very clearly. I was about to head to campus for the day (working on that minor in print journalism I mentioned in a recent post). I had the radio on, and as I headed to the desk to turn it off, there came, “Here come those tears again, just when I gettin’ over you . . .”

It was from The Pretender, the first Jackson Browne album I ever bought. And I stopped short, marveling – as I did every time I listened to the album – at how good the song was and marveling, too, at its being released as a single. I listened for a minute or two, then turned off the radio and headed downstairs, pleased with the knowledge that I could hear the song anytime I wanted to.

A Six-Pack of Tears
“Here Come Those Tears Again” by Jackson Brown, Asylum 45397 [1976]
“No Tears (In The End)” by Grover Washington, Jr., from All The King’s Horses [1972]
“96 Tears” by Big Maybelle Smith, Rojac 112 [1967]
“Drown In My Own Tears” by Richie Havens from Richie Havens’ Record [1968]
“River of Tears” by Eric Clapton from Pilgrim [1998]
“Trail of Tears” by the Talbot Brothers from The Talbot Brothers [1974]

“Here Comes Those Tears Again” was Jackson Browne’s second Top 40 single, following “Doctor My Eyes,” which went to No. 8 in 1972. “Tears” spent six weeks in the Top 40 starting in mid-February 1977 and peaked at No. 23. Browne had ten more Top 40 hits from then on, but I don’t know that any of them were better than “Here Come Those Tears Again.” Maybe “Running On Empty,” which came out about a year later. But “Tears,” which was pulled off the album The Pretender, is a great single, helped along by Bonnie Raitt’s work on background vocals and the sweet guitar solo by (surprisingly) John Hall of the band Orleans (who is now, maybe even more surprisingly, a U.S. Congressman from the state of New York).

Some time ago, I shared Roberta Flack’s 1973 version of “No Tears (In The End).” Since then, two other versions have come my way, each released in 1972. I’m not sure which of the two – by Grover Washington, Jr., and by the Friends of Distinction – came first, but they’re both nicely done. Of the two, I prefer Washington’s just a little, but that may come from my fondness for the sound of the saxophone (something I don’t think I’ve addressed specifically here, though it might have been implicit over these last two years). The album the track comes from, All The King’s Horses, does not seem to be available on CD, which is a shame.

Big Maybelle covers ? and the Mysterians? Yeah, blues belter Big Maybelle took on “96 Tears” and earned her final appearance on the R&B charts, though I’m not sure how high the record went.* It was pulled from the album Got a Brand New Bag, a record I would dearly love to hear some day, based on the track listing:

“96 Tears”
“Mellow Yellow”
“That’s Life”
“There Must Be A Word”
“Ellenor Rigby” (sic)
“Love Is A Hurtin’ Thing”
“I Can’t Control Myself”
“Cabaret”
“Black Is Black”
“Coming On Strong”
“The Eggplant That Ate Chicago”
“Turn The World Around The Other Way”

Contemplating Big Maybelle’s takes on some of those titles is like contemplating a – well, I can’t think right now of anything suitably bizarre. “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” undoubtedly the most odd track selection on an oddly programmed album, is a product of the mind of Norman Greenbaum (who reached No. 3 in 1970 with the great “Spirit In The Sky”).

I probably found the Richie Havens track on a blog somewhere; I don’t recall. It’s included on a compilation on the Rhino label called Resume: The Best of Richie Havens. If I’m correct in my conclusions about its origins, the track was originally recorded in 1965 or so and was placed in 1969 on an album called Richie Haven’s Record, which a producer created by adding electric instrumentation to some of Havens’ early acoustic demos without Havens’ input. That LP came out on the Douglas label, a division of Laurie Records. In his autobiography, Havens seems ambivalent about the Douglas album, but he has praise for the Rhino compilation. His performance of Ray Charles’ classic “Drown In My Own Tears” is a good one.

Reviews were decidedly mixed in 1998 when Eric Clapton released Pilgrim. “My Father’s Eyes,” though never officially released as a single, went to No. 16 as an album track. But I think a lot of critics and Clapton fans thought the album was a little lightweight. That was my reaction; there were lots of “nice” tracks on the record but nothing that had much substance. I still look askance at most of the CD, just more than ten years later. But I’ve come to like “River of Tears.”

The Talbot Brothers were the moving force behind the band Mason Proffit, the highly regarded country-rock band that released a clutch of albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (The best of those, but not by much, was likely Wanted!) “Trail of Tears,” a beautiful track, comes from the brothers’ first album after the break-up of Mason Proffitt. That album was either called The Talbot Brothers or Reborn. I’ve seen pictures of record jackets with both titles. Either way, the musicianship is sparkling and the content reflects the brothers’ shift to overtly Christian themes. In the years ahead, the Talbots would be a prime force in what has come to be called Contemporary Christian Music.

*Big Maybelle’s cover of “96 Tears” went to No. 23 on the R&B Chart. Note added March 16, 2012.

A Long Overdue Thank You

February 15, 2012

Originally posted February 27, 2009

I don’t really remember much about the day I graduated from St. Cloud State, thirty-three years ago tomorrow. There are pictures in boxes somewhere, showing me in my cap and gown, some taken with my folks and some taken with my girlfriend of the time, but I don’t recall walking across the stage to get my diploma.

I know we went to lunch at a restaurant called The Griffin Room in the Germain Hotel. The building still stands, but it’s condos or apartments now, and the restaurant closed long ago. Beyond that, the day is a blank spot. I imagine I was just relieved to be done with college and done with my internship at a Twin Cities television station. I was ready to get started on my career in television sports.

And a funny thing happened on the way to that career. I never got there. Oh, I tried: I sat at the table in the basement rec room three or four evenings a week, typing letters to television stations in smaller markets in the Upper Midwest, expressing my interest in working for them, should they have any openings in their sports or news departments. (This was, of course, in the days before computers, when every letter had to be typed individually; the letters also had to be error-free and without many erasures and corrections, in order to make the best impression. It was slow work.)

I got a few courteous letters back from news and sports directors. But there was a little something called a recession going on: In the late winter and spring that year, the economy was stalled and advertising revenues at television stations were flat. So hiring an inexperienced kid right out of college wasn’t an attractive way for a news or sports director to use his resources. I did get four interviews that spring: I drove to television stations in Fargo, Duluth, Rochester and the Twin Cities suburbs. I got no offers, but in Fargo, Rochester and Duluth, the news directors told me that I needed to go back to school and learn how to operate a sixteen-millimeter camera.

These were the days before portable video cameras were widespread; the technology was becoming available, and in a few years, it would become affordable for even stations in small markets. But for the time being, stations used film, and in those small markets, reporters were expected to shoot their own film. I’d focused so much on my writing during college that I’d missed that.

The last of the four interviews was at the Twin Cities station that at the time was an ABC affiliate. I drove into the Minneapolis suburb of Edina very early one day. The sports director was a fellow named George McKenzie (it could have been “Mackenzie,” but I don’t think so). He interviewed me briefly and then handed me a pile of wire stories. He told me to sit down at the typewriter and put together a five-minute sportscast and then go down the hall to the studio, where the cameraman and director were waiting to tape me. I did all that, and then sat in a small room with a cup of coffee, waiting.

George McKenzie came in and sat. “You,” he said, “are a terrific writer, and you have a good memory. You hardly ever looked at your script. Your eyes were on the camera, and that’s good.” He paused, looked at the table and nodded, and then he looked at me. Then he changed my life.

“This is going to be hard for you to hear,” he said “but you’re not going to make it in television. Some people have the ability to come through the camera and be alive on the screen, and some people don’t. You are one of those who don’t. I’d suggest you focus on your writing. You’ll do fine with that. You have a bright future, but I’m afraid it’s not going to be in television.”

I went back to St. Cloud, sad and uncertain. I took a few graduate courses and a year later – after some thinking and some scuffling – I began taking the courses that would add a minor in print journalism to my degree. In time, I realized that George McKenzie had been right. I may have been too stunned at the moment to thank him. I do so now.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, February 28, 1976)
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees, RSO 519 (No. 18)
“Love Is The Drug” by Roxy Music, Atco 7042 (No. 35)
“In France They Kiss On Main Street” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum 45298 (No. 66)
“Union Man” by the Cate Brothers, Asylum 45294 (No. 74)
“New Orleans” by the Staple Singers, Curtom 0113 (No. 88)
“Train Called Freedom” by the South Shore Commission, Wand 11294 (No. 98)

I was surprised to learn that I’d not posted “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” as it’s one of my favorite singles from the winter of 1975-76. In the years just before, the Bee Gees had re-emerged: With “Fanny” and the rest of the Main Course album, they were heading toward the falsetto plus disco sound that they used to rule a good portion of the world in 1977-78 with “Stayin’ Alive” and the other tunes from Saturday Night Fever. That said, “Fanny” – which peaked at No. 12 – is nowhere near disco; it’s just a sweet slice of pop that still brings a smile to my face.

I do not recall the Roxy Music single from the time. If I’d ever heard it, I think I would have shaken my head and passed the dish on down the table. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1980s, when I picked up Avalon more or less by accident, that I gave Roxy Music more than a glance. I still find the band’s music cold and fussy, but in small doses, it can be compelling. And “Love Is The Drug” is, come to think of it, the perfect song for the seeming lack of emotional commitment that the band brought to its music. It peaked at No. 30 and was the band’s only Top 40 hit.

“In France They Kiss On Main Street” is – if there is such a thing – a typical Joni Mitchell 1970s single: Light and airy, with a delicate melody and sometimes cryptic lyrics that meander a little bit before getting to the point. That might sound like I don’t care for it, but that’s not the case. I like both the single and the album it came from, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. But, as is the case with a lot of music, I like Mitchell’s stuff mixed in with other tunes rather than heard as an entire album on its own. The single spent four weeks in the Hot 100, three of them at No. 66, before falling out of the chart. Best word combination: “Rock ’n’ roll choirboys.”

I’ve posted a couple of albums by the Cate Brothers here, and I’ve posted “Union Man” separately, too, but that was almost two years ago, which is something like a couple thousand blogyears. The music business is littered with the hopes of those performers and groups that should have made it big; the Cate Brothers are pretty high on my list of shouldas. “Union Man” got up to No. 24 but was the brothers’ only Top 40 hit. They kept on playing, though, touring the American South through the 1980s, and in the 1990s, they released a couple of CDs, followed by 2004’s Play by the Rules, which the folks at All-Music Guide like pretty well.

The Staple Singers’ “New Orleans” is a nice piece of funky R&B that got only as high as No. 70. Its failure to do better is another one of those mysteries in life, because it surely deserved more attention. The single comes from Let’s Do It Again, a movie soundtrack written and produced by Curtis Mayfield. It’s an album that’s well worth finding, as is the case with most anything done by the Staples.

All I really know about the South Shore Commission is what I’ve found at AMG. The group’s self-titled 1976 album and the single edit of “Train Called Freedom” were produced by Philadelphia’s Bunny Sigler, and the group’s sound fits in well with what’s come to be called the Philly Sound. “Train Called Freedom” is a pretty good track, but its lyrics beg for comparison with the O’Jays’ 1972 hit, “Love Train,” a competition that the earlier single, unsurprisingly, wins. That said, the South Shore Commission record is still fun. It peaked at No. 86.