Archive for the ‘Covers’ Category

The Beatles, Gene & Elvis

May 18, 2022

Originally posted September 3, 2009

Well, there are a large number of videos of “Long Tall Sally” available at YouTube. One of the most interesting – despite the annoying slow-motion segment in the middle – is this one of the Beatles performing live on television, either in the UK or perhaps in Australia or New Zealand (going only by the hostess’ accent, which I can’t place). The performance dates from 1963 or 1964, I would guess; it could be narrowed down more if one were so inclined by the fact that Ringo appears to have a mustache. (If this is from the Australian tour during the summer of 1964, then it’s from June 14 or later: Ringo was hospitalized with tonsillitis when the other three Beatles left Britain at the beginning of the tour. Jimmy Nicol filled in on drums until Ringo could rejoin the band in Melbourne.)

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Here’s some footage of Gene Vincent – generally forgotten these days but a pretty big name in the late 1950s – performing “Long Tall Sally” in Belgium on October 10, 1963. The performance last about two minutes; the remainder of the clip is comments in French from, I assume, some of those who saw Vincent’s performance. I’m sure the comments are fascinating, but my schoolboy facility in French long ago dwindled away, so I have no idea what those young folk are saying.

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Here’s Elvis Presley’s version of the song, packaged with photos of Presley. The recording dates from September 2, 1956.

Video unavailable

After learning of its existence as I wrote Tuesday’s post, I’m trying to find either audio or video of Roger Whittaker’s performance of “Long Tall Sally.” I’ve seen references to it online that imply that it’s, well, unique. According to All-Music Guide, it’s included on a DVD of a concert performance. I’ll keep looking.

‘Gonna Tell Aunt Mary . . .’

May 18, 2022

Originally posted September 1, 2009

The things you can learn rummaging around online!

Remember all the stories about a baseball player promising to hit a home run for a sick kid in the hospital and then actually going out and doing so? (The ballplayer in the story is frequently Babe Ruth, and there is some evidence that things happened that way at least once, which only proves that where Babe Ruth is concerned, fact and fable intersect.) As I dug around at Wikipedia this morning, I found a similar story of rock ’n’ roll lore:

In the mid-1950s, it seems, there was a young woman in or near New Orleans named Enotris Johnson. Her Aunt Mary was ill, and in hopes of gaining the money for her aunt’s treatment, Enotris began to write a rock ’n’ roll song for a popular performer to record. Actually, she only wrote a couple of lines, but somehow, she got in touch with Honey Chile, a popular disk jockey.

Honey Chile took the few lines that Enotris had written and got in touch with a fellow named Bumps Blackwell, who was an A&R man for Specialty Records. Blackwell took the few lines to the performer, who was – Wikipedia says – reluctant to use them. Still, one of the lines resonated with the artist, and he and Blackwell added to Enotris Johnson’s lines and crafted a song out of it. Recorded at a tempo so fast that the artist might have been singing in some language other than English, the song was released as a single. It went as high as No. 6 on the fragmented pop charts of the time and spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the R&B chart.

Those three lines Enotris wrote?

Saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally
They saw Aunt Mary comin’
So they ducked back in the alley.

The artist, of course, was Little Richard and the song was “Long Tall Sally,” maybe the most famous song recorded by the flamboyant singer born as Richard Penniman in Macon, Georgia. (I’d guess that “Tutti Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” would be in the running for that “most famous” title.)

As to the truth of the tale I found at Wikipedia, some of the details of the story – minus Aunt Mary – also appear in The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh’s 1989 tome about the 1,001 best singles. In addition, the song’s writing credits have seemingly always included an E. Johnson. On the other hand, “Long Tall Sally” wasn’t a one-shot for Enotris Johnson. She received at least two other writing credits on Little Richard songs: She’s also listed as a co-writer on “Miss Ann” and “Jenny Jenny.” (There may have been more credits for Enotris Johnson on songs that weren’t hits; those are the credits I noticed this morning on the CD The Georgia Peach.)

I did find some more information at Who’s Dated Who, a celebrity website. On an otherwise blank page for Enotris Johnson, a reader named Betty posted this note in May:

What happen to Enotris Johnson, the song writer that almost became a star? She loved the music industry very much and still does. She says that Little Richard was her brother back then. She married a preacher back in September 10, 1956; that ended all of her musical dreams because he was a man of God and he could not have his wife singing the blues. You can only think of what was expected of a housewife back in the 1950’s. Enotris now lives in Bogalusa, Louisiana. She is now 72 years old. She has one daughter, Wilma Dunn, [who] resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband. Enotris is a warm loving mother and friend and still supports her husband. Every once in a while you can hear her wailing on that piano and singing in the middle of the night. You would just love to sit around her and hear her tell all the stories from back in the day when all of the old singers were at their humble beginnings. Enotris Johnson has lived a full and happy life with her husband and being the idea preacher’s wife. [Edited slightly.]

The information would mean that Enotris Johnson would have been about nineteen years old when “Long Tall Sally” was recorded. And it still doesn’t address the truth about the ill Aunt Mary, but – like so many other rock ’n’ roll stories and fables (see Mr. Jimmy and the Rolling Stones, for example) – it really doesn’t matter. As I’ve said before, legend drives out fact.

And Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” remains one of the most vital songs in rock ’n roll history, and it must be one of the most covered, as well. Among those who covered it when Little Richard’s version was getting airplay were Pat Boone and Elvis Presley. I shared Boone’s limp version here about a year ago, and – oddly enough – I don’t have a copy of Presley’s.

A quick look at All-Music Guide results in a list of more than eight hundred CDs that contain a version of “Long Tall Sally.” The Little Richard, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley versions account for many of those, of course, but some of the other names that show up are Atlanta Rhythm Section, Cactus, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, the Chambers Brothers, Eddie Cochrane, Joey Dee & the Starliters, Wanda Jackson, the Isley Brothers, the Kinks, Sleepy LaBeef, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul McCartney, Molly Hatchet, Don Nix, Carl Perkins, Johnny Rivers, the Rivingtons, Marty Robbins, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Sha Na Na, the Tornadoes, the Trashmen, Walter Trout, Gene Vincent and Roger Whittaker. (That last one baffles me a little.)

[Note from 2022: The website Second Hand Songs lists a total of 161 separate covers of “Long Tall Sally,” including versions in Danish, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish. Note added May 18, 2022.]

I have, strangely, only three covers of “Long Tall Sally” (on mp3 at any rate; vinyl may be another story): The Pat Boone I mentioned earlier and versions by the Beatles and by King Curtis.

The Beatles’ version was issued in 1964; in Britain, it was one of four songs on an EP (“I Call Your Name,” “Slow Down” and “Matchbox” were the others), and here in the U.S., the song was included on the imaginatively titled The Beatles’ Second Album. (It later showed up on several vinyl and CD anthologies, including Past Masters, Vol. 1.)

King Curtis’ version was recorded in New York City on October 28, 1965, and was evidently released as the flip side of “The Boss” [Atlantic 9469] and was included on a 1986 R&B saxophone anthology, Atlantic Honkers. (The sketchy notes on Atlantic Honkers indicate that “Long Tall Sally” was the title track of a King Curtis album, presumably on the Atco label, but I can’t find any other mention of such an album. Anyone out there know anything?)

“Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard, Specialty 572 [1956]

“Long Tall Sally” by the Beatles from The Beatles’ Second Album [1964]

“Long Tall Sally” by King Curtis, evidently Atlantic 9469 B-Side [1965]

‘Take Me To The River . . .’

May 17, 2022

Originally posted August 25, 2009

This will be brief, but I wanted to begin to look at some of the recordings readers have mentioned since I asked for thoughts on the best cover versions.

One band I’ve never really gotten is Talking Heads. I’ve listened to them, and I acknowledge the influence the group has had. I’ve admired the song-writing of David Byrne and the musicianship of the group. But I’ve never much enjoyed the group’s work.

On one level, that’s fine. When I’m selecting a CD or an LP to play in the background while I read or do the dishes, limiting myself to things I like – which actually cover a pretty broad spectrum – is fine. But on the level of understanding the evolution of rock and pop music through the years, it doesn’t matter if I like the band. If I’m going to understand what happened in pop/rock music between 1977 and 1988 – the years that Talking Heads was active – I need to listen to enough of the group’s music to understand how the group fits in the continuum that runs from Jackie Brentson’s “Rocket 88” in 1951 all the way to whatever will be considered significant in years to come from 2009.

I’m not there yet.

Nevertheless, I do recognize the Talking Heads’ talent, as I said above, and the group’s own evolution, going from – as All-Music Guide said – the “nervous energy, detached emotion, and subdued minimalism” of Talking Heads:77 to recording “everything from art-funk to polyrhythmic worldbeat explorations and simple, melodic guitar pop.”

More Songs About Buildings and Food, released in 1978, was the group’s second album, and among the songs was the group’s cover of “Take Me to the River,” written by Al Green and Mabon “Teenie” Hodges for Green’s 1974 album, “Al Green Explores Your Mind.” The Talking Heads’ version was released as a single and went to No. 26 on the Billboard Top 40.

Through 2003 – the point at which my Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits ends – the Talking Heads’ version of the song is the only one to make the Top 40. But there have been plenty of groups and artists who’ve covered the song. The list includes Paul Anka, Canned Heat, Exile, Bryan Ferry, Foghat, the Grateful Dead, Levon Helm, Etta James with the Memphis Horns, Syl Johnson, Tom Jones, Annie Lennox, Delbert McClinton, Ellen McIlwaine, Mitch Ryder, Shalamar, Jabbo Smith, Tom Tom Club and Steve Winwood.

Here are the original by Al Green and the versions by the Talking Heads, Delbert McClinton and Foghat.

“Take Me To The River” by Al Green from Al Green Explores Your Mind [1974]

“Take Me to the River” by Foghat from Night Shift [1976]

“Take Me to the River” by the Talking Heads from More Songs About Buildings and Food [1978]

“Take Me to the River” by Delbert McClinton from The Jealous Kind [1980]

‘If You Smile At Me . . .’

May 15, 2022

Originally posted August 18, 2009

While driving across town on an errand last week, I heard the oldies station play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first, self-titled album. As I listened, I realized that I hadn’t heard the song for a while. After a few moments, I realized as well that it had been even longer – much longer – since I’d listened to the entire album. I’ve written here before about forgetting about albums as meaningful collections of songs because I so often run the RealPlayer on random, and thus get only one piece of an album at a time. And I wondered to myself how well Crosby, Stills & Nash holds up as an album.

So that evening, I listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash from beginning to end, just to see how it sounds as a united piece of work these days. It still ranks pretty high on my all-time list, but I was chagrined to realize that I’d forgotten the running order of the album. As David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” faded away, I couldn’t recall what came next, and hearing “You Don’t Have To Cry” startled me; it sounded somehow wrong. The surprise pointed out to me how much my listening has shifted away from albums to random single tracks over the past ten years.

As I have for years, I found the album’s most interesting song to be “Wooden Ships.”  It’s not the best song on the album; I’d have to give that nod to either “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “Long Time Gone.” But it’s always fascinated me with its post-apocalyptic vision of survivors fleeing in the wooden ships on the water.

Beyond the recording itself, there are a couple of interesting things about “Wooden Ships.” The writing credit on the CSN album lists Crosby and Stills, but there was a third writer. Crosby himself tells the tale, as All-Music Guide relates:

“According to Crosby’s liner notes in the four-disc career retrospective Crosby, Stills & Nash [Box Set] (1991), the song was ‘written in the main cabin of my boat, the Mayan. I had the music already [and] Paul Kanter [sic] wrote two verses, Stephen wrote one and I added the bits at both ends.’ He also explains the cryptic lyrics such as ‘silver people on the shoreline’ – which are those left behind in their nuclear radiation suits. Crosby concludes that the authors ‘imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization.’”

I’m not sure who’s responsible for the spelling error in that paragraph, but the third writer was Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. And “Wooden Ships” was included on the Airplane’s 1969 release Volunteers. (The writing credit there is “Crosby-Kantner-Stills.”)

Wikipedia helps clarify things: “Kantner could not be credited as one of the joint authors-composers on the original release of Crosby, Stills & Nash due to legal issues, but he is thus credited on the 2006 re-release. The song was also released by Jefferson Airplane the same year on the album Volunteers. Both versions are considered to be original versions of the song, although they differ slightly in wording and melody.”

(Wikipedia also notes that co-writer Stills’ interpretation of the song differs from Crosby’s, saying “Stills has stated at music festivals that the song is in fact about the Holocaust in Europe during World War II. Though the obscure lyrics do not refer specifically to the events of the war, the story of the song can be interpreted as the meeting of two deserters or non-Jewish individuals who are fleeing Europe to avoid starvation or participation in anti-Semitic violence. In this context, the ‘silver people on the shoreline’ may refer to Nazi soldiers. The lyrics ‘Horror grips us as we watch you die / All we can do is echo your anguished cries, / Stare as all human feelings die’ could indicate that the characters in the song are observing a horrific slaughter yet can do nothing to prevent it.”)

Anyway, if both versions are considered original, then neither is a cover? Well, okay. But one of them was released first. Which one was it?

Crosby, Stills & Nash was released on May 29, 1969, according to AMG. Finding a release date for Volunteers is a bit murkier. The album’s page at AMG has a release date of November 1969, but the AMG page about the song “Wooden Ships” says the two albums were “issued within months of each other in the spring of ’69.” I’d lean toward a November release for Volunteers, as the Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums has the album hitting the chart in late November. (The album spent thirteen weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 13. Crosby, Stills & Nash reached the album chart in the first week of July 1969 and spent forty weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 6.)

[Note from 2022: Wikipedia has a U.S. release date of November 2, 1969, for Volunteers.]

There aren’t a lot of covers of the song; AMG lists a total of ninety-three CDs that contain a version of the song, and the vast majority of those are by CSN or Jefferson Airplane or combinations of members of those groups. Others listed as having recorded the song are: Animal Bag, The Browne Sisters & George Cavanaugh, Matthew Cook, the De Capo Players, the Future Sound of London, Andy Guzie, Chris Harwood, Lana Lane, Jennifer Matthews, the Rochford Jazz Ensemble, Son of Adam, II Big and Zion I.

Of all the covers of “Wooden Ships,” only two of them are listed from the years before 2000: Animal Bag’s cover, which was on a 1994 release titled Offering and about which I otherwise know nothing, and Chris Harwood’s version, which was on her 1970 album, Nice to Meet Miss Christine. Reviews of Harwood’s album – and of her version of “Wooden Ships” – are spotty. But it’s always interesting to hear another singer’s take on a song. (My thanks to Lizardson at Time Has Told Me.)

[Note from 2022: The website Second Hand Songs lists seventeen covers of “Wooden Ships,” though few of the artists listed in the preceding paragraph are mentioned there. Seven of those covers are dated before the year 2000. Artists mentioned at SHS include Christine Harwood, Lana Lane and the Ides of March. Notes added May 15, 2022.]

So here are the two original versions of “Wooden Ships” (that still sounds odd to me) along with Harwood’s cover from 1970 and, as a bonus, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s performance of the song at Woodstock in the early morning hours forty years ago today.

“Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills & Nash from Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969

“Wooden Ships” by Jefferson Airplane from Volunteers, 1969

“Wooden Ships” by Chris Harwood from Nice to Meet Miss Christine, 1970

“Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at Woodstock, August 18, 1969

The Great Covers List
There was quite a nice response to my post a week ago when I asked which recordings would wind up in a list of best cover versions of all time. We got a couple of fifteen-song lists and a few other comments; the resulting collection of songs would make up a couple of very good CDs. And I’m going to add five recordings to the list as my nominees:

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Helpless” from She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina, 1971
Johnny Winters’ “Highway 61” from Second Winter, 1969.
Ike & Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” Liberty 56216, 1971
Joe Cocker’s “Cry Me A River” from Mad Dogs & Englishmen, 1970
The Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Cahoots, 1971

What cover versions grab you? Leave a note, and in a few weeks, I’ll likely start digging into them.

The Greatest Cover?

May 14, 2022

Originally posted August 11, 2009

A couple weeks ago, I offered some thoughts on Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and posted a couple of cover versions. In the comments to that post, Robert – a frequent visitor and commenter – wondered if Jimi Hendrix’ version of “All Along the Watchtower” could be considered the greatest rock cover version ever. He offered the Beatles’ take on “Twist and Shout” and Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” as other possibilities and said he could likely add a few others.

It’s a question I’ve pondered on occasion, and I don’t know that I’ll ever come to a satisfactory conclusion. Robert’s suggestions are certainly deserving. When I saw them, without doing any deep digging, I mentally added one more to the list: Otis Redding’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” released in 1966. And there are more I’d likely drop into a list of great cover versions if I took the time to get organized about my thinking.

I am, however, going to invest my time today in a post for tomorrow’s observance of Vinyl Record Day, commemorating Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph on August 12, 1877. So I’m going to turn to my readers and ask:

Which cover versions – in rock, soul, R&B or related genres – would you put on a list of the top, oh, fifteen cover versions of all time?

Here’s my nomination: The previously mentioned Otis Redding track. And, just for fun, I’m throwing in José Feliciano’s 1970 version of the same tune.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by Otis Redding, Volt 132 [1966]

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by José Feliciano from Fireworks [1970]

Echoes Of History

May 13, 2022

Originally posted August 4, 2009

Just as one song leads to another, so does one book pull a reader to another. About three weeks ago, I saw a reference to 1942 by Winston Groom, a history of that one year, looking at how it shaped the history of World War II. (The name of the author might be familiar; he wrote Forrest Gump, the novel that was turned into the Academy Award-winning film.) When I went to the website of my local library to reserve a copy of 1942, I saw that Groom has also written a series of books about the U.S. Civil War.

So, after reading 1942, I worked my way through Vicksburg 1863, an account of the Union campaign to take control of the Mississippi River, a campaign that ended with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi. From there, I moved on to Shrouds of Glory, an account of an 1864 campaign into Tennessee by a Confederate army. All three of the books read quickly, and Groom tells the tales well. But what made the books pertinent to this space was something I ran across on Page 17 of Shrouds of Glory:

“In addition, [Union General William Tecumseh] Sherman had at his disposal some three divisions of cavalry commanded by Generals Edward M. McCook, Kenner Garrard, and George Stoneman . . .”

I stopped reading, knowing I’d just read something that was familiar to me. I looked again. And I saw it. “George Stoneman.” And I heard Levon Helm’s voice in my head:

“Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train

“Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again . . .”

The song, of course, is “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which was included on The Band, the second album by the group that I’ve long called my favorite rock group of all time. I read long ago that Robbie Robertson, who composed the song, wrote it as a salute to the southern heritage of Arkansas-born Helm, who was the only non-Canadian in The Band. And I pondered the confluence of Groom’s book, Robertson’s song and Helm’s heritage at odd times for a few days.

And, as I almost always do, I thought about cover versions. I have covers of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Johnny Cash, John Denver and Richie Havens, but none of them really grab me (which, as regards the Havens version, is a surprise to me). I also have a version by the Allman Brothers Band that was included on the 2007 release Endless Highway – The Music of The Band, but I don’t post a lot of things released after 1999, and I didn’t hear anything in the ABB version that made me want to change my mind. 

One version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” that I do not have in my mp3 collection is the bastard cover by Joan Baez. Taking ludicrous liberties with Robertson’s lyrics – including turning Robert E. Lee into a steamboat – Baez got herself a No. 3 hit in 1971. But I won’t listen to it and won’t recommend that others do, either.

There certainly, are, no doubt, other covers of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but instead of wandering off and making a list of other performers who’ve done the song – as I frequently do – I decided on a different route this morning: I’d look in my collection for cover versions of other songs by The Band. And here are four:

“The Weight” by Joe Cocker from Mad Dogs & Englishmen [Fillmore East, New York, March 28, 1970]

“Upp Till Ragvaldsträsk!” by Lalla Hanson from Upp Till Ragvaldsträsk! [1971]

“The Shape I’m In” by Bo Diddley from Another Dimension [1971]

“Twilight” by Danko-Fjeld-Andersen from Ridin’ On The Blinds [1994]

The Joe Cocker version of “The Weight” wasn’t included in the original LP release when the live album came out in 1970. The track was one of those added to the two-CD “Deluxe Edition” that was released in 2005. I have eighteen cover versions of “The Weight,” and probably the best-known versions are those by Aretha Franklin and King Curtis, both of which were included on anthologies of Duane Allman’s work. I decided to bypass those and share the Cocker version, as it’s pretty good and I’m not sure it’s all that well-known.

“Upp till Ragvaldsträsk!”  is a Swedish-language version of “Up On Cripple Creek.” I know very little about Lalla Hanson. He’s a Swedish performer who was a contemporary of the members of The Band, and “Upp till Ragvaldsträsk!” (which translates loosely to “Up To Ragvald’s Swamp,” I think) was the title track of his first album. If you’re interested, you can Google his name and click the link to translate the Swedish Wikipedia page, which will offer a link to a translation of his home page; or you can jump into the Swedish and see what you can glean. (I think I found the mp3 of “Upp till Ragvaldsträsk!” at The Band, a website that’s no longer very active. The mp3 is at a lower bitrate than I would usually share, but the unique quality of the track makes it worth hearing anyway.)

I got the Bo Diddley album, Another Dimension, from another blogger about the time Diddley died (June 2008). As usually happens with these things, I don’t recall where I found it, and backtracking from indices doesn’t provide me with any clues. Diddley does a pretty nice job on “The Shape I’m In.”

I’ve posted the Danko-Fjeld-Andersen album Ridin’ On The Blinds a couple of times (along with its predecessor, Danko Fjeld Andersen), but I can’t put up a list of covers of The Band’s songs without including the DFA version of “Twilight.” I never thought much of any of the versions The Band did of the song, but Danko’s reading on this version never fails to thrill me.

[Note from 2022: Given the greater awareness of historical and racial issues in the past few years, I admit to having some misgivings about “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I haven’t yet decided what – if anything – to do about those misgivings. Note added May 13, 2022.]

‘Businessmen, They Drink My Wine . . .’

May 12, 2022

Originally posted July 28, 2009

One frequently hears, in discussions of diverse topics, that “Context is everything.”

An aside: Where did that little epigram come from? A Google search for “context is everything” brings back about 151,000 results, and none of the first forty or so of those seems to indicate the original source. Even Wikipedia is no help. I have a sense that a search for the lodestone of “context is everything” would result in an academic and historical argument like the one discussing whether the Americanism “OK” descended from the Germanic/Dutch expression “Oll Korrect” or the nickname of President Martin Van Buren, which was “Old Kinderhook.” And a lengthy discussion of that question should certainly be followed by a deep consideration of why I remember that kind of stuff to begin with. We now return you to our regularly scheduled post.

Well, context isn’t everything. A diamond remains a diamond wherever it’s cast. Intellectual hogwash remains just that no matter how it’s packaged or prettied up. But when we turn to individual pieces of music, then context can matter a great deal. The setting in which we hear a specific piece of music – whether that’s our physical environment or simply the order of a certain set of songs – can create a long-lasting sense of any particular piece.

I’ve written fairly frequently about so-called “Time and Place” songs, pieces that usher us back to dates and locales generally long gone. Those can be fascinating, but just as interesting to me this morning is the musical neighborhood a song can find itself in through album contents and running order.

Why that? And why today? Because I heard Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” coming out of the speakers this morning. A track on his 1967 album John Wesley Harding, the song – like the album itself – is presented barebones and spare: just guitar, bass, drums, harmonica and vocals. And when heard as a part of that album, when heard between the songs “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” one hears “Watchtower” as part of a meditation. At least that’s what I hear now, because the first time I heard Dylan’s version of “Watchtower,” it was bracketed by two very different songs.

The 1972 release Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II was a great album, pulling together hits, album tracks, live tracks and some unreleased stuff onto two LPs. It was my first Dylan album, and served as a good introduction. (I’d previously heard Dylan’s stuff in various places, of course, but until I heard the tunes he performed at the Concert for Bangla Desh during the summer of 1971, I’d never really listened.) By pulling songs from the context of their original albums, however, the folks at Columbia (with Dylan’s assistance or at least acquiescence) altered the impact and even the meaning of those recordings. “All Along The Watchtower” was placed between the folky “She Belongs To Me” and the rollicking “The Mighty Quinn.”

In the company of those good but ultimately less complex compositions, I heard “All Along The Watchtower” as a snippet of some kind of medieval tale that Dylan hadn’t bothered to finish. Separated from the songs that bracketed it on John Wesley Harding, “Watchtower” seemed unformed, and I shrugged. Years later, when I heard it as part of John Wesley Harding (I’ve always been years behind in my listening and thinking about music; I expect to understand the Nineties in about ten years), the ambiguous ending seemed correct, not unfinished:

All along the watch tower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wild cat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

The more I listen to John Wesley Harding, the more I believe that it’s a meditation on the pairings of ambiguity and fate, and faith and redemption. And I am certain that hearing “All Along The Watchtower” for the first time in a setting not the original made me listen to it and its companions more closely when I heard the original years later. In this case, then, context mattered a great deal.

(All-Music Guide lists more than four hundred CDs that contain a recording of “All Along The Watchtower.” I have seventeen different versions. It’s hard to do better than the original, but here are two versions that I find can also bear repeated listening.) [A better gauge of covers is now available at Second Hand Songs, which informs us that as of 2022, there have been 198 versions of the song recorded. Note added May 12, 2022.]

“All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan and The Band from Before The Flood [1974]

“All Along The Watchtower” by Affinity from Affinity [1970]

Looking For Train Wrecks

May 6, 2022

Originally posted July 7, 2009

Last week, as I was digging through my dad’s records, I shared cover versions of three Beatles songs pulled from the 1968 Reader’s Digest box set Popular Music Hit Parade. I was sure that one of the three – versions of “Michelle,” “Yellow Submarine” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” by the Hank Levine Singers and Orchestra – would qualify as the fourth entrant in our Train Wreck Jukebox. (The fifth, if one counts the instrumental B-side of the Swingers’ Bay-Hay Bee Doll.) I invited comments from readers.

As it turned out, only two readers weighed in, but they were long-time visitors Yah Shure and Oldetymer (whose handle I misspelled the other day. Sorry!). And they were in agreement that Levine’s treatment of “Yellow Submarine” was, in fact, a train wreck. I concurred. As I told Yah Shure in a note, not even a dissent written by Antonin Scalia (the best writer on the U.S. Supreme Court, though I rarely agree with his views) would save the track.

I also listed a few of the other covers included in Popular Music Hit Parade, noting that, having never listened to the entire set, I had no idea how difficult they might be to hear. Oldetymer said he wouldn’t mind hearing a few. So we’re going to dig into some 1960s pop hits and the Reader’s Digest covers of them this morning. And we may find a train wreck or two.

The fourth Top 40 hit of Roger Miller’s career was the first one not tabbed a novelty hit by the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. Miller’s previous entries in the Top 40 had been “Dang Me” (No. 7) and “Chug-A-Lug (No. 9) in 1964 and “Do-Wacka-Do” (No. 31) in 1965. I’m not entirely sure I’d classify “Dang Me” as a novelty hit; that seems a bit unfair to Miller and the record. In any event, his fourth hit, which reached the Top 40 in February of 1965, was the enduring “King of the Road,” with its wryly happy celebration of the hobo life.

“King of the Road” by Roger Miller, Smash 1965 [1965]

Our Reader’s Digest cover version sounded promising when I cued it up, but I’ll let you decide its fate:

“King of the Road” by Nashville Sounds & Jerry Reed (Guitar) [1968]

Next comes an odd record that was seemingly inescapable for a few weeks. In fact, for one evening, it was literally inescapable. Drawing for some reason on the style of Rudy Vallee’s hits in the 1920s, “Winchester Cathedral” jumped up the charts in November of 1966 and spent three weeks at No. 1. The song was credited to the New Vaudeville Band, which, according to the Billboard Book of Number One Hits, didn’t truly exist until after the record went to No. 1. The record was essentially the creation of British songwriter and producer Geoff Stephens, who – after the record hit – scrambled to put together a group of musicians to be the New Vaudeville Band. It didn’t help. “Winchester Cathedral” was the group’s only hit.

And the evening when the record was inescapable? It was New Year’s Eve 1966. As was our custom at the time, Rick and I spent the evening at his place, playing pool and board games and just hanging around. At the same time, one of Rick’s sisters had friends over, as well, and from the record player in those precincts came the strains, repeatedly, of “Winchester Cathedral.”

“Winchester Cathedral” by the New Vaudeville Band, Fontana 1562 [1966]

And here’s the Reader’s Digest cover of the song:

“Winchester Cathedral” by Marty Paitch & His Orchestra & Chorus [1968]

One of the cheeriest-sounding pop hits of the mid-1960s was the Seekers’ “Georgy Girl,” with its whistling introduction. The tune was the title song from a film starring Lynn Redgrave and James Mason, but one wonders from the first line of the film’s description at the Internet Movie Database just how cheery the movie is: “A homely but vivacious young woman dodges the amorous attentions of her father’s middle-aged employer while striving to capture some of the glamorous life of her swinging London roommate.” These days, that sounds like a lawsuit or an addiction – or perhaps both – waiting to happen.

Anyway, the song was quite cheery, and it entered the Top 40 during the last week of 1966, eventually reaching No. 2, the third and final hit for the Seekers. The first two, both in 1965, were “I’ll Never Find Another You,” which went to No. 4, and “A World Of Our Own,” which peaked at No. 19. (Then there was the group called the New Seekers, an offshoot, but that’s a topic for another time.)

“Georgy Girl” by the Seekers, Capitol 5756 [1966]

And here’s the Reader’s Digest cover version with a familiar name in the credits:

“Georgy Girl” by the Hank Levine Singers & Orchestra [1968]

I’m not sure how frequently these things happen these days, but every once a while during the 1960s, a record that was clearly designed for the middle of the road would take off and find itself in the Top 40, or maybe even the Top 10. When it happened with a Frank Sinatra song – “Strangers In The Night” (No. 1, 1966), “That’s Life” (No. 4, 1966) and “Something Stupid” (No. 1, 1967, with his daughter, Nancy) were the biggest – that was understandable. But Ed Ames? He was the lead singer of the Ames Brothers, who had ten Top 40 hits between 1954 and 1960, with the biggest of them being “The Naughty Lady Of Shady Lane,” which went to No. 3 in 1954. And in 1967, Ames had an unlikely No. 8 hit with a song from the off-Broadway musical I Do, I Do.

“My Cup Runneth Over” by Ed Ames, RCA Victor 9002 [1967]

And here’s the Reader’s Digest cover of Ames’ hit:

“My Cup Runneth Over” by Bill Lee with Nelson Riddle & His Orchestra [1968]

So there we have them. Let me know if you think there are any train wrecks in here.

‘Riding With The Wind . . .’

October 30, 2015

Originally posted June 16, 2009

To this day, Jimi Hendrix remains an enigma to me. And that’s my fault, I suppose.

There’s no doubt about his prodigious talent; when one talks about great rock guitarists, his name is – and should be – one of the first to be laid on the table. (I’d also include Eric Clapton and Duane Allman among those first named; maybe Derek Trucks, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Who else?) But I never got into Hendrix when he was alive. At the time of his death in September 1970, I was still sifting through music that was much more accessible and less challenging: the Beatles, CSN&Y, Chicago.

And I didn’t really dig into Jimi’s music until I began collecting LPs seriously in the late 1980s. Over the years, I’ve gathered seven Hendrix albums, from 1967’s Are You Experienced? through Experience Hendrix, a 1997 two-LP anthology. (I have a couple of things on CD as well.) So I know the music – and I like most of it – but it never really brought along to me that “wow” factor that other listeners have told me about over the years. That doesn’t negate the brilliance of what Hendrix accomplished in a very short time; all it means is that when I put together a playlist of favorites, there are very few Hendrix songs that would show up: “Red House,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Little Wing” are the most likely.

I suppose that I might have heard Hendrix’ version of “All Along the Watchtower” when it was getting a little bit of airplay in 1968 (it went to No. 20 that autumn). I might have heard some Hendrix as I wandered the residence halls at St. Cloud State during my freshman year. But my first verifiable exposure to Hendrix’ work came in the spring of 1972 through a cover version of his song, “Little Wing.” Derek & the Dominos’ version of “Little Wing” was included on Clapton At His Best, a two-LP set that included highlights of the single Blind Faith album, Clapton’s first solo album and Layla.

That first hearing is probably one of the reasons why “Little Wing” remains one of my favorite Hendrix songs. Beyond familiarity, though, it’s a great song: It’s got a strong melody and chord structure, and the lyrics – enigmatic and evocative – are among the best that Hendrix ever put on paper. Here they are as presented on the inside cover of Axis: Bold As Love:

Well, she’s walking through the clouds,
With a circus mind that’s running wild,
Butterflies and Zebras,
And Moonbeams and fairy tales.
That’s all she ever thinks about.
Riding with the wind.

When I’m sad, she comes to me,
With a thousand smiles she gives to me free.
It’s alright, she says, it’s alright,
Take anything you want from me,
Anything.
Fly on, little wing.

Of course, given the song’s quality, cover versions of “Little Wing” abound. All-Music Guide lists more than 300 CDs with a recording of the song. Maybe fifty of those include Hendrix’ version and another fifty include Derek & the Dominos version (or versions by Clapton), but that leaves a hefty number of cover versions by other performers. I can’t provide my customary rundown of some of the more interesting names on the AMG list, as the site is being balky this morning.

But here are a few of the cover versions of “Little Wing” I’ve come across over the years.

“Little Wing” by the Corrs from Unplugged [1999]

“Little Wing” by Sanne Salomonsen from In A New York Minute [1998]

“Little Wing” by Toots Thielemans & The London Metropolitan Orchestra from In From the Storm: Music of Jimi Hendrix [1995]

The most familiar name there is no doubt that of the Corrs’, the Irish group that dances a line between Celtic folk and pop.

Salomonsen is a Danish performer who records in both Danish and English. The album, In A New York Minute, was a project that brought Salomonsen together with Danish-American jazz pianist Chris Minh Doky and his quartet for a series of largely improvised sessions. In addition, Doky brought along some friends and colleagues, including among them American alto saxophonist David Sanborn, American trumpeter and flugelhornist Randy Brecker and his brother, saxophonist Michael Brecker, American blues, jazz and rock guitarist Robben Ford and legendary Belgian guitarist and harmonica player Toots Thielemans. The album, which is out of print and quite pricey even used, is well worth a listen. “Little Wing” is one of the better performances.

As I was digging around for information about Salomonsen’s album last evening, I came across that reference to Thielemans, whom I’ve seen called many time the world’s greatest classical harmonica player. And then I found a reference to Thielemans’ own cover of “Little Wing,” which I’d never heard. I managed to find a copy, and I think the album from which it comes – which also includes performances by Buddy Miles, Taj Mahal and other folks – is going to end up on my want list.

‘Beware Of Maya . . .’

January 16, 2015

Originally posted June 9, 2009

As I look back over my musical life, there are hundreds of places, I suppose, where I learned something new or heard something new that changed the way I hear music. One popped to mind this week. I wrote last weekend about the people I spent time with during my first quarters of college, the Doors fans Dave and Mark and the other fellows and gals who hung around with us. In later years, my college life revolved around Atwood, the student center at St. Cloud State, but – with one significant exception – not during that first year.

It was that exception that I remembered this weekend. As school began in the autumn of 1971, Atwood had been remodeled and expanded, with the new sections being home, on the main floor, to an art gallery, meeting rooms, a small theater and a listening lounge. It was the listening lounge that pulled me to Atwood for a fair amount of my daily free time during that year.

The lounge itself was comfy: there were listening stations with easy chairs and sofas, with beanbags and large pillows. And on the end of the lounge was a small room with maybe fifteen turntables and a wide-ranging record library. A would-be lounger would go to the service window, and the student worker in the small room would take a student ID and a music request and would then hand out a set of headphones. The lounger would choose an open listening station and the worker would head off to cue up the record.

All that remained was to plug in the headphones and listen to the music, maybe while studying, writing a letter, or simply relaxing to the tunes. (I think this is correct; it’s been nearly forty years since I thought of the lounge, and some of the details are fuzzy.)

The lounge’s library numbered, I think, about fifty albums. I recall listening to Shawn Phillips, to Bobby Whitlock, to Derek & the Dominos, to Joe Cocker and to Leon Russell. I recall that listening to Leon Russell & The Shelter People sometime in early 1972 answered a question that had been lingering since Christmas. When I listened to The Concert for Bangladesh, which my folks had given me for Christmas, I was puzzled as to why George Harrison let Leon Russell sing one of the verses of “Beware of Darkness.” Not that Leon’s verse was badly done; I was learning to like the Okie’s idiosyncratic delivery.

But in January or February of 1972, when I stopped by the listening lounge and popped on the headphones for a run through Leon Russell & The Shelter People, I learned that the album included Leon’s version of the song. And his taking a verse at the concert the previous summer made more sense to me.

I don’t think the listening lounge lasted very long. I’m not sure if it was in operation during my second year of college, beginning in the fall of 1972, but I don’t think so. And I know for sure that it was gone by the time I came home from Denmark in the spring of 1974. It was a good idea, but I imagine there were reasons it was discontinued. And of course, these days, it would be unnecessary: We all carry our listening lounges with us in the form of mp3 players.

The memory of the listening lounge, as I noted above, brought back memories this week of “Beware of Darkness,” which at the time was one of my favorite George Harrison songs. (I still like it, but probably not with the fervor of a college freshman.) I wouldn’t want to call it a strange song, but it is unique, its imagery and message being very much of its time and of its composer. So it’s not surprising that there aren’t very many cover versions. All-Music Guide lists about thirty CDs with recordings of the song on it, and a good share of those, of course, are Harrison’s original version or his (and Russell’s) live version at the Concert for Bangladesh.

The slender list of those who’ve covered the song includes Eric Clapton (at the 2002 Concert for George), Joe Cocker, Concrete Blonde, Marianne Faithful, Joel Harrison, Spock’s Beard and, of course, Leon Russell.

“Beware of Darkness” by Leon Russell from Leon Russell & The Shelter People [1970]