Posts Tagged ‘Aretha Franklin’

Elton, Roger & The New Vaudeville Band

May 10, 2022

Originally posted July 9, 2009

Still feeling silly after yesterday’s post, I submerged myself in videos at YouTube. And there I found an old and somewhat visually deficient clip of Aretha Franklin performing “You and Me” on an episode of The Flip Wilson Show. The show ran from 1970 into 1974, but I think it’s a good bet that the episode in question comes from late 1970 or early 1971, right about the time “Border Song (Holy Moses/You and Me” showed up in the lower level of the Top 40 charts (No. 37).

Video unavailable

Here’s an interesting video set: Two performances of “King of the Road” by Roger Miller. One, says the person who posted the video, came from a 1969 lip-synch appearance on Music Scene, and the other, a 1964 performance, was on what the poster called “TNT.” British shows? Contrasting the two visuals is pretty entertaining, and in the 1969 clip, Miller does some nifty shuffling as he heads back down the blue road at the end of the tune.

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Readers might recall my noting Tuesday that when “Winchester Cathedral” became a hit in late 1966, originator Geoff Stephens had to put together a group to be the New Vaudeville Band. Well, here’s a look at the group he put together, lip-syching “Peek-A-Boo” and “Winchester Cathedral” on The Hollywood Palace. The YouTube poster says the clip is from 1966. “Peek-A-Boo” reached its peak position –No. 72 – on the Billboard Hot 100 during the first week of March of 1967.Whenever it was, the fellows look pretty bored with the proceedings. (And yes, I believe that is Kate Smith introducing the boys.)

That’s it for today. I’m not at all sure what’s going to be in this space tomorrow – I have several ideas, one of which may blossom – but there will be something here. Thanks for stopping by.

Errors Found

May 6, 2022

Originally posted July 8, 2009

A few years ago, I was reading a novel – not a very good one, but the book came recommended by a friend and I persevered – about five or so young women and their lives in the 1970s and beyond. The group of women had a secret, and it had to do with something that took place the night of their graduation from high school in the spring of 1970.

And in one of the early scenes in that book, on that graduation night, two or more of the women heard the sounds of a song from a nearby radio. They heard Janis Joplin singing “Me and Bobby McGee.”

I damn near threw the book across the room. Instead, I just shook my head and read on.

Why was I annoyed? Because “Me and Bobby McGee” – along with the rest of Pearl, the album from which it came – wasn’t recorded until the summer and autumn of 1970. I knew that at the time, but this morning, just to make sure, I went to All-Music Guide. The album, says AMG, was recorded between July and October of 1970 and was released in February of 1971. There’s no date for the single at AMG. Another source, a book called The Great Rock Discography, has both the album and the single being released in January 1971. I’m not sure whether January or February is correct, but either way, it’s 1971, not 1970.

Now, I make mistakes, some of them doozies. But I try my best to nail down historical details when I write, here and elsewhere. And I think any writer dealing at all with historical material – whether it’s five hundred years ago or five years ago – owes it to his or her readers to get it as accurate as possible. I grant you, it’s easier these days to verify when an album was recorded and released than it used to be; a few clicks of the mouse to AMG (which does have some errors but is generally reliable), and there you go. Those types of tools weren’t available when the book in question was written, which I would guess was in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

But even if the author of the book in question were writing twenty years ago, in 1989, all he or she – I long ago forgot the author’s name and even the title of the book – would have to do is jot down a note: “Bobby McGee release date?” and head down to the local library to find a copy of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. My first copy, which was published in 1987, was the third edition. And there we’d learn that “Me and Bobby McGee” first reached the Top 40 on February 20, 1971. And that should be enough to tell a writer that hearing “Me and Bobby McGee” coming from a radio in the spring of 1970 would be extremely unlikely. And that, I would think, would be enough for the writer to choose another song.

My point is: Even twenty years ago, it would only have taken a little bit of effort to make that small detail correct, to find a song that would have been likely to be heard on the radio on a graduation night in the spring of 1970. The fact that the writer (and the editors who worked on the book, too; they should not be excused, either!) did not take that effort to check on an easily verifiable historical fact always makes me wonder what other corners the writer cut.

(That’s a far more grievous error to make in non-fiction, of course, and I have seen a few books over the years that have erred in writing about things I know about, generally  records, movies and sports events. I usually just grunt in annoyance and read on, wondering what other facts are wrong.)

The long-ago book that misplaced Janis Joplin’s great single came to mind last evening because of a similar error I found, this time by an author who is generally pretty good at such stuff: I was reading the first novella in Dean Koontz’ collection Strange Highways, in which a man gets a second chance at a crucial night in his youth, somehow shifting from 1995 to 1975.  As he marvels that Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run is new that year, he also notes that Jim Croce is still alive. Oops. Croce died in the autumn of 1973. Again, I shook my head and moved on, disappointed that a simple detail evidently wasn’t checked.

Maybe I seem old, out-of-date, out of style and crotchety. But details matter. Accuracy matters. So, for that matter, does spelling. And so does grammar. I may someday come back to those latter two things as a topic for a post, but for now, the lecture is over.

In an attempt to connect to the music I’ve selected for today, however, I’m going to touch on one grammatical error that’s horribly common and that makes my ears hurt as much as does the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard (a reference that likely dates me, too). I mentioned it the other day in connection with the Doors’ song “Touch Me.” In that song’s chorus, Jim Morrison sings, in part, “I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.” That should be “you and me.” How do we know that? Well, pull out the words “you and” and then see what kind of sentence you have: “I’m gonna love you till the stars fall from the sky for I.” Oops again.

The BoDeans’ songwriters, Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann, do the same thing in another song I like, “Good Things,” when they wrote “good things for you and I.”

I know that in both of those cases, using “me” would have messed up the rhyme. Too bad, but both choruses needed more work. I also know that there are times when I screw up grammatically. (I still wonder about a sentence the other day when I couldn’t decide whether to use past tense or the subjunctive. [And I can see eyes rolling all over blogword.]) I think I generally do pretty well, though, and I also think that I almost always get “you and me” correct, as do these six songs:

That last statement was one of the more egregious errors I made in more than fifteen years of blogging. As a fellow blogger pointed out, almost all of the titles that follow use “you and me” incorrectly. I should simply have said that the use of “you and me” in these tracks did not bother me. Note added May 6, 2022.

A Six-Pack of You and Me
“You and Me (Babe)” by Ringo Starr from Ringo [1973]
“You and Me” by Neil Young from Harvest Moon [1992]
“You and Me” by the Moody Blues from Seventh Sojourn [1972]
“You and Me” by Lighthouse from Thoughts of Movin’ On [1972]
“You and Me” by Aretha Franklin from Spirit In The Dark [1970]
“You and Me Of The 10,000 Wars” by the Indigo Girls from Nomads, Indians, Saints [1990]

I don’t have a lot to say about any of these. The Ringo Starr track was the last track on Ringo and caps off that very good album pretty well. The Moody Blues’ track is pretty strong musically and has one of the better lines from all the Moodies’ songs of cosmic consciousness: “All we are trying to say is we are all we’ve got.” Neil Young’s “You and Me” is a sweet song that comes from his revisitation of the style and themes of 1972’s Harvest.

The Indigo Girls’ track is, as might be expected, a literate exploration of a relationship’s struggles. Aretha Franklin’s “You and Me” was actually billed as by “Aretha Franklin With The Dixie Flyers.” (Listen for the swooping French horns at the 2:30 mark.) And the Lighthouse selection was on a pretty good record that was a few albums removed from One Fine Morning, which sparked the great single of the same title.

Hunkering Down

March 18, 2020

Well, we’re pretty much self-isolating, as we should. I was out yesterday for a brief time, picked up two prescriptions at the pharmacy drive-through, then got a pick-up order at the grocery store. The order wasn’t quite right, so I had to go into the store to straighten it out and then go into another store to get the soap powder for the dishwasher that the first store was out of.

Both stores had relatively little traffic, and the shelves were beginning to look bare in some spots: Canned soup, instant potatoes and potato box mixes, cereals, and, of course, paper products. In the store where I did my actual shopping, eggs were plentiful but customers were limited to two dozen. As well as getting the soap powder, I filled some minor gaps in our supplies and headed home.

And today, I’ll head out to the podiatrist for my regular six-week visit, being very careful about surfaces and aware of the people around me. The receptionist said they’ve expanded the seating area of the lobby to provide more distance between people. I’m still a bit nervous about it, but I thought I should go while I can. And then home again for the rest of the day.

There is nothing in the digital stacks with “COVID” in the title, of course. There are, on the other hand, several tracks with “nineteen” in their titles: “The Two Nineteen” by Long John Baldry & The Hoochie Coochie Men, “Hey Nineteen” by Steely Day, “John Nineteen Forty-One” (the closing track to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar), “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” by Paul McCartney & Wings, “Nineteen Something” by Mark Willis, and five versions of the blues tune “She’s Nineteen Years Old.” Not much joy there.

So I thought I’d look at the Billboard charts from the years I call my sweet spot, 1969-75, and, playing some Games With Numbers, see what was at No. 19 during the third week of March in those years. With any luck, we’ll find something decent to listen to this morning. Here we go.

1969: “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” by James Brown
1970: “Call Me/Son Of A Preacher Man” by Aretha Franklin
1971: “(Theme From) ‘Love Story’” by Henry Mancini, His Orchestra and Chorus
1972: “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember” by Beverly Bremers
1973: “Do You Want To Dance” by Bette Midler
1974: “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” by Aretha Franklin
1975: “I Am Love (Parts 1 & 2)” by the Jackson 5

Well, that’s an interesting mix. I respect James Brown more than I listen to him, and Aretha’s double-sided single doesn’t grab me this morning. I know we’ve offered the Mancini, Bremers and Midler singles before (maybe some time ago, but still). And I’m going to ignore the Jackson 5 record because a quick search tells me that not only have I never posted “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” I’ve never – in more than thirteen years of blogging – even mentioned the record.

There’s a reason for that neglect. Given that it was on the radio in early 1974, the record falls into the list of those that I did not hear at the time, being in Denmark and beyond the reach of Top 40. I learned about it through my digging into Aretha during the late 1980s and via whatever play it got on oldies stations, and I like it a lot.

In mid-March 1974, the record was on its way down the chart, having peaked in the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 3 at the end of February. It spent a week at No. 1 on the magazine’s R&B chart and went to No. 33 on the Easy Listening chart.

And finally, it shows up here.

Saturday Single No. 618

December 1, 2018

I did some work early this morning on taming the music of the George Gershwin classic “It Ain’t Necessarily So” for our small group of musicians at our Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship. (Mr. Gershwin’s original arrangement – and various later interpretations – were more complicated than we could master in a few rehearsals.)

As I did so, I moved back and for the between the two keyboards – the one that plays music and the one at the computer. I was trying things, assessing, writing, and listening to versions of the tune at YouTube. And I think after some effort, I’ve come up with an arrangement that will serve our needs without offending the spirit of Mr. Gershwin.

Some of the versions of the tune I listened to were startlingly good. I suppose today’s post might be the first in a series looking at various takes on the tune. There are plenty out there. If we go that route, then the series begins with a piece from a catalogue that a lot of people – including me – mention occasionally but listen to rarely: Aretha Franklin’s time at Columbia, before she went to Atlantic and became the Queen of Soul.

Here’s her take on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy & Bess. It’s from her very first album for Columbia, Aretha, released in 1960. And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

The Queen Of Soul

August 17, 2018

I should have more to say about Aretha Franklin, who died yesterday at her home in Detroit, than it seems that I do.

It’s not that I don’t value or love her music. I have plenty of it – more than 130 tracks – on the digital shelves; I have several of her CDs; and a few LPs survived the Great Vinyl Sell-off the other year. And her music provided a lot of the soundtrack of my early teen years, years when I wasn’t listening to pop, rock and soul, but years when she was one of those artists – like the Beatles – whose music nevertheless seeped inside me without any effort on my part.

So why do I feel I have I so little to say?

Because Aretha Franklin as a subject for eulogy, memoir or memorial is too damned big. She towers over the music world in a way that few artists do. So I don’t know where to start or to end or even what to put in or leave out. And knowing that stuff is a huge part what I’m supposed to do as a writer, so that’s a little deflating.*

So what did Aretha mean to me? I was a little too young and a lot too white to grasp her impact when she came to Atlantic in 1966 and, well, I’m tempted to say she destroyed the existing order, but that’s a little too sweeping. Nevertheless, her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You knocked a lot of listeners back in their chairs or wherever they were sitting. And Aretha continued to do that, single after single, album after album, year after year.

But y’all know that. Ain’t nothin’ new there.

So, my favorite Aretha? Well, I put “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” in the Ultimate Jukebox almost ten years ago, saying:

I don’t have much to say about Aretha Franklin and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I mean, she’s Aretha, and the record was one of her forty-five Top 40 hits (covering a span of years from 1961 to 1998). Add that “Since You’ve Been Gone” went to No. 5 in the early spring of 1968 (and was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart), and all you need to do after that is listen.

See, even back then, Aretha was too big for me. There are, however, other Aretha records I like more than “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I love her take on “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” from 1972. And I love her sinuous cover of “Spanish Harlem” from 1971.

(So why, you might ask, did those two recordings not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox? Well, Lulu’s version of “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” showed up on my radio during my junior year of high school and attached itself forever to the memory of one whose attentions seemed unattainable, and I did not want two versions of the song in the project. And on the day I was choosing between Aretha’s version of “Spanish Harlem” and Ben E. King’s, I made the wrong choice.)

But that’s about me, and this is supposed to be about Aretha Franklin. So the least I can do is point you at the very good obituary and appreciation of her work written by Jon Bream that ran on the front page of this morning’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.

And maybe the best I can do this morning is to repeat what I posted at Facebook yesterday morning when I heard news of Aretha’s death:

There are plenty of reasons to grieve the loss of Aretha Franklin, but there are just as many reasons to celebrate our having had her here for so many years. So, by way of tribute, here’s her exultant “Freeway of Love” from 1985. (Saxophone courtesy of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.)

R.I.P., Miss Franklin.

*As I think about that this morning, my mind looks to the future, and I know I’m going to feel the same way on the mornings after Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen leave this world. And that terrifies me and saddens me.

Three Long-Ago Lists

May 3, 2017

Over the ten years I’ve been blogging here, I’ve offered up numerous lists ranking albums and individual tracks in various ways (the thirty-eight week Ultimate Jukebox of 2009 being no doubt the best organized). I’ve recently been reminded as I dug through a box of stuff my dad saved that such rankings and listings didn’t start here.

Among the newspaper pieces of mine that my dad saved over the years were two columns – one from the Monticello Times and one from the Eden Prairie News – detailing lists of favorite tracks. There’s little overlap between the two – the first put together in about 1980 and the second coming from 1995. The contrasts are intriguing, and even more so are the contrasts between those two and a third listing that came between them, in 1988. We’ll get to that intervening list in a bit.

Here are the tracks from the Monticello list, put together, again, in about 1980:

“Layla” by Derek & The Dominos
“Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
“Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)/A Day In The Life” by the Beatles
“Loan Me A Dime” by Boz Scaggs
“A Whiter Shade Of Pale” by Procol Harum
“Dreams” by the Allman Brothers Band
“(Sooner or Later) One Of Us Must Know” by Bob Dylan
“Southern Man” by Neil Young
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship

Honorable mentions:
“Stage Fright” by The Band
“Touch Me” by the Doors
“Somebody To Love” by Jefferson Airplane
“Question” by the Moody Blues
“Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band

(A few years later, I shared that list with a fellow grad student over a beer in a favorite hangout for journalism students at the University of Missouri. “Good list,” she said, “but it’s all white boys.” She was, of course, right: there was no diversity there.)

Fifteen years later in Eden Prairie, likely straining for a column idea as deadline approached and 275 words’ worth of space waited blank for me on Page 4, I packaged my top eight tracks as my prescription for beating the winter blues:

“Into The Mystic” by Van Morrison
“Loan Me A Dime”
“Be My Baby” by the Ronettes
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“The Weight” by The Band
“Hungry Heart” by Bruce Springsteen
“Drift Away” by Dobie Gray

Honorable mentions:
“American Pie” by Don McLean
“Bernadette” by the Four Tops
“Born To Run” by Springsteen
“Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen
“Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman

“Layla” and “Loan Me A Dime” are the only holdovers there. I don’t think that’s an indication that I liked the other tracks on the earlier list any less. It’s more a result, I think, of change in me: In the early 1980s, I was an interested listener who knew a little bit about the music on his record player; by 1995, I had expanded my listening and had begun to dig deeper into the history of the music I heard. The 1995 list was, I think, a more thoughtful list.

Then there was the intervening list: In early 1988, I was asked by a colleague at the public radio station at Minot State University to put together a desert island list of music and then to come to the studios, where we would listen to and then talk about those records for an hour. I have the tape somewhere, but I no longer have the written list of the ten tracks I chose. I actually recall only four of the ten:

“Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers
“Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
“Us and Them” by Pink Floyd

Two of those last three now strike me as odd, and one of them just hurts. The Pink Floyd track remains a favorite, being a time-and-place artifact of my days in Denmark. It has its place among the 3,700 or so tracks in the iPod, but to place it in the top ten now seems strange. The CSN&Y track – it popped up the other day on a cable channel – is fine, but its elevation to my top ten in 1988 is even more baffling. It doesn’t even make it into the iPod these days.

Then there’s “Unchained Melody,” which led off my desert island tape in 1988. It was the No. 1 record for my love life at the time, a life-altering relationship that was luminous and enervating while it lasted but one that left me devastated and flailing for years when it ended. Nearly thirty years later, when the record pops up on an oldies station, I still hear only echoes of grief.

So, where to go for a tune after that admission? That turns out to be a question that’s easy to answer. And it’s a little surprising to learn that in ten years here, I’ve never once mentioned Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Play That Song.” It went to No. 11 in the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970, and it topped the magazine’s R&B chart for three weeks.

Fifteen Inches Of Snow

November 11, 2014

Well, Saturday’s forecast for snow was upgraded quickly after I wrote, with the expected snowfall goosed upward to anywhere from ten to sixteen inches. The snow began falling shortly after midnight Monday morning and kept on coming into the late afternoon, leaving behind about fifteen inches of heavy, wet snow.

I did a shovel-width pass down the sidewalk yesterday morning, but by the time I went out this morning, it seemed as if I’d not done anything. I did the same shovel-wide pass this morning as my coffee brewed and the Texas Gal got ready for work, so she could walk to the bus stop without getting snow in her boots. I’ll have to go out later and trim the edges of the walk and then work on the front steps, which I hardly touched.

And sometime today, the new guy who plows our driveway should be back. At least I hope so. His post-midnight job left a ridge of snow four feet tall in front of one of the garage doors and left large portions of the driveway littered with piles of snow.

With all that (and my normal four loads of laundry yesterday), I’m exhausted before nine in the morning. So I’m going to throw some Aretha Franklin your way and go curl up somewhere with my newspaper, my coffee, some tunes and a cat or two.

Here’s “First Snow In Kokomo” from Aretha’s 1972 album Young, Gifted & Black.

Curly Loops & Ink Blots

September 24, 2013

I saw a television news report the other day – probably on one of CBS’ shows – about the dwindling art of cursive writing. The ubiquity of keyboarding, especially with email replacing most snail mail, has led many schools to quit teaching cursive writing. No more hours of perfecting the little loop at the top of the lower-case “o” so it can be connected to the next letter.

I hated cursive writing. Except in a very few instances, I was never able to get the letters to flow into each other. From the time I began to try to learn the art when I was eight or nine to the time I started college  — when I abandoned cursive for my own peculiar mix of printing and cursive and for typewritten work – I detested handwriting.

Perhaps my thoughts moved too fast for my hands to keep up. That’s one of the theories, I think, that my parents and teachers bandied about. That might have been it; I was not the most patient of writers, and I did find it difficult to focus on forming carefully the letters in, say, “Columbus” when my brain was already on “Ohio.” Whatever the reasons, my handwriting was a meandering mess until I abandoned it after those ten or so years.

That mess was made worse by my writing implement. For some reason, it was essential for every fifth and sixth grade student at Lincoln Elementary School to have a cartridge pen. A close relative of the earlier fountain pen, a cartridge pen draws its ink from an internal cartridge instead of being filled from an inkwell or ink jar. That meant that every student in the fifth and sixth grades at Lincoln (and, I would assume, at the other elementary schools in St. Cloud) had a box of ink cartridges in his or her desk. When a pen went dry, the writer would remove the empty cartridge and replace it with a new one filled with ink.

Even if one were fastidious and careful, some ink was bound to spill. If one were a little hasty and sometimes careless, more ink would spill. I was always in the “more ink” category. Add to that the fact that if one hesitated while writing with a cartridge pen and left the pen in contact with the paper, the ink continued to flow, soaking the paper. Then consider that, given my difficulty with cursive, I hesitated frequently. As a result, I routinely handed in assignments decorated with ink blots, and I routinely went home from school with ink-stained hands and sometimes ink-stained clothes. The combination of cursive writing and the cartridge pen was the source of great frustration for me and, I assume, for my parents and my teachers.

(I do not recall if the cartridge pens were required by the school, or if they were a somehow traditional, if inky, rite of passage for fifth graders. I rather think they were required, as they were more expensive than ballpoint pens as well as being much more prone to messiness. I am sure there were families with students at Lincoln and the other schools that would have preferred to save the additional money if given the chance, just as I am sure that there were teachers at Lincoln and the other schools who would have been pleased to avoid the mess.)

Even had I mastered the art of legible cursive writing, it would have eventually gone by the wayside for a couple of reasons: First, over my years as a journalism student and a reporter, I began by necessity to compose at the keyboard, and once that happened – even in the days before computers and email – all of my letters were typed as well. Second, once I started working as a reporter, the need to take notes rapidly in interviews and especially in public meetings – one can slow down an interview to catch up with notes, but one cannot slow the progress of a public hearing – damaged what little legibility my writing might have had for other people.

I could read my notes, but I’m certain no one else could. Well, I could read my notes while the meeting or the interview was fresh in my mind. I imagine that if I were to dig into the boxes of city council notes I left behind at the Monticello Times in 1983, I might be able to decipher some of what I scrawled on my legal pads but certainly not much. The need for haste destroyed what little legibility might ever have existed in my odd combination of printing and cursive.

The television news piece closed with an interview with an older man who offers children lessons in cursive writing because of its aesthetic qualities. And I saw this week that cartridge pens are still sold online and perhaps elsewhere (and that the terms “cartridge pen” and “fountain pen” seem to have become synonymous). That both of those things are available for those who enjoy them is a good thing. My frustrations with both cursive and the cartridge pen are more than forty years gone, and I miss neither one of them. That’s a good thing, too.

The tune that came to mind as I was planning this post was Vicki Carr’s 1969 break-up hit, “With Pen In Hand,” which went to No. 35 in the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 6 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Other versions of the tune in or near the Hot 100 came from Billy Vera, Johnny Darrell, Bobby Goldsboro and Dorothy Moore. Jerry Vale hit the AC chart with it, while Darrell’s version reached the country Top 40 and Moore’s got into the R&B Top 40. I checked out a few of those, but none of them did much for me. And then I found Aretha Franklin’s cover of the tune from her 1974 album, Let Me In Your Life. Here it is.

‘It’s Never Seen The Sun . . .’

January 23, 2013

Two-and-a-half years ago, as I offered six of the records in my Ultimate Jukebox, I wrote:

“Looking for a version of ‘Spanish Harlem’ to celebrate, I imagine that lots of folks would choose Aretha Franklin’s imaginative 1971 cover, which went to No. 2. But there’s something I prefer about Ben E. King’s original, which went to No. 10 in early 1961. Maybe it’s the tropical lilt brought out by the marimba during the introduction and throughout the record, maybe it’s the baion bass provided by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector), maybe it’s King’s hushed, almost serene vocal, or maybe it’s the saxophone solo. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it makes Spanish Harlem into a place I wish I’d seen through the eyes of all of those involved.”

Well, all that still holds true, but after King’s version popped up on the mp3 player in the kitchen the other day, I thought about cover versions as I rinsed the silverware. It might be that Franklin provided the definitive cover of the Leiber/Spector tune. But what else was out there?

The index at BMI lists twenty-seven covers of the tune, and Second Hand Songs lists thirty-six, with a lot of (expected) overlap between the lists. Combined, the two lists hold some interesting names. Among those listed whose performances I either didn’t look for or listen to entirely in the past week or so are Jay & The Americans, Chet Atkins, Manuel and His Music of the Mountains, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Freddie Scott, Arthur Alexander, Frankie Valli, Bowling For Soup, Vicki Carr, Ray Anthony, Kenny Rankin, Janet Seidel, Keld Heick and Tony Mottola.

The BMI list doesn’t show recording or release dates, but at Second Hand Songs, the earliest listed cover is a 1961 effort by Britain’s John Barry, whose version – included on his Stringbeat album – falls into what I would call easy listening territory. Other easy listening versions came over the years from Percy Faith, Andre Kostelanetz, the previously mentioned Manuel and His Music of the Mountains and guitarist Bert Weedon, whose 1971 take on the tune pleased me more than the others in that genre.

The most recent version of the tune listed at SHS was the 2010 cover by Latin vocalist Jon Secada, which I have not heard in full although what I did hear sounded promising. I had hopes for 1960s versions by Santo & Johnny and by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana brass, but both of those were draggy and limp.

So what did I like? Unsurprisingly, I like the version King Curtis released on his 1966 album, That Lovin’ Feeling. (The video misdates the track and shows the cover of the 1969 album Instant Groove.) I like the cover I featured the other day by The Mamas & The Papas. One version that did surprise me pleasantly came from Laura Nyro, who recorded the song with Labelle for her 1971 album, Gonna Take A Miracle. I’ve always admired the late Nyro’s songwriting, but I’ve found her own recordings to sometimes be shrill. This one wasn’t. And as I poked around YouTube this morning, I found a sweet live version of the tune from an October 19, 1974, performance at Union College in Schenectady, New York; according to the YouTube poster, it’s one of only three times that Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band have performed “Spanish Harlem.” (The audio is a bit muffled, but it’s still a treat, I think.)

I keep coming back, though, to Aretha’s version. It was released as a single in 1971 (with its first LP release on Aretha’s Greatest Hits) and was No.1 for three weeks on the R&B chart and No. 2 for two weeks on the pop chart. The video below attempts to identify the players on that session, but in the Franklin listing in Top Pop Singles, Joel Whitburn notes that Dr. John plays keyboards on the single, and the good doctor is not shown in the video. I’ll go with Whitburn and assume that Dr. John was there. In any case, it’s not the keyboard work that grabs me. And it’s not Aretha’s assured vocal that moves me most. So what does? It’s the drum work, which – if one can trust the video – came from the sticks of Bernard Purdie.

Survey Digging, December 1969

December 20, 2012

I thought this morning that I’d dig into a half-dozen radio surveys from December 20, 1969. Why 1969? Because it’s one of my favorite radio years, as I’ve no doubt written many times. But the Airheads Radio Survey Archive only had four surveys from that date, and two of them were from Missouri. So I threw out one of the Mizzou surveys and threw into the mix surveys from the same week from Birmingham, Alabama; Los Angeles and Chicago.

When I take these figurative trips around the country, I generally look at the No. 1 song in each market and a couple more that depend on the date. In this case, I had in mind today’s date of 12/20, meaning the No. 12 and No. 20 records. (No, not all the surveys are from December 20, but then, this ain’t a project for a master’s degree, either. You got problems with it, go talk to Odd and Pop.)

But this time, I ended up adding the No. 2 record as well, because the No. 1 record this week in 1969 at all six stations I checked – stations in Hartford, Connecticut; Albany, Oregon; Birmingham, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis – was “Someday We’ll Be Together” by Diana Ross & The Supremes. (It would top the Billboard Hot 100 a week later.)

With that decided, I headed out, and along the way through these six surveys, I ran into a lot of familiar records and a few that I didn’t know at all.

At Los Angeles’ KHJ, the “Boss 30” for December 17 had B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in the No. 2 slot. (The record would spend the month of January 1970 atop the Billboard chart.) At No. 12, we find “Down On The Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and at No. 20, we run into Gene Pitney’s “She Lets Her Hair Down (Early In The Morning),” a recording of a song I explored at length about a year ago.

In Chicago, WLS’ “Hit Parade” from December 22, 1969, also had the B.J. Thomas single at No. 2. (I should note that many folks will likely remember the record from its use during the bicycle-riding scene in the movie Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.) One of my favorite instrumentals sits at No. 12 (and the fact that it’s a favorite underlines, I suppose, my affection for  movie themes and for the kind of stuff one used to hear in the mid-1960s on KFAM, St. Cloud’s MOR station): Ferrante & Teicher’s version of the theme from “Midnight Cowboy.” And the No. 20 record in Chicago was Dusty Springfield’s “A Brand New Me.”

St. Louis’ KXOK printed its weekly survey on a narrow piece of paper and called it the “KXOK Bookmark.” At No. 2 on the bookmark forty-three years ago today was “La La La (If I Had You)” by Bobby Sherman, while the No. 12 spot was occupied by Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” and the No. 20 spot was taken up by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” the flip side of the previously mentioned “Down On The Corner.”

In New Haven, Connecticut, on December 20, 1969, WAVZ’s “Hit Power Survey” had “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul & Mary in the No. 2 spot. The Archies were in the No. 12 slot with “Jingle Jangle,” and at No. 20 was Aretha Franklin’s superlative reworking of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Aretha’s version went to No. 17 on the pop chart and to No. 5 on the R&B chart.

On the other side of the country on the same day, at KRKT in Albany, Oregon, the No. 2 record was the Grass Roots’ “Heaven Knows,” while the No. 12 spot was held down by another one of my favorites from late 1969: “Backfield in Motion” by Mel & Tim. And at No. 20 in Albany sat a double-sided single by Tommy James & The Shondells that I know little about, as I’d heard neither “She” nor “Loved One” until this morning.

And I actually know less about one of the records we’ll list from the survey of December 19, 1969, at WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama. The No. 12 record in the station’s survey is “What a Beautiful Feeling” by the California Earthquake, and at No. 20, we find “Don’t Let Love Hang You Up” by Jerry Butler. I finally heard the Butler record (and loved it) this morning, but I’ve never heard the California Earthquake record, as I can’t find it anywhere. (I’m not sure the latter record is all that important, as it barely made it into the Billboard charts, bubbling under at No. 133 for one week; it was the band’s only appearance in or near the charts.) Observant readers will note that I skipped past the No. 2 record at WSGN. It was “Fancy,” Bobbie Gentry’s first-person tale of a young Southern girl who makes it big after being reluctantly pimped out by her desperate mother. The record went to No. 33 on the pop chart and to No. 26 on the country chart. (Reba McEntire’s 1991 cover did better on the country charts, going to No. 8, but Gentry’s original is the better record.)