Posts Tagged ‘Rascals’

Jammin’ At Jake’s

May 27, 2022

Originally posted September 19, 2009

This business of living is not always neat and tidy. We scuffle through life, loving others and being loved, hurting others and being hurt, and sometimes the best that we can hope for is that the balance is even when the time comes to say goodbye.

One of the worst pains of life here is that those times of farewell often come before we’ve been able to even that balance.

A while back, I wrote about the band my friend Jake pulled together in the early 1990s, the band that jammed every Thursday evening at his house in Eden Prairie, a suburb southwest of Minneapolis. I played keyboards there for more than six years, running through a wide repertoire of rock, blues, R&B and jazz as we practiced every week and hosted parties for our friends twice a year. I wasn’t as accomplished a musician as the other guys in the band, but some of the best evenings of my life came on the stage Jake built in his house, taking part in a musical communion as the nine or so of us made our way through “Mustang Sally” and “Statesboro Blues” or maybe “Freedom Overspill” and “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen.”

Then, in 1999, I began to have some health problems, and there were Thursday evenings when I didn’t have the energy to get to Jake’s. And the band had changed. As the membership of the band had evolved, I found myself playing music with a group of guys whose everyday work brought them in contact with each other in the corporate world. I wasn’t, by a very long shot, a corporate guy. So came the evening – an inevitable moment, as I look back, but one that caught me utterly by surprise – when Jake sent word that I didn’t need to come back the next Thursday; the band could do without me.

That hurt. A lot. It still does. I’ve heard nothing from Jake – or from other members of the band – in the eight years since. At times, I’ve fantasized about being invited to return to the group and turning Jake down. And I’ve pondered calling Jake, if only to tell him simply that I deserved better.

Neither of those can ever happen now. I got an email last evening from Coop, a business associate of Jake’s who played guitar with us for a couple of years (and who was one of the St. Cloud State students who shared my Denmark adventure years before that). Coop told me that Jake is gone. In late July, he’d been riding his beloved Harley on a hill in the nearby city of Chanhassen and lost control of the machine. He spent more than three weeks in intensive care at a Minneapolis hospital before crossing over on August 16.

And it’s hard to know what to feel. Jake opened a door for me and helped to bring me some of the best times of my life. One comes to mind immediately: Near the end of one party, we did Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” and as I sang the lead vocal behind the keyboard, I saw gentle smiles on the faces of many of our guests as they slow-danced. But Jake also closed that door, leaving me on the outside, and I recall as well the grief of the first Thursday night when I was no longer welcome at Jake’s.

I never got the chance – nor did I create the opportunity – to tell Jake how I felt. But there is something I can do to bring things back into balance. Without ever saying any of the words I’d like to have said, and without ever hearing the words of reconciliation that I’d love to have heard, I can forgive him. Not for his sake, but for mine: I read somewhere long ago that forgiveness isn’t something we do for the person who has hurt us. It is, rather, a grace we give ourselves. With that grace, what will matter is not Jake’s closing the door with me on the outside but the fact that he’d opened it and invited me in six or seven years earlier.

One of our drummers, Doc, was in the band from the time Jake began bringing musicians out to his house. Doc told me once that in the early years, Jake wasn’t all that good a bass player. But Jake worked hard over the years, and by the time we were hosting our two parties a year, Jake was a damned good bass player. That was about the time I did a piece on our band for the Eden Prairie newspaper. As I interviewed the guys, I asked them all what band in history they’d like to have played with. Jake’s answer surprised me. He said his dream gig would have been playing bass for the blue-eyed soul of the Rascals.

Jake and I will meet again, or at least our souls will, most likely the next time around. We’ve got some things to work out and – I hope – some music to make. In the meantime, take a listen to “Me & My Friends” by the Rascals, especially the bass part. It actually sounds a lot like Jake, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

 “Me & My Friends” by the Rascals from Freedom Suite [1969]

Smoking With Jumbo

May 12, 2022

Originally posted July 22, 2009

I went to summer camp three times during my childhood and youth. I spent one week each of the summers of 1965 and 1970 at a Boy Scout camp a little more than an hour north of St. Cloud. The second time I was there, the camp was formally called Parker Scout Reservation, but, informally, everyone still called it Camp Clyde in honor – as I understood it – of the stuffed moose head called Clyde that presided from the wall of the mess hall.

My other camping summer was in 1968, when I spent something like twelve days at Bible camp, swimming, boating, crafting and more at a camp called the Shores of St. Andrew near the town of New London about forty-five miles southwest of St. Cloud.  St. Andrew wasn’t near as rustic an experience as Camp Clyde had been: We slept on bunk beds in a cabin instead of in canvas tents, and everything was located within, oh, a hundred yards of the lakeshore instead of being sprinkled throughout the piney woods as it was for the Boy Scouts.

A few things stick out from my time at the Shores of St. Andrew:

First, it was during those twelve days that my voice changed. When Mom and Dad dropped me off on a Sunday afternoon, I was still singing something close to soprano when we all gathered for sing-alongs in the evenings. Within a few days, that started to change. I felt constantly as if I needed to clear my throat. It never helped. Another few days went by, and I was a tenor. My range diminished slightly as my voice deepened, and as I struggled with the new sound of me, my fellow campers joshed me gently. When I greeted Mom when she arrived to take me home after those twelve days, the first thing she said was “What happened to your voice?”

One of the girls in the little crowd that had gathered at the departure point giggled. “It changed,” she said simply. Mom looked at me, looked at Jill – and the fact that I recall my fellow camper’s name after forty-one years is a little surprising – and then back at me. She nodded, and then we put my stuff in the car, and I left my remaining camper friends behind.

Jill’s presence – and the presence of the other girls – is another thing that makes that time at camp memorable. Oh, there was no romance between us, although a few other couples among the older campers – the ages of campers ranged from about twelve to sixteen – paired up tentatively during our time there. But there were cross-gender friendships, which was kind of a new concept for a lot of us, I think, girls as well as boys. Those friendships were aided by a decrease in the number of campers after one week. Most of the kids who arrived the same Sunday I did had signed up for just one week; about a third of us – maybe twenty – had signed up for the twelve-day session. A few of the kids from the nearby city of Willmar who’d signed up for the single week extended their stays because we were all having so much fun, but the second portion of my time at camp still had a much smaller population, and I think that helped encourage the development of a wider range of friendships, including those that crossed the gender line.

But friendly or not, we were still boys and they were still girls. And one night after midnight, we boys decided to go visit the girls’ cabin. We didn’t go in, of course. We ran around the outside of the cabin and then banged on the windows, yelping and hollering. I was gratified to hear the sounds of laughter on the other side of the window where I stood, shouting what in effect were nonsense words. After about five minutes, we ran back to our cabin, where our counselors – who had not attempted to dissuade us from our plans – were waiting. Both Louie and Paul – More names! Amazing! – shrugged as we tumbled in, laughing. One of them said, “I hope it was fun, guys. You’ll pay for it tomorrow.”

And we did. After lunch, while the girls got to go outside and go swimming or do whatever they wished, we boys were issued buckets and scrub brushes and spent the afternoon cleaning the floor of the mess hall. That wasn’t all that bad; as we scrubbed, we talked and laughed.

I also recall the last night at camp. We had a dance in the craft room, which was on the upper floor of one of the buildings. The tables were folded and moved to the side, some basic decorations were installed and one of the counselors provided a radio. I might have danced once; I think I had a dance with Jill. But I spent a good chunk of the evening with a few other guys standing near the wall, watching the others dance. After a while, I slid along the wall to the door. Once outside, I made my way down the stairs.

I wasn’t the only one who’d gone outside. A guy whose real name I never knew – he was chunky and called himself “Jumbo” – was sitting atop one of the picnic tables smoking a cigarette. (Another thing I never knew was whether Jumbo truly chose that nickname for himself or accepted it with as much grace as he could when it was given to him.) “Dull dance,” I said as I approached and sat on the table top.

He shrugged and nodded. “But we can at least hear the music here,” he said, and we could. The front windows of the craft room were open, and the sound of the radio was clear.

Jumbo offered me a cigarette, my first. I took it and smoked it inexpertly, somehow not managing to inhale. (That, and the habit, would come to me during college.) And perched on top of a picnic table, we listened to the music and sat out the dance. As we did, I would guess we heard at least one of these records.

A Six-Pack from the charts (Billboard Hot 100 the week of July 27, 1968)
“The Look Of Love” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, A&M 924 [No. 16]
“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, Dunhill 4134 [No. 23]
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2537 [No. 32]
“The Eyes Of A New York Woman” by B.J. Thomas, Scepter 12230 [46]
“The Snake” by Al Wilson, Soul City 767 [No. 110]
“This Wheel’s On Fire” by Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger and the Trinity, Atco 6593 [122]

“The Look Of Love,” the first hit for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, was part of the soundtrack for the James Bond film Casino Royale. The title was the only one of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels to which producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli didn’t hold rights. Faced with the prospect of mounting a spy film without Sean Connery – secure in the role of the British spy in the Saltzman-Broccoli films – the producers of Casino Royale turned Fleming’s taut tale into a spoof and a shambles. According to the Internet Movie Database, the producers were Jerry Bresler and Charles K. Feldman; six people were listed as having directed portions of the film, and ten individuals were involved in the writing (six were officially credited, not including Fleming, who got the credit: “suggested by the novel Casino Royale”). The movie was a mess in which – according to my memory – actors David Niven and Peter Sellers were allowed to run amok. But it did have some good music, including “The Look Of Love.” The song went as high on the charts as No. 4 during an eleven-week run, and the group had two more Top 40 hits in 1968, both also done in a light and friendly Latin style.

I said the other day that “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” is one of those records that one either loves like a first-born child or hates like mold. I imagine the same is true of “MacArthur Park,” the rambling and symphonic love song whose most famous line is “Someone left the cake out in the rain.” I happen to think that the combination of Jimmy Webb’s admittedly over-the-top songwriting with the astounding vocal range of Richard Harris makes “MacArthur Park” a great record. Top 50 of all time? Maybe, maybe not. But – using a measuring stick I used here at least once before – if I were selecting a hundred records for a classic rock and pop jukebox, I think “MacArthur Park” would be in it. The record – Harris’ only Top 40 hit – spent ten weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 2.

Here’s what Dave Marsh had to say about “People Got To Be Free” in his 1989 classic, The Heart of Rock & Soul: “Sung like a funky Italian boys choir, arranged like a cross between Dyke and the Blazers and the Buckinghams, written in the fullest immersion in the glorious naivete of the times. Does hearing Felix [Cavaliere] try to preach about ‘the train to freedom’ render ‘People Got To Be Free’ dated? Of course. But what a glorious date, and what a way of celebrating the part of it that’s eternal: ‘I can’t understand, it’s so simple to me / People everywhere just got to be free.’ Ask my opinion, my opinion will be: Dated but never out of date.”

The Rascals’ record was in the Top 40 for thirteen weeks and spent an astounding five weeks at No. 1.

For more than ten years, from 1966 into 1977, B.J. Thomas recorded reliably good singles, but all too often, when talk and thought turns to listing the great Top 40 performers, his name seems to get lost. I’m not sure why that’s so. The man had fourteen Top 40 hits, with two of them reaching No. 1: “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in 1969 and “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” in 1975. Three others – 1964’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” 1968’s “Hooked on a Feeling” and 1970’s “I Just Can’t Help Believing” – all reached the Top Ten. And I’d be amazed if at least one of those five songs doesn’t start running through your head as you read that list. (And no, Blue Swede’s version of “Hooked on a Feeling” does not count!) “The Eyes Of A New York Woman” didn’t quite reach the heights those five records did, peaking at No. 28, but it’s probably my favorite B.J. Thomas song. Why? I dunno. Some things just are.

Al Wilson’s “The Snake” was pulled from his Searching For The Dolphins album, which was released on Johnny Rivers’ Soul City label. Through the end of the summer and into the autumn of 1968, the sly and funny slice of R&B moved slowly up the chart, peaking at No. 27, where it sat for the first two weeks of October. It was Wilson’s first Top 40 hit; he’d reach the top spot five years later with “Show and Tell,” which spent a week at No. 1 during the autumn of 1973. Being a sucker for drums, I love the four-second riff that starts about six seconds into the song. Drummers on the album were Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon.

Julie Driscoll never had a Top 40 hit in the U.S., but her version of “This Wheel’s On Fire” (written by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko of The Band), which she recorded with Brian Auger and the Trinity, went to No. 5 in her native Great Britain.  Shortly after that, Driscoll moved her career toward vocal improvisation and jazz, recording under her own name into the mid-1970s and in a variety of ensembles since then. In 1992, according to All-Music Guide, Driscoll re-recorded “This Wheel’s on Fire” as the theme to the smash BBC comedy Absolutely Fabulous.  

Saturday Single No. 454

July 11, 2015

I thought we’d dig into one radio survey this morning, so I went to the Airheads Radio Survey Archive and sorted out all the surveys from July 11 over the years, a trove of surveys stretching from 1958 to 1998 and from radio stations in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to York, Pennsylvania, alphabetically and to Burbank, California, geographically.

My plan was to find a survey that was issued by a station in an intriguing city during a year I like, but after nosing around, I thought that the first city in the list might be what I needed. A quick check of the files told me that I’ve never looked at a survey from Atlantic City, and the survey in question is from 1969, so there you go! The station was WMID, and it didn’t have a nifty name for its survey as many stations do, but at the bottom of the thirty-record survey, a note said that among the sources for the rankings were “WMID Boss Line requests.”

We’ll consider six records as candidates for this morning’s feature, based on combining the integers in today’s date: 7-11-15, and we’ll look, too, just for fun at the top and bottom records in the survey.

Anchoring the thirty records in the WMID survey forty-six years ago was Jerry Butler’s “Moody Woman,” while parked in the top spot was “My Pledge Of Love” by the Joe Jeffrey Group, both decent bits of R&B, but our business is with some of the records in the survey’s interior:

No. 26: “In The Ghetto” by Elvis Presley
No. 22: “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker & The Aces
No. 18: “See” by the Rascals
No. 15: “Grazing In The Grass” by the Friends of Distinction
No. 11: “Color Him Father” by the Winstons
No.   7: “Let Me” by Paul Revere & The Raiders

Without listening this morning, I recall only three of those records from my high school days, and only one of them fondly: I’m still weary of “In The Ghetto,” and “Israelites” never grabbed me, even though the two records ended up at Nos. 3 and 9 respectively in the Billboard Hot 100. I do still like the Friends of Distinction’s “Grazing,” which peaked at No. 3 in the Hot 100.

“Color Him Father” (which we touched on briefly when we discussed the Winstons’ “Love Of The Common People” a few months ago) is not a record I remember at all from that time, even though surveys from KDWB in the Twin Cities show it ranking at least as high as No. 5 and it went to No. 7 in the Hot 100. It’s a fine record, but it doesn’t grab me.

What about “Let Me” by Paul Revere & The Raiders and “See” by the Rascals? Well, having found and listened to “Let Me” this morning, I remember hearing it the radio, though not often, and I recall the screamed “Na-na! Na-na! Na-na! Na-na!” after the fake-out fade, which kind of ruined the record for me back then (and still does).

As for “See,” well, I imagine I heard it on the radio, as KDWB’s surveys online show it ranking as high as No. 8. And since it went to No. 27 in the Hot 100, I imagine I heard it live a little more than a year later when the Rascals played at St. Cloud State. But I don’t remember it at all. I dig it this morning, though, as much for the Dylanisms (intentional or not) of the lead vocal (Felix Cavaliere, I assume) as for the driving raucousness that makes it sound very much like 1969 sounded in some corners.

And that’s all enough to make “See” by the Rascals today’s Saturday Single.

Revised slightly after first posting.

We’ve Done Much But Still Have Much To Do

November 30, 2011

Originally posted January 19, 2009

The two events on consecutive days are an opinion writer’s dream.

I’m talking, of course, about the unique juxtaposition of today’s national holiday commemorating the life and contributions of the Rev. Martin Luther King with tomorrow’s inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African-American president. Some editorial writers and columnist may tell that we have achieved our goal and left division behind. Others will tell us we have made a good start. I lean toward the latter view. Still, there is no doubt that there is much to celebrate. After Mr. Obama takes the oath of office, we can all rejoice that we as a nation are so much closer than we were to keeping the promises made in our founding documents.

There is here a reluctance to write much about race relations in the United States (or anywhere, for that matter). Why? Because I stand on the wrong side of the divide to truly know what the state of those relations is and has been. I can read, I can listen, I can guess. But I can never know. What I have observed in my lifetime makes me hopeful, but when I try to write about the topic, I find myself stumbling around like a blindfolded man in a dark house: I have no assurance that I know what I am doing or where I am headed.

(I recall the tale of another man who stood on the same side of that divide as I do. In 1959, writer John Howard Griffin, who was white, darkened his skin with the help of a doctor and spent six weeks traveling as an African American man through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. For anyone, but especially for those who see the 1950s and 1960s as distant history, if I could suggest one book that might provide a glimpse of what life was like in the segregated southern states in the U.S., it would be Black Like Me.)

As we celebrate and remember today and tomorrow, one of the things that I hope that we all keep in mind is that we have just begun to keep our promises. And those promises were sworn not only to those with darker skin colors but also to those with colder homes, emptier plates, fewer opportunities and far more challenges than most of us in this nation have to deal with. The racial divide still exists, of course, and those on both sides need to continue to keep faith. But the deeper divide, I think, is economic, and that divide – aggravated, no doubt, by the dismal economic news of recent months – leaves far too many of us in want. And I doubt whether those shackled by economic need are truly free.

This is certainly a darker piece than I intended to write. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I do not celebrate the vast progress we have made in the U.S. nor the remarkable achievement of this nation in electing Barack Obama as its president. I am pleased and encouraged both historically and in the moment. There is much yet to be done, and we need to remember that in the days, months and years to come. But we have come a long way, and that is worth celebrating.

Here’s some music to mark these moments:

“Chimes of Freedom” by the Byrds from Mr. Tambourine Man, 1965

“A Ray of Hope” by the Rascals from Freedom Suite, 1969

“We Shall Overcome” by Bruce Springsteen & the Seeger Sessions Band from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions-American Land Edition, 2006

“I Want My Freedom” by Marie Queenie Lyons from Soul Forever, 1970

“Freedom Blues” by Little Richard, Reprise 0907, 1970

“We Shall Be Free” by Maria Muldaur, Odetta, Joan Baez & Holly Near from Yes We Can, 2008

Some of these are well known and obvious. Little Richard certainly isn’t among the lesser-known here, but his 1970s releases are. “Freedom Blues” was pulled from The Rill Thing, one of several albums Little Richard recorded for Reprise in the early 1970s. (A few years ago, Rhino Handmade produced a limited CD reissue of those albums; copies currently run at about $150.)

I don’t know much about Marie Queenie Lyons. Soul Forever is the only album of hers listed at All-Music Guide. The recording comes from a post at My Blog Too. There’s some information about her and her connection to James Brown at Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven.*

Of the albums listed, my favorite is the final one, Yes We Can, on which Maria Muldaur draws together a bunch of friends and a great bunch of politically charged songs that serve as calls to action. One need not agree with the performers’ politics to enjoy the music.

*My Blog Too has been deleted since this piece was posted. Note added November 30, 2011.

A Baker’s Dozen On Atlantic

April 23, 2011

Originally posted June 25, 2007

I had an album ripped and ready to go this morning, but as I was researching it, I learned that it is no longer out of print; it’s been re-released on CD. That’s a boundary I try to keep, not posting entire albums that are in print, so I ditched the rip I had planned.

Then I sat there and looked at the pile of albums I have in my “To Rip” pile. I sneezed a few times, as there is some kind of pollen roaming around right now that does not like me. I looked at my list of household chores waiting for me. And I decided I’d move my Baker’s Dozen from Wednesday to today and let Wednesday worry about itself when we get there.

So, without any back story or anything else, here’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while: A random Baker’s Dozen of singles on the Atlantic label. If I had more energy, I’d write about the Atlantic label, but I really don’t think I need to go into detail about the influence and importance of the label to American popular music. If you’re unfamiliar with the label and its history, there are any number of useful anthologies available with pretty good liner notes. (A note: In my filing system, if I have an entire album in the RealPlayer, then all songs from that album are listed under the album name, even those that were released as singles. So some favorites won’t have a chance to pop up.)

So let’s see what we get:

“It Tears Me Up” by Percy Sledge, Atlantic 2358, 1966

“Mama Told Me Not To Come” by Wilson Pickett, Atlantic 2909, 1972

“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by Robert John, Atlantic 2846, 1972

“Since I Met You, Baby” by Ivory Joe Hunter, Atlantic 1111, 1956

“Whatcha Gonna Do” by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, Atlantic 1055, 1955

“I Don’t Care Anymore” by Phil Collins, Atlantic 89877, 1983

“Love Won’t Let Me Wait” by Major Harris, Atlantic 3248, 1975

“Too Weak To Fight” by Clarence Carter, Atlantic 2569, 1969

“You’ll Never Change” by Bettye LaVette, Atlantic 2198, 1962

“Drown In My Own Tears” by Ray Charles, Atlantic 1085, 1956

“A Beautiful Morning” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2493, 1968

“Dancing Queen” by ABBA, Atlantic 3372, 1977

“See Saw” by Aretha Frankilin, Atlantic 2574, 1968

A few notes on the songs:

One surprise here is Wilson Pickett’s version of “Mama Told Me Not To Come,” the Randy Newman tune that Three Dog Night took to No. 1 in 1970, two years before Pickett recorded it. It seems an odd choice for Pickett, but keep in mind that he also recorded “Hey Jude” not long after the Beatles released it and nailed it.

Robert John’s version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” pales when compared to the Tokens’ 1961 version, which was itself a revision of a recording by the early folk group the Weavers. The Weavers, in turn, had gotten the song from a recording by African Artist Miriam Makeba. The song’s origins, according to Dave Marsh in The Heart of Rock and Soul, date to the 1930s, and the chain from Makeba to Robert John is a modern version of the way folk music used to evolve from region to region and from era to era.

“Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” the Major Harris tune with its racy-for-the-times cooing and moaning ran here a while back in a Baker’s Dozen from 1975. But it’s too much fun not to run it again.

I won’t say it was the first time I ever heard the recording, but the first time I really paid any attention to Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You, Baby” was when I heard it in the soundtrack to the 1987 movie The Big Town. Set in a mythical late 1950s, the movie – starring Matt Dillon and Diane Lane – is a noir-ish tale of a young gambler come to the big city with all its perils. The soundtrack, which featured Bobby Darin, Johnny Cash, the Drifters, Little Willie John and a few others Fifties artists, was superb.

ABBA’s music is often derided as “just pop.” Well, it may be pop, but it’s great pop, and there are few moments in 1970s music as recognizable as the gorgeous piano glissando that kicks off “Dancing Queen”!

Did They Think He Wouldn’t Play It?

August 4, 2010

I felt kind of sorry for Maynard Ferguson. It was a spring evening in 1977, maybe April but more likely May, and Ferguson and his band were on stage at the Prom Center in St. Paul. And after every number, fans in the crowd were calling out “‘Gonna Fly Now’!” as they urged Ferguson and his band to perform his current Minnesota hit.

Now, I didn’t really know Ferguson’s catalog beyond “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from ‘Rocky’)” that night. I imagine that if the single hadn’t been getting some pretty good airplay on Minnesota stations, I wouldn’t have made the trek to the Twin Cities for the show. But I was interested in hearing the rest of the show. I wanted to learn what else Ferguson and his band had to offer. And I was enjoying what I heard.

I knew, of course, that Ferguson and his mates would eventually play “Gonna Fly Now.” As I noted, the record had been getting plenty of airplay in Minnesota. That made the state one of the few markets in which Ferguson’s version of the movie theme outperformed the original from the movie soundtrack by Bill Conti; nationally, both versions entered the Billboard Hot 100 during late April of 1977. Conti’s version went to No. 1 during the first week of July, and Ferguson’s version peaked at No. 28 in late June.

The night of Ferguson’s concert, that peak was still more than a month away, but in Minnesota, we’d been hearing Ferguson’s version of the song on the radio for some time. The Academy Awards were handed out on March 28 that year, and I recall huddling later that week with a member of the music faculty at St. Cloud State, dissecting Best Song nominees “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” by Barbara Streisand and Paul Williams (which won the Oscar) and Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” (I didn’t yet have Conti’s version, either on 45 or on LP, so I brought along Ferguson’s LP for the comparison.)  Our verdict? Conti’s composition was more exciting musically, but its lyrics – by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins – were painfully lame.

That comparison might be interesting, but the main point of the tale is that by late March/early April, I’d heard Ferguson’s version on the radio enough that I’d already sought out the album. Had that been on St. Cloud’s WJON? On KDWB from the Twin Cities? From another local station? I don’t know, but by the time I was at the Prom Center later that spring, the record had already been a hit for the trumpeter in Minnesota. So as I sat with a bunch of other St. Cloud students – all of whom knew Ferguson’s work better than I did – I groaned internally as the listeners at the fringes called for “Gonna Fly Now.”

Did they think he wasn’t going to play it?

Of course, he did, near the end of the show, and those who’d come only for the hit were satisfied. Many of those who’d come for the broader range of Ferguson’s catalog were relieved, like one of the St. Cloud folks who was in our group. “Well, that’s over,” he murmured to me as the applause for “Gonna Fly Now” faded away. A little while later, I came away from the show with a broader appreciation of Ferguson’s music and the thought that I should delve deeper into his catalog.

It took me a long time to get to that, and I have to acknowledge that I’ve only dug a little bit into the late trumpeter’s work in the past few years. I enjoy it, and I respect the man’s abilities. But jazz is never going to be my music of choice; it’s more like a place I visit now and then, enjoying the differing customs and strange sights but aware all the time that when I leave, it will be good to be back home in my homeland of blues, rock, folk and R&B.

Of course, Ferguson’s “Gonna Fly Now” isn’t jazz. It’s pop, as was a lot of his work in the 1970s, a fact that dismayed many of his long-time listeners. His earlier work and some of his later work is far more based in jazz, and some of it can be challenging listening. If some listeners were pulled into those challenges because of Ferguson’s pop work, well, that’s all right. And pop though it may be, Ferguson’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” shows off the man’s tremendous range and dynamics. That’s why it’s here in the Ultimate Jukebox:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 28
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2537 [1968]
“Suavecito” by Malo, Warner Bros. 7559 [1972]
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, MCA 40258 [1974]
“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac from Fleetwood Mac [1975]
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Maynard Ferguson, Columbia 10468 [1977]
“Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn [1991]

The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” falls for me into a loose category of utopian pop-rock songs, a late Sixties swath of pop music that includes – just to name two other hits – the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Friend & Lover’s ”Reach Out In The Darkness.” What’s always struck me about those songs is their naiveté, their seeming belief that the task of reordering our lives and the world around us requires only an act of will. In other words, to quote Paul McCartney and Badfinger from another context, “If you want it, you can get it.” Simplistic? Yes, but it’s a wish/desire/hope that remains with us today in such homilies as “Be the change you want to be.” There is, I suppose, something to that, as the world can change one person at a time, but the cynic in me chuckles and then reaches for the sports section. So does that invalidate “People Got To Be Free” for me? Not at all. It’s a great record, and it’s good to be reminded at times that we should aim for better. And the Rascals perform the hell out of it, which was good enough for the record to go to No. 1 for five weeks during the late summer of 1968.

The light and airy sounds of Malo’s “Suavecito” put me on my bicycle during one of those Saturday evenings rides that were a constant for me during the summer of 1972. I wrote about those rides once before, and I can only guess that I heard Malo’s record from the loudspeakers as I sat in the bleachers at the municipal swimming pool, taking a break from my ride and nibbling on a Frozen Milkshake. There’s a longer version on the group’s self-titled album from that same year, but it gets to the point too slowly and contains less of the single’s restrained energy. I’d forgotten for years about Malo and “Suavecito,” but sometime during the 1990s, I found Malo and the group’s second album, Dos, during my crate-digging days; hearing the long version of the song reminded me of how much I liked the single as it went to No. 18 during the early summer of 1972, and when I began to collect digital music about ten years ago, the single version of “Suavecito” was pretty high on my list of wants.

I don’t have a lot to say about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” except to note two things about the record that went to No. 8 in 1974: First, the ambiguous second verse that seems to have defended Alabama Governor George Wallace doesn’t actually do so, according to a 1975 interview with the late Ronnie Van Zant, co-writer of the song. Second, I think the current Alabama license plate is just perfect:

Stevie Nicks has written a good number of great songs. She’s also written a few that tend to get lost in her personal “Rhiannon” mythology. (And that latter group does not include “Rhiannon” itself.) But to my mind, her best song is “Landslide” from the 1975 album Fleetwood Mac, the album that presented to the world Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham as the new members of the revamped Mac. Even without the subtext of Nicks’ and Buckingham’s failing relationship – a failure displayed, of course, in full light of day on 1977’s Rumours – the chorus to “Landslide” is poignant:

Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
’Cause I’ve built my life around you,
But time makes you bolder, even children get older,
And I’m getting older too.

Writing a song that name-checks prominent people and places isn’t easy. Writing a good song that does that is immensely difficult, as such efforts can easily devolve into what seems like parody. That’s what made Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” so remarkable when it came out in 1991. Cohn piles up the references: W.C. Handy, Beale Street, Elvis Presley, Union Avenue, Graceland, the Jungle Room, Al Green, and Muriel at the Hollywood Cafe (in Robinsonville, Mississippi). And they all work. The record went to No. 13 during the summer of 1991.