Posts Tagged ‘Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66’

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.  

‘The Lamp Posts Call Your Name . . .’

February 1, 2012

Originally posted February 24, 2009

I spent eight winters living in Minneapolis, three of them working downtown amid the unsurprising mix of a few skyscrapers, some other modern glass and steel buildings, and the older brick and stone buildings that had to that point survived the city’s occasional efforts at urban renewal.

While the canyons of downtown Minneapolis are slight shadows of those in the major cities – I think of Chicago and New York, obviously – there still was a wintertime melancholy there that one doesn’t find in smaller cities. Even away from downtown – in the blocks around the trendy Uptown area at the intersection of Lake Street and Hennepin Avenue, say, or in the far southern reaches of Minneapolis, where I lived during my last urban winter – the city can be a dreary place in the later afternoon of a winter day.

It was downtown Minneapolis on a wet winter day that popped into my head this morning. The RealPlayer was on random as I read the newspaper. One song ended and the next began: a familiar woodwind riff over a bed of muted brass and then some subdued percussion. It was Steve Katz’ evocative song, “Sometimes In Winter,” from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ second, self-titled album. And I sang along softly:

Sometimes in winter,
I gaze into the streets
And walk through snow and city sleet
Behind your room.
Sometimes in winter,
Forgotten memories
Remember you behind the trees
With leaves that cried.

By the window once I waited for you;
Laughing slightly you would run.
Trees alone would shield us in the meadow,
Makin’ love in the evening sun.

Now you’re gone, girl,
And the lamp posts call your name.
I can hear them
In the spring of frozen rain.
Now you’re gone, girl,
And the time’s slowed down till dawn.
It’s a cold room, and the walls ask
Where you’ve gone.

Sometimes in winter,
I love you when the good times
Seem like mem’ries in the spring
That never came.

Sometimes in winter,
I wish the empty streets
Would fill with laughter from the tears
That ease my pain.

As I sang, I could see the cold afternoon streets, the lights of the stores and the bars reflecting off the damp pavement. I could see the downtown workers huddled and hunched against the wind and the snow, seeking the shelter of those stores and bars or of busses to take them home, away from the gray. And some of those who fled, just like some of those who stayed behind, would know well about Katz’ cold room with its questioning walls.

I first heard the song in 1969, when Blood, Sweat & Tears was the first cassette I got for my new tape player, and the song’s gentle grief has always felt right to me. For years, I envisioned Katz – or his alter ego – wandering the chill streets of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Today’s vision of Minneapolis doesn’t negate that; it adds to it. For I think all of us – even those in warmer climes – carry our own winter cities with us.

It’s evidently a song that’s not been covered much. All-Music Guide lists only two other versions. One is by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 and the other is credited by AMG to German keyboard player Dieter Reith. After a little digging, I learned that Reith was the organist, arranger and conductor for a 1970 album called Stop! Watch! And Listen! by a group called the Knut Kiesewetter Train. The song is collected on an anthology of Reith’s work, Reith On! The Legendary MPS Sessions.

The Mendes version isn’t quite as gloomy as the original, but it’s not the cheery Latin popfest that I expected. It’s moody at points, and that fits the song well. The Knut Kiesewetter Train version, on the other hand . . . Well, it comes from an aesthetic direction that I clearly don’t grasp. And, no disrespect intended, but it makes me feel as if I’m listening to a performance in the lounge of a third-line hotel for English-speaking travelers somewhere in Essen or Dortmund.

“Sometimes In Winter” by Blood, Sweat & Tears from Blood, Sweat & Tears [1969]

“Sometimes In Winter” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 from Stillness [1971]

“Sometimes In Winter” by the Knut Kiesewetter Train from Stop! Watch! And Listen! [1970]

It’s Too Good Not To Be True

January 4, 2012

Originally posted February 17, 2009

Legend has it that one day in 1966, the members of the Buffalo Springfield met with the A&R (Artists & Repertoire) man from Atco, the group’s record label, to go over songs for the group’s first album.

For some time, the story goes, the man from Atco listened as Stephen Stills and Neil Young – and maybe Richie Furay, whose songs showed up on later Springfield albums but not on the first – shared their tunes with the A&R man and each other. As the meeting neared its end, the man from Atco asked if any of the musicians had anything else.

“I got one more,” said Stills, “for what it’s worth.” And he took up his guitar and began to sing the now-familiar words, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear . . .”

And that, children, is how “For What It’s Worth” got its title. I can’t vouch for the fact of the story, but, to me, it’s one of those stories that’s so right that it almost doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Legend drives out fact just as surely as bad money drives out good.*

The only other bit of history I’ve read about “For What It’s Worth” is that Atco scrambled to put the track on the Springfield’s first album after it became a hit single. If that’s the case, then there should be copies of the album out there without “For What It’s Worth,” as the album was released in 1966 and the single didn’t hit the Top 40 until February 1967. My copy of the first album has “For What It’s Worth” as the first track on Side One, but then, I bought that LP long after 1966. Does anyone out there know? Was there a version of Buffalo Springfield without “For What It’s Worth”?

Whatever the truth, “For What It’s Worth” was the group’s only hit, reaching No. 7 during an eleven-week stay in the Top 40, and pulling the Buffalo Springfield out of the running for the title of Best Group Ever Without A Top Ten Single. (My nomination for the title? The Band, whose best-performing single, “Up On Cripple Creek,” went to No. 25.)

There are 309 CDs in the listings at All-Music Guide that include a track titled “For What It’s Worth.” A number of those – maybe a quarter – are not the Stills tune. Take away the multiple listings for the Buffalo Springfield’s recording, and there are about two hundred covers. Some of the interesting names in the list are: Bonnie Bramlett, Cher (on her 1969 album 3614 Jackson Highway), Aynsley Dunbar, Bill Evans, Keb’ Mo’, King Curtis, Miriam Makeba, Melanie, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Jeffrey Osborne, Ozzy Osbourne and Rush. Not on AMG’s list is the gospel choral group, the Voices Of East Harlem, whose 1970 version of the song is remarkable.

I’ve pulled three versions to share today, by Lou Rawls, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 and the Staple Singers. I’m not sure Rawls’ style fits the song very well, but the other two versions are good listens.

“For What It’s Worth” by Lou Rawls from Feelin’ Good, 1968

“For What It’s Worth” by Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 from Stillness, 1971

“For What It’s Worth” by the Staple Singers, Epic 10220, 1967

*That little epigram about money is called “Gresham’s Law,” and remembering it today means that I did learn something in economics class all those years ago.

‘We’ll Talk In Present Tenses . . .’

July 13, 2011

Originally posted June 24, 2008

I made an off-hand comment the other week while writing about the music that helped keep me sane during my invalid summer of 1974: “I tend to think that ‘Help Me’ is the best thing Joni Mitchell has ever recorded over the course of her long career.”

Since then, I’ve been pondering that thought. I know I’m not nearly as familiar with Mitchell’s (admittedly sparse) work in the past fifteen years as I am with the music that came before. Given critical reaction, I should get hold of last year’s album, Shine, and then see what I think. But beyond that album, based on what I’ve read and heard and remember hearing on the stereo, I don’t think I need to dig too deeply into the 1990s or even the 1980s work by Mitchell to review my comment.

I’ll grant Mitchell one huge thing: She’s never been afraid to experiment. It sometimes seems, looking at her catalog, that since 1974’s Court and Spark, her career has been one long experiment, starting with this quartet of 1970s albums: The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Hejira. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Mingus. They pulled influences and ideas from all over the musical map, delighting some listeners, dismaying others and confusing many. I hadn’t followed Mitchell as closely in the first half of the Seventies as I’d followed other musicians, so it didn’t upset me when she embarked on her explorations, but I found her work not only less accessible but less likable, as well. It was challenging, certainly, and that’s not a bad thing. But it wasn’t fun anymore. And I quit listening.

I picked up a few later-era Mitchell albums during the 1990s – Wild Things Run Fast, Dog Eat Dog, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm and Taming The Tiger come to mind – and found myself listening to them once and then shelving them. I recognized the effort, the reach, but again, I got little pleasure. During that time, I made a lot of mix tapes for friends as my music collection grew, drawing music from a wider range of artists and styles month by month. But I recall that I rarely pulled any of the later Mitchell albums from the stacks, declining to even listen to single tracks as I made tapes. I wondered: Was my disinterest in Mitchell’s more challenging work a deficiency? Well, I finally answered myself, if it is, then so what? Life is too short to listen repeatedly to music one doesn’t like.

My hope is to someday soon dig into Mitchell’s later work again to see if my reactions to it have changed as time has passed. But for now – and pending a listen to Shine, which has had nice things said about it – I’ll hold to my comment about “Help Me.” Trailing behind it in my list of favorite Mitchell tunes would be “Chelsea Morning,” “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Free Man In Paris” and “Songs to Aging Children Come.” (“Both Sides Now” and “Woodstock” are great songs but have gotten a little tired.)

The obvious thing to do here would be to offer a cover version of “Help Me.” A check at All-Music Guide shows more than 300 listings for “Help Me,” but many of those are for other songs with the same title. (A good share of them belong to the blues tune of that title by Sonny Boy Williamson II, a nice piece but not at all what’s being sought today.) At a rough guess, maybe a fifth of the entries listed, maybe about sixty, are recordings of Mitchell’s tune. And it turns out I have none of them in my collection (a gap that will be filled).

The crop is a little leaner for “Chelsea Morning,” but oddly enough, I have two of the twenty or so cover versions listed. As to other versions, I’m sure I’ve heard Neil Diamond’s 1971 version, from his Stones album, and I know I’ve heard Judy Collins’ version, which was on Living, also from 1971. I have the version that Fairport Convention recorded for its 1968 self-titled album. But I decided to go a slightly different direction and offer the version that Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66 recorded for the group’s 1971 album, Stillness.

Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 – “Chelsea Morning” [1971]