Thanks, Jim Steinman

April 21st, 2021

Looking at the listing of works by Jim Steinman, who died two days ago, leaves me feeling as if I missed out. I truly know so little of what the man did as a writer, musician and producer. He remains one of the large blank spots in my musical awareness.

There’s a reason. My memory tells me – and bits and pieces of what I’ve read over the past few days confirm – that Steinman came to mass awareness with his writing and production of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album Bat Out Of Hell and the resulting 1978 single “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.”

By the time the single came out, I was in the working world, and I crammed my radio listening into what I could catch in the car as I drove from one reporting assignments to another and whatever I could catch at home on an aging stereo system my folks had found for me in a second-hand store. Still, I heard “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad” occasionally, and I liked it, even if I found it a bit bombastic.

(A lot of other folks liked it, too: It went to No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 31 on the magazine’s easy listening chart.)

But “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” and “You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth” – the follow-up singles – didn’t grab me. And as I listened less and less to pop music in the late 1970s and early 1980, I missed whatever came next for Steinman.

Then, in 1984, I was in Missouri and I was the arts editor for the Columbia Missourian, published by the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. And one week, there were more new movies in town than my small staff could review, so I needed to jump in and review one of them. That happened occasionally, maybe four times during the year I filled the post. Out of the five or so movies opening that week, I selected Streets of Fire, more because I recognized the name of the female lead, Diane Lane, than for any other reason.

I loved it, especially the music. I cadged a bit on the grade I gave it, maybe awarding a B+. (I cannot put my hands on the review this morning although I know it exists in the filing drawers of unorganized clips from about fifteen years of reporting and editing.) Director Walter Hill called the movie a “rock and roll fable,” but even so, it’s over-the-top storytelling put me off just a bit.

But the music! There was stuff from the Blasters, Ry Cooder, the Fixx, Maria McKee, and a few others. And the Steinman-penned songs that opened and closed the movie blew me away: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young,” with – as I learned later – Laurie Sargent providing the vocals for Lane on the former and Holly Sherwood doing the same on the latter, both backed by a group of musicians that the filmmakers called Fire Inc.

Within a few days, I had the soundtrack, knew the writers and producers and anything else I could glean from the jacket. And in the thirty-some years since, any time I hear either of those two tracks from the soundtrack, I remember the thrill of finding something utterly new, a feeling that can stay with you for years.

I missed a lot of Steinman’s stuff, and maybe I should go back and dig into it, but I at least found two pieces from the man’s work that will always be a part of my life, and for that, I thank Jim Steinman.

Here’s the official video for “Nowhere Fast” and a clip with the last minutes of the film that includes “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young,” both credited to Fire Inc.

‘You Just Can’t Win . . .’

April 15th, 2021

This will be brief because the upcoming work by GoDaddy may mean that this post gets left behind, but I feel a need to post something.

I was poking through the Billboard 200 from mid-April 1971, looking at which albums eventually showed up on the shelves here, when I noticed the album parked at No. 144: One & One by Gene & Jerry, who only turn out to be Gene Chandler and Jerry Butler.

The album, released in 1970, was in its fourth week on the chart, down one spot from its peak at No. 143 the previous week. After another week, the album would fall off the chart.

I found the album in July 1998, most likely at a neighborhood garage sale in south Minneapolis. And it turned out to be the first LP I ripped to mp3s when we moved to the condo three years ago. It’s decent R&B/soul.

Here’s the opening track, “You Just Can’t Win (By Making The Same Mistake).” Released as a single, the track spent three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1971, peaking at No. 94.

Saturday Single No. 732

April 10th, 2021

The other week, writing about B.B. King’s “Ask Me No Questions,” I said:

It’s an interesting record, in that it’s got more piano in it than I tend to expect of a King record, but a quick look at the credits at both AllMusic and discogs tells me that Carole King was around for the album sessions. I wish I had track-by-track information, but I don’t.

Well, I do now. Shortly after I wrote about the track, I was noodling around Amazon in search of Rhiannon Giddens’ forthcoming album (it arrived yesterday, and so far, I’m pleased), and I noticed we had some bonus points or something from the site. So I added to my order King’s 1970 album Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

As I suspected, the session notes I found at the two websites mentioned above were incomplete. And I’m a bit chagrined, because with a little more effort on that Saturday a few weeks ago, I might have recognized that the piano part on that particular track was supplied by Leon Russell. I was listening for Carole King, however, and the idea slipped past me.

Carole King does play on four of the album’s nine tracks, while Russell plays on three, including on his own composition “Hummingbird.” On that one, the background vocals are provided by four women whose names have popped up many times on this blog: Sherlie Matthews, Clydie King, Venetta Fields, and Mary Clayton.

Eight of the nine tracks on the album were recorded at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, and on those, Russ Kunkel handles the drums and Bryan Garofalo provides bass. Guitarist Joe Walsh shows up for a couple of tracks.

(The ninth track was laid down at the Hit Factory in New York. Players there were Hugh McCrackin on rhythm guitar, Paul Harris on piano, Gerald Jemmott on bass and Herb Lovelle on drums.)

The CD fills nicely a gap on the shelves, as the only other B.B. King CDs I have are an a career-spanning anthology and three other CDs with King performing with others: Blues Summit and Deuces Wild feature King with a wide range of other performers (from Ruth Brown to Robert Cray on the first and from Van Morrison to Marty Stuart on the second), and Riding With The King is an album recorded with Eric Clapton.

(If I want more B.B. King, I can turn to the LP shelves, where there are eleven of his albums, mostly from the 1960s and 1970s.)

And here’s another track from Indianola Mississippi Seeds, this one with Carole King playing piano and electric piano: “Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore.” The track starts with an informal jam over strings and horns, then moves into the song itself. And in the latter portions of the track, Carole King gets a chance to show off her chops on the electric piano. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

Two Headaches

April 8th, 2021

I have two concurrent headaches. One of them is literal, the product of a sinus infection.

The other is metaphorical, the product of waiting for the GoDaddy folks to finish “migrating” this blog to a new server. The process, when it starts, will take some time, and anything I post here might or might not be migrated. When will that process start? They can’t seem to tell me.

Additionally, until that process is finished, folks aren’t able to leave comments here.

It’s a headache. So, here’s “Willies’ Headache” from Cymande. Here’s what discogs has to say about the band:

Formed [in] 1971 in London, England featuring musicians from Guyana, Jamaica and Saint Vincent. The name Cymande is based on a calypso word for dove, symbolising peace and love. They play a style of music that they call Nyah-Rock: a mixture of funk, soul, reggae and African rhythms. The band achieved their greatest initial success in America and were actively recording and performing until 1975.

“Willies’ Headache” is on the band’s second album, Second Time Around, released in 1973.

Saturday Single No. 731

April 3rd, 2021

Shining stars. Falling stars. Shooting stars. Silver stars. It’s too big a list.

I was going to select a few favorite tracks that have “star” in their titles and blather on about each of them this morning before choosing one for today’s featured single. But a search for “star” in the RealPlayer has discouraged me, coming back with 1,239 tracks.

Many of those, of course, would not qualify. A wonderful album by various artists from 2003 titled All Night All Stars (including tracks by Gregg Allman, Amy Helm, and the duo of Bobby Whitlock and Kim Carmel) goes by the wayside, as does an odd album titled Gulag Orkestar by a group called Beirut. Gone are two albums by the group Big Star. And so on, and I do not have the intestinal fortitude to sort through all 11,239 tracks this morning.

So I’ll just go back to the record that brought me the idea earlier this week without my even hearing it. Something, somewhere, sparked the 1970 memory of hearing Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everybody Is A Star.” And that got me to thinking about records with “star” in their titles. So here we are.

Here’s Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everybody Is A Star.” As the B-side of a two-sided single – “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” was the A-side – it spent two weeks at No. 1 in February 1970, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

The Video Standings

April 2nd, 2021

Over the years, I’ve made more than 370 videos for this blog. My first, slapped together not too carefully ten years ago, back in April 2011, was of Al Hirt’s 1963 track “I Can’t Get Started.” It’s been viewed 154,120 times since then, not bad for a bit of pop jazz.

I don’t often make videos anymore. There are two reasons: First, it’s getting very rare for a record that has even the slightest bit of notoriety to not show up on YouTube. It happens, most often, for records that have a one- or two-week presence in the lower portions of the charts, but it doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to. The main reason I starred putting together videos ten years ago was because I could not find good videos – meaning first, with decent sound, and second, with some pleasing visual aesthetic – of the tunes I was writing about. That’s no longer the major concern it was ten years ago.

The second reason I’ve not messing with videos any more is that the video-making software that came along with my new computer last summer is kind of clunky, not as intuitive as the software I’d used on the previous computer. If making vids were as important to me now as it was, say, five years ago, I’d buy a better program, as I have done for apps to rip and sort CDs and to record musical notation. But it’s not worth it.

Anyway, to get back to what I was doing. I thought, as the ten-year anniversary of my video-making approaches – the actual date will be Monday – that I’d note which of my vids have been the most popular over the years.

The most popular, by far, is the merger of two pieces by Bill Conti from the soundtrack of the original Rocky, from 1976. “Going The Distance” is the music that undergirds most of the championship fight between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed, and “The Final Bell” is the triumphant set of themes that runs under the climactic final scene of the film. Playing them one after another – they’re separated by numerous tracks on the official soundtrack release – only made sense to me. And it seems to make sense to lots of others, too. As of this morning, the video has received 6,445,134 views in not quite three years. Nearly 39,000 folks have liked it, but about 1,500 folks have given it a thumbs-down.

Second place in my video derby goes to “Bittersweet” by Big Head Todd & The Monsters, the second video I made and uploaded in April 2011. So, longevity no doubt plays a part in the piece having gathered 2,116,503 views as of this morning, with some 602 folks unaccountably not liking the vid. (Maybe my very simple visual style – generally a picture of the album cover, no more – disappoints some folks.) As to the video’s popularity, that, I think, has to be credited to the sweet slow story of the 1993 song. As I wrote almost ten years ago:

Every generation finds its own versions of universal truths and tales, and “Bittersweet” is one generation’s version of the thought that even if you get what you dreamed of, you might find that it wasn’t what you really wanted.

Coming in next in the video derby is Long John Baldy and “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock & Roll” from 1971’s It Ain’t Easy, with the shaggy dog story of Baldry’s long-ago arrest in London followed by one of my favorite tracks of all time. Altogether, 930,406 folks have viewed it, and somehow, 323 folks didn’t like it. Perhaps those are the same folks who insist in the comments that the rocking piano part on the track is played by Elton John (who produced half of It Ain’t Easy), when the album’s credits make it clear that it was Ian Armitt at the keyboard.

Here’s the rest of the Top Ten:

“Theme From Summer Of ’42” by Michel Legrand (833,375)
“Nantucket Sleighride (Live)” by Mountain (500,398)
“Rør Ved Mig” by Lecia & Lucienne (499,913)
“Tangerine” by Eliane Elias (477,334)
“Misty” by Richard “Groove” Holmes (430,465)
“Wind Up” by Jethro Tull (355,688)
“Ballad Of Easy Rider” by Roger McGuinn (334,010)

On the bottom of the list are two videos that evidently ran into some accessibility issues due to copyright and were unavailable for a while: “The River” by Bruce Springsteen (140 views) and “That’s The Way Of The World” by Earth, Wind & Fire (202 views). Then comes a cover of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference” by an obscure band called Home Groan. The cover ended up on an album of tracks played on a Norwegian radio show about American music. As of today, the video had been viewed 298 times.

On The Radio: March 1981

March 31st, 2021

Forty years ago today – March 31, 1981 – was a Tuesday, and I was no doubt sitting at my electronic terminal at the Monticello Times. As I noted not quite six years ago Tuesday was a writing day:

From seven in the morning until about four in the afternoon, I’d have been at my desk, turning out copy: An account of the previous evening’s meeting of the Monticello City Council; stories covering the previous Friday’s football games at the high schools in Monticello and nearby Big Lake, as well as coverage for the other fall sports at the two schools and their attendant junior high schools; highlights from the weekly sheriff’s reports in Wright County and Sherburne County; a feature story or two; and coverage of anything out of the ordinary that might have occurred during the past seven days in that small town.

There would have been very little music during the day, probably only what I heard in the car as I drove: to work in the morning, to and from lunch, to home in the later afternoon and then to and from work again in the evening, when I would do some final phone interviews for last-minute stories and we began to paste together that week’s edition.

It was around March 1981 when the Other Half and I purchased our first and only new car, a 1981 Chevette, which we thought was a decent vehicle. Beyond automotive value, it had an FM radio, so I was no doubt listening to the Twin Cities’ KSTP-FM as I drove. Here’s the Top Ten from KS-95 – as it was called – released forty years ago today:

“Morning Train” by Sheena Easton
“Hello Again” by Neil Diamond
“Just The Two Of Us” by Grover Washington, Jr. (with Bill Withers)
“What Kind Of Fool” by Barbra Streisand & Barry Gibb
“Crying” by Don McLean
“While You See A Chance” by Steve Winwood
“Somebody’s Knockin’” by Teri Gibbs
“Woman” by John Lennon
“9 To 5” by Dolly Parton
“Angel Of The Morning” by Juice Newton

That’s not a bad stretch of listening, actually, better than I expected. I got weary of the McLean single and of “9 To 5,” but the rest was not bad. Still, only four of those tracks are on the digital shelves here: those by Winwood, Washington/Withers, Lennon, and – surprisingly – Newton. And only “Just The Two Of Us” and “While You See A Chance” have made it to my day-to-day listening in the iPod.

I note one other interesting thing on the KS-95 survey: At No. 16 is Bruce Springsteen’s “Fade Away,” down three spots from the week before. Now, during the three or four evenings a week I was home in those days, the Other Half and I would often turn off the television and turn on KS-95. But I don’t recall ever hearing “Fade Away” during any of those evenings forty years ago. I wasn’t, of course, into Springsteen at the time, but still . . .

Here’s the single version of “Fade Away,” highlighting the organ work of the late Danny Federici. It’s slightly shorter, based on the listed running time, than the version on The River.

Saturday Single No. 730

March 27th, 2021

As I wander through the vast universe of popular music from the middle of the Twentieth Century, I more and more find myself stumbling into lyrics that would no longer be acceptable in polite company.

Last evening, I was playing tabletop baseball with the RealPlayer offering full albums, and I was quite enjoying the Rolling Stones’ 1970 live album, ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!’ And then Mick and the boys launched into “Stray Cat Blues” and got to the second verse:

I can see that you’re just thirteen years old
I don’t want your I.D.
You look so lonesome and you so far from home
It’s no hanging matter
It’s no capital crime

I stared at the computer for a few seconds, wondering what Mick Jagger sings these days if “Stray Cat Blues” ends upon the setlist and wondering, too, how that lyric was ever acceptable even in the 1960s and early 1970s. (In the original version of the song on the Beggars Banquet album, the young lady in question is fifteen years old, which was not much better.)

And this morning, as I searched for tracks recorded over the years on March 27, I came across “Your Funeral And My Trial” by Sonny Boy Williamson II, recorded in Chicago on this date in 1958 and released as Checker 894. Here’s the first verse:

Please come home to your daddy, and explain yourself to me
Because I and you are man and wife, tryin’ to start a family
I’m beggin’ you baby, cut out that off the wall jive
If you can’t treat me no better, it gotta be your funeral and my trial

That tagline shows up on all three verses. Now, that was 1958, and the Stones’ record was 1969-70. Attitudes have changed, at least in mainstream culture. What do we do with the art from earlier times that expresses attitudes we no longer hold?

I dunno. But while we think about it, here’s “Keep Your Hands Out Of My Pocket” by Sonny Boy Williamson II, also recorded in Chicago on March 27, 1958. It ended up on his Bummer Road album. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

What’s At No. 200? (LPs, March 1970)

March 25th, 2021

Digging into the bottom of the singles in the Billboard Hot 100, as we frequently do here, often finds us listening to records that, well, are unfamiliar and perhaps . . . well “odd” is a good word. The bottom of the singles chart can be a strange place.

And when one dives into the bottom of the magazine’s album chart, the Billboard 200, well . . . it’s a deeper dive, and the denizens of deeper portions of that sea can be unfamiliar as well, the kind of thing that we here in Minnesota would listen to politely and then say, “Well, that’s different.”

We’re heading into that deeper place this morning, checking out the No. 200 album in the chart released on March 27, 1971, fifty year ago this week. Before heading into the depths, we’ll take a look at the Top Ten. (Just for fun, I’m going to tag onto each title in parentheses the year I acquired the album, if I ever did, adding a + if the album sits in the CD stacks.)

Pearl by Janis Joplin (1971+)
Love Story soundtrack
The Cry Of Love by Jimi Hendrix (1999)
Chicago III (1989+)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Abraxas by Santana (1989)
Love Story by Andy Williams
Tumbleweed Connection by Elton John (1988+)
All Things Must Pass by George Harrison (1981+)
Stoney End by Barbra Streisand (1992+)

Well, eight of them on vinyl, five on CD, and all of those eight, plus the Love Story soundtrack, are on the digital shelves, leaving only the Andy Williams album ignored. This chart obviously falls in the thick of my sweet spot, though I don’t know every album well.

The three I know best, unsurprisingly, are the three I’ve had the longest: the albums by Joplin and Harrison and Jesus Christ Superstar. And if I had to choose two more to supplement those three on a desert island, I’d add the Streisand and the Chicago. (And I would venture that nothing in this paragraph is a surprise to anyone who’s read this blog for even a very short time.)

And although the results will be similarly unsurprising, we’ll employ my usual measuring tool for current relevance and see which of those albums has the most tracks among the 2,900 or so tracks in my iPod that make up my day-to-day listening.

The tally: Harrison 8, Joplin 6, Streisand 3, Santana and Elton John, 2 each, Jesus Christ Superstar 1, with Lai, Hendrix, Chicago and Andy Williams shut out. And “Free” from Chicago might end that album’s shutout this week.

And now to our other business here, checking out the bottom spot in that long-age LP chart. And we find Sugar by jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. I’ve heard the name but know little about the man’s work. The album was in its second week in the chart, both weeks at No. 200. It would move to No. 182 a week later and then fall from the chart.

Sugar was one of sixteen albums that Turrentine would get into the Billboard 200 between 1967 and 1981, most of those failing to get into the top half of the chart. Of the six that reached the Top 100, 1978’s West Side Highway did the best, getting to No. 63.

Sugar seems to have been an odd album, but I don’t know, not really knowing the man’s work. Albums released before and after Sugar seem to be a mix: Some are filled with short tracks – three minutes or less – covering pop songs of the day. Some have a few short tracks and a couple lengthier works. Sugar in its 1971 form had three long tracks, all running ten minutes or more. (Reissues have altered that over the years.)

Here’s a link to the title track. (Although the video credits the piece to the Stanley Turrentine Sextet, the record is credited at discogs to Turrentine alone. The jacket front does list three other musicians: trumpeter Ron Carter, guitarist George Benson and bassist Freddie Hubbard. And the liner notes mention drummer Billy Kaye, organist Butch Cornell, as well as Lonnie Smith, Jr., on keyboards and Richie “Pablo” Landrum on congas.)

Saturday Single No. 729

March 20th, 2021

One of the most-represented artists on the shelves here came to me twenty-eight years ago today. Like today, March 20, 1993, was a Saturday, and I was scouting out a new-to-me used record store on Minneapolis’ Nicollet Avenue.

The store was, if I recall rightly, about five blocks north of Lake Street, in an area unfamiliar to me. There was nothing shady about the neighborhood; it was home to, among many other things, a German restaurant I’d visited occasionally. But beyond several instances of schnitzel and beer over the years, I knew little about the area.

A record store is always going to draw me in, though, and as I wandered through the stacks and racks of this one – its name long-forgotten – my eye was caught by a record jacket tucked into the folk and country section:

Last Of The True Believers, The

I don’t recall the price, but I’m sure it didn’t cost more than a couple of bucks, and I added Nanci Griffith’s The Last of the True Believers, a 1986 album, to the other two records I’d grabbed that morning – Don McLean’s self-titled album from 1972 and Glenn Yarbrough’s Honey & Wine from 1967 – and headed to the cash register and then home. And, I assume, sometime that afternoon or evening, I listened to the eleven tracks on The Last of the True Believers and encountered Nanci Griffith’s unique voice and diction for the first time.

I added two more albums over the next few years, and when I began to buy CDs, added yet more of Griffith’s music. And by the time we get to today, twenty-eight years since I first heard her voice, there are 261 of her tracks on the digital shelves.

Simply by that total, I’d have to acknowledge that she’s my favorite of the artists found at that intersection of folk and country. (Darden Smith, whose music I’ve mentioned here many times, comes in second with a total of 180 tracks.) And there are only six artists of any genre whose music is better represented on the digital stacks here. (Fodder for a post in the next week, likely.)

So today, March 20, is Nanci Griffith Day around here. And to celebrate, here’s “Love At The Five & Dime,” the best track from The Last of the True Believers. I offered the song once before in a version from a later album, but here’s the original version, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.