In 1969, the Winstons – an R&B group from Washington, D.C. – had a minor hit with a record titled “Love Of The Common People,” which went to No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 19 on the magazine’s Easy Listening chart. (Earlier in 1969, the Winstons had a bigger hit when “Color Him Father” went to No. 7 in the Hot 100, to No. 2 on the R&B chart and to No. 19 on the Easy Listening chart.)
Next week, we’re going to look at some different versions of “Love Of The Common People,” and we’ll likely take a listen to “Color Him Father” as well. But for now, with guests headed this way, the Winstons’ version of “Love Of The Common People” is today’s Saturday Single.
The jukebox across the way in the Atwood Center snack bar was playing Elton John. Sitting at The Table, I heard the puzzling title phrase, “I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford.”
It must have been a Monday morning in early 1976, about the time John’s record entered the Top 40. Why a Monday? Because that was the quarter when I was an intern at a Twin Cities television station, and the only times I was at The Table in Atwood that quarter was on the occasional Monday morning when I checked in with my adviser before heading back to the Twin Cities and my sports reporting work.
Anyway, I looked over at the jukebox across the way and wondered out loud, “Who’s Robert Ford?”
The answer came quickly from my friend Sam, one of whose passions was the American West. “He’s the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard,” he said.
I looked blankly at him. “Okay,” I said. “That must mean something.”
He laughed and said, “Robert Ford was the man who shot Jesse James.”
I imagine I nodded, and the conversation went elsewhere and after a while, I headed to my adviser’s office and then back to the Twin Cities. And it’s entirely possible that until I picked up Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to The Long Riders in 1989, I never heard the folk song “Jesse James,” the song that Sam quoted to me that morning. Cooder’s version – which I sadly cannot embed here – plays over the end credits of the Walter Hill movie.*
The song is an old one, written soon after James’ death in 1882 by Billy Gashade (or perhaps LaShade) and first recorded in 1920 by a typewriter salesman named Bently Ball, according to the blog Joop’s Musical Flowers. Until I ran across that citation, the earliest version I knew about – but one I’ve not heard – came from Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1924. Digging around at YouTube in the past few weeks, I’ve found versions by the Kingston Trio from 1961, the South Memphis String Band (a group made up by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes; Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Alvin Youngblood Hart) from 2010 and Van Morrison (from a 1998 performance with Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber).
(Joop’s Musical Flowers lists many more versions, some dating to 1924, and has video or audio links for some of them.)
The shelves here also include versions by Bob Seger, from his 1972 album, Smokin’ O.P.’s, and by Bruce Springsteen, from his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions and from the 2007 release Live In Dublin.
All of those are worth hearing (well, I’m not sure about the Kingston Trio’s version, which is why I did not link to it), but one of the best is the version by Pete Seeger from his 1957 album, American Favorite Ballads.
* Walter Hill’s film is also notable for the casting of four sets of acting brothers – Keach, Carradine, Quaid and Guest – as, respectively, the historical brothers James, Younger, Miller and Ford.
I’ve never been to a baby shower. They’ve always been the domain of women. But that changes today.
In a little while, the Texas Gal, my mother and I will head to the Twin Cities’ suburb of Plymouth for a baby shower for my niece and her husband, who are expecting their first child this summer. The baby will be the first grandchild for my sister and her husband and my mom’s first great-grandchild.
And the organizers of the shower – long-time friends of my sister’s – made the shower inclusive, so the menfolk were invited as well. There will be a brunch, gifts and all the other stuff that makes for a joyous gathering. It should be fun.
To mark the occasion here, I went looking for a song with “baby” in the title, and found more than a thousand of them on the digital shelves. So it took a little bit of searching, but I eventually found “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” a track from 2000 – from the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou – by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
Come on into the kitchen here at the studios. You need an invitation? Okay, here’s one by a British blues musician named Paul Williams, from his 1973 album In Memory Of Robert Johnson:
Looking at the record jacket shown in the video, a blues fan sees a couple of errors. Robert Johnson did not die in a hotel room but rather in a house in Greenwood, Mississippi (at 109 Young Street, if the late Honeyboy Edwards’ commentary in the 1991 documentary The Search For Robert Johnson is accurate). And Johnson was twenty-seven when he died, not twenty. But the mistakes on that jacket simply illustrate how little was known about the man forty years ago when his music had already inspired a generation of blues artists through whatever 78s had survived nearly forty years and through two LPs released by Columbia.
Anyway, you’re in the kitchen. Over there, on the right, is the stove. In a 1929 recording, Blind Willie McTell warns Bethenea Harris that “This Is Not The Stove To Brown Your Bread” (with Alfoncy Harris adding guitar in the background). But the oven’s been in use, according to Spencer Wiggins, who wants to know “Who’s Been Warming My Oven” in a track recorded for Goldwax sometime around 1967 but not released at the time:
And over there, on the left, is the refrigerator. Alice Cooper sang in 1970’s “Refrigerator Heaven” about being frozen until a cure for cancer was found, but that’s happening in some lab, not in my kitchen. So we’ll turn a little bit and head for the counter, and that’s where we find Dolly Parton’s “Old Black Kettle” waiting for soup or stew or whatever we’ll have for dinner this evening, as it has been since she sang about it in 1973. And next to it we find breakfast: The “Second Cup Of Coffee” that Gordon Lightfoot’s been sipping since 1972 and some “Shortnin’ Bread” courtesy of Mississippi John Hurt, probably from 1966.
Poking my way through the Billboard Hot 100 from April 14, 1973, I saw, unsurprisingly, lots of records I knew back then and I saw lots of records I’ve learned about in the forty-two years since.
Among those I’ve learned about in the years since is Judy Collins’ “Cook With Honey,” which was sitting at No. 35 in that long-ago Hot 100, having – as I noted just about two years ago – peaked at No. 32.
The song came from the pen of Valerie Carter, whose name shows up as a backup singer on a multitude of Los Angeles sessions, especially from the mid- to the late 1970s. She’s released several albums under her own name, one of which – 1977’s Just A Stone’s Throw Away – showed up in this blog’s first iteration. It was the names of the musicians who helped Carter on that album — Linda Ronstadt, Deniece Williams, Maurice White, Lowell George, Tom Jans, John Sebastian and Jackson Browne, among others – that caught my interest at the time.
And somewhere along the line, as I dug around in the rich veins of California 1970s music, I came across Howdy Moon, Carter’s folk-rock group, which released one self-titled album in 1974, produced by Lowell George (with backing help from, again among others, several members of Little Feat). And there sat Howdy Moon’s take on “Cook With Honey.” It’s a cover, as Collins recorded the song first, but it is the writer’s version of the song (as recorded with her bandmates Richard Hovey and Jon Lind).
There’s no sign of Howdy Moon on the Billboard charts, and the band called it quits after that one album. But the album is a decent piece of work, if you like Southern California post-hippie folk rock (and I clearly do). So here, for a Tuesday morning, is Howdy Moon’s “Cook With Honey.”
I’m spending more time in the car lately (gladly ferrying the Texas Gal around while her fibula heals), so I’ve taken to dropping commercial CDs instead of my (now well-known) mixes into the car’s player. I’ve listened to a few by Bruce Springsteen, including The Rising, Magic and a three-disc 1978 concert from Cleveland. There’s been some Bob Dylan, some Fleetwood Mac, a blues anthology or two, and a disc titled The I-10 Chronicles that offers music heard along the western portion of that southernmost Interstate highway.
And yesterday, I finally began listening – after sending one copy back to the retailer because it would not play on the computer – to a CD I mentioned with anticipation a little more than a month ago: Rhiannon Giddens’ Tomorrow Is My Turn.
Giddens opens the recently released CD with “Last Kind Words,” her version of a song written and recorded in the 1930s by Geeshie Wiley. The song was one of the linchpins of a recent piece and resulting multimedia presentation – “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” – from the New York Times Magazine. A chronicle of the search for information about Geeshie Wiley and her recording partner L.V. Thomas (long called “Elvie”), the piece and its accompanying video and audio captivated me so that I’ve gone back and re-read it and re-listened to it at least twice.
And it’s left Wiley’s “Last Kind Word Blues” echoing in my head from time to time. So as I headed toward the Texas Gal’s office near 5 p.m. yesterday, it was both startling and pleasing to hear Giddens’ version of the tune. (And I wonder without answers why she dropped the word “blues” from the title.) Here’s what Giddens had to say about the track in the liner notes to her CD, which was produced by T Bone Burnett.
The landscape of American music is littered with the ghosts of the unknowable and mysterious blues musician, scratchy voices on a 78 conjuring up an era and an energy long gone. No one represents this better, perhaps, than Geeshie Wiley, who, along with equally unknown L.V. Thomas, recorded a handful of sides for Paramount Records in 1930–31. “Last Kind Word Blues” calls to me in a way that I can’t really explain, but when T Bone suggested it for the record, I knew instantly it was the way to begin.
So here’s Rhiannon Giddens’ “Last Kind Words,” today’s Saturday Single.
I’m going to fire up the RealPlayer this morning and let it do the work for me.
Right off the top we get some easy listening: “Emmanuelle” by Italian sax player Fausto Papetti, which turns out to be an instrumental version of the theme to the 1974 soft-core film Emmanuelle. The film was the first of seven chronicling the adventures of the character created in 1959 by French writer Emmanuelle Arsan (a pseudonym for Thai-born Marayat Bibidh Krasaesin Rollet-Andriane) and portrayed in four of the films by Sylvia Kristel. (All of that according to Wikpedia.) The song and the soundtrack for the first film were written by Pierre Bachelet. Papetti, who passed on in 1999, was known, Wikipedia says, for both his saxophone work and the covers of his albums, many of which featured attractive women in little or no clothing. Papetti’s 1977 version of the theme came to me in a 2009 collection titled 100 Hits Romantic Saxophone.
And then we head back to 1944 for “Opus One” by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra. The fox trot – as it’s described on the Victor label – was written by Sy Oliver, who became, says Wikipedia, “one of the first African Americans with a prominent role in a white band” when he joined Dorsey’s band in 1939. It’s not my favorite track from Dorsey; that would be his theme song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” from 1935. As it happens, any of the 1930s and 1940s big band tunes remind me of the summer of 1991, when I was reporting and writing a lengthy piece about life in Columbia, Missouri, during World War II. On a lot of evenings at home that summer, as I sat at my desk and planned my next day’s work, I stacked some big bands – Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and more – on the stereo and tried to get my head at least a little into an era that I never knew.
From there, it’s another dip into the easy listening pool with Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound” as filtered through the sound of Frank Chacksfield & His Orchestra. The late Chacksfield was an English composer and conductor who is estimated, Wikipedia says, to have sold more than 20 million albums world-wide. Two of those albums reached the Billboard 200: Ebb Tide went to No. 36 in 1961 and The New Ebb Tide went to No. 120 in late 1964 or early 1965. Chacksfield and his orchestra had one single reach the magazine’s charts: “On The Beach,” the title song to the 1959 film, went to No. 47 in early 1961. Chacksfield’s take on Simon’s tune was a track on a 1970 album titled Chacksfield Plays Simon & Garfunkel & Jim Webb. It came to me in a 2005 collection titled The Lounge Legends Play Simon & Garfunkel.
Then up pop the Bee Gees with “Sun in My Morning” from 1969. The not terribly interesting track was the B-side to the group’s single “Tomorrow, Tomorrow,” which doesn’t make my list of vital Bee Gees’ tunes, either, even if it went to No. 54. There’s not a lot more to say as the tune plays itself out and this post limps to an end.
And there we see clearly the risk of letting random chance decide things.
Sometimes, when I look for something that matches a date, I struggle to find something fun or even interesting. I look through the reference library, the CD and LP logs, through the lists of tracks recorded on that date and through the Wikipedia entry on that date . . . and I sit here dithering, trying to select the best option from any number of uninspiring choices.
Today is not one of those days. It was on April 7, 1959, that Marty Robbins was in the studio, laying down one of the tracks for his album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, which would be released that September. The track was “Big Iron,” the tale of a confrontation between an Arizona ranger and an outlaw named Texas Red:
To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day
Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say
No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip
For the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip
Big iron on his hip
It was early in the morning when he rode into the town He came riding from the south side, slowly lookin’ all around He’s an outlaw loose and running came the whisper from each lip And he’s here to do some business with the big iron on his hip Big iron on his hip
In this town there lived an outlaw by the name of Texas Red Many men had tried to take him and that many men were dead He was vicious and a killer though a youth of twenty four And the notches on his pistol numbered one and nineteen more One and nineteen more
Now the stranger started talking, made it plain to folks around Was an Arizona ranger, wouldn’t be too long in town He came here to take an outlaw back alive or maybe dead And he said it didn’t matter, that he was after Texas Red After Texas Red
Wasn’t long before the story was relayed to Texas Red But the outlaw didn’t worry, men that tried before were dead Twenty men had tried to take him, twenty men had made a slip Twenty one would be the ranger with the big iron on his hip Big iron on his hip
The morning passed so quickly, it was time for them to meet It was twenty past eleven when they walked out in the street Folks were watching from the windows, everybody held their breath They knew this handsome ranger was about to meet his death About to meet his death
There was forty feet between them when they stopped to make their play And the swiftness of the ranger is still talked about today Texas Red had not cleared leather ’fore a bullet fairly ripped And the ranger’s aim was deadly with the big iron on his hip Big iron on his hip
It was over in a moment and the folks had gathered ’round There before them lay the body of the outlaw on the ground Oh, he might have went on living but he made one fatal slip When he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip Big iron on his hip
The album was released in September 1959 and went to No. 6 on the Billboard 200. “Big Iron” was released as a single in early 1960; it went to No. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 5 on the magazine’s country chart. (The classic track “El Paso,” which was included on the same album, was also recorded fifty-six years ago today. Released as a single in late 1959, it was No. 1 on the Hot 100 for two weeks and No. 1 on the country chart for seven weeks.)
Marty Robbins has shown up here before, first in the chart-digging discovery of his 1970 folk-rock piece “Jolie Girl” and then when his 1957 hit, “A White Sport Coat & A Pink Carnation,” was part of “White” in our exploration of what we called Floyd’s Prism. Today’s track, “Big Iron,” is one I hadn’t heard until about a year ago, when I collected a five-CD set titled Columbia Country Classics. It’s left me thinking I need to dig up a copy of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs for myself.
You know that line about blind pigs and acorns? Well, it happens here, too.
We were all set to go play some games with numbers, seeing as how today is April 4, which translates into 4/4. We were going to turn that into 44 and see what records sat at No. 44 on April 4 over the years. And then we looked at the Billboard Hot 100 from April 4, 1964, and parked at No. 44 was a record titled “Forever” credited to by Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar. That stopped me.
Drake, who passed on in 1988, was a master of the pedal steel guitar, and his work showed up on more Nashville sessions than one can likely keep track of, almost certainly in the thousands. The list of credits at All-Music Guide, which generally offers – as I understand it – listings from only those album that include credits in their packaging, runs 615 entries long. Many of the listings are for recent re-issues, but even so, the names – both from the reissue era we’re now in and from the years before Drake’s death – are impressive: B.J. Thomas, Don McLean, Stonewall Jackson, Lacy Dalton, Janie Fricke, Kenny Rogers, Moe Bandy, Dolly Parton, Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Doug Kershaw, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Ian & Sylvia, Buddy Holly and on and on.
His biography, as offered by Wikipedia, is instructive, and it’s possible that Pete Drake would have been famous if the only thing he’d done was organize the Sons of the South in the late 1950s; that band had as members such luminaries-to-be as Kershaw, Jerry Reed, Roger Miller, Jack Greene and Joe South. But of course, he went on to play on those thousands of sessions and to produce as well.
And he was instrumental in the development of what came to be known as the talk box, later used to great effect by Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh and others. Drake’s work built on the idea, Wikipedia says, of Alvino Rey and his wife, Luise King, “who first modulated a guitar tone with the signal from a throat microphone in 1939.” In an interview with Douglas Green for Guitar Player magazine in the early 1970s, Drake said:
You play the notes on the guitar and it goes through the amplifier. I have a driver system so that you disconnect the speakers and the sound goes through the driver into a plastic tube. You put the tube in the side of your mouth then form the words with your mouth as you play them. You don’t actually say a word: The guitar is your vocal cords, and your mouth is the amplifier. It’s amplified by a microphone.
The system, Wikipedia notes, was only loud enough to be useful for studio recording (which left to others the work of creating a system that could be used in concert).
And it was that plastic tube gadget that Drake used on his 1964 album Forever. The title track from that album is the record that caught my attention this morning, when I noticed it sitting at No. 44 in the April 4, 1964, Hot 100. It eventually peaked at No. 25. A second single, “I’m Sorry,” bubbled under at No. 122 later in 1964 (and showed up on a 1965 album, Talking Steel Guitar).
Given all that, it was an easy choice to make “Forever” by Pete Drake and His Talking Steel Guitar today’s Saturday Single.