Archive for the ‘1981’ Category

Saturday Single No. 247

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Yesterday’s post about the Billboard Hot 100 of July 24, 1965, featured “The Tracker” by the Sir Douglas Quintet.  As I researched that post this week, I started digging – not for the first time – for traces of the Sir Douglas Quintet in my memory and on my bookshelves and my record shelves.

I recall hearing “She’s About A Mover” at the time it was heading to No. 13 in the spring of 1965, but beyond recalling the record – with its insistent organ riff – there was nothing special about it; it was just another one of the records on the radio that the other kids were listening to and I wasn’t. I remember hearing the name of the group – the Sir Douglas Quintet – and vaguely thinking that it sounded like another of the English groups that all my friends were listening to: Herman’s Hermits, Freddy & The Dreamers, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and more.

I was wrong, of course. But I didn’t notice the SDQ’s follow-up hits – “The Rains Came” went to No. 31 in early 1966 and “Mendocino” went to No. 27 in early 1969 – and so I didn’t think about the band and my assumption of its British origins for years. I’ve mentioned at least once the LP bonanza that came my way in March 1991: The student radio station at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri – where I was teaching journalism – cleared its shelves of unwanted albums and offered those albums in boxes outside the station’s studios. Very few of the young women who passed by were interested in the records, and eventually, the station’s faculty adviser told me that I might as well take everything in the two boxes.

One of those records was Border Wave by the Sir Douglas Quintet, and the first track was a cover of a tune I knew I’d heard before: “Who’ll Be The Next In Line.” It took me a little digging to find out that the tune had originally been recorded by the Kinks and had gone to No. 34 in September 1965. But as Border Wave played on, something else was nagging at me, something I’d read about the Sir Douglas Quintet in recent years.

I liked what I was hearing on the album, so I let it play on as I rummaged through my music reference library, and I finally got to a 1989 volume I’ve mentioned in this blog many times: The Heart of Rock & Soul by Dave Marsh. In his piece on “She’s About A Mover,” Marsh notes that the British Invasion of 1964-65 was tougher on some types of American music than on others, specifically “the marginal, the regional and the eccentric.”

He relates the tale of Huey Meaux, a man of Cajun descent whom Walsh describes as “a barber, promotion man, independent producer, label owner, talent scout, and prison inmate.” By the time of the British Invasion, Marsh notes, Meaux had already made successful records with Dale & Grace and Barbara Lynn and would go on to make records with Roy Head, the Hombres and Archie Bell & The Drells.

“So,” writes Marsh, “when Meaux found a new group from San Antonio, a batch of rowdy Tex-Mex border types whose hair was longer than the worst dreams harbored by the parents of Rolling Stones fans, he knew just what to do: Give ’em a vaguely English-sounding name and call their sound Merseybeat, no matter what it really was.”

The ruse worked, obviously, with “She’s About A Mover” going to No. 13. Marsh adds: “Merseybeat, my ass – “She’s About A Mover” just juices up norteno’s two-step polka beat; what counts is Doug Sahm singing the hell out of it alongside Augie Meyer’s ultrainsistent organ riff.”

Sitting at the desk in my dining room/study in Columbia, I put down Marsh’s book and went to the stereo. I picked up the Border Wave jacket and scanned the credits. Sahm was there of course, and so was Augie Meyer. (So, for that matter, was drummer Johnny Perez, who was also an original member of the group.) And after the record played through, I shelved it, moved on to other music and thought about it very little.

But this week, I looked over that Billboard chart from July 1965 and saw the Sir Douglas Quintet at No. 118. As I dug into that chart, I also dug into the stacks and my reference library (both appreciably more crowded than they were in 1991). And I found Border Wave and then looked to see what All-Music Guide had to say about it.

The opening sentence of the AMG review of that 1981 album reads: “How someone as old wave as Doug Sahm hooked into the new wave of the 80s is not exactly so mysterious if one examines the rich stylistic makeup of the Sir Douglas Quintet repertoire, and how so many of these grooves were finding their way into the sounds of the so-called new wave era.”

As Dave Marsh might say, “New wave, my ass!” Doug Sahm, Augie Meyers, Johnny Perez and the new guys sound like the classic Sir Douglas Quintet from the 1960s. And that’s why the quintet’s version of “Who’ll Be The Next In Line” is today’s Saturday Single.

Peak chart position for “She’s About A Mover” corrected after original posting.

A Six-Pack of Sleep

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

For some reason, I woke up early this morning. Very early.

I usually sleep – with the help of my nightly Ambien – until the alarm rings, generally sometime around 6:30 or so. But this morning, I woke up before that. I rolled over and looked at the clock: 4:11. For a moment, I wondered what roused me, listened for the sounds of a cat in trouble or up to no good. Nothing. So I rolled over, rearranged my pillows and went back to sleep.

I woke up again. The clock read 4:39. One of the cats – Little Gus – was lying against my leg, but that shouldn’t have been enough to rouse me. I listened again and still heard no sounds of feline mischief. I tossed one of the covers to the side and rolled over the other way and closed my eyes again.

And I woke up once more, seemingly for no particular reason. I lay there for a few moments, annoyed, and then opened my eyes and checked the time: 5:11. Accepting the inevitable, I got up and started my day. Fortified by some coffee and whole-grain toaster pastries, I put together a lunch for the Texas Gal, checked some stuff online and realized that while my body was up and moving, my brain was still slumbering. So a more creative post will have to wait until Thursday. Instead, here is a selection of songs about sleep.

“I’m Only Sleeping” by the Beatles from Revolver [1966]

“She Never Sleeps Beside Me” by Zager & Evans from Zager & Evans [1970]

“Sleep Walk” by Leo Kottke from Guitar Music [1981]

“The Devil Never Sleeps” by Iron & Wine from The Shepherd’s Dog [2007]

“She Sleeps Alone” by Pat Shannon, Warner Bros. 7210 [1968]

“Two Sleepy People” by Crystal Gayle & Willie Nelson from Crystal Gayle Sings The Heart & Soul Of Hoagy Carmichael [2004]

I was hoping a Beatles song would show up this morning. Before I decided on the word “sleep” as my search word, I considered using “tired.” I know I’ve used it before, so I went the other direction. Had I gone with “tired,” though, I figure that “I’m So Tired” from the White Album would have had a good chance of popping up. And that would have worked. But “I’m Only Sleeping” from Revolver is just as good a track, and it’s presented in this video in beautiful mono.

The All-Music Guide review of Zager & Evans’ self-titled album – the duo’s follow-up to In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) – is scathing: “This project gives record labels an excuse as to why important artists don’t get multiple album deals – there’s nothing remotely sounding like a hit, in fact, this is just a horrendous collection of bad songs by Rick Evans who takes all the blame for the words and music.” And that’s an accurate assessment. (And why I keep the album in the RealPlayer is a question I cannot answer.) As it happens, “She Never Sleeps Beside Me” is probably the best thing on the album, but still, click at your own risk.

“Sleep Walk” is Leo Kottke’s take on the tune that Santo & Johnny – a guitar duo from Brooklyn – took to No. 1 in 1959. It’s a tune that’s been covered over and over but with only two versions making the pop chart. In 1982, jazz guitarist Larry Carlton released a version of the tune that went to No. 74. Kottke’s version, from his 1981 album, Guitar Work, is just a little too somnolent for me. Of course, that could be just me, just this morning.

The group Iron & Wine is basically Sam Beam, who’s released a series of increasingly good albums since 2002. His first efforts were pretty quiet affairs, but The Shepherd Dog from 2007 is different. AMG notes that “Beam surrounds himself with a large cast of musicians, and they blanket the songs with a wide array of instrumentation, everything from accordions to Hammond organ, piano to backward guitars, vibraphone to bass harmonica.” “The Devil Never Sleeps” is one of the tracks that benefits the most from the new approach, with its barrelhouse piano and chugging rhythm.

I was pleased that Pat Shannon’s “She Sleeps Alone” popped up in my random exploration this morning. I’m not sure where I found the track, which seems to be the B-Side to his single “Candy Apple, Cotton Candy.” But it’s a nifty, if melancholy, slice of late 1960s pop. Shannon had released some singles in the late 1950s in what AMG calls “a country-pop” vein. Neither those singles nor “Candy Apple, Cotton Candy” hit the charts; a 1970 release titled “Back To Dreamin’ Again” got to No. 103.

With its clarity of tone and accuracy of pitch, Crystal Gayle’s voice is a wonder. A fixture on the country chart between 1970 and 1988 (a total of forty-five hits, eighteen of them reaching No. 1), Gayle grabbed my attention a few years ago when I heard her work with Tom Waits on the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 film, One From The Heart. One of her more recent efforts is the 2004 collection of Hoagy Carmichael tunes on which “Two Sleepy People” is found. It’s good stuff.

All Elevens, All The Time!

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

I had planned today to write about an obscure cover of an obscure Bob Dylan tune, discovered in my vinyl stacks via my current reading of two books about Dylan’s catalog. And I still will do that, and I’ll offer a chance to hear that tune. But that will likely come Thursday.

Why the delay?

Because along with digging into records from over the years, I also like playing with numbers, and today’s date just can’t be ignored: 1/11/11. And even though I played a similar game last Saturday with the number 18, well, it can’t be helped. Today’s date calls loudly for a look at records that were No. 11 during various years on January 11. We’ll start in 1965 and move ahead from there, this time in four-year increments. So here we go.

I’ve told the story about how my sister and I got the LP Beatles ’65 for Christmas one year (either 1964 or 1965, I’m still not entirely certain). The album, a late 1964 release, was one of those that Capitol created for the U.S. market by trimming a few tracks from Beatles LPs as they were released in the U.K. and then adding some tracks released only as singles in Britain. However it was put together, Beatles ’65 was my first album by the boys from Liverpool, and its tunes and track order remain ingrained in my memory. I loved “I Feel Fine,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Mister Moonlight,” but one of the tracks to which I didn’t, to be honest, pay much attention at the time is the one that was No. 11 in the Billboard Hot 100 forty-six years ago today. Released as the B-side to “I Feel Fine,” “She’s A Woman” went to No. 4, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, and I do think its crunchy chords and Paul McCartney’s great vocal tend to get lost a little bit today among the riches of the Beatles’ catalog. According to William J. Dowlding in his book Beatlesongs, the tune was written in Abbey Road studio the day it was recorded, October 8, 1964.

 

Having identified the No. 11 record from January 11, 1969, I turned to Whitburn’s book for more information, and a terse line told me that if I wanted information about the singer who called himself Derek, I needed to go read about Johnny Cymbal. It turns out that Cymbal was a Scottish singer who got three records into the Hot 100 in 1963, with “Mr. Bass Man” – an effort Whitburn tags as a novelty record – going to No. 16. Six years later, in 1969, Cymbal – who died in 1993 at the age of forty-eight – was recording as Derek and had two Hot 100 hits, “Cinnamon” and “Back Door Man.” The latter went to No. 59 in March 1969, but “Cinnamon” nearly made the Top Ten, peaking at the No. 11 spot it held forty-two years ago today.

The Four Tops seem so firmly planted in the mid-1960s with their string of superlative Top Ten singles – “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” and “Bernadette” chief among them – that it’s sometime surprising when one is reminded that the Tops’ career stretched through the 1970s and into the 1980s (though with less chart success). One of the quartet’s most successful 1970s entries was sitting at No. 11 during this week in 1973. “Keeper of the Castle” would peak the following week at No. 10, giving the Four Tops their first Top Ten hit since “Bernadette” in early 1967. The Tops’ next single, “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got),” did even better, going to No. 4 in April of 1973; it was the last Top Ten hit for the Four Tops. But thirty-eight years ago this week, it was “Keeper of the Castle” that folks were hearing on the radio.

The Sylvers were a group of nine brothers and sisters from Memphis who had three records reach the lower level of the Hot 100 in 1972 and 1973 before hitting it massively in early 1976 with the No. 1 hit “Boogie Fever.” Later that year, the group released “Hot Line,” and the record began to make its way up the chart. By the second week in January, the record was at No. 11, heading to No. 5. The group had two more hits in 1977, with “High School Dance” going to No. 17. I don’t recall that last record, but in late 1976 and early 1977, “Hot Line” was pretty much inescapable.

I never quite got the Police. Their music seemed brittle and fussy to me, and although I didn’t entirely tune it out, neither did I dig into it. Still, the group’s hits would pop up on the radio during my newspapering days as I made my way from interview to interview. And twenty-nine years ago this week, I likely heard “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” as I drove around Monticello and the record was perched at No. 11. A week later, the record would peak at No. 10, giving the Police their first Top Ten hit. They’d have five more through 1984. Here’s the official video for “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”

I don’t suppose I have to say a lot about the record that was at No. 11 this week in 1985, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Or maybe I do. I will note that more than a quarter century later, I still find myself amused by George Will’s fawning column about the Boss in which – after spending an evening at a Springsteen concert – he interprets “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem. And I suppose that it’s not all that far-fetched – though it is saddening – to think that all one needs to do these days is plug a few different proper nouns into the lyrics, and “Born in the U.S.A.” is timely today. Getting back to the record, it would peak at No. 9 two weeks later, Springsteen’s fourth Top Ten hit and the third of seven Top Ten hits from the album Born in the U.S.A.

I’ll be back Thursday, likely with that obscure cover of an obscure Bob Dylan tune.

A Gem At The Library Sale

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

It was a pretty typical Saturday assignment for a weekly newspaper: Go to the library and get a few pictures of folks looking at books, records and anything else the library might be offering during its annual sale.

So I drove out to Eden Prairie that November Saturday and spent maybe an hour trying to be inconspicuous and stay out of everyone’s way. There was a crowd over by the shelves of children’s books, which was good. Shots of kids are almost always winners, especially if they’re so engrossed in something that they don’t notice the camera, and the kids at the library sale were focused on the books on the shelves and nothing else.

So I shot around and over the crowd, and I also got a few shots of adults poking in the mysteries and the cookbooks. Then I backed off and got some wide-angle shots. After an hour and a roll of film, I figured I had at least one shot that would work for the next week’s paper, so I let my camera dangle on its neck-strap and began to dig into the books and records myself.

I don’t remember if I bought any books that day, but I did grab one LP. Now, I’ve been to a lot of library sales and dug through many, many boxes of surplus records that libraries often keep on hand regularly. You can find some interesting titles, but rarely do you find anything really good. But on this Saturday, I came across a keeper, an LP titled Cover Me, which was a collection of songs by Bruce Springsteen as performed by other folks. Some of those performers were Southside Johnny, Gary U.S. Bonds, the Patti Smith Group, the Pointer Sisters and Johnny Cash.

The record was from the library’s collection, not from the donations that local folks brought in, which meant it might not have been treated gently by those who checked it out, so I scanned the record for scratches and hacks, and it looked pretty clean. It went home with me, and there was in fact only bad spot on the record: during Johnny Cash’s take on “Johnny 99,” the needle jumps into the air and moves ahead about an eighth of an inch. So I put the record on the shelves, used some of the tracks when I made mixtapes for friends and told myself I’d get a clean copy of it someday.

I think that record was the first time I’d run across a phenomenon that’s gone crazy in the past ten years or so: the tribute record. Maybe there were similar releases earlier, but I don’t recall running into any of them. In the case of Cover Me, the producers pulled together – for the most part – recordings already done of Springsteen songs. I can’t find any earlier listing for two of the performances – the Reivers’ take on “Atlantic City” and the Greg Kihn Band’s version of “Rendezvous” – but the other thirteen tracks had been previously released. (The Reivers and Kihn tracks might have been also, but I’ve dug around a little, and I can’t find anything that says so; if someone knows, enlighten me, please.)

Having resumed the digging after returning home from a baseball game late last evening, I can now say that the Greg Kihn Band released “Rendezvous” on “With the Naked Eye” in 1979, as I noted in a comment, and the Reivers’ version of “Atlantic City” was recorded and released  as a twelve-inch single in 1986, when that band was still called Zeitgeist.

As I said, the vinyl had one bad spot on it, and in the early years of this decade, as I made a mental list of LPs that I wanted to duplicate on CD, Cover Me was one of the first titles I listed. For about five years, I’d check four or five times a year at the website named for a South American river, seeing if any copies of the CD – long out of print – were available.

There often were one or two copies available, but for prices running from $50 to $100, which was far more than I was going to pay for a CD. And then in May of this year, it was like a switch flipped somewhere. I checked for copies of Cover Me, and there were a few for the exorbitant prices I’d regularly seen, but there was one for something like five bucks. I grabbed it. And in the months since, used copies of the CD have regularly been available for less than five bucks. (There are still some high-priced copies out there; this morning’s listings at Amazon for a used copy range from $3.47 to $60. It makes no sense to me.)

Anyway, once I got the CD and ripped it into the RealPlayer, it reminded me that among the very good performances gathered for the album, there was one track that’s among the best things I’ve ever heard, and hearing it again pointed out to me how easy it is to lose track of music I like when it’s awash in a sea of tunes.

The tune is “This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds, taken from his 1981 album, Dedication, an album produced for Bonds by Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt. I was a little chagrined to realize I’d kind of forgotten about the track, as the album was one of those I shared during the first iteration of Echoes In The Wind. And as I think I said then, although “This Little Girl” is the standout track to me, the entire album is worth a listen. I do have one caveat: Given the deep involvement of the E Street Band –all of the members circa 1981 were involved in the project: Gary Tallent, Max Weinberg, Danny Federici, Clarence Clemons, Roy Bittan, Van Zandt and Springsteen – the effect is sometimes like listening to a Springsteen album with a different vocalist.

But that’s something to consider when listening to the entire album. Track by track, mixed in with other things, that’s less of a concern. And in the Ultimate Jukebox, “This Little Girl” – which spent the last two weeks of June and the first week of July of 1981 at No. 11 – meshes right in with the rest of the tracks.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 37
“Every Breath I Take” by Gene Pitney, Musicor 1011 [1961]
“MacArthur Park” by Richard Harris, Dunhill 4134 [1968]
“Tired of Being Alone” by Al Green, Hi 2194 [1971]
“Disco Inferno” by the Trammps from Disco Inferno [1977]
“Giving It Up For Your Love” by Delbert McClinton from The Jealous Kind [1980]
“This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds from Dedication [1981]

Though it wasn’t one of Gene Pitney’s biggest hits – it topped out at No. 42 – “Every Breath I Take” has solid credentials. It was written by the team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King and produced by Phil Spector, coming in the years when Spector was just beginning to formulate the Wall of Sound. There are hints of that sound in “Every Breath I Take,” but it’s not quite there. I’ve tried to figure out in the past few months what I hear that elevates this record above the rest of Pitney’s work – sixteen Top 40 hits with four in the Top Ten (“Only Love Can Break A Heart” earned Pitney his highest rank when it went to No. 2 in 1962) – but I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the contrarian point of the lyrics. Maybe it’s the “dit-dit” background vocals. I dunno. I just know it belongs here.

I think “MacArthur Park” is one of those records that has no middle ground. Folks either love it or find it ridiculous. Obviously, I’m I the first group, and have been from the first time I heard it. (One day in the summer of 1968, my sister called me to the radio to hear “this stupid song that goes on forever about leaving the cake out in the rain.”) I recognize its flaws: Harris’ vocals are overblown. The lyrics – even without the cake in the rain – are overwritten. The backing, with its lengthy instrumental passages, is too big for the song. But you know what? From where I hear the record, every one of those things – the over-reaching vocal, the over-written lyrics, the overwhelming backing – is a virtue for a record that went to No. 2 during the summer of 1968. Baroque and excessive “MacArthur Park” may be, but it’s also brilliant.

I don’t have a lot to say about Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone.” From the instant it starts, the record – like much of Green’s early 1970s output – rides on the signature sound that Willie Mitchell crafted for his performers at Hi Records. Mellow and sharp at the same time, it’s a sonic formula that worked well enough for Green alone to record thirteen Top 40 hits on Hi between 1971 and 1976. “Tired of Being Alone” was Green’s first hit, peaking at No. 11.

“Disco Inferno” was released first as a single in 1977 – the 45 labels I’ve seen show a running time of 3:35 – and went to No. 53. When the album track was used in the film Saturday Night Fever – clocking in at 10:52 – the single was re-released and went to No. 11. The long version might get a little tedious unless you’re on the dance floor channeling your best Tony Manero, but even just listening, it still works for me. (The single edit is here.)

I’ve told the story before: I was driving one day in early 1981, maybe from one reporting assignment to the next or maybe to lunch, and I was listlessly pushing buttons on the car radio, trying to find something I liked, anywhere. Then I heard the chugging guitar riff and horns of Delbert McClinton’s “Giving It Up For Your Love” coming from the speaker, and at least for the next few minutes, I was happy with the state of Top 40 radio. The record went to No. 8, providing the Texas singer his only hit. (It should be noted that McClinton played the harmonica part that figures largely on Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby,” which spent three weeks at No. 1 in 1962.)

‘That Don’t Bother Me . . . At All’

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

During my scuffling days in the late 1990s, I twice went without a car for fairly lengthy stretches of time. It wasn’t as bad as it might sound; living in south Minneapolis, I could take the bus downtown to work; I could ride my bicycle to the grocery store on weekends unless the weather was truly raw; and one of the other members of Jake’s band came through Minneapolis on his way to practice, so I generally was able to get to Jake’s each week.

There were, however, some things that were a little tougher to accomplish.

One spring Saturday afternoon, I sat down in my easy chair with a sandwich and leaned over to turn on the television, probably to watch a baseball game. The television, which I’d bought used a couple of years earlier, made a popping noise. I got up to look at the back of the set: I could see little sparks dancing inside, and smoke was starting to seep out. I pulled the plug from the wall, and in a brief time, the sparks quit dancing and the smoke dissipated. There’d be no fire in the apartment today. But I knew I wasn’t going to be watching the game, at least not on that set. I finished my sandwich, hauled the dead TV outside to the dumpster and assessed my options.

I could afford another TV, as life was pretty good at the time: I was working at a job that paid fairly well, considering my basic needs (thirty bucks a week at Cheapo’s, as long-time readers might expect, was a basic need along with groceries, cat food, toothpaste and the like). I’d have to buy the TV on a credit card, but I could pay the monthly bill that resulted. And there was a major discount retail store about eight blocks away that would certainly have at least one television I would find both suitable and affordable. The only problem was transport. I was going to get a car fairly soon, buying the older of my dad’s two vehicles for a far-more-than-reasonable price. That was a couple of weeks away, though, and I wanted a television sooner than that. But how would I get it home from the store?

And I thought of the guys down the hall. We weren’t close friends, but I would run into the two college guys several times a week in the hallways. They’d been in my apartment for beverages once – my record collection fascinated them – and I in theirs a couple of times. They knew I didn’t have a vehicle, and they’d told me that anytime I needed a ride somewhere, just knock on their door. And I looked at my empty TV stand and decided it was time to do just that.

Forty minutes later, the three of us were hauling a boxed television up to my third-floor apartment. We got it in without either of the two cats heading out the door, and we sat for a few moments sipping cold drinks, catching our breaths. Then one of the two guys waved at my record collection and said to the other, “He’d probably know what that song was.” The other fellow nodded, and they told me that the previous evening, listening to a radio station they’d come on by accident, they’d heard a strange but very absorbing song. “It sounded a little like a country song, but it wasn’t a country station,” one of the guys said. “It was like a classic rock station.”

“And the chorus was about two hangmen,” said the other guy. “It was kind of creepy.”

I held up a hand and went to the shelves, and in moments I’d pulled out the album Wanted! Mason Proffitt. I cued up the first track on side two, and the sound of two guitars picking through an introduction came out of the speakers. They listened, and then the narrator began the story:

As I rode into Tombstone on my horse – his name was Mack –
I saw what I’ll relate to you going on behind my back.
It seems the folks were up in arms; a man now had to die
For believin’ things that didn’t fit the laws they’d set aside.

“That’s it,” said one of the guys as I handed him the album jacket. They pored over the notes inside for a few moments as the song continued, and a few minutes later, when group founders John and Terry Talbot and the rest of Mason Proffit got to the chorus, the two college guys raised their heads and stared at the stereo:

And now we’re two hangmen hangin’ from a tree.
That don’t bother me . . .
At all.

The chorus went on and on, over and over, above a busy and increasingly loud and dissonant background of voices singing and talking, with some strings sneaking in during the final minute to sweeten the deal. When the song was over, the two guys finished their drinks, one saying to the other, “Man, we have to see if we can find that on CD.” I thanked them again for their help and they headed down the hall toward their apartment.

I let the record play on as I got busy unpacking the new television. And as I did, I thought about “Two Hangmen,” which is undoubtedly the centerpiece of that first album by Mason Proffit. It seemed like anytime anyone heard it for the first time – and I’d included it several times in mixtapes for younger friends who had no memory of 1969 – the song stunned them. I’d heard friends in radio say that anytime they aired the song, the phone lines went crazy with listeners calling in to find out what the hell that song was.

Beyond being a great record, “Two Hangmen” – released as a single on the small Happy Tiger label to no chart success at all, as far as I can find – and the rest of that debut album seemingly served as an announcement by the Talbot brothers et al. that their band was ready to go. With a combination of rock and country that made the band, according to All-Music Guide, “among the first to combine the energy and instrumentation of rock with the subject matter and twang of country,” Mason Proffit released Wanted! Mason Proffitt in 1969. Musically and lyrically, it was a polished and compelling effort. But the album went nowhere, not even reaching the lower portions of the Billboard 200.

Its follow-up, Movin’ Toward Happiness, did get to No. 177 in 1971, and a third album, Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, went to No. 186 in 1972. While neither of those two records had anything quite as arresting as “Two Hangmen,” they were good records as well. The problem for Mason Proffit, it seemed, was their labels: The first two records were released on the small Happy Tiger label, which was in existence from 1969 to 1971 with what seems an odd roster of talent, according to Wikipedia: Mason Proffit; the group Them; country guitarist Red Rhodes; Priscilla Paris (one-third of the Paris Sisters, who went to No. 5 in 1961 with “I Love How You Love Me”); singer-songwriter Paul Kelly; the Anita Kerr Singers; and an aging Count Basie. After two albums on Happy Tiger, Mason Proffit’s third album came out on another small label, Ampex, which was in existence from 1970 to about 1973.

The band’s chance to move up came in 1972 when Warner Bros. signed the band and released the group’s fourth album, Rockfish Crossing. But the record failed to make the charts, and despite the band’s touring with the Grateful Dead, the group’s fifth album, Bareback Rider, only got to No. 198 on the Billboard 200. That’s when Mason Proffit called it a day.

The Talbot brothers moved toward Christian pop and released the countryish album The Talbot Brothers in 1974; in years to come, John Michael Talbot became one of the best-selling artists in the Contemporary Christian genre, leaving country rock behind him and leaving for the fans of obscure artists one great song:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 29
“Two Hangmen” by Mason Proffit from Wanted! [1969]
“Overture from ‘Tommy’” by the Assembled Multitude, Atlantic 2737 [1970]
“Summer Breeze” by Seals & Crofts, Warner Bros. 7606 [1972]
“Can’t You See” by the Marshall Tucker Band from Marshall Tucker Band [1973]
“Upper Mississippi Shakedown” by the Lamont Cranston Band from Shakedown [1981]
“Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen from The Future [1992]

The Assembled Multitude was a collection of studio musicians assembled in Philadelphia by producer Tom Sellers. The group recorded an album of mostly covers – “Ohio,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “MacArthur Park” and “Woodstock” among them – and was likely surprised to find itself with a hit. The group’s cover of the overture to Tommy, the rock opera by the Who, went to No. 16 in the late summer of 1970. I love the French horns.

I’m not sure exactly when Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” was actually released, but it seems that in most markets – according to the Airheads Radio Survey Archive – it got its airplay in the autumn of 1972. (A survey from KLZ-FM in Denver – evidently an album-rock station more than anything—lists the song as a “Featured” record in the third week of July; I don’t know if the jocks there were playing the single or the album track, but I’m inclined to guess the latter.) The point of that is that because of the lyric, I tend to think of “Summer Breeze” as a record from the summer of 1972, not the autumn. (I doubt that I’m alone in that seasonal displacement.) But autumn it was, with the record reaching the Billboard Top 40 on October 21 and peaking at No. 6 for two weeks in late November and early December. Still, the record’s sound – melody, lyrics and that brilliant instrumental hook that frames the verses – was a perfect summation of how good domestic life could be in a summer with the right person.

Even though it’s often lumped in with the southern rock bands of the early 1970s, the Marshall Tucker Band wasn’t quite, to my ears, southern rock. I always thought the band had more country leanings than anything else, and the occasional imaginative instrumentation – like the flute that opens “Can’t You See” – set the band apart from its brethren at Capricorn Records. And that makes “Can’t You See” a great country song, albeit one done by a group that could rock out when the material required it. The version I’m linking to here is the album track from the group’s self-titled 1973 debut; the edit released as a single by Capricorn went to No. 75 in the early autumn of 1977.

The bluesy rock of the Lamont Cranston Band has delighted music fans in the Upper Midwest – and perhaps elsewhere; I’m not sure – since the mid-1970s. And the band continues on: This weekend finds the Lamont Cranston Band with three gigs in Duluth, Minnesota, working the Bayfront Blues Festival on Friday afternoon and closing Grandma’s Sports Garden both Friday and Saturday night. Down here in St. Cloud, the boogie of the “Upper Mississippi Shakedown” continues to be the anthem of the St. Cloud River Bats of the Northwoods League (a league for college players). And there was no way I could leave it out of the Ultimate Jukebox.

With the gently swinging, string-sawing melody and arrangement of “Closing Time,” Leonard Cohen found a perfect musical setting for the acerbic cynicism of his lyrics: The song reads like a surreal tale from a tavern we hope we never find because there would be nothing but disbelief and disappointment for us throughout the evening. And if we truly belong in Cohen’s universe – for this tune and, I tend to think, for many of his others, as well – we’d all be disappointed if we weren’t disappointed by the end of the evening. Still, “Closing Time” is an infectious piece of music and lyrics that grabs hold with a quick touch on the drums and that first sweep of the bow across the strings.

(Attribution added since post was first published.)

Another Performer At That Intersection

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I don’t know Rosanne Cash’s work all that well. I’ve got a couple of her albums on vinyl and have found a couple of CDs of her recent work, too. I’m still absorbing the work she did on last year’s acclaimed CD, The List, a collection based on a list of one hundred essential American songs her famous father gave her when she was eighteen. In other words, I’ve listened to a fair amount of her music, but I’m no expert, just a fan.

And as I write that, I realize that I’m still absorbing the album that I’ve long thought – from my admittedly limited view – to be Cash’s best: King’s Record Shop from 1987. In a few years, The List may challenge for the top spot in Cash’s catalog, but I think that – as good as last year’s release was (and it was very good indeed) – the best that The List can do for some time is wrestle King’s Record Shop to a draw.

Now, perhaps I think that because King’s Record Shop was the first album by Rosanne Cash I really heard. Before that, I’d likely heard bits and pieces of her work here and there, but I don’t know that I’d considered Cash as someone to take seriously. And – as is true in the case of quite a few performers – it was Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul that persuaded me to listen more closely to Rosanne Cash, when he listed her song “Runaway Train” at No. 590 in his 1989 listing of the top 1,001 singles.

So what did I find when I tracked down King’s Record Shop? Looking back – with the aid of a little bit of listening again last evening – I found a performer and songwriter at that interesting intersection of country, rock, blues and folk, a place where I’ve been pleased to find a fair number of other performers in the past twenty years, maybe chief among them Darden Smith.

My blogging friend Paco Malo once cited in the comments to one of my posts the description given by Levon Helm of The Band of the music he listened to and played growing up in Arkansas. Having lost those comments, I’m paraphrasing, but Helm basically said the music at home was some country, some blues, some gospel, some folk, and they called it rock ’n’ roll. And that was true enough, meaning that Cash and Smith and others at that intersection aren’t creating something new. My point, though, is that for many years as rock, pop and even country music evolved, some of those influences were forgotten or at least at times ignored in mainstream genres. And when I picked up King’s Record Shop not long after reading Marsh’s book, it was, if not quite a revelation, then at least a refreshing reminder of some of the major strains of American popular music.

Now, all that was twenty years ago or so. But King’s Record Shop – along with some of Cash’s other early work (Interiors comes to mind) – remains to my ears as vital and fresh as her more recent work, including The List. And the heart of King’s Record Shop remains “Runaway Train.” The song was written by John Stewart, and Cash’s recording of it peaked at No. 1 on the country charts.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 17
“Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, RCA Victor 47-9764 [1969]
“My Impersonal Life” by Blue Rose, Epic 10811 [1972]
“China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers, Warner Bros. 7728 [1973]
“#9 Dream” by John Lennon, Apple 1878 [1975]
“Time” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn of a Friendly Card [1981]
“Runaway Train” by Rosanne Cash, Columbia 07988 [1987]

A while back, I picked up Suspicious Minds, a two-disc collection of the work Elvis Presley did at American Studios in Memphis in early 1969, the sessions that resulted in Presley’s three greatest singles – “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “In the Ghetto” – as well as a wealth of other great material. And I was going to comb through the booklet that came with the collection to find a quote or some other tidbit to use here this morning. But the booklet is printed in small white type on black and is for practical purpose unreadable without using a magnifying glass. I have one of those, but I also have better ways to invest my time. So I’ll just say that “Suspicious Minds” – which went to No. 1 in the autumn of 1969 – is to me the best thing Presley ever recorded during his long and erratic career. That’s a hefty statement to make about someone who had 114 records in the Top 40, but to my ears, the body of work from those Memphis sessions was better – in most cases, far better – than anything Presley had done since the Sun sessions during the mid-1950s. And “Suspicious Minds” was the best of all.

“My Impersonal Life” is likely better known for the cover version done by Three Dog Night. The Blue Rose version – the song was written by Terry Furlong of Blue Rose – came to my attention through a CBS compilation called The Music People, one of those classic collections record labels used to sell cheaply to promote new artists and albums. From there, I found Blue Rose’s self-titled 1972 album, and after I ripped and posted that album – this was almost three years ago – I found myself connecting with Dave Thomson, who’d played bass and guitar for the group. Dave has since passed on, and when “My Impersonal Life” pops up these days, I find myself thinking about connections found and lost and the multiple layers of life and the sheer impermanence of things. And then I hear the first line of the chorus – “Be still and know that everything’s all right” – and I’m okay.

It’s become a cliché, I suppose, to call the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” one of the great road trip songs of all time. But it’s still true. If I’m not driving when the song pops up on the player, I wish I were. And if I’m out running errands and the record – which went to No. 15 during the autumn of 1973 – comes on the radio, I generally keep moving until it’s over, even if I have to drive around the block an extra time. I should note that sometime during one of our visits to Texas, the Texas Gal and I will likely go to the little town of China Grove just east of San Antonio with the CD player blaring as we cross the town line. Not like that hasn’t been done a million times since 1973, but I’ve never done it.

The dreamy and mystical soundscape of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” still captures me, more than thirty-five years after its release. I’m not sure what it all means, but it doesn’t really matter. Evidently Lennon wasn’t sure what it all meant, either: Wikipedia says that, according to May Pang, Lennon’s companion at the time, “the phrase repeated in the chorus, ‘Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé’, came to Lennon in a dream and has no specific meaning. Lennon then wrote and arranged the song around his dream”. Pang, by the way, provides the whispered female vocals on the record, which went to No. 9 in early 1975.

I don’t know a lot of the work of Alan Parsons, either solo or as the leader of the Alan Parsons Project, which is just another example of the world containing too much music to know. But I recall getting lost in “Time” when it came out of the radio speakers during the summer of 1981 on its way to No. 15. It’s a record that’s perhaps pretty and sentimental to excess – and I perhaps have a weakness for things pretty and sentimental – but it seemed at the time so much better than the music that surrounded it on the radio. (The records that bracketed “Time” when it peaked at No. 15 in July 1981 were “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” by the Carpenters.) And I still like it almost thirty years later.

My Verdict: ‘Rocket 88’ Was The First

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

It’s time to throw my nickel into one of rock music’s enduring debates this morning: What was the first rock ’n’ roll record?

To my mind – dim as it sometimes can be – there are two candidates: “The Fat Man,” a 1950 record by Fats Domino, and “Rocket 88,” a 1951 single from Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (which was really Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm with saxophonist Brenston taking the lead vocal).

I come down on the side of “Rocket 88.” There’s nothing wrong at all with the Domino track: It’s got a rollicking beat, courtesy of its hometown, New Orleans. “They call, they call me the fat man because I weight two hundred pounds,” the record starts, and – co-written and co-produced by Domino and his long-time partner Dave Bartholomew – the single gets its business done in a tidy two minutes and thirty-six seconds and includes a middle section that showcases Domino’s falsetto.

Wikipedia says: “‘The Fat Man’ features Domino’s piano with a distinct back beat that dominates both the lead and the rhythm section. Earl Palmer said it was the first time a drummer played nothing but back beat for recording, which he said he derived from a Dixieland “out chorus.” Domino also scats a pair of choruses in a distinctive wah-wah falsetto, creating a variation on the lead similar to a muted Dixieland trumpet.”

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with “The Fat Man.” It’s got a great vocalist, a great team of writers and producers. The band was made up of top session players, including the magnificent Earl Palmer on drums. And it came out of New Orleans, a city and source of music that – based on my reading, my pondering and my gut – was the second most important city in the development of rock ’n’ roll.

The advantages that “Rocket 88” has over all of that history come down to two: It was recorded in Memphis, the most important city in rock ’n’ roll history, and it was recorded/produced by Sam Phillips.

Like “The Fat Man,” “Rocket 88” has a groove, but while Domino’s record seems dance, Brenston’s record drives, pulling the band and the listeners down the highway.

Wikipedia says: “The song was based on the 1947 song ‘Cadillac Boogie’ by Jimmy Liggins. It was also preceded and influenced by Pete Johnson’s “Rocket 88 Boogie” Parts 1 and 2, an instrumental, originally recorded for the Los Angeles-based Swing Time Records label in 1949.”

Wikipedia continues: “Working from the raw material of jump blues and swing combo music, Turner made it even rawer, starting with a strongly stated back beat by drummer Willie Sims, and superimposing Brenston’s enthusiastic vocals, his own piano, and tenor saxophone solos by 17 year old Raymond Hill . . . . The song also features one of the first examples of distortion, or fuzz guitar, ever recorded, played by the band’s guitarist Willie Kizart.”

(Basing new songs on versions of earlier songs – a practice that could draw charges of plagiarism today – was an accepted practice among musicians in the folk, blues and rhythm & blues communities and traditions. Domino’s song, Wikipedia notes, “is a variation on the traditional New Orleans tune, ‘Junker’s Blues’ number by Drive’em Down, which also provided the melody for Lloyd Price’s ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and Professor Longhair’s ‘Tiptina.’” Two years later, with a faster beat and a few minor lyric changes, Big Mama Thornton released essentially the same song as Domino’s from a Los Angeles date for Peacock, singing, “Well, they call me Big Mama ’cause I weigh three-hundred pounds.”)

So what makes “The Fat Man” a good R&B song and what makes “Rocket 88” rock ’n’ roll? Well, one hesitates to pull the watch apart too much for fear of being left with a pile of gears, springs and little screws, but the Wikipedia quote above does identify the key ingredients of “Rocket 88”: Sims’ back beat, Brenston’s vocal, the solos and the fuzz guitar.

And then there’s Memphis and Sam Phillips, the owner and operator of the Memphis Recording Service, where “Rocket 88” was cut. I think, and I’m certainly not alone in this, that Memphis is the birthplace of rock ’n’ roll. Chicago, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati (home of King Records) and, yes, New Orleans (and probably several other cities I have not mentioned) were instrumental in the development of the music, but – as Robert Gordon titled his fascinating book about the city’s musical traditions – it came from Memphis.

And it came from Sam Phillips’ studio. Jimmy Guterman, in Runaway American Dream, his 2005 assessment of Bruce Springsteen’s recording career, calls Phillips “the single most important non-performing figure in rock’n’roll,” noting that it was Phillips who, “along with folks like Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Charlie Rich, invented the past 50 years of popular music.”

There are other acceptable answers to the question “What was the first rock ‘n’ roll record?” All of those answers have reasons behind them: the recording date and location, the session personnel, the lead performer and ultimately, the way the record sounds and the way it makes the listener feel. My answer, as I indicated above, rests on its creation in Memphis and on Sam Phillips’ role in its creation. Oh, and one more thing: “Rocket 88” just flat out rocks.

(And no, I don’t know why Bettie Page shows up in the video.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 15
“Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, Chess 1458 [1951]
“Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” by Gerry & the Pacemakers, Laurie 3284 [1965]
“Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond, Uni 55175 [1969]
“Come And Get Your Love” by Redbone, Epic 11035 [1974]
“While You See A Chance” by Steve Winwood, Island 49656 [1981]
“A Long December” by Counting Crows from Recovering the Satellites [1996]

In the box in which I keep the best of the four hundred or so 45s that I own, there resides a copy of Gerry & the Pacemakers’ “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey.” It belongs, actually, to my sister, who brought it home sometime during the early months of 1965, when the record was on its way to No. 6. I don’t think it was the first record she bought; I recall her buying bargain bags – ten 45s for a dollar – sometime earlier, but the thought tickles at me that “Ferry” might have been the first single she actively sought out when it was on the charts. I do remember her playing it for the first time on our old portable player, and I liked it at the time far more than I expected. Obviously, I still like it. And no, she can’t have it back.

The spookiness of “Holly Holy” grabbed hold of me late one evening in the fall of 1969 when I heard the record on – I assume – WJON shortly after I’d turned out the light to go to sleep. I wrote once before about hearing the song at dusk on a sliding hill, and that happened, but my first hearing was in the dark of my room. I found the song a little unsettling, what with the choir chanting – or seeming to – behind Diamond’s vocal, the percussion (tympani?), the swelling climax and the frequent use of what I now recognize as minor thirds. Nevertheless, I found the record appealing as well. I’m not sure about the unsettling part, but plenty of other folks found the record appealing, too, as it went to No. 6

The Redbone single is one of those I caught up to sometime after the fact. I was in Denmark when “Come And Get Your Love” entered the Top 40 and climbed to No. 5. By the time I got home in the latter portion of May, the record was in the last couple weeks of its eighteen-week stay in the Top 40, and its airplay was diminishing. I likely heard it during the last couple of weeks of spring and during the summer of 1974, but never enough to dig any further into Redbone or its music. That digging came later, during the vinyl-crazed years of the 1990s, probably after I found a Redbone LP at Cheapo’s and vaguely recalled the hit. With the possible exception of “The Witch Queen of New Orleans,” – a record that went to No. 21 in 1972 – nothing else in Redbone’s catalog approaches “Come And Get Your Love,” and it’s fun to hear it pop up every now and then surrounded by the other tunes in the Ultimate Jukebox.

Over all the years since I first dug into rock and pop and their relatives in the autumn of 1969, very few contemporary records have ever moved me to run off to the store in search of them. The last two of these six did just that. I was living in Monticello when Steve Winwood’s “While You See A Chance” started to get airplay on its way to No. 7 in early 1981. (It was also on its way to being Winwood’s first Top 40 hit, a fact that’s a little surprising in light of his long and celebrated career to that point.) Loving the synth-based intro and solos and the groove of the body of the song, my wife of the time and I invested a portion of a weekend in a shopping trip to one of the Twin Cities’ major malls. We picked up some other, more useful items – clothes, kitchen stuff and so on – but the highlight of the day for me was Winwood’s album Arc of a Diver, where the album track of “While You See A Chance” resided. (I believe the single was an edit, and I think that’s the audio on the linked YouTube video.) And twenty-nine years later, I still find the sound a little thrilling.

Another record that got me out into the shops was Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” which I heard on a Twin Cities’ radio station late in 1996, soon after Recovering the Satellites was released. (The track was never released as a single, if I read the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits correctly, but went to No. 6 on a chart based on airplay.) Seeking a vinyl copy of the album, I spent a good chunk of a Saturday morning making the rounds of four or five music stores near my home. I was discouraged and wandering the aisles of the last of the stores when another music lover came through the door and sold his copy of Recovering the Satellites. After the seller left, the clerk looked at me, eyebrows raised, and named a price. I paid it and went happily on my way. I still love the track, even after repeated listenings over the last thirteen-plus years, and I still marvel at one particular line: “The feeling that it’s all a lot of oysters but no pearls.”

Revisiting Jesse Winchester’s ‘Biloxi’

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

In February of 2007, I wrote about Jesse Winchester and my favorite among his songs. Here, updated and revised slightly, is what I said:

One of the great themes of popular music – from the pre-recording days when music’s popularity was measured only by sales of sheet music, through the entire Twentieth Century to today – is displacement. From the day in 1853 when Stephen Foster – America’s first popular songwriter – wrote “My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight,” American musicians and listeners have celebrated places dear to them, often longing for those places and grieving their separations from them.

The separation need not be physical: Time pulls us away, too, as places change and we ourselves are altered by the turning of the calendar. Joe South’s 1969 lament, “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home,” mourned the changes brought to his home place – and by extension, the entire south – by the so-called progress of that decade, which replaced orchards with offices and meadows with malls (and the orchards and meadows continue to disappear to this day, of course, not just in the south but all across the country).

The era during which Joe South sang – those volatile years from, say, 1965 to 1975 – was one of displacement for a lot of folks. Many of those who were displaced, of course, had not one bit of use for rock or soul or any of their relatives; they instead found their solace in gospel music or in the country stylings of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and their contemporaries. But the sense of longing wasn’t limited by genre. It’s not an accident that one of the better singles of the Beatles, the best group of the time – or any time, for that matter – told us all to get back to where we once belonged. We all wanted to go home.

One of those who couldn’t go home was Jesse Winchester, a native of Memphis who’d left the U.S. for Canada in 1967 instead of reporting for military service (and most likely an assignment to the war zone in Vietnam) when he got his draft notice. Living in Montreal in 1969, he met Robbie Robertson of The Band – himself a Canadian, of course, like three of the other four members of The Band. Robertson produced and played guitar on Winchester’s first album, Jesse Winchester, and brought along his band-mate Levon Helm to play drums and mandolin. The record, says All-Music Guide, “was timely: it spoke to a disaffected American generation that sympathized with Winchester’s pacifism. But it was also timeless: the songs revealed a powerful writing talent (recognized by the numerous artists who covered them), and Winchester’s gentle vocals made a wonderful vehicle for delivering them.”

Winchester, of course, was unable to perform in the U.S. to promote either the record or his career, and thus never was able to capture the attention of the listening and buying public as well as he likely deserved. He recorded four more albums in Canada until an amnesty proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 allowed him to return to the U.S. He’s recorded sporadically since then but has been an active performer, with several recent live albums preceding last year’s studio album, Love Filling Station.

Among all of Winchester’s fine songs, I find my favorite to be “Biloxi” from that first, self-titled album. Winchester’s back story comes along when I hear it, and regrets and longing linger under the gentle vocal as Winchester seems to recall the joy and solace he once found in a place he might never be able to see again. And all of that is why “Biloxi” belongs in the Ultimate Jukebox.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 10
“Question” by the Moody Blues, Threshold 67004 [1970]
“Biloxi” by Jesse Winchester from Jesse Winchester [1970]
“All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople, Columbia 45673 [1972]
“Oh, Babe, What Would You Say” by Hurricane Smith, Capitol 3383 [1972]
“Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash, Geffen 49824 [1981]
“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, Elektra 96412 [1988]

“Question” was my introduction to the Moody Blues. I think that introduction took place across the street at Rick’s, when he and Rob shared some albums Rob had borrowed from a friend. One of those albums was A Question of Balance. I was entranced by the group’s sound and the songs’ content: These guys were singing about the same kinds of questions I was grappling with at the time. I’ll acknowledge that the lyrical content of some of the Moodys’ albums has not aged well, though the songs on A Question of Balance do not seem now as overcooked as do many of those on the other albums. And “Question” – which went to No. 21 during the spring and early summer of 1970 – still sounds good today, although I’m not sure if that’s a matter of the song’s maturity or of my carrying inside me a perpetual sixteen-year-old. Over the years, on oldies radio, the album version – with the (synthesized?) horns calling out during the introduction – has pretty much driven the simple strummed guitar introduction of the single edit out of circulation. The version I found at YouTube seems to be a hybrid: it has the single’s introduction but runs longer – by my reading – than the single edit ever did.

None of the kids I was hanging around with during the autumn of 1972 were listening to Mott the Hoople, so neither was I. But when “All the Young Dudes” began to push itself out of the radio speakers from time to time that November – the record spent just three weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 37 – I put the band on my list of music to check out. It took me years to get there, having detoured figuratively through Muscle Shoals and Macon, Georgia, but the crunchy chords of “Dudes” remained fresh over the years, even as the glam poses of Ian Hunter and his band got very old. I never thought the record was all that much a tribute to glam rock, anyway, no matter what David Bowie might have had in mind when he wrote the song. And this morning, I read Mark Deming’s review of the song at All-Music Guide: “In Bowie’s version, there seems to be a vague, under-the-radar suggestion that the ‘dudes’ in question were rent boys or glammed-out fashion victims, but Hunter’s vocals (buoyed by Mick Ralphs’ soaring lead guitar and Verden Allen’s superbly sympathetic organ swells) turned the song into an anthem for the guys on the corner, sticking by each other through the ups and downs of their lives.” Sounds about right to me.

Sometimes a hit record comes along that is so utterly out of step with current trends that I imagine some listeners assume that its popularity is a joke or an ironic comment. So there likely were folks out there in radioland as 1972 turned into 1973 who were chuckling or raising irony-laced eyebrows every time Hurricane Smith came out of the speakers singing “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” The faux Twenties/Thirties backing track, the pinched and sometimes awkward vocal and the guileless and romantic lyrics made the record unlike anything around it in the Top 40. (When “Oh Babe” reached its peak at No. 3 during February 1973, it was bracketed by Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and “Dueling Banjos” by Eric Weisberg and Steve Mandell, which itself was unlike anything else in the Top 40, of course.) As is well known now, the singer’s real name was Norman Smith, and he’d been an engineer and producer for EMI in England, working with – among many others – the Beatles and Pink Floyd. “Oh Babe” was his only hit in the U.S. although he had better success in the U.K., where eccentricity sells better, I guess. Eccentric or not, when “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” comes out of the speakers when I’m around, it’s greeted with a smile that hasn’t the faintest trace of irony.

Given my general disinterest in music from the 1980s – it wasn’t as awful as I thought it was at the time, but I still don’t think it was as good as recent waves of Gen X nostalgia have posited – I wondered as I trimmed my list of songs how many tunes from that decade would end up in my metaphorical jukebox. As I detailed in an earlier post, twenty-two songs from the Eighties survived the trimming. Two of them are in this grouping, and they were selected for diametrically opposite reasons, one for sound and the other for story. From the opening sax riff by Rindy Ross through her vocals to the end of the song, “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash just sounds good. The lyrics tell a universal tale, the songs lopes along, Ross’ vocals are believeable and, best of all, that sax riff is one of the greatest of all time. At the time the song was on the charts – it went to No. 3 during a nineteen-week stay after entering the Top 40 during early November 1981 – I wasn’t listening to a lot of Top 40, but “Harden My Heart” was inescapable. The radio station I listened to most often at home in those days was more focused on what I think was called adult contemporary, and Quarterflash was there, too.

By the time the end of the Eighties was drawing near, I was listening to newer music again, and when Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” hit the charts during the summer of 1988, I was fascinated by the record. It’s a no-frills recording: a simple acoustic guitar riff most of the way through with the drums and bass blowing in for the choruses. But it makes my list for its story, with its detail-studded portrait of a life on the fringes of American society, a life spent working in the check-out lane where the big house in the suburbs is unattainable, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether fate or frailty creates the barriers. “Fast Car” went to No. 6, and I sometimes wonder which reaction to the record was more prevalent among those who helped it get that high in the chart:  Was it “My God, that’s my life she’s singing about”? Or was it “Thank God that’s not my life she’s singing about”?