Archive for the ‘1993’ Category

‘I Am A Schoolboy, Too . . .’

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

It’s the day after Labor Day, and here in St. Cloud, as in most of Minnesota – and most of the U.S., I imagine – the school buses roll. Teachers plan lessons and welcome new students. Students scan schedules and consider – sometimes covertly and sometimes not – who’s changed the most over what now seems to have been a brief summer.

And a new nine-month school year starts.

I could go several ways here. I thought about digging into the memory banks for a first-day-of-school story, but I’m not sure there are any left untold. So I went looking for a record about the first day of school. I didn’t find one that specific, but as I scanned the list of records the RealPlayer provided about “school,” I realized that I’ve never written about one of the great songs in the blues catalog.

It first showed up as “Good Morning School Girl” by John Lee Williamson, the first Sonny Boy. He wrote and recorded the song for the Bluebird label in Aurora, Illinois, on May 5, 1937.

From there, the song moved on (with varying punctuation, the addition of the word “little” and mixed use of “schoolgirl” or “school girl”). The first cover version noted at Second Hand Songs – a site that’s not always complete but comes pretty close – is by Leroy Dallas & His Guitar in 1948, followed by Smokey Hogg in 1949 and L.C. Green in 1952. I should perhaps know those names, but I don’t. The version I found by Hogg at YouTube this morning is pretty good.

When we get to 1958, we see some familiar names beginning to pop up: Big Joe Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Rod Stewart, Junior Wells, the Grateful Dead, Jim Kweskin, Taj Mahal, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, James Cotton and Geoff Muldaur recorded the song through the 1970s.

In 1964, we also find the Yardbirds, but their record is not the same song. Wikipedia explains: “In 1961, Don Level and Bob Love, as the R&B duo ‘Don and Bob,’ recorded a different version of ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ for Argo Records, a Chess subsidiary. Although it uses the phrase ‘good morning little schoolgirl’, the song has different chord changes and lyrics, including references to popular dance styles of the time. The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton later covered this version of ‘Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl’ for their second UK single in 1964.”

My friend Larry, who hangs his hat at the great blog 16 Funky Corners, disputes this in a note below, saying that both the Yardbirds and Don & Bob singles are the Williamson song. It’s close, and I’ll acknowledge inspiration,  but I agree with Wikipedia. They are different songs. The clincher to me is the lack of the “I am a schoolboy, too.”

Muddy Waters recorded the song for his 1964 album Folk Singer, and his version of “Good Morning Little School Girl” is striking for its acoustic approach, rather than Waters’ usual electric arrangement. (That holds true for the entire album, of course, an early version of the “unplugged” phenomenon.)

A few years later, Mississippi Fred McDowell included “Good Morning Little School Girl” on one of my favorite blues albums, his 1969 effort I Do Not Play No Rock ’n’ Roll.

A few covers are listed in the 1980s, and in 1993, another great version of the tune came, unsurprisingly, from Van Morrison, who tackled “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” on his album Too Long In Exile.

(I haven’t decided: Is it creepy or just an adjustment when Waters and Morrison – and likely others who’ve recorded the song – sing “I once was a schoolboy, too,” and make the song’s narrator older than the schoolgirl to whom he’s singing?)

We skip a few more years and a few more covers and move on to 2011, when Rory Block gender-flipped the song’s lyrics for her 2011 album, Shake ’Em on Down: A Tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell. I love Block’s work, and I think her version is my favorite, challenged by only Morrison’s and McDowell’s itself (acknowledging that there are many, many versions of the song I have not yet heard).

‘Yellow’

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Here we are with “Yellow,” the third installment of Floyd’s Prism. Sorting nearly 70,000 mp3s for the word “yellow,” we’re left with only 125 titles. And not all of them will work for us this morning.

Good chunks of several albums go by the wayside: Of the six Beatles’ tracks on the 1969 Apple release Yellow Submarine, we lose five, with only the title tune remaining. We lose almost all of The Unfortunate Rake, Vol.2: Yellow Mercury, a 2003 album by the Crooked Jades, a San Francisco band whose work could easily be labeled Americana. Almost all of Donovan’s 1966 album, Mellow Yellow, falls to the cutting room floor, as does all of Hot Tuna’s 1975 album, Yellow Fever, and most of the Neville Brothers’ 1989 effort, Yellow Moon. I don’t have much from Elton John’s Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, but the only thing that survives there is the title track, which we’ll set aside anyway.

A few artists fail to make the finals, too, as we bypass records by the Yellow Balloon, the Yellow Brick Road, the Yellow Jackets, the Yellow Hair, Yellow Autumn (the entire 1977 album Children Of The Mist), and two tracks of Native American chants from the album Lewis & Clark: Sounds of Discovery performed by, among others, Courtney and Dana Yellowfat. But even with all of that, we have plenty of tracks left.

We’ll start with a Donovan song, “Mellow Yellow.” I’m not going to mess around with Donovan’s original version, though. Over the years, I’ve wearied of the Welsh performer’s catalog to the point that a Donovan tune on the RealPlayer almost always makes me click to the next track and a Donovan tune on the car radio generally makes me push the button for another station. Instead, we’ll start today’s exercise with Big Maybelle’s cover of “Mellow Yellow” from her 1967 album, Got A Brand New Bag. The Rojac label released several singles from the album – “96 Tears” went to No. 99 in the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 23 on the R&B chart – but “Mellow Yellow” wasn’t on any of them.

Jaime Brockett’s 1969 album, Remember The Wind And The Rain, brought the New England-based singer – and occasional songwriter – some play on late-night free-form radio with his thirteen-and-a-half minute epic, “Legend of the U.S.S. Titanic,” a track based at least a little bit on Leadbelly’s 1948 recording, “The Titanic.” But our interest here today is another track from the same album, the Michael Smith-penned “Talkin’ Green Beret New Super Yellow Hydraulic Banana Teeny Bopper Blues,” which includes jabs at Spiro Agnew, Dick Clark, lock-step patriotism, apple pie and, of course, the Green Berets.

Among my favorites from the 1990s is the sometimes bleak and always moody group October Project. I recall hearing “Bury My Lovely” from the group’s self-titled 1993 album on Minneapolis’ Cities 97 during the mid-1990s, and once I got a CD player in the latter portions of that decade, I began to listen to more of the group’s stuff. “Sunday Morning Yellow Sky” comes from the 1995 album Falling Farther In, and like most of the group’s work, it was written by Julie Flanders and Emil Adler. Add Mary Fahl’s unique voice, and you have a disquieting yet beautiful piece. Near the end, Fahl sings:

Sunday morning, yellow sky
The sun is floating diamond high
Hours passing, a baby cries
In the arms of someone you imagine

Close your eyes
This is your lullaby
Close your eyes
This is your lullaby

I don’t know what it means, but I love it.

“Don’t cross the double yellow line” sings the Music Machine in its 1967 single “Double Yellow Line.” I found the single in one of the Nuggets box sets that have proliferated in the CD era, based on the original Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era released in 1972. “Double Yellow Line” was released as a single but bubbled under the Hot 100 at No. 111, having far less success than the group’s better-remembered single “Talk Talk,” which went to No. 15 in January 1967. Even having found the lyrics online this morning, I’m not entirely certain what “Double Yellow Line” is about, but it’s a nice bit of garage rock for a Thursday morning.

I mentioned the Neville Brothers’ album Yellow Moon above; the one track we do not have to ignore this morning is the very sweet title track. Written by Aaron Neville, “Yellow Moon” bops along the sidewalk and through the swamp, funky and sweet with a very snaky solo on what sounds like a soprano saxophone. The album was one of the first I bought after I got my first CD player in the previously mentioned late 1990s, and all of its tracks – but especially “Yellow Moon” – remind me of some good times on Pleasant Avenue during the latter years of that decade. As to the music, the album went to No. 66 on the Billboard 200, and according to Wikipedia, Lou Reed called it one of the best of 1989.

Yellow Sunshine was a funk/R&B group that was formed in Philadelphia in 1972 or 1973, says the website Discogs, and one listen to the group’s “Yellow Sunshine” bears that out. The 1973 single, released first on the Gamble label and later on TSOP, didn’t chart. Nor did the group’s self-titled album, and the group split up, with the group’s keyboard player heading to work for the legendary Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and two other members joining the equally legendary group MFSB.

‘As I Drove Back Into Hainesville . . .’

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

The band From Good Homes, as I wrote in 2008, is one of those that I found by accident, scouring the bottom shelf of the discount CDs in a bookstore in a Minneapolis suburb. The band’s rootsy sound – sometimes robust, sometimes plaintive – falls nicely on my ears, and From Good Homes, a 1998 release, regularly found its way into the player for a few months and still gets there occasionally these days.

The same has been true for the New Jersey group’s other releases as I’ve gathered them over the past few years: Hick-Pop Comin’ At Ya! from 1993 (with the inside of the notes autographed by four of the band’s five members), Open Up The Sky from 1995, and Take Enough Home, a recording from the group’s farewell concert in 1999, which turns out not to have been as final as that sounds.*

Given the amount of music loaded into the RealPlayer in the study, the music of From Good Homes doesn’t come up there nearly as often as maybe it should, and I tend to lose track of it. But as I made salads last evening, the small mp3 player in the kitchen reminded me that one of its three-hundred-some tracks is “Scudder’s Lane” from Hick-Pop, one of my favorite tracks by the New Jersey band.**

Scudder’s Lane

Me and Lisa used to run through the night,
through the fields off Scudder’s Lane.
We’d lay down and look up at the stars
and feel the breeze through the trees.
And I’d often wonder: How long would it take
to ride or fly to the Dipper in the sky?

As I drove back into Hainesville,
I was thinking of the days
when my dreams went on forever
as I ran through the fields off Scudder’s Lane

I stayed with my love, Lisa,
through the darkness of her days.
She walked into face of horror,
and I followed in her wake.
And I often wonder: How much does it take
’til you’ve given all the love that’s in your heart
and there’s nothing in its place?

As I drove back into Hainesville,
I was thinking of the days
when my dreams went on forever
as I ran through the fields off Scudder’s Lane.

I’m afraid of the momentum
that can take you to the edge of a cliff,
where you look out and see nothing
and you ask, is that all there is?

Still, I drove back out of Hainesville
and I asked myself again:
Will there ever come a day
when you drive back home to stay?
Could you ever settle down and be a happy man
in one of the houses that they’re building
through the fields off Scudder’s Lane?

*According to the group’s website, The Fruitful Acre, an EP of another live performance, Live at Waterloo, was issued in 1997. Newer items include a DVD of performances from a 2009 reunion, and an mp3-only release from 2011 titled Grrrrrrrr. My list of music to acquire just got longer.

**I should note that the track is a favorite despite the wince-inducing “Me and Lisa” at the beginning.

‘Ten’

Friday, May 31st, 2013

Sorting for the word “ten” in the titles of the 68,000 mp3s is a difficult process, perhaps the most difficult so far in our March Of The Integers. The RealPlayer lists 1,632 mp3s with that letter combination somewhere in the indexed information. And few of those titles in that listing can be used.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as recorded by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment? Gone, just like the Allman Brothers Band’s album Enlightened Rogues. Any music tagged as easy listening is also dismissed, which wipes out entire catalogs from artists like Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, the Baja Marimba Band, Ray Conniff & The Singers, Ferrante & Teicher, Percy Faith and of course (in a double stroke), my entire collection of Hugo Montenegro’s music.

Anything with the name of the state of Tennessee in its title has to be set aside, from the Dykes Magic City Trio’s 1927 version of “Tennessee Girls” to the Secret Sisters’ 2010 track “Tennessee Me.” We also lose anything tagged as having been recorded in the state, from Clarence “Tom” Ashley’s 1929 recording of “Coo Coo Bird” to Johnny Cash’s 1974 take on “Ragged Old Flag.” And we eliminate as well several albums: The Tennessee Tapes by the Jonas Fjeld Band, Easin’ Back to Tennessee by Colin Linden and Tennessee Pusher by the Old Crow Medicine Show.

Marc Cohn’s 2010 album of covers, Listening Booth: 1970 is gone, as are the single tracks “Lisa, Listen To Me” by Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Listen to the Wind” by Jack Casady, “Listen to Me” by Buddy Holly, “Listen Here” by Richard “Groove” Holmes and “Listen To The Flowers Growing” by Artie Wayne, among many others.

We’ll also have to avoid everything with the word “tender” in it, including the Bee Gees “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” Blue Öyster Cult’s “Tenderloin,” all of Jackson Browne’s album The Pretender, Trisha Yearwood’s “Bartender’s Blues,” and six versions of the classic song “Tenderly,” including Sam “The Man” Taylor’s sweet 1960 saxophone cover.

Lastly, we must pass over the marvelously titled 1945 R&B number “Voo-It! Voo-It!” by Marion (The Blues Woman) Abernathy. As well as having a great title, it’s a decent record that showed up in the list only because an appended comment noted that it was co-written – there’s the “ten” – by Buddy Banks and William “Frosty” Pyles. I am now determined to feature it in this space someday soon.

So what are we left with? Well, there are likely several tracks with the word “ten” hidden in the middle of their titles, but we’ll go the easy route from here and land on six tracks that start with the word. And we have about twenty to choose from, so we should come up with something interesting.

We have covers of a Gordon Lightfoot tune by Tony Rice and Nanci Griffith. We’ll go with Griffith’s version of “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder” from her 1993 album of covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms. The album is well worth finding; the highlights also include Griffith’s takes on John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather.” Griffith reprised the idea in 1998 with Other Voices, Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful), an album that starts with a Fairport Convention bang: covers of Richard Thompson’s “Wall of Death” and Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes.”

The Miller Sisters – Elsie Jo Miller and Mildred Miller Wages – were actually sisters-in-law from Tupelo, Mississippi. After performing with Elsie’s husband Roy Miller (being billed then as the Miller Trio), the women auditioned for Sun Records in Memphis. According to Wikipedia, “Producer Sam Phillips believed that the Millers’ vocal harmonies, complemented by the steel guitar solos of Stan Kesler and the percussive electric guitar of Quinton Claunch, would translate into significant record sales,” and the duo released a few country singles without much success. Those singles included “Ten Cats Down” from August of 1956, a rockabilly romp that features some nice harmonies. I found the track on the 2002 British compilation The Legendary Story of Sun Records.

We’ll stay with rockabilly for another record: “Ten Little Women” by Terry Noland. A Texas native, Noland – according to the website BlackCat Rockabilly – “attended the same school as Buddy Holly, and like Holly, most of his Brunswick records were produced by Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico.” Brunswick released “Ten Little Women” in 1957 and followed it with “Patty Baby.” The latter sold well in New York, says BlackCat Rockabilly, which led to Noland’s appearing “at the bottom of the bill on Alan Freed’s 1957 Holiday of Stars show at the Brooklyn Paramount.” The flip side of “Ten Little Women” was a tune called “Hypnotized,” which the Drifters covered and took to No. 79 in 1957. I found “Ten Little Women” in the massive That’ll Flat Git It collection of rockabilly released about twenty years ago.

One of the highlights of 2000 – around here, anyway – was the release of Riding With The King, the album that brought Eric Clapton and B.B. King into the studio together. The album’s highlights include takes on King classics like “Help the Poor” and “Three O’Clock Blues” and a shuffling duet on Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway,” a take that’s shorter and less intense but just as pleasurable as the legendary version Clapton recorded in 1970 with Derek & The Dominos. Today, however, it’s “Ten Long Years” that draws our attention. The version King recorded for the RPM label in 1955 went to No. 9 on the R&B chart; the version from Riding is longer but, again, no less pleasurable.

Led Zeppelin was never high on my list of favorite bands; I imagine the band’s excesses – in all ways – put me off. These days, the group’s music is more accessible (and no doubt my tastes have broadened), and there’s no doubt the band’s legendary misbehaviors are far less shocking when viewed from the perspective of today’s libertine culture. So I’ve heard more Zeppelin in the past fifteen years than I likely did in the years way back, but there are still surprises: The aching “Ten Years Gone” from 1975’s Physical Graffiti is one of them. The track was tucked into the second disc of the two-LP album, but I came across it after finding two concise anthologies – Early Days and Latter Days – at a garage sale a couple of years ago. And it’s a pleasant interlude as we wander toward our last stop of the morning.

I don’t know a lot about the Canadian group Steel River. The group was from the Toronto area and got a deal in 1970 from Canada’s Tuesday Records, according to Wikipedia. “Ten Pound Note” was the group’s first single; the record ended up reaching the Canadian Top Ten and was No. 79 in Canada for the year of 1970. I found the single a few years ago when I came across a rip of the group’s only album, Weighin’ Heavy. It’s a decent single, and, given that songs with “eleven” in their titles are rare – I have only four of them among the 68,000 on the mp3 shelves – it’s not a bad place to end the March Of The Integers.

Dinner’s On Me!

Thursday, March 29th, 2012

How about a five-course meal?

“Cheese & Crackers” by Rosco Gordon is our appetizer. This disjointed, stop-and-start track from 1956 came to me on the two-CD set The Legendary Story of Sun Records, and I admit it’s confused me. At points it sounds like classic rock ’n’ roll, at other moments I hear rockabilly (and neither of those would be startling for Sun Records in 1956) and then I hear something else. A hint of what that is might come from a comment on Gordon by Bryan Thomas at All-Music Guide:

Rosco Gordon was best known for being one of the progenitors of a slightly shambolic, loping style of piano shuffle called “Rosco’s Rhythm.” The basic elements of this sound were further developed after Jamaican musicians got a hold of 45s Gordon recorded in the early ’50s – which were not available to Jamaicans until 1959 – and created ska, which took its name for the sound of this particular shuffle as it sounded being played on an electric guitar (ska-ska-ska).

“Soup For One” by Chic is the soup course. It’s a fairly straightforward serving from the R&B/disco group that producers and musicians Bernard Edwards and Nile Rogers loosed on the world in the late 1970s. While not nearly as propulsive as “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” or “Le Freak” from their early days, “Soup For One” glides nicely across the floor. The 1982 release – the title song from the movie Soup For One – went to No. 80 on the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 14 on the R&B chart), the last charting single for the group.

“Poke Salad Annie” by Little Milton is the salad course for those who prefer greens. It’s a fine cover of the Tony Joe White swamp song from Little Milton’s 1994 album, I’m A Gambler. There’d been a time when Little Milton was a pretty regular presence on the charts, with thirteen records in or near the Hot 100 between 1965 and 1972 and twenty-one records on the R&B chart between 1962 and 1976. Even when the hits dried up, though, Little Milton kept on working, releasing twenty-three more albums from 1981 until 2005, when he passed on at the age of 70. And no, I don’t know why Little Milton (or whoever made the decision) spelled the song “Poke Salad Annie” instead of the original title of “Polk Salad Annie.” Makes no difference; Little Milton kills it.

“Memphis Women & Chicken” by T. Graham Brown is our main course. I mentioned Brown’s version of the Dan Penn song a couple of years ago, when I wrote about all the songs I have that mention Memphis in their titles. Greasy, juicy and a little bit sly, this track from Brown’s 1998 album Wine Into Water is a tasty main dish for this musical dinner. I’ve only heard a little bit of Brown’s work – one full CD and a few other tracks – but his name is high on my list of artists to listen to further.

“Chocolate Cake” by Crowded House is one of our two dessert choices. Even though it’s snarky and surreal, this track from 1991’s Woodface nevertheless has that Crowded House sound to it, a glossy finish that the Finn brothers lay on most everything I’ve ever heard from them. The pop culture references date the song considerably, placing it in a post-Soviet and pre-9/11 niche, which makes its ironic shadings seem like more of a pose than anything thoughtful. Or maybe the record was itself an ironic comment on post-Soviet irony. And then again, it might have been just a record.

“Ice Cream” by Sarah McLachlan is our alternate dessert. What better way to close out dinner than with a light, jazzy and sweet love song? “Your love is better than ice cream . . . It’s a long way down to the place where we started from,” McLachlan sings. “Your love is better than chocolate.” That’s pretty damned good, and with this sweet tune from 1993’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, our meal is over. I’ll take care of the bill.

Saturday Single No. 256

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

The plan for today was to return to the game of “Jump!” Along with Odd and Pop – my two imaginary tuneheads – I was going to go through the Billboard Top 40 from September 24, 1966 – forty-five years ago today – to see which record had moved the greatest number of places in the previous week.

The winner of that little game would have been the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” That’s a fine record, but it’s nearly the end of September, and I’m not in a summertime mood. So we’ll pass on that one and do something we haven’t done for a bit here: Go random through the RealPlayer and take the sixth record as today’s feature.

First up is “Tortured, Tangled Hearts,” a track from the Dixie Chicks’ 2002 album Home. The album, according to Wikipedia, was written and produced while the members of the country/bluegrass trio were in a conflict with Sony and were mostly spending their times at their Texas homes. Thus, I imagine, the CD’s title. Anyway, “Tortured, Tangled Hearts” is an up-tempo lament about the vagaries of love. But there’s plenty of banjo and fiddle, so it’s a good way to start our search.

And we stay in a country mode on our second stop of the day, moving from 2002 back some fifty-five years to Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over.” I found it on a compilation of twenty of Williams’ hits, and the notes tell me that the tune was recorded in August 1947 at the Tulane Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. Issued on the MGM label and credited to – I believe – Hank Williams & His Drifting Cowboys, the record only turned out to be the first of Williams’ forty singles to hit the country Top 40 (the last seven of them coming after his death on New Year’s Day 1953). “Move It On Over” went to No. 4 on the country chart.

Next up is a 1973 cover of Sylvester Stewart’s “Family Affair” by MFSB, the Philadelphia instrumental ensemble brought together by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The track comes from MFSB, the group’s first album, which All-Music Guide describes as “more of a soul-funk mix than the kind of disco for which the band would become known with their [sic] ‘T.S.O.P.’ hit.” That hit would reach the charts in March 1974, the year after the band funked around with this pretty good cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s No. 1 hit from 1971.

Our fourth stop this morning takes us back even further than our 1947 stop in Nashville. In 1930, as the Great Depression was gathering steam, country musician Carson Robinson penned “Poor Man’s Heaven,” a tune offering rewards – “ham and egg trees that grow by a lake full of beer” – and vengeance – “the millionaire’s son won’t have so much fun when we put him to shoveling dirt” – for those laid low by hard times. The tune was recorded by Robinson and Frank Luther (performing as Bud Billings) in New York City in April of 1930. The record’s title was later used as the title of a collection of Depression-era songs released in 2003, one of eleven CDs in the fascinating series When The Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll.

Ray LaMontagne is one of the more interesting of the performers who’s emerged in the last ten years. With a voice that AMG describes as “a huskier, sandpaper version of Van Morrison and Tim Buckley,” LaMontagne makes his way through literate and tuneful songs that I find more than enjoyable. “Sarah,” from LaMontagne’s 2008 album Gossip in the Grain, is a flowing and sweet look back – “Sarah, is it ever going to be the same?” – that has AMG referencing Morrison again: “Echoes of . . . Astral Weeks are apparent in the gorgeous chamber jazz.” It’s our fifth stop this morning.

When Neil Young recorded his Unplugged album for MTV in February 1993, one of the tunes that showed up in his set was “Stringman,” an obscure song that was an outtake during the 1970s sessions that resulted in American Stars ’N Bars. (It showed up in a longer studio version on the Chrome Dreams bootleg in 1992.) Obscure it may be, but it’s a gorgeous song both in its bootlegged studio incarnation and in the unplugged version that Young offered for the MTV session. Add the fact that it’s a heartfelt salute to Stephen Stills, and that’s a fine place to end up this morning, with “Stringman” as our Saturday Single.

Saturday Single No. 233

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

When it comes to music, it feels like I’m always a decade or two behind.

The Seventies saw me trying to keep up with current stuff while at the same time trying to absorb the stuff I’d missed in the Sixties. The Eighties saw me catching up with stuff I’d missed in the Seventies and – for a few years, anyway – pointedly ignoring current tunes, fads and fashion. For much of the Nineties, I was in another musical world, digging as deeply as I could into Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and their musical forebears in the Delta.

So I missed a lot. I think.

That’s why I was intrigued yesterday during a trip to the main branch of our regional public library. Wandering through the area where the CDs are stored, I was checking out the box sets on the shelves below the cabinets. Some – like the Patsy Cline set – I’d already borrowed. Some – like the complete works of Big Star – left me unexcited.

And then I found Whatever: The 90s Pop & Culture Box. A 2005 Rhino compilation, the seven-CD box set offers one-hundred and thirty tracks ranging from M.C. Hammer’s 1990 hit “U Can’t Touch This” to Moby’s 1999 concoction “Natural Blues.” There’s a book, of course, with notes on the tracks and essays on the decade and its zeitgeist. In the limited editions, I understand, there was a bag of coffee beans. That’s gone, and I wonder if someone in the library had themselves some coffee when the set came in six years ago.

Coffee beans aside, I’m looking forward to digging into the tunes and the book. There will be some familiar stuff, I’m certain. After all, some tunes and trends overwhelm all facets of the culture to the point where even the most clueless is aware of them. Example: Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” a version of which was No. 1 for fourteen weeks in 1996. Be assured: Even though I heard the single, I never learned the dance,

There are some gaps in the box set. One of the reviews I read this morning noted the glaring absence of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Given the iconic nature of that record, I can only assume there was a licensing issue or similar problem. And I expect there are likely a few other aspects of the decade given short shrift, either for legal or editorial reasons.

As I look at the book and the CDs lying on my table, I do wonder whether it’s too soon to accurately gauge the decade and its popular culture. It may be. But I imagine that Whatever (and that’s a perfect title for the set) is a good place to start. And, even though I’ll continue to focus here mostly on the music of the Sixties and Seventies, I imagine that some of the tunes might find their ways into this space at one time or another.

Part of my interest in the Whatever set also stems from my stop Thursday afternoon at the first garage sale of the season. There wasn’t much there. Well, there were a lot of CDs, but they’d been put in paper sleeves. The woman there said that the CD cases and the inserts and booklets “just took up too much space.” Okay. Anyway, I found one CD in its case with all the pieces intact: Chumbawamba’s Tubthumper. It was priced at twenty-five cents.

So the combination of hearing the infectious “Tubthumping” once more – I did hear it back in 1997 – and finding the box set at the library has gotten me interested in catching up at least a little with the stuff I missed while I was catching up on earlier stuff. And as long as I was noting that here, I thought I’d jump ahead to the midpoint of the box set and see what tracks lay there.

I found “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms. The group’s first Top 40 hit, it went to No. 25 in October 1993. And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Happy Anniversary!

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

I dithered a little bit over the past few days about what to do here today. I thought about doing some chart-digging, but the years when a chart came out on October 26 didn’t interest me, at least not today. So I started thinking, trying to figure out how else October 26 might be important.

And then I realized that it’s our wedding anniversary. It was three years ago today that the Texas Gal and I went down to the courthouse and said our vows, formalizing in the state’s eyes what had been a fait accompli in our hearts for some time. Now, I’m not in any trouble for not remembering our anniversary; neither of us has been good about recalling the day over the past three years. But I recalled it last night and mentioned it to the Texas Gal, and we decided not to do any major celebrating.

What I am going to do, however, now that I’ve recalled it, is take a look back at the records that were at No. 26 on October 26 on selected years in the past. The data I have from Billboard ends in 2004, so we’ll be skipping 2007, which is probably just fine. We’ll start our October 26 adventure in 1997:

The No. 26 record thirteen years ago today was “My Body” by LSG. The debut single from the group’s first album, Levert Sweat Gill, “My Body” peaked at No. 4 in the Hot 100 and was No. 1 on the R&B chart for seven weeks. I don’t recall hearing it, but that’s not surprising.

 

From there, we head back another ten years, to 1987, and we find ourselves on more familiar ground. The No. 26 song twenty-three years ago was John Mellencamp’s “Paper in Fire,” taken from The Lonesome Jubilee, an album I still listen to occasionally and enjoy. The record peaked in the Hot 100 at No. 9 and was No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart for one week.

Back another ten years, and we’re in 1977: The No. 26 record as October 1977 was drawing to a close was Dave Mason’s “We Just Disagree.” Taken from Mason’s Let It Flow album, “We Just Disagree” went as high as No. 12, the first of two Top 40 hits for the former member of Traffic. (Mason’s cover of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” went to No. 39 in 1978.) While far removed from the sounds of Traffic and not quite as good as Mason’s great solo debut from 1970, Alone Together, “We Just Disagree” and Let It Flow are good listening.

As October 1967 drew to a close, forty years before we would be married, I was fourteen and in ninth grade at St. Cloud’s South Junior High while the Texas Gal was ten years old and in – I believe – fifth grade in Garland, Texas. The No. 26 song – which I don’t recall from the time (and I would guess she doesn’t, either) was “Pata Pata” by the great South African singer Miriam Makeba. Originally recorded – if I have my information correct – in 1956, “Pata Pata” would peak at No. 12.

And so we head back toward October 1957. As it turns out, the Billboard Hot 100 for that week was released on October 26, fifty-three years ago today. The No. 26 record on that chart was “Remember You’re Mine” by Pat Boone, one of his thirty-eight Top 40 hits. The record had peaked at No. 20 on the Hot 100, but the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits credits it with a peak position of No. 6, based on its performance on one of the other charts of the time.

That record was on the radio, of course, when I was four and had no clue there was such a thing as the Hot 100. It’s a time I only dimly recall, though I do have a memory from early that month of my dad and me lying in the grass in our backyard, scanning the sky in vain for a glimpse of the tiny Soviet satellite Sputnik. At the same time, there was an infant in Texas just beginning her journey, one that would eventually pair her with that sky-scanning little boy from Minnesota. And though October 26 would be an important date for them, none of those records really resonate. But this one by Darden Smith, from his 1993 album Little Victories, does:

Happy anniversary, honey.

‘With A Blue Moon In Your Eyes . . .’

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

I wonder how huge the eureka moment was when the producers of the television series The Sopranos came across the song “Woke Up This Morning” by the English group Alabama 3.

I can only imagine that the producers, trying to find a theme song that summed up mob boss Tony Soprano and his messy, conflicted, ordinary and brutal life, just stared at the speakers the first time they heard the track, with its odd and compelling mix of hip-hop, electronica and Americana. I’m sure those producers felt that the Alabama 3 song had just been waiting for them to discover it and provide it with a home.

And that’s what happened. For six seasons, stretching between January 1999 and June of 2007, an edit of the song led off each of the eighty-six episodes of one of television’s greatest dramas. Viewers would have been forgiven for thinking that that song was written for The Sopranos when it was actually released in 1997 on Alabama 3’s first album, Exile On Coldharbour Lane.

And viewers would also have been forgiven for thinking that Alabama 3 was an American group, when it was actually a product of England. To be honest, the band’s history is strange enough that I’m just going to turn to the account by Garth Cartwright at All-Music Guide:

“Alabama 3 was one of the oddest musical outfits to arise from late-’90s London, but also one of the most original. The band’s origins are shrouded in urban myth — the band likes to claim that the three core members met in rehab, while their Southern accents have many believing they are from the U.S. state of Alabama, although it appears vocalists Rob Spragg and Jake Black met at a London rave when Spragg heard Black singing Hank Williams’ ‘Lost Highway.’ Bonding, they set out about creating an agenda of Americana, electronica, leftist politics, and laughter. Joined by DJ Piers Marsh, the trio issued two 12” dance singles that combined their interest in gospel and country music, yet these went over the heads of the London dance scene. In Italy, where Spragg and Black began singing Howlin’ Wolf songs over Marsh mixes, the idea of the band began to take shape and back in Brixton, South London, they recruited a crew of musicians to shape their vision. This, combined with brilliantly theatrical live shows, meant the band attracted a huge South London following long before they had a record deal.”

Cartwright calls Exile On Coldharbour Lane “a groundbreaking work that effortlessly fused gospel, country, blues, and house music,” a style dubbed “chemical country.” While the British press – then caught up in what Cartwright calls its “infatuation with Britpop” – tended to ignore the group, the use of “Woke Up This Morning” in The Sopranos brought some popularity in the U.S. Unfortunately, that popularity brought legal action as well, says Cartwright, as the country group Alabama sued over the group’s name, which means that in the U.S., Alabama 3 is now known as A3.

Since its odd beginnings, Alabama 3 has continued to record and release albums, the most recent being Revolver Soul, which came out last May. I’ve not listened to much of their catalog, but the group’s approach is still novel, based on both the quotes from followers cited at the group’s website and on the tag line on the ad there for Revolver Soul: “Soul Music With A Gun Against Your Head.”

Sounds like something Tony Soprano would listen to.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 32
“Follow” by Richie Havens from Mixed Bag [1967]
“Back Stabbers” by the O’Jays, Philadelphia International 3517 [1972]
“Smoke On The Water” by Deep Purple, Warner Bros. 7710 [1973]
“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum 11034 [1974]
“Bittersweet” by Big Head Todd & the Monsters from Sister Sweetly [1993]
“Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama 3, Geffen International 22302 [1997]

Television brought me another great recording a few years before I first heard “Woke Up This Morning.” One Sunday evening in May 1998, the law drama The Practice closed its season-ending episode with Richie Havens’ sublime “Follow” as the backing track. I recognized the voice but not the song, and as the last scenes played out, I went to the record stacks – the total number of records was then about 1,600 – and was stunned to find no Richie Havens. I grabbed a pen and piece of paper and jotted down “Follow” – that had to be the title of the song, I assumed – and over the next few weeks, I sought out and bought several of Havens’ albums, finally finding “Follow” on Mixed Bag at the end of July. Since then, I’ve continued to buy Havens’ albums on LP and on CD, but nothing I’ve ever heard from him – and he’s one of my favorites – is as good as “Follow.”

“They smile in your face; all the time they wanna take your place: The back-stabbers!” That warning couplet, following a lush and haunting string introduction laid on a bed of spooky percussion, brought the O’Jays to the attention of the world, or at least the portion of the world that listened to Top 40 radio in 1972.  Those who listened to R&B, however, had known the group since at least 1967, when “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)” went to No. 8 on the R&B Singles chart, the first of eight O’Jays records to reach that chart before “Back Stabbers” was released. Seven of those early R&B charting singles – and one that did not make the R&B chart – had also reached the Billboard Hot 100, but until “Back Stabbers” came along, none had pushed into the Top 40. From 1972 through 1980, however, the O’Jays saw nine singles reach the Top 40, while even more reached the R&B, Disco, Dance and related charts from 1972 into 2004. There’s a lot of good work in that catalog – I particularly like the gospel version of the Bob Dylan title song on 1991’s Emotionally Yours – but not many of the O’Jays records sound better than that first major hit: “What can I do to get on the right track? I wish they’d take some of these knives off my back!”

I’ve never been much of a Deep Purple fan, but there was no escaping “Smoke On The Water” during the summer of 1973, when it went to No. 4. And the record, with its iconic opening riff, is here in my Ultimate Jukebox for a time and place moment: Sometime during late July or early August of that summer, many of us who would spend the next school year in Denmark through St. Cloud State got together for a picnic at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. At one point during that evening, I was standing at the base of Minnehaha Falls – the waterfall that gives the large park its name – talking for the first time with a young woman who would turn out to be a very important part of my next nine months. Some distance away, another group of picnickers had a music source of some kind, and in that moment, those distant picnickers were listening to “Smoke On The Water.” Ever since, that opening riff puts me back at the base of Minnehaha Falls during the first tentative moments of a friendship that for a while became something else.

I wrote a while back that I thought that “Help Me” was Joni Mitchell’s best work, noting that I found much of her post-Seventies records difficult to listen to. Some readers encouraged me to try those works again, suggesting specific albums. I’ve done some of that listening, and although much of that later work is still challenging, it’s not as entirely drear as I had thought. But I still think “Help Me,” which went to No. 7 in June of 1974 (No. 1 for a week on the Adult Contemporary chart), is the best thing she ever did.

I imagine I first heard the long strummed groove of “Bittersweet” on the radio, likely Cities 97, but wherever I heard it, I liked the song by Big Head Todd & the Monsters enough that – in a time when vinyl releases were rare and I had no CD player – I went out and bought the album on cassette, a format I tended to avoid. I think it was the long slow groove of the song that pulled me in, but it’s the story in the lyrics that keeps the track – which went to No. 14 on the Mainstream Rock chart – near the top of my list of favorites. 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.

It Can Still Make Me Smile

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

According to the eighth edition of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits – which covers the years from 1955 through 2003 – the group Chicago had thirty-five Top 40 hits, with twenty of those reaching the Top Ten. According to that same volume, Chicago was the nineteenth most successful act of those years from 1955 through 2003.

(The top five? Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Elton John, Madonna and Stevie Wonder.)

My shelves are stocked with plenty of the group’s records – thirteen of them, ranging from 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority through 1982’s Chicago 16. A few of those are duplicated on CD and in the mp3 files, and a few other Chicago albums exist here only as mp3s. But I listen purposely to very little of all that music these days. If something pops up on random on the RealPlayer, that’s fine. On the rare occasion that I pop a Chicago CD into the player, it’s almost always Chicago Transit Authority or its two follow-ups, Chicago and Chicago III. And I skip a lot of the tracks on those albums.

But there was a time during the years 1970 to about 1973 when I thought that Chicago’s music was just about the best thing this side of a lobster dinner. I loved Chicago – the silver album often called “Chicago II” – and played all four sides frequently. A little later on, I bought and liked most of Chicago Transit Authority and played that one a little less often than the follow-up but still with some frequency. I did not own Chicago III, but a college pal did, and I taped his copy and enjoyed it, too.

The group performed at St. Cloud State during the spring of 1970; I got there late because of an orchestra concert, but Rick had somehow managed to save me a place. I didn’t recognize everything the guys played; I owned Chicago but I’d heard only portions of Chicago Transit Authority. Even so, it was a great show. Sometime around 10:30 or so, the band started an encore; forty-five minutes later, that encore was still underway when Rick and I had to leave to meet our parental curfews. (I was a high school junior and he was a sophomore; half past eleven was pretty late for a school night in 1970.)

That show still ranks pretty high on my list of concerts I’ve attended, probably in the top five.

And then, my fascination with Chicago went away. It took some time, of course, but I think the first blow was the release in 1971 of Chicago IV: Live at Carnegie Hall, a bloated four-record set of what to my ears were ragged and mediocre performances. (I didn’t buy it until years later; Rick bought it when it came out and we listened to it at his place, and I remember our looking at each other and shaking our heads as the shabby record played.)  Chicago V came out in 1972, and then, once a year, the group dropped another album onto the table, VI, VII and VIII into 1975. And I didn’t buy any of them. (At least not when they came out; as I said above, I have a good number of Chicago LPs, but most of those came home in the 1990s, when I was buying a lot of everything, and for the most part, they’ve stayed on the shelves after being played once.)

I heard the hits, of course: “Saturday In The Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Just You ’N’ Me,” “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” and on and on. None of them grabbed me at all. I thought as I heard them that the band had lost any sense of direction beyond the goal of another Top 40 hit. The inventive arrangements, the interplay of the horns with the other instruments and with each other, the drive and fire I’d heard in the first three albums – all of that was gone. And I gave up on Chicago. I’ve listened to very little of what the group has done in the years since.

And as the band – in my eyes, anyway – got fat and happy, I occasionally thought about the pledge that the members of Chicago had made in the notes to their second album: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution . . . and the revolution in all of its forms.” I don’t know if I ever took those words seriously, but I have to assume the band did when they were printed inside the record jacket. Did the members of Chicago keep that promise? I’ve realized over the years that it’s not my place to decide, and I wonder if I would want to be called to account for promises I made when I was in my mid-twenties. But then again, I never put any of those promises on a record jacket almost certain to be seen by millions of people.

All of this may seem a bit disjointed, but I’ve never put my thoughts about Chicago into any kind of order before, and as I’ve been writing, I’ve begun to think that I may revisit the group’s output to see if it was better than I think it was. And I realize as well that my early passion for the group might have kept me from making critical judgments. I think now that those first three albums could have used an editor: Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago and Chicago III would likely have been better as single-record albums than the double albums they were. (Fodder for some posts down the road, perhaps.)

Even with all that, the band in its early years provided some transcendent moments: The first that comes to mind is the nearly side-long “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon,” from which were pulled the wedding standard “Colour My World” and the group’s first hit single, “Make Me Smile.” Then there’s “Beginnings,” with its glorious horns, great vocals and the long percussion fade out.

And finally, there is that first hit single, an edit of “Make Me Smile” that never fails to do just that, no matter where I am when it comes out of the speakers. When I first heard it as it headed to No. 9 during the spring of 1970, I thought to myself that I’d never heard anything like it. And forty years later, with the record as familiar as the grey in my beard, I still feel the same way.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 23
“Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, Atco 6185 [1961]
“Make Me Smile” by Chicago, Columbia 45127 [1970]
“Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers Band from Live at Fillmore East [1971]
“Stop Breaking Down” by the Rolling Stones from Exile on Main St [1972]
“In A Daydream” by the Freddy Jones Band from Waiting For The Night [1993]
“Twilight” by Danko/Fjeld/Andersen from Ridin’ On The Blinds [1994]

Looking for a version of “Spanish Harlem” to celebrate, I imagine that lots of folks would choose Aretha Franklin’s imaginative 1971 cover, which went to No. 2. But there’s something I prefer about Ben E. King’s original, which went to No. 10 in early 1961. Maybe it’s the tropical lilt brought out by the marimba during the introduction and throughout the record, maybe it’s the baion bass provided by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector), maybe it’s King’s hushed, almost serene vocal, or maybe it’s the saxophone solo. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it makes Spanish Harlem into a place I wish I’d seen through the eyes of all of those involved.

There’s little doubt, I would think, that the Allman Brothers Band album Live at Fillmore East is one of the greatest live albums ever, showing a ground-breaking band at the peak of its existence. (Looking at the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time published in 2003 by Rolling Stone, the only live album placed ahead of Live at Fillmore East is James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, which certainly makes sense.) And the Allmans’ opening number – presented on the album with the laconic introduction intact – was a fiery interpretation of Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” I won’t say that “Statesboro Blues” was the best performance on the album; I might give that accolade to the long versions of “Whipping Post” or “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” but it still strikes me as ballsy to open a show with a song that you’ve not already released, a song that might not be all that familiar to the audience. And then, in the terms of a jukebox, which is what we’re theoretically discussing here, “Statesboro Blues,” allows the band to put on display all its stellar attributes – a tough and supple rhythm section, superb lead guitar work, great bluesy vocals and more – in the concise running time of just more than four minutes.

Amid all the hoopla about its re-release a few weeks ago, I realized that it took me a long time to appreciate the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. I’d thought the singles, “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” were murky and indistinct when I heard them during the spring and summer of 1972, and I thought I’d give the album a pass. A year later, a friend of mine was clearing space on his record shelves and handed me his copy of Exile. I was glad to have it, but at the time, I wouldn’t have put it on my list of essential listens. I’m not exactly sure when the album got on to that figurative list, but it was sometime during the mid-1990s when I spent a few weeks listening to Exile on Main St back-to-back-to-back with the Robert Johnson box set and some 1950s recordings by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And the track that has always jumped up as my favorite – the first of two Rolling Stones recordings in the Ultimate Jukebox – is the cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down.” (A note on the title of the album, which I’ve long offered incorrectly as Exile on Main Street: The LP jacket has it as Exile on Main St, while my CD copy adds a period to make it Exile on Main St. Finally correcting myself this morning, I went with the original presentation from the vinyl.)

I learned about the Freddy Jones Band when the group’s music showed up from time to time during the 1990s on the Minneapolis station Cities 97. In those pre-CD player days, I found on quiet evenings that I could get lost in the band’s “In A Daydream,” which comes from the group’s 1993 album Waiting for the Night. Later on, when I picked up that CD and another by the group, I found a number of other songs that have the same effect. But “In A Daydream” remains my favorite among them and can still pull me away to somewhere else. And there are far worse ways to spend an evening.

The Band recorded at least two versions of “Twilight,” one of Robbie Robertson’s most elegiac songs in a career filled with elegies. There was the sprightly version released on the 1976 anthology Best of The Band with Rick Danko handling the lead vocal. Then there’s a slower version that opens with Levon Helm singing the chorus before Danko handles the verses; that one showed up as a bonus track on the Islands CD and might be the version released as a single on Capitol 4316. (Does anyone out there know which version was the single?) The slower take is better than the version on The Best of The Band. But it’s Danko who recorded the best available version of the song during his work in Norway with Eric Andersen and Norwegian performer Jonas Fjeld. That version, on the trio’s second CD, Ridin’ on the Blinds, is closer in tempo to the faster of the two versions by The Band, but it has a sorrowful, reflective quality that the earlier versions seem to have missed. And along with the Norwegian musicians that back the titular trio, “Twilight” also has keyboard parts supplied by Danko’s former Band-mate Garth Hudson.

(I noticed something odd while researching “Twilight” this morning. Most listings at All-Music Guide credit the piece to Robertson alone, but some links also give writing credit to Wynton Marsalis and Michael Mason. Does anyone out there know the story behind that?)

Amended slightly since first being posted.