Archive for the ‘1958’ Category

Chart Digging: March 15, 1958

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

We don’t spend a lot of time here back in the 1950s. The main reason for that is that I don’t remember much about the decade. I was six and in first grade when the calendar flipped from 1959 to 1960, and I have a few specific memories from that school year – and from kindergarten the year before – but other than those, I have just vague impressions of the last years of that decade.

As for Odd and Pop, I have no idea where they were or what they were up to back then. Probably complicating the life of an aspiring folk musician in a small college town somewhere. I can hear Pop saying, “Enunciate! Quit dropping those g’s!” while Odd tells him, “Bongo drums and some bird calls would work well with that.”

But we are in the 1950s today (although likely without either bongos or bird calls). Why?

Well, I was digging this morning into the Billboard charts from March 15 over the years, planning on playing Games With Numbers with today’s date and checking out the No. 35 record from four or so charts from 1958 to 1980, and then I dug into the Top 100 from March 15, 1958. (It would be called the Hot 100 beginning that August).

And that week, there was no record at No. 35. Instead, three records were tied at No. 33. Close enough, I thought, noting that the three records offer three different levels of success and consequent fame: One megastar, one well-remember performer, and one obscure and perhaps mostly forgotten group.

The first of the three records at No. 33 in that chart from fifty-nine years ago was from Ricky Nelson, whose “Stood Up” had already peaked, spending three weeks at No. 2, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles. It was Nelson’s fourth Top Ten record; sixteen more singles and four EPs would also hit the Top Ten. “Stood Up” also went to No. 4 on the Billboard R& B chart and to No. 5 on the magazine’s country chart. Beyond that, there’s not a lot new to say here because, hey, he was Ricky Nelson, and we pretty much all know the story.

Listed second among the three records tied during that long-ago week was “Betty and Dupree” from Chuck Willis, which was at its peak. The record was a trimmed and decriminalized version of a blues song based on a 1919 robbery of a jewelry store in Atlanta that had been recorded in various versions since at least 1931. Willis, who’s nevertheless credited as the writer on single labels I’ve seen, dropped the robbery, Dupree’s arrest, and his eventual hanging and made the tune a simple, swaying story of love that went to No. 15 on the R&B chart as well as peaking at No. 33 on the pop chart. It’s not the record for which the short-lived Willis is most remembered; that would likely be “C.C. Rider,” which went to No. 12 on the pop chart and to No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1957.

That’s all interesting enough, but – getting away from the original topic here – it turned out that “Betty and Dupree,” was the next-to-last record Willis saw reach the charts. The last was “Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes,” which entered the Top 100 on April 28, 1958, two days before Willis died from a bleeding ulcer. In one of life’s ironies, the B-side, “What Am I Living For,” hit the R&B chart a week later and the Top 100 a week after that, and would out-perform the A-side, peaking at No. 9 on the pop chart and spending a week on top of the R&B chart.

And then we get to the third of the records tied at No. 33 in that Top 100 from March 15, 1958: “7-11” by the Gone All Stars. Whitburn tells us that the tune is a rock version of Perez Prado’s 1950 record, “Mambo No. 5.” As to the Gone All Stars, Whitburn says they were studio musicians led by black sax player Buddy Lucas. (Lucas’ entry at Wikipedia includes a brief and incomplete listing of his work as a leader and sideman from the years 1952 to 1976 and also offers the thought that Lucas was “possibly more famous for his session work on harmonica.”) The record was released on the Gone label – as were at least one other single and an EP by the group – and for me, the fact that the group was seemingly named for the label takes some of the Fifties-era hipness out of the group’s name.

‘Let Me Tell The Story . . .’

Friday, August 19th, 2016

I was pondering this morning the transition during the 1960s of the place of record albums: If you look at the weekly Top Ten in the Billboard 200 from 1963 to, oh, 1969, you’ll see the top-selling albums went from being mostly the province of folk, easy listening and soundtracks to the land of pop, rock, R&B and soul.

That in itself is pretty old news, and I was trying to cobble together something interesting by comparing the top ten album charts from mid-August of 1963, 1966 and 1969. But as I examined the top ten albums from this week in 1963, I got sidetracked.

The top album that week was Little Stevie Wonder/The 12 Year Old Genius but as I had expected, most of the albums listed – seven of the ten – were soundtracks, comedy, folk or easy listening. One of the other exceptions was the immortal Live At The Apollo by James Brown.

The third outlier was Shut Down, a collection released by Capitol of tunes mostly about cars and motorcycles by various artists. That album offered two tracks by the Beach Boys, a bunch of tracks by groups with short shelf lives (the best of those might be the “Brontosaurus Stomp” by the Piltdown Men) and one track from actor Robert Mitchum. And it was that last track that grabbed my attention. Here’s “The Ballad of Thunder Road” by Robert Mitchum:

The scenes used in the video are from the 1958 film Thunder Road, which Mitchum co-wrote and produced (and perhaps partly directed, according to Wikipedia). Mitchum also co-wrote – with Don Raye – the song. But Mitchum’s version was not used in the movie. Instead, a folky version of the tune was recorded for the movie by Randy Sparks, who a few years later would be the founder of the New Christy Minstrels. Here’s Sparks’ version of the tune, which was titled “The Whippoorwill.”

As “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” Mitchum’s version of the theme was released as a single in 1958 and went to No. 62 in the Billboard Hot 100. Capitol tried again in early 1962, and the single topped out at No. 65. And then it showed up in 1963 on Shut Down, which was at its peak at No. 7 in that Billboard album chart from this week in 1963. (Mitchum would hit the Hot 100 one more time: “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” went to No. 96 during the summer of 1967.)

As to the 1958 movie, I’ve read in various places that it’s a cult classic, and beyond Mitchum’s single, it does have a place in music history: During a 1978 concert, Bruce Springsteen said that the poster for the film was the source of the title for his song “Thunder Road” although Springsteen evidently never saw the movie.

And all of that is enough for today.

Saturday Single No. 397

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

The kitchen is clean. The barbeque is in the fridge, waiting to be heated. Beverages are chilling, and snacks wait on the kitchen counter in and in the fridge.

All we need to do here is settle the cats upstairs for the day and open the door to my pals Rick, Rob and Schultz for a day of Strat-O-Matic baseball. It’s the first of two tournaments planned this year, an eight-team event ending in a best-of-three finals. Next fall, we’ll do the same thing; we have not yet decided if we will, as that autumn event ends, then have a best of three series to name a champion for the entire year.

That decision can wait until October or so. We have plenty to decide today. Rob’s 1920 Cleveland Indians are the defending champions, and he’s also bringing into the tournament for the first time the 1911 Philadelphia Athletics. Schultz is bringing back the 1927 Yankees – defending champions of his own autumn tournament in the Twin Cities but underachievers so far here in the north – and is debuting the 1924 Washington Senators.

Rick’s bringing in two new teams, the 1998 Yankees and the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies, and I’m bringing back the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks – a team that missed the finals two years ago because of a common managerial mistake: I let a tiring reliever pitch to one batter too many – and I’m debuting the 1905 New York Giants.

The baseball, as fun as it might be, is of course no more than a framework on which to hang our tales, our laughter, our long friendships. I’ve known Rick and Rob since 1957, and I’ve known Schultz since about 1970, and whoever wins and whoever loses today, well, it changes nothing. (On the other hand, your faithful narrator would like to win a tournament one of these days.)

And I’ll leave you this morning with a clip from the Ed Sullivan show from April 13, 1958. Ed gathered New York Yankees Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Moose Skowron and brought them together with Jack Norworth, one of the co-writers (fifty years earlier, along with Albert Von Tilzer) of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” The players and Norworth lead the audience in a spirited version of the old song, and the performance is today’s Saturday Single.

Out From The Sun, Part 2

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Having safely crossed the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars, we continue our trek outward from the Sun and approach Jupiter, the largest of the planets. Fittingly, our tune here is one that is related to spaceflight: A search for information about the 1958 instrumental “Jupiter-C” by Pat & The Satellites brings us, among others, a link to Wikipedia, where we learn that Jupiter-C was an American rocket used to test re-entry nosecones during three sub-orbital spaceflights in 1956 and 1957. The rocket, Wikipedia says, was one of those designed by the U.S. Army under the direction of Wernher Von Braun (whom I once met). The record spent four weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at No. 81, and as I check that out in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, I learn that the studio musicians who recorded “Jupiter-C” included the great King Curtis, whose sax is front and center for much of the record.

From Jupiter, we head on toward the beautiful rings of Saturn, and our tune is a Stevie Wonder track titled “Saturn” and found on Wonder’s 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life. The track was never used as even the B-side of a single, but the album was No. 1 for fourteen weeks, beginning in the middle of October 1976. And even though it’s an album that I heard frequently if not constantly in the spring of 1977 as I hung out with friends from the St. Cloud State student newspaper, I’m sad to say don’t recall “Saturn” and its message:

There’s no principles in what you say
No direction in the things you do
For your world is soon to come to a close
Through the ages all great men have taught
Truth and happiness just can’t be bought – or sold
Tell me why are you people so cold?


We’ll hang around
Saturn for a while yet and make a stop at Titan, the largest of Saturn’s many, many moons. And as we gaze at – as Wikipedia says – “the only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found,” we listen to “Sirens of Titan” by Al Stewart, a track from his 1975 album Modern Times. The album sold decently, reaching No. 30 on the Billboard 200, but that pales, of course, compared to the reception received by Stewart’s next two albums, Year Of The Cat and Time Passages, which went to No. 5 and No. 10, respectively. Sonically, Modern Times is similar to the next two albums – all three were produced by Alan Parsons – but it sounds to me just a shade thinner than Cat and Passages. Stewart’s voice is, of course, unmistakable.

And we find ourselves approaching Uranus, the planet whose name is the source of thousands of schoolboy giggles, some of which have found themselves attached to some sophomoric song titles. But we don’t need to go there. Digging through the mp3 files and related tunes this morning, we find “Uranus” by the Brunning/Hall Sunflower Blues Band. According to All Music Guide, Bob Brunning was the bassist for the band that became Fleetwood Mac, but was let go by Peter Green once John McVie had left John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers to join Green’s band. Brunning went on to teach and continue recording part-time, and he and pianist Bob Hall formed the Sunflower Blues Band. In 1969, the band, with some participation from Green, recorded the album Trackside Blues, which included the track “Uranus.” It’s a decent blues track, but its primary appeal this morning is its title.

Heading on, we stay in the realm of the gas giants and find ourselves at Neptune, with the music provided by Nicole Atkins, herself a native of Neptune, albeit the city in New Jersey instead of the distant planet. “Neptune City” was the title track to her 2007 solo debut album. As I wrote in 2010, the album is “lushly produced pop with some tricks and warbles that made it clear how much Atkins listened to – among other things – the Brill Building sounds of the early 1960s.” And it’s an album that I like very much, one that stays pretty close to the CD player that I use for late-night listening.

Pluto is either a planet or a dwarf planet, depending on which cadre of astronomers you talk to, but all I know is that it’s out there and we need to stop by on our way toward the edge of the Solar System. Music was hard to come by here, and we had to dig deep into the digital shelves before finding a song that originally came from a Dutch pop duo called Het Goede Doel. In 1982, the duo’s single “België (Is er leven op Pluto?)” – which translates to “Belgium (Is There Life On Pluto?)” – went to No. 4 in the Netherlands. According to Wikipedia, the duo also recorded a version of the song in English. I didn’t look for that, though, because I have a cover of the tune in its original Dutch by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, the Belgian girls choir that has popped up here at least once before. From a bonus disc included with the 2010 album Circle, here’s “België (Is er leven op Pluto?)”

‘I’ll See You In My Dreams . . .’

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

As noted in a couple of recent posts, the lovely Isham Jones/Gus Kahn song “I’ll See You In My Dreams” first showed up in 1925, recorded by Jones with the Ray Miller Orchestra, with Frank Besinger handling the vocal. According to Joel Whitburn in A Century Of Pop Music, the record was No. 1 for seven weeks starting the first week of April and wound up as the No. 3 record for the year (behind “The Prisoner’s Song” by Vernon Dalhart and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” by Gene Austin).

Covers naturally followed. While I don’t think that “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is necessarily one of the most-covered songs of all time, it’s nevertheless a song that’s stayed in the public ear: The list of covers at Second Hand Songs – a listing that’s not necessarily comprehensive but which probably provides a good cross-section and starting point – shows versions of the song from every decade since but the 1940s, and I’m not sure if there’s a reason for that gap or not. Add to those versions the other covers I’ve found at YouTube, and the song is clearly one that’s remained popular.

Since the middle of last week, I’ve been wandering through many versions of the song, and I’ve found quite a few I like. My pal Larry, who hangs his hat at the fine blog, Funky 16 Corners, recommended the 1930 cover by Ukulele Ike, otherwise known as Cliff Edwards. (Edwards, perhaps better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinnochio, covered the song again in 1956 on his album, Ukulele Ike Sings Again.) Another early cover that caught my ear was the 1937 version by Guy Lombardo. And jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt  gave the song a whirl in 1939.

Perhaps the most surprising of the covers I found was the nimble-fingered instrumental version by Jerry Lee Lewis, recorded during a session for Sun Records in 1958; the take was finally issued on a Sun collection LP in 1984 and since then on CD. Other versions I generally like from the 1950s and 1960s included covers by Henri René & His Orchestra (1956), the Mills Brothers (1960), The Ray Conniff Singers (1960), Cliff Richard (1961), the Lettermen (1963) and my man Al Hirt (1968).

The only version of the song to hit the modern charts was an unsurprisingly bland take from Pat Boone, whose 1962 cover went to No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 in and No. 9 on what is now called the Adult Contemporary chart.

Some versions baffle me (and you can easily find these – and others mentioned but not linked – at YouTube). I mean, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (1980)? Then there’s some very odd percussion and production in a 1965 effort by Vic Dana. And in 1975, the Pearls took the song to the disco.

There were some other interesting versions. I found a cover by the Paul Kuhn Orchestra that was released on LP in 1980, but it sounds very much like something Bert Kaempfert would have released in 1965 or so. (Kuhn passed on in September, and his death inspired one of the great headlines: “Paul Kuhn, German jazzman who lamented Hawaii’s lack of beer, has died.”) Chet Atkins, recording with Merle Travis, did a nice cover for the 1974 album, Atkins-Travis Traveling Show, although the linked video offers what seems to be a shorter version of the tune, as included on a later compilation.

Howard Alden did a very nice guitar version of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” ghosting for Sean Penn’s character Emmet Ray – a 1930s jazz guitar player – in Woody Allen’s 1999 film, Sweet and Lowdown.

And finally, one version that I like among the more recent covers is the faux-vintage and slightly rough-edged take from 2005 by folk singer Ingrid Michaelson along with singer (and ukulele player) Joan Moore.

‘Blue’

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

In some ways, “Blue” should be the easiest segment of the trip we’re calling Floyd’s Prism, a tour through the seven colors of the spectrum (with the addition of “Black” and “White”). A search by the RealPlayer brings up 9,764 mp3s that have the word “blue” somewhere in their song or album titles, in their performers’ names or in the genre tags than have been appended to them.

So we have, as often happens with these projects, plenty of material to choose from. Perhaps too much, because we have blues, lots of blues, both in song and album titles and in genre tags. And as much as I love the blues, they’re not what I’m looking for (unless, that is, I find a tune called something like “Ice Blue Blues” among those nine-thousand-some mp3s).

So, what do we winnow? Well, among the more interesting blues titles that we won’t be using are “Protoplasm Blues,” a 1973 offering by Don Agrati (better known as actor Don O’Grady as one of the titular sons in the 1960s television comedy My Three Sons); “Chimes Blues,” a 1923 track by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band featuring Louis Armstrong on cornet; “Yer Blues” by the Beatles, “Summertime Blues” by both the Who and Blue Cheer; “If the Blues Was Whiskey,” a 1935 effort by Bumble Bee Slim; seventeen versions of “Statesboro Blues,” ranging from Blind Willie McTell’s 1928 original to Dion’s 2006 cover; and twenty versions of “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” from Robert Johnson’s 1936 original to Carolyn Wonderland’s 2011 cover (titled, as are most of the covers, as simply “Dust My Broom”).

Many artists that got pulled in by the search must be discarded, including Blue Magic, Blue Merle, Blue Asia, Blue Boys, Blue Cheer (again), Blue Haze, Blue Mink, Blue Money Band, Blue Notes, Blue Öyster Cult, Blue Ridge Highballers, Blue Rodeo, Blue Rose, Blue Sky Boys, Blue Stingray, Blues Delight, Blues Image, Blues Magoos, Blues Project, Blues Traveler, Bob B Soxx and The Blue Jeans, David Blue, and the Moody Blues.

And, then, most or all tracks of many albums go by the wayside, inclding Backwater Blues, a 1961 release from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee; the 1964 release from Koerner, Ray & Glover, [Lots More] Blues, Rags and Hollers; Leo Kottke’s 1969 album, 12-String Blues; Julie London’s 1957 torch song collection, About the Blues; the 2003 album from Chris Thomas King & Blind Mississippi Morris, Along The Blues Highway; Jimmy McGriff’s 1967 offering, A Bag Full of Blues; Ringo Starr’s 1970 album, Beaucoups of Blues; the 1986 soundtrack by Gabriel Yared to the film Betty Blue; Joni Mitchell’s 1970 masterpiece, Blue; LeAnn Rimes’ similarly titled 1996 album; saxophonist Ike Quebec’s 1961 album, Blue & Sentimental; Chris Rea’s massive 2005 box set, Blue Guitars (mentioned here the other day); Eric Andersen’s 1972 album, Blue River; a 1999 tribute to Led Zeppelin titled Whole Lotta Blues; and on and on, including more than 200 tracks released between 1933 and 1942 on the Bluebird label.

But that leaves us, still, with plenty of “Blue” material.

The first choice was easy. I wanted a version of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue.” I’ve got five versions by the man himself: three from the studio in 1974 and two live versions, but I decided against any of those. I also passed on the Indigo Girls’ cover from their 1995 live album, 1200 Curfews, in favor of a version from 1976 by the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. The Devils were, says Wikipedia, a blues-funk band; All Music Guide just calls their stuff pop rock. In any case, the Devils released six albums between 1971 and 1978; their last, All Kidding Aside, bubbled under the Billboard album chart for one week at No. 208. Their cover of “Tangled Up In Blue” comes from their 1976 album, Safe In Their Homes, and it’s pretty good.

One of my favorite quirky albums is The McGarrigle Hour, a wide-ranging 1998 collection of tunes recorded by sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle, along with other members of their equally wide-ranging collection of musical family and friends, including Loudon Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and more. Among the songs included is the 1919 tune “Alice Blue Gown” by Joseph McCarthy and Harry Tierney. Alice Blue, says Wikipedia, was a pale tint of azure that was the favorite color of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Her gown of that color, says Wikipedia, sparked a fashion sensation in the U.S. that inspired, among other things, the writing of the song “Alice Blue Gown” for a 1919 Broadway musical titled Irene. The song’s vocals on The McGarrigle Hour come from Anna McGarrigle’s daughter, Lily Lanken, with background vocals by Anna McGarrigle and Rufus Wainwright.

The great song “Blue Moon” could not be ignored today. But which version of the Richard Rogers & Lorenz Hart tune? As I dug, I learned that the song we know today was actually the fourth version of the tune that Rodgers & Hart, contacted at the time to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, put together; Rodger’s melody was the same throughout, but Hart ended up crafting four different lyrics for the tune. The first two were not used. The third was included in the 1934 movie Manhattan Melodrama, but after the film’s release, says Wikipedia, “Jack Robbins – the head of the studio’s publishing company – decided that the tune was suited to commercial release but needed more romantic lyrics and a punchier title. Hart was initially reluctant to write yet another lyric but he was persuaded.” The result was the song we know today: “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone . . .”  There are eight versions of the song on the digital shelves, beginning with Mel Tormé’s 1949 take and including the Marcels’ No. 1 doo-wop version from 1961. But I went with Julie London, who put her restrained version of “Blue Moon” on her 1958 album, Julie Is Her Name, Vol. 2.

It might have been in a garage sale or maybe in the budget rack at a Half Price Books, but one Saturday during the brief time the Texas Gal and I lived in the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth, I came across Walking Into Clarksdale, the 1998 album by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Sadly, once I got home and dropped the disc into the player, I wasn’t impressed. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide writes, “It’s certainly possible to hear where the duo was intending to go, since the circular melodies, Mideastern drones, sawing strings, drum loops, and sledgehammer riffs all add up to an effective update and progression of the classic Zeppelin sound. The problem is, the new sound doesn’t go anywhere.” I tossed the disc onto the shelf and made a note to come back to it another day. I think that day will be soon, as I ran across “Blue Train” this morning, and it sounds a lot better than I remember anything from Walking Into Clarksdale sounding eleven years ago.

Nanci Griffith’s 2006 album, Ruby’s Torch, was a collection of songs offered as –unsurprisingly, given the album’s title – torch songs. Only one of the songs in the collection, though, could really be said to fall into that subgenre of music on its own. (That would be “In The Wee, Small Hours of the Morning,” the title track to a 1955 concept album by Frank Sinatra.) But using orchestration, appropriate and creative arrangements and her own unique voice, Griffith maneuvered the other ten songs on the album into the genre quite well. “Bluer Than Blue” is the track we’re interested in this morning, a re-working of the tune that was a No. 12 hit for Michael Johnson in 1978.

Every time I hear a commercial use as background music a snippet of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” I murmur to myself that I need to get a CD a Gershwin’s works. As the temporal range of my musical interests continues to expand – my most recent CD purchases have been collections of 1930s and 1940s western swing and of new recordings of songs popular during the mid- and late 1800s – I find more and more gaps in my collection. I do have some Gershwin on the vinyl shelves and a little bit on the digital shelves. One of the treasures in the latter location is a 1994 release of “Rhapsody in Blue” by harmonica player Larry Adler and arranger/producer George Martin. The track showed up on the album Glory of Gershwin, and based on the reviews I’ve read, the other tracks on the album are a bit disappointing. But Adler’s work here is well worth a listen.

Nina Simone: Eclectic (And Eccentric)

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Nina Simone has never been a large presence in my listening life. A little more than a year ago, I wrote:

“Nina Simone’s eclectic – and from this chair, eccentric – approach to her jazz stylings must have left producers, promotion men and the listening public wondering what the heck she was going to do next. Every time I listen to Simone’s work, I hear something I’ve not expected to hear. That’s fine with me; for the most part, I like listening challenges. But it must have been difficult for those aforementioned producers and promotion men to dent the charts.”

That was the third time I’d mentioned Simone, who was born Eunice Waymon in South Carolina in 1933 and passed on in 2003. In that case, I shared Simone’s 1965 cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” a performance I liked a lot. The earlier two mentions, however, had been in connection with covers versions of tunes I was writing about. In neither case did I go find Simone’s version of those songs.

But I did some poking into Simone’s catalog this morning. I’m still not sure what I think, but a couple of thing jumped out at me.

First of all, here are the covers I didn’t go find from those first mentions: Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from her 1969 Album To Love Somebody and the 5 Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” from 1971’s Here Comes the Sun. I think the Dylan cover works, but “O-o-h Child” is a little bit lacking. I get a sense that Simone’s heightened self-awareness didn’t always mesh well with standard love songs although it seemed to work with Dylan’s cryptic obscurity.

One love song that worked well for Simone was “I Loves You, Porgy,” from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Singing as Bess, Simone begs Porgy to protect her when the man named Crown comes to take her away:

I love you, Porgy.
Don’t let him take me,
Don’t let him handle me
And drive me mad
If you can keep me,
I wanna stay here with you forever,
And I’ll be glad.

Yes, I love you, Porgy.
Don’t let him take me.
Don’t let him handle me
With his hot hands.
If you can keep me,
I wants to stay here with you forever.
I’ve got my man.

The performance came from Simone’s 1958 album Little Girl Blue and was released as a single on the Bethlehem label. It went to No. 18 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart, by far the most successful single in Simone’s career. Her next best performance on either chart was with 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which went to No. 76 on the pop chart and to No. 8 on the R&B chart.

But Simone’s most astounding performance might have been a composition about racism written in 1963 when the civil rights movement in the American south was reaching its peak. The tune showed up on her 1964 release, Nina Simone in Concert, and we’ll let Ms. Simone have the last word today with “Mississippi Goddam.”

‘Do You Want To Dance’

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Last week, the Texas Gal and I were watching the reality show So You Think You Can Dance, which is – as I mentioned about a year-and-a-half ago – one of our favorite television shows. (For those unfamiliar with the show, as I said then, it’s basically American Idol for dancers.) The audition tour was underway, visiting Atlanta, and a young lady named Audrey Case took the stage.

The music started:  bongo drums (I think) and then a woman’s voice crooning, “Do you want to dance,” and the sorting mechanism in my brain kicked in. I thought of the recently departed Donna Summer. Nope. And then Bette Midler’s name popped up, and I had faint memories that she’d released “Do You Want To Dance” as a single. I kept nodding as the audition went on, and immediately after the judges handed the young Ms. Case an airline ticket to Las Vegas and the next stage of the competition, I headed into the study and pulled Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles from the shelf.

And I saw that Bette Midler had indeed released “Do You Want To Dance” as a single in late 1972. Early in 1973, it went to No. 17.

The song has been around for a while. It was one of those that popped up occasionally as an oldie during my prime Top 40 years, and it probably got a bit more attention in the early 1970s when George Lucas selected the original version of the tune as one of the vintage records for the soundtrack of his 1973 movie, American Graffiti. That original version – far more sprightly than Midler’s 1972 cover version – came from Bobby Freeman, who also wrote the song and then saw his recording of it go to No. 5 in 1958.

There have been other covers besides Midler’s, of course. Whitburn lists five more that have hit the charts: Del Shannon (No. 43 in 1964), the Beach Boys (No. 12, 1965), the Mamas & the Papas (No. 76, 1968), the Love Society (No. 108, 1968) and the Ramones (No. 110, 1978). The website Second Hand Songs list a total of thirty-seven covers of the song, and that list includes more familiar names – Johnny Rivers, Kim Carnes, Cliff Richard, Dave Edmunds and others – and some names that are not so familiar, like Susan Wong, the Raimundos and most recently (in 2008), Energy. (I noted the presence on the list of a few Danish artists, like Jørgen Krabbenhøft and the Brødrene Olsen. I may have to do some digging, just because.)

One of the familiar names on the list – with a version that ranks a close second behind Midler’s as I sort out my favorite version of the song – is John Lennon, who added an island sound to the song when he recorded it for his 1975 album Rock ’N’ Roll. And that’s a good place to stop this morning.

Saturday Single No. 286

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

Earlier this week, my pal jb, proprietor of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’, reminded his readers of a (sometimes sad) truth. Musical memory is ephemeral:

There was a time when Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” was bred into the DNA of music fans. You couldn’t help knowing it. The record was one of several that symbolized what the 1950s sounded like, it was anthologized everywhere, and as a result, people who hadn’t been born when it was a hit could sing along with it, or the first line, in perfect Fats Domino cadence: “I found my thrill . . . .” (In the 70s, on the TV show Happy Days, it was shorthand for gettin’ lucky, or the promise of gettin’ lucky.) 

“Blueberry Hill” is not universally familiar anymore, though. Oldies radio left the 50s behind a long time ago, and 50s music is no longer a staple of that great cultural leveler, the wedding reception playlist. So it’s doubtful that your average person under the age of 30 would know “Blueberry Hill.” For those of us who do know it, the song is so closely identified with Domino that it’s surprising to learn that A) he wasn’t the first to record it and B) he wasn’t the last, either.

From there, jb went on to talk about earlier and later versions of “Blueberry Hill.” As he did and I nodded along, the undercurrent of my mind was recalling a two-LP set that came my way in early 1973 from a fellow student at St. Cloud State. Bruce, who worked in the same office as I did in the learning resources center (better known as the library), said he liked it, but he’d gotten tired of it. So I stopped by his house on the way home from school one day and paid something like two bucks for a package of Fats Domino’s hits, a 1971 United Artists release in its Legendary Masters Series.

Like all the others of our generation that jb mentions in the above paragraphs, I knew “Blueberry Hill,” and yes, I likely still know it well enough to “sing along with it . . . in perfect Fats Domino cadence.” But I didn’t know any of the rest of Domino’s amazingly deep catalog. With its twenty-eight tracks – along with a ten-page insert with photos, an appreciative essay and a discography – the two-LP package introduced me to, among others, “The Fat Man,” “Ain’t That A Shame,” “My Blue Heaven,” “Blue Monday,” “Whole Lotta Loving,” “I Wanna Walk You Home” and so much more.

In the paragraphs above, jb mentioned oldies radio. In 1973, there was no such animal, at least as we know it today. (I stand corrected; see note below from regular reader Yah Shure.) On occasion, if my memory is accurate this fine morning, one might hear a hit from the mid-1950s on KDWB from the Twin Cities or – more rarely – during the hours that WJON across the tracks in St. Cloud played Top 40. (The more advanced radio geeks among my readers are free to correct me in either direction: That it was unlikely to hear a 1950s record on those stations; or that it was far more frequent than I recall.)

Whatever the case, almost all of the music on Fats Domino, as the two-LP set was simply titled, was new to me. Beyond “Blueberry Hill,” I knew only one other tune on the album – “I Hear You Knocking” – and that was only because Welshman Dave Edmunds’ cover of the song had gone to No. 4 early in 1971. (On that cover, Edmunds gleefully name-checks several of his inspirations from the 1950s, among them Domino and Smiley Lewis, who recorded the original version of “I Hear You Knocking” in 1955.) Beyond that, I got a slight glimmering that if I wanted to truly understand pop and rock music, I was going to eventually have to dig into the music of the 1950s and earlier.

That glimmering got lost in a few months as I began to prepare for my academic year in Denmark, and that year, as I’ve related here before, brought me the music of the Allman Brothers Band and the folks at Muscle Shoals, which determined much of my musical digging for a few years. I eventually did get to the rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s and the R&B that preceded it in the 1940s, and I learned at least a little from that era about the music that moves me.

So I won’t say that the tune I’m presenting today was a major tool as I tinkered with the musical machine; if it was, it took a long time to for me to figure out how to use it. But having been reminded of the Fats Domino two-LP set this week, it seemed right to revisit Fats’ version of “I Hear You Knocking.” Recorded in 1958, it was released in late 1961 as the B-Side to Fats’ cover of Hank Williams “Jambalaya (Down On The Bayou.)” The A-Side went to No. 30. “I Hear You Knocking” went to No. 67, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

Chart Digging: February 1, 1958

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Generally, when I start of one these excursions through a specific entry of the Billboard Hot 100, I have a story I can tell about the time that the chart came out, even if it’s nothing more than noting how I spent my free time in, say, the spring of 1965 or the winter of 1971.

But February 1, 1958, had me stumped. I was four years old at the time, and as I began to scan the chart, nothing much was coming to mind from that time except my red wagon, the one that said “REX” on the side, the same one that today sits in the garage filled with rocks for a planned garden boundary. That’s a pretty slender thread on which to hang a memoir, so I kept looking, scanning the Hot 100, checking titles and finding tunes on YouTube. And then, at No. 36, I saw a memory.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the period when St. Cloud State Teachers College changed its name to St. Cloud State College (and when the enrollment was much smaller, just less than 3,900 in 1960 as opposed to today’s 18,000 or so), it seemed to me that my dad was pretty much the college’s audiovisual department. When a football game needed to be filmed, more often than not, Dad worked the camera. If an evening event called for a public address system or a slide projector, Dad often helped set things up. And on Friday and Saturday evenings, when a movie was scheduled in Stewart Hall Auditorium, it was often Dad running the projector.

I went along sometimes. I recall autumn evenings at Selke Field, the Depression-era football stadium not far from where I live today, usually sitting with Mom and my sister on the concrete benches but occasionally huddling against the wind on top of the pressbox, next to Dad and the movie camera.

And I recall going to movies when Dad ran the projector. I don’t remember a lot of the specific films, but one was the 1949 western She Wore A Yellow Ribbon starring John Wayne. And when I was looking at the hit songs of February 1, 1958, I recalled another film I saw in Stewart Hall, for there – at No. 36 – was listed “March from the River Kwai and Colonel Bogey” by Mitch Miller and His Orchestra and Chorus.

I imagine that we saw David Lean’s 1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, sometime about 1960, the year I turned seven. I recall being puzzled by that very grown-up movie about war and deprivation and cruelty and duty. And I remember the film’s ambiguous ending.

I also remember the soundtrack’s main theme. And last night, as I heard Mitch and the boys whistling their way through their medley from the movie – the record peaked at No. 20 – I recalled the darkness of the sparsely filled Stewart Hall Auditorium on movie night. There were times when we all went and I sat with Mom and my sister in the main auditorium. But sometimes it was just Dad and me up in the projection booth, and I’d strain my ears as the whirr of the projector drowned out the movies’ quiet portions, and I’d watch the films’ images ride a cone of light from the booth across to the screen. Whether the movie was something I liked – or even understood, sometimes – didn’t matter. It was good to spend time with my dad.

Mitch Miller’s hit wasn’t the only familiar song in the Hot 100 from fifty-three years ago today, of course. In fact, the Top Ten reads in part like a selection from a Hall of Fame:

“At the Hop” by Danny & the Juniors
“Get A Job” by the Silhouettes
“Short Shorts” by the Royal Teens
“Don’t” by Elvis Presley
“Sail On, Silvery Moon” by Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra
“The Stroll” by the Diamonds
“Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters
“I Beg Of You” by Elvis Presley
“Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly

That’s some good stuff there. Some I don’t know much about and had to look up. The two Elvis tunes are all right: “Don’t” is a slow dance, and “I Beg Of You” sounds very much to me like “Don’t Be Cruel,” but they’re decent. “Sugartime” and the Vaughn track are familiar but bland. But the other six records in that Top Ten? Even with the silliness of “Short Shorts,” there’s brilliance there.

As good as that Top Ten is, however, our business is lower on the charts. Dale Wright was born Harlan Dale Riffe in Middleton, Ohio, and by the early days of 1958, “She’s Neat,” credited to “Dale Wright with the Rock-Its,” was at No. 54, headed to No. 38. It was the first of two Hot 100 hits for Wright; later, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, he worked as a deejay in the Midwest.

The charts from the late 1950s are intriguing, especially for one who doesn’t remember the era. Orchestral pop sits next to rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly shares a bench with R&B, and over there, at No. 22, we see the “Liechtensteiner Polka” by Will Glahe and His Orchestra. We’ll pass that one by, although you’re invited to look for it on YouTube. I saw several entries for Johnny Mathis in the Hot 100 from February 1, 1958, including the gorgeous “Chances Are,” but the one that caught my ear was “Wild is the Wind,” the title theme written by Dmitri Tiomkin for the film starring Anthony Quinn. I’m not sure how good the film was, but the theme – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song – is beautiful. Sitting at No. 56, it eventually went to No. 22.

One of the things I like best about late 1950s rock ’n’ roll and R&B is the frequent use of the saxophone. The instrument never really went out of style for R&B, but in my musically formative years, say 1967-70, saxophone seems to have been rare in rock. So it’s fun to dig back and find tune after tune reliant on saxophones for their kicks. One of those tunes in the Hot 100 fifty-three years ago today was “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee” by Lee Allen and His Band. Allen, as it happens, played sax on records by Fats Domino, Little Richard and others; later, in the 1980s, he played on the first three album by the Blasters. “Walkin’ With Mr. Lee,” – an answer tune to the Bobbettes’ 1957 hit, “Mr. Lee” – was at No. 61, headed to No. 54.

Rockabilly singer Clint Miller – born Isaac Clinton Miller in Ferguson, North Carolina – was eighteen in February of 1958 when his only hit, “Bertha Lou,” was climbing a short way up the Hot 100, sitting at No. 87 on its way to No. 79. It’s pretty much a standard rockabilly tune, until he tells Bertha Lou “I wanna conjugate with you . . .” English homework never seemed so cool.

From one one-hit wonder with a girl’s name in the title, we go to another: “Henrietta” by Jimmie Dee and The Offbeats, a band from San Antonio, Texas. First released on the Austin-based TNT label, the record was picked up by Dot for national release. I’m grabbed by the nearly desperate vocal atop the constantly chugging backing track. “Henrietta” was at No. 95 on February 1, 1958, and would peak at No. 47.