Archive for the ‘Covers’ Category

Saturday Single No. 673

Saturday, January 11th, 2020

I’ve got a bunch of music stored on my phone, stuff that I put there a year ago so the phone could be my mp3 player while I was in the hospital, and every once in a while, as I take a rest, I lay the phone near the pillow and let the music lull me to sleep.

Except not all of the tunes on the phone are lulling. The other day I was roused when Long John Baldry began graveling his way through “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield,” the Randy Newman tune Baldry covered on his 1971 album It Ain’t Easy.

I wrote briefly about the song in 2008, quoting the assessment of Newman’s original recording of the song found at All-Music Guide:

A sinewy ballad built around a fine bottleneck guitar riff, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” is a love song, basically, but the slightly demented lyric content is what gives it the edge.

Slightly demented? Well, yeah. Take a read:

Let’s burn down the cornfield,
Let’s burn down the cornfield,
And we can listen to it burn.

You hide behind the oak tree,
You hide behind the oak tree,
Stay out of danger ’till I return.

Oh, it’s so good on a cold night
To have a fire burnin’ warm and bright.

You hide behind the oak tree,
You hide behind the oak tree,
Stay out of danger ’till I return.

Let’s burn down the cornfield,
Let’s burn down the cornfield,
And I’ll make love to you while it’s burning.

At the time, more than eleven years ago, I had access to two covers of the song, those by Baldry and by Alex Taylor, and I noted that I planned to soon rip to mp3s Etta James’ version of the tune from her 1974 album Come A Little Closer.

Well, I must have done that, because James’ version of the song is now in the RealPlayer stacks, as are additional versions by Lou Rawls, Sam Samudio and the Walkabouts. There are others out there, but we’re not going to look any further afield this morning. Instead, we’re just going to make Etta James’ take on “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield” today’s Saturday Single.

‘Underneath The Harlem Moon . . .’

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

I was parked at my computer, idly clicking from one track to another in iTunes, as I sometimes do, just seeing what there was among the 3,900-some tracks, when up popped one I’d not really noticed before: Rhiannon Giddens’ take on the 1930s tune “Underneath the Harlem Moon” from her 2015 EP Factory Girl.

Creole babies walk along with rhythm in their thighs
Rhythm in their hips and in their lips and in their eyes
Where do high-browns find the kind of love that satisfies?
Underneath the Harlem moon

We don’t pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo
We don’t live in cabins like the old folks used to do
Our cabin is a penthouse up on St. Nicholas Avenue
Underneath that Harlem moon

We just live for dancing
We’re never blue or forlorn
Ain’t no sin to laugh and grin
That’s why we schwarzes were born

We shout, “Hallelujah!” every time we’re feeling low
And every sheik is dressed up like a Georgia gigolo
White folks call it madness but I call it hi-de-ho
Underneath that Harlem moon

Once we wore bandanas, now we wear Parisian hats
Once we were barefoot, now we’re sporting shoes and spats
Once we were Republicans but now we’re Democrats
Underneath the Harlem moon

We don’t pick no cotton; picking cotton is taboo
All we pick is numbers and that includes you white folks too
’Cause if we hit, we pay our rent on any avenue
Underneath the Harlem moon

We just thrive on dancing
Why be blue and forlorn?
We just laugh and grin. Ha! Let the landlord in
That’s why house rent parties were born

We also drink our gin, smoke our reefer, when we’re feeling low
Then we’re ready to step out and take charge of any so-and-so
Don’t stop for law, no traffic, when we’re raring to go
Underneath the Harlem moon
Underneath the Harlem moon

I wondered for a bit about Giddens’ purpose in recording the song, written in the 1930s by Harry Revel and Mack Gordon and first recorded in 1932 by Howard Joyner. And I’m still wondering.

The most prominent version of the song may be the truncated version Randy Newman included on his 1972 album 12 Songs. It’s been released a few other times as well – mostly in the 1930s and a couple of times in the 1980s before Giddens came along with her version, according to Second Hand Songs. Not listed there is a performance by Ethel Waters in a 1933 film titled Rufus Jones For President (starring a young Sammy Davis Jr. as the presidential candidate).

Was Giddens – who is one of my favorite musical discoveries in the years since I began blogging in 2007 – reclaiming heritage, as she is wont to do? Maybe so. It seems to me that Giddens, with her clear interest in bringing the musical past into the present – from her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops to her current solo work – is one of the few performers who could get away with performing “Under The Harlem Moon.”

Questions? Comments?

‘She’s Lost The Sun . . .’

Thursday, December 12th, 2019

When I explored the Billboard Easy Listening chart from fifty years ago in a post here last week, many of the top fifteen records that I highlighted were among those I was hearing on the Top 40 at the time. That’s not surprising, of course. Crossover between the two charts was common. (I don’t know if that’s the case today. My interest in the Top 40 fades somewhere between twenty and thirty years ago. I’m old.)

One of the records on that Easy Listening chart from 1969 that caught my eye as I wrote was the Guess Who’s “Undun.” It was one of my two or three favorite records from the Canadian group during my high school days, topped only, I’d guess, by “No Time” (which did end up on my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox). And until it showed up on that long-ago Easy Listening chart last week, it hadn’t crossed my mind for a while. Nor had the larger catalog of the Guess Who. (Even though about ten of the group’s singles are in my iPod, they evidently don’t pop up often enough that I take notice.)

So I spent some time the other day checking the digital shelves for Guess Who material and ripping and sorting the 2003 two-CD Anthology released by RCA/BMG Heritage. I suppose I should just pop the CDs into the car’s player the next few times I head out on errands or drop them into the large stereo set that sits not far from my desk here in the EITW studios. But I just listened to a few of the resulting mp3s, “Undun” included.

“Undun” was, according to the listings in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, the B-side of “Laughing,” which entered the Hot 100 in July of 1969 and peaked at No. 10. “Undun” followed its A-side into the Hot 100 in mid-October and was in the chart for ten weeks, reaching No. 22. On the Easy Listening chart, it peaked at No. 15, which is where it was in the fifty-year-old chart explored here last week. (It was the only record the Guess Who ever got into the Easy Listening chart.)

And in the Twin Cities, it looks like the record peaked at No. 22 on KDWB, where I got a good share of my Top 40 fix. So I let some memories wash over me as I listened to it the other day; the autumn of 1969 was a pretty good time.

And then I wondered about real easy listening versions of the song, recordings from folks like Ferrante & Teicher or Ray Conniff. Well, those folks didn’t record the tune, according to the information from Second Hand Songs, but I did find a version of the tune that scratched my easy listening itch: Hugo Montenegro included a cover of “Undun” on his 1970 album Colours Of Love.

‘Teach Me Tonight’

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

The standard “Teach Me Tonight” had popped up here a few times over the years before the 1954 version by Dinah Washington became last Saturday’s featured single. Back in 2013, as I looked at records that sat at No. 22 on February 2 over the years, I wrote:

At No. 22 in that long-ago [1955] chart, we find the DeCastro Sisters with their first Hot 100 appearance and the first appearance in that chart of the classic “Teach Me Tonight,” a tune written in 1953 by Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn. The DeCastro Sisters, who were born in Cuba, weren’t the first to record the song – jazz singer Janet Brace was – but the DeCastros’ version went to No. 2, making it the best-charting of the more than sixty recordings of the tune since the mid-1950s. (The most recent version of the song to chart came from Al Jarreau [No. 70] in 1982.)

And Phoebe Snow’s version of the tune from 1976 came up during as I reminisced about the jukebox that got many of my quarters during time spent in the snack bar at St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center. (Snow’s version was released on a single but did not chart.)

But that’s about it. And Second Hand Songs tells me that there are at least 251 versions of the tune out there to explore. We’ll start that exploration today with the original version by Janet Brace.

And we start with some confusion. A note at Wikipedia mentions Brace’s recording of the song entering “the Billboard chart on October 23, 1954, and eventually reaching No. 23.” But neither Brace’s version nor Brace herself are listed in Joel Whitburn’s Pop Hits: Singles & Albums, 1940-1954. Two versions of the song are listed in the book: The above-mentioned No. 2 version by the DeCastro Sisters and Jo Stafford’s cover, which hit the magazine’s charts in November 1954 and peaked at No. 15.

Anyway, here’s Brace’s original version:

And, while we’ll dig into names familiar and not in upcoming posts, I thought I’d close this post with a foreign language version (since I tend to like those). So here’s one in Czech: “Vím už co to znamená” by Eva Pilarová (which offers the chorus in English). It was released – according to Second Hand Songs – in 1961.

‘The Room Was Humming Harder . . .’

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Sometime recently – and I cannot provide anything more specific – a television show I was watching with the Texas Gal used for its background music Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Hearing it reminded me of this piece; it ran here twelve years ago this week. It’s been condensed and revised a little bit.

It was the summer of 1967, and I was doing my normal eight-week stint in summer school, an enrichment program designed to provide kids a chance to learn things they wouldn’t be exposed to during the school year. So, just as I had for the nine months preceding, I spent another two months hauling myself every day to the bus stop a block north of our house and riding the two miles to South Junior High for mornings of enrichment.

On one of my rides home during that summer, someone had a radio on the bus tuned to one of the two Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations, almost certainly KDWB. This might have been a regular thing, music in the back of the bus, but I’m not sure. What I am certain of is that I listened with the other kids that day as the radio played the strangest-sounding song any of us had maybe ever heard.

It began with a ponderous and spooky organ solo, with drums and cymbals providing punctuation. And then a reedy voice entered: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels ’cross the floor . . .” It was, of course, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

We looked at each other, then back at the radio as the voice went on to tell a surreal tale in a setting that combined the ancient world with the medieval, although I doubt that any of us could place it that accurately back then; we just knew it wasn’t in our time, what with vestal virgins and the miller’s tale.

What did it mean? We had no idea, but it sure was strange . . . and cool. We liked it a lot, even I, who was still a couple of years away from digging very deeply into pop and the Top 40. Over the years, the meaning of the words – written by Keith Reid – has been assessed maybe way too many times. At its website, Procol Harum provides a link to a discussion of the lyrics, where listeners and fans – who seem to call themselves “Palers” – indulge themselves in deep and far-fetched theorizing.

The last word on the lyrics, it would seem, comes from the top of that page of theories, where one finds organist Matthew Fisher’s comment from an interview with the BBC:

“I don’t know what they mean. It’s never bothered me that I don’t know what they mean. This is what I find rather hard, that, especially in America, people are terribly hung up about lyrics and they’ve got to know what they mean, and they say, ‘I know, I’ve figured out what these lyrics mean.’ I don’t give a damn what they mean. You know, they sound great . . . that’s all they have to do.”

The song was so odd, so different from anything on radio at the time, that beyond its lyrics, it spawned another discussion: Where did the music come from? Was it a lift from a classical piece? If so, which one? (Something by Bach was always considered most likely.)

I recall reading a piece about the song that included a quotation from a fellow who at the time was a classical music critic for a London newspaper. He said that he and a colleague spent an entire morning whistling the melody from “A Whiter Shade of Pale” back and forth to each other before deciding that it probably wasn’t Bach but a theme that sounded very much like his work.

And that’s pretty much the case. At the Procol Harum website, there’s an excerpt from a radio interview with Fisher in which he notes that the song certainly refers to two Bach pieces but is nevertheless an original work. Those pieces are “Air for the G String” and the choral piece titled in English “Sleepers, Awake!” (For those so inclined, the Procol Harum website also provides a link to Bach expert Bernard S. Greenberg’s formal analysis of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and its links to the two Bach pieces.)

Of course, the other bus riders and I didn’t know all that as we listened for the first time to “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on that bus carrying us home from summer school. It was just a cool song. And it still is. It’s also a popular song for cover versions: The website Second Hand Songs lists more than 170 covers by folks ranging from Noel Harrison, Flash Cadillac and R.B. Greaves to Annie Lennox, Bonnie Tyler and the Canadian Brass. (There are also several versions with the lyrics in French, Finnish, German and Swedish that I know I’m going to check out.)

Here’s Greaves’ version. It was released as an Atco single in late 1970 and spent two weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 82. I like it.

The Sound Of Sorrow

Friday, June 28th, 2019

The forlorn melody of “None But The Lonely Heart,” Wikipedia tells us, was written in late 1869 when Piotr Tchaikovsky created a set of six romances for voice and piano. The lyrics came, the website says, from “Lev Mei’s poem ‘The Harpist’s Song,’ which in turn was translated from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”

Here’s the English translation that gives the piece its familiar title:

None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted
Far from joy and gladness
Heaven’s boundless arch I see
Spread out above me
O what a distance drear to one
Who loves me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
My senses fail
A burning fire
Devours me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness

I first came across the song, as was the case with so many tunes, through Al Hirt, who included it on his 1965 album That Honey Horn Sound:

Hirt’s take is evocative enough, though I think his improvisations take away from the sadness that the title and the lyrics imply. And I think the background vocals of the Anita Kerr Singers make the final moments of the track sound almost triumphant with what a long-ago teaching colleague of mine called an “MGM ending.” (I certainly didn’t verbalize those thoughts back in 1965 when I heard the track for the first time, but I do recall that the second half of the track didn’t pull me in like the opening portions did, and I wondered why.)

The song has popped up over the years, and I’ve always liked it. But even though I’ve known for more than fifty years that the melody came from Tchaikovsky, I’d never thought much about the piece. Even with all my gathering of music over the past twenty years, only three other versions showed up on the digital shelves: Instrumental versions by violinist Isaac Stern and easy listening maestro Franck Pourcel and a turgid vocal version by Frank Sinatra (from his 1959 album No One Cares, which is a hard listen).

Then, just more than a year ago – and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about this – the Texas Gal and I watched the finale of the FX series The Americans, the tale – set in the 1980s – of two married Russian KGB agents sent to live in the United States as Americans, working covertly for the Soviet Union. In that finale, the two agents face arrest by U.S. authorities and flee. The last portion of their trip home is by car through Eastern Europe and the western portions of the Soviet Union, much of it shot from above.

The music backing that sequence is an orchestral version of “None But The Lonely Heart.” I recognized it from the first notes. (And if I recall things correctly, I gasped as those first notes aired, prompting a “What?” from the Texas Gal. I just shook my head, choosing not to explain at the moment.) As the journey and the episode and the series ended that evening, I thought the use of Tchaikovsky’s piece was a brilliant touch.

Afterward, I spent some time searching for the version of the tune used in the show. It turned out to be a performance by violinist Takako Nishizaki with Australia’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra; it was included on a 2001 album – conducted by Slovak director Peter Breiner – titled Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart with the subtitle “Favourite Songs for Violin and Orchestra.” And, as it should be, it’s the sound of sorrow:

‘You May Be High . . .’

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

When the Rolling Stones recorded “You Got To Move” and released it on Sticky Fingers in 1971 (with the title offered as “You Gotta Move”), they credited the song to Fred McDowell, a Tennessee-based farmer and blues singer who’d somehow been given the name of Mississippi Fred McDowell. It was not an unreasonable decision, as McDowell had recorded the tune in 1965 for his second album on the Arhoolie label, which was released a year later and listed him as the song’s writer.

Here’s that version by McDowell:

(It’s worth noting that McDowell was an anomaly in the blues revival of the late 1950s and the 1960s: He’d never recorded before, while many of the blues artists celebrated during that revival had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Whether that made McDowell’s previously unrecorded music more “authentic” – as I’ve seen written in at least a couple of places – is for others to judge. It was certainly new to listeners, and, despite McDowell’s frequent use of an electric guitar, clearly linked to the Delta tradition.)

But McDowell did not write the song. Second Hand Songs lists the song as “traditional,” noting four recordings that predate McDowell’s 1965 recording. (McDowell’s 1965 recording is not listed at all; his 1969 live version with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers is listed, another reminder that as useful as the website is, it’s not complete.)

Those four earlier listed recordings came from the Willing Four in 1944, the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones) in 1947, Elder Charles Beck & His Religion In Rhythm in 1949, and Blind Gary Davis with Sonny Terry in 1953. One can assume two things, I think: There were other recordings as well before McDowell recorded his 1965 version, and the song no doubt predates the Willing Four’s version. By how much, who knows?

And I’m going to make a third assumption: That crediting the song’s creation to McDowell on his 1966 album was an error by someone at Arhoolie. McDowell would certainly have known that he’d learned the song elsewhere, and everything I’ve read about McDowell tells me that he was an unassuming, almost humble man. I have my doubts that he’d have claimed the song as his.

(At Second Hand Songs, “You Got To Move” is called “traditional,” and on the CD version I have of Sticky Fingers, it’s credited to McDowell and Davis. I don’t know what credits there are on more recent versions of the CD or the LP.)

McDowell recorded the song at least a couple more times: The previously mentioned 1969 recording with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers for an album titled Amazing Grace, and in a 1971 performance in New York City that was released as a live album two years later.

There are, of course, other covers out there, some by artists I know and others by artists unfamiliar to me: The Party Boys, Mike Cooper & Ian A. Anderson, Mick Taylor, Herman Alexander, the Radiators, Corey Harris, Jorma Kaukonen, Townes Van Zandt, Cassandra Wilson, Aerosmith, and Koerner, Ray & Glover are just some of them.

Most of those are faithful to the Delta sound of McDowell’s version; some of them reach back to what I assume are the song’s Gospel origins; and some are hybrids. Here’s one of the latter, the version offered by Sista Monica Parker on her 2008 album Sweet Inspirations.

‘You Gotta Move’

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

I was going to write this morning about Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Rolling Stones and covers of the blues tune “You Got To Move,” but I’m getting a late start to the day. So I’m just going to throw out a preview. Here’s a remastered version of what the Stones did with the tune – they titled it “You Gotta Move” – on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers, a track that intrigued me during my early college days.

Time

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

A Facebook friend of mine posted this morning a photo of herself and her daughter from some decades ago, noting that, “Lately, the years of my life seem to be flying by so much faster. Telephone poles whizzing by my train window, the scenery just a blur.”

I understand, though I did not always. I’ve told the story before, back in 2007:

During my college days – it must have been in 1975 – Mom was away for a few days, and Dad and I were batching it. One evening, we headed downtown to the House of Pizza – without question my all-time favorite pizza place – for dinner and a couple of beers. As we sipped our beers after dinner, the conversation turned to the passage of time.

“You know,” he said, “for someone your age” – I was twenty-one – “time seems to go slowly. As you go on, you’ll see that it begins to speed up. And by the time you get to be my age” – he was fifty-five – “it begins to move so rapidly that the years just fly, and it’s hard to keep track of it.”

I’m sure I nodded, not comprehending. He’d had a heart attack the previous autumn, and it could be that he was feeling that first chill of mortality. Maybe not. But something spurred him to talk for one of the few times I recall about how he felt about at least a part of his life. And I guess that’s why it’s such a clear memory.

As it turned out, Dad had another twenty-eight years left. I’ll turn fifty-four next week, just one year younger than Dad was that evening when we had pizza and beer. . . . I have no conclusions to draw, just the observation that my father was right, and the days and months and years seem to be accelerating, carrying me and those I love along.

I’m sixty-five now, and each of the eleven years since I wrote that has flown more rapidly yet, sweet years flitting past. I never got the chance to tell Dad he was right.

A search for “time” among the 77,000-some tracks in the RealPlayer pulls up more than 2,800 results. That includes artists’ names and album titles, of course, so some of those go away. But there are plenty of tracks still from which to choose.

Having waded through about half of the options, I came across a song called “Of Time And Rivers Flowing” that showed up in 1998 on the album Where Have All The Flowers Gone – The Songs Of Pete Seeger. I’ve never mentioned it, which I find a little odd, as the performance on the tribute album came from Richie Havens.

Of time and rivers flowing
The seasons make a song
And we who live beside her
Still try to sing along
Of rivers, and fish, and men
And the season still a-comin’
When she’ll run clear again.

So many homeless sailors
So many winds that blow
I asked the half-blind scholars
Which way the currents go
So cast your nets below
And the gods of the moving waters
Will tell us all they know.

The circles of the planets
The circles of the moon
The circles of the atoms
All play a marching tune
And we who would join in
Stand aside no longer
Now let us all begin.

We can stand aside no longer
Now let us all begin.

Taking Time

Friday, May 10th, 2019

I haven’t been entirely lazy during the last week. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve been scanning old family pictures that my sister and I have found in various boxes, spending a couple hours each day at the desk sorting out the in-focus shots from those more fuzzy.

Along with that, I’ve been attaching the occasional scanned photo to the pages of appropriate relatives at my family tree at Ancestry.com, where I’ve been digging for a while.

The one thing I have not done this week is anything regarding blogging, whether about music or anything else. I general write early in the morning, but this week I’ve been sleeping in, perhaps because I still need down time. After all, the doctors did say when I had my surgery in January that, although I could resume normal activities in April, it would be about a year before I’d be fully recovered. And I do tire easily.

So I took a week for me. And in the past few days, I’ve been thinking about what I might write about when I come back to this space. I’ve got no major plans for today. I have an idea for tomorrow’s Saturday Single. And I think that next week, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson will be featured here at least once, as I don’t think I’ve ever written much about them.

But for today, I’m just happy to open the file and put down some words. As for music, I took a look at the Billboard Hot 100 from fifty years ago today – May 10, 1969 – and found at No. 100 a record I featured here a little more than eight years ago, which is an eternity in blog time. Here’s Wilson Pickett’s not-entirely-successful cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” which peaked at No. 64.