Archive for the ‘Ultimate Jukebox’ Category

Another List From Your Host

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

This is most likely a fool’s errand, but, being a lover of lists, I got to wondering the other evening about what names would show up on a list of the most influential musicians, performers and/or songwriters in American popular music. I’ve done a fair amount of thinking about this, but no real research, so this is a first draft, if you will. I know I’ll likely miss some, and suggestions will be gladly accepted in the comments.

I’ll start with one Nineteenth Century figure and two whose careers span the divide between the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, and after that, we’ll stay in the last century.

Stephen Foster

John Philip Sousa

Ma Rainey

Louis Armstrong

The Carter Family

Duke Ellington

Muddy Waters

Cole Porter

Frank Sinatra

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II

Chuck Berry

Elvis Presley

Phil Spector

Berry Gordy

Bob Dylan

Prince

And there we’ll stop. I know, only one woman. I considered several others: Jenny Lind, Bessie Smith, Julie London, Carole King and Madonna among them, and of those names, I think Bessie Smith’s would have been the next to be listed. But I wanted to keep the list to a manageable length.

And I also wanted to stop, essentially, twenty-five years ago, which is why the list stops with Prince. There no doubt have been writers and performers in these past twenty-five years who will belong on such a list someday, but I think we need to let the dust settle a little. If I were forced to guess right now, two names that I think will belong on that list would be those of Kurt Cobain and Will.I.Am.

There are, of course, plenty of folks from the years I’m considering who came close but didn’t seem to me to have as much influence on American pop music as the sixteen listed above. The next two likely would have been Buddy Holly and Michael Jackson. There’s no doubt that they changed American music, as did those listed above. But then, so did others not listed, like Scott Joplin, Hank Williams, Fats Domino, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Stephen Sondheim, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and on and on.

So why this list today? Well, I was looking at how the Ultimate Jukebox would play out from here on, and I noticed that several of the chapters had multiple entries for which I hadn’t yet been able to find clips on YouTube. I did some shifting of those entries so that no more than one of those would show up in each segment, without paying attention to which songs they were. After I did that, I noticed that this week’s random list of songs ranged from the 1940s to the 1990s, beginning with Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”

That got me thinking about Waters’ place in that hypothetical list of American music, and I took a closer look at this week’s entries and saw that two more of those whom I’d place on such a list would also show up this week: Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan. And I began to think about who else would be on that list. So there you go.

(I do have to acknowledge one thing: After my initial round of tinkering with the upcoming segments of the Ultimate Jukebox, I noticed that this week’s entry had songs from the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1990s. [I think; see the final paragraph.] I looked ahead and switched the next song from the 1980s into this week, replacing a second song from the 1970s. This will be the only time I switch a song for any reason other than balancing the non-YouTube entries.)

And here’s the video for the most recent song on this week’s list. (You may have to sit through a brief advertisement.)

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 18
“I Can’t Be Satisfied” by Muddy Waters, Aristocrat1305, 1948
“Carol” by Chuck Berry, Chess 1700, 1958
“Daddy (Rollin’ In Your Arms)” by Dion, Laurie 3464, 1968
“Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight & The Pips, Buddah 383, 1973
“On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band, Scotti Bros. 04594, 1983
“Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan from the soundtrack to Wonder Boys, 1999

“I Can’t Be Satisfied” was Muddy Waters’ first hit after moving permanently to Chicago from Mississippi in 1943, and it followed five years of scuffling in Chicago’s clubs while working day jobs. The Aristocrat label was run by Leonard and Phil Chess, who soon changed the label name to Chess, and Waters recorded for the label into the 1970s. Because of reissues, his discography is difficult to follow, but during his lifetime, he released about sixty singles and thirty albums, including compilations, says Wikipedia. It’s probably impossible to overstate his influence on blues and rock and American pop culture. Want one small reminder? Listen to “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in the player below and note the introduction. Then go listen to the Allman Brothers Band’s “Pony Boy” and pay close attention at the forty-second mark.

Muddy Waters – “I Can’t Be Satisfied”

Just as with Waters, Chuck Berry’s influence on the music we listen to is vast and incalculable. From “Maybellene” in 1955 through a live version of “Reelin’ & Rockin’” in 1973, Berry got fourteen singles into the Top 40 (and more than that on the R&B chart). And according to a piece I read recently – though I cannot for the life of me remember where it was – Berry, now 83, still shows up once a month at a St. Louis club to play a set. He was (justifiably) among the first members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and his riffs have influenced – directly or indirectly – anyone who’s ever picked up a guitar with rock music on his or her mind. I won’t say “Carol” is my favorite Berry tune, but it’s not heard as often as, say, “Johnny B. Goode” or “Sweet Little Sixteen” or a few others. Given that, its relative lack of familiarity makes me listen a little bit closer, which is a good thing.

Dion’s “Daddy (Rollin’ In Your Arms)” was the B Side to his 1968 hit “Abraham, Martin and John” and had to be a stunning surprise to anyone who ever flipped the 45 over. Dave Marsh called it “a surging, churning, angry, anguished version of Robert Johnson’s country blues,” adding, “Haunted electric guitars clang and clash against one another, drums pound in from another room, uniting in a wad of noise symbolizing nothing but spelling out pain and fear.” Yeah, it’s all of that, and it’s a compelling record, one that Marsh placed at No. 452 in his 1989 ranking of the top 1,001 singles

Gladys Knight – with and without the Pips – had twenty-seven Top 40 singles between 1961 and 1996, and “Midnight Train to Georgia” is likely the best of all of them. The tale of a man’s retreat from California to his home in Georgia – and the willingness of his (one assumes) California lady to go with him – was No. 1 for two weeks on the pop chart and for four weeks on the R&B chart in late 1973. Unlike a lot of stuff that topped the pop charts even in 1973, this was an adult record telling an adult tale of displacement, failure, loyalty and finally, a different type of success in the wake of that failure. And it had a compelling mid-tempo groove, too.

I’ve written a little bit previously about “On The Dark Side” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, noting that it’s the best non-Springsteen Springsteen record I know of, so we’ll pretty much leave it at that. The record is from the 1983 movie Eddie & The Cruisers, and in the fall of 1984, it spent eleven weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 7; it was also No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart for five weeks.

 I confess to a quandary. I have a date of 1999 on my mp3 of Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed,” but everything I see this morning dates the release as 2000. I’m certain I have a reason for dating it 1999 – perhaps a recording date listed somewhere in the notes to some anthology – but I can’t lay my hands on that information this morning. If I’m wrong, then this week’s chapter misses the 1990s and there goes that nifty little bit of programming. Ah, well. It’s still a great piece of music.

Another Performer At That Intersection

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back In Seventh Grade For A Moment

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

There are several records from the mid-1960s that – no matter where I am or what I am doing – grab me by the shoulders and drop me back in the hallways of South Junior High School here in St. Cloud. They do so just long enough for me to say “Oh yeah,” as I recall some little snippet or another of junior high life. And then I come back to wherever I was.

One of those records is the Yardbirds’ second-biggest hit, “Heart Full Of Soul,” which was at No. 14 on the chart – two weeks away from its peak at No. 9 – the day I walked through the doors at South to begin seventh grade. And unless I’ve missed one, “Heart Full Of Soul” is the only record from seventh grade that puts me back in those hallways. There are others – maybe four or five – that take me back to South, as I said above – but they were popular when I was in eighth and ninth grades.

So what comes back when I think of walking the halls of South with a heart full of soul? I remember – as I wrote about once – playing the character of Faversham Lightly, Jr., in the school play in spring. I recall spelling bees in English class, my absolute mechanical incompetence in shop and being tabbed to help other kids with their current events questions in social studies. I remember several crushes, none of which came to anything more than a wounded heart. And in the spring, I got a five-stitch scar at the corner of my mouth.

That was the day I stepped on a kid’s foot as I got on a school bus. It was March 31, 1966, and I was heading over to my friend Brad’s house after school. We were going to hang around with his little brother, talk about James Bond and model cars and stuff, and then Mom was going to come pick me up. Since Brad no longer lived on the East Side, that meant taking a different bus than I normally did. And as Brad and I got on the bus, I accidently stepped on another seventh-grader’s foot. And his friend took offense.

When Brad and I got off the bus, so did Foot and Friend, and they blocked our way to Brad’s house. They were a little larger and more athletic that we were. I shrugged and said I was sorry for stepping on Foot’s foot. That wasn’t enough, and they moved closer, crowding Brad and me. I kicked one of them in the shin – not hard, just a “Get the hell out of my way” tap. And Foot’s Friend launched a kick to my face, cutting me just outside the left corner of my mouth. As the blood flowed, Foot and Friend fled.

I called my mom from Brad’s, and she took me to the doctor, who closed the wound with five stitches. I don’t know if Mom called the school, but early the next day, I was called down to the office, and the assistant principal – the guy in charge of discipline – asked me who did it. I told him, acknowledging my “get the hell out of my way” kick as part of the confrontation. The kid who kicked me was called in, we both got a lecture and we were told to shake hands. And that was that.

Except . . .

There is a German word, schadenfreude, defined by Wikipedia as “pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” If I’ve even indulged in schadenfreude, it’s generally been on the innocent level of being a sports fan. I love to see Ohio State’s football team lose, and the same holds true for the University of North Dakota’s hockey team. And the Dallas Cowboys. For things in the everyday world, however, I’ve generally not delighted in the misfortunes of others.

But sometime after my stitches came out, Foot’s Friend came to school with two silver teeth where his upper incisors should have been. The tale spread that he and Foot had been messing around with a tent in one of their backyards and some kind of chase had ensued. Foot’s Friend had tripped over a tent rope and had his front teeth knocked out by a tent peg. He’d have the silver teeth until adulthood, when he’d get permanent replacements. I never said anything to anyone, but I admit that I was quietly pleased.

Then sometime during my college days, about ten years after all those things took place, I was wandering through the bar called the Grand Mantel on a Saturday afternoon. I happened to see Foot’s Friend sitting alone at a table. I nodded and waved – it had been a long time since seventh grade – and he waved back and motioned to a chair. I sat down, noticing that he was drinking a beer with a straw. “How you doing?” I asked as I settled myself at the table.

“Not so good,” he said through clenched teeth. “I broke my jaw in a fight, and it’s wired shut for another month.”

We talked for a few more minutes, and then I moved on, once more quietly pleased and feeling only the tiniest bit guilty about it.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 16
“Heart Full of Soul” by the Yardbirds, Epic 9823 [1965]
“Incense & Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock, Uni 55018 [1967]
“On The Way Home” by the Buffalo Springfield from Last Time Around [1968]
“Get Together” by the Youngbloods, RCA Victor 9752 [1969]
“Hold Your Head Up” by Argent from All Together Now [1972]
“September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, ARC 19854 [1978]

I mentioned records from eighth and ninth grade that plop me back at South? “Incense & Peppermints” is one of those. I’m on the edge of the gym, watching the girls as they dance away the last minutes of lunch hour. One of the dancers is wearing a silver skirt – short for the time – along with silver boots and chartreuse hose. The song – which spent one week at No. 1 – plays on, and we guys watch. Now, more than forty years later, “Incense & Peppermints” is one of those records that can loop in my head as a persistent earworm, and it sometimes takes an act of will to turn it off. Nevertheless, I still like the song – atmospheric and a little spooky yet – a great deal.

I have no contemporary memory of Buffalo Springfield’s “On The Way Home.” It was the lead track on Last Time Around, an album put together as the band was fragmenting, according to All-Music Guide. But I first heard it, as far as I know, in the autumn of 1972, when a copy of Retrospective, a Buffalo Springfield anthology, came to my house from my record club. The song closes the first side of Retrospective, and the driving music, the bittersweet lyric and the “woo-ooo” that opens the record all got my attention. Even now, having delved into the Springfield’s diverse – if slender – catalog over the years, I think that “On The Way Home” is the best thing that talented but short-lived band ever recorded.

I’m not sure whether this actually happened or whether it’s a construct from several sources, but it’s an evening in late September or early October 1969. I’m propped up on my bed, pillows behind me, reading. The only light in the room is the lamp on my nightstand, pointed at my book. Just a few feet away, the windows are open, and the sounds of an early autumn evening come through the screens: leaves about to fall rustle in a light breeze; the footfalls and laughter of kids heading home echo in the quiet of Eighth Street; a car makes its way down Kilian Boulevard, tires whirring on pavement; from the southeast comes the rumble of a train approaching the nearby crossing, its horn cutting through the twilight. And from my old RCA radio on the nightstand, I hear the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” and it remains for me an autumnal song if ever there was one. (The record was originally released in1967, when it went to No. 67; it was re-released in 1969 and went to No. 5.)

As a member of the Zombies, Rod Argent wrote – and helped record – some of the best songs of the British Invasion. Two of the Zombie’s three hits – “Tell Her No” and “She’s Not There” – came from his pen entirely, and he co-wrote the third hit, “Time of the Season,” with his bandmates. In 1972, Argent had a hit with a track from his self-titled band’s first album. With its swirling, thumping sound, Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up” might not have been in the same league with those earlier compositions and records, but it wasn’t far off. An edit of the album track was released as a single and went to No. 5 during the summer of 1972; the album All Together Now went to No. 23 that fall. In the spring of 1973, I saw Argent in concert when the band opened for the Doobie Brothers in St. Paul, and “Hold Your Head Up” had turned into a long jam that went on for nearly twenty minutes.

There are no associations for me with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” I only vaguely remember hearing it on the radio. But it’s lively and it shows off the group’s talents well, I think. And there’s nothing wrong with sliding a record in the jukebox just because it sounds good. They don’t all have to carry a story. “September” went to No. 8 (No. 1 on the R&B chart) during the winter of 1978-79.

My Verdict: ‘Rocket 88’ Was The First

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chicken Livers & Art Deco

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

During the 1960s and early 1970s, my family visited downtown Minneapolis something like four or five times a year. The suburban malls and all the hoo-ha that eventually developed around them were in their infancy at the time; when you wanted serious shopping, you went downtown, maybe to St. Paul but far more often to Minneapolis.

During one of those trips to Minneapolis – occasioned, I believe by an appointment for my dad at the nearby Fort Snelling Veterans Administration Hospital – my mom and I found ourselves on our own as lunchtime approached. I was maybe ten, so call it 1964. She took me to a cafeteria called the Forum. We made our way through the line, pushing our trays along their winding paths atop the tubular steel guides. I passed on meatloaf, Salisbury steak, hambugers and fries. Something had caught my eye, something creamy on a mess of golden egg noodles.

When I got there, the sign told me that the dish was chicken livers in cream sauce over noodles. It’s not a dish one would expect to find in a restaurant menu today, in downtown Minneapolis or even in downtown Olivia in the heart of Minnesota’s farm belt. But the Forum must have sold plenty of chicken livers over egg noodles back then, certainly enough to keep the dish on the menu for years to come. Because maybe two years after Mom took me to the Forum for the first time, I was allowed to wander free in downtown Minneapolis on our visits there, and whenever my wandering included lunchtime, I went to the Forum for chicken livers over noodles. And that went on for at least another eight years, until sometime after I graduated from high school.

There was another attraction to the place, beyond the draw of chicken livers in cream sauce: The Forum’s interior was a visual feast. In later years, I saw it described as one of the premier Art Deco interiors in the country. At twelve years old, I wouldn’t have known Art Deco from Art Shamsky, but I did know that I loved the unique interior of the Forum. It was simply fun to be inside a place where there was so much going on visually. And to eat lunch there was a highlight of many trips to Minneapolis over those years.

I thought about all that yesterday when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported on the newly reopened Forum, now a bar and restaurant. In 1975, the cafeteria closed down and the space was converted to a restaurant and disco, Scottie’s on Seventh. Eventually, urban renewal closed in on the building that hosted the Forum, and the building came down. But not until after the Art Deco interior was disassembled and saved. It was installed in the new City Center that went up on the site, and during the early 1980s, Scottie’s reopened there. By 1996, it was the turn of a restaurant called Goodfellow’s to take over the space, and five years ago, the space went dark.

It’s now the Forum again, a restaurant instead of a cafeteria, and it’s a place that the Texas Gal and I are making plans to see, likely for lunch during a planned August overnight in the Twin Cities. The newspaper says the interior has been lovingly restored and renewed (there’s a slideshow about the place’s design here), and that’s good news. I spent a few minutes this morning looking at the menu online, and the food sounds fine. No chicken livers, though.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 14
“California Girls” by the Beach Boys, Capitol 5464 [1965]
‘Everybody’s Talkin’” by Nilsson, RCA Victor 0161 [1968]
“Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman, Track 2656 [1969]
“Day After Day” by Badfinger, Apple 1841 [1971]
“Get It On” by Chase from Chase (not the single Epic 10738) [1971]
“No Tears (In The End)” by Roberta Flack from Killing Me Softly [1973]

None of these songs have any connection to downtown Minneapolis, to the Forum cafeteria or to creamed chicken livers on noodles, as far as I know. The only connection is the time. There is no doubt that during the months that the first two songs on this list were popular – and maybe during the brief popularity of the third song, too – a searcher could have found a young whiteray at least once and possibly more often sitting happily at a table in the Forum, enjoying a meal in the big city all on his own.

I think about that today, and I shudder. The downtown of a major American city is no longer a place where one would allow a twelve-year-old boy from out of town to wander freely. But forty-odd years ago, downtown Minneapolis was safe ground; the times were different. And I’m glad I grew up then instead of now.

By including “California Girls” in the selections for my mythical jukebox, I’m not by any means saying it’s one of the two-hundred and twenty-eight greatest records. It’s not. I do think it’s the Beach Boys’ greatest single, crowded for that spot only by “Surfin’ U.S.A.” And there was no real analysis or deliberation that led me to those rankings. Rather, it’s a visceral reaction. For most of their history, the Beach Boys have meant very little to me. The early stuff was pleasant but to me – looking back as I must, not having heard it much when it was on the radio – is unremarkable. The records I remember hearing as they came out, the later catalog, is stuff that I find to be artsy simply for the sake of being artsy, with “Good Vibrations” being the premier example. (Or maybe the premier example is SMiLE, the “long-lost treasure” that Brian Wilson completed and released in 2004. I should note that I rarely sell music – LPs or CDs. Once they’re home, they stay here, unless I need cash badly – as has happened at times over the years – or unless I find the music so unrewarding that I seen no need to keep it. A couple of years after I bought it, I sold SMiLE, and I didn’t need the cash.) Anyway, the thought of the Ultimate Jukebox without at least one Beach Boys’ record in it seemed odd, and I think this is the only selection I made to ensure a group’s presence in this list. Given that, I selected “California Girls,” which went to No. 3 in 1965, and I chose it partly because its essence is echoed in loving parody in the Beatles’ “Back In The U.S.S.R.”

Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” brings back echoes, of course, of the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, which used the record in its soundtrack. I have a sense that Nilsson recorded Fred Neil’s song more than once, as it seems I’ve run across several different versions of the song. And to be honest, I don’t know which is the original and which, if any, were created for the film. I believe the original version is the one that Nilsson recorded for his album Aerial Ballet in 1968, which is where I get the date I listed above. And I think that was the version that was released as a single when the movie came out in 1969, with the single reaching No. 6 in the late summer and early autumn of that year. I’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy, and every time “Everybody’s Talkin’” pops up on the radio or on my player here at home, I tell myself that I have to put the movie’s title in my video queue. And I forget to do so every time.

Dave Marsh writes in The Heart of Rock & Soul: “Of all the sixties’ testimony to the necessity for immediate social revolution, “Something In The Air” is by far the most elegantly atmospheric.” The single – and the following album, which is almost as consistently good – was produced by the Who’s Pete Townshend, with Andy “Thunderclap” Newman on piano, Speedy Keen on drums, a young Jimmy McCulloch on guitar and – Marsh says – “Bijou Drains, a bassist with a giant beak, pipestem legs and unorthodox windmill playing style.” Drains, of course, was Townshend on a busman’s holiday. The single that resulted remains at moments thrilling, though there are also moments when it sounds as if the record – which barely pierced the Top 40, peaking at No. 37 in the autumn of 1969 – was patched together with Scotch tape. As clunky as some of the production is, it’s still a fascinating and fun record.

Badfinger’s “Day After Day” remains, nearly forty years later, a gorgeous song. Written by Pete Ham and produced by Todd Rundgren for Straight Up, the group’s third album, the single went to No. 4 as 1971 turned into 1972. Badfinger’s sad story is well-known, for the most part; those who are unfamiliar can find it here. For my purposes, it’s enough today to say that the group provided some fine singles and albums, and “Day After Day” might be the best.

I’ve written several times about the horn rock bands of the early 1970s, among which Chase might have had the most talent (and likely, too, the most horns, what with three trumpets). “Get It On” came curling out of radio speakers during the summer of 1971, when the record went to No. 24. Four (pretty good) albums and three years later, the story ended when Bill Chase and three other members of the band (and two pilots) were killed in an airplane crash in southwestern Minnesota. Even after all these years, the cascading trumpets give me a little bit of a chill.

I don’t know that I’d thought of exploring Roberta Flack’s music much until late in 1974, when a friend gave me a copy of Flack’s Killing Me Softly album. I knew the title track, of course, which had gone to No. 1 in early 1973. I knew Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which closed the album. And even though I’ve listened to the record on and off for more than thirty-five years now, the rest of the record remains vague to me, with the exception of two tracks: “When You Smile” was the song that the ladyfriend who gave me the record quoted to me one evening over a quiet drink, a wish just short of a promise that never came true. And “No Tears (In The End)” is a loping piece of light funk that never fails to make me want to dance, and it’s home to a lyric that still talks to me today.

(Revised slightly, with one correction, since first posting.)

On The High School Jukebox

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The tale of the jukebox in the Multi-Purpose Room at St. Cloud Tech in the autumn of 1970 was told here once before: In a time when school schedules were becoming more flexible, the former cold lunch room was renamed, and in an effort to make it more attractive to students for those times when their classes were not meeting, the administration installed a jukebox.

That was a move that I think the authorities eventually regretted, certainly by the second time Dawn’s No. 1 hit “Knock Three Times” drew the attention of some student’s quarter late in the autumn. When Tony Orlando and his crew told us to “knock three times,” feet stomped on the floor and books slammed on the table.  “Twice on the pipe” drew the same reaction.

Not all songs – or very many – created the aural chaos that Dawn’s second hit did. (“Candida” had come around earlier.) But the jukebox made the Multi-Purpose room, obviously, much louder than it had been during its service as a lunchroom. I give that long-gone administration credit for simply closing the doors and letting the music roll. And I wonder if any members of that administration had second thoughts the following spring when various news agencies reported that some radio stations across the U.S. were removing from their playlists – because of its seeming drug references – the Brewer & Shipley hit “One Toke Over The Line.”

The record was popular down in the Multi-Purpose Room that spring, maybe as much because of its buoyant country rock arrangement as its winking and chuckling “toke” reference. As we listened, we often wondered how Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley thought they could get away with it, and we marveled at the fact that – for the most part – they had: The record went to No. 10 in the spring of 1971. And we marveled as well that no one from the Tech administration seemed inclined to call the juke box jobber and demand that the record be pulled from the machine.

The record, as it turned out, was one of those happy accidents that seem to wait to happen. Two quotes from a page about the record at the Brewer & Shipley website make that clear:

Michael Brewer: ‘We wrote that one night in the dressing room of a coffee house. We played there a lot.  We were real bored, sitting in the dressing room.  We were pretty much stoned and all and Tom says, ‘Man, I’m one toke over the line tonight.’ I liked the way that sounded and so I wrote a song around it.  We were literally just entertaining ourselves. The next day we got together to do some picking and said, ‘What was that we were messing with last night?’ We remembered it, and in about an hour, we’d written ‘One Toke Over the Line.’ Just making ourselves laugh, really. We had no idea that it would ever even be considered as a single, because it was just another song to us.”

Tom Shipley: “‘One Toke’ wasn’t meant to make it to record. We were opening for Melanie at Carnegie Hall, and we played two encores. We really didn’t have anything else to sing to them. So we played ‘One Toke,’’ and the audience gave us a standing ovation. The record company president was there, and he said ‘Record it!’”

On the same page at the website, Brewer goes on to note: “The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, named us personally as a subversive to American youth, but at exactly the same time Lawrence Welk performed the crazy thing . . . That shows how absurd it really is. Of course, we got more publicity than we could have paid for.”

For all of that, and for the fact that just hearing the introduction still brings a smile to my face, “One Toke Over The Line” has a spot in the Ultimate Jukebox.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 13
“Dirty Water” by the Standells, Tower 185 [1966]
“Everybody Is A Star” by Sly & the Family Stone, Epic 10555 [1970]
“One Toke Over The Line” by Brewer & Shipley, Kama Sutra 516 [1971]
“How Long” by Ace, Anchor 21000 [1975]
“Mainstreet” by Bob Seger, Capitol 4422 [1977]
“(I’ve Had The) Time Of My Life” by Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes, RCA 5224 [1987]

“Dirty Water” is, of course, a crunchy piece of great garage rock celebrating Boston as the home of lovers, muggers, thieves and those mysterious – to the twelve-year-old whiteray during the summer of 1966 – “frustrated women.” The record went to No. 11 during that summer forty-four years ago, and that single guitar introduction – with the fellows lip-synching here – still grabs hold of a listener and says, “Pay attention! We’re talking about Boston here!”

Having first heard Sly & the Family Stone as the group behind the frenetic “Dance To The Music,”  the winking “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and the funky “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again),” I wasn’t prepared in the autumn of 1970 when I heard the B-Side of that last record on WJON one evening. Sweet, melodic, a little bittersweet and even a little inspirational, “Everybody Is A Star” wasn’t something I would have expected from Sly Stewart and his pals. The record got airplay as the flipside of the No. 1 hit “Thank You,” although the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits doesn’t give it a ranking of its own. In my own book, though, sweet often outranks funky (not always, but often enough that I recognize the pattern), and “Everybody Is A Star” thus finds its place in the Ultimate Jukebox.

The pulsing bass introduction that kicks off Ace’s “How Long” sounds more foreboding than the song actually is, although a tune in which the narrator quizzes his gal on her infidelity isn’t going to be a chorus of hoots and giggles. The record – which went to No. 3 in the spring of 1975 – was the only hit for the group from Sheffield, England, although the group’s lead singer, Paul Carrack, later reached the charts four times in the 1980s as a member of Mike & The Mechanics. (Ignore, if you can, the video’s picture of Ace Frehley of Kiss.)

I spent a few days the other week reading Late Edition: A Love Story, Bob Greene’s Valentine and eulogy to the newspaper business, framed through his work during his mid-1960s high school and college years for two newspapers in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. It’s a good read, and I might write about the book itself one of these days, but what made it come to mind this morning was Greene’s tale about a nightspot where he and his pals would sometimes stop. A band of scuffling folks about the same age regularly came down from Detroit to play there, and Greene notes that when the band took its breaks, he often had a chance to talk to the band’s lead singer, a young Bob Seger. The odds of either one of them making it big in their chosen professions were so slender, and Greene’s tale makes me wonder about the odds of both of them succeeding to the degrees they have. “Mainstreet” is the second Seger selection in these lists – after “Night Moves” – and to my ears is the better record, although “Night Moves” packs a stronger emotional wallop. “Mainstreet” also came from the 1976 album Night Moves, and it went to No. 24 in the spring of 1977.

I’m not quite sure what to say about “(I’ve Had The) Time Of My Life,” which came – as most readers likely know – from the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing. A ladyfriend and I saw the movie the first weekend it was released in the autumn of that year. As soon as the movie was over, we wanted the soundtrack and tried to get to any of the several record shops in St. Cloud before they closed for the evening. As it happened, we had to wait until the next day, when we had planned a shopping trip to the Twin Cities. And the record – a ballad that turns into a dance number with hints of gospel (musically if not lyrically) – remains a touchstone for me for the seasons that preceded the film’s release.

A Long, Strange Trip Indeed

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Not all that many years ago, as these things can be measured, I met someone while I was working at St. Cloud State. This was years before I had an inkling of the Texas Gal’s existence, and I was trying to fill the empty place. It worked, for a while.

That someone and I spent a brilliant summer together and then a few less-than-brilliant months sliding slowly apart before we realized that what we had found instead of a life-long romance was a lasting friendship, a rare enough commodity itself. That friendship endures today, as do the memories, most of them dear and a few of them not so happy.

Among the most fascinating memories – from this side of the fence, anyway – are the evenings we spent tracing our steps through the separate lives we’d led in the years before. Many times metaphorically and two or three times literally, one of us had left a room bare moments before the other entered. At least twice, we were at the same event among crowds small enough that we could have found the other, had we been aware there was someone to find.

We did many more things that summer than plot our movements over the years, of course, but we lazed into the topic frequently as the records or the radio played in my apartment or hers. And one evening, as the campus radio station provided the soundtrack, we were musing over where we had been and dreaming about where we might go. The strains of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” came from the speakers in the corner.

Then Jerry and the boys got to the tag line: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” And she and I looked at each other and laughed and then nodded, and for the rest of that summer, there were moments when one or the other of us would quote the line in amusement, wonder or resignation.

“Truckin’” was never “our song.” The Dead’s saga of chemical enlightenment, crash pad paranoia and the rest was too, well, too something to be the romantic touchstone that both of us needed “our song” to be that summer. For that purpose, we found a song, and another and another and then more, stacking those tunes in a kind of sweet hierarchy, like a series of 45s stacked on a portable record player. The Grateful Dead’s song, on the other hand, served as a reminder of how remarkable our meeting was and of how close we might have come to not meeting at all.

Months later, aware in sorrow that the long, strange trip would continue as two separate voyages, I tried to reframe the song as a reminder that companions and destinations find us, not the other way around.

This is the version from the 1974 anthology Skeletons from the Closet, and I think it’s the same as the 1970 album track from American Beauty. According to The Grateful Dead Family Discography, an edit of the album track was released in 1971 as a single, Warner Bros. 7464, with an edit of “Ripple” from the same album on the flip side. The same edit of “Truckin’” was also released on singles twice more, first as the B side to a live version of “Johnny B. Goode” in 1972 and then in 1974 as an A side, backed with “Sugar Magnolia.” I have no idea how well the single did in any of those three iterations, except that it did not make it into the Top 40.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 12
“Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead from American Beauty [1970]
“Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes, Enterprise 9038 [1971]
“I’ll Be Long Gone” by Mother Earth from Bring Me Home [1971]
“Waking Up Alone” by Paul Williams from Just An Old Fashioned Love Song [1971]
“Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed, RCA 0887 [1973]
“Second Avenue” by Tim Moore from Tim Moore [1975]

I checked this morning, and this is the only weekly selection from the Ultimate Jukebox that plants itself entirely in the decade of the 1970s. There didn’t have to be one, I suppose, and I imagine there could have been more, but this is the way the random sorting worked itself out.

I know I’ve had some things to say in the past about the Hayes, Williams and Moore selections. Obviously, all three remain favorites, and I’d have to put “Waking Up Alone” and “Second Avenue” high on the list of best post-romance songs ever, the first in the category of “It Happened Long Ago” and the second in the category of “It Happened Recently.” Both still can tug at my heart, but the best moment in the two of them combined has nothing to do with the lyrics or the stories told thereby. It’s the saxophone that comes in late on “Waking Up Alone,” hanging around long enough to take a nice solo and then walk us home. The two sad songs also fall into the category of records that should have been hits.

“Theme from Shaft was a hit, of course, sitting at No. 1 for two weeks in the autumn of 1971. The record earned Hayes an Academy Award, two Grammys and the undying gratitude of anyone who wanted to hear something funky and slinky coming out of their radio speakers.

This is the second time Boz Scaggs’ tune “I’ll Be Long Gone” has shown up in this list: Scaggs’ original version was listed here some time ago. As I was trimming the list of songs in the Ultimate Jukebox, I never could decide which of the two versions I wanted to include, so I kept both of them. The similarity in arrangement bothers me a little, but that’s redeemed by the vocal reading from Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson. (I did trim, with some reluctance, another very good version of the same tune by Cold Blood and Lydia Pense.)

“Walk On The Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s incredibly catchy sketch of transvestite bliss in New York City, always brings me a chuckle. The record went to No. 16 in the late winter and spring of 1973, and I don’t recall hearing it then at all. The next autumn, when I was in Denmark, another American guy and I would spend evenings with my American girlfriend and the Danish girl with whose family my gal was living. We’d lounge on the floor of Ulla’s room, and Ulla would keep the record player spinning with her 45s. Whenever she’d cue up “Walk On The Wild Side,” we three Americans would glance at each other as Ulla sang along, phonetically perfect but linguistically unaware of a good deal of what she was singing about. “A hustle here and a hustle there . . .”

Sir Frankie Crisp: ‘Let It Roll’

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

So what did we know when the Beatles broke up?

There had been rumors for more than a year, but the news came out of London in the spring of 1970: Paul McCartney announced his departure from the band and then released McCartney, his first solo album, in April, just weeks before the scheduled release of Let It Be, which turned out to be the group’s final album.

To a fan in the American Midwest, one who’d only recently begun to listen seriously to the Beatles, the news was sparse. I’d imagine that my family paid more attention to current events than did a lot of folks in St. Cloud. We subscribed to two daily newspapers and to Time magazine. We listened to the world and state-wide news on the radio as we ate breakfast every morning. We frequently watched the evening news on television. We were about as plugged into current events as folks could be forty years ago. And I remember the dissolution of the Beatles being covered by all of those media: television and radio news, the daily newspapers and Time magazine. About the only additional source available that would have clarified – perhaps – the events was Rolling Stone, a magazine I’d eventually read, but not for a few years. (Newsweek magazine, which at the time seemed a little more tuned into entertainment and the like than was Time, might have given me a bit more information, but only a little, I think.)

But other than adding Rolling Stone to my mix of sources, there were no other places to go for information. I couldn’t click my way to forty-nine different websites for music and entertainment news. I couldn’t walk the remote control up fifty-five channels to see what the various cable outlets had to say. So my friends and I had nothing other than the very basic information that came through those very basic sources.

Beyond a galaxy of information sources that seemed like science fiction forty years ago, today’s media mix also includes the results of research, the release of archives and the revising of history that comes along to every major event as the years pass. We know more now about the events of those years, the Sixties and Seventies, and that includes the end of the Beatles. We know about the bickering during the Get Back sessions in 1969, we know about the hours of unfinished tape essentially laid in the lap of Phil Spector, which he cobbled into the Let It Be album, we know about the Beatles pulling it together to record Abbey Road, and we probably know more now than we really want to know about both the great and dismal portions of that last year of the band’s life.

(I should note here that I like Let It Be as Spector produced it. I recognize its limitations and find the short song jokes and asides a little tedious these days. But it was the first Beatles LP I’d ever bought, and as such it has some value to me. McCartney’s revisiting of the project a few years ago, resulting in Let It Be Naked, is interesting but not all that compelling.)

Anyway, to get out of the thickets and back to where I thought I was going, there were far fewer sources of information about, well, about anything and not just the Beatles back in 1970. And as the year moved on, Rick and I and our pals at his school and mine traded rumors about what would happen next. And we heard in the autumn of 1970 that George Harrison was going to release a three-LP album at the end of the year.

Now, we knew that Harrison had provided one, maybe two songs per Beatles album for years. We had no idea that he could’ve done so much more had he been given the opportunities. (It’s worth keeping in mind, I think, that, as good as many of his compositions turned out to be, Harrison was fighting for album space with the best pair of writers in the history of rock music. It was a tough spot to be in.) Nor did we have any idea that his impending album had been recorded with the same musicians who made up Derek & The Dominos and Delaney & Bonnie’s Friends (with a few other friends thrown in). Not having any information beyond the fact that album, All Things Must Pass, existed, we didn’t know what to think.

We got a preview in early December when “My Sweet Lord” popped up on radio, on its way to No. 1, and we liked what we heard. (We were utterly unaware that Harrison had, evidently accidentally, plagiarized the melody for “My Sweet Lord” from the Chiffons’ 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine.” We’d been nine when the Chiffons’ song was on the radio.) And sometime during December 1970, Rick wound up with a copy of All Things Must Pass.

I borrowed it and taped it, of course, and during the winter of 1970-71, as I played Don Quixote to my Dulcinea, I spent many evenings listening to Harrison’s work. I pretty much ignored the “Apple Jam” that made up the third disc of the three-record set. But the rest of the album became ingrained. I remember now leaving a purple-ink copy of the lyrics to Harrison’s valedictory “All Things Must Pass” in my young lady’s locker. I bought the book of sheet music for the album and began to master “Beware Of Darkness.” And I lost myself in the surreal lyrics of the song that became my favorite on the album:

I still like the song a lot.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 11
“Hitchcock Railway” by Joe Cocker from Joe Cocker! [1969]
“No Time” by the Guess Who, RCA 0300 [1970]
“The Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll)”  by George Harrison from All Things Must Pass [1970]
“We’re An American Band” by Grand Funk, Capitol 3660 [1973]
“The Circle Is Small (I Can See It In Your Eyes)” by Gordon Lightfoot from Endless Wire [1978]
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson from Thriller [1983]

I’ve written about most of these songs and/or these artists before, so there are only a few things to say. First, about Grand Funk: I was not a fan during my high school and college years. I recall that one of the guys who’d worked on the lawn-mowing crew during the summer of 1971 loaned me the group’s 1970 album Grand Funk for a few weeks. I was still unimpressed. And I’m not sure that I was all that taken by “We’re An American Band” when it came charging out of the radio speakers in the last weeks of the summer of 1973. I left for Denmark early that September, so I wasn’t around when the record hit No. 1 at the end of the month, and the record was never really a part of my internal soundtrack. But when the song popped up during my sorting for this project, I put it in the keeper pile without a moment’s hesitation. In 2010, “We’re An American Band” sounds a lot better than a lot of things that I thought sounded pretty good in 1973.

“No Time”  is probably my favorite Guess Who record, and the Guess Who was a pretty reliable singles band during my first couple years of Top 40 listening. The record went to No. 5, and I can’t ever hear it without being pulled back to February of 1970: Rick, Rob and I, along with a friend of Rob’s whose name I have lost, are heading to the Twin Cities to see the Minnesota North Stars play the Montreal Canadiens. We expect the North Stars to lose because, well, the Canadiens are the defending Stanley Cup champions. But somehow, the Stars manage a 1-1 tie, and as we drive back to St. Cloud late that evening, we hear “No Time.”

I don’t know whether the video I’ve found of “Billie Jean” is the single or the album track (or if there’s a difference, for that matter). The single spent seven weeks at No. 1 in the Top 40 and nine weeks at the top of the R&B chart. As is true of almost everything else from Thriller, if the song doesn’t make you wanna dance, you might as well be a zombie.

My affection for “Hitchcock Railway” comes from three sources. First, the version that closes Side One of Joe Cocker! still gives chills. Second, when I saw Cocker live in the spring of 1972, he took on “Hitchcock Railway” toward the end of the show, and his performance redeemed what had been to that point a less-than-good concert. Third, I have – through Patti Dahlstrom and this blog – the Internet version of a nodding acquaintance with the song’s writer, Don Dunn, and that’s kind of cool.

I wrote once long ago about my first boss, DQ, and how we staff members at the Monticello Times used to tease him about his affection for the music of Gordon Lightfoot. I joined in the joshing although, had truth been told, I also enjoyed Lightfoot’s music. During my nearly six years at the Times, I gathered in a few Lightfoot albums, and gathered in more as time went on. Many tracks from those albums were candidates for this project; the most difficult to discard were “If You Could Read My Mind” and the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” Two of Lightfoot’s tracks made it into the final list, and one of those is “The Circle Is Small (I Can See It In Your Eyes),” which went to No. 38 during the spring of  1978. It’s one of the Lightfoot tunes that I first heard in the offices of the Monticello Times.

Revisiting Jesse Winchester’s ‘Biloxi’

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Road To ‘Palo Alto’

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

In my early days online, years before I knew there were such things as blogs, much less blogs about music, and long before I had an inkling that I would write such a blog, I was looking for information about The Band. These days, even after learning about hundreds of other musicians and absorbing their work, The Band remains my favorite all-time group. (The Beatles rank second, and I’m not going to figure out who comes third right now.)

And I found myself, probably sometime in 2001, at a pretty extensive website about The Band, covering not only the group’s history and music as The Band but the group members’ history and music before the group formed in the late 1950s and after the original group split up in 1976. The website also had an extensive list of folks who’d covered songs by the band over the years, and I began to dig into the performers listed there who’d covered “The Weight.” One name baffled me: Bobby Jameson.

I’d never heard of the man, never knew – as I know now – that he’d once been promoted as pop-rock music’s next big thing, never knew that he’d worked in studios with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, with Frank Zappa, with Crazy Horse and with others who would become household names (at least in those households that loved pop-rock music). As I got better at navigating the ’Net, I learned that Working! – the album on which Bobby’s version of “The Weight” appears – commanded prices ranging from $40 to $100 on the used LP market. I also learned that his other two albums – Color Him In, which was released under the name of just Jameson, and Songs of Protest and Anti-Protest, released under the name of Chris Lucey – were nearly just as rare on vinyl.

Sometimes being slow, I didn’t discover music blogs until the summer of 2007 2006, and – like a starving shopper on sampling day at the supermarket – I gobbled up lots of music new to me. Among that music I found Bobby’s three albums, starting with Working!  As it was utterly out of print, I shared it and soon found myself in an email and message conversation with Bobby Jameson, who was living in California. He was pleased with my assessment of the album, and a long-distance friendship developed that’s still growing today. (I later found a copy of Working! online for the ridiculously low price of $10 and sent it to Bobby for an autograph. He happily complied.)

All of this is a long way to get around to the fact that “Palo Alto” from Working! is one of the records I’ve put into my Ultimate Jukebox. It was an easy choice. It’s not like I sat down and thought, “Boy, I need to get one of Bobby’s songs in there. Which one should it be?”

No, it was more simple than that. The first time I scrolled through the songs in my collection from 1969, I typed in “Palo Alto” without hesitation. Why? Well, first, I like it. There won’t be any music I don’t like on some level in the jukebox. By itself, though, that’s not enough. I like the Pipkins’ “Gimme Dat Ding” plenty, too, but it’s not going to show up in these posts. There needs to be an attachment of some sort: historical, intellectual, emotional. With “Palo Alto,” it’s the latter. There is such a sense of yearning, of regret in the song. Here’s a video Bobby put together for the song since he’s become a presence on the ’Net in the past few years.

When I shared Working! in late 2007, I simply said that Palo Alto sounded to me like the early work that Jimmy Webb was doing with Glen Campbell a few years earlier, songs like “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” Bobby never said a thing about that, and I thought I’d missed the point entirely of what he’d been trying to do. But not long ago, when he posted his video for “Palo Alto” (he’s since removed it and then reposted it so the comment is gone), he mentioned that he and the crew he was recording with had been aiming for a “Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell kind of sound.”

Sometimes I get one right.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 9
“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price, ABC-Paramount 9972 [1959]
“Palo Alto” by Bobby Jameson from Working! [1969]
“What About Me” by Quicksilver Messenger Service, Capitol 3046 [1971]
“Taxi” by Harry Chapin, Elektra 45770 [1972]
“When Will I See You Again” by the Three Degrees, Philadelphia International 3550 [1973]
“Here Come Those Tears Again” by Jackson Browne, Asylum 45379 [1977]

“Stagger Lee,” the tale of a craps game gone bad and the pissed-off player who won’t let it rest, has one of the more compelling introductions in early rock ’n’ roll (or maybe in all of rock ’n’ roll), with Lloyd Price singing atop a vocal chorus with just a tinkling of piano: “The night was clear and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.” And the drums bomp in (Earl Palmer, perhaps?) and we’re off into the tale of Stagger Lee, Billy Lyons, a Stetson hat, Billy’s sickly wife and the bullet that broke the bartender’s glass. The story of Stagger Lee came to Price and his collaborator Harold Logan from an old folk song – there are hundreds of verses to the song – that itself evolved from tales of a Nineteenth Century Memphis waterfront gambler named James “Stacker” Lee. (The tale of the song is told in Greil Marcus’ book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock & Roll Music [1975].) The song’s genesis is fascinating, as is the fact that Dick Clark insisted that Price record a bowdlerized version of the record – in which Billy Lyons’ life is spared – before Clark would allow Price to perform on American Bandstand. But none of that seems to matter if you’re ever out on the dance floor while the original record is playing.

My data banks were pretty empty when I first got Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1970 album What About Me at a flea market in North Dakota in 1989. I knew the band had sprung up in the San Francisco area in the late 1960s, the same period that has produced the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company and many others. But I don’t know that I’d heard much of Quicksilver before. Digging into first What About Me and then the rest of the group’s catalog was rewarding. There was some aimless noodling, but there was also some brilliant playing, more of the latter than the former, I thought (and still think). And, getting back to the first album I found, there was “What About Me” with its straightforward message of environmental damage and social revolution and its nearly perfect hook of a chorus. The record was released as a single, but I don’t recall hearing it and don’t know how well it did.

The first few times I heard Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” in early 1972, I felt like I was listening to a movie, one studded with details that emerged bit by bit with each successive listening/viewing. The layers of detail and the strength of the story-telling fascinated me (and as I was beginning to write song lyrics at the time, humbled and inspired me at the same time), and over the years, I’ve lost myself in the story of Harry and Sue time and again. There has always been one portion of the record that’s confused me, though: I’ve never been able to understand the high female vocal in the middle of the song. I finally looked it up this morning. The words are:

Baby’s so high that she’s skying,
Yes she’s flying, afraid to fall.
I’ll tell you why baby’s crying,
Cause she’s dying, aren’t we all.

And as 1972 wandered on and “Taxi” went to No. 24, I thought I’d be perfectly happy to let the story of Harry and Sue end with Harry driving away with his twenty-dollar bill. But eight years later, Chapin released “Sequel,” a record that takes the couple’s story further. It’s maybe not quite as good a record, which is why it was one of those I trimmed as I was filling my jukebox, but it was still fine to catch up with those old friends Harry Chapin had introduced us to eight years earlier. (“Sequel” went to No. 23.) There are many reasons to mourn Chapin’s death in 1981, but one of them for me is that I tend to think he had a song planned for 1990, one called “Finale,” in which he’d let us know where Harry and Sue finally landed.

(The video I found for “Taxi” at YouTube is the original video made by Elektra to promote Chapin in 1972; the backing track is slightly different than the one that was released on the Heads & Tales album, and the video ends with a promotional message from Jac Holzman, at the time the head of Elektra Records.)

 

The sweet Philly soul of the Three Degrees’ “When Will I See You Again” has always carried a riddle of time for me. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits tells me that the record was released as a single in the autumn of 1974, peaking at No. 2, where it spent two weeks. That doesn’t jibe with my memory at all: To me, “When Will I See You Again” is the autumn of 1975, as it showed up on the radio about the same time as I met a young lady with whom I spent more than a decade. It was, for a brief time during that first season, “our song.” And I know for certain that we met in 1975. Did the record get ignored by Minnesota radio stations and jukebox jobbers for more than a year? Or did I just miss it? I don’t know the answers (I’m sure someone does), but I do know that the record is a lovely piece of music, and whenever I hear it, I remember the way the record would make the college-aged whiteray smile, and I smile back.

I wrote a while back about hearing “Here Come Those Tears Again” on the radio in February 1977, noting that it was one of the first recordings I ever owned that showed up after that on radio playlists: “Wow, I have that song already!” (The record went to No. 23.) Why is it in the Ultimate Jukebox? Because so many things are so good about it: Jackson Browne’s measured – for a while – vocal; the extraordinary foundation provided by the rhythm section of Bob Glaub and Jim Gordon; the guitar solo from John Hall (then of Orleans, now a U.S. Congressman), and, among more, the final couplet before the chorus repeats:

I’m going back inside and turning out the light,
And I’ll be in the dark, but you’ll be out of sight.