Archive for the ‘Television’ Category

‘And I Have Loved You Wild . . .’

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Reality television has added another notch to its belt in our household: I’ve joined the Texas Gal in becoming a viewer of The Voice, the singing competition offered by NBC. She’s been a fan for some time, and as this season began, I joined her in the living room and found myself intrigued by some of the talent in the competition.

The structure of the competition – with head-to-head match-ups and so on – seems a little gimmicky sometimes, but one thing that does make it a better show than American Idol, which we’ve watched for years, is the opening round, in which hopeful contestants sing in blind auditions, with the chairs of the four judges facing away from them.

That means, of course, that the judges – Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams and Blake Shelton – can only assess a contestant by his or her voice in that first round. That’s an interesting twist, which I like.

Anyway, this season’s contest is underway, and I’ll likely follow it to the end. I have a few favorites among the contestants still alive in the competition. Among those eliminated, one of the intriguing entries was the duo of Jubal Lee Young and Amanda Preslar. Young is the son of country musician Steve Young, and for the blind audition, the duo performed the elder Young’s most famous song, “Seven Bridges Road.”

They advanced, landing a spot on Williams’ team, but were eliminated in the next round. The show’s profile of the two showed them with their families, including, of course, Steve Young. I was startled for an instant to see that he’s looking old and a bit frail, but then I realized that the man is in his seventies. (He’s seventy-three, to be precise.)

And as Young and Preslar sang the elder Young’s song during their blind audition, I thought, not for the first time, about what a great song it is. A couple of years ago, I found a quote from Steve Young about the song’s inspiration:

I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early ’60s and had a group of friends there that showed me the road. It led out of town, and after you had crossed seven bridges you found yourself out in the country on a dirt road. Spanish moss hung in the trees and there were old farms with old fences and graveyards and churches and streams. A high bank dirt road with trees. It seemed like a Disney fantasy at times. People went there to park or get stoned or just to get away from it all. I thought my friends had made up the name “Seven Bridges Road.” I found out later that it had been called by that name for over a hundred years, that people had been struck by the beauty of the road for a long time.

I shared Young’s original version of the tune then, and this morning, I thought I’d dig into the files and see what covers I have. The obvious one, of course, is the Eagles’ cover of the tune from their 1980 live album (a version that essentially replicates Ian Matthews’ 1973 version from his Valley Hi album). I’ve also got covers by Rita Coolidge and by Tracy Nelson with Mother Earth, both from 1971. I may dig up more – and there seem to be plenty of covers out there – but here’s Matthews’ version:

Missing The Midnight Special

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Rummaging around on Facebook over the weekend, I came across a link to a piece at the Rolling Stone website offering seventeen reasons to adulate Stevie Nicks. Now, I don’t adulate Nicks, nor do I need reasons to do so, but I do admire her and like a lot of her music, both with and without Fleetwood Mac.

So I didn’t need to click through for those seventeen reasons, but the video that was embedded in the piece tempted me. And I found myself watching the Mac’s performance of “Rhiannon” on the June 11, 1976, episode of The Midnight Special.

I loved pretty much everything about that clip and wished for maybe the thousandth time that I’d paid more attention to The Midnight Special. The late-night Friday show* ran from February 1973 into May 1981, and I’m not at all sure why I didn’t watch it even occasionally, much less regularly.

During most of the early years – up to the middle of the summer of ’76, not long after above Fleetwood Mac performance – I could easily have watched the show on the old black-and-white in my room (with the sound turned down some so as not to wake my folks in the adjacent bedroom). After that, at least in a couple of places, I might have had to persuade a couple of roommates (or for a few years, the Other Half) to watch with me. But I never even tried.

So I never got on board, and I wish I had. There are selected performances from the show’s nine seasons available commercially, but I’m not about to spring the cash that Time/Life is asking for discs of those assorted performances. Instead, I wander on occasion through the valley at YouTube, finding bits and pieces of things I missed half a lifetime (or more) ago, things like Linda Ronstadt (introduced by José Feliciano as a country performer) making her way through a December 1973 performance of “You’re No Good” and a May 1977 performance of “Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band.

It’s a seemingly bottomless trove of long-ago treasure, and I can easily get lost clicking from video to video (something that happens occasionally anyway, though with less of a focus). Well, there are worse things to get hooked on, I suppose. And for this morning, we’ll close with a performance by Redbone from February 1974, when they opened “Come And Get Your Love” with a Native American dance quite possibly pulled – though I’m not certain – from the Shoshone heritage of Pat and Lolly Vegas, the group’s founders.

*The show followed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, which meant that for most of its run, The Midnight Special actually started at midnight here in the Central Time Zone. When Carson trimmed his show to an hour in late 1980, The Midnight Special aired at 11:30 our time.

‘Baby, Please Come Home . . .’

Friday, December 19th, 2014

One of my favorite Christmas traditions – and I have very few – comes to an end tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman: Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).”

Love has performed the song on Letterman’s shows on NBC and CBS since 1986, and with Letterman retiring in the spring, Love said that this year’s performance will be her last of the song on any talk show, according to a piece in this morning’s New York Times.

The Times reports: “People say, ‘He can’t demand that’,” Ms. Love explained, sweeping back her curly platinum hair. “I say, ‘He’s not demanding.’ I made a point myself, and I want to do it just for David.” (The Times piece is here.)

I imagine I’ve seen Love’s last twenty or so annual performances of the song she first recorded in 1963 for the Phil Spector album A Christmas Gift For You, most of them when the show was aired and some of them afterward. It seems to me that my first viewing of one of Love’s performances came in the late 1990s, when I was flipping among the six channels on my TV late one December evening. I came across Letterman – whose show I generally ignored – promising viewers that Darlene Love would perform after the commercial break.

When the break was over and Love took the stage, I was overjoyed. And I’ve been so every year since. (I should note that in 2007, when Love was unable to perform on the show because of a writers strike, a recording of her 2006 performance was aired instead. I loved it anyway.)

And tonight, I’ll watch the last time as Love, 73, and a large cluster of musicians recreate – as closely as a live performance can, I think – Spector’s Wall of Sound. And I imagine, me being me, I’ll be a little misty-eyed as the performance comes to close. That’s okay. I’ll make sure I have some tissues at hand.

Here’s Love’s performance of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” from last year:

Diverted By Peggy Lipton

Friday, June 27th, 2014

Okay, right off the top, take a listen to Peggy Lipton:

I found that rather nice cover of Donovan’s 1967 single “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” after I saw it listed in the Billboard Hot 100 from June 27, 1970, forty-four years ago today. It was bubbling under at No. 112 and would get as high as No. 108 before falling out of sight. (One of the things I particularly like about Lipton’s record is producer Lou Adler quoting from Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” in the introduction.)

Lipton was better known in the late 1960s and early 1970s as one of three young stars (along with Michael Cole and Clarence Williams III) of the television series The Mod Squad, which centered around three young folks who agreed to work as undercover cops in order to stay out of jail. The series ran from September 1968 through August 1973 and was, says Wikipedia, “one of the earliest attempts to deal with the counterculture. Groundbreaking in the realm of socially relevant drama, it dealt with issues such as abortion, domestic violence, student protest, child neglect, illiteracy, slumlords, the anti-war movement, soldiers returning from Vietnam, racism, and the illegal drug trade.”

(Was it that good? I never watched the show much back then, but I’ve taken in a few clips on YouTube in the past few days, and what I’ve seen seems slow and a little clunky. But that’s a perspective from more than forty years on, so I dunno.)

Lipton might be better known these days as the mother of Rashida Jones, who plays Ann Perkins on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, or for having played Norma Jennings in the 1990s television show Twin Peaks, or perhaps as the ex-wife of Quincy Jones, to whom Lipton was married from 1974 to 1990.

But it was as Julie Barnes in The Mod Squad that the utterly beautiful Lipton came to the public’s attention. She sang at least once during the show’s run. In a 1969 episode, she auditioned for a roadhouse singing job with a performance of Carole King’s “Now That Everything’s Been Said.” (Sharp-eyed viewers will note the presence of a young Tyne Daly and, behind the drum kit, Hal Blaine.)

Her 1968 self-titled album included a cover of Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End,” which was released as a single; it bubbled under at No. 121. A single-only release, “Lu,” bubbled under at No. 102 in early 1970, followed by “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” which was also a single-only release. Discogs.com lists one Canadian and one Japanese single; the B-side of the Japanese single was “Just A Little Lovin’ (Early In The Mornin’),” originally released (as far as I can tell) by Dusty Springfield as the B-side to her 1968 hit “Son Of A Preacher Man.”

Here’s Lipton lip-synching “Just A Little Lovin’ (Early In The Mornin’)” on The Hollywood Palace in 1969, followed by a bit of “Little Green Apples” with Sammy Davis, Jr., and a bit of show-business nonsense. (How about that? Two posts in a row with Sammy Davis, Jr.!)

After digging into Lipton’s brief musical career, I was intrigued to learn that a CD entitled The Complete Ode Recordings will be released near the end of July. As I’ve dug into stuff the past couple of days, I’ve guessed that the various non-album singles were intended to be on a unreleased second album I’ve seen mentioned vaguely (most notably at All Music Guide) that I assume will be included on the CD. Given that I like what I’ve heard of Lipton’s work – and adding in that Blaine and other members of the famed Wrecking Crew as well as reed man Jim Horn are listed in the credits for Lipton’s album at AMG – I may have to invest in the CD when it comes out.

I admit to getting sidetracked into Ms. Lipton’s career. Next week, we’ll do what I originally planned: We’ll take a listen to Donovan’s original version of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and then dig into a few other covers. And now that I’ve been reminded of “Just A Little Lovin’ (Early In The Mornin’),” we’ll likely dig into covers of that one, too.

Saturday Single No. 369

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

I saw this morning that Mavis Staples – whom a commenter at a Facebook music group called “a national treasure” this week – has been nominated for a Grammy in the Americana category for her album One True Vine.

And as I read that news, a video played on YouTube showing a performance by the Staple Singers of “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” which was No. 12 in the Billboard Hot 100 released forty years ago this week, on December 8, 1973.

Sometimes the universe speaks, even about things as ultimately as inconsequential as the selection of a record to highlight. So here, in a performance that likely took place in June 1974, are the Staple Singers performing “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” today’s Saturday Single.

‘Shadows Of The Night . . .’

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

The public fascination with vampires over the past few years has baffled me. From Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and the films that have resulted from them through the HBO series True Blood to the recent film Dark Shadows, the vampire fetish that’s taken hold in American pop culture mystifies me. And I’ve purposely missed most of it. I watched the first episode a few years ago of True Blood and found it less than compelling, and that’s all the vampiring I’ve done.

I suppose there’s an explanation somewhere for the fascination, probably something about how pop culture reflects the times, frightening and uncertain as they are, and about the need to escape. And it’s certainly less stressful to watch horrible, scary (and occasionally romantic) films and movies (or to read the corresponding books) than it is to reflect on the very real tales of homelessness, hunger, murder, drought and flames (and all the rest) that wait for us when the entertainment is over. When we watch and read, we know it’s all fictional and temporary, unlike the worries outside our doors, and we know that we can get up and leave or turn off the TV or close the book, and thus get rid of our fears.

The same thoughts probably hold true for the recent parallel fascination with zombies. And those thoughts have held true for many years in American pop culture (as well as other pop cultures, too, as evidenced by Godzilla rising from the ashes of nuclear holocaust in Japan in the 1950s). When we worry and are frightened, our worries and fears find their ways into our books, onto the big and small screens and – to an extent – into our music.

This year’s movie isn’t, of course, the first time that the vampires of Dark Shadows have been offered to the public. The original Dark Shadows was a TV soap opera on ABC from 1966 into 1971. A year after the show went on the air, it was ripe for cancellation. Then the writers introduced the character of Barnabas Collins (played by the recently deceased Jonathan Frid), whom Wikipedia describes as a “200-year-old vampire in search of fresh blood and his lost love, Josette.”

Viewers went nuts, and the show prospered. Wikipedia says: “Dark Shadows was distinguished by its vividly melodramatic performances, atmospheric interiors, memorable storylines, numerous dramatic plot twists, unusually adventurous music score, and broad and epic cosmos of characters and heroic adventures. Now regarded as something of a classic, it continues to enjoy an intense cult following.”

And, as pop culture phenomena often do, Dark Shadows crossed over media lines. In mid-June 1969, a single titled “Quentin’s Theme” – credited to the Charles Randolph Grean Sounde – entered the Billboard Hot 100. “Quentin’s Theme” was named for Barnabas Collins’ brother (played by David Selby), and the music had been used in numerous episodes of the series, according to a Dark Shadows wiki. In August, the record peaked at No. 13 (No. 3 on the Adult Contemporary chart).

Back in June, however, shortly after the “Quentin’s Theme” single entered the chart, an episode of Dark Shadows had once again featured the same tune, this time accompanied by Selby’s recitation of the lyrics. Shortly thereafter, a single including Selby’s recitation was released. Titled “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme)” and credited to the Robert Cobert Orchestra, it entered the Billboard Hot 100’s Bubbling Under section at No. 135 on August 16, 1969, forty-three years ago today.

A week later, the record moved up to No. 125 and then it fell out of the chart, so despite the popularity of Dark Shadows, not a lot of folks were impressed. But the record did impress someone who worked at KRCB radio in Council Bluffs, Iowa. In the station’s Big 15+6 survey from August 16, 1969, the record “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme)” was one of the six singles listed (without ranking) under the Big 15.

For that, KRCB stands alone: Of the more than one hundred surveys from August 1969 available at the Airheads Radio Survey Archive, that one edition of KRCB’s Big 15+6 is the only survey to list “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme).”

Despite the single’s lack of success, however, things weren’t entirely dire on the Dark Shadows musical front: On August 23, 1969, an LP of Cobert’s music from the series entered the Billboard album chart and peaked at No. 18 in an eight-week run. And as the year neared its end, Cobert was nominated for a Grammy for his work on “Shadows of the Night (Quentin’s Theme).”

‘Good Night, Mrs. Calabash . . .’

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Being unsure which era to select this morning for a bit of chart digging, I began shuffling years in my head (and then looking to see how recently I’d visited those years). It had been a while since I’d tackled anything from the 1950s, so I started with the Billboard Hot 100 from September 21, 1959, fifty-two years ago tomorrow.

As the computer searched for that file, I wandered to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, thinking: What do I recall or know about mid-September 1959? Well, I was in first grade, and it was about that time that Miss Rodeman had to be wondering how to engage a daydreaming boy who could already read at about a third-grade level.

A pretty slender thread, I thought, as I sat down and looked at that Hot 100. Well, there doesn’t always have to be a story. A vague link to a recent post is sometimes enough. And that’s what started our digging today, because the No. 1 record in Billboard on September 21, 1959, was “Sleepwalk,” which was the Saturday Single the last time I popped into the Echoes In The Wind studios.

So it seemed like a fine idea to stay right there and see what was lurking in the lower portions of the Hot 100 during one of the two weeks that Santo & Johnny’s instrumental topped the chart. Then, one of those records and a YouTube clip caught my attention, and that’s all we’re going to dig into this morning in kind of a disjointed, attention-shifting manner.

Between August 1957 and May 1958, Jimmie Rodgers had been about as hot as a recording artist not named Elvis Presley could be: “Honeycomb” was No. 1 on the pop chart for four weeks, No. 1 on the R&B chart for two weeks and went to No. 7 on the country chart. “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” went to No. 3 on the pop chart, No. 8 on the R&B chart and No. 6 on the country chart. “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling In Love Again” went to No. 7 on the pop chart, No. 19 on the R&B chart and No. 5 on the country chart. “Secretly” b/w “Make Me A Miracle” went to No. 3 on the pop chart, No. 7 on the R&B chart and No. 5 on the country chart. And “Are You Really Mine” went to No. 10 on the pop chart and to No. 13 on the country chart.

The more I re-read that preceding paragraph, the more astounding that nine-month sequence seems. And Jimmie Rodgers seems pretty much forgotten these days.

Anyway, by the time September of 1959 rolled around, Rodgers had tumbled some. Nothing he’d released since the previous August had hit the country or R&B Top 40s, and although he’d hit the pop Top 40 with a few records – “Bimbombey” had done the best, going to No. 11 – the general trend was downward. His September 1959 single, “Tucumcari” – featuring a pretty generic lyric of love lost and won over what sounds like a Bo Diddley beat – didn’t change that, peaking at No. 32. But it did provide a pretty cool television clip for those intrigued by American pop culture before rock ’n’ roll.

The clip, according to information harvested from tv.com and the Internet Archive, came from a December 6, 1959, episode of NBC’s series of specials titled Sunday Showcase. Besides Rodgers, those joining Durante during the show were Jane Powell, Ray Bolger and Eddie Hodges. (The special was televised in color, but only a black and white kinescope survives.)

I actually recall seeing Jimmy Durante on television more than once around that time, possibly even during this show. As I wrote in 2007, when Ian Thomas’ tune “Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash” popped up during a random Baker’s Dozen:

“The title [of Thomas’ song] comes from a phrase used by Jimmy Durante (1893-1980), a singer, comedian and actor whose career began in vaudeville and continued through numerous radio and television shows and movies. Durante invariably closed his radio and television performances with the phrase, ‘Goodnight, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.’ He never explained who Mrs. Calabash was, and – having seen Durante on some television shows as a young child – I always thought that was kind of neat and maybe even poignant.”

As it happens, Durante did explain his exit line in 1966, according to Wikipedia. On NBC’s Monitor, Durante revealed that the line was a tribute to his first wife, Jeanne, who died in 1943: “While driving across the country, they stopped in a small town called Calabash, which name she had loved. ‘Mrs. Calabash’ became his pet name for her, and he signed off his radio program with ‘Good night, Mrs. Calabash.’ He added ‘wherever you are’ after the first year.”

Here’s Durante closing that Sunday Showcase from December of 1959:

Chart Digging: Late August 1972

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

A couple of days ago, an online news site – it might have been the Christian Science Monitor; I’m not sure – asked readers to list their most memorable astronomical sights. The comments covered a lot of ground: Some comets (Halley’s and Hale-Bopp were, I think, the most frequently mentioned), an eclipse here or there, some meteor showers, and a couple of mentions of the Northern Lights.

That’s what I mentioned in my comment, the Northern Lights. The moment came in August 1972, when Rick, Gary and I camped under the stars during the first night of our trip to Winnipeg. We’d emptied a few cans of beer that evening in the provincial campground, and we were a bit wobbly as we unrolled our sleeping bags onto a tarp sometime after midnight.

A little bit later – maybe an hour, maybe two – Rick poked me as I slept. I rolled over. “What?”

He pointed to the sky. I put on my glasses and saw the Northern Lights rolling and rippling in shades of blue and green. I’d seen the aurora borealis before, but only on the distant horizon; this time, the lights danced across half the sky, stretching from the northern horizon to straight above us. We couldn’t rouse Gary, so Rick and I watched the eerie spectacle for a while, then went back to sleep.

That’s the most memorable single moment of that four-day trip. For me, nothing else quite touched those minutes lying on the dark prairie ground with the curtains of light waving above us.

Except for that moment, the trip was your standard road trip for three young men: We saw some museums, some music shops, a zoo, and bits of a downtown music festival. On our way home, we spent a few hours in a campground with two girls from Okemos, Michigan, who were traveling with their folks. (And why I remember Okemos, Michigan, I have no idea.) We drank a bit more beer on that first night than we should have. And we listened to a lot of music as we drove something like 1,200 miles.

We had a few tapes – the new Rolling Stones hits package Hot Rocks chief among them – but we generally saved the batteries in the tape player for the evenings in the campgrounds and in the motel in Winnipeg. On the road, we were able to find a listenable Top 40 station pretty much anywhere we were. As a result, the Billboard Top Ten from this week in 1972 (released August 26) is filled with very familiar records:

“Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass
“Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan
“Long Cool Woman (In A Black Dress)” by the Hollies
“I’m Still In Love With You” by Al Green
“Hold Your Head Up” by Argent
“(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right” by Luther Ingram
“Goodbye to Love” by the Carpenters
Coconut” by Nilsson
“You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” by Jim Croce
“Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” by Mac Davis

That Top Ten might set a record for the most record titles with parentheses. And, even with Nilsson’s silliness, it’s a good set. I – like many, I imagine – got tired of “Alone Again (Naturally)” that summer when it was No. 1 for six weeks, but now, it’s a nice period piece. And when the others show up during random play, they’re all very welcome here.

So, too, are some things found lower in the Hot 100 that was released thirty-nine years ago this week. And looking into a record found at No. 71 brought me one of the more interesting bits I’ve found in digging through charts, so we’ll go there first and then backtrack a little.

Jerry Wallace was a pop/country singer who was born in Missouri and raised in Arizona. From 1958 into 1972, he put seventeen records in the Hot 100 or its Bubbling Under section; the best-performing of those was “Primrose Lane,” which went to No. 8 in 1959. His success on the country chart covers a few different years; he hit the Country Top 40 nineteen times between 1965 and 1978. During the summer of 1972, “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry” hit both charts, starting out on the country chart – where it spent two weeks at No. 1 – and moving to the pop chart, where it peaked at No. 38. What piqued my interest was the fine-print note under the song’s listing in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles: “From TV’s Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: The Tune in Dan’s Café.”

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery was an extension of the idea of Serling’s late-1950s and early 1960s classic show The Twilight Zone: Tales of the odd, eerie, macabre and unexplainable. Instead of The Twilight Zone’s one episode presented in thirty minutes (sixty minutes in the case of several episodes in 1963), Night Gallery presented three tales in an hour (changed to one tale in thirty-minutes in its last season, 1972-73). The show ran more or less weekly, based on what I see at Wikipedia, and it was during the January 5, 1972, show that viewers saw ‘The Tune in Dan’s Café.”

The tune in question was Wallace’s “If You Leave Me Tonight I’ll Cry,” and the piece was centered around a jukebox in a small town bar and restaurant. I’ll say no more about the episode, except to note that its use of the record no doubt boosted the record’s sales. And Wallace’s position on the country chart wasn’t hurt, either: his next hit, “Do You Know What It’s Like To Be Lonesome,” went to No. 2, and he was a regular presence in the country Top 40, with a couple more Top Ten hits, into 1978.

As to “The Tune in Dan’s Café,” it’s available on YouTube in two parts. Here’s the first part. (The link to Part 2 can then be found in the suggested links that follow.)

Video deleted.

Joey Heatherton was a movie and television actress who did some singing, and I’m always surprised to see her pop up in the 1970s because I tend to lump her with Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens and a number of other young women who were similar performers during the late 1950s and early 1960s. But Heatherton was of the next generation, and in late August 1972, her cover of “Gone” – made famous by Ferlin Husky’s No 1 country hit in 1957 – was at No. 35, coming down after peaking at No. 24. Later in the year, Heatherton’s “I’m Sorry” – a cover of the tune made famous by Brenda Lee in 1960 – went to No. 87. Both singles came from The Joey Heatherton Album, an album that All-Music Guide likes a fair amount. (The album was released in an expanded version on CD in 2004 with a racy picture of Heatherton on the cover.)

The band Uriah Heep had one Top 40 hit: “Easy Livin’” was at No. 54 and was climbing up the chart during this week in August 1972. The record would peak at No. 39, by far the best-performing single for the English band; three other records would peak in the 90s, and one more would bubble under. But “Easy Livin’” deserved its place. In a time of singer-songwriter confessionals, light pop, Hi Records-type soul and lots of other mellow sounds, the Uriah Heep single was without doubt one of the toughest things coming out of the Top 40 speakers at the time. I was a mellow kind of guy myself in a lot of ways at the time – I was just beginning to dig into Eric Clapton and related musicians that summer and I was still more than a year away from the Allmans – but I loved “Easy Livin’” as it thundered out of the car radio, pulling us up the highway toward Winnipeg and beer.

The Janis Joplin remembrance “In The Quiet Morning” was written by Mimi Fariña and first appeared on Take Heart, a 1971 album she recorded with Tom Jans. In 1972, Joan Baez – Fariña’s sister – recorded the tune for her album Come From the Shadows and released the tune as a single. By the fourth week of August, the record was at No. 73. It would climb only a little higher, to No. 69, before falling back down the chart. Baez would have two more singles reach the pop chart: In 1975 “Blue Sky” would go to No. 57 and “Diamonds and Rust” would go to No. 35. (Before that, she’d had five singles hit the chart, with her 1971 cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” going to No. 3.) Whatever its chart failures, “In The Quiet Morning” is nicely done.

I’ve written about Leon Russell before, but the success in the past year of The Union, the CD he recorded with Elton John, has had me reviewing the work I knew by Russell and digging at least a little bit into the stuff I missed along the way. So when “Tight Rope” popped up at No. 82 in the Hot 100 from August 26, 1972, I knew I had to present it here. The record was in its first week on the chart, and it would peak at No. 11, by far the best performance on the pop chart of any Leon Russell single. (“Lady Blue” went to No. 14 in 1975; eight other Russell singles peaked in the lower half of the Hot 100 or bubbled under. He did hit No. 1 on the country chart in 1979 via a duet with Willie Nelson on “Heartbreak Hotel.”) I can’t say “Tight Rope” is my favorite Leon Russell track. Of the singles, I’d probably choose “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall,” which went to No. 105 in 1971; from the other studio tracks, I’d take “Beware of Darkness” from 1971’s Leon Russell & The Shelter People, but my favorite Leon Russell performance of all time is his “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley from The Concert for Bangla Desh.

The ills of society were always fair game for musicians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but a record addressing those ills that I’d never heard until recently popped up in the Hot 100 we’re looking at today: “A Piece of Paper” by the Texas group Gladstone. In short order, the group takes on marriage, religion, abortion (this was while abortion was still widely illegal in the U.S.) and war. Talk about a multi-purpose protest song! The record was at No. 99 during the week in question and would peak at No. 45. It was Gladstone’s only appearance on the pop chart.

Finding A New Realm To Explore

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Almost three years ago, I wrote about my fascination during my adolescence and young adult years with The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien’s massive fantasy saga. I didn’t say then, as I might have, that no other piece of fantasy fiction had ever come close to filling the hole in my reading appetite that was left when I finished the trilogy the first time.

I tried to fill that hole, as I wrote (in a post that is available at Echoes In The Wind Archives), with regular browsing in Tolkien’s work and annual re-readings of the entire trilogy. That frequent browsing ended sometime in the mid-1970s, probably around the time I left college and entered the working world. The annual readings stopped sometimes in the 1990s, I’m guessing. (Most of the 1990s blur in my memory, primarily because not much happened.) But even as I was browsing through Tolkien’s appendices or re-reading his account of, say, Gollum’s treachery at Cirith Ungol, I was still looking for a book or series of books of fantasy fiction that could compare to Tolkien’s work.

It took years to find that rarity. During college, browsing in the St. Cloud State library and in the college bookstore, I tried first one and then another fantasy epic, but saw in all of them nothing more than pale imitations of Tolkien. In search of a fantasy fix as the years went on, I dug lightly into Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales and The Silmarillion and the various volumes titled The History of Middle-earth compiled and edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. But those left me dissatisfied.

One set that came close was the Majipoor series of novels and stories by Robert Silverberg, which I discovered during graduate school in the early 1980s. The series begins with the 1981 novel, Lord Valentine’s Castle and now continues through nine more assorted novels, novellas and story collections, according to Wikipedia. I read the first novel avidly and the next two with mild interest, and when nothing more appeared for some time, I didn’t care. I see from Wikipedia that Silverberg re-threaded the needle in 1995, but by then, my fiction menu was pretty much drawn from historical, legal and detective novels. Will I go back to Majipoor? I think it’s unlikely.

But I have found that rare series of books that can rival Tolkien, and it’s thanks to HBO. I’ve enjoyed over the last few years the various historical series that HBO and the other premium cable networks have been airing: Rome, Deadwood, The Tudors, Mad Men and a few others. And in late winter, I began seeing promotional spots for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Intrigued, I watched the first episode of the series and was hooked. I watched it again with the Texas Gal, and she was hooked. The series became one of our few must-watch hours.

And of course, we learned that the HBO show was based on the first of five novels – with more to come – by George R.R. Martin, novels collectively called A Song of Ice and Fire. As the first season of Game of Thrones came to an end, the Texas Gal and I wondered if the quality of the writing in the books matched the quality of the story being told. So we tentatively bought the first of the five volumes, A Game of Thrones. It came to my table first, and I made short work of its nearly seven hundred pages, and as I passed the book along to the Texas Gal, I ordered the next volume, A Clash of Kings. And then, in quick succession, we ordered the next three.

As you might guess, we find Martin’s work remarkable. The world he’s created for his tales has – like Tolkien’s – a deep and rich set of histories for each of its cultures. The long game of thrones in which his characters and their cultures are engaged is enthralling, drawing me deep into the tales and keeping me there. As I read further into the books – I’m about midway through the fourth of the five, A Feast for Crows – I find my attention drawn away from other pastimes: I’m about three weeks behind on my reading of Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated, and a pile of about two dozen CDs sits on my desk awaiting logging into the database.

I think I was likely as engrossed in Tolkien’s work the first time I read it so many years ago, taking any spare moment available to move forward another few pages. But there are major differences. First of all, Martin writes much better than Tolkien did. Part of that, I imagine, is the era, with Tolkien’s work coming from the years that bracketed World War II, and part of it, I would guess, is because Tolkien – an academic whose real career was the study of languages and myth – came to write The Lord of the Rings at least partly as a result of his experiments in creating languages. Martin came to write A Song of Ice and Fire because he’s a writer.

And that leads to two of the other major differences I find between the two works. First, Tolkien’s work was set out in stark black or white; nearly all the characters – the notable exceptions being Boromir and Gollum – were either good or evil. There were no real enduring shades of grey in Middle-earth. In Martin’s Westeros and the surrounding lands, shades of grey are the norm. There is evil and there is good, there are evil characters and there are characters that are mostly good. But I cannot think of a character in Martin’s work who is so unfailingly and purely and unrealistically good as was Tolkien’s Aragorn. And that’s fine with me. People are flawed.

And the last of the major differences I find as a reader comes about because flawed characters are more realistic than are perfect characters. I care about Martin’s characters in a way that I never cared about Tolkien’s. Oh, I worried as I read years ago about the hobbits Frodo and Sam, anxious to know not so much if they would finish their quest – that seemed foreordained – but whether they would survive and, if so, would they remain whole? (As we know, they were both altered fundamentally by their quest, a very human fact that – as I look at it from the age of fifty-seven – is one of the more real things about Tolkien’s work.) But I also realize as I look back that I cared very little about anyone else in The Lord of the Rings. Part of that was being fourteen, but part of it was the one-dimensional nature of most of Tolkien’s characters.

Martin’s world, however, with its shades of grey and its very human characters, has made me care about nearly all the major characters I’ve met so far. I don’t like all of them; there are some I detest wholly. But I see them as human, not as the archetypes that peopled Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

So I turn the pages, anxious to know who thrives and who doesn’t. And as I do, the quality of the writing, the complexity of the tale and its characters, and my wishes and worries for those people I’ve come to know in those pages are making A Song of Ice and Fire one of the great reading experiences of my life.

To close, as always, with music, here is the opening sequence to HBO’s Game of Thrones. The main theme is by Ramin Djawadi, and it’s won the affection of the soundtrack geek who loved his time in Middle-earth and is now thrilled and terrified as he wanders through Westeros and its surrounding lands.

One Chart Dig: June 2, 1962

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

As the school year ended and the green promise of summer lay ahead for your eight-year-old narrator in 1962, one thing that he wasn’t thinking about was an iconic American television series that had just reached of the half-way point of its four-year run.

I don’t know that the eight-year-old whiteray had any broad dreams heading into that summer. He would have been thinking about the soon-to-begin summer enrichment courses he would take – this might have been the summer when he and his classmates studied Alaska – and he was thinking about swimming lessons on cold mornings.

He was without doubt thinking about his pal Rick and the yard games and bicycle rides and other pastimes they’d find in the next three months. He might also have had in mind the prospect of one or more trips during the summer to Municipal Stadium on the west end of town, where the players of the local baseball team – the St. Cloud Rox of the Northern League – followed their own summer dreams.

But, unless I’m very wrong, he was spending no time at all thinking about Route 66. The CBS television show completed the second of its four seasons on the evening of June 1, 1962, with, says Wikipedia, Tod Stiles – played by Martin Milner – heading off in search of a runaway henpecked husband. (George Maharis’ character, Buz Murdock, was absent, as Maharis was hospitalized with hepatitis as the time, Wikipedia notes.)

I was, I guess, aware of Route 66, the highway. Before the Interstate highway system was built, Route 66 ran from Chicago to Los Angeles and was celebrated in literature, folklore and song. Bobby Troup’s famed song, “Route 66,” was first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946 as “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” and went to No. 3 on the R&B chart. Since then, the tune has been covered by a long line of performers, including – as noted again by Wikipedia – Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Manhattan Transfer and Depeche Mode. Others listed at All-Music Guide as having covered the tune include Asleep at the Wheel, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Four Freshmen, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Mel Tormé, Perry Como, Harry James, Van Morrison’s Them, and the list goes on and on.

Here’s a black and white video of Troup performing his composition on a Julie London television show in 1964. (The original poster at YouTube says the show was from Japan, and the poster also notes that Troup was married to London.)

The iconic television show, surprisingly, did not fare particularly well in the ratings, finishing out of the Top 30 shows in the Neilsen ratings during two of its four seasons. It had finished in 30th place during its first season in 1960-61, and then was in 27th place in the ratings during the 1962-63 season. But its story lines – the wandering pair crossing America in their very cool Corvette, their lives intersecting dramatically with those of the people they meet – added to the historically charged locales of one of America’s great highways to create a television series that’s seemingly remembered long after others of its time have been forgotten.

And then there was the music. No, not Troup’s “Route 66,” although the song’s popularity may have helped the television series gain viewers. The music for the show was original. For a theme, the show’s producers turned to Nelson Riddle, who’d created a signature sound for Capitol Records and its stars – Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee and more – in the 1950s.

Riddle provided the show with a signature theme. And in the Billboard Hot 100 released forty-nine years ago today, “Route 66 Theme” was at No. 93, heading to an eventual peak position of No. 30. It would be Riddle’s fourth and final Top 40 hit. (“Lisbon Antigua” spent four weeks at No. 1 in 1956; “Port Au Prince” went to No. 20 and “Theme From ‘The Proud Ones’” went to No. 39 later that year.) Riddle would go on to write and produce through the 1960s and then find his career reinvigorated in the 1980s by his work with Linda Ronstadt on her series of three albums of standards.

But I don’t know that he ever again did anything quite as cool as “Route 66 Theme.”