Archive for the ‘Bookshelf’ Category


Thursday, December 27th, 2018

A little more than a month ago, while digging into tracks recorded on November 24, I noted a difficulty in tracking the performance of “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover” as recorded on November 24, 1941, by Glenn Miller & His Orchestra. I wrote, “My reference library has a historical gap in it; Pop Memories gets me to 1940, and [Joel] Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles picks things up in 1955. For the fifteen years in between, I’m on my own.”

Pop HitsWell, I am on my own no longer. One of the Christmas gift the Texas Gal gave me this week was Joel Whitburn’s Billboard Pop Hits, subtitled Singles & Albums 1940-1954. That means I now have the tools necessary to make mistakes about music throughout the Twentieth Century.

I’ve not yet spent a lot of time digging into the book. The holiday and household chores it delayed have kept me busy. But I plan to spend some time paging through and browsing later today. For now, I think I’m going to play some Games With Numbers. I’ll take today’s date – 12/27/18 – and go to Page 57 in the book. I’ll find the twelfth listed record, and we’ll see if we get lucky. (If the twelfth listed record is not available at YouTube, we’ll move to the eighteenth and see how that goes.)

We land on a 1942 record credited to Shep Fields & His New Music: “Breathless.” The record was the first with that credits. Until then, Fields’ reed-heavy music had been credited to Shep Fields & His Rippling Rhythm Orchestra.

Fields, who was born in 1910 in Brooklyn, formed his own band in 1929, and starting in 1936, was a fixture in the charts for the next four years, charting thirty-six records between 1936 and 1943. Seven of those records went to No. 1, with the most successful being 1939’s “South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way),” which stayed on top of the chart for five weeks.

“Breathless,” the tune we landed on today, came near the end of Fields’ run on the charts. It wasn’t a national hit; the information in Billboard Pop Hits says that “Breathless” spent one week at No. 17 on the magazine’s Midwestern Best Sellers chart. Beyond that, perhaps the most interesting thing about “Breathless” is that – as Whitburn notes – the vocal was performed by Ken Curtis, who twenty-some years later would achieve fame by portraying the character Festus on the television show Gunsmoke.

Here’s “Breathless.”

Saturday Single No. 600

Saturday, July 14th, 2018

So, what do we know about No. 600? Well, let’s head to the reference books.

Our first stop is The Heart of Rock & Soul, Dave Marsh’s 1989 listing of the 1,001 greatest singles, where No. 600 is “If It Ain’t One Thing . . . It’s Another,” a 1982 release by Richard “Dimples” Fields. Marsh notes that the single “uses Fields’s sweet gospel falsetto and a groove that owes a lot to Superfly-era Curtis Mayfield to salvage a lyric that’s as detailed and pained (though not nearly as poetic) as ‘What’s Going On.’ It’s as if,” Marsh goes on “the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins had awakened from his romantic reveries and decided to take a hard look at real life.” The single, released on the Boardwalk label, went to No. 47 in the Billboard Hot 100 and spent three weeks at No. 1 on the magazine’s R&B chart. Listening to it for the first time this morning, I’m left pretty much unmoved.

Flipping the pages of the 2005 tome 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, edited by Robert Dimery, we find Page 600 occupied by Sonic Youth’s 1988 release Daydream Nation. Ignacio Julià – the author, with Jaime Gonzalo Julià, of the 1994 book about the group I Dreamed Of Noise – writes that the album “refined a quest that had started in the New York underground of the early 1980s and had experimented along the way with minimalisation and hardcore.” Like much music from the early 1980s, Daydream Nation had never reached my ears until this morning. I obviously don’t have time while writing to even listen to the entire album (much less absorb it), but a quick listen to a few tracks tells me that Sonic Youth’s music is not my deal.

Taking up another tome, I flip the 2001 edition of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll to page 600. The first full listing on the page is Malo, the band formed in San Francisco in 1971 by Jorge Santana, Carlos’ brother. I am reassured. I have heard a great deal of Malo, with all four of the band’s early 1970s albums on the digital shelves. The encyclopedia’s entry, of course, is little more than a bland recapping of when albums and singles were released and who came and went from the band’s personnel at those times. So I quickly check the band’s entry in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles (a volume we’ll revisit in a moment) and verify that the band’s “Suavecito” was Malo’s lone Top 40 hit, reaching No. 18 in early May of 1972. The rest of Malo’s four 1970s albums are well-worth hearing, but “Suavecito” – good in its long form and sublime as a single – towers above all. And as my pal Yah Shure said here almost eight years ago, “One spin of the ‘Suavecito’ 45 and it’s like late spring-early summer, no matter what the time of year.”

The first entry on Page 600 of {The New} Rolling Stone Album Guide, released in 2004, is for Offspring, described as “one of the biggest bands to emerge from the pop-punk explosion of the mid-’90s, boasting hook-filled, frat-friendly anthems and a metallic gleam that referred back to the old-school sludge that L.A. punks fell for when they burned out on adrenaline.” And I thought I wrote twisty run-on sentences that leave readers going “Huh?” Based on just that little bit of work from writer Keith Harris, some quick listening to a few Offspring tracks, and my sense of my own tastes, I’ll walk on.

Reopening the Whitburn book, we find on the top of Page 600 the slender entry for Art Lund, a Salt Lake City native who sang baritone with Benny Goodman’s band during the 1940s, billed as both Art Lund and Art London. In 1947, Lund had a No. 1 hit with “Mam’selle,” a tune originally found in the movie The Razor’s Edge. His entry in Top Pop Singles, which compiles chart data beginning in 1955, lists only his 1958 single “Philadelphia U.S.A.,” a bland piece of pop that peaked in Billboard at No. 89.

And that’s enough of that. I had hoped that Saturday Single No. 600 would be something new and exciting, but maybe that’s too much to hope for after more than 2,100 posts. We’re going to pass on Sonic Youth, the Offspring, Richard “Dimples” Fields and Art Lund (though “Mam’selle” is a sweet song, I don’t care for Lund’s vocal). That leaves us with Malo, and it’s been almost eight years since “Suavecito” showed up here. That’s an eternity in blogtime, so with no regret, Saturday Single No. 600 is Malo’s 1972 single “Suavecito.”

Saturday Single No. 474

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Well, I went to see the doctor yesterday about my back. Dr. Julie wasn’t available; I saw another doctor in her group or subset or pod or whatever they call it at the big complex just northwest of St. Cloud. He listened as I told him how it started and how it felt, then he poked my back at various places, pushed and pulled my legs in various directions, and thought for a moment.

Then he told me that it was basically a muscle strain gone wild, and he prescribed a series of pills – a descending quantity of a steroid for a week – and gave me some exercises to do.

I can take pills well, but I’m not all that good at staying with an exercise regimen. I’ll try, though. And it’s nice to pass on the good news that after twenty-four hours of pills and (a little of) the exercises, my back feels much better.

But given yesterday’s visit and other events, as well as the fact that the Texas Gal and I need to run some errands (one of which will no doubt include Chinese food), I have little to offer here. So I thought I’d grab four reference books and see which artist is the first mentioned on Page 474. And from there, we’ll find a single for today.

The New Rolling Stone Album Guide starts its “L” section on Page 474, and the first artist listed is k.d. lang. I have three albums by ms. lang on the digital shelves, so we have something to work with if we go that direction.

In Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, we find the Isley Brothers in mid-section at the top of Page 474. There’s plenty of Isley stuff on the digital shelves, so we’ll see.

The single ranked at No. 474 in Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock & Soul is the 1956 hit “I’m In Love Again” by Fats Domino. There’s lots of Fats here, too.

And the album listed on Page 474 of the tome 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is Motorhead’s No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith. That one is, probably unsurprisingly, not on any shelves here, digital or otherwise.

Well, I’ve featured the Isleys a lot over the years, as I have Fats. I’ve not done much with k.d. lang. Still, I’m of the mind that one should listen to Fats Domino whenever one has the chance. So here’s “I’m In Love Again.” It went to No. 3 in 1956, says Whitburn (No. 9 on the R&B chart). And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

My Russian Fascination

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

At the top of my reading pile these days is The Zhivago Affair, the tale of how Russian author Boris Pasternak came to write the novel Dr. Zhivago, how he came to have the novel first published in 1957 in Italy (to the absolute dismay and anger of Soviet authorities who wanted it not to be published at all), and how the United States’ CIA used the novel as an anti-Soviet tool.

I’m about halfway through the book, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, and I find it fascinating, as I do many books, movies and pieces of music that have any connection with Russia. That fascination has endured for many years, built on a number of things, including (but likely not limited to) watching and reading the news of the Cold War centered on Moscow and Washington during my childhood; playing the many pieces of Russian and Eastern European music that my orchestra director at St. Cloud Tech High School selected for our repertoire; seeing the 1965 film version of Dr. Zhivago not long after it came out; spending six days in 1973 in Moscow and the city that was then called Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, as it was at its founding in 1703); and learning (and watching as an adult) the arc of Russian history from ambitious empire to Soviet linchpin to chaotic democracy to today’s authoritarian state.

When that fascination was developing, in the late 1960s, I tried to read Pasternak’s novel and found it confusing and not a little boring. For years, as an adult, I had a leather-bound copy of the novel on my shelf and never read it. That copy is gone now; I evidently sold it during the lean years of the late 1990s. And as I read The Zhivago Affair, I’m tempted to try Dr. Zhivago once again. I’ll also likely take another look at the David Lean film. I ordered it several years ago from Netflix but for some reason never finished watching it; what I did see confirmed my long-standing impression of it as sprawling but likely easier to digest than the novel itself.

With the movie, of course, comes the music: Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack, for which he won a deserved Academy Award. During recent late evenings, I’ve been using the expanded version of the soundtrack as background music for The Zhivago Affair just as I once used Tchaikovsky’s music – including, of course, the “1812 Overture” – for a long-abandoned reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Another book I need to try again, I guess.) Jarre’s themes and motifs echo Russian music; the real thing also comes out of the speakers here frequently, from Tchaikovsky to Borodin to Glinka to a scavenged collection of maybe 300 Russian folk songs and the two-CD set The Best of the Red Army Choir.

The listening is easy. Reading, of course, takes more time (and sometimes much more effort). There are Russian books beyond Tolstoy’s masterpiece that I need to read, including a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that was signed and dated by my dad in 1948. And I need to accelerate my reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, at which I’ve been poking for years. (Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Soviet forced labor camps – and of the various government agencies that sent millions to those camps – is more anecdotal than narrative, so reading bits and pieces at a time is an approach that seems to work.)

So is this fascination of mine with things Russian – especially with the period from, oh, 1900 through 1950 – just a historical interest? I don’t think so. It feels deeper than that, like the grip that Stonehenge has had on me over the years. I think that the soul I carry through this life – or that carries me, more fittingly – knows Russia well. That’s all I can say. Would I like to be able to say more? Well, yes, but the best I can do is guess at this point. And beyond indulging in a little bit of supposition over a beer with friends, I’m better off finishing The Zhivago Affair and then turning my attention to other works that might enlighten me, helping me to know (once again, I think) the history and culture of a place that seems so alien and yet so familiar.

Here’s Maurice Jarre’s “Main Title” from the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago.

Peaking At No. 2 . . .

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

One of the quirkier books on my music reference shelf is the Billboard Book of No. 2 Singles, a volume by Christopher G. Feldman that was published in 2000. It gathers together chart data and brief essays on the 400 or so records that peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart between 1955 and 1999.*

The singles thus highlighted go from “Melody of Love” by Billy Vaughn & His Orchestra, which was No. 2 for one week in March 1955 and was blocked from the top spot by the McGuire Sister’s “Sincerely” all the way to “Back At One” by Brian McKnight (and boy, that’s an unsettling video), which was No. 2 for eight weeks in late 1999 and early 2000 but was blocked from No. 1 by the Santana/Rob Thomas single “Smooth.”

(The number “400” is an estimate; I was hoping that somewhere in the book Feldman would list the total, but if he did, I can’t spot it this morning. And yes, there’s been a lot of music out since 2000, and an update would be nice, but the book nevertheless covers the years in which I’m most interested.)

I wondered which years had the most records that peaked at No. 2, wondering as well if calculating that would show any sort of pattern. If there is a pattern, I imagine that finding it would take more time and analysis than I’ve going to devote to it this morning. But here are the years when there were more than ten records that peaked at No. 2.

1958: 12
1959: 13
1963: 11
1966: 13
1967: 13
1968: 14
1969: 16
1972: 12
1973: 12
1986: 11
1987: 11
1988: 11
1989: 14
1990: 14

I looked at the No. 1 records from 1969 to see if there were any juggernauts there, and there were: In the spring, the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” was No. 1 for six weeks, followed immediately by the Beatles’ “Get Back,” which was No. 1 for five weeks. And that summer, Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525” took over the top spot for six weeks. Those three records blocked six other singles from the top spot.

It might be interesting to carefully scan Feldman’s book to see which No. 1 hit blocked more records from the top spot than any other. I’m not going to take the time to do that, at least not today, but I played some hunches: In 1960, Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place” was No. 1 for nine weeks and blocked five other records from the top spot. In 1977, Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life” was No. 1 for ten weeks and blocked four other records from the top spot. In 1981, Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” were both No. 1 for nine weeks and both blocked three other records from No. 1. And in 1968, the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” was No. 1 for nine weeks and blocked three other singles from the top spot.

And as there are with most books of this ilk, there are lists in the back: Through 1999 (and these may have changed, of course), the artist with the most No. 2 hits was Madonna with six, and the honor of having the most No. 2 hits without ever reaching No. 1 went to Creedence Clearwater Revival, which hit No. 2 five times.

And three groups hit No. 2 with three consecutive records:

Blood, Sweat & Tears with “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die.”

The Carpenters with “Rainy Days & Mondays,” “Superstar” and “Hurting Each Other.”

CCR with “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising” and “Green River.”

To end this, I thought I’d go to the middle of the book and find a No. 2 single to highlight. The book is 288 pages, and the first entry on Page 144 is Eddie Kendricks’ “Boogie Down,” which was No. 2 for two weeks in March 1974. In a horrible miscarriage of radio justice, Kendricks’ record was blocked from the top spot by Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun.”


*At the time that the first twenty-nine entries in his book were charting, Feldman notes, Billboard issued a number of weekly charts; he used the Best Sellers in Stores chart for those entries, and for the entries from August 4, 1958 on, he used the Billboard Hot 100.


Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

John W. Campbell, the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from late 1937 until his death in 1971, didn’t agree with Emerson. Rather, he said, “I think men would go mad.”

That contention formed the basis for Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story, “Nightfall.” As related in Asimov’s autobiography,* Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after the two discussed Emerson’s quote. And Asimov put together a story that combines psychology, astronomy, archeology and religion, a story that remains potent today, even more than seventy years after its publication. How potent? It’s been some decades since I last read the story, but it’s stayed vivid enough in my memory for me to discuss it at length yesterday with a clerk at a downtown used bookstore.

Asimov’s story takes place on a planet called Lagash. Here’s the synopsis, somewhat abridged and edited, from Wikipedia:

The fictional planet Lagash . . . is located in a stellar system containing six suns (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta are the only ones named in the short story), which keep the whole planet continuously illuminated; total darkness is unknown, and as a result so are all the stars outside the planet’s stellar system.

A group of scientists from Saro University begin to make a series of related discoveries: Sheerin 501, a psychologist, researches the effects of prolonged exposure to darkness; Siferra 89, an archaeologist, finds evidence of multiple cyclical collapses of civilization which have occurred regularly about every 2000 years, and Beenay 25 is an astronomer who has discovered irregularities in the orbit of Lagash around its primary sun. Beenay takes his findings to his superior at the university, Aton, who formulated the Theory of Universal Gravitation. This prompts the astronomers at Saro University to seek the cause of this anomaly. Eventually they discover that the only possible cause of the deviation is an astronomical body that orbits Lagash.

Beenay, through his friend Theremon 762, a reporter, has learned some of the beliefs of the group known as the Cult. They believe the world would be destroyed in a darkness with the appearance of stars that unleash a torrent of fire. Beenay combines what he has learned about the repetitive collapses at the archaeological site, and the new theory of potential eclipses; he concludes that once every 2049 years the one sun visible is eclipsed, resulting in a brief “night.” His theory is that this “night” was so horrifying to the people who experienced it that they desperately sought out any light source to try to drive it away, particularly by frantically starting fires which burned down and destroyed their successive civilizations.

Since the current population of Lagash has never experienced general darkness, the scientists conclude that the darkness would traumatize the people and that they would need to prepare for it. When nightfall occurs, however, the scientists (who have prepared themselves for darkness) and the rest of the planet are most surprised by the sight of hitherto invisible stars outside the six-star system filling the sky. Unfortunately, because the inhabitants of Lagash never saw other stars in the sky, their civilization had come to believe that their six-star system contained the entirety of the universe. In one horrifying instant, anyone gazing at the night sky – the first night sky which they have ever known – is suddenly faced with the reality that the universe contains many millions upon billions of stars: the awesome, horrifying realization of just how vast the universe truly is drives them insane. The short story concludes with the arrival of the night and a crimson glow that was “not the glow of a sun,” with the implication that societal collapse has occurred once again.

I first came across “Nightfall” in the early 1970s, when nearly all of my leisure reading was science fiction, clearing the shelves of the work of Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury (whose fiction, as I’ve noted here before, frequently crossed the barrier into fantasy) and any other writer whose work crossed my path in company with the work of those four giants. And one day, I chanced in a bookstore to find a volume titled The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And in its pages, I found “Nightfall.”

It turns out that, in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America had established the Nebula Awards, a science fiction equivalent of the Grammys or the Oscars. (The Nebula Awards thus joined the Hugo Awards given by the World Science Fiction Society since 1953.) And in 1968, in an attempt to honor deserving work published before the Nebula Awards were established, the American writers group selected the contents of, and then published, three volumes of its Hall of Fame: one volume of short stories and two of novellas. I had chanced upon the first volume, and in its foreword, I believe, it was noted that of all the short stories selected for the Hall of Fame, Asimov’s “Nightfall” had received the most votes and was thus considered the best science fiction story written before 1965.

I finished the first volume, concurring with the voters’ opinions about the quality of “Nightfall,” and I soon bought and read the two companion volumes. About twenty-five years later, during my scuffling in the mid-1990s, I sold the three volumes and the rest of my science fiction collection so that my cats could eat. In recent years, I’ve thought about replacing those three volumes, perhaps in hardcover. And I’ve pondered the tale of “Nightfall” at various and odd times over the years; like all good fiction, it’s stayed with me. And in an entirely unexpected manner, it came back into my life again yesterday.

I had books to return to the public library, and the Texas Gal and I had things to get at the grocery store, so I thought I’d run to the library, find something new to read and then pick her up from work. A fine plan, except that the library was closed for yesterday’s Presidents Day holiday. I put my books into the exterior book drop and looked at my watch. I had more time available than I wanted to spend sitting in the car with nothing to read, and not quite enough time to make it worthwhile to go home. So I headed to the used bookstore on St. Germain, a couple blocks upstream from the Texas Gal’s office, looking for something in paperback that I’d not read before or at least for a few decades.

I’d recently posted at Facebook a meme offering a cogent quote from Isaac Asimov, so I headed to the beginning of the science fiction shelves. And I found Nightfall, a 1990 novel written by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, another name well-remembered from my early 1970s’ science fiction binge. The blurb on the back cites the 1941 short story, and goes on: “But the short story isn’t the whole story. Now, Dr. Asimov has teamed with multiple Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robert Silverberg to explore and expand one of the most awe-inspiring concepts in the history of science fiction. In this novel, you will witness Nightfall – and much more. You will learn what happens at Daybreak.”

There are a few changes: The planet is now called Kalgash, and the suns have different names, but there are familiar characters beginning to face familiar circumstances. I’m forty pages in, and I’m hooked.

And to close this with music, here’s the spare and somewhat unsettling track “Nightfall” by the Incredible String Band. It’s the last track on The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, which came out, coincidentally, the same year as that first volume of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: 1968.

*Wikipedia does not specify which of Asimov’s autobiographies includes the tale of the writing of “Nightfall.” Asimov wrote three autobiographies, and after his 1992 death, his widow, Janet Jeppson Asimov, edited the three into one volume, supplemented with some of the writer’s letters. That fourth volume is titled It’s Been A Good Life.

Andrew Greeley, 1928-2013

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

When novels by Father Andrew Greeley began popping up on the shelves at the local drug stores in Monticello during the early 1980s, I was not interested. I’d glance at the titles – The Cardinal Sins and Thy Brother’s Wife were the first two I saw – and I’d think “genre romance, at best.” That judgment was supported by the cover artwork: The first showed the bare back of a lissome lady otherwise swathed in red bedclothes and the second showed an equally attractive woman holding in one hand and between her teeth a gold chain on which was suspended a gold cross.

Those two titles left the drug store shelves and other titles by Greeley replaced them over the next five years or so. I was aware of them, but let them come and go: Ascent into Hell, Lord of the Dance, Virgin and Martyr, Angels of September. If I thought about Greeley and his books at all, I reflected only that the man had obviously found a niche and formula that served him well. Romance novels were not my deal.

I had nothing against genre fiction. Robert Ludlum was still alive and still writing his occasionally clunky but always diverting spy thrillers, and I gladly laid down my shekels every year for another one of his books. That was especially true for the three Ludlum novels that chronicled the tale of Jason Bourne, the intelligence operative struck with amnesia whom I consider one of the greatest inventions in popular American fiction.

Then, one morning in late 1987 as I looked for lunchtime diversion in the library at Minot State University, I chanced upon the portion of the stacks where Greeley’s novels were shelved. Their presence surprised me. Perhaps the man’s work was not as genre-bound as I’d thought. If that were the case, well, I was beginning work on at least two fiction projects, and I thought I might learn something about writing popular fiction as I read. Finally, I was hungry, and there was nothing that said I had to keep reading past lunchtime if I found the book lacking.

So I grabbed one of Greeley’s books from the shelf – I think it was The Cardinal Sins – and once I opened it, I found myself reluctant to close it. Once I got home, I read until early morning, and then finished the book, eyes weary, the next day. Then I went back to the university library and got another Greeley. Once I’d finished with the backlog, I looked and waited for new titles. And so it went through the years, one novel after another, until 2007, when Greeley had an accident that left him with a brain injury and the writing stopped. He passed on at the age of eighty-five during the last days of May, partly as a result of that injury from six years ago.

I’ve learned in the years since first dismissing his work, of course, that Greeley was far more than just a novelist. He was, as Wikipedia puts it, “an Irish-American Roman Catholic priest, sociologist, journalist and popular novelist.” His work at the latter three vocations often put him at odds with the powers of the Catholic church, and his relations with the church were sometimes strained. I don’t know much about his work as a sociologist nor much about his work as a journalist – I’ve told myself many times I should explore his work in both areas – but I’d venture that Greeley did at least some of his most effective work as a priest through his fiction.

A caveat: I’m not a Roman Catholic. I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I grew up as a Lutheran, and in many ways, I am culturally a Lutheran still. I did, however, grow up in a Catholic city; most of my friends when I was young were Catholic; the Texas Gal grew up as a Catholic; and, in the broad swath of Protestantism, Lutherans do not stand horribly far – even though there are some vital differences – from the Church of Rome.

What does all that mean? Just that, even with all that contradictory background swirling around my life, I know ministry when I see it. And in every page of Andrew Greeley’s novels, there is ministry. Without much preaching and with generally interesting plot lines from 1981 through 2007, Greeley tended to his readers, entertaining and guiding them through their lives by detailing crises and celebrations for his characters. The message was fundamentally the same, both in his basic fictional universe with its close-knit families of Cronins, Ryans and more and in the mystery stories that featured his two greatest creations, priest and philosopher Blackie Ryan and musician and mystic Nuala Anne McGrail.

That message? That there is grace in the world. Those would be Greeley’s words. Mine would be different: The Universe gives us what we need. (That’s not always the same as what we want, of course.) As different as the words might be, the ideas are the same: There is something that is unknowable that is greater than we are, and that unknowable something can give us the tools and opportunities to make our lives better. And I’m willing to label those tools and opportunities as grace.

Along with subtle ministry, grace was a constant in Greeley’s books, which have brought me hours of pleasure through the years. Those elements only worked, however, because Greeley’s novels also provided strong stories, interesting and vital characters, a sense of community and engaging mysteries both temporal and cosmic. And I’ll miss all of that. The end of Andrew Greeley’s writing life six years ago left a hole in the library shelves for me; the end of his physical life last month only made that hole larger.

As long as we’re talking about grace, here’s “State of Grace” by Patti Scialfa. It’s from her 2004 album 23rd Street Lullaby.

From The Bookshelf, Again

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

I’ve spent some time here in the past weeks digging into the new reference books on my shelf. Well, I have one more to dig into for a post: Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Albums, described on the cover as the “55-year history of every album and CD that made the Billboard 200 Albums chart”

So we’re going to make a list of albums and see if we can find a tune from those albums that we find pleasing. We’ll use today’s date – 3/27 – as a guide, heading to every page that ends with “27” and then look at the third charted album listed. By the end of our voyage, we should find something that all of us here in Odd & Pop’s Workshop will want to listen to. Or at least that’s the theory.

On Page 27, the third entry is And the Music Speaks, the 1995 debut album by All-4-One, a male inter-racial vocal group from Los Angeles. The album went to No. 27 and was the source of the No. 5 hit “I’m Your Man.” The group had two other albums make the Billboard 200, one of them a Christmas album that twice made the Top 20 in the magazine’s Christmas chart.

The rock group Cake, which my pal Mitch Lopate likes very much, shows up on Page 127, where the third album listed is the second of the Sacramento band’s four charting albums, a 1998 offering titled Prolonging the Magic. The album went to No. 33 and threw off three singles that hit various charts. “Never There” was the most successful, reaching No. 78 on the Hot 100, No. 40 on the Mainstream Rock chart, No. 29 on the Adult Top 40 and No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.

We’re in the world of Dixie when we get to Page 227, with the third listed album on the page being the Dixie Chicks’ 2002 entry Home, which spent four weeks at No. 1 and topped the country chart as well. Several singles came off the album, the most successful of which was the cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide,” which went to No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart,  to No. 2 on three other charts (including the Canadian singles chart), to the Top 10 on two more charts, and to No. 13 on a seventh.

The late Andy Griffith shows up on Page 327, and his 2003 album The Christmas Guest: Stories and Songs of Christmas is the third listed album on the page. It went to No. 141 on the Billboard 200 and went to No. 27 on the magazine’s 2003 Christmas chart. It was Griffith’s third album on the chart; the first two – in 1996 and 1998 – were collections of favorite hymns.

Faith Hope Love by King’s X is the third album listed on Page 427. The 1990 album, the third charting album by the trio from Houston, Texas, went to No. 85. A single from Faith Hope Love, “It’s Love,” went to No. 6 on the Mainstream Rock chart. Only one other album by King’s X did better: Dogman went to No. 88 in 1994. (In 1989, having just finished a novel that takes place in large part in Nebraska, I was bemused by the title of the group’s second charting album, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska. I scanned the record jacket for a few moments and then put the album back into the stacks, pretty sure I wouldn’t like it. I suppose I should listen to it someday.)

On Page 527, we run into Bette Midler, and the third listed album on the page is her third charting album, 1976’s Songs for the New Depression. The album went to No. 27, kind of a bring-down after her first two albums went to No. 9 and No 6. One single from the album made one chart: Midler’s discofied cover of “Strangers in the Night” went to No. 7 on the Dance Music/Club Play Singles chart. The album is better known in some circles as the source of Midler’s duet with Bob Dylan on Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain.”

Primitive Radio Gods, a group headed by Californian Christopher O’Connor, show up on Page 627 with their 1996 album Rocket, which went to No. 36. Popularized by its inclusion in the Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy, the band’s “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” placed on four separate Billboard charts, including No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and No. 7 on the Top 40 Mainstream chart. The hypnotic track is studded with samples of B.B. King proclaiming “I’ve been downhearted, babe,” from his 1963 record “How Blue Can You Get,” a lyric O’Connor sings at the end of the track.

One of my favorite records from the 1990s – and I don’t know why it didn’t end up in my Ultimate Jukebox project of a few years ago – is Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” which came off the band’s Grave Dancer’s Union, the Twin Cities group’s first charting album and the third album listed on Page 727. The 1992 album was the group’s sixth album; five more have come since, and three of those made the Billboard 200, with 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine going to No. 6. As to “Runaway Train,” it showed up in the Top 5 on three different charts (including No. 5 on the Hot 100) and in the Top 20 on two more charts.

The group War first came to attention in the early 1970s for its three-album partnership with Eric Burdon, better known as the lead singer for the Animals. The third of those albums is a 1976 issue called Love Is All Around, which is the third album listed on Page 827. The album’s lineage is sorted out by Wikipedia: “Love Is All Around is an album by Eric Burdon and War (credited as ‘War featuring Eric Burdon’ on the original edition). Released in 1976 on ABC Records, it contains tracks recorded during the band’s brief existence from 1969 to 1971, but not found on their two albums from 1970.” War, of course, went on to have a lengthy recording career. As to Love Is All Around, no tracks from the album seem to have made any singles charts; the album itself went to No. 140. The album’s most interesting track is likely the eleven-minute version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

Our last stop this morning is on Page 927, in the Christmas albums section of Top Pop Albums. The third album listed on the page is a 1995 release by various artists titled Jazz to the World, which went to No. 95. Some prominent musicians took part in the project, including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Holly Cole, Cassandra Wilson, Lou Rawls and Stanley Clarke. The most interesting track listing, though, is the closer, with Dr. John taking on the French carol, “Il Est Né, Le Divin Enfant,” a carol I remember tackling on cornet during a high school French class. The track sounds exactly like you’d expect of a French carol sung by Dr. John.

Well, there’s a lot to choose from. I’ve been sorting in my head as I write, and there’s a huge temptation to share the Bette Midler/Bob Dylan duet on “Buckets of Rain,” which is a very cool take on a familiar tune. And I’m fascinated by the Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand.” But I find I cannot ignore the epic take by Eric Burdon and War on “Day in the Life,” so here it is:

And A Fourth Book Arrives

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

Last week, I cobbled together a post (I was tempted to write “crafted” there, but that would perhaps have been giving the resulting post too much gravitas) that looked at lists in three of my oft-consulted reference books by Joel Whitburn. Had I waited another day to put that post together, I could have used a fourth: Billboard Top Adult Songs, 1961-2006, which the mail carrier brought to my door Friday.

The books pulls together data about records that have placed on the chart now called AC, a chart that’s had various titles since 1961, including “Easy Listening,” “Middle of the Road,” “Pop-Standard Singles,” “Hot Adult Contemporary” and several other things. Under its current moniker, AC, it now ranks thirty records each week.

So, to echo the structure of last week’s post, who are the top acts in the history of the AC chart? As was the case with the lists last week, the names atop the book’s list of the Top 200 AC Artists hold no real surprises:

Elton John
Barbra Streisand
Neil Diamond
Celine Dion
Kenny Rogers
Phil Collins
Barry Manilow
Elvis Presley
Dionne Warwick
Billy Joel

So who sits in spot No. 200? Gilbert O’Sullivan, a performer whose name elicits an indelible memory of the summer of 1972: I’m cleaning venetian blinds in an elementary school on the campus of St. Cloud State with the radio on. Those who remember 1972 – and many who don’t, I suppose – will know immediately what I was hearing as I cleaned the blinds. A seeming omnipresence that summer, O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” topped the AC chart for six consecutive weeks beginning in late July. The record also spent six weeks atop the pop chart that summer, though that six-week stretch was interrupted midway for a week by “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass.

“Alone Again (Naturally)” was O’Sullivan’s top hit on the AC chart, but not by as much as one might think. His follow-up single, “Clair,” also topped the chart, but for three weeks instead of six. In all, O’Sullivan placed eight singles on the AC chart between 1972 and 1981 (with six them coming between June 1972 and March 1974).

So which of his charting AC singles performed less well than the others? Starting in mid-October 1973, “Ooh Baby” spent nine weeks in the AC chart and topped out at No. 29 (it got to No. 25 on the pop chart). It’s a decent record – I like the clavinet – that I doubt I’d heard until this morning.

Looking At Lists Again

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

The bookshelves here in my study – I’m thinking of renaming the room “Odd & Pop’s Workshop” and getting a sign for the door, just to confound or amuse our guests – are laden with reference works, as I’ve likely noted here before. And from time to time, I pull one off the shelf and page through it, much as I did with encyclopedias when I was young.

Last evening, for example, I pulled off the shelves the All Music Guide to the Blues, a volume that I’ve owned since 1999 but that I’ve hardly looked at since maybe 2001, when I moved from south Minneapolis to join the Texas Gal in the suburb of Plymouth. What that means, I realized last night, is that I now recognize far more names in that volume than I did twelve years ago. And, having realized that, I’ll be checking the book’s recommendations for additions to my blues library.

This morning, however, I’m going to dig into the lists in the back portions of three of the Billboard volumes produced by Joel Whitburn. We’ll start with Top Pop Singles. (And I’m still a little chastened by not digging deeply enough into the fine print in Top Pop Singles while writing Tuesday’s post, as documented by the kind note from my friend Yah Shure.)

Among the lists in the back of Top Pop Singles is “The Top 500 Artists.” The opening ten of that list is not at all surprising:

Elvis Presley
The Beatles
Elton John
Mariah Carey
Stevie Wonder
Janet Jackson
Michael Jackson
James Brown
The Rolling Stones

But who, I wondered, came in at No. 500? It turns out to be Chuck Jackson, the South Carolina-born R&B singer whose biggest hit came when “Any Day Now (My Wild Beautiful Bird)” went to No. 23 in 1962. It was one of twenty-nine records Jackson placed in or near the Hot 100 between 1961 and 1967. But as Jackson was the last artist cited in the Top 500, I thought I’d look for the lowest-charting record in his entry. It turns out to be “Who’s Gonna Pick Up The Pieces,” a B-side (to “I Keep Forgettin’”) that bubbled under for two non-consecutive weeks during August 1962, peaking at No. 119.

From Top Pop Singles, we head to the Billboard Book of Top 40 R&B and Hip-Hop Hits. There, Whitburn lists the Top 100 artists from 1942 to 2004. And again, there are no real surprises on the top of the list:

James Brown
Aretha Franklin
Louis Jordan
Stevie Wonder
The Temptations
Ray Charles
Marvin Gaye
Fats Domino
Gladys Knight (& The Pips)
The Isley Brothers

On the other end of that Top 100, we find Atlantic Starr, described by Whitburn as an “urban contemporary group” from White Plains, New York. Between 1978 and 1992, Atlantic Starr had twenty singles reach the R&B Top 40, with two of them making it to No. 1: “Always” spent two weeks atop the chart in 1987 (and one week on top of the pop chart), making it the group’s biggest hit, and “My First Love” topped the chart for a week in 1989. The least of the group’s hits in the R&B Top 40 was its last, “Unconditional Love,” which spent two weeks in the chart in 1992 and peaked at No. 38.

Our third stop is the Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits and its listing of the Top 100 artists from 1944 to 2005. As was the case with the first two lists, the Top Ten is unsurprising. (It’s possible, maybe even likely, that George Strait has overtaken Conway Twitty and Johnny Cash for third place in the seven-plus years since the book was compiled.)

Eddy Arnold
George Jones
Johnny Cash
Conway Twitty
George Strait
Merle Haggard
Webb Pierce
Dolly Parton
Buck Owens
Waylon Jennings

On the other end of that country list, we find the mother and daughter team of Naomi and Wynonna Judd, who as the Judds put twenty-four records into the country Top 40 between 1984 and 2000. The duo quit recording regularly in 1991 because of Naomi Judd’s chronic hepatitis, and their final hit – 2000’s “Stuck In Love” – was one of four tunes the duo recorded and released on a bonus CD with Wynonna’s New Day Dawning album. In the 1980s, the Judds had fourteen No. 1 hits on the country chart; 1984’s “Mama, He’s Crazy” was the first of them. Their poorest-performing single in the country Top 40 was 1991’s “John Deere Tractor,” which peaked at No. 29.