Did They Think He Wouldn’t Play It?

I felt kind of sorry for Maynard Ferguson. It was a spring evening in 1977, maybe April but more likely May, and Ferguson and his band were on stage at the Prom Center in St. Paul. And after every number, fans in the crowd were calling out “‘Gonna Fly Now’!” as they urged Ferguson and his band to perform his current Minnesota hit.

Now, I didn’t really know Ferguson’s catalog beyond “Gonna Fly Now (Theme from ‘Rocky’)” that night. I imagine that if the single hadn’t been getting some pretty good airplay on Minnesota stations, I wouldn’t have made the trek to the Twin Cities for the show. But I was interested in hearing the rest of the show. I wanted to learn what else Ferguson and his band had to offer. And I was enjoying what I heard.

I knew, of course, that Ferguson and his mates would eventually play “Gonna Fly Now.” As I noted, the record had been getting plenty of airplay in Minnesota. That made the state one of the few markets in which Ferguson’s version of the movie theme outperformed the original from the movie soundtrack by Bill Conti; nationally, both versions entered the Billboard Hot 100 during late April of 1977. Conti’s version went to No. 1 during the first week of July, and Ferguson’s version peaked at No. 28 in late June.

The night of Ferguson’s concert, that peak was still more than a month away, but in Minnesota, we’d been hearing Ferguson’s version of the song on the radio for some time. The Academy Awards were handed out on March 28 that year, and I recall huddling later that week with a member of the music faculty at St. Cloud State, dissecting Best Song nominees “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” by Barbara Streisand and Paul Williams (which won the Oscar) and Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.” (I didn’t yet have Conti’s version, either on 45 or on LP, so I brought along Ferguson’s LP for the comparison.)  Our verdict? Conti’s composition was more exciting musically, but its lyrics – by Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins – were painfully lame.

That comparison might be interesting, but the main point of the tale is that by late March/early April, I’d heard Ferguson’s version on the radio enough that I’d already sought out the album. Had that been on St. Cloud’s WJON? On KDWB from the Twin Cities? From another local station? I don’t know, but by the time I was at the Prom Center later that spring, the record had already been a hit for the trumpeter in Minnesota. So as I sat with a bunch of other St. Cloud students – all of whom knew Ferguson’s work better than I did – I groaned internally as the listeners at the fringes called for “Gonna Fly Now.”

Did they think he wasn’t going to play it?

Of course, he did, near the end of the show, and those who’d come only for the hit were satisfied. Many of those who’d come for the broader range of Ferguson’s catalog were relieved, like one of the St. Cloud folks who was in our group. “Well, that’s over,” he murmured to me as the applause for “Gonna Fly Now” faded away. A little while later, I came away from the show with a broader appreciation of Ferguson’s music and the thought that I should delve deeper into his catalog.

It took me a long time to get to that, and I have to acknowledge that I’ve only dug a little bit into the late trumpeter’s work in the past few years. I enjoy it, and I respect the man’s abilities. But jazz is never going to be my music of choice; it’s more like a place I visit now and then, enjoying the differing customs and strange sights but aware all the time that when I leave, it will be good to be back home in my homeland of blues, rock, folk and R&B.

Of course, Ferguson’s “Gonna Fly Now” isn’t jazz. It’s pop, as was a lot of his work in the 1970s, a fact that dismayed many of his long-time listeners. His earlier work and some of his later work is far more based in jazz, and some of it can be challenging listening. If some listeners were pulled into those challenges because of Ferguson’s pop work, well, that’s all right. And pop though it may be, Ferguson’s version of “Gonna Fly Now” shows off the man’s tremendous range and dynamics. That’s why it’s here in the Ultimate Jukebox:

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 28
“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals, Atlantic 2537 [1968]
“Suavecito” by Malo, Warner Bros. 7559 [1972]
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, MCA 40258 [1974]
“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac from Fleetwood Mac [1975]
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Maynard Ferguson, Columbia 10468 [1977]
“Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn [1991]

The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” falls for me into a loose category of utopian pop-rock songs, a late Sixties swath of pop music that includes – just to name two other hits – the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” and Friend & Lover’s ”Reach Out In The Darkness.” What’s always struck me about those songs is their naiveté, their seeming belief that the task of reordering our lives and the world around us requires only an act of will. In other words, to quote Paul McCartney and Badfinger from another context, “If you want it, you can get it.” Simplistic? Yes, but it’s a wish/desire/hope that remains with us today in such homilies as “Be the change you want to be.” There is, I suppose, something to that, as the world can change one person at a time, but the cynic in me chuckles and then reaches for the sports section. So does that invalidate “People Got To Be Free” for me? Not at all. It’s a great record, and it’s good to be reminded at times that we should aim for better. And the Rascals perform the hell out of it, which was good enough for the record to go to No. 1 for five weeks during the late summer of 1968.

The light and airy sounds of Malo’s “Suavecito” put me on my bicycle during one of those Saturday evenings rides that were a constant for me during the summer of 1972. I wrote about those rides once before, and I can only guess that I heard Malo’s record from the loudspeakers as I sat in the bleachers at the municipal swimming pool, taking a break from my ride and nibbling on a Frozen Milkshake. There’s a longer version on the group’s self-titled album from that same year, but it gets to the point too slowly and contains less of the single’s restrained energy. I’d forgotten for years about Malo and “Suavecito,” but sometime during the 1990s, I found Malo and the group’s second album, Dos, during my crate-digging days; hearing the long version of the song reminded me of how much I liked the single as it went to No. 18 during the early summer of 1972, and when I began to collect digital music about ten years ago, the single version of “Suavecito” was pretty high on my list of wants.

I don’t have a lot to say about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” except to note two things about the record that went to No. 8 in 1974: First, the ambiguous second verse that seems to have defended Alabama Governor George Wallace doesn’t actually do so, according to a 1975 interview with the late Ronnie Van Zant, co-writer of the song. Second, I think the current Alabama license plate is just perfect:

Stevie Nicks has written a good number of great songs. She’s also written a few that tend to get lost in her personal “Rhiannon” mythology. (And that latter group does not include “Rhiannon” itself.) But to my mind, her best song is “Landslide” from the 1975 album Fleetwood Mac, the album that presented to the world Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham as the new members of the revamped Mac. Even without the subtext of Nicks’ and Buckingham’s failing relationship – a failure displayed, of course, in full light of day on 1977’s Rumours – the chorus to “Landslide” is poignant:

Well, I’ve been afraid of changin’
’Cause I’ve built my life around you,
But time makes you bolder, even children get older,
And I’m getting older too.

Writing a song that name-checks prominent people and places isn’t easy. Writing a good song that does that is immensely difficult, as such efforts can easily devolve into what seems like parody. That’s what made Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis” so remarkable when it came out in 1991. Cohn piles up the references: W.C. Handy, Beale Street, Elvis Presley, Union Avenue, Graceland, the Jungle Room, Al Green, and Muriel at the Hollywood Cafe (in Robinsonville, Mississippi). And they all work. The record went to No. 13 during the summer of 1991.

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4 Responses to “Did They Think He Wouldn’t Play It?”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    I’m almost certain that WJON went with the Ferguson version of “Gonna Fly Now,” as did all four Twin Cities top 40s: KDWB, WDGY/Y-11, U100 and especially 15/KSTP. I don’t ever remember hearing the Conti version on the radio. Y-11 did play Valentine’s “Take You Back” from the ‘Rocky’ soundtrack.

    One spin of the “Suavecito” 45 and it’s like late spring-early summer, no matter what the time of year.

  2. jb says:

    Suavecito! I share your opinion that the single is superior to the album version. Every once in a while, less is more. And I share Yah Shure’s opinion that no matter when you hear it, “Suavecito” takes you back to late-spring/early summer days.

  3. Perplexio says:

    Ferguson guested on Chicago XIII a few years later for the trumpet solo on their ill-fated foray into disco, Street Player. I believe he was tapped to do the trumpet solo due to his success at the time (name recognition) and because as good as their own trumpeter, Lee Loughnane, might have been he lacked the range to tackle the higher notes in that song.

  4. Paco Malo says:

    Thanks for clearing up that controversy about the lyrics to “Sweet Home Alabama”. I was one of the folks who loved the song but misunderstood the verse about George Wallace.

    What would we do without Wikipedia, eh?

    One of the bits of lore about this song I picked up but can’t verify is that Neil Young really liked the song. As token of his admiration for the tune and to show he had no hard feelings, Neil offered to write a song for Lynyrd Skynyrd, but the band turned him down. (Source: bar room conversation, most likely).

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