Posts Tagged ‘Aretha Franklin’

Fifteen Inches Of Snow

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

Well, Saturday’s forecast for snow was upgraded quickly after I wrote, with the expected snowfall goosed upward to anywhere from ten to sixteen inches. The snow began falling shortly after midnight Monday morning and kept on coming into the late afternoon, leaving behind about fifteen inches of heavy, wet snow.

I did a shovel-width pass down the sidewalk yesterday morning, but by the time I went out this morning, it seemed as if I’d not done anything. I did the same shovel-wide pass this morning as my coffee brewed and the Texas Gal got ready for work, so she could walk to the bus stop without getting snow in her boots. I’ll have to go out later and trim the edges of the walk and then work on the front steps, which I hardly touched.

And sometime today, the new guy who plows our driveway should be back. At least I hope so. His post-midnight job left a ridge of snow four feet tall in front of one of the garage doors and left large portions of the driveway littered with piles of snow.

With all that (and my normal four loads of laundry yesterday), I’m exhausted before nine in the morning. So I’m going to throw some Aretha Franklin your way and go curl up somewhere with my newspaper, my coffee, some tunes and a cat or two.

Here’s “First Snow In Kokomo” from Aretha’s 1972 album Young, Gifted & Black.

Curly Loops & Ink Blots

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

I saw a television news report the other day – probably on one of CBS’ shows – about the dwindling art of cursive writing. The ubiquity of keyboarding, especially with email replacing most snail mail, has led many schools to quit teaching cursive writing. No more hours of perfecting the little loop at the top of the lower-case “o” so it can be connected to the next letter.

I hated cursive writing. Except in a very few instances, I was never able to get the letters to flow into each other. From the time I began to try to learn the art when I was eight or nine to the time I started college  — when I abandoned cursive for my own peculiar mix of printing and cursive and for typewritten work – I detested handwriting.

Perhaps my thoughts moved too fast for my hands to keep up. That’s one of the theories, I think, that my parents and teachers bandied about. That might have been it; I was not the most patient of writers, and I did find it difficult to focus on forming carefully the letters in, say, “Columbus” when my brain was already on “Ohio.” Whatever the reasons, my handwriting was a meandering mess until I abandoned it after those ten or so years.

That mess was made worse by my writing implement. For some reason, it was essential for every fifth and sixth grade student at Lincoln Elementary School to have a cartridge pen. A close relative of the earlier fountain pen, a cartridge pen draws its ink from an internal cartridge instead of being filled from an inkwell or ink jar. That meant that every student in the fifth and sixth grades at Lincoln (and, I would assume, at the other elementary schools in St. Cloud) had a box of ink cartridges in his or her desk. When a pen went dry, the writer would remove the empty cartridge and replace it with a new one filled with ink.

Even if one were fastidious and careful, some ink was bound to spill. If one were a little hasty and sometimes careless, more ink would spill. I was always in the “more ink” category. Add to that the fact that if one hesitated while writing with a cartridge pen and left the pen in contact with the paper, the ink continued to flow, soaking the paper. Then consider that, given my difficulty with cursive, I hesitated frequently. As a result, I routinely handed in assignments decorated with ink blots, and I routinely went home from school with ink-stained hands and sometimes ink-stained clothes. The combination of cursive writing and the cartridge pen was the source of great frustration for me and, I assume, for my parents and my teachers.

(I do not recall if the cartridge pens were required by the school, or if they were a somehow traditional, if inky, rite of passage for fifth graders. I rather think they were required, as they were more expensive than ballpoint pens as well as being much more prone to messiness. I am sure there were families with students at Lincoln and the other schools that would have preferred to save the additional money if given the chance, just as I am sure that there were teachers at Lincoln and the other schools who would have been pleased to avoid the mess.)

Even had I mastered the art of legible cursive writing, it would have eventually gone by the wayside for a couple of reasons: First, over my years as a journalism student and a reporter, I began by necessity to compose at the keyboard, and once that happened – even in the days before computers and email – all of my letters were typed as well. Second, once I started working as a reporter, the need to take notes rapidly in interviews and especially in public meetings – one can slow down an interview to catch up with notes, but one cannot slow the progress of a public hearing – damaged what little legibility my writing might have had for other people.

I could read my notes, but I’m certain no one else could. Well, I could read my notes while the meeting or the interview was fresh in my mind. I imagine that if I were to dig into the boxes of city council notes I left behind at the Monticello Times in 1983, I might be able to decipher some of what I scrawled on my legal pads but certainly not much. The need for haste destroyed what little legibility might ever have existed in my odd combination of printing and cursive.

The television news piece closed with an interview with an older man who offers children lessons in cursive writing because of its aesthetic qualities. And I saw this week that cartridge pens are still sold online and perhaps elsewhere (and that the terms “cartridge pen” and “fountain pen” seem to have become synonymous). That both of those things are available for those who enjoy them is a good thing. My frustrations with both cursive and the cartridge pen are more than forty years gone, and I miss neither one of them. That’s a good thing, too.

The tune that came to mind as I was planning this post was Vicki Carr’s 1969 break-up hit, “With Pen In Hand,” which went to No. 35 in the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 6 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Other versions of the tune in or near the Hot 100 came from Billy Vera, Johnny Darrell, Bobby Goldsboro and Dorothy Moore. Jerry Vale hit the AC chart with it, while Darrell’s version reached the country Top 40 and Moore’s got into the R&B Top 40. I checked out a few of those, but none of them did much for me. And then I found Aretha Franklin’s cover of the tune from her 1974 album, Let Me In Your Life. Here it is.

‘It’s Never Seen The Sun . . .’

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

Two-and-a-half years ago, as I offered six of the records in my Ultimate Jukebox, I wrote:

“Looking for a version of ‘Spanish Harlem’ to celebrate, I imagine that lots of folks would choose Aretha Franklin’s imaginative 1971 cover, which went to No. 2. But there’s something I prefer about Ben E. King’s original, which went to No. 10 in early 1961. Maybe it’s the tropical lilt brought out by the marimba during the introduction and throughout the record, maybe it’s the baion bass provided by producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Leiber co-wrote the song with Phil Spector), maybe it’s King’s hushed, almost serene vocal, or maybe it’s the saxophone solo. Maybe it’s all of those or something else entirely. Whatever it is, it makes Spanish Harlem into a place I wish I’d seen through the eyes of all of those involved.”

Well, all that still holds true, but after King’s version popped up on the mp3 player in the kitchen the other day, I thought about cover versions as I rinsed the silverware. It might be that Franklin provided the definitive cover of the Leiber/Spector tune. But what else was out there?

The index at BMI lists twenty-seven covers of the tune, and Second Hand Songs lists thirty-six, with a lot of (expected) overlap between the lists. Combined, the two lists hold some interesting names. Among those listed whose performances I either didn’t look for or listen to entirely in the past week or so are Jay & The Americans, Chet Atkins, Manuel and His Music of the Mountains, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, Freddie Scott, Arthur Alexander, Frankie Valli, Bowling For Soup, Vicki Carr, Ray Anthony, Kenny Rankin, Janet Seidel, Keld Heick and Tony Mottola.

The BMI list doesn’t show recording or release dates, but at Second Hand Songs, the earliest listed cover is a 1961 effort by Britain’s John Barry, whose version – included on his Stringbeat album – falls into what I would call easy listening territory. Other easy listening versions came over the years from Percy Faith, Andre Kostelanetz, the previously mentioned Manuel and His Music of the Mountains and guitarist Bert Weedon, whose 1971 take on the tune pleased me more than the others in that genre.

The most recent version of the tune listed at SHS was the 2010 cover by Latin vocalist Jon Secada, which I have not heard in full although what I did hear sounded promising. I had hopes for 1960s versions by Santo & Johnny and by Herb Alpert & The Tijuana brass, but both of those were draggy and limp.

So what did I like? Unsurprisingly, I like the version King Curtis released on his 1966 album, That Lovin’ Feeling. (The video misdates the track and shows the cover of the 1969 album Instant Groove.) I like the cover I featured the other day by The Mamas & The Papas. One version that did surprise me pleasantly came from Laura Nyro, who recorded the song with Labelle for her 1971 album, Gonna Take A Miracle. I’ve always admired the late Nyro’s songwriting, but I’ve found her own recordings to sometimes be shrill. This one wasn’t. And as I poked around YouTube this morning, I found a sweet live version of the tune from an October 19, 1974, performance at Union College in Schenectady, New York; according to the YouTube poster, it’s one of only three times that Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band have performed “Spanish Harlem.” (The audio is a bit muffled, but it’s still a treat, I think.)

I keep coming back, though, to Aretha’s version. It was released as a single in 1971 (with its first LP release on Aretha’s Greatest Hits) and was No.1 for three weeks on the R&B chart and No. 2 for two weeks on the pop chart. The video below attempts to identify the players on that session, but in the Franklin listing in Top Pop Singles, Joel Whitburn notes that Dr. John plays keyboards on the single, and the good doctor is not shown in the video. I’ll go with Whitburn and assume that Dr. John was there. In any case, it’s not the keyboard work that grabs me. And it’s not Aretha’s assured vocal that moves me most. So what does? It’s the drum work, which – if one can trust the video – came from the sticks of Bernard Purdie.

Survey Digging, December 1969

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

I thought this morning that I’d dig into a half-dozen radio surveys from December 20, 1969. Why 1969? Because it’s one of my favorite radio years, as I’ve no doubt written many times. But the Airheads Radio Survey Archive only had four surveys from that date, and two of them were from Missouri. So I threw out one of the Mizzou surveys and threw into the mix surveys from the same week from Birmingham, Alabama; Los Angeles and Chicago.

When I take these figurative trips around the country, I generally look at the No. 1 song in each market and a couple more that depend on the date. In this case, I had in mind today’s date of 12/20, meaning the No. 12 and No. 20 records. (No, not all the surveys are from December 20, but then, this ain’t a project for a master’s degree, either. You got problems with it, go talk to Odd and Pop.)

But this time, I ended up adding the No. 2 record as well, because the No. 1 record this week in 1969 at all six stations I checked – stations in Hartford, Connecticut; Albany, Oregon; Birmingham, Los Angeles, Chicago and St. Louis – was “Someday We’ll Be Together” by Diana Ross & The Supremes. (It would top the Billboard Hot 100 a week later.)

With that decided, I headed out, and along the way through these six surveys, I ran into a lot of familiar records and a few that I didn’t know at all.

At Los Angeles’ KHJ, the “Boss 30” for December 17 had B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” in the No. 2 slot. (The record would spend the month of January 1970 atop the Billboard chart.) At No. 12, we find “Down On The Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and at No. 20, we run into Gene Pitney’s “She Lets Her Hair Down (Early In The Morning),” a recording of a song I explored at length about a year ago.

In Chicago, WLS’ “Hit Parade” from December 22, 1969, also had the B.J. Thomas single at No. 2. (I should note that many folks will likely remember the record from its use during the bicycle-riding scene in the movie Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.) One of my favorite instrumentals sits at No. 12 (and the fact that it’s a favorite underlines, I suppose, my affection for  movie themes and for the kind of stuff one used to hear in the mid-1960s on KFAM, St. Cloud’s MOR station): Ferrante & Teicher’s version of the theme from “Midnight Cowboy.” And the No. 20 record in Chicago was Dusty Springfield’s “A Brand New Me.”

St. Louis’ KXOK printed its weekly survey on a narrow piece of paper and called it the “KXOK Bookmark.” At No. 2 on the bookmark forty-three years ago today was “La La La (If I Had You)” by Bobby Sherman, while the No. 12 spot was occupied by Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” and the No. 20 spot was taken up by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” the flip side of the previously mentioned “Down On The Corner.”

In New Haven, Connecticut, on December 20, 1969, WAVZ’s “Hit Power Survey” had “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul & Mary in the No. 2 spot. The Archies were in the No. 12 slot with “Jingle Jangle,” and at No. 20 was Aretha Franklin’s superlative reworking of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Aretha’s version went to No. 17 on the pop chart and to No. 5 on the R&B chart.

On the other side of the country on the same day, at KRKT in Albany, Oregon, the No. 2 record was the Grass Roots’ “Heaven Knows,” while the No. 12 spot was held down by another one of my favorites from late 1969: “Backfield in Motion” by Mel & Tim. And at No. 20 in Albany sat a double-sided single by Tommy James & The Shondells that I know little about, as I’d heard neither “She” nor “Loved One” until this morning.

And I actually know less about one of the records we’ll list from the survey of December 19, 1969, at WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama. The No. 12 record in the station’s survey is “What a Beautiful Feeling” by the California Earthquake, and at No. 20, we find “Don’t Let Love Hang You Up” by Jerry Butler. I finally heard the Butler record (and loved it) this morning, but I’ve never heard the California Earthquake record, as I can’t find it anywhere. (I’m not sure the latter record is all that important, as it barely made it into the Billboard charts, bubbling under at No. 133 for one week; it was the band’s only appearance in or near the charts.) Observant readers will note that I skipped past the No. 2 record at WSGN. It was “Fancy,” Bobbie Gentry’s first-person tale of a young Southern girl who makes it big after being reluctantly pimped out by her desperate mother. The record went to No. 33 on the pop chart and to No. 26 on the country chart. (Reba McEntire’s 1991 cover did better on the country charts, going to No. 8, but Gentry’s original is the better record.)

Chart Digging: March 6, 1961

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Having disposed with March of 1963 briefly last week, I dropped back two more years this morning to see what was going out over the airwaves during the first week of March 1961. The Billboard Top Ten for March 6 of that year – fifty-one years ago today – is at least somewhat familiar today:

“Pony Time” by Chubby Checker
“Surrender” by Elvis Presley
“Wheels” by the String-A-Longs
“Don’t Worry” by Marty Robbins
“Where The Boys Are” by Connie Francis
“Calcutta” by Lawrence Welk
“Baby Sittin’ Boogie” by Buzz Clifford
“Dedicated To The One I Love” by the Shirelles
“There’s A Moon Out Tonight” by the Capris
“Ebony Eyes” by the Everly Brothers

I think that two of those – the singles by the Shirelles and the Capris – rank as all-time classics although I’m certain I didn’t hear them in early 1961. The only one of those I remember hearing at the time is “Where The Boys Are,” which was the title song to a movie starring Francis and George Hamilton. Most of the rest are familiar now, of course, although I had to listen to “Wheels” and “Baby Sittin’ Boogie” for reminders. (And I was reminded how much I dislike maudlin songs about death when I listened this morning to “Ebony Eyes” for the first time in many years.)

And, then, of course, I dipped down further in the Billboard Hot 100 from fifty-one years ago to see what might be lurking in the spots below No. 60 or so.

One of the most familiar songs in country western music – at least to my ears – is “Ghost Riders In The Sky: A Cowboy Legend.” Written in 1948 by Stan Jones, the song has been recorded more than fifty times, according to Wikipedia, with the first recording coming from Burl Ives in 1949; that version went to No. 21 on the pop chart and to No. 8 on the country chart. Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles begins in 1955, so Ives’ single isn’t listed. The highest-placing cover Whitburn lists is the one I found at No. 62: The Ramrods’ instrumental take titled simply “Ghost Riders In The Sky” without the subtitle. The Ramrods – a quartet from Connecticut – had seen their version go to No. 30 two weeks earlier. It was their only Hot 100 hit. (Other  notable versions of the tune include the Outlaws’ 1981 release that went to No. 31 and Johnny Cash’s 1979 take on the tune that didn’t hit the pop chart but went to No. 2 on the country chart, matching Vaughn Monroe’s 1949 version.)

With Chubby Checker’s “Pony Time” in the middle of a three-week stay at No. 1, another version of the song, this one by the Goodtimers, was sitting at No. 69, on its way to No. 60. One of the members of the Goodtimers was Don Covay, the writer of Checker’s single as well as a good number of other R&B hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Mercy Mercy” and “Letter Full Of Tears.” “Pony Time” was the first of several hits for Covay, with and without the Goodtimers; the highest-placing were “Mercy Mercy,” which went to No. 35 in 1964 (with, Whitburn notes, Jimi Hendrix on guitar), and “I Was Checkin’ Out, She Was Checkin’ In,” which went to No. 29 in 1973. (On the R&B chart, those two records went to No. 1 – for two weeks – and to No. 6, respectively.)

After Aretha Franklin became a star at Atlantic in the late 1960s, the idea that Columbia hadn’t known what to do with her when she was there hardened from opinion into accepted musical wisdom. And it’s true that a lot of the stuff Franklin recorded at Columbia through 1966 wasn’t a good fit for her. So I was a little leery when I saw that her “Won’t Be Long” was sitting at No. 83 fifty-one years ago today. But the record, which was on its way to No. 76, is better by far than I expected it to be. And it’s a piece of history, too: “Won’t Be Long” was the first of eighty-eight singles that Franklin placed in or near the Hot 100 between 1961 and 1998. (It was her second hit in the R&B Top 40, going to No. 7.)

I haven’t had many reasons to share a record by Edith Piaf (I think it’s happened only two other times so far in five years), so when I saw her name pop up on the Hot 100 from March 6, 1961, the decision was easy. Sitting at No. 95, Piaf’s single “Milord” was the first and only single the legendary French singer ever placed in the Hot 100. (Her take on the theme to the movie “Exodus” bubbled under at No. 116 in the spring of 1961.) “Milord,” recorded in New York City, would peak at No. 88 in mid-March. (Another version of “Milord,” this one an instrumental by Frank Pourcel & His Orchestra, was bubbling under at No. 118 during that first week of March in 1961; it would peak at No. 112.)

Among my vivid memories from the early 1960s is the annual recognition of the incoming freshman class at St. Cloud State that took place at halftime of the first home football game. The announcer would ask the freshmen to stand as the marching band saluted them, and I recall seeing those young people stand, most seeming embarrassed and a few wearing their freshman beanies, as the band played “Hey Look Me Over” from the 1961 Broadway musical Wildcat. The version of the tune in the Hot 100 during the first week of March in 1961 was by the Pete King Chorale & Orchestra. The record – the only hit for Pete King and his musicians and the only version of the tune to ever hit the pop charts – would peak at No. 108. (For those wondering what a freshman beanie is, here’s a picture of the beanie from Ricker College in Maine. As was true at many colleges, for many years freshmen at St. Cloud State were required to wear their red and black beanies on campus and at college events during the first part of the academic year.  According to a 1998 note at St. Cloud State’s website, “the beanie requirement was abolished in 1961, but for the next few years, freshmen were encouraged to wear them.”)

Chart Digging: Mid-October 1964

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Having been distracted and interrupted last time out by the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” and the resulting covers, I went back this morning to the Billboard Hot 100 for October 17, 1964, forty-seven years ago last Monday.

A look at that week’s Top Ten is intriguing:

“Do Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann
“Dancing In The Street” by Martha & The Vandellas
“Oh, Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison & The Candy Men
“We’ll Sing In The Sunshine” by Gale Garnett
“Last Kiss” by Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers
“Remember (Walkin’ In The Sand)” by the Shangri-Las
“A Summer Song” by Chad & Jeremy
“It Hurts To Be In Love” by Gene Pitney
“When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” by the Beach Boys
“Let It Be Me” by Betty Everett & Jerry Butler

Boy, with the exception of Manfred Mann’s No. 1 record and the Chad & Jeremy tune, that Top Ten looks pretty much like the British Invasion had been thwarted at the Atlantic shore. (Gale Garnett was New Zealand-born but came to the U.S. before she was ten, and her record is pretty close to traditional pop or maybe even country; the recording academy called it folk and gave her a Grammy for it.) There are all sorts of sounds and styles in that Top Ten.

What I wondered was: Where were the Beatles when we got to mid-October? I found their cover of Carl Perkin’s “Matchbox” sitting at its peak of No. 17, and “Slow Down” was sitting at No. 39, on its way to No. 25. They hadn’t had a Top Ten record since “A Hard Day’s Night” topped the charts in August (although they’d had seven records in the Hot 100 during that time, four of them – including “Matchbox” and “Slow Down” – peaking in the Top 40.) This was, in fact, a minor lull, one that would end in five or so weeks, with Beatles releasing four Top Ten hits – “I Feel Fine,” “She’s A Woman,” “Eight Days A Week” and “Ticket To Ride” – between early December 1964 and late April 1965.

As to other Brit groups and performers, the highest I find is the Honeycombs, whose “Have I The Right” was sitting at No. 20 on its way to No. 5. In the rest of the Top 40, we find numerous British acts – the Nashville Teens, Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas, the Animals and others – so this is a chart that shows the transition created by the British Invasion underway but not complete, as I see it.

I should note that the Top Ten would be, for the most part, a good stretch of listening. I love “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and “Dancing In The Street,” and – with one exception – the rest of those ten are good, if not favorites. The exception? I dislike “Last Kiss” intensely.

As always, though, I did some digging for nuggets in the lower portions of that Hot 100 from forty-seven years ago, and found a few things worth some attention. Among them is another tune about bereavement: “Death of an Angel” by the Kingsmen. With its garage-rock rhythm and riffs, it almost seems to be a better fit for 1966 than 1964, but then, the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” always sounds like it belongs to a year later than 1963, when it went to No. 2. “Death of an Angel” didn’t do nearly as well as “Louie, Louie”, though. Forty-seven years ago this week, it was sitting at No. 53, on its way to a peak of No. 42. (The Kingsmen would have their second and last Top Ten hit in early 1965 with the novelty “Jolly Green Giant.”)

In October 1964, Columbia still hadn’t figured out what to do with Aretha Franklin. She’d had eleven records in or near the Hot 100, but only one of them had found its way into the Top 40, and not that far in at that: “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody” had gone to No. 37 in the autumn of 1961. Columbia would eventually give up, and starting in 1967, Aretha would become a legend on Atlantic. But in the autumn of 1964, Columbia was still trying, and in mid-October, Aretha’s “Runnin’ Out Of Fools” was sitting at No.78, on its way to No. 57. (The record went to No. 30 on the R&B chart.) I don’t know how the studio version sounded, but when Aretha sang the song on the December 2, 1964, episode of Shindig!, there were hints of the Aretha to come:

Garnet Mimms is probably best known for recording the original version of “Cry Baby,” the Bert Berns/Jerry Ragovoy song that Janis Joplin covered on 1971’s posthumously released Pearl. Mimms’ 1963 version – credited to Garnet Mimms & The Enchanters (although Joel Whitburn notes that the backing singers were actually the Sweet Inspirations) – went to No. 4 on the pop chart and spent three weeks atop the R&B chart. After that, two late 1963 records with the Enchanters reached the lower half of the Top 40, another peaked at No. 78, and two 1964 solo releases stalled short of the Top 40. So in mid-October 1964, Mimms was still seeking another Top Ten hit, and his “Look Away” was sitting at No. 89. The record didn’t do all that well – peaking at No. 73 – but what interests me is that the song tells pretty much the same tale as did Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” when it went to No. 6 in the spring of 1964.

The records presented here when I do my chart digging are generally lesser-known titles (sometimes deservedly so) or by lesser-known performers (ditto). But last evening, the RealPlayer settled on Jackie DeShannon’s original version of “When You Walk In The Room,” and when I saw the Searchers’ cover listed at No. 97 in the October 17, 1964, Hot 100, I knew that I had to offer it here. The Liverpool group’s defining hit, “Needles and Pins,” had gone to No. 13 in the spring of 1964, and four more singles reached the Hot 100 by the end of the summer, with two of those reaching the Top 40. “When You Walk In The Room” would peak at No. 35, and why it didn’t go higher is a mystery to me (as is the fact that DeShannon’s original only got to No. 99 in January of 1964). Both versions are great records.

I mentioned the Ventures in my last post, noting that the group placed “twenty-five records in or near the Hot 100, including Top Ten hits in 1960 and 1964 with two versions of ‘Walk – Don’t Run’ and then in 1969 with ‘Hawaii Five-O’.” I also noted that I like pretty much anything the Ventures did, and that includes the cover of “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” that was bubbling under the Hot 100 at No. 109 when mid-October rolled around in 1964. The record would go to No. 35 and would be the group’s last Top 40 hit until “Hawaii Five-O” rolled around in 1969. (It’s interesting to note that the flip side of “Slaughter” also got a little airplay, bubbling under at No. 135: “Rap City” was based on Johannes Brahms’ familiar “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5.”)

I know next-to-nothing about the Chartbusters. Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles tells me that they were a garage-rock band from Washington, D.C., and that earlier in 1964, they’d had “She’s The One” go to No. 33. (Based on my listening this morning, I’d never heard the record before.) They were back on the chart in mid-October, when “Why (Doncha Be My Girl)” was bubbling under at No. 122. A decent piece of garage rock, the record would get to No. 92. The Chartbusters had one more record of note: A live version of “New Orleans” would bubble under for one week at No. 134 during the summer of 1965.

Still Powerful

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

A while back, on one of those Facebook memes that friends send through occasionally, I was asked to list the twenty essential songs/records for my desert island. I don’t recall everything I listed and then sent out to other friends, but I do recall the top two: “Cherish” by the Association and “We” by Shawn Phillips.

I got a note from my friend, the Half-Hearted Dude, who blogs at Any Major Dude With Half A Heart and who stops by here and leaves an occasional note. He said – and I’m paraphrasing here, as the note has been consigned to the ether and to whatever files Facebook keeps on its registrants –  that when he saw that I had responded, he figured that “Cherish” and “We” would show up somewhere on my list, and their presence in the top two spots was not at all surprising.

Well, I guess it shouldn’t have been startling. I’ve written about “Cherish” several times during the life of this blog, calling it at least once the best single ever released. And although I’ve written about “We” far less often – and do not recall exactly what I said about it – I know that I’ve never hidden my high regard for Shawn Phillips’ 1972 recording. In it, one can hear many virtues: strong melody; inventive, coherent and cohesive lyrics; a sparkling backing track; and the conciseness of a record that gets all that done in 3:43 (and I’ll acknowledge, as a fan of Phillips, that concision wasn’t always present on his other 1970s albums).

Then add to those virtues Phillips’ remarkable vocal, especially the portion where his scat singing takes him into the stratosphere (starting at 2:38 into the song), and you’ve got a record that for me, at least, comes very close to the top of the all-time list.

But wait, as the hawkers on television say, there’s more!

Faces, the album that is home to “We,” was released in 1972. The album got to No. 57 on the Billboard chart, and “We,” its lone charting single, got to No. 89 in the Billboard Hot 100 during the last week of January 1973. What’s always puzzled me, then, is how the single showed up on the jukebox in St. Cloud State’s Atwood Center during the early autumn of 1974, twenty-one months after it spent three weeks in the Hot 100. Was it re-released? Did the jukebox jobber goof? I don’t know, but whatever the reason for its late appearance, the record was welcome. I dropped a lot of quarters into the machine that autumn, and “We” was one of the preferred records for me and a couple of other folks at The Table, the diverse and sometimes odd collection of people with whom I spent my free time.

The song’s lyrics, of course, tell of how two – a “he” and a “she” – can make a “we,” and I was dreaming about that same process that autumn. Those dreams left abruptly, as friends and long-time readers likely recall. And I don’t think I heard “We” again for almost nine years. I imagine I could have sought out the album, as I did for a few records that marked that autumn. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t until the spring of 1983, when I chanced on Faces at a flea market in Monticello, that I heard “We” again. If anything, it had become more powerful in its absence. Over the years, I’ve increased the quality of my copy of the album, finding a better vinyl version in 1997 and then finding a rare CD copy in 2007. But no matter the format or quality, “We” remains one of the most emotionally potent songs in my entire universe of music.

Its potency is not tied, as some might guess, to the young woman who might have been the other half of that “he and she make we” equation. (At least not entirely.) It’s linked, rather, to a time before things changed, to a vague memory, a moment when all of us at The Table were listening to Shawn Phillips’ voice soar through the basement snack bar where we gathered, all of us – for that moment – looking at things beyond the range of our vision and finding bits of our own dreams expressed in Phillips’ words and music.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 27
“San Francisco Girls (Return Of The Native)” by Fever Tree from Fever Tree [1968]
“(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” by Aretha Franklin, Atlantic 2486 [1968]
“Vehicle” by the Ides of March, Warner Bros. 7378 [1970]
“We” by Shawn Phillips from Faces [1972]
“Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” by the Bee Gees from Main Course [1975]
“Four Strong Winds” by Neil Young from Comes A Time [1978]

The myth of San Francisco circa 1967 and 1968 was grist for the mills of who knows how many songwriters and performers, with the best-known result probably being John Phillips’ “San Francisco  (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair),” which was a No. 4 hit for Scott McKenzie during the singular summer of 1967. Fever Tree, a relatively forgotten band that offered an odd mix of psychedelic tunes, soft ballads and cover versions of others’ hits, didn’t get its San Francisco tune out until June of 1968, when “San Francisco Girls (Return of the Native)” spent three weeks at No. 91. Despite the group’s eclectic style and despite the lack of attention given the single, I think that “San Francisco Girls” is just as evocative of what was happening in that California city as McKenzie’s record, especially in its opening, with the harpsichord eventually joined by tympani and organ for the hushed opening verse:

Out there it’s summertime
Milk and honey days
Oh, San Francisco girls with
San Francisco ways.

From there, the song takes off in a rushed, fuzz-laden gallop, and the rest of the tale isn’t quite as interesting. But those first few moments pull me in every time.

I don’t have much to say about Aretha Franklin and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” I mean, she’s Aretha, and the record was one of her forty-five Top 40 hits (covering a span of years from 1961 to 1998). Add that “Since You’ve Been Gone” went to No. 5 in the early spring of 1968 (and was No. 1 for three weeks on the R&B chart), and all you need to do after that is listen.

There was a discussion not long ago at the blog AM, then FM about how the lyrics to “Vehicle,” the Ides of March hit from 1970, might play today, what with the “friendly stranger in the black sedan” inviting the object of his interest into his car: “I got pictures, got candy. I’m a lovable man, and I can take you to the nearest star.” I’d guess – as did Jeff at AM, then FM – that what was heard as a (lame) come-on forty years ago would come off today as really creepy: This dude is exactly the kind of guy parents have been warning kids about for years! So times have changed, and the guy in the car would have needed to find a new way to get the attention of a pretty young thing. But as he long as he brings those horns along, he’ll do okay, as the horn chart was at least partly the reason that “Vehicle” went to No. 2 during the spring of 1970.

The Bee Gees’ long career had, as I see it, three distinct segments. Call them acts, if you want. Act One was the group’s early work as a kind of Down Under Beatles, running – as far as hits in the U.S. were concerned – from 1967 into 1969. Act Two was the split in the group and then the tentative music after the reunion, with that segment running from 1970 to 1972. Then, in 1975, started Act Three, during which the Bee Gees were for a while the world’s most popular group, throwing off hits for themselves and producing them for others as if there were nothing hard about it at all. The first portion of that third act was the 1975 album Main Course, which telegraphed the disco triumph to come in its first two hits, “Jive Talkin’” and “Nights on Broadway,” which went to No. 1 and No. 7, respectively. My favorite from the album, though, is the third hit, “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love),” which went to No. 12 during the early months of 1976. Why that record? It’s no secret that I like a good ballad, and to me, “Fanny” is one of the best. And it comes from a time in my life that held at least two good things: my college internship and the pleasant (and unfamiliar) dilemma of having to decide between two very nice young women.

“Four Strong Winds,” Ian Tyson’s song of retreat from love to the Alberta prairie, has been recorded by hundreds of folks since he wrote it as the title tune to the second album he and his then-wife released as Ian & Sylvia. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that familiar with the song until I heard Neil Young’s 1978 version on the radio one day. Young’s cover of “Four Strong Winds” was released as a single but only got to No. 61. Nevertheless, hearing the tune inspired me to run down to the local record outlet and grab a copy of Comes A Time, which has only turned out to be my favorite Neil Young album. And the tune marks the only appearance of Neil Young in my mythical jukebox.

(Parenthetical comment added January 2, 2013.)