Well, the great LP purge is finished. Last Saturday, we took another 800 or so LPs down to Cheapo in Minneapolis, and we should get a decent check in the mail today.
When Tony at Cheapo told me the amount over the phone Sunday, I was a bit surprised. It was more than I expected for this particular batch of records.
“Well, you had some interesting stuff in there,” he said.
“What worried me,” I told him, “was all the K-Tel and Ronco stuff.”
“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “You didn’t get much for those.”
Altogether, I estimate that we dropped off about 2,200 LPs in our three trips to Minneapolis. How many of those Cheapo sent to the wastebasket, I don’t know. But we averaged about fifty-six cents per LP, which was nice for our savings account.
I still have about 1,000 LPs, mostly the stuff I love (some of which, like the Beatles and the Dylan collections, would sell well), and about twenty of them are in a basket near my desk where they wait to be ripped on the turntable. And I have a list of stuff I sold that I want to replicate via mp3. I’ve scavenged a few of those out in the wilds of the ’Net in the past weeks, and I’ve got a long list of CDs reserved at the local library.
This week, I was ripping some of the yearly Billboard hits CDs and some of the massive – eight CDs’ worth – history of Atlantic rhythm & blues. That’s meant a few hours each day at the computer, winnowing out old mp3s of lower bitrate or researching catalog numbers and release dates for tunes new to the digital shelves.
With the total of sorted and tagged mp3s loaded into the RealPlayer approaching 90,000, it’s difficult – as I’ve noted here before – to keep track of everything I have. So as I sort things, I’m sometimes surprised. That was the case yesterday as I wandered through my collection of work by the late Ben E. King.
I don’t have a lot of his work – thirteen tracks – but I have the obvious ones – “Stand By Me,” “Spanish Harlem” and the other hits. And I have a track that I tend to forget about that I found on the 1997 anthology One Step Up/Two Steps Back: The Songs of Bruce Springsteen.
So here’s Ben E. King’s sweet cover of “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
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.
It’s time for Games With Numbers again. It’s April 4 today, or 4/4. So I thought I’d dig into some charts from selected years and see what tunes were at No. 44.
We’ll start in 1961, looking at the chart from fifty years ago this week. Sitting at No. 44 was “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King. The record, King’s first solo hit after his work with the Drifters, had peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at No. 15 on the R&B chart. It was the first of twenty-two Hot 100 hits for King.
A few years ago, I found in a box of old records the Rays’ classic version of “Silhouettes,” from 1957. The first version I ever heard of the tune, however, was the one sitting at No. 44 in 1965, forty-six years ago today. Herman’s Hermits’ version of “Silhouettes” was on its way to No. 5, the third of an eventual nineteen Hot 100 hits – including two at No. 1 – for the pop-rock group from Manchester, England.
Looking at 1969, I don’t think I’d ever heard the No. 44 tune from the week of April 4 until this morning. But then, I was never much a fan of Engelbert Humperdink. I did like “Les Bicyclettes De Belsize,” which went to No. 31 in 1968, but I seem to have missed “The Way It Used To Be” the following spring. The record would only move up two spots more, to No. 42. It was the seventh of an eventual twenty-three Hot 100 hits for the man born Arnold Dorsey in Madras, India.
The Wattstax concert in Los Angles during the summer of 1972 provided the Staple Singers with the eighth of an eventual fifteen Hot 100 hits, including two No. 1 hits on the pop charts and three on the R&B Chart. A live version of “Oh La De Da” was at No. 44 as of April 4, 1973, and probably should have done better than it did: It peaked at No. 33 on the pop chart and at No. 4 on the R&B chart.
After seventeen years with the Miracles, Smokey Robinson went out on his own in 1972. In the spring of 1977, “There Will Come A Day (I’m Gonna Happen To You)” brought him the tenth of an eventual twenty-five Hot 100 hits as a solo artist. The record, which was at No. 44 during the first week of April, eventually peaked at No. 42 on the pop chart and at No. 7 on the R&B chart.
And we’ll close our excursion this morning by doubling back to a time four years earlier than we started, in April of 1957. The No. 44 song in the Billboard Hot 100 fifty-four years ago this week was “He’s Mine” by the Platters, the thirteenth of an eventual forty Hot 100 hits for the long-lived group from Los Angeles. A quick check at YouTube this morning brought a video of the Platters lip-synching the record, which would peak at No. 16 on the pop chart and at No. 5 on the R&B chart.
According to the eighth edition of the Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits – which covers the years from 1955 through 2003 – the group Chicago had thirty-five Top 40 hits, with twenty of those reaching the Top Ten. According to that same volume, Chicago was the nineteenth most successful act of those years from 1955 through 2003.
(The top five? Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Elton John, Madonna and Stevie Wonder.)
My shelves are stocked with plenty of the group’s records – thirteen of them, ranging from 1969’s Chicago Transit Authority through 1982’s Chicago 16. A few of those are duplicated on CD and in the mp3 files, and a few other Chicago albums exist here only as mp3s. But I listen purposely to very little of all that music these days. If something pops up on random on the RealPlayer, that’s fine. On the rare occasion that I pop a Chicago CD into the player, it’s almost always Chicago Transit Authority or its two follow-ups, Chicago and Chicago III. And I skip a lot of the tracks on those albums.
But there was a time during the years 1970 to about 1973 when I thought that Chicago’s music was just about the best thing this side of a lobster dinner. I loved Chicago – the silver album often called “Chicago II” – and played all four sides frequently. A little later on, I bought and liked most of Chicago Transit Authority and played that one a little less often than the follow-up but still with some frequency. I did not own Chicago III, but a college pal did, and I taped his copy and enjoyed it, too.
The group performed at St. Cloud State during the spring of 1970; I got there late because of an orchestra concert, but Rick had somehow managed to save me a place. I didn’t recognize everything the guys played; I owned Chicago but I’d heard only portions of Chicago Transit Authority. Even so, it was a great show. Sometime around 10:30 or so, the band started an encore; forty-five minutes later, that encore was still underway when Rick and I had to leave to meet our parental curfews. (I was a high school junior and he was a sophomore; half past eleven was pretty late for a school night in 1970.)
That show still ranks pretty high on my list of concerts I’ve attended, probably in the top five.
And then, my fascination with Chicago went away. It took some time, of course, but I think the first blow was the release in 1971 of Chicago IV: Live at Carnegie Hall, a bloated four-record set of what to my ears were ragged and mediocre performances. (I didn’t buy it until years later; Rick bought it when it came out and we listened to it at his place, and I remember our looking at each other and shaking our heads as the shabby record played.) Chicago V came out in 1972, and then, once a year, the group dropped another album onto the table, VI, VII and VIII into 1975. And I didn’t buy any of them. (At least not when they came out; as I said above, I have a good number of Chicago LPs, but most of those came home in the 1990s, when I was buying a lot of everything, and for the most part, they’ve stayed on the shelves after being played once.)
I heard the hits, of course: “Saturday In The Park,” “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Just You ’N’ Me,” “(I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” and on and on. None of them grabbed me at all. I thought as I heard them that the band had lost any sense of direction beyond the goal of another Top 40 hit. The inventive arrangements, the interplay of the horns with the other instruments and with each other, the drive and fire I’d heard in the first three albums – all of that was gone. And I gave up on Chicago. I’ve listened to very little of what the group has done in the years since.
And as the band – in my eyes, anyway – got fat and happy, I occasionally thought about the pledge that the members of Chicago had made in the notes to their second album: “With this album, we dedicate ourselves, our futures and our energies to the people of the revolution . . . and the revolution in all of its forms.” I don’t know if I ever took those words seriously, but I have to assume the band did when they were printed inside the record jacket. Did the members of Chicago keep that promise? I’ve realized over the years that it’s not my place to decide, and I wonder if I would want to be called to account for promises I made when I was in my mid-twenties. But then again, I never put any of those promises on a record jacket almost certain to be seen by millions of people.
All of this may seem a bit disjointed, but I’ve never put my thoughts about Chicago into any kind of order before, and as I’ve been writing, I’ve begun to think that I may revisit the group’s output to see if it was better than I think it was. And I realize as well that my early passion for the group might have kept me from making critical judgments. I think now that those first three albums could have used an editor: Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago and Chicago III would likely have been better as single-record albums than the double albums they were. (Fodder for some posts down the road, perhaps.)
Even with all that, the band in its early years provided some transcendent moments: The first that comes to mind is the nearly side-long “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon,” from which were pulled the wedding standard “Colour My World” and the group’s first hit single, “Make Me Smile.” Then there’s “Beginnings,” with its glorious horns, great vocals and the long percussion fade out.
And finally, there is that first hit single, an edit of “Make Me Smile” that never fails to do just that, no matter where I am when it comes out of the speakers. When I first heard it as it headed to No. 9 during the spring of 1970, I thought to myself that I’d never heard anything like it. And forty years later, with the record as familiar as the grey in my beard, I still feel the same way.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 23
“Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, Atco 6185 
“Make Me Smile” by Chicago, Columbia 45127 
“Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers Band from Live at Fillmore East 
“Stop Breaking Down” by the Rolling Stones from Exile on Main St 
“In A Daydream” by the Freddy Jones Band from Waiting For The Night 
“Twilight” by Danko/Fjeld/Andersen from Ridin’ On The Blinds 
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.
There’s little doubt, I would think, that the Allman Brothers Band album Live at Fillmore East is one of the greatest live albums ever, showing a ground-breaking band at the peak of its existence. (Looking at the list of the 500 greatest albums of all time published in 2003 by Rolling Stone, the only live album placed ahead of Live at Fillmore East is James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, which certainly makes sense.) And the Allmans’ opening number – presented on the album with the laconic introduction intact – was a fiery interpretation of Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues.” I won’t say that “Statesboro Blues” was the best performance on the album; I might give that accolade to the long versions of “Whipping Post” or “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” but it still strikes me as ballsy to open a show with a song that you’ve not already released, a song that might not be all that familiar to the audience. And then, in the terms of a jukebox, which is what we’re theoretically discussing here, “Statesboro Blues,” allows the band to put on display all its stellar attributes – a tough and supple rhythm section, superb lead guitar work, great bluesy vocals and more – in the concise running time of just more than four minutes.
Amid all the hoopla about its re-release a few weeks ago, I realized that it took me a long time to appreciate the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. I’d thought the singles, “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” were murky and indistinct when I heard them during the spring and summer of 1972, and I thought I’d give the album a pass. A year later, a friend of mine was clearing space on his record shelves and handed me his copy of Exile. I was glad to have it, but at the time, I wouldn’t have put it on my list of essential listens. I’m not exactly sure when the album got on to that figurative list, but it was sometime during the mid-1990s when I spent a few weeks listening to Exile on Main St back-to-back-to-back with the Robert Johnson box set and some 1950s recordings by Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. And the track that has always jumped up as my favorite – the first of two Rolling Stones recordings in the Ultimate Jukebox – is the cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down.” (A note on the title of the album, which I’ve long offered incorrectly as Exile on Main Street: The LP jacket has it as Exile on Main St, while my CD copy adds a period to make it Exile on Main St. Finally correcting myself this morning, I went with the original presentation from the vinyl.)
I learned about the Freddy Jones Band when the group’s music showed up from time to time during the 1990s on the Minneapolis station Cities 97. In those pre-CD player days, I found on quiet evenings that I could get lost in the band’s “In A Daydream,” which comes from the group’s 1993 album Waiting for the Night. Later on, when I picked up that CD and another by the group, I found a number of other songs that have the same effect. But “In A Daydream” remains my favorite among them and can still pull me away to somewhere else. And there are far worse ways to spend an evening.
The Band recorded at least two versions of “Twilight,” one of Robbie Robertson’s most elegiac songs in a career filled with elegies. There was the sprightly version released on the 1976 anthology Best of The Band with Rick Danko handling the lead vocal. Then there’s a slower version that opens with Levon Helm singing the chorus before Danko handles the verses; that one showed up as a bonus track on the Islands CD and might be the version released as a single on Capitol 4316. (Does anyone out there know which version was the single?) The slower take is better than the version on The Best of The Band. But it’s Danko who recorded the best available version of the song during his work in Norway with Eric Andersen and Norwegian performer Jonas Fjeld. That version, on the trio’s second CD, Ridin’ on the Blinds, is closer in tempo to the faster of the two versions by The Band, but it has a sorrowful, reflective quality that the earlier versions seem to have missed. And along with the Norwegian musicians that back the titular trio, “Twilight” also has keyboard parts supplied by Danko’s former Band-mate Garth Hudson.
(I noticed something odd while researching “Twilight” this morning. Most listings at All-Music Guide credit the piece to Robertson alone, but some links also give writing credit to Wynton Marsalis and Michael Mason. Does anyone out there know the story behind that?)