It’s late afternoon, and it’s been a full day: A trip to Maple Grove for lunch with my sister, belatedly celebrating the Texas Gal’s February birthday. (When that February birthday actually took place, weekends were already filled on one calendar or another through May, so we did the best we could.)
That lunch was followed by a brief shopping stop at one of the specialty stores in Maple Grove, and once back in St. Cloud, the Texas Gal headed to church to weed the community garden, and I ran an errand for my mom and then delivered to her some photos of her first great-grandchild (which my sister showed us at lunch).
So it’s been a busy day . . . and it’s time to mellow out a little. So here’s the aptly titled “Mr. Mellow” by Maynard Ferguson. It’s from his 1977 album Conquistador, and it’s today’s very late Saturday Single. See you next week!
The Texas Gal and I were killing time between television shows the other night. She played a game on her laptop while I read a copy of Rolling Stone as the Seventies channel on the TV provided the soundtrack. There was a flourish of drums followed by a ringing piano introduction, and Barbra Streisand sang:
I was born from love and my poor mother worked the mines I was raised on the good book Jesus Till I read between the lines Now I don’t believe I wanna see the morning
And as I listened to Streisand deliver “Stoney End,” one of Laura Nyro’s (perhaps) less cryptic songs, I wondered who played piano on the track, as the piano intro and the later piano fills are two of the things that make me like the record more than I like a lot of Streisand’s work. So when the song ended, I went to the stacks to check out the Stoney End album jacket, but it turns out I don’t have the vinyl of the 1971 album. All I have is a digital copy scavenged from somewhere, and the album credits I find online list several keyboard players, so I don’t know who to thank for that chiming intro on “Stoney End.”
At that point, this post could have gone several different ways. I could assess Streisand’s work in detail, but I gave a brief assessment of my reaction to her work in a 2010 post about a drive-in movie date gone wrong, and nothing has changed my view that Streisand’s career went off the rails – artistically, at least – in 1977 with the ego-trip film A Star Is Born. (The Texas Gal dates the artistic derailment a bit later, with the 1983 release of Yentl. We both agree that early in her career – the 1960s – Streisand was a great interpreter of songs from Broadway and the Great American Songbook.)
And I didn’t really want to turn my interest in Streisand’s “Stoney End” into a post on the late Laura Nyro’s music. You’ve heard folks say about Bob Dylan, “A great songwriter, but man, I cannot stand to listen to him sing,” right? I feel a little bit like that about Laura Nyro: I love her songs, as inscrutable as they may sometimes be, but on too many of her recordings, she sounds shrill to me, so even though I have a little of her work around, I rarely listen to it. Happily enough for today’s exercise, Nyro’s take on “Stoney End” – found on the 1967 album More Than A New Discovery – is one of her better performances, and I quite like it.
So, with both of those versions of “Stoney End” echoing in my ears, I wondered about other versions of the song. And in the past few days, I’ve found nine other covers of the Nyro song, almost all of them jammed between the years 1967 – when Nyro released her version – and 1972, when Bert Kaempfert released, on his album 6 Plus 6, the only easy listening version of the tune I’ve found. (Maynard Ferguson also released an instrumental version of the tune, his coming on his self-titled 1971 album, but being a typically bold and brassy Maynard Ferguson track, one can’t classify it as easy listening.)
From what I find online, the first to cover “Stoney End” were the Blossoms, an R&B backing group with a massive list of credits but perhaps best known for having Darlene Love as one of its members and for being the actual performers on a couple of Phil Spector productions that were credited to the Crystals. The Blossoms recorded “Stoney End” in 1967 for the Ode label. Sharp-eared listeners will note that Love did not take the lead vocal; one of the comments at YouTube notes that in her autobiography (My Name Is Love), Love wrote, “Some of the chorus parts were too high for me, so Jean [Thomas] took the lead.”
Actress and singer Peggy Lipton – whose musical career I examined in a post last summer – recorded the tune in 1968, also for the Ode label, and one doesn’t need to have very sharp ears at all to realize that producer Lou Adler laid Lipton’s vocals over pretty much the same backing track as he’d put together for the Blossoms a year earlier. Lipton’s single release of “Stoney End” was the first one to tickle the Billboard charts, bubbling under the Hot 100 at No. 121. (Streisand’s 1970 single release is the only other version of the song to chart; it went to No. 6 on the Hot 100 and to No. 2 on what was then called the Easy Listening chart.)
A few more covers came along as the 1960s waned and the 1970s dawned: Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys recorded the song for their 1968 album Linda Ronstadt, The Stone Poneys & Friends, Vol. III, Diana Ross recorded the song during the sessions for her self-titled 1970 album, but the track didn’t see the light until 2002, when it showed up as a bonus track, and jazz singer Selena Jones laid down her take on the tune on her 1971 album, Platinum.
And a couple of singers in recent years have recorded the song for tribute albums: Beth Nielsen Chapman added her idiosyncratic take on “Stoney End” to the multi-artist album Time And Love – The Music Of Laura Nyro in 1997, and Broadway singer Judy Kuhn included “Stoney End” on her own tribute album, Serious Playground – The Songs of Laura Nyro, released in 2007.
Of the covers noted in those last two paragraphs, only one stands out to me: The 1968 version by Linda Ronstadt & The Stone Poneys. (And many thanks to reader and pal Yah Shure for providing the mp3 to make the video below.)
Whiling away an hour the other evening, the Texas Gal and I sat in the living room with the television playing one of the forty or so available music channels. We listen to maybe ten of them, including adult alternative, current country, classic country, blues and the Seventies. We’d chosen the latter on that recent evening, as the Texas Gal puttered on her laptop and I made my way through Catching Fire, the second volume of the Hunger Games trilogy.
Then from the speakers came the first strains of Peter Nero’s version of the “Theme from ‘Summer of ’42’,” and I looked up from my book and looked back at a summer day in 1971. I wrote here once – in a post that has not yet found its way into the archive site – that on a rainy day during that summer, my workmates and I were told to remove from boxes about two hundred new file cabinets intended for use in St. Cloud State’s new Education Building. That is true.
I also wrote that we had a radio playing as we tore open boxes and set up file cabinets, and that, too is true. But I wrote that we heard on the radio the Peter Nero version of “Theme from ‘Summer of ’42’.” And that was probably not true. Nero’s single first reached the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1971, eventually peaking at No. 21 in December. (It went to No. 6 on the Adult Contemporary chart.) So it’s extremely unlikely that we heard it that June day in the Education Building, where our radio was almost certainly tuned to the Twin Cities’ KDWB.
But something in my memory links that rainy day of unboxing file cabinets with the theme from The Summer of ’42. I’m still not certain after puzzling over this for a few days, but I think I’d seen the movie the evening before – I know I did see it that summer – and was still playing Michel Legrand’s elegant and melancholy main theme in my head.
I recall thinking as I left the theater that I should find the soundtrack to the film. I never did. I bought two records that summer: Stephen Stills and the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. And the soundtrack to The Summer of ’42 fell from my memory. I might have thought of it finding it when Nero’s version of the theme hit the charts in the latter portions of the year, but that’s doubtful. Although my fondness for mellow instrumentals and movie themes would never go away entirely, my eyes and ears in 1971 were mostly pointed at current and historical pop and rock. I wouldn’t buy an album that didn’t fit into those categories until late 1975, when I picked up a Duke Ellington anthology. And, as I said above, I never did buy Legrand’s soundtrack. (I did get Nero’s Summer of ’42 LP in 1992; I doubt it’s been on the turntable more than once.)
I went looking today, and learned – unsurprisingly – that the album is out of print. What did surprise me is that the price for a used copy of the CD can range from about $35 to more than $180. I also learned at Amazon that the album sold as the soundtrack to The Summer of ’42 isn’t really the soundtrack at all. Two customer reviews at Amazon point out that only two of the tracks on the album come from The Summer of ’42: The main theme in the video above and the end titles music. The commenters said that the remaining ten tracks on the CD come from Legrand’s soundtrack for a 1969 film, Picasso Summer. Given that and the price, I likely won’t bother with the CD.
Whether I have the CD or not, Legrand’s theme – also titled “The Summer Knows” after the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman – remains a beautiful piece of music, and hearing Nero’s version the other day not only spurred me to look for the soundtrack, but it made me wonder about other covers. Most of the names that pop up are not too surprising: Frank Sinatra, Jessye Norman, Barbra Streisand, Nana Mouskouri, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Vicki Carr, Mantovani, Henry Mancini. Some are unknown to me: Yuri Sazonoff, Bengt Hallberg and Arne Domnérus, Ali Ryerson and more. And Legrand did his own cover version on what seems to be a solo piano album, Michel Legrand by Michel Legrand, which came out in 2002. The most recent covers seem to be those from 2011 by singer Melissa Errico and jazz duo Roger Davidson & David Finck.
A couple of the covers were more interesting than most. An Indian-British producer by the name of Biddu Appaiah – he produced Carl Douglas’ 1974 hit “Kung Fu Fighting” – discofied Legrand’s tune in 1975 and released it under the name of the Biddu Orchestra. The record went to No. 14 in the U.K. and to No. 57 on this side of the pond.
And Maynard Ferguson recorded a – for him – fairly subdued version of the theme for his 1972 album MF Horn, Vol. 2. The LP went to No. 6 on the Jazz Albums chart.
As to which cover I prefer, I should note that I’ve not heard many of them in full. As I did some wandering around this morning, I was prepared to like Frank Sinatra’s cover, but I found it kind of lifeless. Legrand’s 2002 cover is a bit too ornate for the simplicity of the melody, with flourishes and runs that remind me of the piano style of the late Roger Williams (who released his own cover of Legrand’s theme in 1971). None of the covers I heard this morning really knock me out. But I do like Ferguson’s take on the tune.
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 
“Suavecito” by Malo, Warner Bros. 7559 
“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, MCA 40258 
“Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac from Fleetwood Mac 
“Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)” by Maynard Ferguson, Columbia 10468 
“Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn 
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.