Posts Tagged ‘Nina Simone’

‘It Was Rainin’ From The First . . .’

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

That video is what it sounded like the first time I heard “Just Like A Woman,” the last of the five songs Bob Dylan performed at the Concert for Bangla Desh during the summer of 1971. I wasn’t particularly blown away by Dylan’s performance as I sat and listened in our rec room not long after receiving the three-LP set for Christmas 1971. But I was far more interested in Dylan’s music that I ever had been, and during early 1972, I began exploring that music in greater detail.

Over the years, that’s meant digging in detail into many of Dylan’s tunes, comparing versions from one era to another, weighing the meanings in lyrics, pondering plugged vs. unplugged takes. But it struck me this morning that I’ve never spent much time thinking about “Just Like A Woman.” In fact, I think the only time I’ve ever really focused much on the song was when I was sitting at a piano trying to fake the song’s chords during a long-ago drunken sing-along somewhere in the suburbs of Copenhagen.

(The set list from that Carlsberg-fueled sing-along was remarkable in its diversity, as I think about it, including “Walk On By,” “Layla,” “Colour My World,” “Delta Lady,” “Without You,” “Fire and Rain” and – I vaguely recall – “I Am The Walrus.”)

As with many other Dylan songs, however, I have collected other versions of “Just Like A Woman” along the way, and I got to wondering this morning about those versions and other covers of the song. The fairly reliable website Second Hand Songs lists forty-two cover versions in English, and there are a few additional covers listed at Amazon. (The same likely holds true for iTunes, which I did not check.)

The first to cover “Just Like A Woman” seems to have been Manfred Mann, shortly after Dylan released the original version of the song on Blonde on Blonde. (Sadly, the two videos of the Mann single at YouTube are truncated.) The album was released in May 1966, and the Manfred Mann cover of the song spent six weeks bubbling under the Billboard Hot 100 in August and September of that year. Dylan’s single of the song entered the Hot 100 at No. 81 in mid-September and peaked a few weeks later at No. 33. Those are the only two versions of the song to make the pop chart.

Pop chart presence aside, “Just Like A Woman” seems to be one of those songs that will always attract singers. More than half of the covers listed at Second Hand Songs have been recorded since 2001, and there are only two significant gaps in the timeline since Dylan first recorded the song: a ten-year gap between the cover by Rick Nelson with the Stone Canyon Band in 1971 and Rod Stewart’s cover in 1981, followed by a seven-year gap to the version by Brazilian artist Celso Blues Boy in 1988. The most recent cover listed is one by Carly Simon that was included earlier this year on Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan – Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International (an album that is high on my want list).

There are other versions that seem to be notable: “Just Like A Woman” was one of ten tunes selected by a group calling itself the Brothers & Sisters of Los Angeles for a 1969 album titled Dylan’s Gospel. (The webpage that listed the musicians involved seems to have disappeared in the past five years, but I do recall that among the singers on the project were Merry Clayton and Clydie King.)

Among the versions I’ve not yet heard – but probably should – are those from the Byrds in 1990, Judy Collins in 1993, Jeff Buckley in 2003 and Bill Medley in 2007. I have heard and liked the covers by Steve Howe from 1999 and John Gorka from 2011. And my favorite covers are those by Richie Havens from 1967, by Nina Simone from 1971 and by Jamaican performer Beres Hammond from 2004.

But perhaps the most interesting version I found this morning was the cover by the Brazilian group The Smeke. I don’t know when it was recorded, but the recording was posted at YouTube in March 2010. The video uses footage of Edie Sedgwick, the 1960s actress, model, socialite and heiress whose involvement with Dylan has been the subject of rumor and legend for more than forty years. (Here’s the take on those tales from Wikipedia.)

Nina Simone: Eclectic (And Eccentric)

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Nina Simone has never been a large presence in my listening life. A little more than a year ago, I wrote:

“Nina Simone’s eclectic – and from this chair, eccentric – approach to her jazz stylings must have left producers, promotion men and the listening public wondering what the heck she was going to do next. Every time I listen to Simone’s work, I hear something I’ve not expected to hear. That’s fine with me; for the most part, I like listening challenges. But it must have been difficult for those aforementioned producers and promotion men to dent the charts.”

That was the third time I’d mentioned Simone, who was born Eunice Waymon in South Carolina in 1933 and passed on in 2003. In that case, I shared Simone’s 1965 cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” a performance I liked a lot. The earlier two mentions, however, had been in connection with covers versions of tunes I was writing about. In neither case did I go find Simone’s version of those songs.

But I did some poking into Simone’s catalog this morning. I’m still not sure what I think, but a couple of thing jumped out at me.

First of all, here are the covers I didn’t go find from those first mentions: Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” from her 1969 Album To Love Somebody and the 5 Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” from 1971’s Here Comes the Sun. I think the Dylan cover works, but “O-o-h Child” is a little bit lacking. I get a sense that Simone’s heightened self-awareness didn’t always mesh well with standard love songs although it seemed to work with Dylan’s cryptic obscurity.

One love song that worked well for Simone was “I Loves You, Porgy,” from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess. Singing as Bess, Simone begs Porgy to protect her when the man named Crown comes to take her away:

I love you, Porgy.
Don’t let him take me,
Don’t let him handle me
And drive me mad
If you can keep me,
I wanna stay here with you forever,
And I’ll be glad.

Yes, I love you, Porgy.
Don’t let him take me.
Don’t let him handle me
With his hot hands.
If you can keep me,
I wants to stay here with you forever.
I’ve got my man.

The performance came from Simone’s 1958 album Little Girl Blue and was released as a single on the Bethlehem label. It went to No. 18 on the pop chart and No. 2 on the R&B chart, by far the most successful single in Simone’s career. Her next best performance on either chart was with 1969’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” which went to No. 76 on the pop chart and to No. 8 on the R&B chart.

But Simone’s most astounding performance might have been a composition about racism written in 1963 when the civil rights movement in the American south was reaching its peak. The tune showed up on her 1964 release, Nina Simone in Concert, and we’ll let Ms. Simone have the last word today with “Mississippi Goddam.”

Chart Digging: July 24, 1965

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Sometimes plans just kind of wither away, leaving empty spots in, well, in the blog. I had a topic for this morning on which I planned to muse for a while and then link to music, as I often try to do, but that topic has proved less hardy than an ice cube on the sidewalk.

But I still have the Billboard Hot 100 from July 24, 1965, the summer of preparation that I mentioned yesterday. So let’s look at the summer music that was entertaining the hipper kids I’d encounter that autumn at South Junior High as I listened to Al Hirt play “Malibu” and pondered the changes to come.

The Top Ten for this week forty-six years ago was:

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones
“I’m Henry The VII, I Am” by Herman’s Hermits
“I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops
“What’s New Pussycat” by Tom Jones
“Cara, Mia” by Jay & The Americans
“Yes, I’m Ready” by Barbara Mason
“What The World Needs Now Is Love” by Jackie DeShannon
“Seventh Son” by Johnny Rivers
“Mr. Tambourine Man” by the Byrds
“You Turn Me On (Turn On Song)” by Ian Whitcomb & Bluesville

I’m a little chagrined to realize that the first title out of those ten that I’d ever own would be “I’ve Henry the VIII, I Am,” which was the featured title on a Herman’s Hermits album my sister would give me for my birthday in early September of 1965. If it had been my choice, based on my memories of an about-to-be-twelve whiteray, I think I would have selected an album by the Byrds, whose sonic attack interested me. Either that, or something by Tom Jones, whose bombast intrigued me.

Overall, that’s a good slice of listening. Eight of those ten would be tolerable coming from the radio speakers. I’ve never cared for “Cara, Mia” or for much else by Jay & the Americans except 1969’s “Walkin’ In The Rain.” (And that record’s attractions paled once I heard the Ronettes’ original.) The Whitcomb record is a goof but not one I enjoy.

So what do we find as we leave the Top Ten and the Top 40 and begin digging a little bit lower in that chart of July 24, 1965?

The first thing that catches my eye is a bit of down-home soul. Little Milton – born James Milton Campbell in Inverness, Mississippi, in 1934 – had reached the Top 40 earlier in 1965 with “We’re Gonna Make It,” which went to No. 25; on the R&B chart, it was No. 1 for three weeks. “Who’s Cheating Who” (the clip is from a television performance with Little Milton lip-synching) was his follow-up, and during the week in question, it was at No 49 and was on its way down the chart after peaking at No. 43; it went to No. 4 on the R&B chart. Although he had six more records reach the Hot 100 into 1972 (and four that bubbled under), Little Milton would never reach the Top 40 again. On the R&B chart, as might be expected, he remained vital, notching Top 40 singles into 1976, with six of his twenty-one charting singles reaching the Top Ten.

From there, we drop a long way in the Hot 100, down to No. 73, where “Candy” by the Astors was moving up the chart. The Astors were an R&B vocal group from Memphis, and “Candy” was their only charting single, peaking at No. 63. As happened with Little Milton (and so many more R&B acts), the Astors did appreciably better on the R&B chart, with “Candy” reaching the Top 20 and peaking at No. 12. In The Billboard Book of Top 40 R&B and Hip-Hop Hits, Joel Whitburn notes that “Candy” was based on the On The Trail movement of the Grand Canyon Suite, a 1931 piece by American composer Ferdie Grofé. The words to “Candy,” on the other hand, were written by Isaac Hayes.

Moving to No. 82, we find a cover of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” from Gloria Lynne, whom Whitburn calls a “jazz-style vocalist.” Born in Harlem in 1931, Lynne had nine records in the Hot 100 or in the Bubbling Under section between 1961 and 1965. Of those, “Only Love” would be the only record to reach the Top 40, peaking at No. 25. (“Only Love,” which Whitburn notes was a French tune from 1946 with English lyrics added in 1955, reached No. 3 on the R&B chart.) “Watermelon Man” would be Lynne’s last charting record, eventually peaking at No. 62 on the pop chart and at No. 8 on the R&B chart.

Earlier in 1965, the Sir Douglas Quintet had a No. 13 hit with “She’s About A Mover.” That summer, “The Tracker” was the follow-up, and on July 24, it was sitting at No. 118 in the Bubbling Under section of the Billboard Hot 100. It would peak at No. 105. But the quintet – about which I’m planning to write more tomorrow – would rebound early in 1966 with “The Rains Came,” which went to No. 31, and three years later, after a switch from the Tribe label to Smash, the group would have its largest hit with “Mendocino,” which went to No. 27. But all that was yet to come. In the summer of 1965, the Sir Douglas Quintet was trying to get “The Tracker” up the charts, and they “performed” their new record on the July 21, 1965, episode of the TV show Shindig. Here – clipped a little at both ends – is that “performance.”

Nina Simone’s eclectic – and from this chair, eccentric – approach to her jazz stylings must have left producers, promotion men and the listening public wondering what the heck she was going to do next. Every time I listen to Simone’s work, I hear something I’ve not expected to hear. That’s fine with me; for the most part, I like listening challenges. But it must have been difficult for those aforementioned producers and promotion men to dent the charts. I don’t know what charts Simone might have done best on; I assume there’s a jazz chart where Simone’s music might have found a home, whatever it was be called. (These days, there is a chart for Smooth Jazz Songs, but I doubt that’s where one would find Simone’s work.) Anyway, Simone’s take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” was sitting at No. 123 in the next-to-last week of July in 1965. It would peak at No. 120, which is unsatisfying; I think it’s a great version of that spooky song. Simone – who was born Eunice Waymon in South Carolina in 1933 and crossed over in 2003 – would end up with ten records in the Hot 100 or Bubbling Under between 1959 and 1969. Her 1959 version of “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy and Bess went to No. 18, by far the best result on the pop chart in her career. (During those same years, five of her records reached the R&B Top 40, with “I Loves You, Porgy” reaching No. 2 for a week in 1959. “I Put A Spell On You” got to No. 23 on the R&B chart.)

Jimmy McCracklin is a blues singer and harmonica player from Helena, Arkansas, a place-name that conjures up musical memories for a lot of folks, me included. Images of Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Levon Helm of The Band immediately come to mind. But as far as I know, I’d never heard of McCracklin until I saw his “Arkansas” – listed by Whitburn as “Arkansas, Part 1” – in the Hot 100 of July 24, 1965. Maybe I should have known of him, as McCracklin’s “The Walk” had gone to No. 7 in early 1958. None of his other releases reached the Top 40; seven of them – including “Arkansas” – reached the Hot 100 or Bubbled Under. On the R&B chart, McCracklin had seven records reach the Top 40: “Just Got To Know” reached No. 2 while “The Walk” went to No. 5. “Arkansas” didn’t hit the R&B chart, and it didn’t stay long on the pop chart. On July 24, 1965, the up-tempo record was at No. 132 in what turned out to be its only week on the chart.

Peak chart position for “She’s About A Mover” corrected after original posting.