Posts Tagged ‘Paul Williams’

Saturday Single No. 461

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Earlier this week, as I wondered what I was listening to during the late summer and early autumn of 1975, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run was released and was in the headlines, I wasn’t sure what station had supplied my radio fix. I thought it might have been WCCO-FM, the sister station to Minnesota’s AM giant; the FM version was playing a format called Adult Album Alternative.

With a bit more thought in the past two days, and some additional collating of memories from the summer and autumn of 1975, I’ve realized I called it correctly: WCCO-FM was my station of choice at home in those days. In the car, where there was no FM radio, I no doubt kept the radio tuned to either KDWB for music or WCCO for sports. But when I was listening at home, and I did so almost every night while reading before going to sleep, it was WCCO-FM.

The memory that assured me I was correct is one that I’ve shared here before: An evening in July, my bedroom windows open to gather what breeze there might be, me on my bed reading, and the radio playing softly, tuned to WCCO-FM. The disk jockey played a portion of an interview with Paul Williams, probably done while the singer was in the Twin Cities for a concert, and the interview segment closes with Williams talking about his song “Waking Up Alone.”

And after that, the deejay cues up Williams’ sorrowful “Waking Up Alone.” I’d never heard the record, and the sad story, the quiet arrangement and, yes, the saxophone solo called to me as I listened. I’ve learned since that “Waking Up Alone” was released as a single in early 1972 and got to No. 60 in the Billboard Hot 100, and as I’ve said many times before, it deserved better.

I jotted the song’s title on a piece of paper so I would remember it in the morning, and the next day, a Friday, I spent a little time at the St. Cloud State library, figuring out what Paul Williams album offered “Waking Up Alone.” It turned out to be the 1971 release Just An Old Fashioned Love Song. And after school, I drove out to Crossroads Mall, where I no doubt checked for the album at Musicland. Not finding it there, I headed to the J.C. Penney store at the other end of the mall, where I found and purchased the record.

As quiet and as forlorn in some ways as the album is – many of the tracks on the album as nearly as sad as “Waking Up Alone” – the album was immediately a favorite. Williams’ stuff sounded like the kind of stuff I was writing at the time, and although I don’t recall purposefully dissecting his songs for craftsmanship as I listened, I have no doubt that if one were to dissect my own songs from over the years, one would find more than a touch of Paul Williams.

Williams wrote all but one track on the album – three of them with Roger Nichols – and I like all of those tracks. But my second-favorite track – we all know the title of my favorite track – is the album’s lone cover, a brief but touching take on Graham Nash’s “Simple Man.” And it’s today’s Saturday Single.

‘I Just Want To Hold You . . .’

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

So what was spinning on the basement stereo forty years ago today, as winter quarter resumed at St. Cloud State?

Almost certainly, Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners, released in 1971, was in heavy rotation. The LP log tells me that I’d picked up the album on January 4, 1975, adding one more piece to the collection of music that I’d heard nearly every day at the hostel in Denmark a year earlier.

The album had some flaws, and I think I knew that from the first few times I’d heard it on the tape player in our lounge in Denmark. Nash’s voice, I thought, didn’t feel strong enough to carry a whole album, and I thought the songwriting was erratic. Some of the songs were good, and others felt like filler put together to ensure enough material for an LP.

But I bought the album anyway, being more interested in how the record made me feel than in what my critical judgment might tell me. A quick check of a 1975 calendar tells me that I brought the record home on a Saturday, and I’m sure it was on the stereo in the basement rec room frequently that weekend.

Another quick look, this one at Pro Football Reference, tells me that there was no NFL football that weekend; I had another week to go before I watched my Minnesota Vikings fall 16-6 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl. So I’m sure I listened to Nash on both Saturday and Sunday. And I no doubt reaffirmed my judgment that the best track on the record was “Simple Man.”

It is, as the lyric promises, a simple song, one that Nash wrote after he and Joni Mitchell parted ways (as is true of many of the other songs on the album). And, to me, the song’s simplicity is what makes it work. (That simplicity also made it easy to determine the chords so I could add the song to my piano repertoire of the time; I’ll likely renew my acquaintance with it soon.)

Later in 1975, I came across a cover of Nash’s tune that I liked maybe a little bit better than Nash’s original version. The cover came from Paul Williams, and it was on his 1971 album Just An Old Fashioned Love Song.

I haven’t listened to Songs For Beginners – as an album – for years. The same goes for Williams’ album. Tracks from the two records pop up on very rare occasion on the RealPlayer, and I don’t skip over them, but “Simple Man” remains the only track from Nash’s album that would really catch my ear these days. The Williams album pulls a bit more weight, with “Simple Man” being one of maybe four tracks that matter to me. (The most affecting track on Williams’ album, long-time readers with good memories might already surmise, is “Waking Up Alone,” which sends a twinge of not unpleasant melancholy through my heart whenever it shows up.)

There aren’t a lot of other covers out there, from what I can tell. After Williams’ cover, the website Second Hand Songs lists three more, and some digging at Amazon and iTunes brought no more. Middle-of-the-road vocalist Jack Jones included a version of the song on his 1973 album Together. It’s not posted at YouTube or available at either of the two retail sites, from what I can tell. (Jones’ cover of “Simple Man” likely wouldn’t be the most interesting track on that album; the closing track is a cover of Carly Simon’s “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.”)

Current day singer-songwriter Denison Witmer included “Simple Man” on Recovered, his 2003 collection of covers of mostly 1970s tunes, and Will Oldham, under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy, recorded a Spanish version – “Simple Man (Hombre Sencillo)” – for his contribution to the 2010 release Be Yourself: A Tribute To Graham Nash’s Songs For Beginners. I like Oldham’s cover a bit more than I do Witmer’s, but both of them somehow seem a little off-kilter to me.

So I’ll stick with the two 1971 versions, and if forced to choose, I’d probably go with Williams’.

What Was At No. 71?

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

It’s just after eight in the morning here on the East Side, and nothing much is moving out there. It’s been snowing on and off – mostly on – since yesterday morning. Officially, we’ve gotten 7.1 inches of snow so far, and odds are we’re going to get another three to four inches. Out in the driveway, the snow is about six inches deep, so neither the Texas Gal nor I are going anywhere for a while.

So with not much else to do except dig around in my collection of Billboard charts (not that I often need an excuse), I thought I’d take our snowfall total, move the decimal point and then take a look at what records were No. 71 on or around March 5 over the years. We’ll start in 1966, because that’s the earliest year I find when the magazine’s Hot 100 was actually issued on March 5. We’ll likely go back a few years from there, and then come this direction for a while.

And the day starts with a little bit of a puzzle: At No. 71 on March 5, 1966, we find the Righteous Brothers’ take on “Georgia On My Mind” making its way back down the chart after peaking at No. 62. The puzzle is that the record was released on the Moonglow label, and by March of 1965, the Righteous Brothers had left Moonglow far behind, joining and then leaving Phil Spector’s Philles label and then recording for Verve. In fact, “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration,” the Verve record that would become the Brothers’ second No. 1 hit (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” went to No. 1 in 1965), entered the Hot 100 the very same week, sitting at No. 90. It seems obvious that the release of “Georgia” was just the latest effort by Moonglow to get a slice of the Righteous pie: Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles shows five charting or near-charting Moonglow singles during the time the Righteous Brothers were recording for Philles. Then came “Georgia,” which was the Brothers’ last charting single on Moonglow. So it’s really not that much of a puzzle, I guess. But it did make me read the fine print a little bit more closely.

I have evidently been able to write more than a thousand posts about popular music without previously mentioning the name of Esther Phillips, also known as Little Esther, which strikes me as odd given my interest in 1960s R&B. Phillips, whose unique voice and delivery I like very much, had fifteen records in or near the Hot 100 between 1962 and 1975, with the first and last of them reaching the Top 40: “Release Me” went to No. 8 in late 1962, and “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes” reached No. 20 in the autumn of 1975. In March of 1963, three years back from today’s starting point, Phillips’ “I Really Don’t Want To Know” was at No. 71, a week after peaking at No. 61. (The linked video also includes the record’s B-side, “Am I That Easy To Forget.”) I should note that during the early 1950s, prior to the years covered by the Billboard Hot 100, Phillips had eight records reach the R&B Top 40, most of them recorded during her association with band leader Johnny Otis.

When we get to the first week of March 1960, we land in traditional pop territory, with Johnny Mathis’ “Starbright” taking up the No. 71 slot of that week’s Hot 100. The record was climbing toward its eventual peak at No. 25 and was the twentieth of an eventual fifty-three records Mathis would place in or near the Hot 100 between 1957 and 1984. That time-span includes, according to Whitburn, No. 1 records separated by more than twenty years. According to Top Pop Hits, “Chances Are” went to No. 1 during a twenty-eight week chart stay that started in September 1957 and lasted into March 1958, and “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” Mathis’ collaboration with Deniece Williams, went to No. 1 in June of 1978. And here is a real puzzle: Whitburn has “Chances Are” going to No. 1 for one week during those twenty-eight weeks, but the week-by-week Billboard charts that I copped from a blog some years ago show “Chances Are” peaking at No. 5, and the record is not listed in Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book of Number One Hits. I’m not sure at all what’s correct there.

Heading back to the other side of our starting point, we land on the chart released March 8, 1969, and find ourselves listening to a song better known, I think, for a later version. “Hello It’s Me” by Todd Rundgren’s early band, the Nazz, was sitting at No. 71 in that 1969 chart. The record would go no higher, nor would it do very well – peaking at No. 66 – when it was rereleased a year later. It’s a good song, but the record seems painfully draggy. Of course, that’s because Rundgren recorded a more up-tempo version of the song and released it under his own name in 1973, when it went to No. 5. But you know, I think I’d find the Nazz version draggy and tedious even if Rundgren had never revisited the song. So we move on.

And in March of 1972, we land on a record at No. 71 that’s showed up here before and will always put a lump in my throat: “Waking Up Alone” by Paul Williams. The record was heading to a peak at No. 60, the best-performing of the three singles Williams placed in or near the Hot 100. Of course, I think it should have done much better, a judgment I’ve held since I first heard the record a little more than three years after its brief stay on the chart. Does it make me think of someone? No, it’s heartbreaking all by itself, which means that Williams succeeded at his craft to a degree that I wish I could match one time in my life. As I wrote here once, the record’s best part on a purely musical level is the saxophone that comes in near the end, “hanging around long enough to take a nice solo and then walk us home.”

Our last stop this morning is March of 1975, and we’re going country: Sitting at No. 71 thirty-eight years ago was “Linda On My Mind” by Conway Twitty. The tale of tangled love and heartache was on its way to No. 61 and was the next-to-last record out of twenty-five that Twitty would place in or near the Hot 100. It did much better on the country chart, of course, being one of forty No. 1 records overall for the Mississippi-born singer, a total that was tied for the most all-time with George Strait in 2006, when my edition of Whitburn’s Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits was compiled. (A glance at Wikipedia this morning shows that Strait has since broken that tie with an additional four No. 1 records on the country chart.)

A Long, Strange Trip Indeed

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Not all that many years ago, as these things can be measured, I met someone while I was working at St. Cloud State. This was years before I had an inkling of the Texas Gal’s existence, and I was trying to fill the empty place. It worked, for a while.

That someone and I spent a brilliant summer together and then a few less-than-brilliant months sliding slowly apart before we realized that what we had found instead of a life-long romance was a lasting friendship, a rare enough commodity itself. That friendship endures today, as do the memories, most of them dear and a few of them not so happy.

Among the most fascinating memories – from this side of the fence, anyway – are the evenings we spent tracing our steps through the separate lives we’d led in the years before. Many times metaphorically and two or three times literally, one of us had left a room bare moments before the other entered. At least twice, we were at the same event among crowds small enough that we could have found the other, had we been aware there was someone to find.

We did many more things that summer than plot our movements over the years, of course, but we lazed into the topic frequently as the records or the radio played in my apartment or hers. And one evening, as the campus radio station provided the soundtrack, we were musing over where we had been and dreaming about where we might go. The strains of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” came from the speakers in the corner.

Then Jerry and the boys got to the tag line: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” And she and I looked at each other and laughed and then nodded, and for the rest of that summer, there were moments when one or the other of us would quote the line in amusement, wonder or resignation.

“Truckin’” was never “our song.” The Dead’s saga of chemical enlightenment, crash pad paranoia and the rest was too, well, too something to be the romantic touchstone that both of us needed “our song” to be that summer. For that purpose, we found a song, and another and another and then more, stacking those tunes in a kind of sweet hierarchy, like a series of 45s stacked on a portable record player. The Grateful Dead’s song, on the other hand, served as a reminder of how remarkable our meeting was and of how close we might have come to not meeting at all.

Months later, aware in sorrow that the long, strange trip would continue as two separate voyages, I tried to reframe the song as a reminder that companions and destinations find us, not the other way around.

This is the version from the 1974 anthology Skeletons from the Closet, and I think it’s the same as the 1970 album track from American Beauty. According to The Grateful Dead Family Discography, an edit of the album track was released in 1971 as a single, Warner Bros. 7464, with an edit of “Ripple” from the same album on the flip side. The same edit of “Truckin’” was also released on singles twice more, first as the B side to a live version of “Johnny B. Goode” in 1972 and then in 1974 as an A side, backed with “Sugar Magnolia.” I have no idea how well the single did in any of those three iterations, except that it did not make it into the Top 40.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 12
“Truckin’” by the Grateful Dead from American Beauty [1970]
“Theme from Shaft” by Isaac Hayes, Enterprise 9038 [1971]
“I’ll Be Long Gone” by Mother Earth from Bring Me Home [1971]
“Waking Up Alone” by Paul Williams from Just An Old Fashioned Love Song [1971]
“Walk On The Wild Side” by Lou Reed, RCA 0887 [1973]
“Second Avenue” by Tim Moore from Tim Moore [1975]

I checked this morning, and this is the only weekly selection from the Ultimate Jukebox that plants itself entirely in the decade of the 1970s. There didn’t have to be one, I suppose, and I imagine there could have been more, but this is the way the random sorting worked itself out.

I know I’ve had some things to say in the past about the Hayes, Williams and Moore selections. Obviously, all three remain favorites, and I’d have to put “Waking Up Alone” and “Second Avenue” high on the list of best post-romance songs ever, the first in the category of “It Happened Long Ago” and the second in the category of “It Happened Recently.” Both still can tug at my heart, but the best moment in the two of them combined has nothing to do with the lyrics or the stories told thereby. It’s the saxophone that comes in late on “Waking Up Alone,” hanging around long enough to take a nice solo and then walk us home. The two sad songs also fall into the category of records that should have been hits.

“Theme from Shaft was a hit, of course, sitting at No. 1 for two weeks in the autumn of 1971. The record earned Hayes an Academy Award, two Grammys and the undying gratitude of anyone who wanted to hear something funky and slinky coming out of their radio speakers.

This is the second time Boz Scaggs’ tune “I’ll Be Long Gone” has shown up in this list: Scaggs’ original version was listed here some time ago. As I was trimming the list of songs in the Ultimate Jukebox, I never could decide which of the two versions I wanted to include, so I kept both of them. The similarity in arrangement bothers me a little, but that’s redeemed by the vocal reading from Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson. (I did trim, with some reluctance, another very good version of the same tune by Cold Blood and Lydia Pense.)

“Walk On The Wild Side,” Lou Reed’s incredibly catchy sketch of transvestite bliss in New York City, always brings me a chuckle. The record went to No. 16 in the late winter and spring of 1973, and I don’t recall hearing it then at all. The next autumn, when I was in Denmark, another American guy and I would spend evenings with my American girlfriend and the Danish girl with whose family my gal was living. We’d lounge on the floor of Ulla’s room, and Ulla would keep the record player spinning with her 45s. Whenever she’d cue up “Walk On The Wild Side,” we three Americans would glance at each other as Ulla sang along, phonetically perfect but linguistically unaware of a good deal of what she was singing about. “A hustle here and a hustle there . . .”