Posts Tagged ‘Seals & Crofts’

‘Thumb’

Friday, November 25th, 2016

We keep too much food in our freezer in the basement, and it’s not well organized. When we pull out, say, a bag of frozen corn, we have to be careful that we don’t have a bratwurst or a chicken breast avalanche. So Wednesday evening, when I had to dig into the back recesses of the freezer for a large tub of turkey stock, it became an adventure.

I found the turkey stock without moving too many things around. But because of their size and shape, two items were hard to replace in the freezer: a rack of pork ribs and a frozen pizza. As tried to find a place for the ribs, something else came sliding along the shelf toward me, and I thrust my left hand forward to stop it.

And I caught my thumbnail on something, either the edge of a hard frozen box or the end of the one of the metal rods that make up the shelf. The thumbnail cracked at the top of its arc and the right-hand portion of the nail bent backwards, tearing off of the quick for maybe a quarter of an inch. As cold as my thumb was at the moment, it didn’t hurt much and it didn’t bleed much, so I finished reorganizing the freezer and headed upstairs, where I expected the warmth to bring blood and pain.

And that was the case. Eventually, I got a Band-Aid over the thumb, and also eventually, the bleeding and most of the pain stopped. I kept the bandage on overnight and then went through the day yesterday without a bandage on it, as I will do today. But the thumb isn’t of much use right now, and when I forget and try to do something simple that requires pressure from that thumb, well, I change plans pretty quickly.

Even typing seems to go slowly. Even though my left thumb does no work at the keyboard, I have to be careful not to bump it, and that makes the work more halting than normal. (My typing style is idiosyncratic. Letter keys are the province of the forefingers and middle fingers alone. I shift only with my left pinky and space only with my right thumb; the ring fingers and the right pinky – like the left thumb – are just along for the ride.) So we won’t spend a lot of time here right now, and we’ll be skipping tomorrow’s Saturday Single, too. (I’d planned to get up early and get something done before we head out to our delayed celebration, but that’s not going to happen now.)

So we’re going to look for thumb music this morning. A search for the word in the RealPlayer brings us forty-five tracks. Some of them get dismissed early, like a 1976 album by Michael Dinner titled Tom Thumb the Dreamer. It’s a singer-songwriter thing, and seems to be a decent piece, based on a quick listen to a few tracks this morning. I have no idea how it came to be in the files.

We’ll also dismiss anything on the Blue Thumb label, which takes care of one Ike & Tina Turner single, two Pointer Sisters singles, and the Pointers’ 1975 album, Steppin’. And we also drop a version of “Witchi Tai To” by a performer using the name of Tom Thumb.

That leaves twenty-seven tracks, with that total made up almost entirely of versions of three tunes: Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” and “Ridin’ Thumb,” a tune originally recorded by Seals & Crofts. The one outlier is a Jackie Lomax track, “Thumbin’ A Ride.”

The original version of “Ridin’ Thumb” isn’t in the stacks, but we have versions from King Curtis (1971), Three Dog Night (1973) and It’s A Beautiful Day (also 1973). King Curtis also supplies us with a track called “Ridin’ Thumb Jam” (also 1971).

Intrigued by those tracks, I decided to go find the original version by Seals & Crofts. It was on the duo’s second album, Down Home, released in 1970 on the T-A label. There was also a single release, but it didn’t make the charts. And we’ll see you next week.

Saturday Single No. 485

Saturday, February 20th, 2016

As readers know, I like to find categories to classify records that are, well, different, as I did with Floyd’s Prism and March of the Integers. (In those cases, I found titles that mentioned the colors of the visible spectrum and the numerals one through ten, respectively.) And I’ve been pondering some similar categories.

Why do I do this? Well, several reasons.

First, it’s a way to dig into my ridiculously large library of mp3s and find tracks I’ve heard either not often or not at all. Using the Billboard charts or the vagaries of memory, both of which I do frequently, only opens up a portion of the works on the digital shelves, with many of those tracks very familiar. Second, it’s a bit whimsical, I think, and I like whimsy. Third, it keeps Odd and Pop busy indexing tunes.

There are probably other reasons, but those will do for now.

That little bit of explanation comes as an introduction of a coming attraction: Follow the Directions, in which I’ll sort through tracks that have in their titles the four main directions of the compass and, if we’re very fortunate, the four main combinations – northwest, southwest and so on. ( I had pondered Playing With Prepositions, but I’d be tempted to use the Yardbirds’ “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” more than once.)

Here’s a slight preview, one of my favorite records with “east” in its title, and, just as importantly, a track from Seals & Crofts’ 1972 album Summer Breeze that never fails to put my mind and soul in a better place. A briefer version was released as the B-side to the “Summer Breeze” single, but this morning we’re listening to the long version of “East Of Ginger Trees,” today’s Saturday Single.

‘That Don’t Bother Me . . . At All’

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

During my scuffling days in the late 1990s, I twice went without a car for fairly lengthy stretches of time. It wasn’t as bad as it might sound; living in south Minneapolis, I could take the bus downtown to work; I could ride my bicycle to the grocery store on weekends unless the weather was truly raw; and one of the other members of Jake’s band came through Minneapolis on his way to practice, so I generally was able to get to Jake’s each week.

There were, however, some things that were a little tougher to accomplish.

One spring Saturday afternoon, I sat down in my easy chair with a sandwich and leaned over to turn on the television, probably to watch a baseball game. The television, which I’d bought used a couple of years earlier, made a popping noise. I got up to look at the back of the set: I could see little sparks dancing inside, and smoke was starting to seep out. I pulled the plug from the wall, and in a brief time, the sparks quit dancing and the smoke dissipated. There’d be no fire in the apartment today. But I knew I wasn’t going to be watching the game, at least not on that set. I finished my sandwich, hauled the dead TV outside to the dumpster and assessed my options.

I could afford another TV, as life was pretty good at the time: I was working at a job that paid fairly well, considering my basic needs (thirty bucks a week at Cheapo’s, as long-time readers might expect, was a basic need along with groceries, cat food, toothpaste and the like). I’d have to buy the TV on a credit card, but I could pay the monthly bill that resulted. And there was a major discount retail store about eight blocks away that would certainly have at least one television I would find both suitable and affordable. The only problem was transport. I was going to get a car fairly soon, buying the older of my dad’s two vehicles for a far-more-than-reasonable price. That was a couple of weeks away, though, and I wanted a television sooner than that. But how would I get it home from the store?

And I thought of the guys down the hall. We weren’t close friends, but I would run into the two college guys several times a week in the hallways. They’d been in my apartment for beverages once – my record collection fascinated them – and I in theirs a couple of times. They knew I didn’t have a vehicle, and they’d told me that anytime I needed a ride somewhere, just knock on their door. And I looked at my empty TV stand and decided it was time to do just that.

Forty minutes later, the three of us were hauling a boxed television up to my third-floor apartment. We got it in without either of the two cats heading out the door, and we sat for a few moments sipping cold drinks, catching our breaths. Then one of the two guys waved at my record collection and said to the other, “He’d probably know what that song was.” The other fellow nodded, and they told me that the previous evening, listening to a radio station they’d come on by accident, they’d heard a strange but very absorbing song. “It sounded a little like a country song, but it wasn’t a country station,” one of the guys said. “It was like a classic rock station.”

“And the chorus was about two hangmen,” said the other guy. “It was kind of creepy.”

I held up a hand and went to the shelves, and in moments I’d pulled out the album Wanted! Mason Proffitt. I cued up the first track on side two, and the sound of two guitars picking through an introduction came out of the speakers. They listened, and then the narrator began the story:

As I rode into Tombstone on my horse – his name was Mack –
I saw what I’ll relate to you going on behind my back.
It seems the folks were up in arms; a man now had to die
For believin’ things that didn’t fit the laws they’d set aside.

“That’s it,” said one of the guys as I handed him the album jacket. They pored over the notes inside for a few moments as the song continued, and a few minutes later, when group founders John and Terry Talbot and the rest of Mason Proffit got to the chorus, the two college guys raised their heads and stared at the stereo:

And now we’re two hangmen hangin’ from a tree.
That don’t bother me . . .
At all.

The chorus went on and on, over and over, above a busy and increasingly loud and dissonant background of voices singing and talking, with some strings sneaking in during the final minute to sweeten the deal. When the song was over, the two guys finished their drinks, one saying to the other, “Man, we have to see if we can find that on CD.” I thanked them again for their help and they headed down the hall toward their apartment.

I let the record play on as I got busy unpacking the new television. And as I did, I thought about “Two Hangmen,” which is undoubtedly the centerpiece of that first album by Mason Proffit. It seemed like anytime anyone heard it for the first time – and I’d included it several times in mixtapes for younger friends who had no memory of 1969 – the song stunned them. I’d heard friends in radio say that anytime they aired the song, the phone lines went crazy with listeners calling in to find out what the hell that song was.

Beyond being a great record, “Two Hangmen” – released as a single on the small Happy Tiger label to no chart success at all, as far as I can find – and the rest of that debut album seemingly served as an announcement by the Talbot brothers et al. that their band was ready to go. With a combination of rock and country that made the band, according to All-Music Guide, “among the first to combine the energy and instrumentation of rock with the subject matter and twang of country,” Mason Proffit released Wanted! Mason Proffitt in 1969. Musically and lyrically, it was a polished and compelling effort. But the album went nowhere, not even reaching the lower portions of the Billboard 200.

Its follow-up, Movin’ Toward Happiness, did get to No. 177 in 1971, and a third album, Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, went to No. 186 in 1972. While neither of those two records had anything quite as arresting as “Two Hangmen,” they were good records as well. The problem for Mason Proffit, it seemed, was their labels: The first two records were released on the small Happy Tiger label, which was in existence from 1969 to 1971 with what seems an odd roster of talent, according to Wikipedia: Mason Proffit; the group Them; country guitarist Red Rhodes; Priscilla Paris (one-third of the Paris Sisters, who went to No. 5 in 1961 with “I Love How You Love Me”); singer-songwriter Paul Kelly; the Anita Kerr Singers; and an aging Count Basie. After two albums on Happy Tiger, Mason Proffit’s third album came out on another small label, Ampex, which was in existence from 1970 to about 1973.

The band’s chance to move up came in 1972 when Warner Bros. signed the band and released the group’s fourth album, Rockfish Crossing. But the record failed to make the charts, and despite the band’s touring with the Grateful Dead, the group’s fifth album, Bareback Rider, only got to No. 198 on the Billboard 200. That’s when Mason Proffit called it a day.

The Talbot brothers moved toward Christian pop and released the countryish album The Talbot Brothers in 1974; in years to come, John Michael Talbot became one of the best-selling artists in the Contemporary Christian genre, leaving country rock behind him and leaving for the fans of obscure artists one great song:

Mason Proffit – “Two Hangmen” from Wanted! Mason Proffit [1969]

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 29
“Two Hangmen” by Mason Proffit from Wanted! [1969]
“Overture from ‘Tommy’” by the Assembled Multitude, Atlantic 2737 [1970]
“Summer Breeze” by Seals & Crofts, Warner Bros. 7606 [1972]
“Can’t You See” by the Marshall Tucker Band from Marshall Tucker Band [1973]
“Upper Mississippi Shakedown” by the Lamont Cranston Band from Shakedown [1981]
“Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen from The Future [1992]

The Assembled Multitude was a collection of studio musicians assembled in Philadelphia by producer Tom Sellers. The group recorded an album of mostly covers – “Ohio,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “MacArthur Park” and “Woodstock” among them – and was likely surprised to find itself with a hit. The group’s cover of the overture to Tommy, the rock opera by the Who, went to No. 16 in the late summer of 1970. I love the French horns.

I’m not sure exactly when Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze” was actually released, but it seems that in most markets – according to the Airheads Radio Survey Archive – it got its airplay in the autumn of 1972. (A survey from KLZ-FM in Denver – evidently an album-rock station more than anything—lists the song as a “Featured” record in the third week of July; I don’t know if the jocks there were playing the single or the album track, but I’m inclined to guess the latter.) The point of that is that because of the lyric, I tend to think of “Summer Breeze” as a record from the summer of 1972, not the autumn. (I doubt that I’m alone in that seasonal displacement.) But autumn it was, with the record reaching the Billboard Top 40 on October 21 and peaking at No. 6 for two weeks in late November and early December. Still, the record’s sound – melody, lyrics and that brilliant instrumental hook that frames the verses – was a perfect summation of how good domestic life could be in a summer with the right person.

Even though it’s often lumped in with the southern rock bands of the early 1970s, the Marshall Tucker Band wasn’t quite, to my ears, southern rock. I always thought the band had more country leanings than anything else, and the occasional imaginative instrumentation – like the flute that opens “Can’t You See” – set the band apart from its brethren at Capricorn Records. And that makes “Can’t You See” a great country song, albeit one done by a group that could rock out when the material required it. The version I’m linking to here is the album track from the group’s self-titled 1973 debut; the edit released as a single by Capricorn went to No. 75 in the early autumn of 1977.

The bluesy rock of the Lamont Cranston Band has delighted music fans in the Upper Midwest – and perhaps elsewhere; I’m not sure – since the mid-1970s. And the band continues on: This weekend finds the Lamont Cranston Band with three gigs in Duluth, Minnesota, working the Bayfront Blues Festival on Friday afternoon and closing Grandma’s Sports Garden both Friday and Saturday night. Down here in St. Cloud, the boogie of the “Upper Mississippi Shakedown” continues to be the anthem of the St. Cloud River Bats of the Northwoods League (a league for college players). And there was no way I could leave it out of the Ultimate Jukebox.

With the gently swinging, string-sawing melody and arrangement of “Closing Time,” Leonard Cohen found a perfect musical setting for the acerbic cynicism of his lyrics: The song reads like a surreal tale from a tavern we hope we never find because there would be nothing but disbelief and disappointment for us throughout the evening. And if we truly belong in Cohen’s universe – for this tune and, I tend to think, for many of his others, as well – we’d all be disappointed if we weren’t disappointed by the end of the evening. Still, “Closing Time” is an infectious piece of music and lyrics that grabs hold with a quick touch on the drums and that first sweep of the bow across the strings.

(Attribution added since post was first published.)

Of ‘Miracles’ and Miracles

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Five of the six songs in this week’s installment of the Ultimate Jukebox take me places, which is probably not a surprise, as those five fall temporally into what I imagine could be called my “sweet spot,” after the place on a baseball player’s bat that makes the ball soar. My sweet spot is the years 1970 through 1975, a time when music was just about the most important thing in my life. And if there were events and people that were more important during those years, then their passages through my life were marked by records.

The sixth record in this set, which is actually the oldest, has no real time or place associations for me, as it came out when I was five years old and I didn’t hear it until I was much older than that. It’s a great record, or it wouldn’t be here, but my connection to it is less visceral.

What intrigued me about the other five records when I first looked at the random selection for this week was that, even though they do come from a relatively brief span of time, hearing them now puts me in five different places. One of them puts me in the shelter of my bedroom, listening to my old RCA radio on an early spring day. Another puts me in one of the trap houses at the gun club that I mentioned in my most recent post, with the same RCA radio keeping me company as I earn part of my sixty dollars.

By the time the third of the five records in question was released, I’d just started my second year of college, and the tune places me in Atwood Center, which is a little odd, as I didn’t start spending a lot of time there until a bit later than that. And then the fourth record drops me down in one of the strangest places any record puts me: It’s a sticky summer evening, and I’m with Rick and our occasional pal Gary, standing in line at the Dairy Queen. (There are in fact, two records that put me in that moment, and I can only assume that we heard them from a radio or from speakers in the ceiling as we waited in line; the other Dairy Queen record did not make it into the Ultimate Jukebox.)

In a little bit, I’ll untangle any mysteries about which of those four records puts me where. But before I do, I’ll look at the fifth of those records, which is probably the most powerful in its association with its time. The very first, almost tentative strains of Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” whirl me back to the autumn of 1975, a season I’ve written about many times before. The place is the tree-lined wide sidewalk between Centennial Hall and Stewart Hall on the campus of St. Cloud State. I’m heading from Centennial, where I work at the periodicals counter, to Stewart, where the mass communications department has its offices and where most of my classes take place. To my immediate left is Atwood Center, where my friends and I gather at The Table.

It must be October, as the leaves on the trees are yellow. (That makes sense, as the single – an edit of the album track – entered the Top 40 in late September and hung around for thirteen weeks, peaking at No. 3.) And I’m thinking as I walk – and as I did numerous times during that autumn – that miracles do happen. I was alive, I had good friends and I liked my classes. I hadn’t yet found the romantic miracle that Marty Balin was singing about, but in time, I hoped, that would come. For the moment, I was thriving, and that was miracle enough.

There are plenty of passionate listeners and critics who over the years have derided Grace Slick, Marty Balin and company for selling out at one time or another in pursuit of hit records. Did that happen with Red Octopus in 1975? Or later, with Earth or Nuclear Furniture? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I liked the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers, and I didn’t care much for some of the rest of the Airplane’s catalog. I liked Red Octopus and didn’t care much for a lot of the stuff that followed (though for sentimental reasons, “Sara” from 1986 can tug at me).

So what does all that have to do with the price of cookies in Tonga? I’m not entirely sure, but I think what I’m nibbling at is the weight of expectations and demand that a storied past can put on performers.  No, Red Octopus did not sound like Surrealistic Pillow, but then, 1975 did not sound like, or feel like, 1967. I do think that as Starship, the performers we’re talking about here lost their ways and ended up producing boring records. But the problem to me was that the records were boring, not that the records didn’t sound like 1967 or 1969 or whatever year one might have in mind. And I think that over the years, lots of people have carped at Red Octopus because it didn’t sound like classic Airplane.

Well, how could it? The times had changed, and so had the group. And I think Red Octopus holds up pretty well as an album: There are a couple of clinkers, yes, but there is also a cluster of good tracks and, of course, one genuine miracle.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 24
“Rave On” by Buddy Holly, Coral 61985 [1958]
“Reflections of My Life” by Marmalade, London 20058 [1970]
“Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, Columbia 45154 [1970]
“You’re Still A Young Man” by Tower of Power from Bump City [1972]
“Diamond Girl” by Seals & Crofts from Diamond Girl [1973]
“Miracles” by Jefferson Starship from Red Octopus [1975]

A friend of mine and I once talked about putting together a book and website about the history of rock music using the metaphor of a forest. The story of rock, we thought, would stem from the performers we were calling the Five Big Trees. It was a horribly simplistic idea, and I think I knew that at the time, which may be why the project never went anywhere. To begin, any reasonable forest of rock ’n’ roll would of course have more than five big trees. But one of the things we got right was naming Buddy Holly as one of those big trees. First, the music he released in his tragically short career remains interesting and vital today. It should also be noted that he pretty much invented the idea of a group that not only wrote its own songs but also had a great deal of influence over the production of its records in the studio. “Rave On” was one of Holly’s lesser hits – it went to No. 37 in the summer of 1958 – but to me, it holds all of the virtues of Holly’s music: a good beat, cogent lyrics, a strong melody and that idiosyncratic hiccup:

Marmalade’s “Reflections of My Life” is the song that puts me in my room with my radio. I remember sitting up on my bed reading when these simple and melancholy chords came out of the speaker, followed by drums, a liquid bass line and some of the saddest lyrics I’d ever heard. A Scottish group, Marmalade released albums through the 1970s and on into the ’80s, but until a couple of years ago, I don’t know that I’d ever heard anything by the band but its one hit. “Reflections of My Life” went to No. 10 in the spring of 1970 and, beyond the trigger of memory, still sounds interesting today. (I find it odd that All-Music Guide begins its entry with the statement: “Marmalade is . . . best remembered today for one record, their cover of the Beatles’ ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’.” That’s not the universe I live in; is it that way for anyone else?)

I’ve written about Pacific Gas & Electric’s single “Are You Ready” a couple of times: I noted that hearing it in my bunker was one of the indelible memories of working at the trap shoot in 1970, and I detailed the difficulty of finding the short version of the song, which was evidently issued only as a disk jockey release. (Thanks again, Yah Shure!) The long version was interesting the first couple of times I heard it, but it just doesn’t do anything for me anymore.  The short version, the one I heard coming out of my radio, still kicks:

The horn section for Tower of Power is renowned not only for its work on the group’s albums but also for its session and guest work. And it’s always amazing when listening to Tower of Power’s work to hear how well that horn section is integrated into an R&B/funk context. (My first hearing of that integration sometime in the early 1970s wouldn’t have been such a surprise, of course, if I’d ever really listened to James Brown.) I’m not sure that “You’re Still A Young Man” contains the best work that the TOP horns ever did, but the song’s opening cascade of horns is to me one of the classic moments in the group’s history. The record earned TOP the first of its three hits, going to No. 29 in the late summer of 1972. And all I can figure is that I heard the record at least once on the jukebox at Atwood Center, because when those horns start their intro, there I am.

James Seals and Dash Crofts first hit the charts in 1972, after fourteen years of playing together either in bands or as a duo. And for a time, the duo was so successful that it’s hard to say whether their sound fit the times or whether it in some ways defined the times. I know that for several years back then, every nightspot I went to that offered live music regularly booked singer-songwriter duos with guitars and tight harmonies. And Seals & Crofts’ early hits were – and still are – great records: melodic, with great hooks and good lyrics (though those lyrics could get over-wrought; the best example might be “Hummingbird”). Two of their singles will show up in this project; today’s selection, “Diamond Girl,” is the record that puts me in line at the Dairy Queen during the summer of 1973, waiting for a frozen treat and preparing to leave home. Whatever the reason for the song staying with me, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The single – an edit of the album track – went to No. 6 that summer.