Posts Tagged ‘Stevie Wonder’

Out From The Sun, Part 2

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Having safely crossed the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars, we continue our trek outward from the Sun and approach Jupiter, the largest of the planets. Fittingly, our tune here is one that is related to spaceflight: A search for information about the 1958 instrumental “Jupiter-C” by Pat & The Satellites brings us, among others, a link to Wikipedia, where we learn that Jupiter-C was an American rocket used to test re-entry nosecones during three sub-orbital spaceflights in 1956 and 1957. The rocket, Wikipedia says, was one of those designed by the U.S. Army under the direction of Wernher Von Braun (whom I once met). The record spent four weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at No. 81, and as I check that out in Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, I learn that the studio musicians who recorded “Jupiter-C” included the great King Curtis, whose sax is front and center for much of the record.

From Jupiter, we head on toward the beautiful rings of Saturn, and our tune is a Stevie Wonder track titled “Saturn” and found on Wonder’s 1976 album Songs In The Key Of Life. The track was never used as even the B-side of a single, but the album was No. 1 for fourteen weeks, beginning in the middle of October 1976. And even though it’s an album that I heard frequently if not constantly in the spring of 1977 as I hung out with friends from the St. Cloud State student newspaper, I’m sad to say don’t recall “Saturn” and its message:

There’s no principles in what you say
No direction in the things you do
For your world is soon to come to a close
Through the ages all great men have taught
Truth and happiness just can’t be bought – or sold
Tell me why are you people so cold?


We’ll hang around
Saturn for a while yet and make a stop at Titan, the largest of Saturn’s many, many moons. And as we gaze at – as Wikipedia says – “the only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found,” we listen to “Sirens of Titan” by Al Stewart, a track from his 1975 album Modern Times. The album sold decently, reaching No. 30 on the Billboard 200, but that pales, of course, compared to the reception received by Stewart’s next two albums, Year Of The Cat and Time Passages, which went to No. 5 and No. 10, respectively. Sonically, Modern Times is similar to the next two albums – all three were produced by Alan Parsons – but it sounds to me just a shade thinner than Cat and Passages. Stewart’s voice is, of course, unmistakable.

And we find ourselves approaching Uranus, the planet whose name is the source of thousands of schoolboy giggles, some of which have found themselves attached to some sophomoric song titles. But we don’t need to go there. Digging through the mp3 files and related tunes this morning, we find “Uranus” by the Brunning/Hall Sunflower Blues Band. According to All Music Guide, Bob Brunning was the bassist for the band that became Fleetwood Mac, but was let go by Peter Green once John McVie had left John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers to join Green’s band. Brunning went on to teach and continue recording part-time, and he and pianist Bob Hall formed the Sunflower Blues Band. In 1969, the band, with some participation from Green, recorded the album Trackside Blues, which included the track “Uranus.” It’s a decent blues track, but its primary appeal this morning is its title.

Heading on, we stay in the realm of the gas giants and find ourselves at Neptune, with the music provided by Nicole Atkins, herself a native of Neptune, albeit the city in New Jersey instead of the distant planet. “Neptune City” was the title track to her 2007 solo debut album. As I wrote in 2010, the album is “lushly produced pop with some tricks and warbles that made it clear how much Atkins listened to – among other things – the Brill Building sounds of the early 1960s.” And it’s an album that I like very much, one that stays pretty close to the CD player that I use for late-night listening.

Pluto is either a planet or a dwarf planet, depending on which cadre of astronomers you talk to, but all I know is that it’s out there and we need to stop by on our way toward the edge of the Solar System. Music was hard to come by here, and we had to dig deep into the digital shelves before finding a song that originally came from a Dutch pop duo called Het Goede Doel. In 1982, the duo’s single “België (Is er leven op Pluto?)” – which translates to “Belgium (Is There Life On Pluto?)” – went to No. 4 in the Netherlands. According to Wikipedia, the duo also recorded a version of the song in English. I didn’t look for that, though, because I have a cover of the tune in its original Dutch by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, the Belgian girls choir that has popped up here at least once before. From a bonus disc included with the 2010 album Circle, here’s “België (Is er leven op Pluto?)”

‘Cast Your Dancing Spell My Way . . .’

Thursday, October 10th, 2013

So how many covers are out there of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”? Who knows?

There are sixty versions – including Dylan’s – listed at Second Hand Songs. There are more than 500 mp3s – with much duplication – offered at Amazon. Beyond that, I’ve found covers at YouTube not listed in either place.

(I checked at both BMI and ASCAP, as I’m not sure which organization administers Dylan’s songs. I found no listings for Dylan at either place, which eithers means I’m doing something wrong while searching or his compositions are administered elsewhere. Either way, it’s no help.)

The listing at Second Hand Songs starts with Dylan’s original and the Byrds’ ground-breaking cover in 1965 and goes on to the 2012 version by Jack’s Mannequin, which was included in the four-CD set Chimes of Freedom – The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International. The first cover listed after the Byrds’ cover is a 1965 misspelled offering of “Mr. Tambourin Man” from a group called the Finnish Beatmakers. Except for the Finnish accent – which I kind of like – it’s a copy of the Byrds’ version, starting right from the guitar introduction.

And that’s the case for many of the covers I’ve listened to this week: they’re warmed-over fowl. One of the few with an original sound came, interestingly, from Gene Clark, one of the members of the Byrds when they recorded “Mr. Tambourine Man.” His version of the Dylan tune – with a reimagined (and very nice, to my ears) introduction – was included on his 1984 album, Firebyrd.

The originator of the Byrds’ classic guitar lick, Roger McGuinn, shows up on a 1989 version of the tune recorded live in Los Angeles with Crowded House. As might be expected in that circumstance, it’s pretty much a copy of the Byrds’ version, with the Finn brothers et al. backing McGuinn.

Other early versions of note came from the Brothers Four and Johnny Rivers in 1965, from a young Stevie Wonder (with, one assumes, the Funk Brothers behind him), the Lettermen, the Beau Brummels and Noel Harrison in 1966, and from the Leathercoated Minds and Kenny Rankin in 1967. Versions from 1966 that I’d like to hear came from Billy Lee Riley and Duane Eddy. Odetta, as might be expected, offered an idiosyncratic and austere take on the tune in 1965.

Easy listening folks got hold of the tune, too. Billy Strange is listed at Second Hand Songs as having recorded a cover in 1965; I haven’t found that one (though my digging is not yet done), but I did find an easy listening version – with banjo, no less – recorded in 1965 by the Golden Gate Strings. And Johnny Harris & His Orchestra recorded the tune for the Reader’s Digest’s Up, Up & Away collection, which seems to have been released in 1970.

Speaking of banjo, the bluegrass/country duo of Flatt & Scruggs took on the song for their 1968 album, Changin’ Times. It’s nicely arranged with some nice harmonica in the background, but they’re too, well, square for the song, and that’s true right from the start, when they drop the “ain’t” and sing “there is no place I’m goin’ to.”

We’ll look at a few more versions of the tune – some of them quite nice – next week, but we’ll close today with a foreign language version of the tune. (Did you honestly think I would not drop one of those in?) Titled “Hra tampuurimies,” it’s a 1990 version from the irresistibly named Finnish group Freud, Marx, Engels & Jung.

‘You Ain’t Never Caught A Rabbit . . .’

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

At last, we come to the end of this particular line: Today, we look at the final six selections in my Ultimate Jukebox, the last six of the 228 records I’d have set to play in my living room, if – as I wrote much earlier this year – my living room were part malt shop, part beer joint, part crash pad and part heaven.

If I were fool enough to start this project all over again, I’m sure that the list of songs would be very different. I imagine that about half of the records that showed up here would show up here again. The others? Well, over the past nine months, I’ve frequently heard a record on the radio or during random play on the RealPlayer and wondered why I didn’t choose it for the UJ. I didn’t keep track of those moments, but had I done so, I estimate that they were frequent enough to replace half of the tunes I put into the UJ.

One constraint I might ignore on a second go-round is length. I set a limit of 7:30 for a record, knowing that a 45 could handle that much, and I hit that limit with Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park.” (I came close, relatively, with Harry Chapin’s “Taxi” and Buddy Miles “Down by the River” and maybe a few others that don’t come to mind right now.) If I were to do the project over, I’d ignore that limit and include longer pieces.

Some of the worthy longer pieces that come immediately to mind are the Side One suite on Shawn Phillips’ Second Contribution, the Allman Brothers Band’s performance of “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East, Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” from Blood on the Tracks, “Beginnings” by Chicago from Chicago Transit Authority, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Leon Russell’s take on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” from The Concert for Bangla Desh and Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me A Dime” from his self-titled album. I suppose those and a few others might show up in a complementary project. We’ll see.

When I wrote the second installment of this project, I mentioned Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” and Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” as the final two records trimmed to get to 228. And I said that one of the selections set for this final installment was there on probation, as it were: If something else along the way seemed more compelling or more deserving, there was one record that I would pull out of the list to make room.

Well, as good as a lot of the records I thought about along the way might have been – and “Baker Street” came to mind several times – that final record has come off probation and remains in the Ultimate Jukebox:

While Willie Mae Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” – written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – was recorded in 1952, it was the next year when the record did its damage on the air and in the charts: “Hound Dog,” according to All-Music Guide, held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart for seven weeks in 1953.

Thornton’s version was the first recorded of the oft-covered song, with the session taking place at Radio Recorders in Los Angeles on August 13, 1952, according to Wikipedia. The session was in fact produced by Leiber and Stoller themselves “because their work had sometimes been misrepresented, and on this one they knew how they wanted the drums to sound.”

Wikipedia notes that Johnny Otis was supposed to produce the session, but Leiber and Stoller wanted Otis on drums. Evidently in exchange, Otis received a writing credit on all six of the 1953 pressings, Wikipedia says. The first release was on a 10-inch 78 rpm record, according to Wikipedia, but there’s no indication when the 45 rpm releases first came out.

And although I’ve included a player for the song above, I could not resist offering this video – I think it’s from 1965 – of Big Mama Thornton performing “Hound Dog” with a band that includes guitar legend Buddy Guy.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 38
“Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton, Peacock 1612 [1952]
“Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” by Stevie Wonder, Tamla 54188 [1969]
“Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” by Elton John from Honky Château [1972]
“I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” by England Dan & John Ford Coley, Big Tree 16069 [1976]
“Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” by Fire Inc. from the soundtrack to Streets of Fire [1984]
“Come to My Window” by Melissa Etheridge, Island 858028 [1994]

In one of the last posts before I decided to put together the Ultimate Jukebox, I wrote about the mournful and beautiful “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” and its impact on me no matter when or where I hear it. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, not only in its lyrics but in its arrangement, with its decidedly old-school chorus in the introduction and choruses (a description borrowed from a comment left by jb, the proprietor of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’). Wonder makes the unlikely combination work, as he has done so many times through his career. And whenever it comes on the radio or the player, if there’s not a twinge of regret for all the things left behind, well, you’re at the wrong blog.

One of the amazing things to me about the early Elton John – from say 1970 through 1976 – was his ability to take the frequently opaque lyrics of Bernie Taupin and craft songs around them that made them sound cryptically wise or at least reasonable. I mean, after hundreds of listenings, I’m still not sure what the lyrics to “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters” mean:

And now I know
Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say
I thought I knew
But now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City

Until you’ve seen this trash can dream come true
You stand at the edge while people run you through
And I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you
I thank the Lord there’s people out there like you

While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters
Sons of bankers, sons of lawyers
Turn around and say good morning to the night
For unless they see the sky
But they can’t and that is why
They know not if it’s dark outside or light

Wikipedia says that the lyrics were inspired partly by Ben E. King’s recording of “Spanish Harlem” and partly by Taupin’s having heard a gun go off near his hotel during his first visit to New York City. Okay. In any case, they sound good, and John crafted around them one of his better melodies. Add the production of Gus Dudgeon, and you have an album track that hangs around, sounding better every time it pops up in the player.

Paul Evans of the 1992 edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide didn’t much care for England Dan & John Ford Coley. He called “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” “ingratiating, smug and coy” and labeled the duo’s body of work as “truly repellent,” capping his review off by saying that they “sound like oafish bores [not “boars,” sorry] breaking their backs to be ‘sensitive.’” Well, okay. I’ll acknowledge that “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” isn’t going to be on everyone’s good list. But I don’t hear those flaws when I hear “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” which was the duo’s biggest hit (two weeks at No. 2 and one week atop the Adult Contemporary chart). I hear the summer of 1976, which was a reasonably good season. I was taking some post-graduate courses at St. Cloud State, I had a steady girlfriend whom I saw most weekends, I had friends for evenings downtown or at one of our homes: Life was good. Along the way, I occasionally heard “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” coming through the speakers at home, in the car and – early in the morning before the place got too noisy – in the snack bar at Atwood Center. And the record has become a reminder of a pretty good summer, and that’s good enough for me.

A while back, I came across the movie Streets of Fire as I walked the remote up the channels. As I almost always do when that happens, I watched the rest of the movie. And I made a note at Facebook about it, calling it a bad movie. I was corrected by my blogging pal Jeff, who keeps house at AM, then FM. He called it a guilty pleasure, and I guess that’s a better label. Either way, I do like the movie, and I still love the soundtrack, especially the two Jim Steinman epics that open and close the movie. “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” is the closer, with the studio group Fire Inc. providing the backing and lead vocals coming from Holly Sherwood with other vocals from Laurie Sargent, Rory Dodd and Eric Troyer, according to Wikipedia. One notable name on the roster of Fire Inc. is that of Roy Bittan, piano player for the E Street Band. “Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young” spent five weeks in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 80.

When I started this project, I devised a way to split the 228 records I had selected into random groups of six, and each week, I listed that week’s six songs chronologically. Back in Week One, the first song listed was The Mamas & The Papas’ “Look Through My Window.” This week, the last song listed – the last entry in this project – is Melissa Etheridge’s “Come To My Window,” a record that went to No. 25 in 1994. I guess that confluence is fitting, as what I’ve tried to do in these thirty-eight weeks is provide a window into the music that moves me and in doing so, a window into me as I’ve been shaped by music over the years. As I thought might happen, I’ve probably learned as much about myself as has anyone else who’s read my words and listened to the tunes offered here over the past eight-plus months. The mystery of how some songs attach themselves to our lives is one I’ll be exploring for the rest of my days. I doubt I’ll ever completely know how some songs – “Cherish” and “We” come to mind in my case – become major pillars of our internal lives and how others like “Come To My Window” – a good record to me, but nothing more than that – are perhaps the equivalent of artwork hung on the internal walls supported by those other, more vital records. In the end, I doubt I’ll find a perfect answer, and I suppose it might be better if all that remains a mystery. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop listening.