Posts Tagged ‘Four Tops’


Thursday, January 25th, 2018

So we return after a long break to Journalism 101, our exploration of tunes that include in their titles the five W’s and one H of reporting: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Today’s subject is “when,” and the RealPlayer brings us an initial harvest of 761 tracks.

We’ll winnow that down, of course. We lose a few tracks with “whenever” in their titles, and a 1998 track from the band When In Rome goes by the wayside. So do several albums (except for some title tracks) including Glenn Yarbrough’s For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, Trisha Yearwood’s The Song Remembers When, Rory Block’s When A Woman Gets The Blues, Snow Patrol’s When It’s All Over We Still Have to Clear Up, Traffic’s When The Eagle Flies, the Sutherland Brothers’ When The Night Comes Down, Carolina Story’s When The River Met The Sea, John Mellencamp’s Whenever We Wanted, and When Harry Met Sally by Harry Connick, Jr.

There’s plenty left, of course, and we’re going to do things a little differently today, picking one track from each of four decades of the 1900s, starting with the 1940s. (Just for the record, the earliest recorded track that popped up was “When a ’Gator Holler, Folks Say It’s A Sign Of Rain” recorded by Margaret Johnson with the Black & Blue Trio in 1926, while the most recent track offered by the RealPlayer was “When I Saw Your Face” from Soul Of A Woman, Sharon Jones’ final album with the Dap-Kings.

The mystically romantic “Where Or When” was introduced in the 1937 musical Babes In Arms, created by the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart and quickly became a popular standard. The website Second Hand Songs lists 225 versions of the tune, and it’s apparent that there are more versions uncounted, as we’re listening today to the 1942 cover of the song by Guy Lombardo & His Royal Canadians, which SHS does not cite. Lombardo’s version of “Where Or When” is a little stiff, perhaps, but the buttery smooth reeds still sound nice, as does the similarly smooth trombone solo. The Decca release went to No. 19 in 1943, according to David A. Jasen’s book A Century Of American Popular Music.

So we move into the 1950s and find a charming gem: “When You Dance” by the Turbans, a black doo-wop group from Philadelphia. Released on the Herald label in 1955, the record went to No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to No. 3 on the magazine’s R&B chart. Six years later, the Turbans re-recorded the song for a release on the Parkway label, but the record only bubbled under at No. 114. The original version showed up in 2005 on the stellar two-CD set The Only Doo-Wop Collection You’ll Ever Need on the Shout Factory label.

If ever a No. 18 hit can be called a forgotten record, it might be “Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)” by the Four Tops. The 1966 single has everything you might want in a Four Tops joint, from an arresting tale and a strong lead vocal to the work of Motown’s Funk Brothers. But I think it tends to get lost among the stellar singles the group released on either side: “I Can’t Help Myself” and “It’s The Same Old Song” charted in 1965, “Reach Out I’ll Be There” hit later in 1966, and 1967 brought “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” and “Bernadette.” Small wonder that “Shake Me, Wake Me,” as good as it is, stands in shadows itself. As I noted, it peaked in the Hot 100 at No. 18, and it went to No. 5 on the R&B chart.

The short-lived British band McGuinness Flint managed one appearance in the Billboard Hot 100 when “When I’m Dead And Gone” went to No. 47 in early 1971, and as I listen today to that track and to “Malt and Barley Blues,” a 1971 Capitol promo single, I wish I had a lot more from the band on the digital shelves. I have Lo and Behold, a 1972 album by the group’s successor band, Coulson, Dean, McGuinness and Flint, and that’s fine, but I suppose I’m going to have to shell out some cash for the original group’s 1970 album. The group’s tangled history is best left to Wikipedia. (Oddly enough, I also have on the digital shelves a cover of “When I’m Dead And Gone” by an American artist named Bob Summers that pretty much copies the original arrangement, slows the song down just a titch, and misses the magic entirely.)

Chart Digging For Covers: June 20, 1970

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

As often as I’ve messed around over the past six years with Billboard Hot 100 charts from one week or another, and as often as I’ve looked for cover versions of familiar records, I’ve never taken the time to look at one specific Hot 100 for cover versions. So I don’t know if the Hot 100 from June 20, 1970 – forty-three years ago today – was typical or atypical.

I do know that it was a mother lode for those seeking covers of familiar records.

The riches begin at No. 25, where we find “It’s All In The Game” by the Four Tops. It’s a cover of the song that was No. 1 for Tommy Edwards in 1958 and that’s also charted for Cliff Richard (No. 25, 1964) and Isaac Hayes (No. 80, 1980) and bubbled under for Jackie DeShannon (No. 110, 1967). It’s also the only hit ever written by a vice-president of the United States, as it uses a tune that was called “Melody in A Major” when it was written in 1912 by Charles Gates Dawes, who later served as vice-president from 1925 to 1929. The Tops’ version of “It’s All In The Game” peaked at No. 24.

From there, we head to No. 28, where Wilson Pickett’s two-sided entry “Sugar, Sugar/ Cole, Cooke & Redding” sat on its way to No. 25. The B-side is a tribute to Nat “King” Cole, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but it’s “Sugar, Sugar” on the A-side that matters today, as it’s Pickett’s cover of the Archies’ hit – No. 1 for four weeks – from 1969.

Earlier in 1970, Brook Benton had a No. 4 hit with “A Rainy Night In Georgia” and had followed that up with a cover of Frank Sinatra’s No. 27 hit from 1969, “My Way,” which stalled at No. 72. Benton’s next single came from the catalog of a fellow Southerner, as he turned to “Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home” by Joe South. The original version of the tune, credited to Joe South & The Believers, had gone to No. 41 in 1969; Benton’s version would peak at No. 45.

Maybe Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic” didn’t carry in 1970 the mythic weight it seems to have today, or maybe that weight is just something I perceive because “Into The Mystic” is a song that is dear to both the Texas Gal and me, but it seems to me that it took a lot of guts for Johnny Rivers to cover Morrison’s tune so soon after Morrison released it on Moondance in February 1970. Rivers’ version of the classic tune – the only version ever to hit the Hot 100 – was at No. 58 forty years ago today, having peaked earlier at No. 51. As the tune played this morning, I took a look at the credits for Rivers’ Slim Slo Slider, the album that includes “Into The Mystic,” and I learned that the gorgeous saxophone solo comes from Jim Horn, the piano work is from the late Larry Knechtel, and the drum work is from either Hal Blaine or Ronnie Tutt. I’d bet on Blaine.

According to the website Second Hand Songs, Neil Young released his single of “Cinnamon Girl” in April 1969, just ahead of the May release of the album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, but the single didn’t enter the Hot 100 until more than a year later. It entered the chart forty-three years ago today, starting out at No. 95. Its presence on the chart was spurred, I would imagine, by the fact that the Gentrys’ very similar cover of “Cinnamon Girl” was in its tenth week on the chart, sitting at No. 63 after peaking at No. 52. Young’s version of the song didn’t do quite as well, peaking at No. 55.

The gorgeous song “Maybe” first showed up on the charts in 1958, when the Chantels’ version went to No. 15. Since that time, charting (or near-charting) versions had come from the Shangri-Las (No. 91, 1965), the Chantels (No. 116 with a 1969 re-release on a new label) and Janis Joplin (No. 110 in 1970). Next came the Three Degrees, adding a spoken soap opera introduction to “Maybe” that – from the vantage point of more than forty years – doesn’t seem to work. Listeners back then seemed to like it, though; the record, which was sitting at No. 69 on June 20, eventually peaked at No. 29.

Well, that’s six, and that’s more enough for today. But I could go on for a while yet, as that chart from June 20, 1970, also included Merry Clayton’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Peggy Lipton’s take on Donovan’s “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” Rare Earth’s cover of the Temptations’ “Get Ready,” the Assembled Multitude’s version of the Who’s “Overture from ‘Tommy’,” Paul Davis’ cover of the Jarmels’ “A Little Bit of Soap,” Ike & Tina Turner & The Ikettes’ take on Sly & The Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher,” Vic Dana’s version of Neil Diamond’s “Red, Red Wine,” Johnny Taylor’s cover of Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” the Satisfactions’ version of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” and Miguel Rios’ reworking of the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 into “A Song of Joy.” And I probably missed some.

Chart Digging: Early February 1971

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Moments lead to memories that lead to tales. A trip to the dumpster in a February wind reminded me of the time during my senior year when I was suspended from school for a day.

Our house is adjacent to an apartment complex owned by our landlord, and when we moved in, he said that instead of hauling garbage cans down to the end of the driveway once a week, we could drop our trash in the dumpster at the end of the complex’s parking lot. We generally do so as part of an errand elsewhere, carting trash bags over in one of the two cars. The other day, getting the car out of the garage seemed to be a lot of work, so I walked a bag of trash over.

I did so in the face of a harsh northwestern wind. Head down, I made my way across the parking lot, and I recalled how, on bitterly cold and windy days, my childhood schoolmates and I would sometimes walk backwards down Fifth Avenue toward Lincoln Elementary School, protecting our faces from the harsh wind. We knew the route well, and the sidewalks were almost always shoveled, so walking in reverse, especially in a group, carried no hazards. It was just a little slower.

And my memory train chugged from walking backwards along Fifth Avenue to the occasional times during the early 1960s when a grey Forties-vintage auto would pull up alongside me, and the college guy I’ll call EJ – already transporting two of his brothers and a sister – would give me a ride to school. The family lived four houses north of us on Kilian Boulevard and several of the kids were frequent participants in our neighborhood’s semi-organized games. So EJ was a Kilian kid, but even more important to me was what he did at St. Cloud State.

He was the quarterback for the Huskies, and – with my folks – I spent as many Saturday evenings at Selke Field as I could back then, watching EJ lead the Huskies against teams that included the Bemidji State Beavers, the Winona State Warriors and the other Huskies from Michigan Tech, based in that state’s Upper Peninsula. EJ played for the Huskies from 1959 through 1962 and in 1960, he was named All-Conference quarterback for the Northern Intercollegiate Conference. I suppose he was my first football hero, the neighborhood kid who made good in a way that mattered very much to me – and to many others on the East Side and elsewhere.

After his football days were over and he earned his degree from St. Cloud State, EJ stayed in town. He got a job in the administration at St. Cloud Tech High and – with a master’s degree, I’m assuming – worked his way up the administrative ladder. By the time I was a senior, EJ was the assistant principal, in charge of discipline. I saw him in Tech’s hallways on occasion, as I had for the first two years of high school when his title was different, and he always had a smile and wave for me.

Then came the morning – during the early part of 1971 – when I was summoned to meet with EJ. That never meant anything good, but I had no clue what I might have done wrong.

I sat on a chair outside EJ’s office, going over the past few days for transgressions. Nothing came to mind. I’d been absent two days earlier, but Mom had called me in sick, so that wasn’t it. And as I sat there, I watched the high school’s version of hard cases – habitual fighters, teacher-cursers and class-skippers – come and go from EJ’s office. I felt like Arlo Guthrie on the Group W bench.

Finally, it was my turn. I took a chair across from EJ, smiled wanly and shrugged. I still had no idea what I might have done. He looked at a piece of paper and then asked me, “Did you skip class during ninth hour yesterday?”

No, I told him. In that class – a social studies offering called Problems of Democracy – we were divided into study groups, and we didn’t meet every day. I didn’t mention it to EJ, but I was glad of that, as Mr. S, the teacher, was officious and overbearing, and I didn’t enjoy his class at all. I did tell EJ that sometime during the previous morning, I’d crossed paths with another member of my study group and – having been out sick the day before – verified that our study group was not scheduled to meet. I didn’t have to go to class ninth hour, so I didn’t.

EJ nodded. “So where were you?”

In the library, I told him. I’d been at a table with the current object of my affection, the one in whose locker I would leave song lyrics in purple ink. She had a study period that hour and always spent it in the library. When I was free, I was there, too.

EJ nodded again, chewed his cheek as he looked at the paper in his hand. Then he looked at me. “Because you were absent the day before, you really should have gone to class during ninth hour and checked in with Mr. S. He reported you absent without permission, and technically, he’s right.” He looked at me, chewed his cheek again and sighed.

“Look, I know Mr. S,” he said. And EJ looked in my eyes and I got the message that whatever I might have thought about Mr. S, he agreed with me. “But,” he went on, “you did technically skip class. And I have to suspend you for the day.”

Great, I thought. Students suspended for the day were installed in a small room in the office area, where they sat all day in supervised silence, doing class assignments. I was going to spend the day with Group W doing homework.

EJ sighed again and tossed the report of my unauthorized absence on his desk. “Okay,” he said, “go spend the day in the library. Go to lunch at your usual time, hang around the band room for an hour like you do, and then end the day in the library.”

I started to thank him, and he waved me on with a half-smile. “Go to the library!” he said. So I did.

Word spread, of course, that I – an unlikely candidate if ever there were one – had been suspended for the day. My name was on the list of suspensions passed out by the attendance office, and students had easy access to those lists, which teachers often left in the open. Friends of mine who came and went in the library that day – including my Dulcinea – wanted to know what heck had happened. I did get tired of telling the tale, but we all agreed on our thoughts about Mr. S.

Being suspended also meant not being allowed to take part in school activities, so after school, I went to tell Kiff, the wrestling coach, that I’d resume my duties as manager the next day. As I entered the wrestling room, the wrestlers cheered and applauded. When the noise faded, Kiff asked me if the rumor he’d heard was true: “Were you really smoking a pipe?” (He meant a traditional pipe intended for tobacco, not one for illicit substances.) I laughed a little and told him no. He was relieved; if I had been smoking anything, I’d have lost my post as manager. But, he added, “If there were any student who might have smoked a pipe instead of a cigarette, it would be you.”

Not sure what to say to that, I just said I’d be back the next day, and glumly headed out of the gym toward the school’s back door. A fellow choir member saw me: “Now you get to go home and tell the folks, right?” I nodded and went on my way.

My folks weren’t horribly upset although they weren’t pleased either. I do think they were happy I didn’t have to spend the day with Group W, thanks to a favor passed from one Kilian Kid to another.

I’m sure that as I sat in my room that evening and pondered that favor, I had the radio on. And I’m just as sure that during my pondering I heard some of these songs, the Billboard Top Ten from forty years ago this week:

“One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds
“Knock Three Times” by Dawn
“Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson
“I Hear You Knocking” by Dave Edmunds
“Lonely Days” by the Bee Gees
“My Sweet Lord/Isn’t It A Pity” by George Harrison
“Groove Me” by King Floyd
“Your Song” by Elton John
“If I Were Your Woman” by Gladys Knight and the Pips
“Mama’s Pearl” by the Jackson 5

That’s a good set. I wasn’t all that crazy about the Osmonds’ record forty years ago, but now, it’s a nice slice of time. The same holds true for the Dawn record. But the rest don’t need to be memories; the bottom nine from that list (counting Harrison’s B-Side) is a great batch of records.

As usual, we’re going to look a little bit deeper into the Billboard Hot 100 from that week, but we’re not going to go too deep to start with. At No. 15, we find one of my favorite one-hit wonders of all time. Wadsworth Mansion was a band from Los Angeles, and during this week forty years ago, the group’s “Sweet Mary” was at No. 15, having leapt from No. 44 the previous week. The record would eventually peak at No. 7. I love the “Wap, wa-dooba do wop wop” introduction!

From there, however, we’ll tumble out of the Top 40, just across the border to No. 44. There we find the Four Tops with “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life),” an almost mournful tune about trying to get back things that have been lost. The record – with its classic Motown sound – would peak at No. 40 and go to No. 9 on the R&B chart.

I knew nothing about T. Rex until “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” during early 1972, and I didn’t rush out and buy any records then. I entirely missed the group’s first charting single, “Ride A White Swan,” which was at No. 76 forty years ago, when the group was still called Tyrannosaurus Rex. But then, a lot of folks missed the record, as it went no higher. It strikes me as a very odd single, but I never really got the glam thing, anyway. From forty years away, it’s far more interesting to me than it would have been then.

From being a murderer on the run in “Indiana Wants Me,” R. Dean Taylor went all green. His lament for the environment, “Ain’t It A Sad Thing,” was at No. 87 forty years ago. Taylor would have two more singles hit the Hot 100 and another reach the Bubbling Under section of the list, but he’d never hit the Top 40 again. “Ain’t It A Sad Thing” did the best of Taylor’s post-Indiana singles, getting to No. 66.

Ballin’ Jack was an “inter-racial jazz-rock group from San Francisco,” according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, and the group’s only single to reach the Billboard charts was “Super Highway.” Forty years ago this week, the record was at No. 98 in its first week in the Hot 100. I’ve listened to bits of the group’s two albums, and I’ve liked what I’ve heard. (I suppose that being a horn rock fan helps.) But the best the group could do was get “Super Highway” to No. 93.

The Detroit Emeralds were a long-active band that, despite their name, evidently started out in Little Rock, Arkansas. (Whitburn seems to indicate that the original core of the group formed in Arkansas before heading to Detroit.) “Do Me Right,” which was Bubbling Under at No. 118 forty years ago this week, became the second Hot 100 hit for the group, peaking at No. 43. (On the R&B chart, it was the third Top 40 hit for the Emeralds, going as high as No. 7.) The group would eventually have six records reach the Hot 100 and eight records in the R&B Top 40. The Emerald’s best-charting record came in 1972 with “Baby Let Me Take You (In My Arms),” which went to No. 24 on the pop chart and to No. 4 on the R&B chart.

All Elevens, All The Time!

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

I had planned today to write about an obscure cover of an obscure Bob Dylan tune, discovered in my vinyl stacks via my current reading of two books about Dylan’s catalog. And I still will do that, and I’ll offer a chance to hear that tune. But that will likely come Thursday.

Why the delay?

Because along with digging into records from over the years, I also like playing with numbers, and today’s date just can’t be ignored: 1/11/11. And even though I played a similar game last Saturday with the number 18, well, it can’t be helped. Today’s date calls loudly for a look at records that were No. 11 during various years on January 11. We’ll start in 1965 and move ahead from there, this time in four-year increments. So here we go.

I’ve told the story about how my sister and I got the LP Beatles ’65 for Christmas one year (either 1964 or 1965, I’m still not entirely certain). The album, a late 1964 release, was one of those that Capitol created for the U.S. market by trimming a few tracks from Beatles LPs as they were released in the U.K. and then adding some tracks released only as singles in Britain. However it was put together, Beatles ’65 was my first album by the boys from Liverpool, and its tunes and track order remain ingrained in my memory. I loved “I Feel Fine,” “Rock and Roll Music” and “Mister Moonlight,” but one of the tracks to which I didn’t, to be honest, pay much attention at the time is the one that was No. 11 in the Billboard Hot 100 forty-six years ago today. Released as the B-side to “I Feel Fine,” “She’s A Woman” went to No. 4, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles, and I do think its crunchy chords and Paul McCartney’s great vocal tend to get lost a little bit today among the riches of the Beatles’ catalog. According to William J. Dowlding in his book Beatlesongs, the tune was written in Abbey Road studio the day it was recorded, October 8, 1964.


Having identified the No. 11 record from January 11, 1969, I turned to Whitburn’s book for more information, and a terse line told me that if I wanted information about the singer who called himself Derek, I needed to go read about Johnny Cymbal. It turns out that Cymbal was a Scottish singer who got three records into the Hot 100 in 1963, with “Mr. Bass Man” – an effort Whitburn tags as a novelty record – going to No. 16. Six years later, in 1969, Cymbal – who died in 1993 at the age of forty-eight – was recording as Derek and had two Hot 100 hits, “Cinnamon” and “Back Door Man.” The latter went to No. 59 in March 1969, but “Cinnamon” nearly made the Top Ten, peaking at the No. 11 spot it held forty-two years ago today.

The Four Tops seem so firmly planted in the mid-1960s with their string of superlative Top Ten singles – “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Standing In The Shadows Of Love” and “Bernadette” chief among them – that it’s sometime surprising when one is reminded that the Tops’ career stretched through the 1970s and into the 1980s (though with less chart success). One of the quartet’s most successful 1970s entries was sitting at No. 11 during this week in 1973. “Keeper of the Castle” would peak the following week at No. 10, giving the Four Tops their first Top Ten hit since “Bernadette” in early 1967. The Tops’ next single, “Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got),” did even better, going to No. 4 in April of 1973; it was the last Top Ten hit for the Four Tops. But thirty-eight years ago this week, it was “Keeper of the Castle” that folks were hearing on the radio.

The Sylvers were a group of nine brothers and sisters from Memphis who had three records reach the lower level of the Hot 100 in 1972 and 1973 before hitting it massively in early 1976 with the No. 1 hit “Boogie Fever.” Later that year, the group released “Hot Line,” and the record began to make its way up the chart. By the second week in January, the record was at No. 11, heading to No. 5. The group had two more hits in 1977, with “High School Dance” going to No. 17. I don’t recall that last record, but in late 1976 and early 1977, “Hot Line” was pretty much inescapable.

I never quite got the Police. Their music seemed brittle and fussy to me, and although I didn’t entirely tune it out, neither did I dig into it. Still, the group’s hits would pop up on the radio during my newspapering days as I made my way from interview to interview. And twenty-nine years ago this week, I likely heard “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” as I drove around Monticello and the record was perched at No. 11. A week later, the record would peak at No. 10, giving the Police their first Top Ten hit. They’d have five more through 1984. Here’s the official video for “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.”

I don’t suppose I have to say a lot about the record that was at No. 11 this week in 1985, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Or maybe I do. I will note that more than a quarter century later, I still find myself amused by George Will’s fawning column about the Boss in which – after spending an evening at a Springsteen concert – he interprets “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem. And I suppose that it’s not all that far-fetched – though it is saddening – to think that all one needs to do these days is plug a few different proper nouns into the lyrics, and “Born in the U.S.A.” is timely today. Getting back to the record, it would peak at No. 9 two weeks later, Springsteen’s fourth Top Ten hit and the third of seven Top Ten hits from the album Born in the U.S.A.

I’ll be back Thursday, likely with that obscure cover of an obscure Bob Dylan tune.

‘That’s Why I’ve Traveled Far . . .’

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

We had no reason to go to Finland except to say we’d been in Finland. But a stay of less than twenty-four hours in a small northern town there led to what I suppose was the grand romantic gesture of my life.

It was April of 1974, and John the Mad Australian and I were riding the trains north from Stockholm, Sweden, heading to Narvik, Norway. Narvik was the end of the line, as far north as one could ride a train in Western Europe. Our plan was to travel overnight from Stockholm to the city of Boden, Sweden, where we would take a side trip, changing to a train that headed east to Finland, first to the border town of Tornio, and then on to the city of Kemi.

Why the detour? For me, it was just to be able to say that I’d been to Finland, I guess. I wasn’t looking for anything more adventurous than a moderate language barrier and a good beer. Nor was John, whom I’d met in Stockholm and who was tagging along companionably during my tour of the far north. “I’ve never been there, so I may as well go,” had pretty much been his attitude since we’d met over breakfast at the train station in Stockholm a couple days earlier.

So from Boden, we traveled on through Haparanda, Sweden (and the customs house where we’d be detained a day later, but that’s another story), across the Tornio River and into Finland, then through the city of Tornio and on to Kemi, maybe twenty miles further on. We found ourselves a room at a nearby hotel, stashed our backpacks and walked into Kemi’s downtown, looking for the local equivalent of a burger and a beer. The downtown area wasn’t large – Kemi has a population of 22,000 these days, and I imagine it was a little smaller then – but it was baffling, as neither John nor I spoke or read Finnish.

So we peered into windows as we walked among the shops, looking for a place that looked like a café. After some false starts, we found one, and at the counter, we each ordered the item on the menu that most closely resembled “hamburger” and we pointed at what appeared to be – and were – bottles of beer in the cooler. Thus armed with refreshment, we found an empty table, and over our dinner, John began to wonder if we could find a pair of young women to take dancing or at least to join for conversation.

He began to assess the potential of the several pairs of young women in the restaurant, and as he did, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. The two young women at the table next to us understood English well and were trying very hard not to laugh at us. I nodded at them, smiling a little sheepishly, and then I interrupted John in mid-soliloquy. “John,” I told him, “the young ladies at the next table understand English. They’re very amused.”

He looked at them and grinned, and moments later, we’d joined them at their table. The four of us finished our meals over introductions – they were Leena (pronounced Lay-na) and Ritva – and then we all went off to a nearby downstairs bar for further refreshment.

We never did dance. I spent those few hours talking mostly with Leena while John chatted with Ritva. We talked about school – she would soon complete the Finnish equivalent of high school – and about music and about life in Finland and in the United States. She’d been an exchange student in Michigan for a year, and I told her that parts of Michigan were very much like portions of Minnesota. We exchanged addresses and talked about families. Her birthday was approaching – she would be twenty – and she asked about mine. I told her the date – September 5 – and she asked, “So doesn’t that make you a virgin?”

It took me a stunned moment or two to realize she was talking about Virgo, my sign of the Zodiac. I stammered a response that was supposed to be witty and failed, and we shifted topics and talked on for another hour or so. Near the end of that hour, at about the time she said she and Ritva had to leave, I leaned over and kissed her. She kissed back, and a few minutes later, she and Ritva were gone.

John and I went back to our hotel, and the next morning, we returned to Sweden and eventually made our way north to Narvik and then south to Oslo, Norway, where we parted. He headed for the fjords at Bergen, and I went back to Denmark and – three weeks later – Minnesota. About two weeks after I got home, I got a letter from Finland. Leena apologized for asking me if I were a virgin, explaining that she simply got her English confused. I wrote back, telling her that after a moment of surprise, I’d known what she’d meant and that I took no offense.

A few weeks later, another letter arrived, and I answered, and for almost five years, letters went back and forth between St. Cloud and Kemi, between St. Cloud and Oulu – where Leena went to university – and Monticello and Oulu. Then a letter lay too long unanswered on one of our desks – probably mine – and the letters dwindled and then stopped.

Before they stopped, however, I startled her. As our friendship grew via the mail, we’d occasionally brought up the idea of meeting again and seeing if we cared about each other as much in person as it seemed we did through letters. Being in a slow spot in my life – lots of first dates but not much more than that – I tumbled that idea around in my head, polishing it like a jewel. And during the spring and summer of 1975, I slowly came to the conclusion that I should write a letter to Leena proposing marriage.

Never mind the countless practical details. I knew they were there, but I figured there was no point in examining them unless there were a reason to do so. I mentioned the idea to a few carefully selected friends, and they were supportive, noting that I should be prepared for disappointment. I understood; I knew that there was little likelihood of her accepting my offer. But I also knew that I didn’t want to wake up some morning in 2010, look at the life around me and wonder what might have been if I’d been brave and foolish back in 1975. So in September and October, I spent several evenings in the quiet snack bar at Atwood Center, drafting and redrafting my letter. Finally satisfied, I mailed it sometime in late October; the “thunk” as the mailbox closed was one of the loudest sounds in my life.

She said “No,” of course. I wasn’t surprised. Had she said “Yes,” I would have had to reorder my life, and I would have done so gladly. But the chances of that had been slender, and I passed the news to my friends and then to my family. (None of my family had any idea I’d proposed to Leena until I received her reply.) And I moved on.

So why bring this up now? Because one evening in the spring of 1975, as my grand romantic gesture was in its formative stages, I mentioned it to a young ladyfriend, asking her thoughts. She went to her stereo, put Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees on the turntable and played me the second track on side two:

And I heard, as my friend intended, “That’s why I’ve traveled far, ’cause I come so together where you are.” And it’s appropriate I connect my tale with the record, with the Fleetwood Mac hit that might have been but never was. It was issued as a single by Reprise, but went nowhere although writer Bob Welch got a No. 8 hit out of an inferior remake in 1978. But in another universe, the original version of “Sentimental Lady” was a hit. And in another universe . . . well, I’m happy with the universe I’m in. I’m glad I wrote the letter I wrote. I’m glad I got the response I expected. And I don’t have to wake up tomorrow morning and wonder what might have happened.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 35
“Dancing in the Street” by Martha & the Vandellas, Gordy 7033 [1964]
“Bernadette” by the Four Tops, Motown 1104 [1967]
“California Soul” by Marlena Shaw from The Spice of Life [1969]
“God, Love and Rock & Roll by Teegarden & Van Winkle, Westbound 170 [1970]
“Sentimental Lady” by Fleetwood Mac from Bare Trees [1972]
“The Promised Land” by Bruce Springsteen from Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978]

The riches of Motown continually astound me, and I imagine I’m not alone in that. I mean, Martha & the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 and the young Michael Jackson, and that’s just the very top of the mountain. Great songs, great performers, great studio musicians and great production all leave not much more to be said, except that “Dancing in the Street” went to No. 2 in autumn of 1964, and “Bernadette” went to No. 4 in the spring of 1967.

I wrote about “California Soul” once before, using Marlena Shaw’s version as a take-off point, and a few readers chimed into a discussion of the merits of their favorite versions of the song. I’ve not heard a bad version of the tune – although I’m certain there is at least one out there if I were bent on finding it – but I return to Shaw’s for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s the first version I heard of the tune, and first versions tend to stay in my head longer – not always, but frequently. And second, I’m pulled in by the dry wit in her voice as she sings of the glories of the Golden State, which gives her vocal a sense of, oh, amusement at the folks who’ve come looking for that soul she sings about. Or maybe that’s just the way she sings. Either way, it sticks with me.

Listen to Teegarden & Van Winkle now:

Cheer the light
Still the fires
Raise your voice for
God, love, and rock and roll

We that fear
The way is clear
The day has come for
God, love, and rock and roll

Sing your song
We all belong
Now’s the time for
God, love, and rock and roll

’Nuff said, I think, except to note that Teegarden & Van Winkle took “God, Love And Rock & Roll” to No. 22 in the autumn of 1970.

“The Promised Land” is the third and final record by Bruce Springsteen in the Ultimate Jukebox, and that’s one more than anyone else has. Does that mean that Springsteen has taken over the top spot in my all-time rankings of performers and bands? I’m not at all sure. When I started sifting through more than 40,000 mp3s – and paging through reference books to make sure I hadn’t overlooked any essential tunes that weren’t in the RealPlayer – I would have made bets that Bob Dylan or the Beatles or The Band would have had more tracks than anyone else. That it was Springsteen, and that his three tracks came from two of his early albums – the other tracks were “Born to Run” and “Badlands” – tells me only that at the moment I was sifting through the tunes from 1975 and 1978, those three jumped out at me. I imagine that if I were to start over, my 228 tunes for this project would look very different. Would those three Springsteen titles still be there? Probably. As I trimmed and trimmed songs from the list, I kept finding that I could not trim off any of those three Springsteen tunes, for different reasons: “Born to Run” for its place in history and its ambition, “Badlands” because it was the first Springsteen record I ever knowingly heard, and “The Promised Land” for its harmonica and for the words: “Mister, I ain’t a poet boy, I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.”

The original isn’t available on YouTube, and I can’t embed what I found there this morning, but here’s a link to a kick-ass performance of the song in Barcelona, Spain, in 2002.

The Changed In A Changed Land

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

I spent part of last evening watching the final episode of the HBO miniseries The Pacific, the tale of a cluster of U.S. Marines in World War II. The battles were over, and the Marines were going home, changed by their experiences both in and between battles and returning to families and friends whose lives had gone on without them for the period of their absence.

I haven’t watched every episode of the miniseries; I plan to go back and do so. But last evening’s show intrigued me. Part of that is that I’ve long been fascinated by the tales of the home front during World War II. The stories of those who stayed behind while millions of men went off to battle tug at me for some reason. I’m interested in the history of the war, certainly, the war in Europe in particular, but I feel a kinship for some reason with those who stayed home. That’s one of the reasons that my reporting project for my master’s degree many years ago was a lengthy examination of life in Columbia, Missouri, during World War II.

And the experience of coming home from war also intrigues me. The scenes in that last episode of The Pacific reminded me of one of the classic American films. One of the best movies I’ve ever seen – mannered and slow-paced though it seems today – is William Wyler’s 1946 feature, The Best Years of Our Lives, which tells the tales of several Americans – some of whom went to war and some of whom stayed home – as they try to adjust to post-war life.

Both last evening’s episode of The Pacific and Wyler’s film, which I saw years ago, reminded me of a brief chapter in my own life, my return to St. Cloud after spending nearly nine months going to school in Denmark. I know how foolish that sounds. It would be obscene to equate museum-hopping in Copenhagen with being shot at on Iwo Jima. But I’m not doing that: I’m looking at the experience of being away and coming back. Still, the comparison would seem specious to me if it weren’t for something my dad said to me not long after I came back to St. Cloud.

I wasn’t quite lost, but I knew that I wasn’t fitting back into my life the way I had expected to. My friends laughed at my stories, but I knew that I’d experienced more than funny tales while I was gone, and either I was unable to communicate how my life had felt during my time in Denmark or they were unable to grasp what I was trying to get across to them.

And I felt out of place, in ways large and small. I recall two moments: The first happened late on the first evening I was back, as I drove home from having a cup of coffee with a young ladyfriend I’d missed. As I drove past the campus of St. Cloud State, the thought ran through my mind: “I’m back in St. Cloud. This morning, I was in Copenhagen. Something about that doesn’t seem fair.” The second instance took place a couple of days later in a gathering of friends when someone made a reference to a commercial pitchman whose antics had become a running punch line. My friends all laughed as I sat silent, not getting the joke.

And that night, my dad told me he’d been through the same thing in 1945 when he’d gotten home from his World War II service in India and China. “You weren’t in a war,” he said. “But you’ve had an intense experience, something that only the other people who were there with you can understand. And those who weren’t there will never really grasp how it was.” And there was a flip side, he said: “While you were gone, lives went on here. People will talk about things that happened, and all of them will know the story, but you won’t. In time, that will happen less and less.”

He was right about all of that, Dad was. And I was reminded of that conversation as I watched the characters in The Pacific deal with their returns, all of them hauling back to the States much more emotional baggage than I brought with me when I came home in May of 1974. And as I thought about the parallels, I realized that it was thirty-six years ago this week that I packed my two suitcases, spent one last night in Copenhagen, and got on a plane to come home.

So I turned, as I so often do, to the music, and dug into the deeper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 that came out during the week I got off that plane, bringing my changes home to a place that had also changed.

Eddie Kendricks: “Son of Sagittarius,” No. 45 as of May 25, 1974, later peaked at No. 28

Four Tops: “One Chain Don’t Make No Prison,” No. 56 as of May 25, 1974, later peaked at No. 41.

Tower of Power: “Time Will Tell,” No. 69 as of May 25, 1974, peak position.