I’m A Believer: Neil Diamond; The Monkees; Smash Mouth [“Shrek”]

Hello there! This is another entry in our series “Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies.” Here we review a pop tune that features prominently in a movie.

This week’s entry is I’m A Believer, a great pop tune that was written by Neil Diamond. We will begin with Neil Diamond’s performance of the song. We’ll next look at the most famous version of the song, a cover by The Monkees. We will conclude with a cover of I’m A Believer by Smash Mouth, and discuss its appearance in the computer-generated cartoon Shrek.

Neil Diamond and I’m A Believer:

We recently discussed Neil Diamond in our blog post on his song Red Red Wine. So here we will briefly review his life and career.

Neil is a pop singer-songwriter superstar. His records have sold over 135 million copies over a 50-year career, and he has won a series of major awards for his accomplishments.

Neil Diamond was born in Brooklyn in 1941, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants. He attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, where he was a member of the school’s Chorus and Choral Club along with classmate Barbra Streisand.

While he was in high school, Neil attended a summer camp in the Catskills where he experienced a concert by legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. This inspired Diamond to buy a guitar and become a songwriter.

Neil enrolled in New York University. However, he soon began cutting pre-med classes to hang out at the Brill Building, where he attempted to sell his pop songs. In his senior year at NYU, he was offered a 16-week job at $50/week to write songs for Sunbeam Music Publishing. Neil took the job and dropped out of college.

Below is a publicity photo of Neil Diamond from 1970.

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Apparently Diamond’s early years were fairly rough; at one time, he says that his food budget was 35 cents per day! However, despite the fact that he was quite literally a starving artist, he managed to write a number of songs during that period.

Diamond’s first big success was as a songwriter. In late 1965 he wrote a hit song that Jay and the Americans released, and then “I’m A Believer” and several other hits for The Monkees.

The song I’m A Believer describes a man who was initially cynical about love; however, he meets a woman who completely changes his mind, converting him into a believer in love at first sight.

I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all of my dreams

Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried.

Here is Neil Diamond in a live performance of I’m A Believer. This took place in 2008 at Madison Square Garden.

Neil and his band have a lot of fun with this version of his tune. They treat it as a tasty morsel of bubble-gum pop.

Neil is accompanied by a big band with a full horn section and backup singer/dancers. They produce a high-octane version of I’m A Believer, to the delight of Neil’s legion of loyal fans in his native New York City. The horn section clowns around while Neil paces the stage singing his famous tune.

I’m A Believer was significant in the careers of both Neil Diamond and The Monkees. This was a monster #1 chart hit for the Monkees. Following on the heels of their first hit Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer marked The Monkees as a group on the rise. For Diamond, this song established his credentials and made him a valuable commodity as a pop songwriter.

Capitalizing on his songwriting success, Neil Diamond signed a record contract with Bert Berns’ Bang Records in 1966. There, he was able to establish himself as a solo performer with tunes such as Solitary Man, Cherry, Cherry and Kentucky Woman.

Eventually, Diamond and Berns clashed over his musical direction. Diamond wanted to write deeper, more introspective songs while Berns wanted catchy pop tunes. When Diamond attempted to leave, a series of lawsuits ensued.

It took Neil a couple of years and a dip in his career to resolve his situation with Bang Records, but in 1968 he signed a contract with what is now Universal Records.

And then Diamond was off and running. He hit it big with songs like Sweet Caroline, Cracklin’ Rosie and Song Sung Blue. And beginning in 1971, Neil started playing a series of concerts at LA’s Greek Theater.

After that tour, and some live concerts on Broadway, Neil took some time off from touring. He wrote the score for the film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. That had a curious history; although the movie was a colossal flop, the soundtrack album was a big hit – in fact, the album grossed more than the movie!

Neil Diamond went on to become a pop superstar. However, in 1979 he collapsed onstage in San Francisco and endured a 12-hour operation when a tumor was discovered on his spine. After a significant period of rehab, Diamond then starred in a remake of the Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer.

Neil identified with the Jewish heritage of the star, and wrote several songs for the movie that became pop hits, notably America. However, Diamond had never acted before, and it showed. For his performance in this movie Diamond was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and also won a Razzie Award for Worst Actor.

2011 was another significant year for Neil Diamond. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors.

So, to Neil Diamond and his legion of fans, we say “Neil, now I’m a believer!”

The Monkees and I’m A Believer:

In 1962, filmmaker Bob Rafelson pitched the idea for a TV show about a group of young rock musicians. The idea went nowhere, until the surprising and phenomenal success of the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in 1964.

Shortly after that, Rafelson’s idea was green-lighted by Screen Gems Television. At that time, Rafelson envisioned writing scripts using The Lovin’ Spoonful as the pop group. However, Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian was already under a record contract, which meant that Screen Gems would not own the rights to that band’s songs.

So instead, The Monkees were assembled from an ad run in Daily Variety that read:
Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.

Screen Gems already had Davy Jones under contract. He had been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his performance of The Artful Dodger in the Broadway musical Oliver. Over 400 people applied for The Monkees, and eventually Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz were chosen to join Davy Jones in the band.

Below is a publicity photo of The Monkees from 1968. From L: Mike Nesmith; Davy Jones; Peter Tork; Mickey Dolenz.

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The choices were somewhat unusual in that none of the Monkees had a lot of musical experience. Mike Nesmith had played bass with a few bands, Peter Tork had appeared in a few Greenwich Village nightclubs, and Mickey Dolenz played a bit of guitar. On the other hand, Stephen Stills was rejected as a songwriter for the group (!)

Presumably the lads were chosen predominantly for their quirky personalities and their superficial resemblance to The Beatles.

The Monkees TV show became a monster hit. The show combined wacky antics by the lads, together with music videos of their pop songs.

The Monkees show was a blatant rip-off of the Beatles films (which in turn borrowed heavily from the Marx Brothers and The Goon Show). However, The Monkees TV episodes were cleverly written and generally humorous. As a result of their show and their records, The Monkees became international superstars.

The group divided up the singing responsibilities. As a general rule, Mickey Dolenz ended up singing lead on the hard-rocking songs while Davy Jones took the lead on slower ballads.

The music was overseen by rock impresario Don Kirschner, who was the head of music for Screen Gems. Kirschner assigned Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to produce the records for the group.

The early Monkees music was the product of Kirschner’s Brill Building experience and knowledge of the industry. Boyce and Hart wrote several songs for the group, including The Monkees’ first big hit, Last Train to Clarksville. They also wrote The Monkees Theme and (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.

Neil Diamond wrote I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote Pleasant Valley Sunday, while Kingston Trio member John Stewart wrote Daydream Believer.

At first, The Monkees sang on their records, but the instrumental work was handled by experienced professionals. Occasionally the instrumental work was done by the West Coast session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. More frequently, the session musicians would be drawn from Boyce and Hart’s studio band The Candy Store Prophets.

Here are the Monkees and their music video of I’m A Believer. This was issued in late 1967, at a time when the single was released.

The song features Mickey Dolenz on lead. Although the various Monkees are shown “playing” instruments (Dolenz on drums, Peter Tork on keyboards, Mike Nesmith on guitar and Davy Jones with a tambourine), none of the Monkees actually played on the record.

Once the Monkees became pop stars, criticism of their musical inexperience intensified. I particularly enjoyed the moniker “the Pre-Fab Four” bestowed on them by a cynical British press.

The subsequent events mirrored the plot of “Pinocchio” – the puppets yearned to become human. Led by Michael Nesmith, the Monkees agitated to write their own songs, play their own instruments and accompany themselves when on tour. Don Kirschner, on the other hand, took the position that the Monkees were never a genuine band, and that they should continue to release music that was written and recorded by industry professionals.

Since Kirschner did not consider the Monkees to be serious musicians, he tended not to consult them when producing an album or issuing single records. This led to Kirschner’s being dismissed as music supervisor shortly after the release of the Monkees’ first album.

After being bounced by the Monkees, Kirschner produced the animated TV series The Archies. In this show the cartoon characters Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica form a garage band.  The Archies actually had a #1 hit with the bubblegum-pop song Sugar Sugar. Kirschner didn’t have to worry about cartoon characters fighting him to seize creative control of their music!

Producers Boyce and Hart shared Kirschner’s initial view of the Monkees. They regarded them primarily as actors, and saw themselves as the songwriters and record producers.

Well, the Monkees did learn to play instruments, and eventually accompanied themselves while on tour. They had a significant number of pop hits before they eventually imploded.

In 1968 NBC announced that they were not renewing the Monkees TV show. The Monkees then shot a movie called Head.  I have seen bits and pieces of this film, and cannot imagine watching it all the way to the end.

The film makes no sense whatsoever, and what were intended to be clever surreal scenes come off as pointless. The movie was co-written by Jack Nicholson (presumably while on an acid trip prior to his next movie, Easy Rider), and Head was a commercial disaster. At the time, it was also a critical disaster as well; but apparently some recent critics consider Head to be a psychedelic cult classic. I would like to know what those critics are smoking.

While Monkees albums were still reaching the top 10 on the Billboard charts, a number of those songs turned out to be essentially solo performances by one member of the group.

Peter Tork left the band, followed by Michael Nesmith. From time to time after that, The Monkees (or various members) re-grouped for a special performance or a tour.

In 1997 the group re-united for a TV special, Hey, Hey It’s The Monkees, written by Michael Nesmith. I saw a few minutes of this show, and it was painfully awful — badly written, not funny, essentially unwatchable.

In my research for this post I read the Wikipedia entry on The Monkees. That article goes to considerable lengths arguing that The Monkees were terrific artists whose music had a significant impact on many of the greatest groups of the time.

This article quotes John Lennon as saying that the Monkees were “the greatest comic talent since the Marx Brothers,” and claims that artists such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and U2 were major Monkees fans. Give me a break. I’m surprised this article doesn’t argue that the Monkees inspired the guitar work of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page!

Don’t get me wrong. When The Monkees were churning out hit records and had a top-rated TV show, I really enjoyed them. Their records had catchy melodies and first-rate production values. The Monkees caught the tsunami generated by the British Invasion and rode it to fame and success.

Furthermore, The Monkees were the template for every synthetic boy-band that followed them. Groups like New Kids On the Block and ‘NSYNC copied every detail from The Monkees playbook; and these later groups enjoyed the same commercial success as the Pre-Fab Four.

Davy Jones died of a heart attack in 2012. We wish the remaining three  Monkees all the best in either their solo or re-united configurations.

Smash Mouth and I’m A Believer:

Smash Mouth is a rock band that formed in 1994 in San Jose, California. The band initially consisted of lead singer Steve Harwell, guitarist Greg Camp, bassist Paul de Lisle and drummer Kevin Coleman.

The band signed a record deal with Interscope, and their first album featuring the single Walkin’ On The Sun went double platinum. Shortly after the group’s second album was released, Kevin Coleman dropped out due to back problems and was replaced by Michael Urbano.

Below is a photo of Smash Mouth appearing at the 28th annual People’s Choice Awards show in 2002. From L: Paul de Lisle; Michael Urbano; Greg Camp; and Steve Harwell.

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The Smash Mouth version of I’m A Believer was released in 2001 as part of the Shrek soundtrack. A second Smash Mouth song, All Star, was also included in the Shrek soundtrack. The Smash Mouth cover of I’m A Believer was quite a success for the band.

Smash Mouth continued to place songs in animated movies when their cover of the Sherman Brothers tune I Wanna Be Like You was featured in The Jungle Book 2 soundtrack.

In 2003, Smash Mouth was dropped from Interscope Records. Since that time, the group has bounced around. The band signed with Universal Records and subsequently with 429 Records. They have also experienced somewhat of a revolving door with several band members leaving, being replaced, and sometimes returning.

Smash Mouth still has their original lead vocalist Steve Harwell and bassist Paul de Lisle. Michael Klooster on keyboards has been with the group since 1997. I quite enjoy the group’s energy and hard-rocking style, and I wish them well.

I’m A Believer in the film Shrek:

Shrek was a computer-animated film released in 2001. It was based on the 1990 book of the same name by William Steig. Shrek might be considered a “fractured fairy tale,” after the tongue-in-cheek revisionist versions of fairy tales popularized in the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV series.

Shrek turns several traditional fairytale tropes on their head. The film contains a number of sly cultural references, and in addition to the standard Disney fairytale lore Shrek incorporates adult sexual themes and flatulence jokes.

The rights to Shrek were originally owned by Steven Spielberg, who envisioned making an animated film from Steig’s book. Spielberg had Bill Murray in mind as Shrek and Steve Martin as his comrade Donkey.

However, when Spielberg joined David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg in founding DreamWorks, that studio obtained the rights to Shrek and actively developed the concept.

Katzenberg enlisted a number of stars to provide voices for the various characters in the film. Chris Farley was Katzenberg’s choice for the ogre Shrek, the title character of the movie. Farley had nearly completed the voice work for this character when he died of a drug overdose in 1997.

At that point, the producers brought in Mike Myers to provide the voice for Shrek. Myers had nearly completed his own vocal work on the movie when he decided that Shrek should have a Scottish accent, like Myers’ Austin Powers character. This required Myers to repeat all of Shrek’s dialogue.

The same team that provided the computer-animation work for the film Antz also worked on Shrek. Apparently the film includes many advances in computer-generated surfaces and visual effects.

The plot of Shrek follows a traditional fairytale motif but with a number of wry plot twists. The ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) discovers that several fairytale characters have been exiled to his swamp by the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). Shrek travels to Farquaad’s palace in Duloc to request that the characters be allowed to return.

Shrek joins up with a Donkey (Eddie Murphy). They travel to Duloc where they are recruited to rescue the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon, so that Farquaad can marry her. When the two arrive at the dragon’s lair, the dragon (a female) falls in love with Donkey.

On their trip to Duloc, Fiona and Shrek gradually fall in love; however, a misunderstanding leads to a falling-out. During this period, Donkey discovers that Fiona is under a spell. Every night she turns into an ogre herself, and only true love’s kiss will return her to “love’s true form.”

Shrek and Fiona separate. However, at the last moment Shrek re-appears in Duloc just as Fiona is to be married to Farquaad. Just then, the sun sets and Fiona is transformed into an ogre. With the help of the dragon, who eats Farquaad, Shrek rescues Fiona and kisses her. To her surprise, she remains an ogre; however, Shrek considers her to be beautiful, and the two are eventually married.

Shrek incorporated covers of 60s music into the film. Shortly before release of the movie, the producers decided to add another 60s cover to end the movie with a bang. I’m A Believer was a natural choice, as its first line (“I thought love was only true in fairy tales”) perfectly fits the premise of the film.

Here is the Smash Mouth cover of I’m A Believer, as it appeared in the movie Shrek.

I’m A Believer initially features the wedding kiss of Shrek and Fiona. However, the producers continue by showing the entire cast dancing along to the song, which is performed by Smash Mouth in rollicking hard-rock style.

Eddie Murphy’s character Donkey is given some vocals near the end of the song. We see Donkey together with the dragon, who clearly has the hots for him. The song includes brief glimpses of several stock characters from traditional fairytales – Fairy Godmother; Pinocchio; the Gingerbread Man; the Three Little Pigs; and the Three Blind Mice.

Mike Myers portrays Shrek as a well-meaning misfit whose main goal is to gain acceptance despite his differences from ‘normal’ society. Myers allows Eddie Murphy to weigh in with an over-the-top characterization of Donkey. This is similar to the way that Andy Griffith played straight-man to the zany antics of Don Knotts.

The producers of Shrek considered themselves to be in fierce competition with Disney, the dominant animated studio up to that time. Shrek is filled with sly references to earlier Disney pictures.

Note that the dragon in Shrek is extremely similar to its counterpart in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and the town of Duloc has an eerie resemblance to Disneyland,
even in so far as parodying the famous ‘It’s A Small World After All’ musical ride in a scene with the singing puppets.

In fact, DreamWorks issued the DVD for Shrek on the same day that Disney’s partner Pixar released their animated film Monsters Inc. And Radio Disney was barred from allowing ads for Shrek to air on their stations.

Shrek was a commercial blockbuster. It grossed over $484 million worldwide against a $60 million production budget. The film spawned three sequels, two holiday specials and a spin-off (Puss in Boots), with reportedly a fifth Shrek film due in a couple of years.

Shrek won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, beating out – you guessed it! – Monsters Inc. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I’m A Believer
Wikipedia, Neil Diamond
Wikipedia, The Monkees
Wikipedia, Smash Mouth
Wikipedia, Shrek

Posted in Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

You Never Can Tell: Chuck Berry; Bob Seger; Bruce Springsteen

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is You Never Can Tell. This is a great rock ‘n roll tune by Chuck Berry, and is part of our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. We will review Chuck Berry’s original song and explain how the song features in the film Pulp Fiction. We will then discuss covers by Bob Seger and by Bruce Springsteen.

Chuck Berry and You Never Can Tell:

We first encountered Chuck Berry in our blog post on Back in the USA. We later discussed his song Sweet Little Sixteen, then his cover of Ida Red (which he titled Maybellene), and the iconic rocker Johnny B Goode. So we will briefly review his career here.

Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry was one of the greatest rock ‘n roll pioneers. Born in 1926 and raised in St. Louis, he quickly became interested in rhythm and blues, and he began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. The group established a strong regional reputation, which earned Chuck an audition in 1955 with Leonard Chess of Chess Records.

Apparently the Chess brothers were uninterested in adding Chuck to their stable of blues singers – after all, they already had artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. At some point in the audition, apparently Chuck was asked something like “Why don’t you play your worst song?”

At that point, Chuck and the boys broke into one of their ‘black hillbilly’ songs. As it happened, the Johnnie Johnson Trio would occasionally mix country songs into their playlist of blues and ballads, a move that turned out to be quite popular with their fans. The producer urged Berry to write his own version of a ‘hillbilly’ song; this became Chuck’s first hit Maybellene, which was released in 1955 and hit #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.

Below is a photo of Chuck Berry performing with his band circa 1956.

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Maybellene set Chuck Berry off and running into rock music history. He and his band, with Johnnie Johnson on piano and blues great Willie Dixon on upright bass, put out a string of hits, all following the same basic formula. The songs featured Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics that painted a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature rock guitar riffs, which became standards for rock guitarists.

Chuck Berry was also a master showman. Over roughly a five-year period, he charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great R&B trailblazers.

Chuck keenly appreciated the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was selling records primarily to middle-class white teen-agers. Regardless, Chuck’s lyrics were terrific, and his songs effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.

The song You Never Can Tell also goes by two other names – C’est La Vie and Teenage Wedding, both titles referring to lyrics in the song. Chuck wrote the tune in the early 1960s while he was in prison for violating the Mann Act. That statute made it a crime to transport
“any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”.

The law was passed in 1910 and has been amended but never repealed. At the time, it represented an attempt to close down brothels, which had previously been legal in many cities. Also, it was an over-reaction to the notion that thousands of women were being kidnapped and forced into prostitution, or “white slavery.”

This idea was epitomized in an excerpt from a book by the U.S. District Attorney from Chicago:
One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement. This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners. Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards “white slavery” in places of this character.

The Mann Act was used as a device to punish many forms of sexual behavior, from prostitution to couples who eloped, to punishment for men who abandoned their lovers. Both Chuck Berry and the boxer Jack Johnson were convicted under the Mann Act, and actor Charlie Chaplin was charged but acquitted of violating this statute.

Anyway, the song You Never Can Tell was released in 1964 and made it to #14 on the Billboard charts. The tune marks a sort of watershed for Chuck Berry, as it was his last Top 40 hit until Chuck’s novelty song My Ding-a-Ling hit #1 in 1972.

You Never Can Tell describes a Cajun couple, Pierre and “the lovely mademoiselle,” who get married in New Orleans at a young age and settle down. The song is told in Chuck’s inimitable talking-blues style, with his colorful lyrics piling up images atop one another.

It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle
And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

Each verse of the song ends with the line ‘“C’est la vie” say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.’ Fittingly enough, the song contains Cajun-inspired rhythms.

And here is Chuck Berry in a live performance of You Never Can Tell.

This performance took place in 1972. Chuck slows down the tempo considerably from his single record. He noodles around with guitar solos while his backup band makes sure they know the right key to play.

The pianist interjects some enjoyable Dixieland tempo. I greatly enjoy this particular Chuck Berry tune, which has a slightly different style from his signature guitar-driven rockers.

Chuck Berry would frequently tour without a band; this saved him money, as instead of paying a touring band he could hire local backup musicians for scale. It was not unusual for Chuck to show up immediately before a performance and simply instruct the musicians ‘follow me.’

That may be the case with the live concert in the video above. It certainly appears as though the guitar and bass players are tentative, and aren’t really sure what they are doing.

Over the years Chuck Berry has received virtually every honor in the field. He was a shoo-in for induction into the 1986 inaugural class at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the comments in his bio was that he
laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.
How true! Chuck also is ranked fifth on the Rolling Stone list 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

On March 18, 2017, Chuck Berry passed away from cardiac arrest at the age of 90. Rock and roll music lost one of its great pioneers, a legendary singer and songwriter whose output forms a great contribution to modern rhythm and blues.

Chuck also played a significant role in making the guitar the dominant melodic component of rock music. Anyone learning rock guitar will begin by committing to memory Chuck Berry’s classic guitar licks.

You Never Can Tell in the movie Pulp Fiction:

Pulp Fiction was a 1994 movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, with a script co-written by Tarantino and Roger Avary. It was arguably the most important film of the 1990s.

Tarantino assembled an all-star cast to tell his complex, interwoven tale about a number of gangsters in Los Angeles. The film is shot out of chronological sequence, and in addition a couple of the scenes are presented from more than one point of view. Throughout the film, the lives of the various characters intersect in many different ways.

Tarantino pitched his script to various studios before it received the green light. For example, Columbia TriStar pictures rejected the film as “too demented.” However, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures was enchanted by the script. Pulp Fiction became the first film that was fully financed by Miramax.

The plot of Pulp Fiction is incredibly intricate and detailed, so we will give a very rough summary of the story, in chronological order (note: this is not the order that scenes appear in the movie).

The story begins when mob hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) retrieve a mysterious briefcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The pair kill Brett, the holder of the briefcase, and prepare to return it to their boss.

One of Brett’s associates has been hiding in the bathroom. He jumps out and empties his gun at Vincent and Jules. However, every shot misses, and the mobsters then kill him. Jules is convinced that he was spared by divine intervention, and considers this a sign that he should cease his criminal ways.

Vincent and Jules stop at a diner. A couple, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, hold up the establishment at gunpoint. Jules trains his gun on Pumpkin. Vincent, who was in the bathroom, emerges with his own gun, creating a Mexican standoff with the armed couple. Jules recites a Biblical verse, then allows the pair to rob the diner and leave.

Vincent and Jules are driving back to Marsellus with one of the associates in the back seat of the car. Vincent accidentally shoots and kills the associate. The pair then drive to the house of a friend, who calls in a “cleaner” (Harvey Keitel). The cleaner directs Vincent and Jules to clean the car, hide the body in the trunk, and take the car to a junkyard where it is crushed.

When Vega and Winnfield arrive, Wallace is bribing a boxer (Bruce Willis) to throw a fight. Wallace asks Vega to escort his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) while he is out of town. Vega takes Mia to a bar that sponsors a dance contest, which they win. When Vega and Mia return to the Wallace house, Mia finds some of Vega’s heroin and overdoses. She is revived by a shot of adrenaline to her heart.

Butch double-crosses Marsellus and wins his fight. He returns to his apartment to gather his belongings and flee. There he encounters Vincent and shoots him dead. However, as Butch is leaving town he is spotted by Marsellus.

Marsellus chases Butch into a pawnshop. The pawnshop owner pulls a gun on the pair and ties them up. Marsellus is sexually assaulted by the pawnshop security guard. Butch eventually frees himself and kills both the pawnshop owner and security guard. Because Butch has saved Marsellus, he is allowed to go free provided he never mentions the assault on Marsellus.

The Weinstein brothers entered Pulp Fiction in the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. They flew the entire cast to Cannes for the festival. The film won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or; this created a tremendous buzz for the movie.

Poster for the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction.

At left we show a poster for Pulp Fiction. It features Uma Thurman in the foreground holding a pistol with a pulp magazine beside her, with the mobsters played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (sporting a large Jheri-curl wig) in the background.

Pulp Fiction was a major box-office hit. Against a film and promotional budget of less than $20 million, the film made over $200 million worldwide. In addition, the movie won a slew of awards. It was named best picture of the year, with Tarantino as best director, by many film critics.

There was one unfortunate event. Roger Avary had agreed to waive his co-writer status so that promotional materials for the film could read “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.” As a result, Tarantino alone was the recipient of the Golden Globe Award for best screenplay. And in his acceptance speech, Tarantino failed to mention Avary! This was rectified when Tarantino and Avary shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here is the clip from Pulp Fiction that features the Chuck Berry song You Never Can Tell.

In this scene, Vega (Travolta) takes Mia Wallace (Thurman) to a club that sponsors a twist contest. Vega and Wallace compete, to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, and win first prize.

As you can see, Berry’s record has a much more upbeat tempo than the live clip we showed earlier. Johnnie Johnson thumps away with his Cajun-inspired piano licks, while a lively saxophone keeps the tempo going.

The scene here is quite electric. Uma Thurman is incredibly sexy, while Travolta is the epitome of cool. Like Saturday Night Fever, this is yet another movie highlighted by Travolta’s dancing.

Pulp Fiction showed off Quentin Tarantino’s many talents. The complex screenplay managed to weave together several disparate strands of the plot. The film was memorable for its snappy dialogue, particularly between Travolta and Jackson.

The video work was spectacular, and the film also contained several sly references to earlier movies. Pulp Fiction had an incredible impact on films in the 90s and beyond. The movie appears on a number of “Best Movies” lists, and elicited a generally positive critical response.

In addition to his other skills, Quentin Tarantino is a master at incorporating the perfect popular music to complement his films. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino did not use a film score but instead relied on a number of rock and roll tunes, in particular surf music from Dick Dale.

Negative reactions to Pulp Fiction tended to center on the hyper-violence seen in many Tarantino films. Part of this strong negative reaction to Tarantino’s movies occurs because he is such an accomplished film-maker that the scenes of violence are that much more shocking.

I share this ambivalence towards violence in Quentin Tarantino films. I will never again be able to watch the “straight razor” scene in Reservoir Dogs.

However, others argue that the violence is simply part of an iconic film package. For example, critic Gene Siskel stated that
the violent intensity of Pulp Fiction calls to mind other violent watershed films that were considered classics in their time and still are. Hitchcock’s Psycho [1960], Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde [1967], and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange [1971].

I’m not entirely convinced by Siskel’s argument. After all, there were significant ethical issues underpinning both Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange, that seem to be absent in Tarantino’s more amoral movies.

However, I cannot argue with the impact of this and other Quentin Tarantino films.

Bob Seger and C’est La Vie:

Bob Seger is a rock and roll singer-songwriter. He has become a rock superstar, although he took a surprisingly long route before hitting the big time.

Bob Seger was born in 1945 and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was an accomplished musician and taught his son to play several instruments. Unfortunately, his parents argued constantly and when Bob was ten, his father abandoned the family and moved to California.

Seger played in a number of bands and issued a couple of albums. He has a terrific voice for rock ‘n roll, a raspy growl that he copied from Little Richard. Seger garnered a devoted following in southern Michigan, but could not seem to score an album or single that would catapult his career forward.

Below is a photo of a young Bob Seger performing in the late 60s.

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After fronting a couple of bands, Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. It was predominantly made up of session musicians from the greater Detroit area. There has been considerable turnover in the Silver Bullet Band over the past 40 years; however, Silver Bullet provides Seger with a tight ensemble that produces a consistent, highly professional sound.

This is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, which has also backed Bruce for at least 40 years. We will meet up with Bruce in the next section of this post.

To give an example of Seger’s regional popularity, in mid-1976 he was the featured performer at a concert in Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome that attracted 80,000 fans. The following evening, Seger performed in Chicago to an audience of less than 1,000.

Bob Seger’s break-out album was the 1976 release Night Moves. The title song of that album reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. That song covered several themes common to many Bob Seger tunes: indelible youthful memories; middle American pastimes such as bars and strip clubs; and the passing of time and loss of innocence.

A second Bob Seger hit on that album, Mainstreet, was written about Ann Street in Ann Arbor. It covers similar themes to Night Moves, and also contains an iconic soaring guitar solo by Silver Bullet guitarist Pete Carr. Both of those songs are still favorites on classic-rock radio stations.

By now the album Night Moves has sold nearly 10 million copies. But Seger’s success with this album also sparked a demand for his two previous albums, Beautiful Loser and Live Bullet. Each of those albums has now sold over 2 million copies. In addition, the live concert album Live Bullet remained on the Billboard album charts for well over three years.

Here is Bob Seger in a live performance of C’est La Vie. This was a single on Seger’s 1994 Greatest Hits album, which has sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.  This is from a March 2011 concert in Toledo, not all that far from Seger’s residence in a Detroit suburb.

Mr. Seger really has a good time with this old Chuck Berry tune. He is backed by his longtime group the Silver Bullet Band, which contains an energetic horn section led by saxophonist Alto Reed. A honky-tonk piano follows the Dixieland theme, tinkling away throughout the song.

I have caught Bob Seger in concert a couple of times, and he invariably turns in a first-rate performance. His throaty vocals are just perfect for rock ‘n roll, and some of his best songs are truly memorable.

Bob Seger has continued to command superstar status over the past 40 years. However, there is now a significant time between the release of new material, and now that Bob has reached 70, he has hinted that he may soon retire from touring.

But at present he’s still on the road. If you can catch him when he passes through your town, you can be assured of a hard-rocking, crowd-pleasing set. Keep rockin’,Bob!

Bruce Springsteen and You Never Can Tell:

Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. We discussed Bruce and his career in an earlier blog post on the song Brown-Eyed Girl, and also his cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive.  Here we will provide a short bio of his life and career.

Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.

After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just like Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.

Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Bruce also developed a cult following because of the energy and exuberance of his live performances.

This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were rather disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.

His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.

Below is a photo of Bruce Springsteen performing in Amsterdam on his 1975 Born To Run tour. At left is Bruce’s great sax player Clarence Clemons.

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I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing. And the lyrics were terrific, bringing to mind some of the best work by artists like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel. However, I thought the production values on the record were third-rate, and I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.

Well, Mr. Springsteen succeeded in spectacular fashion. The 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, 7 of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 hits. Furthermore, the advent of music videos at this time meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s energy in live performance.

And the production values were superb on the Born In The U.S.A. album. The E Street Band was in great form, and the album sold like hotcakes, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.

Here is Bruce Springsteen performing You Never Can Tell. This is from his 2013 Wrecking Ball tour of Germany; this performance took place in Leipzig.

The premise here is that Bruce and the E Street Band are doing a song that either they have not performed for a long time, or perhaps have never performed.

I am not sure whether I accept the notion that Bruce and the boys had not previously rehearsed this song. However, there is no doubt that they are having a great time, as is the audience.

Bruce spends about a minute deciding in what key the song will be played. He then allows his band to noodle around a bit on the tune, and invites the audience to hum along to start off the song.

Once they get going, the performance is thoroughly delightful. The E Street Band horn section have major solos during the piece – trombone; saxophone; and two different trumpets – while pianist Roy Bittan maintains the Dixieland beat.

At this point, Bruce Springsteen is a living American treasure. He continues to release albums, varying between hard-rocking tunes with the E Street Band and folk records inspired by artists such as Woody Guthrie.

Springsteen’s concerts also tend to be epic events. He and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic concerts last up to three hours or more.

The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce, what a great career – “it goes to show you never can tell”!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, You Never Can Tell (song)
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Wikipedia, Mann Act
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chuck Berry bio
Wikipedia, Pulp Fiction
Wikipedia, Quentin Tarantino
Wikipedia, Bob Seger
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen

Posted in Classic Rock, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Everybody Needs Somebody To Love: Solomon Burke; Wilson Pickett; The Blues Brothers

Hello there! This is the seventh installment in our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” Here we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie.

This week’s entry is Everybody Needs Somebody To Love. This is a pop song composed by Solomon Burke, Bert Berns, and Jerry Wexler, and sung by Burke.

We will start with a brief review of Solomon Burke’s career. We will next discuss a cover of Everybody Needs Somebody To Love by Wilson Pickett. We will conclude with a review of the movie The Blues Brothers, and show the song as performed in that film.

Solomon Burke and Everybody Needs Somebody To Love:

We wrote about Solomon Burke in an earlier blog post discussing the song Proud Mary. Here we will provide a brief discussion of his life and career.

Solomon Burke is one of the greatest largely unknown artists in the history of soul music. He released 35 albums during his lifetime for 17 different record companies, and he sold nearly 17 million albums.  But he never had that blockbuster hit that would have made him a household name.

Like so many other R&B artists, Solomon Burke came to soul music from gospel. He first gained fame as a teenage preacher, where he gave sermons and sang in tent revivals. Like former gospel singers such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, Burke had considerable ambivalence and guilt about abandoning gospel music for popular music.

In fact, because of the taboo that the blues was the “devil’s music,” Burke was highly reluctant to be labeled a “rhythm and blues” performer, always insisting that he was a “soul artist.” He only adopted the title “soul singer” after clearing it with his church.

There was no denying the influence of gospel on Solomon Burke’s music. Eventually he was reconciled to believe that popular music was simply an efficient alternative method to deliver God’s message.

Burke’s live performances adopted many of the trappings of revival tent meetings, and audience members experienced some of the same emotions and audience participation that are characteristic of gospel services.

Burke took seriously his nickname as the “King of Rock ‘n Soul,” so much so that his live performances would often include
a crown, a scepter, a cape, robe, dancing girls, and colored lights.

Burke’s performances pre-dated those of James Brown, whose act also included capes and other apparel. At one point Burke was paid $7,500 to appear at one of James Brown’s concerts and `surrender’ his robe and crown (Burke took the cash, but continued to use the props in his own act).

Below is a photo of the “King of Soul” circa 1972, complete with throne and ermine-trimmed cape.

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The song Everybody Needs Somebody To Love is self-explanatory. Burke explains that everyone needs to be loved, and that the world would be a more peaceful place if this were the case.

Everybody needs somebody
Everybody wants somebody to love
Honey to hug, yeah
Sugar to kiss
Baby to miss now, yeah
Baby to tease
Sometimes to please, yeah

And I need you you you
And I need you you you
In the morning baby you you you
When the sun goes down you you you
Ain’t no nobody around you you you

The song Everybody Needs Somebody To Love is credited to Solomon Burke, Bert Berns and Jerry Wexler. Burke consistently maintained that he wrote the song himself, and that his agreement to share songwriting credit with Berns and Wexler was simply for convenience.

Burke claimed that Berns and Wexler
told me that song would never make it. I said, ‘Well, I tell ya what—I’ll give you a piece of it.’ They said, ‘That’s the way we’ll get the record played, so we’ll take a piece of it.’ In those days, they took a piece of your songs—a piece of the publishing—but in the end, you didn’t have any pieces left.

If this was simply an argument between Burke and Berns, I would believe Burke. Van Morrison, who worked closely with Bert Berns early in his career, is still peeved at what he claims was shabby treatment from Berns.

However, Jerry Wexler (who had a high reputation for integrity) claimed that the song was indeed a collaborative effort between the three songwriters. Wexler said:
“The whole process of making a record is a collaborative affair and the issue of who does just what on a song sometimes gets confusing, but not on that song. We wrote it in Bert’s apartment. Bert had a guitar and we wrote it together.”

Here is Solomon Burke performing Everybody Needs Somebody To Love live in 2003 on the British TV show Top of the Pops.

Isn’t this a great song? Burke deliberately wrote it to convey the spirit of a black preacher exhorting his flock. And here this succeeds brilliantly.

Somebody To Love became one of Burke’s signature tunes. Burke appears with his massive frame seated on a throne, befitting his nickname as the “King of Soul,” and sporting a ten-gallon hat. Burke has a full backing band, including saxophones, trumpets, trombones and – WTF, a harp?

In this performance, Somebody To Love begins with a couple of sentences directed towards the audience. However, the record of the song began with a much longer preface.

Anyway, Burke races through this song, with the band keeping pace, the horns shouting in unison, and the bass and drums thumping along.

The song indeed brings to mind a Sunday meeting at a particularly enthusiastic black church. The Top of the Pops congregation/audience chimes in when asked to sing along, and Burke leads the way with his booming vocals.

One would have expected this song to sell like hotcakes; however, it was a disappointment, reaching only #58 in the Billboard pop charts.

In 2001, Solomon Burke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was a well-deserved honor and must have been appreciated by Burke, since he had been nominated but failed to be inducted eight times previously.

Although Mr. Burke was a very large man, late in his life he became truly gigantic. His weight hovered in the vicinity of 400 pounds; since he sang while seated, it was unclear whether or not he could stand up.

In 2010, Burke died while on a plane that had just landed at Amsterdam Airport. No autopsy was performed, and it was believed that he died of a pulmonary embolism.

At the time of his death, it is believed that Mr. Burke had 14 children, including at least two born out of wedlock. He also had 90 (!) grandchildren.  This suggests that he was highly successful in finding “somebody to love.”

Wilson Pickett, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love:

We covered Wilson Pickett in an earlier blog post on the song Hey Jude. Here we will briefly review Pickett’s life and work. We will find that Pickett’s story closely intersects that of Solomon Burke.

Wilson Pickett was an R&B and soul singer-songwriter who carved out an impressive career for himself. Like so many R&B singers, including Solomon Burke, Pickett started out with a gospel group.

In the mid-50s, Pickett toured with a gospel group called the Violinaires. When a number of his fellow gospel singers departed for careers in pop music, Pickett decided to join them.

Below is a photo of Wilson Pickett in the Muscle Shoals studios in Nov. 1969.

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The first soul group that he joined was called The Falcons. Pickett co-wrote a song called If You Need Me, and sent a demo to producer Jerry Wexler. Wexler gave it to Solomon Burke, the top R&B star at Atlantic Records at that time, and it became a hit for Burke.

Pickett was deeply disappointed that he was not given the chance to release If You Need Me under his own name. But in 1964, he was signed to a record contract at Atlantic Records.

Pickett’s first big success occurred with songs recorded at Stax Records in Memphis. There, he teamed up with the Stax “house band,” Booker T and the MGs. His first major hit was the 1965 release, In the Midnight Hour, which Pickett co-wrote with Eddie Floyd and Booker T guitarist Steve Cropper. The song went to #1 on the R&B charts and #21 on the Billboard pop lists.

In 1965, Pickett began recording at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Backed by the terrific Muscle Shoals session musicians, Pickett garnered some of his biggest hits, songs such as Land of 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally.

Here is Wilson Pickett in a live performance of Everybody Needs Somebody To Love.

This song was released as a single from the 1966 album The Wicked Pickett. Like the Solomon Burke version, the song begins with a brief spoken introduction to the crowd before Pickett jumps into this tune.

Pickett is backed by a band with several horns that provide a counterpoint to his great R&B vocals. In the middle of the tune, Pickett and the drummer continue to blast away. And Wilson gives us a full dose of his blues screaming, to the delight of the crowd.

Wilson Pickett last had a song on the pop charts in 1974. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and in 1999 he released an album called It’s Harder Now for which he was named Soul/Blues Male Artist of the Year by the Blues Foundation.

Over the course of his life, Pickett had some troubles with the law. In 1987, he was fined and received two years’ probation for carrying a loaded shotgun in his car. Then in 1993 he struck an 86-year-old pedestrian with his automobile. The pedestrian eventually died, and Pickett pled guilty to drunk driving charges. He received a one-year prison sentence and five years’ probation.

In 2006, Wilson Pickett died of a heart attack at age 64. His good friend Little Richard spoke at his funeral.

The Blues Brothers and Everybody Needs Somebody To Love:

We previously discussed the Blues Brothers in a blog post on the song Gimme Some Lovin’. Here we will review the career of the Blues Brothers, and discuss The Blues Brothers movie.

The Blues Brothers originated in a Saturday Night Live skit that “went viral.” In January, 1976, following a “King Bees” sketch, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, still wearing their “king bees” costumes, performed the Slim Harpo song “I’m a King Bee.” The song featured Belushi on vocals and Aykroyd on harmonica.

Dan Aykroyd had been a serious blues fan for many years. Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, and as a student at Carleton University, Aykroyd attended concerts of American blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy.

When hired as cast members for Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd and Belushi would frequent New York blues clubs after SNL rehearsals. Following their “King Bee” blues sketch in 1976, Aykroyd and Belushi raised the idea of forming their own blues group.

The “Blues Brothers” appeared in a skit in April, 1978. Following that, with the help of SNL pianist and arranger Paul Shaffer, they assembled an all-star Blues Brothers Show Band and Revue.

They began with guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn from the Memphis combo Booker T and the MGs.  The group also included drummer Willie Hall who had worked with Isaac Hayes, blues guitarist Matt Murphy, and horn players Lou Marini, Tom Malone and Alan Rubin who had been members of Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Below is a photo of the Blues Brothers in performance.

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In 1978 the Blues Brothers issued an album, Briefcase Full of Blues. Their method of operation was straightforward: Aykroyd and Belushi, backed by their all-star band, found R&B songs that they enjoyed. They then produced note-for-note covers of the originals.

The Blues Brothers were an extremely enjoyable group. Although John Belushi’s vocal talent was limited, his enthusiasm for these blues classics showed, and he was an exceptionally good mimic.  And Dan Aykroyd was a talented harmonica player.

The Blues Brothers took off after Belushi’s 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House became a smash hit. At that point, Briefcase Full of Blues became a runaway best-selling album.

John Landis, who had directed Animal House, was chosen as the director of a film The Blues Brothers. Dan Aykroyd sat down to write a script outline for the movie. However, he was hampered by the fact that he had never previously written, or even read, a screenplay.

As a result, Aykroyd produced a rambling document roughly 3 times the length of a normal screenplay. When he submitted his draft, to highlight its length Aykroyd placed it between the covers of a Los Angeles Yellow Pages directory. John Landis subsequently re-wrote the screenplay.

The premise of the film is that ex-con Jake [John Belushi] and his brother Elwood [Dan Aykroyd] decide to re-form their blues band. Their “mission from God” is to raise sufficient funds to pay off the property tax bill on the Catholic orphanage where they were raised.

Overcoming a number of obstacles, Jake and Elwood succeed in re-constituting the band. Along the way, they encounter artists such as Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Cab Calloway, each of whom performs a musical number.

Here are the Blues Brothers performing Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, a scene from The Blues Brothers movie.  This supposedly takes place at a charity concert to raise funds for their orphanage.

The song Everybody Needs Somebody To Love brings down the house. Jake appears on lead vocals, while Elwood plays harmonica and talks to the crowd. The great backing band rocks away on guitar, bass, drums and horns.

Note the exceptional dance moves from both Belushi and Aykroyd. In particular, fans were stunned to see the mammoth Belushi doing cartwheels and backflips. This song was an unforgettable highlight of the Blues Brothers movie.

Now back to the plot of the movie. During the concert, the Blues Brothers manage to elude their pursuers and obtain funds for the orphanage. They outrun the police, a country band and the Nazis in a frantic car chase that involves an incredible number of car wrecks and death-defying antics.

Eventually the Blues Brothers and their Bluesmobile, a beat-up 1974 Dodge Monaco police vehicle, reach Chicago City Hall and pay off the property tax lien, before they are arrested by what appears to be the entire Cook County police force.

In the final scene of the movie, the Blues Brothers play Jailhouse Rock for their fellow inmates in Joliet Prison while the closing credits flash across the screen.

Production of the Blues Brothers movie was rather disastrous. An effort was made to produce the film quickly, in order to retain the momentum from Belushi’s notoriety in Animal House. However, the scriptwriting took much longer than anticipated.

Filming was delayed by Belushi’s partying and drug use while on location in Chicago. A private bar, the Blues Club, was constructed on-set for the film’s stars and crew. Actress Carrie Fisher,
Aykroyd’s girlfriend at the time, says most of the bar’s staff doubled as dealers, procuring any drug patrons desired.

Belushi was then dealing with a serious cocaine addiction. As a result, he would frequently miss location calls, or would be found crashing on the sofa in his trailer. Both Dan Aykroyd and Carrie Fisher spent significant time attempting to keep Belushi sober.

In addition, the movie featured a number of spectacular car crashes. Thirteen different Dodge Monacos were used (and often demolished) as the Bluesmobile in different scenes of the movie.
For the large car chases, filmmakers purchased 60 police cars at $400 each, and most were destroyed at the completion of the filming. More than 40 stunt drivers were hired, and the crew kept a 24-hour body shop to repair cars.

Up to that point, this movie featured more car crashes than any film in history. In one additional scene, the “Illinois Nazis” drive their car off an unfinished freeway ramp. To simulate the car flying and crashing, an actual Ford Pinto was dropped 1,200 feet from a helicopter. This required the movie’s producers to obtain a “Special Airworthiness Certificate” from the Federal Aviation Administration for the stunt.

Production costs spiraled out of control. The final cost for the movie was $27.5 million, $10 million over the film’s budget.

One final setback occurred when the head of the Mann Theatre chain that dominated film distribution in the Western U.S. refused to book the Blues Brothers movie in many locations.  Ted Mann did not want black patrons driving into white suburban neighborhoods to see the movie, and he guessed that whites would have little reason to see a film that featured over-the-hill black R&B artists.

Universal Studios became concerned that they might be responsible for an incredibly expensive dud; as a result, both the initial release and the publicity for the film were quite limited.

Universal need not have worried. The film eventually grossed more than $100 million. The combination of Belushi and Aykroyd, classic blues by R&B legends, and some genuinely bizarre side-plots produced a cult classic. Belushi, Aykroyd, and Landis were riding high. It appeared that the Blues Brothers movie would likely jump-start an entire series of films and albums.

Alas, all this was blown to bits when John Belushi died in March, 1982 after being injected with a “speedball,” a mixture of heroin and cocaine. For some time, Belushi had been notorious for his excessive drug use. Friends and family had been unable to stop him, and in retrospect his lifestyle appears to have been a train wreck waiting to happen.

In 1997 Aykroyd, John Goodman and Jim Belushi (John’s brother) were half-time headliners as “The Blues Brothers” at the Super Bowl.

In 2000, Aykroyd and John Goodman teamed up with John Landis in a film sequel, Blues Brothers 2000. Despite the fact that the film assembled a dynamite cast of R&B artists, and featured even more car crashes than the original, the re-make was both a critical and commercial disaster.

Dan Aykroyd continues to make occasional appearances as one of the Blues Brothers, frequently accompanied by Jim Belushi.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Everybody Needs Somebody To Love
Wikipedia, Solomon Burke
Wikipedia, Wilson Pickett
Wikipedia, The Blues Brothers
Wikipedia, The Blues Brothers (film)

Posted in Gospel Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Soul music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ticket To Ride: The Beatles; Vanilla Fudge; Carpenters.

Hello there! This week we will resume our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies, where we review a song that was featured in a film.

This week’s blog entry is Ticket To Ride. This is a great pop song by The Beatles. We will review their original song and discuss its inclusion in the movie Help! We will then discuss covers by Vanilla Fudge and by the Carpenters.

The Beatles, Ticket To Ride and the film Help!

The song Ticket To Ride was one of the tunes written for the Beatles’ second feature film, Help! There is some disagreement about the authorship of the song. While John maintained that he wrote the song more or less single-handedly, Paul’s contention is that the two of them composed the song together: he reckoned the contributions as about 60% John and 40% Paul.

Ticket To Ride continues the Beatles’ move towards progressively more complex and nuanced songs. Both the melody and lyrics are significantly more sophisticated than in the group’s first albums. Also, this was the first song where the Beatles adopted what became their standard practice of laying down the rhythm or backing tracks first, and then overdubbing vocals and lead guitar afterwards.

In addition, the coda of the song (“she ought to think twice, she ought to do right by me”) switches tempo and provides yet another change in style.

Released as a single in April 1965, Ticket To Ride was the Beatles’ seventh consecutive #1 hit in the U.K. and their third straight in the U.S. The Beatles also performed it live in their Shea Stadium concert and at the Hollywood Bowl.

Below is a photo of the Beatles in 1962, when they were recording a program for TV GRANADA. From L: Ringo Starr; George Harrison; Paul McCartney; John Lennon.

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Now we will shift to the movie Help! and eventually show the clip from that movie featuring the song Ticket To Ride.

Help! was filmed and released in 1965. Like The Beatles’ first picture, A Hard Day’s Night, it was directed by Richard Lester.

However, because of the commercial success of the first Beatles film, Help! had a significantly larger working budget.  It was filmed in color and shot in various locations, including Obertauern in the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas.

The original title for the film was Eight Arms To Hold You. However, after John Lennon wrote the song Help!, the title of the film was changed. Apparently the film was inspired in part by the absurd shenanigans from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.

Before he became the Beatles’ producer, George Martin produced records for the cast of the BBC production The Goon Show. Martin had thus worked with both Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers on Goon Show records.  Some of the wackiness in Help! can be traced directly to influences from The Goon Show.

The plot of Help! is so silly that there is little point in recounting many details. However, I will try to give a brief summary. The premise is that an Eastern cult is about to sacrifice a young woman to the goddess Kali.

However, at the last moment the sacrifice has to be postponed as the intended victim is not wearing a required sacrificial ring. As it happens, a fan had mailed the ring to Ringo Starr. So various clan members set off to extract the ring from Ringo, by any means necessary.

Through a series of farcical events, members of the cult fail to recover the ring.  Also, Ringo is unable to remove the ring, which is stuck on his finger. The Beatles recruit a scientist and his assistant to expand the molecules in the ring so it will fall off. The scientists fail, but they too join the chase to steal Ringo’s magical ring.

The pursuit of the Beatles takes place across various countries. At some point, the Beatles end up in the Austrian Alps, where they are being pursued by both the Eastern cult and the mad scientists.

The song Ticket To Ride plays as The Beatles attempt to ski in the Alps, but frequently fall down. There are some whimsical scenes as the boys horse around on the slopes.

Ticket To Ride begins with a George Harrison solo, played on his 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. The tune is also notable for Ringo Starr’s highly creative drum licks. Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon each contribute some rhythm guitar parts.

At some point in the video a grand piano suddenly appears in the snow, and the Fab Four clown around while singing. The music video is wonderfully enjoyable, bringing to mind some of the most effective moments from A Hard Day’s Night. To my mind, the funniest moment in this clip occurs while Ringo plays with a duck’s head that he has carved out of snow.

Shortly before the Beatles began working on Help!, they had discovered marijuana. During filming of the movie, they were apparently smoking weed for breakfast every morning. Thus, they had some difficulty remembering their lines, and would break out in giggles at inopportune moments. In fact, the Beatles later described Help! as being filmed “through a haze of marijuana.”

Although the reception of film critics to Help! was rather harsh, today many people credit the movie with being an inspiration for music videos. The movie contains some great Beatles tunes, including the title song, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, You’re Gonna Lose That Girl, and The Night Before.

As for the particular song Ticket To Ride, it is generally considered a real gem, and in terms of musical creativity represents a significant step forward.

For example, music critic Ian McDonald
describes it as “psychologically deeper than anything the Beatles had recorded before … extraordinary for its time – massive with chiming electric guitars, weighty rhythm, and rumbling floor tom-toms”, and he views the production as a signal of the band’s next major change of musical direction [to songs inspired by Indian music].

In 2014, USA Today chose Ticket To Ride as their candidate for the best Beatles song ever. I would not go that far, but hey, one has so many Beatles gems to choose from!

Filmmaker Bob Rafelson had been trying for a couple of years to pitch a TV show about a rock quartet modeled after The Beatles, but found little interest in his concept. The unexpected commercial success of A Hard Day’s Night gave Rafelson more ammunition for his idea.

In 1965 his TV show The Monkees finally got the green light. In early Monkees episodes, the zany plots of the show and the tongue-in-cheek music videos were closely modeled after the Beatles movies.

After the movie Help!, the Beatles would take a radically inventive turn. They would first incorporate Indian-inspired music into their songs, following a trip to India to study with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then they would stop touring and produce only studio work.

Following their incredible, mind-blowing albums Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album and Abbey Road, the Beatles would break up and break our hearts in the process.

But the magical music that they produced still lives on and continues to amaze us. Plus, the individual Beatles continued to produce some exceptional music even after their breakup. Thanks for the ride, boys.

Vanilla Fudge and Ticket To Ride:

Vanilla Fudge was one of the early heavy-metal groups. Their reputation seems to be fading into obscurity now, as they lasted for only a few years before disbanding.

In 1965, organist Mark Stein and bassist Tim Bogert formed a band called The Electric Pigeons. They were inspired by the group The Rascals, who had crafted a distinctive sound in which the organ played a prominent role.

Stein and Bogert soon added guitarist Vince Martell and drummer Carmine Appice. The group were signed to a record contract by Atlantic Records and their legendary founder, Ahmet Ertegun.

Below is a photo of Vanilla Fudge from 1968. From L: Mark Stein; Carmine Appice; Vince Martell; Tim Bogert.

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However, there was a hitch: Ertegun hated the name The Pigeons (the group had dropped “Electric” from their name), and insisted that they change it. After some discussion, the group settled on “Vanilla Fudge.” The name referred to their status as white soul musicians.

As an interesting side note, the Vanilla Fudge manager was Phillip Basile, who was reputed to be a member of the New York Mafia Lucchese family.

Vanilla Fudge had one big hit, their song You Keep Me Hangin’ On. This was a slow heavy-metal cover of the tune popularized by The Supremes. That song made the top 10 in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Although Vanilla Fudge had no more chart hits, and they broke up in 1970, nevertheless they had an impact on rock music. The sound of the British heavy-metal band Deep Purple was strongly reminiscent of that from Vanilla Fudge.

Furthermore, when they first toured The U.S. early in 1969, Led Zeppelin opened for Vanilla Fudge at a few concerts. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin has remarked that his band was keenly aware of Vanilla Fudge and its style of music.

So here is Vanilla Fudge in a cover of the Beatles’ Ticket To Ride.

This is from a concert in Akron, Ohio in 2011. The band turns the Beatles tune into a heavy-rocking blues song. As you can see, the organ plays a major role in the group’s  sound.

Vince Martell rocks out on guitar and lead vocals, while he is joined by Mark Stein on organ and Pete Bremy on bass (the original Vanilla Fudge bassist Tim Bogert retired in 2009). Carmine Appice thumps away on the drums. Right at the end of the song, the group indulges in an extended blues riff.

Although they disbanded in 1970, some or all of the members of Vanilla Fudge regrouped on several occasions. They united for a tour after the release of their Greatest Hits album in 1982. They also reunited in 2005, 2008 and 2011.

Vanilla Fudge were big fans of the Beatles, and issued several Beatles covers, including Ticket to Ride and Eleanor Rigby. Although the reputation of Vanilla Fudge has dimmed by now, the final episode of the HBO show The Sopranos featured their cover of You Keep Me Hangin’ On.

So, we wish the members of Vanilla Fudge continued success. They now can frequently be heard in concerts that feature members of other 60s groups such as The Doors, Steppenwolf and The Yardbirds.

Carpenters and Ticket To Ride:

We previously discussed the Carpenters for their covers of the pop tune Please Mr. Postman and also Reason To Believe. Here we will briefly review the history of this group.

Siblings Richard and Karen Carpenter became soft-pop superstars by combining Richard’s sophisticated orchestral arrangements with Karen’s wonderful throaty contralto vocals.

Below is a photo of Richard and Karen Carpenter from a 1976 concert in London.

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Between 1969 and 1980, the pair produced an astonishing number of top-40 easy-listening hits. Like his contemporary Burt Bacharach, Richard Carpenter fashioned a ‘signature sound’ by blending classically-inspired combinations of strings, woodwinds and brass.

Richard himself played keyboards on Carpenters’ songs and particularly favored the Wurlitzer electric piano, though he would also switch to grand piano, Hammond organ or harpsichord for various songs.

The duo also produced vocal tracks by overdubbing Karen’s and Richard’s voices to produce background vocals to complement Karen’s singing. Karen’s voice was distinctive and unforgettable – what she lacked in power she made up for with a three-octave vocal range, perfect pitch and a beautiful lower register that was highlighted by Richard’s arrangements.

Karen first appeared as the drummer in a jazz trio with Richard. She then began to be featured as a vocalist as well, but initially considered herself as “a drummer who sang.” Karen gradually gave up drumming when her vocals became the pivotal highlight of the group’s songs.

Here are the Carpenters in a live performance of Ticket to Ride. This is from a 1972 concert in Australia.

Isn’t this beautiful? This performance is somewhat rare in that Karen is still playing the drums. I think this may be the first song where I really noticed Karen Carpenter’s terrific low voice, which is just perfect for this tune.

Also, note Richard Carpenter’s innovative arrangement. He starts out with an electric piano solo that shows a classical influence. Then Karen Carpenter begins with her vocals, while Richard chimes in on the chorus.

Richard slows down the pace of the tune and converts it to a languid, mournful dirge. The first half of the song is basically just Karen and Richard, but they are joined by a full orchestra and chorus at the end. The combination of the arrangement and Karen Carpenter’s vocals is beautifully creative and hard to resist.

While they were a hot item, the Carpenters spent an enormous amount of time on the road, often performing up to 200 shows per year from 1971 to 1975. The grueling travel schedule eventually caught up to them. In January 1979, Richard checked into a rehab facility for treatment for addiction to Quaaludes.

However, it was Karen’s eating problems that proved disastrous for her. She suffered from anorexia nervosa, a terrible body image disorder where a person believes that they are overweight, regardless of how much weight they lose. In the most severe cases, patients could starve to death while still maintaining that they needed to lose more weight.

This situation was particularly difficult for Karen Carpenter, because at that time the affliction and its symptoms and treatment were not widely understood. In Karen’s case the disorder was also associated with obsessive purging to lose weight.

Her problem first surfaced when she collapsed during a performance in 1975. A couple of years later Karen began working with a psychotherapist, and she entered a treatment facility in fall 1982. Two months later she left the facility claiming that she was cured, despite pleas from her family and friends to remain in treatment.

In February 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure that occurred as a side effect of anorexia nervosa. It brought a tragic end to a most promising career.

However, the publicity from Karen Carpenter’s situation helped to bring about a heightened public awareness of eating disorders. Within a short period of time, a number of entertainers and celebrities publicly disclosed their own struggles with eating disorders, including Princess Diana.

Karen Carpenter’s untimely death was a grim reminder of the power of anorexia and similar eating disorders. But the Carpenters left behind a legacy of beautiful, haunting music.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Ticket To Ride
Wikipedia, Help! (film)
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Vanilla Fudge
Wikipedia, The Carpenters

Posted in Rock and roll, Heavy Metal, Pop Music, Classic Rock | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Red Wine: Neil Diamond; Jimmy James & the Vagabonds; UB40.

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Red Red Wine. This is an interesting pop song composed by Neil Diamond. We will review the original song by Neil Diamond; we will then discuss covers by Jimmy James & the Vagabonds, and by UB40.

Neil Diamond and Red Red Wine:

Neil Diamond is a pop singer-songwriter superstar. His records have sold over 135 million copies over a 50-year career, and he has won a series of major awards for his accomplishments.

Neil Diamond was born in Brooklyn in 1941, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants. He attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, where he was a member of the school’s Chorus and Choral Club along with classmate Barbra Streisand.

While he was in high school, Neil attended a summer camp in the Catskills where he experienced a concert by legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. This inspired Diamond to buy a guitar and become a songwriter.

Neil enrolled in New York University on a fencing scholarship. He was a very talented fencer, and his team won the NCAA men’s national championship in 1960.

However, Diamond began cutting pre-med classes to hang out at the Brill Building, where he attempted to sell his pop songs. In his senior year at NYU, he was offered a 16-week job at $50/week to write songs for Sunbeam Music Publishing. Neil took the job and dropped out of college.

Apparently Diamond’s early years were fairly rough; he reports that at one time, his food budget was 35 cents per day! However, despite the fact that he was quite literally a “starving artist,” he managed to write a number of songs during that period.

Diamond’s first big splash in the music business was as a songwriter. In late 1965 he wrote a hit song that Jay and the Americans released, followed by “I’m a Believer” and several other hits for The Monkees.

On the basis of his songwriting success, Neil Diamond signed a record contract with Bert Berns’ Bang Records in 1966. There, he hit paydirt as a singer with tunes such as Solitary Man, Cherry, Cherry and Kentucky Woman.

Below is a photo of Neil Diamond performing in 1970.

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Eventually, Diamond and Berns clashed over his musical direction. Diamond wanted to write deeper, more introspective songs while Berns was interested in catchy pop tunes. When Diamond attempted to leave Bang Records, a series of lawsuits ensued.

The song Red Red Wine was included in Neil Diamond’s second album, the 1967 release Just For You. Shortly after the release of this album, Neil Diamond left Bang Records.

However, producer Bert Berns continued to release singles from the Just For You album even after Neil’s departure. And he also re-recorded Diamond’s songs, adding material not present on the original records.

For example, on the Red Red Wine single, Bang Records added a background choir without Neil’s knowledge or permission. The song was pretty much a flop, reaching only #62 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, over the years it has become a big favorite, especially after the cover of this song by UB40 hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1983.

The theme of Red Red Wine is quite straightforward. The singer is devastated by thoughts of a lost love. Although he assumed he would recover from this loss, it continues to haunt him, and only copious amounts of “red red wine” can soothe his “blue blue heart.”

Red, red wine, go to my head
Make me forget that I
Still need her so

Red, red wine, it’s up to you
All I can do, I’ve done
But memories won’t go
No, memories won’t go

I’d have sworn that with time
Thoughts of you would leave my head
I was wrong and I find
Just one thing
Makes me forget

Red, red wine, stay close to me
Don’t let me be alone
It’s tearing apart
My blue, blue heart

Here is a live performance by Neil Diamond of Red Red Wine. This was from a concert in Birmingham, England in June 2011.

Neil performs this with a backing group that includes a full chorus. The song lopes along at a stately pace, and the audience sings along at various points.

It took Neil a couple of years and a dip in his career to resolve his situation with Bang Records, but in 1968 he signed a contract with what is now Universal Records.

And then Diamond was off and running. He hit it big with songs like Sweet Caroline, Cracklin’ Rosie and Song Sung Blue. And beginning in 1971, Neil started playing a series of concerts at LA’s Greek Theater.

One of those concerts was released as a live double album called Hot August Night. That album received rave reviews and has become a classic.

After that tour, and a series of live performances on Broadway, Neil took some time off from touring. He wrote the score for the film version of Richard Bach’s novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull. That had a curious history: although the movie was a colossal flop, the soundtrack album was a bit hit – in fact, the album grossed more than the movie!

Neil Diamond went on to become a pop superstar. However, in 1979 he collapsed onstage in San Francisco and endured a 12-hour operation when a tumor was found on his spine. After a significant period of rehab, Diamond then starred in a remake of the Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer.

Neil identified with the Jewish heritage of the star of that movie, and he wrote several tunes for the soundtrack that became pop hits, notably America. However, Diamond had never acted before, and it showed. Somewhat strangely, for his performance in The Jazz Singer Diamond was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and at the same time won a Razzie Award for Worst Actor.

Neil Diamond’s tune Sweet Caroline has become an iconic sports anthem. Some time soon, I will do a blog post on this song. Many other sports teams that have adopted this tune; most notably, Sweet Caroline is played during the 8th inning of every Boston Red Sox home game, where the entire stadium joins in singing the song.

2011 was a significant year of honors for Neil Diamond. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors.

So, to Neil Diamond and his legion of fans, we say “Neil, good times never seemed so good [so good, so good, so good]!”

Jimmy James & the Vagabonds and Red Red Wine:

Michael “Jimmy” James is a Jamaican soul music artist. For over 50 years, he has been performing in the U.K. James was the frontman for a band, The Vagabonds, that was originally formed in Jamaica. The Vagabonds had a big-band sound, and included guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a horn section.

However, as early as 1964 the group relocated to Great Britain, where they released the first “ska” album recorded in the U.K. In 1965, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds were participating in the exciting “British Invasion” scene. They found themselves opening for groups such as The Who and Rod Stewart.

Below is a photo of Jimmy James (at far left) and the Vagabonds, from 1966.

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A couple of years later, Jimmy James was appearing on the same bill with young artist Jimi Hendrix. As a bit of trivia, Jimmy James and the Vagabonds were recording at Abbey Road Studios at the same period as the Beatles were producing their great rock masterpieces in that recording studio.

One of Jimmy James’ biggest hits was the song Now Is The Time, which we will hear shortly. That song was the best-charting single in Jimmy James’ career.

We were unable to find a live version of Jimmy James performing Red Red Wine, so here is Mr. James in the audio of that song.

James’ version of this Neil Diamond song is performed in a slow, luxuriant tempo. His backup singers provide a full choral backing.

So here we will show a video of Jimmy James and the Vagabonds in a live concert. They perform a medley of Now Is The Time, together with a cover of the Temptations’ song My Girl.

This concert took place in May 2012. James’ long-time band The Vagabonds backs up Mr. James, and this performance would be right at home in the lounge of a Las Vegas casino.

James applies his powerful voice to both of these songs. Of course, the entire audience sings along with My Girl.

By now, Jimmy James has been performing for well over 50 years. He has appeared on a number of concert tours in the U.K. In 2013, Jimmy James toured with one of his early idols, Ben E. King of The Drifters.

We salute this Jamaican music pioneer, who must have a number of memorable stories of British rock music through the years.

UB40 and Red Red Wine:

UB40 is a reggae-style pop band that was formed in Birmingham, England in 1978. The name was chosen from the name of a form used by the British government for people who signed up for unemployment compensation.

The form was “Unemployment Benefit Form 40,” or UB40 for short. One of the founders of the group was Ali Campbell. After he received compensation for injuries suffered when he was assaulted, Ali applied funds from his compensation package to purchase musical instruments for his bandmates.

Campbell joined forces with keyboardist Mickey Virtue, percussionist Astro and other musicians to form a band. They chose the name “UB40” as all of them were unemployed at the time they joined the group.

Ethnically, UB40 was very diverse, as it contained English, Irish, Scottish, Jamaican and Yemeni musicians. Below is a photo of the reggae band UB40 from 1983. From L: Astro; Norman Hassan; Brian Travers; Ali Campbell; Earl Falconer; Jimmy Brown; Robin Campbell; Mickey Virtue.

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Over the next few years, the band polished their musical skills by performing a number of gigs around the U.K. Their first big break occurred when Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer for The Pretenders, invited UB40 to open for her famous U.K. rock band.

The group developed a strong fan base in Britain before they hit the big time in the U.S. with their 1983 album, Labour of Love. That album was a collection of covers, and it hit #1 on the UK album charts and #8 on the American lists.

The big hit single on the Labour of Love album was the UB40 version of Red Red Wine. Interestingly, UB40 styled their version of Red Red Wine after a cover of that song by a singer named Tony Tribe.

Although the songwriter for the Tony Tribe version was listed as “Diamond,” apparently UB40 did not realize that this referred to Neil Diamond. It was not until the song raced up the pop charts that UB40 realized they had covered a Neil Diamond song!

In fall 1983, the UB40 cover of Red Red Wine hit #1 on the UK charts. However, the song stalled at #34 on the US Billboard playlists.

Here are UB40 in a live performance of Red Red Wine.

This took place at the Nelson Mandela Birthday Tribute in June, 1988 at London’s Wembley Stadium. As you can see, the UB40 cover is a slow-rocking reggae version, with a very catchy rhythm. Lead singer Ali Campbell has a lovely vocal style.

The song was a big hit at this concert, and so was re-released in the U.S., in a slightly different edit from the original version. In particular, the last two minutes of the song contain a “toasted” solo from Astro (that begins, “Red red wine you make me feel so fine, you keep me rockin’ all the time …”).

FYI, “toasting” involves a singer who talks or chants, often in a monotone, along with the beat of a reggae rhythm.

The new UB40 version of Red Red Wine was extremely popular, and later in the fall of 1988 it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

Neil Diamond has stated that the UB40 version of Red Red Wine is one of the favorite covers of any of his songs. In fact, in several concerts Neil has performed a reggae version of his song that is strongly influenced by the UB40 cover.

Another use of the UB40 Red Red Wine was by professional basketball player Andrew Bogut. In March 2017, Bogut posted the UB40 song on his Twitter page. Bogut was announcing that he had just signed a contract to play with the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA basketball team. The Cavaliers’ team colors are a dark red (“red wine”).

The best-selling UB40 single ever was their cover of Elvis’ (I Can’t Help) Falling in Love With You. Again, this was a reggae cover of an iconic pop tune. That song hit #1 on the charts in both Europe and the U.S. It was also featured in the 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver.

However, in 2008 lead singer Ali Campbell left UB40, and shortly afterwards Mickey Virtue also left the group. Both musicians cited issues with management and disputes over the direction of the band.

UB40 replaced Ali Campbell as lead singer with his brother Duncan Campbell. A couple of years later, Astro also left UB40. This began a decided schism in the group, as Ian Campbell, Mickey Virtue and Astro later teamed up and toured as “UB40,” at the same time as the re-formed UB40 was also touring.

Not only did this lead to confusion amongst their fans, it left each version of UB40 bad-mouthing the other group. The UB40 faction fronted by Duncan Campbell had adopted a country style that was mocked by the “alt-UB40” musicians.

Although the original UB40 lineup has now fractured, it is worth while noting the remarkable achievements of this band. UB40 were a major success in the U.K., and had over 50 singles make the U.K. pop charts. In addition, they were also best-sellers in the U.S. and Europe. All told, the group sold over 70 million records worldwide. And they were nominated four times for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.

So to all the present and former UB40 musicians, we say “Keep rockin’, mon!”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Red Red Wine
Wikipedia, Neil Diamond
Wikipedia, Jimmy James (singer)
Wikipedia, UB40

Posted in Pop Music, Reggae, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

America: Simon and Garfunkel; David Bowie; Yes.

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is America. This is a beautiful and moving folk-rock song composed by Paul Simon. We will review the original song by Simon & Garfunkel. We will next discuss covers of the song by David Bowie and by Yes.

Simon & Garfunkel and America:

We previously discussed Simon and Garfunkel for their song Bridge Over Troubled Water, and their song Mrs. Robinson.  Here we will briefly review their career.

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were school-mates in Queens, NY.  They began singing while in school, and first appeared as the duo Tom and Jerry.  They had one hit, the 1957 tune Hey Schoolgirl inspired by the Everly Brothers, and then broke up.

Paul Simon then embarked on a solo career, while Art enrolled in college.  However, they got back together in 1963 using their real names, Simon and Garfunkel.  They hoped to cash in on the demand for folk music.

In October 1964, they released their first album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. It was a mixture of original Paul Simon tunes, some traditional folk songs, and covers of a few pop tunes. The album was a flop.

Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon performing in Ann Arbor, MI (same state as Saginaw) in 1968.

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However, a DJ in Boston began playing Simon and Garfunkel’s tune The Sound of Silence on his show. The song became popular, and stations along the East Coast began to play it.

At this point, producer Tom Wilson decided to re-mix the song. Inspired by the folk-rock sound made popular by The Byrds, Wilson assembled some studio musicians who created an instrumental backing, adding electric guitar and drums.

Wilson turned The Sound of Silence into a folk-pop hybrid, and re-released the song. The good news is that this tune became a blockbuster hit. It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, and established a tremendous demand for Simon and Garfunkel songs.

The bad news was that Tom Wilson had not bothered to tell Paul Simon that Wilson was re-mixing his track. Simon was horrified to see his “pure” folk song turned into a folk-rock tune. However, he could not argue with the commercial success.

As a result, CBS rushed out an album called Sounds of Silence. Several of the songs on the album had previously been issued on an album titled The Paul Simon Songbook, that had also been a commercial disappointment.

This time around, the success of their single The Sound of Silence and the folk-pop re-mixing of their tunes produced a smash hit album. Folk purists were highly critical of Simon and Garfunkel’s commercialism, but by this point the duo were off and running.

In fall 1964 Paul Simon had been performing in London, but he returned to the States to finish off final post-production of the first Simon and Garfunkel album, Wednesday Morning 3 AM.

At that time Paul was living in London with his girlfriend Kathy Chitty. Kathy accompanied him to the U.S. Paul then traveled up to Saginaw, Michigan to perform a concert. He re-joined Kathy in Pittsburgh after the concert, and the couple then embarked on a Greyhound bus trip before Paul showed up in New York to work on his album.

America describes Paul and Kathy’s trip, that began in Saginaw.

Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.

So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off to look for America.

“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
I’ve come to look for America.”

Of course, America is about much more than a trip around the Eastern U.S. Philip Holden gives an impressive description of the song.
‘America’ … is three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications.”

I find America an absolutely brilliant song, with a stunningly beautiful arrangement. On the bus, the singer pours out his angst to his girlfriend, even though he knows she is asleep. “Kathy, I’m lost … I’m empty and aching, and I don’t know why.”

The song America was not released until Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth studio album, the 1968 Bookends. In 1972, America was released as a single. I am amazed that the song charted no better than #97 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is the audio of the Simon and Garfunkel song America.

What a lovely song! I especially enjoy it because of Larry Knechtel’s haunting work on pipe organ, Hal Blaine’s drumming, and the ethereal tenor saxophone from an uncredited session musician. The song finishes off with a crescendo, with Paul Simon observing “the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America,” while Art Garfunkel interjects his soaring high tenor vocals.

And here are Simon and Garfunkel live, from their Concert in Central Park in Sept. 1981.

This summer concert drew half a million people. By then, Simon and Garfunkel had broken up, but they re-united for this performance. Obviously, there was still a tremendous demand and appreciation for the boys.

The Concert in Central Park was such a phenomenal success that Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982. However, that tour was cancelled, and although the pair recorded several tracks for another album, Paul Simon then decided to release the album as a solo project, the 1983 release Hearts and Bones.

Paul Simon has since gone on to an exceptionally successful solo career. Art Garfunkel released a few albums, and he also pursued an acting career. He starred in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols. For his part in this movie, Garfunkel was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.

The song America enjoyed a surge in popularity in 2000, when a portion of the song was included in the film Almost Famous. We reviewed this movie in an earlier blog post discussing the song Tiny Dancer. And here is the clip from Almost Famous.

In this scene, the lead character William Miller’s older sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel) is arguing with her mother (Frances McDormand). Anita says, “This song explains why I’m leaving home to become a stewardess,” and plays America. Anita’s control-freak mother is not amused.

Just before Anita leaves, she whispers to her brother “Look under your bed. It will set you free.”  Anita has left a suitcase full of iconic 60s and 70s albums – the Beach Boys; Rolling Stones; Led Zeppelin; Jimi Hendrix; Joni Mitchell; Bob Dylan.

The music changes his life — young William becomes a music critic for Rolling Stone magazine at age 16, just as writer-director Cameron Crowe did in real life. And the song America, describing a restless urge to hit the road and “look for America,” perfectly encapsulates Anita’s situation.

I have seen Simon and Garfunkel performing together a few times on TV since their breakup. The tension between the two is palpable. Art Garfunkel makes an effort to be civil, while Paul Simon behaves like a jerk.

For example, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, Art Garfunkel called Simon
“the person who most enriched my life by putting those songs through me,” to which Simon responded, “Arthur and I agree about almost nothing. But it’s true, I have enriched his life quite a bit.”

I have no idea what went on backstage between the two, but I am not optimistic that they will ever perform together again. What a shame – on their best songs, Simon and Garfunkel shared a magical chemistry. They were a brilliant pop duo, and they both enriched our lives with their music.

Anyway, the music from their collaboration lives on, even though they have gone their separate ways.

David Bowie and America:

We have discussed David Bowie a couple of times previously, for his cover of Dancing In the Street (with Mick Jagger), and for his cover of John Lennon’s Imagine. Here we will briefly review his life and career.

David Bowie was one of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of our time. He was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and he took the stage name David Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ singer Davy Jones.

David Bowie burst on the pop scene in 1969 with his stunningly original single Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”).

In 1972, Bowie re-surfaced as the glam-rock character Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy featured flaming red hair together with flamboyant rainbow-hued gender-bending costumes, such as is shown in the photo below from a 1973 tour.

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Portraying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band The Spiders From Mars rapidly gained notoriety for their highly theatrical live performances. Apparently Bowie/Ziggy was positively mesmerizing on stage, and he developed a cult following as a result.

However, in 1974 Bowie drastically changed direction. He moved to the U.S., ditched Ziggy, and changed his musical genre to something he called “plastic soul.” In 1976, Bowie trotted out a new persona, the Thin White Duke, named after the title track of his new album, once again signifying a change in musical style.

Bowie’s career contained many abrupt changes. In nearly every case, he emerged as a leader in a new musical direction. Bowie often shuffled band members and producers at the same time. A restless, probing artist, he was constantly pushing the envelope in many different areas.

Here is David Bowie in a live performance of America.

I find this extremely moving. Bowie performed this at the Concert for New York City, just a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Here, he is sitting on the floor while singing, and he accompanies himself on a Suzuki Omnichord.

I find this an exceptional rendition of America. At this terrible moment in our nation’s history, Bowie’s stark, simple and powerful version gives an entirely new meaning to this tune.  At the end of the song Bowie, who was at the time a resident of New York City, gives a shout-out to his local fire department.

There is an interesting back-story to Bowie’s cover of America. The group 1-2-3 released a cover of this song in 1967, even though the Simon and Garfunkel version was not released until 1968.

Paul Simon had first recorded America in London in 1965, although this version was never released. Tapes of Simon’s recording session were passed to 1-2-3 by a studio engineer; the group then recorded covers of both America and The Sound of Silence from those tapes.

1-2-3 performed their cover of America in a 1967 concert, and David Bowie was present at this performance. The keyboard part he plays at the Concert for New York City is reminiscent of the 1-2-3 cover.

David Bowie enjoyed a spectacular career in pop music. In recognition of his creativity and versatility, Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

Bowie was also an acclaimed actor. He began training in acting before he embarked on a musical career. He appeared in a number of interesting films, including Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, a 1983 vampire film The Hunger, and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige. Bowie also played the lead role in The Elephant Man on Broadway for 157 performances.

David Bowie died of liver cancer on Jan. 10, 2016. Just two days earlier, he had released his final album, Blackstar. That album focuses on themes of mortality and death.

David Bowie was apparently a mesmerizing performer. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance. It is not surprising that he was a talented actor, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.

David Bowie was a true cultural icon. He pushed way beyond the boundaries of current fashion, and he made a tremendous impact on pop music. His contributions to music, fashion and modern culture will be missed deeply.

Yes and America:

The band Yes are one of the most prominent and long-lasting of the “progressive-rock” bands. They were originally formed in 1968, and today not one but two different versions of Yes are still touring.

I have to admit that I am deeply ambivalent about the “progressive rock” movement. I loved the group Traffic, admired Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues, and was a big fan of Jethro Tull.

On the other hand, I loathed groups such as Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Iron Butterfly. I am not entirely sure I can justify my preferences, except to say that I considered ELP to be pretentious and overblown. And I was unimpressed by Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which I considered a 20-minute snooze-a-thon.

In my opinion, Yes were closer to Emerson, Lake and Palmer than to favorite bands such as Traffic or Jethro Tull. Anyway, the group combined rock ‘n roll with psychedelic rock, jazz fusion and even some elements of classical music.

Logo for the band Yes, shaded to look like a butterfly.

At left we show the “puffy logo” for Yes. In this case, the letters have been enhanced with the color pattern of a butterfly.

Like Iron Butterfly, Yes also had a tendency to produce extremely long songs: the title cut for their 1972 album Close To The Edge clocked in at 19 minutes, or one entire side of the album.

Yes had two major hits. In 1972, the band gained fame with the song Roundabout, which made it to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Below is a photo of the band Yes in a recording session for their 1971 album Fragile, which contained the single Roundabout. From L: drummer Bill Bruford; bassist Chris Squire; guitarist Steve Howe; lead vocalist Jon Anderson; keyboards Rick Wakeman.

Embed from Getty Images

Then in 1984, Yes scored a #1 hit with Owner of a Lonely Heart. At this time, Anderson and Squire teamed up with Trevor Rabin on guitar, Tony Kaye on keyboards and Alan White on drums. This group is sometimes referred to as “Yes-West,” since the group relocated from London to L.A.

Here is the band Yes performing their version of America. This took place at a concert at Lewiston, NY in 2012.

Just like the David Bowie version, the rendition of America by Yes owes much to the cover by the group 1-2-3. The Yes version is over 11 minutes long, and contains several sustained jazz-inspired guitar solos by Steve Howe.

The lead singer here is Jon Davison. At various intervals between guitar solos, he interjects the lyrics from America. This is an impressive rock-jazz fusion piece.

Since the mid-80s, Yes has experienced a considerable amount of turmoil in its membership. Musicians have been added, others have dropped out, and the band has re-formed several times, occasionally by adding people who had departed earlier. One almost needs a scorecard to keep up with the changes.

In 1991 Yes put out an album called Union. At this time, the band consisted of eight members. However, it was eventually revealed that at no time had all eight musicians ever recorded together in the studio. The album was stitched together from tracks contributed by a few members at a time.

Over the years, Yes developed a large and loyal group of supporters. Their fans pushed hard to get their favorite band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Eventually Yes made it, but only after a sustained campaign by their supporters.

A group called Voices For Yes lobbied on the band’s behalf. Prominent leaders in this group were John Brabender, a top aide for conservative senator Rick Santorum, and Tad Devine, who was active in the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Al Gore.

This might be the only time those two politicians have worked together on any issue! This just proves that “rock ‘n roll makes strange bedfellows.”

In April 2017, Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall recognized eight current and former members of the band: Jon Anderson, Chris Squire (who passed away from leukemia in 2015), Bill Bruford, Tony Kaye, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Alan White, and Trevor Rabin.

At present, two different splinter groups are touring under the “Yes” name. One group includes Jon Davison, Steve Howe and Alan White, while a second group calls themselves “Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Travor Rabin and Rick Wakeman.” Significant confusion ensues at venues when the two tours nearly coincide.

Yes has had a long and eventful career as a progressive rock band. They were central players in efforts to incorporate elements of jazz and classical music into rock ‘n roll. The band had a couple of pop hits and developed a cult following.

I will end this post with a cheesy joke. Perhaps the greatest stand-up comedy routine of all time is the Abbott and Costello classic “Who’s on first?” This involves the confusion surrounding a baseball team with ‘Who’ playing first base, ‘What’ playing second base and ‘I Don’t Know’ at third base.

In the 70s, a comedy takeoff on this classic involved an all-star rock concert. In order of appearance, the headliners were “Who on first; Yes on second; and Guess Who third.” The routine subsequently writes itself.

That’s all, folks – I’m here all this week!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, America (Simon and Garfunkel song)
Wikipedia, Simon and Garfunkel
Wikipedia, David Bowie
Wikipedia, Yes (band)

Posted in Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Progressive Rock, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Take Me Home, Country Roads: John Denver; the Osborne Brothers; Toots & the Maytals

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Take Me Home, Country Roads. This is a beautiful and moving folk-rock song composed by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert and John Denver. We will start with a brief review of John Denver’s career.

Choosing additional artists was not easy, as there are over 150 covers of this song.  I was particularly interested in Ray Charles’ bluesy cover, but could not find a live performance.  So we will discuss covers of Take Me Home, Country Roads by the Osborne Brothers and by Toots & the Maytals.

John Denver and Take Me Home, Country Roads:

Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. became one of the great folk singer-songwriters of the 20th century. We have become so accustomed to his beautiful high tenor voice and his iconic folk songs, that few people know of his significant struggle before he gained fame in the music industry.

His father, Henry John Deutschendorf Sr., was an Air Force officer, and apparently a genuine hot-shot pilot. He set various speed records in his B-58 Hustler aircraft, and was inducted into the Air Force Hall of Fame.

But Deutschendorf was shuttled from one assignment to another, and Henry Jr. had difficulty making friends and fitting in as he frequently changed school districts. In addition, Henry Sr. was apparently a stern taskmaster, and had difficulty expressing any affection for his children.

Fortunately, Junior’s maternal grandmother encouraged him to take up music. While in high school in Fort Worth, young Henry stole his dad’s car and drove to California, with the aim of living with friends and starting a career in music. His father found him and hauled him back to Texas.

He enrolled in Texas Tech University, planning to be an architect, but in 1963 at age 20, he dropped out and moved to California. He changed his name to “John Denver” after being told that “Deutschendorf” would not fit on a theater marquee.

Denver sang in folk clubs and tried to score a recording contract. However, he flunked an audition and was told “Kid, give it up, you can’t sing.” However, he persevered and in 1965 he stepped in when lead singer Chad Mitchell quit the Chad Mitchell Trio (the group was then re-named The Mitchell Trio).

In 1969, Denver left to pursue a solo career and released his first album on RCA Records. His producer was Milt Okun, who also produced the major folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Okun took an unreleased song by Denver, Babe I Hate To Go, and gave it to PP&M.

That song, re-named Leaving on a Jet Plane, was a colossal hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969 – it became their only #1 pop hit. Despite the success of Denver’s composition, RCA decided not to actively promote his album, and they declined to sponsor a tour for him.

So John financed his own tour. He took off across the Midwest, promoting himself. He contacted local high schools, colleges, American Legion posts and coffee-houses, offering to give concerts. Some groups paid him, but in other cases his only revenue was derived from sales of his albums, and money from “tip jars.”

Nevertheless, Denver’s one-man tour managed to boost sales of his album. In addition, many people who caught his act at these intimate performances became lifelong loyal fans.

At this time, John Denver also adopted what would be his trademark “look” – long blond hair, granny glasses, jeans and colorful Western shirts. Here is a photo of John Denver from 1979.

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John Denver worked long and hard, often on his own dime, to earn a living as a folk-singer and songwriter. However, in 1971 his career was about to completely turn around with a major album, buttressed by a blockbuster single.

Take Me Home, Country Roads was initially written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, who were then a husband-and-wife songwriting team. In fall 1970, while they were traveling along small rural roads in Maryland, Danoff drafted a ballad extolling the beauty of the American countryside.

Ironically, Danoff had never even been in West Virginia. He used that state because it fit the tune’s rhythm (according to Danoff, “Massachusetts” would also have worked).

Later that year, Danoff and Nivert were opening for John Denver at the Washington, DC folk club The Cellar Door. After a performance, the three headed back to Danoff’s apartment to jam a bit. Danoff and Nivert played their song to Denver, explaining that they intended to offer it to Johnny Cash.

However, as soon as John Denver heard it, he was entranced – “I flipped,” he said. The three stayed up all night re-writing the song, and moving verses around. The song is filled with nostalgia, listing memorable images of West Virginia.

Almost heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees,
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.

[CHORUS] Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads.

… I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me,
The radio reminds me of my home far away.
Driving down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.

On Dec. 30, 1970, Denver, Danoff and Nivert performed the song for the first time at an encore following Denver’s set at The Cellar Door.

The song got a terrific reception, and Denver then included it on his next album Poems, Prayers and Promises. The song was released as a single in April 1971. Apparently it started out rather slowly, and RCA Records told John that they intended to suspend promotion.

John Denver insisted to the record executives that the song would take off if RCA would just continue promoting it. Sure enough, it did; Country Roads eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

And here is John Denver in a live performance of Take Me Home, Country Roads. This is from a 1972 Midnight Special TV show, which Denver hosted.

Isn’t this beautiful? The combination of Denver’s lovely high tenor voice, with the absolutely stunning lyrics and melody, is deeply moving. It’s one of those songs you just love to sing along with.

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert collaborated with John Denver on several more of his songs. In the mid-70s they formed the Starland Vocal Band, which had one major pop hit, the 1976 Afternoon Delight.

Not surprisingly, Take Me Home, Country Roads rapidly became an iconic song for West Virginians. In 2014, the state officially adopted it as as one of its official state songs (three other songs share that distinction).

But Take Me Home, Country Roads had been a favorite in WVA long before 2014. Since 1972, the song has been played at the end of every home football game at West Virginia University. In fact, many of the fans remain in the stadium and join the football players in singing along.

How could you not be moved by a song that begins “Almost heaven, West Virginia”? It’s a bit ironic that some of the sights listed in the song are not really WV landmarks. For example, the “Shenandoah River” runs almost entirely through Virginia, with only a tiny portion crossing into West Virginia.

Similarly, the “Blue Ridge Mountain” chain is also almost entirely in Virginia. But no matter – the song is a true classic, and became one of John Denver’s signature tunes.

Mr. Denver shares with Stephen Foster the distinction of having written two different “state songs.” In Denver’s case, Rocky Mountain High was adopted as the Colorado state song (despite a rancorous dissent from one Colorado legislator, who was repelled by the line “friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high”).

Following the success of Poems, Prayers and Promises, John Denver continued on with a stellar career. He eventually recorded over 300 songs, and wrote 200 of those. He was one of the most successful folk singer-songwriters of his time; AllMusic describes him as
one of the most beloved entertainers of his era.

A number of John Denver’s other songs also became classics, such as Sunshine On My Shoulders, Annie’s Song, and Thank God I’m a Country Boy.

For many years John Denver hosted Christmas specials. His Rocky Mountain Christmas program was the highest-rated ABC-TV show at the time, and was watched by over 60 million people.

John Denver was also a passionate environmentalist. His hit song Calypso was dedicated to Jacques Cousteau and his underwater exploration efforts.

After his career took off, Denver moved to Aspen, CO in the 70s. He bought over 900 acres there that he turned into a foundation, Windstar, dedicated to conservation and sustainability efforts. Unfortunately, Windstar has recently closed down and the property sold to an anonymous purchaser. However, we understand that the site contains provisions that prohibit any large-scale development.

In addition, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the President’s Commission on World Hunger, and he donated royalties from some of his concerts to UNICEF.

In the mid-1970s, John Denver reconciled with his father, and Lt. Col Deutschendorf taught his son to fly. This began Denver’s serious interest in flying, with a particular focus on experimental aircraft.

In 1977, John Denver bought an experimental plane, a Long-EZ, that its previous owner had built from a kit. He was flying that plane in October 1997, when it crashed into Monterey Bay, California. Denver was killed in the crash.

There were rumors that Denver’s death might have been a suicide. Denver had been coping with serious depression for some time, and had several drunk-driving arrests; in fact, his flying license had been suspended because of his numerous DUIs.  However, John was not familiar with his plane, having only a one-hour checkout on it before his death.

The Long-EZ had a very serious design defect. The fuel selector, which could shift fuel between the plane’s two fuel tanks, had been installed behind the pilot’s shoulder. And the fuel gauge was located behind the pilot’s seat, so the pilot was unable to see the fuel levels.

In order to switch tanks using the fuel selector, the pilot would have to unfasten his seatbelt and turn completely around. Many believe that Denver lost control of his flight when attempting to switch fuel; when he took off, John had only a small amount of fuel remaining in one tank.

Despite John Denver’s tragic death at the age of 53, he left a legacy of iconic, deeply moving folk songs. He used his fame to advance projects dear to his heart – conservation; sustainability; anti-hunger efforts; and flying.

In 2011, John Denver became the first person inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Thanks, John, for enriching our lives with your music.

The Osborne Brothers and Take Me Home, Country Roads:

The Osborne Brothers were a famous country combo that originally came out of Kentucky. Bobby Osborne was born in 1931 and his brother Sonny in 1937.

In the early 1950s, Bobby served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, while Sonny joined Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band.  After Bobby returned from Korea, he joined up with Sonny and they eventually ended up at the 50,000-watt WWVA radio station. There they became part of the WWVA Jamboree weekly country music broadcast.

The Osborne Brothers; from L: Bobby Osborne; Sonny Osborne; Paul Brewster.

Here is a photo of the Osborne Brothers from 1972. At left: Bobby Osborne, mandolin; center Sonny Osborne, banjo; right Paul Brewster, guitar.

The Osborne Brothers were regulars on the WWVA Jamboree. They became known for their “inverted stacked harmony.” In this configuration, Bobby sang the lead part highest; next was Sonny singing baritone; and the third singer (in the mid-50s it was Red Allen) as tenor sang the lowest notes.

Despite the fact that the Osborne Brothers specialized in traditional folk music, they were nevertheless a ground-breaking band in several respects. They were one of the first bluegrass bands to incorporate both electronic instruments and percussion.

In 1960, they were the first bluegrass group to perform on a college campus when they appeared at Antioch College. And in 1964, the group was inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry.

Here are the Osborne Brothers in a live performance of Take Me Home, Country Roads.

We get their trademark old-timey country sounds from the Osborne Brothers in a 1972 concert. That is Sonny Osborne on banjo, and Paul Brewster on guitar. One can imagine this song coming straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1967, the Osborne Brothers released what would become their signature hit, Rocky Top. This was a song written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and described a fictional country town in the Smoky Mountains.

In 1973, the Osborne Brothers became the first bluegrass band to perform at the White House. And in 1983, Rocky Top was adopted as a Tennessee state song.

Over the years, the Osborne Brothers had dozens of members. Sonny Osborne retired in 2003, while Bobby Osborne continues to perform with his group Rocky Top X-Press.

In 2013 this group, that includes two of Bobby’s sons, performed at a re-dedication of the Gatlinburg (TN) Inn. This was the location where the Bryants wrote the song Rocky Top.

In 1994, the group was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor. To the Osborne Brothers, we send out an affectionate “Yee-Haw” for their decades of performing authentic bluegrass music.

Toots & the Maytals and Country Roads:

We featured Toots and the Maytals in our blog post on the Kinks’ song You Really Got Me. So here is a brief review of the history of that group.

Toots and the Maytals were one of the most famous and enduring reggae groups coming out of Jamaica. They were formed in the early 1960s and featured lead vocalist Frederick “Toots” Hibbert.

In 1966, the Maytals won the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest, and for a brief period it appeared that they were headed for stardom.  But this took an unscheduled detour when Hibbert was jailed for 18 months for drug possession.

However, once Hibbert was released from prison the group’s fortunes took a positive turn. Working with producer Leslie Kong, Toots and the Maytals recorded some of their most famous songs, including Pressure Drop and Sweet and Dandy. The Maytals were the first band to issue a song with the title “Reggae,” so they were certainly in the vanguard of Jamaican reggae music.

In 1971 they were signed by producer Chris Blackwell to Island Records, the most prestigious record company in Jamaica. Their association with Island Records brought international exposure to Toots and the Maytals. Two songs by the group were included in the movie The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican film that features one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time.

Hibbert’s vocal style has been compared to that of the great R&B performer Otis Redding. I’m not sure I see the precise similarity in style; on the other hand, Toots has the same stature in the reggae community as Otis did in the soul genre.

Toots and the Maytals opened for The Who during that group’s 1975 North American tour. One would have assumed that this would provide the group with tremendous positive exposure. However, the tour apparently did not go well, and the group never achieved anything like the exposure of the archetypal reggae band, Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Below is a photo of Toots Hibbert (back row) with the Maytals, in 1970.

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Toots & the Maytals do a reggae version of John Denver’s signature folk tune, Take Me Home, Country Roads. It is called Country Roads, and here is a live performance of that song.

When I first heard of a Maytals song called Country Roads, I thought “No way is this the John Denver song.” I was wrong! It became apparent when I heard Toots Hibbert sing “Almost heaven, West Jamaica.”

Toots and his band play the song in a slow, steady-rocking reggae cadence. Of course, they changed the locale to “West Jamaica,” but otherwise it is pretty much the same tune.

I have to admit, I got a real kick out of this cover. In the middle of the song, the lyrics are sung by the Jamaican backup singers, while Mr. Hibbert, who is obviously enjoying himself, sings a counterpoint to the melody.

Toots and the Maytals broke up in 1982 but then re-formed in the 1990s. Since then, they have continued with a fair amount of commercial success. Until recently, the band had achieved a rather remarkable longevity, and remained an impressive touring band.

Unfortunately, in 2013 Toots Hibbert was struck in the head with a full bottle of vodka while performing onstage. Not only did he suffer a concussion and require several staples to close his head wound, but the injury left Toots with lasting health issues, including headaches, dizziness, and memory loss.

After that event, Hibbert experienced a debilitating fear of crowds and performing, and he was unable to take part in live concerts.  It was over three years before Toots and the Maytals returned to live performance. However, the Maytals have made a few appearances recently, notably at the 2016 Coachella Festival where they were the second reggae group ever to perform at Coachella.

We wish Toots Hibbert all the best. He has had an exceptionally long career; backed by the Maytals, he has had more hits than any other reggae group. Toots Hibbert was named by Rolling Stone magazine in their list of the 100 Greatest Singers, and he is an inspirational figure to an entire generation of reggae artists who followed him. Rock steady, Toots!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Take Me Home, Country Roads
Wikipedia, John Denver
Wikipedia, Osborne Brothers
Wikipedia, Toots and the Maytals

Posted in Bluegrass, Country music, Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Reggae | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment