I Can’t Help Myself: The Four Tops; The Supremes; Madonna.

Hello there! This week we will discuss a great Motown pop song, I Can’t Help Myself, which is alternatively known as Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch, after the first line of the song. We will first review the original song by The Four Tops. Next we will feature covers of this song by The Supremes and by Madonna.

One interesting aspect of this blog post is that it features an ‘all-Detroit’ group of artists. The Four Tops, The Supremes and Madonna all grew up in Detroit.

The Four Tops and I Can’t Help Myself:

The Four Tops were a vocal group who became one of Motown’s most popular artists. Here is a publicity photo of the Four Tops from 1965. From L: Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, lead singer Levi Stubbs and Lawrence Payton.

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Although 1965 was the “breakout year” for the Four Tops as Motown stars, by that time the group had been together for a significant amount of time. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, the Four Tops hold the record for longevity as a group. They had exactly the same lineup from 1953 to 1997, a remarkable 44 years!

The Four Tops formed while all four members were in high school – Fakir and Stubbs went to one school, while Benson and Payton attended another. They first sang together at a birthday party, and began their career as The Four Aims. However, when they signed a contract with Chess Records in 1956, they changed their name to The Four Tops to avoid being confused with The Ames Brothers.

Over the next seven years, the group performed in the Detroit area, where they polished their act and gained a strong regional following. They also backed up singer Billy Eckstine. However, their jazz-inspired records did not sell, as they cycled through four different record labels.

In 1963, Berry Gordy, Jr signed the boys to Motown Records. For the first couple of years, the Four Tops released unsuccessful covers of jazz standards for Motown; in addition, they provided backup for girl groups such as Martha & the Vandellas and The Supremes.

Then in 1964, the Motown songwriting and producing powerhouse Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) composed an instrumental track. For a while, they weren’t sure what to do with it, but they eventually decided to add lyrics and give it to the Four Tops.

That song, Baby I Need Your Loving, became the Four Tops’ surprise breakout hit, making it to #11 on the Billboard pop charts. However, more importantly it convinced the Four Tops to switch their focus from jazz to R&B; and H-D-H began to write songs specifically tailored to the Tops.

The Four Tops were unusual in that their lead singer Levi Stubbs was a baritone, whereas the “natural” arrangement for pop groups was to have a tenor as lead. As a result, many of the arrangements for Four Tops songs were pitched at the top of Stubbs’ range. This made him strain to reach the notes, and that became a hallmark of the group.

The Four Tops’ first #1 hit was the 1965 release I Can’t Help Myself, which was written and produced by H-D-H. The Four Tops signature style featured call-and-response lyrics, with Stubbs on lead. Because the group’s vocals were pitched somewhat lower than the typical male ensemble (e.g., The Temptations), the Four Tops were generally accompanied by a girl group; on most of their hits that group was The Andantes. Furthermore, the group was invariably backed by the Motown house band The Funk Brothers.

The song I Can’t Help Myself describes a man who is hopelessly in love with his woman. Even though she is unfaithful, her man keeps returning to her regardless of how badly he is treated.

Sugar pie, honey bunch
You know that I love you
I can’t help myself
I love you and nobody else

In and out my life
You come and you go
Leaving just your picture behind
And I kissed it a thousand times

When you snap your finger or wink your eye
I come running to you
I’m tied to your apron strings
And there’s nothing that I can do

Here are the Four Tops in a live performance of I Can’t Help Myself.

This video must have been recorded in the late 60s. As you can see, Levi Stubbs can easily reproduce the quality of vocals from the Four Tops’ studio recordings. And the other members of the group combine the backup vocals with their signature choreographed moves, taught to them by the inimitable Cholly Atkins.

Below is a photo of Cholly Atkins with one of his early dance partners, Honi Coles.

The dance team of Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles.

Before Berry Gordy brought him to Motown, Cholly Atkins had been a successful vaudeville dancer, who appeared with some of the great jazz groups such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Cab Calloway. In the 50s, he began to provide choreography for early rock groups such as the Shirelles, Frankie Lymon and Little Anthony.

Atkins virtually invented the dance moves that we associate with Motown groups; he called his work “vocal choreography,” as the moves were specifically created to accompany the vocal harmonies.

After their big breakthrough, the Four Tops churned out hits in the mid-60s. Not only did they release a series of classic R&B songs (topped by their 1966 signature tune Reach Out I’ll Be There), but they also struck gold with their 1967 cover of Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter, and their 1968 cover of Walk Away Renee by the Left Banke.

Alas, in 1967 H-D-H left Motown after a contract dispute with Berry Gordy. After losing their main songwriters and producers, The Four Tops began a slow but inexorable slide. A number of the remaining Motown songwriters and producers worked with the group, and they had a few more hits, but nothing like their glory years.

In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles (but he didn’t have the decency to change the name from Motown). While most of the groups followed Gordy to L.A., a number of artists like Martha Reeves, the Funk Brothers and the Four Tops remained in Detroit.

The Four Tops began to record for ABC-Dunhill. Again, they had some decent hits but nothing like their Motown glory years. In the 70s the group moved around from one record company to another, scoring the occasional hit. Then in 1983, the Four Tops returned to Motown, where once again they were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

And now here is a treat. In 1983, a TV special aired that provided a retrospective of the Motown studios. It was titled Motown 25: Yesterday; Today; Forever. It showcased many of the iconic Motown stars in live performance.

One of the highlights of Motown 25 was the “battle of the bands” between the Temptations and the Four Tops. The scenario was straightforward: the two groups shared the stage, and each of them alternated singing a few lines from one of their greatest hits.

By 1983, only two members of the original Temptations (Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams) remained, and Dennis Edwards was singing lead for the Temps. All of the original Four Tops were still performing with that group, led by the incomparable Levi Stubbs.

Isn’t this terrific? This “battle” was one of many highlights of the Motown 25 special. This was so well received that the Temps and Tops reprised this repeatedly. They repeated the “battle” theme in 1985 at another Motown TV special at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. The two groups also carried out joint tours for several years, and those tours would invariably include a “battle of the bands” competition.

By the late 80s, the Four Tops were still releasing the occasional record, although their major success was achieved through touring.

In December 1983, the Tops were scheduled to fly back to the States following a European tour. However, after a late recording session and one final performance, the group missed their Frankfurt to Detroit flight. Lucky for them: that flight, Pan Am Flight 103, was blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing everyone on board.

The Four Tops continued to perform, becoming favorites on ‘oldies’ tours. In 1986, Levi Stubbs appeared as the man-eating plant Audrey II in the musical film Little Shop of Horrors.

The Four Tops continued touring until in 1997, Lawrence Payton died from liver cancer. The group added a replacement in 1998, but in 2000 Levi Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer and he also had to be replaced. Obie Benson died from lung cancer in 2005, and Stubbs himself passed away in 2008.

The Four Tops continue to tour, although only Duke Fakir remains from the original lineup. The Tops have deservedly received a slew of honors. In 1990 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They also received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, and the group was named as one of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time by both Rolling Stone magazine and Billboard magazine.

We salute the Four Tops, most of whom are currently in Rock and Roll Heaven. They left us with a terrific legacy of Motown classics.

The Supremes and I Can’t Help Myself:

We first came across The Supremes through their cover of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love. So here we will give a brief review of the history of their career.

The Supremes were one of the most successful pop groups in rock music history. In the mid-60s, they were the top girl group in the Motown enterprise. Not only were they a pop powerhouse, but
It is said that their success made it possible for future African American R&B and soul musicians to find mainstream success.

The Supremes were formed in Detroit in 1959. Florence Ballard was a junior-high school student living in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects. She recruited her friends Betty McGlown, Mary Wilson and Diane Ross to form a quartet called The Primettes. The Primettes began winning song competitions in the Detroit area.

The girls got an audition with Berry Gordy at Motown. Although Gordy told them to return once they had graduated from high school, the girls continued to hang out at Gordy’s Hitsville USA studios.

Eventually, in 1961 Berry Gordy signed the group (now a trio, with Diane Ross taking the name Diana) to a Motown recording contract. However, he insisted that the group change their name. Eventually, the girls decided on The Supremes.

The Supremes’ fortunes changed dramatically in 1963 when the songwriting and producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland began working with the group. The H-D-H song Where Did Our Love Go had been rejected by The Marvelletes, so the Supremes were forced to record it. To everyone’s surprise, Where Did Our Love Go rose straight to #1 on the pop charts. Overnight, the Supremes became pop stars, where they remained for several years.

Gordy took great pains to ensure that his acts radiated glamour and class. As a result, the Supremes generally appeared in ballroom gowns and stylish makeup. Their song routines were highlighted by languid, graceful choreography overseen by Maxine Powell and Cholly Atkins. Finally, Berry Gordy decided that Diana Ross would become the lead singer on nearly all Supremes songs.

So here are The Supremes in a live performance of I Can’t Help Myself.

I believe this took place in 1965. Although it is a short clip, it is extremely enjoyable. Diana Ross and the Supremes appear in more casual dress than usual; they look very happy, and they provide an energetic performance.

It was natural for the Supremes to cover the Four Tops, as they had much in common. Both groups were accompanied by the legendary Motown backing band, the Funk Brothers. In addition, Holland-Dozier-Holland were the main songwriters and producers for both groups.

Furthermore, early in their career, both groups spent considerable time performing in the Detroit area. Before they became Motown superstars, the Four Tops frequently provided backup on Supremes records. So the two groups knew each other well, and both of them were encouraged by their mutual success.

In the late 60s, tensions had been growing in the Supremes for some time. The group had changed its name in 1967 to The Supremes With Diana Ross, followed closely by a second change to Diana Ross and The Supremes.

An additional source of friction at this time was Berry Gordy’s sexual relationship with Diana Ross. The two had a daughter, Rhonda, who was born in 1971. Gordy’s obsession with Diana obviously influenced his decisions regarding the Supremes and Ms. Ross’ career.

Florence Ballard strongly (and probably accurately) believed that her role in the group was being diminished. She became depressed and developed a serious alcohol problem, occasionally showing up drunk to performances.

In July, 1967 Florence turned up inebriated at a Flamingo Hotel concert in Vegas. When Berry Gordy discovered this, he fired Ballard and replaced her with Cindy Birdsong. This began a downhill spiral for Ballard that eventually led to poverty and substance abuse. In 1976, when a sober Florence Ballard began a comeback as a solo artist, she tragically died from coronary thrombosis at the age of 32.

By 1976 the Supremes were essentially history. Once H-D-H quit Motown in a contract dispute, the group found it much harder to score hit records. In 1970, after Diana Ross left for a solo career, the Supremes went through a revolving door of replacement singers. The group’s records no longer made the pop charts, and their popularity waned.

However, at their peak the Supremes were a pop powerhouse, and one of Motown’s greatest acts. They released an astonishing number of top-rated songs, and even today they form the model for girl pop groups.

Madonna and I Can’t Help Myself:

We discussed Madonna in an earlier blog post for her cover of Don McLean’s American Pie. Here we will briefly review her life and career.

Madonna Ciccone has been a pop superstar for the last 35 years.  She grew up in the Detroit area, where her father Tony was an automotive engineer. When Madonna was 8, her mother died of breast cancer. This came as a great shock because Madonna’s mother had concealed the fact that she was gravely ill.

Things got worse for Madonna when her father married the family’s housekeeper a few months later. Madonna’s resentment over this situation transformed her from a straight-A student to a rebellious teenager.

Madonna received a dance scholarship to the University of Michigan School of Music, but dropped out after two years. At that time, she headed off to New York City with $35. Like many young artists, Madonna worked at Dunkin’ Donuts while she took classes at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, and auditioned for various dance productions.

Below is a photo of Madonna performing at Madison Square Garden in 1984.

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Madonna then began singing and playing guitar with various rock bands. In 1982, she decided to branch out on her own as a solo artist. She signed a contract with Sire Records, and released a couple of singles that became big dance-club hits.

Madonna released an eponymous album in July 1983 that featured disco-era technological features such as synthesizers and drum machines. Madonna became a superstar following the 1984 release of her second album, Like a Virgin.

The title track of that album topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six straight weeks. By this time Madonna’s career had reached the stratosphere. Although her voice was no better than average, her music videos were powerful and controversial. She used her ballet training in elaborately-choreographed dance numbers on world tours.

Madonna’s music videos and tours also featured edgy sexually-provocative numbers. Hints of sado-masochism and bondage, same-sex couples embracing, and simulated masturbation appeared in her performances.

Predictable complaints from religious conservatives provided publicity that helped Madonna’s career to thrive. The Vatican condemned one of Madonna’s music videos, while MTV banned a couple of them.

Here is Madonna in a “live” performance of I Can’t Help Myself. This took place at a concert in Turin, Italy in 1987.

I put ‘live’ in air quotes for several reasons. First, it is well known that Madonna mixes live singing with pre-recorded vocals in her concerts. She defends this by saying that her choreographed dance moves are sufficiently taxing that she is often unable to dance and sing at the same time.

Perhaps, but as our readers know, we are extremely critical of lip-synched music. Over-reliance on taped music leads directly to “artists” like the despicable phonies Milli Vanilli.

Having said that, this Four Tops signature tune does not really seem to be a “Madonna” type of song. She certainly gives it an energetic performance, and shows off her strong vocals. And perhaps Madonna feels an affinity for this Motown song, since she grew up in Detroit.

But I found this video deeply unsatisfying. First off, the person writing the lyrics onscreen has replaced “Honey Bunch” by “Honey Bun.” Next, this clip is labeled an “extended” video. My assumption is that a single verse from the song has been repeated on a video loop. This provides an overpowering sense of déjà vu, as one watches exactly the same clip roll around for a fourth or fifth time.

Finally, Madonna appears in at least three different costumes in this video; so my guess is that material was spliced together from several different performances of this song (or even from another song).

To date, Madonna has sold over 300 million records and is certified by Guinness World Records as the best-selling female recording artist of all time. In 2008, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Madonna has also proved herself to be a talented and versatile actress. She starred in movies such as Desperately Seeking Susan, Dick Tracy and Evita. True, some of her movies were also real stinkers (e.g., Swept Away), but this might be expected from an artist who was constantly pushing the envelope and venturing into uncharted territory.

It is hard to argue with Ms. Ciccone’s tremendous commercial success. She combined powerful ambition and drive with a clear sense of what she wanted to accomplish. She thrived in the MTV and dance-club era, and changed the landscape for female pop artists.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)
Wikipedia, The Four Tops
Wikipedia, Cholly Atkins
Wikipedia, The Supremes
Wikipedia, Madonna (entertainer)

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All Along the Watchtower: Bob Dylan; Jimi Hendrix Experience; Neil Young

Hello there! This week we will discuss a fantastic rock ‘n roll song, All Along the Watchtower. We will first review the original song by Bob Dylan. Next we will feature covers of this song by Jimi Hendrix and by Neil Young.

Bob Dylan and All Along the Watchtower:

Bob Dylan is one of the greatest, quite probably THE greatest, singer-songwriters of folk and rock music. We have discussed his work several times. In an earlier blog, we reviewed his cover of The House of the Rising Sun. We also discussed his version of Four Strong Winds. Later, we covered his song Mr. Tambourine Man and also It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. Finally we produced a post celebrating his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.

So here we will focus on the story of All Along the Watchtower.  I will dedicate this post to my friend and colleague Glenn Gass.  Glenn has developed a course on Bob Dylan at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, and in addition Neil Young is one of Glenn’s favorite artists.

All Along the Watchtower was one of the songs on Dylan’s great 1967 album John Wesley Harding.  The album was named after a Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin (though the name is mis-spelled). The cover of that album is shown at left.

The 1967 Columbia album John Wesley Harding, from Bob Dylan.

After his motorcycle accident in July 1966, Dylan spent more than 18 months recuperating at his home in Woodstock, NY. All the songs on the John Wesley Harding album were written and recorded in the fall of 1967.

After three albums of electric R&B music, on John Wesley Harding Dylan switched back to a more familiar territory, with songs that were more in the folk-rock or country genre.

Below is a photo of Bob Dylan with an acoustic Gibson guitar and harmonica. He is recording his first album Bob Dylan at Columbia Records’ New York studios in November 1961.

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John Wesley Harding was recorded at Columbia Studio A in Nashville, TN. The album was produced by Bob Johnston, who had also produced Dylan’s previous albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

Like Dylan’s previous few albums, the lyrics on some of these songs are rather personal, and in several cases somewhat cryptic.

This is certainly the case with All Along the Watchtower. It paints a vivid picture of two people, the joker and the thief, who are conversing with one another.

“There must be some way out of here” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”

“No reason to get excited”, the thief he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late”.

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.

There has been an enormous amount of speculation about Dylan’s intent on this song. First off, it has been pointed out that the lyrics are strongly reminiscent of chapter 21 of the Book of Isaiah:
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise ye princes, and prepare the shield./For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth./And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed./…And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen.

Of course, Bob Dylan is certainly not going to confirm or deny these hypotheses.

It has also been pointed out that the song has a complicated structure. The last two lines of the song appear to provide the beginning of any action that is occurring.

However, with all great Dylan songs one can simply ignore all the speculation, and just sit back and enjoy this fascinating and powerful word-poem, embedded in a terrific musical setting.

Here is the audio of Bob Dylan’s recording of All Along the Watchtower.

On this rather sparse recording, Dylan accompanies himself on acoustic guitar, and is backed by Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenneth Buttrey on drums. After each verse, Dylan interjects a plaintive solo on harmonica.

All Along the Watchtower was released as a single in Nov. 1968. It failed to dent the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. This is strange, because as we will see the song has been tremendously influential, and has incredible staying power.  For example, there are roughly 200 covers of Dylan’s tune.

And now here is Bob Dylan in a live performance of All Along the Watchtower.

I don’t know when this concert took place, or any other details, but I consider it a fascinating performance. First off, Dylan performs it as a hard-rock tune. The audio is somewhat unbalanced (too heavy on bass and drums); however the net effect is to heighten the immediacy of the band.

As we will see, Bob Dylan’s performance owes a lot to Jimi Hendrix’ cover of this song. Dylan freely acknowledges this; not only does he admit to incorporating elements of Hendrix’ cover, but he considers his performances of All Along the Watchtower to be a tribute following Jimi’s death.

I know of no other song that Dylan has modified because of someone’s cover of his tune, so this is quite a statement from Bob.

All Along the Watchtower is probably Bob Dylan’s favorite song in his live concerts. It is estimated that through 2015, Dylan had performed the tune 2,257 times (yes, there are people who count this stuff!!)

We will end this section with a bit of fluff. Every year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame throws a concert to introduce its newly inducted class. The class of 1988 included Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Drifters, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, the Supremes, Les Paul and Berry Gordy, Jr. – wow, what  a group!

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony and concert always finishes with an “All-Star Jam.” At this point the entire group sings some of the most memorable tunes from the honorees.

Here is the group ‘singing’ All Along the Watchtower.

In addition to honorees Dylan, George Harrison and Ringo, and Les Paul, I believe that I caught sight of Paul Shaffer, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Mike Love and Yoko Ono.

The All-Star Jam is generally a hot mess – it could as well be called “Practice? We don’t need no stinking practice.” I counted at least three drummers and three people on keyboards in this over-blown ensemble, and God knows how many are noodling around on guitar. Initially, it is not clear that Bob Dylan’s mic is on, and the song doesn’t actually end but simply runs out of gas.

Oh well, it’s fun rubber-necking at the incredible talent they assembled for this bash.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience and All Along the Watchtower:

We have discussed Jimi Hendrix previously on this blog.  We first encountered him in a post that analyzed different pop-music takes on our national anthem.  Next we reviewed his cover of the Chuck Berry tune Johnny B. Goode.  And finally, we discussed his cover of the song Hey Joe.  So here we will briefly review his life and career.

Jimi Hendrix is generally (and deservedly) considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He had a meteoric career – Jimi appeared almost out of nowhere; took the field of rock music by storm; and died less than five years after the start of his solo career.

James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle in Nov. 1942. He was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when intoxicated.

Jimi Hendrix’s first musical instrument was a ukulele with just one string. In 1958, he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by copying the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.

Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.

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After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.

Hendrix got into trouble in both bands, as he persisted in showing off his flashy guitar technique when he was supposed to be toiling in the background for the star vocalists. So Jimi assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village.

There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler, who had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Chandler brought Hendrix to London and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell, to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

After rehearsing for a couple of weeks in fall, 1966, the band was ready to go. Their first performances must have been phenomenal, because in November 1966, when the Jimi Hendrix Experience appeared at London’s Bag O’Nails Club, the audience included
Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger.

In January 1968, an associate of Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman brought Jimi Hendrix pre-release tapes of Dylan’s recording of All Along the Watchtower. Intrigued by the song, Jimi began working up a hard-rock version of the tune.

Hendrix recorded an initial version of All Along the Watchtower on Jan. 26, 1968. However, Jimi continued to work on the song for a number of weeks afterward.

At some point, bassist Noel Redding left the studio, and Jimi himself laid down a bass line. Rolling Stones member Brian Jones was present in the studio, and both he and Jimi provided contributions on various percussion instruments.

Jimi kept adding overdubs in subsequent weeks, and various sections of the song were added to or erased. As a result of these many changes, it is not entirely clear who is playing what on the final version.

So here is The Jimi Hendrix Experience in the audio of their recording of All Along the Watchtower.

In this recording, Hendrix gives a completely original and stunning version of All Along the Watchtower. The guitar parts are quite brilliant, showing Hendrix’ complete mastery of the instrument.  We get virtuoso trills, stunning use of feedback, and unsurpassed work on the wah-wah pedal.

Several critics rate the Jimi Hendrix Experience version of All Along the Watchtower as the greatest cover of all time (for example, British magazine Total Guitar had it #1 in their list of the all-time great covers). Also, Guitar World ranked Hendrix’ guitar solo here as #5 in their list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos.

Bob Dylan himself was eloquent in his praise of Jimi’s cover of his own song.
“It overwhelmed me, really. He had such talent, he could find things inside a song and vigorously develop them. He found things that other people wouldn’t think of finding in there. He probably improved upon it by the spaces he was using.”

The Jimi Hendrix Experience cover of All Along the Watchtower was released as a single in Sept. 1968. This debuted a month before the album containing the tune, Electric Ladyland, was released. The song went to #5 on the British pop charts and #20 on the Billboard Hot 100. This was the highest-charting single ever for Hendrix.

Here is Jimi Hendrix in a live performance of All Along the Watchtower.

This is from a performance in Atlanta in 1970. I’m sorry, both the audio and video quality are sub-par; however you can appreciate why Hendrix was such a bombshell. His guitar playing was so original and creative, and his technique was mind-blowing.

I enjoy this video because it focuses on Jimi’s guitar playing. You can see how he produces the amazing sounds that he coaxed from his Fender Stratocaster. Since Jimi was left-handed, he simply turned his axe upside-down. Note that this reverses the ‘normal’ positions of the high and low strings on the guitar.

Jimi Hendrix’ American break-through occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Hendrix gave an unforgettable performance at Monterey, capped off when he set his guitar on fire at the end of his set.

Hendrix followed this up with a sensational performance at the Woodstock Festival in August 1969, at a time when he was the highest-paid rock musician in the world. Probably the highlight of his set at Woodstock was Jimi’s explosive performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, which used amplifier feedback, distortion, and sustain to replicate the sounds made by rockets and bombs.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. After that, the trio broke up in June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences.

Jimi Hendrix then performed with various groups of musicians. In 1970 he assembled a new trio, replacing Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 this group commenced the City of Love tour – the live clip we showed was from this tour.

In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.

The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix had died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.

Jimi Hendrix’ tragic death was a major loss for rock music. Although he only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his creative contributions were truly mind-blowing. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Both Rolling Stone magazine and Guitar World rank Hendrix #1 on their list of the greatest guitarists of all time.

Neil Young and All Along the Watchtower:

We have previously considered Neil Young’s cover of the song Four Strong Winds, and we reviewed his cover of John Lennon’s Imagine.  So here we will briefly summarize Neil’s career.

Neil Young is a multi-talented singer-songwriter, who grew up in Canada but then moved to California in 1966. His first big band was Buffalo Springfield, which he formed with fellow musicians Stephen Stills and Richie Furay.

A 1924 steamroller by the Buffalo Springfield Co.

By the way, surely Buffalo Springfield has to be the only band named after a steamroller company! At left we show a funky 1924 steamroller manufactured by the Buffalo Springfield Company.

Following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield, Young teamed up for a while to form the short-lived supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Neil contributed to some of CSNY’s early songs and concert appearances, but fairly rapidly left that group.

Since that time, Neil Young has carved out an extraordinary career as a solo artist. He is exceptionally prolific, continuing to churn out albums at a rate of about one per year.

Neil Young is also known for his eclectic versatility. Much of his solo work is acoustic, however he also teams up from time to time with the band Crazy Horse to tour and produce hard-rock music.
Musical styles such as alternative rock and grunge also adopted elements from Young. His influence has caused some to dub him the “Godfather of Grunge.”

Below is a photo of Neil Young in concert, circa 1970.

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Young also has a distinctive guitar style. I am not a big fan of his guitar playing, but I have to admit that his guitar technique is unique. Young is adept on keyboards as well.

Here is Neil Young in a live performance of All Along the Watchtower.

This took place at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden in Oct. 1992. At this concert, the backing band included the three surviving members of Booker T & the MGs – Booker T. Jones on keyboards; Steve Cropper on guitar and Duck Dunn on bass. Anton Fig and Jim Keltner appeared on drums.

Here, Neil gives a spirited hard-rock performance of All Along the Watchtower, in a version clearly inspired by Jimi Hendrix. One of Neil’s inimitable guitar solos accompanies the song.

Neil Young’s songs cover a vast range, from political protest anthems to deeply personal topics dealing with relationships and breakups, to anti-drug songs (several of which involve colleagues who have suffered or died from addictions), to hard-rock anthems.

Neil Young has also made extraordinary contributions as a social activist. I will mention just two of these. The first is Farm Aid, a series of concerts organized by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Young to benefit small farmers and to provide them with some financial relief.

A second notable charitable organization is the Bridge School, an institution that deals with youth afflicted with severe disabilities. Young helped organize the school in 1986 and sponsors annual benefit concerts that raised a ton of money for this cause.

Neil Young has a very personal connection to the Bridge School. Of his three children, two have cerebral palsy and the third has epilepsy (Young himself suffers from epilepsy). Neil also was afflicted with polio in 1951, shortly before a cure for the disease was discovered.

For his contributions to rock music, Neil Young has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, initially as a solo singer-songwriter in 1995, and then as a member of Buffalo Springfield in 1997.

It is clear that working with Neil Young must be exceptionally difficult, but it is impossible to ignore his brilliance. We admire his versatility that ranges from acoustic folk to hard-rock to punk to grunge, and we salute a level of productivity that could fill an iPod with Neil Young songs. Long may you run, Neil.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, All Along the Watchtower
Wikipedia, Bob Dylan
Wikipedia, Jimi Hendrix
Wikipedia, Neil Young

Posted in Classic Rock, Country music, Folk-rock music, Heavy Metal, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rave On: Sonny West: Buddy Holly & the Crickets; John Mellencamp

Hello there! This week we will discuss the great rockabilly song Rave On. We will first review the original song co-written by Sonny West. Next we will discuss the best-known cover of this song by Buddy Holly & the Crickets, and finally a cover by John Mellencamp.

Sonny West and Rave On:

Sonny West is a good-ole boy who is a country and western singer-songwriter. Joe “Sonny” West was born in 1937 outside of Lubbock, Texas. He hooked up with producer Norman Petty and frequented Petty’s recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico. Below is a fairly recent photo of Sonny West performing in England.

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Sonny West’s solo career was rather unsuccessful. However, his main claim to fame is that he co-wrote two songs that became blockbuster hits for Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

The first of these songs was written in the mid-50s by Sonny West, Bill Tilghman and Norman Petty. In Feb. 1957, West released a demo version of the song called “All My Love.

But in 1958, Buddy Holly and the Crickets released a single of this song with a new title “Oh, Boy!” The “B” side of this record was Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.”

That record was a massive hit. It shot up to #10 on the Billboard pop charts in the U.S., and was an even bigger hit in the U.K., peaking at #3.

After their first big hit West, Tilghman and Petty wrote a second song called Rave On. This tune expresses the singer’s delight in realizing that his beloved cares for him. He describes an overwhelming sense of joy, and urges his lover to continue to articulate her feelings for him.

The little things you say and do
Make me want to be with you-ah-ou

[CHORUS] Rave on, it’s a crazy feelin’ and
I know it’s got me reelin’
I’m so glad that you’re revealin’
Your love for me

Rave on, rave on and tell me
Tell me not to be lonely
Tell me you love me only
Rave on for me.

Sonny West released Rave On as a single in Feb. 1958. A few months later, the song was covered by Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

So here is the audio of Sonny West’s recording of Rave On.

As you can see, Sonny West is a capable singer. However, the tune was not all that successful, mainly because there is little that distinguishes Sonny from other country & western artists.

Now here is Sonny West decades later, in a live performance of Rave On.

As you can see, West gives a decent performance. However, his greatest talent was not his singing, but his songwriting. When Sonny’s songs were covered by Buddy Holly, they were transformed into rockabilly classics.

In this video clip, Sonny is accompanied by Tommy Allsup. Allsup was a country guitarist for several decades. His main claim to fame was that in the late 50s he was a member of The Crickets traveling band.

Allsup was performing with Buddy Holly and the Crickets on their 1959 Winter Dance Party tour. Following a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa in Feb. 1959, Tommy and singer Ritchie Valens flipped a coin to see who would fly a plane to their next destination, and who would have to ride the tour bus.

Allsup ‘lost’ the coin toss. So Valens boarded the plane, which subsequently crashed and killed all on board (more on this in the next section).

Sonny West has continued to perform since the 50s. He has performed with The Crickets on a few of their tours following Buddy Holly’s death.  Sonny West’s name will live on because he co-wrote two gigantic hits that helped kick-start Buddy Holly’s career. We wish Sonny all the best.

Buddy Holly & the Crickets and Rave On:

We previously encountered Buddy Holly in our blog post on his song That’ll Be The Day. We also reviewed his song Not Fade Away. So here we will give a brief summary of Holly’s life and career.

Charles “Buddy” Holley was one of the all-time great ‘roots’ rockers.  Born in 1936, he grew up in Lubbock, Texas where he learned to play guitar and aspired to be a musician. Although his initial exposure was to country musicians such as Hank Williams and Bob Wills, Buddy was also drawn to the late-night stations that played blues and R&B.

Here are the Crickets, from L: Joe Mauldin, Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison, taken on their UK tour.

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Buddy began to play various venues in the South, and gained some exposure opening for artists such as Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets. This took him to Nashville, where he signed a record contract and produced some work in the studio. To his surprise, the label on his first record listed the singer as “Buddy Holly,” so that became his stage name.

Unfortunately, during that period Buddy’s producers shoe-horned him into the restrictive country-and-western “Nashville sound.” This was a bad fit for Buddy’s talent, and after leaving Nashville he eventually ended up in Clovis, New Mexico, where he hooked up with producer Norman Petty.

There Buddy assembled a band consisting of drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Bill Mauldin and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan. Buddy sang vocals and played lead electric guitar. It might be worth noting that rock and roll followed the ‘big band’ era, so in the early days rock bands experimented with various combinations of instruments.

In many ways, Buddy Holly and the Crickets were pioneers in what became the ‘classic’ rock group lineup – two guitars, bass and drums. The group began to record some songs, beginning with the tune That’ll Be The Day written by Holly and Allison.

The song was released in May, 1957 under the name The Crickets. It picked up some momentum, and then shot up to the top of the Billboard charts in November of that year. It simultaneously hit #1 on the UK pop charts.

Holly’s guitar work was simple but effective. His solos often contained a small number of chords or some simple finger-picking, but they fit perfectly with the group’s style.

Following That’ll Be The Day, the group’s next song Peggy Sue also hit #1 on the charts.

Buddy Holly & the Crickets released their cover of Rave On in mid-1958. Here is video of Buddy Holly and the Crickets “performing” Rave On.

I apologize – this was the best video I could find. Here, Buddy and the Crickets are actually performing another song, while the audio track has been replaced with the recording of Rave On.

Holly’s version begins with an adorable rockabilly touch. Buddy stretches out the word “well” into a five-syllable term, “We-a-he-a-hell,” that closely resembles yodeling. In addition, he elongates the last word in that line, “you-a-hoo.”

While Sonny West’s performance of his own song was fairly pedestrian, in the hands of Buddy Holly the song is changed into an unforgettable rockabilly tune.

It almost immediately became clear that Buddy Holly was the creative genius behind The Crickets. Relatively soon, Buddy was issuing solo albums.

As Buddy Holly’s star continued to rise, tensions arose between him and the other members of the Crickets, and between Holly and producer Norman Petty. This was a shame, as at the beginning of their association Holly and Petty produced some seminal rock ‘n roll songs.

Petty had success with other Southwestern pop artists, could produce a great sound in his studio, and contributed many creative ideas. However, Petty controlled the royalties from Holly’s songs, and at some point Buddy and his young bride, Maria Elena Santiago, felt they were being inadequately compensated by Petty.

When Holly split with Petty, this left Buddy with a cash-flow problem since Petty was holding onto Holly’s royalties. This forced Holly back onto the road in the winter of 1959, when he embarked on a “Winter Dance Party” tour.

The artists on this tour were traveling around the upper Midwest in January, 1959. The tour buses were badly heated and also began breaking down. In Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a private plane to take him to the next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota.

The plane took off in bad weather, then crashed into a cornfield just outside Clear Lake. The pilot, Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) were killed instantly, in a tragedy that became known as “The Day the Music Died.”

Buddy Holly’s tragic death was a major setback for rock music. Buddy was a prolific and creative musician. At the time of his death, he was clearly moving in new directions, having branched out from his earlier rockabilly tunes to acoustic songs and ballads.

Although Buddy Holly was recording songs for just over two years, he had a tremendous influence on future rock music. The Crickets were an inspiration for groups such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones – in fact, the Beatles’ choice of an insect-related band name was a shout-out to Buddy’s band The Crickets.

As a singer-songwriter, Buddy Holly set an example subsequently followed by Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards.

John Mellencamp and Rave On:

John Mellencamp is a home-town rocker for me, as he lives just outside of Bloomington, Indiana. He has had a rather amazing career for over 40 years, and he continues to record and tour today.

John Mellencamp was born in 1951 and raised in south-central Indiana. As an infant, he had surgery to correct spina bifida. John was not much of a student, although he managed to graduate from a two-year college, Vincennes University.

John then took off for New York City, in the hopes of scoring a record contract and becoming a rock singer. He hooked up with manager Tony DeFries, who insisted that he adopt the stage name Johnny Cougar, on the grounds that no one would purchase records from an artist named John Mellencamp.

The photo below shows a publicity shot of a young “Johnny Cougar.”

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Well, in 1974 DeFries signed Mellencamp to a contract with MCA Records, and organized a big publicity campaign for “Johnny Cougar.” But after his first album flopped, John was dropped by that record company.

Mellencamp then spent a few years trying to catch a break, and in 1980 he released an album on Polygram Records, Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did. The record was produced by Steve Cropper and produced two top-40 singles.

This was sufficient to make John Mellencamp a hit rocker. However, he really cemented his reputation with his next album, American Fool. That album featured Hurts So Good, which shot up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists, and then Jack and Diane, a song that topped the charts for 4 weeks.

Several of John Mellencamp’s hits were co-written with George Green, who was a childhood friend of Mellencamp’s from their teen days in Seymour, Indiana. The Green-Mellencamp partnership lasted until 2000, after which Green moved from Bloomington, Indiana to Taos, New Mexico.

In the early 1980s, John Mellencamp’s band featured Larry Crane and Mike Wanchic on guitar, Kenny Aronoff on drums, Toby Myers on bass and John Cascella on keyboards. They were an exceptionally tight ensemble and a great live band.

Mellencamp’s drummer Kenny Aronoff was a graduate of the Indiana University School of Music. Aronoff’s training left him able to play drums in any ensemble – classical, jazz, hip-hop, you name it.  While he played with Mellencamp, Aronoff specialized in massive wallops on his drum kit. Below is a photo of Kenny Aronoff signing materials at a MusiCares event.

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I recommend Aronoff’s autobiography Sex, Drums, Rock ‘n Roll, to anyone interested in a detailed description of life on the road in an 80s rock band.

Here is John Mellencamp in a live performance of Rave On.

That song was initially recorded to be part of the 1988 Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. The video clip shows a performance from 2003. This was part of a tribute concert in honor of Buddy Holly, organized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

John Mellencamp gives a slowed down and stripped-down version of the Buddy Holly classic. His band features a sparse drum kit, an upright bass and an accordion. Despite the simple styling, you can see why this Buddy Holly song has been so popular for 60 years.

For example, Rave On has been covered by Ricky Nelson, Commander Cody, Status Quo, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Denny Laine, the guitarist for both The Moody Blues and Wings.

The Grateful Dead frequently included covers of Rave On in their concert set lists. And Bruce Springsteen not only recorded a cover of Rave On with his E Street Band, but he is reputed to sing Rave On backstage when he revs himself up for his live performances.

And now back to John Mellencamp. Immediately after he released two big hit albums, John rebelled against the name “Johnny Cougar” that had been foisted on him.

His next few albums were released under the name John Cougar Mellencamp. And beginning in 1991, his albums have been released as John Mellencamp.

Mellencamp has also been very dogged in following his chosen musical directions. His 1987 Lonesome Jubilee album marked a new path for Mellencamp. As described by critic Frank DiGiacomo in Vanity Fair,
“The Lonesome Jubilee was the album in which Mellencamp defined his now signature sound: a rousing, crystalline mix of acoustic and electric guitars, Appalachian fiddle, and gospel-style backing vocals, anchored by a crisp, bare-knuckle drumbeat and completed by his own velveteen rasp.”

John Mellencamp’s personal life has very much reflected his stature as a rock star. He was first married in 1970 after his high school girlfriend became pregnant. From 1981 to 1989 he was married to Vicky Granucci.

Then in 1992 Mellencamp married fashion supermodel Elaine Irwin. The couple had two sons before they divorced in 2011. Following that divorce, Mellencamp has had an on-again off-again relationship with Meg Ryan for several years.

John Mellencamp continues to record and to tour. He has been exceptionally successful, combining rock ‘n roll with a style that he terms “alternative country.”  Together with Willie Nelson and Neil Young, Mellencamp founded Farm Aid in 1985.  Over the past 30 years, this organization has raised more than $50 million on behalf of small farmers.

Mellencamp was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. He was inducted by his good friend Billy Joel. What a success story for this kid from Seymour, Indiana.

Keep it up, John, all the best, but cut back on the cigarettes (John earlier had a heart condition brought on by smoking over four packs a day).

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Rave On
Wikipedia, Sonny West
Wikipedia, Buddy Holly
Wikipedia, John Mellencamp

Posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Rockabilly | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friday On My Mind: The Easybeats; David Bowie; Bruce Springsteen.

Hello there! This week we discuss a fine rock ‘n roll song called Friday On My Mind. We will first review the original song by the Australian rock group The Easybeats. Next we feature covers of this song by David Bowie and by Bruce Springsteen.

The Easybeats and Friday On My Mind:

The Easybeats were an Australian rock band with the distinction that they were the first Aussie rock group ever to score an international hit record.

The  musicians in The Easybeats were all born in Europe, and their families emigrated to Australia. In fact, the members of the band met while they were being interned at Sydney’s Villawood Migrant Hostel, where families were housed while they waited to achieve permanent immigrant status in Australia.

The Easybeats were comprised of lead singer Stevie Wright and drummer Snowy Fleet (emigrants from England), rhythm guitarist George Young from Scotland, and lead guitarist Harry Vanda and bassist Dick Diamonde from the Netherlands.

George Young was also famous as he was the older brother of Angus and Malcolm Young, who became the lead and rhythm guitarist, respectively, for the Aussie heavy-metal group AC/DC. Thus the Youngs could be considered the “first family” of Aussie rock ‘n roll.

Below is a photo of The Easybeats in a publicity photo, riding bicycles during a tour of England.

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The Easybeats formed in 1964 and began performing in venues around Sydney. The group became extremely popular, especially after their first Aussie hit record in 1965, She’s So Fine.

That tune reached #3 on the Australian pop charts. As a result, the group achieved the Aussie equivalent of “Beatlemania;” the adulation from their fans was referred to as “Easyfever.”

The song Friday On My Mind was written by the band’s main songwriting duo George Young and Harry Vanda. It describes the life of a young man who thoroughly dislikes his job. Throughout the week, he simply marks time until Friday evening, when he will enjoy a good time with his girlfriend.

Monday mornin’ feels so bad
Ev’rybody seems to nag me
Comin’ Tuesday I feel better
Even my old man looks good
Wed’sday just don’t go
Thursday goes too slow
I’ve got Friday on my mind

[CHORUS] Gonna have fun in the city
Be with my girl, she’s so pretty
She looks fine tonight
She is out of sight to me

Tonight I’ll spend my bread, tonight
I’ll lose my head, tonight
I’ve got to get to night
Monday I’ll have Friday on my mind

Here are the Easybeats in a live performance of Friday On My Mind.

This is a really enjoyable performance of this song, the biggest hit for the Easybeats. The tune begins with a rapid-fire guitar solo by Harry Vanda.

Apparently the guitar bit was inspired by a French pop group called the Swingle Singers. The group saw a filmed concert of that ensemble and were amused by a guitar solo from their performance. Harry Vanda began to imitate the guitar part, and he incorporated a modified version into the intro to Friday On My Mind.

Lead singer Stevie Wright has a really fine voice that he shows off on this tune. Friday On My Mind became the first big international hit from an Australian rock group (the Easybeats beat out The Bee Gees by a few months).

Friday On My Mind was released in the UK in October 1966, and climbed up to #6 on the UK charts. It reached only #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was a #1 hit in Australia and reached the top ten in Germany, France and the Netherlands. The record sold over a million copies.

As a result of their first big hit, and their status as the first rockers from Oz to hit the big time, the Easybeats have long been Australian favorites. In 2001,
the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) celebrated its 75th anniversary by naming the Best Australian Songs of all time, as decided by a 100 strong industry panel, with “Friday on My Mind” being selected as the number one song on the list.

Following the success of Friday On My Mind, the band’s fortunes peaked. The group went on a European tour where they opened for The Rolling Stones. They also began working with A-list producers, in the hopes of assembling a dynamite album.

Alas, further hits never materialized. The group’s next few singles and albums flopped. Lead songwriters George Young and Harry Vanda continued to write, and their songs found success with other bands, but not with The Easybeats.

At this point, addiction issues played a role in the band’s lack of success. In particular, Stevie Wright’s drug and alcohol dependency was so severe that he eventually checked himself into Sydney’s Chelmsford Private Hospital for rehab.

Unfortunately for Wright, he was treated by Dr. Harry Bailey, who was practicing a controversial form of treatment called “deep sleep therapy,” which involved a combination of drug-induced coma and electroshock therapy.

The good news is that Wright survived the treatment, which is more than can be said for several of Bailey’s patients. The bad news is that Wright suffered permanent brain damage, and other health issues that persisted until his death in Dec. 2015 at the age of 68.

The Easybeats officially disbanded in October 1969. Although the band had achieved a fair amount of commercial success and had undertaken major international tours, George Young and Harry Vanda ended up with substantial debts at the end of the Easybeats’ history as a group.

Despite their parlous financial state, George Young and Harry Vanda continued to write and produce songs for other groups for some time.

Young and Vanda also wrote and recorded under the pseudonym Flash and the Pan. As the pair had tired of the rigors of touring, Flash and the Pan released only studio cuts and did not perform in concert. That band had a number of hits in Australia and Europe, but to the best of my knowledge they found no success in the States.

The greatest achievements by Young and Vanda were as producers. For example, they produced the first six albums for the Aussie hard-rock group AC/DC. However, Young and Vanda had an “in” here — as mentioned previously George Young’s younger brothers Malcolm and Angus were guitarists for AC/DC.

George Young died in October 2017.

The song Friday On My Mind enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2016, when it was featured on an episode of the Showtime cable series Ray Donovan. That show featured Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) as a “fixer” who carries out shady activities for a powerhouse LA law firm.

On that series Hank Azaria played Ed Cochran, a criminal who acts as somewhat of a nemesis to Donovan. At the beginning of Episode 7 from season 4 of Ray Donovan, Cochran sings a few verses from Friday On My Mind; and at the conclusion of the episode, the Easybeats’ original version plays as the credits roll.

The Easybeats were Australian rock trail-blazers. They were the first Aussie rock group to have an international hit record. As a result, they have achieved the status of rock ‘n roll royalty in Oz.

In addition to their one big hit Friday On My Mind, I also enjoy their singles She’s So Fine and Sorry. So we salute the Easybeats – good on ya, mates!

David Bowie and Friday On My Mind:

David Bowie was one of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of our time. We previously reviewed his cover of Dancing In The Street with Mick Jagger; we also discussed his cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, and the Simon & Garfunkel song America.

So here we will briefly review the life and career of David Bowie.  He was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and took the stage name David Bowie to avoid confusion with 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.

Below is a photo of a memorial to David Bowie following his death in Jan. 2016. Tributes of flowers are scattered beneath a photo of Bowie from the early 70s.

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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.

Bowie’s subsequent career contained many abrupt changes in style. Bowie often changed band members and producers at the same time he adopted a new musical direction. Bowie was constantly pushing the envelope in musical genres, performing style, and fashion.

In 1973 David Bowie released a single of Friday On My Mind. This was part of his album Pin-Ups, a series of covers of famous songs from other groups. Here is the audio of Bowie’s cover of Friday On My Mind.

This is a relatively straight-up copy of the Easybeats song. Apparently this was quite popular with the Easybeats, who considered Bowie’s version to be far and away the best cover of their hit.

Because we weren’t able to locate live video of Bowie singing Friday On My Mind, here we have a clip of Bowie in a live performance of his song Young Americans.

This was a performance from The Dick Cavett Show in Dec. 1974. Here Bowie shows off his wonderful and terrifically versatile voice. He is accompanied by a tight backing band featuring the great saxophonist David Sanborn, and an impressive chorus.

Young Americans was the title song of Bowie’s 1975 album.  This album featured Bowie singing R&B, backed by artists such as Luther Vandross.  Bowie called the style of this record as “plastic soul,” which he described as
“the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white Limey.”

Just a bit more about David Bowie’s life and career. We had mentioned how Bowie created alternate personas at various points in his career. These characters became deeply ingrained in his behavior, so much that it was difficult for him to separate his own personality from that of his alter ego.

This psychological problem was exacerbated by serious issues with drug addiction, particularly cocaine. As a result, Bowie suffered from paranoia and psychosis before he finally become sober in the 1980s.

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.

David Bowie was apparently a mesmerizing performer. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.

This is not surprising, since Bowie was trained as an actor before he set out on a musical career.  He appeared in a number of highly-regarded films, including Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige.

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.

Bruce Springsteen and Friday On My Mind:

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 we later reviewed his cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive, and also the Chuck Berry tune You Never Can Tell.

So here we will provide a short bio of Bruce Springsteen’s 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.

Springsteen was raised Catholic and attended a parochial school through middle school. Although he rebelled against both the religious doctrine and the discipline enforced by the nuns, this upbringing made a lasting impression on him.

Below is a photo of Bruce Springsteen in concert in 1975, early in his career.

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After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and assembled an ensemble 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 as 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. The energy and exuberance of his live performances made him a cult figure.

This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were 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 1975 third album. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.

I was conflicted over Springsteen’s early work.  While the lyrics were truly memorable, the production values were third-rate, and I was pessimistic whether Bruce would live up to his hype.

Well, Springsteen succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. That album was chock-full of hits – seven songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10, and the album sold over 30 million units worldwide.

So here is Bruce Springsteen in a live performance of Friday On My Mind.

This is from a performance in Sydney, Australia in Feb. 2014. This has become typical of a Bruce Springsteen concert – if he is performing in Australia, he will throw in a classic tune or two from that country. This same tour included a cover of Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees.

Here Bruce brings the Aussies his version of the hit from their first big rock group. This is a reasonably straightforward cover of the Easybeats’ tune. The only significant difference is that in Bruce’s version, the song has a gritty edge to it.

I could go either way on this tune. While Stevie Wright of the Easybeats gave the song a more happy, upbeat attitude, the lyrics are certainly consistent with Springsteen’s more combative take. After the song has apparently ended, Bruce resurrects it and gets the audience to join in on the chorus.

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

Springsteen’s concerts tend to be epic events. He generally appears in stadiums or major venues, and his 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, we hope your “Glory Days” continue for a long time!

Surce Material:

Wikipedia, Friday On My Mind
Wikipedia, The Easybeats
Wikipedia, David Bowie
Wikipedia, Young Americans (song)
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen

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

I Wonder Why: Dion and the Belmonts; Sha Na Na; Showaddywaddy

Hello there! This week we will discuss the great doo-wop song I Wonder Why. We will first review the original song recorded by Dion and the Belmonts. The song appeared in the pilot segment of the TV show The Sopranos, and we will summarize that episode. Next we will consider covers of this song by Sha Na Na and by Showaddywaddy.

Dion and the Belmonts and I Wonder Why:

Dion DiMucci was born in the Bronx in 1941. When Dion was signed to a record contract, he recruited three of his childhood friends Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano and Angelo D’Alea.

Two of the members lived on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, and the other two had grown up nearby. The group adopted the name Dion and the Belmonts.

Doo-wop music originated with pickup groups who would sing on streetcorners for money from pedestrians. New York and Pittsburgh were early centers of doo-wop music. The resulting harmonies were complex, and often incorporated stylistic elements borrowed from jazz.

The song I Wonder Why was written by Melvin Anderson and Ricardo Weeks. In 1958, it became the first song released by Laurie Records. Although it peaked at only #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, it nevertheless identified Dion and the Belmonts as a group to watch.

Below is a photo of Dion and the Belmonts from the late 50s. From L: Fred Milano; Carlo Mastrangelo; Dion DiMucci; Angelo D’Alea.

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In I Wonder Why, the singer ponders the reasons why his lover is so appealing to him (here I have included in parentheses some of the solos from the bass singer).

(Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh)
[Don’t] know why I love you like I do (D-d-dun d-d-dah), [don’t] know why I do
(D-duh)

Don’t know why I love you, don’t know why I care
I just want, your love to share

I wonder why, I love you like I do
Is it because I think you love me too?
I wonder why, I love you like I do, like I do

Here are Dion and the Belmonts in a “live” performance of I Wonder Why.

The group is appearing on the Dick Clark Beech-Nut Hour in 1958. As usual, we put “live” in air quotes, as Dion and his cohorts are simply lip-synching to their record.

When I would watch interviews of Dick Clark, it was never clear that he understood the difference between live performance and the lip-synching that was so common on his show. He would speak of the “energy” and “great voice” of his guest artists, without acknowledging that in reality they were actually not singing a note.

However, you can immediately see why I Wonder Why is such an iconic ‘oldies’ tune. It prominently features a bass solo from Carlo Mastrangelo, and also the falsetto accompaniment so typical of doo-wop.

In addition, Dion DiMucci has a terrific voice for rock music. When Dion was paired with the close harmonies of the Belmonts, it made a potent combination.

In the late 50s I played electric bass in a rock band, Johnny Dee and the Kings. Our band played covers of the hits of the day, including Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and of course songs from several doo-wop groups.

I Wonder Why was one of the favorite tunes on our playlist. We referred to it using the politically-incorrect term ‘the Italian national anthem’ (“Wop, wop, wop wop wop wop wop,” get it, hahaha).

Many doo-wop groups were ‘one-hit wonders,’ with a single bit hit followed by obscurity.  However, Dion and the Belmonts released a number of hit records. As a result, they became headliners in various traveling revues, appearing alongside groups like The Coasters and Bobby Darin.

In late 1958, Dion and the Belmonts were headliners on the Winter Garden Party tour along with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. On Feb. 2, 1959, they played a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Buddy Holly and others chartered a plane to take them to the next stop on their tour. Dion was offered a place on the plane, but felt that the $36 fee was too expensive. The plane subsequently crashed, killing Holly, Valens and ‘Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson; this tragedy became known as ‘the day the music died.’

Over the next couple of years, Dion and the Belmonts continued to score pop hits. However, the group subsequently fragmented over disagreements about musical directions.

The group’s biggest hit had been a cover of the Great American Songbook standard Where or When. While the other Belmonts wanted to focus on doo-wop versions of old pop standards, Dion felt that they should concentrate on rock music.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Dion had recently spent a stint in rehab, trying to kick a long-time addiction to heroin. After leaving rehab, Dion split with the Belmonts, and then began a successful solo career that included hits such as Runaway Sue, The Wanderer, and Ruby Baby.

Dion and the Belmonts reunited briefly in the mid-60s and then again in the early 70s. Their records did not manage to crack the charts, but they had a couple of successful concert tours.

In 1989, Dion DiMucci was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his Belmonts compatriots were not. This was not a completely unreasonable move, as Dion had a number of solo hits after leaving the Belmonts. But as might be expected, this caused considerable friction between DiMucci and his old mates.

Then in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted several groups whose lead singers had been enshrined while the other group members had not. The following six groups were inducted:
the Miracles (Smokey Robinson), the Crickets (Buddy Holly), the Midnighters (Hank Ballard), the Famous Flames (James Brown), the Comets (Bill Haley) and the Blue Caps (Gene Vincent) .

It seemed reasonable to assume that the Belmonts would join this group. After all, it is hard to argue that the Comets and the Blue Caps were more deserving than the Belmonts; however, the Belmonts were stiffed once again.

Dion DiMucci has continued to perform until very recently. Here he is live at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City in 2004, performing his hit I Wonder Why.

Isn’t this fun – ole Dion can still bring it! What a really enjoyable song, and one that can immediately take me back to my days as a teenager.

I Wonder Why in The Sopranos:

The song I Wonder Why appeared in the pilot episode of the blockbuster HBO crime drama The Sopranos. An advertisement for Season 2 of that series is shown below left.

advertisement for season 2 of the HBO series The Sopranos.

In this first episode, Mafia chieftain Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has begun seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) after Tony has suffered a panic attack; the panic attack is shown at the end of the video clip.

With Dr. Melfi, Tony is coy about the nature of his business operations, but it is apparent that Dr. Melfi understands what he is up to. Tony next appears in a car with his nephew Christopher Meltisanti (Michael Imperiole), whom Tony is grooming as a potential future leader of the clan.

Tony sights a man who owes him money. Upon seeing Tony, the man takes off running. Tony jumps into Christopher’s car and drives after him.  The resulting chase takes place over city streets, down a sidewalk, and through a park before Tony eventually catches up to the man and sideswipes him with his car, breaking the man’s leg in the process.

Here is the scene. The song I Wonder Why plays throughout the chase.

I Wonder Why stops suddenly, after Tony gets out of the car and assaults the defenseless man. Here is a description of the scene from the Web site vialogues.
the juxtaposition of violence to this upbeat song “I Wonder Why” seems to magnify the brutality of the scene. The sounds of the car door slamming, the feet running, the car screeching and crashing, are all coinciding with the music, until Tony physically assaults him and it stops. The abruptness of the music stopping also amplifies the violence and turns from a scene of quasi-humor to a scene of raw physical violence.

The Sopranos was the brainchild of David Chase, who conceived the series and wrote many of its episodes. The show ran from 1999 to 2007 and garnered great acclaim.  In 2013, the Writers Guild of America called The Sopranos the best-written series of all time.

The show provided complex insights into the life of a New Jersey criminal family. It followed a sprawling cast of family and business associates, providing riveting details that were mixed with Machiavellian power struggles and scenes of shocking brutality.

The music used in The Sopranos was carefully chosen by Chase, in consultation with Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and who had never before acted), played Tony Soprano’s partner and best friend in the series.

Apparently the subtle relationships of Tony Soprano to his mother (Nancy Marchand) and his psychiatrist were referential of events in David Chase’s own life. Chase was undergoing analysis at the time, and he also had a complicated relationship with his mother.

Sha Na Na and I Wonder Why:

We previously discussed the pop group Sha Na Na in an earlier post on the song Great Balls of Fire, and also for their cover of Duke of Earl. Here we will briefly review the history of this ensemble.

Sha Na Na is an American rock and roll group that formed in the late 1960s. They were initially members of an a capella group at Columbia University called The Kingsmen.

In 1969, Columbia grad student George Leonard formed a band, and they began giving concerts in the New York City area. They concentrated on covers of 50s and early 60s songs.

The band quickly achieved cult status when they performed at the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969. Sha Na Na appeared immediately before Jimi Hendrix on the program. The group was also featured in the concert film Woodstock, performing a frenetic version of the Danny & the Juniors song At The Hop.

Below is a photo of Sha Na Na in live performance, in 1975.

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Here is Sha Na Na in a live performance of I Wonder Why.

My understanding is that this appeared on German TV in 1973. The audio and video are strictly so-so, nevertheless this is an energetic performance of I Wonder Why. It features the group’s leader Jon “Bowzer” Bauman singing bass.

As you can see, most of the ensemble appear in “50s greaser” attire, while three of the members (mostly off-camera in this video) are dressed in tight-fitting gold lame outfits. Bowzer shows off his physique (or lack thereof) in a black muscle T-shirt.

Sha Na Na had a dramatic impact on popular culture. Their focus on fifties rock and roll
helped spark a 1950s nostalgia craze that inspired similar groups in North America, as well as the Broadway musical Grease, the feature film American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days.

Sha Na Na appeared in the 1978 movie Grease, as the (fictional) band Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. There, they sang two songs from the Broadway play of the same name, and also versions of four 50s oldies.

The group hosted a self-titled TV variety show from 1977 to 1981. The show had high ratings, and generally featured a series of 50s songs, sketches and guest artists.

Former Sha Na Na members include physicians (notably a sports medicine physician who served on the medical staff for our national soccer team), lawyers (e.g., the VP for production and features at Columbia Pictures), and professors (faculty in linguistics, English, and religious studies).

Sha Na Na still continues to perform today, although they have now undergone dozens of changes in personnel.

Showaddywaddy and I Wonder Why:

Like the group Sha Na Na, Showaddywaddy was a band that specialized in covers of 50s and 60s songs. While Sha Na Na dressed up as greasers or in gold lame costumes, the members of Showaddywaddy appeared dressed as the early British rockers called Teddy Boys.

Showaddywaddy was formed from the amalgamation of two bands from Leicester, England. Their original incarnation was as an octet, comprised of two vocalists, two guitars, two drummers and two bass players.

Below is a photo of the octet Showaddywaddy from the mid-70s.

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The band first appeared on a British singing competition TV show called New Faces. After they were runners-up in that competition, they released their first single in 1974. This was an original composition titled Hey Rock and Roll, which went to #2 on the UK singles charts.

The group was initially produced by Mike Hurst, a former member of the folk-rock group The Springfields. Working with Hurst from 1974 to 1977, the band released a number of covers of 50s and 60s ‘oldies’ rock tunes that became hits in the U.K. To the best of my knowledge, they never charted in the U.S.

Following that period, Showaddywaddy began to produce their own records. In 1977 the band released a single of the iconic 50s doo-wop tune I Wonder Why.

Here are Showaddywaddy in a live rendition of I Wonder Why.

This was an appearance on the Dutch TV show Top Pop. The group gives a reasonably faithful copy of the Dion & the Belmonts original, with lead vocals from Dave Bartram. I find this a really enjoyable cover of this classic doo-wop song.

Showaddywaddy was an example of a group that had great success in Britain, while never cracking the American market. Over roughly an 8-year period from 1974 to 1982, they racked up ten singles in the Top Ten of the British pop charts.

Furthermore, over their career Showaddywaddy appeared on TV in Britain and Europe an astonishing 300 times! Apparently there is a big market for ‘oldies’ songs, and this group fulfilled that craving for British fans.

Although the pop hits dried up more than three decades ago, Showaddywaddy continues to perform and tour. Two of the original members from the group, drummer Romeo Challenger and bassist Rod Deas, are still in the current ensemble.

Showaddywaddy apparently give roughly 100 performances per year in Britain and Europe. In 2014, the band went on tour with old rockers The Bay City Rollers, David Essex and The Osmonds (they could have been called “the Metamucil Tour”?). Rock on, lads!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Wonder Why.
Wikipedia, Dion and the Belmonts.
Wikipedia, The Sopranos.
Vialogues, The Sopranos, Episode 1.
Wikipedia, Sha Na Na.
Wikipedia, Showaddywaddy.

Posted in Doo-Wop, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Money (That’s What I Want): Barrett Strong; The Beatles; Stevie Wonder.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Money (That’s What I Want). We will first discuss the original song which is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and was recorded by Barrett Strong. Next we will discuss covers of this song by The Beatles and by Stevie Wonder.

Barrett Strong and Money (That’s What I Want):

Barrett Strong was born in Mississippi in 1941. He was one of the first artists signed by Berry Gordy to Gordy’s Motown Records enterprise. Below is a photo of Barrett Strong circa 1960.

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The lyrics to Money are extremely simple and direct. The singer recounts various qualities, including those possessed by his lover, and declares that all of these are unimportant, compared with cold hard cash.

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees

[Chorus]
I need money
That’s what I want (3X)

Your love give me such a thrill
But your love don’t pay my bills

[Chorus]

Money don’t get everything it’s true
What it don’t get I can’t use

Although the song Money (That’s What I Want) is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, Barrett Strong has consistently maintained that he was a co-writer on the tuneStrong was initially listed as a co-writer; however, his name was later removed from the copyright registration, leaving Gordy and Bradford as the writers of record.

Berry Gordy states that Strong was initially listed as a co-writer through a clerical error; isn’t is a coincidence how ‘errors’ at Motown consistently come out in Berry Gordy’s favor?

Right from the very start of his music enterprise, Berry Gordy produced records on several different labels. The song Money was initially released on Tamla Records (at that time, the Motown label did not yet exist); however, the song was then transferred to Anna Records, a label named after Berry Gordy’s sister Anna.

Anna Records released Money (That’s What I Want) nationally in 1959, and it became the first big hit for Berry Gordy and Motown. The song reached #2 on the Hot R&B charts, and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is the audio of Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want).

The tune Money has more of a ‘garage-band’ feel than the classic ‘Motown sound’ records that featured the backing band The Funk Brothers. The song is extremely raw and direct.

It begins with Barrett Strong on piano, next accompanied by a tambourine. Then guitar, bass and drums join in, before Strong opens with his gritty vocals. Barrett is also accompanied by a girl-group chorus, who join in the ‘that’s what I want’ refrain.

Although Money was Barrett Strong’s only hit single, it has become an iconic song that has now been covered by at least 100 groups. For example, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Buddy Guy and Led Zeppelin all covered the song.

I was unable to find Barrett Strong in a live performance of Money. Therefore, I am including a video of Strong in concert. He is performing his song Cold-Hearted Woman, from his 2008 album Stronghold II.

One of the women on the backing vocals is Eliza Neal; Strong co-wrote the songs on that album with Ms. Neals.

Although Barrett Strong was a ‘one-hit wonder’ as a solo artist, he nevertheless had a long and distinguished career at Motown Records. He teamed up with collaborator Norman Whitfield to write and produce several iconic Motown hits.

Strong and Whitfield wrote Heard It Through the Grapevine, which became a big hit for both Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye. They also wrote and produced War for Edwin Starr.

Whitfield and Strong then became the lead writers/producers for The Temptations. In that role, the pair wrote most of the Temps’ ‘psychedelic soul’ songs. In 1973, Barrett Strong won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for the Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone.

Barrett Strong left Motown in 1972, when the company moved their operations from Detroit to Los Angeles. He resumed his solo career at that time. To the best of my knowledge, Strong has currently retired from the music business, as his last release I could find was from 2010.

The Beatles and Money (That’s What I Want):

We have covered the Beatles more than any other rock artists. This is understandable, given that they are the best and most successful rock group in history.

We first discussed their song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds; next their brilliant parody Back in the USSR, followed by Please, Mr. Postman. We then reviewed With a Little Help From My Friends, followed by Twist and Shout, and I Got a Woman.

Next, we featured Here Comes The Sun, and Hey Jude, their cover of Long Tall Sally, their song Ticket To Ride, and finally Can’t Buy Me Love.

Here we will give a brief review of the career of The Beatles.

The Beatles originally formed as a skiffle band in the late 1950s. John Lennon brought in Paul McCartney, and then George Harrison to produce a guitar trio. The group subsequently added Stu Sutcliffe on bass, and went through a number of drummers before finally settling on Ringo Starr.

Below is a photo of the Beatles performing in 1963. From L: Paul McCartney, bass; Ringo Starr, drums; George Harrison, lead guitar; John Lennon, rhythm guitar.

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The Beatles became a tight and highly skilled ensemble during a few visits to Hamburg, Germany in the early 60s. There, the group lived in abject poverty while playing in gritty venues scattered amidst the strip clubs in Hamburg’s seedy Reeperbahn district.

In the early days of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were just beginning to write songs, so the Beatles played covers of tunes by their favorite artists. The group especially looked for songs that would show off John or Paul’s vocals, or the harmonizing and instrumental work from the entire band.

The Beatles had discovered Barrett Strong’s Money in 1963, in the record store owned by the parents of their manager Brian Epstein. This was interesting in that the song had not been a hit in Britain.

The group realized that it was a perfect fit for John’s ‘gritty’ vocals. The Beatles incorporated Money into their act, and in the early days it became one of the group’s signature songs.

On Jan. 1, 1962, the Beatles had a now-infamous audition with Decca Records. The band performed 15 songs, of which three were original Lennon/McCartney compositions and the remaining twelve were covers.

Money (That’s What I Want) was the second song performed by the band.
In what is considered one of the biggest mistakes in music industry history, Decca rejected the band, selecting instead Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

To this day, the stupendous blunder has continued to haunt Decca Records. Company execs stated that
“guitar groups are on the way out” and “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
Wow, what incredible morons!

So here are the Beatles in Liverpool in 1963, in a live performance of Money.

This is a great glimpse of the Beatles, just as their fame was burgeoning across the U.K. By this time, Pete Best (who had been the drummer for the Beatles’ Decca audition) had been replaced by Ringo Starr.

As you can see, the song is an excellent vehicle for John, as it shows off his voice perfectly. Paul and George reprise the chorus, which was supplied by girls in the Barrett Strong original.

There is a bit of screaming by the fans at the end of this song, but nothing compared to the ‘Beatlemania’ that would sweep Britain, and next engulf the U.S. and the world.

The Beatles are not quite the smooth and polished quartet that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show a year later, but it is easy to imagine their future greatness. Here they are, poised on the cusp of world fame.

At this point, John and Paul had begun to write their own songs, that would reveal their musical genius. George’s guitar playing would continue to evolve over the next few years. And Ringo was always the steady, incredibly reliable drummer for the band.

We all know the rest of the story. For the next few years, the Beatles dominated the world of rock music. They were incredibly prolific, churning out pop hits. Their record albums became progressively more complex, as the Beatles’ music grew more sophisticated.  And then, right at the end of the 60s, the band broke up and its members went their separate ways.

It’s hard to believe that it has now been 51 years since their Sgt. Pepper album was released. And people are still arguing over which was the greatest Beatles album. Certainly the most dramatic release of that era was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

However, was Revolver actually a more brilliant and innovative album than Sgt. Pepper? Or should the ‘best album’ honor go to Rubber Soul? Or even The White Album? Or possibly the group’s last masterpiece, Abbey Road?

Well, one can debate this question ad nauseam. Suffice it to say that I still remember the thrill from the first time I heard several of the Beatles records, and their songs continue to bring great joy to me.

Stevie Wonder and Money (That’s What I Want):

We have discussed Stevie Wonder’s work in an earlier blog post on his song Superstition, and also his cover of the song Bridge Over Troubled Water. So here we will give a brief review of his life and career.

Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, is one of the premier R&B artists of all time. He was born in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Because he was born six weeks premature and left in an incubator with an oxygen-rich environment, he developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which resulted in his becoming blind very shortly after birth.

Stevie was a true child prodigy. His musical talent was evident extremely early, and he was signed to a Motown Records contract at the tender age of 11. However, his first two albums, released when he was 11 and 12 respectively, were not  commercially successful.

Below is a photo of Stevie Wonder at the keyboards, circa 1972.

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Stevie’s live performance as part of the Motortown Revue was recorded and released in May, 1963 with the title Recorded Live: the 12-Year Old Genius. That particular album contained the single Fingertips, a song featuring Stevie on harmonica.  Fingertips took off like a rocket. It reached #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts, making Stevie at age 13 the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit.

Here is Stevie Wonder with a live performance of Money (That’s What I Want).

Isn’t this great? I am not positive of the date and place of this performance, although it claims to be footage from a concert in Italy in 1970. It actually looks like he is performing in a palace or a museum.

In any case, Stevie is rather young here, and it is a joy to watch him rip through this Barrett Strong classic. In addition to some energetic work on keyboards, Stevie also produces a dynamite harmonica solo. Stevie has to be the greatest harp player I have ever experienced, and one could also make a case that his creativity on keyboards is unmatched.

Given Stevie Wonder’s illustrious career, one might have assumed that he rose to the top and remained there ever after. However, Stevie experienced a down spell after Fingertips. His voice was changing, and his next few albums bombed.

Apparently several Motown executives were in favor of dropping Stevie from their label. However, Stevie was given another chance to prove himself, and he carved out a number of hits during the mid and late 60s.

When he reached his 21st birthday, Stevie Wonder ended his contract with Motown. However, he re-signed with them in 1972 to a new contract that gave him greatly expanded autonomy, in addition to much more favorable royalties.

This began Stevie Wonder’s “classic period.” In 1972 he released the album Talking Book, which contained the single Superstition. On this album, Stevie introduced us to the Hohner Clavinet keyboard, with which he produced amazingly funky, novel sounds.

In addition to his musical renown, Stevie Wonder has been a social activist. He spent a great deal of energy pushing to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. In 1985, upon winning an Academy Award for his song “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie accepted his award in the name of Nelson Mandela, which got all of his songs banned from radio by South Africa’s apartheid government.

He has won 25 Grammy Awards, more than any other individual artist, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Stevie’s Rock and Roll Hall bio is most impressive.  He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014.

Bonus Audio: Jerry Lee Lewis and Money:

We will end here with some “bonus audio.” Here is Jerry Lee Lewis in a live cover of Money (That’s What I Want).

We don’t have live video of this concert, which took place in 1964 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. Here, Jerry Lee was backed by the Nashville Teens.

The concert was recorded from two sets that Jerry Lee produced on one day. The piano was miked too loud, but this only increases the immediacy of the performance. Jerry Lee pounds away on the keyboards, and really goes to town on Money.

The concert was a masterpiece.
It is regarded by many music journalists as one of the wildest and greatest rock and roll concert albums ever. The album appears in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Cover of the 1964 album, Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg.

At left we show a photo of the cover for that album. Because of copyright issues, for a long time the album was available only in Europe.

This concert was recorded during a period when a scandal had derailed Jerry Lee’s career, and it was well-nigh impossible for him to release albums or appear on TV in the States.

But on this night Lewis was in top form, and at his best Jerry Lee Lewis could out-rock anybody.

Unfortunately, Lewis claims that he never received a penny of royalties from this record. However, you can appreciate Jerry Lee Lewis’ genius – enjoy!!

Source Material:

Wikipedia: Money (That’s What I Want).
Wikipedia: Barrett Strong
Wikipedia: The Beatles
Wikipedia: The Beatles’ Decca Audition
Wikipedia: Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder bio, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wikipedia: Jerry Lee Lewis
Wikipedia: Live At The Star Club, Hamburg.

Posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Soul music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Handy Man: Jimmy Jones; Del Shannon; James Taylor.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Handy Man. We will first look at the original 1957 song co-written and recorded by Jimmy Jones. Next we will review covers of this song by Del Shannon and by James Taylor.

Jimmy Jones and Handy Man:

Jimmy Jones was an American singer-songwriter. He was born in 1937 in Birmingham, Alabama, but his family moved to New York City where he grew up.

Below is a photo of Jimmy Jones circa 1960.

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Jones initially began his show-business career as a tap dancer. He then joined a group called the Sparks of Rhythm. In 1955, Jones wrote the song Handy Man for that group. They recorded it a year later, but by that time Jones had left that ensemble.

Jones then teamed up with Otis Blackwell. They performed a major re-write of Handy Man and recorded it in 1959, with Blackwell as the co-writer and producer of that song.

The gist of Jones’ song is that he is a “handy man,” not in the sense of a home repairman, but someone who has the knack to “fix broken hearts.”

Hey girls, gather round
Because of what I’m puttin’ down
Oh, baby, I’m your handy man

I’m not the kind to use a pencil or rule
I’m handy with the love and I’m no fool
I fix broken hearts, I know I really can

If your broken heart needs repair
I’m the man to see. I whisper sweet things
You tell all your friends, and they’ll come running to me

Here is Jimmy Jones in a ‘live’ performance of Handy Man.

We put ‘live’ in quotes, because Jimmy is appearing on the Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech-Nut Hour on Jan. 23, 1960. As per Clark’s standard practice, Jones is not actually singing the song, but simply lip-synching to the record.

We are on record that we deplore the practice of lip-synching. Rock music was made to be performed live, and we feel strongly that rock ‘n roll was degraded by promoters like Dick Clark, who allowed performers to simply mime their records.

It is also rather unsettling to see everyone in the audience chomping on chewing gum (they were all given packets of gum and pins with the Beech-Nut logo ‘IFIC,’ which I believe was short for ‘terrific’).

Anyway, Jimmy Jones’ claim to fame was his energetic, over-the-top use of falsetto. On Handy Man, the falsetto singing is most pronounced in the phrase “Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a, come come-a” that he repeats during the chorus.

The practice of falsetto singing in rock music had a fascinating history. Jones apparently copied it from Clyde McPhatter, the first lead singer for The Drifters. And falsetto was also common in the doo-wop style, where it was often contrasted with solos from the bass singers.

Then, after Jimmy Jones scored a few pop hits with his style, Del Shannon (whom we will review later in this post) also employed for his first big hit, his signature tune Runaway.

Jones and Shannon then inspired Frankie Valli, who had a string of hits with the Four Seasons. And Lou Christie also copied this style. Finally, Barry Gibb was inspired by Del Shannon to sing in falsetto, and this allowed the Bee Gees to dominate the disco scene.

Note also the whistling throughout Jimmy Jones’ recording; this was provided by the song’s co-writer and producer Otis Blackwell. Apparently the plan was to have this melody provided by a flute; however, the flute player did not show up for the recording session, so Blackwell replaced the flute part with his whistling (Blackwell is quite a proficient whistler).

Handy Man reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, and sold over a million records. Jones followed this up a few months later with Good Timin’. That disc made it to #3 on the U.S. charts, and also sold a million records.

However, those two hits would constitute the peak for Jimmy Jones. Subsequent records never achieved as much success, so Jones next concentrated on producing and also some touring. He moved around from one label to another in the 60s and 70s.

In 2002, Castle Records released a double album, Jimmy Jones: An Anthology. It included most of his single releases.

Jimmy Jones died in North Carolina in August 2012 at the age of 75.

Del Shannon and Handy Man:

Charles Weeden Westover was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1934. As a youth, he was a fan of country and western music.

In 1954 Westover was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he returned to Battle Creek, Michigan and worked as a carpet salesman. In his spare time he played rhythm guitar in a country band.

In 1958, the lead singer for Westover’s band was fired for drunkenness, and Westover took over as band leader, temporarily taking the name Charlie Johnson.

Eventually, Westover and a couple of his band members recorded a few demo tapes and attempted to land a recording contract. At that time Westover adopted the stage name Del Shannon.

Below is a photo of Del Shannon circa 1970.

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Shannon and his keyboardist Max Crook eventually scored a deal with Bishop Records. While recording in New York City, they re-wrote an earlier tune called Little Runaway. The tune featured Crook playing his invention ‘the Musitron,’ which was an early version of a synthesizer.

The song eventually became Runaway. That song, released in Feb. 1961, became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Crook’s Musitron played an important role in Runaway.  Shannon followed that up with a second top-10 hit Hats Off To Larry.

After his first two big hits, Shannon bounced around from one record company to another, until his career had a positive bounce in the mid-60s. In 1964, Shannon released a cover of Jimmy Jones’ Handy Man that made it to #24 on the Billboard charts.

Here is Del Shannon in a live performance of Handy Man.

This concert took place later in Shannon’s career. I really enjoy his performance. Shannon is a good guitar player, and he produces an energetic rockabilly version of Jones’ hit tune.

The song features a gritty saxophone and an infectious beat. This tune was a natural for Del Shannon since he was famous for his use of falsetto.  As we mentioned earlier, Shannon had copied this vocal style from Jimmy Jones.

By the mid-60s, Del Shannon’s solo career had slowed down considerably. He kept touring, and also kept his hand in the business with songwriting and producing. Shannon wrote I Go To Pieces, which became a big hit for the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon in 1965, and in 1970 he also produced a million-selling record for singer Brian Hyland.

In the 70s, Shannon made a number of comeback attempts, but these were hindered by his struggles with alcoholism. Then after he sobered up in the late 80s, it looked like Shannon might catch one more big break.

Del Shannon had recorded with Jeff Lynne, and after Roy Orbison died in late 1988, it was announced that Shannon would be Orbison’s replacement in Lynne’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

Alas, in February 1990 Del Shannon committed suicide. Shannon was being treated for depression at the time, so his potential return to stardom never materialized. However, in 1991 Jeff Lynne produced one final album that was released after Shannon’s death.

In 1999, Del Shannon was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was a talented rock ‘n roller who had a couple of big hits in the early 60s, and we remember him fondly.

James Taylor and Handy Man:

We have previously discussed James Taylor for his covers of The Shirelles’ tune Will You Love Me Tomorrow (with Carole King), and his cover of the Marvin Gaye song How Sweet It Is. So here we will give a brief review of Taylor’s life and career.

James Taylor was born in 1948, the second of five children to Isaac Taylor, a physician who became the dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina, and Gertrude Woodard Taylor, who was an aspiring opera singer before she married and settled down with Isaac.

The family moved to Chapel Hill, NC when James was three. Taylor has fond memories of his family’s home in the country outside Chapel Hill. In addition, the family spent summers in Martha’s Vineyard.

At age 15, Taylor met a young musician named Danny Kortchmar during a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and the two began playing folk and blues at MV coffee houses.

In 1966, Taylor and Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine. They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village and achieved some regional fame.  Unfortunately, James also developed a nasty heroin addiction. The drug problem was aggravated by recurring psychological issues, and it would take Taylor decades before he could kick the habit.

James Taylor’s debut solo album was released by Apple Records in 1969. Although it contained some fine songs, commercial sales were disappointing.

However, in 1970 Taylor released his second album, Sweet Baby James, and this became a blockbuster. The title song and his confessional masterpiece Fire and Rain both became breakout hits. Sweet Baby James is currently listed as #103 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Below is a photo of James Taylor circa 1970.

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James Taylor released his cover of Handy Man in 1977, and it appears on his album JT. The song reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary playlists.

Here is James Taylor is a live performance of Handy Man.

This took place at Blossom Music Center in 1979. Here James is accompanied by his long-time backing band, including Don Grolnick on keyboards, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel on guitars, Leland Sklar on bass, and David Sanborn on saxophone.

Isn’t this a really great version of the Jimmy Jones tune? James Taylor simply takes the song, slows the tempo drastically, and sings it as a laid-back ballad in contrast with Jones’ style.

The result is dramatic. Perhaps the most drastic change is the phrase “come-a come-a come-a come-a,” which Jimmy Jones sings in a frenetic falsetto. In James Taylor’s version, this is given a soft, slow delivery.  Taylor’s harmonizing with his backup singers is quite impressive; it adds a great deal of gravitas to this otherwise simple tune.

Ever since he hit the big time, James Taylor has continued to be one of the most popular “soft-rock” singer-songwriters. His vocal work is very expressive, and he gives impressive renditions of both original songs and covers.

James Taylor is also a terrific guitarist. His acoustic guitar work is technically proficient and really sublime. JT’s 1976 Greatest Hits album has sold over 20 million copies, and overall Taylor has sold about 100 million records.

From 1973 to 1982, Taylor was married to fellow singer Carly Simon. The two frequently contributed to each other’s records. Since 2001, James has been married to Kim Smedvig, who was previously the director of marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

We are happy to report that James Taylor successfully kicked his heroin addiction and that he appears to be healthy again. JT has won a slew of Grammy Awards, was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.

OK, JT, keep it up – both your singing and guitar playing are inspirational.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Handy Man (song)
Wikipedia, Jimmy Jones (singer)
Wikipedia, Del Shannon
Wikipedia, James Taylor

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