Carol: Chuck Berry; The Rolling Stones; Johnny Hallyday

Hello there! This week our blog features a rock ‘n roll song from the 50s, Carol. We will begin with the original version by Chuck Berry. Next, we will review a cover by The Rolling Stones, and finally a cover by Johnny Hallyday.

Chuck Berry and Carol:

Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry, was one of the most influential artists in rock ‘n roll. Chuck grew up in a middle-class black neighborhood in St. Louis. He became interested in rhythm and blues, and both Chuck’s guitar-playing style and his flamboyant showmanship were inspired by blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.

Chuck began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. However, after a few years Chuck became the primary singer-songwriter and leader of this band. Below is a photo of a young Chuck Berry sporting a beret.

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At the suggestion of blues great Muddy Waters, Chuck auditioned for Leonard Chess of Chess Records. At the time Berry was primarily interested in rhythm and blues.

The Chess Records studios had signed the greatest blues singers of the era, so were uninterested in Chuck Berry as a bluesman. However, they urged him to write a “country-rock” song, as the Johnnie Johnson Trio would use covers of country songs in their own playlist. So Chuck sat down and wrote the song Maybellene, which shot up to #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.

Over a ten-year period, Chuck Berry charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great pioneers in rock music. Even though Chuck was a 30-year old black ex-con, his songs brilliantly conveyed to his primarily white, middle-class teen audience the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.

Carol was written by Chuck Berry and released by Chess Records in 1958. The B side was “Hey Pedro.” The tune follows Chuck Berry’s hit-making formula, combining short but memorable guitar licks with a series of rapid-fire lyrics.

The song begins with the chorus that starts out “Oh Carol, don’t let him steal your heart away.” Then each line of the corresponding verse is ended with a brief guitar riff.

[CHORUS] Oh carol, don’t let him steal your heart away
I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day

Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out
I know a swingin’ little joint where we can jump and shout
It’s not too far back off the highway, not so long a ride
You park your car out in the open, you can walk inside
A little cutie takes your hat and you can thank her, ma’am
Every time you make the scene you find the joint is jammed


Carol made it to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and to #9 on the R&B playlist. Although it was fairly influential at the time (there are about 25 covers of this song), and it influenced young artists like the Rolling Stones, its popularity has faded with time, relative to Chuck’s best-known rock tunes.

Here is live video of Chuck Berry performing Carol.

This was a 1972 performance in the BBC Studios. As we have mentioned previously, in order to save money Chuck frequently went out on tour by himself, and contracted with local authorities to provide him with a backup combo. He was known to show up at a concert, begin playing, and expect the musicians to follow his lead.

In the early days he would often end up with classical or jazz performers, who were quite likely accomplished musicians, but who knew nothing whatsoever about rock music. However by 1972, eight years into the British Invasion, Chuck got musicians who knew his songs and could play rock ‘n roll, as is the case here. You can see that the small riffs Chuck throws in during the verses are snippets of the iconic guitar solos that he recycled again and again throughout his career.

Chuck Berry was certainly one of the great seminal artists who created rock ‘n roll as it now exists. His contributions as a singer-songwriter and artist are quite extraordinary.

However, Chuck had to overcome a number of barriers on his way to success. He remained bitter about the small amount of money he received for his early records. The music industry in the early days routinely short-changed performers. So Chuck was not happy to see artists like The Beatles, who got their start playing covers of his own songs, become wealthy beyond his wildest dreams.

Chuck also gained a reputation for being difficult to work with. We mentioned earlier that he would often go on the road without a band, and hire backup musicians at each stop. He also refused to play benefits or charities.

Chuck also got into trouble with the law on several occasions. In high school, he was sentenced to a youth reformatory for armed robbery. In 1962, he was convicted of violation of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of sex) and served a year in jail – quite possibly a trumped-up charge against a black musician. Then in 1979, Chuck served five months in prison for tax evasion.

Chuck Berry died in March, 2017 at age 90 from cardiac arrest. At his funeral, his cherry-red guitar was bolted to the lid of his casket. Although he received very little money from his early recordings, he owned the songwriting credits for his later work, so he ended up with an estate worth $50 million.

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

The Rolling Stones and Carol:

The Rolling Stones formed in the early 1960s as part of a British blues revival scene. They then switched from blues covers to rock and roll in about 1963. The photo below, of the Rolling Stones during an American tour in Oct. 1965, shows their most famous early lineup. Back, L to R: Brian Jones, Bill Wyman; front L to R: Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards.

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A dramatic aspect of most rock music bands is the extraordinary turnover in their membership. In many cases, group members leave every couple of years. In contrast to this pattern, the Stones have been remarkably stable over the years.

Brian Jones was fired by the Stones in 1969, as he was incapacitated by drug use at the time. Jones was replaced by Mick Taylor but after considerable friction with Keith Richards, Taylor left in 1974 to pursue other interests. Guitarist Ron Wood subsequently replaced Taylor, and that lineup remained intact until bassist Bill Wyman left the group in 1993.

For several decades, the Rolling Stones have managed to live up to their reputation as one of the great rock and roll bands. Jagger and Richards have written an extraordinary number of rock songs. Although the Stones occasionally tinker with their hit-making formula – they return to their roots with a classic blues cover from time to time, and they issued a psychedelic album in the late 60s – for the most part they simply continue to rock and roll.

Before Jagger and Richards began writing original songs, the Stones covered songs by a number of artists. They released covers of blues artists like Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. And they also produced a number of covers of ‘roots’ rock and rollers such as Chuck Berry.

Here are the Rolling Stones performing Carol on the Mike Douglas TV show in 1964.

Initially I thought the Stones were lip-synching the song, but now I believe that it’s live. Even this early in their career, Mick gives you his wonderful rock/blues vocals. And Keith Richards dutifully copies the guitar riffs he learned from Chuck, while Bill Wyman shows off his unique bass guitar style, with the top of his bass pointing almost straight upward.

Well, poor Brian Jones drowned in 1969, very shortly after the Stones dumped him. But get this – Ron Wood has now been a Rolling Stones guitarist for 46 years! What longevity for a group that seems to be still touring!

In the past few years Mick Jagger has had some serious heart problems. And it is a miracle that Keith Richards is still alive, despite decades of serious drug abuse. So we tip our hats to the Rolling Stones, who deserve their monicker as “World’s Best Rock ‘n Roll Band.” Rock on, dudes!

Johnny Hallyday and Carol:

French rock ‘n roll legend Johnny Hallyday was born Jean-Philippe Smet in June 1943. He had a rather rough childhood – his father skipped out a few months after he was born. His mother then landed a modeling career, but this left her with little time to take care of her son, so he was raised by an aunt.

The one silver lining in his youth was that he had an American cousin-in-law who performed as a musician under the stage name Lee Halliday. Not only did Lee function as a father figure to Jean-Philippe, but he introduced him to American pop music.

Rock star Johnny Hallyday, the “French Elvis.” Dice Magazine.

In the mid-50s, Smet was inspired by Elvis Presley. He formed a band and copied Elvis’ style, except that Smet sang rock ‘n roll in French. He took the stage name Johnny Hallyday, and rapidly became a big star in France.

For example, in their first-ever concert, the Jimi Hendrix Experience opened for Hallyday. In 1961, Johnny’s cover of the Chubby Checker song Let’s Twist Again was #1 on virtually every European pop chart – except the U.K., where it did not appear.

In the late 60s, Johnny Hallyday began a sustained collaboration with Mick Jones of Foreigner. And in a subsequent album, the British band Small Faces wrote some of the songs and sang backup, while Jimmy Page (soon to become immortalized as the guitarist in Led Zeppelin) backed up on guitar.

So here is Johnny Hallyday in a live performance of Chuck Berry’s Carol.

This took place in 2000. Mr. Hallyday gives a quite good performance on vocals (albeit in French), and he has assembled a rocking band. His lead guitarist not only nails all of the patented Chuck Berry rock chords, but he even throws in a bit of Chuck’s duck-walk near the end of the song.

In deference to Hallyday’s reputation as a Living National Treasure in France, this concert took place at the Eiffel Tower. It is estimated that the crowd there totaled nearly a million people, while another 10 million watched on television. Another of Hallyday’s most memorable concerts was a performance at the Stade de France, celebrating France’s win in the 1998 FIFA World Cup in soccer.

During his lifetime, Johnny Hallyday appeared on the cover of 2,500 magazines and had 190 books dedicated to him. He was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour in 1997, and also an Officer of the Order of the Crown from Belgium in 2001.

Johnny Hallyday died of lung cancer in December 2017. His funeral procession through the Champs Elysees was attended by 900,000 people, including French President Emmanuel Macron who also attended the funeral ceremony.

Although Johnny Hallyday sold over 100 million copies of 79 albums, sang over 1,100 songs, and was an idol in much of Europe, he was only slightly famous in the U.K. and was virtually unknown in the U.S. Hallyday was by far the biggest French rock star. This is not really that great an accolade, as for some reason the French were never all that good at rock ‘n roll. Perhaps it was something in the wine.

In France Johnny was frequently billed as “the French Elvis.” This was an apt comparison, as Hallyday’s reputation in France was quite similar to Presley’s in the U.S. Anyway, we salute Johnny Hallyday, the greatest rock star you never heard of.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Carol (Chuck Berry song)
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry bio, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, Johnny Hallyday

Posted in Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Hot Rod Lincoln: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen; Asleep At The Wheel; Bill Kirchen & Redd Volkaert

Hello there! This week our blog features an country-rock song, Hot Rod Lincoln. We will begin with a version by Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. Next, we will review a cover by Asleep At The Wheel, and finally a cover by Bill Kirchen and Redd Volkaert.

Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen and Hot Rod Lincoln:

Hot Rod Lincoln is one of those car-race songs, much like Chuck Berry’s Maybellene. The song is part of a series about hot-rod adventures. The original was a 1950 song by Arkie Shibley called Hot Rod Race. That song described a race between two hot rods in San Pedro, California. But at the last minute both cars are overtaken by a Model-A Ford.

Here is the audio of Hot Rod Race by Arkie Shibley and the Mountain Dew Boys.

Well, this is a kind of down-home talking-blues country song. It has an interesting, but not particularly memorable, guitar solo between verses.

Then in 1955 singer-songwriter Charlie Ryan wrote a song called Hot Rod Lincoln, about a Model-A Ford containing a Lincoln V12 engine. Ryan’s song was a reasonably accurate description of his own hot rod, and an actual race that ensued.

The song starts with a detailed description of the Lincoln’s equipment. It then describes a race where the Lincoln is initially passed by a Cadillac but eventually overtakes it, just before the cops arrive and arrest the driver.

My pappy said, “Son, you’re gonna’ drive me to drinkin’
If you don’t stop drivin’ that Hot Rod Lincoln”

Have you heard this story of the Hot Rod race
When Fords and Lincolns was settin’ the pace
That story is true, I’m here to say
I was drivin’ that Model A

It’s got a Lincoln motor and it’s really souped up
That Model A Vitimix makes it look like a pup
It’s got eight cylinders, uses them all
It’s got overdrive, just won’t stall

With a 4-barrel carb and a dual exhaust
With 4.11 gears you can really get lost
It’s got safety tubes, but I ain’t scared
The brakes are good, tires fair

By far the most popular version of Hot Rod Lincoln was by a country-rock group called Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. That band was formed in 1967 by George (Commander Cody) Frayne in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Frayne, who was featured on keyboard and lead vocals, assembled a diverse group of musicians for his Lost Planet Airmen. They included Bill Kirchen on lead guitar, John Tichy on harmonica, Andy Stein on fiddle, Buffalo Bruce Barlow on bass, Lance Dickerson on drums and Bobby Black on steel guitar.

Country-rock group Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

The Lost Planet Airmen were known for their boisterous marathon country-rock performances. They developed a local following in Michigan before they relocated to the San Francisco area and scored a contract with Paramount Records.

In 1971 the band released its first album, Lost In The Ozone. And one of the songs from that album, a cover of Hot Rod Lincoln, made it to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts in 1972.

The Commander Cody version of Hot Rod Lincoln featured Frayne’s deadpan vocals capped off with a memorable guitar lick by Bill Kirchen. So here is the audio of Commander Cody’s Hot Rod Lincoln.

As you can see, the Lost Planet Airmen are really rocking on this tune. And Bill Kirchen’s guitar solo is lightning-fast and very impressive.

Now here are Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen in a live performance of Hot Rod Lincoln.

Commander Cody and the band rip through this song, that once again features George Frayne’s lead vocals and Bill Kirchen’s licks on his Fender Telecaster.

This performance took place at the 1971 John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor. Local activist John Sinclair had been busted for possession of two marijuana cigarettes, for which he received a 10-year sentence. The rally featured several well-known activists, including Bobby Seale, Allen Ginsberg and Jerry Rubin.

It also attracted a number of bands, including Bob Seger and Stevie Wonder, and it was headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.  The concert was filmed in a documentary titled Ten For Two (e.g., 10 years in jail for 2 joints)Shortly after this event, Sinclair’s sentence was commuted and he was released.

Well, the one big hit Hot Rod Lincoln was pretty much it for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The group put out a couple more albums before George Frayne disbanded them in 1976. However, several of the band members achieved success on their own.

George Frayne obtained a graduate degree in sculpture and painting from the U of Michigan and has mounted several shows. He currently resides in Saratoga Springs, NY, where he makes portraits of vintage automobiles at the Saratoga Auto Museum.

Andy Stein was a staffer for many years on The Prairie Home Companion show. We will hear more later about Bill Kirchen and his acclaim as one of the premier Fender Telecaster guitarists.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were the subject of a 1976 book by Geoffrey Stokes titled Star-Making Machinery. Stokes recounted how the Paramount Records staff envisioned Commander Cody as a smooth country-rock band like the Eagles; however, George Frayne and the band were a more rowdy bunch, much like Hank Williams, Jr. Stokes maintained that the tension between the band and management was one of the factors that accounted for the band’s relatively meager success.

In the end, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen were pretty much one-hit wonders. However, we really enjoyed their song Hot Rod Lincoln and wish all the best to the surviving members of that ensemble.

Asleep At The Wheel and Hot Rod Lincoln:

Asleep At The Wheel is a country band that has achieved a fair measure of distinction. The group was formed in 1969 by Ray Benson and Lucky Oceans, out of Paw Paw, West Virginia.

“Outlaw country” band Asleep At The Wheel.

One year later, they moved to East Oakland, California after they were invited there by George ‘Commander Cody’ Frayne. But in 1974, Willie Nelson invited them to Austin, Texas and the group relocated once again.

Asleep At The Wheel then began to get major attention. In 1975 their album Texas Gold made the country charts, and they were invited to perform on Austin City Limits. In 1977 the band received two honors – they were voted Best Country Western band by Rolling Stone magazine, and they were named Touring Band of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.

Here is Asleep At the Wheel in a live performance of Hot Rod Lincoln.

Well, this is a terrific “outlaw country” band. They put on a great live performance, highlighted by Ray Benson’s lead guitar and vocals, supplemented by some fine pedal-steel guitar work (by Katie Shore? I’m not sure). I believe this is a performance from Austin City Limits. Asleep At the Wheel has appeared on that program more than any other group.

In the 1990s, Asleep At The Wheel began to release tributes to Western Swing music, particularly that of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Their 1999 tribute to Bob Wills, Ride With Bob, won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental.

For many years now, despite a number of personnel changes, Asleep At the Wheel has remained a top country band. For example, in 2000 the band toured with Bob Dylan and George Strait. They were scheduled to perform at the White House on Sept. 11, 2001, until that was postponed due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In 2007, the band won six Austin Music Awards, including
Band of the Year, Songwriter of the Year (Ray Benson), Country Band of the Year, Record Producer of the Year (Benson), Male Vocals of the Year (Benson), and Acoustic Guitar Player of the Year (Elizabeth McQueen).

For their many contributions to country music, including their tributes to the heritage of Western Swing music, we salute Ray Benson and Asleep At the Wheel.

Bill Kirchen and Redd Volkaert and Hot Rod Lincoln:

In the late 60s, Bill Kirchen was a student at the University of Michigan. He started a country-rock band with George Frayne and John Tichy. Eventually that band morphed into Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.

Commander Cody became one of the early “outlaw country” bands, a group that included artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the Allman Brothers.

Country-rock guitarist Bill Kirchen, when he was performing with the Commander Cody band.

As we profiled earlier in this post, Commander Cody became a “one-hit wonder” band with Hot Rod Lincoln. That song highlighted Kirchen’s prowess on the Fender Telecaster.

After Commander Cody disbanded in 1976, Kirchen formed other bands. Around 1986 he moved to Washington, DC where he formed a roots-rock band called Too Much Fun. That band garnered a devoted following, and in 1996 the band and Kirchen won ten Washington Area Music Awards, including Musician and Songwriter of the Year.

Kirchen has dubbed his playing style “dieselbilly,” and claims that it
incorporates elements of country, blues, rockabilly, Western swing and boogie-woogie, laced with themes of American truck driving music.
Guitar Player magazine has named Kirchen the “Titan of the Telecaster” for the signature sound he has developed on his 1959 Fender Telecaster guitar.

So here are Bill Kirchen and fellow guitarist Redd Volkaert in a live performance of Hot Rod Lincoln.

This is an extremely laid-back and enjoyable take on Hot Rod Lincoln. As you can see, even at age 70 Kirchen still wields a mean Fender Telecaster.

In the middle of the tune, Kirchen throws in a few licks in the style of at least 20 other artists. Then at the end, he accelerates from fast to overdrive, running through the guitar solo at breakneck speed.

This performance took place at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas. In 2011 Bill Kirchen moved back from the DC area to Austin, Texas. We salute guitarist extraordinaire Bill Kirchen.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Hot Rod Lincoln
Wikipedia, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
Wikipedia, Asleep At The Wheel
Wikipedia, Bill Kirchen

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

The Wabash Cannonball: The Carter Family; Roy Acuff; Glen Campbell

Hello there! This week our blog features an old country classic, The Wabash Cannonball. We will begin with an early recorded version by The Carter Family. Next, we will review a cover by Roy Acuff, and finally a cover by Glen Campbell.

The Carter Family and The Wabash Cannonball:

The Carters became America’s First Family of country music. Initially, the head of the family, Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter (1891-1960), joined with his wife Sara Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter to form a family trio.

Below is a photo of the Carter Family. From L: Maybelle Carter; A.P. Carter; Sara Carter.

Embed from Getty Images

The Carters lived in extreme southwest Virginia, right at the point where Virginia adjoins Kentucky and Tennessee. A.P. Carter was a traveling salesman, and as he traveled around the area, he collected traditional Appalachian folk and gospel songs. The music featured tight harmonies and shape note singing, in tunes that had been passed around by generations of folk living in isolated valleys in this region. In addition, A.P. composed several of his own songs.

The Carter Family got their big break in August, 1927, when A.P., Sara and Maybelle travelled to Bristol, Tennessee to audition with producer Ralph Peer. Peer was a trailblazer who utilized “field recording,
when in June 1923 he took remote recording equipment south to Atlanta, Georgia to record regional music outside the recording studio in such places as hotel rooms, ballrooms, or empty warehouses.

Peer’s mobile recording studio had already produced the first blues recording aimed at the African-American market in 1923. The following year Peer oversaw the first commercial recording session in New Orleans, where he recorded blues, jazz and gospel groups.

In 1927 Peer repeated his success with hillbilly music. At what are now called the “Bristol sessions,” Peer recorded both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers.

Peer also invented the “royalty system.” In lieu of a raise, Peer was paid one penny for every side of a record that he produced. Peer kept half of this royalty, and shared the other half with the composer. These transactions made a fortune for Ralph Peer, but they also provided a powerful incentive for regional music groups.

After being recorded by Ralph Peer, the Carter Family became nationally famous for their brand of country music. A.P. typically sang backup, while his wife Sara on autoharp often sang lead and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter played guitar.

Maybelle single-handedly invented what became the dominant style of bluegrass guitar picking. She used her thumb (with a thumbpick) and two fingers to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings. This blazed a trail in country music, where beforehand the guitar was used only infrequently as a solo instrument.

The next major contribution from the Carter Family came from A.P.’s drive to collect and publish songs from all over the Appalachian region. Indeed, between 1927 and 1941 the Carter Family recorded an astonishing 300 songs. This included gospel and traditional folk tunes, in addition to A.P.’s original songs.

Attracted by the half-penny royalty, A.P. Carter copyrighted all these songs in his own name. As a result, the Carter Family “owned” the rights to an entire catalog of traditional music. They were responsible for recording such iconic bluegrass songs as Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Wildwood Flower.

1882 sheet music by J.A. Roff for The Great Rock Island Route, the predecessor of The Wabash Cannonball.

The Carter Family also recorded Wabash Cannonball. However, this was definitely not an original song. The song, The Great Rock Island Route, was copyrighted in 1882 by J.A. Roff. Above we show the front page of his sheet music.

Roff’s song described what one would encounter taking the Wabash Cannonball Express on the Rock Island Route. Then in 1904 William Kindt issued a version with revised lyrics that he called Wabash Cannon Ball. Here are some of the lyrics from the present-day version of the song.

From the great Atlantic ocean to the wide Pacific shore
From the queen of flowing mountain to the south bell by the shore
She’s mighty tall and handsome and know quite well by all
She’s the combination on the Wabash Cannonball

She came down from Birmingham one cold December day
As she rolled in the station you could hear all the people say
There’s a girl from Tennessee she’s long and she’s tall
She came down from Birmingham on the Wabash Cannonball

Our estern states are dandies so the people always say
From New York to St. Louis and Chicago by the way
From the hills of Minnesota where the rippling waters fall
No changes can be taken on the Wabash Cannonball

The Wabash Cannonball has several distinctions. First of all, that song is ranked in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. And, it is the oldest song on that list.

Second, The Wabash Cannonball is a signature song of several university marching bands. For two of these – Indiana State University and Purdue University – the song is a ‘natural,’ as both universities are sited on the banks of the Wabash River.

Other marching bands that feature this tune include Stephen A. Austin University, Texas Tech University, The University of Texas, and Kansas State University. I have been unable to find the exact connection of this song to these colleges – perhaps they just like the melody.

So here is audio of the Carter Family singing The Wabash Cannonball.

This was recorded by the Carter Family in 1928 but was not released until 1932. As you can see, the lyrics and melody are very similar to the current-day song Wabash Cannonball. By now there are hundreds of covers of Wabash Cannonball; it seems that nearly every country & western artist has had a crack at this tune.

A.P. and Sara Carter separated in 1932 and divorced in 1939, but they continued to perform together for several progressively more uncomfortable years. Finally, the group split up in 1944. At that time, A.P. left the music business and opened a general store in Hiltons, VA.

But Mother Maybelle continued on. She assembled her daughters and the children of A.P. and Sara, and traveled the country as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. June Carter subsequently married Johnny Cash, and descendants of the Carter family such as grand-daughters Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash are still performing country music today.

Here is Johnny Cash together with the Carter Sisters and Carlene Carter, in a live performance of Wabash Cannonball and Were You There.

The Carter clan are rightly known as the First Family of country music. Their influence on song collecting, song-writing, and musical style has set the standard for country music for nearly 100 years. Hats off to them!

Roy Acuff and The Wabash Cannonball:

Roy Acuff was a country singer who became a big star in the middle of the 20th century. He was known as a singer and fiddler, but he was also a highly successful entrepreneur.

Roy Acuff was born in Sept. 1903 in Maynardsville, Tennessee. His family had arrived in the U.S. during early Colonial times, and were fairly prominent. Roy’s father was a preacher and a fine fiddler.

But Roy’s initial aspirations were in athletics. A star baseball player in high school, he tried out for a minor-league affiliate of the New York Giants baseball team. However, while in training he suffered a severe sunstroke; the after-effects of that injury lasted for several years, and caused him to have a nervous breakdown in 1930.

Country music singer and fiddler Roy Acuff.

Convalescing, and with little else to do, Acuff worked on his fiddling technique. He copied solos from several prominent fiddlers and developed his own technique. He employed this in his next job, as an entertainer with a medicine show.

Acuff’s job was to lure crowds of people who would listen to a spiel from a salesman. He reported that, as there were no amplifiers, he had to sing loud enough to be heard above the din of the carnival. This came in very handy as his career progressed.

Roy Acuff then formed a band that eventually morphed into the Crazy Tennesseans. They gained fame in several radio broadcasts, at least in part because Roy’s voice was sufficiently strong to be heard over the string musicians.

In 1938, the Crazy Tennesseans moved to Nashville where (after their second audition) they were offered a contract at the Grand Ole Opry. However, the Opry management recommended that they change their name to The Smoky Mountain Boys.

At this point, Roy added dobro player Pete Kirby, whose stage name was Bashful Brother Oswald. Brother Oswald’s dobro playing and high-register backing vocals became instrumental in creating the sound of the Smoky Mountain Boys. Soon, Roy Acuff became one of the Opry’s leading draws.

So here are Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys singing The Wabash Cannonball.

This is a 1972 appearance of Acuff on the TV program Hee Haw. Roy begins by balancing his fiddle bow on his nose, a trick from his medicine show days. He introduces his band who provide brief solos, starting with Brother Oswald on dobro. Wabash Cannonball was a song that Roy learned from banjo-player Clarence Ashley during his medicine-show days.

Shortly after leaving the Grand Ole Opry, Roy Acuff achieved another milestone. In 1947, he teamed up with songwriter Fred Rose to form Acuff-Rose Music.

The initial impetus was simply as a vehicle to license Acuff and Rose’s own songs. But then they branched out and signed other country artists,  Acuff and Rose paid higher royalties than their competitors, and they were excellent judges of musical talent. Before long Acuff-Rose was the most successful country music publishing company.

After leaving the Grand Old Opry, Roy Acuff began touring the country. But as the years went by, without the publicity generated by his Opry appearances, Acuff’s fame slowly but surely declined.

In 2014, the Opry celebrated its 40th year of operation in the Opry House. They gathered together every Opry star they could assemble, and had them all sing a classic country song – fittingly, The Wabash Cannonball! So here are the Grand Ole Opry musicians singing that tune.

It begins with video of Roy Acuff singing the song (it’s from the 1940 film Grand Ole Opry). This gives you an idea of how important Acuff was to the development of the Grand Ole Opry. Then the Opry musicians join in and sing several choruses. Here’s a nice challenge – how many of these performers can you identify?

In 1979, Opryland opened the Roy Acuff Theatre in his honor. Then in 1991, Roy Acuff was awarded the National Medal of the Arts by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was the first country-music artist to receive that award.

Roy Acuff died from congestive heart failure in November, 1992. He was one of the stars of the early Grand Ole Opry. During his career the fame of the Opry greatly increased, as that genre morphed from ‘hillbilly’ music, which was frequently denigrated, to the more mainstream field of ‘country & western.’

We salute Roy Acuff, a big part of the evolution of country music in the middle of the 20th century.

Glen Campbell and The Wabash Cannonball:

Glen Campbell was an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter and guitar player. He was born in 1936 in Billstown, Arkansas. As the 7th of 12 children in a family of sharecroppers, Glen’s early life was one of serious deprivation. Their house had no electricity, and the family picked cotton for other farmers to supplement their income.

Glen reported that he was paid $1.25 for every hundred pounds of cotton he could pick (working from sunrise to sundown, he estimates that he could pick perhaps 90 pounds of cotton in a day). So naturally, playing guitar seemed like a dream job.

Glen was completely self-taught, and just about everyone in his family played an instrument. But Glen was extremely talented – he was playing on radio shows at the age of six! He copied songs from records and the radio, and his idol was Django Reinhardt.

Country and pop star Glen Campbell.

At age 17, he moved to Albuquerque to join his uncle’s band, Dick Bills and the Sandia Mountain Boys. But he didn’t stop there. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles where he became a studio musician. Within a year, he was employed by American Music, where he wrote songs and cut demos.

Glen’s demos got him work with a group of studio musicians who eventually became known as The Wrecking Crew. This group was so talented and able to play in any style, that they quickly became backup musicians for a ton of West Coast stars.

Playing guitar, bass, banjo or mandolin, Glen Campbell backed up recordings by
the Beach Boys, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Ricky Nelson, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, the Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Jan and Dean, Bing Crosby, Phil Spector, Sammy Davis Jr., Doris Day, Bobby Vee, The Everly Brothers, Shelley Fabares, The Cascades, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Wayne Newton, The First Edition, The Kingston Trio, Roger Miller, Gene Clark, Lou Rawls, Claude King, Lorne Greene, Ronnie Dove and Elvis Presley.
Not bad for a completely self-taught artist who never learned to read music!

Campbell’s own most famous hits were generally laid-back country songs that did not call for showy guitar work. However, many artists who worked with him claimed that he was one of the greatest guitarists ever.

By 1963, Campbell had sung or played on nearly 600 records. For a few months in early 1965, he toured with the Beach Boys, filling in for Brian Wilson. He then set off for a solo career.

Early on, Campbell was sufficiently unsuccessful that Capitol Records considered dropping him. But he teamed up with producer Al De Lory and his fortunes changed. In 1967, Glen hit it big with Gentle On My Mind, and followed that up with crossover hits such as Wichita Lineman, which made it to #3 on the Billboard pop charts and #1 on the country and western playlist.

So here is Glen Campbell in a live performance of Wabash Cannonball.

This was an appearance by Glen on Shindig. The Shindig dancers produce some imitation of country dancing while Glen rushes through the song at a frenetic pace and wails away on the banjo.

Glen Campbell hosted his own TV show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, from 1969 to 1972. He used contacts from his Wrecking Crew days to host a series of pop stars on his show, including
the Beatles (on film), … the Monkees, Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, … and Roger Miller.

In 1973, Campbell had his biggest hit with Rhinestone Cowboy. For several years he was in great demand. He hosted TV musical events, appeared as a guest on late-night talk shows, and toured.

But Glen was also fighting demons for several decades. His main issues were with alcohol and cocaine. His problems became public knowledge during a stormy relationship with singer Tanya Tucker in the early 1980s. But with the help of his fourth wife Kim Woollen, he entered rehab in 1987.

In 2010, Glen Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He stopped touring in 2012 and cut a last album, Adios, in 2013. That album was released posthumously.

Glen Campbell died in Nashville in August 2017, from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease. He was a country music superstar who had several crossover hits, and we remember him fondly.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Wabash Cannonball
Wikipedia, Carter Family
Wikipedia, Roy Acuff
Wikipedia, Glen Campbell

Posted in Bluegrass, Country music, Folk music, Pop Music | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

I Can’t Stop Loving You: Don Gibson; Ray Charles; Van Morrison

Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific tune, I Can’t Stop Loving You. We will begin with the original, a country song by Don Gibson. Next, we will review an R&B cover by Ray Charles, and finally a cover by Van Morrison.

Don Gibson and I Can’t Stop Loving You:

Don Gibson was born in Shelby, North Carolina in April 1928. His family was poor working class, and Don dropped out of school after the second grade.

Don always hankered to play in a country music band, so in 1957 he moved to Nashville where he got a record contract working with Chet Atkins.  Below is a photo of Don Gibson from the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Photo of country music star Don Gibson.

June 2, 1957 was a red-letter day for Don Gibson. He sat down to write a love ballad, and as it turned out he ended up writing both I Can’t Stop Loving You and Oh, Lonesome Me. Both of these have found a place in the list of top country & western songs ever.

The lyrics to I Can’t Stop Loving You are extremely simple and direct. The singer recounts that he has never gotten over the breakup with his former lover, so now he is resigned to simply “live my life in dreams of yesterday.”

I can’t stop loving you
So I’ve made up my mind
To live in memory
Of such an old lonesome time

I can’t stop wanting you
It’s useless to say
So I’ll just live my life
In dreams of yesterday.

Those happy hours
That we once knew
Though long ago,
They still make me blue

They say that time
Heals a broken heart
But time has stood still
Since we’ve been apart

In 1958, Gibson released a single with Oh, Lonesome Me on one side, and I Can’t Stop Loving You on the other. I Can’t Stop Loving You was actually the “B” side of the record – Gibson need not have worried about choosing between them, because both songs became major hits. In fact, by today there have been 700 covers of I Can’t Stop Loving You!

The list of people who have covered this song is extremely eclectic. Dolly Parton, Chet Atkins and Conway Twitty covered the song; so did Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ike & Tina Turner. But so did Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Paul Anka and Frank Sinatra!

Here is a live performance of I Can’t Stop Loving You, by Don Gibson.

Here, Gibson is backed up by The Jordanaires, who feature as the backing vocalists in most of Elvis’ early recordings. Gibson has a perfect voice for country music, and he gives a sincerely heartfelt performance here.

As a singer-songwriter, Don Gibson was extremely successful. But his songs were frequently about heartbreak and loss, so much so that he gained the nickname “The Sad Poet.”

In the late 60s and early 70s, Gibson produced a series of duets with Dottie West, most notably the 1969 hit “Rings of Gold.” And Roy Orbison was such a Don Gibson fan that he devoted an entire album, the 1967 Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson, to covers of Gibson’s tunes.

Gibson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2003, he died of natural causes and was buried in his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina. He had a stellar career writing and singing some classic country & western songs, for which we are very grateful.

Ray Charles and I Can’t Stop Loving You:

Ray Charles was one of the legendary singer-songwriters. He more or less single-handedly created the genre of soul music, and he had a tremendous influence on rhythm and blues.

Ray Charles Robinson grew up in Florida in the 1930s. He suffered from glaucoma, which took his sight by age seven. Ray learned to play the piano at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, FL. The photo below shows Ray Charles performing circa 1960.

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Ray then moved to Los Angeles, searching for fame and fortune in the world of music. Initially, Charles had decided to copy Nat King Cole’s vocal style. However, his fortunes changed once he was signed to a contract with Atlantic Records by the great producer Ahmet Ertegun.

Ertegun sent Ray down to New Orleans to gain exposure with musicians who focused on R&B and jazz. This must have made a great impression, because Ray’s first record when he returned from NOLA was I Got a Woman in 1954. The song was released as a single in December 1954 and subsequently shot up to #1 on the Billboard R&B polls.

Ray Charles was deservedly known as the Founding Father of soul music. His fusion of R&B and jazz allowed him to find and develop his own unique style.

As the leading proponent of popular R&B, Ray Charles had insured his legacy. However, he did not stop there, but proceeded to expand his range to take in both pop music and country. In 1962, Ray released an album called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.

Ray Charles was able to re-cast several country classics in his own soulful style. One of the songs on that album was Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He released this as a single with Born To Lose on the “B” side. This song not only hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Songs playlist, but it also made it to the top in the R&B charts, and even on the Adult Contemporary playlist! In addition, Rolling Stone ranks Ray’s performance #164 in their 500 Greatest [Rock ‘n Roll] Songs of All Time, while CMT rates it as #49 on their “100 Greatest Songs in Country Music.”

So here is Ray Charles in a live performance of I Can’t Stop Loving You.

In this performance, on the Dick Cavett Show, Ray is backed by his girl group The Raelettes, whose role here is much like a gospel choir. It is typical of Ray that he manages to convert a country & western classic into his own style.

In his earlier career, Ray Charles was a dedicated fighter for civil rights. He cancelled at least one concert when he learned that the audience would be segregated, with whites on the main floor and blacks confined to the balcony. He also wrote or covered a number of songs that championed the civil rights movement.

Ray’s personal life was rather messy and complicated. Like the lyrics from his first big hit, Ray usually did have “a woman, way cross town, who’s good to me.” He had a long series of affairs, and eventually Ray ended up fathering twelve children with ten different women.

Ray also had serious addiction problems in the mid-60s. After his third arrest for heroin possession, Ray entered a rehab clinic in 1965 and successfully kicked his heroin habit. At that time, Charles claimed that he had been a drug addict ever since he was 16.

Because of his enormous contributions to music in several fields, Ray Charles was awarded a slew of honors. In 1986, he was inducted as one of the inaugural class to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.  In addition, he won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.  And Rolling Stone ranked him #2 in their 2008 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

In June 2004, Ray Charles died from complications of liver failure.  An enormous crowd showed up for his funeral and were treated to tribute performances from B.B. King, Glen Campbell, Stevie Wonder and Wynton Marsalis.

Ray Charles was a fantastic artist and innovator, a true pioneer in R&B music, and one of the great cross-over musicians. He was an inspiration to all the generations of musicians who have followed him.

Van Morrison and I Can’t Stop Loving You:

Van Morrison is one of the greatest soul and R&B artists. Born in August 1945 in Belfast, North Ireland, he grew up listening intently to his father’s extensive collection of American rhythm and blues records. Morrison subsequently created his own blues vocal style. In 1964 he became co-owner of an R&B club in Belfast, and assembled a rock band called Them (named after the title of a 50s horror movie) to perform there.

Van Morrison performing in Boston in 1968.

Morrison sang lead vocals, and played harmonica and tenor sax with the group. In summer 1964, Them released the song Gloria, which became the group’s biggest hit, and established the band as part of the British Invasion. Working with American producer Bert Berns, in March 1965 their song Here Comes The Night reached #2 on the U.K. pop charts and #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in the U.S.

Morrison left Them and went solo in 1967, and over the past fifty years has released some of the greatest soul albums of all time. Masterpieces such as Astral Weeks and Moondance are chock full of beautiful, haunting songs. He has wonderful technique and great creativity, and I can listen to his two Greatest Hits albums over and over without becoming bored.

Here is Van Morrison in a live version of I Can’t Stop Loving You.

This is a performance from Sept. 2014 in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  I greatly enjoy this tune. You can compare Van Morrison’s R&B vocals on this cover with those of Ray Charles.  We can see how musical geniuses transform a song to fit their own personality.

Van Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, although he skipped the induction ceremony. You can read a detailed discussion of his work and music in his Rock and Roll Hall bio.

Morrison was the first inductee into the Irish Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. He was also knighted in 2015, so now you may address him as Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE.

I regret that I have never seen Van Morrison in live performance. However, one of my friends saw him in concert when he was having a particularly difficult time with stage fright; as a result, Morrison performed the entire set with his back to the audience.

Morrison’s stage fright is sufficiently severe that he has occasionally had to cancel performances. We send along advice to Van Morrison from our Australian friends – “No worries, mate!”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Don Gibson
Wikipedia, Ray Charles
Wikipedia, Van Morrison
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, bio of Van Morrison.

Posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Soul music | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A Change Is Gonna Come: Sam Cooke; Al Green; Beyonce

Hello there! On May 1, 2017 we published this post on the Sam Cooke anthem A Change Is Gonna Come. However, the murder of George Floyd, the vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and the senseless shooting of Rayshard Brooks have ignited world-wide explosion of protests against the violence visited on minorities. As a result, we want to re-issue this post which we feel has special relevance today.  We dedicate it to George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and to everyone who is working to achieve social justice in this country.

Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come:

Sam Cooke was one of the great early soul singers. We previously encountered Sam Cooke with his cover of The Platters’ pop classic The Great Pretender.

He and Ray Charles were probably the two greatest innovators in the field of soul music.  Below is my favorite photo of Sam Cooke. He is in the studio, smoking a cigarette, and the pattern of the smoke is fascinating.

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Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale Mississippi in 1931, and began his career in 1950 when he became the lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers.

The Soul Stirrers were the best-known gospel group in the country, and were famous for their beautiful harmonies. The handsome and charismatic Cooke was also a favorite of young girls.

In 1957, Cooke decided to leave the gospel field for a career in the field of pop music. Trading gospel for secular music was a difficult decision for many artists, and it must have been hard for Cooke.

However, Sam Cooke’s first pop song, You Send Me, went to #1 on both the Billboard R&B charts and also on the pop charts.

Sam Cooke was definitely an anomaly in rock and roll, particularly for an African-American artist. Most musicians at the time had only the haziest understanding of the economics of the music business, and hence were frequently signed to extremely unfavorable contracts.

Cooke, on the other hand, had a very clear understanding of the music business from his days in gospel music. He wrote most of his own songs, started his own record company and also formed a music publishing company.

Sam Cooke had been inspired by Bob Dylan’s protest song Blowin’ In The Wind. Prior to hearing this song he had been reluctant to write overtly political songs, for fear of alienating his primarily white audience.

However, when Cooke heard Blowin’ In the Wind, he felt ashamed that it had not been written by a black artist. Cooke immediately began incorporating Blowin’ In the Wind into his own repertoire of songs.

For reasons that will become clear, there is no live video of Sam Cooke singing A Change Is Gonna Come. So here is a clip of Cooke singing Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind.

This performance took place on the TV program Shindig! in Sept. 1964. As you can see, Sam Cooke converts Dylan’s protest anthem from a rather slow folk tune to a much more up-tempo pop version. Nevertheless, Cooke retains the very direct political message of Dylan’s song.

The impetus for the song A Change Is Gonna Come stemmed from an incident in October, 1963. Sam Cooke and his party had phoned and made reservations at the Holiday Inn in Shreveport, LA. However, when they arrived at the motel and it became apparent that they were black, the desk clerk told them that the motel had no vacancies.

Cooke became incensed and demanded to see the manager. After an argument, the group was turned away from the whites-only motel. And when Cooke and his party arrived at another motel, the group was arrested for disturbing the peace.

The lyrics to A Change Is Gonna Come are firmly grounded in the gospel tradition. In this tune, Sam Cooke describes the frustrations of dealing with the discrimination and humiliations of living in the “Jim Crow” era.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin’ me don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

Not only was Cooke happy with his song, but he imagined that it would make his father proud of him. Apparently he wrote the song almost effortlessly, with the words and melody coming to him right out of thin air.

Sam Cooke gave the song to his collaborator Rene Hall. He asked Hall to give the song a lush orchestral treatment, and gave Hall complete freedom to work out the arrangement. This was highly unusual for Cooke, who had a reputation as a control freak.

Hall worked out an arrangement for a full orchestra.
Each verse is a different movement, with the horns carrying the first, the strings the second, and the timpani carrying the bridge. The French horn present in the recording was intended to convey a sense of melancholy.

Sam Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnik says that as Cooke’s career evolved, he
brought more and more of his gospel background into his music, as well as his social awareness, which was keen. But really, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was a real departure for him, in the sense that it was undoubtedly the first time that he addressed social problems in a direct and explicit way.”

A Change Is Gonna Come was recorded in January, 1964. Sam Cooke gave a live performance of the song on the Johnny Carson TV show in February, 1964. Unfortunately, the network did not save the tape of the show.

Poster advertising the 1992 Spike Lee movie Malcolm X.

Poster advertising the 1992 Spike Lee movie Malcolm X.

Sam Cooke’s manager Allen Klein and his business partner J.W. Alexander were convinced that Cooke’s performance of A Change Is Gonna Come would be a milestone in his career. However, this did not happen.

Just two days after Sam Cooke’s performance on Johnny Carson, the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, and ‘Beatlemania’ dominated the pop music conversation.

The Beatles eclipsed any publicity that might arise from Sam Cooke’s performance on Johnny Carson. In addition, Cooke felt that his song was ‘spooky’ and ominous. As a result, he never again performed the song live.

Here is the audio of Sam Cooke’s version of the song A Change Is Gonna Come. The song was part of the soundtrack from Spike Lee’s 1992 biographical drama film Malcolm X. Above left we show the poster for that movie.

In this movie, Spike Lee included a number of songs that were favorites of Malcolm X. A Change Is Gonna Come was clearly a great tune to match the aspirations and frustrations of a black activist.

In 1964, Sam Cooke was one of the biggest pop stars. He had moved to RCA Victor Records where he was having major commercial success, and he had hired the agent Allen Klein to represent him.

Allen Klein was a powerful agent who had a reputation for creating novel financial agreements that would provide artists with much greater returns for successful albums. Sure enough, Klein set up an arrangement that should have provided Cooke with a large and steady stream of income.

Alas, on Dec. 11, 1964, Los Angeles police responded to a report of a kidnapping and shooting at a seedy establishment called the Hacienda Motel. They found Sam Cooke shot to death by the night manager of the motel.

The “official” story was that Cooke had taken a woman to the motel against her will. The woman, believing that Cooke intended to rape her, fled from the motel room and then called the police.

The night manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed that a nearly-naked Cooke had burst into the motel office, demanding to know where the woman in his room had gone. When Cooke was unsatisfied with the manager’s statement that she knew nothing about the woman’s whereabouts, Cooke became so abusive that she shot him in self-defense.

A coroner’s inquest on the shooting accepted the testimony of Bertha Franklin, the woman who accompanied Cooke to the motel, and the motel owner. The inquest report ruled that the shooting was justifiable homicide.

Cooke’s friends and acquaintances were convinced that this story was fishy. They believed a much more likely scenario was that the woman at the motel and the night manager were in collusion to rob Cooke. However, no definitive evidence of such a plot has ever been uncovered.

Regardless of the exact circumstances, Sam Cooke was dead at age 33. Just two weeks following Cooke’s death, an album was released that contained A Change is Gonna Come.

Surprisingly, A Change Is Gonna Come was not initially a major hit, only reaching #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts. However, over the course of time it has come to be considered Sam Cooke’s best song, and one of the classic anthems of the civil rights era.

A Change Is Gonna Come has been covered by over 100 artists, including many of the greatest soul singers. The song has been covered by artists such as Solomon Burke, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Billy Preston, Tina Turner, and the Allman Brothers.

In 2004, Patti LaBelle received a standing ovation for her performance of this song at the Nobel Peace Prize concert. This song has also been covered or sampled by a significant number of rap performers.

Unfortunately, for four decades following the record’s release, the single of A Change Is Gonna Come was plagued by legal problems, stemming from a dispute between Cooke’s music publisher ABKCO and his record company RCA Records.

The legal wrangles meant that for nearly 40 years, the record was unavailable for inclusion in albums or Sam Cooke retrospectives. For example, even though A Change Is Gonna Come was featured in the movie Malcolm X, the song could not be included in the soundtrack for the movie.

However, by 2003
the disputes had been settled in time for the song to be included on the remastered version of Ain’t That Good News, as well as the Cooke anthology Portrait of a Legend.

Of course, A Change Is Gonna Come is inextricably linked to the civil rights movement.  One remembers the prolonged struggle against the pernicious aspects of segregation in this country.  Looking over the disturbing trends that have arisen since the election of Donald Trump, one sees once again the rise of polarizing racial divisions.

We can only hope that the massive spontaneous protests that erupted after a series of brutal and pointless murders of African-Americans will produce some positive results.  Right at this moment there seem positive signs, but we must wait to see if some actual change emerges.

Songs like A Change Is Gonna Come help us to remember this period of great injustice.  It would be absolutely terrible if, having worked so hard to move beyond those shameful times, we regressed back to the past.

Sam Cooke was a brilliant singer and a great songwriter. He was poised to be extremely successful in the music business. In addition, he was also active in the civil rights movement at the time of his death. How sad that his brilliant career was snuffed out at a tragically early age.

Al Green, A Change Is Gonna Come:

Al Green is an American singer, songwriter, producer and preacher. He was born Albert Leortes Greene in 1946, the sixth son of a sharecropper in Arkansas. When he was 10 years old, he and his brothers formed a musical group, the Greene Brothers.

Unfortunately, when Albert was in his teens, his father caught him listening to pop artist Jackie Wilson. At that point, his religiously conservative dad kicked Al out of the family home. Below is a photo of Al Green, performing at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles in 2012.

Embed from Getty Images

However, Albert continued his efforts at a career in music. He was hired by producer Willie Mitchell, who urged Green to develop his own individual singing style, instead of copying artists such as Sam Cooke or Wilson Pickett.

The results were dramatic; Al Green created a style that highlighted his lovely high tenor voice. Al Green’s bio in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame states that he
essentially created a new kind of soul – one that combined the gritty, down-home sensibility of the Memphis based Stax-Volt sound with the polished, sweeter delivery of Motown. Over a fat, funky bottom, Green’s subtle and inventive voice would soar into falsetto range with beguiling ease. His finest recordings showcase a penchant for jazzy filigree and soulful possession rivaled by the likes of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin.

Al Green had moderate success with his first album. His second album contained his first big single, Tired of Being Alone. That song reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts in 1971, and #7 on the soul playlists.

But Al Green’s third album really cemented his reputation in the pantheon of great soul singers. It contained the tune Let’s Stay Together, which reached #1 on both the pop and R&B charts, and which has become Green’s signature song.

In concert, Al Green frequently includes songs that pay tribute to his idols such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. Here is Al Green singing A Change Is Gonna Come.

What a powerful, moving tribute!  Here, Al Green would be right at home in a black church. He turns his versatile voice to a gospel-inspired version of Cooke’s great civil-rights anthem.

Right after he sings the line “He winds up knockin’ me right back on my knees,” Al Green sinks to his knees onstage. I found this a compelling element in a virtuoso performance.

For a number of reasons, Al Green turned towards religion starting in the mid-70s. This was in part because of the suicide of his girlfriend Mary Woodson White in 1974.

Despite the fact that she was already married, Ms. White was apparently angry that Green refused to marry her. Following an argument between the two, White threw a pan of boiling grits at Green while he was bathing. Green suffered severe burns in the incident. White then shot herself to death with Al Green’s revolver.

A couple of years later, Al Green became an ordained minister. In 1979,
Green injured himself falling off the stage while performing in Cincinnati and interpreted this as a message from God. He then concentrated his energies towards pastoring his church and gospel singing.

For roughly 10 years afterwards, Green recorded nothing but gospel songs. In 1988, now known as the Reverend Al Green, he again began to release soul songs.

Al Green has received a number of honors for his work. In 1995, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Then in 2004, he was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and also into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2014, Green was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.

Kudos to Reverend Al Green; “let’s stay together” for a long time.

Beyonce, A Change Is Gonna Come:

Beyonce Knowles-Carter is a noted pop singer and actress. She has sold an astonishing number of records, and in addition she has become a major cultural icon.

Beyonce Knowles was born in Houston in 1981. Her first name was her mother’s maiden name. At an early age, Beyonce was noted for both her dancing and singing ability. Below is a photo of Beyonce performing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Embed from Getty Images

Apparently, Beyonce was inspired to a career in music and dance by Michael Jackson. She also lists Diana Ross and Whitney Houston as performers whom she admired.

When she was just nine years old, Beyonce Knowles became the lead singer in a quartet called Girls Tyme. In 1995, her father quit his job as a Xerox sales manager to manage that group.

Girls Tyme struggled to obtain a record contract, and to gain fame as a musical group. They finally inked a record contract with Columbia Records, and shortly afterward changed their name to Destiny’s Child.

In 1997, their efforts began to pay off. Destiny’s Child had a song included in the soundtrack for the blockbuster movie Men In Black. The following year, a couple of single from their self-titled album hit the charts. As a result, the group won Soul Train awards for Best R&B/Soul Album, Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist, and Best R&B/Soul Single.

At this point, Destiny’s Child became a trio, with Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams joining lead singer Beyonce. Destiny’s Child became a pop-music powerhouse. Both their singles and albums shot to the top of the charts, and they dominated both Grammy and MTV awards shows.

However, at the end of 2001, Destiny’s Child went on hiatus as each of the members focused on solo projects. Beyonce’s first album, the 2003 release Dangerously In Love, debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts, and has by now sold over 11 million records.  Her first solo effort established Beyonce as one of the major performers in soul music.

Here is Beyonce in a live performance of A Change Is Gonna Come. This took place in 2013 at an annual benefit concert called Chime for Change.

This particular concert took place in London. I am impressed by Beyonce’s performance. Her vocals are very polished, and she throws in a number of subtle vocal effects almost effortlessly.

As one of the most well-known and trend-setting artists on the planet, Beyonce Carter lends her talents here to a show designed to highlight the progress of women’s rights around the world.

However, the presence of Beyonce and other women artists such as Jennifer Lopez and Iggy Azalea also managed to generate controversy. There were a number of snide comments by British critics and commentators regarding the performers’ rather revealing costumes.

In particular, some critics complained that the dress worn by Beyonce and others was incompatible with the cause of women’s liberation. Well, I don’t know, it didn’t seem that outrageous to me, and it wasn’t like Beyonce was performing on a stripper’s pole.

Below is another live performance by Beyonce of A Change Is Gonna Come. Here, she is performing at a benefit for Detroit, just after that city declared bankruptcy.

This clip was taken on somebody’s smartphone, so neither the audio nor video is great. As my wife grew up in Detroit, we have a great fondness for that struggling city.

While Beyonce sings A Change Is Gonna Come, in the background are shown a series of photos from Detroit. One sees shots of assembly-line production of automobiles, and the logo of the United Auto Workers.

Various city landmarks are interspersed with shots of the Motown headquarters, follwed by brief clips of several iconic Motown performers. This is all backed by Beyonce’s powerful, versatile vocals.

Finally, right at the end, Beyonce declares “I love you, Detroit.” I found this a really moving clip. It would be great if we could see the Motor City prosper once again.

Since her first solo album, Beyonce has continued her reign atop the pop music scene. She is the only female artist to have each of her first six albums reach #1 on the Billboard album charts.

In April 2008, Beyonce married rap star Shawn “Jay Z” Carter. The two have formed a musical and cultural powerhouse. Their records sell like hotcakes, their tours are among the best-grossing in the industry, and they are involved in a vast number of commercial ventures.

Just how successful is Beyonce? In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history. Forbes magazine named her the most powerful woman in entertainment for the year 2015.  Also,
Jarett Wieselman of the New York Post placed her at number one on her list of the Five Best Singer/Dancers … In The New Yorker, music critic Jody Rosen described Beyoncé as “the most important and compelling popular musician of the twenty-first century.”

Between her solo and Destiny’s Child efforts, Beyonce has sold over 160 million records.  In addition to her astonishing success as a musician, Beyonce has also carved out a successful acting career.

In 2002, Beyonce played Mike Myers’ sidekick Foxxy Cleopatra in the spy parody Austin Powers in Goldmember. In 2003 she co-starred with Cuba Gooding, Jr. in the film The Fighting Temptations.

In 2006, Beyonce was one of the stars in the film Dreamgirls, a movie loosely based on the career of the Supremes. Beyonce played Deena Jones (modeled after Diana Ross). Then in 2008 she portrayed singer Etta James in the film Cadillac Records.

Beyonce has also been active as a feminist and humanitarian. She performed the Etta James song At Last at the first dance by Barack and Michelle Obama at the Presidential Inauguration in January, 2009. She and husband Jay-Z were also active in fund-raising for the Obama campaign in 2012, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016.

The film for Beyonce’s sixth album Lemonade included appearances by the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, three black men who were killed respectively by a vigilante, or by the police.

She also collaborated with Michelle Obama’s campaign against child obesity. We have previously shown a video clip from the Chime for Change campaign sponsored by Gucci, whose aim is to increase female empowerment.

As she rolls along in her fabulous career, we wish continued success to Beyonce, her husband Jay-Z and their daughter Blue Ivy Carter.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, A Change Is Gonna Come
All Things Considered, NPR, Feb. 1, 2014: Sam Cooke and the Song That ‘Almost Scared Him’
Wikipedia, Sam Cooke
Wikipedia, Al Green
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Al Green bio.
Wikipedia, Beyonce

Posted in Gospel Music, Pop Music, Soul music | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Golly Miss Molly: Little Richard; Jerry Lee Lewis; Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels

Hello there! This week our blog features one of the great ‘roots’ rock ‘n roll songs, Good Golly, Miss Molly. We will begin with the original by Little Richard. Next, we will review a cover by Jerry Lee Lewis, and finally a cover by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels.

Little Richard and Good Golly, Miss Molly:

Little Richard used to boast that he had invented rock ‘n roll. This was not much of an exaggeration – he was one of the seminal figures in the early days of rhythm & blues, with a career that lasted nearly 70 years.

Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. He was the third of twelve children of a local pastor. Richard showed considerable musical ability both in playing saxophone and singing in his family’s gospel choir at the Pentecostal church.

Penniman’s early opportunities were limited because his family refused to allow him to perform secular music. However, at the age of 16 he left home and began performing on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and he also was featured as a drag performer in some vaudeville shows.

Although Penniman was recording songs as early as 1951, he found it difficult to break into the recording scene. He took the stage name “Little Richard,” learned how to play boogie-woogie piano, and fronted a band called The Upsetters. Below is a photo of Little Richard in the 1950s.

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In the mid-50s, Little Richard’s fortunes began to improve dramatically. The management at Specialty Records hooked Richard up with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Blackwell had previously worked with R&B legend Ray Charles, and Blackwell believed that Little Richard had the potential to be as successful as Charles.

During a break in a recording session, Blackwell heard Little Richard and his band playing a smutty song that Richard had performed on the vaudeville circuit. Blackwell was taken by the infectious beat of the song, and brought in songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie to “clean up” the lyrics. The result was Little Richard’s first big record, Tutti Frutti, released as a single at the end of 1955.

Tutti Frutti was a significant hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard R&B charts. It also was a major “cross-over” success, making it up to #17 on the Billboard Top 100 charts. Then crooner Pat Boone released a cover of Tutti Frutti.

Many black artists would have been thrilled that their record had been covered by a teen idol such as Pat Boone. However, Little Richard was not amused — he was offended that Boone’s cover out-sold his own record. Richard was upset because although Pat Boone had a beautiful voice, Boone was in no way an R&B singer.

Here is a photo of Little Richard, ‘The Georgia Peach.’

Little Richard, ‘the Georgia Peach.’

Good Golly Miss Molly was written by Bumps Blackwell and John Marascalco, and was produced by Blackwell. It was first recorded by Little Richard; in fact it was recorded twice, in July 1956 and again in October 1956, both times in New Orleans and on both occasions with the same group of Upsetters as backups. The final version of Little Richard’s record was taken from the October session.

Like many early rock songs, the lyrics are extremely simple. They describe a woman, Miss Molly, who certainly likes to dance, and is constantly “rocking and rolling” (this song accommodates both the ordinary and sexual connotations of “balling” and “rocking and rolling”).

[CHORUS] Good Golly Miss Molly, sure like to ball
Good Golly Miss Molly, sure like to ball
When you’re rocking and rolling
Can’t hear your mama call

From the early, early morning
Till the early, early night
When you caught Miss Molly, Miss Molly’s
Rocking at the House of Blue Lights


Momma, pappa told me
“Son, you better watch your step”
If I knew my momma, pappa
Have to watch my pappa myself

But before Little Richard’s record was released, Bumps Blackwell also produced the song with a group called The Valiants. Although The Valiants simply reproduced Little Richard’s version, their single was released first in 1957.

But not to worry – once Little Richard’s single was released, it became the definitive version of this song. The tune rose to #4 on the Billboard playlists.

So here is Little Richard in a “live” performance of Good Golly Miss Molly.

I believe this is simply lip-synched, but it is actual video from 1958 showing Little Richard in the studio with his Upsetters band. It features Richard bringing his trademark “Whoooo” and his up-tempo piano. Little Richard admits that he borrowed the piano intro from Ike Turner’s 1951 classic Rocket 88.

In the late 1950s, Little Richard was riding the crest of a wave of popularity. However, during a tour of Australia in 1957, he shocked his supporters by announcing that he was retiring from rock ‘n roll in order to enter the ministry.

A number of incidents had convinced Richard that God was sending him a message. At this time Little Richard was also seriously into drugs, particularly heroin, PCP and cocaine. His work in the ministry was an important step in weaning him from drug addiction.

For the next few years, Little Richard spent his time preaching and recording gospel music, produced by his old partner Bumps Blackwell. However, in 1962 he was persuaded to undertake a tour of Europe. His first show was devoted to gospel music. But he opened his second show, accompanied by organist Billy Preston, with Long Tall Sally – and the audience went wild!

After that, Little Richard continued with a triumphant rock ‘n roll tour of Europe. Up-and-coming bands vied to play in his concerts. The Beatles opened a couple of concerts for Little Richard, who gave them tips on performing, and helped Paul develop his “Little Richard” voice.

And here is actual live footage of Little Richard singing Good Golly Miss Molly, from one of his European tours.

This was from a TV show called It’s Little Richard, filmed at Britain’s Granada studios in November 1963 and released in 1964. Little Richard was joined by The Shirelles and The Everly Brothers; for ‘local color,’ the Granada folks threw in a virtually unknown British blues band, The Rolling Stones.

This is an absolutely great performance by Little Richard. Folks, that is some gen-u-wine rock music! The British crowd are wowed by his energy, his singing, and his stride piano playing. My only regret is that Little Richard is not accompanied by his band The Upsetters, but instead is backed by a (surprisingly competent) British group Sounds Incorporated.

Mick Jagger recounts that he had previously heard about Little Richard’s riveting performances, but assumed this was primarily hype. But when he saw Little Richard in this show, he was mesmerized, as was the audience. Richard’s charisma made a great impression on Mick, and gave him something to shoot for in live performances.

When you hear the vocal stylings of Bob Seger, or John Fogerty, or Rod Stewart, or AC/DC’s Bon Scott, you realize that they are simply channeling Little Richard. Other artists such as John Lennon, Mick Jagger and David Bowie who didn’t copy Little Richard’s vocal style, nevertheless looked to him as an inspirational figure and tried to model their own careers after his.

It was fitting that Little Richard was one of the inductees in the inaugural class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even in his mid-80s, Little Richard was still performing occasionally, but often in a wheelchair. He passed away on May 9, 2020 from complications due to bone cancer.

What a great loss. Little Richard Penniman was is one of the original kings of rock ‘n roll. In his honor, we dedicate this post to Little Richard — so, let’s Rip It Up!

Jerry Lee Lewis and Good Golly, Miss Molly:

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the great early stars of rock and roll. He appeared suddenly in the mid-50s, and became an overnight sensation. His piano playing helped define rock and roll as a new and separate musical genre. A larger-than-life performer, Jerry Lee’s career featured a number of dramatic twists and turns.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in 1935 in Concordia parish, Louisiana. While young, Jerry Lee and his two cousins Mickey Gillis and Jimmy Swaggart became seriously interested in music. Mickey and Jerry Lee would continue in music, while Jimmy later became a famous preacher and TV evangelist.

Below is a photo of Jerry Lee Lewis performing in concert in England, May 1958.

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After Jerry Lee showed a serious interest in music, his parents, bless their souls, mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. But while Jerry Lee was interested in popular music, particularly R&B and country, his parents envisioned gospel music for their boy.

Jerry Lee subsequently enrolled at the Southwest Bible Institute. True to form, he was expelled from the Bible college for playing boogie-woogie at a church assembly. With a vocation in the church closed off, Jerry Lee then began to play at clubs in Louisiana and Mississippi.

In 1956 Jerry Lee moved up to Memphis, where he became a session musician for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records while he attempted to score a hit record. Jerry Lee’s distinctive piano licks can be heard on a number of Sun recordings of artists such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style was an over-the-top version of boogie-woogie stride piano,
which is characterized by a regular left hand bass figure and dancing beat.
Jerry Lee combined this with elements he absorbed from his Southern gospel upbringing.

In Lewis’ talented hands, the results were electrifying. He was
an incendiary showman who often played with his fists, elbows, feet, and backside, sometimes climbing on top of the piano during gigs and even apocryphally setting it on fire.

Jerry Lee Lewis broke through with huge hits in the mid-50s, such as Great Balls of Fire and Breathless. The songs, and his exuberant performing style, made Jerry Lee Lewis a super-star.

However, in 1958 his career suddenly hit the rocks. As he embarked upon a tour of England in 1958, Jerry Lee revealed that his recent wife, Myra Gale Brown, was only 13.

To make matters worse, it became known that Myra was Jerry Lee’s first cousin once removed. When these facts were made public, Lewis was immediately enveloped in scandal. He had to cut short his British tour after just 3 shows.

Upon returning to the States, Jerry Lee’s American career also underwent a catastrophic decline. He was blacklisted from the radio, and Dick Clark dropped him from American Bandstand.

Almost overnight, Jerry Lee Lewis went from headlining the top rock and roll shows, to showing up at juke joints. It took him a few years to get out of his Sun Records contract and on his feet again.

Just as his career was reviving, Jerry Lee’s comeback attempt was sidelined by British Invasion artists like the Beatles and Rolling Stones. This was truly unfortunate, as Jerry Lee Lewis was a major inspirational figure for British Invasion bands.

By the late 60s, Jerry Lee had experienced a roller-coaster ride from young unknown artist to worldwide superstar, and back into obscurity. However, his comeback efforts faced even more hurdles.

First, Jerry Lee Lewis was seriously conflicted about his music, as his deeply religious family believed rock and roll was “the Devil’s music.”

In addition, Jerry Lee had major issues with both alcohol and pills. He was a wild man both onstage and off. A prodigious drinker, he also took copious quantities of amphetamines to fuel his manic lifestyle.
“That was blues and yellows time…. I tell you, greatest pills ever made,” he says. … That would keep me going. Desbutal. Man, you couldn’t beat the Desbutal. Went hundreds of miles a day on them… biphetamines [black beauties], Placidyls, up and down. I took ’em all.”

For the past 40 years, Jerry Lee Lewis has continued as a living legend whose work spans the field from rock a’n roll to country. So here he is in a live performance of a medley of Little Richard hits – he rolls through Good Golly Miss Molly, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally.

This performance took place in 1993. Jerry Lee runs through these rocking tunes with his usual brilliance on the piano, though he is more restrained these days.

His vocals are perfect for these classic Little Richard tunes, and The Killer shows off his trademark hard-driving stride piano. He is backed by a quartet with guitar, bass, drums and an old-fashioned saxophonist. Ol’ Jerry Lee still puts on a first-rate performance, which leaves the audience dancing in the aisles.

Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the giants of early rock music, was one of the inaugural set of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

In May 2013 he opened a club in Memphis, and to the best of my knowledge he is still performing there. As befits the title of his 2006 album, at age 84 Jerry Lee Lewis is truly the Last Man Standing. He has survived a lifetime of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, so long may he thrive.

Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and Good Golly, Miss Molly:

Mitch Ryder was born William Levise, Jr. in 1945. He grew up in Detroit, where he formed a band while in high school and gained a following performing in soul music clubs there.

In the early 60s, he teamed up with producer Bob Crewe. Crewe re-named his band Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and began recording them on his record label.

The Detroit Wheels were made up of Mark Manko and Jim McCarty who shared lead guitar roles, Joe Kubert on rhythm guitar, Jim McAllister on bass and John Badanjek on drums.

Rock group Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, from the mid-60s.

Mitch Ryder developed a hard-rocking style, which was noted for Ryder’s gritty, raspy vocals (which were strongly influenced by Little Richard). There was not that much variety in Ryder’s songs, all of which sounded pretty similar.

But in 1966, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels hit it big with a medley of two rocking tunes. The first was Devil With a Blue Dress On. That song was written by Shorty Long and Mickey Stevenson. They released a single of their tune in 1964 which went nowhere.

Mitch Ryder then combined Devil With a Blue Dress On with a cover of Little Richard’s Good Golly, Miss Molly. That medley became a really big hit, rising to #4 on the Billboard pop charts in fall of 1966.

So here is Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, in a “live” performance of Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly, Miss Molly.

Obviously, the boys are simply lip-synching this tune. In fact, the band is barely going through the motions of pretending to play their instruments. The only people who are actually working in this video are the Go-Go girls, who thrash around frenetically (for the Go-Go girls, I foresee frequent visits to the chiropractor in later life).

Well, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels had a couple more hits. Earlier in 1966, their song Jenny Take A Ride, which was a medley of Little Richard’s Jenny, Jenny and Chuck Willis’ C. C. Rider, made it to #10 on the charts. Then in 1967, their song Sock It To Me Baby! rose to #6 on the pop charts.

But by the 70s, Mitch Ryder’s star had begun to fade. The Detroit Wheels broke up while Ryder continued to tour, but without any success with his record releases. After a while, he retired from the music business when he began experiencing troubles with his throat.

He later returned to touring, which I believe he continues to this day. I saw him performing on TV a few months ago; sadly, his voice is now completely shot.

However, Ryder influenced several ‘blue-collar’ rockers. Midwestern artists such as Bob Seger, John Mellencamp and Ted Nugent have all stated that they Mitch Ryder was a significant influence on their careers. And “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen frequently plays a “Detroit Medley” in his live shows, which consists of Devil With a Blue Dress, Good Golly, Miss Molly, Jenny, Jenny and C.C. Rider.

Mitch Ryder has been performing for well over 40 years now, and we wish him all success in his continuing career.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Good Golly, Miss Molly
Wikipedia, Little Richard
Wikipedia, Jerry Lee Lewis
Wikipedia, Mitch Ryder

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

Blowin’ In The Wind: Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul & Mary; Sam Cooke

Hello there! This week our blog features a folk song that became one of the great civil-rights anthems, Blowin’ In The Wind. We will begin with the original by Bob Dylan. Next, we will review a cover by Peter, Paul & Mary, and finally a cover by Sam Cooke.

Bob Dylan and Blowin’ In The Wind:

Bob Dylan is a giant who straddles the fields of both folk music and rock ‘n roll. In his early career, Dylan was a folk-singer who first caught the public eye while performing in Greenwich Village in 1961, where he relocated from his childhood home in Minnesota. He befriended the terminally ill Woody Guthrie, and for a while inherited Guthrie’s mantle as the author of folk anthems like Blowin’ in the Wind and A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.

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Blowin’ In The Wind was Dylan’s first folk protest song that also became a smash pop hit, though not initially through his own version. Blowin’ In The Wind was written in spring 1962, and the first public presentation was in April 1962 at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village.  It is interesting that at its first performance, Dylan introduced the song by saying “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write no protest songs.”

Dylan took the melody for Blowin’ In The Wind from a Negro spiritual called No More Auction Block. Here is a performance of that song by the acclaimed folksinger Odetta.

The song No More Auction Block originated in Canada, which abolished slavery in 1833. Before Emancipation in the U.S., slaves who managed to escape to Canada were free and the song represented their determination to never again experience those trials.

After you hear Blowin’ In The Wind, I am interested in the overlap that you find between the two melodies. Although Bob Dylan acknowledged using No More Auction Block as a template for his tune, I don’t find the similarities between the two songs to be all that great.

Blowin’ In The Wind poses a series of three rhetorical questions in each of its three verses.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must the white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
How many years must some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
And how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind
The answer is blowing in the wind

Popularized by covers from artists such as Peter, Paul & Mary (our next clip) and Joan Baez, Blowin’ In The Wind became a pop hit; but more importantly it became a protest staple. It was one of the anthems of the civil rights movement, and shortly thereafter it appeared in anti-Vietnam War protests. It should be pointed out that the meaning of the title phrase is unclear. It has been described as
“impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind”.

But the ambiguity of the title does not detract in any way from the power of the song, and its espousal of basic human rights and a commitment to peace.

So, here is Bob Dylan in a live performance of Blowin’ In The Wind.

This was from a TV special that was filmed in March 1963 and aired two months later. At this time, Dylan’s fame was growing rapidly.

Blowin’ In The Wind is the most-covered song by Bob Dylan. One reason I have not included such an impactful tune much earlier on this blog is that it was difficult to choose two artists from the more than 300 who have covered this song. Eventually I just gave up and picked two covers that seemed particularly appropriate.

The 1963 album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan set Bob on an entirely new path. While his debut album had not dented the charts, this album made it to #22 on the Billboard album charts, and it actually reached #1 in the U.K., where groups like the Beatles eagerly absorbed it.

Blowin’ In the Wind was released as a single from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but it failed to chart. However, as we will see in the next section, the cover by Peter, Paul & Mary made Dylan famous across the globe.

The song also marked a decided turn in Dylan’s own songwriting. Critic Andy Gill wrote,
Prior to [Blowin’ In The Wind], efforts like “The Ballad of Donald White” and “The Death of Emmett Till” had been fairly simplistic bouts of reportage songwriting. “Blowin’ in the Wind” was different: for the first time, Dylan discovered the effectiveness of moving from the particular to the general … A song as vague as “Blowin’ in the Wind” could be applied to just about any freedom issue.

At about this time, Bob Dylan’s lyrics changed dramatically. Moving away from the quite literal descriptions of murdered African-Americans like Emmett Till, Dylan focused more and more on deeply personal feelings and word poems, that stacked alliterative images one on top of another.

With his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home, Dylan abruptly shifted from folk to rock music. I was fortunate to see Dylan’s May 1966 performance at Royal Albert Hall, a concert whose first half was a solo performance by Dylan on acoustic guitar and harmonica. But after the intermission, Dylan appeared on stage with an electric backing band, The Hawks (later to become The Band). The atmosphere was, well – electric; it was an unforgettable experience.

After that, Dylan moved squarely into rock music, with great success. But it is nearly impossible to pigeon-hole Bob Dylan into a single genre. Dylan next made a transition to country-rock with albums such as Nashville Skyline. He even converted to Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and put out a couple of “Jesus” albums. Whatever direction Dylan has chosen, he has inevitably been a trailblazer and has helped define the trajectory of rock music for several decades.

Is there anyone who has made such memorable, seminal contributions to rock music? I would put the Beatles #1 in terms of their total output, but I can’t think of any individual artist whom I would rank ahead of Dylan. Certainly there are more covers of Dylan songs than of any other artist. In addition, he more or less single-handedly invented folk-rock music.

In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature! And, he’s still touring, on what is called the “never-ending tour” that began thirty years ago. Wow.

Here I want to give a shout-out to my friend and colleague Glenn Gass.  A professor at Indiana University’s renowned Jacobs School of Music, Glenn created the “rock ‘n roll history” classes at IU.  After 40 years on the faculty, he is retiring this spring. I was auditing his “Bob Dylan” class this spring before the coronavirus stopped everything.  Most of what I know about rock music I got from Prof. “Dr. Rock” Glenn Gass — thanks!

Peter, Paul & Mary and Blowin’ In The Wind:

Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were folksingers in New York City in the late 1950s, and Noel Stookey was an aspiring stand-up comedian who had arrived in the Big Apple from the Midwest. The legendary manager Albert Grossman (also the manager for Bob Dylan) auditioned them and several others for the purpose of assembling a folk-singing group.

He hand-picked these three, told Noel Stookey to change his name to Paul, and rehearsed the group for several months in Boston and Miami. Following their rehearsals, Grossman took the group back to Greenwich Village and checked them into the Bitter End coffee house.

“Peter Paul and Mary publicity photo” from the 1960s, by Sol Mednick From L: Noel Paul Stookey; Peter Yarrow; Mary Travers.

The group released their debut album in 1962; it immediately became a commercial bombshell, shooting up to #1 on the Billboard album list, remaining in the top 10 for ten months.

Their third album, In the Wind, was released in October 1963. Their cover of Blowin’ in the Wind was the first single release from that album. It sold 300,000 copies in the first week, a phenomenal number in those days. The song reached #2 on the Billboard pop charts and #1 on the Easy Listening playlist.

So here are Peter, Paul & Mary in a live performance of Blowin’ In The Wind.

I don’t know the exact date of this video but it is clearly from the early 60s. What an impressive cover of Bob Dylan’s original! Mary Travers’ bright, clear vocals are beautifully paired with the harmonies from Yarrow and Stookey. The song is played at a slow and somber pace, rather stripped down – even the lighting is dark.

It is important to remember that at this time, Bob Dylan’s fame was still growing, and for many he was an acquired taste (I vividly remember getting thrown out of a party in 1962 when I tried to play his first album, which was considered “weird”). But more popular artists like Peter, Paul & Mary and Joan Baez brought Dylan’s music to a much wider audience (at first, when Joan Baez would bring Dylan onstage to sing a few songs, there was a fair amount of booing from her fans).

Peter, Paul & Mary’s In The Wind album contained three Dylan covers,  including the songs Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (which also hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100) and Quit Your Lowdown Ways.

I remember vividly first hearing their early albums and subsequently seeing them perform. Their music was compelling, with their very pleasing harmonies complemented by Yarrow and Stookey’s guitars and an upright bass. Visually they were also quite striking, with Yarrow and Stookey’s dark-haired and bearded beatnik visages offset by Travers’ platinum-blond hair, square chin and striking good looks.

Although the three folksingers had been assembled into a group by Albert Grossman, they quite genuinely adopted their role in the folk-protest movement. Their first major performance in that role was at the August 1963 March on Washington best known for Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. There they sang If I Had a Hammer and Blowin’ in the Wind. The photo below shows Peter, Paul and Mary performing at that march.

Peter, Paul & Mary performing at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., August 1963, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

This was followed by fifty years of performing and social activism. The group broke up in 1970 but reunited in 1978. They then continued to perform together until Mary Travers passed away.

In November 1969 I took part in the march on Washington, DC against the Vietnam War, along with half a million of my close friends. Peter, Paul & Mary performed there and my recollection is that they sang If I Had a Hammer, and possibly also Blowin’ in the Wind (memories of those days are starting to fade).  Peter Yarrow was one of the organizers of that event, whose performers included Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, a quartet from the Cleveland Orchestra who played a particularly moving Beethoven piece, and the cast of Hair.

Mary Travers was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004. A bone marrow transplant afforded her some respite, but she died in September, 2009.

Peter, Paul & Mary became folk song and activist icons. They provided us with some truly memorable music. In particular, their covers of Bob Dylan’s songs helped to spread Dylan’s fame in his early years. And several of their songs became protest anthems in the days of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.

Sam Cooke and Blowin’ In The Wind:

Sam Cooke was one of the great early soul singers. He and Ray Charles were arbuably the two greatest innovators in the field of soul music.  Below is a photo of Sam Cooke, in the studio, smoking a cigarette.

Embed from Getty Images

Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931, and began his career in 1950 when he became the lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers.

The Soul Stirrers were the best-known gospel group in the country, and they were famous for their beautiful harmonies. The handsome and charismatic Cooke was also a favorite of young girls.

In 1957, Cooke decided to leave the gospel field for a career in the field of pop music. Trading gospel for secular music was a difficult decision for many artists, and it must have been hard for Cooke. However, Cooke’s first pop song, You Send Me, went to #1 on both the Billboard R&B charts and also the pop charts.

Sam Cooke was definitely an anomaly in rock and roll, particularly for an African-American artist. Most musicians at the time had only the haziest understanding of the economics of the music business, and were frequently signed to extremely unfavorable contracts.

Cooke, on the other hand, had a very clear understanding of the music business from his days in gospel music. He wrote most of his own songs, started his own record company and also set up a music publishing company.

Here is Sam Cooke in a live version of Blowin’ In The Wind.

This took place on the TV program Shindig in September 1964. Sam Cooke’s version of the song is much more up-tempo; Cooke turns it into more of a pop song than a folk tune (and don’t the Shindig dancers seem incongruous for this song?).

However, Cooke most certainly grasped the racial implications of Dylan’s tune. In fact, hearing Blowin’ In The Wind inspired Cooke to write his own masterpiece, A Change Is Gonna Come.

In 1964, Sam Cooke was one of the biggest pop stars. He had moved to RCA Victor Records where he was having great commercial success. And he had hired the agent Allen Klein to represent him.

As I mentioned, early rock musicians were generally at the mercy of the major record companies. Record contracts tended to be hugely unfavorable to the artists. However, Klein set up deals that, in principle, were much more favorable to the musicians.

Under Klein’s management, novel arrangements were set into place by which artists would get much greater returns for successful albums. This helped tip the scales in favor of the musicians, and played a major role in enriching the most popular groups that he managed.  In the case of Sam Cooke, Klein set up an arrangement that should have provided Cooke with a large and steady stream of income.

Unfortunately, on Dec. 11, 1964, police were called to a seedy establishment called the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, where a kidnapping and shooting was reported. They found Sam Cooke shot to death by the night manager of the motel.

The “official” story was that the night manager, Bertha Franklin, shot Cooke in self-defense after Cooke had brought a woman to the motel against her will. A coroner’s inquest on the shooting ruled that it was justifiable homicide.

Cooke’s friends and acquaintances were convinced that this story was fishy. They believed it was much more likely that the woman at the motel and the night manager were in collusion to rob Cooke. However, no definitive evidence of such a plot has ever been uncovered.

Regardless of the exact circumstances, Sam Cooke was dead at age 33. A couple of albums were released following his death. One of the songs was the beautiful and moving A Change is Gonna Come, which is also considered one of the classic anthems of the civil rights era.

Sam Cooke was a transcendent singer and a great songwriter. He was poised to be extremely successful in the music business. In addition, he was also active in the civil rights movement at the time of his death. How sad that his brilliant career was snuffed out at a tragically early age.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Blowin’ In The Wind
Wikipedia, Bob Dylan
Wikipedia, Peter, Paul and Mary
Wikipedia, Sam Cooke

Posted in Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Soul music | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Happy Together: The Turtles; Captain and Tennille; Miley Cyrus

Hello there!  This week our blog features a great, catchy pop tune from 1967, Happy Together. We will begin with the original version by The Turtles. Next, we will review a cover by Captain and Tennille, and finally a cover by Miley Cyrus.

The Turtles and Happy Together:

The Turtles were a pop group that achieved quite a bit of success in the late 60s.  They initially formed in 1965 from a group of former high school buddies, led by Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman.  Their first incarnation was as a surf-rock band called The Crossfires.

A few years and several changes in personnel later, they were called The Tyrtles (after the Byrds and the Beatles – get it?), but after a short time they settled on The Turtles.

Pop group The Turtles, from 1967. Getty Images.

The group’s first big hit was in 1965 when they released a cover of Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me, Babe.  That record made it into the top ten on the Billboard charts.  But their biggest record was Happy Together.

The song Happy Together had an interesting history.  It was written by Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon, who were former members of a group called The Magicians.  After writing the song, they tried to interest various producers in recording it.  They had so little success that the acetate demo they had recorded was worn out!  Finally they struck paydirt when the Turtles agreed to record it.

The song was arranged by Turtles bassist Chip Douglas.  As you will see, Douglas did a great job, producing a version that is exceptionally catchy, and that makes excellent use of the Turtles’ close harmonies.

Happy Together was released as a single in February 1967.  It shot to the top of the charts, dislodging the Beatles’ Penny Lane as the #1 Pop song.  It was the only #1 song for the Turtles.  The singer imagines various wonderful things he and his girlfriend might do in a rosy future.

Imagine me and you, I do
I think about you day and night, it’s only right
To think about the girl you love and hold her tight
So happy together

If I should call you up, invest a dime
And you say you belong to me and ease my mind
Imagine how the world could be, so very fine
So happy together

[CHORUS] I can’t see me lovin’ nobody but you
For all my life
When you’re with me, baby the skies’ll be blue
For all my life

So here are The Turtles in a “live” performance of Happy Together.

As you can see, the group is only lip-synching the tune (a fact that they make no effort to conceal).  Howard Kaylan’s lead vocals are very appealing, but to me the most important aspect is the arrangement.  It is bouncy and catchy, starting out with almost a marching cadence; this song can stick in your mind for weeks.

Denise Sullivan of AllMusic critiqued this song as “serious, Beatles/Beach Boys conceptual pop” and concluded that the song was “a most sublime slice of pop heaven.”  Well OK, I wouldn’t put it up against either the Beatles or Beach Boys best, but it certainly is an enjoyable tune.

And the song was extremely successful.  In 1999, BMI named Happy Together “the 44th most performed song on American radio in the 20th century.”  This puts it in a league with Yesterday by the Beatles and Mrs. Robinson by Simon and Garfunkel!

In addition to the versions we feature in this post, the tune has been covered by 150 artists, including those as diverse as Mel Torme, Weezer, The Nylons, and Petula Clark.  The song has also appeared in several movies, and in two episodes of The Simpsons.

Between 1965 and 1969, the Turtles had nine top-40 hits, including top-10 pop songs Elenore and She’d Rather Be With Me.  Most of the group’s big hits were arranged by Chip Douglas. He used his experience to produce three albums for The Monkees.

The end came for The Turtles in 1970, when band leaders Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman approached White Whale Records to inquire about a recording deal.  Apparently the administration at White Whale persuaded Kaylan and Volman to fire the rest of the band and start over.

After The Turtles disbanded, Kaylan and Volman joined Frank Zappa’s band the Mothers of Invention.  Then they began issuing their own albums as Flo and Eddie.

Beginning in the mid-80s, Kaylan and Volman revived The Turtles.  But instead of re-uniting with their old mates, they began touring with a group of all-star sidemen.  In the last decade, they have toured with various bands from the 60s and 70s, including The Grass Roots, The Association and The Buckinghams.

Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman and The Turtles produced several lovely pop tunes.  We wish the members of that band all the best.

The Captain and Tennille and Happy Together:

In 1972, Toni Tennille was an aspiring young singer who was moving from San Francisco to L.A.  She put out an ad for a keyboardist for her act.  “Captain” Daryl Dragon, son of composer Carmen Dragon, was then working as a keyboardist for the Beach Boys.

As the Beach Boys were between tours at the time, Dragon answered the ad, and that was the start of Captain and Tennille.  After this first gig, Dragon and Tennille began performing as a duo.  They developed a following and that led to a recording contract.

The Captain (Daryl Dragon) and Toni Tennille, circa 1975.

The first big hit for Captain and Tennille was a cover of Neil Sedaka’s Love Will Keep Us Together.  This vaulted the pair to fame and fortune.  The song hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts, and the duo won the 1975 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.  It also became one of their signature songs.

So here are the Captain and Tennille in a cover of Happy Together.

This is from 1979 and it displays all of the wretched excess of the disco era — from the disco ball and the pulsating drumbeat to the over-produced arrangement with ballet dancers cavorting around on stage.  But Toni Tennille has a very impressive voice, and the Captain arranged their songs.

Well, the Captain and Tennille enjoyed quite a run in the 70s.  The pair were married in November 1975.  In 1976 they were invited by Betty Ford to perform at the White House.  Not only was President Ford there but also Queen Elizabeth II, as this took place during our country’s Bicentennial celebrations.  The Captain and Tennille also hosted a variety show on TV for a year.

After the hits dried up, the Captain and Tennille toured and performed concert dates, in addition to appearing at Lake Tahoe, near their home in Carson City, Nevada.  Toni Tennille continued to work as a session singer and perform in musicals.

In 2014, Toni and Daryl divorced.  According to Dragon, the first he knew of the impending divorce was when he was served with the papers.  Ouch!  Then on January 2, 2019 Daryl Dragon died from kidney failure.

The Captain and Tennille had some memorable hits.  I could do without their way-too-cute Muskrat Love, but their other hits were well-produced and Toni Tennille is quite a fine singer.  We wish her all the best.

Miley Cyrus and Happy Together:

For a woman who has yet to reach her 30th birthday, Miley Cyrus has had quite an eventful career.  The daughter of country artist Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley first hit the big time in 2006 when she landed the starring role in the Disney cable TV show Hannah Montana.  The (preposterous) notion for the show is that Miley Stewart is a mild-mannered high school student by day, but secretly becomes pop star Hannah Montana at night.

In any case, this led to soundtrack albums from the show, world tours for Miley Cyrus, and life as a teen idol.  Her first CD from Hannah Montana topped the Billboard 200 album charts.  In fact, her first three albums topped the Billboard charts!  In 2009, when she was 17, she was ranked as the fourth best-selling female music artist.

Miley Cyrus then worked on various music and film projects, with what appeared to be a conscious effort to break away from her clean-cut image as a Disney actress.  Miley lists Madonna as one of her inspirations, and several controversies that arose over Miley Cyrus performances remind one of similar controversial appearances by Madonna.

Singer and actress Miley Cyrus in 2020.

Perhaps the most infamous of these was an appearance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 MTV Music Video Awards.  Ms. Cyrus, using a giant foam finger, performed simulated sex acts on Mr. Thicke, and ended her performance by twerking (“twerking” = sexually suggestive dancing characterized by rapid, repeated hip thrusts and shaking of the buttocks especially while squatting [Merriam-Webster dictionary]) against Mr. Thicke’s crotch.

A reviewer described her performance as a
“trainwreck in the classic sense of the word as the audience reaction seemed to be a mix of confusion, dismay and horror in a cocktail of embarrassment.”
But Miley’s actions certainly made an impact — shortly after this event, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “twerk” to its online edition!

For the 2013 release of her single Wrecking Ball, Ms. Cyrus uploaded a music video that showed her swinging naked on a wrecking ball.  That video was viewed
over nineteen million times within its first day of release. The single became Cyrus’ first single to top the Hot 100 chart in the United States.

So here is Miley Cyrus in a cover of the song Happy Together.

This video was made to support Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation (more about that organization later).  This is an interesting take on the Turtles’ classic.  With rather raspy and ironic vocals, Ms. Cyrus provides a different take on the song.  I quite like it – it’s original and has excellent production values.

Although Ms. Cyrus married actor Liam Hemsworth in December 2018, at that time she issued a press release advising her fans that she still identified as “pan-sexual.”  Mr. Hemsworth should have considered that as a bad omen; in any case, Hemsworth filed for divorce in August 2019, citing irreconcilable differences.

As some of our remarks about Miley Cyrus might be construed as being negative, we should acknowledge her substantial contributions to charity.  She has contributed to many charitable organizations, donating both her money and time to many causes, including the Kids Wish Network, Elton John AIDS Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, and has participated in fund-raisers for a number of global catastrophes.

She created an organization called the Happy Hippie Foundation.  This is specifically designed to
“fight injustice facing homeless youth, LGBTQ youth and other vulnerable populations”

This is clearly a group that is very important to Ms. Cyrus, and she spends a great deal of time and effort on this organization.  In fact, the music video we saw was part of a series “Backyard Sessions” that are explicitly produced to introduce people to her Happy Hippie Foundation and to raise money for its activities.

Miley Cyrus is a most interesting artist.  Starting out as a singer-actress in a Disney TV show, she became a teen idol at an extremely young age, pumping out bubblegum pop songs that sold a ton of records and generated sold-out world tours.

She then completely changed gears, switching to dance music and hip-hop.  She managed this transition without losing a beat, even through much controversy over the overt sexuality in her performances and her identification as an LGBTQ artist.

We hope that she continues to branch out musically, we salute her exceptional charitable contributions, and we wish all the best to Miley Cyrus in coming years.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Happy Together (song)
Wikipedia, The Turtles
Wikipedia, Captain & Tennille
Wikipedia, Miley Cyrus

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

You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me: The Miracles; The Beatles; Phil Collins

Hello there! This week our blog features a great R&B tune from the early 60s, You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me. We will begin with the original version by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Next, we will review a cover by The Beatles, and finally a cover by Phil Collins.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me:

William “Smokey” Robinson, Jr. is an exceptionally versatile artist and musician. He played a major role in the founding and growth of the Motown Records empire.

Smokey Robinson grew up in the North End area of Detroit, where one of his elementary-school friends was Diana Ross. Although he was a promising student, his real passion was for pop music.

In 1955 Smokey assembled a doo-wop group, the Five Chimes. After a couple of years and a few changes in membership, the group was re-named The Miracles.

Below, a photo of The Miracles circa 1963. Clockwise from upper L: Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers, Ronald White, Claudette Robinson, and Smokey Robinson.

Embed from Getty Images

In 1957 Smokey met the young songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. The two of them hit it off, and Gordy began managing The Miracles. When Gordy formed Tamla Records in 1959, he naturally brought The Miracles into his stable of artists.

Tamla Records later morphed into Motown, and eventually became the incredible pop/R&B powerhouse. In Gordy’s organizational scheme, he compartmentalized every aspect of his business. As a general rule, the singers were separated from the songwriters, who themselves tended to be separate from the producers and the house band.

However, Smokey Robinson was a notable exception to this rule. He took part in virtually every part of the process. He was the lead singer for the Miracles, but for several years he was also their chief songwriter.

Smokey also produced several artists. In addition, he wrote a slew of Motown’s greatest hits, not only for the Miracles but also for other artists such as The Temptations, Mary Wells, and Marvin Gaye. As Berry Gordy’s best friend, Smokey had an enormous impact on the music released by Motown, and he was a mentor to many of the musicians in that organization.

In 1962 Smokey heard Sam Cooke sing Bring It On Home To Me.  Inspired, he immediately sat down and wrote You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me. The song describes a man who can’t break away from a woman who mistreats him.

I don’t like you, but I love you,
Seems that I’m always thinking of you.
Oh, oh, oh, you treat me badly,
I love you madly, you really got a hold on me.
You really got a hold on me, baby,

I don’t want you, but I need you,
Don’t want to kiss you, but I need to.
Oh, oh, oh, you do me wrong now,
My love is strong now you really got a hold on me.
You really got a hold on me, baby,
I love you and all I want you to do is just hold me,
Hold me, hold me, hold me.

The song was recorded in October 1962 with Smokey on lead, paired with Bobby Rogers. Here is a live performance of You Really Got a Hold On Me.

Isn’t this great? This song is really a gem. Smokey’s vocals are terrific, and the song has a wonderful climax when it comes to a temporary halt with “Hold me, hold me, hold me, hold me.” The instrumental backing is great, with a dominant piano and horns. This is your typical Motown group video – the classy dress; the stylish choreography; and the impressive harmonies.

This took place at the famous T.A.M.I show (for Teen Age Music International), a concert movie that was filmed in Santa Monica in October 1964. The producers assembled terrific talent from the U.S. and England. The dynamite lineup included the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, The Miracles, The Rolling Stones, and the Supremes. The backing band was the group of West Coast studio musicians called the Wrecking Crew, and it included future superstars Glen Campbell and Leon Russell.

You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me was released as a single in November 1962. Strangely, it was the “B” side of a record; but very rapidly, DJs simply flipped the record over. You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts and #1 on the R&B playlists. It has become a true classic: it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1988; it is one of the 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll list compiled by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and it has been “covered” 150 times by other artists.

Robinson continued as lead singer of The Miracles (later re-named Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) until 1972. He married Claudette Rogers, a member of the Miracles, in 1959. Smokey and Claudette Robinson later divorced after it was revealed that he had a son by another woman. In 2002, Smokey married Frances Gladney, his current wife.

With such a stellar career, Smokey Robinson has received nearly every honor in the music business. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. He was initially inducted as a solo artist, which caused considerable friction with his band-mates from The Miracles. However, in 2012 The Miracles were inducted as a group.

Smokey Robinson is an incredibly talented guy. Singing, song-writing, producing, administration – he excelled at all aspects of the music business. Along the way, it seems that he gained the respect and admiration of nearly everyone he worked with. We salute William “Smokey” Robinson.

The Beatles and You Really Got a Hold On Me:

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. Here we will give a brief review of the early 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.

Embed from Getty Images

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 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 group.

And what better songs to cover than those from Motown? So here are the Beatles playing You Really Got a Hold On Me.

Although this is a live performance, it is only the audio, I couldn’t find video of the Beatles performing this song. For a while during the fall of 1963, the Beatles regularly appeared on the BBC “Saturday Club” show. This clip is from that show on August 24, 1963.

John is featured in the lead for the tune, while George and Paul chime in on the harmony. As you can see, their time in Hamburg had turned the Beatles into a first-rate ensemble. At this time, “Beatlemania” was in full swing in the U.K., although the Beatles were essentially unknown in the States.

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, which would reveal their musical genius. George’s guitar playing would steadily evolve over the next few years. And Ringo was always the steady, always reliable drummer for the group.

We all know the rest of this story. For the next few years, the Beatles dominated the world of rock music. They were exceptionally prolific, churning out pop hits. Each of their record albums became more complex, as the Beatles’ music grew more sophisticated. It’s hard to believe that it has now been over 50 years since the recording of their last great album Abbey Road, followed by the group’s breakup.

What an incredible trip. I still remember vividly the thrill of the first time I heard the Beatles, and scores of their songs still bring great joy to me. All the best to Paul and Ringo, still performing today, and rest in peace John and George.

Phil Collins and You Really Got a Hold On Me:

Phil Collins is a singer-songwriter, producer and actor who has achieved success in music both with a band and later in a solo career. Collins was trained as an actor and had a fair amount of success as a child.  At age 12, Collins was cast as the Artful Dodger in a London production of the musical Oliver!

However, from an early age he was fascinated by drumming. His big heroes were Ringo Starr of the Beatles, and big-band drummer Buddy Rich.  In 1970, Phil Collins was hired by the art-rock group Genesis to replace their departed drummer. For the next five years, Collins provided percussion and backup vocals for Genesis.

Below is a photo of the group Genesis. From L: keyboardist Tony Banks; drummer and backup vocalist Phil Collins; bassist Mike Rutherford; guitarist Steve Hackett; lead vocalist Peter Gabriel.

Embed from Getty Images

In 1975 the group’s leader and lead vocalist Peter Gabriel left the group. Many believed that Genesis would not survive Gabriel’s departure, primarily because Gabriel was a visionary musician who appeared to have single-handedly determined the band’s direction and musical tastes.

At that time, the remaining Genesis members embarked on a long and fruitless search for Gabriel’s replacement. In the end, following 400 unsuccessful auditions for a vocalist, the band decided to promote Collins to lead singer. The group then made a transition
from their progressive rock roots and towards a more accessible, radio-friendly pop-rock sound.
Here is a photo of Phil Collins during his days as a solo artist.

Drummer and vocalist Phil Collins, from his period as a solo artist.

Much to the surprise of the critics, the new stripped-down trio Genesis went on to unprecedented commercial success. They produced best-selling single records and albums, and became regulars in the Top 40 pop charts.

Phil Collins subsequently began a solo career, and for several years would alternate between fronting for Genesis and releasing his own albums. Instrumentally, Collins was noted for his use of “gated reverb” technique, which made his drum solos sound as though they were emerging from a gigantic echo chamber. His drum work was certainly distinctive, and you could instantly pick out a Genesis song from its drumming.

Phil Collins has always had a love for Motown and soul music. In 1982 he released a cover of the Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love which reached #1 in the U.K. and #10 in the U.S.

Here is live video of Phil Collins singing You Really Got a Hold On Me.

This is from a Phil Collins concert of Motown and soul standards at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom in June 2010. He really enjoys the Motown hits – he obviously has a fondness for them, and does a good job on the vocals and the arrangement, with a very fine group of backup singers.

Since his days as a drummer with Genesis, Phil Collins has enjoyed a phenomenal career. He has sold more than 150 million records, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 (as a member of Genesis), and he is regularly rated one of the top all-time rock drummers.

It is interesting that, despite all his commercial and musical achievements, Phil Collins has more than his share of critics. In part, this may be a backlash from the great commercial success enjoyed by Genesis once he became their lead singer. However, that probably does not explain why many people consider Phil Collins
“the most hated man in rock” [the UK’s Daily Telegraph], and [by FHM ] as “the pop star that nobody likes”.

Part of the criticism directed towards Collins is the notion that he has right-wing political leanings. Collins was quoted as saying that he would leave England if the Labour Party won the 1992 British elections. Labour won, and Collins moved to Switzerland.

However, Collins insists that he was never a Conservative Party supporter, and he swears that his only reason for moving to Switzerland was because of his relationship with a woman who lived there.

In addition, Collins has had bitter public arguments with several noted British musicians, including Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (probably not a smart move to get on the wrong side of Page), and Oasis frontmen Noel and Liam Gallagher.

I don’t know that much about Phil Collins, so I can’t ascertain why many people seem to dislike him. Anyway, a number of his Genesis and solo tunes are quite impressive, so we wish him well.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me
Wikipedia, The Miracles
Wikipedia, Smokey Robinson
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Phil Cpllins

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

Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me): The Temptations; The Rolling Stones; Boyz II Men

Hello there! This week our blog features a great R&B tune from the early 70s, Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). We will begin with the original version by The Temptations. Next, we will review a cover by The Rolling Stones, and finally a cover by Boyz II Men.

It is April 2020, and the world is in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of thousands of people and upended the lives of everyone else. We dedicate this post to all of the front-line medical personnel who put their lives on the line to save the rest of us.

The Temptations and Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me):

The Temptations were one of the greatest R&B music groups. They were formed in 1960 from members of two Detroit-area doo-wop groups. Otis Williams, Al Bryant and Melvin Franklin of The Distants joined up with Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams from The Primes.

The Temptations bounced around the Detroit area for a while, gaining a reputation for their sharp harmonies, until in 1961 they were signed by Berry Gordy.

Berry Gordy ran Motown Studios essentially as a record-producing assembly line. The songwriters generally worked in their own area, separate from the musicians. Songs were written and musical productions were sketched out; then it was common for songs to be reviewed and re-worked, sometimes for long periods of time, before the product was deemed ready for the market.

Below is a photo of the Temptations backstage at New York’s Apollo Theater in 1964. Clockwise from lower L: Paul Williams; Melvin Franklin; Cornelius Grant (their music director); Otis Williams; David Ruffin; and Eddie Kendricks.

Embed from Getty Images

Smokey Robinson wrote My Girl for the Temptations, and it became a smash hit, as well as one of the Temps’ signature tunes. As a result, Smokey began producing songs for the Temps. However, Motown was an extremely competitive environment, with artists and song-writers vying with one another to score the biggest hits. The young upstart songwriter and producer Norman Whitfield coveted Smokey Robinson’s position as the Temptations’ producer.

Below is a photo of Norman Whitfield from about 1970.

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Eventually, Berry Gordy, Jr replaced Smokey Robinson with Norman Whitfield as the Temptations’ lead producer. This shows the incredibly competitive and cutthroat atmosphere at Motown. Although Smokey Robinson was a legend in the music business, and besides was Berry Gordy’s best friend, Gordy didn’t hesitate to replace him as soon as one of his songs faltered.

The song Just My Imagination has an interesting history. Norman Whitfield wrote the song in 1969, but shelved it while he pushed the Temps into psychedelic soul. Whitfield had been impressed by artists such as Sly and the Family Stone, and he produced a number of songs in this genre, such as Cloud Nine and Ball of Confusion.

However, in 1971 one of Whitfield’s psychedelic songs bombed, so he decided it was time to return the Temptations to their earlier ballads. Besides, several of the Temptations were fond of their earlier style, as were many of their fans.

Working with lyricist Barrett Strong, Whitfield produced a strange and moving tune. The singer recounts what initially appears to be an idyllic relationship with a woman.

Each day through my window I watch her as she passes by
I say to myself you’re such a lucky guy,
To have a girl like her is truly a dream come true
out of all the fellows in the world she belongs to me.

But it was just my imagination once again runnin’ away with me.
It was just my imagination runnin’ away with me. Oo

Soon we’ll be married and raise a family (Oh yeah)
A cozy little home out in the country with two children maybe three.
I tell you I can visualize it all
this couldn’t be a dream for too real it all seems;

But it was just my imagination once again runnin’ way with me.
Tell you it was just my imagination runnin’ away with me.

Yet as the song goes on, it becomes apparent that this is simply a dream. The singer is sufficiently self-aware to realize that the relationship does not exist (“in reality, she doesn’t even know me”), yet he can’t help but continue his fantasies.

Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) was one of the songs on the Temptations 1971 album, Sky’s The Limit. Released as a single, it shot up to #1 on the the Billboard Hot 100 chart and also the R&B playlists. As a shout-out to the Temps’ earlier ballads, this song was a great success and became another of the group’s signature songs.

So here are the Temptations in a “live” version of Just My Imagination.

Well, the Temps are just lip-synching this song, but you can appreciate both their beautiful close harmonies and the lush arrangement, with a full orchestra featuring strings and a French horn. In addition, it was backed up by the Motown house band the Funk Brothers.

And now here are the Temptations live, singing a medley of Just My Imagination and Papa Was A Rolling Stone.

This took place on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in 1972. This was an American TV show that featured live performances. It ran for nine years and showcased a tremendous number of the top acts of the 70s.

Isn’t this great? You get both the terrific harmonizing from the Temps, and on “Papa” you also see the choreographed dance moves for which all Motown acts were famous.

Unfortunately, Just My Imagination marked the final performances by two of the original Temptations, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. Kendricks, the lead soloist on Just My Imagination, had become increasingly frustrated with the Temptations.

Kendricks was originally the lead on most early Temptations songs. However, after David Ruffin sang lead on their biggest hit, My Girl, Ruffin replaced Kendricks. And after Ruffin was fired from the group, Ruffin convinced Kendricks that his contributions to the Temptations were under-appreciated. As a result, Kendricks left the group to pursue a solo career.

Paul Williams was a different story. He suffered from sickle-cell anemia, and in the late 60s developed a serious problem with alcohol. The combination of the two, compounded by his refusal to see a doctor, was devastating for both his overall health and his voice.

For a while, on live concerts the Temptations brought in an extra singer, who would sing Paul’s parts from behind a screen. However, eventually the decline in Paul’s health was so severe that he was forced to leave the group in 1971. In 1973, he was found dead in his car, a death that was ruled a suicide.

The Temps have had very few hits since the late 1970s. However, even in 2020 they continue to tour with only one original member, Otis Williams. But what a great group they were! A slew of memorable hits; a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award; induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.

The Temptations have several songs on my list of personal favorites. What a terrific musical group, one of the greatest from the stable of Motown stars.

The Rolling Stones and Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me):

The Rolling Stones are one of the greatest rock groups of all time. They have produced an astounding number of hits and, believe it or not, are still touring even in 2020, with most of their original lineup still intact.

Below is a group of very young Rolling Stones wearing matching leather vests. From L: Charlie Watts; Bill Wyman; Mick Jagger; Brian Jones; Keith Richards.

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The Rolling Stones first formed in the early 60’s, when Brian Jones and pianist Ian Stewart joined forces with singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. They began their career as leaders of a British blues revival, covering American blues standards by artists such as Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. After a short period they added bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts.

The Stones have been prolific, long-lived and exceptionally creative. Original member Ian Stewart was jettisoned in 1963, and Brian Jones was forced out in 1969 and died shortly afterwards; however, the remaining four Stones continued on until Wyman left the group in 1993; and Jagger, Richards and Watts still play with The Stones today.

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger have written songs for the group since the mid-60s. However, at regular intervals the Stones throw in covers of their favorite blues classics and R&B songs. And the Stones are extremely fond of the Temptations. In 1974, they released a version of the Temptations’ Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.

Then in 1978, the Stones included Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me) on their Some Girls album. Just My Imagination was the only cover on that album, while all the remaining songs were new Jagger-Richards material.

Some Girls was the first album that included Ronnie Wood as a member of the Stones. Wood had appeared on some earlier songs as a guest artist, but this was his debut as a full-fledged member of the band. It’s hard to imagine that he has now been with the band for over 40 years!

Here are the Rolling Stones with a live version of Just My Imagination.

This took place in Tempe, Arizona during the 1981 Stones American Tour. The tour was the subject of a film Let’s Spend The Night Together, directed by Hal Ashby. The Stones turn this sweet ballad into a more hard-edged song. Mick Jagger had learned to play the guitar recently, so they play this as a three-guitar rocking song.

On the chorus Keith and Ronnie join Mick, and they are backed up by a saxophone solo while Mick gyrates across the stage. As you can see, Sun Devil Stadium is packed to the gills, and the audience is very appreciative.

It’s hard to imagine that the Rolling Stones are still touring, nearly 60 years after the band formed. Apparently Keith Richards is now having significant problems with arthritis, and in 2019 Mick Jagger had a transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

Despite these recent health issues, the Stones have proved to be one of the greatest and most durable rock music acts of all time. So, they have our approval to do whatever the hell they desire – they’ve earned it.

Boyz II Men and Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me):

Boyz II Men is a quartet from the Philadelphia area that achieved tremendous commercial success in the 1990s. Baritone Nathan Morris joined up with tenors Wanya Morris (no relation) and Shawn Stockman and bass Michael McCary. They were all students at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Below is a photo of Boyz II Men circa 1991.

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They were inspired by the group New Edition, and their name Boyz II Men derives from the title of a New Edition song. The group got their first big break when they managed to meet New Edition member Michael Bivins and perform for him.

Bivins was sufficiently impressed that he agreed to manage and produce the group. The boyz worked out a signature style that incorporated elements of old-fashioned soul music with hip-hop; Bivins called their sound “hip-hop doo-wop.”

Boyz II Men made a tremendous splash with their first album, the 1991 Cooleyhighharmony. That album sold 9 million copies in the U.S. and won a Grammy Award. One of the hallmarks of the group is that every member of the quartet sings lead on some songs. And on other songs, each of the members will sing lead on one verse.

The song Just My Imagination was part of a 2007 Boyz II Men album titled Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA. Clearly, this was a concept album saluting several of the great Motown artists. In addition to the Temptations, this album featured covers of songs by the Four Tops, the Miracles, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

So here are Boyz II Men in a live performance of Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).

Although I am not blown away by their voices (especially when compared to the greatest Motown groups), Boyz II Men had great taste in the songs that they included. I especially liked their choreography, a shout-out to some of the Temps’ signature moves. Also, the album was a success, peaking at #6 on the Billboard R&B album charts.

Well, Boyz II Men tended to dominate the pop charts in the 90s. One of their songs is tied for the longest consecutive time at #1 on the Billboard pop charts (16 weeks). And Billboard magazine has ranked Boyz II Men as the #1 boy band during the period 1987 – 2012.

While Boyz II Men were originally managed by Michael Bivins, in 1993 the group parted ways with Bivins. They then entered a period where several of their hits were written and produced by Indiana native Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.

In 2003, the group’s bass singer Michael McCary retired from the group due to his issues with multiple sclerosis. Following that time, Boyz II Men has continued as a trio.

Beginning in 2013, Boyz II Men announced that they would no longer tour, but they began performing shows in long residencies at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas. The group continues to perform at that venue. And they even played an Asian tour in winter 2019.

One has to be impressed at the long-term commercial success of this group. Boyz II Men joins elite company in terms of the number of consecutive weeks that their singles were ranked #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Only Elvis, the Beatles and Mariah Carey had “#1” streaks that lasted longer than this group.

So, we congratulate Nathan, Wanya and Shawn on their success and their longevity.

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