Working My Way Back To You: The Four Seasons; The Spinners; Boyzone

Hello there! This week our blog features a catchy pop tune, Working My Way Back To You. We will first discuss the original version by The Four Seasons. Next, we will review a cover by The Spinners and then a version by Boyzone.

The Four Seasons and Working My Way Back To You:

Nearly every rock ‘n roll group goes through a change of name, or shuffles its lineup from time to time. However, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons may have set a record for the sheer number of name changes.

First of all, Francesco Stephen Castelluccio initially began performing under the stage name Frankie Valley, and then adopted the name Frankie Tyler before settling on Frankie Valli. In 1953, at age 19, Frankie formed a band called The Variatones; then in 1956 they changed to The Four Lovers.

Between 1956 and 1958 Frankie and his bandmates performed under 18 (!!) different band names. However, in 1959 the band settled into its “classic” lineup – Frankie Valli on lead vocals, backed up by keyboardist Bob Gaudio, bassist Nick Massi and guitarist Tommy DeVito.

Here is a publicity shot of The Four Seasons, from L: Bob Gaudio; Tommy DeVito; Nick Massi; Frankie Valli.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, circa 1963.

DeVito’s friend, actor Joe Pesci, had introduced him and Valli to Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was 15 when he joined the group, after leaving the one-hit wonders The Royal Teens, for whom he wrote their smash novelty hit “Short Shorts.”  The other two band members had checkered pasts. Tommy DeVito had been in and out of prison several times, and Nick Massi had also spent time behind bars. Frankie and Tommy were also friends with mobster “Gyp” DeCarlo, who owned several of the Jersey bars where the Four Seasons performed.  All of these details were carefully covered up while the band was hot.

The band eventually chose their final name in 1960, after they failed an audition to perform at a lounge in a New Jersey bowling alley. The name of that establishment? The Four Seasons.

In 1961 Gaudio wrote a song for the Four Seasons called “Sherry.” The band’s producer Bob Crewe recorded it and shopped it around to various record companies. Eventually the group signed with Vee-Jay Records, where The Four Seasons had the distinction of being the first white group signed by the Vee-Jay label.

Vee-Jay released Sherry, and it shot straight to the top of the Billboard charts. This began a remarkable string of hits by the Four Seasons, most of which were co-written by Crewe and Gaudio. They followed up with songs such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, and Candy Girl.

The Four Seasons developed a signature sound and almost never deviated from their winning formula. The close verbal harmonies from the Four Seasons were backed by Frankie Valli’s soaring falsetto lead vocals. Gaudio on keyboards, Massi on bass and DeVito on guitar were often supplemented by horn sections.

The band was doing great until Vee-Jay Records ran into a bizarre problem. For a couple of years, that label had been releasing American copies of records by an obscure British band, The Beatles. When the Beatles suddenly became international stars, Vee-Jay struggled to keep up with the demand.

Eventually the Beatles cancelled their contract with Vee-Jay; however, for another year the company continued to release Beatles records, until they were sued and eventually shut down. The Four Seasons then left Vee-Jay for Philips Records.

For a few years, the Four Seasons were second only to the Beach Boys in record sales by an American group. The Four Seasons was also one of the few American bands that were able to weather the British Invasion without getting wiped out.

Working My Way Back To You, written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, was released in 1966 and reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. The song describes a man who initially treated his lover unkindly. However, now that she has gone, he is determined to repent and regain his lost love.

[CHORUS] Workin’ my way back to you, babe
With a burnin’ love inside
Yeah, I’m workin’ my way back to you, babe
And the happiness that died
I let it get away
Paying every day

When you were so in love with me
I played around like I was free
Thought I could have my cake and eat it, too
But how I cried over losin’ you

See me down and out
But I ain’t about to go livin’ my life without you
For every day I made you cry
I’m payin’, girl, till the day that I die.

Here are The Four Seasons in a “live” performance of Working My Way Back To You.

Although this is advertised as a live performance, it appears to be lip-synched. I don’t believe that the close harmonies of the Four Seasons could be reproduced this well in a live performance. Furthermore, there is no sign of the horn section that features significantly in this tune.

But what the heck, we can enjoy Frankie Valli’s trademark falsetto soaring over the top of the signature close harmonies of the Four Seasons. As we will see, the Four Seasons’ version of Working My Way Back to You is somewhat slower and more stately than the cover version by The Spinners.

By the end of the 60s, the hits had dried up for the group; in 1970 they changed their name to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, in recognition of Frankie’s pre-eminence in producing the group’s sound. However, after several lean years, the group would later score a few more big hits.

The first of these was the 1976 tune December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night), which shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Then in 1978, Frankie Valli had a #1 hit with the title song to the musical Grease. After that, the group released a few “greatest hits” compilations that were best-sellers.

But the group would have one last moment of fame. The musical Jersey Boys, a bio-pic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, became a Broadway smash and later was turned into a hit movie, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Frankie Valli is still performing today, although his former bandmates appear to have retired. We salute the Four Seasons – they developed a signature style featuring Frankie Valli’s remarkable falsetto vocals, and churned out a string of hits over a couple of decades.  We are delighted that they would keep on keepin’ on, even after the Four Seasons bowling alley turned them down back in 1960.

The Spinners and Working My Way Back To You:

The Spinners (also known as the Detroit Spinners or the Motown Spinners) were an R&B group that formed in Ferndale, MI in 1954. They originally met as they all lived in Detroit’s Herman Gardens public housing project.

The group was originally produced by Harvey Fuqua. They had one top-25 hit in 1961 on Fuqua’s Tri-Phi Records, but were not able to repeat their success. So Fuqua passed the group on to his brother-in-law Berry Gordy, Jr, who signed them to Motown. Here is a publicity photo of the Spinners from around 1970.

Atlantic Records artists The Spinners. image: Getty Images.

The Spinners had only limited commercial success with Motown, so Berry Gordy had the boys perform various jobs for his record label.  The Spinners really earned their salaries, taking on tasks that included shipping clerks, chauffeurs, and road managers. Eventually Aretha Franklin recommended that the group sign with Atlantic Records.

In the 1970s, the Spinners hit the jackpot at Atlantic, working with producer Thom Bell. The group’s 1973 album Spinners spawned at least 3 chart-busters, beginning with the song I’ll Be Around, that reached #3 on the Billboard Top 100 songs.

And a single from their next album, a collaboration with Dionne Warwick called Then Came You, hit #1 on the Billboard playlists. This sustained success put the Spinners in the company of such great R&B ensembles as The Temptations and The Four Tops.

The Spinners were unusual in that three of their members, Bobby Smith, Henry Fambrough and Philippe Wynne, each sang lead on some of the group’s hit songs. The Spinners appeared in the 1979 movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, playing an R&B band. The movie was a stinker, but the film’s soundtrack was a successful album.

The song Working My Way Back to You (combined with Forgive Me, Girl) was one of the last big hits for the Spinners. It was released in 1979 and in spring 1980 it hit #2 on the charts, just behind Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

Here is the audio of the Spinners record, Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl.

You can see the influence of disco here, with the pulsating, insistent drum beat. It is backed by the terrific harmonies of the Spinners, fronted here by Jonathan Edwards on lead vocals (and also featuring the sonorous bass voice of Pervis Jackson). Isn’t this an infectious song?

So here are The Spinners in a live version of Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me, Girl. This is from a concert in Waukesha, WI in July of 2014.

It’s great to see the band in live performance. We get the Motown-inspired choreographed dance moves, paired with the impressive vocal harmonies.  At the 2:30 mark, the group shifts to Forgive Me, Girl for a minute before a segue back to Working My Way Back to You.

By this time, all of the original singers from The Spinners had passed away, except for Henry Fambrough. It’s hard to believe, but the Spinners are still touring, even 65 years after their formation! They are extremely popular at ‘oldies’ concerts, and it’s still great to see the ensemble singing their great old hits — they can still bring it!

The Spinners have been nominated as finalists for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times – in 2011, 2014 and 2015. They have been unsuccessful every time.  But we are rooting for the boys, and hope they get inducted as they richly deserve.

Boyzone and Working My Way Back To You:

Boyzone was an Irish boy band that found success in Ireland and the U.K. During their heyday they placed over 20 songs in both the U.K. and Irish pop charts, with 6 singles reaching #1 in the U.K. and 9 in Ireland. As we have seen for several other performers, they became a really big group in the U.K. (they were the 2nd biggest boy band ever in the U.K.), while remaining virtually unknown in the U.S.

All boy bands are “synthetic;” they are assembled by an impresario who carefully plans their every song, harmony and dance move. In this case the entrepreneur was Louis Walsh, who placed an ad in Irish newspapers for young men interested in forming a vocal group.

The 300 applicants were recorded singing a particular tune, and then Walsh and his associates interviewed 10 finalists. After a bit of shuffling of personnel, the group settled on a quintet consisting of Stephen Gately, Keith Duffy, Shane Lynch, Ronan Keating and Mikey Graham. Below is a photo of Boyzone.

The Irish 90s boy band Boyzone.

Boyzone then followed the classic “boy band” routine. They were rehearsed and  meticulously orchestrated, and then given a number of songs to cover. The group’s first hit was their 1994 cover of Working My Way Back to You by the Four Seasons.

So here is Boyzone and the music video for the song Working My Way Back to You.

This song features Stephen Gately on lead vocals. It was filmed at Digges Lane Dance Studios.  The video features the boys rehearsing their dance steps, spliced together with insertions of some impressive moves.

This tune reached #3 on the British pop charts. At this point, Boyzone was on their way. They became teen idols in Ireland and the U.K., and continued to find success in both record sales and European tours. After a few years in the spotlight, Ronan Keating began to write original songs for Boyzone.

For a few more years, Boyzone continued their run of success. Meat Loaf covered one of Keating’s tunes, and tenor Luciano Pavarotti joined the boys in an Italian tour. After that, the results were predictable. Creative differences arose between members of the group. Ronan Keating began issuing solo records.

In 1999, the band announced that they were “taking a break to pursue solo projects.” Then in 2008, Boyzone re-united and toured during 2008 and 2009. However, in Oct. 2009 Stephen Gately died suddenly in Majorca.

Following Gately’s death, the remaining four Boyzone members have reunited for a few more tours and a couple of albums. They continued to have remarkable success in Ireland, the U.K. and Europe, although they never made a dent in the American market.

I never fail to marvel at the success of the “boy band” concept. These groups invariably follow the same playbook – an ad for male singers in a trade magazine, followed by auditions, then a choice of band members (using exactly the same “cookie cutter” method for selecting various desired characteristics – a hunky bass, a couple of teen idols, a rebel, a nerd, all pretty good dancers), and endless coaching on vocal styles, ensemble dancing, and charisma. Then a record release accompanied by breathless publicity, young teen girls screaming at their performances, and establishment as teen idols.

It is remarkable how many times this hackneyed formula has worked. In some cases the Svengali entrepreneur has formed a second or even third boy band using exactly the same formula. In a few instances I enjoy the songs, even though it is easy to see the hand of the puppet-master behind the product.

Oh well, Boyzone had a successful run, they are decent singers, and the four surviving members continue to perform today. We wish them all the best.

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Got To Get You Into My Life: The Beatles (Paul McCartney); Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers; Earth, Wind & Fire

Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific pop tune, Got To Get You Into My Life. We will first discuss the original version by the Beatles, with a focus on Paul McCartney who wrote the song. Next, we will review a cover by Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers, and finally a cover by Earth Wind & Fire.

The Beatles (Paul McCartney) and Got To Get You Into My Life:

The song Got To Get You Into My Life was written by Paul McCartney early in 1966.

The photo below shows the Beatles, from L: John, Paul, Ringo and George. They are posing outside their manager Brian Epstein’s house prior to the launch of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in 1967.

Embed from Getty Images

The song Got To Get You Into My Life clearly describes a person who is longing for someone, or something. The singer describes a definite infatuation, “did I tell you I need you every single day of my life.”

I was alone, I took a ride
I didn’t know what I would find there
Another road where maybe I
Could see another kind of mind there

Ooh, then I suddenly see you
Ooh, did I tell you I need you
Every single day of my life

You didn’t run, you didn’t hide
And had you gone, you knew in time
We’d meet again for I had told you

Ooh, you were meant to be near me
Ooh, and I want you to hear me
Say we’ll be together every day
Got to get you into my life

Paul McCartney has now told us the object of his desire in this tune – it is cannabis. Yes that’s right: it is marijuana, Mary Jane, hashish, pot, reefer, doobie, Acapulco Gold, Panama Red. At this point in time (spring 1966), Paul was indeed infatuated with marijuana, and wrote this tune as a tribute to the medicinal herb. Paul compared writing a song in praise of pot to
an ode to chocolate, or to a good claret.

One tipoff that the song might be about pot is that the lyrics appear to describe a psychedelic experience. A bit of trivia – it was Bob Dylan who first introduced the Beatles to pot, in August 1964 when the Fab Four were staying at the Delmonico Hotel in Manhattan. Dylan came over to visit with the group, brought some marijuana with him, and shared it with the Beatles.

Here is the audio of Got To Get You Into My Life. The song first appeared on the Beatles’ 1966 album Revolver.

As you can see, this is the first Beatles song that utilized a horn section. Apparently the goal was to produce a sound that was reminiscent of the Memphis Horns, the terrific horn section heard in so many songs produced by Stax Records. Here, the brass section is truly dominant throughout the tune.

Got To Get You Into My Life was not immediately released as a single. In fact, it was not until 1976, six years after the Beatles broke up, that the tune was included in the 1976 Beatles compilation Rock and Roll Music. At that time, it was released as a single and climbed to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

Now, try to imagine Got To Get You Into My Life without any horns. Impossible, right? Well, the initial studio version of this song not only had no horns, but featured acoustic guitar, harmonium (a pump organ) and an a capella section with Paul, John and George. Author Robert Rodriguez described the initial version of this song as
“more Haight-Ashbury than Memphis.”
Say what? Try as I might, I can’t picture this tune without the brass accompaniment.

It took an unusually long time to record Got To Get You Into My Life (about 3 months), mainly because Paul struggled to craft a successful accompaniment for the song. In February 1966, Paul had seen Stevie Wonder perform in London, and was very impressed with the Motown sound, so this may have also influenced his decision to include horns on this tune. The studio horn players were members of the group Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames.

Once they settled on the horn section, the final version of the song was recorded relatively quickly. Apparently preliminary recordings of this song had the other Beatles contributing background vocals, but these were dropped for the final version.

Revolver was the Beatles album that preceded their 1967 Sgt. Pepper record. It marked a dramatic leap forward for the Beatles in the incorporation of psychedelic music, and the use of several ingenious innovations in recording techniques. Revolver includes a mind-blowing array of musical styles, from tunes reminiscent of the Beatles’ earliest pop songs to songs inspired by Indian ragas [note: the “autocorrect” on my computer changed this to ‘Indiana ragas’]. Nowadays, many people argue that this is the finest Beatles album.

Here is Paul McCartney in a live version of Got To Get You Into My Life.

This is a ton of fun. Here, Paul gets to use his “R&B voice,” which he copied from Little Richard. In addition to the great brass part, the exuberant drums play a major role in creating the environment for the song, together with an insistent tambourine. The audience really loves the song, as they should. This is just one of the many absolutely spectacular Beatles songs that we are so fortunate to have.

Cliff Bennett & the Rebel Rousers and Got To Get You Into My Life:

Cliff Bennett was a British rhythm & blues performer, who was born in 1940 in Slough, England. In 1957 Bennett assembled a band called the Rebel Rousers. The group recorded a few singles with their producer but got very little traction.

Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, from 1964.

That all changed in 1964 when Brian Epstein, the manager for the Beatles, became the manager for their band. Their next single was One Way Love, written by Bert Berns and Jerry Ragovoy under their pseudonyms Bert Russell and Norman Meade. That song went to #9 on the British pop charts and established the Rebel Rousers as a group to watch.

Jerry Ragovoy wrote a number of pop hits including Time Is On My Side, which was a big hit for the Rolling Stones. Bert Berns was an acclaimed songwriter and producer, who wrote Twist and Shout. Berns and Ragovoy collaborated on Piece of My Heart, which became a bit hit for Janis Joplin.

In 1966 Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers opened for The Beatles on their final European tour. On that tour, Bennett heard the Beatles’ song Got To Get You Into My Life, which would be included on the Beatles’ album Revolver. Bennett then recorded a cover of that song, with Paul McCartney as the producer for that recording session.

Since the Beatles did not release Got To Get You Into My Life as a single until 1976, technically Cliff Bennett’s version was the first single release of that tune. It rose to #6 on the British pop charts and was the highest-charting single ever for the Rebel Rousers.

So here are Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers in a live performance of Got To Get You Into My Life.

This is from the German pop music TV show Beat Club. The Rebel Rousers’ cover is very close to the Beatles’ original arrangement. Cliff Bennett has a decent singing voice and the horn section is quite enjoyable.

This song marked the pinnacle for Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers, and after that it was downhill. Various of the members of the Rebel Rousers would go on to other groups; for example, keyboardist Chas Hodges and drummer Mick Burt ended up with the band Chas & Dave. Bennett himself was asked to join the heavy-metal band Uriah Heep but turned it down; he was also asked to be lead vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears after David Clayton-Thomas left, but again Bennett declined the offer.

Eventually Bennett left the music business altogether and went into the shipping industry. This was a good career move, as he made a ton of money. However, when the Rebel Rousers were re-formed in 1988, Cliff re-upped as their lead vocalist. Bennett is still performing, so he may turn up on the bill opening for a “60s revival” show. We wish Bennett and his remaining Rebel Rousers all the best.

Earth Wind & Fire and Got To Get You Into My Life:

Earth, Wind & Fire (or EWF) are an American band that spans a wide range of genres – from R&B, soul and funk to disco, Latin and Afro pop. The group was originally assembled in 1969 by Maurice White, who had been a member of the jazz group Ramsey Lewis Trio and was also a session drummer for Chess Records.

After Maurice moved to LA, he recruited his younger brother Verdine White as the bassist and assembled a ten-man band. However, after releasing a couple of albums, the group disbanded, whereupon Maurice and Verdine assembled a second group. They were named Earth, Wind & Fire on the basis of some astrological mumbo-jumbo.

Music executive Clive Davis was impressed by EWF and signed them to Columbia Records. The group achieved its first big breakthrough when their 1973 album, Head To The Sky, made it to #2 on the Billboard Top Soul Albums charts. The band’s next album hit #1 on the Soul Albums playlists, and three songs from that album placed in both the Billboard Soul and Hot 100 singles charts.

The soul ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire.

Earth, Wind & Fire combined technical mastery with a high degree of creativity, and rapidly became superstars. Rolling Stone magazine has characterized the group as
“innovative, precise yet sensual, calculated yet galvanizing” and declared that the band “changed the sound of black pop.”

EWF featured a large horn section, and many songs included the kalimba (an African instrument resembling the xylophone). Maurice White was responsible for introducing the kalimba into the EWF sound. Vocalist Philip Bailey saluted their musical heritage, describing the group as
“jazz musicians at heart playing popular music.”

So here is Earth, Wind & Fire in a live performance of Got To Get You Into My Life.

In my opinion, this is one of the best covers I have heard. The Earth, Wind & Fire vocalists give a cool, jazz-inspired rendition that is truly soulful. They are backed up beautifully by an instrumental accompaniment that features brass and saxophone, with a mellow trombone. Their sound is reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s original but at the same time is wonderfully creative. It also features some short but exceptional guitar licks. Bravo!

No wonder the EWF cover went to #1 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles charts in summer 1978, and to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles lists. The song was critically acclaimed, and it won a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists.

Earth, Wind & Fire appeared in the 1978 movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, where they played their version of Got To Get You Into My Life. That movie, featuring the Bee Gees as members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears, received vicious reviews when it opened. The movie sank like a stone, taking with it millions of dollars in production costs and several reputations. However, the soundtrack to the movie was considerably more successful, and the EWF cover of Got To Get You Into My Life was the highest-rated single from that stinker of a film.

Up to now, EWF has sold over 90 million records and garnered a slew of awards and honors, including 6 Grammy Awards and 4 American Music Awards. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003, and they received the Legend Award at the 2011 Soul Train awards show. EWF made White House appearances under the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

In addition to his leadership of EWF, Maurice White was also a highly successful producer. He produced albums for such artists as Ramsey Lewis, DeNeice Williams, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.

Maurice cut back on touring in 1999, when it was announced that he was dealing with Parkinson’s disease. For several years, his condition was sufficiently mild that he made occasional appearances with the band, and he continued with his songwriting and producing.

In February 2016, Maurice White died from complications of Parkinson’s disease. However, a revamped Earth, Wind & Fire continues to perform occasionally. What a dynamite group! Over a 50-year period, EWF has maintained an extremely high level of professionalism, coupled with great creativity that ranged over an astonishing range of musical styles. Hats off to the surviving members of this band.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Got To Get You Into My Life
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, Paul McCartney
Wikipedia, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers
Wikipedia, Earth, Wind & Fire
Wikipedia, Maurice White
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Earth, Wind & Fire bio

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

Ripple: The Grateful Dead (lyrics by Robert Hunter); New Riders of the Purple Sage; Playing For Change.

Hello there! This week our blog features a lovely folk-rock tune, Ripple. We will first discuss the original version by the Grateful Dead, with a special appreciation to their lyricist Robert Hunter. Next, we will review a cover by New Riders of the Purple Sage. We will conclude by screening a cover from a world-wide organization called Playing for Change.

The Grateful Dead and Ripple:

The Grateful Dead are a Bay Area band that eventually became a legendary ensemble. In the mid-60s, the band coalesced from a number of musicians who had played folk music with groups such as Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions. Originally they were known as The Warlocks, but the band changed its name after discovering that an East Coast group had also adopted it.

Below is a photo of an early Grateful Dead performance, from Aug. 1967 in Ann Arbor, MI. From L: Pigpen McKernan, Bill Kreutzmann, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir.

Embed from Getty Images

In December 1965, more or less immediately after they adopted The Grateful Dead as their new name, the group began performing at psychedelic fairs on the West Coast. At first, the Dead were notable residents of the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco, until the atmosphere in that area became more of a hassle, at which time the group members relocated to Marin County.

Early on, the Dead teamed up with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who took their bus “Furthur,” their music and their LSD-manufacturing operation all across the U.S. Along the way, the Dead took part in both the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969.

The psychedelic painted bus “Furthur,” used by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

For most bands, the litmus test of success was producing single records that cracked the Billboard Top 40 pop charts. The Grateful Dead only placed one song in the top 50, and that was late in the band’s career. However, that didn’t stop the Dead from selling over 35 million albums and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

The Grateful Dead’s leader and frontman was lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, who shared lead vocal duties with fellow founding member Bob Weir. Garcia was also an excellent banjo and steel guitar player, and from time to time in his early career moonlighted on those instruments with various West Coast folk and bluegrass combos.

In this post we feature the long-time collaboration between the Grateful Dead, mainly Jerry Garcia, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Below is a photo of Hunter (L) and Garcia.

Robert Hunter (L) and Jerry Garcia January, 1991.

Garcia and Hunter met in 1961, and for a short period they played as a duo in coffee houses around Palo Alto. However, Garcia’s musical talents quickly outstripped Hunter’s, so Robert decided to concentrate on writing. Shortly after the Dead formed in 1965, Garcia and Hunter began a collaboration that lasted until Garcia’s death in 1995. Hunter would write the lyrics while Garcia supplied the melody.

In a recent NY Times column, Jennifer Finley Boylan points out that Hunter wrote the song Ripple while staying in a London hotel in 1970. Amazingly, Hunter wrote the lyrics for two more Grateful Dead classics on that same day – Brokedown Palace and To Lay Me Down.

The song Ripple is a poetic monologue where the singer muses about the song, life in general, and an inability to help his lover find a path forward.

If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine
And my tunes were played on the harp unstrung
Would you hear my voice come through the music
Would you hold it near as it were your own?

It’s a hand-me-down, the thoughts are broken
Perhaps they’re better left unsung
I don’t know, don’t really care
Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men

So here is the Grateful Dead in a live performance of Ripple. This took place at Radio City Music Hall on Hallowe’en, 1980.

Isn’t this lovely? Robert Hunter’s beautiful words plus Jerry Garcia’s melody make for an irresistible combination. I find some of the Ripple lyrics deeply moving, including “Let it be known there is a fountain that was not made by the hands of men,” (this was Hunter’s favorite line from any of his songs) and of course the concluding line “If I knew the way, I would take you home.”

The audience breaks out in applause as they recognize the first chords. Jerry’s vocals start out softly, even halting, but he picks up steam as the song progresses. In this performance, keyboards substitute for the lovely, lilting mandolin that accompanies the album release of this tune. Following the final line, the song ends with a hummed “da da da da,” sung enthusiastically by the crowd of Deadheads, who break out in thunderous applause at the end. This is appropriate for a tune that has been called the `Hippie National Anthem.’

Hunter’s lyrics are sometimes puzzling, and (like Bob Dylan) he refused to ‘explain’ the meaning behind his words.  Fair enough: we should simply take his lyrics as written, and see if they move us.

Over a 40-year stretch, Robert Hunter wrote scores of songs for the Grateful Dead. In fact, nearly every song that I recognize as “quintessential Grateful Dead” has lyrics by Robert Hunter. This starts with the Grateful Dead’s most recognizable signature tune, Truckin’.

But it also includes Box of Rain, Casey Jones, Dark Star, Friend of the Devil, Saint Stephen, Sugar Magnolia, and Uncle John’s Band. I saved a special shout-out for the last single hit from the Grateful Dead, the 1987 Touch of Grey. That tune went to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and (amazingly) was the highest-charting single ever for the Dead.

Fittingly, when the Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, Robert Hunter was inducted along with them; he is the only non-performer to be inducted along with a band.

Remarkably, Hunter was the first member of the Grateful Dead to experience psychedelic drugs. In 1962, researchers at Stanford recruited volunteers to try out new drugs (it later turned out that the research was covertly funded by the CIA’s MKULTRA mind-control program). Hunter volunteered for the study, which also included participants Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg. They were paid to take drugs such as LSD, psilocybin and mescaline, and to report on their experiences.

Apparently some of Hunter’s later lyrics, such as those in China Cat Sunflower and Dark Star, were inspired by the ‘drug trips’ he experienced in this Stanford program.

After Garcia’s death, Hunter collaborated with other musicians such as Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. Hunter was the only lyricist who has collaborated with Dylan.

Robert Hunter died at his home in San Rafael, California on Sept. 23, 2019. I dedicate this post to Robert Hunter. As Ripple is one of her favorite tunes, I also dedicate this to my daughter Jennifer.

We’ll conclude with some more history of the Grateful Dead.

The group is believed to have given more than 2,300 concerts – or perhaps more precisely, jam sessions. The Dead generally did not prepare a set list for any given concert, preferring instead to pick songs on the spot from a playlist that usually contained about 100 songs. During their life span, the Grateful Dead played over 500 different songs at their various performances.

Perhaps the most unique feature of the Grateful Dead was their relationship to their fans, or Deadheads. It was not unusual for Deadheads to follow the band on concerts from town to town – since each concert was a unique live jam, Deadheads would have a different experience in each venue. The Dead actively welcomed having devotees tape their shows, and even allowed fans to tap into their own soundboards.

The result was that the Deadheads resembled more a gigantic extended commune than the ‘normal’ followers of musical groups. Deadheads were an exceptionally eclectic lot, ranging from 60s-era hippies to professional athletes, from panhandlers to distinguished scientists.

The constant touring, coupled with the immense quantities of drugs ingested by the Dead band members over the years, took its toll on the band. Three separate keyboards players for the Dead passed away (Pigpen McKernan in 1973, Keith Godchaux in 1980 and Brent Mydland in 1990). And Phil Lesh had a liver transplant in 1998.

Jerry Garcia experienced a variety of health problems, largely as a result of addiction issues, compounded by the band’s nearly incessant touring. As he struggled with dependence on cocaine and heroin, Garcia gained a great deal of weight and became easily fatigued. In summer 1995, Jerry checked into a rehab clinic. On Aug. 8, 1995, he was found dead in his room of a heart attack, at age 53.

Jerry Garcia’s death marked the end of an era. However, several surviving members of the Grateful Dead are keeping on truckin’ as Dead & Co. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

New Riders of the Purple Sage and Ripple:

The New Riders of the Purple Sage is a psychedelic Bay Area country-rock band that materialized in the mid-60s. Their name was taken from the title of a Zane Grey novel; they are also referred to as New Riders or NRPS. They were so closely associated with the Grateful Dead that several Dead members (including guitarist Jerry Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart) played at one time or another with NRPS. In fact, in the beginning the two groups would occasionally hold joint concerts where
an acoustic Grateful Dead set that often included Dawson and Nelson as adjutant members would then segue into New Riders and electric Dead sets, obviating the need to retain external opening acts.

Embed from Getty Images

The photo above shows the New Riders of the Purple Sage circa 1970. L to R: Spencer Dryden, John Dawson, David Nelson, Skip Battin, Buddy Cage.

The group was inspired by traditional bluegrass music, the “Bakersfield sound” of country music from Buck Owens and his collaborators, and by the emerging folk-rock genre. Guitarist John “Marmaduke” Dawson introduced his bandmates to new-age gurus Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, so naturally the NRPS guys tuned in and turned on. The New Riders of the Purple Sage changed members so frequently that you could only keep track of them with a scorecard.

The New Riders released their first album in 1971, and it was moderately successful, reaching #49 on the Billboard album charts. At that time their commercial success was equal to or greater than that of the Grateful Dead. Alas, the commercial fortunes of New Riders of the Purple Sage spiraled downhill from there. Subsequent albums and singles generally went nowhere, with the exception of a 1973 album that included a cover of the song Panama Red, which became a minor hit and the ‘signature song’ for the group.

Unfortunately for the New Riders, the 70s West Coast country-rock scene was just too crowded. The landscape was littered with groups such as The Grateful Dead; The Eagles; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Flying Burrito Brothers; Poco; Country Joe and the Fish; and Big Brother and the Holding Company. A result of this congestion was that a few groups became superstars while everyone else was relegated to eking out a living, hoping for a smash hit to change their fortunes, and constantly re-shuffling lineups.

Today, only guitarist and lead vocalist David Nelson and pedal steel guitarist Buddy Cage still survive from the original NRPS. Since 2005, they are joined by guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski. This is the group that performs the following cover of Ripple.

This is from a November 2008 concert in Beverly, Illinois,a town on the southwest side of Chicago. Somehow, the presence of a pedal steel guitar on Ripple seems just right; Buddy Cage plays some lovely licks on this song, while Ronnie Penque keeps the tune moving along with his bouncy bass.

With their close historical connection to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, Ripple seems like a most appropriate cover for NRPS. We wish the members of the band, still going after 55 years, all the best.

Playing for Change and Ripple:

Playing for Change is an international group of musicians that raise funds for the construction of music and art schools around the world. The group was founded in 2002 by engineer and producer Mark Johnson and film producer Whitney Kroenke.

Since 2008, the Playing For Change Foundation has created three music schools and inaugurated twelve music programs in third-world countries. In 2011, the Foundation inaugurated Playing For Change Day in mid-September. For example, the 2016 PFC day sponsored over 300 events around the world and raised $150,000 for the Foundation.

So here is one of their releases. This features musicians from all over the world performing the same song, Ripple by the Grateful Dead.

First of all, this is a really fun idea and a great way to raise funds. Second, they get some superstars to sing verses from Ripple. This features David Hidalgo from the band Los Lobos, Jimmy Buffett, and David Crosby. Third, the inspirational Ripple is a great choice for a group song. And perhaps most important, the project provides terrific exposure for first-rate musicians from third-world countries.

You can donate to Playing for Change here. Take a look at this website – you can click on various projects and music schools this group has fostered. The idea that music and art can connect people across cultures is not new, but it is nevertheless true. This is a group that seems worthy of support.

And the PFC music video of Ripple was sure fun! We wish each of these musicians much success.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Ripple (song)
Wikipedia, Grateful Dead
Wikipedia, Jerry Garcia
Wikipedia, Robert Hunter (lyricist)
Jennifer Finney Boylan, The Genius Behind the Grateful Dead, New York Times Oct. 16, 2019
Wikipedia, New Riders of the Purple Sage
Wikipedia, Playing For Change

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

Sunshine Of Your Love: Cream; Jimi Hendrix Experience; Kofi Baker, Steve Fekete & Dan Rothchild

Hello there! This week our blog features a great blues rocker, Sunshine of Your Love. We will first discuss the original version by Cream. Next, we will review a cover by Jimi Hendrix and then a version by Kofi Baker, Steve Fekete and Dan Rothchild.

Cream and Sunshine of Your Love:

In June 1966 my college at Oxford held a formal “Commemoration Ball.” The college installed a series of large tents, one in each quadrangle of the college. Several of the tents would feature bands playing throughout the evening. The centerpiece of the event was a “headliner” group, supplemented with a number of minor musical acts. At this time, the headliners were generally British Invasion rock and blues groups. Merton College’s headliner was the Spencer Davis Group featuring vocalist Steve Winwood, who had just turned 18.

During the evening I found a progressive blues-jazz quartet, the Graham Bond ORGANisation (GBO), one of the “minor” groups. They sounded terrific – organ, bass, saxophone and drums. Their music was powerful and very sophisticated. It featured Bond on organ and vocals, but also included an exceptional bassist and an inspired drummer. I remarked to the fellow next to me how fickle the music business was – you could be as talented as this bunch, but still be virtually unknown. “You better enjoy this group now,” he replied (it turned out he was a rock journalist) “because it’s their last performance. The drummer is breaking away to form his own group.” After a pregnant pause, he added “EVERY drummer is breaking away to form his own group.”  Below is a photo of the Graham Bond ORGANisation.

Graham Bond ORGANisation: back from L: Ginger Baker (drums), Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophone), Jack Bruce (bass): front Graham Bond (organ, vocals).

Well, perhaps not every drummer was as successful as this one – rock legend Ginger Baker. Two weeks later he teamed up with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce to form the super-group Cream. This post will focus on their drummer Ginger Baker.

I have been telling friends for the past 50 years that I saw Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker immediately before they formed one of rock’s most famous groups. Alas, this was not entirely true. Jack Bruce had been thrown out of GBO a few months earlier because – get this – he and Ginger Baker hated each other! So it was apparently quite a shock to Baker when Eric Clapton said he would join up only if Baker included Bruce as the third member of their power trio.  Below is a photo of Cream.

Hard-rock band Cream. From L: Ginger Baker; Jack Bruce; Eric Clapton.

Cream combined hard-rock covers of blues standards with compositions by Baker and Bruce. Sunshine of Your Love was one of their earliest signature hits. After the members of Cream attended a Jimi Hendrix concert in January 1967, Jack Bruce was inspired to create the melody for this song, which was an homage by Cream to Hendrix. Peter Brown supplied the lyrics for the tune, and Eric Clapton contributed a guitar solo.

However, Ginger Baker supplied an iconic drum accompaniment that relied heavily on the tom-tom. This song was a bit of a departure for Cream. Their first album, the 1966 Fresh Cream, was composed mainly of hard-rock covers of traditional blues songs and rock ‘n roll with pop sensibilities. Their new album, Disraeli Gears, would feature more hard-rock songs, and Sunshine of Your Love was also influenced by psychedelic rock.

Sunshine of Your Love was the second single to be released from Disraeli Gears. Here is Cream in a live performance of Sunshine of Your Love; this was from a performance at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in March 1968.

This is a great example of Cream at their best. Clapton and Bruce share the signature beginning riff, Bruce supplies the vocals, while Eric Clapton produces an inspired 2-minute guitar solo. The song then builds to a final crescendo.

However, I want to focus on Ginger Baker’s drumming on this tune. He emphasizes the first and third beats, rather than the downbeat (beats two and four) as on most R&B tunes. In addition, his drumming is heavily influenced by jazz, as would be appropriate for someone who considered his mentors to be jazz legends such as Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach.

In fact, Baker disliked being called a “rock drummer,” and might punch you if you referred to him as a “hard rock drummer” (Baker had a famously short temper). In rock music, he was known for using two bass drums in his drum kit (shown below); he picked up this from the drummer in the Duke Ellington Band.

Ginger Baker’s drum kit featuring two bass drums.

Baker’s jazz-inspired drumming had a tremendous impact on hard-rock drummers who followed him, including John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Peter Criss of KISS, Stewart Copeland of The Police, and Alex Van Halen.

Cream’s ascendance coincided with a revolution in sound technology. The tiny amplifiers that were used by rock bands such as the early Beatles were rapidly replaced by gigantic Marshall stacks. This resulted in a tremendous increase in the decibel power in a live concert, and in the studio. This was a major technical advance for rock and roll; however, it needed to be accompanied by sophisticated techniques to balance the various instruments, and also to protect the hearing of the participants.

Jack Bruce’s reaction to the new sound technology was to turn his bass volume up to ‘11’ in concerts. For Ginger Baker this was a disaster. First, his jazz-inspired drumming was relatively subtle, thus his drum licks were being drowned out onstage. Second, his hearing was dramatically impaired during his years with Cream (didn’t we all suffer hearing loss from rock concerts – I said, DIDN’T WE ALL SUFFER HEARING LOSS FROM ROCK CONCERTS?).

Atlantic Records was reluctant to release Sunshine of Your Love as a single, figuring that it did not have much commercial potential. The song turned out to be the highest-charting song ever released by Cream. It also appeared on several Cream albums of live performances. The tune ranked #65 on the 2004 Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time; VH1 rated it #14 on their 2009 compilation The 100 Greatest Hard-Rock Songs; and the song is included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.

Cream lasted only about two and a half years, from July 1966 until late 1968. It is difficult to determine the date of their breakup, as a final album was released in 1969 after the group had actually disbanded, and there is some debate whether the group still “existed” by the end of their protracted farewell tours.

In retrospect, it is easy to catalog issues that drove the group apart. First, the animosity between Baker and Bruce continued, and Clapton found himself repeatedly trying to negotiate between his feuding bandmates. Second, all three Cream members were dealing with extremely heavy drug usage, while simultaneously coping with their burgeoning fame and adulation.

At their best, Cream delivered incredible improvisation: creative twists and turns; imaginative collaborations with the melodic lead shuttling between guitar, bass and drums; and jazz-influenced free-form sets that provided stunning new takes on classic blues tropes. At their worst they produced repetitive, seemingly interminable drug-induced noise. However, they were so talented that even when far below their peak they could still delight and amaze.

After Cream imploded in 1968, the group members went their separate ways while also attempting to kick their drug addictions. Baker and Eric Clapton formed the quartet Blind Faith, which was arguably less a band than a brief partnership between good friends Clapton and Steve Winwood. Baker formed the group Ginger Baker’s Air Force. He then moved around considerably. He set up a recording studio in Lagos, Nigeria that eventually failed.

Baker spent much time trying to kick a long-term heroin addiction. By his own estimate, he sobered up and relapsed 29 times. He finally quit in the 1980s when he temporarily retired from music and took up growing olives in Italy.  In the 1990s Baker moved to Colorado where he became obsessed with polo and spent a fortune on polo ponies and supplies.

In 1993 Cream were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they played together for the first time in 25 years. This immediately sparked interest in a Cream reunion. The group eventually reunited briefly in 2005, when they played 4 shows at Royal Albert Hall followed by another 3 shows at Madison Square Garden. To no one’s surprise, tickets for the concerts sold out almost instantly. Despite rumors that other reunion concerts might follow, the group never again played together.

Jack Bruce died from liver disease in Oct. 2014. Ginger Baker began experiencing serious health issues, and in 2013 announced that he had COPD, a result of his long-time smoking, and also degenerative osteoarthritis. Three years later he mentioned serious cardiac issues and underwent open-heart surgery. This year Baker’s family announced that he was gravely ill, and he passed away at age 80 on October 6, 2019.

Modern Drummer magazine referred to Ginger Baker as “one of classic rock’s true drum gods”. We agree – he was a legendary figure in rock music, and we dedicate this post to Ginger.

Jimi Hendrix and Sunshine of Your Love:

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.  Hendrix had trouble with both bands, as he persisted in showing off his flashy guitar technique when he was supposed to be toiling in the background for the headliners. So he assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village.

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

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

The Jimi Hendrix Experience released three hit singles in the U.K. – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary – before they ever issued an album.

Jimi Hendrix’ American break-through occurred at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was included at the festival largely through the urging of Paul McCartney. Hendrix gave an unforgettable performance at Monterey, capped off when he set his guitar on fire at the end of his set.

So here is the Jimi Hendrix Experience playing a cover of the Cream song Sunshine Of Your Love.  I enjoy this video because you can see how he produces the amazing sounds that he coaxed from his Fender Stratocaster. Since Jimi was left-handed, he simply turned his axe upside-down. Note that this reverses the ‘normal’ positions of the high and low strings on the guitar.

First, note that Jimi plays this as an instrumental; I am told the group liked the tune but didn’t know the words. Jimi enjoyed this song and included it frequently in live concerts. Parodixically, Jack Bruce never informed Hendrix that Jimi had inspired the Cream tune! Hendrix plays his signature electrifying runs and trills, showing off his inimitable technique. After a while Noel Redding produces a bass solo. At the end of his solo Redding provides some interesting runs and shows flashes of talent; however, the beginning is extremely boring.

This reminds me of an old joke. A colonial explorer is being led through the jungle by his native guides. The explorer is disturbed by the constant native drumming that occurs every night, and complains to his lead guide, who says “Drums stop, very bad.” This is repeated several times, until finally the explorer insists on a more complete explanation. He is told “Drums stop, very bad – then, bass solo begin.”

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

The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three stunning albums. After that, the trio broke up at the end of June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences.

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

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

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

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

Kofi Baker, Steve Fekete & Dan Rothchild and Sunshine of Your Love:

A club called Lucky Strike Live, on Hollywood Boulevard in LA, put on a series of concerts called Soundcheck Live. The shows featured guest artists who performed cover versions of classic rock hits. Three of the artists who appeared in Soundcheck Live (Take 48) were drummer Kofi Baker, guitarist Steve Fekete and bassist Dan Rothchild.

All three had performed with various bands, either as studio musicians or on tour. Fekete is currently the guitarist on tour with the pop group America, and Rothchild has performed with Heart and with Nancy Wilson.

Kofi Baker is Ginger Baker’s son. He first appeared with his father on the BBC2 music show The Old Grey Whistle Test at age 6. In the 1980s Kofi toured with the hard-rock group Humble Pie led by Steve Marriott, and in the 1990s Kofi toured with Jack Bruce, the former Cream bassist. He also participated in duets with his dad Ginger.  Below is a photo of Kofi Baker.

Rock drummer Kofi Baker.

When Ginger Baker moved to Colorado in the early 1990s, Kofi joined his dad there. And Kofi was the drummer for The Extreme Guitar Tour that included a number of hard-rock guitarists. Kofi has more recently moved to LA and set up a drum school there.

So here are Steve Fekete, Dan Rothchild and Kofi Baker in a cover of Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love.

Steve Fekete sings lead vocals and plays guitar on this piece. It follows closely the Cream original. Kofi Baker is quite a capable drummer. Fekete sings a couple of verses and then segues into a guitar solo, while Rothchild and Baker chime in on bass and drums, respectively.

The song is enjoyable but does not approach the unmatchable excitement of the Cream original. At the very end, Fekete launches into some technically impressive but not particularly thrilling runs on guitar.

Dan Rothchild is the son of Paul Rothchild, who was a producer for artists such as The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Janis Joplin.  It is fun to see memorable songs passed down from one generation to the next.  We wish these three rockers all the best.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sunshine Of Your Love
Wikipedia, The Graham Bond Organisation
Wikipedia, Cream (band)
Wikipedia, Ginger Baker
Wikipedia, Jimi Hendrix
Kofi Baker bio

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Sitting In Limbo: Jimmy Cliff; The Jerry Garcia Band; The Neville Brothers.

Hello there! This week our blog features a reggae tune from the early 70s called Sitting In Limbo. We will first discuss the original version by Jimmy Cliff. Next, then we will review a cover by The Jerry Garcia Band and finally one by The Neville Brothers.

Jimmy Cliff and Sitting in Limbo:

In my opinion, the three greatest reggae singers are the incomparable Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and Toots Hibbert, lead singer for Toots and the Maytals. Each of them played a role in transforming reggae music from a provincial Jamaican style to a world-wide phenomenon.

Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican singer-songwriter, and also an actor. He was born in St. James, Jamaica in 1948; and he began writing songs at a precociously early age.  He began a collaboration at age 14 with producer Leslie Kong. Kong secured a deal for Cliff with the major Jamaican record company, Island Records.

Here is a photo of Jimmy Cliff from about 1970.

Embed from Getty Images

Although Cliff had some commercial success with his early songs, his career really took off in 1972 when he starred in the reggae movie drama, The Harder They Come. Cliff sang a number of songs in that movie.

The Harder They Come is undoubtedly the best movie ever to feature reggae (OK, there is not a tremendous amount of competition for this honor). The film introduced people all over the world to this musical genre.

The song Sitting In Limbo appeared on a 1971 album, Another Cycle. The song was co-written by Cliff and his producer Guilly Bright, and the album was recorded at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Although Sitting In Limbo was a cut on that album, to the best of my knowledge it was never released as a single. The tune describes someone who is biding his time while waiting for a breakthrough.

Sitting here in limbo
But I know it won’t be long
Sitting here in limbo
Like a bird without a song

[CHORUS] Well, they’re
Putting up resistance
But I know that my faith
Will lead me on

Sitting here in limbo
Waiting for the dice to roll
Sitting here in limbo
Got some time to search my soul

[CHORUS]

I don’t know where life will lead me
But I know where I’ve been
I can’t say what life will show me
But I know what I’ve seen

So here is Jimmy Cliff in a live performance of Sitting In Limbo.

Sitting In Limbo is not as well known as many of the songs that we feature in our blog. However, I really enjoy this sweet and gentle tune; and it has now been covered by about 35 different artists. Cliff has a terrific tenor voice, which he uses to great effect here.

The song Sitting In Limbo received some attention when it was included in the soundtrack of the 2013 zombie apocalypse movie Warm Bodies. Below is the poster for that film.

Poster for the 2013 zombie movie Warm Bodies.

In the movie this tune takes on a new meaning, as the film describes packs of zombies who hang around in abandoned airports. There they wait to see if they will continue to feed on the living, or whether they can eventually transform back into human form.

Jimmy Cliff has had a long and relatively successful career. Although all reggae musicians are eclipsed by the gigantic shadow of Bob Marley, Cliff is the only living musician who has been awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government.

Originally a Rastafarian, Cliff converted to Islam in the late 1970s. However, he now states that he is not aligned with any religion, but that “now I believe in science.” This physicist gives that remark a thumbs-up!

In 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We salute him and his long, successful career.

Jerry Garcia Band and Sitting in Limbo:

Jerry Garcia was one of the more important rock musicians of the 20th century. He was born in 1942 in San Francisco, and developed a serious interest in music at an early age. His father had been a musician and his mother was accomplished on piano.

Jerry began playing bluegrass and folk banjo. He formed bands with various colleagues, and in 1965 was a founder of the Grateful Dead. Jerry was the lead guitarist for the band, which continued for the next three decades as one of the best-known psychedelic-rock bands.

Jerry was known for his eclectic technique; his guitar playing displayed elements of folk music, jazz, blues, country & western, and rock ‘n roll. Furthermore, Garcia relied heavily on improvisation. He was reputed to never play a guitar solo the same way twice.

The Grateful Dead visualized themselves as a musical collective, and all of their members had input into their songs. However, most outsiders saw Garcia as the leader of the Dead.

The Grateful Dead spent much of their time touring. They would perform an incredible number of concerts each year. So it is rather amazing that Jerry Garcia found time to devote to a number of side projects.

Probably Garcia’s most important project was the Jerry Garcia Band. That band’s membership changed nearly every year; however, one long-standing member was bassist John Kahn. Apparently Kahn had significant input into the choice of songs for the Jerry Garcia Band.  Below is a photo of the Jerry Garcia Band from 1983.

The Jerry Garcia Band, circa 1983.

Like the Grateful Dead, the Jerry Garcia Band had exceptionally diverse musical interests. The group specialized in R&B music, but included strains of reggae, gospel music and American folk tunes.

Among the Jerry Garcia Band staples were several reggae songs: some from Bob Marley; a few from Peter Tosh; and also some Jimmy Cliff songs. Here is the Jerry Garcia Band in a live cover of Cliff’s Sitting In Limbo.

This is from a concert in March 1980. I really enjoy it because it represents an excellent example of Jerry Garcia’s improvisational style. Jerry throws in a 6-minute solo that wanders around in a delightful manner.  Following Garcia’s guitar solo, keyboardist Ozzie Albers also contributes a long solo. Again, Albers’ solo negotiates several twists and turns before building to a satisfying conclusion.

It is great to see Jerry and his mates using Jimmy Cliff’s reggae tune as a jumping-off point to embark on a long jam session, showing off Jerry’s ability to improvise on the fly.

The Grateful Dead were a unique group in many ways. In their early years they traveled around with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, where they gave free concerts and passed out drugs to their audiences.

Over the years, the band’s intensely loyal “Deadheads” fans would frequently follow them on tour. Since every concert playlist was different, their fans could compare different performances. The Grateful Dead trademarked a number of stickers, T-shirts and other paraphernalia. They sold a slew of tickets, and millions of records.

The counter-culture ensemble made a fortune off their brand. At many concerts, you could be hassled for trying to take a video of the band. However, the Dead would allow fans to plug their gear into the soundboard, so there are a plethora of videos and CDs of the Dead in concert.

Decades of drug abuse eventually took their toll on Jerry. He suffered from diabetes and once lapsed into a 5-day diabetic coma. This was exacerbated by the nearly non-stop touring of the Dead. As a result, Jerry’s health declined significantly in the early 90s.  Occasionally, he had to be reminded what tune the band was playing, and at least once appeared to fall asleep during a concert.

The Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. However, Jerry did not attend the induction ceremony.

Around 1994, Garcia resumed his heroin habit in an effort to deal with the pain he was experiencing. In the summer of 1995 he entered into rehab. However, on August 9, 1995 Jerry Garcia was found dead in his room at a rehab clinic. He was 53 years old, and had heroin in his system.

Jerry Garcia was a titanic figure in rock ‘n roll. He is the most widely-recorded guitarist in history, with over 2,200 Grateful Dead concerts on tape, plus another 1,000 Jerry Garcia Band concerts.

It is now almost 25 years since Jerry passed away. Several members of the Grateful Dead have now re-united as “Dead & Co,” with guitarist John Mayer filling in on lead guitar. John Mayer is immensely talented, but we still miss Jerry.

The Neville Brothers and Sitting in Limbo:

The Neville Brothers (Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril) hailed from New Orleans. Unlike many bands with “brothers” in their name, the Neville Brothers were actually family, their heritage a mixture of Native American, Caucasian and African-American.

In 1976 they formed a group in order to participate in a recording session organized by the Wild Tchoupitoulas, a group that was led by their uncle George Landry, known professionally as Big Chief Jolly.  Below is a photo of the Neville Brothers.

The Neville Brothers. From L: Charles; Aaron; Art; and Cyril.

In 1988, the brothers released a song called Healing Chant from the album Yellow Moon. Healing Chant won a 1989 Grammy Award for best pop instrumental performance.

The Neville Brothers had a devoted following in NOLA. Not only did they live in the city (except for Charles who was a Massachusetts resident), they would often perform in their home town. For many years, The Neville Brothers were the closing act in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

However, following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, Cyril and Aaron moved out of NOLA. For a few years they no longer performed there, until they returned to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2008.

The brothers would assemble as a group for various concerts, but they also carried on with individual projects. Art Neville formed a funk band called The Meters, and was eventually joined by his brother Cyril on percussion. And Aaron Neville had a highly successful solo career.

Aaron first had a big hit in 1967 with the song Tell It Like It Is. He had a couple of big hits in duets with Linda Ronstadt in the late 1980s. Then in the early 1990s, Aaron issued a couple of country albums. He won a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, becoming one of the few African-American musicians to win a country Grammy.

Here are the Neville Brothers in a live performance of Sitting In Limbo.

This performance took place in October 1991 at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium. It features Art Neville on keyboards and lead vocals.

This is a great soulful R&B version of Jimmy Cliff’s reggae tune. It is no wonder that the Neville Brothers had such a faithful following in New Orleans, as they are a tight and talented ensemble.

This video also serves as a shout-out to Art Neville, who passed away on July 22, 2019. He was preceded in death by his brother Charles Neville, who died of pancreatic cancer in April 2018.

The Neville Brothers were extremely talented and versatile musicians. They made individual contributions to a number of different genres including funk, R&B and soul music. When they came together as a group, they were symbols of the musical heritage of New Orleans.

We salute the surviving Neville Brothers, and wish them all success.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Another Cycle
Wikipedia, Jimmy Cliff
Wikipedia, Jerry Garcia Band
Wikipedia, Jerry Garcia
Wikipedia, The Neville Brothers

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

Fun, Fun, Fun: The Beach Boys; Carpenters; Status Quo.

Hello there! This week our blog features a ‘surf rock’ tune, Fun, Fun, Fun. We will first discuss the original version by The Beach Boys. Next, we will review a cover by Carpenters, and finally one by Status Quo.

The Beach Boys and Fun, Fun, Fun:

The Beach Boys were one of the greatest rock and roll groups in history. They were formed in 1961 in California, and initially were primarily a family band. The three Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl teamed up with cousin Mike Love and a family friend David Marks. They were initially known as the Pendletones, named after the Pendleton wool shirts popular with California surfers.

At first, the Beach Boys sang while the instrumental work was provided by studio musicians (a group that later became known as the Wrecking Crew). However, the brothers gradually became proficient on their instruments – Carl on electric guitar, Brian on bass and Dennis on drums.

David Marks left fairly early and was replaced by Al Jardine. Jardine, together with Mike Love and the three Wilson brothers, made up the “classic” Beach Boys lineup of the 60s.

The Beach Boys soon replaced their wool Pendleton shirts with a combination of striped shirts and white pants (the shirts are visible in the photo below). L to R: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Mike Love.

Embed from Getty Images

It soon became clear that Brian Wilson was the brains of the outfit. Brian wrote the songs, oversaw the productions, and took control of all major decisions, once their micro-managing dad Murry was ousted as the group’s agent.

In late 1964, after suffering a panic attack on an airplane flight, Brian stopped touring with the Beach Boys. Thereafter, he did all his work in the studio. So videos like the upcoming clip, showing Brian Wilson performing with the Beach Boys, are relatively rare, and almost non-existent after 1964.

The song Fun, Fun, Fun was written in 1964, with Brian responsible for the melody and Mike Love for most of the lyrics. The song describes a young girl who loses her driving privileges after she misbehaves with her father’s Thunderbird.

Well she got her daddy’s car
And she cruised through the hamburger stand now.
Seems she forgot all about the library
Like she told her old man now.
And with the radio blasting
Goes cruising just as fast as she can now

[CHORUS] And she’ll have fun fun fun
‘Til her daddy takes the T-bird away
(Fun fun fun ’til her daddy takes the T-bird away)

Well the girls can’t stand her
Cause she walks looks and drives like an ace now
She makes the Indy 500
look like a Roman chariot race now
A lotta guys try to catch her
But she leads them on a wild goose chase now

Legend has it that the song refers to an actual incident involving the daughter of the owner of Salt Lake City radio station KNAK. Apparently she borrowed her dad’s 1963 Thunderbird, ostensibly to visit the library at the University of Utah, but instead went to a drive-in movie and was grounded when her father discovered what she had done.

Here is the audio of the Beach Boys Fun, Fun, Fun.

Isn’t this a terrific short & snappy rock ‘n roll tune? It begins with Carl playing those great, instantly recognizable ‘surf rock’ guitar licks (the guitar solo was modeled after Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode). Then Mike Love enters with the lead vocals.

On the chorus we get those wonderful, tight Beach Boys harmonies. After the second verse, Brian throws in a solo on a Hammond B3 organ. Then the group repeats the “Fun, Fun, Fun” chorus several times, and at the end we hear Brian’s falsetto soaring over the top of it all.

Brian Wilson’s production of this song adds up to 2 minutes, 21 seconds of pure, unadulterated pleasure. No matter what my mood beforehand, after hearing Fun, Fun, Fun I have a goofy grin all over my face.

The song Fun, Fun, Fun was released in early 1964 and made it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The single was released in the U.K. but failed to chart (WTF?).

And now here are the Beach Boys in a live performance of Fun, Fun, Fun.

This is from a March 14, 1964 concert that included the Beatles and Lesley Gore. The groups performed before a studio audience, and the concert was beamed on closed-circuit to theaters packed with teen fans.

The show was notable as the Beatles’ first US concert. But tape of the Beach Boys’ 22-minute segment of the show was lost for about 35 years before it re-surfaced; this is why it is referred to as the “Lost Concert” by the Beach Boys.

As you can see, the Beach Boys are unable to replicate their signature close harmonies in live performance (especially with the rather primitive electronics of those days). Furthermore, you can see that Carl is still somewhat tentative on his guitar solo.

However, it is a rare treat to see the entire Beach Boys group in live performance. This is one of the last concerts before Brian stopped participating in the group’s live shows. And it is wonderful to hear his lovely, clear falsetto at the end of the song.

Once the Beach Boys mastered their instruments, they became the kings of surf rock. Their vocal style, inspired by groups like the Four Freshmen and by harmonies borrowed from barbershop quartets, is impressive and very creative.

Brian Wilson was a musical genius. His writing was incredibly creative; and he pioneered several innovative studio techniques. Brian worked closely with the Wrecking Crew studio musicians, and his work became progressively more imaginative and complex. All of this culminated in the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds.

That album is now considered one of the greatest pop albums of all times. In addition to extremely sophisticated vocal harmonies, recording techniques and instrumental arrangements, the album also incorporated a number of unique sounds – sleigh bells, bicycle horns, barking dogs.

On the Pet Sounds album, Brian shared intensely personal experiences and thoughts. The other Beach Boys simply showed up to record their vocals, did not play instruments, and had essentially no input into the project.

Unfortunately, Brian Wilson found himself under terrific strain. A combination of drug-related and mental health issues made Brian withdraw into himself. Eventually Brian became unable to function normally; and he never completed his next album concept, Smile. That project eventually became the most controversial and anticipated ‘unfinished album’ of all time.

Brian Wilson’s drug and psychological issues led to a subsequent breakdown. It took him decades to overcome the combination of mental-health and addiction issues. However, now that he has recovered he occasionally joins up with his fellow Beach Boys for concerts.

The Beach Boys were a historically great pop group. Although Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who actually was a surfer, they will forever be associated with Southern California sun and surf.

Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 and Carl died of lung cancer in 1998. The Beach Boys provided us with a legacy of great songs and wonderful memories, for which we salute them.

Carpenters and Fun, Fun, Fun:

The Carpenters were a brother-and-sister pop duo who were major stars during the period 1969-1980. Here is a photo of Karen and Richard Carpenter in 1981.

Embed from Getty Images

Richard Carpenter fashioned a ‘signature sound’ by blending classically-inspired combinations of strings, woodwinds and brass. Richard himself played keyboards on Carpenters’ songs and particularly favored the Wurlitzer electric piano, though he would also switch to grand piano, Hammond organ or harpsichord.

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

Karen first appeared as the drummer in a jazz trio with Richard, but soon she began to be featured as a vocalist. Karen played drums in all of the Carpenters’ early records, but gave up drumming when her vocals became the highlight of the group’s songs.

Here are the Carpenters in a live performance of two songs: Fun, Fun, Fun and Dancing In The Street.

This is from a 1977 TV special. I’m sorry to say that this is a disappointing cover of Fun, Fun, Fun. I don’t recognize the MC of this show, but he provides an embarrassingly cheesy intro – he resembles an obnoxious used-car salesman. This show includes the dumbed-down dialogue and poor acting typical of televised rock music productions.

To add insult to injury, neither of the songs highlights the signature style of the Carpenters – Richard’s sophisticated arrangements paired with Karen’s instantly recognizable vocals. Fun, Fun, Fun is Beach Boys surf-rock, while Dancing In The Street featured great power vocals from Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, backed by the Motown house band.

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

However, Karen’s eating problems proved disastrous. She suffered from anorexia nervosa, a terrible body image disorder. In the most severe cases, patients could starve to death while still maintaining that they needed to lose more weight.

This situation was particularly difficult for Karen because at that time the symptoms and treatment for anorexia were not widely understood. Her problem first surfaced when she collapsed during a performance in 1975. A couple of years later Karen began seeing a psychotherapist, and she entered a treatment facility in fall 1982. Two months later she left the facility claiming that she was cured, despite advice from family and friends.

In February 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure that occurred as a side effect of her anorexia. It brought a tragic end to a most promising career; however, Karen Carpenter’s death at age 33 helped to bring about a heightened public awareness of eating disorders.

The Carpenters were a superb pop duo. We remember Karen Carpenter with great fondness, and send our best wishes to her older brother Richard.

Status Quo and Fun, Fun, Fun:

Status Quo is a British rock group with a long history. They were originally formed by Francis Rossi (lead guitar) and Alan Lancaster (bass) in 1962, when they were schoolboys.

After a few changes in both lineup and name of the band, the group settled on The Status Quo in 1967 (they would become simply “Status Quo” a year later). They had added John Coghlan on drums and Rick Parfitt on rhythm guitar.

Below is a 60s photo of Status Quo. From L: John Coghlan; Francis Rossi; Alan Lancaster; Rick Parfitt.

British rock band Status Quo.

An interesting trivia note: in 1967 the group chose the name Traffic. However, they lost a battle with Steve Winwood, who had chosen the identical name for his progressive-rock ensemble.

In 1968 the group joined the craze for psychedelic rock, and issued a song Pictures of Matchstick Men, which rose to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the only Status Quo song to crack the Billboard top 40.

However, Status Quo then switched to a harder rock boogie sound, and then became British superstars. They were one of those bands that had tremendous success in Britain while never denting the American pop charts.

I had heard about Status Quo but can’t remember any of their songs – although I have a hazy memory that I might have listened to Pictures of Matchstick Men back in 1968.

Here is a music video featuring Status Quo performing Fun, Fun, Fun.

As you can see, this video is a pastiche of several different performances of the Beach Boys song. In 1996, a single was issued of Fun, Fun, Fun featuring Status Quo plus the Beach Boys; and some of the video clips show various Beach Boys singing along with Status Quo.  They slip in a new verse, sung by Mike Love, that was not part of the original Fun, Fun, Fun.

Status Quo is quite an enjoyable band. I could see why they were so popular in the U.K., although it is unclear why they had so little commercial success in the States.

Believe it or not, Status Quo is still performing today, some 57 years after Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster formed a band in high school. The group has sold nearly 120 million records and charted 22 top-10 hits in the U.K. playlists. All told they placed more than 60 songs in the U.K. charts, which is apparently the highest total ever (more than the Beatles??)

Only Francis Rossi remains from the original band, although keyboard player Andy Bown has been playing with Status Quo since 1976. Rhythm guitarist Rick Parfitt died of a heart attack in 2017; we send our best wishes for continuing success to the surviving members of Status Quo.

Source Material:

Wikipedia: Fun, Fun, Fun
Wikipedia: The Beach Boys
Wikipedia: The Carpenters
Wikipedia: Status Quo (band)

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

I Love Rock ‘n Roll: Arrows; Joan Jett & the Blackhearts; Weird Al Yankovic

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic hard-rock anthem, I Love Rock ‘n Roll. We will first discuss the original version by The Arrows. Next, we will review a cover by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and finally a parody version by Weird Al Yankovic.

The Arrows and I Love Rock ‘n Roll:

The Arrows were a British-American rock ‘n roll band from the 70s. Bassist and lead singer Alan Merrill teamed up with guitarist Jake Hooker and drummer Paul Varley. Merrill and Hooker were American while Varley was English.  Below is a photo of the Arrows.  From L: Alan Merrill; Paul Varley; Jake Hooker.

British-American 70s pop group The Arrows.

The Arrows were produced by the legendary British figure Mickey Most. Most was the brains behind such British pop sensations as
the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, the Nashville Teens, Donovan, Lulu, Suzi Quatro, Hot Chocolate, Arrows, Racey, and the Jeff Beck Group.

The Arrows released songs on Most’s label Rak Records. They had a few hits in the U.K., but found very little commercial success in the U.S.

I Love Rock ‘n Roll was a song written by Alan Merrill in 1975. Merrill claims that the song was meant as a rejoinder to the Rolling Stones’ tune It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It). The song describes a romantic encounter between a young man and a woman.

I saw her dancin’ there by the record machine
I knew she must a been about seventeen
The beat was goin’ strong
Playin’ my favorite song

An’ I could tell it wouldn’t be long
Till she was with me, yeah me,
An’ I could tell it wouldn’t be long
Till she was with me, yeah me, singin’

[CHORUS] I love rock n’ roll
So put another dime in the jukebox, baby
I love rock n’ roll
So come an’ take your time an’ dance with me

She smiled so I got up an’ asked for her name
That don’t matter, she said,
‘Cause it’s all the same
I said “Can I take you home where we can be alone?”
An’ next we were movin’ on

The song was released in 1975 and became a hit in Britain. So here is the music video of Arrows performing I Love Rock ‘n Roll.

Alan Merrill is the lead singer here. Arrows is a competent rock band, and this song has a catchy melody and a simple but effective ‘hook’ in its guitar riff. This music video alternates between showing the band performing at the Granada/ITV studios in Manchester, and horsing around in London’s Berkeley Square.

The commercial success of this song led the ITV network to offer Arrows a weekly TV show called, appropriately, Arrows. The show began airing in March 1976. Arrows ran for 14 shows in 1976, and then repeated for a second season in 1977.

The last single released by Arrows came out in 1976, just weeks before the first episode of their TV show. This gives Arrows the dubious distinction of being the only band to have their own show for at least two years, but never release a record during the run of their TV series.

Apparently the band’s manager Ian Wright became embroiled in a dispute with their producer, Mickey Most. The net result was that Arrows never released another song, and the group disbanded after their final TV show.

So that was it for Arrows. During the period 1974-75, they had two other British pop hits with Touch Too Much and My Last Night With You.

Drummer Paul Varley passed away in 2008 while guitarist Jake Hooker died in 2014. That leaves Alan Merrill as the only surviving member of Arrows. You can catch Mr. Merrill still performing I Love Rock ‘n Roll at various venues in his hometown of New York City.

Although the band Arrows is long gone, their hit record I Love Rock ‘n Roll lives on.  However, it is now known as the signature tune for Joan Jett, as we will discuss in the next section of our post. In addition, that song has been covered by artists such as Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and I Love Rock ‘n Roll:

Joan Jett has been a female rock icon for a few decades now. She can rock out with the best of them, and has crafted a career that has taken her through eras of hard rock, glam rock, punk rock, and now hip-hop.

Joan Marie Larkin was born in September, 1958 in a suburb of Philadelphia. As a child, she began taking guitar lessons, but quit when her instructors insisted on teaching her folk music. After her parents divorced, Joan adopted her mother’s maiden name Jett.

In 1975, Joan Jett was one of the founding members of the West Coast all-girl band The Runaways. They developed a strong regional following and opened on tour for bands such as Cheap Trick, Van Halen and The Ramones.

Although the Runaways became international favorites in Europe, Asia and South America, they never had much commercial success in the U.S.  When they disbanded in 1979, Joan Jett set out on a solo career.

While pursuing a number of potential projects, Joan met songwriter and producer Kenny Laguna. The two teamed up and recorded a demo album in England, which they brought back to the States. After the album was rejected by 23 record companies (!), Laguna took his daughter’s college savings, created Blackheart Records, and issued Jett’s record on his own label.

Laguna then assembled The Blackhearts to serve as Joan’s backing band. Over the next couple of years, the group steadily built up a following, although they were often reduced to selling albums out of the trunk of their car after concerts.

Below is a photo of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, circa 1989.

Embed from Getty Images

However, this all changed in 1982 when I Love Rock ‘n Roll, the title single from the group’s album of the same name, rocketed up to #1 on the Billboard singles chart. Here are Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in a live version of I Love Rock ‘n Roll.

This was shown in May 1982 on the German TV show Rockpop, which ran from 1978-1982. It apparently was shot during Joan Jett’s 1982 European tour, where they opened for Queen.

The good news is that Joan Jett and the Blackhearts can really rock out. The riffs from lead guitarist Ricky Byrd are a good match for Joan’s powerful vocals. The German audience are very enthusiastic, and they sing the chorus at one point.

However, I was surprised to see that Joan Jett is essentially playing a note-for-note copy of the original Arrows version. Well, that’s rock music for you – while the Arrows original did not make much of an impact outside of the U.K., Joan Jett’s cover catapulted her straight to international stardom.

I Love Rock ‘n Roll became a youth anthem and a cult classic. It is currently rated #56 all time by Billboard magazine, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016. Joan Jett and her band became superstars, and she has remained on top for the past few decades.

Joan Jett has been described as “The Godmother of Punk” and “The Original Riot Grrrl.” Hard rock is not a particularly welcoming place for female artists, and women have to work hard to be accepted into this male-dominated society. However, few would argue with Joan Jett’s credentials as a bona fide rocker.

You know that you have achieved fame when you become a household name in popular culture. Thus, Joan Jett knew she had truly made it when Mattel released a “Joan Jett Barbie doll” in 2009. Also, cartoonist Berke Breathed introduced a band called Tess Turbo and the Blackheads in his comic strip Bloom County.

Cementing her reputation as a legitimate rocker, Joan Jett is ranked #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Ms. Jett has also appeared in a number of films, to generally supportive reviews.

Here’s a bit of trivia: both Alan Merrill and Joan Jett are naturally left-handed, but they play their instruments right-handed. Sinister!

So, here’s to Joan Jett. She worked hard at her craft in a genre where very few women make it to the top; and she succeeded on her own terms. We hope that she continues to enjoy success.

Weird Al Yankovic and I Love Rocky Road:

Alfred Yankovic was born in October 1959 and raised in Lynnwood, California. When his parents were offered music lessons for Al on either guitar or accordion, they chose the latter. That choice would generally kill your chances of success in rock music, but Al has managed to capitalize on this.

Al first gained recognition when his parody songs were featured on a weekly syndicated radio program, The Dr. Demento Show, the brainchild of ethnomusicologist Barry Hansen. While still in high school, Mr. Yankovic had success with parodies of My Sharona by The Knack (“My Bologna”), and Another One Bites The Dust by Queen (“Another One Rides The Bus”).

Below is a photo of Weird Al Yankovic.

Parody rock performer Weird Al Yankovic.

In the early 1980s, Weird Al received a big boost from MTV. He was able to produce “music videos” of parody songs that spoofed not only the original song, but also the official music video for the tune.

Here is one of Weird Al’s songs, a parody of I Love Rock ‘n Roll by Joan Jett. Al’s parody is called I Love Rocky Road, and includes the following lyrics:

I hear those ice cream bells and I start to drool,
Keep a couple quarts in my locker at school
Yeah, but chocolate’s gettin’ old,
And vanilla just leaves me cold,
There’s just one flavor good enough for me, yeah me,
Don’t gimme no crummy taste spoon, I know what I need, baby

[CHORUS] I love rocky road,
So won’t you go and buy a half gallon baby
I love rocky road,
So have another triple scoop with me, OW!

Here is Weird Al Yankovic’s music video for his tune I Love Rocky Road.

As always, Weird Al has lots of fun with this tune. The band is dressed up as employees of an ice-cream parlor, and he substitutes an accordion for the guitar solo. In his signature style, Weird Al exactly copies the lyrics and rhyming scheme of the Joan Jett classic. In fact, on a few of his parodies he was accompanied by the artists who produced the original song.

I really enjoy Weird Al Yankovic, but this is not my favorite among his parodies. To me, this is a song that writes itself once you choose the title.

After his initial successes, Weird Al Yankovic regularly scored best-selling parody songs. He segued effortlessly from rock ‘n roll to grunge to rap music. Until 1992, his albums and music videos were produced by rock guitarist Rick Derringer, who won two Grammy Awards for his efforts.

It is hard to imagine that Weird Al has managed to assemble a career that has lasted over 40 years, during which time he has recorded over 150 songs and sold at least 12 million records. Weird Al Yankovic has been nominated for 16 Grammy Awards and has won 5 times. An album released in 2014, nearly 40 years after his first release, reached #1 on the album charts in its debut week.

Many of the artists that we highlight have serious addiction issues, and several have died from drug or alcohol overdoses. So it is refreshing to feature an artist who abstains from alcohol, drugs, tobacco – and even profanity!

Since his parodies are so close to the original, it is crucial that Yankovic get permission from the artist before releasing a song. In a few instances, artists have refused permission.

One of the most famous cases occurred with rap artist Coolio. Under the impression that the record label had granted him permission, Yankovic released a parody of a Coolio song, only to have the artist insist that Al had never been granted permission. Eventually the two musicians made up, but since this time Weird Al has always communicated directly with the artist.

Paul McCartney refused Weird Al permission to release a parody of his song Live and Let Die (“Chicken Pot Pie”). Because McCartney is a vegetarian, he
didn’t want a parody that condoned the consumption of animal flesh.
McCartney suggested that Al try “Tofu Pot Pie” as an alternative, but Yankovic was not satisfied with the outcome.

Weird Al is still touring and releasing albums. His latest was the 2018 “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.” He has hosted numerous TV specials, and in 1997 he even had his own Weird Al Yankovic Show on CBS (a children’s show that lasted for 13 episodes). In addition, he has appeared on various TV shows, both live and animated (The Simpsons). He does voice-over work for several animated films, and he has authored a couple of children’s books.

Who would have thought a novelty song-writing accordion player could put together such an impressive career, and become a live concert favorite? We salute the always-wacky Alfred Matthew Yankovic, congratulate him on never growing up, and wish him a long and happy life.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll
Wikipedia, Arrows (British Band)
Wikipedia, Joan Jett
Wikipedia, “Weird Al” Yankovic

Posted in Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Punk Rock, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment