How Sweet It Is: Marvin Gaye; Jr Walker & the All Stars; James Taylor.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song How Sweet It Is, a wonderful Motown soul song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and originally performed by Marvin Gaye.

We will then review covers of this song by Jr Walker & the All-Stars and by James Taylor.

Marvin Gaye and How Sweet It Is:

Marvin Gaye is one of the greatest rock musicians of all time, and we have featured him in several earlier blog posts. We discussed his version of Heard It Through the Grapevine. We also discussed his performance of our national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. We reviewed What’s Going On, and we discussed his sexy soul tune Let’s Get It On.

So here we will briefly review Marvin Gaye’s life and career.

Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay, Jr. in 1939; he added an “e” to his name in the same way that Sam Cooke did. His early experience at Motown was as a session drummer, and his initial vocal singles bombed. However, he soon found commercial success and eventually became a real Motown powerhouse.

Marvin Gaye was fantastically talented. In addition to a three-octave vocal range, he also displayed amazing versatility. He could switch from baritone to tenor, adopt a raspy “tough man voice,” and even produce a lovely falsetto.

The photo below shows Marvin Gaye recording at Golden West studios in L.A. in 1973.

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What a great, great artist! From the mid to late 60s, Marvin collaborated in best-selling duets with several of the women at Motown. In particular, he had hits with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell and even a couple with Diana Ross.

His duets with Tammi Terrell were particularly successful, until Tammi collapsed into Marvin’s arms during a concert in 1967. Terrell was then diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died 30 months later at the age of 24.

The song How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) was written by the great Motown songwriting and producing trio of Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, Eddie and Brian. In the 60s they took Motown Records artists to unparalleled success, particularly with groups such as The Four Tops and The Supremes, for whom they were the primary songwriters.

Below is a photo of Holland-Dozier-Holland, from L: Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland.

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Eddie Holland had begun working with Berry Gordy even before the founding of Motown, and began his career as a solo artist. His brother Brian was the co-composer of the big girl-group hit Please Mr. Postman for The Marvelettes. And Lamont Dozier started out as a solo artist with the Anna label that was owned by Berry Gordy’s sister Anna Berry.

However, Eddie Holland suffered from severe stage fright that eventually caused him to retire from solo performances. And Holland-Dozier-Holland realized they had much more success when they wrote and produced tunes for other Motown artists.

At Motown, Holland-Dozier-Holland were responsible for an amazing 25 #1 hits. H-D-H wrote a number of songs for Marvin Gaye, including Can I Get A Witness in 1963 and Baby, Don’t You Do It and You’re A Wonderful One in 1964.

In the song How Sweet It Is, a man tries to express his gratitude to his lover for all of the things that she does for him and means to him.

Ooh, baby, I needed the shelter of someone’s arms
And there you were
I needed someone to understand my ups and downs
And there you were

With sweet love and devotion
Deeply touching my emotion
I want to stop (stop) and thank you, baby
I just want to stop and thank you, baby, hey now

How sweet it is to be loved by you, oh, baby
How sweet it is to be loved by you, yes it is.

So here is Marvin Gaye in what I believe is a live performance of How Sweet It Is, in 1965.

It is possible that Marvin is simply lip-synching from the record here; although it certainly sounds live. However it really doesn’t matter, since there is no doubt that he could produce a perfect live version of this tune. Marvin Gaye was quite simply a stunning performer.

At that point in time, How Sweet It Is was Marvin’s most successful single. It reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on Billboard’s R&B Singles charts. Marvin is assisted by backup singers The Andantes, and by the terrific Motown house band The Funk Brothers.

Especially listen for the great “walking bass” lines from the incomparable James Jamerson. Jamerson, the Funk Brothers bassist, was a marvelous and creative bass player. His trademark bass lines form the backbone for many Motown hits.

After Tammi Terrell’s untimely death in 1970, Marvin was bereft. He took some time off in an attempt to get his bearings. This was a difficult period for Marvin. His marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister, collapsed, leading to an extremely messy divorce.

Gaye then experienced dire tax problems with the IRS. These were sufficiently severe that Marvin did not return to the U.S. following a European tour in 1980. In addition to his tax difficulties, he had repeating bouts of depression.

The depression may have been related to his serious cocaine addiction. Eventually, Marvin moved to Ostend, Belgium, where he finally sobered up. He then signed a new deal with Columbia Records before returning to the States.

In 1983 Marvin Gaye took part in the concert Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. This was a made-for-TV special taped in March, 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

An extraordinary roster of Motown musicians was assembled for this event. However, it was not clear until the last minute whether Marvin Gaye would appear. But Marvin did show up, and gave an unforgettable performance of What’s Going On.

Following the Motown 25 show, Marvin embarked on an American tour; unfortunately, he became ill during the tour and suffered from paranoia that was triggered by cocaine. After the tour he moved to his parents’ house in L.A. to recuperate.

But on April 1, 1984, Marvin got into an argument with his father. His father grabbed a gun and shot him in the heart, and Marvin died one day before his 45th birthday.

What a tragic end to a brilliant career. Marvin Gaye was a tremendously versatile and creative singer, and left behind a stunning catalogue of work.

Jr Walker & the All-Stars and How Sweet It Is:

Autry DeWalt Mixon, Jr was born in 1931 in Arkansas, although he grew up in South Bend, Indiana. He formed a band in South Bend in the 50s, while drummer Billy Nicks formed a competing band.

The two friends would sit in on each other’s gigs, and eventually they got together in an ensemble. They were inspired by early rockers such as Louis Jordan.

When Billy Nicks was drafted into the US Army, Mixon moved the group to Battle Creek, Michigan to continue with their band. In 1961, the band was signed to a contract by producer Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua recorded them on his Harvey label, and the group changed its name to the Jr Walker All Stars.

In 1964, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records took over Fuqua’s enterprise. Gordy re-named the group Jr Walker & the All Stars and signed them to his Soul Records label. Below is a photo of the band from 1965. From L: Victor Thomas, keyboards; Junior Walker, saxophone and vocals; Willie Woods, guitar; James Graves, drums.

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Junior Walker and the All-Stars had their first and biggest Motown hit in 1965 with Shotgun. That song reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts. The tune was written by Junior Walker and produced by Berry Gordy.

Walker followed this up with other hits such as (I’m A) Road Runner. At this point he became one of the premier Motown groups. His unique high-voltage sax solos were instantly recognizable.

Here is Jr Walker and the All-Stars performing How Sweet It Is at London’s Ram Jam Club.

I have two comments regarding the taping of this performance. First, we are grateful to French TV for appreciating the significance of groups like Junior Walker, and for taping his show for posterity.

Second, to the French DJ who insists on talking over Jr Walker’s performance – please, shut the f*** up!! It is unbelievably irritating to hear a DJ ruin a rock ‘n roll performance, assuming that his own inane comments are more interesting than the music.

Anyway, it is great to see Jr Walker’s performance of How Sweet It Is. First off, Walker is as rough as Marvin Gaye was smooth. The gap-toothed Walker, who strongly resembles former NFL player and TV host Michael Strahan, provides his gritty vocals and gives the song an entirely different feel from the Marvin Gaye original. However, the tune is still highly enjoyable.

The other feature is Junior Walker’s terrific saxophone work. Walker invariably gave power-packed performances with a highly competent rock band. I especially appreciate the drummer, who keeps the song humming along. This live footage has great historic interest.

Junior Walker continued to have Motown hits for several years. In 1969, he had a top-5 hit with What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)? This was somewhat of a surprise as it featured Walker’s singing more than his sax playing. Walker continued with a number of songs that landed in the R&B Top Ten, but did not have the same success on the pop charts.

In 1979, Junior Walker disbanded his All Stars and went solo. He then signed with the Whitfield Records label (named for president Norman Whitfield, who for many years was one of Motown’s top producers).

In 1995, Junior Walker was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Later that year, Walker died of cancer. In 2002, Junior Walker’s song Shotgun was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

And now please allow me to rant for a few moments. In the previous section I mentioned the 1983 gala Motown 25: Yesterday; Today; Forever. Produced by Suzanne de Passe, it was a star-studded celebration of the great music produced by Motown Records.

Motown 25 assembled some dynamite groups: a long-awaited reunion of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles; a “battle of the bands” between the Temptations and Four Tops; some great songs by Stevie Wonder; a triumphant performance from Marvin Gaye.

Diana Ross re-united with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong of The Supremes (although this did not go smoothly). And Michael Jackson not only re-united with his Jackson 5 brothers, but during his performance of Billie Jean, he  introduced his signature “moonwalk.”

However, there were also some jarring omissions and tone-deaf moments. First, it was disgraceful that the concert took place in Pasadena instead of Detroit (why didn’t Motown Records have the decency to change their name when they abandoned the Motor City??).

Berry Gordy treated the fabulous house band The Funk Brothers shabbily, leaving them behind without a word when he decamped for LA. Apparently the great Funk Brothers bassist James Jamerson had to purchase his own ticket to Motown 25 (from a scalper, where he sat at the back of the auditorium, un-credited!). Then when a panel (including Gordy) discussed the “Motown Sound,” they managed to avoid ever mentioning the Funk Brothers!

Finally (and back to Junior Walker – there was a point to this rant), there were egregious omissions and snubs. Some of Motown’s most notable artists, including Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and Junior Walker, were allotted 30-second spots on the show (!) On the other hand, 3rd-rate current Motown acts such as Debarge and High Inergy were spotlighted. And no-talent hacks like Adam Ant (who didn’t even record for Motown!) were featured.

How sad that Junior Walker did not get the recognition he so richly deserved at Motown 25. However, Walker did better than the following artists, who were never even mentioned on this show: The Marvelettes; The Contours; Kim Weston; Jimmy Ruffin; Edwin Starr; Gladys Knight and the Pips; and the Isley Brothers!

Oh well, Junior Walker was a terrific talent. His band invariably brought high energy and a raw excitement to his Motown Records releases.

James Taylor and How Sweet It Is:

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

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

On Martha’s Vineyard, Taylor met a young musician named Danny Kortchmar, and the two compared guitar styles. When James was 15, he and Danny were playing folk and blues in the summer at MV coffee houses.

In his senior year of high school, James became seriously depressed. He committed himself to a hospital where he received round-the-clock medical care and was treated with Thorazine.

In 1966, Taylor and Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine. They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village, and the group achieved some regional fame; unfortunately, James also developed a nasty heroin addiction. This was further complicated by James’ recurring psychological issues, and it would be decades before Taylor could kick his habit.

In the late 60s, I was a graduate student at Oxford University. Brian, one of my fellow grad students, had a friend whose father worked at Apple Records. Every now and then Brian would get copies of Apple Records albums before they were released. One of our guilty pleasures was listening to the records before the general public heard them.

In fall 1968, Brian brought over two albums. One was by Marianne Faithful, and was very disappointing. But the second was an album from an American artist we had never heard of. It seemed really promising, and we played it constantly.

As it happens, this was James Taylor’s debut album. Below is a photo of James Taylor in 1968; a cropped version was used as the cover photo for his first album.

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Taylor’s friend Danny Kortchmar had introduced James to Peter Asher, one half of the folk-pop duo Peter and Gordon. Asher had taken up producing and had been named head of A&R for Apple Records. So James Taylor became the first non-British act signed by Apple Records, and they released his debut album in Dec. 1968 in Britain and in early 1969 in the U.S.

One of Taylor’s really great songs on that album, Carolina On My Mind, reflected Taylor’s homesickness for his Chapel Hill hometown while he was living abroad in London. Taylor assembled an impressive backing band for his album – including Paul McCartney on bass and George Harrison on backing vocals!

Carolina On My Mind was released as a single. Strangely enough, for a song that has become an iconic favorite over the years, that song stalled out at #118 on the Billboard pop charts. Shortly after the album was released, James resumed his drug habit and was hospitalized once again. It is possible that his inability to go on tour during this period contributed to the poor performance of his first album.

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

So here is James Taylor in a live performance of How Sweet It Is. This cover of the Marvin Gaye tune was featured on Taylor’s 1975 hit album Gorilla.

Here James is backed by his long-time band, including Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Lee Sklar on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, Dan Grolnick on keyboards and David Sanborn on sax.

I really like James Taylor’s cover of How Sweet It Is. It expresses the delight of the original and is a ‘feel-good’ song that is a highly popular staple at Taylor’s live concerts.

Of course, James Taylor is not Marvin Gaye and Taylor’s version is more ‘soft-rock’ than R&B, facts that offend some pop music critics. For example, Robert Christgau complained that Taylor’s cover constituted a “desecration of Marvin Gaye.”

Jeez, Robert, lighten up! This is an upbeat and bubbly expression of joyous love; it is believed Taylor intended it as a tribute to his then-wife Carly Simon. I personally enjoy both versions of How Sweet It Is, and I don’t feel that James Taylor’s version detracts from the Marvin Gaye original in any way.

Well, since he hit the big time James Taylor has become one of the most popular “soft-rock” singer-songwriters. His vocal work is very expressive, and (despite what Robert Christgau says) he gives impressive and creative renditions of both original songs and covers.

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

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

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

We wish JT all happiness and success, and we endorse the advice from one of his signature songs, “shower the people you love with love.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
Wikipedia,  Marvin Gaye
Wikipedia, Holland-Dozier-Holland
Wikipedia, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
Wikipedia, Junior Walker
Wikipedia, James Taylor

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

Blue Moon: Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart (Manhattan Melodrama); The Marcels; Rod Stewart

Hello there! This is another entry in our continuing series, Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week’s entry is Blue Moon. This was initially a popular tune from the 30s, composed by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Lorenz Hart.

The song had a fascinating history, which we will review. We will then show a clip from the movie Manhattan Melodrama where Shirley Ross performs a song with the tune of Blue Moon, but different lyrics.

We will then review a cover of Blue Moon popularized by the doo-wop group The Marcels; and finally, we will discuss a “retro” version of the song performed by Rod Stewart.

Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and The History of Blue Moon:

The “Great American Songbook” actually refers to a number of different books that contain lists of important pop and jazz songs from the 20th century.

Regardless of who publishes such lists, Richard Rodgers will be prominently featured in every songbook, and generally with two different lyricists. His first long collaboration was with Lorenz Hart, and his second was with Oscar Hammerstein.

The photo below shows lyricist Lorenz Hart (L) and composer Richard Rodgers.

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Richard Rodgers was born in 1902 and began composing while an undergraduate at Columbia. He joined forces with fellow Columbia undergrad Lorenz Hart, and the two of them began writing songs for musical revues (what we now know as the “Broadway musical” was, to a considerable degree,  defined by Rodgers himself over the years).

The first couple of Rodgers-Hart attempts were sufficiently unsuccessful that Rodgers seriously considered retiring as a composer, and making a living selling children’s underwear. However, Rodgers and Hart hit it big with a 1925 Theater Guild benefit show called The Garrick Gaieties, and after that first success they never looked back.

In 1933, Rodgers and Hart were signed to a film contract by MGM Studios. Their first assignment was to write a series of songs for an MGM musical spectacular to be called Hollywood Party. That movie was never produced, so a Rodgers & Hart song titled “Prayer (Oh Lord, make me a movie star)” and intended for Jean Harlow was registered for copyright as MGM Song#225, an unpublished work.

Here are the lyrics to Song #225. To the best of my knowledge, the song was never recorded, but the tune is that of Blue Moon.

Oh, Lord,
If you ain’t busy up there
I ask your help with a prayer
So please don’t give me the air.

Oh, hear me, Lord,
I wanta see Garbo in person
With Gable when they’re rehearsin’
While some director is cursin’.

I wanta open up my eyes at seven
And find I’m standin’ in the Golden Gate
And walkin’ right into my movie heaven
While some executive tells me I’ll be great.

Rodgers and Hart were then assigned to work on a film called Manhattan Melodrama. Since Rodgers was extremely fond of the tune to Song#225, Hart re-wrote the lyrics for a song called “It’s Just That Kind of Play.” That song was cut from the picture, but here are the lyrics (again to the tune of Blue Moon).

Act One:
You gulp your coffee and run;
Into the subway you crowd.
Don’t breathe-it isn’t allowed.

Act Two:
The boss is yelling at you;
You feel so frightened and cowed.
Don’t breathe-it isn’t allowed.

The rows of skyscrapers are like a canyon,
The sun is hidden ‘neath a stony shroud,
Eight million people and not one companion:
Don’t speak to anyone-it’s not allowed.

However, MGM included a nightclub scene in Manhattan Melodrama, so Hart re-worked the lyrics for yet a third time to produce a song called The Bad In Every Man. In the movie that tune is sung by Shirley Ross. We will feature that song and its lyrics in the next section of this post.

Following that movie, Lorenz Hart was pressured to re-write the lyrics one final time.
After the film [Manhattan Melodrama] was released by MGM, Jack Robbins—the head of the studio’s publishing company —decided that the tune was suited to commercial release but needed more romantic lyrics and a punchier title.

Not surprisingly, Lorenz Hart was reluctant – after all, he had already written three different lyrics to the same song! However, Robbins promised to provide a publicity blitz if Rodgers and Hart came up with the right set of lyrics.

With his arm twisted, Hart came up with the final version, for a song titled  Blue Moon.

Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.

Blue moon
You knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for.

And then there suddenly appeared before me
The only one my arms will ever hold
I heard somebody whisper please adore me
And when I looked the moon had turned to gold.

It is quite amazing that Blue Moon, one of the greatest popular songs of the 20th century, became a beloved classic only on the fourth attempt!

Let’s face it, the lyrics to the first two versions stink. Once we get to The Bad In Every Man, the lyrics to are strictly OK – but in Blue Moon they are truly inspired and timeless.

Jack Robbins made good on his promise. He licensed Blue Moon to a radio show, Hollywood Hotel, and they used it as their theme song. And the song Blue Moon subsequently appeared in at least seven MGM movies.

In 1949, two different versions of Blue Moon made the pop charts. The first version was by Billy Eckstine and the second by Mel Torme. Elvis recorded Blue Moon in 1956, and Frank Sinatra recorded a classic cover in 1961 with backing from the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. However, in this post we will discuss covers by The Marcels and by Rod Stewart.

The Movie Manhattan Melodrama:

Manhattan Melodrama was a 1934 movie that was produced by MGM Studios, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, and starred Clark Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The story centers around two boys named Blackie Gallagher (Gable) and Jim Wade (Powell) – the young boys are portrayed by child actors, one of whom is Mickey Rooney. At the beginning of the film, the boys are orphaned when a ship sinks in the East River and their parents drown.

The boys are saved by a priest, Father Joe, and they are raised by a man whose son drowned in the same ship disaster. Jim is a top student, earns a law degree and is eventually elected DA. Blackie chooses a very different path, and becomes the owner of a prosperous illegal casino.

Blackie’s girlfriend Eleanor (Loy) pleads with him in vain to give up his dangerous and illegal lifestyle. She eventually leaves him after he refuses to reform.

Here is a film clip from Manhattan Melodrama. It begins with a brief scene where Jim and Eleanor are chatting in a taxi, on their way to a Harlem nightclub. At this time, Eleanor is still Blackie’s girl. Jim and Eleanor continue to talk at the nightclub, while the singer (Shirley Ross, made up to look as though she is African-American) sings The Bad In Every Man.

In this song, Ms. Ross bemoans the fact that she is constantly falling for men, only to discover that each lover has defects that prove fatal to a permanent relationship.

Oh, Lord, what is the matter with me
I’m just permitted to see
The bad in every man.

Oh, hear me, Lord, I could be good to a lover
But then I always discover
The bad in every man.

They like to tell you that they love you only
And you believe it, so you’ll know you’re wrong
A little hall room can be awfully lonely
And the night can be so very long.

As you can see, this is the distinctive melody of Blue Moon, but the lyrics are completely different.

Some time later, Eleanor and Jim begin a relationship and get married. In the meantime, Blackie has killed a gambler, Manny Arnold, who owes him money. Although Jim suspects Blackie for the crime, it goes unsolved.

Later, Jim runs for governor. However, Snow, one of Jim’s former assistants threatens to claim (falsely) that Jim had covered up Blackie’s murder of Arnold. Upon encountering Blackie, Eleanor reveals that Jim is being blackmailed. Blackie then kills Snow in an attempt to assist Eleanor and Jim.

However, a witness identifies Blackie. Jim has no recourse but to try Blackie for the murder. Blackie is convicted and sentenced to death. Eleanor pleads with Jim to commute Blackie’s sentence, but he refuses, so she leaves Jim.

Jim finally decides that he will get Blackie’s sentence commuted. He rushes to Sing Sing prison where Blackie is scheduled for execution. There Jim meets Blackie and the prison chaplain, who by amazing coincidence is Father Joe. Jim offers to commute Blackie’s sentence, but Blackie refuses and Father Joe escorts him to the electric chair.

Jim then calls a special session of the state legislature, where he admits that Blackie’s murder of Snow helped him get elected governor. He also reveals he tried to commute Blackie’s sentence, and he resigns as governor. When Jim leaves the session, Eleanor is waiting for him and the couple re-unite.

Manhattan Melodrama had a fascinating history. First off, it was not expected to be a hit – it was written and filmed quickly and cheaply. After the film became a surprise blockbuster, William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed up in 14 subsequent films.

The best-known of the Powell-Loy movies was the wildly successful “Nick and Nora” series. Nick and Nora Charles were fictional characters created by author Dashiell Hammett for his 1934 novel The Thin Man.

Powell and Loy played Nick and Nora, a married couple who solve crimes in their spare time while exchanging witty banter and constantly mixing and drinking alcohol. Some of their snappy repartee is also featured in Manhattan Melodrama.

Most-wanted criminal John Dillinger was watching Manhattan Melodrama at Chicago’s Biograph Theater when federal agents were tipped off that he was at the movie. When Dillinger left the theater he was gunned down by FBI agents. MGM used the notoriety of Dillinger and his death to hype their film, much to the dismay of some of the cast.

The Marcels and Blue Moon:

“Bomp ba ba bomp ba bomp ba bomp bomp, bomp ba ba bomp ba bomp ba bomp bomp, ve-dang a-dang dang, va-ding a-dong ding Blue Moon.” For anyone who has heard Fred Johnson’s bass intro to the Marcels’ cover of the Rodgers & Hart song Blue Moon, the song will never again be the same.

The Marcels were a doo-wop quintet that formed in Pittsburgh, home of many of the early doo-wop groups. Their name was a reference to the “marcel wave,” a hair style popular at the time.

Here is a photo of The Marcels taken in 1961.

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In addition to Fred Johnson on bass, the group included lead singer Cornelius Harp, Gene Bricker, Ron Mundy and Richard Knauss. The group recorded Blue Moon in 1961 when they needed three songs to finish taping an album.

The “bomp ba ba bomp …” bass intro was taken from a song that The Marcels were already using in their act. Apparently their version of Blue Moon was recorded in two takes.

A tape of the recording was given to New York pop DJ “Murray the K” Kaufman. Murray played it repeatedly on his influential show on New York’s WINS radio.

The Marcels’ Blue Moon became a smash hit. It raced up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and also claimed the top spot on the U.K. Singles chart. Here is the audio of Blue Moon by the Marcels.

What a great doo-wop song! Fred Johnson’s booming bass solo grabs you, and the song then segues to Cornelius Harp’s lovely lead vocals. The song has an infectious beat and impressive harmonies from the rest of the Marcels. In addition, it also features a standard doo-wop falsetto ending.

All in all, The Marcels’ Blue Moon became a rock ‘n roll classic. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame chose it as one of their 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n Roll. I agree – and it claims a place as one of my top five “singing in the shower” songs.

One person who was NOT a fan of this cover of a popular classic was the composer, Richard Rodgers. Rodgers so disliked the Marcels’ doo-wop treatment of his melody that he took out advertisements in trade publications, urging people not to purchase the record!

Well, The Marcels were sort of “two-hit wonders.” They had one more top 40 hit, a song called Heartaches that eventually sold more than one million records.

As you can see from their photo above, The Marcels were a biracial group. Unfortunately, the group encountered significant hostility while touring in the Deep South because they had both black and white singers. At that time, the ensemble’s two white members Gene Bricker and Richard Knauss quit the group.

The Marcels then experienced a number of personnel changes. However, in 1999 all of the surviving members re-formed for the PBS Special Doo-Wop 50 (Gene Bricker had passed away in 1983).

So here are the Marcels in a live performance of Blue Moon at the 1999 concert Doo-Wop 50.

For a bunch of old performers, these guys can still bring it! Fred Johnson continues to belt out the iconic bass lines, while Cornelius Harp’s lead vocals are impressive.

The Marcels are clearly a big hit with the crowd, and it was nice to see that they were able to re-unite all of the surviving members. A perfect song to commemorate the 50th anniversary of doo-wop music!

Rod Stewart and Blue Moon:

We discussed Rod Stewart in an earlier blog post on Tim Hardin’s song Reason To Believe. So here we will briefly review Rod Stewart’s life and career.

Rod Stewart was born in 1945 in North London. His father was Scottish, and Rod’s first passion was for Scottish football (or “soccer” as we know it). Stewart was apparently fairly talented as a soccer player, and earned a tryout with a third-division English FC team.  Rod did not make the soccer team.

Like so many British Invasion artists, he was inspired by British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan. Stewart then switched his affiliation to rock ‘n roll, after hearing recordings by Little Richard. His trademark raspy, gravelly vocals owe much to the influence of Little Richard.

In the early 60s, Stewart began performing as a vocalist and harmonica player. However, significant fame eluded Rod until 1967, when he became the lead vocalist for the Jeff Beck Group. At this time he also began writing his own songs.

Stewart’s unique vocal style gained him quite a following in Britain’s blues and soul circuit. A 1968 appearance at the Fillmore East auditorium brought him critical acclaim in the U.S. as well.

At this point, Rod met up with bass player and guitarist Ron Wood. They began an long and fruitful collaboration, and Ronnie Wood was closely connected with Stewart’s rise to fame. Below is a photo of Rod Stewart and his mate Ron Wood (L) .

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Stewart subsequently left the Jeff Beck Group and became the lead vocalist with The Faces, along with Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones. At the same time, Stewart began to issue solo albums backed by his own group of musicians.

Stewart’s big breakthrough came in 1971, when he released a cut from his first solo album Every Picture Tells a Story. However, the “B” side of that record, Maggie May, became a surprise boffo hit, rising all the way to #1 on both the US and UK pop charts.

Through the 70s Rod continued to produce a string of hits, some through his solo efforts and others with the Faces. His unique rough vocal style was effective over a wide range of tunes — blues-based songs, R&B, folk-rock efforts and the occasional ballad.

I was a big fan in the early days, but I jumped off the Rod Stewart bandwagon in the late 70s when he began dressing in spandex and singing disco songs – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and Hot Legs, ugh! More recently, Rod Stewart has reached back to favorites from his childhood, songs from the Great American Songbook.

Here is a video of Rod in a live performance of Blue Moon. This is from his One Night Only! Rod Stewart concert in Royal Albert Hall in October, 2004. In this concert Rod presented a retrospective, ranging from his first hit Maggie May up to his most recent songs.

Stewart’s performance of Blue Moon includes an introductory verse. In the 30s it was common to include such verses at the beginning of a song. As it happens, few people nowadays include this beginning verse to Blue Moon, which goes:

Once upon a time before I took up smiling
I hated the moonlight
Shadows of the night that poets find beguiling
Seemed flat as the noonlight
With no one to stay up for I went to sleep at ten
Life was a bitter cup for the saddest of all men

On this occasion, Rod is backed by a full orchestra. The audience was very appreciative of every song that he performed at this concert.

Rod Stewart’s distinctive vocals are not quite as raspy as in his youth. This is partly because of his new affinity for older pop tunes, and in part because Rod had to re-learn how to sing after operations for thyroid cancer in 2000.

Although I’m not into Rod Stewart’s “disco” phase, it’s hard to argue with the career choices of a man who has sold upwards of 100 million records. Rod Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Rod has led a very colorful life. In addition to his well-publicized love of soccer and his affinity for model trains, Stewart was nearly always in the company of actresses or other beauties. An affair with Swedish actress Britt Eckland in the mid-70s was followed by marriage to George Hamilton’s ex-wife Alana Hamilton.

While still married to Alana, Rod commenced a several-year affair with American model Kelly Emberg. Then in 1990 Stewart married super-model Rachel Hunter. Ms. Hunter, who was 24 years younger than Stewart, dumped him in 1999. For the past 11 years Stewart has been married to English model Penny Lancaster. Rod has fathered eight children (that we know about), by five different mothers.

Although Sir Roderick is apparently one of the wealthiest British musicians, it is alleged that he never carries cash and does not tip at restaurants.  Just why was he awarded that CBE, anyway?

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Blue Moon (1934 song)
Wikipedia, Richard Rodgers
Wikipedia, Manhattan Melodrama
Wikipedia, The Marcels
Wikipedia, Rod Stewart

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

Lido Shuffle: Boz Scaggs; Dukes of September; Live From Ventura Boulevard

Hello there! This week’s entry is Lido Shuffle, an R&B song from the late 70s. We will begin with the original by Boz Scaggs. We will then discuss covers by The Dukes of September and by a ‘tribute band’ called Live From Ventura Boulevard.

By the way, this blog post is dedicated to my sister Betty and her friend Michelle from Denver.  My understanding is that Boz Scaggs is their all-time favorite artist.

Boz Scaggs and Lido Shuffle:

William Royce Scaggs was born in 1944 in Canton, Ohio. His parents subsequently moved to Plano, Texas, and young Mr. Scaggs enrolled in St. Mark’s School, a private school in Dallas.

One of Scaggs’ classmates at St. Mark’s was Steve Miller. Miller, who would become famous as a guitarist and singer-songwriter, founded a band at St. Mark’s that featured Scaggs as lead vocalist. It was also at St. Mark’s that Scaggs was given the nickname “Bosley,” which was later shortened to “Boz.”

Both Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where once again they played together in various blues bands.

After graduating from college, Boz Scaggs headed to London and a musical career. He released an album that sank without a trace. So in 1967, Boz headed back to the States, his destination the West Coast. He arrived in San Francisco just when the Summer of Love was in full swing.

And once again, Boz Scaggs joined up with Steve Miller. Scaggs played guitar and sang on the first two albums released by the Steve Miller Band. Below is a photo of Boz Scaggs circa 1970.

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Boz then set sail on a solo career. He garnered a record deal with Atlantic Records and released a self-titled album in 1968. The album included backup by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and featured contributions from a then-obscure session guitarist named Duane Allman. However, the album did not sell particularly well, despite the impressive musical talent involved.

Eventually, Boz Scaggs signed with Columbia Records, and his fortunes took a turn for the better. He received some favorable reviews and his record sales improved.

The song Lido Shuffle was co-written by Boz Scaggs and his keyboardist David Paich. The tune appeared on the Boz Scaggs album Silk Degrees. That album was released in 1976, and the single Lido Shuffle was issued the following year.

The lyrics to Lido Shuffle describe a man who is traveling around and gambling.

Lido missed the boat that day
He left the shack
But that was all he missed
And he ain’t comin back.

At a tombstone bar
In a jukejoint car
He made a stop
Just long enough
To grab a handle off the top.

Next stop Chi town
Lido put the money down let em roll
He said one more job ought to get it
One last shot ‘fore we quit it
One for the road.

There seems to be some controversy regarding the precise meaning of the lyrics. My take is that Lido was a small-time criminal who kept gambling away his money. My interpretation is based on the assumption that the phrase “grab a handle off the top” at “a tombstone bar” refers to his robbing an establishment.

Lido gambles away his ill-gotten gains in Chicago, and then plans to rob one additional place before retiring (“one more job ought to get it”). However, I note that others interpret the lyrics as simply referring to a man who travels, gambles and generally has a good time.

Regardless of one’s interpretation, Lido Shuffle bounces along merrily, and is a great sing-along tune. The instrumental work is excellent, and the song features a full horn section. Lido Shuffle made it to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop songs in the U.S., and reached #13 on the U.K. singles charts.

Silk Degrees was Boz Scaggs’ most successful record. In addition to Lido Shuffle, that album also contained Scaggs’ biggest single hit, Lowdown. But when Silk Degrees was first released in 1976 it appeared to be a commercial disappointment, and the first single from the album did not chart well.

However, a DJ in Cleveland began playing the song Lowdown from the album. That song generated a lot of interest, so it was eventually released as a single and became a million-seller.  Scaggs and David Paich, his co-writer on Lowdown, were quite surprised by the success of that song, as they were convinced that it would never appeal to a wide audience.  Once Lowdown became a hit, Lido Shuffle was then released as a single.

Members of Boz Scaggs’ band on Silk Degrees included Scaggs’ songwriting collaborator David Paich, drummer Jeff Porcaro and bassist David Hungate. Those three, who had worked as session musicians for groups such as Steely Dan and Sonny & Cher, then joined forces with other musicians (particularly some of their old high school classmates) to form Toto. That band had a number of pop hits in the late 70s and early 80s.

So here is Boz Scaggs in a live performance of Lido Shuffle. This took place at a concert in 2004.

The song begins with over a minute of instrumental intro, after which Scaggs gives us a fine rendering of his hit. He is backed by a capable band complete with a horn section and backup singers. The audience gives him an enthusiastic reception.

After releasing an album in 1981, Scaggs took several years off from recording. From 1989 to 1992, Boz became a member of the New York Rock and Soul Revue. Some of his bandmates in that organization were Donald Fagen, formerly with Steely Dan, and Michael McDonald who had been with The Doobie Brothers.

The New York Rock and Soul Revue released a live album of material they had performed at New York’s Beacon Theater. That group subsequently disbanded, but in 2010 Fagen, Scaggs and McDonald re-formed as The Dukes of September.  We will review that group in the next section of this post.

Currently, Boz Scaggs and his wife Dominique own a winery in the Napa Valley. They appear to be spending quite a lot of their time and effort in the viniculture business.

However, Boz Scaggs also continues to tour. I note that on July 13, 2018 he will be appearing at Wrigley Field in Chicago, together with Jimmy Buffett, where apparently “Lido” will shuffle off to “Margaritaville.” I’ll drink to that!

Dukes of September and Lido Shuffle:

As we mentioned in the preceding section, The Dukes of September were a supergroup that formed in 2010. The band included Boz Scaggs and two members of earlier 70s bands, Donald Fagen from Steely Dan and Michael McDonald from The Doobie Brothers.

McDonald and Fagen had worked together off and on since the 70s. Back then McDonald frequently collaborated with Steely Dan, providing keyboards and vocals for some of their albums.  As previously mentioned, all three had performed in the 90s with the New York Rock and Soul Revue.

Below is a photo of the Dukes of September in concert. Far left, at keyboards: Michael McDonald; right center, at piano: Donald Fagen; far right, on guitar: Boz Scaggs.

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That group toured for a couple of years, and in Nov. 2012 they recorded a Great Performances special live concert that was released in 2014 by PBS.

The Dukes of September performed mainly covers of 70s and 80s pop songs, and in concert each of the three superstars reprised some of their most popular tunes.

So, for example Dukes of September offerings included Reelin’ In the Years and Hey Nineteen from Steely Dan, Takin’ It To the Streets and What a Fool Believes from The Doobie Brothers, and Boz Scaggs’ Lowdown.

So here are the Dukes of September in a live performance of Lido Shuffle.

Not surprisingly, the Lido Shuffle produced by the Dukes of September is remarkably reminiscent of Boz Scaggs’ original offering. However, it remains a really enjoyable and catchy blues shuffle.

Live From Ventura Boulevard and Lido Shuffle:

Apparently, Live From Ventura Boulevard are a “tribute band.” This generally refers to an ensemble that specializes in covering the music of a particular group.

For me, Elvis impersonators would constitute the original “tribute act.” Wikipedia lists 22 performers around the world who dress up like Elvis and imitate his songs.

Others credit The Beatles as being the inspiration for tribute bands. When I looked up “Beatles tribute bands” on the Web, I was led to a list of 21 such groups.

When I looked up “Tribute act” on Wikipedia, I found that many of the tribute bands appeared to focus on groups from the 70s, particularly “classic rock” acts. Thus, bands with a significant ‘tribute presence’ include
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Sabbath, Journey, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Styx, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Madonna, The Misfits, Queen, Alice in Chains, Grateful Dead, Van Halen, ABBA, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Cars, R.E.M., Rammstein, Neil Diamond, and Steely Dan.

Now, Live From Ventura Boulevard are somewhat different, in that they focus on the music of an entire era – specifically late 70s power pop — rather than a single band. On their Web site they list bands whose music they cover:
Boz Scaggs, Kenny Loggins, The Doobie Brothers, Little River Band, Ambrosia, The Eagles, America, Pablo Cruise, Gino Vannelli, Steely Dan, Christopher Cross, Player, The Bee Gees.

As far as I can tell, Live From Ventura Boulevard must be centered somewhere around Nashville, TN, as several of their upcoming shows take place in the Music City.

To the best of my knowledge, this band has not released an album, and I was unable to locate a photo of the entire band. But here is the group Live From Ventura Boulevard in a performance of Boz Scaggs’ Lido Shuffle.

So, what do you think? If I am correct, that is Scott Sheriff on lead vocals. The group seems to be quite professional, and their cover of Lido Shuffle is well received by the audience.

Now, in many cases a tribute band is trying to give a performance that is a very close simulation of the original record. And in this case Live From Ventura Boulevard does just that.

Of course, there are exceptions to the norm of producing a near-perfect copy of the original band. There exist several all-girl tribute bands (e.g., AC/DShe, Aerochix, Iron Maidens, Lez Zeppelin); and the group Hayseed Dixie, whom we covered in an earlier blog post, creates country-music interpretations of songs by the heavy-metal group AC/DC.

The relationships between tribute bands and the original groups are rather interesting. In a few cases, members from the original group have a friendly relationship with one of their tribute acts.  In fact, members of the original group occasionally sit in with tribute bands.  Examples would be Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose members sometimes play with their tribute group, The Saturday Night Special Band; and Deep Purple, whose drummer has played with tribute band Purpendicular.

Conversely, Bon Jovi took the opposite approach and sued the all-female tribute group Blonde Jovi for copyright infringement. And Sony Music Entertainment filed a lawsuit against the group Beatallica (who play Beatles tunes in the style of Metallica); but Beatallica won the lawsuit and continue to perform.

If you are interested in this general topic, in 2013 the cable network AXS-TV produced a series called The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands.

My guess is that with a few exceptions, a tribute band is probably a tough way to make a living. I am not really into tribute bands, but am happy to hear from people who are big fans of a particular tribute act.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Lido Shuffle
Wikipedia, Boz Scaggs
Wikipedia, The Dukes of September
Live From Ventura Boulevard Web site
Wikipedia, Tribute act

Posted in Classic Rock, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Can’t Find My Way Home: Blind Faith; Joe Cocker; John Mayer.

Hello there! This week’s entry is Can’t Find My Way Home, a terrific British Invasion blues song from the late 60s. We will begin with the original by Blind Faith. We will then discuss covers by Joe Cocker and by John Mayer.

Blind Faith and Can’t Find My Way Home:

We reviewed the British rock group Blind Faith in an earlier blog post on the Stones’ song Under My Thumb.

We have covered Blind Faith members Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton from their work with other groups. We reviewed Winwood’s early work with the Spencer Davis Group on our discussion of their song Gimme Some Lovin’, and also Winwood’s work with Traffic on the song Feelin’ Alright?

Eric Clapton has been one of our favorite rock musicians. We covered his work with Cream on the song Crossroads, his stint with Derek and the Dominoes with Layla, and solo efforts on iconic blues tunes such as Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain and later Sweet Home Chicago, and the tune Willie and the Hand Jive.

So here we will give a brief history of the short lifetime of the band Blind Faith.

In 1969, various British rock groups were disintegrating. Eric Clapton was disenchanted with his supergroup trio Cream for several reasons. For one thing, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce loathed each other, and Clapton felt caught in the middle of their feuds.

In addition, the perfectionist Clapton believed that the group was “coasting,” often producing third-rate performances. Finally, Clapton felt overwhelmed by the adulation that both he and his band Cream were receiving from rabid fans of the group.

A couple of years earlier, Steve Winwood had left the Spencer Davis Group over creative differences – Winwood was interested in jazz-influenced progressive rock, while other members of the band favored heavy-metal blues-infused music. Winwood formed Traffic in order to pursue these new directions. However, Winwood took a temporary hiatus from Traffic in 1969, and
Winwood started to jam with his good friend Clapton in Clapton’s basement in Surrey, England. Winwood and Clapton had previously collaborated on the “Powerhouse” project.

Clapton was excited about collaborating with Winwood, but was loath to form another ‘super-group.’ It was tough when Ginger Baker was suggested as the group’s drummer, since such a group would naturally be interpreted as “Cream minus Jack Bruce.” However, eventually they settled on Baker along with Ric Grech as the bassist, and “Blind Faith” as the group’s name.

Below we see Blind Faith at the session that produced the photo subsequently used for their first album. From L to R: Steve Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton.

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The song Can’t Find My Way Home was written by Steve Winwood, who was also the lead vocalist. The song gives a poignant description of someone whose life has gone off course and who does not know how to get back on track.

Come down off your throne and leave your body alone
Somebody must change
You are the reason I’ve been waiting all these years
Somebody holds the key

Well, I’m near the end and I just ain’t got the time
And I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home

The line “I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home” is a succinct description of someone who is depressed because they have at least temporarily lost their way.

Blind Faith’s first public performance was a free concert in London’s Hyde Park in June 1969. Wouldn’t it be nice if your band held its first gig and 300,000 people turned up? You certainly wouldn’t have to go around taping up concert posters on lamp-posts.

Here is the video for Can’t Find My Way Home performed at the Hyde Park concert.

Isn’t this a great song? Steve Winwood contributes lead vocals and keyboards on his Hammond B-3 organ, while Eric Clapton chimes in with a tasty solo on his Fender Stratocaster. Winwood has a terrific voice. Also, take note of Ginger Baker’s impressive jazz-inspired drum licks.

Unfortunately, both the video and audio of this concert are crappy. For some reason, the main camera was set up near the ground next to the drummer, so that for the most part we see Winwood and Clapton only dimly in the distance behind Baker’s drum kit.

By the way, Blind Faith fanatics can find video of the entire Hyde Park concert here: [warning: the audio and video remain crummy throughout this historic concert.]

The Hyde Park concert was followed a month later by the release of the band’s first (and only) album Blind Faith, on the Atco label. The album immediately rocketed to #1 on the Billboard album charts in both the U.S. and U.K. The band soon set out on a U.S. tour that filled up large arenas.

Most people would have been ecstatic to experience the great demand for their music, and the public acclaim for their band. However, for Eric Clapton this was a terrible sign. People had started to refer to Blind Faith as “Super-Cream” — so much for not forming a super-group!

Even worse, Blind Faith had not yet assembled enough original material for a concert, so Cream and Traffic songs were added to fill in the gaps. Clapton also felt that the band had rushed out on tour before they had fully rehearsed. Clapton developed a serious case of déjà vu, fearing that Blind Faith was repeating exactly what he was trying to avoid.

L: controversial Blind Faith album cover; R: replacement photo of the band offered as a substitute cover.

To make matters worse, the original album cover (shown at left, along with its subsequent replacement) did not contain the name of the band. Because the album cover photo showed a nude (and possibly underage) girl, the record was banned in several countries (the woman was an adult professional model, but that was beside the point).

Clapton’s concerns, the album controversy, and the group’s meager playlist led to the band breaking up after their initial tour. A few songs that had been recorded for an intended second album were eventually released in various Clapton and Winwood collections.

Clapton and Winwood remained friends, and in the past decade have begun to appear together again. This started at Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival, where they played together with a set that included a few Blind Faith numbers.

Here are Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, backed up by Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall, performing Can’t Find My Way Home at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival.

The audio and video are excellent, which makes up for the disappointing video from the original Blind Faith Hyde Park concert. Both Winwood and Clapton contribute understated but impressive solos on their Fender Stratocasters. Winwood is a seriously underrated guitar player.

This song has become an iconic favorite; it’s a perfect tune for anyone whose life has taken a bad turn, and who is searching to get back on track. That could explain the more than 15 million hits for this video.

The great lyrics, combined with the intricate guitar work, helps to explain why this song is so appealing to jam bands. In addition to the covers that we feature in this post, there are also impressive live performances of this song by The Allman Brothers with Sheryl Crow, and by the Tedeschi-Trucks Band.

After they teamed up at Crossroads, Clapton and Winwood reunited for a limited series of concerts in the US, Europe and Japan between 2008 and 2011. I am frustrated that I never caught one of their concerts.

I have been a fan of Steve Winwood ever since I saw him perform with the Spencer Davis Group in 1966; I have seen him with Traffic and as a solo act since then.

And I have seen Clapton performing solo a few times in recent years, although as a grad student in England I spent a fair amount of time “missing Eric Clapton,” having caught the Yardbirds and John Mayall shortly after Clapton left each of those groups.

In the history of rock music, Blind Faith was simply a brief interlude in the careers of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Journalist Johnny Black sums up the Blind Faith saga rather succinctly:
Blind Faith was cursed almost from the outset. This was a band whose members rarely seemed to tell each other anything. A band at loggerheads with its management. A management at loggerheads with itself. A heroin addicted drummer. A guitarist who wanted out almost from the word go. A stadium tour that the keyboard player didn’t want to be on. A record cover scandal. Worst of all, though, they were mind-numbingly successful when they didn’t want to be.

After Blind Faith broke up, Baker continued on with Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Winwood re-united with Traffic, while Clapton sat in with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, then formed the super-group Derek and the Dominos before embarking on a long and distinguished solo career. I greatly enjoyed Blind Faith’s only album, and can’t help but wish they might have stayed together for a longer time.

Joe Cocker and Can’t Find My Way Home:

Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. We have discussed him in several earlier blog posts. We first encountered Cocker from his cover of the Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends. Next we reviewed his version of Many Rivers To Cross; later we discussed him in A Whiter Shade of Pale; both Cocker and Steve Winwood crossed paths in our review of Feelin’ Alright? We analyzed Cocker’s cover of Delta Lady; we wrote about Cocker’s cover of The Letter by the Box Tops; and most recently we discussed his cover of Randy Newman’s You Can Leave Your Hat On.

Joe Cocker was one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he produced relatively few original songs. Most of his best-known hits were covers of other tunes. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best work brought an entirely new take on a classic song.

Below is a famous photo of Joe Cocker performing at Whiskey Au Go Go. Apparently the woman directly in front of Mr. Cocker has her hand up his trousers, which may account for his emphatic response.

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Born in 1944, as a teenager Cocker was attracted to music by the British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles.

Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and soul singers like Ray Charles. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.

Cocker worked his way through the British club circuit. Initially, he made little headway until he hooked up with Denny Cordell, the producer for British progressive-rock groups such as Procol Harum and the Moody Blues. With Cordell’s backing, Cocker was able to book larger venues and to work with more talented studio musicians.

After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker made the big time in 1969 with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Cocker’s cover was interesting in that it was totally different from the Beatles’ original.

Like many other young artists, Cocker’s appearance at Woodstock made him an overnight sensation. His career took off like a rocket.

Once Joe Cocker gained fame through his exposure at the Woodstock Festival and in particular as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert movie, he continued to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist.

So here is video of Joe Cocker in a live performance of Can’t Find My Way Home.

This took place in Baden-Baden, Germany in 1996. Here, Joe is aided by fine instrumental backing from acoustic guitar, dobro and some terrific keyboard work.

It’s easy to be distracted by Cocker’s spastic arm movements, and the fact that his shirt is drenched with sweat. However, if you concentrate on his vocals you will discover a really inspired version of this Blind Faith classic from a great R&B vocalist.

Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. What a great loss; he is deeply missed.

John Mayer and Can’t Find My Way Home:

John Mayer is an American blues guitarist and pop singer. Mayer is more contemporary than most of the artists whom we cover; however in his blues efforts he is a throwback to legendary performers such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King.

We discussed John Mayer in an earlier blog post on the Ray Charles song I Got A Woman. Here we will briefly review his life and career.

John Mayer was born in 1977 and raised in Connecticut. As a teenager, his father rented him a guitar; he became hooked on the blues after hearing a Stevie Ray Vaughn cassette. Mayer then worked his way through a number of legendary blues guitarists, copying and mastering their riffs.

Below is a photo of John Mayer performing in Philadelphia in June 2010.

Embed from Getty Images

John Mayer first hit the charts in 2001 when his mainly acoustic pop songs became gigantic hits and he rapidly achieved stardom. However, following some success with pop songs like Your Body is a Wonderland and Waiting for the World to Change, Mayer moved back to his first love, the blues.

He collaborated with blues legends such as Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Since then, he has moved back and forth between pop music and more blues-based songs. In 2005 he formed the John Mayer Trio, and went on tour with songs that focused on his R&B roots.

Here is John Mayer in a live performance of Can’t Find My Way Home. This took place in Aug. 2013 at Darien Lake Ampitheater, not that far from Buffalo in western New York State.

Now, John Mayer has a perfectly fine voice, which is particularly effective on his original songs. But it really doesn’t compare to the great Steve Winwood. However, that is not the point on this song. Here, John Mayer treats us to an exceptional rock-blues guitar solo.

You can see that all of Mayer’s efforts in copying blues guitar legends have paid off in spades. This is just first-rate work: terrific fingering; impressive work on the wah-wah pedal; and a wonderfully constructed riff on the central theme from Can’t Find My Way Home.  Enjoy!

John Mayer rapidly became a pop icon, dominated awards shows such as the Grammies, and started dating A-list superstars. Unfortunately, his fame led him to give some interviews where he came off as, well, a colossal dick.

The criticism Mayer received over his personal life and his intemperate remarks escalated into claims that he had not ‘paid his dues’ as a blues musician. I strongly disagree with that point of view. To my mind, Mayer is a terrific musician and an extremely talented blues guitarist. I have seen him perform with artists such as Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton, and Mayer holds his own even in such exalted company.

Below is a photo of John Mayer with Eric Clapton at a Madison Square Garden concert in May 2015 commemorating Clapton’s 70th birthday.

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In 2011, John Mayer became fascinated with the music of the Grateful Dead, and it began to dominate his personal playlist. Then in 2015, Mayer invited Dead guitarist Bob Weir to join him when Mayer was guest hosting the long-running Irish TV program The Late Late Show.

After that, Weir and his Grateful Dead mates invited Mayer to join them in their Fare Thee Well tour to commemorate 50 years of the Grateful Dead band. In August 2015 Weir and Dead drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann invited Mayer, bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti to form Dead & Company. The group first toured in 2015 and has continued touring up to the present.

So at the moment, John Mayer alternates between his touring with Dead & Company and releasing his own pop records. We wish him all success with both of these endeavors. We urge him to stick to his music, and stay away from social media as much as possible.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Can’t Find My Way Home.
Wikipedia, Blind Faith
Johnny Black, Blind Faith: Born Under a Bad Sign.
Wikipedia, Steve Winwood
Wikipedia, Eric Clapton
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker
Wikipedia, John Mayer

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

Go Now: Bessie Banks; The Moody Blues; Tin Machine.

Hello there! This week’s entry is Go Now, a really fine R&B song from the mid-60s. We will begin with the original by Bessie Banks. We will then discuss the most widely-known version of this tune by The Moody Blues, and then finish with a cover by Tin Machine.

Bessie Banks and Go Now:

Bessie Banks is an American pop singer. She was born Bessie White in North Carolina in 1938, and raised in Brooklyn. In the mid-50s, Bessie began a singing career, then met and married singer Larry Banks.

A photo of soul singer Bessie Banks from the mid-60s.

Bessie and Larry performed together for a few years, after which Bessie launched a solo career as a soul singer. In 1963 Larry Banks wrote the song Go Now specifically for Bessie. At left we show an early photo of Bessie Banks from about 1964.

In Bessie Banks’ version of Go Now, the singer confronts her former lover, who has expressed his intention to leave. The singer requests that he leave immediately, otherwise she might break down and cry because she still loves him.

We’ve already said “goodbye”
Since you gotta go, oh you’d better
Go now, go now, go now (go now, ooh)
Before you see me cry

I don’t want you to tell me just what you intend to do now
‘Cause how many times do I have to tell you darlin’, darlin’
I’m still in love with you now
Whoa oh oh oh

The 1964 Tiger Records 45-RPM release of Go Now.

Bessie and Larry Banks recorded a demo of the song and shopped it around to several record companies.

The great songwriting and producing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller heard the demo and decided to produce it. Leiber and Stoller re-recorded the tune and released in January 1964.  At left is an image of the 45 RPM record of Bessie Banks’ Go Now, on Tiger Records.

I can’t find any live video of Ms. Banks performing Go Now, but here is the audio of her recording.

Go Now became a minor hit for Bessie Banks. It peaked at #40 on the Cashbox R&B charts. I’m a bit surprised that it was not more successful, because the tune is great and Ms. Banks gives it a powerful delivery.

The song features piano and bass up front. In addition to Bessie Banks’ vocals, there is a girl-group chorus supplied by Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston’s mother) and Dee Dee Warwick (the sister of Dionne Warwick and niece of Cissy Houston).

BTW, in the video we just showed, I haven’t the foggiest notion of the relationship (if any) between the song Go Now, and the random video clips of white teenagers in the mid-60s.

Bessie Banks tells a poignant story about Go Now. She states that shortly after her song’s release,
it was chosen Pick Hit of the Week on W.I.N.S. Radio [New York]. That means your record is played for seven days. …. I was so thrilled. On day five, when I heard the first line, I thought it was me, but all of a sudden, I realized it wasn’t. At the end of the song it was announced, “The Moody Blues singing ‘Go Now’.”

In Ms. Banks’ recollection, she was devastated to realize that a British Invasion group The Moody Blues had covered her song, and essentially erased her original version. However, it has been pointed out that Ms. Banks’ memory is faulty. Her original version of Go Now was released in Jan. 1964; but the Moody Blues cover was not released in the U.S. until Jan. 1965.

Nevertheless, it can’t be much fun to find that a cover of your only hit has had much greater success than your original offering.

As of 2007, it was reported that Bessie Banks was still performing although she now confined her efforts to gospel music. We wish Bessie Banks success and happiness, and continued long life.

The Moody Blues and Go Now:

The Moody Blues were a British Invasion band that became known for their progressive-rock style.  They formed in 1964 as a rhythm & blues group from Birmingham.

The original founding members were Ray Thomas and keyboardist Mike Pinder, who had played together in an earlier group.  They recruited bassist Clint Warwick, guitarist Denny Laine and drummer Graeme Edge.  Initially the group called themselves The M Bs, as they were hoping to obtain sponsorship from Birmingham’s M&B Brewery.  When the M&B sponsorship deal fell through, the group adopted the name The Moody Blues.

Below is the 1965 incarnation of The Moody Blues, performing on the British TV show Ready Steady Go! From L: Mike Pinder; Denny Laine; Graeme Edge; Ray Thomas, and Clint Warwick.

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Initially, the group played a combination of original songs and R&B covers.  Early in 1964, Denny Laine heard Bessie Banks’ recording of Go Now.  Laine was convinced that the song was perfect for the Moody Blues, and that it would be a hit.  He managed to convince his bandmates to record the song, which appeared on the group’s first album The Magnificent Moodies, released in early 1965.

So here are the Moody Blues, performing Go Now on the NBC TV show Hullabaloo in March 1965.

As you can see, the Moody Blues arrangement of Go Now follows Bessie Banks’ original song very closely.  In particular, the descending piano chords and bass are strongly reminiscent of the Banks version. However, instead of a girl backing chorus we get the Moodies backing up guitarist and lead vocalist Denny Laine.

Denny Laine has a terrific voice, and it’s no wonder that the version of Go Now by the Moody Blues was so successful (their cover shot up to #1 in the U.K., and peaked at #10 on the Billboard pop charts).

By the way, in this video you’ll see a couple of shots of Brian Epstein, the manager of the Beatles. Hullabaloo included several British Invasion bands on their show. In many cases the live performances were taped in Britain, and Epstein typically hosted those sequences.

In 1965 Go Now became the first big hit for the Moody Blues, and given their talent and creativity it would have been a good bet that they would quickly become British Invasion superstars.

Alas, that did not happen. After Go Now, it would be another three years before the Moody Blues would again land a hit on the pop charts. During the group’s fallow period, Denny Laine quit the group, as did bassist Clint Warwick.

At the end of 1966, the remaining three members of the Moody Blues then joined up with bassist John Lodge and lead guitarist Justin Hayward. At that time, the group shifted from their original blues-based sound to progressive rock.

This shift to progressive rock was highlighted by Mike Pinder’s use of the mellotron, an electrical tape machine that had the capability to reproduce a number of different sounds. In principle, one could use a mellotron to duplicate the sounds of many different instruments, and perhaps even an entire orchestra.  Below left is a schematic diagram describing the operation of the mellotron.

A schematic diagram showing the operation of the Mellotron.

Pinder worked for the original manufacturer of the device, and became fascinated by its possibilities. He claims to have introduced John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the machine.

The Beatles subsequently used a mellotron in several of their songs, including especially Strawberry Fields Forever, and also some songs from their Magical Mystery Tour and White Album records.

In any case, the Moody Blues made extensive use of the mellotron in several of their blockbuster albums, including the 1967 Days of Future Passed and the 1969 release To Our Children’s Children’s Children.

The group was able to utilize the mellotron to give a lush symphonic touch to their songs. Probably their biggest seller and signature song was Nights in White Satin. That song is not one of my favorite Moody Blues tunes, as I am more partial to songs such as Tuesday Afternoon and In Your Wildest Dreams.

The Moody Blues were among the foremost progressive-rock or ‘art-rock’ bands. They had a very loyal fan following, and were among the most durable prog-rock bands. Like so many other groups, they had several personnel changes and members who came and went, but nevertheless they continued to perform until about 2000.

Over the years, the Moody Blues have sold over 70 million records.  This past year they were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and will be inducted in April 2018. Sadly, one of their founding members Ray Thomas died in January 2018.

And now some more about Denny Laine.  After leaving the Moody Blues in 1966, Laine became a member of Ginger Baker’s Air Force when the former Cream drummer formed a new band in 1970.  The stint with Ginger Baker lasted only a year, and then Denny became a founding member of Paul McCartney’s group Wings, assembled by the former Beatle.

On the plus side, Denny Laine provided Wings with a virtuoso guitarist and singer. Laine worked with Paul and Linda McCartney in that band for a decade. He co-wrote some of the songs for Wings, and sang both lead and backing vocals with the group.

Laine also showed off his musical versatility; in Wings, he played lead or rhythm guitar, bass, keyboards and woodwinds. So here is a video clip of Denny Laine singing Go Now, as a member of Wings.

Laine performed Go Now fairly frequently while on tour with Wings. This is a very enjoyable version of this song. It must be quite a kick to have Paul (and Linda) McCartney singing backup on your song! Laine plays keyboards here, and the song builds to a very satisfactory crescendo at the end.

However, it seems that Denny and Paul eventually had a falling out, and Paul closed down Wings in favor of a solo career.

Since that time, rumors have abounded that Paul screwed Denny over regarding reimbursement for Denny’s work with Wings.  It is hard to obtain reliable information regarding this dispute. I do know that in 1979 two of the musicians in Wings were being paid £100 a week for their work. That seems awfully low for members of one of the more popular bands in rock music.

I have found claims that McCartney was incredibly stingy in his treatment of his bandmates in Wings; but I also see statements that McCartney paid Laine handsomely, and that disputes over money resulted from Laine’s extravagant lifestyle.

Anyway, the last I heard of Mr. Laine he was still touring with the Denny Laine Band. We wish this former member of Moody Blues and Wings health and happiness.

Tin Machine and Go Now:

In 1988, David Bowie was feeling restless. His latest album and tour had been disappointing, and he felt it was time for one of his frequent changes in style.

So Bowie teamed up with Reeve Gabrels and two brothers from Detroit, Tony and Hunt Sales. They formed the band Tin Machine with Bowie as the lead singer playing rhythm guitar and sax, Reeve Gabrels playing lead guitar, Tony Sales on bass and Hunt Sales on drums. The Sales brothers were the sons of American comedian Soupy Sales.

Bowie insisted that the group were not simply his backup musicians, but that he was simply one member of a heavy-metal band. The group claimed to have been inspired by rockers such as Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, as well as jazz musicians like Charlie Mingus and Gene Krupa.

Below is a photo of Tin Machine in performance at a concert in Amsterdam in 1989. From L: Tony Fox Sales; Hunt Sales; David Bowie; Reeve Gabrels.

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Another interesting aspect of Tin Machine was that their live performances were rather straightforward and workmanlike. Fans of David Bowie had grown accustomed to exceptionally theatrical shows, as exemplified by his earlier appearances as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, so there was some disappointment that Bowie’s role in Tin Machine was relatively muted.

Here is Tin Machine in concert at Tokyo’s NHK Hall in February 1992. Here, Tony Sales appears on lead vocals in a cover of Go Now.

I am really taken by this version of Go Now. It is a great heavy-metal blues rendition, and I am most impressed with Tony Sales’ vocals. Reeve Gabrels throws in a short but blistering guitar solo in the middle of the piece, while David Bowie is just barely visible in the background, strumming away on rhythm guitar.

Over a period of four years Tin Machine managed to release a couple of albums and to complete two tours before they disbanded. The future of the band was always in some doubt as Bowie would often undertake solo tours between Tin Machine projects, so it was never clear how long the band would endure.

Rumor has it that Hunt Sales’ addiction problems also played a role in the demise of Tin Machine. However, David Bowie invariably spoke about the Tin Machine project with great warmth. He said that he greatly enjoyed his time with the band, that he felt rejuvenated from his work in the group, and that he was proud of their accomplishments.

Bowie of course enjoyed a long and spectacular career in rock music before his death from liver cancer in January 2016. I have lost track of the Sales brothers, but hope that they are still rocking away.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Go Now
Wikipedia, Bessie Banks
Wikipedia, The Moody Blues
Wikipedia, Denny Laine
Wikipedia, Paul McCartney and Wings
Wikipedia, Tin Machine
Wikipedia, David Bowie

Posted in Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Soul music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Duke of Earl: Gene Chandler; Sha Na Na; Earth Angels.

Hello there! This week’s entry is Duke of Earl, one of the greatest doo-wop songs from the 50s. We will begin with the original by Gene Chandler, after which we will briefly discuss the song as it appeared in the movie Don’t Knock The Twist. We will then include covers of that tune by Sha Na Na and by the group Earth Angels, and we finish with a snippet of “bonus video.”

Gene Chandler and Duke of Earl:

The artist Gene Chandler was born Eugene Dixon in 1937, and grew up in Chicago. In 1957 he joined a singing group called The Dukays, where he became their lead singer. Dixon was inducted into the Army later in 1957, but re-joined The Dukays after he left the Army in 1960.

The Dukays recorded a few songs for Nat Records, including Nite Owl and Duke of Earl. Nat Records chose to release and publicize Nite Owl, which became a moderate R&B hit.

When Nat Records decided against releasing Duke of Earl, Dixon left that record company, changed his name to Gene Chandler, and released Duke of Earl under his new name.

Below is a photo of Gene Chandler. As we will see, after Duke of Earl became a hit, Chandler adopted a formal style of dress that capitalized on his self-appointed status as a “Duke.”

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The lyrics to Duke of Earl describe a young man whose confidence has soared because of his love for his girlfriend. He believes he can surmount any obstacle, and he vows to protect his woman from any harm.

The song begins with a repetitive refrain from a chorus, after which Gene Chandler’s vocals enter.

Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl
[repeat 7 times]

As I walk through this world
Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl
And you, you are my girl
And no one can hurt you, oh no

Yes I, oh I’m gonna love you, oh oh
Come on let me hold you darlin’
‘Cause I’m the Duke of Earl
So hey yea yea yeah

Duke of Earl became a smash hit. It rocketed up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts and was certified a gold record. Here is Gene Chandler singing Duke of Earl live at a “doo-wop oldies” show.

As you can see, even in later life Gene Chandler retains those great pipes. Not only can he knock off the iconic lines that were so meaningful in our teen-age years (“you’ll be my duchess, Duchess of Earl”), but he also nails the falsetto stanzas at the end of the song.

The tune Duke of Earl had an interesting genesis. Apparently The Dukays would warm up by singing “Du du du du …” in a number of different keys. One day Dixon replaced that with “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl,” a reference to fellow Dukays member Earl Edwards. Dixon and Edwards, together with songwriter Bernice Williams, subsequently fleshed out the lyrics to the song Duke of Earl.

I knew of Gene Chandler’s career only through Duke of Earl, and had suspected that he was a ‘one-hit wonder.’ As it turns out, I was seriously mistaken.

After Duke of Earl, Chandler charted a number of other top-40 songs, several of which were written by his friend and colleague Curtis Mayfield. Chandler then became a producer, and formed his own record label and production company.

Chandler also collaborated with a number of Chicago soul artists. He released an album of tunes in collaboration with Jerry Butler, and he also performed with Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. In the late 70s, Chandler produced a number of disco-era dance tunes.

I never realized Gene Chandler’s many accomplishments! He still tours today, primarily showcasing his big doo-wop hit Duke of Earl, but also the song Rainbow that was written by Curtis Mayfield.

The song Duke of Earl has sufficient staying power that Gene Chandler is typically the final performer in these doo-wop retrospectives. Keep it up, Gene, and remember – nothing can stop you, ’cause you’re the Duke of Earl!

The movie Don’t Knock The Twist:

Don’t Knock The Twist was a 1962 Columbia Records release. It starred Lang Jeffries and was directed by Oscar Rudolph. It showcased a number of contemporary pop songs, and naturally (being a “twist film”) it featured Chubby Checker.

Poster for the 1962 movie Don’t Knock The Twist, featuring Chubby Checker.

As far as I can tell (I have never seen Don’t Knock The Twist), the movie included pop stars Chubby Checker, Gene Chandler and The Dovells. At left is a poster for the movie Don’t Knock The Twist, which was a sequel to the 1961 film Twist Around The Clock (also, of course, featuring Chubby Checker).

I was under the impression that The Dovells were ‘one-hit wonders,’ and that their biggest-selling record was their bouncy, hook-filled 1961 dance tune The Bristol Stomp. That record hit #2 on the Billboard pop charts. However, that quartet also struck it big with You Can’t Sit Down, a tune that reached #3 on the charts in 1963.

As for the plot of Don’t Knock The Twist, here is the sum total of everything I could glean about this film:
Many twist dancers meet in preparation for the TV variety show called “The Twist.” While the special is still in the production stages, jealousies lead to problems – and a whole lot of dancing.
Got it? On the basis of this information, you could probably write the entire script for this film! So here is Gene Chandler’s appearance in Don’t Knock The Twist.

Obviously, Chandler is simply lip-synching from his record.  Note that he has taken to wearing what became his trademark outfit – top hat; tails; cape; monocle; and cane.

This song is indeed a doo-wop classic. It starts with the iconic “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl” intro, at first with a single voice and then joined by an entire chorus. Gene Chandler really has a lovely and powerful voice that he uses to great effect in this song.

The backup singers show off impressive harmonies, and the bass singer gets to highlight his vocal talents.  This song brings back vivid memories, a tune that was a staple at “sock hops” when I was in high school, invariably as a “ladies’ choice” dance. What a treat!

Sha Na Na and Duke of Earl:

We previously discussed the pop group Sha Na Na in our earlier blog post on the song Great Balls of Fire. So here we will briefly review the history of this ensemble.

Sha Na Na is an American rock and roll group that formed in the late 1960s. They were initially members of an a capella group at Columbia University called The Kingsmen (no relation to the Seattle rock group who recorded the garage-band classic Louie Louie).

In 1969, Columbia grad student George Leonard formed a band, and they began giving concerts in the New York City area. The band achieved cult status at the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969, where Sha Na Na went on immediately before Jimi Hendrix.

The group became instant stars after their appearance in the concert film Woodstock, where they performed a frenetic version of the Danny & the Juniors song At The Hop.

Below is a photo of Sha Na Na in concert, from 1975.

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So here are Sha Na Na in a live performance of Duke of Earl. I believe this took place in 1971.

Well, this is certainly an energetic rendering of Duke of Earl. It features Jon “Bowzer” Bauman on bass and Dennis Greene on lead vocals.

Over the years, Sha Na Na had as many as a dozen performers. Typically, three of them were dressed in tight-fitting gold lame outfits, while the remaining members appeared in 50s “greaser” attire. In this song Dennis Greene appears in gold lame, while Bowzer shows off his physique (or lack thereof) in a black muscle T-shirt.

I struggle with my reaction to Sha Na Na. If their performances are intended as an appreciation of 50s rock, then I enjoy them. On the other hand, their act could be seen as a parody of rock music, in which case I am kind of offended.

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

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

Although some of the group members have been successful in the music business, it should not be surprising that a singing group composed of Columbia University students would produce several notable alumni.

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

Sha Na Na still continues to perform today, although by now the group has undergone dozens of changes in personnel.

Earth Angels and Duke of Earl:

The group Earth Angels is a Catalan a capella group that specializes in doo-wop music. Their lead singer Jordi Majo had been a fan of doo-wop music and an avid collector of 50s American pop records.

In 2007 Majo met up with brothers Christian and Joan Carrasco, who shared his love of this genre. The group began performing in the Barcelona area, where initially they were street musicians.  They subsequently graduated to nightclub performances.

In 2010, Earth Angels released their first album. Later that same year, they flew to the States to participate in a “doo-wop oldies” concert in Pittsburgh.

The Spanish a capella group Earth Angels.

The city of Pittsburgh was significant in the development of “doo-wop” music. Not only were there a number of record companies that specialized in this style, but prominent doo-wop groups such as The Del-Vikings, The Marcels and The Skyliners all originated in Pittsburgh.

At left is a photo of the group Earth Angels, during their 2010 visit to Pittsburgh.

Here, the Earth Angels give a live a capella rendition of two doo-wop songs: Gene Chandler’s Duke of Earl followed by Just One More Chance.

I am unfamiliar with Just One More Chance (it’s possible that this song was written by the Earth Angels, as their catalog includes a combination of new and classic doo-wop songs), but I really like the Earth Angels group. Their a capella stylings are very appealing. In particular, both the lead singer and the bass produce authentic 50s-style vocals.

How intriguing, to see a group emerging from Spain with an interest in reviving doo-wop music!

Bonus: Jimmy Fallon and Robert Plant, Duke of Earl:

Here is some “bonus video.” This took place on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” Here, Jimmy’s guest is Robert Plant, the lead singer from the heavy-metal blues group Led Zeppelin, and one of the greatest rock vocalists in history.

Fallon introduces Plant to what appears to be an iPad “Looper” app, in which one inputs vocals. When you play it back, you can overdub on top of the original vocals, and eventually produce an effect that sounds like a chorus.

In any case, Fallon suggests to Plant that they experiment with the doo-wop classic Duke of Earl. In the following video, they try this out:

I must admit that I don’t understand quite how this technology works. Fallon and Plant spend a fair amount of time setting this up, although once they got started the final result was a lot of fun. The “Looper” multi-tracking app eventually allows Fallon and Plant to produce an impressive “doo-wop quartet” sound. So, enjoy!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Duke of Earl
Wikipedia, Gene Chandler
Wikipedia, Don’t Knock The Twist
Wikipedia, Sha Na Na
Wikipedia, Earth Angels

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

Sleep Walk: Santo & Johnny; Jeff Beck; Les Paul

Hello there! This week’s entry is Sleep Walk, a lovely instrumental song from 1959, featuring steel guitar. It was written and performed by Santo and Johnny Farina. We will then review covers of that song by Jeff Beck and Les Paul.

Santo & Johnny and Sleep Walk:

Santo and Johnny Farina were brothers from Brooklyn. Santo was born in 1937 and Johnny in 1941. When they were children, their father Anthony Farina was drafted into the Army where he was stationed in Oklahoma.

It was there that Anthony Farina first heard the steel guitar on a radio program. He thought this would be a nice instrument for his boys to play.

When Anthony’s Army commitment was finished, he arranged for his boys to take steel guitar lessons. Santo initially modified an acoustic guitar so that he could play it horizontally like a steel guitar. Eventually he earned enough money from gigs that he could afford a real steel guitar, a Fender model that had three necks each containing eight strings

At that point Santo Farina formed a band featuring himself on steel guitar. His group played a combination of pop songs and traditional Hawaiian standards.

Once Johnny Farina reached 12 years of age, he began playing rhythm guitar with Santo. The two gained regional acclaim and approached several record companies in search of a record contract.

Here is a photo of Santo and Johnny from the late 50s. Santo Farina is at left with his electric steel guitar, while Johnny Farina is at right with a conventional electric guitar.

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Eventually the Farina brothers were signed by Canadian-American Records. Their first hit was Sleep Walk, a tune that was written in 1959 by Santo and Johnny after they had finished a gig and were unable to get to sleep. The instrumental song hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts in September 1959, and also reached #4 on the R&B playlists.

Here are Santo and Johnny performing Sleep Walk on the Dick Clark Beech-Nut Hour in 1959.

What a simple, yet beautiful and haunting melody! That’s Santo producing those ethereal sounds on the steel guitar, while Johnny is playing a Fender electric guitar that has been tuned so it also sounds like a steel guitar. Their uncle Mike Dee played drums on the record.

I can’t tell whether Santo and Johnny are actually playing here, or whether they are just faking to the record (Dick Clark was infamous for just having performers lip-synch to the record rather than playing live). However, it really doesn’t matter, as Santo & Johnny could easily reproduce their trademark sound in live performance.

Santo & Johnny were sort of “one-hit wonders;” although a couple of their follow-up songs made the charts, they never again achieved the success of Sleep Walk.

However, this tune made a big impression on both the public and on other rock performers. Sleep Walk continues to get play on oldies and classic-rock radio stations.  It is a big hit at high school reunions and has appeared in several movies and commercials.

Currently, Santo has retired from touring, while Johnny Farina is still on the road with his own band. Johnny is also president of a record company called Aniraf, Inc (yep, that’s “Farina” spelled backwards).

There are several covers of Sleep Walk by rock groups. In this post, we will include those by two of the greatest “guitar heros” of all time – Jeff Beck and Les Paul.

Jeff Beck and Sleep Walk:

In an earlier blog post, we reviewed the trio Beck, Bogert and Appice, for which Jeff Beck was the guitarist. So here we will provide a brief review of Jeff Beck’s life and career.

Jeff Beck is one of the most accomplished rock guitarists of all time. He was born in 1944, and as a youngster he was inspired by guitarists as diverse as Les Paul, Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins and Steve Cropper. Beck was even enthralled by the sitar music of Ravi Shankar.

After short gigs with a number of bands in the early 1960s, Beck first surfaced as the lead guitarist for the British Invasion blues group The Yardbirds.

The Yardbirds attracted arguably the greatest collection of guitarists ever to appear in a single group. Jeff Beck replaced Eric Clapton after the budding super-star left that band in March, 1965. In June of 1966, Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds as their bass player (!) There was a brief period in fall 1966 when Beck and Page shared lead guitar on various Yardbirds’ songs; then Page took over as lead guitarist when Beck and the Yardbirds parted company.

Think of it – between them, those three Yardbirds guitarists have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seven times. Each of the three was inducted for his work with the Yardbirds. Clapton was inducted a second time with Cream, and once more for his solo work; Page a second time with Led Zeppelin; and Beck was honored for his solo career. Wow!!

Beck has always been a real perfectionist, and that is accompanied by a volatile personality. For obvious reasons, this combination has created friction in several of his groups. For example, at the end of 1966 The Yardbirds fired Beck because he was so hard to get along with (in addition, he occasionally failed to show up for Yardbird performances).

At this point he formed the Jeff Beck Group, shown in the photo below from 1968. From L: lead vocalist Rod Stewart; lead guitar Jeff Beck; rhythm guitar (and later bass) Ronnie Wood.

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The Jeff Beck Group produced two albums; however the commercial success of the second album did not match that of their first album, and that band dissolved in 1969. By this time, Beck’s technical reputation was exceptionally high. Several of the best British Invasion bands contacted him about the possibility of his joining them, including Pink Floyd following Syd Barrett’s departure, and the Rolling Stones after Brian Jones’ death.

A few years later, Beck joined up with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice to form the group Beck, Bogert and Appice. This was a blues-based power trio reminiscent of Cream.

The most notable song from Beck, Bogert and Appice was Superstition, which had initially resulted from a collaboration between Beck and Stevie Wonder (although only Stevie received songwriting credit for that tune). They reached an agreement that Beck, Bogert and Appice would release the song, followed by Stevie’s version.

However, the Beck/Bogert/Appice version of Superstition was delayed so that Stevie’s was the first version released. Beck, Bogert and Appice eventually issued only two albums, and the second album was released after the group had disbanded.

Here is Jeff Beck performing the Santo & Johnny 50s instrumental classic Sleep Walk.

Well, this is pretty spectacular, absolutely beautiful guitar work from Beck. One of the most amazing things is that Jeff manages to coax these sounds out of a Fender Stratocaster guitar, and not a steel guitar!

I actually can’t tell the difference between Jeff Beck on his Strat and Johnny Farina on steel guitar. But that’s not unusual for Beck; on several occasions I have heard him produce unique and seemingly impossible sounds from his guitar – sometimes beautiful, and occasionally just plain weird.

Jeff Beck has become a legend on the electric guitar; he has also pioneered a number of technical innovations, such as wah-wah pedals, echo units, and distortion and feedback techniques.

His work continues to be on the cutting edge of guitar technique. In fact, he is often called a “guitarist’s guitarist,” as other guitarists flock to his shows to see what he is currently doing.

After breaking up with Bogert and Appice, Beck has toured with a variety of different bands. He has been a headliner at several all-star venues and major charity performances, including jams with guitar heroes such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Beck’s acidic personality has not mellowed with age. In 1992 he gave the induction speech for his old band mate Rod Stewart at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Beck described their interactions,
“We have a love-hate relationship – he loves me and I hate him.

And at his own induction with The Yardbirds in that same year, Beck remarked
“Someone told me I should be proud tonight … But I’m not, because they kicked me out. … They did … Fuck them!”

Well, regardless of his personality, it is undeniably true that Jeff Beck is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” has Beck at #5.

Many of the techniques later utilized in heavy-metal music were introduced by Jeff Beck. Even today, he is still living out on the edge, experimenting with his instrument, and stretching the boundaries of the field. Ola, Beck!

Les Paul and Sleep Walk:

Lester Polsfuss was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1915. His mother was related to the family that created the Stutz automobile.

Les began his career in music at a very early age; by 13 he was already performing professionally on the guitar. He started out in country music, playing guitar and harmonica under the name Rhubarb Red.

Lester became a great admirer of the brilliant French jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. His jazz repertoire was largely inspired by Reinhardt’s work. In the 30s, he started performing under the name Les Paul.

Les Paul was constantly tinkering with his guitars, amplifiers and electronic systems. He was dissatisfied with the electric guitars on the market in the 30s, so he created his own solid electric guitar which he called “The Log.”

It consisted of a piece of 4×4 lumber, to which Paul attached a bridge, neck, strings and pickup. Paul then sawed an Epiphone hollow-body guitar in half and glued The Log in the middle of that guitar. However, the Epiphone guitar was mostly for looks.

Paul’s “Log” was one of the first solid-body electric guitars ever produced. In fact, it would not be too much of a stretch to call Les Paul “the father of the electric guitar.” There were others whose technical contributions rivaled Paul’s, but to my knowledge no one combined both his technical abilities and his guitar-playing expertise.

In 1944, the Les Paul Trio performed on Bing Crosby’s radio show, and Crosby became an admirer of Paul. In 1945, Bing Crosby helped Les Paul build his own recording studio in Paul’s garage. There, Les introduced a number of new recording techniques. He was one of the first to utilize multi-tracking and overdubbing on his records, and he introduced the first 8-track recording deck in his garage studio.

Les Paul had tried to interest the Gibson Guitar company in his electric guitar, but they showed little interest in the concept. However, in 1948 Leo Fender independently produced a solid-body guitar that he called the “Esquire.”

Fender’s Esquire would later morph into the Broadcaster, then the Telecaster and finally the Fender Stratocaster. In any case, the Esquire began selling well, and so suddenly the Gibson Company renewed its interest in Les Paul’s solid electric guitar.

Gibson subsequently released its “Gibson SG” guitar (the “SG” stood for “solid guitar”). Later Gibson released the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. This became a legendary guitar style and was used by many of the most famous guitar players. Here is a photo of Les Paul from the 50s; I believe he is playing a Gibson Les Paul model electric guitar.

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Despite having his own ‘Gibson’ model, Les Paul was constantly tinkering with his own electric guitar. Paul introduced innovations in pickups, amplifiers and other guitar hardware. In addition, he pioneered a number of advances in audio recording.

Probably the zenith of Les Paul’s career occurred between 1945 and 1964. In 1945, Les met country singer Iris Colleen Summers, and they began to perform together. Ms. Summers changed her professional name to Mary Ford, and she married Les Paul in 1949. Below is a studio portrait of Les Paul with Mary Ford, the love of his life; the photo was taken in 1951.

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As a duo, Les Paul and Mary Ford became world-famous. They produced a number of pop hits that highlighted Mary Ford’s singing and Les Paul’s guitar work. Using Paul’s technical expertise, many of these songs were overdubbed so that Mary Ford was providing her own backing vocals, while Les Paul could be multi-tracked as many as eight times on a given song.

Starting in 1950, Les Paul had a weekly radio show. He soon introduced Mary Ford onto that show. The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show then aired on NBC-TV from 1954-1955, and that show appeared in syndication until 1960.

The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show was highly unusual: it aired five times a day, five days a week. But each episode was only about 5 minutes long, and featured two songs from Paul and Ford. So NBC used the show as “filler” between their other regularly-scheduled shows.

Les Paul was in charge of both the audio and video production of the show; so he worked night and day on this programming, and used the program to show off several of his technical innovations.

After 1955, the Les Paul and Mary Ford hits became few and far between, as the duo began to be squeezed out by the burgeoning popularity of rock ‘n roll. At that time, after his NBC show ended, Les and Mary took to the road, performing a great many shows.

Eventually Mary Ford tired of the constant traveling, and she and Les Paul divorced in 1964. A brief bit of trivia: when Les and Mary were married, the best man and maid of honor were the parents of future guitar hero Steve Miller. Les Paul was Steve Miller’s godfather and his first guitar teacher.

Here is Les Paul performing Sleep Walk live on the David Letterman show.

This is pretty remarkable, as Les Paul was in his 80s when this performance took place. At the time he suffered from a number of physical ailments.  First, his arthritis was so severe that he was only able to use two fingers on his right hand.

Second, Paul’s hearing had deteriorated significantly. He was dissatisfied with commercial hearing aids, and worked on developing his own hearing aids for many years until his death.

Anyway, this is a really simple and beautiful piece. Seeing Les Paul playing guitar is sort of like observing Isaac Newton work out physics problems – you are watching the guy who essentially invented the electric guitar.

Even at age 90, Les Paul and a group were still performing weekly at clubs in downtown Manhattan. And in 2006 when Paul turned 90, he won two Grammy Awards for an album that he had recently released!

Les Paul died in 2009 at the age of 94. He is the only person to have been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Inventors’ Hall of Fame. He was deeply deserving of both honors. What a guy.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sleep Walk
Wikipedia, Santo & Johnny
Wikipedia, Jeff Beck
Wikipedia, Les Paul

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