Shaft: Isaac Hayes; clip from “Shaft”; Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain

Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.

This week’s entry is Theme From Shaft. This is a great funky tune written by Isaac Hayes. We will discuss the movie Shaft, for which this was the theme song. We will then review a cover of that song by The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Isaac Hayes and the Theme From Shaft:

In an earlier blog post, we discussed Isaac Hayes’ cover (with The Osmonds) of the Dave Mason song Feelin’ Alright? Here we will provide a brief discussion of the life and career of Isaac Hayes.

Isaac Hayes, born in August 1942, was a noted singer-songwriter and producer. He was also an accomplished actor. During the mid-60s, Hayes was one of the many talented musicians who made Memphis-based Stax Records such a soul and R&B powerhouse. At Stax, Isaac Hayes partnered with David Porter in writing and producing a number of records, both for themselves and for others.

Below is a photo of Isaac Hayes appearing at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

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In addition to songwriting and producing, Isaac Hayes was also a talented session musician. For the most part, the group Booker T & the MGs functioned as the Stax house band. However, Hayes would sit in on keyboards on occasions when Booker T Jones was traveling, and Hayes also played on a number of the songs that he produced.

Hayes had written a few movie scores previously, but he really hit the jackpot in 1972 with the score to the action movie Shaft. The title song from that movie, featuring an iconic wah-wah guitar lick, went to #1 on the Billboard pop charts.

The theme song introduces John Shaft as cool, courageous and sexy. Isaac Hayes sings the lead, complemented by three female backup singers, whose lines appear here inside parentheses.

Each stanza begins with a question posed by Hayes (e.g., Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?). The backup singers provide the one-word response (Shaft), which is then followed by an interjection from Hayes.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
(Shaft) Ya damn right

Who is the man that would risk his neck
For his brother man?
(Shaft) Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about?
(Shaft) Right on

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother – (Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft – (Then we can dig it)

So here is Isaac Hayes appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman and performing the Theme From Shaft.

Isn’t this a great live performance? Here Hayes is backed by the Late Show orchestra. The guitarist goes to town with the funky “wah-wah” sound, while the drummer strenuously pounds the hi-hat throughout the song. Meanwhile, the horns enter at regular intervals, accompanied by a jazz flute.

After an instrumental intro of more than two minutes, Isaac Hayes enters with the vocals, with his backup singers providing a chorus at the end of each line. The orchestra is clearly having a great time, and the audience loves it.

Unfortunately, in the mid-70s Isaac Hayes got into dire financial straits. Stax Records was seriously overextended, and local banks had floated significant loans both to the record company and to individual producers.

Hayes’ efforts to stabilize his income were unsuccessful, and in 1976 he and his wife declared bankruptcy. By the end of 1977,
Hayes had lost his home, much of his personal property, and the rights to all future royalties earned from the music he had written, performed, and produced.

Fortunately, Isaac Hayes was also an accomplished actor. He appeared in several movies, most notably the Keenan Ivory Wayans satire I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and the Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Hayes also appeared in TV shows such as The Rockford Files, Miami Vice and The A-Team. Perhaps his most famous role was as “Chef” in the potty-mouthed animated cartoon show South Park.

On South Park, Hayes’ character Chef became an unlikely cult favorite. He parodied the sexual innuendo common in soul tunes with songs such as Chocolate Salty Balls, which – believe it or not – became a #1 hit in the U.K. This led to the release of a commercially successful record, Chef Aid: The South Park Album.

Eventually, Hayes had a falling-out with the show’s creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. That duo would frequently create shows that lampooned the practices of various religions. After Stone & Parker aired a show that satirized the practices of Scientology, Hayes (a practicing Scientologist) criticized the pair and was eventually released from his contract.

In 2002, Isaac Hayes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In August 2008, Isaac Hayes died of a stroke, just a few days before his 66th birthday. We were very sad to lose this funk and soul pioneer.

The film Shaft:

The 1971 film Shaft was one of the first and most influential “blaxploitation” movies. It was directed by Gordon Parks (1912 – 2006), who had an illustrious career. Parks first became famous as a photographer for Life magazine. He subsequently became an acclaimed composer, writing various concertos and symphonies, in addition to a ballet about the life of Martin Luther King.

Parks next produced and directed a number of documentary films, before being tapped to direct Shaft. He was the first African-American to direct a major-studio Hollywood picture. Parks contacted Isaac Hayes, who had carved out a successful career as a songwriter and producer at Stax Records.

Parks requested that Hayes write the theme song for his movie Shaft. In addition, he promised that Hayes would get a shot at the title role for the film.

Poster for the 1971 movie Shaft.

Well, Hayes never got a chance to audition for the character John Shaft. That role went to Richard Roundtree, who forever defined the character of John Shaft. At left is a poster for the movie Shaft.

Richard Roundtree has a singular distinction: there have been several Shaft spin-offs and sequels, and thus far Roundtree has played the role of John Shaft in every one of them (a 2000 sequel, also titled Shaft, features Samuel L. Jackson in the title role; however Jackson’s character is the nephew and namesake of the original John Shaft, played by Roundtree).

The screenplay for Shaft was written by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black. The concept was taken from a series of novels by Tidyman, a former New York Times editor turned novelist. Although the hero in Tidyman’s novels was white, the character was re-written as an African-American.

As played by Roundtree and directed by Parks, John Shaft was portrayed as a super-cool inner-city male; ads in Variety described Shaft as
‘A lone, black Superspade—a man of flair and flamboyance who has fun at the expense of the (white) establishment.’

Gordon Parks created a signature look for Shaft, who appears almost exclusively in a dark leather coat and turtleneck. It is fascinating that Roundtree appears extremely hip and stylish, even though Shaft’s wardrobe looked unlike anything inner-city blacks were wearing at the time.

Furthermore, Parks filmed a number of dark and somber inner-city Harlem locales for the movie, although Shaft himself lives in Greenwich Village.

Shaft is portrayed as almost supernaturally tough and cool. In addition, he is irresistible to women and comes off as rather sexist. There has been considerable criticism of Shaft’s treatment of women, and this has been connected with male chauvinism in the black-power movement.

I am unconvinced by this criticism. To me, John Shaft seems very much like a black counterpart to James Bond. One could argue that Bond himself treats women like objects, and that Shaft’s behavior is more symptomatic of a macho lone-wolf character than anything race-related.

Isaac Hayes’ Theme from Shaft had a tremendous impact on movie soundtracks as well as on soul music. In addition, it is credited as being one of the first disco tunes. The song is interesting in that it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts, but only made it to #2 on the Billboard Soul Singles list (behind Marvin Gaye’s Inner City Blues).

In the movie, the song begins with more than two minutes’ worth of instrumental music before any lyrics are heard. Isaac Hayes contributes the keyboard synthesizer part, and most of the instrumental parts are provided by session musicians The Bar-Kays, who backed up a slew of hits for Stax Records in Memphis.

Initially, it was not intended that the Theme from Shaft would be released as a single. However, both the movie and the soundtrack album were so successful that the song was issued two months after the album soundtrack.

Here are the opening credits for the movie Shaft, featuring Isaac Hayes’ theme song.

The theme song begins as soon as the title Shaft appears onscreen. As the credits appear, John Shaft wanders around Times Square and Manhattan, dressed in his trademark brown leather coat and turtleneck.

The theme music perfectly sets the scene for the film. This tune won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1972, making Isaac Hayes the first African-American to win an Oscar in a non-acting category.

The Theme from Shaft also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Soundtrack. According to Hayes, there was a move by members of the Academy to disqualify Hayes from this nomination, on the grounds that he could not read music and hence was incapable of composing a soundtrack. Apparently Quincy Jones convinced Academy members that Hayes personally oversaw production of the music, even if he didn’t actually write down the notes.

The plot of Shaft begins when Harlem gang boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) brings Shaft to his office. Jonas explains that his daughter Marcy has been kidnapped by a group of Mafiosi, and asks Shaft to free her.

Shaft communicates with police Lt. Vic Androzzi (Charles Cioffi). The cops are scared that the violence between black gangs and the Mafia could escalate into a race war. Accompanied by his friend Ben Buford (Christopher St. John), Shaft goes to the apartment where Marcy is being held.

A gunfight breaks out. Two of the Mafia gangsters are killed, while Shaft is shot in the shoulder. As he recovers, he formulates an elaborate plan to free Marcy, who has now been moved to a hotel room. As part of his plan, Shaft enlists the help of a group of black nationalists.

Buford and Shaft each lead groups of men to the hotel where Marcy is being held. Ben’s men are disguised as hotel workers. Shaft goes to the rooftop and throws a bomb into Marcy’s room. Ben’s men deal with the Mafiosi, and rescue Marcy. Shaft has arranged for a fleet of taxis to pick up Marcy and Ben’s soldiers. The movie ends after the plan is successfully carried out.

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain and The Theme From Shaft:

The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain (or UOGB) is an ensemble founded in 1985. It is dedicated to providing arrangements for ukulele performances, and to educating audiences regarding the versatility of the ukulele.

The group generally consists of seven or eight ukulele players plus an acoustic guitar and/or a bass guitar. Over the years, the UOGB has performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House, and the Glastonbury Festival.

Below is a photo of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain performing at Carnegie Hall in Oct. 2012.

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In addition to playing ukulele arrangements of classical standards such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, UOGB has also arranged ukulele performances for pop songs such as Bang Bang by Sonny & Cher, and Substitute by The Who.

One of the group’s more popular arrangements is their version of Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft. Here is the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) performing the Theme from Shaft. This took place at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2007.

Isn’t this great fun? The funky lyrics are performed deadpan but with wry good humor by the group’s leader George Hinchliffe.

I particularly enjoy the part where Hinchliffe deviates from Hayes’ lyrics and begins asking his own questions (What’s the most important element of a coal mine, apart from the coal? [Shaft?]. No, it’s the Davy safety lamp.)

As you can see, the group is a terrific hit at this venue. We wish them all success and hope that they succeed in spreading the popularity of an instrument that has been associated with Hawaiian music, although it is actually a Hawaiian variant of instruments brought to those islands from Portugal. Aloha!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Theme From Shaft
Wikipedia, Isaac Hayes
Wikipedia, Shaft (1971 film)
Wikipedia, Gordon Parks
Wikipedia, Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain

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

Sweet Caroline: Neil Diamond (clip from “Fever Pitch”); Bobby Darin; Roy Orbison

Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.

This week’s entry is Sweet Caroline. This is a pop song from Neil Diamond with a catchy ‘hook.’ We will discuss the movie Fever Pitch, which featured the song. We will then review covers by Bobby Darin and by Roy Orbison.

Neil Diamond and Sweet Caroline:

We have previously discussed Neil Diamond in an earlier blog post on his song Red Red Wine, and another post on his song I’m A Believer. Here we will briefly review Neil’s life and career.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a photo of Neil Diamond performing in 1970.

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Eventually, Diamond and Berns clashed over his musical direction. Diamond wanted to write deeper, more introspective songs while Berns wanted catchy pop tunes. Shortly after the release of his second album, Neil Diamond attempted to leave Bang Records; however, a series of lawsuits ensued.

It took Neil a couple of years and a dip in his career to resolve his situation with Bang Records, but in 1968 he signed a contract with what is now Universal Records.  And then Neil was off and running. He hit it big with songs like Sweet Caroline, Cracklin’ Rosie and Song Sung Blue.

The song Sweet Caroline was written in 1969. Neil has claimed that he was inspired by seeing a magazine photo of a very young Caroline Kennedy riding a horse. In any case, the song has become exceptionally popular.

In addition to the covers discussed here, Sweet Caroline has been covered by artists such as Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Julio Iglesias, Waylon Jennings and the Dave Matthews Band.

The song is a celebration of the singer’s relationship with Caroline. He is amazed at his good fortune to have found a soul mate with whom he shares so much.

Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing
But then I know it’s growing strong
Was in the spring
Then spring became the summer
Who’d have believed you’d come along

Hands, touching hands
Reaching out, touching me, touching you

[CHORUS] Sweet Caroline
Good times never seemed so good
I’d be inclined
To believe they never would

Here is a live performance of Sweet Caroline by a young Neil Diamond.


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It’s great to see Neil belting out such a good-humored tune. The melody is extremely catchy, and makes you want to sing along.

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

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

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

Sweet Caroline and the film Fever Pitch:

The film Fever Pitch was a 2005 movie directly by the Farrelly brothers, and starred Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. The plot was taken from the 1997 British movie of the same name; that movie was itself based on Nick Hornby’s 1992 memoir, Fever Pitch: A Fan’s Life.

Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay for the British film, and he was an executive producer of the American remake. While the original book and movie were about a fan’s obsession with association football (soccer), the American film is based on baseball.

Hornby’s book centers on a dramatic last-second win by Arsenal over Liverpool to win the 1989 League title. In order to win, Arsenal had to beat heavily-favored Liverpool by at least two goals while playing at Liverpool. Arsenal scored the clinching goal with less than a minute remaining in stoppage time.

In similar fashion, the American movie features the surprise World Series victory by the Boston Red Sox in 2004.  At left is the movie poster for Fever Pitch.  It is interesting that the title of the novel did not have to be changed for the movie, despite the fact that for Hornsby “pitch” referred to a soccer field or pitch, while in baseball “pitch” carries a totally different connotation.

Poster for the 1992 baseball movie Fever Pitch.

Here is a brief summary of the plot of Fever Pitch. Ben Wrightman (Fallon) is an obsessed Red Sox fan. Ben’s uncle left him Red Sox season tickets when he died, and Ben’s entire home is filled with Sox memorabilia.

Ben meets successful executive Lindsey Meeks (Barrymore), a workaholic with little interest in sports. However, she is attracted to Ben after their first date; when Ben arrives to pick her up Lindsey is suffering from food poisoning, so Ben cares for her and sleeps on her couch to make sure that she recovers.

The plot then meanders through familiary territory — Lindsey endeavors to absorb details about baseball, while Ben tries to prove that his affection for Lindsey is more important than his obsession with his team.

The pair encounter obstacles to their relationship. Lindsey brings her laptop to a Red Sox game and is hit in the head by a foul ball as she is not paying attention to the game. Later, immediately after Ben and Lindsey make love, Ben gets a phone call informing him that he missed an historic comeback by the Red Sox. Lindsey is upset as it appears that Ben is more interested in his team than her, and the two separate.

To demonstrate his love for Lindsey, Ben agrees to sell his Red Sox season tickets. When Lindsey finds out about this, she rushes to the ballpark to stop Ben from finalizing the deal. In order to reach Ben, Lindsey jumps down and runs across the playing field to prevent him from selling his tickets.

She is successful, and the pair kiss while fans cheer them on. Of course, this occurs at a crucial moment in the Yankees-Red Sox playoff, when the Sox are trailing 3 games to none and are in their final inning.

Here is a video clip of Neil Diamond’s song Sweet Caroline. It contains a series of clips from the movie Fever Pitch.

As you can see, the video clip more or less reviews the entire movie plot. A fascinating side-note is that the original script had the Red Sox losing in the playoffs. After all, the screenplay was written at a time when the Sox had not won a World Series in over 80 years; so it made sense that the Sox would lose at some stage in the playoffs.

In the 2004 regular season the Red Sox lost their division to the Yankees by 3 games, but made the playoffs as a wild-card team. They lost the first 3 games of a 7-game playoff to the Yankees and trailed in the final inning of the 4th game, before coming back in miraculous fashion to beat the Yankees in 7 games. The Sox then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in 4 games to win the World Series.

Because the tune builds up slowly to a rousing chorus, Sweet Caroline has become a feel-good tradition that fans sing at many different sporting events. For example, the tune was regularly played at Penn State football games, although this was halted following the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse revelations. It is also played at University of Pittsburgh home football games.

Sweet Caroline is also played by the North Ireland national soccer team, by the Sydney Swans Australian Football League team, and at English T20 cricket matches.

However, the most famous example occurs during Boston Red Sox games. The song is played in the middle of the 8th inning of every Sox home game.  After “Sweet Caroline,” the crowd belts out “Oh oh oh,” and after “good times never seemed so good,” they sing “so good, so good, so good.”

Here is video of the Fenway Park crowd singing along to Sweet Caroline.

Isn’t this fun? The crowd really gets into the chorus with “Sweet Caroline.” Anyway, Red Sox fans singing Sweet Caroline were a recurring theme in the movie Fever Pitch.

Fever Pitch was a moderate commercial and critical success. The movie garnered a worldwide gross of about $50 million, and has a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The original choice for lead actress was Gwyneth Paltrow, however she turned down the script and was subsequently replaced by Drew Barrymore.

Jimmy Fallon played the male lead in the film despite the fact that he is a New York Yankees fan. For his role in this movie he was awarded an honorary membership in Red Sox Nation, because of his convincing portrayal of a Red Sox fanatic.

Bobby Darin and Sweet Caroline:

Bobby Darin was born Walden Robert Cassotto in East Harlem in 1936, and he had an unusual childhood. His mother Nina had gotten pregnant at the age of 17. At that time illegitimate children faced a potentially serious stigma.

So Nina and her mother Polly Cassotto hatched a plan whereby Polly raised Bobby while passing Nina off as Bobby’s sister. Bobby was not told of this subterfuge until 1968, when he was 32 years old. Apparently he was devastated by this revelation, which haunted him for the remainder of his life.

At a young age, Bobby showed great musical talent. He played several instruments, including piano and guitar. Bobby’s family then moved to the Bronx and he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science.

Bobby enrolled in college but dropped out after a year with the aim of pursuing an acting career. However, he met music publicist and promoter Don Kirschner, and the two formed a songwriting partnership. Below is a publicity photo of Bobby Darin from 1963.

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Although Bobby’s early songs went nowhere, he and Kirschner were operating out of New York’s famed Brill Building, where he met several people in the music business.

Bobby’s career first took off when he began writing songs for Connie Francis. The two of them briefly became a couple, but Connie ended it because her father disapproved of Darin.

Bobby next signed with the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco. There he met the brilliant producer Ahmet Ertegun, and Bobby began to work with him as a singer-songwriter. Bobby’s first big hit came in 1958 when he collaborated with DJ Murray Kaufman (later known as Murray the K). Kaufman’s mother had written a song called “Splish Splash Take a Bath.”

The song was deemed unsuccessful. However, Bobby Darin worked on it for an hour and came up with the song Splish Splash. Darin and Murray Kaufman shared writing credits, Bobby recorded it and it became a smash (splash?) hit, reaching #3 on the pop charts and #2 on the R&B playlists.

Bobby Darin then became a star pop singer and a teen heartthrob. In 1959, he released his version of Mack The Knife, a jazzy presentation of a pop music standard from Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. This demonstrated Darin’s versatility and further enhanced his reputation. The song remained at #1 on the pop charts for 9 weeks and won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1960.

Following his success with Mack The Knife, Bobby began to appear in nightclubs such as the Copacabana and Las Vegas casinos. At this point, Bobby started appearing in tuxedos and went in for big-band arrangements similar to crooners such as Frank Sinatra.

Here is Bobby Darin in a live performance of Sweet Caroline.

Bobby Darin produces a most enjoyable version of the Neil Diamond tune. He shows off his beautiful voice and apparently effortless delivery to great effect.

Although his first success was as a rocker with songs like Splish Splash, Bobby also scored hits with folk songs and jazz-pop tunes. Then in the early 60s, Bobby began to record country music songs. At the same time, he formed a music-publishing company with Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher (TM Music/Trio) and began to produce records for other artists.

Bobby signed young Wayne Newton to a contract, and gave Newton the song Danke Schoen that had initially been offered to Darin. One of the session guitarists at TM Music and a member of Darin’s band was Roger McGuinn, who later went on to found the  folk-rock group The Byrds.

Bobby also had a successful acting career. His first major role was in the 1961 teen romantic comedy Come September, where he was paired with 18-year-old actress Sandra Dee. Darin and Dee fell in love and married shortly after production of the film. The couple divorced in 1967. Below is a photo of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, from 1960.

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In 1963, Darin was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the film Captain Newman, M.D. He won the French Film Critics’ Award for best actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the 60s, Bobby Darin became politically active and participated in Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Darin was at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. on the night that Kennedy was assassinated.

RFK’s assassination occurred very shortly after Bobby Darin was told that the person he thought was his sister was actually his mother, and that his ‘mother’ was actually his grandmother. Bobby spent considerable time in therapy before he was able to process these events.

Bobby Darin suffered from poor health throughout his life. A childhood bout of rheumatic fever had left him with a frail heart. In 1971, Darin had heart surgery to install artificial valves in his heart.

In 1973, Bobby failed to take antibiotics before undergoing dental surgery. As a result, he developed a systemic infection that damaged one of his artificial heart valves.  In Dec. 1973, Darin underwent surgery to repair his heart valves. Shortly after the operation procedure, Bobby Darin died in the recovery room at age 37.

In 1990, Bobby Darin was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and in 1999 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

In 1997, Kevin Spacey bought the rights to a Bobby Darin biopic that was begun but subsequently abandoned by Barry Levinson. Spacey completed the movie Beyond The Sea in 2004; in that film Spacey played Darin and sang Bobby’s tunes himself. Beyond The Sea received mixed critical reviews and the film was essentially a box-office disaster. However, for this role Spacey was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical.

Bobby Darin’s brilliant career was snuffed out at a tragically early date. We miss him, now that he is ‘beyond the sea.’

Roy Orbison and Sweet Caroline:

Roy Orbison was one of the greatest ‘roots’ rock and roll artists. Born in 1936 in Vernon, Texas, Roy suffered from poor eyesight like all members of his family. From a very early age, he dyed his hair (which was nearly white) dark black, and continued this practice all his life.

Orbison was a gifted singer, who began performing on the radio at age eight. He enrolled in Odessa State College, where he was inspired by the success of his classmate Pat Boone. Below is a photo of Roy Orbison performing in 1965.

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In 1955, he saw a concert by Johnny Cash, who suggested that Roy contact Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. Phillips initially turned Orbison down, but a year later offered Roy a contract at Sun Records.

Sam Phillips insisted on a very particular rock ‘n roll sound, that did not mesh well with Orbison’s unique vocal style. So it took some time for Roy to find a good fit for his talents. He eventually succeeded at Monument Records in Nashville.

At Monument Records Roy Orbison collaborated with artists such as Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer, who were then creating what was to become ‘the Nashville Sound.’ Roy’s first big hit was the 1960 ballad Only The Lonely.

Orbison offered Only The Lonely to both Elvis and the Everly Brothers, but both turned it down; so Roy recorded it himself. It featured an interesting blend of doo-wop backing vocals, coupled with Roy’s inimitable voice and a string accompaniment.  The song became a bit hit, and established Roy Orbison as a star. He followed this up with even bigger hits such as Running Scared and Oh, Pretty Woman.

Although by now Orbison was a major pop star, he remained somewhat a figure of mystery. Roy replaced his thick Coke-bottle corrective lenses with prescription black sunglasses. The thick dark glasses, combined with Orbison’s habit of standing almost motionless as he performed, led many people to assume he was blind.

Roy’s glasses helped him deal with severe stage fright. But since he dressed all in black and tended not to move or speak when performing, he never developed a rapport with his audience, or a legion of adoring fans like those that followed Elvis or the Beatles.

Here is Roy Orbison in a live performance of Sweet Caroline. This took place at a concert in Melbourne Australia in 1973.

This is a bouncy arrangement of the tune. As usual, Orbison applies his amazing voice to the Neil Diamond classic. Roy can just barely hit the lowest note in this song, but he soars through the high notes in the chorus.

By the mid-60s, Roy Orbison’s run of musical success had slowed down — and then tragedy struck. Roy and his wife Claudette loved to ride motorcycles, and in 1966 Claudette was killed when her cycle struck a truck that pulled directly into her path. Then in 1968, while Orbison was touring England, a fire broke out and destroyed his house, killing his oldest two boys.

By the 1980s, Roy Orbison’s active musical career seemed about over. His records were relegated to the bargain bins and his only success came from duets with younger artists. However, in 1987 Roy Orbison’s career took a surprising giant leap forward.

First, Orbison was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the Rock Hall, Roy was introduced by Bruce Springsteen who said his greatest desire when young was to sing like Roy Orbison; “but everyone knows that nobody else can sing like Roy Orbison.”

Next, Roy began to collaborate with Jeff Lynne from E.L.O. When they started writing songs together, Lynne introduced Roy to George Harrison and Bob Dylan. Finally, the group stopped by to see Tom Petty, as Petty’s band had backed up Dylan on his latest tour.

The five artists began to jam and wrote a song together, then they decided to form a band. They called themselves The Traveling Wilburys. The conceit was that they were five step-brothers who shared the same father.

The Traveling Wilburys became a smash hit. They released a couple of albums that made the top of the charts. It was a mutual-admiration society: Roy Orbison was touched that a younger generation of musicians still appreciated him, while the other four artists were delighted to perform with one of their idols.  Unfortunately, the group lasted for only a short time; on Dec. 6, 1988 Roy Orbison died of a heart attack.

Roy Orbison was rather unique as a rock and roll performer. His music was hard to define: it lacked the hard guitar-driven edge of most rock songs, and it was considerably more sophisticated than most pop tunes.

Orbison’s tremendous vocal range lent many of his songs an operatic quality. The long sustained high notes on several tunes are simply unforgettable, providing his best songs with truly beautiful, even mesmerizing vocal passages. Roy Orbison was one of a kind, and he is greatly missed.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Sweet Caroline
Wikipedia, Neil Diamond
Wikipedia, Fever Pitch (2005 film)
Wikipedia, Bobby Darin
Wikipedia, Roy Orbison

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

Soul Man: Sam and Dave; Tom Jones; the Blues Brothers

Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.

This week’s entry is Soul Man. This is a terrific R&B song from the group Sam and Dave. We will next discuss the movie Soul Man, that featured a cover of the song. We will then review covers of that tune by Tom Jones and by the Blues Brothers.

Sam and Dave and Soul Man:

Sam and Dave were a great R&B duo in the 60s and early 70s. Like so many soul artists, both Sam and Dave began their careers singing gospel music. Tenor Sam Moore (born in 1935) and baritone Dave Prater (born in 1938) had previously performed with different gospel ensembles when they met while working the gospel circuit.

The duo first joined forces in 1961. They obtained a record contract and recorded some songs that gained regional coverage, but they failed to make headway nationally. Below is a photo of Sam Moore (L) and Dave Prater, who were known by the nickname “Double Dynamite.”

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Sam and Dave’s big break occurred in 1964 when they were signed by Jerry Wexler to a contract with Atlantic Records. At that time Atlantic distributed records produced by the Memphis studio Stax Records, so Wexler “loaned” the duo to that organization, believing (correctly) that Stax could successfully harness their gospel stylings to R&B songs.

Wexler, a tremendous talent scout, summed up their potential:
“I put Sam in the sweet tradition of Sam Cooke or Solomon Burke, while Dave had an ominous Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs-sounding voice, the preacher promising hellfire.”

Stax proved to be a golden opportunity for Sam and Dave. First off, the “house band” at Stax was Booker T and the MGs. That group laid down terrific backing tracks for the Stax musicians. In addition, Stax could supplement the Booker T ensemble with a dynamite horn section, the Mar-Keys.

At that time Stax also employed a stable of great songwriters, including guitarist Steve Cropper from Booker T and the MGs, and Isaac Hayes and his songwriting partner David Porter. Cropper co-wrote several of Sam and Dave’s songs.

Finally, Stax co-owner Jim Stewart engineered Sam and Dave’s early recordings. Stewart’s inspired technical skills helped create what is now known as the Memphis Sound. In particular, Stewart pioneered studio techniques that enabled him to record songs in a single take.

The song Soul Man was written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter. Hayes was inspired by watching TV newscasts about the 1967 Detroit riots. He heard that black residents had marked buildings that had not been destroyed during the riots – mostly institutions owned and operated by African-Americans – with the word “soul”.
The notion was that looters would bypass a company owned by blacks.

This reminded Isaac Hayes of biblical references to the Passover. He wrote a song that told
“a story about one’s struggle to rise above his present conditions. It’s almost a tune [where it’s] kind of like boasting, ‘I’m a soul man.’ “

On Soul Man, Sam and Dave alternate taking the lead in each of the verses, before they both repeat the title of the song at the end. They are backed up by Booker T and the MGs and by the Mar-Keys horn section.

Upon its release in summer 1967, Soul Man was the most successful recording to date for Stax. The song shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot Black Singles charts and to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sam and Dave were awarded the 1968 Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Instrumental or Vocal.

Here are Sam and Dave in a live performance of Soul Man.

I want to thank my colleague Fred Luehring for showing me this video. I believe that it was filmed during a Stax/Volt Revue tour of Europe in fall 1967. What a tour! In addition to Sam and Dave, it featured Booker T and the MGs, Otis Redding, the Mar-Keys, and other Stax headliners.

As is obvious from the video, Sam and Dave were famous for the energy of their performances. Dressed in identical suits, Sam and Dave give a rousing performance of their big hit.

The boys are backed by a full horn section from the Mar-Keys. At about the 2 ½ minute section of the song, Sam and Dave begin a long, protracted ending characterized by some impressive dancing, along with repeated call-and-response phrasing taken directly from gospel music.

After their success with songs such as Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Coming, Sam and Dave became R&B superstars. They headlined major R&B tours, and appeared on shows such as American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Mike Douglas Show.

On the surface, it appeared that Sam and Dave were soul mates with a mutually satisfactory career. However, beneath their friendly veneer simmered a legendary feud.

It seems to have begun in 1969, when Dave Prater shot his girlfriend in the face and nearly killed her. Prater escaped jail time for this incident, but it seems to have caused a permanent rift with Sam.

During the same time, Sam Moore had developed a heroin addiction that also caused strife within the group. Dave may also have had addiction issues. The two continued to perform together until the summer of 1970 when they temporarily broke up. However, during that time Sam would not even look at Dave when they performed.

The boys reunited after their split in 1970, but the animosity remained. Apparently they would
show up separately for shows, require separate dressing rooms, not look at each other onstage, and communicate through intermediaries. They also had performances in the 1970s where only one of them would show up.
When the pair finally split up for good in December 1981, they never again spoke to one another.

Things got even worse, if that was possible, when Dave Prater teamed up in 1982 with Sam Daniels, and the two toured as “Sam and Dave.” Sam Moore tried unsuccessfully to block Prater and Daniels from using the original name of his group. He did persuade Dave’s new record company to change the name of their album to “The New Sam and Dave Revue.” Prater continued to perform with Sam Daniels until April 1988, when Prater died in a car crash while driving to his mother’s house.

In the meantime, Sam Moore continued his career as a solo artist and also collaborated in duets with various guest artists. But Sam continued his feud even after Dave Prater’s death.

In 1992, Sam and Dave were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, Sam refused to sit at the same table with Prater’s widow Rosemary Prater. Instead, he insisted that Prater’s son by his first wife sit at his table. The protocol of the Rock Hall of Fame is that the widow of a deceased artist be invited to accept the induction on behalf of their spouse.

Sam then argued that Dave might not have been legally married to Rosemary Prater. Oh, my. Later, in 2008 the Weinstein Company (yes, that Weinstein) released a movie called Soul Men. It starred Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson as two soul singers who carry on a long-standing feud.

Sam sued,
claiming the movie was based on the careers of Sam & Dave, and damaged both Moore’s reputation and career. The suit was dismissed on summary judgment in May 2012.
One has to have sympathy for Sam here – it seems transparently obvious that the Soul Men movie was in fact based on Sam and Dave’s career.

Well, Sam Moore has now completed his long and complicated journey from R&B superstar to heroin addict to Republican. In 1996 he wrote a song for the Bob Dole presidential campaign called “I’m a Dole Man.”  And in 2012, Moore asked the Obama presidential campaign to cease using his song Hold On, I’m Coming.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of the holidays we wish Sam Moore all the best. He was a dynamic performer who managed to take his gospel-inspired musical gifts and make himself a great R&B artist.

The film Soul Man:

The movie Soul Man was a 1986 comedy about a man who pretends to be black in order to obtain a scholarship to Harvard Law School that is reserved for African-American students. The film was directed by Steve Miner and starred C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong.

Below left is the poster for the movie. The line “Guess who’s coming to college?” is a take-off on the title of the 1967 movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? in which Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn play a couple who are taken aback when their daughter’s fiance turns out to be African-American.

Poster for the 1986 movie Soul Man, starring C. Thomas Howell.

The premise of the film is that Mark Watson (Howell) is set to attend Harvard Law School. However, he discovers that his father has squandered all of the family’s money. Watson applies for scholarship aid, but the only available scholarship he can find is reserved for black students.

In desperation, Watson takes a massive dose of tanning pills to enable him to pass for black, and is awarded the scholarship. When he gets to Harvard, he meets fellow African-American student Sarah Walker (Chong). They begin to date and Watson falls in love with her.

Watson is disconcerted when he discovers the problems caused by his ruse. First, his fellow students treat him more as a black person than a law school colleague. Worse still, he discovers that Sarah Walker was the losing finalist for Watson’s scholarship, and that she has taken a menial job to provide for herself and her child (she is a single mom).

Eventually, Watson confesses that he has cheated. He is allowed to remain at Harvard and work his way through law school. Eventually, Sarah forgives him and they resume their relationship.

The song Soul Man appears in the film of the same name. This particular version is a cover by Sam Moore and Lou Reed. Here is the music video for this song.

A number of the stars from Soul Man appear in this music video (C. Thomas Howell, Rae Dawn Chong, and James Earl Jones). In addition, the clip features a number of 80s TV stars, including Jamie Farr, the cast of Laverne and Shirley, Elvira (Mistress of the Dark), and Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd from Moonlighting.

Although the instrumental arrangement of this song closely follows that of the original Soul Man, this strikes me as an unfortunate cover. While Lou Reed’s flat affect was perfect for the music of the Velvet Underground, he does not fare well when paired with a great R&B vocalist like Sam Moore. So I rate this as simply a fair cover.

The movie Soul Man has many troubling aspects. To be fair, the motives behind it appear to be genuine. The writer and director wanted to highlight the difficulties faced by minorities at an elite institution dominated by white privilege. Their intent was to produce a film with an anti-racist message.

Nevertheless, a number of African-Americans complained about what they perceived as racist impulses behind Soul Man. Spike Lee was the most outspoken black filmmaker who criticized that film.

In some cases the charges seem ill-founded. For example, C. Thomas Howell was criticized as a white actor who “performed in blackface;” however, I’m not sure how else one is supposed to portray a white person masquerading as black. And the actress Rae Dawn Chong was slammed for not being ‘sufficiently black’ (her father, comedian Tommy Chong, is of Chinese and Scots-Irish heritage, while her mother is Afro-Canadian and Cherokee).

However, this film had several other problems. One of the premises of the film is that Howell wins the scholarship because there are no more qualified blacks in Southern California. And the movie could certainly be viewed as an attack on affirmative action programs.

In any case, Soul Man was a commercial success (it debuted in 3rd place at the box office behind Crocodile Dundee and The Color of Money, and eventually had a domestic gross of about $30 million). Nevertheless, the film has a negative 14% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It is hard to imagine the film Soul Man being made and distributed today.

Tom Jones and Soul Man:

Tom Jones was born Thomas John Woodward in Wales in June 1940. He showed musical talent at a young age, but his interest in music heightened when at age 12 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and required two years of convalescence. During that time he did little except listen to music and draw.

Tom was attracted to performers like Elvis, but also to R&B singers such as Little Richard, Jackie Wilson and Solomon Burke. In 1963, he began performing with local groups; they gained a following in South Wales but were unable to score a big breakthrough.

All of this changed in 1964, when Gordon Mills became Tom’s manager. Mills changed his stage name to Tom Jones, after the hero of the 1963 film of that name. Mills also took Jones to London and signed him to Decca Records.

In 1964, Jones released the song It’s Not Unusual. At that time, “pirate” radio stations had become famous in Britain, challenging the BBC’s monopoly on pop music. A rock-music station Radio Caroline, broadcasting from ships moored in international waters off the British coast, played It’s Not Unusual constantly.

The support from Radio Caroline turned It’s Not Unusual into a big hit for Tom Jones. The song climbed to #1 in the UK and made it into the top ten on the Billboard pop charts. Suddenly, the Welsh singer with the powerful baritone voice became an international star.

Jones cashed in on his fame in several ways. First, he performed the theme songs for a number of movies, including What’s New, Pussycat and the James Bond film Thunderball. The movie themes and other pop hits propelled Jones to the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1966.

Next, Jones became an international sex symbol. He cut down somewhat on his recording schedule in order to concentrate on live performances, particularly in Las Vegas nightclubs. Jones would wear his shirts unbuttoned almost to his waist, and capped this off with skin-tight trousers. Below is a photo of Jones in typical “Vegas” attire.

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The combination of Jones’ strong vocals, rugged good looks and sexy attire apparently had an overwhelming effect on women in the audience. During his shows, women would throw their panties and/or their hotel room keys onto the stage. Jones appeared to take all this adulation in good humor; however, he now admits that at the time he was having sex with up to 250 groupies a year.

Tom Jones married his wife Linda in 1957, after she became pregnant when they were both 16. Although their marriage continued until Linda’s death in 2016, Tom also indulged in numerous extra-marital affairs.  In addition to one-night stands with groupies, Jones had a relationship with Mary Wilson of the Supremes, and another affair with the actress known as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Here is Tom Jones in a live rendition of Soul Man. This takes place in 1971.

This is a classic Tom Jones performance: the unbuttoned shirt revealing his hairy chest; the enjoyable, booming baritone vocals; and the engaging personality. You can see that Jones spent a lot of time listening to soul artists.

While performing in Vegas in the early 70s, Jones met Elvis Presley. The two rock superstars and sex symbols hit it off and became fast friends until Presley’s death in 1977.

Unlike Elvis, who had very little money when he died in 1977, Tom Jones has been canny about saving and investing his money.  He has been named the wealthiest entertainer in Wales, with a fortune estimated at £175 million.

Jones has proved a versatile entertainer; he has had success with R&B songs, pop tunes and country music. Jones has sold over 100 million records in his career. From 2012-2015 Jones was a coach on the TV show The Voice – UK.

We salute Tom Jones, who has now maintained a successful career for more than 50 years. In 2006 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to music, so you can call him Sir Thomas Woodward.

The Blues Brothers and Soul Man:

We previously discussed the Blues Brothers in a blog post on the Spencer Davis Group song Gimme Some Lovin’, and also their cover of the Solomon Burke song Everybody Needs Somebody To Love. So here we will briefly summarize their career.

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

Dan Aykroyd had been a serious blues fan for many years. Growing up in Ottawa, Canada, Aykroyd was inspired by American blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy.

Once they were hired as SNL cast members, Aykroyd and Belushi would frequent New York blues clubs following rehearsals. After their “King Bee” blues performance in 1976, Aykroyd and Belushi discussed the idea of forming a blues cover group.

In April 1978, the “Blues Brothers” performed in an SNL skit. They appeared in the “cold opening” to the show, and performed Sam and Dave’s Soul Man. Here is their performance.

The “Blues Brothers” are introduced by Garrett Morris. Belushi and Aykroyd walk in wearing black suits, fedoras and shades; Aykroyd is carrying a briefcase attached to his arm with handcuffs. After entering, John unlocks the briefcase from which Aykroyd removes a harmonica.  Belushi then executes a cartwheel, one of the amazingly acrobatic moves for a man of his girth (he could also do backflips). .

Soul Man is a note-for-note copy of the Sam and Dave original. Not only that, but the Blues Brothers band features guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, members of Booker T and the MGs, who backed up Sam and Dave in the original recording session at Stax Studios.

John Belushi’s vocals are rather limited, but he had a genuine enthusiasm for the blues and was extremely faithful to Sam and Dave’s original rendition. Near the end of the song, Dan Aykroyd chips in with a first-rate blues harmonica solo.

Pay particular attention to Belushi and Aykroyd dancing – you will see some very impressive moves. Both of them were not only talented dancers, but inspired comedians. Below is a photo of the Blues Brothers in performance.

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The Blues Brothers act took off after Belushi’s 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House became a smash hit. Assisted by SNL keyboardist and arranger Paul Shaffer, they assembled an all-star band, for the Blues Brothers Show Band and Revue. That band was nearly identical to the group seen backing up Belushi and Aykroyd in the video clip shown earlier.

Dan Aykroyd wrote a script outline for a film The Blues Brothers, that was based on their SNL skit.  I reviewed that movie in earlier blog posts that you can find here and here.

The Blues Brothers movie was so successful that it appeared likely to begins a series of films and albums. Alas, all this was blown to bits when John Belushi died in March, 1982 after being injected with a “speedball,” a mixture of heroin and cocaine. For a while, Belushi had been notorious for his excessive drug use. Friends and family had been unable to stop him.

Well, the “Blues Brothers” were cut short abruptly by John Belushi’s tragic death.  However, while they lasted Belushi and Aykroyd formed a wacky and memorable comedic and musical duo.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Soul Man (song)
Wikipedia, Sam and Dave
Richard Harrington, Another Hall of Fame Family Feud, The Washington Post, Jan. 15, 1992.
Wikipedia, Soul Man (film)
Wikipedia, Tom Jones (singer)
Wikipedia, The Blues Brothers
Wikipedia, John Belushi
Wikipedia, Dan Aykroyd

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

California Dreamin’: Barry McGuire; The Mamas and the Papas; Bobby Womack

Hello there! This week’s blog post entry is California Dreamin’, a great pop song with a fascinating history. We will first discuss the first recorded version with Barry McGuire on lead vocals, backed by The Mamas & the Papas. We will then review the most famous version of that song by The Mamas & the Papas; and we will finish by discussing a cover by Bobby Womack.

Barry McGuire and California Dreamin’:

Barry McGuire was a singer-songwriter who became one of the earliest folk-rockers. Born in 1935 in Oklahoma City, Barry initially worked as a commercial fisherman and pipe fitter before beginning a musical career.

McGuire joined up with Barry Kane to form the duo Barry and Barry. They performed at various California clubs until they landed at The Troubador in Hollywood. Below is a photo of Barry McGuire circa 1969.

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In L.A., both Barrys joined the New Christy Minstrels. McGuire found himself singing lead on several songs by that group. In 1963, McGuire and New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks co-wrote the song Green, Green that became the NCM’s biggest hit, featuring Barry’s instantly recognizable, raspy voice as the lead for that oversized folk ensemble.

For a time, Barry continued with both his solo career and as a member of the New Christy Minstrels. Then in 1965, McGuire got his big break. He took the song Eve of Destruction, written by P.F. Sloan, and turned it into a #1 hit record.

Eve of Destruction was a dark and ominous song suggesting that American society, or perhaps also the world, was on the verge of being torn apart. The song pointed to the standoff between superpowers possessing nuclear weapons, bitter racial disputes surrounding the civil rights movement, and hatred between different countries.

Does all of this sound familiar? I have a feeling that Eve of Destruction could be re-released today and be as relevant as ever. Anyway, that song shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts, displacing Help! by the Beatles from the top spot.

Barry McGuire’s version of California Dreamin’ has a curious history. Not only was Barry a good friend of both John Phillips and Cass Elliott, but in 1965 McGuire had signed a contract with Dunhill Records. So he arranged an audition for the Mamas and the Papas with Lou Adler, who signed the group to a Dunhill record deal.

In return, the Mamas and the Papas provided McGuire with backing vocals on his second album This Precious Time. One of the songs on that album was California Dreamin’. That song had been written by John Phillips in late 1963, when he and Michelle were suffering through a cold spell in New York.

Apparently the tune came to John in a dream, and he woke Michelle up to help him with the lyrics. The song vividly describes a person longing for the warmth of California in the midst of a New York winter.

All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I’ve been for a walk
On a winter’s day
I’d be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well, I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
You know the preacher likes the cold
He knows I’m gonna stay
California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day

So here is the audio of Barry McGuire singing California Dreamin’. As you can see, John Phillips had worked out essentially the final arrangement for the song. You can hear the Mamas and the Papas in the background singing harmony, while much of the instrumental backing is provided by the great West Coast session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.

However, this version of California Dreamin’ is rather jarring. The iconic guitar intro leaves you anticipating Denny Doherty’s vocals, but instead you get Barry McGuire. Although McGuire’s rough and ragged vocals were perfect for his one big hit Eve of Destruction, here his vocal treatment does not work at all.

John Phillips must have realized this, because a short while after the song was taped he wiped McGuire’s vocals from the recording and substituted vocals by himself and Denny Doherty, while leaving the original instrumental and vocal backing tracks. Phillips made one additional change, replacing McGuire’s harmonica solo with an alto flute solo by Bud Shank.

Barry McGuire was understandably pissed that his buddies had wiped his vocals and re-recorded his song. It seemed particularly ungrateful after he had personally arranged the audition with Dunhill Records that provided The Mamas and the Papas with their first big record deal.

The final blow was that Barry’s album This Precious Time, containing his version of California Dreamin’, was not issued until December 1965. However, the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ had already been released in fall 1965.

One interesting note: it is claimed that if you listen carefully to the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’ (in the left headphone), you can just barely hear Barry McGuire’s vocals, which were not completely wiped from the recording. Note: I have tried this and was unable to hear Barry.

As it turned out, Barry McGuire was a one-hit wonder. After his smash  success with Eve of Destruction, McGuire never again had a song reach the Top 40 in the pop charts.

McGuire did some acting, appearing in the James Coburn film The President’s Analyst, and also spent a year in the Broadway cast of the musical Hair. In 1971, McGuire became a born-again Christian and spent the remainder of his career recording contemporary Christian music.

Here are Barry McGuire and Terry Talbot in a live version of California Dreamin’. This takes place at the concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival.

McGuire recounts how the Mamas and the Papas got their name, and then reprises the story of his vocals being erased from California Dreamin’. Not surprisingly, McGuire and Phillips did not speak for several years after this episode. Barry otherwise performs the song in good humor.

At present, Barry McGuire and his wife live in Fresno, California, and spend some of each year in New Zealand (his wife’s original home). Barry, all the best to one of the original folk-rockers.

The Mamas & the Papas and California Dreamin’:

We initially discussed The Mamas and the Papas in our earlier blog post on their cover of the song My Girl.  Here we will briefly review their career.

The Mamas and the Papas were formed from the remnants of two folksinging groups. John Phillips and Michelle (Gilliam) Phillips were members of a folk group called The New Journeymen, while Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott were in a folk-rock band The Mugwumps.

As a big folk music fan, I caught a live concert of The New Journeymen in early 1965. I thought they had a promising future. Well, the individual performers did, but not in this particular ensemble. Here is a photo of the New Journeymen; L to R John Phillips (believe it or not), Michelle Phillips and Marshall Brickman.

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The New Journeymen were managed by Frank Werber, who as manager of The Kingston Trio was one of the most influential figures in folk music. Legend has it that Werber intended to recruit John Phillips to the Kingston Trio in the event that group broke up. Dave Guard was thrown out of the Kingston Trio soon afterwards; however, Phillips chose to remain with the New Journeymen.

John Phillips subsequently wrote the autobiographical song Creeque Alley about the history of the Mamas and Papas, that opens with
John and Michie were gettin’ kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind.
Actually, that statement is rather inaccurate, as John was loath to switch from folk to pop but was eventually persuaded by the other group members.

While we’re on the subject, the song Creeque Alley prominently mentions Barry McGuire several times, e.g.,
McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin’ higher
In L.A., you know where that’s at

Below is a photo of the Mamas and the Papas in London, 1967.  L to R: Denny, Cass, John and Michelle.

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Initially, John was seriously opposed to bringing Cass into the group. He argued that Mama Cass’ weight would distract from the other, more svelte bandmates, and that her personality clashed with his.

John even argued that Cass’ voice was too low for his arrangements. A widespread rumor is that Cass was hit on the head by a copper pipe in a construction zone.  Apparently that accident caused her vocal range to increase by three notes, which allowed her to join the Mamas and Papas. But many believe this was simply an excuse cooked up by Cass to conceal the real reason John didn’t want her, namely that she was too fat.

In any case Michelle, Denny and producer Lou Adler argued strongly for including Cass, and she eventually joined the group. In spring 1965 the band traveled to the Virgin Islands to rehearse their act. Folk-rock was something new for John Phillips, who had previously been a “straight” folksinger (acoustic guitar, banjo, no electric instruments or drums).

Although initially reluctant to branch out to pop music, John Phillips discovered that he had real talent for writing and arranging. He was the musical genius behind the group, blending the four voices in novel and interesting ways, and combining this with innovative instrumental mixes. John and Michelle’s background vocals were a perfect fit with Denny’s smooth delivery and Cass’ marvelous, resonant voice.

As noted earlier, the Mamas and the Papas released California Dreamin’ as a single in fall 1965. By March 1966 the song had peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, and California Dreamin’ was rated the top pop song of 1966. Making Denny the lead vocalist, and inserting a flute solo, were touches of genius from John Phillips.

Here are The Mamas and the Papas in a live performance of California Dreamin’.

This took place at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. This was a seminal event in rock music history. The event, one of the first big rock festivals, kicked off 1967’s ‘Summer of Love.’ John Phillips, Lou Adler and a few associates threw the event together in about 7 weeks’ time, and produced a memorable three-day music-fest.

Monterey Pop introduced several performers who would become rock superstars. American newcomers Janis Joplin and Otis Redding electrified the crowd. And Monterey Pop marked the first U.S. performances of artists such as The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar.

The Mamas and the Papas were the last group to appear at the festival. Their performance has been generally rated as sub-par. The group argued that they had spent so much time organizing the event that they had not practiced enough.

Well, I don’t think their rendition of California Dreamin’ is that bad – what do you think? You can clearly enjoy John Phillips’ brilliant arrangement and the close harmonies from the quartet. Here, the iconic flute solo is replaced by a guitar solo. Overall, I quite enjoy this performance.

Clearly, the sound of the Mamas and Papas was strongly dependent on sophisticated instrumental arrangements and the brilliant balance that could only be achieved in the recording studio. After Monterey, it is difficult to find a live performance from the Mamas and Papas. Even in their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, which for many years insisted on live performance, the Mamas and Papas are simply lip-synching to their records.

At their best, The Mamas and the Papas produced beautiful music together. Songs like California Dreamin’ and Monday, Monday brought a fresh new perspective to pop music and established the group as legitimate superstars.

For a brief shining moment, it appeared as though the Mamas and Papas might continue indefinitely as pop icons. However, if the Mamas/Papas were a family they would be labeled ‘super-dysfunctional.’ The group’s personal saga would be considered too over-the-top for a daytime soap opera.

Unfortunately, the group was unraveling from the moment they became famous. An initial jolt was Michelle’s affair with Denny, which began in 1965 and continued for some time before being discovered. To make matters even messier, Denny was sharing a house with John and Michelle at the time. Worse still, Mama Cass had been silently in love with Denny for years.

Although John managed to patch things up after Denny’s affair with Michelle, in 1966 John found that Michelle was having an affair with Byrds band member Gene Clark. For John this was the last straw, and he persuaded the others to expel Michelle from the band.

For a short time Michelle was replaced by Jill Gibson; however, Gibson did not have Michelle’s charisma and the group soon reverted to their original lineup. As a result no one knows whose vocals, Jill’s or Michelle’s, appear on various tracks of the group’s second album.

John then built a recording studio in the attic of his house, and did most of his work there. But John’s increasingly serious addiction issues made it difficult to record their albums. The group members would frequently record their tracks individually, only mixing the separate vocals in later sessions.

In 1968 the Mamas and Papas began a European tour, but abandoned it as the group was clearly dissolving. They patched together a final album or two to satisfy contractual arrangements, but the tracks were all recorded separately. A toxic brew of messy love triangles, personality problems and addiction issues dissolved a once-brilliant partnership.

Following their breakup, the members of the Mamas and Papas tried to launch solo efforts while dealing with their addiction issues. Cass Elliott had the most successful solo career, scoring a few hit singles. However, in 1974 while on a tour of London, Elliott died of a heart attack. I had always believed that she choked to death on a ham sandwich, but apparently that was simply ‘fake news.’

Denny Doherty pursued a largely unsuccessful solo career, but after returning to his native Canada he managed to secure acting parts in several TV shows. Doherty died in 2007 after suffering an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

Michelle Phillips, the only surviving member of the Mamas/Papas, had a solo singing career that also faltered, but she found success as an actress and appeared in several acclaimed movies.

John Phillips kept singing and writing, though his major success came from producing records for other artists. However, his later work was severely hampered by persistent addiction issues.
John Phillips stayed off heroin, but remained addicted to alcohol, cocaine, and pills, as did his daughter.
John Phillips died of heart failure in 2001.

Mackenzie Phillips subsequently published a memoir claiming that she had an incestuous relationship with her father for many years – ewwww! This is still a highly contested issue. Mackenzie’s half-sisters support her story, while her step-mothers  Michelle Phillips and Genevieve Waite strongly deny it.

The Mamas and the Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. Here is video of John, Michelle and Denny performing California Dreamin’ at their Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

It’s great to see the three remaining Mamas/Papas performing together again. It is sad that Mama Cass is no longer with them, and apparently there was still significant friction between John and Michelle, though you wouldn’t know it from the video.

We will always remember their career as resembling a supernova, a blazing light that suddenly appears in the sky but rapidly fades out. But what a brilliant glow while they lasted!

Bobby Womack and California Dreamin’:

We initially discussed Bobby Womack in an earlier blog post on his song It’s All Over Now.  Here we will briefly review his life and career.

The R&B singer and songwriter Bobby Womack was born in 1944 and passed away in June 2014. Bobby grew up in poverty in Cleveland. He recalls
that the family would fish pig snouts out of the local supermarket’s trash … His mother told him he could “sing his way out of the ghetto.”
Bobby was pretty much a child prodigy, recording his first song at the age of 10!

He initially gained attention as a singer-songwriter for his family group The Valentinos, that included brothers Cecil, Harry, Friendly Jr and Curtis. The group was managed and mentored by the great Sam Cooke, and Bobby also worked as Sam’s lead guitarist.

Like Cooke, the brothers originally started as a gospel quintet but then crossed over to R&B. It was likely a difficult personal decision to move from God’s harmonies to “the Devil’s music,” but rock ‘n roll benefited greatly from the spirit and style infused from gospel.

Below is a photo of Bobby Womack circa 1975.

Embed from Getty Images

Some friction ensued when Sam Cooke convinced The Valentinos to make Bobby the lead singer, replacing his brother Curtis. After a promising start with the song Looking for a Love, a pop re-tooling of one of the group’s gospel numbers, Bobby and his sister-in-law Shirley Womack wrote It’s All Over Now in early 1964.

That song (It’s All Over Now by the Valentinos featuring Bobby Womack, produced by Sam Cooke) became a minor hit, just denting the Billboard Top 100. However, the tune became a genuine blockbuster when it was covered a couple of months later by a young British Invasion group, The Rolling Stones.

Bobby was initially upset that some white upstarts had stolen his song. However, after he started receiving royalty checks from the Stones’ record company, Womack is reported to have told Mick Jagger “you can have any song of mine that you want.”

The song California Dreamin’ has been covered by numerous groups, including The Beach Boys, R.E.M., Jose Feliciano, the Carpenters, the Four Tops, and George Benson.

Bobby Womack recorded his cover of California Dreamin’ in 1968. It was a cut on his first solo album, and became Womack’s first big hit.  Here is a video clip of Bobby Womack in a live performance of California Dreamin’.

This is actually a medley of two songs, California Dreamin’ and Womack’s autobiographical Across 110th Street. It features just Bobby with an acoustic guitar.

Bobby is left-handed but when he was first given a right-handed guitar, he simply turned it upside down. If you watch carefully, you can see that he is playing a right-handed guitar backwards, just like Jimi Hendrix.

I love Bobby Womack’s gritty voice and his great R&B vocals. He takes this great Mamas and Papas pop song and converts it into an impressive soul song. There is a lot of creativity in his cover.

Womack’s subsequent career had more than its share of ups and downs. A first major career blow occurred when Sam Cooke was shot and killed in a Los Angeles motel in December 1964. In the aftermath, the Valentinos disbanded and their record company folded.

Controversy dogged him when Bobby married Sam Cooke’s widow Barbara Campbell just 3 months after Sam’s death.  It didn’t help that Barbara later divorced Bobby after she discovered him in an affair with her daughter Linda (Barbara fired a shot at Bobby upon catching the two of them in bed).

Although Bobby remained in demand as a session musician and songwriter, and produced a couple of seminal albums in the 70s, his solo career often languished. He would occasionally release a mid-range hit, but then continue for a long fallow period before scoring another song.

His well-publicized problems with drugs quite likely contributed to this – after dealing with a cocaine addiction for 2 decades, Womack went into rehab in the late 1980s. Here is Bobby recounting his lifestyle in the 60s and 70s:
“I was really off into the drugs. Blowing as much coke as I could blow. And drinking. And smoking weed and taking pills. Doing that all day, staying up seven, eight days. Me and Sly [Stone] were running partners.”

Well, in terms of role models, you could not choose worse than Sly Stone! I haven’t seen a cause of death listed, but Womack reportedly suffered from diabetes, prostate cancer, heart disease, colon cancer, pneumonia and Alzheimer’s.

Geez – talk about reasons for singing the blues! What a tough life, but what a talented, gifted musician.

Although he never achieved lasting fame as a solo artist, Bobby Womack was in great demand as a songwriter and session guitarist. Bobby Womack played guitar and wrote songs for artists such as Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone and Janis Joplin, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. Presumably, he is now up in “rock and roll heaven.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, California Dreamin’
Wikipedia, Barry McGuire
Wikipedia, The Mamas & the Papas
Wikipedia, John Phillips (musician)
Wikipedia, Creeque Alley
Wikipedia, Bobby Womack

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

Bohemian Rhapsody: Queen (clip from “Wayne’s World”); Elton John and Axl Rose

Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.

This week’s entry is Bohemian Rhapsody. This is an epic operatic rock song by Queen that was featured in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World. We will then discuss a cover of that song by Elton John and Axl Rose.

Queen and Bohemian Rhapsody:

We previously discussed the group Queen in a blog post on their song Somebody To Love. So here we will briefly review the history of that pop band.

Queen was a British quartet that assembled in London in the early 70s. Guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor met up with vocalist Farrokh Bulsara; after trying out several bass players, the group settled on John Deacon. At that point Bulsara changed his name to Freddie Mercury, and the band adopted the name Queen.

In 1973, the band signed a record contract with Trident/EMI. This was a great opportunity for the band, as Trident Studios had high-tech facilities that had been used by the Beatles and Elton John, among others.

Below is a group portrait of Queen in 1976. From L: Brian May; John Deacon (standing); Roger Taylor; Freddie Mercury.

Embed from Getty Images

For the next couple of years, Queen became popular in the UK but made little commercial headway in the US. All that changed dramatically with the release of the group’s fourth album, A Night At the Opera, in 1975.

That album, titled after a Marx Brothers’ movie, contained the song Bohemian Rhapsody. A daring and amazing tour de force, it was a pop tune written in operatic style.

The song begins with Freddie Mercury’s slow and sweet vocals, accompanying himself on piano. The singer professes that he has an easygoing carefree nature.

I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,
Because I’m easy come, easy go,
Little high, little low,
Any way the wind blows doesn’t really matter to me, to me.

However, he next confesses that he has shot a man to death, and is terrified of what lies ahead for him.

Mama, ooh (any way the wind blows),
I don’t wanna die,
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.

The song then shifts tone abruptly. It simulates a large opera chorus, and also parodies the interchanges that take place in operatic arias.

I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning,
Very, very frightening me.
(Galileo) Galileo
(Galileo) Galileo
Galileo Figaro
Magnifico-o-o-o-o.

Bohemian Rhapsody ends with another slow, melodic solo by Freddie Mercury.

With this tune, before you could say “Beelzebub!” the group’s fame spread  across the globe.

The incredible sounds produced on Bohemian Rhapsody were a combination of massive overdubbing by the members of the band (to simulate the sound of a large operatic chorus), combined with special effects from Brian May’s home-made Red Special guitar.

Let me interject a few words about the life and career of Queen guitarist Brian May. A rock musician with a doctorate in astrophysics and a book on the history of the universe? And in addition, he served as Chancellor of a British university — what an amazing fellow!

When I first heard Queen performing Bohemian Rhapsody, I thought: “What a novel concept and a stunning record. Of course, they could never reproduce this in a live performance.”

To demonstrate how wrong I was, here is Queen performing Bohemian Rhapsody ‘live.’ This took place during the band’s 1986 Magic Tour.

I put ‘live’ in quotation marks because this performance contains both live and taped segments. Freddie sings the slow segments at beginning and end live. However, the middle section that simulates a massive chorus is provided in taped form from the record, along with special visual effects.

Bohemian Rhapsody has a special place in the hearts of Queen fans. It is the 3rd-best selling record ever in the U.K. In 2012, ITV conducted a UK poll of “The Nation’s Favourite Number One” song, and Bohemian Rhapsody came in #1 (!)

The song took an enormous amount of studio time, and was at the time the most expensive recording ever made. The “chorus” parts consisted of extensive overdubbing from the band members (up to 180 overdubs in some sections); May, Mercury and Taylor were singing their vocal parts for up to 10 hours a day during the recording sessions.

Record executives assured Queen that their song could not be played on commercial radio because of its nearly 6-minute length. This is exactly like the record company’s response to Bob Dylan’s epic Like A Rolling Stone.

Of course, that prediction was nullified as soon as radio DJs began to play the song. Bohemian Rhapsody rocketed up to #1 on the UK pop charts. The song was not quite as successful in the US, only reaching #9 on the Billboard lists.

Queen subsequently became pop superstars. They specialized in producing ‘rock anthems’ such as We Are The Champions and Somebody To Love. Queen filled up stadiums on their tours and their albums sold like hotcakes.  Their Greatest Hits album outsold even the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper blockbuster.

However, even as their commercial success took off, Freddie Mercury’s health declined. As a youth, Mercury had several romantic relationships with women; however, he later became homosexual. In 1987 Freddie discovered that he had HIV, and around Easter of that year he had contracted AIDS.

Queen stopped touring but continued to record albums in the studio.  However, as time went by Mercury’s condition worsened. He lost a considerable amount of weight and eventually became haggard, which caused a great deal of speculation regarding his health.

For some time Mercury avoided discussing his sexual orientation or health. Finally, on Nov. 22, 1991, Freddie Mercury issued a press release acknowledging that he had AIDS. Two days later, Mercury died at the age of 45 from bronchial pneumonia, brought on as a complication of AIDS.

Mercury’s death was devastating to his Queen bandmates and to his many fans. Brian May was particularly depressed as a result of his close friend’s demise. He checked himself into a clinic in Arizona, and later threw himself into various solo music projects.

Over the past 25 years, bassist John Deacon has retired. Roger Taylor and Brian May have re-united at various times, and have toured with a guest lead vocalist.

Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. With total record sales somewhere between 150 million and 300 million, they are one of the best-selling musical acts of all time. And in 2005, Brian May was named a Commander of the British Empire by the actual Queen for “services to the music industry and for charity work.”

Bohemian Rhapsody in the film Wayne’s World:

Wayne’s World was a 1992 film starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey and directed by Penelope Spheeris. This was the movie version of a popular Myers-Carvey sketch from the NBC television program Saturday Night Live.

The premise of these skits was that Wayne Campbell (Myers) and Garth Algar (Carvey) were two slackers who hosted a public-access TV show called Wayne’s World that was filmed in the basement of Campbell’s parents’ home.

Campbell and Algar were obsessed with heavy-metal rock music. Their SNL sketches began with Wayne strumming furiously (and cluelessly) on his guitar while Garth tapped away with his drumsticks, as the boys shouted out “Wayne’s World! Wayne’s World! Party time! Excellent!”

On the cable show Wayne and Garth would compare their reactions to hard-rock bands (both lads agreed that Aerosmith was their favorite band), rate the desirability of various women (or “babes”), and also introduce various fantasy sequences. Guests or rock bands would appear from time to time. The guests would frequently be insulted or subjected to boyish pranks, while bands would either be worshipped or dissed.

The SNL skits presented a sophomoric but tolerant view of two hard-rock-obsessed youths. The character treatment was similar to that in the movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which came out a couple of years after the Myers-Carvey sketch debuted on SNL.

Wayne’s World was notable for introducing various catchphrases into the language. A couple of these were “Schwing” (referring to something titillating); and “Not,” inserted after a pause to negate a statement – e.g., “He is quite handsome – not.”

The film Wayne’s World simply gives us a fleshed-out narrative about these buddies.

The Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody appears at the beginning of the film. Garth picks up Wayne in his barely-functioning AMC Pacer automobile, and they drive around with two of their slacker friends while playing Bohemian Rhapsody on a cassette tape and lip-synching to the tune.

In this clip, roughly half of Bohemian Rhapsody plays while the lads cruise past various landmarks in Aurora, IL (the scene was actually filmed in West Covina, CA). Along the way they pick up their seriously drunk friend Phil.

The boys sing along to the slow, sweet portions of the tune. However, just before the 2-minute mark in this clip the thunderous chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody arrives, which leads to some strenuous head-banging. At the end of the song, the boys arrive at their local hangout, Stan Mikita’s Donuts.

Poster for the 1992 movie Wayne’s World.

Apparently Mike Myers was quite insistent that the tune Bohemian Rhapsody be included at the beginning of the movie.  This was a brilliant decision, as the opening scene became a cult classic and has been parodied any number of times.

Rolling Stone magazine has an interesting article on the making of the Bohemian Rhapsody scene from Wayne’s World.

The premise of the Wayne’s World film is that sleazy producer Benjamin Oliver (Rob Lowe) agrees to purchase the rights to Wayne and Garth’s cable show for $10,000.  At left is a poster for the movie.

Wayne then meets and falls for Cassandra Wong (Tia Carrere), who plays bass and sings lead vocals for a local band. However, Benjamin attempts to steal Cassandra’s affections by offering to produce a music video for her while flaunting his money and charm.

Wayne gets fired from the cable show after insulting the show’s sponsor. Jealous of Benjamin, Wayne attempts to sabotage Cassandra’s music video; this causes Cassandra to break up with him.

After a series of wacky adventures, the crew from Wayne’s World manages to hack into the satellite feed of Cassandra’s music video and broadcast it from Wayne’s basement. However, Wayne fails in his quest to obtain a record contract for Cassandra; in the film’s original ending, Cassandra rejects Wayne and departs with Benjamin for a tropical resort.

Wayne and Garth then stage an alternate ending to the movie. This bit is a parody of the Scooby-Doo TV show; in this ending, Benjamin is exposed as “Old Man Withers.”

The film’s ending is re-enacted a third and final time. In this “mega happy ending,” Cassandra returns to Wayne and signs a record contract, while Garth hooks up with a waitress.

Wayne’s World was Mike Myers’ first film, and the second SNL sketch to be turned into a movie (the first was the 1980 film The Blues Brothers starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd).

Negative critical comments about the movie generally suggested that the premise of the SNL sketch was too flimsy to support an entire movie. I have to agree with this assessment. Although the reception of film critics was mixed, the film was a box-office triumph. It had a domestic gross of over $121 million, making it the highest-grossing film of the 11 movies created from SNL sketches.

Before directing Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris had produced a number of music documentaries. Although this movie appeared to be a golden opportunity for Ms. Spheeris, apparently working with Mike Myers was no picnic. The two clashed repeatedly, and Myers is reported to have prevented Penelope from directing the sequel Wayne’s World 2.

Elton John and Axl Rose and Bohemian Rhapsody:

Following Freddie Mercury’s death, the other three members of Queen agreed to hold a memorial concert in the spring of 1992.  In a previous blog post, we showed George Michael performing the song Somebody To Love with the members of Queen at this concert.

Poster for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, Apr. 20, 1992.

The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was held at London’s Wembley Stadium on April 20, 1992. A poster for the concert is shown at left. The surviving three members of Queen appeared at the event, together with many of the most famous rock performers of the day.

Funds raised from the concert were used to launch the Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS charity organization. An audience of 72,000 watched the live concert at Wembley; however a world-wide TV link broadcast the concert to as many as a billion people.

A number of artists performed their own songs. In addition, the members of Queen performed covers of their own songs with various guest artists.

One of the final acts in that concert was a performance of Bohemian Rhapsody by Elton John and Axl Rose, accompanied by the surviving members of Queen plus a group of guest musicians.

Below is a photo of Elton John (L) and Axl Rose performing at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.

Embed from Getty Images

Elton John was a natural choice to perform here. For roughly 25 years he had been one of Britain’s most successful pop performers. His work spanned the gamut from ballads to hard-rocking tunes.

In addition, Elton had long raised funds for AIDS research, and he had shown remarkably bravery in counteracting prejudice against AIDS sufferers like Indiana’s Ryan White.

By contrast (at least in hindsight), Axl Rose seemed a curious choice for a performer at a Freddie Mercury tribute. Rose had been the leader and lead vocalist for the heavy-metal group Guns ‘n Roses, an L.A. band that were hot and influential from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.

The band combined the distinctive edgy vocals from Axl Rose with impressive guitar solos from their lead guitarist Slash. However, Guns ‘n Roses then suffered a dramatic flame-out, and the original ensemble imploded.

In later years, Axl Rose would be accused of homophobia. In a 1998 Guns ‘n Roses song called One In A Million, Rose had complained about “faggots … who spread some fucking disease.”

In the resulting controversy, Rose alluded to his claims that he had been molested by his biological father and to an attempted rape when he was in his teens. However,
The controversy led to Guns N’ Roses being dropped from the roster of an AIDS benefit show in New York organized by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

In any case, Axl Rose and Elton John, together with members of Queen, are seen here in a performance of Bohemian Rhapsody at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.

As you can see, Elton and Axl essentially reprise the Queen performance shown earlier, from their 1986 Magic Tour. The initial slow section from Bohemian Rhapsody is performed live by Elton John, as the audience sings along throughout the song.

The audio from the operatic chorus in the center section is taken from tapes of the original record, and the video is identical to that from the 1986 tour.  At the 3:15 mark Axl Rose bursts onto the scene, dressed in a kilt and gyrating like a whirling dervish.  It is a stunning scene and the audience goes wild.  Axl and Elton then sing the final slow section of Bohemian Rhapsody.

I hope this video clip was not too repetitive, but I wanted to show the excitement and power of the Freddie Mercury tribute concert.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Bohemian Rhapsody
Wikipedia, Queen (band)
Wikipedia, Freddie Mercury
Wikipedia, Brian May
Wikipedia, Wayne’s World (film)
The Oral History of the Wayne’s World Bohemian Rhapsody Scene, David Peisner, Rolling Stone magazine, Nov. 30, 2015.
Wikipedia, Elton John
Wikipedia, Axl Rose

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

Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles (clip from “A Hard Day’s Night); The Supremes; Michael Buble.

Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series “Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies.” In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.

This week’s entry is Can’t Buy Me Love, a great early Beatles pop tune that was featured in their first movie A Hard Day’s Night. We will then discuss covers of that song by The Supremes and Michael Buble.

The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night:

The Beatles tune Can’t Buy Me Love was composed in 1964 by Paul McCartney. The song was recorded in January 1964, when the group was in Paris for a series of concerts at the Olympia Theatre.

Below is a photo of the Fab Four on the cover of a 1964 “fanzine.”  Clockwise from lower left: John Lennon; George Harrison; Paul McCartney; Ringo Starr.

Embed from Getty Images

At that time the German division of EMI, the Beatles’ record company, insisted that no one in Germany would buy pop records unless they were sung in German.  Of course, that argument turned out to be totally false, yet another demonstration that 60s record executives were clueless about rock ‘n roll.

While they were in Paris, the Beatles went into the studio to record backing tracks for the German-language versions of She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand.  As was common in those days, the Beatles completed their studio work in remarkably short order.  So in their remaining time they began recording Paul’s new song, Can’t Buy Me Love.

Paul’s original concept for this song differed from the eventual result. When Beatles producer George Martin heard the tune, he remarked that it might sound better if Paul inserted a couple of lines from the chorus at both the beginning and end of the song. So Paul adopted Martin’s suggestion.

Can’t Buy Me Love differs significantly from prior Beatles songs, in that it lacks the group’s signature background vocals. The song was originally intended to contain those vocals, but when the lads heard Paul’s solo version, they decided to include Paul’s double-tracked vocals instead.

This tune is also exceptional in that this is one of only two Beatles song not recorded in the U.K.  The other is the 1968 song The Inner Light, for which instrumental parts were recorded in India by George Harrison and classical Indian musicians.

Can’t Buy Me Love was released in the U.S. and U.K. in March 1964, and immediately climbed to the top of the charts. This gave the Beatles three consecutive #1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

In addition,
when “Can’t Buy Me Love” reached number 1, on 4 April 1964, the Beatles held [the] entire top five on the Hot 100, the next positions being filled by “Twist and Shout”, “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me”, respectively. No other act has held the top five spots simultaneously.
The following week, the Beatles had an astonishing 14 songs in the Hot 100 at the same time!

Can’t Buy Me Love played an important role in the first Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night. The title of the film was based on a casual remark by Ringo in a press conference. He referred to the previous evening’s concert as “a hard day’s night,” cracking up John Lennon. Eventually it was decided to make that the movie title.

The director was Richard Lester, an American who had previously directed a short movie called The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film, with actors Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan from the BBC radio program The Goon Show.

The Beatles (and John Lennon in particular) were big fans of the earlier Lester film, so he was brought in to direct the Beatles movie. A Hard Day’s Night was filmed on a shoestring budget of about $500,000, and was rushed into production. It was claimed that the movie was filmed quickly as it was
a low-budget exploitation movie to milk the latest brief musical craze for all it was worth.

As yet another example of corporate stupidity, executives from United Artists requested that the Beatles’ voices be over-dubbed with American accents. Richard Lester’s response was
“Look, if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool.”

A Hard Day’s Night is a fictional portrayal of several days in the life of a pop group (the Beatles). Initially, the band are pursued by a mob of screaming fans as they board a train from Liverpool to London. The various scenes are punctuated by Beatles songs.

On the train, Paul’s grandfather is confined to the guard’s van, and the Fab Four join him there. After they arrive at their London hotel, the Beatles escape from performing their mundane tasks, but are eventually caught and taken to the theater for rehearsals.

The Beatles then leave the theater through a fire escape, where they run around on a lawn and fall down while Can’t Buy Me Love plays on the soundtrack. We will shortly show the video clip of that scene.

A Hard Day’s Night also features a poignant scene where Ringo goes for a walk. He
tries to have a quiet drink in a pub, takes pictures, walks alongside a canal, and rides a bicycle along a railway station platform.

Eventually, the rest of the band locate Ringo, and head to the theater where they perform a selection of songs. After the concert, the Beatles are whisked away by helicopter from their adoring fans.

Here are the Beatles in the scene from A Hard Day’s Night featuring the song Can’t Buy Me Love.

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/kfortmueller/clips/a-hard-days-night-1964-cant-buy-me-love/view

The Beatles are very appealing as they frolic around the lawn. The black and white video contains a number of jump cuts that are timed to match the rapid-fire beat of Can’t Buy Me Love. The scene also features extreme close-ups, shots with hand-held cameras, and sped-up action.

Can’t Buy Me Love is an enjoyable early Beatles song. It is propelled along briskly by bass and drums, and features Paul’s beautiful clear vocals. The song also sports a guitar solo from George.

The Beatles originally intended to feature the song I’ll Cry Instead in this scene. However, the band decided that tune was too much of a downer, so Can’t Buy Me Love was substituted. The overall effect is quite dramatic: the pairing of the song with the video constitutes one of the iconic moments in A Hard Day’s Night.

A Hard Day’s Night highlighted the brash anarchistic message of the Beatles. In a country defined by rigid class distinctions, the Beatles refused to tone down their Liverpool accents and mocked social conventions (appearing at a Royal Variety concert, John urged “those in the cheaper sets clap, those in the boxes just rattle your jewelry.”)

Another indication of the Beatles’ determination to retain their regional values was the hiring of Alun Owen as the screenwriter for A Hard Day’s Night. Owen was chosen primarily for his ability to produce dialogue that accurately portrayed the Liverpudlian dialect. The Beatles were familiar with Owen’s earlier plays focusing on life in Liverpool.

Much to everyone’s surprise, A Hard Day’s Night was both a box office and critical success. Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice called it
“the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”
The movie has a 99% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website, where it is listed as #1 on their Top Ten Certified Fresh Musicals.

A Hard Day’s Night had a tremendous influence on both movies and rock music. A series of both comedies and spy thrillers adopted the quick cuts, hand-held cameras and other techniques from this film.

Furthermore, it could be argued that the entire genre of music videos copied the cinematic methods from this movie. Before the DVD release of A Hard Day’s Night, Richard Lester was called “the father of MTV” –
he jokingly responded by asking for a paternity test.

A Hard Day’s Night marked a critical turning point for the Beatles. Until that point, it is remarkable how many social and music critics were convinced that “Beatlemania” was a short-lived craze that would die out almost instantly.

A good example was conservative pundit William F. Buckley, who considered himself an insightful commentator on American and world culture.

In his syndicated column in Sept. 1964 (titled “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, They Stink”), Buckley wrote:
Let me say it, … the Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are godawful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the impostor popes went down in history as “anti-popes.” … It helps a little bit to know that no one thinks they are more of a joke than the Beatles themselves … I do not begrudge the Beatles their success. The international derangement was not caused by them, they merely catalyzed it. What could it have been, that caused the ear of an entire younger generation to go so sour?”

One might turn Buckley’s question around and ask “What could it have been, that caused Buckley’s judgment to be so abysmally wrong?”

The commercial and critical success of A Hard Day’s Night was coupled with the continued success of the Beatles’ music. Soon, those same musical and cultural critics would be forced to eat their words.

The Supremes and Can’t Buy Me Love:

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

The Supremes were formed in Detroit in 1959. Florence Ballard was a junior-high school student living in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing projects. She became friends with Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who were singing with a group called The Primes.

Ballard joined forces with Paul Williams’ girlfriend Betty McGlown. Florence next recruited her friend Mary Wilson, who in turn brought in her friend Diane Ross, and they formed a quartet called The Primettes. The Primettes soon began winning song competitions in the Detroit area.

At that point Ross asked her friend Smokey Robinson to arrange an audition with Berry Gordy’s Motown record company. Although Gordy was impressed with the group, he told them to return once they had graduated from high school.

It’s interesting that Diane Ross was a student at the Detroit magnet school Cass Tech. This is the same high school that my wife Gail attended a few years later.

The Primettes did not take “No” for an answer, and continued to hang out at Gordy’s Hitsville USA studios. Eventually, Gordy allowed them to perform handclaps and backup vocals for other Motown groups.

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

Below is a publicity photo of The Supremes from 1964. From L: Florence Ballard; Mary Wilson; Diana Ross.

Embed from Getty Images

For two years, the Supremes released a series of songs written by Gordy or Smokey. The three singers rotated the lead vocals on different tunes; but their records were sufficiently unsuccessful that they were known at Motown as the “no-hit Supremes.”

However, all of this changed in 1963 when the songwriting and producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland began working with the group. That trio had written the song Where Did Our Love Go for The Marvelletes. When that group rejected the tune it was offered to the Supremes.

The Supremes also expressed their distaste for the song. However, because of their track record of failure, the Supremes were forced to record the tune.

To everyone’s surprise, Where Did Our Love Go rose straight to #1. Suddenly, the Supremes jumped right to the top of the pop charts, where they remained for several years.

The success of the Supremes represented a triumph for Berry Gordy’s Motown music machine. The girls continued to work with Holland-Dozier-Holland, who churned out hit after hit for the group. Where Did Our Love Go was followed by 4 straight #1 hits – Baby Love; Come See About Me; Stop! (In the Name of Love); and Back In My Arms Again.

Berry Gordy oversaw every aspect of his stable of musicians, and particularly his girl groups.  First, the Supremes were backed by the great Motown house band The Funk Brothers. That ensemble laid down an irresistible signature sound not only for the Supremes, but for all the Motown groups.

Many of the Motown artists grew up in Detroit’s housing projects, so Gordy took great pains to ensure that his acts were polished and radiated glamour and class.  Maxine Powell supervised the Artist Development effort, which functioned as a finishing school for Motown artists. And the choreography was overseen by Cholly Atkins.

As a result, song routines for the Supremes were highlighted by languid, graceful movements. The girls appeared in ballroom gowns and stylish makeup.

Berry Gordy’s final decision was that Diana Ross would become lead singer on nearly all Supremes songs.

The 1964 Supremes album of British Invasion covers,, A Bit of Liverpool.

Once the Supremes had achieved worldwide success as one of the most popular Motown groups, Berry Gordy was determined to broaden the appeal of Motown. As one aspect of this project, Gordy oversaw production of various Supremes albums that covered songs from different genres.

In 1964, the Supremes released an album A Bit of Liverpool. Above left is a picture of the album cover featuring the Supremes with bowler hats and brollies.  The record contained five Lennon-McCartney covers, including Can’t Buy Me Love, two Dave Clark covers, and four additional songs.

I was unable to obtain a live clip of the Supremes singing Can’t Buy Me Love, so here is an audio clip of their version of this Beatles tune.

So, what do you think? Given Berry Gordy’s interest in broadening the reach of Motown groups, this would be considered a success. A Bit of Liverpool reached #21 on the Billboard album charts, and one assumes that the album was purchased by people interested in the British Invasion.

I consider this a rather pedestrian cover of a Beatles tune.  I don’t think that it showcases Diana Ross’ strengths, nor does it have the terrific instrumental backing from the Motown house band the Funk Brothers.

To me, the best parts of this song occur when the three Supremes sing in unison. Despite the commercial success of this venture, I remain ambivalent about this effort.

Below is another song from the A Bit of Liverpool album. In this live performance the Supremes sing a short excerpt from the Beatles song I Feel Fine.

On the one hand, this is a great live clip from 1965 featuring The Supremes. As with the previous song, the most powerful moments occur when the three girls are singing harmony in unison.

However, I really hate the instrumental backing. It sounds like they brought in Frank Sinatra’s bandleader to produce this song. This production lacks all of the signature Motown touches, and it seems a weak attempt to capitalize on the Beatles’ fame.

Berry Gordy was undeterred. In 1965, the Supremes released an album titled The Supremes Sing Country, Western and Pop; and in 1967 they came out with The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart. The Supremes also mounted an extremely popular series of appearances at New York’s Copacabana nightclub.

Despite my distaste for the Motown outreach efforts, The Supremes were successful in broadening their appeal to a wider audience. This became valuable to Diana Ross when she left The Supremes early in 1970.

It should also be noted that Berry Gordy was turning the tables with respect to “cover songs.” In the 50s, when rock and rollers like Little Richard and Fats Domino released records that became hot sellers on the R&B charts, white artists immediately jumped in and produced “covers” of records from black artists.

In 1957, crooner Pat Boone produced a cover of Little Richard’s song Tutti Frutti that outsold Little Richard’s own composition on the Billboard pop charts. Boone did the same with his cover of Fats Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame.

But the Supremes were producing their own covers of songs by white artists such as the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Hank Williams. In 1966 the Supremes’ album The Supremes A’Go-Go reached #1 on the Billboard album charts, displacing – wait for it – the Beatles’ Revolver!

Well, tensions had been growing in the Supremes for some time, ever since the group changed its name in 1967 to “The Supremes With Diana Ross,” followed closely by a second change to “Diana Ross and The Supremes.”

In 1968, their dynamite songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland quit Motown in a contract dispute, and the Supremes found it much harder to score hit records. Then in 1970, Diana Ross left for a solo career.

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

By 1976 the Supremes were essentially history. After Diana Ross left the group for a solo career, the Supremes cycled through a revolving door of replacement singers. Without Diana, fewer and fewer of the group’s records made the pop charts, and the group’s popularity waned.

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

Michael Buble and Can’t Buy Me Love:

Michael Buble is a Canadian singer-songwriter and producer. He was born in 1975 and his father was a salmon fisherman. Buble showed musical talent at a young age, and when he was 16 he debuted as a singer, bankrolled by his grandfather.

Buble’s grandfather sparked Michael’s interest in jazz. For several years, Buble worked both as a singer and as an actor. He garnered various small acting roles while trying to break through as a singer.

One of Buble’s first breaks came in 2000 when he sang at the wedding of the daughter of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. At that event, he was introduced to producer David Foster.

Foster agreed to produce an album for Buble, provided that Michael raise $500,000 to cover the production costs. The album was released in 2003 after Buble managed to raise the money, with help from Foster’s personal friend Paul Anka.

At this point, Buble became a big hit in countries such as Canada, the U.K., and Australia. However, his self-titled debut album did not make as big a splash in the U.S.

Below is a photo of Michael Buble performing in 2004.

Embed from Getty Images

Then, in 2005 Buble released the album It’s Time. That album included a number of covers, including Buble’s jazzy version of the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love.

It’s Time spent a record 78 weeks as #1 on the Billboard Top Jazz chart, and went to #7 on the Billboard 200 pop album charts. That album earned Buble a couple of Grammy nominations, and won 4 Canadian Juno Awards in 2006 (Album of the Year, Pop Album of the Year, Single of the Year, and Artist of the Year).

So here is Michael Buble in a `live’ performance of Can’t Buy Me Love.

This is a jazz-inspired version of Can’t Buy Me Love. Buble is backed by a full orchestra, and he produces a version of this tune that would be right at home in a Frank Sinatra concert.

However, unlike the Supremes, Buble is right in his element here, and the song is a successful cover of this Beatles classic.

The one thing I dislike about this clip is that Buble is definitely not singing Can’t Buy Me Love. Someone has simply spliced the audio of Buble performing Can’t Buy Me Love with video of him singing an altogether different song.

I’m sorry I could not find a more authentic video clip. However, I knew very little about Michael Buble before writing this post, so this was a worthwhile exercise for me.

In subsequent years Buble has cemented his reputation as a first-rate jazz singer and a major entertainer in his field. Over the years, Buble has sold over 55 million records. In 2010, he performed before the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Michael Buble married Argentine actress Luisana Lopilato in 2011, and they have two sons. Throughout his life, Buble has been an avid hockey fan. As a youth, he dreamed of becoming a professional hockey player, and he is currently a supporter of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team. Buble is also part owner of the Vancouver Giants junior ice hockey team.

We wish Michael Buble all success, and hope that he continues to “put the biscuit in the basket” (FYI, a hockey reference).

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Can’t Buy Me Love
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, A Hard Day’s Night (film)
Wikipedia, Paul McCartney
William F. Buckley, syndicated column, Sept. 8, 1964: “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, The Beatles Stink.”
Wikipedia, The Supremes
Wikipedia, Michael Buble

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

Can’t Help Falling In Love: Elvis Presley [clip from “Blue Hawaii”]; UB40

Hello there! This is another entry in our blog series Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies. In these posts, we review a rock and roll tune that features prominently in a film.

This week’s entry is Can’t Help Falling in Love, a lovely pop ballad recorded by Elvis Presley that appeared in his 1961 movie Blue Hawaii. We will then discuss a cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love by UB40.

Elvis Presley and Can’t Help Falling in Love:

Elvis Presley is one of our favorite rock artists, and we have written many blog posts about his life and career. We began with a blog post about the song Hound Dog; a second post on the song Always On My Mind; a post about the song Heartbreak Hotel; a post on Blue Moon Of Kentucky; a post on the song Little Darlin’; a post on Long Tall Sally; and a post on Jailhouse Rock.

Here we will briefly review Elvis’ career around 1961, when he
filmed the movie Blue Hawaii.  Next we will skip to 1968, the year of his so-called ’68 Comeback Special.

Elvis first burst into the public consciousness through the songs issued from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. Elvis achieved regional renown in 1954 with his rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s blues song That’s All Right.

By mid-1955, Elvis was beginning to carve out a national reputation. In November of that year, he was voted most promising young male artist at the Country Disc Jockey Convention. Elvis signed a deal with RCA Victor, and then signed ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker as his manager.

But it was in 1956 that Elvis achieved world-wide notoriety with his hip-shaking versions of songs such as Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel. Parents and music critics were outraged, teen-agers were enthralled, and Elvis became “The King,” a title he never relinquished during his lifetime.

Below is a 1956 photo of Elvis with his manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker.

Embed from Getty Images

Can’t Help Falling in Love in the film Blue Hawaii:

Blue Hawaii was Elvis Presley’s eighth movie, and his second movie in 1961. From the period 1964 through 1969, Elvis would film three movies per year.

The song Can’t Help Falling in Love, which features in Blue Hawaii, was written by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss. The melody is based on the late 18th century ballad Plaisir d’Amour.

The screenplay for Blue Hawaii was written by Hal Kanter, who would earn a nomination for Best Written American Musical from the Writers’ Guild of America. The movie finished among the top-grossing films of 1961.

Blue Hawaii would be the first of three Elvis movies to feature Hawaii as the locale. In March 1961, Elvis began recording the film’s soundtrack; shortly after that, producer Hal Wallis began shooting location shots around various sites in Hawaii. The final touches were recorded in Hollywood’s Paramount studios.

In Blue Hawaii, Chadwick Gates (Elvis) is the son of the proprietors of the “Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company,” a pineapple dynasty. Chad’s snobby mother (Angela Lansbury) expects her son to take over as director of this operation. As a side note, at the time of filming Elvis was 26 and Lansbury, who played his mother, was 35!

Much like Elvis in real life, Chad has just returned from a stint in the Army. His main ambition is to hang out with his surf buddies and to spend time with his girlfriend Maile Duval (Joan Blackman). As a result, Chad defies his parents and goes to work as a guide for a tourist agency.

Another character in the movie is Tucker Gates (Steve Brodie). His main role in the film is to goad Chad into a titanic brawl, a common feature of Elvis movies.

Poster for the 1961 Elvis Presley movie Blue Hawaii.

At left is a movie poster for Blue Hawaii. It features a surfboard, with a small picture of Elvis playing a guitar (or is it a ukelele?) near the bottom of the poster.

The Hawaiian islands are a major feature of Blue Hawaii. Most of it was filmed on the island of Kauai, although there are also several shots of Diamond Head on Waikiki.

One memorable song from Blue Hawaii is the title song, which is a cover of Bing Crosby’s tune from the 1937 film Waikiki Wedding.

And here is a clip of Elvis singing Can’t Help Falling in Love in the film Blue Hawaii.

Chad/Elvis sings the song just after giving Maile’s grandmother a music box that he picked up while on duty in Austria. Featuring Elvis’ soothing vocals, this is a beautiful and irresistible ballad.

Can’t Help Falling in Love was released as a single in 1962. It made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spent 6 weeks as #1 on the Easy Listening charts. It became one of Elvis’ more popular songs in his live performances, and he often closed his concerts with that tune.

The Blue Hawaii soundtrack album was a blockbuster hit. It
was on the Billboard Pop Albums chart for 79 weeks, where it spent 20 weeks at #1.
The soundtrack album was nominated for a 1961 Grammy in the motion picture or TV recording category.

We will shortly show a live clip of Elvis singing Can’t Stop Falling In Love. This performance took place at a crucial point in Elvis’ career — the so-called “’68 Comeback Special” show broadcast on NBC TV from Las Vegas in Dec. 1968.

There were a number of dramatic twists in Elvis’ career after 1956. First off, he was drafted into the Army in 1958. Although he recorded a number of songs prior to his induction, which were released during his time in the Army, Elvis’ career suffered from the fact that he was never on tour or on TV during this period.

After his release from the Army, Elvis devoted more and more time to his movie career. Although his movies invariably made money (in part because they were so cheaply produced), and he continued to place albums on the charts, Elvis became almost an afterthought in the field of rock and roll.

Beginning in 1964, the `British Invasion’ had nearly wiped out American rock and roll. Among the few to survive the onslaught of the Beatles, Stones and other Brits were Motown artists and the Beach Boys.

So, Elvis had a lot to prove with a televised appearance before a live audience, which was recorded by NBC and broadcast in Dec. 1968. For one thing, it had been over seven years since his last live performance, at Pearl Harbor.

Elvis was determined to show that he was still capable of rocking and rolling. First, he exercised to get himself back into shape. Next, Elvis worked hard to bone up on his singing and stage presence. He assembled some of his old bandmates such as guitarist Scotty Moore, and dressed up in a slinky leather jumpsuit.

The NBC special was filmed on two different days. On each day, Elvis performed two one-hour segments, where each show had a different audience. Elvis played and sang, and also interjected thoughts and reminiscences about his career and the history of rock and roll.

The material from those four sets was then highly condensed into a one-hour TV special. Eventually the songs from all of these shows were released in a four-album set.

The ’68 Comeback Special’ gave Elvis’ career a gigantic shot in the arm. The format – one hour of Elvis performing solo – was unique for pop music on TV.  At that time, the norm was to pack a show with as many guest stars as possible.

Elvis clearly wowed the television audience. Here he is singing Can’t Help Falling in Love.

Elvis is extremely appealing here. After a long layoff from public performance, he looked youthful and fit, and he showed off his voice both in ballads like this one, and in his energetic rockabilly classics.

The ’68 Comeback Special involved Elvis appearing on a very small stage, surrounded by the audience. The format for this performance is thought by some to have inspired the later “Unplugged” series of intimate acoustic performances.

The ’68 Comeback Special gave Elvis’ career a much-needed shot in the arm. A direct result of this show was that Elvis began to focus more on his concert appearances, as opposed to his movie roles. In any case, it is heartening to see Elvis rocking once more, and he is clearly having a great time!

UB40 and Can’t Help Falling in Love:

We first encountered UB40 in our blog post on the Neil Diamond song Red Red Wine. Here we will briefly review the career of this British band.

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

That form was “Unemployment Benefit Form 40,” or UB40 for short. One of the founders of the group was Ian Campbell. Campbell joined forces with keyboardist Mickey Virtue, percussionist Astro and other musicians to form a band. They chose the name “UB40” as all of them were unemployed at the time they joined the group.

Below is a photo of the multi-ethnic British reggae band UB40 from 1983. From L: Astro; Norman Hassan; Brian Travers; Ali Campbell; Earl Falconer; Jimmy Brown; Robin Campbell; Mickey Virtue.

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

Can’t Help Falling in Love was the first single release from the UB40 1993 album Promises and Lies. The song was another big hit for the group, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and also hitting the top spot in many European countries. It was the best-selling tune ever for UB40.

This song also appears in the soundtrack of the 1993 Sharon Stone movie Sliver. By the way, that movie achieved a milestone of sorts by being nominated for seven Golden Raspberry awards (worst picture, worst director, worst screenplay, worst actor, worst actress, worst supporting actor, and worst supporting actress).  Perhaps equally amazing, Sliver did not win a single Golden Raspberry award that year!

Here is UB40 in a live performance of Can’t Help Falling In Love. This took place in Rotterdam; I am not sure of the date.

Isn’t this a beautiful song? As you can see, the UB40 cover of Can’t Help Falling In Love features the band’s slow-rocking reggae style. And lead singer Ali Campbell shows off his lovely vocals.

The tune features a steady-thumping bass and drums, backed by a full horn section. This was the closing song in the concert, and the audience is singing right along with the band.

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

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

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

Although the original UB40 lineup has now fractured, it is worthwhile noting the remarkable achievements of this band. The group was ethnically extremely diverse, containing English, Irish, Scottish, Jamaican and Yemeni musicians.

UB40 placed over 50 singles on the U.K. pop charts; in addition, they were also best-sellers in the U.S. and Europe. All told, the group sold over 70 million records worldwide, and they were nominated four times for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.

So to all the present and former UB40 musicians, we say “Rock steady, mon!”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Can’t Help Falling In Love
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, Blue Hawaii
Wikipedia, UB40

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