Blue Christmas: Doye O’Dell; Elvis Presley; Seymour Swine and the Squealers

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic holiday song, Blue Christmas. We will first discuss the original release by Doye O’Dell in 1948. Next, we will review a famous cover of this song by Elvis Presley, and we will finish with a parody of this tune by Seymour Swine and the Squealers.

Doye O’Dell and Blue Christmas:

The song Blue Christmas was written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson. It is a song that describes a man’s loneliness during the holiday season.

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on our green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

And when those blue snowflakes start fallin’
That’s when those blue memories start callin’
You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas

The first recording of Blue Christmas was by Doye O’Dell in 1948. O’Dell’s version was followed in short order by three covers in 1949. The first was a single from country singer Ernest Tubb. At the beginning of 1950, Tubb’s version climbed to #1 on the Billboard Most Played Juke Box (Country & Western) Records playlist.

A second cover was from Hugo Winterhalter and his orchestra and chorus; that version made it to #9 on the Billboard Records Most Played by Disk Jockeys charts. A third version of Blue Christmas was from Russ Morgan and his orchestra, a version that made it to #11 on the Best-Selling Pop Singles lists.

Country singer Doye O’Dell.

Allen Doye O’Dell was born in Gustine, Texas in 1912. His father moved to Plainview, Texas where he ran a cotton farm. Doye was inspired to become a musician by his uncle Tom Gregory who was a fiddle player. At left is a photo of O’Dell.

Doye’s first big exposure came when he appeared on radio station WDAG in Amarillo, Texas. He then moved up to appear on NBC radio. O’Dell played with a number of bands and eventually moved to the West Coast, where he appeared on the Los Angeles TV station KTLA. There, he starred in a Friday night TV show called Western Varieties.

O’Dell eventually ended up in a band called Sons of the Pioneers. This was one of the most famous country music bands of all time. It was started (pioneered, so to speak) by vocalist and rhythm guitarist Leonard Slye, who added Bob Nolan on bass (and vocals, including yodeling), Tim Spencer on vocals, and Hugh Farr on fiddle.

The group began to achieve a major regional following, and in 1934 they signed a contract with Decca Records. Their first big signature hit was Tumbling Tumbleweeds.

Then in 1937, Leonard Slye was offered a movie contract. In short order, he became the most famous singing cowboy of all time, under his screen name Roy Rogers. The Sons of the Pioneers then backed up Rogers in a number of his many movies. Below is a photo of Roy Rogers.

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So here is Doye O’Dell in the original 1948 recording of Blue Christmas.

Doye has a fine voice and the song is presented as a country & western tune, with backing from guitar, upright bass and fiddle. The song features a Hawaiian guitar solo in the middle.

As you can see, this includes a video clip of a band playing in a movie. The band is obviously not singing Blue Christmas (the band continues to play even after the song ends). The video takes place in a bar, where we see closeups of a cowboy with some resemblance to Roy Rogers.

Is Doye O’Dell playing with the band in the corner of the bar? The video is not sufficiently sharp for me to discern the identities of the musicians.

However, O’Dell had begun a movie career in about 1940, and a number of his movie appearances were as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers. For example, O’Dell appears with this group in Along the Mohawk Trail (1945), Home in Oklahoma (1946), Hit Parade of 1947, and The Gay Ranchero and Under California Stars (1948). And Roy Rogers starred in the last three of those movies. So that could be Doye O’Dell playing in the band in that video.

O’Dell also appeared in various other movies and TV programs. For example, he appeared in episodes of Maverick and I Love Lucy.

Doye O’Dell died in January 2001 at his home in Northridge, California. We salute Mr. O’Dell, who was a prominent singing cowboy and had the distinction of the first recording of a holiday classic (by last count there were over 400 covers of Blue Christmas!)

Elvis Presley and Blue Christmas:

By the mid-1950s, the song Blue Christmas was a popular country & western holiday tune. However, the song became an iconic classic after it was covered by Elvis Presley.

The song was included on the 1957 release Elvis’ Christmas Album. Like all Elvis albums at the time, this record was a best-seller, and Blue Christmas was arguably the favorite song on this release. In 1964, Blue Christmas was released as a single and made it into the top 20 in both the U.S. and the U.K. playlists.

However, we will show Elvis singing Blue Christmas at a significantly later point in his career, in the so-called ’68 Comeback Special show broadcast on NBC TV from Las Vegas in Dec. 1968. Below is a photo of Elvis performing in this TV special, whose actual title is Singer Presents … Elvis.

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Elvis’ career had taken many turns since he burst onto the scene in 1956. First, he was drafted into the Army in 1958. Although he recorded several songs prior to his induction, which were released during his time in the Army, Elvis’ career suffered because he was never on tour or on TV during this period.

After his release from the Army, he devoted more and more time to work in films. This was at the behest of his manager, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker, who stopped Elvis from touring in 1961 and focused on his movie career. After one great movie, Jailhouse Rock, the Elvis films went from bad to worse.

Presley’s movies had only the flimsiest ‘plots.’  Worse still, the plot was nearly identical from one movie to the next. Producer Hal Wallis
decided to shorten filming schedules, almost abandoning rehearsals and retakes. He stopped shooting on location and centered all his activities in the studio. Wallis also resorted to smaller studios, dropping experienced crews. … Meanwhile, studio recordings also declined in quality, with musicians often recording their parts before Presley himself.

All of this would be tolerable if the movies featured great rock and roll songs; unfortunately, even this was lacking. The cheesy formulaic songs in Elvis movies would have been right at home in a 3rd-rate off-Broadway production. You can tell from the song titles that they were stinkers – for example, ‘No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car’ and ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby.’

So, Elvis had a lot to prove with a live TV program in 1968. The network, NBC, expected a Christmas special. However, Elvis was determined to show that he was still capable of rocking and rolling.

Elvis dressed up in a slinky leather jumpsuit, assembled some of his old bandmates such as guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana, and wowed the television audience. Here he is singing Blue Christmas from that special.

You can see why Elvis’ version of Blue Christmas became the standard for this tune. His delivery is sincere but very sexy. He looks healthy and lean (he worked hard to get in shape for this appearance), and his voice is still great.

Guitarist Scotty Moore and drummer D.J. Fontana are joined by drummer Alan Fortas and guitarist Charlie Hodge. The stage for this event was small, like a boxing ring, and very intimate for the audience.

The ‘Comeback Special’ jump-started Elvis’ career once again. He returned to the studio and cut an album that was not a movie soundtrack, and he signed up for performances at the Las Vegas International Hotel.

In Vegas, Elvis assembled a band that was led by guitarist James Burton and was named the TCB Band. They became Elvis’ backing band for the remainder of his life. Elvis also added a big horn section, quite likely modeled after the Vegas act of his good friend Tom Jones.

Elvis broke attendance records in Vegas, which was wonderful for his ego (back in 1956, Elvis appeared at the Fremont Hotel; however, his contract was terminated after one week, because the Vegas clientele was accustomed to acts like Frank Sinatra, and they could not relate to a hip-shaking country boy with massive sideburns).

It is heartening to see Elvis rocking once more in 1968, and he was clearly having a great time!

Seymour Swine and the Squealers and Blue Christmas:

In 1985 a parody holiday song was released, under the pseudonym Seymour Swine and the Squealers. It was a version of Blue Christmas, supposedly sung by Porky Pig. The song became a viral favorite, and has been played over and over again at Christmas time every year since its release.

First, let’s review the character and voice of Porky Pig featured in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoon series. That series of animated cartoons ran from 1930 to 1969, although most people would agree that the “Golden Age” of Looney Tunes shorts was the period from 1935 to 1964.

Several of the characters from the Warner Bros. animated cartoons Looney Tunes.

During that time the main animators were Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones directed many of the sequences. They introduced the classic characters Porky Pig (1935), Daffy Duck (1937), Bugs Bunny (1938) and Elmer Fudd (1940). Above is a picture that includes several of the Looney Tunes characters.

Between 1942 and 1953, more characters were added, including Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzalez, and Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner.

The cartoons represented incredibly zany antics, memorable characters, and exceptional graphic art. Who can forget the wisecracking Bugs (“Eh, What’s Up, Doc?”), the slow but determined Elmer Fudd (“that wascally wabbit”), and the incredibly complex machinations of Wile E. Coyote, who is perpetually outsmarted by the Road Runner.

Voice artist Mel Blanc with several of his characters.

One of the most amazing things about the Looney Tunes series is that nearly all of the voices were produced by one man, Mel Blanc. Blanc was the man behind the voices of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety and Sylvester, Speedy Gonzalez, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner and several others.

Mel Blanc was the most famous voice artist of his time. In fact, he was the first voice artist to obtain screen credit for his work. The different voices are so distinct and instantly recognizable that it is difficult to imagine that they were produced by a single individual. At left is a photo of Mel Blanc with several of the characters that he voiced.

Anyway, here is the audio for Blue Christmas by “Seymour Swine and the Squealers.”

As you can see, this is simply a takeoff on Mel Blanc’s Porky Pig voice singing Blue Christmas, in the style of Elvis Presley. “Seymour Swine” is actually Denny Brownlee, who recorded the parody in 1985 for the John Boy and Billy radio show from Charlotte, North Carolina. Brownlee is accompanied by a guitarist, and the song also contains a “spoken word” section in the middle (like the Elvis 1957 recording), and a kazoo solo.

One of the memorable features of this song is that the other people in the studio are cracking up at Brownlee’s ‘Porky’ imitation.

By the way, the early Looney Tunes cartoons featured significant violence and suicidal sight gags. They also showed addictive behavior (smoking, drinking to excess and popping pills), and they displayed insensitive racial and ethnic characterizations of African-Americans, Jews and Hispanics. During World War II the cartoons also featured stereotypes of Asians and Germans.

Note that the famous Looney Tunes characters frequently poke fun at physical disabilities – Porky’s stutter and Daffy Duck’s lisp are two examples, and many believe that Elmer Fudd was intended to represent a man with Down’s Syndrome.

In recent years, DVDs have been released of the Looney Tunes catalog. They contain a disclaimer voiced by Whoopi Goldberg that states:
The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in the U.S society. These depictions were wrong then and they are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming that these prejudices never existed.

I agree with the disclaimer. At the same time, the Looney Tunes cartoons represent some of the funniest and zaniest visual humor ever produced – they are classics, and the team of Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Friz Freleng and Mel Blanc were comic geniuses!

That’s All, Folks!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Blue Christmas (song)
Doye O’Dell Official Site
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, Singer Presents … Elvis
Wikipedia, Looney Tunes

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

You Can’t Always Get What You Want: The Rolling Stones; the film The Big Chill; Al Kooper

Hello there! This is a continuation of our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week our blog features a wonderful late-60s rocker, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. We will first discuss the original song by The Rolling Stones. Next, we will show how it is featured in the movie The Big Chill. Finally, we will review a cover of this song by Al Kooper.

The Rolling Stones and You Can’t Always Get What You Want:

The Rolling Stones have been one of our most popular groups.  We have previously reviewed Stones songs here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.  So in this post we will concentrate on the period when You Can’t Always Get What You Want was recorded and released.

The year 1969 was a tumultuous one for the Rolling Stones. In June of that year, the other members of the band informed Brian Jones that he was being kicked out of the group. This was ironic as Jones had been the initial leader of the band, and had assembled the other members of the Stones.

Only four weeks later, Jones was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool. Below is a 1969 photo of the Rolling Stones with their new member, guitarist Mick Taylor (center in the photo), who had replaced Jones.

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The song You Can’t Always Get What You Want was the first song recorded for the Stones’ 1969 album Let It Bleed. It was written by Mick Jagger, and recorded in two different versions. One version checks in at over 7 minutes in length, and it contains backing by the London Bach Choir. A second version is roughly 5 minutes long and is lacking the choir.

Apparently before they recorded the song, Mick Jagger was discussing the possibility of getting some choral backing.
I’d also had this idea of having a choir, probably a gospel choir, on the track, but there wasn’t one around at that point. Jack Nitzsche, or somebody, said that we could get the London Bach Choir and we said, “That will be a laugh.”

Well, the Stones ended up with the London Bach Choir, and the result was absolutely stunning. Here is the audio of the Rolling Stones in You Can’t Always Get What You Want. This is the 7-minute version that includes the choir.

Isn’t this astonishing? The choral backing could easily end up being completely ineffective, or insufferably cute. Instead, it is just terrific. The song describes a series of drug-related episodes that take place in the London area.

I saw her today at the reception
A glass of wine in her hand
I knew she would meet her connection
At her feet was her footloose man

No, you can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometime you find
You get what you need

[REPEAT verse + chorus]

But I went down to the demonstration
To get your fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a fifty-amp fuse”

The first verse and chorus is sung at a stately, doleful pace by the Bach Choir. Backed by an acoustic guitar and introduced by a haunting French horn, Mick Jagger repeats the verse and chorus.

A couple more verses and chorus are accompanied by the Bach Choir, complemented by some backing vocals, a soulful organ and a piano.

After a few more verses, the Bach Choir appears again. The pace of the song picks up while the choir swells, a piano trills and various percussion instruments (particularly conga drums and maracas) emphasize the beat.

At the end of the song, the choir is in full throat, and the Stones provide a pulsating rock beat that carries the song to a climax.

The version that included the Bach Choir appeared only on the Let It Bleed album. The shorter single minus the choir was released in July 1969 as the “B” side of Honky Tonk Women. Amazingly, it failed to chart.

So here are the Rolling Stones live in 1969, being introduced by David Frost and “performing” You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

It is obvious that Mick is simply lip-synching to the record. First, there is no sign of the piano, organ or chorus that appears on the song. Second, although Charlie Watts appears in this video clip, Watts was not the drummer on this tune, instead being replaced by producer Jimmy Miller. And finally, Mick Taylor appears with an electric guitar, although Taylor was not in the studio in November 1968 when the record was cut.

Despite the poor chart performance of this song, it has become an iconic rock tune and one of the Stones’ signature songs. You Can’t Always Get What You Want is rated #100 on the Rolling Stone compilation The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

And this tune appears on seven different Stones compilation collections! Recently, when the Stones perform this song at concerts, Mick Jagger modifies the lyrics to include the question “What is your favorite flavor?” to which the audience responds “Cherry red!”

Although the song is in many respects a downer (it is filled with drug references, discusses unfaithful lovers and mentions attending a demonstration “to get your fair share of abuse”), the final words of the chorus hold out some hope. Although you can’t always get what you want, “if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”

It is believed that this song is a Stones’ response to Beatles songs that included a full orchestra. For example, Mick Jagger was impressed by Beatles tunes such as Hey Jude, and some of the songs that appeared on the Sgt. Pepper album. Mick was quoted in 1969,
“I liked the way the Beatles did that with ‘Hey Jude’. The orchestra was not just to cover everything up—it was something extra. We may do something like that on the next album.”
Well, the Stones certainly followed up on that promise!

You Can’t Always Get What You Want in the movie The Big Chill:

The Big Chill was a 1983 film about a group of friends from college who gather at the funeral of a friend who has committed suicide. The film was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, from a script by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek.

Kasdan was a brilliant writer and director who had previously written the scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. The Big Chill was the second picture he directed, following his debut with the clever 1981 thriller Body Heat.

For The Big Chill, Kasdan assembled an ensemble cast with a group of largely unknown young actors. In retrospect, this was a brilliant cast that included Kevin Kline as Harold Cooper, Glenn Close as his wife Sarah, William Hurt as Nick Carlton, Mary Kay Place as Meg Jones, Jeff Goldblum as Michael Gold, JoBeth Williams as Karen Bowers, Tom Berenger as Sam Weber, and Meg Tilly as Chloe.

Album of songs from the 1983 movie The Big Chill.

At left we show the album containing music from The Big Chill. This includes a photo of the ensemble cast.

Kevin Costner “played” Alex, the friend who committed suicide. Kasdan had originally anticipated Costner having a significant role in the movie, with flashbacks showing episodes in Alex’s life. However, those scenes were progressively cut as the film was shot. In the final cut, not only are flashbacks of Alex missing from the movie, but the only thing we see of Alex is parts of his corpse being dressed for the funeral – and we never see his face.

The clip below focuses on the funeral. Everyone has assembled in the church, and the pastor announces that Karen Bowers will play one of Alex’s favorite songs. After she goes to the organ, the congregation realizes that she is playing the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

They smile wryly at the irony of the song’s message (at a funeral for a suicide), coupled with the fact that a rocking Stones tune is being played on a church organ. We hear only a few bars of Karen’s contribution, until the song switches to the Rolling Stones version with the London Bach Choir. Here is the clip.

The video provides us with snippets of dialogue between various congregants. Each of these provides a pithy excerpt that reveals the character of the friends and a summary of their current circumstances.

On the way to the cemetery, Nick and Meg smoke a joint in Nick’s Porsche. Sam, Michael and Chloe drive together. The actor Sam is upset about an article that journalist Michael wrote about him, while Chloe appears desirable but weird (when journalist Michael says that he does much of his work in a limo, she asks if he is a chauffeur; and she has clearly never heard of Sam, a famous actor). We also view the tension between Karen and her critical husband Richard, and we sense Karen’s frustration.

The Big Chill deals with the experiences of this group of friends. The baby boomers are 15 years out of college and are coming to grips with the trajectory of their lives, in the light of their friend’s suicide. At the same time, they are negotiating their passage from the heady idealism of their college days to the daily routine of middle age.

One of my friends said that a good question for a 25th college reunion should be “How are you doing on Plan B?” That is, for many people their subsequent life and career bears little resemblance to their expectations in college. This would be painfully clear to students from the 60s, when many envisioned themselves making significant contributions to progressive societal change.

Commenting on the movie, actress Mary Kay Place said
“When you’re in college, you think you can do anything, be anything, accomplish anything…Then suddenly you reach a point where you’re settled into what you’re going to be and once you realize it, everything stops. Then the questions begin.”

In this group, while Harold has become a successful businessman and Sam a world-famous actor, Alex has committed suicide, Nick is dealing with serious addiction issues, Meg is desperate to have a baby, and Karen is seriously considering leaving her unsupportive husband.  Meanwhile, Harold and Sarah are dealing with the fact that at one time, Sarah had a brief affair with Alex.

I thought The Big Chill was a brilliant movie. Lawrence Kasdan assembled an all-star cast and provided them with incisive dialogue that revealed each character’s issues. The story was enhanced by a wonderful set of 60s songs, chosen by Kasdan’s wife Meg.

These are not only great tunes, but the movie makes it clear that the songs have a deep meaning for these college friends. In addition to the Rolling Stones tune, Meg Kasdan included songs by The Temptations, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, The Beach Boys, and the Steve Miller Band.

The Big Chill won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival and the “best comedy” award from the Writers Guild of America. It was also nominated for three Academy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards, and received much critical acclaim.

Alas, it appears that the appeal of The Big Chill has not continued to the present. Younger viewers seem less able to identify with the emotions experienced by the characters in this film. At present The Big Chill has only a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Nevertheless, our opinion is that The Big Chill is an exceptional ensemble picture, and one that most successfully incorporates iconic 60s music into a film.

Al Kooper and You Can’t Always Get What You Want:

Al Kooper was born Alan Kuperschmidt in Brooklyn in 1944. He started off in music at quite an early age. At 14 he was a guitarist in the group Royal Teens, who had one big hit, the 1958 novelty song Short Shorts. Then at age 16, he began writing songs for Sea-Lark Publishing.

Below is a photo of a young Al Kooper playing guitar.

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At age 21, Kooper moved to Greenwich Village where he joined the music scene. His first major break was playing guitar and organ when Bob Dylan went electric. Kooper was a member of the backing group when Dylan first appeared with an electric band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. And he played organ on the great Dylan classic Like A Rolling Stone.

In 1967, Kooper formed the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. This was an ensemble inspired by the jazz band Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, a group that featured a blazing horn section. Kooper’s idea was to re-create this idea with a rock-jazz fusion band.

Blood, Sweat and Tears began to attain commercial success. However, creative differences soon surfaced within BS&T. Several band members felt that the group needed a new lead vocalist, and suggested that Kooper (the original lead vocal) move strictly to keyboards and composing. Kooper resisted this and soon left the band.

Unfortunately for Kooper, after BS&T recruited a new vocalist, David Clayton-Thomas, they became a supergroup. The band produced several hit singles and inspired other similar groups such as Chicago.

During that period, Kooper also performed on over 100 recording sessions for a series of artists including The Who, Jimi Hendrix, B. B. King and Cream. By all accounts he was a fabulous session player and was able to play several instruments.

Here is Al Kooper in a live performance of You Can’t Always Get What You Want and Season of The Witch. This took place at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I know that Kooper appeared at the Regatta Bar in 2012, where he celebrated his 68th birthday. This could be a clip from that concert. I have to say it is a rather disappointing performance.

This is particularly sad, because Al Kooper was one of the performers on the original Stones recording of You Can’t Always Get What You Want. He can be heard on the organ (a rather significant instrumental part), and also piano and French horn.

But here, I am afraid that the performance is lackluster. Kooper’s contributions on organ are impressive, but his vocals leave much to be desired, and he does not seem that energized. The audience sings the chorus (but not particularly well), and the song ends with a thud.

In 1972 Kooper moved to Atlanta, where he discovered the group Lynyrd Skynyrd and produced their first three albums. Later, Kooper wrote an autobiography of his life in the music business titled Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Survivor.

In his role as a writer, Kooper was a member and musical director of the group Rock Bottom Remainders, a band that included fellow writers Steven King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and Matt Groening.

For a number of years, Al Kooper was on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music, where he taught songwriting and recording production. Kooper continues to perform today with his groups the ReKooperators and the Funky Faculty.

We wish this rock ‘n roll survivor all the best.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, The Big Chill
Turner Classic Movies, The Big Chill
Wikipedia, Al Kooper

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

Runaway: Del Shannon; Bonnie Raitt; The Ventures

Hello there! This week our blog features a great early 60s tune, Runaway. We will discuss the original version of the song by Del Shannon. Next, we will show the cover by Bonnie Raitt, and finally a cover by the instrumental group The Ventures.

Del Shannon and Runaway:

We discussed Del Shannon in an earlier blog post on the song Handy Man.  Here we will briefly review his life and career.

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

In 1954 Westover was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he returned to Battle Creek, MI and worked as a carpet salesman. In his spare time he played rhythm guitar in a country band.  In 1958, the lead singer for Westover’s band was fired for drunkenness, and Westover took over as band leader, taking the name Charlie Johnson.

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

Below is a photo of Del Shannon circa 1970.

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Shannon and his keyboardist Max Crook eventually scored a deal with Bishop Records. While recording in New York City, they re-wrote an earlier tune called ‘Little Runaway.’  The song was re-worked into Runaway. That song, released in Feb. 1961, became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The song describes a man who is bereft because his girl has deserted him. He obsesses about their relationship, why she left, and where she might be.

As I walk along, I wonder
What went wrong with our love
A love that was so strong

And as I still walk on
I think of the things we’ve done together,
While our hearts were young.

I’m a walkin’ in the rain
Tears are fallin’ and I feel a pain
Wishin’ you were here by me
To end this misery

And I wonder, I wa-wa-wa-wa wonder
Why a why-why-why-why-why
She ran away
And I wonder where she will stay
My little runaway
My run-run-run-run runaway

So here is Del Shannon in a “live” performance of Runaway.

This is from 1961, and Del is simply lip-synching to the audio of his record, while go-go girls circle around him. But what a record! Del’s vocals make you experience the pain the singer is feeling.

Aside from the catchy melody, Runaway contains two quite distinctive features. The first is Shannon’s rapid switch to falsetto on lines like “wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder.” And the second feature is a keyboard backing that sounds like an organ on steroids.

The “organ” part is actually Max Crook playing his invention ‘the Musitron.’ This was a primitive form of synthesizer, and it provides a truly unique instrumental backing to Del Shannon’s vocals.

Max Crook had taken a clavioline, an early French electronic instrument, and cobbled together some resistors, TV tubes, and parts from amplifiers and household appliances. He came up with an early version of an analog synthesizer. Unfortunately, Crook was unable to patent his ‘Musitron’ because the individual parts comprising his instrument had already been patented.

Before he met Del Shannon, Crook traveled around the Midwest with his Musitron, until Berry Gordy brought Crook into his Detroit studio. There, Crook cut a demo of a tune called Bumble Boogie, which later became a hit for B. Bumble and the Stingers.

As you can tell, the Musitron makes a huge impact in Runaway: it gives the song its unforgettable sound. I am not aware of subsequent appearances of the Musitron in rock music, as it was replaced by more sophisticated synthesizers, or by other electronic instruments such as the Mellotron.

Shannon followed up his blockbuster Runaway with a second top-10 single, Hats Off To Larry. But after those two hits, Shannon bounced around from one record company to another, until his career had a positive bounce in the mid-60s.

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

In the 70s, Shannon made a number of comeback attempts, but these were hindered by his struggles with alcoholism. In 1987, Del made a live appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. Here he is, performing Runaway.

Here Shannon is accompanied by Paul Shaffer and the Late Show Band. As Dave points out, at the peak of his success Del Shannon was selling 80,000 copies of Runaway a day! It’s great that 25 years after recording the original, Del can still hit the falsetto notes on this tune.

One year after this performance, it looked like Shannon might get another big break. Del had recorded with Jeff Lynne, and after Roy Orbison died in late 1988, it was announced that Shannon would be Orbison’s replacement in Lynne’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

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

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

Bonnie Raitt and Runaway:

Bonnie Raitt is an R&B singer-songwriter. She is known not only for her musical ability, but also as a life-long activist. She was born in 1949 in Burbank, California, the daughter of Broadway music star John Raitt.

Below is a photo of Bonnie Raitt playing guitar early in her career.

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Bonnie enrolled in Radcliffe College, intending to major in social relations and African Studies. Instead, she dropped out in her sophomore year, moved to Philadelphia and became a blues singer.

She signed a record contract with Warner Brothers and released her first album in 1971. Both her singing and her bottleneck guitar playing were praised; unfortunately, the album did not sell. This began a pattern (critical acclaim but paltry sales) that would continue for another 15 years.

However, Bonnie Raitt experienced a reversal of fortune in 1977, when she released a cover of Runaway. Her R&B take on the Del Shannon classic tune was panned by critics; on the other hand, the song reached #57 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was encouraging for Ms. Raitt, and helped her negotiate a new contract with Warner Bros.

So here is Bonnie Raitt in a live performance of Runaway.

Isn’t this terrific? It is from a 1977 presentation of the TV show Midnight Special. Ms. Raitt converts the doo-wop stylings of Del Shannon into a slow, funky blues tune. Bonnie’s vocals are just terrific on this song.

And as an extra treat, check out the stunning harp solo by Norton Buffalo, who changes harps six times during his bit! I am really fond of this tune, and am surprised that it did not rise higher on the pop charts.

Ms. Raitt struggled for some time. She had very little commercial success, in 1983 Warner Brothers dumped her (she was in good company, as they dropped Van Morrison and Arlo Guthrie at the same time), and she struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. Eventually, inspired by seeing Stevie Ray Vaughan achieve sobriety (while improving his guitar playing), Bonnie was able to kick her habit with help from Alcoholics Anonymous.

However, 18 years after she released her first album, Bonnie Raitt’s fortunes finally improved dramatically in 1989. That year she issued an album, Nick of Time, that shot up to #1 on the Billboard album charts and sold over 6 million copies.

Suddenly, Bonnie Raitt was the “hot new thing.” Her gritty R&B sound was prized, along with her exceptional slide guitar work. She began to pile up Grammy Awards and her songs charted well.

In 2000, Bonnie Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What an encouraging outcome for someone who persevered through commercial disappointment and addiction issues, and eventually triumphed.

In addition to her music, Bonnie Raitt has been a long-time social activist. She was a founding member of the anti-nuclear power organization Musicians United for Safe Energy and also the later incarnation No Nukes.

She has also been active in a group called Little Kids Rock, an organization that provides free musical instruments and music lessons to children in public schools across the country.

We salute Bonnie Raitt and wish her all the best – keep on rockin’!

The Ventures and Runaway:

The Ventures are an instrumental band that formed in Tacoma, Washington in 1958. Bob Bogle met Don Wilson at Wilson’s father’s used-car dealership. The two bonded over their interest in guitars, so they formed a band called The Versatones.

Instrumental band The Ventures.

Alas, they discovered that their name The Versatones had already been taken, so they chose The Ventures. At left is a photo of The Ventures from the 60s.

The Ventures underwent a few changes in personnel until they settled on their “classic” lineup, with Nokie Edwards on lead guitar, Don Wilson on rhythm guitar, Bob Bogle on bass and Mel Taylor on drums.

In 1960, The Ventures struck it big with their recording of the instrumental song Walk, Don’t Run. This was actually a cover of a Chet Atkins tune, which itself was a cover of an original 1954 song by jazz guitarist Johnny Smith.

Once Walk, Don’t Run hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, The Ventures were on their way. Not only did they have a number of top-rated singles, but they sold a slew of albums. Their albums were notable in that they were generally crafted around a coherent “theme,” rather than simply being a collection of otherwise-unrelated singles.

And here are The Ventures in a live version of Runaway.

That’s Don Wilson on rhythm guitar and vocals (and straining to hit the falsetto notes), Nokie Edwards on lead guitar and Bob Bogle on bass. You can easily recognize Nokie Edwards’ guitar licks that characterize songs by The Ventures. Furthermore, the drumming also helps create the Ventures’ signature ‘sound.’

The Ventures were wildly successful commercially – selling over 100 million records and placing 38 albums on the Billboard charts, they are the best-selling instrumental group of all time. But more than that, the Ventures were trend-setters in guitar technique. Among other innovations, they introduced fuzz guitar and pioneered the use of flanging effects (look it up). Although The Ventures did not consider themselves “surf rockers,” nevertheless they were the archetypes for the surf-rock genre.

The Ventures used Fender guitars and bass for most of their career, except for a period in the mid-60s when they signed a contract with Mosrite guitars, who issued special “Ventures Model” instruments. Once that contract ended, the group returned to using Fender products.

The Ventures’ fortunes declined in the 70s in the States, although they are still considered rock gods in Japan (being an instrumental band, there is no language barrier to surmount). However, the band experienced a resurgence in popularity in the 80s in the U.S., when surf-rock music came back into fashion.

The group saw a big bump in the 90s, when Quentin Tarantino featured a cover of Nokie Edwards’ Surf Rider in his blockbuster film Pulp Fiction. In 2008, The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Alas, the only original Venture still alive today is Don Wilson. We wish him all the best and we applaud the accomplishments of his bandmates.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Runaway (Del Shannon song)
Wikipedia, Del Shannon
Wikipedia, Bonnie Raitt
Wikipedia, The Ventures

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

The First Cut Is The Deepest: P.P. Arnold; Cat Stevens; Rod Stewart

Hello there! This week our blog features a late 60s tune, The First Cut Is The Deepest. We will discuss the first recorded version of the song by P.P. Arnold. Next, we will show the version by the songwriter Cat Stevens, and finally we will review a cover by Rod Stewart.

P.P. Arnold and The First Cut Is The Deepest:

In 1965, Steven Georgiou was 17 and was inspired by musicians like the Beatles, the Kinks and Paul Simon. He began to perform in London coffee houses and pubs under the name “Steve Adams.”  He longed to become a singer-songwriter, like his favorite artists.

So he signed a publishing contract and recorded demos of some of his songs. One of those songs was The First Cut Is The Deepest.

The First Cut Is The Deepest describes a sad and dysfunctional situation. The singer is on the rebound, having been dumped. He is trying to begin a new relationship, but can’t stop obsessing about his first love. It is not clear if he will be able to overcome his pain, because “the first cut is the deepest.”

I would have given you all of my heart
But there’s someone who’s torn it apart
And she’s taking almost all that I’ve got
But if you want, I’ll try to love again
Baby I’ll try to love again but I know

The first cut is the deepest, baby I know
The first cut is the deepest
‘Cause when it comes to being lucky she’s cursed
When it comes to lovin’ me she’s worst
But when it comes to being loved she’s first

At this point, Georgiou took the stage name Cat Stevens. As we will see in the next section, Stevens’ solo career would take off in 1967. However, in 1965 Mr. Stevens believed that his best chance for success would be as a songwriter.

So Stevens sold the rights to The First Cut Is The Deepest for ₤30 to P.P. Arnold, a young expatriate American singer in Britain.

Ms. Arnold was born Patricia Cole in L.A. in October 1946. Her family were gospel singers, and she was a member of the family troupe, first performing a solo at the age of four. She married and quickly had two children.

Then in 1964, a friend encouraged Ms. Cole to audition as a replacement for The Ikettes, the backup singers and dancers for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She and her friend auditioned and won the job, so the women attended a concert to celebrate.

When Ms. Cole returned home early in the morning following the concert, her husband beat her. So she immediately separated from her husband, left her children in the care of her parents, and joined Ike & Tina on tour. At that time she took the stage name P.P. Arnold.

In 1966, Ms. Arnold quit the Ike & Tina Revue. That group had opened for the Rolling Stones on tour, and Mick Jagger encouraged Arnold to consider a solo career. So when Ike & Tina were in London, P.P. Arnold left that band and went solo. Below is a publicity photo of a young P.P. Arnold.

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Having purchased the rights to The First Cut Is The Deepest, Ms. Arnold released the first single of this tune in spring 1967. It was the breakthrough hit for Ms. Arnold in the U.K.

Here is P.P. Arnold in a live version of The First Cut Is The Deepest. This was performed on the German rock music TV program Beat Club in 1967.

I greatly enjoyed seeing this video, as I was previously unaware of P.P. Arnold and her career. Her version features harpsichord and vibraphone, and made it to #18 on the British pop charts. Ms. Arnold has a strong, clear voice but lacks the “diva” quality of singers like Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner.

After her first solo hits, Ms. Arnold released several other singles, with encouragement from artists such as Mick Jagger, Steve Marriott of Small Faces (with whom she was romantically involved), and Keith Emerson (who would later be the frontman for Emerson, Lake and Palmer).

She also collaborated with Barry Gibb, who produced several songs for her, including a couple written by Gibb himself. During the early 70s, she appeared in a couple of musicals and sang backup for a number of British artists including Graham Nash, Eric Burdon and Eric Clapton.

Arnold then hooked up with Fuzzy Samuels, who was then the bassist for Crosby, Stills & Nash. They had a child and moved back to L.A., but they split up in 1974. Just after that, Arnold’s daughter Debbie was killed in a car accident, and she then withdrew from performing for several years.

Over the next few decades, P.P. Arnold continued to release a few records, sing backup for notable groups, and appear from time to time in rock musicals. She has worked with many of the great British Invasion musicians and has had a fascinating career.

P.P. Arnold never quite made it to superstar status, but her talent was obviously appreciated. She claims that moving from the U.S. to Britain in the late 60s was a good career move for a young black woman, and she is convinced that she was taken more seriously there.

Cat Stevens and The First Cut Is The Deepest:

Cat Stevens is a British singer-songwriter who has had a most interesting life and career. He was born Steven Georgiou in 1948 in London, where his parents ran a restaurant, the Moulin Rouge, in the Soho area.

As we mentioned in the preceding section, the young Mr. Georgiou bought a guitar, taught himself how to play, and began to compose pop songs. He was performing at age 17, and signed a record contract at 18 under his stage name Cat Stevens. He had his first single hit, Matthew and Son, at age 19. Below is a photo of Cat Stevens in concert.

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As we have mentioned, P.P. Arnold first had a hit with the Cat Stevens song in May 1967. So here is the audio of Cat Stevens in The First Cut Is The Deepest.

This tune appeared on Stevens’ album New Masters that was released in Dec. 1967. The album failed to chart in Britain; however, by this time Stevens’ solo career had taken off.

Cat Stevens’ version of The First Cut features a lovely guitar solo courtesy of Big Jim Sullivan, strings and horns, and of course Stevens’ evocative and vulnerable vocals which I find really moving. Stevens’ first producer Mike Hurst favored rather elaborate productions, whereas later Stevens would adopt a more sparse folk-rock style.

Now here is a live performance by Cat Stevens of The First Cut Is The Deepest, from 1967.

This clip has historical value, even though both the video and audio fidelity are poor, and the performance somewhat amateurish. Anyway, this Cat Stevens tune would prove extremely popular over the coming decades. In addition to versions by P.P. Arnold and Rod Stewart that we feature here, the song was a hit for Keith Hampshire and Sheryl Crow, among many others.

Mr. Stevens contracted tuberculosis in 1969, and had a near-death experience that required a year of convalescence. During that period he wrote a slew of songs, but also spent much time thinking about his life and purpose.

Stevens signed a new deal with Island Records and began to work with producer Alun Davies, a partnership that has endured for nearly five decades. His first major international breakthrough was the 1970 album Tea For The Tillerman. That album contained a number of single hits, particularly the song Wild World that Stevens wrote after his relationship with American actress Patti d’Arbanville ended.

After that point, Cat Stevens became an international superstar. He released a series of albums that went gold and spun off successful singles, and his name was mentioned in the same category as artists such as Paul Simon and Elton John. Several of his songs were incorporated into successful movies, particularly the 1971 black comedy Harold and Maude.

But Mr. Stevens retained a deep interest in religion and philosophy, and after nearly drowning while swimming in Malibu, California in 1976, he converted to Islam, taking the name Yusuf Islam.

After his conversion, Mr. Islam abandoned his musical career, and began to donate royalties from his songs to various charities. He did not perform again for many years.

In the interim, Yusuf Islam became entangled in some controversial events involving the Muslim world. In 1989, after a fatwa was issued calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Satanic Verses, Yusuf made statements that appeared to support the fatwa.

It is hard to determine exactly what transpired. In the intervening years, Yusuf Islam has steadfastly denied ever supporting the fatwa against Rushdie. He claims that he was merely trying to explain the meaning of a fatwa. On the other hand, I never heard Mr. Islam explicitly oppose the fatwa against Rushdie.

Following the 9/11 attacks in New York, Washington DC and elsewhere, Yusuf Islam issued a strong denunciation of those acts, and he performed his song Peace Train for the October 2001 Concert For New York City. Below is a photo of Yusuf Islam performing.

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Nevertheless, in 2004 Yusuf Islam was denied entry into the U.S. when he attempted to fly into Washington from London. It is not totally clear whether Yusuf Islam was considered to have supported terrorist organizations, or whether he had been confused with someone who had a similar name. He also successfully sued the British papers The Sun and The Sunday Times after they published articles asserting he was a supporter of terrorism.

In 2006, Yusuf Islam began appearing in concert once again. He performed some of his old standards in English, while some of his new songs were in Arabic. He continued to donate most or all of the proceeds from his music to charity. He also began performing as “Yusuf,” dropping his last name from his records.

In Oct. 2010, Yusuf performed at Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert’s Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear. In a cute touch, Yusuf performed his song Peace Train, while Ozzy Osbourne contributed Crazy Train and the O’Jays sang Love Train.

In 2004, Yusuf Islam received the Man of Peace Award from the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. And in 2014, Cat Stevens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It’s great to see Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam back on the road again. Critics say that he seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and he is performing a mixture of old and new tunes.

Rod Stewart and The First Cut Is The Deepest:

We have featured Rod Stewart a few times before: first for his cover of Reason To Believe; next for his cover of Blue Moon; and then for his song Maggie May.  So here we will briefly review his life and career.

Rod Stewart has been a major rock star for nearly fifty years. Rod had been performing since the early 60s as a vocalist and harmonica player, but did not achieve significant fame until 1967 when he became the lead vocalist for the Jeff Beck Group. Rod also began writing songs at this time.

His gravelly, raspy vocals gained him quite a following, particularly in the British blues circuit. Since 1967 Rod has had a long and fruitful association with bass player and guitarist Ron Wood. Below is a photo of Rod Stewart and his mate Ron Wood (L) performing with the Faces.

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

Stewart’s big breakthrough came in 1971, when the “B” side of one of his singles, Maggie May, became a surprise boffo hit, rising all the way to #1 in both the US and UK pop charts.

Rod Stewart’s unique rough vocal style was amazingly effective on tunes ranging from blues-based songs to R&B to folk-rock. His work with Faces continued for a few years until they broke up in 1975, when it became impossible to balance the demands of the band with Stewart’s solo career.

Rod Stewart’s cover of The First Cut Is The Deepest was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1976, and was released in early 1977. The song was #1 on the British pop charts for 4 weeks in 1977, and reached #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists.

Here is Rod Stewart in a live performance of The First Cut Is The Deepest.

Pretty great, huh? This song seems tailor-made for Rod’s vocals and his delivery. He brings out the pain and heartbreak in the song, and his voice is in great form. In addition, a haunting electric violin heightens the pathos of this tune.

The First Cut Is The Deepest has become one of Rod Stewart’s signature tunes. You can tell the audience is really into this one – when Rod gets to the line “Baby, I know,” the audience belts out that phrase.

Alas, I jumped off the Rod Stewart bandwagon in the late 70s when he began dressing in spandex and singing disco songs – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and Hot Legs, ugh. However, it’s hard to argue with someone who has sold upwards of 100 million records.

Rod Stewart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1994, then a second time in 2012 as a member of Faces. He was knighted in 2016, so you may call him Sir Roderick (reminds me of a character from Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

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

Rod has fathered eight children (that we know about), by five different mothers; his oldest and youngest children differ in age by 48 years. Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, indeed.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, The First Cut Is The Deepest
Wikipedia, Cat Stevens
Wikipedia, P.P. Arnold
Wikipedia, Rod Stewart

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

Walk Away Renee: The Left Banke; The Four Tops; Cyndi Lauper & Peter Kingsbery

Hello there! This week our blog features a 60s tune, Walk Away Renee. First we will discuss the original version of the song by The Left Banke.  Then we will show how the song was covered by The Four Top, and finally by Cyndi Lauper and Peter Kingsbery.

The Left Banke and Walk Away Renee:

The Left Banke was a band popular in the 60s and 70s that specialized in pop tunes inspired by classical music themes. Keyboardist and songwriter Michael Brown formed a band that included lead vocalist Steve Martin Caro, drummer George Cameron, bassist Tom Finn, and guitarist Rick Brand.

Below is a photo of the band Left Banke, decked out in their finest Mod attire.

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The song Walk Away Renee describes a man whose girlfriend is leaving him. He urges her not to look back, lest she see the pain he is enduring from their breakup.  Everything that he sees reminds him of their relationship.

And when I see the sign that points one way
The lot we used to pass by every day

[CHORUS] Just walk away Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame

From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry
From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide


Michael Brown states that he co-wrote the song Walk Away Renee in 1966 with Tony Sansone and Bob Calilli. In Brown’s version, the subject of the tune was Renee Fladen-Kamm, who was the girlfriend of bassist Tom Finn. Brown claims that he was infatuated with the free-spirited blonde Kamm. Even though he never dated her, Brown alleges that she was an object of his devotion.

Like many pop songs, there is an alternate story behind this tune. Co-writer Tony Sansone claims that he was the primary songwriter, and states that he was inspired by the Beatles tune Michelle.  According to Sansone, the ‘Renee’ in the title was simply a random choice of a French girl’s name.

Regardless of the song’s origin, Walk Away Renee was released in July 1966. It climbed up to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was the biggest hit for The Left Banke.

Here is The Left Banke in a live performance of Walk Away Renee. I believe this is from 1966.

You can see why the group’s performances were referred to as “baroque rock” (or, by some, “Bach-rock”). The song features a lush string section, in addition to a striking harpsichord backing and a flute solo in the middle. The chorus is particularly melodic – this is one of those songs that can get stuck in your head for days or weeks on end.

The recording sessions were directed by classical violinist Harry Lookofsky, who was Michael Brown’s father and who also played violin on this tune. So the classical touches in the song were certainly influenced by Lookofsky.

By the way, I believe that the group is simply lip-synching to their record. Apart from the fact that no harpsichord is visible, during the flute solo the video abruptly cuts away to show photos of the group’s records (perhaps to hide the absence of a flute).

Walk Away Renee has had lasting appeal; it is rated #220 by Rolling Stone magazine in their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Many rock groups experience tensions between the musicians, but with The Left Banke, their situation deteriorated very rapidly. The Left Banke members were no longer performing together by the time Walk Away Renee hit the top of the charts. So Michael Brown attempted to capitalize on their hit by re-forming The Left Banke.

Brown assembled a “Left Banke” touring group with new backing musicians, and released a new single. However, his former bandmates issued a cease and desist order against Brown’s new group, and urged radio stations and the band’s fan club to boycott the new record.

One memorable addition to the new Left Banke ensemble was guitarist Michael McKean. McKean later became a successful actor, staring in TV series such as Laverne and Shirley and Better Call Saul. In an inspired example of art imitating life, McKean then became immortalized as the lead singer in the rock parody movie This Is Spinal Tap.

Well, the members of Left Banke have re-formed from time to time and participated in various reunions, but they never re-captured the commercial success of their two hits, Walk Away Renee and Pretty Ballerina. Their classically-inspired music was influential in the late 60s, and Walk Away Renee continues to be a staple on oldies radio.

We send our best wishes to the surviving members of Left Banke (Michael Brown passed away in 2015 and George Cameron died in 2018).

The Four Tops and Walk Away Renee:

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

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

The Four Tops formed while all four members were in high school – Fakir and Stubbs went to one school, while Benson and Payton attended another. They first sang together at a birthday party, and began their career as The Four Aims.

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

In 1963, Berry Gordy, Jr signed the boys to Motown Records. Then in 1964, the Motown songwriting and producing powerhouse Holland-Dozier-Holland (H-D-H) composed an instrumental track. For a while they weren’t sure what to do with it, but they eventually added lyrics and gave it to the Four Tops.

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

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

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

Here are the Four Tops with their 1968 cover of Walk Away Renee.

I believe this song is lip-synched. First off, I don’t think that the acoustic effects (e.g., echo chamber) can be replicated in live performance. Second, the Four Tops vocals were supplemented with those from a girl group, The Andantes. I don’t see any “Andantes” present in this video. Nevertheless, we are treated to Levi Stubbs’ strong lead vocals on this song, backed up by those great Tops harmonies.

The Tops’ cover of Walk Away Renee was nearly as successful as the original (and in my opinion, is superior to the Left Banke version). It reached #14 on the Billboard Hot 100, #15 on the soul singles charts, and #3 in the UK Singles Charts.

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

In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles. While most of the groups followed Gordy to L.A., the Four Tops remained in Detroit with a few other Motown acts. In the 70s the group moved around from one record company to another, scoring the occasional hit. Then in 1983, the Four Tops returned to Motown, where once again they were produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

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

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

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

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

Cyndi Lauper & Peter Kingsbery and Walk Away Renee:

Cyndi Lauper is a singer-songwriter who came to prominence in the early 80s, and has had quite an amazing career. As we will see, she seems to be one of those people who can be successful at just about everything.

Cyndi had to overcome a number of obstacles in her life and career. She was expelled from high school, and left home at age 17 to escape an abusive stepfather.

She then began singing with various cover bands; however, in 1977 she damaged her vocal cords and was told that she would likely never sing again. Luckily, Cyndi found a vocal coach who helped her recover.

In 1978 her band won a recording contract and issued an album. The album was critically acclaimed but no one bought it, so the band broke up. Their manager filed suit against them, which forced Cyndi into bankruptcy.

However, in 1983 everything finally turned around. Cyndi released her first solo album, She’s So Unusual. It became a blockbuster, with two of the singles, Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Time After Time, becoming iconic pop hits.

Cyndi Lauper became famous both as a talented singer and also a feminist cultural symbol. With her multi-colored hair, style sense and her affinity for professional wrestlers, Lauper became a real trend-setter, as shown in the photo below.

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Ms. Lauper was named Best New Artist at the 1985 Grammy Awards, where her album She’s So Unusual was nominated for a gaggle of Grammys. In addition, the music video for Girls Just Want to Have Fun won the first-ever Best Female Video category at the 1984 MTV Music Video awards.

Cyndi Lauper’s second solo album was the 1986 release True Colors. The title cut of this album hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts, while her cover of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On reached #12 on the pop listings (we discussed this in an earlier post).

Here are Cyndi Lauper and Peter Kingsbery in a live version of Walk Away Renee. This is a 1994 performance on French TV.

Isn’t this a terrific song? As always, Cyndi Lauper brings a fresh and appealing take to a song, and she accompanies herself on dulcimer.

I was not aware of Peter Kingsbery before, but he and Cyndi produce lovely harmonies together. He is an American singer-songwriter who co-founded a band in the 80s called Cock Robin. That quartet found commercial acclaim in Europe but was less successful in the States.

Since the early 60s Kingsbery has lived in France, where he became a very popular musician. He introduced a number of classical instruments into his records (appropriate, since Kingsbery’s original training was in classical music).

And now back to Cyndi Lauper, whose career has branched out all over the place. She has composed the music for a slew of movies, and has garnered acting roles in a number of movies and TV shows.

Cyndi was one of the performers in the VH1 benefit Divas Live 2004. She also wrote a best-selling memoir in 2012 that chronicled her experiences dealing with child abuse and depression.

Then in 2013, Lauper collaborated with Harvey Fierstein in composing the music to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots. This smash hit dominated the 2014 Tony Awards, with 13 nominations and 6 wins, including Best Original Score.

Cyndi Lauper has also been a trail-blazer and a social activist. She has raised funds for charities and appeared at several gay-rights functions.  Ms. Lauper co-founded the True Colors Fund that supports the Human Rights Campaign. And she founded the True Colors Residence in New York City that provides temporary shelter and job placement information for LGBT homeless youth.

What an impressive woman. Rock on, Cyndi!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Walk Away Renee
Wikipedia, The Left Banke
Wikipedia, Four Tops
Wikipedia, Cyndi Lauper
Wikipedia, Peter Kingsbery

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

Oh Boy! Sonny West; The Crickets; Brian Setzer.

Hello there! This week our blog features a great old rockabilly tune, Oh Boy! First we will discuss the original version by the songwriter Sonny West. Next, we will show the song as it was covered by Buddy Holly and The Crickets, and finally by Brian Setzer.

Sonny West and All My Love:

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

Sonny West being inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Sonny West’s solo career was rather unsuccessful. His main claim to fame is that he co-wrote two songs that became blockbuster hits for Buddy Holly and the Crickets. We previously discussed the second of those hits, Rave On, a song released in February 1958.  At left is a photo of Sonny West being inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

Here is the first big hit co-written by West, Petty and Bill Tilghman. They initially called the song All My Love. In this tune, the singer expresses confidence that the girl will fall for him once she is the beneficiary of his love and affection.

All of my love
All of my kissin’
You don’t know what you’ve been a-missin’
Oh boy, when you’re with me
Oh boy, the world can see
That you were meant for me

… Stars appear and shadows a-falling
You can hear my heart a-calling
A little bit a-lovin’ makes everything right
And I’m gonna see my baby tonight

In February 1957, Sonny West recorded a demo of All My Love on acetate; however, the song was never released as a single. Just a few months later, the song was covered by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but with a different title. We will discuss their version of this tune in the following section.

So here is the audio of Sonny West’s demo of All My Love.

As you can see, Sonny West is a decent performer who sings All My Love as a straight-up country and western tune. You can also see why the recording was never released as a single (because of its historical significance, this demo was finally released in 2002), mainly because there is little that distinguishes Sonny from a run-of-the mill C&W artist.

This tune features a honky-tonk piano that backs up Sonny’s vocals. The production values are not very good, and in particular the balance between the vocals, piano and drums is rather poor.

Now here is Sonny West decades later, in a live performance of his song Oh Boy!  As you will see, West gives a decent performance, although he has some difficulty hitting the correct notes. 

Here, Sonny is accompanied by Tommy Allsup, who contributes some tasty rockabilly guitar licks to this song. Allsup was a country guitarist for several decades. His main claim to fame was that in the late 50s he was a member of The Crickets traveling band.

Sonny West has continued to perform since the 50s. He actually performed with The Crickets on a few of their tours following Buddy Holly’s death.

Sonny West’s name will live on because he co-wrote two gigantic hits that helped kick-start Buddy Holly’s career. We wish Sonny all the best.

The Crickets and Oh Boy!:

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

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

Buddy began to play various venues in the South, and gained some exposure opening for artists such as Elvis and Bill Haley and the Comets. This took him to Nashville, where he signed a contract with Decca Records and produced some work in the studio.

Buddy’s Nashville period was unsuccessful; after leaving Nashville he eventually ended up in Clovis, New Mexico, where he joined forces with producer Norman Petty.

There Buddy assembled a band consisting of drummer Jerry Allison, bassist Bill Mauldin and rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan. Buddy sang vocals and played lead electric guitar.  The group was called The Crickets, and Buddy’s initial songs were released under that name. Buddy didn’t use his own name in order to avoid conflicts with Decca.

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

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Buddy Holly and the Crickets were pioneers in what became the ‘classic’ rock group lineup – two guitars, bass and drums. Beginning in May, 1957, The Crickets struck gold with hits such as That’ll Be The Day and Peggy Sue.

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

We will discuss the first of two songs that were co-written in the mid-50s by Sonny West, Bill Tilghman and Norman Petty. As we discussed in the preceding section, West recorded a demo version of “All My Love” in Feb. 1957.  In June, Buddy Holly and the Crickets recorded this song, with Buddy on vocals and lead guitar and the Crickets providing instrumental backing.

In late 1957, they released an album called The Chirping Crickets. One of the songs from The Chirping Crickets album was released as a single. It was the West-Petty-Tilghman tune, but with a new title “Oh, Boy!”

That single was yet another massive hit for The Crickets. It shot up to #10 on the Billboard pop charts in the U.S., and was an even bigger hit in the U.K., peaking at #3. So here is Buddy Holly and the Crickets in a “live” performance of Oh Boy! on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Here, Buddy is simply lip-synching to his record.  While Sonny West’s performance of his own song was rather pedestrian, in the hands of Buddy Holly the song was transformed into an unforgettable rockabilly tune.

An interesting side note is that while the Crickets provided instrumental backing for these first songs, the vocal support was by an uncredited trio The Picks. The Picks consisted of brothers John and Bill Pickering and Bob Lapham. They were good friends with producer Norman Petty and provided backing vocals for some of the records Petty produced. In July 1957, Petty played a few songs that Buddy Holly had recorded.

Everyone agreed that the song Oh Boy! would be improved with additional backing vocals, so The Picks recorded vocals that were overdubbed onto Oh Boy! After that, The Picks recorded backing vocals for eight more Buddy Holly tunes; but their contribution was never acknowledged until 1987, when MCA re-issued the album The Chirping Crickets.

In any case, it immediately became clear that Buddy Holly was the creative genius behind The Crickets. Relatively soon, Buddy was issuing solo albums.

As Buddy Holly’s star continued to rise, tensions arose between him and the other members of the Crickets, and between Holly and producer Norman Petty. Buddy felt that he was inadequately compensated by Petty. After Holly split with Petty he was left with a cash-flow problem, since Petty was holding onto Holly’s royalties.

This forced Holly back onto the road in the winter of 1959, when he set off on a “Winter Dance Party” tour.  The artists on this tour were traveling around the upper Midwest in January, 1959. The tour buses were badly heated and began breaking down. In Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a private plane to take him to the next venue in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Holly’s guitarist Tommy Allsup and singer Ritchie Valens flipped a coin to see who would fly a plane to their next destination, and who would have to ride the bus. Allsup ‘lost’ the coin toss, so Valens boarded the plane.

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

Holly’s shocking death was a major setback for rock music. Buddy was a prolific and creative musician who was moving in new directions at the time of his death. He had branched out from his earlier rockabilly tunes to acoustic songs and ballads.

Buddy Holly had a tremendous influence on rock music. He was an inspiration for groups such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones – in fact, the Beatles’ choice of an insect-related band name was a shout-out to Buddy’s band The Crickets. As a singer-songwriter, Buddy Holly set an example subsequently followed by Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards.

Brian Setzer and Oh Boy!:

Brian Setzer is a musician who has spent most of his career resurrecting older musical styles. Setzer was born in 1959 in Massapequa, New York, a suburb of Oyster Bay on Long Island.

In 1979, Setzer joined up with two other musicians from Massepequa, bassist Lee Rocker and drummer Slim Jim Phantom, to form The Stray Cats. That group was inspired by 50s rockabilly music, and gained a local following on the East Coast.

Below is an early publicity photo of Brian Setzer.

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In 1980 the Stray Cats heard rumors of a rockabilly revival in Britain, and they moved to London where they met Dave Edmund, who was himself a big 50s music fan.

Edmund produced the Stray Cats’ first self-titled album in 1981. That album had two UK hits, Stray Cat Strut and Rock This Town. The Stray Cats developed a strong UK fan base that included members of iconic groups like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who.

The band’s second album was a commercial disappointment. However, EMI America assembled the best songs from both albums and in 1982 released an album, Built For Speed, in the U.S. That album was a smash success, eventually reaching #2 on the Billboard album charts.

Here is Brian Setzer performing at a Buddy Holly tribute, I think this is from 1992. Setzer performs two Holly hits; the first is Rock Around With Ollie Vee, followed by Oh Boy! By the way, I believe that is Setzer’s Stray Cats bandmate Slim Jim Phantom on drums.

As you can see, Setzer applies his guitar mastery to some oldies from the 50s. He retains all of the stylistic elements from rockabilly – a hollow-body guitar, upright bass and a stripped-down drum kit.

The Stray Cats were a breath of fresh air, and they spearheaded a 50s revival in the early 80s. Unfortunately, personality clashes caused the group to break up in 1984. At that time, Setzer began a solo career and collaborations with other artists, while Rocker and Phantom joined up with former David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick.

Then in the 1990s, Setzer turned to another old musical style. He assembled a 17-piece big band, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, that played swing music.

Brian Setzer has made an impressive career by taking old-fashioned musical idioms such as rockabilly and swing, and updating them. A consummate musician, Setzer combines his smooth and versatile vocal abilities with his mastery of the electric guitar. Setzer is a performer that I would travel a long way to see. Keep it up, Brian!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Oh Boy! (The Crickets song)
Wikipedia, Sonny West
Wikipedia, Buddy Holly
Wikipedia, The Crickets
Wikipedia, Brian Setzer

Posted in Country music, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Rockabilly | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

In The Still Of The Night: The Five Satins; John Sebastian; Boyz II Men

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic doo-wop song (arguably the iconic doo-wop song), In The Still Of the Night. First we will discuss the original version of the song by The Five Satins. Next, we will show the song as it was covered by John Sebastian, and finally by Boyz II Men.

The Five Satins and In The Still Of The Night:

The Five Satins were a doo-wop group that formed in 1954 in New Haven, Connecticut. As of 1956 they consisted of lead singer Fred Parris, Ed Martin, Jim Freeman, Nat Mosley and Al Denby.

Below is a publicity photo of the Five Satins from the late 1950s.

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The group then recorded the tune In The Still Of the Night. The song was written by Fred Parris, and the recording took place in the basement of the Saint Bernadette Catholic School in New Haven.

The song is sometimes spelled “In The Still of the Nite” to distinguish it from Cole Porter’s 1937 composition “In The Still Of the Night.”

The lyrics to In The Still Of The Night could hardly be more straightforward. The singer brings back to mind a spring night when he first embraced his beloved, and he vows never to abandon her.

In the still [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-doop]
Of the night [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-doop]
I held you [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-doop]
Held you tight [Shoo-doop Shoo-be-waah]

… I remember [I remember]
That night in May [I remember]
The stars were bright [I remember]
Above [I remember]
I’ll hope and I’ll pray
To keep [To keep]
Your pre- [Your pre-] cious love

In the lyrics above, we have put the background vocals inside square brackets. The song’s lyrics are delivered slowly and deliberately, to allow time to squeeze in the background vocals.

The doo-wop era was dominated by piano and saxophone; the dominance of the electric guitar would follow with groups that were inspired by either the blues or country music. In The Still Of the Night features a sweet sax solo in the break by Vinny Mazzetta, while the backup singers soldier on.

This song has become an iconic doo-wop classic; in fact, it is one of two songs that are credited with inspiring the origin of the word “doo-wop” (from the background refrain “doo-wop, doo-wah” heard during the sax solo in the break). So it is somewhat strange that this tune had a rather modest beginning.

In The Still of the Night was actually the “B” side of the single issued by the Five Satins. And the record did not fare that well at first; it had only moderate success, as the record company had a limited East Coast distribution. However, even after the song was re-released nationally a month later on the Ember label, it still stalled out at #24 on the Billboard pop charts and #3 on the “race records” playlists (this was the predecessor of the R&B charts).

However, this tune turned out to have incredible staying power. In 1959 the label Original Sound released an album titled Oldies But Goodies, Vol. 1. In The Still Of the Night was the first track on that album and provided a “bump” in sales of the original single.  So In The Still Of the Night was re-released as a single in 1960 and again in 1961, but both times it failed to dent the Billboard top 50.

Then in 1987, the tune was included on the soundtrack of the 50s-revival movie Dirty Dancing. That soundtrack sold over 10 million copies.

For over 30 years, In The Still Of the Night remained in the top 5 of the Top 500 Songs Countdown for New York’s “oldies” radio station WCBS-FM. And the song was listed as #99 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

In The Still Of the Night was one of the more popular songs on the setlist of our rock ‘n roll band Johnny Dee and the Kings. At that time (around 1959), we tended to play a variety of pop covers ranging from doo-wop to rock ‘n roll.

Our ensemble would play at sock hops on Friday nights at Fred Jones Dance Studio in Niagara Falls, NY.  We performed on the first floor for the “White Dance,” while the second floor was the “Colored Dance” (yes, despite the fact that we were in the North and our high schools were unsegregated, in the late 50s these events were racially separated. It would be a few more years before the dances were integrated.)

I greatly enjoyed the harmonies on In The Still Of the Night, plus it’s quite easy to sing. This probably explains why I still remember this song with tremendous fondness.

So here are The Five Satins with a “live” performance of their song, In The Still Of The Night.

I put “live” in quotes here, since the group is just lip-synching their hit record from the 1959 film Sweet Beat.

Fred Parris runs through the iconic lyrics of this doo-wop song. His lip-synching doesn’t match the audio, but the quality of the “performance” by the Five Satins is consistent with the amateurish dialogue and acting in the film. By the way, note that the “Five Satins” were now down to four by the time this film was shot.

Below left we show a poster for Sweet Beat, apparently the first British rock ‘n roll movie. That film came with the following promotional taglines: “When a man lusts for a woman…there is NOTHING he won’t do to get her!” “See beautiful girls with practically nothing on parade UNASHAMED before men!”

Poster for the 1959 British rock ‘n roll film Sweet Beat.

Clearly, the film was being touted as exposing the lustful and sexual nature of rock ‘n roll. One can imagine exactly the same taglines used to describe the advent of jazz a half century earlier.

Unfortunately, Fred Parris was drafted into the Army while his hit record was still on the charts. When he returned from Army duty in 1960, he re-formed the group. They had a few local hits in the Connecticut area but nothing on the national charts.

However, the 1973 movie American Graffiti sparked a resurgence of interest in 50s rock ‘n roll; this provided Fred Parris and the Satins another opportunity to tour. The Five Satins were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.

Here is Fred Parris and the Satins at a “doo-wop oldies” show a few years ago.

This is pretty amazing – Parris sounds very much like he did in the 50s! He runs through the old classic, while the audience sings along with the “Shoo-doop” background vocals.

In The Still Of the Night is the final song in this concert, which is entirely appropriate for this timeless song. Once Parris begins the falsetto ending, all of the performers gather on the stage and we are shown a retrospective of all the acts. A good time was had by all.

Finally, I would like to mention that Thom Hickey, author of the blog The Immortal Jukebox, wrote a post on The Five Satins’ In The Still Of the Night in January of this year. You can find his post here.

John Sebastian and In The Still Of The Night:

The Lovin’ Spoonful were a highly successful folk-rock group who achieved success in the late 60s. They formed in the early 60s in New York’s Greenwich Village area when singer-songwriter John Sebastian teamed up with guitarist Zal Yanovsky.

Yanovsky had previously played with a folk group called The Mugwumps. That group became famous primarily because two of its former members (Denny Doherty and Cass Elliott) later became half of The Mamas and The Papas. An amusing summary of that period is provided in John Phillips’ autobiographical song Creeque Alley.

At first, Sebastian and Yanovsky were playing in coffee houses and bars in Greenwich Village (Creeque Alley: “and after every number, they passed the hat”). Next, they added bassist Steve Boone and drummer Joe Butler, and took the name The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Below is a photo of the Lovin’ Spoonful from the mid-60s; John Sebastian is in the raccoon coat at left.

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The band’s name was taken from a line in the song Coffee Blues by Mississippi John Hurt. In that song, the reference is to a spoonful of coffee; however, the name also is used colloquially in reference to drugs such as cocaine, and it also has a sexual connotation (look it up).

The group was signed to Kama Sutra records, and in 1965 they scored their first top-10 hit with the song Do You Believe In Magic. Along with The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful was one of the first successful folk-rock bands. The Spoonful were unique in that they had roots in jug-band music, and this early influence was evident in the laid-back and colloquial lyrics of John Sebastian’s songs.

The success of The Lovin’ Spoonful convinced several folk groups that there could be bright prospects in folk-rock music. One group that was strongly influenced by the Lovin’ Spoonful was an ensemble of folk musicians in the Bay Area.

Yes, after hearing John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, apparently The Grateful Dead became convinced that they might have a successful future if they traded in their banjos and tambourines for electric instruments!

Music from the Spoonful also made an impression on The Beatles. Paul McCartney has said that his Beatles’ song Good Day Sunshine was inspired by John Sebastian’s 1966 single Daydream.

A little-known fact is that the producers of The Monkees TV show initially intended that The Lovin’ Spoonful would be performing the songs. In order for this to happen, Kama Sutra Records would have to release the Spoonful from their contract so that the producers would retain publishing rights to their Monkees songs. When Kama Sutra refused to release the Spoonful, that deal fell through.

The Lovin’ Spoonful was riding high in 1967, but the group suffered a major setback when Zal Yanovsky was arrested in San Francisco for possession of marijuana. Pressured to name his supplier, Yanovsky was concerned that as a Canadian citizen he might face deportation, so he cooperated with the Feds.

When word got out that Yanovsky had squealed to the cops, this caused a severe West Coast backlash against the band and against Yanovsky in particular. Yanovsky then left the Spoonful, and this incident pretty much ended his career in pop music.

The Lovin’ Spoonful then replaced Yanovsky with Jerry Yester, but John Sebastian left the band in 1968. The Spoonful continued on until 1969, when the hits came to an end and the group disbanded.

Here is John Sebastian singing a couple of doo-wop tunes in concert, beginning with In The Still of the Night.

Isn’t this wonderful? Sebastian perfectly captures the charm of the old doo-wop songs. He starts by playing the iconic four chords that defined much of doo-wop music. Still strumming those chords, he commences to sing the background harmonies for In The Still Of the Night (“Shoo-doop, Shoo-be-doop, …”).

Sebastian gets the audience to sing the harmony, while he launches into In The Still Of the Night. Eventually, he soars  into the falsetto part while the audience continues to sing harmony. Clearly, Sebastian is having a ton of fun and the crowd loves it.

After that, John segues into a similar 1958 doo-wop song, You Cheated, that features the same four chords as Still Of The Night. You Cheated had an interesting history. It was first recorded by a group called The Slades, a white quintet from Austin, Texas.

The Slades released You Cheated as a single in 1958 on the Austin-based Domino label. And here is the audio of their record.

The Slades’ version of You Cheated reached #42 on the Billboard charts. However, the song’s sales were limited because Domino was unable to distribute the song nationally. So Los Angeles-based producer and songwriter George Motola created a group called The Shields.

The Shields was a trio consisting of lead singer Frankie Ervin, Jesse Belvin and Johnny “Guitar” Watson. They quickly recorded a cover of You Cheated that was released on Dot Records. And here is the audio of that record.

The Shields’ version of You Cheated had two big advantages over the original by The Slades. First, Dot Records could distribute the song nationally. Second, this song featured terrific doo-wop harmonies, in particular the soaring falsetto from Jesse Belvin. The version by The Shields reached #12 on the Billboard charts, and is the one that everyone remembers.

And now back to John Sebastian. After leaving The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1968, John embarked on a solo career. He appeared solo at Woodstock, but found little in the way of commercial hits.

John Sebastian scored one more blockbuster in 1976 when he wrote Welcome Back, the title song to the ABC-TV show Welcome Back, Kotter. Sebastian’s song shot up to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

In 2000, The Lovin’ Spoonful were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The original quartet of Sebastian, Zanovsky, Butler and Boone appeared and performed a couple of their hits.

Alas, this was not a joyous occasion. It became painfully evident that John Sebastian’s voice was completely shot, and the band’s performance was, well, terrible – sort of like watching a junior high ensemble perform covers of pop hits.

I won’t show that performance because it is hard to watch. But I still have my Lovin’ Spoonful albums, and so can re-live their wonderful folk-rock creations.

Boyz II Men and In The Still Of The Night:

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

Below is a photo of Boyz II Men circa 1991.

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

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

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

Boyz II Men released their a capella version of In The Still of the Night as part of the soundtrack for the 1992 ABC-TV miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream.

The song was then released as a single, which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts in January 1993. The song was subsequently included on the re-release of the Cooleyhighharmony album. So here are Boyz II Men in a live performance of In The Still of the Night.

The group gives a fine version of this doo-wop classic, highlighted by the lead vocals of Nathan Morris.  Although I am generally impressed at a capella singing (where limitations in vocal performance become painfully obvious), I am not blown away by the talent of this ensemble.

However, what do I know about modern pop music? Remember, the album that contained this song sold 9 million copies in the U.S. alone.

Following their initial success, Boyz II Men tended to dominate the pop charts. Their song One Sweet Day, a collaboration with Mariah Carey, is tied for the longest consecutive time at #1 on the Billboard pop charts (16 weeks). And Billboard magazine has ranked Boyz II Men as the #1 boy band during the period 1987 – 2012.

While Boyz II Men were originally managed by Michael Bivins, in 1993 the group parted ways with him. They then entered a period where several of their hits were written and produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. By the way, just last week my college Indiana University awarded Hoosier native Edmonds (who never attended college) an honorary doctorate.

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

Wikipedia, In The Still Of The Night (The Five Satins song)
Wikipedia, The Five Satins
Sweet Beat, IMDb
Wikipedia, John Sebastian
Wikipedia, The Lovin’ Spoonful
Wikipedia, Boyz II Men

Posted in Doo-Wop, Folk-rock music, Hip-Hop Music, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments