Love Potion Number 9: The Clovers; The Searchers; The Coasters

Hello there!  This week our blog features an enjoyable doo-wop song, Love Potion Number 9.  We will begin with the original version of this song by The Clovers.  We will then include a cover by The Searchers, and finally a version by The Coasters.

The Clovers and Love Potion Number 9:

The Clovers were a singing group that had much success in the 50s and early 60s.  They were initially formed in 1946 from a group of schoolmates at Armstrong High School in D.C.  After a few early changes, they became a quartet that sang rhythm & blues and doo-wop.  Below is a photo of The Clovers from the 50s. 

In 1951 the group secured a contract with Atlantic Records, where they added guitarist Bill Harris, and they worked with producer Ahmet Ertegun.  The Clovers then released a string of records that had big success on the R&B charts.  Three of their songs were #1 R&B hits, while another 11 placed in the top 10. 

In 1959, the Clovers moved to United Artists Records.  One of the songs from their first UA recording session was Love Potion Number 9.  That song had been written by the great songwriting duo Jerry Leiber (L) and Mike Stoller, who are pictured below.   

Leiber and Stoller wrote a slew of great early rock and roll hits.  They first started with R&B songs that crossed over and became rock and roll standards.  For example, in 1952 they wrote Hound Dog for Big Mama Thornton, which became one of Elvis’ first big hits.  That same year they wrote Kansas City for little Willie Littlefield, and Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 cover of that song became a #1 pop hit.

The story of Love Potion Number 9 is that a man goes to a palm-reader to complain about his non-existent love life.  She provides him with a potion that sends him off “kissing everything in sight.”  His bliss ends when he kisses a policeman, who breaks the magical bottle. 

I took my troubles down to Madame Rue
You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She’s got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine
Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine

I told her that I was a flop with chicks
I’ve been this way since 1956
She looked at my palm and she made a magic sign
She said “What you need is Love Potion Number Nine”

She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink
She said “I’m gonna make it up right here in the sink”
It smelled like turpentine, it looked like India ink
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink

I didn’t know if it was day or night
I started kissin’ everything in sight
But when I kissed a cop down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number Nine

So here is the audio of the Clovers performing Love Potion Number 9

This is a fun, funky song, with Billy Mitchell on lead vocals.  It features a tinkling piano and an energetic saxophone solo. 

Love Potion Number 9 would become The Clovers’ biggest hit.  It was a smash on the R&B charts and was also a big crossover hit, reaching #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop playlist. The Clovers recorded an alternate version of the same song with an additional couplet at the end:

I had so much fun that I’m going back again, I wonder what’ll happen with Love Potion Number 10?

Well, in 1961 the Clovers split into two rival groups.  One of them was led by Harold Lucas and the second by Buddy Bailey.  The “dueling Clovers” have continued to record and perform.  They have been quite popular on “oldies” tours and also are apparently very popular in the Carolinas, where there is a big demand for so-called “beach music.” 

We salute all of the members and former members of The Clovers.  They experienced great success on the R&B charts in the 50s, and they have continued performing for a very long time. 

The Searchers and Love Potion Number 9:

The Searchers were a Liverpool band that formed as a skiffle group in 1959.  They took their name from a John Ford western film of the same name.  The band went through several personnel changes until they settled on a quartet with Tony Jackson on bass, Mike Pender on lead guitar, John McNally on rhythm guitar, and Chris Curtis on drums.  Except for McNally, every other member took lead vocals on certain songs. 

Above is a photo of the Searchers from the mid-60s. Like the Beatles, the Searchers also spent time in Hamburg, Germany honing their talents.  In Germany, The Searchers were regulars at Hamburg’s Star Club. 

The Searchers’ single of Love Potion Number 9 was released in the fall of 1964.  This became the group’s biggest hit in the U.S., shooting up to #3 on the Billboard Pop Charts.   

So here are The Searchers doing their version of Love Potion Number 9

The Searchers’ version of Love Potion Number 9 featured their trademark “jangly guitar” sound.  At this point The Searchers were considered one of the top “Merseyside” British Invasion bands, along with The Beatles, The Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers. 

Well, a band with three lead singers needs to make sure that everyone is happy with their share of the songs.  After the band’s third album, Tony Jackson abruptly quit the group, unhappy that he was lead vocalist on only one song on that album. 

However, the group found a new bassist and carried on.  In 1967, The Searchers were dropped by their record label when their contract expired.  But between 1964 and 1965, the group landed seven songs in the Billboard top 40. 

However, the band still kept on recording, even in the absence of much commercial success.  Eventually, the Searchers became very popular in tours of ‘oldies’ groups.  The group continued until they completed a farewell tour at the end of March, 2019.  By that time their only original member was John McNally, now promoted from rhythm guitar to lead guitar. 

The Searchers were a really enjoyable pop band, with an easily recognizable folk-rock style, something like a British version of The Byrds.  They enjoyed considerable success for a couple of years in the mid-60s, and have showed remarkable longevity.  We salute the surviving members of The Searchers. 

The Coasters and Love Potion Number 9:

The Coasters were originally members of a Los Angeles R&B quartet called The Robins.  They recorded with Spark Records, a company owned by Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller, the writers of Love Potion Number 9.

By 1953, Leiber and Stoller were sufficiently successful that Atlantic Records offered them a deal whereby the pair could produce songs for Atlantic, but were also able to make recordings for other labels. 

At the time, this was a unique deal, and it made Leiber & Stoller the first independent record producers.  Leiber and Stoller offered the Robins the opportunity to move to Atlantic Records. However, only two of the Robins were willing to record for Atlantic.  So Leiber & Stoller added two additional vocalists, and re-named the group The Coasters. 

Here is a photo of The Coasters original lineup in 1956.  From L: baritone Billy Guy; bass vocalist Bobby Nunn; tenor Leon Hughes (front); and lead vocalist Carl Gardner.

The Coasters tend to be associated with the doo-wop genre.  However, their work was really not doo-wop music, but a mix of R&B and rock ‘n roll.  Leiber and Stoller wrote and produced nearly all the hit songs for the Coasters.  At the time, this was a unique situation, as song-writing and producing were generally totally separate activities. 

Nearly all the Coasters tunes were humorous, and were performed with very broad comedy styling.  The fact that Leiber/Stoller were producing the Coasters’ songs was crucial to establishing their signature sound. 

I don’t know of any other group that had a series of hit comedy songs.  Most comedy records in this era were either straight parody as with Stan Freberg, or silly ‘novelty’ songs as with Ray Stevens. 

Here is the audio of the Coasters’ single Love Potion Number 9, from 1971. 

As you can see, this is an unusual presentation of this song.  The rhythm is that of the cha-cha, and it contains a funky flute solo at the end. 

One of the hallmarks of Leiber and Stoller’s work was their ability to provide lyrics that capture the vernacular dialect of teenagers.  This was never more dramatically displayed than in Leiber and Stoller’s work for the Coasters. 

Coasters songs can instantly transport me back to my high school days.  I vividly remember the dialogue in several of the Coasters comedy hits, such as Yakety Yak (“Take out the papers and the trash, or you don’t get no spendin’ cash”), Charlie Brown (“Why’s everybody always pickin’ on me?”), and Poison Ivy (“You’re gonna need an ocean of calamine lotion”). 

At the end of 1957, the Coasters moved from L.A. to New York.  At that time they replaced original members Nunn and Hughes with Cornell Gunter and Dub Jones. They continued to be an extremely successful pop group until 1961; after that, none of their singles charted in the top 50. 

Beginning in the 70s, a number of ‘Coasters’ touring groups materialized.  At least a couple of these had no members from the actual Coasters singing group. 

The 1958 version of the Coasters was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.  They were the first group inducted into the Hall of Fame. 

Then in 1995, a musical revue of Leiber and Stoller songs titled Smokey Joe’s Café opened on Broadway.  A significant portion of the music was devoted to Coasters songs.  The show won a Grammy Award and seven Tony Award nominations.  

So, we salute The Coasters: a most unusual rock ‘n roll comedy group, with many enduring hits. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Love Potion No. 9 (song)

Wikipedia, The Clovers

Wikipedia, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Wikipedia, The Searchers (band)

Wikipedia, The Coasters

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Bye Bye Love: The Everly Brothers; Simon & Garfunkel; George Harrison

Hello there!  This week our blog features the great country-rock song, Bye Bye Love.  We will begin with the original version of this song by The Everly Brothers.  We will then include a cover by Simon and Garfunkel, and finally a somewhat unusual version by George Harrison.

The Everly Brothers and Bye Bye Love:

Don and Phil Everly were brothers who grew up in Shenandoah, Iowa.  Elder brother Don was born in February 1937 and Phil was born in January 1939.  As young children, they began performing with their parents’ Everly Family singers as “Little Donnie and Baby Boy Phil.”  The legendary close harmony singing for which they became famous was a result of years of performing together.  The Everly Brothers songs generally featured older brother Don singing the baritone lead and his younger sibling Phil taking the tenor harmony part. 

Here is a photo of Don (L) and Phil Everly from about 1955. 

When the brothers were in high school, the family moved to Tennessee where Don and Phil were hired as songwriters by Acuff-Rose music publishers. 

The brothers formed a most profitable association with the husband-and-wife songwriting team, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.  The Bryants wrote over a score of songs that Don and Phil turned into hits.  Their debut hit for The Everly Brothers was Bye Bye Love

Bye Bye Love was recorded in Nashville under the supervision of the great Chet Atkins, who also played lead guitar.  There is a very brief guitar intro to the song that was contributed by Don Everly. 

The song was released in 1957, became a smash hit, and made celebrities out of the Everly Brothers.  Bye Bye Love made it to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100; it was also a big crossover hit, making it to #1 on the country charts. 

Bye Bye Love laments a lost love, who is now enjoying a romance with “someone new.”  The singer is bereft, and believes that his love life is over, perhaps forever. 

[CHORUS] Bye bye love
Bye bye happiness
Hello loneliness
I think I’m a gonna cry

Bye bye love
Bye bye sweet caress
Hello emptiness
I feel like I could die
Bye bye my love goodbye

There goes my baby with someone new
She sure looks happy, I sure am blue
She was my baby ’til he stepped in
Goodbye to romance that might have been


I’m through with romance, I’m through with love
I’m through with counting the stars above
And here’s the reason that I’m so free
My loving baby is through with me

So here are the Everly Brothers in a live performance of Bye Bye Love

Phil and Don are quite young here, and they feature their inimitable close harmonies on their first big hit. 

Bye Bye Love has been covered nearly 200 times.  In addition to the versions we feature here, it was also covered by Connie Francis, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles and The Righteous Brothers.      

Through 1962 the brothers continued as one of the best-selling pop groups, but an argument with their Acuff-Rose publishing group left them in a precarious position.  They were cut off from the Bryants. Even worse, if they wrote their own songs the royalties would go to Acuff-Rose. 

The Everlys tried to write songs using pseudonyms, a trick that had worked for many other artists.  However, Acuff-Rose caught on and confiscated the royalties for these songs. 

The career of the Everlys was further hampered by the fact that both brothers became addicted to methamphetamines.  Don’s condition was worse than Phil’s, and in fall 1962 he collapsed onstage during a British tour.  In addition to their health problems, the Everlys found it difficult to compete with British Invasion groups.  Somewhat paradoxically, during the late 60s and early 70s the appeal of the Everly Brothers remained higher in Canada, Australia and the UK than in the US. 

In July 1973 at a show at California’s Knott’s Berry Farm, Don showed up drunk and was having difficulty performing. That was the last straw. In the middle of the show, Phil smashed his guitar and walked off, leaving Don to finish the show by himself. 

Following that incident, the two brothers did not speak for more than a decade. After the 80s, the brothers occasionally appeared at various tribute concerts. 

In January, 2014 Phil Everly died of lung disease. 

The Everly Brothers were an inspiration to dozens of pop groups who followed after them. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Simon & Garfunkel developed their early styles by performing Everly covers. The Bee Gees, the Hollies, and other rock ‘n’ roll groups that feature harmony singing were also influenced.

We salute the Everly Brothers; they gave us wonderful songs from our teenage years, that we still enjoy today. 

Simon & Garfunkel and Bye Bye Love:

Simon and Garfunkel were high school buddies who initially began performing as the duo Tom and Jerry.  They had one early hit, Hey Schoolgirl in 1957, but then broke up and each of them enrolled in college. 

Below is a photo of Paul Simon (L) and Art Garfunkel, from the late 60s. 

They re-united in 1963 and issued an album Wednesday Morning, 3 AM in October 1964. The album was initially a flop. But producer Tom Wilson was inspired; he added instruments like piano, bass and drums to what had been just an acoustic guitar backing.  Wilson’s re-issued folk-pop version of Sound of Silence became a smash hit, #1 on the pop charts. 

On tour, Simon and Garfunkel played a version of Bye Bye Love.  Not only was it extremely popular, but the audience began clapping along to the tune.  Simon & Garfunkel enjoyed that so much that they included a version on their next album, Bridge Over Troubled Water

So here is the audio of Simon & Garfunkel singing Bye Bye Love

I believe that this performance took place in Burlington Vermont in 1968.  As you can see, the audience really gets into it.  It is an exceptionally enjoyable piece. 

Simon and Garfunkel had a very tense relationship, and they broke up in 1970.  But when the duo reunited for a 1981 Central Park free concert, it drew half a million people. 

The Concert in Central Park was such a phenomenal success that Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982.  However, that tour was cancelled. The pair had recorded several tracks for another album, which Paul Simon released in 1983 as a solo project, Hearts and Bones

Paul Simon has since gone on to an exceptionally successful solo career.  In 2007, he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Music.  I was especially fond of his pathbreaking album Graceland. 

Paul Simon has now concluded his final tour.  While together, Simon and Garfunkel provided us with many unforgettable songs.  Thanks for the memories, guys.    

George Harrison and Bye Bye, Love:

In their early days, the Beatles were playing a mixture of covers and original Lennon-McCartney songs.  For example, their early British album Please Please Me contained eight Lennon-McCartney songs and six covers. 

However, the Beatles albums soon consisted solely of original tunes.  They tended to follow a predictable formula.  Every album would contain predominantly Lennon-McCartney songs. They would provide one song for Ringo.  In addition, once George Harrison began writing songs in earnest, Beatles albums would include one or two of George’s songs. 

Here is a photo of George Harrison in the early Beatles days around 1964. 

Lennon and McCartney were such prolific song-writers that George felt he had to exert significant pressure to get his own songs recorded.  He also was convinced that John and Paul considered his songs to be weaker than the best Lennon-McCartney tunes. 

However, by the time of the final Beatles album, the 1969 Abbey Road, George’s contributions to that album – Something and Here Comes the Sun – are stunning; many consider them to be among the finest songs on that album. 

After the breakup of the Beatles, George Harrison had a fine solo career.  In late 1969, George joined his best mate Eric Clapton on a tour with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends.  On that tour, George picked up slide guitar; his lovely slide guitar work would become a trademark for the rest of his career. 

George Harrison married supermodel Pattie Boyd in 1966.  However, their relations suffered because of George’s repeated infidelities.  When George had an affair with Ringo Starr’s wife Maureen, Pattie considered this “the last straw.”  They separated in 1974 and were divorced in 1977. 

Pattie then took up with George’s best friend Eric Clapton, and Eric & Pattie later married.  Eventually, George and Eric would renew their status as best mates; but initially George was pretty broken up over losing Pattie, the inspiration for his love song Something

On his 1974 album Dark Horse, George Harrison included a cover of the Everly Brothers Bye Bye Love.  But George changed some of the lyrics, referring to his breakup with Pattie.  One of the new verses went:

There goes our lady, with a-you-know-who
I hope she’s happy, old Clapper too
We had good rhythm (and a little slide) till she stepped in
Did me a favour, I … threw them both out.

So here is the audio of George Harrison’s version of Bye Bye Love

What do you think?  Given George’s terrific musicianship, I find it disappointing; it’s the kind of thing you do impulsively and may regret afterwards.  Also, the song seems to go on for a long time, and is rather repetitive. 

George Harrison released a number of records as a solo artist.  Because of his deep interest in Eastern mysticism, Harrison incorporated Eastern music and particularly the sitar into many of his songs. 

In 1988, Harrison joined up with Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan to form the Traveling Wilburys.  Each of the artists pretended to be one of a group of brothers.  George’s pseudonym on the group’s first album was Nelson Wilbury, while on their second album he became Spike Wilbury. 

That group issued only two albums and never performed live.  George did not particularly enjoy touring, so his live performances became much less common. 

In 1997, George Harrison was diagnosed with throat cancer, and at that time he began chemotherapy treatments.  The illness was thought to be a result of his long-time smoking habit. In November 2001, Harrison died from metastatic non-small cell lung cancer, at age 58. 

George Harrison was a member of the greatest pop group of all time, and by all accounts a really terrific guy.  He was quiet and somewhat reclusive, but also a great friend to many musicians and a deeply spiritual man.  We miss him. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Bye Bye Love (The Everly Brothers Song)

Wikipedia, The Everly Brothers

Wikipedia, Simon & Garfunkel

Wikipedia, George Harrison  

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You Never Can Tell: Chuck Berry; Bob Seger; Bruce Springsteen

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is You Never Can Tell. This is a great rock ‘n roll tune by Chuck Berry, and is part of our series Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. We will review Chuck Berry’s original song and explain how the song features in the film Pulp Fiction. We will then discuss covers by Bob Seger and by Bruce Springsteen.

We are updating & re-posting this one.  Our colleague & good friend Geoff Conrad and his wife Karen are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and this was “their song.”  We are delighted to dedicate this post to Geoff & Karen, for 50 great years together with more to come.

Chuck Berry and You Never Can Tell:

We first encountered Chuck Berry in our blog post on Back in the USA. We later discussed his song Sweet Little Sixteen, then his cover of Ida Red (which he titled Maybellene), and the iconic rocker Johnny B Goode. So we will briefly review his career here.

Charles Anderson “Chuck” Berry was one of the greatest rock ‘n roll pioneers. Born in 1926 and raised in St. Louis, he quickly became interested in rhythm and blues, and he began performing with a trio headed by pianist Johnnie Johnson. The group established a strong regional reputation, which earned Chuck an audition in 1955 with Leonard Chess of Chess Records.

Apparently the Chess brothers were uninterested in adding Chuck to their stable of blues singers – after all, they already had artists like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. At some point in the audition, apparently Chuck was asked something like “Why don’t you play your worst song?”

At that point, Chuck and the boys broke into one of their ‘black hillbilly’ songs. As it happened, the Johnnie Johnson Trio would occasionally mix country songs into their playlist of blues and ballads, a move that turned out to be quite popular with their fans. The producer urged Berry to write his own version of a ‘hillbilly’ song; this became Chuck’s first hit Maybellene, which was released in 1955 and hit #1 on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues charts.

Below is a photo of Chuck Berry performing with his band circa 1956.

Embed from Getty Images

Maybellene set Chuck Berry off and running into rock music history. He and his band, with Johnnie Johnson on piano and blues great Willie Dixon on upright bass, put out a string of hits, all following the same basic formula. The songs featured Chuck’s rapid-fire lyrics that painted a vivid word-picture. This was combined with his signature rock guitar riffs, which became standards for rock guitarists.

Chuck Berry was also a master showman. Over roughly a five-year period, he charted a number of hits that established him as one of the great R&B trailblazers.

Chuck keenly appreciated the irony that, as a 30-year old black ex-con, he was selling records primarily to middle-class white teen-agers. Regardless, Chuck’s lyrics were terrific, and his songs effectively conveyed to his teen audiences the joys and frustrations of growing up in America.

The song You Never Can Tell also goes by two other names – C’est La Vie and Teenage Wedding, both titles referring to lyrics in the song. Chuck wrote the tune in the early 1960s while he was in prison for violating the Mann Act. That statute made it a crime to transport
“any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”.

The law was passed in 1910 and has been amended but never repealed. At the time, it represented an attempt to close down brothels, which had previously been legal in many cities. Also, it was an over-reaction to the notion that thousands of women were being kidnapped and forced into prostitution, or “white slavery.”

This idea was epitomized in an excerpt from a book by the U.S. District Attorney from Chicago:
One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is that the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider’s web for her entanglement. This is perhaps especially true of those ice cream saloons and fruit stores kept by foreigners. Scores of cases are on record where young girls have taken their first step towards “white slavery” in places of this character.

The Mann Act was used as a device to punish many forms of sexual behavior, from prostitution to couples who eloped, to punishment for men who abandoned their lovers. Both Chuck Berry and the boxer Jack Johnson were convicted under the Mann Act, and actor Charlie Chaplin was charged but acquitted of violating this statute.

Anyway, the song You Never Can Tell was released in 1964 and made it to #14 on the Billboard charts. The tune marks a sort of watershed for Chuck Berry, as it was his last Top 40 hit until Chuck’s novelty song My Ding-a-Ling hit #1 in 1972.

You Never Can Tell describes a Cajun couple, Pierre and “the lovely mademoiselle,” who get married in New Orleans at a young age and settle down. The song is told in Chuck’s inimitable talking-blues style, with his colorful lyrics piling up images atop one another.

It was a teenage wedding, and the old folks wished them well
You could see that Pierre did truly love the mademoiselle
And now the young monsieur and madame have rung the chapel bell
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

They furnished off an apartment with a two room Roebuck sale
The coolerator was crammed with TV dinners and ginger ale
But when Pierre found work, the little money comin’ worked out well
“C’est la vie”, say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell

Each verse of the song ends with the line ‘“C’est la vie” say the old folks, it goes to show you never can tell.’ Fittingly enough, the song contains Cajun-inspired rhythms.

And here is Chuck Berry in a live performance of You Never Can Tell.

This performance took place in 1972. Chuck slows down the tempo considerably from his single record. He noodles around with guitar solos while his backup band makes sure they know the right key to play.

The pianist interjects some enjoyable Dixieland tempo. I greatly enjoy this particular Chuck Berry tune, which has a slightly different style from his signature guitar-driven rockers.

Chuck Berry would frequently tour without a band; this saved him money, as instead of paying a touring band he could hire local backup musicians for scale. It was not unusual for Chuck to show up immediately before a performance and simply instruct the musicians ‘follow me.’

That may be the case with the live concert in the video above. It certainly appears as though the guitar and bass players are tentative, and aren’t really sure what they are doing.

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

On March 18, 2017, Chuck Berry passed away from cardiac arrest at the age of 90. Rock and roll music lost one of its great pioneers, a legendary singer and songwriter whose output forms a great contribution to modern rhythm and blues.

Chuck also played a significant role in making the guitar the dominant melodic component of rock music. Anyone learning rock guitar will begin by committing to memory Chuck Berry’s classic guitar licks.

You Never Can Tell in the movie Pulp Fiction:

Pulp Fiction was a 1994 movie directed by Quentin Tarantino, with a script co-written by Tarantino and Roger Avary. It was arguably the most important film of the 1990s.

Tarantino assembled an all-star cast to tell his complex, interwoven tale about a number of gangsters in Los Angeles. The film is shot out of chronological sequence, and in addition a couple of the scenes are presented from more than one point of view. Throughout the film, the lives of the various characters intersect in many different ways.

Tarantino pitched his script to various studios before it received the green light. For example, Columbia TriStar pictures rejected the film as “too demented.” However, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures was enchanted by the script. Pulp Fiction became the first film that was fully financed by Miramax.

The plot of Pulp Fiction is incredibly intricate and detailed, so we will give a very rough summary of the story, in chronological order (note: this is not the order that scenes appear in the movie).

The story begins when mob hit men Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) retrieve a mysterious briefcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). The pair kill Brett, the holder of the briefcase, and prepare to return it to their boss.

One of Brett’s associates has been hiding in the bathroom. He jumps out and empties his gun at Vincent and Jules. However, every shot misses, and the mobsters then kill him. Jules is convinced that he was spared by divine intervention, and considers this a sign that he should cease his criminal ways.

Vincent and Jules stop at a diner. A couple, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, hold up the establishment at gunpoint. Jules trains his gun on Pumpkin. Vincent, who was in the bathroom, emerges with his own gun, creating a Mexican standoff with the armed couple. Jules recites a Biblical verse, then allows the pair to rob the diner and leave.

Vincent and Jules are driving back to Marsellus with one of the associates in the back seat of the car. Vincent accidentally shoots and kills the associate. The pair then drive to the house of a friend, who calls in a “cleaner” (Harvey Keitel). The cleaner directs Vincent and Jules to clean the car, hide the body in the trunk, and take the car to a junkyard where it is crushed.

When Vega and Winnfield arrive, Wallace is bribing a boxer (Bruce Willis) to throw a fight. Wallace asks Vega to escort his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) while he is out of town. Vega takes Mia to a bar that sponsors a dance contest, which they win. When Vega and Mia return to the Wallace house, Mia finds some of Vega’s heroin and overdoses. She is revived by a shot of adrenaline to her heart.

Butch double-crosses Marsellus and wins his fight. He returns to his apartment to gather his belongings and flee. There he encounters Vincent and shoots him dead. However, as Butch is leaving town he is spotted by Marsellus.

Marsellus chases Butch into a pawnshop. The pawnshop owner pulls a gun on the pair and ties them up. Marsellus is sexually assaulted by the pawnshop security guard. Butch eventually frees himself and kills both the pawnshop owner and security guard. Because Butch has saved Marsellus, he is allowed to go free provided he never mentions the assault on Marsellus.

The Weinstein brothers entered Pulp Fiction in the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. They flew the entire cast to Cannes for the festival. The film won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or; this created a tremendous buzz for the movie.

Poster for the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction.

At left we show a poster for Pulp Fiction. It features Uma Thurman in the foreground holding a pistol with a pulp magazine beside her, with the mobsters played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (sporting a large Jheri-curl wig) in the background.

Pulp Fiction was a major box-office hit. Against a film and promotional budget of less than $20 million, the film made over $200 million worldwide. In addition, the movie won a slew of awards. It was named best picture of the year, with Tarantino as best director, by many film critics.

There was one unfortunate event. Roger Avary had agreed to waive his co-writer status so that promotional materials for the film could read “written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.” As a result, Tarantino alone was the recipient of the Golden Globe Award for best screenplay. And in his acceptance speech, Tarantino failed to mention Avary! This was rectified when Tarantino and Avary shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Here is the clip from Pulp Fiction that features the Chuck Berry song You Never Can Tell.

In this scene, Vega (Travolta) takes Mia Wallace (Thurman) to a club that sponsors a twist contest. Vega and Wallace compete, to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, and win first prize.

As you can see, Berry’s record has a much more upbeat tempo than the live clip we showed earlier. Johnnie Johnson thumps away with his Cajun-inspired piano licks, while a lively saxophone keeps the tempo going.

The scene here is quite electric. Uma Thurman is incredibly sexy, while Travolta is the epitome of cool. Like Saturday Night Fever, this is yet another movie highlighted by Travolta’s dancing.

Pulp Fiction showed off Quentin Tarantino’s many talents. The complex screenplay managed to weave together several disparate strands of the plot. The film was memorable for its snappy dialogue, particularly between Travolta and Jackson.

The video work was spectacular, and the film also contained several sly references to earlier movies. Pulp Fiction had an incredible impact on films in the 90s and beyond. The movie appears on a number of “Best Movies” lists, and elicited a generally positive critical response.

In addition to his other skills, Quentin Tarantino is a master at incorporating the perfect popular music to complement his films. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino did not use a film score but instead relied on a number of rock and roll tunes, in particular surf music from Dick Dale.

Negative reactions to Pulp Fiction tended to center on the hyper-violence seen in many Tarantino films. Part of this strong negative reaction to Tarantino’s movies occurs because he is such an accomplished film-maker that the scenes of violence are that much more shocking.

I share this ambivalence towards violence in Quentin Tarantino films. I will never again be able to watch the “straight razor” scene in Reservoir Dogs.

However, others argue that the violence is simply part of an iconic film package. For example, critic Gene Siskel stated that
the violent intensity of Pulp Fiction calls to mind other violent watershed films that were considered classics in their time and still are. Hitchcock’s Psycho [1960], Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde [1967], and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange [1971].

I’m not entirely convinced by Siskel’s argument. After all, there were significant ethical issues underpinning both Bonnie and Clyde and A Clockwork Orange, that seem to be absent in Tarantino’s more amoral movies.

However, I cannot argue with the impact of this and other Quentin Tarantino films.

Bob Seger and C’est La Vie:

Bob Seger is a rock and roll singer-songwriter. He has become a rock superstar, although he took a surprisingly long route before hitting the big time.

Bob Seger was born in 1945 and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was an accomplished musician and taught his son to play several instruments. Unfortunately, his parents argued constantly and when Bob was ten, his father abandoned the family and moved to California.

Seger played in a number of bands and issued a couple of albums. He has a terrific voice for rock ‘n roll, a raspy growl that he copied from Little Richard. Seger garnered a devoted following in southern Michigan, but could not seem to score an album or single that would catapult his career forward.

Below is a photo of a young Bob Seger performing in the late 60s.

Embed from Getty Images

After fronting a couple of bands, Seger formed the Silver Bullet Band in 1974. It was predominantly made up of session musicians from the greater Detroit area. There has been considerable turnover in the Silver Bullet Band over the past 40 years; however, Silver Bullet provides Seger with a tight ensemble that produces a consistent, highly professional sound.

This is reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, which has also backed Bruce for at least 40 years. We will meet up with Bruce in the next section of this post.

To give an example of Seger’s regional popularity, in mid-1976 he was the featured performer at a concert in Detroit’s Pontiac Silverdome that attracted 80,000 fans. The following evening, Seger performed in Chicago to an audience of less than 1,000.

Bob Seger’s break-out album was the 1976 release Night Moves. The title song of that album reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. That song covered several themes common to many Bob Seger tunes: indelible youthful memories; middle American pastimes such as bars and strip clubs; and the passing of time and loss of innocence.

A second Bob Seger hit on that album, Mainstreet, was written about Ann Street in Ann Arbor. It covers similar themes to Night Moves, and also contains an iconic soaring guitar solo by Silver Bullet guitarist Pete Carr. Both of those songs are still favorites on classic-rock radio stations.

By now the album Night Moves has sold nearly 10 million copies. But Seger’s success with this album also sparked a demand for his two previous albums, Beautiful Loser and Live Bullet. Each of those albums has now sold over 2 million copies. In addition, the live concert album Live Bullet remained on the Billboard album charts for well over three years.

Here is Bob Seger in a live performance of C’est La Vie. This was a single on Seger’s 1994 Greatest Hits album, which has sold over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.  This is from an  April 2011 concert in Buffalo, not all that far from Seger’s residence in a Detroit suburb.

Mr. Seger really has a good time with this old Chuck Berry tune. He is backed by his longtime group the Silver Bullet Band, which contains an energetic horn section led by saxophonist Alto Reed. The audio is pretty poor but we hope you enjoy it.

I have caught Bob Seger in concert a couple of times, and he invariably turns in a first-rate performance. His throaty vocals are just perfect for rock ‘n roll, and some of his best songs are truly memorable.

Bob Seger has continued to command superstar status over the past 40 years. However, there is now a significant time between the release of new material, and now that Bob has reached 70, he has hinted that he may soon retire from touring.

But at present he’s still on the road. If you can catch him when he passes through your town, you can be assured of a hard-rocking, crowd-pleasing set. Keep rockin’,Bob!

Bruce Springsteen and You Never Can Tell:

Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. We discussed Bruce and his career in an earlier blog post on the song Brown-Eyed Girl, and also his cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive.  Here we will provide a short bio of his life and career.

Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.

After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just like Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.

Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Bruce also developed a cult following because of the energy and exuberance of his live performances.

This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were rather disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.

His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.

Below is a photo of Bruce Springsteen performing in Amsterdam on his 1975 Born To Run tour. At left is Bruce’s great sax player Clarence Clemons.

Embed from Getty Images

I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing. And the lyrics were terrific, bringing to mind some of the best work by artists like Bob Dylan and Billy Joel. However, I thought the production values on the record were third-rate, and I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.

Well, Mr. Springsteen succeeded in spectacular fashion. The 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, 7 of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 hits. Furthermore, the advent of music videos at this time meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s energy in live performance.

And the production values were superb on the Born In The U.S.A. album. The E Street Band was in great form, and the album sold like hotcakes, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.

Here is Bruce Springsteen performing You Never Can Tell. This is from his 2013 Wrecking Ball tour of Germany; this performance took place in Leipzig.

The premise here is that Bruce and the E Street Band are doing a song that either they have not performed for a long time, or perhaps have never performed.

I am not sure whether I accept the notion that Bruce and the boys had not previously rehearsed this song. However, there is no doubt that they are having a great time, as is the audience.

Bruce spends about a minute deciding in what key the song will be played. He then allows his band to noodle around a bit on the tune, and invites the audience to hum along to start off the song.

Once they get going, the performance is thoroughly delightful. The E Street Band horn section have major solos during the piece – trombone; saxophone; and two different trumpets – while pianist Roy Bittan maintains the Dixieland beat.

At this point, Bruce Springsteen is a living American treasure. He continues to release albums, varying between hard-rocking tunes with the E Street Band and folk records inspired by artists such as Woody Guthrie.

Springsteen’s concerts also tend to be epic events. He and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic concerts last up to three hours or more.

The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce, what a great career – “it goes to show you never can tell”!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, You Never Can Tell (song)
Wikipedia, Chuck Berry
Wikipedia, Mann Act
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Chuck Berry bio
Wikipedia, Pulp Fiction
Wikipedia, Quentin Tarantino
Wikipedia, Bob Seger
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen

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

Crazy Love: Poco; John & Audrey Wiggins; Jars of Clay.

Hello there!  This week our blog features the country-rock song, Crazy Love.  We will begin with the original version of this song by Poco.  We will then include a cover by John & Audrey Wiggins, and finally a version by Jars of Clay.

The songwriter of Crazy Love and the lead singer on Poco’s original version, Rusty Young, just passed away on April 14, 2021.  We are dedicating this post to his memory. 

 Poco and Crazy Love:

Poco was an American country-rock group in the late 60s and early 70s.  They emerged at a vibrant time for West Coast rock music.  There was an incredible amount of talent, particularly in the folk-rock scene. 

The good news was that there were lots of impressive and creative musicians.  The bad news is that this led to considerable instability, with groups constantly forming, breaking up, and re-arranging. 

Poco initially arose out of the breakup of Buffalo Springfield in 1968.  Springfield guitarists Richie Furay and Jim Messina were joined by Rusty Young, Randy Meisner and George Grantham.  Rusty Young was added because he had played pedal steel guitar on one of Buffalo Springfield’s songs.  Below is a photo of the make-up of Poco as of their second album.  From L: Rusty Young; George Grantham; Timothy Schmit; Richie Furay; and Jim Messina. 

Initially the group chose the name Pogo; however, after cartoon strip Pogo creator Walt Kelly threatened to sue, they changed the name to Poco. 

The band released its first album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, in 1969.  The album received significant critical acclaim; however, two things happened that would prove to be recurring themes over the group’s lifetime. 

First, the album sales fell far short of the praise from the critics.  Second, the band immediately lost one of its members.  Bassist Randy Meisner left the band after an argument because he did not participate in the final mix for the album.  Meisner went on to join the Eagles, and was eventually replaced by Timothy Schmit.  A year later, Jim Messina quit Poco and moved on to Loggins & Messina. 

I saw Poco at Indiana University in 1971.  They played at an outdoor concert called “Stonehenge” (don’t ask me why), and Richie Havens was also on the bill.  I really enjoyed Poco’s playing, even though the weather was awful: it poured rain until the middle of Richie Havens’ set – but just before he began his cover of “Here Comes The Sun,” the rain abruptly stopped, and a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the sky – like magic!

During the 70s, Poco continued releasing albums that sold reasonably well (generally ranking in the 50-100 range on the Billboard album charts), and turning over its membership. 

At last, in 1978 Poco found commercial success.  They released two songs that were reasonably big hits.  Crazy Love, written by Rusty Young and with Young as lead vocalist, rose to #1 on the Adult Contemporary playlist. 

The song Crazy Love is a sweet, sad tune about a man who desperately wants to extract himself from a toxic relationship; but it is doubtful that he will successfully break free. 

Tonight I’m gonna break away
Just to wait and see
I’ve never been imprisoned by
A faded memory

Just when I think I’m over her
This broken heart will mend
I hear her name and I have to cry
The tears come down again

It happens all the time
This crazy love of mine
Wraps around my heart
Refusing to unwind
Ooh-ooh, crazy love, ah

Count the stars in the summer sky
That fall without a sound
And then pretend that you can’t hear
These teardrops coming down

So here is Poco, with Rusty Young as lead vocalist, in the music video for their song Crazy Love

Rusty Young has a great voice for country-rock music.  The band’s close vocal harmonies remind me of groups such as the Eagles. Here Rusty is playing acoustic guitar; however, he brought to Poco his very impressive pedal steel guitar work.  Young’s pedal steel guitar solos are one of the favorite things I remember from Poco. 

It’s a bit ironic that Crazy Love, Poco’s biggest hit and their signature tune, was written by Rusty Young and featured Young as lead vocalist.  When he joined Poco, Rusty Young was the only member not expected to supply vocals; also, several other members (especially Furay and Messina) were known as songwriters. 

Well, Poco continued releasing albums with mediocre sales, and changing personnel, until 1990, when the original five members re-united and again found commercial success with Call It Love, which hit the top 20 on the Billboard pop charts. 

By 2013 Rusty Young, the only remaining original member of the band, announced that he was retiring from touring.  One of the problems that Poco faced was that many of their ex-members went on to stellar careers.  In fact, three original members of Poco have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – but all with different bands. 

Richie Furay was inducted into the Rock and Roll HOF with Buffalo Springfield, and Randy Meisner and Timothy Schmit with the Eagles.  Many people believe that Jim Messina was inducted as a member of Buffalo Springfield (he wasn’t), or have argued that he should be inducted as a member of Loggins & Messina. 

Poco was a Southern California folk/rock/country band with some impressive musicians, and a rather unique sound anchored by Rusty Young’s pedal steel guitar. 

As we mentioned earlier, Rusty Young passed away from a heart attack on April 14, 2021.  We salute the original and replacement members of Poco, and wish them all the best. 

John & Audrey Wiggins and Crazy Love:

John and Audrey Wiggins are sibling country singers.  John was born in 1962 and his sister Audrey was born in 1967.  Their father was Johnny Wiggins, who toured with Ernest Tubb and who was known as the “singing Bus Driver.” 

John & Audrey started singing at a very early age; in John’s case it began when he was 4 years old.  He and his sister performed in their father’s band for several years.  Below is a photo of John & Audrey Wiggins and their cover of Crazy Love

In 1994, John & Audrey signed with Polygram/Mercury Records.  Their first albums showed considerable promise, and for three years beginning in 1995 the siblings were nominated for the Country Music Association’s Duo of the Year award. 

From their self-titled debut album, the Wiggins siblings had three songs that charted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts.  However, their later albums did not fare as well commercially. 

So here are John & Audrey Wiggins and their music video for Crazy Love

In their version Poco’s country-rock song becomes a pure country tune.  I enjoy John and Audrey’s close harmonies, although I find the music video rather distracting.  The instrumental backing, complete with pedal steel guitar, is simple but appropriate. 

I haven’t been able to find anything recent from Audrey Wiggins.  In the early 2000s, John Wiggins was working as a songwriter in Nashville. 

So here’s to the sibling duo of John and Audrey Wiggins. 

Jars of Clay and Crazy Love:

Jars of Clay is a Christian-rock group.  Three of their members – Dan Haseltine, Steve Mason and Charlie Lowell – were classmates at Greenville College in Illinois.  They subsequently added a fourth member, Matt Odmark.  Below is a photo of the quartet Jars of Clay. 

In 1994 the band entered a contest sponsored by the Gospel Music Association.  The band traveled to Nashville as finalists, and then won the contest.  This resulted in offers from record companies, so the boys dropped out of college and moved to Nashville. 

Jars of Clay released a self-titled album in 1995.  One of the singles from that album, Flood, reached #12 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, a terrific result from a Christian-rock band.  The album was rated “multi-platinum.”

In 1997, the band won a Grammy Award for Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album.  The group’s subsequent third and fourth albums also won Grammy Awards. 

One interesting fact about the group is that they do not have a drummer.  They use session musicians for recording sessions and for tours.  Another is that the band’s songs are often not obviously about their faith.  This has led to some criticism from other Christian groups that Jars of Clay is not sufficiently religious, but it may also explain why their songs are so successful on rock music playlists. 

So here is the audio of Jars of Clay playing Crazy Love.   

This is from a live performance by the band, and they are very competent.  The acoustic guitar work is fine and the close harmonies from the group are satisfying.  This is from an “acoustic period” of Jars of Clay; at other times their songs are much more in the “rock ‘n roll” genre. 

Upon touring Africa around 2000, the band created a non-profit group called Blood:Water Africa.  Its purpose was to provide financial support for two things desperately needed in a continent ravaged by poverty and the AIDS epidemic: “clean blood and clean water.”    

Jars of Clay has been unusually successful for a Christian rock band.  We salute them for both their commercial success, and for setting up a non-profit charity dedicated to work in Africa. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Crazy Love (Poco Song)

Wikipedia, Poco

Wikipedia, John & Audrey Wiggins

Wikipedia, Jars of Clay

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Stagger Lee: Ma Rainey; Mississippi John Hurt; Lloyd Price

Hello there!  This week our blog features the song, Stagger Lee, a folk tale with a long history.  We will begin with one of the first vocal versions of this song by Ma Rainey.  We will then include a cover by Mississippi John Hurt, and finally the best-known version by Lloyd Price.

Lloyd Price recently passed away on May 3, 2021.  We are dedicating this post to his memory. 

 Ma Rainey and Stack O’Lee Blues:

Stagger Lee is an old American folk song that refers to a real event – the murder of Billy Lyons by “Stag” Lee Shelton in St. Louis on Christmas day, 1895.  Shelton was a well-known pimp in St. Louis. Apparently Mr. Lyons and Mr. Shelton were drinking at a bar when they got into an altercation.  After Lyons took Shelton’s Stetson hat, Shelton shot and killed Lyons and retrieved his hat. 

Shelton was tried and convicted of Lyons’ murder, and served 12 years of a sentence until he was released in 1909.  However, in 1911 he was again jailed for a different offense, and he died in prison in 1912. 

Shelton went by the nickname “Stag Lee” or “Stack Lee.”  There are various competing explanations as to why he ended up with that monicker.  The episode with the Stetson hat and Lyons’ murder soon became the stuff of legend, and the subject of both folk tales and songs.  I know of at least ten different variants of the song title, all various spellings of “Stackerlee.” 

The episode had quite likely been turned into a “field holler,” that would be sung by sharecroppers or prison inmates.  The first mention of the song was in 1897, and in 1910 the musicologist Alan Lomax received a transcript of the folk song.  Stagger Lee then circulated informally until it was first recorded by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians in 1923. 

The Fred Waring version was an instrumental one, and it was quite popular.  In 1925, Ma Rainey recorded one of the first vocal versions of the song. 

The singer Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett in April 1886, in Columbus, Georgia.  She began singing as a teenager, and in 1904 she married Will Rainey, whose nickname was “Pa.”  So she took the name “Ma” Rainey, and she became one of the best-known female vocalists of her day.  Below is a photo of Ma Rainey. 

The Raineys enjoyed considerable regional success, but after Ma Rainey signed a contract with Paramount Records in 1923, she quickly gained national fame.  Between 1923 and 1928, Ma Rainey recorded over 100 songs for Paramount.  That company in turn aggressively marketed Ms. Rainey as “the Mother of the Blues.” 

In 1926, Ma Rainey recorded the song Stack O’Lee Blues.  Here is the audio of that tune. 

Here, Ma Rainey is backed by the Georgia Band, which features Louis Armstrong on cornet.  This blues tune shows off her strong vocals and her distinctive jazz phrasing, emphasizing a rather low register and a ‘gravelly’ voice.  In this rendition, Stack O’Lee is the no-good partner of the singer (“Stack O’Lee was a bad man … he was my man, and he done me wrong”). 

Through the 1920s, Ma Rainey was one of the highest-paid performers in the music business.  She also served as a symbol of female black empowerment.  Many of her songs featured powerful black women; some of her tunes hinted at bisexual relationships, and in one of her photos Ma appeared in a three-piece suit, accompanied by a couple of women.  

But live vaudeville went out of style, and live bands began to be replaced by radio and records.  In 1928, Paramount terminated Ms. Rainey’s record contract. She was still able to support herself on tours, but in 1935 Ma Rainey retired from touring and returned to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia.  She became the proprietor of three theaters in Columbus and Rome, Georgia, until her death from a heart attack in 1939. 

Ma Rainey was a trailblazer in jazz and blues music.  She gained a great deal of fame and success during the 1920s, and she collaborated with several of the great names in jazz during this period.  She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. 

Musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Janis Joplin were strongly influenced by Miss Rainey’s signature vocal style.  We salute “the Mother of the Blues,” Ma Rainey. 

Mississippi John Hurt and Stackolee:

John Hurt was born in 1893 and raised in Avalon, Mississippi.  As a youth, he taught himself to play guitar.  He would play at dances or in the Mississippi Delta music scene, and then return to his work as a sharecropper.  Below is a photo of John Hurt from about 1963. 

Hurt gained some local fame, and in 1923 he accompanied fiddle player Willie Narmour when Narmour’s regular guitarist was unavailable.  When Narmour subsequently garnered a record contract after winning a fiddle competition, he recommended John Hurt to the record producers. 

This led to a record contract for John Hurt with Okeh Records.  Hurt recorded a number of songs with Okeh in 1928, and a few of his records were released by Okeh.  However, they generated very little in the way of sales, so Hurt returned to his cabin in Avalon and continued sharecropping. 

When Okeh Records went bankrupt during the Depression, it looked as though Hurt’s chances of fame were over.  However, in the early 60s, some folk music enthusiasts re-discovered Hurt’s music.  Folk music archivist Dick Hoskins then tracked Hurt down in Avalon, and persuaded him to move to Washington, D.C. 

So here is the audio of Mississippi John Hurt performing Stackolee

Isn’t this great?  Hurt’s performance of Stackolee is generally considered the definitive version of the song.  His precise finger-picking on a 12-string acoustic guitar is really terrific – it’s hard to believe that Hurt was completely self-taught on the guitar. 

Hurt’s soft, clear vocals tell the tale of Stackolee and Billy Lyons. And Stackolee is clearly the villain of the piece (“That bad man, ole cruel Stackolee”).  In this telling, Stackolee gets tried, convicted and hung for killing Billy Lyons (“over a 5-dollar Stetson hat”)

After he was “re-discovered,” Mississippi John Hurt became an important part of the “American folk music revival” of the early 60s.  His appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival propelled him to celebrity, and he recorded a few albums with Vanguard Records. 

At the same time, musicologists tracked down several more Mississippi Delta musicians, who also gained newfound fame.  This revival constituted an exciting time in folk music, as “roots” musicians such as John Hurt were featured along with up-and-coming young stars such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. 

I was fortunate to see Mississippi John Hurt at a coffeehouse in Philadelphia in 1964.  He spoke so softly that you had to strain to hear him; but he had a deft touch on the guitar, and his folk songs were delivered in an unforgettable style. 

John Hurt died of a heart attack in 1966, in Grenada Mississippi.  It was great that his music was re-discovered in time to bring him to the attention of the folk community before he passed away.  Our (Stetson?) hat is off to Mississippi John Hurt.   

Lloyd Price and Stagger Lee:

Lloyd Price was an R&B vocalist who was born in March 1933 and raised in Kenner, Louisiana.  Price developed a love of music at an early age – he sang in his church choir and was trained on piano and trumpet.  Below is a photo of Lloyd Price from the early 1950s.   

In 1952 Art Rupe, the owner of Specialty Records, came to New Orleans to record some of the locally produced R&B music.  Rupe’s competitor Imperial Records had great success with NOLA musicians, and Rupe was looking to duplicate this. 

One of the artists that Rupe listened to was Lloyd Price.  Rupe fixed Price up with a backing band (that featured Fats Domino on piano), and recorded Price singing Lawdy Miss Clawdy.  Price had written the tune for a local DJ who used it as a catch phrase to hawk various products (“Lawdy Miss Clawdy, eat Mother’s Homemade Pies!”)

The song took off immediately after it was released.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy spent 8 weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and was named the R&B Record of the Year for 1952.  But Price’s later recordings for Specialty Records did not have the same success. 

Price was then drafted into the Army, and he spent a tour in Korea.  When he returned, he found that he had been replaced at Specialty Records by Little Richard. 

In 1957, several of Lloyd Price’s records were released by ABC Records, and once again he topped the R&B charts.  One of Price’s hits at this period was his version of the classic folk tune Stagger Lee.  Here is Lloyd Price in a live performance of Stagger Lee.  

This was a 1973 performance on the TV show Midnight Special.  Lloyd is introduced by his good friend Jerry Lee Lewis.  As you can see, the Lloyd Price version of the song is an up-tempo R&B song, with a full horn section.  Lloyd Price is his usual ebullient self, and the song is a big hit with the audience. 

Price’s lyrics are different from the previous two versions.  The beginning of the tune is very slow, but after the first verse the song shifts into overdrive. 

The night was clear
And the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
He was barkin’ at the two men who were gamblin’
In the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven
Billy swore that he threw eight

Stagger Lee told Billy,
I can’t let you go with that
You have won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his forty-four

Said, I’m goin’ to the barroom

Just to pay that debt I owe

The outcome is the same – Stagger Lee shoots and kills Billy Lyons.  However, on Price’s record Stagger Lee actually seems to be the hero of the piece, with the chorus repeating “Oh, Stagger Lee” throughout (which sounds very much like “Go, Stagger Lee!”). 

When Price appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand to sing Stagger Lee, Clark urged him to change the lyrics so it would not seem as though Price was justifying the murder of Billy Lyons. 

Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee not only hit #1 on the R&B charts, but it also made it to #1 on the Billboard pop charts as well, making it a crossover smash for Mr. Price.  This song is also on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.   

So, we now have seen three very different versions of the same traditional song.  Ma Rainey’s take on Stack O Lee was a slow Dixieland-style blues tune.  In the hands of Mississippi John Hurt, the song became a “roots” folk tune, backed by a great guitar accompaniment.  And Lloyd Price’s version was a forceful R&B song with an insistent beat. 

Lloyd Price shortly afterwards had another big hit with Personality.  This became Price’s signature tune, and he was afterwards known as “Mr. Personality.” 

Much like his fellow artist James Brown, Lloyd Price was an entrepreneur in many different areas.  He formed his own music company, and along with a business partner he opened the Birdland club in New York City. 

Price was also a boxing promoter.  He collaborated with Don King on the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, and Price also was a producer of an R&B concert associated with that fight. 

Price also managed a company that produced Southern foods, including a line of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” products that featured sweet potatoes, greens and grits. 

Lloyd Price received a number of honors and awards.  In 1994 he received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation.  In 1998 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And in 2019 he was inducted into the National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. 

Lloyd Price passed away from complications of diabetes on May 3, 2021.  For his great musical career and his many other activities, we salute “Mr. Personality” Lloyd Price. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Stagger Lee

Wikipedia, Ma Rainey

Wikipedia, Mississippi John Hurt

Wikipedia, Lloyd Price

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Just One Look: Doris Troy; The Hollies; Linda Ronstadt.

Hello there!  This week our blog features the powerful pop song Just One Look.  We will begin with the original version of this song by Doris Troy.  We will then include a cover by The Hollies, and finally a version by Linda Ronstadt.  

Doris Troy and Just One Look:

Doris Troy was a pop singer in the mid-60s.  She was born Doris Higgensen in 1937 in the Bronx.  Because her parents felt that rock and R&B music was “subversive,” her early musical experience was singing in the choir of her father’s church. 

Legend has it that Doris was working at the Apollo Theater when she was ‘discovered’ by James Brown.  This got her work as a backup singer for acts such as Solomon Burke, Dionne Warwick, and the Drifters.  She also tried her hand at songwriting.  Below is a photo of a young Doris Troy.

In 1963, Doris Troy co-wrote the song Just One Look with Gregory Carroll. She recorded a demo of the song for Atlantic Records. Apparently it took only 10 minutes to record the demo; however, it was sufficiently good that Atlantic decided to release the song without re-recording it. 

Just One Look was a solid hit for Doris Troy; it remained on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for 14 weeks, reaching a high of #10.  The tune also was ranked #3 on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles playlist.  It was a big hit internationally as well.   

As its name suggests, the song is about love at first sight.  The singer recounts that they fell in love after a single glance.  The lyrics are simple and direct. 

Just one look and I fell so hard
In love, with you, oh oh
I found out how good it feels
To have, your love, oh oh

Say you will, will be mine
Forever, and always, oh oh
Just one look and I knew
That you were my only one, oh oh

I thought I was dreaming
But I was wrong, oh yeah yeah
Ah but I’m gonna keep on scheming
Till I can make you, make you my own

I haven’t been able to find video of Doris Troy singing this tune, so here is the audio of Just One Look

Just One Look starts with a distinctive piano lick; I believe that’s Doris Troy on piano.  Doris has quite a strong voice, which she uses to great effect in this song.  And the backup singers provide a significant boost to the emotion of the tune. 

Unfortunately, this was Doris Troy’s only hit record.  But the song has become a rock ‘n roll classic.  In addition to the groups we feature here, there are 50 covers of this song, including versions by Anne Murray, Martha & the Vandellas, and Harry Nilsson. 

After her one hit, Doris Troy sang backup with several groups including the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Carly Simon. 

Later in her life, Doris and her sister Vy Higgensen co-wrote a musical about her life, Mama, I Want to Sing.  It was quite successful, running for 1,500 performances at the Hecksher Theater in Spanish Harlem.  A movie was made from the musical and it was released on DVD in 2012. 

Doris Troy died in February 2004 from emphysema; she was 67 years old.  Here’s to Ms. Troy; she had only one hit, but it was an impressive and enduring one. 

The Hollies and Just One Look:

The Hollies were a British-Invasion group from Manchester.  The founding duo were Graham Nash and Allan Clarke, who had known each other from primary school.  They had begun performing together in the late 1950s, when they were part of the “skiffle” craze that swept the U.K. at that time.  Clarke and Nash performed with various bands until the end of 1962.  At that time, they took the name The Hollies, a name based on either the Christmas wreath plant or as a shout-out to American rock star Buddy Holly. 

At that time the Hollies settled into a quintet.  Here is a photo of The Hollies from 1964.  Left to right: Tony Hicks (lead guitar), Eric Haydock (bass), Allan Clarke (guitar), Bobby Elliot (drums), and Graham Nash (guitar).


The Hollies became known for their three-part harmonies from Nash, Clarke and Hicks.  Initially, the band featured covers of American pop hits.  After covers of songs by The Coasters and Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs, The Hollies released a cover of Doris Troy’s Just One Look. 

Here are The Hollies in a live performance of Just One Look

As you can tell from the screaming, the Hollies were really big in the U.K. at that moment.  This took place at the New Musical Express (NME) concert in 1964, that featured the hottest new acts in British pop music. 

Here, Graham Nash shares the lead vocals with Allan Clarke and Tony Hicks.  The Hollies’ distinctive three-part harmonies are on display here; note that in this video, Allan Clarke and Tony Hicks share a microphone to sing, very much like the Beatles. 

Just One Look hit #2 on the UK Singles charts, marking the Hollies as one of Britain’s top pop acts. Unfortunately, in 1964 the Hollies were not well known in the U.S.; their cover of Just One Look only reached #98 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  However, the Hollies’ version was re-issued in the States in 1967, when it made it to #44. 

The Hollies did not break into the American pop market until 1966; by that time, they were writing most of their own songs.  But their first big U.S. hit was the 1966 Bus Stop, which was written by Graham Gouldman and made it to #5 on the Billboard pop charts. 

The Hollies then released a string of hits over the next two years.  They were now a well-established pop group; however, they faced rising tension between their two leaders, Graham Nash and Allan Clarke.  Nash pushed for more experimental material, while Clarke and Hicks favored more traditional pop songs. 

Matters came to a head when the band’s psychedelic album Butterfly, mainly influenced by Nash, was a flop.  When the band decided to release an album of Bob Dylan covers, and they rejected Nash’s song Marrakesh Express, Nash left the group in fall 1968.  Although he intended to go solo, Nash quickly found himself as a member of the supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash (whose debut single was — Marrakesh Express!). 

The Hollies found replacement members for Nash and for others who left in subsequent years.  During the 70s, the Hollies continued to score some big hits, including He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother in 1970 (featuring session musician Elton John on piano), Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress in 1972, and The Air That I Breathe in 1974. 

Believe it or not, The Hollies are still performing even today.  Graham Nash re-joined the group for a couple of tours in the 80s, and the band was extremely popular on “oldies” tours. Some of the band’s compilation albums of their greatest hits have also been quite popular.  

In 2010, The Hollies were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  In addition to the five Hollies members from the mid-60s, inductees included later additions Bernie Calvert and Terry Sylvester. 

We salute The Hollies. They were an enjoyable British Invasion group in the 60s and 70s, and have shown remarkable durability. 

Linda Ronstadt and Just One Look:

Linda Ronstadt is one of the most successful women artists in rock history.  She has a stunning number of albums to her credit and has sold over 100 million records.  In the process, she has garnered a slew of awards and honors, culminating with her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.  Ronstadt is an exceptionally versatile artist; she has recorded songs in the genres of rock, country, jazz and Hispanic music. 

Ronstadt was born in Tucson in 1946. Her grandfather had emigrated from Germany, married a Mexican and became a prosperous rancher and early settler in Arizona.  She began her performing career in the mid-60s as the lead singer in a folk-rock-country trio, The Stone Poneys.  Here is a photo of Linda Ronstadt from about 1974. 

Linda Ronstadt became a blockbuster star in the 70s, when she made a series of best-selling albums, produced posters that found their way onto the walls of millions of impressionable teen-age boys, and filled up venues on stadium tours with fellow West Coast folk-rockers such as The Eagles (who had performed in her backup group before joining forces as their own band), Jackson Browne and The Doors.

Here is Linda Ronstadt in a live version of Just One Look

This took place in Hollywood in 1980, and is a highly enjoyable performance.  Ms. Ronstadt is backed by a stellar group of session musicians, including Kenny Edwards and Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums, Bob Glaub on bass, Billy Payne on keyboards, and Dan Dugmore on pedal steel guitar. 

The arrangement of the song follows closely that of Doris Troy’s original version. The song starts and ends with a honky-tonk piano bit; in the middle, we get a bit of cowbell.  Linda belts out the lyrics, accompanied by backup singers Wendy Waldman and Peter Asher. 

Linda’s cover of Just One Look was included in her 1978 album Living in the USA.  Released as a single in 1979, Just One Look made it to #44 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts, but reached #5 on Billboard’s Easy Listening playlist. 

Nearly all Ronstadt’s hits were covers of standards by classic artists like Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison.  However, the songs tended to feature great country-rock arrangements and catchy hook-filled production values.  Plus, being marketed as a sex symbol certainly didn’t hurt Ronstadt in a business dominated by male artists. 

In more recent years Linda Ronstadt concentrated on albums of traditional Mexican folk songs that she remembered from her youth.  However, in 2011 Ronstadt announced her retirement from performing, and in 2013 she revealed that she had contracted Parkinson’s disease, which prevents her from singing.   

We enjoyed many of Linda Ronstadt’s folk-rock performances, and we wish her all the best in coping with Parkinson’s disease. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Just One Look (song)

Wikipedia, Doris Troy

Wikipedia, The Hollies

Wikipedia, Linda Ronstadt

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Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad: Meat Loaf; Bonnie Tyler; Todd Rundgren

Hello there!  This week our blog features the operatic pop song, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  We will begin with the original version of this song by Meat Loaf.  We will then include a cover by Bonnie Tyler, and finally a version by Todd Rundgren.

The songwriter of Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad, Jim Steinman, just passed away this past month.  We are dedicating this post to his memory.  Also, as will become clear, the three artists we feature here and Jim Steinman are closely connected.    

 Meat Loaf and Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad:

The singer called Meat Loaf was born Marvin Lee Aday in Dallas, Texas in Sept. 1947.  After graduating from high school, he moved to L.A. in an attempt to break through as an actor or singer.  He fronted various bands that had local success, and opened for acts such as Janis Joplin, Van Morrison, The Who and the Grateful Dead.  However, recording contracts and commercial success did not come his way. 

So Meat Loaf (a nickname given him by his high school football coach, because of his weight) became an actor in various musicals, including a West Coast version of Hair, and The Rocky Horror Show.   The success of that musical led to its filming as the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, where Meat Loaf played Eddie.  Below is a photo of Meat Loaf at about this time.

In 1972, during his time as an actor in musicals, Meat Loaf met songwriter Jim Steinman. Steinman had written musicals of his own, and they teamed up as a singer-songwriter duo. Steinman began writing songs for a Meat Loaf album, but it was 1974 when the two began looking for a record company contract. 

The first Meat Loaf album was titled Bat Out of Hell, with every song written by Steinman.  They had persuaded Epic Records to record music videos for four of the songs, including Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  Steinman and Meat Loaf shopped the songs around every record company they could find; however, they found no takers, primarily because the songs combined rock ‘n roll with Steinman’s sophisticated lyrics and his operatic style. 

Finally, Todd Rundgren heard the songs and agreed to produce the album.  Rundgren played lead guitar on the album, and members of his band Utopia also sat in.  After the album was turned down by even more record companies, Cleveland International Records finally released it in October 1977. 

Jim Steinman had a great, possibly apocryphal, story about the origin of Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  He was complaining that nobody would release his songs, and a friend told him it was because his lyrics were too complicated.  “Why don’t you write something really simple, like this song?” he was asked; the reference was to the Elvis song that was playing at that moment, I Want You, I Need You, I Love You

So Steinman, pictured above, wrote his version of that Elvis song.  It features someone trying to express their frustration about a relationship.  The singer relates that the only woman he ever loved rejected him, with the same words he now repeats to his current partner. 

Baby we can talk all night
But that ain’t gettin us nowhere
I told you everything I possibly can
There’s nothing left inside of here

And maybe you can cry all night
But that’ll never change the way I feel
The snow is really piling up outside
I wish you wouldn’t make me leave here

I poured it on and I poured it out
I tried to show you just how much I care
I’m tired of words and I’m too hoarse to shout
But you’ve been cold to me so long
I’m crying icicles instead of tears

And all I can do is keep on telling you
I want you, I need you
But-there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you
Now don’t be sad
‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad

So here is Meat Loaf in the music video to Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Jim Steinman’s operatic tendencies are in full view here, and Meat Loaf’s powerful vocals are perfect for this song.  Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad was the second-best selling single for Meat Loaf, and became one of his signature tunes. 

Bat Out of Hell became one of the best-selling albums of all time.  Meat Loaf later released two sequels, Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell (1990) and Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose (2006).  In each case, there was a long gap between albums, and both the 2nd and 3rd “Bat Out of Hell” albums helped revive a flagging career for Meat Loaf. 

Meat Loaf has had a long and successful career; overall he has sold 80 million records.  But the three Bat Out of Hell albums have been phenomenal.  The original Bat Out of Hell album spent nine years on the UK album charts, the longest of any album; and it still sells 200,000 copies a year, more than 40 years after its initial appearance.  Together, the three Bat Out of Hell albums have sold over 50 million copies. 

In addition to his success in rock music, Meat Loaf was also an accomplished actor.  He appeared in 50 motion pictures, a few of which were rock ‘n roll movies (such as the Spice Girls movie Spice World, and the Jack Black picture Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny).  He also appeared in a few TV episodes such as House, M.D. and Monk

We salute Meat Loaf — he’s has “a Hell” of a run!

On April 19, 2021, Jim Steinman died of kidney failure.  He was 73 years old.  He was remembered by one of his colleagues as “the greatest ever composer of symphonic rock.”   

Bonnie Tyler and Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad:

Bonnie Tyler is a singer from Wales with a very unique husky voice.  Her voice reminds me of a female Rod Stewart.  She was born Gaynor Hopkins in 1951 in Skewen, Wales.  She was inspired to seek a career in music after she came in second in a talent contest.  Below is a photo of a young Bonnie Tyler.

In 1975, a talent scout saw her perform and took her to London to record a demo.  This led to a contract with RCA Records, where she took the stage name Bonnie Tyler.  For a couple of years she had limited success, until in 1978 her song It’s a Heartache made it to #4 on the UK charts, and rose to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. 

After Bonnie’s next few records failed to perform, it appeared that she might be a one-hit wonder, as RCA did not renew her record contract.  However, in 1982 she signed with CBS/Columbia Records, who hooked her up with Jim Steinman.  Steinman thought that his song Total Eclipse of the Heart would be a perfect vehicle for Ms. Tyler. 

Steinman was correct: he produced Bonnie Tyler’s recording of his song which immediately hit gold, and the album Faster Than the Speed of Night reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and #3 on the Billboard 200 album playlists. 

So here is Bonnie Tyler in a live performance (or lip-synched?) of another of Jim Steinman’s songs, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

You can see why Ms. Tyler is called “the female Rod Stewart” (she is also compared with Joe Cocker).  She gives an earnest performance of the Meat Loaf tune.  Here, the tempo is considerably faster than Meat Loaf’s version, and is presented in a disco style, with pulsating drum and bass beats.

Well, Bonnie Tyler has never matched the smash success of her two biggest hits, It’s a Heartache and Total Eclipse of the Heart; but those songs each sold more than 6 million copies, which sets the bar pretty high. Nevertheless, she has had a long and relatively successful career.  After her two big hits, she remained a bigger draw in Europe than in the UK or US.  She also has achieved significant cross-over appeal in country music as well as in rock ‘n roll. 

Bonnie Tyler has now issued eighteen albums, and she continues to perform.  We salute Ms. Tyler for her signature vocal style and her long career. 

Todd Rundgren and Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad:

There is no way that we can review all of Todd Rundgren’s accomplishments in the short space allowed by our blog.  So we will give a thumbnail sketch of his work, and urge you to read his bio in Wikipedia. 

Todd Rundgren was born in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania in 1948.  In high school, he was already participating in local bands.  He went straight from high school to playing and producing records.  Todd’s first group was Nazz, which was formed in 1967.  They developed a dedicated local following, but in 1969 the band broke up, and Todd moved to Greenwich Village.  Below is a photo of a young Todd Rundgren.

In New York, Todd was offered a job as an engineer and producer with the legendary agent Albert Grossman.  Grossman had just opened a recording studio near Woodstock called Bearsville Studios.  Rundgren began by producing albums for Grossman’s stable of artists.  He was then promoted to chief engineer, and he started an amazing career as a producer. 

Todd subsequently produced albums for groups such as The Band, Grand Funk Railroad, Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Cheap Trick and Hall & Oates. Early on, he was known as the “Boy Wonder” for his producing skills, and for a while was the highest-paid producer in the world. 

Even if he had never released any solo music, Todd Rundgren would still be famous as a producer.  But in the early 70s, Rundgren released a couple of pop ballads, Hello It’s Me and I Saw The Light, that reached the top 20 on the charts. 

So here is the audio of Todd Rundgren’s cover of Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

I quite like Rundgren’s version of this song; his voice is very sweet here.  The tempo is also faster than the original, and the style is reminiscent of New Wave pop. Remember that Todd produced the original Bat Out of Hell album for Meat Loaf, and he also played lead guitar on that album. 

For some time now, Todd Rundgren has alternated between solo albums and releases with his band Utopia, which produces much harder progressive rock in a style reminiscent of Frank Zappa.  Todd is an extremely talented guitarist, and his work with Utopia highlights this.  However, Todd’s commercial success has been hampered by the many new musical directions he has pursued over the years.  He comments that each change in direction results in “the complete loss of about half my audience.” 

Between 2003 and 2013 I directed the Wells Scholars Program at Indiana University.  Part of the endowment for that program was reserved for special courses that were developed around visiting Wells Scholars Professors.  In 2010, Todd Rundgren came to Indiana University as a Wells Scholars Program Professor. 

This was a really special occasion.  Two of our faculty, Jacobs School of Music professor Glenn Gass and Distinguished Professor of Sociology Bernice Pescosolido, developed a special 4-week class that reviewed Todd’s contributions to rock music, the music industry and to society.  Todd himself gave a special lecture on the Beatles, and he also gave a free recital while he was here.  In addition, Todd appeared at halftime of an IU football game, directing our Marching Hundred band in a rendition of his frat-boy classic song Bang the Drum All Day.  

We haven’t even talked about Todd Rundgren’s many contributions to music technology.  At one time he thought he would become a computer scientist, and he made innovative developments in computer technology, in music videos and in Internet music.  Todd produced the first interactive music album, and also pioneered a music subscription service called Patreon. 

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Rundgren’s album Something/Anything? on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. At the moment, it is sort of a scandal that Todd Rundgren has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  C’mon, guys, he is a musical genius, induct him already!  We salute Todd Rundgren, still going strong today. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

Wikipedia, Meat Loaf

Wikipedia, Jim Steinman

Wikipedia, Bonnie Tyler

Wikipedia, Todd Rundgren

Wikipedia, Albums Produced by Todd Rundgren

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Needles and Pins: Jackie DeShannon; The Searchers; Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers featuring Stevie Nicks

Hello there!  This week our blog features the pop song, Needles and Pins.  We will begin with the original version of this song by Jackie DeShannon.  We will then include a cover by The Searchers, and finally a version by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.  

Jackie DeShannon and Needles and Pins:

Jackie DeShannon is an American singer-songwriter who was prominent in the 60s and 70s.  She was born Sharon Lee Meyers in August 1941 in Hazel, Kentucky. 

Ms. Meyers was something of a musical child prodigy.  At age 6, she was already performing on a local radio show, and by age 11 she was hosting a radio show.  Her family then moved to a suburb of Chicago, where she once again hosted a country radio show and appeared at several venues. 

Ms. Meyers then took the stage name Jackie Dee; however, it was decided that this was too close to names like Sandra Dee or Brenda Lee, so she then took Jackie DeShannon as her stage name.  Here is a photo of Jackie DeShannon from the 60s.

Jackie’s first success was as a songwriter; she penned a couple of songs for Brenda Lee that became minor hits.  Jackie’s own commercial success as a solo artist continued on rather slowly. 

In 1963, Jackie was given the song Needles and Pins, that was credited to Sonny Bono and Jack Nitschke; however, Ms. DeShannon maintains that the song was a collaborative effort between the three of them (but Jackie did not get writing credits).  

The song describes someone who is obsessed with a former lover, and can’t get them out of their mind.  Every time they see this person, they are overwhelmed with intense feelings (‘needles and pins’).  Here are some of the lyrics (in Ms. DeShannon’s version the gender is reversed).  

I saw her today, I saw her face
It was the face I loved and I knew
I had to run away and get down on my knees
And pray that they’d go away

But still they begin
Needles and pins
Because of all my pride
The tears I gotta hide

Hey, I thought I was smart
I’d win her heart
Didn’t think I’d do, but now I see
She’s worse to him than me

Let her go ahead
Take his love instead
And one day she will see
Just how to say please

So here is Jackie DeShannon in a “live” performance of Needles and Pins

Like the better-known version by The Searchers (coming up next), Jackie DeShannon’s version of Needles and Pins is also bouncy, and the melody has a real ‘hook’ that will burrow into your mind. 

Here, Jackie is lip-synching the song on the program Where The Action Is.  This was a network TV program that ran from 1965 to 1967.  It was a spinoff of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.  It typically featured a few artists lip-synching their hits while a number of teens danced.  Here, the conceit is that Ms. DeShannon recruits a bunch of guitar players from the audience; of course, no one is really playing or singing anything here. 

Needles and Pins was not a great success for Jackie – it made it to just 84 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists.  However, the song did reach #1 on the Canadian charts! 

Jackie DeShannon did eventually hit the jackpot with the 1965 Burt Bacharach-Hal David tune What The World Needs Now Is Love, and again in 1969 with her own song Put A Little Love In Your Heart.  After that most of her later success came through her songwriting.  Among other songs, Jackie wrote the tune Bette Davis Eyes, which became a #1 hit for Kim Carnes. 

Despite her relatively meager list of hits, Jackie DeShannon has had a most interesting life.  Do you know anyone else who dated both Elvis, and the Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page?  It is rumored that the Led Zeppelin song Tangerine was written by Page after he broke up with Ms. DeShannon. 

In 1964, Jackie DeShannon opened for the Beatles on their first U.S. tour.  As a result, she became quite friendly with the Fab Four.  Since 2009, Ms. DeShannon has hosted a weekend show on Sirius XM called Breakfast With the Beatles, that provides a mixture of historical information about the Beatles together with current reports on the two surviving Beatles. 

Jackie DeShannon was one of the first female singer-songwriters of the rock ‘n roll era.  It was not easy blazing a trail as one of a small number of such women back in the 60s.  In 2010, Jackie DeShannon was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  We salute her for her accomplishments. 

The Searchers and Needles and Pins:

The Searchers were a Liverpool band that formed as a skiffle group in 1959.  They took their name from a John Ford western film of the same name.  The band went through several personnel changes until they settled on a quartet with Tony Jackson on bass, Mike Pender on lead guitar, John McNally on rhythm guitar, and Chris Curtis on drums.  Except for McNally, every other member took lead vocals on certain songs.  Here is a photo of The Searchers from their heyday in the mid-60s.

Like the Beatles, the Searchers also spent time in Hamburg, Germany honing their talents.  In Germany, The Searchers were regulars at Hamburg’s Star Club.  While they were in Hamburg in 1964, they heard British pop singer Chris Bennett do a cover of Needles and Pins.  The group immediately decided that it would be a perfect song for them. 

The Searchers’ single of Needles and Pins was released in January 1964.  The Searchers were correct: it was a major hit for them.  It shot up to #1 on the charts in Britain, Ireland and South Africa.  In the U.S., it was a top-20 tune, making it to #13. 

So here are The Searchers doing their version of Needles and Pins

This was an appearance of the group on the Ed Sullivan Show on April 5, 1964. Is this live or lip-synched – it’s hard for me to tell for sure.  Anyway, the Searchers’ version of Needles and Pins featured their trademark “jangly guitar” sound, and it established the group as one of the top “Merseyside” British Invasion bands, along with The Beatles, The Hollies and Gerry and the Pacemakers. 

Well, a band with three lead singers needs to make sure that everyone is happy with their share of the songs.  After the band’s third album, Tony Jackson abruptly quit the group, unhappy that he was lead vocalist on only one song on that album. 

However, the group found a new bassist and proceeded on.  In 1967, The Searchers were dropped by their record label when their contract expired.  But between 1964 and 1965, the group landed seven songs in the Billboard top 40. 

After the 60s the band kept on recording, even in the absence of much commercial success.  Eventually, the Searchers became very popular in tours of ‘oldies’ groups.  Eventually, the Searchers finished off a farewell tour at the end of March, 2019.  By that time their only original member was John McNally, now promoted from rhythm guitar to lead guitar. 

The Searchers were a really enjoyable pop band, with an easily recognizable folk-rock style, something like a British version of The Byrds.  They enjoyed considerable success for a couple of years in the mid-60s, and have showed remarkable longevity.  We salute the surviving members of The Searchers. 

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Featuring Stevie Nicks and Needles and Pins:

Tom Petty was born in October, 1950 in Gainesville, Florida.  From an early age, he aspired to be a rock musician.  In his youth, an uncle who was working on one of Elvis Presley’s movies introduced Tom to Elvis.  However, it was the Beatles who really inspired the teen-age Petty.  “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show … there was the way out … I really saw in the Beatles that here’s something I could do.” 

At age 17, Tom dropped out of high school to play bass in a band.  One of his early guitar teachers was Don Felder, who later joined The Eagles.  While playing in rock bands, Tom Petty also took jobs with the University of Florida grounds crew, and briefly worked as a gravedigger.  Here is a photo of Tom Petty near the beginning of his career.

Tom Petty fronted a group called The Heartbreakers, where he sang lead vocals and played guitar.  The group’s third album, the 1979 release Damn The Torpedoes, shot up to #2 on the Billboard albums charts, and made the group an overnight success.  Rock critic Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic called Damn The Torpedoes “one of the great records of the album rock era.”

Petty and the Heartbreakers subsequently released a series of hit singles, cementing his popularity.  The band were among the acts performing in the 1985 Live Aid concert.  And in 2001, they were one of the headliners at the tribute concert following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

In the early 80s, Stevie Nicks took a break from Fleetwood Mac to branch out on her own. She sat in on a couple of songs with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Also, she made a few singles with Petty that took off and helped jump-start her solo venture. They seemed to have great chemistry and their voices really meshed. Here is a photo of Stevie and Tom in concert.

Here is Tom Petty & the Heasrtbreakers, featuring Stevie Nicks, in a cover of Needles and Pins

This is the audio from a live 1985 Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers album, Pack Up The Plantation: Live!  This particular cut was recorded at The Forum in L.A.  I’m quite fond of this; I think that Petty and Nicks both have voices that fit very well with the song, and I also really enjoy their harmonies. 

In 1988 Tom joined friends George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison in a group called The Traveling Wilburys.  The conceit was that they were brothers who had formed a traveling band.  Tom’s stage name in that group was Charlie T. Wilbury.  The band produced two albums, the second of which was recorded after Roy Orbison had passed away. 

In 1989, Tom Petty released his first solo album, although members of the Heartbreakers band contributed to several of the cuts.  Again, the album contained top singles such as I Won’t Back Down and Free Fallin’

On the morning of Oct. 2, 2017, Tom Petty was found in cardiac arrest, and was taken to the UCLA Medical Center; however, he passed away that evening.  The coroner’s report was that he had died from an accidental drug overdose. 

Petty’s wife told the authorities that he was dealing with emphysema and a fractured hip, and that the hip issue left him in incredible pain.  However, Petty’s body contained fentanyl, oxycodone and two fentanyl derivatives, sedatives temazepam and alprazolam, and anti-depressant citalopram.  This seems a large number of drugs, and the presence of fentanyl raises questions; however, the authorities concluded that this was an accidental death. 

In 2001 Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  And in 2005 Petty was awarded the Billboard Century Award.  Earlier in 2017 Petty had been named the Musicares Person of the Year in honor of his philanthropic activity. 

We were devastated to lose Tom Petty at a relatively early age; he is greatly missed. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Needles and Pins (song)

Wikipedia, Jackie DeShannon

Wikipedia, The Searchers (band)

Wikipedia, Tom Petty

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Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood: Nina Simone; The Animals; Santa Esmeralda

Hello there!  This week our blog features the song, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.  We will begin with the original version of this song by Nina Simone.  We will then include a cover by The Animals, and finally a version by Santa Esmeralda. 

 Nina Simone and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood:

Nina Simone was a terrific musician and a fierce warrior for human rights.  She was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. 

Nina was a musical prodigy and her family and friends raised money to send her to the Julliard School of Music.  There, she applied for a music scholarship at Philadelphia’s Curtis School of Music.  However, she was rejected and (despite the fact that only 3 of 72 applicants received scholarships) she was convinced that racial discrimination played a role in this decision. 

In order to pay for classical piano music lessons, she arranged a gig as a jazz pianist at a bar in Atlantic City.  Realizing that her family would be horrified that she had crossed over to “the Devil’s music,” she adopted the stage name Nina Simone (her family never caught on). 

Nina Simone, photographed in July, 1969.

When her manager offered to double her salary if she would also sing, Nina added vocals to her repertoire.  She used her classical piano training and a great “ear” for music to branch out into jazz, and at first she was completely self-taught as a vocalist. 

The song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was written for Nina Simone by composer Horace Ott.  The lyrics were then finished off by Bennie Benjamin and Sol Marcus.  Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, along with four other songs written by Benjamin and Marcus, was included in Simone’s 1964 album Broadway-Blues-Ballads.  It was released as a single but did not make it into the pop charts. 

The singer tries to explain to their lover that, although they are trying to change, they sometimes ‘go bad.’ They implore their lover to understand their good intentions.

Baby, can you understand me now?
Sometimes I get a little mad
Don’t you know, no one alive can always be an angel
When things go wrong, I seem to go bad

[CHORUS] I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood

Yeah, baby, sometimes I’m so carefree
With a joy that’s hard to hide
Yeah, and other times it seems that
All I ever have is worry
And then you’re bound to see my other side

Here is Nina Simone in a live performance of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.  This is from a concert in England in September 1968. 

Nina Simone presents this tune in a languid slow-jazz style typical of a lounge singer.  Her unique vocal styling makes the song unforgettable.  While some critics interpret the song as referencing the civil rights movement, for me the song typifies Nina Simone’s complicated relationship with her audience. 

Nina Simone made little effort to “make contact” with her audience, and her facial expression remained relatively unchanged throughout a performance.  She simply sang her songs, backing herself on piano.  Because of the distance she kept from her audience, I found it difficult to “warm up” to Nina at first.  But Nina Simone had a really eclectic talent.  She could range from classical to jazz to gospel to pop music – she even has some folk music in her repertoire. 

Nina Simone was a civil-rights activist from an early age.  At age 12, she gave her first piano recital.  She claims that when her parents were forced to move to the back of the concert hall to make room for white folks, she refused to perform until they were moved back up to the front. 

But it was Simone’s 1964 protest song Mississippi Goddam that made the most dramatic impact.  She wrote the tune in 1963, immediately after the assassination of Medger Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young children. 

Mississippi Goddam had an angry, biting message and received major circulation.  It was a big hit with civil-rights activists, and Simone performed it before 10,000 people at the end of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march.  However, the song was also banned in several Southern states, led to death threats for Nina, and probably harmed her commercial success. 

Following the ruckus with Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone left the U.S. for Barbados for a while.  When she returned to the States, she found that there was a warrant for her arrest as she had withheld some of her taxes as a protest against the Vietnam War. 

Simone then relocated to Liberia for a few years, and after that spent most of the remainder of her life in Europe.  She performed frequently in London, and eventually moved to southern France.  For several years she was treated for breast cancer before she passed away in April 2003. 

Nina Simone was a great talent and a spirited civil-rights activist.  In the last few days of her life, the Curtis Institute of Music, which had turned her down for admission in 1950, awarded Nina an honorary degree. 

I like Maya Angelou’s assessment of Nina Simone.  In 1970 Ms. Angelou wrote, “She is loved or feared, adored or disliked, but few who have met her music or glimpsed her soul react with moderation.”  Here’s to you, Nina, a pioneer in both music and activism.

The Animals and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood:

Eric Burdon is a great British blues vocalist.  He was born in 1941 in Newcastle, England to a working-class family.  Early on, Burdon developed a love for music, especially the blues. 

Eric had a particularly grim view of his childhood education.  He had the following to say about his experience in primary school: “Some teachers were sadistic– others pretended not to notice– and sexual molestation and regular corporal punishment with a leather strap was the order of the day”.

Like so many British Invasion musicians, Burdon attended Art College.  He and his pals listened to as much American blues music as they could get their hands on.  

In 1962 Burdon joined a Newcastle band, the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo.  Shortly after Burdon joined, the group changed its name to The Animals.  Below is a photo of Eric Burdon and the Animals in the 60s; Eric is in the foreground. 

The original Animals consisted of Burdon on lead vocals, Price on keyboards, Chas Chandler on bass, Hilton Valentine on guitar and John Steel on drums.  The quintet quickly established a reputation for their fusion of blues with hard rock, and they moved to London once they had developed a following.  The Animals became an important part of a 60s British blues revival, a group of musicians that included the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.    

The Animals quickly established themselves as a successful British Invasion band.  Burdon’s great bluesy vocals were combined with Price’s inventive keyboard work and Valentine’s creative guitar solos. The group notched a number of hits, including their cover of House of The Rising Sun which reached #1 on the Billboard pop charts. 

So here are Eric Burdon and The Animals in a live performance of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.  This took place on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965. 

Well, you can see Eric Burdon’s great R&B chops on this song.  Alan Price on keyboards is quite talented, while the other instrumentalists are simply competent.  One can see the effect that Burdon’s hero Ray Charles had on Eric’s vocal style. 

It is interesting to see the dramatic change that the Animals made in converting Nina Simone’s soft-jazz torch song to their own gritty R&B version.  According to Eric Burdon, he couldn’t remember who recommended this song to The Animals, but they were very excited to provide their own blues take on it. 

Unfortunately, the “golden era” of The Animals did not last long.  Their first hit was in mid-1964, and one year later Alan Price left the band; and his departure was followed by John Steel one year later. 

There were a number of reasons for the rapid break-up of The Animals.  For one thing, the musical rights for House of The Rising Sun belonged to Alan Price. Burdon and the other Animals felt that this song, and other Animals tunes, were a collaborative effort with everyone contributing.  They claimed that Price was listed as the ‘songwriter’ merely because his name (Alan) was first alphabetically. 

The resentment among Price’s bandmates was coupled with dodgy management of the group.  Membership of The Animals was re-shuffled, but the “New Animals” lasted only until 1969. 

From 1969 to 1971, Burdon moved to San Francisco and joined forces with the California funk rock band War.  As “Eric Burdon and War,” the group had one big hit with the song Spill The Wine

From 1967 to 1984, Eric Burdon and the Animals were in a nearly constant state of breaking up, re-forming, and breaking up again.  Following that period, Burdon has continued a solo career for an additional 40 years. 

The Animals were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994; however, Eric Burdon did not attend the ceremony, and the band did not perform at the event.  In 1996, Chas Chandler died of an aneurysm. 

Not surprisingly, several touring groups have used the name “The Animals.”  In 1982, Hilton Valentine and John Steel formed a group named “Animals II.”  This group continued as “Animals and Friends” after Valentine left the group in 2001. 

In 1998, Eric Burdon formed a group called “Eric Burdon and the New Animals,” which was re-named “Eric Burdon and The Animals” in 2003.  In 2016, Burdon formed yet another group.   

Eric Burdon was still doing some concerts in 2020 when the pandemic hit; but I don’t see any concerts scheduled for him this year. “Don’t let me be misunderstood,” I hope that Eric Burdon, turning 80 this year, continues on tour for as long as his health allows; he is a living legend. 

Santa Esmeralda and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood:

The group Santa Esmeralda was formed in 1977 by French producers Nicholas Skronsky and Juan Manuel de Scarano. They had created their own record label and wanted musicians who would perform their compositions. 

They founding member of Santa Esmeralda was lead vocalist Leroy Gomez, shown below with two of the dancers in the group.  Actually, the first record released by Santa Esmeralda was not a composition by Skronsky or de Scarano, but a cover of the song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which had originally been performed by Nina Simone and then covered by The Animals. 

However, in 1977 we were in the disco era, so the Santa Esmeralda version of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was a flamenco-disco take on the song.  The song was released on a small independent French label, but immediately took off.  It was then licensed to Casablanca Records, who gave it world-wide distribution. 

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Santa Esmeralda shot to the top of the disco charts in the U.S.; it also crossed over and reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists (coincidentally, this was the identical level reached by The Animals’ 1964 release of this song). 

So here is Santa Esmeralda in a live version of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.   

Isn’t this great?  The synthesis of flamenco and disco seems just perfect for this song.  I believe this is Leroy Gomez with the vocals (Santa Esmeralda replaced Gomez with Jimmy Goings during the period 1978 – 1983, but then Gomez returned to the group in 1983 and is still their lead singer).  Not surprisingly, the audience loves it and gives a rousing ovation. 

Santa Esmeralda had a second hit with House of the Rising Sun, yet another tune that had previously been covered by The Animals.  You’re My Everything also became a highly-requested song, as it was the B side of the single Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Santa Esmeralda is still touring today with Leroy Gomez as their lead singer.  The band had a resurgence in popularity when their version of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood was prominently featured in the 2003 Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill

So we have seen three totally different takes on the song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.  The first was essentially a lounge jazz version by Nina Simone.  The Animals then released a gritty R&B cover and scored a big hit.  Finally, Santa Esmeralda released a disco-flamenco version that was also very popular. 

We give a salute to Leroy Gomez and Santa Esmeralda, and we wish them all success. 

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Wikipedia, Nina Simone

Wikipedia, The Animals

Wikipedia, Santa Esmeralda

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(What A) Wonderful World: Sam Cooke; Herman’s Hermits; James Taylor, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel

Hello there!  This week our blog features an infectious pop song, Wonderful World.  We will begin with the original version of this song by Sam Cooke.  We will then include a cover by Herman’s Hermits, and finally a version by James Taylor, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel. 

 Sam Cooke and (What a) Wonderful World:

Sam Cooke was one of the great early soul singers.  He and Ray Charles were arguably the two most important innovators in the field of soul music.  Below is my favorite photo of Sam Cooke.  He is in the studio, smoking a cigarette, and the pattern of the smoke is rather amazing. 

Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, MS in 1931, and began his career in 1950 when he became the lead singer with the gospel group the Soul Stirrers.  The Soul Stirrers were the best-known gospel group in the country, and were famous for their beautiful harmonies.  The handsome and charismatic Cooke was also a favorite of young girls. 

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

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

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

Sam Cooke wrote Wonderful World, sometimes called What A Wonderful World, in 1959.  It was released in 1960 by RCA Victor.  The song describes a young man who admits that he is a mediocre student.  However, he proclaims his love and vows to improve, reasoning that “Maybe by being an A student, baby, I can win your love for me.”  

Don’t know much about history,
Don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book,
Don’t know much about the French I took.

But I do know that I love you,
And I know that if you love me, too,
What a wonderful world this would be.

… I don’t claim to be an ‘A’ student,
But I’m tryin’ to be.
For maybe by being an ‘A’-student, baby,
I can win your love for me.

The song Wonderful World made it to #12 on the Billboard pop charts and #2 on the R&B charts.  I was convinced that I could find a live version of Cooke singing this song, or at the very least I could locate a copy of him lip-synching the tune on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.  

However, I came up short, so here is just the audio of Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World.  

The song features Sam Cooke’s beautiful vocals, married to a really catchy beat, sort of a “cha-cha” rhythm.  It’s easy to get this song stuck in your head for days on end! 

In 1964, Sam Cooke was one of the biggest pop stars.  He was having great commercial success, and he had hired Allen Klein to represent him. 

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

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

The “official” story was that Cooke had taken a woman to the motel against her will.  The woman, believing that Cooke intended to rape her, fled from the motel room and then called the police.  The night manager, Bertha Franklin, claimed that a nearly-naked Cooke had burst into the motel office, and that she shot him in self-defense.  A coroner’s inquest on the shooting accepted the testimony of Bertha Franklin, the woman who accompanied Cooke to the motel, and the motel owner. The inquest ruled that the shooting was justifiable homicide. 

Cooke’s friends were convinced that this story was fishy.  They suspected that the woman at the motel and the night manager were in collusion to rob Cooke.  However, no definitive evidence of such a plot has ever been uncovered.  Regardless of the exact circumstances, Sam Cooke was dead at age 33. 

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

Herman’s Hermits and Wonderful World:

Herman’s Hermits was a British-Invasion pop band that came out of Manchester in 1964.  Their 15-year-old lead vocalist Peter Noone had been a star child actor on the British TV show Coronation Street.  Noone teamed up with lead guitarist Derek Leckenby, rhythm guitarist Keith Hopwood, bassist Karl Green and drummer Barry Whitwam. Below is a photo of Herman’s Hermits.

Herman’s Hermits, Barry Whitwam, Keith Hopwood, Peter Noone, Karl Green, Derek Leckenby, circa early 1960s

Peter Noone acquired the nickname ‘Sherman’ after a supposed resemblance to Sherman in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series.  Sherman was then shortened to Herman, so the group was initially called Herman and His Hermits, but then quickly shortened to Herman’s Hermits. 

The group was produced by Mickie Most, who had become famous as the producer of the British R&B band The Animals.  Under Most’s direction, the band reeled off a series of hits in the 2nd half of the 60s.  Although it’s hard to believe, in 1965 Billboard magazine voted Herman’s Hermits the top pop band – beating out the Beatles, who were ranked second! 

Between 1964 and 1968, every Herman’s Hermits release in the U.S. made it to the top 40 in the pop charts.  And two of those songs – Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am, made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. 

So here are Herman’s Hermits in a live version of Wonderful World

This took place in 1965, and features lead singer Peter Noone with the Hermits backing him up.  It is an OK performance, but it belies the fact that Herman’s Hermits was an extremely popular British band at the time. 

Someone apparently thought it would be cool to have a group of young women dancing beside the stage.  To my taste, this was a big mistake.  I actually hope that these were not professional dancers, but simply fans who got a chance to gyrate next to Peter Noone. 

Apparently Peter Noone and Hermits guitarist Keith Hopwood decided to cover Wonderful World in memory of Sam Cooke following Cooke’s 1964 death.  The song was a pretty big success, reaching #4 on the Billboard pop charts. 

Well, over the next few years Herman’s Hermits continued to be one of the most popular British Invasion bands.  It is interesting that between 1965 and 1968, Herman’s Hermits were significantly more popular in the U.S. than in their native Britain.  In fact, six of their eleven big U.S. Hermits hits during that time were never even released in the U.K. 

I had heard stories that the instrumentalists in Herman’s Hermits were awful, and that the “band” did not play on the studio cuts of their records, but were replaced by session musicians. It was widely reported that musicians such as Jimmy Page, Big Jim Sullivan and John Paul Jones “filled in” for Herman’s Hermits on their records. Although that was true, I am assured that the use of session musicians was standard practice in recording in those days, particularly by producer Mickie Most, and that the Herman’s Hermits musicians were actually rather talented. 

After 1968, the Hermits’ star faded in the U.S., while they continued to score significant hits in Britain.  In 1971, Peter Noone left the group for a solo career.  For most people, including me, that seemed to be the end of Herman’s Hermits. 

However, Herman’s Hermits has had exceptional longevity – the band is still performing even today.  The only original member is drummer Barry Whitwam.  The situation is complicated, as Peter Noone also continues on tour.  This has led to some “dueling Hermits” appearances.  Barry Whitwam’s band performs as “Herman’s Hermits” around the world, except in North America where they are called “Herman’s Hermits starring Barry Whitwam;” while the Peter Noone version is called “Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone.”  Got it? 

Herman’s Hermits were a competent and pleasant British Invasion band back in the 60s.  They produced some really enjoyable pop songs that shot up to the top of the charts for a few years.  Even  today, lead singer Peter Noone is still a big draw on ‘oldies’ tours.  He has a very loyal following who insure that Herman’s Hermits songs are still among the most-requested on oldies radio stations. 

Our hats are off to Peter Noone and his Herman’s Hermits bandmates. 

James Taylor, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel and Wonderful World:

Our next song is a collaboration between three great folk-rock musicians: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. 

In 1966, James Taylor and Danny Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine.  They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village and achieved some regional fame.  James then went solo, and his second album, Sweet Baby James, became a blockbuster. 

For the last 45 years, Taylor has continued an exceptional career as a singer-songwriter.  He has also collaborated with a number of other artists, particularly those who lived in Southern California’s Laurel Canyon beginning in the 60s.  James Taylor has produced some beautiful music collaborating with artists like Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. 

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

On this upcoming song James Taylor collaborates with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. They were high school buddies who teamed up to become superstar folk-rock performers.  Their first big hit was the 1965 The Sound of Silence, which hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts.  After that — Shazam! Fame and fortune followed. The photo below shows, from L, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and James Taylor.

Here, Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel team up to take on the Sam Cooke song Wonderful World.  They add a new verse to Cooke’s original version:  

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages,

Looked at the pictures then I turned the pages

Don’t know nothin’ ’bout no rise and fall,

Don’t know nothin’ ’bout nothin’ at all

Girl it’s you that I’ve been thinkin’ of,

And if I could only win your love, oh, girl

What a wonderful, wonderful world this would be

So here are James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel singing What A Wonderful World

We only have the audio, but what lovely harmony singing!  Not surprising since all three of these performers are known for their beautiful vocals.  They slow down the tempo dramatically to produce a choral effect; this is similar to James Taylor’s slow version of the song Handy Man. In particular, Art Garfunkel’s angelic high tenor voice floats over the others. 

This song was included on Art Garfunkel’s 1978 album Watermark.  Released as a single, it made it to #17 on the Billboard pop charts.  I could listen to this song for hours, as the harmonies are simply mesmerizing. 

James Taylor was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2016. 

Simon and Garfunkel won 10 Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990; fittingly, they were inducted by their friend James Taylor.   

Following a particularly strained breakup with Art Garfunkel in 1971, Paul Simon went on to an exceptionally successful solo career.  In 2007, he was awarded the inaugural Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Music.  I was especially fond of his pathbreaking world music album Graceland.  

This particular collaboration features three of the most celebrated folk-rock artists of their time.  Thanks for the memories to James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.      

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Wonderful World (Sam Cooke song)

Wikipedia, Sam Cooke

Wikipedia, Herman’s Hermits

Wikipedia, James Taylor

Wikipedia, Simon & Garfunkel

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