Friday On My Mind: The Easybeats; David Bowie; Bruce Springsteen.

Hello there! This week we discuss a fine rock ‘n roll song called Friday On My Mind. We will first review the original song by the Australian rock group The Easybeats. Next we feature covers of this song by David Bowie and by Bruce Springsteen.

The Easybeats and Friday On My Mind:

The Easybeats were an Australian rock band with the distinction that they were the first Aussie rock group ever to score an international hit record.

The  musicians in The Easybeats were all born in Europe, and their families emigrated to Australia. In fact, the members of the band met while they were being interned at Sydney’s Villawood Migrant Hostel, where families were housed while they waited to achieve permanent immigrant status in Australia.

The Easybeats were comprised of lead singer Stevie Wright and drummer Snowy Fleet (emigrants from England), rhythm guitarist George Young from Scotland, and lead guitarist Harry Vanda and bassist Dick Diamonde from the Netherlands.

George Young was also famous as he was the older brother of Angus and Malcolm Young, who became the lead and rhythm guitarist, respectively, for the Aussie heavy-metal group AC/DC. Thus the Youngs could be considered the “first family” of Aussie rock ‘n roll.

Below is a photo of The Easybeats in a publicity photo, riding bicycles during a tour of England.

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The Easybeats formed in 1964 and began performing in venues around Sydney. The group became extremely popular, especially after their first Aussie hit record in 1965, She’s So Fine.

That tune reached #3 on the Australian pop charts. As a result, the group achieved the Aussie equivalent of “Beatlemania;” the adulation from their fans was referred to as “Easyfever.”

The song Friday On My Mind was written by the band’s main songwriting duo George Young and Harry Vanda. It describes the life of a young man who thoroughly dislikes his job. Throughout the week, he simply marks time until Friday evening, when he will enjoy a good time with his girlfriend.

Monday mornin’ feels so bad
Ev’rybody seems to nag me
Comin’ Tuesday I feel better
Even my old man looks good
Wed’sday just don’t go
Thursday goes too slow
I’ve got Friday on my mind

[CHORUS] Gonna have fun in the city
Be with my girl, she’s so pretty
She looks fine tonight
She is out of sight to me

Tonight I’ll spend my bread, tonight
I’ll lose my head, tonight
I’ve got to get to night
Monday I’ll have Friday on my mind

Here are the Easybeats in a live performance of Friday On My Mind.

This is a really enjoyable performance of this song, the biggest hit for the Easybeats. The tune begins with a rapid-fire guitar solo by Harry Vanda.

Apparently the guitar bit was inspired by a French pop group called the Swingle Singers. The group saw a filmed concert of that ensemble and were amused by a guitar solo from their performance. Harry Vanda began to imitate the guitar part, and he incorporated a modified version into the intro to Friday On My Mind.

Lead singer Stevie Wright has a really fine voice that he shows off on this tune. Friday On My Mind became the first big international hit from an Australian rock group (the Easybeats beat out The Bee Gees by a few months).

Friday On My Mind was released in the UK in October 1966, and climbed up to #6 on the UK charts. It reached only #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was a #1 hit in Australia and reached the top ten in Germany, France and the Netherlands. The record sold over a million copies.

As a result of their first big hit, and their status as the first rockers from Oz to hit the big time, the Easybeats have long been Australian favorites. In 2001,
the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) celebrated its 75th anniversary by naming the Best Australian Songs of all time, as decided by a 100 strong industry panel, with “Friday on My Mind” being selected as the number one song on the list.

Following the success of Friday On My Mind, the band’s fortunes peaked. The group went on a European tour where they opened for The Rolling Stones. They also began working with A-list producers, in the hopes of assembling a dynamite album.

Alas, further hits never materialized. The group’s next few singles and albums flopped. Lead songwriters George Young and Harry Vanda continued to write, and their songs found success with other bands, but not with The Easybeats.

At this point, addiction issues played a role in the band’s lack of success. In particular, Stevie Wright’s drug and alcohol dependency was so severe that he eventually checked himself into Sydney’s Chelmsford Private Hospital for rehab.

Unfortunately for Wright, he was treated by Dr. Harry Bailey, who was practicing a controversial form of treatment called “deep sleep therapy,” which involved a combination of drug-induced coma and electroshock therapy.

The good news is that Wright survived the treatment, which is more than can be said for several of Bailey’s patients. The bad news is that Wright suffered permanent brain damage, and other health issues that persisted until his death in Dec. 2015 at the age of 68.

The Easybeats officially disbanded in October 1969. Although the band had achieved a fair amount of commercial success and had undertaken major international tours, George Young and Harry Vanda ended up with substantial debts at the end of the Easybeats’ history as a group.

Despite their parlous financial state, George Young and Harry Vanda continued to write and produce songs for other groups for some time.

Young and Vanda also wrote and recorded under the pseudonym Flash and the Pan. As the pair had tired of the rigors of touring, Flash and the Pan released only studio cuts and did not perform in concert. That band had a number of hits in Australia and Europe, but to the best of my knowledge they found no success in the States.

The greatest achievements by Young and Vanda were as producers. For example, they produced the first six albums for the Aussie hard-rock group AC/DC. However, Young and Vanda had an “in” here — as mentioned previously George Young’s younger brothers Malcolm and Angus were guitarists for AC/DC.

George Young died in October 2017.

The song Friday On My Mind enjoyed something of a resurgence in 2016, when it was featured on an episode of the Showtime cable series Ray Donovan. That show featured Ray Donovan (Liev Schreiber) as a “fixer” who carries out shady activities for a powerhouse LA law firm.

On that series Hank Azaria played Ed Cochran, a criminal who acts as somewhat of a nemesis to Donovan. At the beginning of Episode 7 from season 4 of Ray Donovan, Cochran sings a few verses from Friday On My Mind; and at the conclusion of the episode, the Easybeats’ original version plays as the credits roll.

The Easybeats were Australian rock trail-blazers. They were the first Aussie rock group to have an international hit record. As a result, they have achieved the status of rock ‘n roll royalty in Oz.

In addition to their one big hit Friday On My Mind, I also enjoy their singles She’s So Fine and Sorry. So we salute the Easybeats – good on ya, mates!

David Bowie and Friday On My Mind:

David Bowie was one of the greatest pop singer-songwriters of our time. We previously reviewed his cover of Dancing In The Street with Mick Jagger; we also discussed his cover of John Lennon’s Imagine, and the Simon & Garfunkel song America.

So here we will briefly review the life and career of David Bowie.  He was born David Robert Jones in 1947, and took the stage name David Bowie to avoid confusion with Monkees’ singer Davy Jones.

David Bowie burst on the pop scene in 1969 with his stunningly original single Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”).

In 1972, Bowie re-surfaced as the glam-rock character Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy featured flaming red hair together with flamboyant rainbow-hued gender-bending costumes.

Below is a photo of a memorial to David Bowie following his death in Jan. 2016. Tributes of flowers are scattered beneath a photo of Bowie from the early 70s.

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Portraying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band The Spiders From Mars rapidly gained notoriety for their highly theatrical live performances. Apparently Bowie/Ziggy was positively mesmerizing on stage, and he developed a cult following.

Bowie’s subsequent career contained many abrupt changes in style. Bowie often changed band members and producers at the same time he adopted a new musical direction. Bowie was constantly pushing the envelope in musical genres, performing style, and fashion.

In 1973 David Bowie released a single of Friday On My Mind. This was part of his album Pin-Ups, a series of covers of famous songs from other groups. Here is the audio of Bowie’s cover of Friday On My Mind.

This is a relatively straight-up copy of the Easybeats song. Apparently this was quite popular with the Easybeats, who considered Bowie’s version to be far and away the best cover of their hit.

Because we weren’t able to locate live video of Bowie singing Friday On My Mind, here we have a clip of Bowie in a live performance of his song Young Americans.

This was a performance from The Dick Cavett Show in Dec. 1974. Here Bowie shows off his wonderful and terrifically versatile voice. He is accompanied by a tight backing band featuring the great saxophonist David Sanborn, and an impressive chorus.

Young Americans was the title song of Bowie’s 1975 album.  This album featured Bowie singing R&B, backed by artists such as Luther Vandross.  Bowie called the style of this record as “plastic soul,” which he described as
“the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak, written and sung by a white Limey.”

Just a bit more about David Bowie’s life and career. We had mentioned how Bowie created alternate personas at various points in his career. These characters became deeply ingrained in his behavior, so much that it was difficult for him to separate his own personality from that of his alter ego.

This psychological problem was exacerbated by serious issues with drug addiction, particularly cocaine. As a result, Bowie suffered from paranoia and psychosis before he finally become sober in the 1980s.

David Bowie enjoyed a spectacular career in pop music. In recognition of his creativity and versatility, Bowie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.

David Bowie was apparently a mesmerizing performer. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.

This is not surprising, since Bowie was trained as an actor before he set out on a musical career.  He appeared in a number of highly-regarded films, including Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige.

David Bowie was a true cultural icon. He pushed way beyond the boundaries of current fashion, and he made a tremendous impact on pop music. His contributions to music, fashion and modern culture will be missed deeply.

Bruce Springsteen and Friday On My Mind:

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 we later reviewed his cover of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive, and also the Chuck Berry tune You Never Can Tell.

So here we will provide a short bio of Bruce Springsteen’s 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.

Springsteen was raised Catholic and attended a parochial school through middle school. Although he rebelled against both the religious doctrine and the discipline enforced by the nuns, this upbringing made a lasting impression on him.

Below is a photo of Bruce Springsteen in concert in 1975, early in his career.

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After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and assembled an ensemble 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 as 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. The energy and exuberance of his live performances made him a cult figure.

This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were 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 1975 third album. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.

I was conflicted over Springsteen’s early work.  While the lyrics were truly memorable, the production values were third-rate, and I was pessimistic whether Bruce would live up to his hype.

Well, Springsteen succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. The 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. That album was chock-full of hits – seven songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10, and the album sold over 30 million units worldwide.

So here is Bruce Springsteen in a live performance of Friday On My Mind.

This is from a performance in Sydney, Australia in Feb. 2014. This has become typical of a Bruce Springsteen concert – if he is performing in Australia, he will throw in a classic tune or two from that country. This same tour included a cover of Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees.

Here Bruce brings the Aussies his version of the hit from their first big rock group. This is a reasonably straightforward cover of the Easybeats’ tune. The only significant difference is that in Bruce’s version, the song has a gritty edge to it.

I could go either way on this tune. While Stevie Wright of the Easybeats gave the song a more happy, upbeat attitude, the lyrics are certainly consistent with Springsteen’s more combative take. After the song has apparently ended, Bruce resurrects it and gets the audience to join in on the chorus.

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

Springsteen’s concerts tend to be epic events. He generally appears in stadiums or major venues, and his 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, we hope your “Glory Days” continue for a long time!

Surce Material:

Wikipedia, Friday On My Mind
Wikipedia, The Easybeats
Wikipedia, David Bowie
Wikipedia, Young Americans (song)
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen

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

I Wonder Why: Dion and the Belmonts; Sha Na Na; Showaddywaddy

Hello there! This week we will discuss the great doo-wop song I Wonder Why. We will first review the original song recorded by Dion and the Belmonts. The song appeared in the pilot segment of the TV show The Sopranos, and we will summarize that episode. Next we will consider covers of this song by Sha Na Na and by Showaddywaddy.

Dion and the Belmonts and I Wonder Why:

Dion DiMucci was born in the Bronx in 1941. When Dion was signed to a record contract, he recruited three of his childhood friends Carlo Mastrangelo, Fred Milano and Angelo D’Alea.

Two of the members lived on Belmont Avenue in the Bronx, and the other two had grown up nearby. The group adopted the name Dion and the Belmonts.

Doo-wop music originated with pickup groups who would sing on streetcorners for money from pedestrians. New York and Pittsburgh were early centers of doo-wop music. The resulting harmonies were complex, and often incorporated stylistic elements borrowed from jazz.

The song I Wonder Why was written by Melvin Anderson and Ricardo Weeks. In 1958, it became the first song released by Laurie Records. Although it peaked at only #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, it nevertheless identified Dion and the Belmonts as a group to watch.

Below is a photo of Dion and the Belmonts from the late 50s. From L: Fred Milano; Carlo Mastrangelo; Dion DiMucci; Angelo D’Alea.

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In I Wonder Why, the singer ponders the reasons why his lover is so appealing to him (here I have included in parentheses some of the solos from the bass singer).

(Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun d-d-duh-duh-duh)
[Don’t] know why I love you like I do (D-d-dun d-d-dah), [don’t] know why I do

Don’t know why I love you, don’t know why I care
I just want, your love to share

I wonder why, I love you like I do
Is it because I think you love me too?
I wonder why, I love you like I do, like I do

Here are Dion and the Belmonts in a “live” performance of I Wonder Why.

The group is appearing on the Dick Clark Beech-Nut Hour in 1958. As usual, we put “live” in air quotes, as Dion and his cohorts are simply lip-synching to their record.

When I would watch interviews of Dick Clark, it was never clear that he understood the difference between live performance and the lip-synching that was so common on his show. He would speak of the “energy” and “great voice” of his guest artists, without acknowledging that in reality they were actually not singing a note.

However, you can immediately see why I Wonder Why is such an iconic ‘oldies’ tune. It prominently features a bass solo from Carlo Mastrangelo, and also the falsetto accompaniment so typical of doo-wop.

In addition, Dion DiMucci has a terrific voice for rock music. When Dion was paired with the close harmonies of the Belmonts, it made a potent combination.

In the late 50s I played electric bass in a rock band, Johnny Dee and the Kings. Our band played covers of the hits of the day, including Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, and of course songs from several doo-wop groups.

I Wonder Why was one of the favorite tunes on our playlist. We referred to it using the politically-incorrect term ‘the Italian national anthem’ (“Wop, wop, wop wop wop wop wop,” get it, hahaha).

Many doo-wop groups were ‘one-hit wonders,’ with a single bit hit followed by obscurity.  However, Dion and the Belmonts released a number of hit records. As a result, they became headliners in various traveling revues, appearing alongside groups like The Coasters and Bobby Darin.

In late 1958, Dion and the Belmonts were headliners on the Winter Garden Party tour along with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. On Feb. 2, 1959, they played a concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Buddy Holly and others chartered a plane to take them to the next stop on their tour. Dion was offered a place on the plane, but felt that the $36 fee was too expensive. The plane subsequently crashed, killing Holly, Valens and ‘Big Bopper’ J.P. Richardson; this tragedy became known as ‘the day the music died.’

Over the next couple of years, Dion and the Belmonts continued to score pop hits. However, the group subsequently fragmented over disagreements about musical directions.

The group’s biggest hit had been a cover of the Great American Songbook standard Where or When. While the other Belmonts wanted to focus on doo-wop versions of old pop standards, Dion felt that they should concentrate on rock music.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Dion had recently spent a stint in rehab, trying to kick a long-time addiction to heroin. After leaving rehab, Dion split with the Belmonts, and then began a successful solo career that included hits such as Runaway Sue, The Wanderer, and Ruby Baby.

Dion and the Belmonts reunited briefly in the mid-60s and then again in the early 70s. Their records did not manage to crack the charts, but they had a couple of successful concert tours.

In 1989, Dion DiMucci was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but his Belmonts compatriots were not. This was not a completely unreasonable move, as Dion had a number of solo hits after leaving the Belmonts. But as might be expected, this caused considerable friction between DiMucci and his old mates.

Then in 2012, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted several groups whose lead singers had been enshrined while the other group members had not. The following six groups were inducted:
the Miracles (Smokey Robinson), the Crickets (Buddy Holly), the Midnighters (Hank Ballard), the Famous Flames (James Brown), the Comets (Bill Haley) and the Blue Caps (Gene Vincent) .

It seemed reasonable to assume that the Belmonts would join this group. After all, it is hard to argue that the Comets and the Blue Caps were more deserving than the Belmonts; however, the Belmonts were stiffed once again.

Dion DiMucci has continued to perform until very recently. Here he is live at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City in 2004, performing his hit I Wonder Why.

Isn’t this fun – ole Dion can still bring it! What a really enjoyable song, and one that can immediately take me back to my days as a teenager.

I Wonder Why in The Sopranos:

The song I Wonder Why appeared in the pilot episode of the blockbuster HBO crime drama The Sopranos. An advertisement for Season 2 of that series is shown below left.

advertisement for season 2 of the HBO series The Sopranos.

In this first episode, Mafia chieftain Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) has begun seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) after Tony has suffered a panic attack; the panic attack is shown at the end of the video clip.

With Dr. Melfi, Tony is coy about the nature of his business operations, but it is apparent that Dr. Melfi understands what he is up to. Tony next appears in a car with his nephew Christopher Meltisanti (Michael Imperiole), whom Tony is grooming as a potential future leader of the clan.

Tony sights a man who owes him money. Upon seeing Tony, the man takes off running. Tony jumps into Christopher’s car and drives after him.  The resulting chase takes place over city streets, down a sidewalk, and through a park before Tony eventually catches up to the man and sideswipes him with his car, breaking the man’s leg in the process.

Here is the scene. The song I Wonder Why plays throughout the chase.

I Wonder Why stops suddenly, after Tony gets out of the car and assaults the defenseless man. Here is a description of the scene from the Web site vialogues.
the juxtaposition of violence to this upbeat song “I Wonder Why” seems to magnify the brutality of the scene. The sounds of the car door slamming, the feet running, the car screeching and crashing, are all coinciding with the music, until Tony physically assaults him and it stops. The abruptness of the music stopping also amplifies the violence and turns from a scene of quasi-humor to a scene of raw physical violence.

The Sopranos was the brainchild of David Chase, who conceived the series and wrote many of its episodes. The show ran from 1999 to 2007 and garnered great acclaim.  In 2013, the Writers Guild of America called The Sopranos the best-written series of all time.

The show provided complex insights into the life of a New Jersey criminal family. It followed a sprawling cast of family and business associates, providing riveting details that were mixed with Machiavellian power struggles and scenes of shocking brutality.

The music used in The Sopranos was carefully chosen by Chase, in consultation with Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and who had never before acted), played Tony Soprano’s partner and best friend in the series.

Apparently the subtle relationships of Tony Soprano to his mother (Nancy Marchand) and his psychiatrist were referential of events in David Chase’s own life. Chase was undergoing analysis at the time, and he also had a complicated relationship with his mother.

Sha Na Na and I Wonder Why:

We previously discussed the pop group Sha Na Na in an earlier post on the song Great Balls of Fire, and also for their cover of Duke of Earl. Here we will briefly review the history of this ensemble.

Sha Na Na is an American rock and roll group that formed in the late 1960s. They were initially members of an a capella group at Columbia University called The Kingsmen.

In 1969, Columbia grad student George Leonard formed a band, and they began giving concerts in the New York City area. They concentrated on covers of 50s and early 60s songs.

The band quickly achieved cult status when they performed at the Woodstock Festival in August, 1969. Sha Na Na appeared immediately before Jimi Hendrix on the program. The group was also featured in the concert film Woodstock, performing a frenetic version of the Danny & the Juniors song At The Hop.

Below is a photo of Sha Na Na in live performance, in 1975.

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Here is Sha Na Na in a live performance of I Wonder Why.

My understanding is that this appeared on German TV in 1973. The audio and video are strictly so-so, nevertheless this is an energetic performance of I Wonder Why. It features the group’s leader Jon “Bowzer” Bauman singing bass.

As you can see, most of the ensemble appear in “50s greaser” attire, while three of the members (mostly off-camera in this video) are dressed in tight-fitting gold lame outfits. Bowzer shows off his physique (or lack thereof) in a black muscle T-shirt.

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

Sha Na Na appeared in the 1978 movie Grease, as the (fictional) band Johnny Casino and the Gamblers. There, they sang two songs from the Broadway play of the same name, and also versions of four 50s oldies.

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

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

Sha Na Na still continues to perform today, although they have now undergone dozens of changes in personnel.

Showaddywaddy and I Wonder Why:

Like the group Sha Na Na, Showaddywaddy was a band that specialized in covers of 50s and 60s songs. While Sha Na Na dressed up as greasers or in gold lame costumes, the members of Showaddywaddy appeared dressed as the early British rockers called Teddy Boys.

Showaddywaddy was formed from the amalgamation of two bands from Leicester, England. Their original incarnation was as an octet, comprised of two vocalists, two guitars, two drummers and two bass players.

Below is a photo of the octet Showaddywaddy from the mid-70s.

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The band first appeared on a British singing competition TV show called New Faces. After they were runners-up in that competition, they released their first single in 1974. This was an original composition titled Hey Rock and Roll, which went to #2 on the UK singles charts.

The group was initially produced by Mike Hurst, a former member of the folk-rock group The Springfields. Working with Hurst from 1974 to 1977, the band released a number of covers of 50s and 60s ‘oldies’ rock tunes that became hits in the U.K. To the best of my knowledge, they never charted in the U.S.

Following that period, Showaddywaddy began to produce their own records. In 1977 the band released a single of the iconic 50s doo-wop tune I Wonder Why.

Here are Showaddywaddy in a live rendition of I Wonder Why.

This was an appearance on the Dutch TV show Top Pop. The group gives a reasonably faithful copy of the Dion & the Belmonts original, with lead vocals from Dave Bartram. I find this a really enjoyable cover of this classic doo-wop song.

Showaddywaddy was an example of a group that had great success in Britain, while never cracking the American market. Over roughly an 8-year period from 1974 to 1982, they racked up ten singles in the Top Ten of the British pop charts.

Furthermore, over their career Showaddywaddy appeared on TV in Britain and Europe an astonishing 300 times! Apparently there is a big market for ‘oldies’ songs, and this group fulfilled that craving for British fans.

Although the pop hits dried up more than three decades ago, Showaddywaddy continues to perform and tour. Two of the original members from the group, drummer Romeo Challenger and bassist Rod Deas, are still in the current ensemble.

Showaddywaddy apparently give roughly 100 performances per year in Britain and Europe. In 2014, the band went on tour with old rockers The Bay City Rollers, David Essex and The Osmonds (they could have been called “the Metamucil Tour”?). Rock on, lads!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Wonder Why.
Wikipedia, Dion and the Belmonts.
Wikipedia, The Sopranos.
Vialogues, The Sopranos, Episode 1.
Wikipedia, Sha Na Na.
Wikipedia, Showaddywaddy.

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

Money (That’s What I Want): Barrett Strong; The Beatles; Stevie Wonder.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Money (That’s What I Want). We will first discuss the original song which is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and was recorded by Barrett Strong. Next we will discuss covers of this song by The Beatles and by Stevie Wonder.

Barrett Strong and Money (That’s What I Want):

Barrett Strong was born in Mississippi in 1941. He was one of the first artists signed by Berry Gordy to Gordy’s Motown Records enterprise. Below is a photo of Barrett Strong circa 1960.

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The lyrics to Money are extremely simple and direct. The singer recounts various qualities, including those possessed by his lover, and declares that all of these are unimportant, compared with cold hard cash.

The best things in life are free
But you can keep them for the birds and bees

I need money
That’s what I want (3X)

Your love give me such a thrill
But your love don’t pay my bills


Money don’t get everything it’s true
What it don’t get I can’t use

Although the song Money (That’s What I Want) is credited to Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, Barrett Strong has consistently maintained that he was a co-writer on the tuneStrong was initially listed as a co-writer; however, his name was later removed from the copyright registration, leaving Gordy and Bradford as the writers of record.

Berry Gordy states that Strong was initially listed as a co-writer through a clerical error; isn’t is a coincidence how ‘errors’ at Motown consistently come out in Berry Gordy’s favor?

Right from the very start of his music enterprise, Berry Gordy produced records on several different labels. The song Money was initially released on Tamla Records (at that time, the Motown label did not yet exist); however, the song was then transferred to Anna Records, a label named after Berry Gordy’s sister Anna.

Anna Records released Money (That’s What I Want) nationally in 1959, and it became the first big hit for Berry Gordy and Motown. The song reached #2 on the Hot R&B charts, and #23 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is the audio of Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want).

The tune Money has more of a ‘garage-band’ feel than the classic ‘Motown sound’ records that featured the backing band The Funk Brothers. The song is extremely raw and direct.

It begins with Barrett Strong on piano, next accompanied by a tambourine. Then guitar, bass and drums join in, before Strong opens with his gritty vocals. Barrett is also accompanied by a girl-group chorus, who join in the ‘that’s what I want’ refrain.

Although Money was Barrett Strong’s only hit single, it has become an iconic song that has now been covered by at least 100 groups. For example, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Buddy Guy and Led Zeppelin all covered the song.

I was unable to find Barrett Strong in a live performance of Money. Therefore, I am including a video of Strong in concert. He is performing his song Cold-Hearted Woman, from his 2008 album Stronghold II.

One of the women on the backing vocals is Eliza Neal; Strong co-wrote the songs on that album with Ms. Neals.

Although Barrett Strong was a ‘one-hit wonder’ as a solo artist, he nevertheless had a long and distinguished career at Motown Records. He teamed up with collaborator Norman Whitfield to write and produce several iconic Motown hits.

Strong and Whitfield wrote Heard It Through the Grapevine, which became a big hit for both Gladys Knight & the Pips and Marvin Gaye. They also wrote and produced War for Edwin Starr.

Whitfield and Strong then became the lead writers/producers for The Temptations. In that role, the pair wrote most of the Temps’ ‘psychedelic soul’ songs. In 1973, Barrett Strong won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Song for the Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone.

Barrett Strong left Motown in 1972, when the company moved their operations from Detroit to Los Angeles. He resumed his solo career at that time. To the best of my knowledge, Strong has currently retired from the music business, as his last release I could find was from 2010.

The Beatles and Money (That’s What I Want):

We have covered the Beatles more than any other rock artists. This is understandable, given that they are the best and most successful rock group in history.

We first discussed their song Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds; next their brilliant parody Back in the USSR, followed by Please, Mr. Postman. We then reviewed With a Little Help From My Friends, followed by Twist and Shout, and I Got a Woman.

Next, we featured Here Comes The Sun, and Hey Jude, their cover of Long Tall Sally, their song Ticket To Ride, and finally Can’t Buy Me Love.

Here we will give a brief review of the career of The Beatles.

The Beatles originally formed as a skiffle band in the late 1950s. John Lennon brought in Paul McCartney, and then George Harrison to produce a guitar trio. The group subsequently added Stu Sutcliffe on bass, and went through a number of drummers before finally settling on Ringo Starr.

Below is a photo of the Beatles performing in 1963. From L: Paul McCartney, bass; Ringo Starr, drums; George Harrison, lead guitar; John Lennon, rhythm guitar.

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The Beatles became a tight and highly skilled ensemble during a few visits to Hamburg, Germany in the early 60s. There, the group lived in abject poverty while playing in gritty venues scattered amidst the strip clubs in Hamburg’s seedy Reeperbahn district.

In the early days of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were just beginning to write songs, so the Beatles played covers of tunes by their favorite artists. The group especially looked for songs that would show off John or Paul’s vocals, or the harmonizing and instrumental work from the entire band.

The Beatles had discovered Barrett Strong’s Money in 1963, in the record store owned by the parents of their manager Brian Epstein. This was interesting in that the song had not been a hit in Britain.

The group realized that it was a perfect fit for John’s ‘gritty’ vocals. The Beatles incorporated Money into their act, and in the early days it became one of the group’s signature songs.

On Jan. 1, 1962, the Beatles had a now-infamous audition with Decca Records. The band performed 15 songs, of which three were original Lennon/McCartney compositions and the remaining twelve were covers.

Money (That’s What I Want) was the second song performed by the band.
In what is considered one of the biggest mistakes in music industry history, Decca rejected the band, selecting instead Brian Poole and the Tremeloes.

To this day, the stupendous blunder has continued to haunt Decca Records. Company execs stated that
“guitar groups are on the way out” and “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
Wow, what incredible morons!

So here are the Beatles in Liverpool in 1963, in a live performance of Money.

This is a great glimpse of the Beatles, just as their fame was burgeoning across the U.K. By this time, Pete Best (who had been the drummer for the Beatles’ Decca audition) had been replaced by Ringo Starr.

As you can see, the song is an excellent vehicle for John, as it shows off his voice perfectly. Paul and George reprise the chorus, which was supplied by girls in the Barrett Strong original.

There is a bit of screaming by the fans at the end of this song, but nothing compared to the ‘Beatlemania’ that would sweep Britain, and next engulf the U.S. and the world.

The Beatles are not quite the smooth and polished quartet that appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show a year later, but it is easy to imagine their future greatness. Here they are, poised on the cusp of world fame.

At this point, John and Paul had begun to write their own songs, that would reveal their musical genius. George’s guitar playing would continue to evolve over the next few years. And Ringo was always the steady, incredibly reliable drummer for the band.

We all know the rest of the story. For the next few years, the Beatles dominated the world of rock music. They were incredibly prolific, churning out pop hits. Their record albums became progressively more complex, as the Beatles’ music grew more sophisticated.  And then, right at the end of the 60s, the band broke up and its members went their separate ways.

It’s hard to believe that it has now been 51 years since their Sgt. Pepper album was released. And people are still arguing over which was the greatest Beatles album. Certainly the most dramatic release of that era was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

However, was Revolver actually a more brilliant and innovative album than Sgt. Pepper? Or should the ‘best album’ honor go to Rubber Soul? Or even The White Album? Or possibly the group’s last masterpiece, Abbey Road?

Well, one can debate this question ad nauseam. Suffice it to say that I still remember the thrill from the first time I heard several of the Beatles records, and their songs continue to bring great joy to me.

Stevie Wonder and Money (That’s What I Want):

We have discussed Stevie Wonder’s work in an earlier blog post on his song Superstition, and also his cover of the song Bridge Over Troubled Water. So here we will give a brief review of his life and career.

Stevland Hardaway Morris, better known as Stevie Wonder, is one of the premier R&B artists of all time. He was born in 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Because he was born six weeks premature and left in an incubator with an oxygen-rich environment, he developed a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which resulted in his becoming blind very shortly after birth.

Stevie was a true child prodigy. His musical talent was evident extremely early, and he was signed to a Motown Records contract at the tender age of 11. However, his first two albums, released when he was 11 and 12 respectively, were not  commercially successful.

Below is a photo of Stevie Wonder at the keyboards, circa 1972.

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Stevie’s live performance as part of the Motortown Revue was recorded and released in May, 1963 with the title Recorded Live: the 12-Year Old Genius. That particular album contained the single Fingertips, a song featuring Stevie on harmonica.  Fingertips took off like a rocket. It reached #1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the R&B charts, making Stevie at age 13 the youngest artist ever to have a #1 hit.

Here is Stevie Wonder with a live performance of Money (That’s What I Want).

Isn’t this great? I am not positive of the date and place of this performance, although it claims to be footage from a concert in Italy in 1970. It actually looks like he is performing in a palace or a museum.

In any case, Stevie is rather young here, and it is a joy to watch him rip through this Barrett Strong classic. In addition to some energetic work on keyboards, Stevie also produces a dynamite harmonica solo. Stevie has to be the greatest harp player I have ever experienced, and one could also make a case that his creativity on keyboards is unmatched.

Given Stevie Wonder’s illustrious career, one might have assumed that he rose to the top and remained there ever after. However, Stevie experienced a down spell after Fingertips. His voice was changing, and his next few albums bombed.

Apparently several Motown executives were in favor of dropping Stevie from their label. However, Stevie was given another chance to prove himself, and he carved out a number of hits during the mid and late 60s.

When he reached his 21st birthday, Stevie Wonder ended his contract with Motown. However, he re-signed with them in 1972 to a new contract that gave him greatly expanded autonomy, in addition to much more favorable royalties.

This began Stevie Wonder’s “classic period.” In 1972 he released the album Talking Book, which contained the single Superstition. On this album, Stevie introduced us to the Hohner Clavinet keyboard, with which he produced amazingly funky, novel sounds.

In addition to his musical renown, Stevie Wonder has been a social activist. He spent a great deal of energy pushing to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. In 1985, upon winning an Academy Award for his song “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” Stevie accepted his award in the name of Nelson Mandela, which got all of his songs banned from radio by South Africa’s apartheid government.

He has won 25 Grammy Awards, more than any other individual artist, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Stevie’s Rock and Roll Hall bio is most impressive.  He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2014.

Bonus Audio: Jerry Lee Lewis and Money:

We will end here with some “bonus audio.” Here is Jerry Lee Lewis in a live cover of Money (That’s What I Want).

We don’t have live video of this concert, which took place in 1964 at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. Here, Jerry Lee was backed by the Nashville Teens.

The concert was recorded from two sets that Jerry Lee produced on one day. The piano was miked too loud, but this only increases the immediacy of the performance. Jerry Lee pounds away on the keyboards, and really goes to town on Money.

The concert was a masterpiece.
It is regarded by many music journalists as one of the wildest and greatest rock and roll concert albums ever. The album appears in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

Cover of the 1964 album, Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg.

At left we show a photo of the cover for that album. Because of copyright issues, for a long time the album was available only in Europe.

This concert was recorded during a period when a scandal had derailed Jerry Lee’s career, and it was well-nigh impossible for him to release albums or appear on TV in the States.

But on this night Lewis was in top form, and at his best Jerry Lee Lewis could out-rock anybody.

Unfortunately, Lewis claims that he never received a penny of royalties from this record. However, you can appreciate Jerry Lee Lewis’ genius – enjoy!!

Source Material:

Wikipedia: Money (That’s What I Want).
Wikipedia: Barrett Strong
Wikipedia: The Beatles
Wikipedia: The Beatles’ Decca Audition
Wikipedia: Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder bio, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Wikipedia: Jerry Lee Lewis
Wikipedia: Live At The Star Club, Hamburg.

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

Handy Man: Jimmy Jones; Del Shannon; James Taylor.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Handy Man. We will first look at the original 1957 song co-written and recorded by Jimmy Jones. Next we will review covers of this song by Del Shannon and by James Taylor.

Jimmy Jones and Handy Man:

Jimmy Jones was an American singer-songwriter. He was born in 1937 in Birmingham, Alabama, but his family moved to New York City where he grew up.

Below is a photo of Jimmy Jones circa 1960.

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Jones initially began his show-business career as a tap dancer. He then joined a group called the Sparks of Rhythm. In 1955, Jones wrote the song Handy Man for that group. They recorded it a year later, but by that time Jones had left that ensemble.

Jones then teamed up with Otis Blackwell. They performed a major re-write of Handy Man and recorded it in 1959, with Blackwell as the co-writer and producer of that song.

The gist of Jones’ song is that he is a “handy man,” not in the sense of a home repairman, but someone who has the knack to “fix broken hearts.”

Hey girls, gather round
Because of what I’m puttin’ down
Oh, baby, I’m your handy man

I’m not the kind to use a pencil or rule
I’m handy with the love and I’m no fool
I fix broken hearts, I know I really can

If your broken heart needs repair
I’m the man to see. I whisper sweet things
You tell all your friends, and they’ll come running to me

Here is Jimmy Jones in a ‘live’ performance of Handy Man.

We put ‘live’ in quotes, because Jimmy is appearing on the Dick Clark Saturday Night Beech-Nut Hour on Jan. 23, 1960. As per Clark’s standard practice, Jones is not actually singing the song, but simply lip-synching to the record.

We are on record that we deplore the practice of lip-synching. Rock music was made to be performed live, and we feel strongly that rock ‘n roll was degraded by promoters like Dick Clark, who allowed performers to simply mime their records.

It is also rather unsettling to see everyone in the audience chomping on chewing gum (they were all given packets of gum and pins with the Beech-Nut logo ‘IFIC,’ which I believe was short for ‘terrific’).

Anyway, Jimmy Jones’ claim to fame was his energetic, over-the-top use of falsetto. On Handy Man, the falsetto singing is most pronounced in the phrase “Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a, come come-a” that he repeats during the chorus.

The practice of falsetto singing in rock music had a fascinating history. Jones apparently copied it from Clyde McPhatter, the first lead singer for The Drifters. And falsetto was also common in the doo-wop style, where it was often contrasted with solos from the bass singers.

Then, after Jimmy Jones scored a few pop hits with his style, Del Shannon (whom we will review later in this post) also employed for his first big hit, his signature tune Runaway.

Jones and Shannon then inspired Frankie Valli, who had a string of hits with the Four Seasons. And Lou Christie also copied this style. Finally, Barry Gibb was inspired by Del Shannon to sing in falsetto, and this allowed the Bee Gees to dominate the disco scene.

Note also the whistling throughout Jimmy Jones’ recording; this was provided by the song’s co-writer and producer Otis Blackwell. Apparently the plan was to have this melody provided by a flute; however, the flute player did not show up for the recording session, so Blackwell replaced the flute part with his whistling (Blackwell is quite a proficient whistler).

Handy Man reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, and sold over a million records. Jones followed this up a few months later with Good Timin’. That disc made it to #3 on the U.S. charts, and also sold a million records.

However, those two hits would constitute the peak for Jimmy Jones. Subsequent records never achieved as much success, so Jones next concentrated on producing and also some touring. He moved around from one label to another in the 60s and 70s.

In 2002, Castle Records released a double album, Jimmy Jones: An Anthology. It included most of his single releases.

Jimmy Jones died in North Carolina in August 2012 at the age of 75.

Del Shannon and Handy Man:

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

In 1954 Westover was drafted into the Army. When he was discharged two years later, he returned to Battle Creek, Michigan and worked as a carpet salesman. In his spare time he played rhythm guitar in a country band.

In 1958, the lead singer for Westover’s band was fired for drunkenness, and Westover took over as band leader, temporarily taking the name Charlie Johnson.

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

Below is a photo of Del Shannon circa 1970.

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Shannon and his keyboardist Max Crook eventually scored a deal with Bishop Records. While recording in New York City, they re-wrote an earlier tune called Little Runaway. The tune featured Crook playing his invention ‘the Musitron,’ which was an early version of a synthesizer.

The song eventually became Runaway. That song, released in Feb. 1961, became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  Crook’s Musitron played an important role in Runaway.  Shannon followed that up with a second top-10 hit Hats Off To Larry.

After his first two big hits, Shannon bounced around from one record company to another, until his career had a positive bounce in the mid-60s. In 1964, Shannon released a cover of Jimmy Jones’ Handy Man that made it to #24 on the Billboard charts.

Here is Del Shannon in a live performance of Handy Man.

This concert took place later in Shannon’s career. I really enjoy his performance. Shannon is a good guitar player, and he produces an energetic rockabilly version of Jones’ hit tune.

The song features a gritty saxophone and an infectious beat. This tune was a natural for Del Shannon since he was famous for his use of falsetto.  As we mentioned earlier, Shannon had copied this vocal style from Jimmy Jones.

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

In the 70s, Shannon made a number of comeback attempts, but these were hindered by his struggles with alcoholism. Then after he sobered up in the late 80s, it looked like Shannon might catch one more big break.

Del Shannon had recorded with Jeff Lynne, and after Roy Orbison died in late 1988, it was announced that Shannon would be Orbison’s replacement in Lynne’s supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

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

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

James Taylor and Handy Man:

We have previously discussed James Taylor for his covers of The Shirelles’ tune Will You Love Me Tomorrow (with Carole King), and his cover of the Marvin Gaye song How Sweet It Is. So here we will give a brief review of Taylor’s life and career.

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

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

At age 15, Taylor met a young musician named Danny Kortchmar during a summer on Martha’s Vineyard, and the two began playing folk and blues at MV coffee houses.

In 1966, Taylor and Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine. They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village and achieved some regional fame.  Unfortunately, James also developed a nasty heroin addiction. The drug problem was aggravated by recurring psychological issues, and it would take Taylor decades before he could kick the habit.

James Taylor’s debut solo album was released by Apple Records in 1969. Although it contained some fine songs, commercial sales were disappointing.

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

Below is a photo of James Taylor circa 1970.

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James Taylor released his cover of Handy Man in 1977, and it appears on his album JT. The song reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Adult Contemporary playlists.

Here is James Taylor is a live performance of Handy Man.

This took place at Blossom Music Center in 1979. Here James is accompanied by his long-time backing band, including Don Grolnick on keyboards, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel on guitars, Leland Sklar on bass, and David Sanborn on saxophone.

Isn’t this a really great version of the Jimmy Jones tune? James Taylor simply takes the song, slows the tempo drastically, and sings it as a laid-back ballad in contrast with Jones’ style.

The result is dramatic. Perhaps the most drastic change is the phrase “come-a come-a come-a come-a,” which Jimmy Jones sings in a frenetic falsetto. In James Taylor’s version, this is given a soft, slow delivery.  Taylor’s harmonizing with his backup singers is quite impressive; it adds a great deal of gravitas to this otherwise simple tune.

Ever since he hit the big time, James Taylor has continued to be one of the most popular “soft-rock” singer-songwriters. His vocal work is very expressive, and he gives impressive renditions of both original songs and covers.

James 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.

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

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

OK, JT, keep it up – both your singing and guitar playing are inspirational.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Handy Man (song)
Wikipedia, Jimmy Jones (singer)
Wikipedia, Del Shannon
Wikipedia, James Taylor

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

Candle In The Wind: Elton John; Sandy Denny; Billy Joel

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Candle In The Wind, and the re-write of that song titled Candle In The Wind 1997 (often referred to as Goodbye, England’s Rose, after its opening words), that Elton John performed at the funeral of Diana,  Princess of Wales.

This is a song with a fascinating history. After discussing both the original song and its 1997 re-write by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, we will discuss covers by Sandy Denny and by Billy Joel.

Elton John and Candle In The Wind:

Elton John is one of our favorite rock musicians. We previously featured him in our blog post on the song Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. We also discussed his song Rocket Man, also Tiny Dancer, and his cover of Pinball Wizard.  Most recently we reviewed his cover of the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody.

So here we will briefly summarize Elton John’s life and career.

Elton John was born Reginald Dwight in a suburb of London in 1947. He adopted the stage name “Elton John” as a composite of Elton Dean, saxophonist in his first band, and blues singer and mentor Long John Baldry.

At age 11, he was awarded a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Elton recalls that he was not a diligent student and was not particularly attracted to classical music. He subsequently left high school at age 17 to pursue a career in pop music.

Below is a photo of Elton John in 1973. This is the way I prefer to remember him – as the wild and crazy rocker sporting a feather boa, before his more sedate incarnation as Sir Elton John.

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A unique feature of Elton John’s career was his decades-long collaboration with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The two were introduced in 1967 when each of them answered an ad for musicians in the British magazine New Musical Express.

Following the first big Taupin-John hit Your Song in 1970, Elton John embarked on an incredibly productive and versatile career. During the 70s he came out with one blockbuster album after another. Taupin and John produced ballads, rocking tunes and funky cross-over hits.

Candle In The Wind has had a most interesting history. The genesis of the tune occurred when Bernie Taupin heard Janis Joplin’s life compared to “a candle in the wind.” Following their unique collaborative style, Taupin wrote up a set of lyrics and mailed them to Elton John.

Elton then wrote a melody to accompany Taupin’s lyrics. The initial line “Goodbye, Norma Jean” refers to the real name of actress Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean(e) Baker. Taupin states that the song refers to
“the idea of fame or youth or somebody being cut short in the prime of their life. The song could have been about James Dean, it could have been about Montgomery Clift, it could have been about Jim Morrison … how we glamorise death, how we immortalise people.”

Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled

They crawled out of the woodwork
And they whispered into your brain
They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in

And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
Your candle burned out long before
Your legend ever did

Candle In The Wind was included in Elton John’s blockbuster 1973 double album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. At left is the cover art from the album.

The cover of Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was written during Elton’s ‘manic phase,’ a time when he was heavily into cocaine. The upside of this otherwise dangerous period was that Elton John was incredibly productive.

Bernie Taupin wrote essentially all of the songs for the album over a three-week period. However, Elton outdid Bernie by writing all of the melodies for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road during a 3-day stay at the Pink Flamingo Hotel in Kingston, Jamaica!

All 18 songs on the double album were subsequently recorded at the Chateau d’Herouville in France, after problems arose with recording in Jamaica. The recording itself took only three weeks.

Candle In The Wind is too melodramatic for some. For example,
composer Gruff Rhys called itthe worst song he had ever heard.”

Furthermore, the Rolling Stone critic, Stephen Davis, found the entire Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album an
“exposition of unabashed fantasy, myth, wet dreams and cornball acts, an overproduced array of musical portraits and hard rock & roll that always threatens to founder, too fat to float, artistically doomed by pretension.”
(by the way, that album is currently ranked #91 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time!)

Contrary to Mr. Davis, I find the lyrics to Candle In The Wind poignant and touching. I especially enjoy Taupin’s description of his appreciation of Miss Monroe, who died 11 years before the song was written: “From the young man in the 22nd row, who sees you as something more than sexual, more than just our Marilyn Monroe.”

Here is Elton John in a live version of Candle In The Wind. This was performed in Dec. 1986 in Sydney, Australia.

Elton is dressed in his best Mozart look-alike regalia, complete with powdered wig and beauty mark. This version was included on his album Live In Australia With The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

This time, the song was released as a single, whereupon it shot up to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and made it to #5 in Britain. The tune has remained one of Elton John’s signature tunes ever since.

Elton John’s costume in this video is par for the course during this period. Nothing seemed too outrageous for him – gigantic embossed glasses; oversized Doc Martens boots; ruffles and lace; you name it, Elton appeared in it. In 1988 some 2,000 items of his memorabilia were auctioned off at Sotheby’s and raised $20 million for charity.

The Song Candle In The Wind 1997:

Elton John and Princess Diana were good friends. After their mutual friend Gianni Versace was assassinated in July, 1997, Diana consoled Elton at Versace’s funeral.

So after Diana died following a car crash in August, 1997, Elton and Bernie Taupin re-wrote the lyrics to Candle In The Wind to describe Diana, her life and her influence. The song was re-titled Candle In The Wind 1997.

Here are some of the re-written lyrics.

Goodbye England’s rose
May you ever grow in our hearts
You were the grace that placed itself
Where lives were torn apart.

You called out to our country
And you whispered to those in pain
Now you belong to heaven
And the stars spell out your name

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in

And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England’s greenest hills
Your candle’s burned out long before
Your legend ever will

I have to say that these lyrics are considerably too melodramatic for my taste. But here is Elton John performing Candle In The Wind 1997.

This took place at Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, London, on Sept. 6, 1997. As you can see, there were enormous crowds at the funeral, and millions more watched on television.

So what kind of impact did this song have? Elton John has given all proceeds from the song to various of Diana’s favorite charities. To date this is the best-selling song ever, since playlists began to count record sales.

The song has sold more than 33 million copies. It is believed that only Bing Crosby’s White Christmas has sold more. The tribute song clearly touched a nerve with the general public.

Over a nearly 50-year span, Elton John has established one of the greatest, most productive and enduring careers in rock music. He
has sold more than 300 million records, making him one of the best-selling music artists in the world. He has more than fifty Top 40 hits, including seven consecutive No. 1 US albums, 58 Billboard Top 40 singles, 27 Top 10, four No. 2 and nine No. 1. For 31 consecutive years (1970–2000) he had at least one song in the Billboard Hot 100.

Following a short marriage and subsequent divorce in the 80s, Elton came out as gay in 1988. In 1993 he began a relationship with Canadian advertising executive David Furnish, which culminated in their marriage in 2014. This relationship seems to have brought stability and happiness to Elton.

Elton John has been an outspoken and articulate advocate for the GLBT community and in particular for AIDS sufferers. He has been quite courageous about combating public prejudice in this area.

Elton was a vocal supporter of people like teenager Ryan White, who contracted and eventually died from AIDS and who was the victim of considerable prejudice. His Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for AIDS research and HIV/AIDS research and education.

It would take an entire blog post just to list Elton John’s myriad honors and awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998. In addition, Elton John
has received six Grammy Awards, five Brit Awards … an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Tony Award, a Disney Legend award, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2004.

At age 70, Elton John continues to perform today, although he has announced that his current tour will be his last. Sir Elton – one of the great rockers of all time!

Sandy Denny and Candle In The Wind:

Sandy Denny was one of the best-known female singer-songwriters in the British folk-rock community in the late 60s and early 70s. Denny was born in 1947 in a suburb of London. She studied classical piano as a young girl, but was inspired by her grandmother, who sang traditional Scottish folksongs.

Below is a photo of Sandy Denny circa 1970.

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Ms. Denny began her own career singing traditional folk ballads. In the late 60s, she wrote the song Who Knows Where The Time Goes? Judy Collins heard a demo of Denny’s composition, and included a cover of that song in an album with the same title.

Collins’ cover became a best-seller, and brought Sandy Denny her first major recognition. In May 1968, she became the lead vocalist for the British folk group Fairport Convention. Her tenure with this band lasted less than two years, but during that period Fairport Convention shifted its focus to folk-rock, and went on to become the most influential British folk-rock ensemble.

Denny left Fairport Convention in late 1969 and formed the group Fotheringay (more about that group shortly). She remained with Fotheringay only a little more than one year. After that she released solo albums for a couple of years, and then returned to Fairport Convention from 1974-75.

Here is the audio of Sandy Denny singing Candle In The Wind.

This was from Ms. Denny’s 1977 album Rendezvous, a solo effort released after Sandy and her husband Trevor Lucas had left Fairport Convention. The album performed so poorly that Ms. Denny was dropped by her record company, Island Records. This would turn out to be Sandy Denny’s last album.

Because we were unable to find a live performance of Candle In The Wind by Sandy Denny, here we present a live performance of Ms. Denny as lead vocalist for the folk-rock group Fotheringay.

This was recorded for German TV in 1970, and consists of 14 minutes in concert. If you like, you can watch only the first song which lasts just under five minutes. Sandy Denny’s clear and moving vocals show why she was so highly regarded in the British folk community.

Sandy Denny’s style reminds me somewhat of Judy Collins, except that Ms. Collins had a more powerful voice and a greater range. In any case, Denny’s sweet, sad vocals are haunting and memorable.

In July, 1977, Sandy Denny gave birth to a daughter, Georgia. She then embarked on a tour to publicize her latest album. In March 1978, Sandy Denny was on vacation in Cornwall with her parents and her daughter. She fell and hit her head on concrete; the accident left her with debilitating headaches.

She was prescribed a painkiller, dextropropoxyphene, for her headaches. Apparently that drug can be fatal when mixed with alcohol. A few weeks after the accident, Ms. Denny was behaving so erratically that her husband Trevor Lucas returned to his native Australia along with their infant daughter.

On April 17, Sandy Denny collapsed and fell into a coma. She was taken to hospital, but never recovered and died there. She was 31 years old.

Sandy Denny was a folk artist with exceptional potential. She died tragically at much too young an age; she is sadly missed.

Billy Joel and Candle In The Wind:

Billy Joel is an American singer-songwriter. He has had an extraordinary career, and has emerged as one of the best-selling musicians of all time.

Joel was born in the Bronx in May 1949, and raised in Levittown, Long Island. His father was a classical pianist who emigrated from Germany after the Nazis came to power.

Billy’s mother forced him to take piano lessons as a child. Although Joel resisted this, he nevertheless became an accomplished piano player.

In high school, Billy performed at a piano bar as a means of raising some extra money. Unfortunately, this resulted in poor attendance at school. As a result, he came up short of the credits required to graduate from Hicksville High School.

Joel reports that his response to not graduating was:
‘To hell with it. If I’m not going to Columbia University, I’m going to Columbia Records, and you don’t need a high school diploma over there.’

Apparently Billy was inspired to pursue a career in music after watching the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. Joel joined several bands, in search of fame and fortune. Although he obtained work as a session musician, initially he found no commercial success.

Here is a photo of Billy Joel with one of his fans (Joel is on the right).

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In 1969 Billy Joel joined forces with drummer Jon Small to form the duo Attila. They disbanded after Joel had an affair with Small‘s wife, Elizabeth Weber; Elizabeth eventually became Billy Joel’s first wife.

Billy landed a contract with a small record company, and began recording and touring. His first big break came when a Philadelphia DJ began playing Joel’s song Captain Jack.

Captain Jack became a popular hit on the East Coast. This led to a record contract with Columbia Records in 1972, at which time Billy moved to L.A. In order to make ends meet, Billy worked at the Executive Room piano bar on Wilshire Boulevard.

Billy Joel’s first Columbia release was the 1973 Piano Man. The title tune from that album, which became Joel’s signature tune, recounted some experiences from his tenure at the Executive Room.

Billy released a couple more albums that showed considerable promise and brought him some fame. However, he became disenchanted with L.A. and returned to New York in 1975.

At that point, Joel made two major strides in his career. First, he assembled a group of musicians who became the Billy Joel band. Second, he began to collaborate with Phil Ramone, who would produce his records for the next 11 years.

Billy Joel then proceeded to release a number of blockbuster albums. The first was the 1977 release The Stranger. That album produced four top-25 singles and reached #2 on the Billboard album charts. The album outsold Columbia’s previous best-selling record, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Billy Joel had his finger on the pulse of contemporary America. He could write beautiful sentimental ballads such as She’s Got A Way and Just The Way You Are.

Joel also provided caustic analysis of America’s social and military history in songs such as Allentown, Good Night Saigon, and We Didn’t Start The Fire.

In addition, he produced tunes that commented on American social and cultural mores, such as Only The Good Die Young, Big Shot, and The Entertainer.

Later in his career, while he was married to Christie Brinkley, Joel even harked back to his doo-wop roots with songs like Uptown Girl and The Longest Time.

Here is Billy Joel in a live performance of Candle In The Wind.

This performance took place during a joint tour by Joel and Elton John. Billy introduces the song by noting that it was not written by him, but by “the other piano player over there.” However, Billy sings it as a solo.

I really enjoy Billy Joel’s performance of Candle In The Wind. In fact, I saw him perform it on one of his Face To Face tours with Elton John. I was visiting Adelaide University in South Australia in March 1998, doing physics research, when I noted that the Elton John-Billy Joel concert would be appearing at the Adelaide Oval cricket grounds.

The ticket prices ($400 Australian and up) were out of my league. However, on the evening of the concert I wandered past the Adelaide Oval. To my great delight, a gigantic pair of video screens were mounted directly behind the stage.

Although I could not see either of the performers directly, I had a great view of them onscreen; even outside the cricket venue, the sound was terrific. I sat on the grass and thoroughly enjoyed watching Billy and Elton play selections of their own and each other’s greatest hits, and perform several duets.

A few years ago, the New Yorker ran a profile of Billy Joel titled The Thirty-Three-Hit Wonder. The article pointed out that following an extraordinary career as a singer-songwriter, Joel had not written an original hit for nearly 20 years.

However, he has embarked on many successful tours during this period. Among these were the afore-mentioned Face To Face tours with Elton John.

Since 2014, Billy Joel has been playing roughly one concert every month in Madison Square Garden. The concerts have become exceptionally popular events.

Billy Joel is currently a “living national treasure,” a singer-songwriter who wrote and performed a series of brilliant tunes over a 20-year period from roughly 1970-1990.

Thanks for the memories, Bill — “We’re all in the mood for a melody, and you’ve got us feelin’ alright!”

Wikipedia, Candle In The Wind
Wikipedia, Elton John
Stephen Davis, Review: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Rolling Stone magazine, Nov. 22, 1973.
Wikipedia, Sandy Denny
Wikipedia, Billy Joel
The Thirty-Three-Hit Wonder, Nick Paumgarten, New Yorker magazine, Oct. 27, 2014.

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

Don’t Be Cruel: Elvis Presley; Jerry Lee Lewis; Cheap Trick.

Hello there! This week we will discuss the song Don’t Be Cruel, a great rockabilly song written by Otis Blackwell and originally performed by Elvis Presley. We will then review covers of this song by Jerry Lee Lewis and by Cheap Trick.

Elvis Presley and Don’t Be Cruel:

Elvis Presley has been one of our favorite rock artists. We first featured him in our blog post on the song Hound Dog. We next reviewed his version of Always On My Mind; later we discussed Heartbreak Hotel, and his cover of Blue Moon Of Kentucky.

We also wrote about Elvis’ covers of the songs Little Darlin’ and Long Tall Sally. In addition, we discussed his songs Jailhouse Rock and Can’t Help Falling In Love. So here we will briefly review his life and career.

In rock and roll, everyone acknowledged that Elvis was “The King.” Ever since he traveled from Tupelo, MS to Memphis to record a song for his mother, Elvis became a rock and roll star and then a legend.

Here is a photo of Elvis Presley performing to adoring fans in September, 1956 in his hometown of Tupelo, Mississippi.

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In 1954, Sam Phillips recorded him in the Sun Records studios. Elvis’ rockabilly cover of Arthur Crudup’s That’s All Right, Mama become a big hit locally from the moment that Memphis radio DJs began featuring it.

Phillips was convinced that he could make a ton of money if he could find a white artist capable of producing ‘cross-over’ hits from rhythm and blues songs by black artists.  Memphis was a great location for such a project, as producers like Sam Phillips and Stax Records’ co-owners Jim Stewart and Estelle Axon were recording songs by both black and white artists.

During the mid-50s, Phillips produced records by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but Elvis was his greatest discovery. And Elvis had great range – his work ranged from rockabilly classics such as Hound Dog to ballads and gospel.

The song Don’t Be Cruel was one of Elvis’ first big hits. It was written by Otis Blackwell, who sold it to Elvis’ publishers Hill and Range. It was the first song that Hill and Range presented to Elvis.

By the middle of 1956 Elvis was a breakout star, and so the deal was that Elvis was listed as a co-writer of the song and receive a percentage of the royalties, in return for a guarantee to Blackwell’s music publishers that the record would sell a million copies.

In Don’t Be Cruel, the singer asks his lover to show some kindness to him, particularly since he has reserved all of his affection for her.

You know I can be found
Sitting home all alone
If you can’t come around
At least please telephone
Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.

Baby, if I made you mad
For something I might have said
Please, let’s forget the past
The future looks bright ahead
Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true
I don’t want no other love
Baby it’s just you I’m thinking of.

Don’t Be Cruel was produced at what must have been a marathon recording session on July 2, 1956 at RCA’s New York studios. During that evening Elvis recorded Hound Dog in 31 takes, then ran through 28 takes of Don’t Be Cruel.

In those days, Elvis was very actively involved in recording his songs. He made several suggestions about how the songs should be produced, tried out alternate versions on the piano, and suggested changes in the lyrics. In fact, various biographers claim that Elvis should have been credited with producing his early records.

Don’t Be Cruel was the “B” side of the record released on July 13, 1956 with Hound Dog as the “A” side. Hound Dog made the first big impression, rising to #2 on the Billboard pop charts. However, it was then overtaken by Don’t Be Cruel, which became Elvis’ biggest hit to that point.

Don’t Be Cruel achieved the astonishing feat of hitting #1 on the pop, country and R&B charts. And Don’t Be Cruel remained #1 on the pop charts for 11 weeks; this was the longest tenure at #1 for any pop song over the next 35 years.

Whereas Hound Dog was a hard-rocking tune, Don’t Be Cruel was a much more mellow rockabilly song. By now there are scores of covers of Don’t Be Cruel. Connie Francis issued a best-selling cover in 1959. Probably Elvis’ favorite cover was by pop star Jackie Wilson. In fact, Elvis was so taken by Wilson’s version that he adopted some of Wilson’s vocal mannerisms when subsequently performing Don’t Be Cruel.

Here is Elvis performing Don’t Be Cruel on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Taking place on Jan. 6, 1957, this was Elvis’ third and final appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. His first appearance in Sept. 1956 was an incredible media circus – it attracted an unheard-of TV audience of 62 million people, and was a riveting event on live television.

However, for his third appearance, the CBS censors would only allow Elvis to be shown from the waist up. Presumably Mr. Presley was so sexy that revealing his groin area would be too shocking for modest viewers.

Don’t Be Cruel was the fourth of Elvis’ seven songs on the Jan. 6, 1957 Ed Sullivan Show. Elvis is accompanied by The Jordanaires, who are arranged behind him. He gives a tongue-in-cheek performance of his rockabilly classic, deliberately exaggerating some of the vocal stylings.

At one point, when he intones “Mmmm,” young women scream with delight. Even though this excerpt of Don’t Be Cruel lasts just over a minute, it gives a vivid picture of the intensity of the Elvis phenomenon.

In any case, the “only show Elvis from the waist up” ploy basically backfired, as it only increased the mystery — what was happening off-camera that caused girls in the audience to go crazy? This performance took place one day before Elvis’ 22nd birthday.

In March 1958 Elvis was drafted into the Army, and after his tour of duty ended he struggled to regain his form. His records still sold and his movies invariably made money; however, interest in Elvis waned, and things got worse once British Invasion musicians dominated the headlines.

Elvis was close to a number of old friends who benefited from Elvis’ famous generosity; and his doctors prescribed for him an astonishing array of powerful pharmaceuticals. Over the years, Elvis gained considerable weight until near the end of his life, when he became almost grotesquely heavy.

The dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly bloated and over-medicated figure who died on August 16, 1977 at age 42. However, right up to the end Elvis retained his wonderful voice.

What a shame. Elvis would have been 83 in January 2018, but his music lives on.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Don’t Be Cruel:

We discussed Jerry Lee Lewis in an earlier blog post on his cover of Otis Blackwell’s song Great Balls of Fire. Blackwell was also the writer of Don’t Be Cruel, the song we are reviewing today. So here we will briefly review Jerry Lee Lewis’ career.

Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the great early stars of rock and roll. He appeared suddenly in the mid-50s, and became an overnight sensation. His piano playing helped define rock ‘n roll as a new and separate musical genre. A larger-than-life performer, Jerry Lee had a career that featured a number of dramatic twists and turns.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in 1935 in Concordia parish, Louisiana. While young, Jerry Lee and his cousins Mickey Gillis and Jimmy Swaggart became seriously interested in music. Mickey and Jerry Lee would continue in music, while Jimmy later became a famous preacher and TV evangelist.

Below is a photo of Jerry Lee Lewis performing in concert in England, May 1958.

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After Jerry Lee showed a serious interest in music, his parents, bless their souls, mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. But while Jerry Lee was interested in R&B and country music, his parents envisioned gospel music for their boy.

In 1956 Jerry Lee moved up to Memphis, where he became a session musician for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records while he attempted to score a hit record. Jerry Lee’s distinctive piano licks can be heard on a number of Sun recordings by artists such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style was an over-the-top version of boogie-woogie stride piano,
which is characterized by a regular left hand bass figure and dancing beat.
Jerry Lee combined this with elements he absorbed from his Southern gospel upbringing.

In Lewis’ talented hands, the results were electrifying. He was
an incendiary showman who often played with his fists, elbows, feet, and backside, sometimes climbing on top of the piano during gigs and even apocryphally setting it on fire.

Jerry Lee Lewis broke through with huge hits in the mid-50s, such as Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire. The songs, and his flamboyant performing style, made Jerry Lee Lewis a super-star.

However, in 1958 his career suddenly hit the rocks. As he embarked upon a tour of England in 1958, it was revealed that Jerry Lee’s recent bride Myra Gale Brown was only 13.

To make matters worse, it turned out that Myra was Jerry Lee’s first cousin once removed. When these facts became public, Lewis was immediately enveloped in scandal. He had to cut short his British tour after just 3 shows.

Upon returning to the States, Jerry Lee’s American career also underwent a catastrophic decline. He was blacklisted from the radio, Dick Clark dropped him from American Bandstand, and his producer Sam Phillips turned on him.

Almost overnight, Jerry Lee Lewis went from headlining the top rock and roll shows, to showing up at juke joints. It took him a few years to get out of his Sun Records contract and on his feet again.

Just as his career was reviving, Jerry Lee’s comeback attempt was sidelined by British Invasion artists such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. This was bitterly ironic, as Jerry Lee Lewis had been a major inspirational figure for British Invasion bands.

So here is Jerry Lee Lewis in a live performance of Don’t Be Cruel.

Well, Jerry Lee Lewis does not disappoint here. The crowd is in great spirits during a lovely Toronto summer day. Don’t Be Cruel is a terrific vehicle for Jerry Lee’s blend of R&B with country and western music.

His vocals are perfect for this rockabilly classic, and The Killer shows off his bag of tricks – the hard-driving stride piano thumping, followed by successive trills up and down the scales. We don’t get the most dramatic over-the-top antics, such as standing on the piano or playing with his feet or his butt, but ol’ Jerry Lee still puts on a first-rate performance.

This took place at the 1969 Toronto Rock and Roll Revival. We will now take a brief detour to review this singular event. Scheduled just four weeks after Woodstock, it  was a one-day, 12-hour concert at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.

The concert was to feature a collection of ‘roots’ rockers from the 50s, combined with late-60s acts, including
Bo Diddley, Chicago, Junior Walker and the All Stars, … Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, …Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, … and The Doors.

However, ticket sales were so slow that the event was in danger of being cancelled. In fact, the main financial backers pulled their funding on the week of the show. Desperate to salvage the event, the organizers hit upon the idea of inviting John Lennon and Yoko Ono to emcee the concert.

They figured that Lennon might attend because of his well-known admiration for ‘roots’ rockers such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. To the delight of the promoters, Lennon not only agreed to emcee the event, but insisted that he would come only if he was invited to perform.

The organizers were initially gleeful at their coup; however, they were crestfallen when Toronto media refused to believe that John Lennon was actually going to perform. At the last minute, they released a tape recording of the organizers ordering plane tickets for Lennon, Oko, Eric Clapton and bassist Klaus Voorman.

That did it – the entire stadium then sold out on the day before the event. Indeed, John and Yoko appeared and performed. The concert became the first event where people lit matches and lighters to welcome a performer.

The lighters were the brainchild of Festival MC Kim Fowley. Fowley knew that John Lennon had not performed live for a few years, and was suffering from a severe bout of stage fright. Fowley reasoned (correctly) that the gesture would be welcoming and soothing, and that it would ease Lennon’s performance anxiety.

And now back to Jerry Lee Lewis. By the late 60s, Jerry Lee experienced a roller-coaster ride from young unknown artist to worldwide superstar, and back into obscurity. However, his comeback efforts faced even more hurdles.

First, Jerry Lee Lewis was seriously conflicted about his music. He had been brought up in a deeply religious family, that believed rock and roll was “the Devil’s music.” Jerry Lee’s cousin, evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart, never failed to remind him of his sinful ways.

In addition, Jerry Lee had major addiction issues. He was a wild man both onstage and off. A prodigious drinker, he also took copious quantities of amphetamines to fuel his manic lifestyle.
“That was blues and yellows time…. I tell you, greatest pills ever made,” he says. … “That would keep me going. Desbutal. Man, you couldn’t beat the Desbutal. Went hundreds of miles a day on them… biphetamines [black beauties], Placidyls, up and down. I took ’em all.”

But just when Jerry Lee seemed pretty much through in rock ‘n roll, he re-surfaced as a country artist. After a couple of surprise country hits, Jerry Lee realized that his music was extremely popular with country fans.

For the past 40 years, Jerry Lee Lewis has continued as a living legend. He was one of the inaugural set of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

In May 2013 he opened a club in Memphis, and to the best of my knowledge he is still performing there. As befits the title of his 2006 album, Jerry Lee Lewis is truly the Last Man Standing. He has survived a lifetime of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, and long may he thrive.

Cheap Trick and Don’t Be Cruel:

Cheap Trick is a rock quartet that emerged from Rockford, Illinois in the mid-70s. Below is a photo of the band from the late 70s. From L: lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Robin Zander; drummer Brad Carlos (who later changed his name to Bun E. Carlos); bassist Tom Petersson; and lead guitarist Rick Nielsen.

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The group spent a few years building up a regional reputation, and in 1976 they signed a record contract with Epic Records. Their first few albums found little commercial success in the States; however, Cheap Trick’s records became best-sellers in Japan. This is reminiscent of the movie This Is Spinal Tap, where the band’s reputation in the U.S. languishes, while they maintain a cult following in Japan.

In 1978, Cheap Trick embarked on a tour of Japan, where they were welcomed effusively by frenzied fans. The band performed two concerts at the Nippon Budokan. Songs from those two concerts were combined into a single album, Cheap Trick at Budokan.

The original plan was to release the album only in Japan. However, bootleg copies of the album began selling like hotcakes, so in February 1979 Epic Records released it in the U.S. That album went triple platinum in the States, and two singles from that album made the top 40 in the Billboard pop charts.

On the basis of that album, Cheap Trick became a world-renowned classic-rock band. Although they released a number of albums and had a few singles make the charts, they were best known for their live concerts.

Rick Nielsen assembled a valuable collection of unusual and rare guitars, which he often unveiled at live shows. Robin Zander has a terrific, clear voice well-suited to the group’s hard-rock hits. And Bun E. Carlos alternates massive thumps on the bass drum with rapid-fire staccato bursts on the snare.

So here is Cheap Trick in a live performance of the Elvis song Don’t Be Cruel.

This is from a show at the Houston Astrodome in 1989. As usual, guitarist Rick Nielsen dresses like a nerd (here, with a sweater that features a pattern of skulls). Nielsen also sports one of his famous collection of custom guitars – in this case, a Fender Stratocaster.

Tom Petersson appears with an ‘upright’ black-and-white checked electric bass, while drummer Bun E. Carlos whacks away on a vintage Ludwig drum kit.

As always, Cheap Trick is an extremely tight unit. Tom Petersson sounds just like an acoustic double bass, while Bun E. Carlos keeps time with his trademark drum licks. Lead vocalist Robin Zander produces great classic rock vocals, and Rick Nielsen’s high-energy guitar solos manage to convert this rockabilly gem into 70s power-pop rock ‘n roll.

For the past 40 years Cheap Trick has been producing records and touring. In 2007, the State of Illinois designated April 1 of each year as Cheap Trick Day, in honor of their local band.  So, happy Cheap Trick Day!

The membership of Cheap Trick has been remarkably constant over the years. Bassist Tom Petersson left the group for 6 years in the mid-80s, but then returned.

In 2010 Bun E. Carlos stopped touring with the band. Although it was announced that he would continue to work with the group and contribute to recording sessions, in 2013 Carlos filed suit against his bandmates, claiming that they had frozen him out of decisions and recording.

The other members of Cheap Trick filed a counter-suit, and eventually the group resolved their differences although Carlos stopped touring and recording with the band.

Cheap Trick was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. It was nice to see Bun E. Carlos join his former mates at the induction ceremony.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Don’t Be Cruel
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, Jerry Lee Lewis
Wikipedia, Toronto Rock and Roll Revival
Wikipedia, Cheap Trick

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

Smokin’ In The Boys Room: Brownsville Station; Motley Crue; LeAnn Rimes.

Hello there! This is another installment in our recurring series, Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies. This week we will discuss the song Smokin’ In the Boys Room, one of the great ‘bad boy’ songs.

We will first direct our attention to the original version by Brownsville Station. Next, we will discuss the movie Rock and Roll High School, where this tune was featured. We will then review covers of this song by Motley Crue and by LeAnn Rimes.

Brownsville Station and Smokin’ In The Boys Room:

The band Brownsville Station was formed in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1969. Their leader and lead vocalist was Cub Koda. Other original members of the band were guitarist Mike Lutz, bassist Tony Driggins and drummer T.J. Cronley.

Here is a photo of Brownsville Station circa 1970. From L: T.J. Cronley; Cub Koda; Tony Driggins.

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Initially Brownsville Station focused on covers of songs from bands that inspired them. They were particularly focused on ‘roots’ rockers such as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Jerry Lee Lewis. However, they soon began writing their own material.

The song Smokin’ In the Boys Room was co-written by Mike Lutz and Cub Koda. It was initially released on the band’s 1973 album Yeah!  The tune describes a group of high school boys who are determined not to get caught while breaking the rules by smoking in school.

The song begins with an intro by lead vocalist Cub Koda. Koda addresses the listener and promises to share some of the wisdom he has absorbed from his time in school. “How you doin’ out there? Ya ever seem to have one of those days where it just seems like everybody’s gettin’ on your case? From your teacher all the way down to your best girlfriend? Well, ya know, I used to have ’em just about all the time. But I found a way to get out of ’em; let me tell you about it.”

Koda then launches into the song.

Sitting in the classroom, thinking it’s a drag
Listening to the teacher rap, just ain’t my bag.
The noon bell rings, you know that’s my cue
I’m gonna meet the boys on floor number two!

Smokin’ in the boys’ room
Smokin’ in the boys’ room
Now, teacher, don’t you fill me up with your rules
But everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school.

Checkin’ out the halls, makin’ sure the coast is clear
Lookin’ in the stalls, “No, there ain’t nobody here!”
My buddy Fang, and me and Paul
To get caught would surely be the death of us all.

Smokin’ In the Boys Room became one of the iconic ‘bad boy’ tunes. A salute to teenage anarchy — copping a smoke while holed up in a high school toilet — resonated with young men across the country. The irreverent attitude celebrated in Smokin’ In The Boys Room became an anthem for rebellious teenagers.

The song rose to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts at the beginning of 1974, and it also hit #3 on the Canadian playlists. Smokin’ In The Boys Room went on to sell over two million records. The hit propelled Brownsville Station to stardom, and for a short while the boys cashed in on their newfound fame.

So here is Brownsville Station in a live performance of Smokin’ In The Boys Room.

This took place on a Midnight Special broadcast; I believe that it aired in early 1974. Cub Koda rocks away on lead guitar and lead vocals. Koda is seen in his trademark gigantic round glasses, while he sports a shirt reminiscent of a Footlocker shoe store employee.  Meanwhile, Tony Driggins thumps away on the bass while drummer T.J. Cronley keeps time for the band.

Alas, Brownsville Station never really re-captured the magic of their one big hit. Although they placed seven songs on the Billboard Hot 100 singles, no other single record scored in the top 20.

In 1977, the group released a song called The Martian Boogie. It was regularly played on “The Dr. Demento Show,” a weekly radio program that featured weird and unusual tunes (and was the show that first made Weird Al Yankovic famous). However, Martian Boogie stalled out at #59 on the Billboard pop charts.

The group issued their last album in 1978 and disbanded in 1979. After that, Cub Koda fronted a couple of other bands, but then became best known for his contributions to rock music history.

Koda had a famous collection of ‘roots’ rock music such as doo-wop, rockabilly and the blues. He was a regular contributor to the AllMusic Guide.
He also wrote a popular column (“The Vinyl Junkie”) for Goldmine magazine and co-authored the book Blues For Dummies. In addition, he hosted The Cub Koda Crazy Show for Massachusetts radio station WCGY during a period in the early 80s.

Cub Koda died of liver disease in July 2000; he was 51 years old. However, Koda’s outsize personality and ‘wild man’ image were inspirations to some later artists such as Alice Cooper, and Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band.

The Film Rock and Roll High School:

The 1979 movie Rock and Roll High School was produced by Roger Corman, the king of the low-budget film, and directed by Allen Arkush. Below left is a promotional poster for that movie.

Poster for Roger Corman’s 1979 film Rock and Roll High School.

The premise of the movie is that Vincent J. Lombardi High School keeps losing its school principals. The students in that school are obsessed with rock ‘n roll to the detriment of their academic performance; this causes one principal after another to suffer a nervous breakdown.

In this movie, Lombardi High student Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) is a fervent fan of The Ramones. Riff is ecstatic when she obtains a ticket to a Ramones concert, as she intends to present them with a song, Rock and Roll High School, that she has written for their band.

However, school principal Miss Togar (Mary Jane Woronov) throws a monkey wrench into Riff’s plans by confiscating her ticket. Next, Miss Togar convinces a group of parents to organize an event where rock records will be assembled and burned. The students protest by naming The Ramones as honorary students.

Eventually, the students take over the school but are evicted by the police. The film ends with the school blowing up.

Rock and Roll High School featured a number of hard-rock hits. Not surprisingly, most of the songs (11 in all) were by The Ramones. However, a number of ‘bad boy’ rock songs were also included, including Smokin’ In The Boys Room by Brownsville Station and School’s Out by Alice Cooper.

Interestingly, the first choices of the movie’s producers were Cheap Trick or Todd Rundgren. However, both of these artists had schedule conflicts, so the Ramones got the part.

This movie was filmed at LA’s Mount Carmel High School, a school that had closed in 1976. One big advantage of utilizing an abandoned school was that the producers were able to film the actual demolition of the school, and work that into the script.

Apparently the blast was significantly stronger than had been anticipated. As a result, several people on the set were so frightened by the explosion that it took several days before they returned to work.

Here is the music video for Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ In The Boys Room.

Here, clips of Brownsville Station (I believe from the same Midnight Special performance we showed in the preceding section) are interspersed with shots of teenagers lighting up. In addition, there are a number of clips of apes smoking cigarettes.

Rock and Roll High School received generally positive reviews.  The film had an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and became one of Roger Corman’s cult classics. As a result, a sequel Rock and Roll High School Forever was filmed in 1991; and there are persistent rumors that shock-radio DJ Howard Stern’s company is planning yet another remake of the movie.

Motley Crue and Smokin’ In The Boys Room:

The heavy-metal band Motley Crue was formed in L.A. in 1981. Bassist Nikki Sixx assembled a quartet that included Tommy Lee, Mick Mars and Vince Neil.

Here is a photo of Motley Crue from circa 1983. From L: lead guitarist Mick Mars; drummer Tommy Lee (back); rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Vince Neil; and bassist Nikki Sixx.

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Apparently Mick Mars was recruited to the band after the other members answered an advertisement he placed in the West Coast classifieds-only paper The Recycler that read: “Loud, rude and aggressive guitar player available”.

The band’s debut album did not sell particularly well. However, Motley Crue became notorious as a result of various incidents on a Canadian tour associated with that album. Several of those incidents were staged to provide publicity for the group – such as the confiscation of a trove of sex toys and pornographic magazines when the group passed through Canadian customs; a phony bomb threat that ended one of their concerts; and an incident where Tommy Lee threw a TV set off the top of their Edmonton hotel.

However, the group also experienced significant real-life drama. In 1984, Vince Neil was involved in a head-on car collision in which his passenger was killed. Neil eventually served 18 days in jail and was fined $2 million, for his conviction on both DUI and manslaughter charges. Motley Crue responded to the notoriety by issuing a box set titled Music To Crash Your Car To.

Then in 1987, Nikki Sixx was declared legally dead following a heroin overdose. However, a paramedic in the ambulance transporting Sixx revived him with two shots of adrenaline in his heart. Again, the group capitalized on the incident by writing a song titled Kickstart My Heart.

Motley Crue subsequently surged to the top of the heavy-metal charts. They embodied the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” lifestyle. They combined top-selling albums with prosperous tours, and remained in the public eye with their outrageous antics.

Apparently Motley Crue was accustomed to using the iconic Brownsville Station rocker  Smokin’ In The Boys Room when they carried out sound checks before a performance. They liked the song so much that they eventually decided to record it for one of their albums.

The song was included on the band’s 1985 album Theatre of Pain. Released as a single, the Motley Crue cover of Smokin’ In The Boys Room reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. It was the first top-40 pop hit for Motley Crue; the song subsequently became a popular tune in the band’s live concerts.

Here is Motley Crue in a live performance of Smokin’ In The Boys Room.

This took place in Moscow’s Lenin Stadium. After starting off with a few F-bombs, Vince Neil reprises Cub Koda’s introduction to Smokin’ In The Boys Room before launching into the song.

Spectators at the packed stadium seemed delighted to experience Vince Neil’s vocals, backed by Mick Mars on guitar, Nikki Sixx on bass and Tommy Lee banging away on drums. I have to say that I am more impressed with the band’s energy than their musical talent.

This took place at the August 1989 two-day Moscow Music Peace Festival, a momentous and somewhat bizarre concert. As part of Mikhael Gorbachev’s perestroika policy, a few rock ‘n roll concerts were permitted in Russia shortly before the breach of the Berlin Wall.

Poster for the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival.

At left is a photo of a poster advertising the Moscow Music Peace Festival. This event was drenched in irony, as the Soviets had previously strongly condemned rock ‘n roll music as evidence of the decadence of the West. Of course, this only increased the demand in Russia for rock music.

But the idea of opening up the Iron Curtain to head-banging glam-rockers seemed rather outrageous, even in an era that occasionally permitted visits of rock musicians.

The Moscow Music Peace Festival was sponsored by the Make A Difference Foundation and its founder Doc McGhee, who also happened to be the manager for both Bon Jovi and Motley Crue. Those two acts were headliners in a group that also included Ozzy Osbourne and Scorpions.

One stated purpose of the concert was to combat alcohol and drug abuse. It therefore seemed paradoxical to include artists like Motley Crue and Ozzy Osbourne, who had a reputation as notorious abusers of drugs and alcohol. Cynics suggested that the anti-drug theme of the event, and even the creation of the Make A Difference Foundation, were merely efforts by Doc McGhee to minimize his sentence following a drug conviction.

In any case, the event drew enormous crowds, predominantly young males, to Lenin Stadium. Each of the headlining groups ran through a set of their biggest hits, and each day ended with an all-hands jam session.

As might be expected, there were also a number of disagreements among the groups. Perhaps the most bitter dispute was between Doc McGhee’s two bands Motley Crue and Bon Jovi.

The members of Motley Crue were angered by what they perceived as McGhee’s favoritism towards Bon Jovi. Part of this stemmed from the conviction by the Crue members (and the tour’s other glam-metal acts) that Bon Jovi was not an ‘authentic’ heavy-metal band, but more pop-oriented.

So the fact that Bon Jovi went on last, and their act featured pyrotechnics that had been forbidden to Motley Crue, became a source of considerable friction. Immediately following the tour, Motley Crue dropped McGhee as their manager.

Eventually, the years of drug and alcohol abuse caught up with Motley Crue.  With the exception of Mick Mars, all the band members landed in drug rehab (Mars sobered up on his own).

The last couple of decades have been marked by tension between various members of Motley Crue. Vince Neil was fired by the band in 1992, but returned in 1997. Tommy Lee quit the group at least twice, but then returned for reunions.

As far as I know, Motley Crue disbanded for good in 2015. However, over the course of its lifetime the band sold 100 million records. Only 25 million of those were in the U.S. and the rest of the sales were abroad, but their commercial success was striking.

To date, the band has been passed over for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Motley Crue were one of the best-known heavy-metal or glam-metal bands, and were (for good or ill) an inspiration for a gaggle of “big-hair” bands that followed them.

We will see whether Motley Crue makes the Rock Hall of Fame one day. If not, then “all that glitters …”

LeAnn Rimes and Smokin’ In The Boys Room:

LeAnn Rimes is a country singer who was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1982. Ms. Rimes started out as a child actor in musical theatre roles. At age eight, she appeared on Star Search where she was highly touted by Ed McMahon.

Ms. Rimes was then groomed by Dallas DJ and record promoter Bill Mack. She became a child star at the age of 13, when her debut album Blue reached #1 on the Top Country Albums charts.

Here is a photo of LeAnn Rimes performing while in her teens.

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In her debut, LeAnn was frequently compared to country legend Patsy Cline. This was in no small part because Bill Mack, the songwriter for Blue, claimed that he had originally written the song for Ms. Cline, but she died in a plane crash before recording it.

The album Blue made LeAnn Rimes an overnight sensation. In 1997 she became the youngest person ever to win Grammy Awards, for Best New Artist and Best Country Vocal Performance. In addition she was the first country performer to win the Best New Artist Grammy.

After a couple more country albums, LeAnn began issuing work that was more in the pop music or adult contemporary vein. While her shift in emphasis cost her some of her country music fans, she became exposed to a whole new audience, and her albums continued to sell like hotcakes.

Here is LeAnn Rimes in a live performance of Smokin’ In The Boys Room.

This took place at a Pacific National Exposition concert in Vancouver in 2014. I really like Rimes’ take on this heavy-metal tune, which she first debuted on a Motley Crue tribute album. She gives it a very enjoyable R&B flavor, which she likens to a “strip-club sound.” The song features a couple of impressive slide-guitar solos.

I was not very familiar with Ms. Rimes prior to seeing this performance, but I am now a big fan. I can see why she was a teen-age sensation as a country singer.

In the past decade, LeAnn Rimes has produced most of her own music. She had a highly-publicized break with her father, who had produced her early records. Ms. Rimes also fought hard to gain control of record production decisions and ownership of her record catalog.

In recent years, Rimes has alternated between country music and adult contemporary, and has continued to find success in both ventures. In addition to Patsy Cline, her voice has been compared to country stars Brenda Lee and Tanya Tucker (Tucker was the only country star in living memory to achieve fame at a younger age than Ms. Rimes).

LeAnn Rimes continues to be nominated for Country Music Association awards, and she has recorded duets with heavy hitters such as Reba McIntyre and Kenny Chesney. Rimes has also written two novels and two children’s books.

In 2011 Ms. Rimes married Eddie Cibrian, an actor whom she met when the two of them were working together on a made-for-TV movie. Their relationship precipitated a rather messy divorce for Mr. Cibrian, but he and Rimes have been married for the past 7 years.

We wish LeAnn Rimes all success in her many ventures, musical and otherwise.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Smokin’ In The Boys Room
Wikipedia, Brownsville Station
Wikipedia, Rock and Roll High School
Wikipedia, Motley Crue
Wikipedia, Moscow Music Peace Festival
Wikipedia, LeAnn Rimes

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