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

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

Gene Chandler and Duke of Earl:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The movie Don’t Knock The Twist:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sha Na Na and Duke of Earl:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Angels and Duke of Earl:

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

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

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

The Spanish a capella group Earth Angels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Source Material:

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

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

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

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

Santo & Johnny and Sleep Walk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Beck and Sleep Walk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Paul and Sleep Walk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

Since I Don’t Have You: The Skyliners; Ronnie Milsap; the Brian Setzer Orchestra

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

This week’s entry is Since I Don’t Have You. This is a great doo-wop song from 1958. The song was featured in George Lucas’ terrific movie about the early 60s, American Graffiti. We will also review covers of that song by Ronnie Milsap and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

The Skyliners and Since I Don’t Have You:

Like several other doo-wop groups, The Skyliners originally formed in Pittsburgh. They featured lead singer Jimmy Beaumont. Also in this quintet were soprano Janet Vogel, tenor Wally Lester, baritone Joe Verscharen and bass Jackie Taylor.

Below is a photo of The Skyliners circa 1959.

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The tune Since I Don’t Have You was co-written by all of the Skyliners, plus Joseph Rock and Lennie Martin. It appeared on the group’s self-titled album released in 1958. The song describes a man who is desolate because his love has left him.

The singer narrates a list of the positive feelings that have now deserted him. And he notes that he has suffered from depression ever since he has been alone.

I don’t have plans and schemes
And I don’t have hopes and dreams
I don’t have anything
Since I don’t have you.

I don’t have fond desires
And I don’t have happy hours
I don’t have anything
Since I don’t have you.

I don’t have happiness and I guess
I never will again
When you walked out on me
In walked ol’ misery
And he’s been here since then.

Since I Don’t Have You was a solid hit for The Skyliners. Released in late 1958, the song made it to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and #7 on the Cash Box Top 100.

The song was notable for Jimmy Beaumont’s impressive lead vocals and the harmonies from the rest of the group. The song is particularly moving at the end, when Beaumont repeats the word “You” thirteen times, paired with Janet Vogel’s soaring soprano vocals.

Here are The Skyliners in a live performance of Since I Don’t Have You from a concert in 1974.

Isn’t this a wonderful song? It is refreshing to see that Beaumont can reprise the vocals from the record in a live performance.

Over the years, Since I Don’t Have You has become a classic oldie that was featured in a number of movies and TV shows that deal with the 50s. In addition to American Graffiti, which we will review below, the song has appeared in films such as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, American Hot Wax and Lethal Weapon 2, and TV shows like Happy Days.

After their one big hit, The Skyliners managed to land a couple more songs in the Top 40. However, the group then experienced harder times and the original lineup disbanded in 1963.

The Skyliners then re-formed with some replacements, but were never again able to score a hit record. Jimmy Beaumont signed a solo contract with Bert Berns’ Bang Records in 1965. He released a few singles for Bang, but failed to produce a big hit.

Later on, Beaumont would sing lead with a revamped version of the Skyliners. That group had success appearing in “oldies” shows where they would reprise their one blockbuster hit. Beaumont died in Oct. 2017 at age 76.

The film American Graffiti:

American Graffiti is a blockbuster film about a group of teen-agers in California in the year 1962. It is remarkable for a number of reasons.  Below left is the movie poster for American Graffiti.

Poster for the 1973 Universal Pictures film American Graffiti.

George Lucas co-wrote and directed the film. American Graffiti was intended to take place in Lucas’ hometown of Modesto, California. However, Lucas decided that Modesto had changed too much for him to film there; eventually, most of the film was shot in Petaluma. Various other locales were used, in particular Mel’s Drive-In Restaurant in San Francisco, a place where the waitresses serve the orders on roller-skates to the patrons in their cars.

The plot of American Graffiti revolves around four recent high-school graduates: straight arrow Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) with his high-school-cheerleader sweetheart Laurie (Cindy Williams); the brainy and cynical loner Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss); naive nerd Terry “the Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith); and hot-rodder John Milner (Paul LeMat).

The film follows all four of them during the last day of summer vacation in 1962. Remarkably, three of the four main male characters (Curt, Terry the Toad, and John) represent a different facet of Lucas’ own experiences in high school.  Here is a capsule summary of the plot of American Graffiti.

Steve, Cindy and Curt attend a “sock hop” on their last night before Steve and Curt are scheduled to leave for college on the East Coast. Steve lends Toad his 1958 Chevy Impala until he returns from college. Steve and Curt discuss their future plans. Although Steve is determined to go directly to college, Curt is seriously considering either dropping college altogether or taking time off before enrolling.

Curt spots a mysterious blonde in a ’56 T-Bird and attempts unsuccessfully to follow her. Eventually he drives out to the local radio station, in an attempt to persuade legendary DJ Wolfman Jack to broadcast a message to the blonde.

The only employee at the station tells Curt that no one there has ever seen Wolfman Jack, whose shows are taped elsewhere and mailed to the station. But he promises to forward Curt’s message to the DJ. As Curt leaves the station the employee begins broadcasting, and Curt realizes he has been talking to The Wolfman all along.

Eventually, the blonde phones Curt and proposes to see him the following evening. This will not happen, as Curt has decided to leave the next morning for college.

Toad cruises the main strip in Modesto in Steve’s Impala; somewhat to his surprise, he manages to pick up a sassy girl named Debbie (Candy Clark).  John is also cruising in his 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe hot rod. He is accosted by new arrival Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) who is driving a ’55 Chevy One-Fifty Coupe. Falfa challenges Milner to a drag race.

The two cars, accompanied by several local youth, head out to Paradise Road for the drag race. In the meantime, Laurie and Steve have quarreled because of Steve’s suggestion that the two of them date other people while he is away, in order to “strengthen their relationship.”

Alienated from Steve, Laurie joins Bob in his car for the drag race. Initially, Bob is leading John, but his car blows a tire and swerves into a ditch. Bob and Laurie manage to jump out just before his car bursts into flames.

Steve has been watching the race, and rushes over to join Laurie. He assures Laurie that he will remain with her in Modesto, even though it means abandoning his plan to attend college in the East.

At the end of the film, Curt’s plane takes off headed for the East Coast. As he looks out the plane window, he sees the T-Bird of the mysterious blonde driving along the highway next to the airport.

Here is a video clip of the song Since I Don’t Have You, one of the 50s and 60s tunes that appears in American Graffiti. Audio of the song is accompanied by clips from the movie; these video clips more or less summarize the entire plot.

Instead of having a soundtrack, George Lucas built American Graffiti around a collection of 50s and 60s pop songs. Various episodes in the movie were actually constructed around specific tunes. The only earlier film to be structured around a set of rock songs was the 1969 Easy Rider.

Because Lucas was on a tight budget, he offered every music publisher an identical fee for the right to use their songs, reportedly around $2,000. Every publisher except RCA accepted Lucas’ offer, which meant that Lucas could not use any of Elvis’ songs in his film.

American Graffiti was a loving re-creation of teen-age culture in the early 60s. The music played a major role in the film, and helped to spread the national reputation of West Coast DJ Wolfman Jack. Also, the 50s cars and the depiction of hot-rod culture resonated with movie viewers.

American Graffiti spurred a 50s-revival boom. Ron Howard essentially reprised his role in this movie in the hit TV show Happy Days, that was set in the late 50s. And a couple of years later, two characters from Happy Days (including Cindy Williams, who played Ron Howard’s girlfriend in American Graffiti) spun off their own sitcom, Laverne and Shirley.

Somewhat surprisingly, Lucas had a great deal of difficulty pitching American Graffiti to a major studio. He was rejected by several studios before Universal Pictures finally agreed to bankroll the project. Even then, Lucas might have failed without the support of his friend Francis Ford Coppola, who provided some financial backing and whose clout in the film industry helped convince the nervous Universal brass to back the effort.

Despite approving the project, Universal insisted on a low budget for the movie. After paying for rights to the music and collecting the classic cars, Lucas had relatively little money left for the cast, so he assembled an ensemble group of young actors.

Ron Howard took the part of Steve because he was eager to branch out from his child-star role as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show. Richard Dreyfuss was hired after a long search for an actor to play Curt. The remaining cast members were also relatively unknown at the time.

Initially, Universal decided that they would only release American Graffiti on videotape. However, test screenings of the film received rave reviews; so the studio agreed to show the movie in theaters.

Well, American Graffiti turned out to be a smash hit, one of the most profitable investments of all time. From an initial budget of $770,000, the film eventually grossed over $200 million. American Graffiti was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the movie’s soundtrack double album was also a best-seller.

A terrific spin-off from American Graffiti was that it established George Lucas as a director, and provided him with a pile of cash. Lucas plowed that money into his pet project, a space opera that likely would never have gotten off the ground but for the success of American Graffiti.

Lucas’ space-opera concept? It eventually turned into a film that you might have heard of – Star Wars!

Ronnie Milsap and Since I Don’t Have You:

Ronnie Milsap is a country singer who was born in North Carolina in 1943. After he became blind due to a congenital defect, his mother abandoned him. For a few years he was raised by his grandparents, after which time he was enrolled in a school for the blind in North Carolina.

There, Ronnie’s teachers noticed his aptitude for music. Although his main interest was in gospel and R&B, he was given a classical music education and eventually mastered several instruments.

Below is a photo of Ronnie Milsap from about 1970.

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In high school, Ronnie formed a rock ‘n roll band with some of his classmates. He had good taste – the band featured covers of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and Little Richard!

A promising student, Milsap entered Young Harris College on a full scholarship with the aim of becoming a lawyer. However, in 1964 he turned down a scholarship to law school in order to pursue a musical career.

Milsap signed a record contract with Scepter Records in New York. For a while he was a session musician for R&B artists like Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. However, his soul music solo career never really took off.

At that time, Milsap’s biggest opportunity was his recording of the Ashford & Simpson song Let’s Go Get Stoned. Alas, Ronnie’s version of the song was not commercially successful — but Ray Charles’ cover sold over a million records.

In 1972 Milsap met Charlie Pride, who convinced Ronnie to switch to country music and relocate to Nashville. Milsap was picked up by Pride’s manager Jack Johnston, and after that his career just took off.

Milsap became a major country star. During the period 1973-1978, he scored over a dozen #1 country hits. Much like his country counterpart Glen Campbell, Milsap showed his versatility by charting on both pop and Adult Contemporary playlists as well as country.

Here is Ronnie Milsap singing Since I Don’t Have You.

This is typical Ronnie Milsap fare. His bright clear vocals seem rather effortless, but he shows significant range in his singing, with even a few falsetto notes thrown in. The video includes three backup singers dressed up in period attire with ball gowns. It certainly re-creates the feeling of a high school prom round about 1960.

This is a music video so it is not really a live performance. The video clips appear to be  taken from a film; I can’t tell whether this is from a movie, or simply a music video. Perhaps Milsap’s performance was included in a movie, but if so I have been unable to find the title.

In the 1980s, Ronnie Milsap released a number of ballads that scored significantly higher on the Adult Contemporary charts than on country playlists. However, he has remained a popular figure in country music.

Over the years, Milsap charted 40 #1 country records, which puts him third all time behind only George Strait and Conway Twitty. In 2014, Milsap was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In addition, Ronnie was one of the featured performers in the CMT show The 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.

So we salute Mr. Milsap: “Good on you, Ronnie!”

The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Since I Don’t Have You:

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

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

Below is a photo of Brian Setzer from his Stray Cats days. Although he was playing rockabilly tunes, his appearance was significantly more ‘punk’ than ’50s rocker.’

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

The Stray Cats were quite a breath of fresh air. Brian Setzer’s guitar wizardry was applied to 50s-style songs, with Lee Rocker chiming in on double bass and Slim Jim Phantom bopping away on drums.

Unfortunately, personality clashes caused The Stray Cats to break up in 1984. At that time, Setzer combined a solo career with collaborations with other artists, while Rocker and Phantom joined up with former David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick.

Then in the 1990s, Setzer turned to another old musical style. He assembled a 17-piece orchestra that played swing music. In 1998 the Brian Setzer Orchestra released an album The Dirty Boogie. Their cover of the Louis Prima song Jump, Jive an’ Wail won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals, while their cover of the Santo & Johnny song Sleep Walk won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Performance.

Here is the Brian Setzer Orchestra in a live performance of Since I Don’t Have You. This took place at a Hard Rock Café.

Isn’t this just wonderful? Brian Setzer has a terrific voice that he uses to great effect in this song. The arrangement is classic jazz swing featuring Setzer’s big-band orchestra.

Setzer sublimates his impressive guitar-hero chops in this large ensemble. However, shortly after the 3-minute mark, he unleashes a virtuoso little run that shows off his prodigious talent. I really enjoy this piece.

By the way, Brian Setzer has a world-class collection of vintage guitars. He particularly favors hollow-body guitars, and at the moment seems to be playing exclusively on Gretsch guitars.

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

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Since I Don’t Have You
Wikipedia, The Skyliners
Wikipedia, American Graffiti
Wikipedia, George Lucas
Wikipedia, Ronnie Milsap
Wikipedia, Brian Setzer

Posted in Doo-Wop, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Swing Music | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

You Can Leave Your Hat On: Randy Newman; Tom Jones (clip from “The Full Monty”); Joe Cocker.

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

This week’s entry is a sly pop song, You Can Leave Your Hat On. We’ll begin with an introduction to the song and its writer Randy Newman. We will next discuss the movie The Full Monty, which featured a cover of the song by Tom Jones. Finally, we will review a cover by Joe Cocker.

Randy Newman and You Can Leave Your Hat On:

We previously discussed Randy Newman in an earlier blog post on his song (Mama Told Me) Not To Come. So here we will briefly review Newman’s life and career.

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles in November, 1943. His early years were spent in New Orleans, but at age 11 his family returned to L.A.  One could predict Randy’s future career by just looking at his family history. His uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman were all noted Hollywood composers.

Sure enough, Randy studied music at UCLA, although he dropped out one semester shy of earning his BA degree. He began writing songs in an attempt to kick-start a career as a singer-songwriter. His biggest early successes were as a songwriter, writing for artists such as Gene Pitney, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Jackie DeShannon.

Randy Newman’s first big break came in the U.K., and in particular with Alan Price. Price had originally been the keyboardist for the British Invasion blues band The Animals. In 1967, his solo album A Price On His Head included no less than seven songs by Newman!

Below is a photo of Randy Newman performing on the BBC in the 70s.

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Randy Newman quickly established himself as a unique songwriter. For one thing, he was incredibly prolific. Another trademark was his funky wit. He poked fun at a number of issues, and showed off his sardonic humor in several songs.

Newman wrote You Can Leave Your Hat On in 1972, and it appeared on his album Sail Away. The song has been described by critic Alan Deming as a
“witty and willfully perverse bit of erotic absurdity.”

You Can Leave Your Hat On is quite explicit. A man urges his lover to take off her clothes in an erotic manner before they make love. However, he is fine if she does not remove her hat.

Baby take off your coat
Real slow
And take off your shoes
I’ll take off your shoes
Baby take off your dress
Yes yes yes

You can leave your hat on [3X]

Here is a music video of Randy Newman performing You Can Leave Your Hat On.

As you can see, the video contains a number of shots of strippers; some of these are taken from other movies.

The clip we just played was not really a live performance by Randy Newman. So here we will show his witty and sardonic 1977 song Short People.

It is interesting that Newman received considerable negative feedback claiming that this song demeans short people. While there is something to the criticism, one should point out that Newman himself is extremely short, so to some extent he is making fun of himself.

Newman carved out a commendable career as a pop singer. But he was much more successful with his songwriting. Artists such as
Bette Midler, Alan Price, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, Claudine Longet, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Lynn Anderson, Wilson Pickett, Pat Boone
have released covers of Randy Newman songs.

Randy Newman has also become legendary for his movie scores. Here’s a brief pop quiz: how many times has Newman been nominated for an Academy Award for his original film music?

Unless you already know the answer, your guess will almost certainly be way too low. Newman has received an unbelievable 20 Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Original Music Score! Unfortunately, Newman has won only two Oscars, both for Best Original Song, and he set a record by receiving 15 nominations before his first win.

Randy Newman has written the score for seven Disney/Pixar films, and for six of those films he received at least one Academy Award nomination. Both of his Oscar wins came with Pixar films, for Monsters, Inc and Toy Story 3.

Over the years, Randy Newman has been widely recognized for his musical genius. In 2002 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he was named a Disney Legend. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013.

Nice going, Randy, keep up the good work! No, you can leave your hat on.

You Can Leave Your Hat On in the Film The Full Monty:

The Full Monty is a 1997 comedy film directed by Peter Cattaneo.  Much of the movie was shot around Sheffield, England, and the film begins with a travelogue of Sheffield from 1972.

The movie follows a group of men from Sheffield. Most of them used to work at steel mills that have shut down and laid off their employees. Gaz (Robert Carlyle) is unable to make his child-support payments to his former wife.

When Gaz and his mate Dave (Mark Addy) see a long line of women waiting to see a Chippendale’s male stripper revue, Gaz decides to form his own group in order to raise his child-support money.

Gaz and Dave recruit Lomper (Steve Huison), one of their former co-workers, and in the process prevent him from committing suicide. They also bring in Gerald (Tom Wilkinson), who actually knows some dance moves, Horse (Paul Barber) who is a good dancer, and Guy (Hugo Speer) who is, well, hung.

The lads bring in some female friends to rehearse their act at the old mill. However, a policeman charges them with indecent exposure. Their arrest “goes viral;” as a result, their upcoming show is sold out.

Gaz has promised that their act will go “the full Monty” (slang for “the whole hog”), i.e., that the dancers will remove all of their clothes. Up til the last minute, it is not clear whether the troupe will completely strip.

So, here is the final scene from The Full Monty. The lads are performing to an audience that is primarily women. The song is Randy Newman’s You Can Leave Your Hat On, performed by Tom Jones.

As you can see, the group initially dresses in policemen’s uniforms, which are systematically removed as the men dance.  Initially the hats and shirts come off; then the cutaway pants are pulled off, leaving the boys in red Speedos. They then remove the Speedos, covering their fronts with their hats.

Right at the end, the group expose themselves to the crowd (this bit is shot from the rear).

Apparently nearly everyone (including the actors) expected this movie to be a lightweight low-budget film about a group of guys who form a male-stripper group modeled on the Chippendales. However, the movie became an acclaimed blockbuster. From an initial investment of $3.5 million, the film grossed $250 million worldwide.  It was the highest-grossing movie from the U.K. until it was overtaken by Titanic.

Not only that, but the film was also critically acclaimed. It was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score). The Full Monty won the last of these nominations, which was somewhat controversial as none of the big-production songs were original (e.g., You Can Leave Your Hat On and Hot Stuff).

The Full Monty has a 95% aggregate rating from Rotten Tomatoes, making it a near-unanimous “thumbs up.” When it was released in the U.K., it topped the box-office for three straight weekends.

Robert Carlyle, the lead actor, became an acclaimed star as a result of his performance here. Despite the fact that the film was a comedy, the movie
also touches on serious subjects such as unemployment, fathers’ rights, depression, impotence, homosexuality, body image, working class culture and suicide.

Joe Cocker and You Can Leave Your Hat On:

Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He is one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he released relatively few original songs. We first encountered Joe Cocker for his cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper classic A Little Help From My Friends. Later, we reviewed his cover of Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers to Cross; and we discussed his rendition of the Procol Harum song A Whiter Shade of Pale. We then reviewed his cover of Dave Mason’s Feelin’ Alright?; his cover of Leon Russell’s Delta Lady; and his cover of The Letter by the Box Tops.

So here we will briefly review Joe Cocker’s life and career. In the late 1950s, Cocker was attracted to music by the British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who initially inspired the Beatles.

Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. Joe patterned his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and in particular soul singers like Ray Charles. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.

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

Below is a photo of Joe Cocker circa 1970, onstage with a tambourine.

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After a couple of minor hits in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time with his cover of the Beatles’ With A Little Help From My Friends. This established him as a promising up-and-coming bluesman.

However, Cocker’s career really took off after his performance at Woodstock Festival in August 1969. Cocker was one of the main stars of the Woodstock concert movie, and the exposure he received there propelled him into the spotlight.

Here is Joe Cocker in a live performance of Randy Newman’s You Can Leave Your Hat On. This is from a concert in Dortmund in 1992.

Cocker’s version of You Can Leave Your Hat On was released on his 1986 album Cocker. His cover was featured in the 1986 movie 9 ½ Weeks.

You Can Leave Your Hat On became one of the more popular songs on Joe Cocker’s playlist. In the movie 9 ½ Weeks, the tune was included in a scene that featured a striptease. The song has since been identified with striptease, and it is still used by strippers when they perform.

Once Joe Cocker gained fame through his exposure at Woodstock, he continued to carve out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist. Nearly all of his hits were covers of other songs. However, his versions always featured Cocker’s wonderful blues style, and his best songs provided an entirely new take on a classic song.

I particularly recommend Cocker’s versions of The Letter by the Box Tops, Leon Russell’s Delta Lady, and Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful (yes, this song is a cover, but Cocker’s version is so famous that it has completely overshadowed the original).

Alas, Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. We greatly miss his unique and wonderful musicianship.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, You Can Leave Your Hat On
Wikipedia, Randy Newman
Wikipedia, The Full Monty
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker

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

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

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

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

Isaac Hayes and the Theme From Shaft:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film Shaft:

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

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

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

Poster for the 1971 movie Shaft.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Diamond and Sweet Caroline:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a photo of Neil Diamond performing in 1970.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sweet Caroline and the film Fever Pitch:

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

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

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

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

Poster for the 1992 baseball movie Fever Pitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Darin and Sweet Caroline:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roy Orbison and Sweet Caroline:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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

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

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

Sam and Dave and Soul Man:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film Soul Man:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Jones and Soul Man:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blues Brothers and Soul Man:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source Material:

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

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