I Will Survive: Gloria Gaynor; Gladys Knight; Cake.

Hello there! This week our blog features one of the biggest disco hits, I Will Survive. We will first discuss the original version by Gloria Gaynor. Next, we will review a cover by Gladys Knight and we will finish with a cover by Cake.

Gloria Gaynor and I Will Survive:

Gloria Gaynor is an American singer who became a superstar in the disco era. She was born Gloria Fowles in Newark, New Jersey in 1949.

She began singing with a jazz rhythm & blues group called the Soul Satisfiers in the 1960s. Although she cut her first record in 1965, her first real success came in 1975 when Clive Davis signed her to Columbia Records.

Below is a photo of Gloria Gaynor, disco diva.

Embed from Getty Images

It was not until 1979 that Gloria Gaynor really broke out as a pop superstar. The song I Will Survive was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Ferakis. It describes a woman who has discovered an inner strength after being dumped by her former lover. When he suddenly reappears in her life, she rejects him.

At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
And I learned how to get along

And so you’re back
From outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock, I should have made you leave your key
If I’d known for just one second you’d be back to bother me

Go on now, go, walk out the door
Just turn around now
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Do you think I’d crumble
Did you think I’d lay down and die?

Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive, hey, hey

I Will Survive was released in 1979. Amazingly, that song was the “B” side of a single with a forgettable tune called Substitute (a cover of a Righteous Brothers song) as the “A” side. Sometimes you just have to wonder what record company executives were thinking!

While Substitute peaked at #107 on the charts, a Boston DJ named Jack King began plugging I Will Survive. Over the next few months that song became a disco classic, a mammoth hit that eventually sold 14 million records worldwide.

I Will Survive rose to #1 on both the Billboard and U.K. pop charts. So here is Gloria Gaynor in a live version of I Will Survive from the TV program Midnight Special.

Isn’t this great? Gloria powers her way through this tune accompanied by the Midnight Special band. In many ways, I Will Survive is a classic disco tune: it combines a pulsating disco beat and Gaynor’s strong vocals with an impressive horn section. However, there are several features of this song that were rather unique in the disco era.

First off, Ms. Gaynor does not have a chorus of backup singers, which appear in nearly all disco-era songs with female leads.

I Will Survive was also relatively free of the overdubbing, multi-tracking and changes of speed that characterized so many disco tunes. This is presumably because it was regarded as the “B” side of a record, so it was not “doctored” as heavily as other singles.

Most of Gloria Gaynor’s earlier records were speeded up, in order to make her voice sound higher than it actually was. Apparently this was a common technique in disco music.
Most disco hits at the time were heavily produced, with multiple voices, overdubs, and adjustments to pitch and speed.

I Will Survive became one of the most recognizable tunes of the disco era. Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer are arguably the “queens” of disco. I Will Survive was rated #1 in a 2000 VH1 list of great dance songs.

Not surprisingly, I Will Survive became Gloria Gaynor’s signature tune. And it became an anthem for two different groups. First, the song is obviously an ode to female empowerment, so it was extremely popular with feminists.

However, I Will Survive also became a powerful song for the LGBT community. At the time of its release, the gay community felt beleaguered, with a notable lack of acceptance from society. They identified with the message of strength and endurance from I Will Survive.

And of course, when the AIDS epidemic occurred just a few years later, the song I Will Survive gained an entirely new resonance in the gay community.

Here is a bit of fun. This is a TV commercial for Capital One, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee and Charles Barkley on a plane. When Barkley receives a phone call, his cellphone ringtone turns out to be I Will Survive, and the three begin to sing that song (badly).

They stop when the stewardess arrives at their row. But the stewardess is Gloria Gaynor, who proceeds to belt out the tune!

Gloria Gaynor was unable to escape the rather brutal backlash against disco that began about 1980. Then in 1982, Gaynor became a Christian and she subsequently regarded much of her earlier work as sinful. She would not record for some time, and when she resumed issuing albums they consisted mainly of covers of songs by other groups, patriotic tunes and contemporary Christian music.

However, Gaynor capitalized on a disco revival movement in the 1990s. In 2005 she was inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame. Her song I Will Survive lives on at oldies and dance music radio stations, where younger generations of listeners become introduced to that iconic disco song.

So we salute Gloria Gaynor, who has indeed survived.

Gladys Knight and I Will Survive:

Gladys Knight is a wonderful soul singer who has had an illustrious career, first when she was backed up by The Pips and later as a solo artist. Here we will give a brief summary of her life.

Gladys Knight was born in Oglethorpe, Georgia in May 1944, and got an early start in the music business when she won a contest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour at age 7. One year later she formed a musical group, The Pips, together with her siblings and cousins.

The Pips changed membership a few times before they formed the most famous version of Gladys Knight and the Pips, with the Pips as a trio consisting of her brother Merald and cousins Edward Patten and William Guest. Below is a photo of Gladys Knight.

Soul singer Gladys Knight.

The group joined the Motown Records stable in 1966, although there was continuing tension between Gladys Knight and Motown management. Initially, Gladys was reluctant to join Motown due to concerns that the organization might neglect them in favor of other artists.

Gladys Knight and the Pips recorded on the Soul Records imprint from Motown, a label that Berry Gordy used for artists who were considered more R&B than pop. In early years the group opened on tour for The Supremes until Berry Gordy removed them from the tour. Gladys Knight has maintained that this was because her group was upstaging Diana Ross’ act.

Gladys and the Pips had several hits for Motown, including If I Were Your Woman and Neither One of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye). However, the group believed that they were never regarded as one of Motown’s “front-line” artists.

In 1973 they signed a deal with Buddha Records, where they had major hits with songs like Midnight Train to Georgia and I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.

So here is Gladys Knight in a live rendition of I Will Survive.

This is a powerful solo performance by Ms. Knight that showcases her terrific vocals. For the first four minutes, this tune is presented in a slowed-down version as a torch song. Then Gladys shifts gears, turning to an up-tempo dance song in the final minute.

Gladys Knight is clearly in great form on this song. What an impressive cover of this classic disco tune.

Over their career, Gladys Knight and the Pips won several Grammys. In 1996 the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2001 they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame.

The group disbanded in 1988 and since then Gladys has pursued a solo career. She has also appeared as an actress on several television shows and series.

What a terrific singer and performer. We wish Gladys Knight all the best.

Cake and I Will Survive:

Cake is an alternative-rock band that was formed in 1991 and originated from Sacramento, California. It is not easy to characterize the musical genre of Cake. Many people classify them as folk-rock, though I believe “grunge” is more appropriate. However, the Wikipedia article on the band lists their musical influences as
country music, Mariachi, rock, funk, Iranian folk music and hip hop …
lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

In any case, the group is known for the sarcastic and monotonic vocal presentations of lead singer and rhythm guitarist John McCrea. In addition, the group is unusual in that instead of a full horn section, they feature trumpet solos by Vince DiFiore. Below is a photo of the band Cake.

The alternative-rock band Cake.

According to the band, their name “Cake” refers to “a block of congealed or encrusted matter” (such as makeup) rather than “a breadlike food made from a dough or batter.”  Furthermore, they like to capitalize their name as “CAKE;” so now you know.

The group’s first album in 1994 received mixed reviews, but their second release, the 1995 Fashion Nugget, featured a hit single The Distance, which made it to #5 on the RPM Alternative 30 playlists. That album established the group as an up-and-coming alternative rock band.

This led to a number of domestic and international tours, performances at several alt-rock festivals, and significant commercial success.

So here is Cake in a live performance of I Will Survive. This was another single from the band’s Fashion Nugget album.

I find this to be a creative cover of Gloria Gaynor’s original disco tune. This song includes solos on electric guitar and bass.  The Cake version contained a few “F-bombs” (bleeped out in this video), which led the devout Ms. Gaynor to characterize it as the least favorite cover of her song.

Strangely enough, John McCrea introduces this as a “folk song,” and states that the group would like to leave their audience “with a bit of false hope” (say what?).

Well, in the 25 years since the band surfaced on the alternative-rock scene, Cake have survived despite numerous lineup changes. For a couple of decades they continued to place songs on the charts.

In 2011 the band came out with an album titled Showroom of Compassion. Their situation was not promising. It had been six years since Cake had recorded an album. Lacking a recording contract, the band produced and released the album from their own studio. Amazingly, Showroom of Compassion debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 albums playlist!

So Cake has soldiered on, selling records and providing their fans with alt-rock singles. I am only familiar with the group’s cover of I Will Survive, but I find their arrangement and the unusual trumpet solo to be innovative, and worth listening to.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Will Survive
Wikipedia, Gloria Gaynor
Wikipedia, Gladys Knight
Wikipedia, Cake (band)

Posted in Disco, Pop Music, Progressive Rock, Soul music | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Tupelo Honey: Van Morrison; Dusty Springfield; Richie Havens.

Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific soul tune, Tupelo Honey. We will first discuss the original version by singer-songwriter Van Morrison. Next, we will review a cover by Dusty Springfield and we will finish with a cover by Richie Havens.

Van Morrison and Tupelo Honey:

Van Morrison is one of the greatest soul and R&B artists of all time. Born in August 1945 in Belfast, North Ireland, he grew up listening intently to his father’s extensive collection of American rhythm and blues records. Morrison subsequently created his own blues vocal style. In 1964 he became co-owner of an R&B club in Belfast, and assembled a rock band called Them (named after the title of a 50s horror movie) to perform there.

Morrison sang lead vocals, and played harmonica and tenor sax with the group. In summer 1964, Them released the song Gloria, which became the group’s biggest hit, and established the band as part of the British Invasion. Working with American producer Bert Berns, their song Here Comes The Night reached #2 on the U.K. pop charts and #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in March 1965

Below is a photo of Van Morrison performing in Boston in 1968.

Van Morrison performing in Boston in 1968.

Morrison left Them and went solo in 1967, and over the past fifty years has released some of the greatest soul albums of all time. Masterpieces such as Astral Weeks and Moondance are chock full of beautiful, haunting songs. He has wonderful technique and great creativity, and I can listen to his two Greatest Hits albums over and over without becoming bored.

Van Morrison wrote the song Tupelo Honey in 1971, and it was the title track on his album. Tupelo honey is an expensive brand of honey produced in the southeastern U.S. (and Tupelo, Mississippi was the childhood home of Elvis Presley).

In Tupelo Honey, Van Morrison declares the magnitude of his love for a woman who is “an angel of the first degree.”

You can take all the tea in China
Put it in a big brown bag for me
Sail right around all the seven oceans
Drop it straight into the deep blue sea

[CHORUS] She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
She’s an angel of the first degree
She’s as sweet as Tupelo honey
Just like honey from the bee

You can’t stop us on the road to freedom
You can’t keep us ’cause our eyes can see
Men with insight, men in granite
Knights in armor bent on chivalry

[CHORUS]

Tupelo Honey was released as a single in 1972. It only reached #47 on the pop charts; however, since that time it has become one of Van Morrison’s signature tunes.  The melody is a big favorite of his. For Tupelo Honey, he borrowed the melody he had previously used on his 1970 song Crazy Love. Then in 1991, he once again used the tune for his song Why Must I Always Explain?  In concerts, he frequently pairs it with either or both of those songs.

So here is Van Morrison in a live performance of Tupelo Honey at the Greenwich Village club The Bottom Line in 1978.

I consider this to be a really spectacular blues tune. Van Morrison’s terrific vocals are paired here with an ethereal organ and some angelic backup singers. The tune is further highlighted by impressive solos on sax, guitar and organ. What a fine song!

And now because we did not have video of Van Morrison on Tupelo Honey, we provide you with live video of Morrison singing Caravan.

This took place at the final concert by The Band, which was filmed by Martin Scorsese on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and released in 1978 as the movie The Last Waltz. Here Morrison is in great form, shouting out his blues lines with backing from The Band.

Van Morrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, although he skipped the induction ceremony. You can read a detailed discussion of his work and music in his Rock and Roll Hall bio.

Morrison was the first inductee into the Irish Music Hall of Fame in 1999 and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003. He was also knighted in 2015, so now you may address him as Sir George Ivan Morrison, OBE.

I regret that I have never seen Van Morrison in live performance. However, one of my friends saw him in concert when he was having a particularly difficult time with stage fright; as a result, Morrison performed the entire set with his back to the audience.

Morrison’s stage fright is sufficiently severe that he has occasionally had to cancel performances. We send along advice to Van Morrison from our Australian friends – “No worries, mate!”

Dusty Springfield and Tupelo Honey:

You might guess that Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien was raised Catholic, and you would be correct. Ms. O’Brien was born in 1939 in West Hampstead, U.K. where her interest in music was encouraged by her family.

In 1960, she joined her older brother Dionysius and Reshad Feild in a folk-pop group called The Springfields. At that time her brother Dionysius took the stage name Tom Springfield, and Mary Isobel became Dusty Springfield. Below is a photo of Dusty Springfield from the late 60s.

British soul singer Dusty Springfield.

The Springfields were top performers in the U.K. and they had one major international hit, Silver Threads and Golden Needles, in 1962. The group traveled to Nashville to record a folk album, and during their time there Dusty became fascinated by R&B music.

So when The Springfields disbanded in 1963, Dusty set off on a solo career that would focus on R&B music. Her first big hit was the song I Only Want To Be With You, which rose to #4 in the U.K. and #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

That song
included rhythm and blues features such as horn sections, backing singers, and double-tracked vocals, along with pop music strings, all in the style of girl groups that Springfield admired, such as the Exciters … and the Shirelles.

Dusty Springfield then became a superstar in the U.K., and she used her fame to introduce British audiences to Motown acts. In 1965 she hosted a TV special called The Sound of Motown that featured Dusty along with The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder and The Miracles, backed by the Motown house band The Funk Brothers.

Here is Dusty Springfield singing Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey.

This is only the audio of this song, but it showcases Dusty’s vocal styling. She has a girl-group backing and an impressive horn section, and the song is highlighted by solos from organ and sax.

After listening to Dusty Springfield’s soul songs, many people were surprised to find that she was white. However, she had a very distinctive style, with her beehive hairdo, black mascara and the formal gowns that she generally wore.

Since our previous clip contained only audio of Dusty’s performance, here she is live singing her biggest hit, I Only Want To Be With You.

As you can see, this video splices together two different performances by Dusty Springfield. One of these is on a show hosted by British pianist Russ Conway; the second is Dusty’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Ed Sullivan clip is definitely live while the Russ Conway appearance may be lip-synched.

As you can see, Dusty Springfield had a terrific voice and was an engaging performer. It is no wonder that she was a pop icon in her native Britain.

Dusty was also courageous. In 1964 a tour of South Africa was terminated by the apartheid government after she performed before an integrated audience in Cape Town, in violation of government policy at the time.

In 1968 Dusty Springfield achieved a couple of milestones. She traveled to Tennessee to record the soul album, Dusty in Memphis. Although the album was unsuccessful commercially, reaching only #99 on the Billboard album charts, it is now considered to be a classic and is included in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the greatest albums.

That same year, Dusty’s song Son Of a Preacher Man hit #10 on the Billboard charts and won her a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

But by the early 70s, Dusty Springfield’s record sales were declining. To keep busy, she began to sing backup vocals for various artists, including Anne Murray and Elton John (she used the pseudonym ‘Gladys Thong’ for that work).

At the start of her career, Dusty went to elaborate lengths to hide the fact that she was a lesbian. At that time, even rumors that a performer was gay might be enough to kill their career. However, as time went on and prejudice against homosexuals declined, she became somewhat more candid about her situation, although she never publicly acknowledged that she was gay.

In 1994, Dusty Springfield fell ill and was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she was given a clean bill of health and resumed performing. However, in 1999 the cancer returned and she died in March 1999 at the age of 59.

Dusty passed away just two weeks before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Elton John inducted her posthumously into the Hall of Fame, saying
“I’m biased but I just think she was the greatest white singer there ever has been … every song she sang, she claimed as her own.”

We second those sentiments and wish Dusty Springfield all the best in rock ‘n roll heaven.

Richie Havens and Tupelo Honey:

We previously encountered Richie Havens in our blog post on the Crosby, Stills and Nash song Teach Your Children, for his cover of the Beatles’ song Here Comes The Sun, and his cover of Bob Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. We will briefly review Havens’ life and career here.

Richie Havens was a prominent folk-singer, songwriter and political activist. He was the oldest of nine children born in Brooklyn to a Native American father and a mother of West Indian descent.

Below is a photo of Richie Havens performing in 1972.

Embed from Getty Images

Havens’ paternal grandparents had a fascinating history. They were both members of the Blackfoot tribe, and they toured the U.S. as members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. However, they quit the touring company once they reached New York City, and the family eventually settled in Brooklyn.

Richie gravitated to the Greenwich Village beatnik scene. Initially, he participated in poetry readings. Wouldn’t it have been fun to walk into a Village coffee bar in the 60s, and find Richie Havens declaiming poetry! Anyway, Havens soon gravitated to folk music. He attracted a significant following in New York folk circles and was signed by super-manager Albert Grossman, who also managed artists such as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In the late 1960s, Richie Havens was not widely known outside East Coast folk music circles. However, that all changed dramatically after his performance at Woodstock in 1969. Havens was the first performer during the Woodstock Festival. He was scheduled to perform a short set; however, the crowds were so enormous that they blocked all roads leading into the festival.

Subsequent performers were caught in massive traffic jams, and had to be helicoptered in to the festival. The organizers asked Richie to prolong his set until the next performers could arrive.

Not only did Richie Havens perform for three hours at Woodstock, but his live performance was one of the highlights of the Woodstock movie. His electrifying appearance at Woodstock made Havens into an international celebrity, and he enjoyed a long and notable career thereafter.

Richie Havens developed a unique “open-tuning” guitar-playing style, which led him to be very creative in his music. By re-tuning the strings on his guitar, he was able to play a number of chords by simply strumming the guitar and sliding his thumb up and down the neck of his instrument.

His eccentric technique meant that Havens’ music was almost never a direct copy of another tune. Virtually every one of his songs displays a creative approach to the music.

Here is Richie Havens in a live performance of Tupelo Honey and Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman.

This is typical for Richie Havens. We get his open-tuned guitar paired with his inimitable vocal style. His Tupelo Honey is a slow, stately march through minor chords and is quite impressive.

However, it is a bit of a shock at the 4-minute mark when Richie segues into Dylan’s Just Like A Woman. We encounter an abrupt transition from terms of adoration like “she’s an angel of the first degree” to Dylan’s rather heartless “she breaks just like a little girl.” In any case, I find it always a treat to watch Richie Havens perform.

In addition to his musical prowess, Richie Havens was also a political activist. He was energetic in organizing for environmental issues, in fact he founded an oceanographic children’s museum located on City Island in the Bronx. In addition, Richie performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and he was a headliner at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1999.

In April 2013, Richie Havens died of a heart attack at his home in New Jersey. He was 72 years old. He will be remembered as a cerebral and vibrant singer-songwriter.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Tupelo Honey (song)
Wikipedia, Van Morrison
Wikipedia, Dusty Springfield
Wikipedia, Richie Havens

Posted in Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Soul music | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Both Sides, Now: Joni Mitchell; Judy Collins; Harpers Bizarre

Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific folk music tune, Both Sides, Now. We will first discuss the version by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Next, we will review a cover by Judy Collins (which was actually the first version released), and we will finish with a cover by Harpers Bizarre.

Joni Mitchell and Both Sides, Now:

Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest pop musicians of the 20th century. Her music is defined by its creativity, beautiful marriage of melody and poetry, and its incredible variety. Joni Mitchell’s work has ranged from folk to pop to jazz to electronic music to world music. She refers to herself as “a painter derailed by circumstance.”

She is heralded as a superb musician by many different sources.
Rolling Stone has called her “one of the greatest songwriters ever”, and AllMusic has stated, “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century”.

Here is a photo of Joni Mitchell performing at the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970.

Embed from Getty Images

Born in 1943, Roberta Joan Anderson grew up in Canada where her family moved from one military base to another following the career of her father, a Royal Canadian Air Force flight lieutenant. Her initial interest in athletics was curtailed by a brief bout with polio at age eight. About this time Joni started smoking, and it is rather remarkable that she continued to smoke for decades without any notable deterioration of her terrific contralto voice.

Following that, Joni became interested in music. However, her reaction to polio made it difficult for her to adopt standard guitar fingering positions. As a result, she was forced to experiment with various alternate tunings. This turned out to be very useful in her later improvisational work.

At the age of 20, she moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto, where she began to perform in coffeehouses and small clubs. She met and married folksinger Chuck Mitchell and took his last name. When their marriage broke up in 1967, Joni landed in New York City, where she became a regular in folk clubs on the Eastern Seaboard.

Initially Joni’s major success was as a songwriter. In particular, Judy Collins had major hits with Mitchell’s compositions Both Sides, Now and Chelsea Morning. The albums Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon, released in 1969 and 1970 respectively, became the springboard that launched Joni Mitchell into super-stardom.

Joni Mitchell asserts that she wrote Both Sides, Now in March, 1967. She states that she was inspired by reading Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson, The Rain King, which contains a passage where Henderson is flying in a plane and looks down to see some clouds below him.

Mitchell was flying in a plane as she read Bellow’s book. Looking out of her window, she also saw clouds below her and began writing a song, which begins by describing the beauty of clouds.

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

However, the next verse describes her frustration that clouds are the source of rain and snow. She concludes that “I really don’t know clouds at all.”

The song continues, listing her experiences with love and with life. In both cases she contrasts uplifting and affirming sentiments with disillusionment, ending with “I really don’t know love (life) at all.”

Apparently Joni Mitchell performed Both Sides, Now in November, 1966 at the Second Fret in Philadelphia; so she must have written the song before that date.

Here is Joni Mitchell in a live performance of Both Sides, Now on the Mama Cass Television Program in 1969.

Isn’t this great? Joni Mitchell lends her ethereal voice and unusual guitar tuning to her first big hit about life and love. In their 2004 list The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Rolling Stone rated Both Sides, Now at #171.

This performance took place in a one-hour TV special hosted by Mama Cass with musical guests Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian and Mary Travers. Cass Elliott had left The Mamas and the Papas in 1968 for a solo career.

Just how popular a song is Both Sides, Now? Well, apparently there are over 1,200 covers of this tune! The Wikipedia entry for Both Sides, Now summarizes roughly 100 of these covers over the past five decades.

Folksingers Pete Seeger, Anne Murray and Glen Campbell covered the song. But so did crooners Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Andy Williams. Then in the 21st century such groups as Hole, Melanie C and Sara Bareilles released covers of the song. Both Sides, Now — what an enduring classic!

After Both Sides, Now, Joni Mitchell produced a number of wonderful hits including Big Yellow Taxi, Chelsea Morning and California. She was indisputably the greatest female folksinger of her day.

In the mid-70s, Joni moved from folk-rock to more jazz-inspired work. She began collaborations with jazz artists such as Jaco Pistorius and Wayne Shorter, and produced some unique albums. She then entered into an extended collaboration with jazz bassist Charles Mingus.

Although her jazz fusion albums did not sell as well as her best folk-rock offerings, they generally placed in the Billboard top 25 album charts. Her work at this time was also highly acclaimed by critics.

Since that time, Joni Mitchell has continued to chart her own personal course. She has produced a number of pop hits, with forays into electronic music and world music.

However, in recent years time seems to have caught up with Joni. Her vocal range became much more limited, and starting in the late 1990s she experienced a number of health problems. Joni announced that the album Travelogue, issued in 2002, would likely be her last; however, she issued another album, Shine, in 2007.

In March 2015, Joni Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm. She underwent physical therapy, which included learning to walk again.

Joni has also claimed that she suffers from Morgellons Syndrome. This is a highly controversial medical condition. People affected by it report that they suffer from skin sores that contain some kind of fibers.

However, CDC researchers who investigated this condition could find no disease organisms (no bacteria or parasites), and the only fibers they found appeared to be cotton. At the moment, the medical community has not accepted Morgellons Syndrome as a legitimate medical condition.

On Nov. 7, 2018 she attended a 75th birthday celebration where artists including James Taylor, Graham Nash and Kris Kristofferson interpreted songs that Joni had written.

We wish Joni Mitchell all the best – she is a living national treasure and her music has enriched our lives over the past 50 years.

Judy Collins and Both Sides, Now:

Judy Collins has been a popular singer for over 50 years. Though she is now 80  years old, her career as a singer and social activist continues to this day.

Collins was born in 1939 and grew up in Denver, Colorado where she showed considerable promise as a classical pianist. However, her love for folk music eventually led her to Greenwich Village, where she became part of a burgeoning folk scene that included artists such as Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton.

Collins was very supportive of young musical talent. She encouraged people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen well before they became famous. In addition to her bright, clear voice, Collins was also famous for her striking good looks. Here she is in a photo from the late 60s or early 70s.

Embed from Getty Images

Judy Collins’ debut album A Maid of Constant Sorrow was released in 1961. At that point she developed a strong following on the folk-music circuit. However, her breakthrough came with her 1967 album Wildflowers.

That album reached #5 on the Billboard Pop Albums charts. The big hit from that record was Collins’ cover of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now. This was the first release of Joni’s song and it reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. In 1969 Judy Collins won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance for Both Sides, Now.

So here is Judy Collins in a live performance of Both Sides Now, from 1968.

I really enjoy Judy Collins’ vocal style. Both Sides, Now has become one of Judy’s signature tunes. Although apparently Joni Mitchell was not happy with Judy Collins’ treatment of her song, it is a favorite of mine.

Judy Collins enjoyed great success as a folksinger, but she also branched out performing the music of composers such as Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim. For example, Collins had top-20 hits with Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, and also with the traditional Christian hymn Amazing Grace.

In addition to Judy Collins’ musical career, she has been a lifelong social activist. A friend of Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, she testified on their behalf at the Chicago Seven trial in 1970. When Judy began to sing Where Have All the Flowers Gone, she was rebuked by the toxic federal judge Julius Hoffman. She is currently a representative for UNICEF in attempts to ban landmines.

Collins has suffered from both alcoholism and depression, but she kicked her alcohol dependency after a stint in rehab in 1978. In 1992 her son committed suicide after struggling with both substance abuse and depression. Since that time, Collins has become active in suicide prevention groups.

Judy Collins continues to perform and remains an activist. We wish “Judy Blue Eyes” all the best.

Harpers Bizarre and Both Sides, Now:

Harper’s Bizarre was a 60s group whose musical style is sometimes described as “sunshine pop.” The group originally surfaced in the mid-60s as The Tikis, a band  out of Santa Cruz, CA that performed pop songs reminiscent of The Beatles.

The group featured Ted Templeman on lead vocals, Eddie James and Dick Scoppettone on guitar, Dick Yount on bass and John Petersen on drums. Below is a photo of Harpers Bizarre from the late 60s.

The pop group Harpers Bizarre.

The group got its big break when producer Lenny Waronker decided to record a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song, The 59th Street Bridge Song (better known as Feelin’ Groovy). Waronker had the good sense to enlist Leon Russell to compose a version of that song.

Russell’s arrangement of the Simon & Garfunkel piece included some intricate harmonies and catchy instrumental parts. His composition made particular use of strings and woodwinds, in a style now known as “baroque pop.”

The group decided to release Feelin’ Groovy, but used the pseudonym Harpers Bizarre (a play on the magazine “Harper’s Bazaar”). The idea was that this tune was significantly different in style from the work of The Tikis, and the band released it under a different name so as not to antagonize their fan base.

Well, the Harpers Bizarre song shot up to #13 on the Billboard Hot 100, a far better result than any Tikis song had achieved. As a result, Harpers Bizarre issued a couple of albums, with Lenny Waronker as producer and Ted Templeman working on the arrangements.

The Harpers Bizarre recording of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now was released in 1967. Here is the audio of that song.

I believe this was released shortly after Judy Collins’ cover of this song. It is classic Harpers Bizarre, featuring a prominent orchestration heavy on strings and woodwinds. Somehow the audio of this tune is paired with video of a ballroom-dancing group in Canada.

Since the previous clip featured only the audio of this group, here is Harpers Bizarre in a ‘live’ performance of the song Come To The Sunshine.

This was performed on the Mike Douglas Show in 1967. The song was written by Van Dyke Parks. It certainly looks like Harpers Bizarre is lip-synching the song, but it really doesn’t matter much, does it?

Even in the studio, Harpers Bizarre isn’t very good. Their vocals are weak and they are completely dependent on the studio arrangement for any musical quality whatsoever.

With Lenny Waronker producing, the group reached deep down into the bag of American Standards, releasing covers of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and the Glenn Miller chestnut Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

After their final album was released in 1969, the group broke up. Music from Harpers Bizarre can be found in the 1968 film I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and the 1970 film The Boys In The Band.

Ted Templeman continued on as a producer in the 70s and 80s. While his own music with Harpers Bizarre was sweet and saccharine, as a producer Templeman was renowned for his work with hard-rocking groups. He started with mainstream pop acts such as Van Morrison and The Doobie Brothers; however, Templeman later produced groups such as Aerosmith, Van Halen and Sammy Hagar. Quite a change of pace from Cole Porter!

As you might suspect, Harpers Bizarre were one-hit-wonders. Their first song made it into the Billboard top 20 pop charts, but that was basically it. From what I have observed, I don’t expect any hidden gems will be found in the band’s albums. As The Boss observed so succinctly, “Glory days, they’ll pass you by, in the wink of a young girl’s eye, ….”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Both Sides, Now
Wikipedia, Joni Mitchell
Wikipedia, Judy Collins
Wikipedia, Harpers Bizarre
Wikipedia, Ted Templeman

Posted in Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Train Kept A-Rollin’: Johnny Burnette; The Yardbirds; Aerosmith.

Hello there! This week our blog features a song with a most interesting history, Train Kept A-Rollin’. This song was covered several times, changing style dramatically over the years. We will first discuss the original by Tiny Bradshaw and a 50s cover by Johnny Burnette. Next, we will review a cover of this song by The Yardbirds, and we will finish with a cover by Aerosmith.

Tiny Bradshaw, Johnny Burnette and Train Kept A-Rollin’:

Myron Carlton “Tiny” Bradshaw was an American jazz musician in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in 1907 and was a sort of jack-of-all trades (bandleader, singer and composer and pianist). The photo below is a publicity still of Tiny Bradshaw.

Bandleader, composer and singer Tiny Bradshaw.

In 1932 he moved from his boyhood home in Youngstown, Ohio to New York City, where he worked as a drummer with various combos. In 1934, he formed his own swing orchestra and recorded songs on various labels.

Bradshaw then switched to rhythm and blues, and starting in 1949 he placed several songs on the Billboard R&B charts. However, he is best known today for a song that never made the charts at the time.

In 1951 Tiny Bradshaw wrote Train Kept A-Rollin’, a boogie-woogie jazz tune that featured a shuffle rhythm. The lyrics were delivered in a “hep-cat” jazz style, and they describe the singer’s infatuation with a lady he met on a train.

I caught a train, I met a dame
She was a hipster, and a real gone dame
She was pretty, from New York City
And we trucked on down that old fair lane
With a heave and a ho
Well, I just couldn’t let her go

Get along, creepy little woman
Get along, well, be on your way
Get along, creepy little woman
Get along, well, be on your way
With a heave and a ho
Well, I just couldn’t let her go

Well, the train kept a-rollin all night long
The train kept a-rollin all night long
The train kept me movin’ all night long
The train kept a-rollin all night long
With a heave and a ho
Well, I just couldn’t let her go

So here is the audio of Tiny Bradshaw’s 1951 release of The Train Kept A-Rollin’.

As you can see, this is a straightforward jump blues tune. Bradshaw has some call-and-response lines with his band members. The tune is highlighted by an impressive tenor sax solo from Red Prysock.

Bradshaw’s song was rescued from obscurity and catapulted into rock ‘n roll legend when it was covered by Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. Burnette was born in 1934 and raised in Memphis. In his youth he was a promising young boxer and Golden Gloves champion. Below is a photo of Johnny Burnette from the 1950s.

50s Rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette.

After getting his nose broken in his first professional fight, Burnette decided to try his hand at music instead. He formed a group with two other musicians, his older brother Dorsey Burnette (bass) and Paul Burlison (lead guitar). Johnny was lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. All three band members had been Golden Gloves boxing champions.

The group moved to New York City in 1956 and had some success when they competed on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. Their exposure on that show gained them a recording contract, and they took the name The Rock and Roll Trio.

In 1956, Coral Records released a cover of The Train Kept A-Rollin’, credited to The Johnny Burnette Trio. Here is video of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette and Paul Burlison performing that song.

As you can see, they have converted Tiny Bradshaw’s jump jazz tune into a rockabilly song. In addition, their version is famous because Paul Burlison’s lead guitar is deliberately distorted. Apparently this is the first known example of guitar distortion in a rock ‘n roll tune.

The Rock and Roll Trio don’t actually seem to be performing Train Kept A-Rollin’ here, as the audio and video don’t match. However, this was the only video I could find of the Rock and Roll Trio performing. The clip does give you an accurate glimpse of Johnny Burnette and his mates at work (the drummer does not appear in this video).

To me, the Rock and Roll Trio closely resembles the early days of Elvis Presley, and for good reason. Both groups featured a quartet that included a lead singer, guitar, upright bass and drummer, and performed rockabilly versions of R&B songs.

Both Elvis and Johnny Burnette came out of Memphis and were friends in high school. As energetic young performers, both were extremely popular with local youth (though Elvis ignited a mania among teen girls that eclipsed Burnette’s fame).

Well, the Rock and Roll Trio quickly disintegrated. A primary reason was dissension among the band members when the group was renamed Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, or even The Johnny Burnette Trio.

Also, despite appearances on several nationally-syndicated TV variety shows (Dick Clark, Steve Allen, and Perry Como), none of the group’s records made it into the Billboard charts.  So Dorsey Burnette left the group in fall 1956, and one year later the remainder of the group disbanded.

Later, Dorsey and Johnny Burnette went on to have some success as songwriters. They worked for Ricky Nelson and wrote four of his big hits (this was a natural choice as Nelson’s rockabilly style fit right in with the Burnettes).

In 1960, Johnny Burnette had one big hit with You’re Sixteen. This reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was resuscitated in 1973 when the song was included in the American Graffiti soundtrack.  Later in that same year, Ringo Starr released a cover of that tune that hit #1 on the charts.

In August 1964 Johnny Burnette was shuttling between record companies, trying to score another pop hit. He was fishing in Clear Lake, California when his unlit boat was struck by a cabin cruiser. Burnette was thrown clear of his boat and he drowned.

Johnny Burnette was a young rock ‘n roll pioneer who came out of Memphis and specialized in rockabilly versions of blues songs. He had one big pop hit, although he is now best known for Train Kept A-Rollin’, a song that never dented the charts.

The Yardbirds and Train Kept A-Rollin’:

The Yardbirds were a British rock band. They had relatively few pop hits but were nevertheless an exceptionally influential group. In 1963, they began their career as leaders of an American blues revival scene in London.

The Yardbirds began amassing a devoted following when they took over as the house band at London’s Crawdaddy Club, where they replaced The Rolling Stones (who also began as a blues cover band). The Yardbirds played covers of music by artists such as Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James.

In October 1963 the Yardbirds added 18-year-old lead guitarist Eric Clapton. He joined lead vocalist Keith Relf, rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty. At this point, the group became cult favorites in Britain.

March 1965 became a turning point for this lineup. Their single For Your Love hit #1 on the UK pop charts and #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, that soft-pop single created dissension among the band members. Eric Clapton, who felt the band should remain focused on the blues, left the group just before that song climbed up the charts.

After Clapton left the band, he was replaced with another guitar legend, Jeff Beck. With Beck as lead guitarist, the Yardbirds became known for inventive techniques. Beck was relentlessly innovative – he introduced distortion and feedback into his guitar solos, pioneered “fuzztone” sounds, and began forays into what is now known as heavy-metal and psychedelic music.

Beck was also an early adopter of Eastern-influenced music. In 1966, he was already releasing solos that were inspired by Indian ragas. Other songs clearly showed the influence of African tribal rhythms.

When bassist Paul Samwell-Smith quit the Yardbirds in June 1966, he was replaced by Jimmy Page. A short time later, Page began to perform on guitar for the band. This began a brief period where both Beck and Page were contributing guitar solos. Below is a photo of The Yardbirds with both Beck and Page.

The Yardbirds circa 1966.  From left: Jeff Beck; Jimmy Page; Chris Dreja; Keith Relf; Jim McCarty.

Unfortunately, Jeff Beck was volatile and unpredictable. In late 1966, Beck walked out on the band while the Yardbirds were touring with Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars.” After Beck left, Jimmy Page took over as the Yardbirds’ lead guitarist.

So here are The Yardbirds in a live performance of Train Kept A-Rollin’.

This took place in 1966 at a rock festival, “Music Hall de France.” In the hands of the Yardbirds, Train Kept A-Rollin’ has been re-purposed as a hard-rocking anthem.

Here, Keith Relf plays harmonica in an imitation of a train whistle, a style that he borrowed from bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson. Relf supplies the vocals, accompanied by a relentless beat supplied by Jeff Beck on lead guitar, Jimmy Page on bass, and Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar.

Two years later, The Yardbirds was on its last legs. In June 1968 the band played its final concert in Montgomery, Alabama. Page then departed and shortly assembled a new ensemble that was eventually named Led Zeppelin. This performance from The Yardbirds clearly demonstrates the transition to a blues-based heavy-metal style that would characterize Led Zeppelin’s music.

Jimmy Page initially recruited bassist John Paul Jones (a frequent collaborator on Page’s sessions as a studio guitarist), vocalist Robert Plant and drummer John Bonham to form The New Yardbirds. After being threatened with a lawsuit over the rights to the “Yardbirds” name, the band then took the name Led Zeppelin. This referred to a remark by The Who bassist John Entwistle after Page described his plan to create a band focusing on heavy-metal covers of American blues. Entwistle suggested “that will go over like a lead balloon.”

Once Page teamed up with Jones, Plant and Bonham, the first song that the group rehearsed was Train Kept A-Rollin’. Page recounts that this first song convinced him that Led Zeppelin would become a legitimate supergroup.

A couple of years earlier, the Yardbirds appeared in Michangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup. In that film, David Hemmings plays a fashion photographer who believes that he may have inadvertently filmed a murder. At one point, Hemmings is wandering around London when he enters a club where a group (The Yardbirds) is playing. Here is a video clip from that scene in Blowup.

Although the melody of this song is Train Kept A-Rollin’, the song is titled Stroll On, because Antonioni was unable to obtain permission to use Train Kept A-Rollin’. As a result, the lyrics to the song were altered to avoid copyright issues.

Note that the Yardbirds here include both Jeff Beck (playing the lead) and a very young Jimmy Page who appears to be playing rhythm guitar (actually, the rhythm guitar on this song was played by Chris Dreja – when this song was recorded, Page was still playing bass for the Yardbirds). After Beck launches into his guitar riff, his amplifier begins malfunctioning. An irritable Beck begins banging his guitar against the amp, and he eventually smashes his guitar on the ground.  Hemmings picks up the bridge of the broken guitar and runs out of the club.

Antonioni originally wanted The Who to perform in his film, but after they refused he used The Yardbirds instead. Jeff Beck was instructed to smash his guitar in the fashion made famous by Pete Townshend of The Who.

At the time of its initial release, Blowup was considered a very important movie, and it inspired several other films. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 movie The Conversation also featured an investigator who may have stumbled onto a crime, while Brian de Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out was basically a re-staging of Blowup.  The film also inspired several parody movies, including Mel Brooks’ 1977 High Anxiety and Mike Myers’ Austin Powers spy movie series.

Now back to The Yardbirds. Although the group had relatively little in the way of pop hits, they were incredibly important in the development of the hard-rock genre. With Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, one band had arguably the three greatest British rock guitarists.

After their beginnings as a London blues revival band, the Yardbirds spearheaded
several electric guitar innovations of the mid-1960s, such as feedback, distortion and “fuzztone”. The band’s influence on both the music of the times and genres to come was great, and they inspired a host of imitators such as the Count Five and The Shadows of Knight. Some rock critics and historians credit the Yardbirds with heavily contributing to, if not inventing, “the birth of psychedelic music” and sowing the seeds of punk rock, progressive rock and heavy metal.

The Yardbirds were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Jeff Beck was also inducted in 2009 as a solo artist; Jimmy Page was inducted in 1995 as a member of Led Zeppelin; and Eric Clapton was inducted in 1993 as a member of Cream and in 2000 as a solo artist (Clapton is the only performer to be inducted three separate times).

So we salute The Yardbirds – what a group, populating the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all on their own!

Aerosmith and Train Kept A-Rollin’:

Aerosmith is a hard-rock quintet from Boston. They formed in 1970 and consist of lead singer Steven Tyler, lead guitarist Joe Perry, bassist Tom Hamilton, drummer Joey Kramer and guitarist Brad Whitford.  That lineup has been remarkably stable over nearly 50 years.

The group specializes in heavy-metal renditions of R&B-inspired music. They gained fame in the mid-70s with a series of top-40 pop hits, beginning with the 1975 tune Sweet Emotion.

That song was followed up with a number of hit singles and albums, making the group into superstars. Below is a photo of Aerosmith from 1973.

Aerosmith in 1973. From L: Joe Perry; Brad Whitford; Tom Hamilton; Steven Tyler (front); Joey Kramer.

The song Train Kept A-Rollin’ was released by Aerosmith in 1974. Steven Tyler had performed the song before he joined Aerosmith; and Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton had played the song in their previous group, the Jam Band.

Train Kept A-Rollin’ was the only song that Tyler, Perry and Hamilton had each played before forming Aerosmith. Perry had been inspired by seeing the song Stroll On in the movie Blowup (a clip that appears in the preceding section of this post). And Tyler’s band had opened for The Yardbirds in 1966 – so all three had connections to the Yardbirds’ hard-rock version of the song.

Here is a live clip of Aerosmith performing Train Kept A-Rollin’.

This took place at the “Boston Strong” concert at TD Garden in 2013, a concert following the terrorist bombings at the Boston Marathon earlier that year.

The song begins with Joe Perry’s guitar, emulating a train whistle and heavy on the feedback. As is his custom, Steven Tyler has his mic covered with scarves. After Perry and Tom Hamilton propel the song forward on guitar and bass, Tyler begins his vocals. Later on, Brad Whitford also contributes a guitar solo. Steven Tyler has an amazing voice, although he must do incredible damage to his vocal cords.

Train Kept A-Rollin’ was included on Aerosmith’s album Get Your Wings in 1974. It was released as a single but never made the pop charts. However, over the years it has become one of Aerosmith’s signature tunes, and is frequently the closing number at their live concerts.

Think about it: Train Kept A-Rollin’ was released as a single at least four times, and never made the pop charts.  Nevertheless, the song became a “signature tune” for at least three guitarists (Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry), and has remained an iconic hard-rock classic for several decades.  By now the song has been covered by scores of hard-rock groups.  What staying power!

Train Kept A-Rollin’ is featured on three different live Aerosmith compilation albums. The tune
has become so identified with Aerosmith, that when Jeff Beck (whose 1965 and 1966 recordings with the Yardbirds inspired Tyler and Perry) occasionally performs it, he often hears comments like “Hey, I like your angle on the Aerosmith tune”.

Unfortunately, Aerosmith’s commercial success in the 70s was paired with considerable internal turmoil and rampant drug usage. In 1980, Steven Tyler collapsed onstage during a concert in Portland, Maine, and did not get up for the remainder of the concert.

As a result of these issues, Perry and Whitford left the group in the period 1979 – 1981. At that point, it looked like the classic lineup of Aerosmith was finished.

In 1984, Perry and Whitford re-joined the band. However, the legendary drug usage by Aerosmith band members continued until Steven Tyler completed a drug-rehab program in 1986. After that, the other band members gradually got clean and the band embarked on a new era.

Aerosmith then climbed back to the pinnacle of the rock ‘n roll world. Their albums were best-sellers, bolstered by mammoth single hits. Their music videos were blockbusters on MTV, and they were perennially ranked among the top-grossing touring acts.  This was arguably the greatest comeback experienced by any rock band.

Currently, Aerosmith is the best-selling hard-rock band of all time, with over 150 million records sold.
With 25 gold albums, 18 platinum albums, and 12 multi-platinum albums, they hold the record for the most total certifications by an American band and are tied for the most multi-platinum albums by an American band. The band has scored twenty-one Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, nine number-one Mainstream Rock hits, four Grammy Awards, six American Music Awards, and ten MTV Video Music Awards.
Aerosmith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Despite their amazing success, interactions between Steven Tyler and Joe Perry have been characterized by considerable friction.  Their personal relationship continues to be rocky. When Tyler estimated that he had spent $64 million on drugs during his career, Perry countered that
“There’s no f***ing way in the world you could spend that much money on drugs and still be alive.”

Steven Tyler has had a number of physical ailments in the past few decades, including throat surgery and injuries from several falls. Tyler and Perry have also experienced a number of onstage incidents, including
Tyler accidentally hitting Joe Perry in the head with his microphone stand at a show in Wantagh, New York and Perry bumping into Tyler at the Toronto show, which caused Tyler to tumble off the stage.

Aerosmith continues to perform, although they may have completed their final tour. In the meantime, the band is playing a residency in Las Vegas. The band has had not one but two distinct superstar careers. Inspired by groups like the Yardbirds, Aerosmith have themselves influenced a generation of hard-rock bands, including Van Halen, Guns ‘n Roses, Motley Crue and Metallica.

We salute the members of Aerosmith.  We are impressed that the “Boston Bad Boys” have been able to kick their drug habits and (we hope) maintain their sobriety.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Train Kept A-Rollin’
Wikipedia, Tiny Bradshaw
Wikipedia, Johnny Burnette
Wikipedia, The Yardbirds
Wikipedia, Jeff Beck
Wikipedia, Jimmy Page
Wikipedia, Blowup
Wikipedia, Aerosmith

Posted in Hard Rock, Heavy Metal, Jazz, Pop Music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lonely Teardrops: Jackie Wilson; Jay & the Americans; Jose Feliciano.

Hello there! This week our blog features a soul classic, Lonely Teardrops.  This song played a surprisingly important role in the history of rock music. We will first discuss the original by Jackie Wilson; next we will review a cover by Jay and the Americans, and we will finish with a cover by Jose Feliciano.

Jackie Wilson and Lonely Teardrops:

Jack Leroy “Jackie” Wilson was born in 1934 in Detroit. In his youth he was in and out of trouble, serving a couple of stints in detention in the Lansing Correction Center. While in detention, he learned to box and entered Golden Gloves competitions, until his mother forced him to quit and he began singing.

Jackie Wilson was raised in an extended family that spawned a number of great singers. His cousin Levi Stubbs became the lead singer for the Four Tops, and two other cousins were members of the Motown group The Contours.

Below is a photo of Jackie Wilson doing one of his signature dance moves.

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Jackie was initially managed by a promoter named Al Green (not the solo singer by that name). He got his first big break in 1953, when Billy Ward hired him as the lead singer for The Dominoes, replacing Clyde McPhatter who had left that group for The Drifters.

McPhatter coached Jackie and strongly influenced both his singing style and his presence onstage. The Dominoes had a few minor hits with Wilson, but Jackie left in 1957 for a solo career.

Jackie Wilson had a big breakthrough when he began collaborating with a relatively unknown songwriter, Berry Gordy, Jr. In 1957 and 1958, Gordy and his colleagues wrote a string of hit songs for Jackie. Their biggest hit was the 1958 song Lonely Teardrops. This song was co-written by Gordy, his sister Gwendolyn Gordy and “Tyran Carlo,” which was a pseudonym for Roquel Davis.

The lyrics of Lonely Teardrops describe a man who is in torment because his woman has left him.  It paints a picture of a man whose heart is burning and who spends most evenings crying over his loss.

Lonely teardrops
My pillow’s never dry of lonely teardrops
Come home, come home
Just say you will, say you will
(Say you will) say you will, (say you will)
Hey, hey (say you will)

Just give me another chance for our romance
Come on and tell me that one day you’ll return
‘Cause, every day that you’ve been gone away
You know my heart does nothing but burn, crying

So here is a “live” performance of Lonely Teardrops by Jackie Wilson.

I believe this is lip-synched; however, there is no doubt that Jackie could perform this song at the same level in person. It features Jackie riffing effortlessly through the song and displaying his spectacular vocal gifts.

An interesting trivia point is that Berry Gordy’s initial impulse was to record this song as a slow ballad. However, after it was recorded the executives at Brunswick Records felt that it could be improved; so they turned the arranging over to Dick Jacobs, who converted the song into its final up-tempo form.

Well, Lonely Teardrops hit #1 on the R&B charts and #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. And it changed the lives of everyone involved in the song. As the tune climbed the charts, Jackie Wilson appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show (the clip we just showed was from Wilson’s appearance with Dick Clark).

Roquel Davis parlayed his success with Lonely Teardrops into a job at Chess Records. And Berry Gordy used his profits from the song (and managing Jackie Wilson) to open his own record label, Motown Records.

Wilson’s career trajectory at this time was similar to Michael Jackson’s. Jackie had it all – a three-octave vocal range, coupled with a dynamic stage presence.
Wilson’s powerful, electrifying live performances rarely failed to bring audiences to a state of frenzy. His live performances consisted of knee-drops, splits, spins,back-flips, one-footed across-the-floor slides, removing his tie and jacket and throwing them off the stage, [plus] a lot of basic boxing steps.
One of Wilson’s signature knee-drops was seen on the video above, together with his effortless dance moves.

Wilson earned the name “Mr. Excitement” for his electric stage presence. Among artists who were inspired by Jackie were Elvis Presley, James Brown and Michael Jackson. In fact, Presley made a point of meeting Jackie Wilson.

Elvis has received criticism for “borrowing” some of Jackie Wilson’s signature moves. However, Elvis was happy to credit Wilson for his inspiration, and Jackie harbored no jealousy over the success of his good friend Elvis. Below is a photo of Elvis with Jackie.

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The movie La Bamba was a bio-pic of singer Ritchie Valens. At one point in the film, Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) gets a big break when he headlines one of Alan Freed’s rock ‘n roll shows in Brooklyn. He appears on the same bill as roots rockers Eddie Cochran (Brian Setzer) and Jackie Wilson.

Here is a clip from the rock ‘n roll show scene in La Bamba. It features Howard Huntsberry, who steals the show as Jackie Wilson. I really enjoy this video as it demonstrates why Wilson was known as “Mr. Excitement.”

After hitting the top rungs in rock and roll stardom in the late 50s and 60s, Jackie Wilson’s later years were truly heartbreaking.

In the late 60s, the IRS filed suit against Jackie Wilson for non-payment of taxes and they seized Wilson’s home. Jackie discovered that Tarnopol, who had power of attorney over his finances, had systematically looted his earnings. Tarnopol and his associates were charged with mail fraud and tax evasion, and were convicted. As part of this trial, they were supposed to provide Wilson with restitution of $1 million; however, an appeals court subsequently overturned the convictions.

On Sept. 29, 1975, Jackie Wilson was one of the headliners on Dick Clark’s Good Ol’ Rock and Roll Revue show in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. During the concert Wilson was performing the song Lonely Teardrops, when he sang the lyrics “My heart is crying,” and immediately collapsed onstage.

The audience cheered, thinking that this was part of Jackie’s act. But Dick Clark knew something was wrong. He discovered that Jackie Wilson had suffered a massive stroke. Although doctors were able to revive him, Wilson went into a coma because his brain had been deprived of oxygen.

Over the next year, Jackie recovered slightly, but he then slipped back into a coma. He spent the next nine years in hospitals and retirement homes, until he died in 1984 from complications due to pneumonia.

To make matters even worse, Jackie Wilson suffered his stroke just before he was to go to trial on a civil suit charging his former manager Nat Tarnopol with defrauding him. So Wilson died a pauper at age 49.

Jackie Wilson was an incredibly talented performer. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the R&B Hall of Fame in 2013. He also received the highest compliments from fellow performers and colleagues.

Smokey Robinson said
“Jackie Wilson was the most dynamic singer and performer that I think I’ve ever seen.”
Berry Gordy stated that Wilson was
“The greatest singer I’ve ever heard. The epitome of natural greatness. Unfortunately for some, he set the standard I’d be looking for in singers forever”.

To make matters worse (if that is possible), for several years after Wilson’s death his records were not available, because Nat Tarnopol owned the rights to Wilson’s music, and his record company had gone out of business because of mismanagement.

However, after Michael Jackson called out a tribute to Wilson at the 1984 Grammy Awards and dedicated his album Thriller to Jackie, this generated renewed interest in Wilson’s music, whereupon Tarnopol and his son re-issued Jackie’s records.

Jackie – we salute you “Mr. Excitement,” up there in rock ‘n roll heaven.

Jay and the Americans and Lonely Teardrops:

Jay and the Americans were an American pop group who had a number of hit records in the 60s. They began as a quartet composed of students from New York University. Their lead singer was Jay Traynor, together with Howard Kane, Kenny Vance and Sandy Deanne.

The group auditioned for – who else? – Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in the late 50s, and Leiber and Stoller gave the group its name.

The first big hit from Jay and the Americans was the 1962 release She Cried. That song reached #5 on the Billboard pop charts. It was later covered by the girl group The Shangri-Las and even later by Aerosmith.

Below is a photo of Jay and the Americans from 1970.

Embed from Getty Images

However, after the group’s first hit their next few records bombed, and at that point Jay Traynor left the group. This left “Jay and the Americans” in a quandary, as they could replace their lead singer but it would leave the group with an anomalous name.

They solved their problem by bringing in lead singer David Blatt from The Empires. Blatt was given a condition – you can join our band, but you have to adopt the name “Jay.” He agreed and – voila! – David Blatt became “Jay Black.”

With Jay Black as their lead singer, Jay and the Americans entered their “golden era.” In 1964 their song Come A Little Bit Closer reached #3 on the Billboard playlists, and in 1965 Cara Mia hit #4.

Here is the audio of Jay and the Americans in a cover of Lonely Teardrops.

The song is played to accompany video clips from the movie When Harry Met Sally. I’m not sure of the rationale behind this, as Lonely Teardrops was not featured in that movie. However, this was the only video I could find that included the Jay and the Americans cover of this song.

Jay and the Americans produce a perfectly acceptable version of Lonely Teardrops, but it is just a pale imitation of the pop classic from Jackie Wilson.

Since we could not find a live version of Lonely Teardrops, here are Jay and the Americans singing Cara Mia.

Although this is billed as a “live” performance, I’m convinced that it is lip-synched. It took place on the TV program Shindig in 1965, and showcases the Shindig dancers cavorting around.

Unlike several “oldies” musicians, who continue to perform long after their voices have given out, until recently Jay Black was still able to produce some impressive vocals. In live concerts Mr. Black still reached for the highest notes on Cara Mia, and he usually nailed them.

Alas, a 1969 cover of This Magic Moment was pretty much it for Jay and the Americans. After that song, they never again placed a record in the top 10. In 1973, the group split up, but for many years Jay Black continued to perform as “Jay and the Americans.”

However, Jay Black had a serious gambling problem and eventually was forced to declare bankruptcy. In 2006, the naming rights to “Jay and the Americans” were purchased at auction by former band member Sandy Deanne. At that point the original “Americans” members Deanne, Howard Kane and Marty Sanders re-united.

They found a new lead singer John Reinecke, whose nickname was – you guessed it! – “Jay.” Thus, a new “Jay and the Americans” was formed. That group performed all the old hits from both Jay Traynor and Jay Black.

So, these days you can now catch “Jay and the Americans” touring with Jay Reinecke; the former David Blatt also continues to perform as “Jay Black.”  The original “Jay,” Jay Traynor, was performing with The Tokens (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) until his death in January 2014.

Jose Feliciano and Lonely Teardrops:

We discussed Jose Feliciano in our blog post on the Doors’ song Light My Fire. Here we will briefly review his life and career. Below is a photo of Jose Feliciano performing in the late 1960s.

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Jose Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945. He was blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. At the age of five his family moved to Spanish Harlem.

He became obsessed with the guitar, reportedly practicing up to 14 hours a day. Feliciano loved rock and roll, although the greatest influences on his style were classical guitarist Andres Segovia and jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

Jose Feliciano developed a trademark guitar style which prominently features both his jazz and flamenco influences. He applied his guitar technique to a number of popular songs with some spectacular success. From his familiarity with flamenco style, he was the first guitarist to introduce nylon-string guitars into rock music.

Feliciano began his musical career by playing in clubs in the US and Canada, and signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. He then traveled to Argentina and the UK, and became famous across Latin America.

After moving to LA, he hooked up with producer Rick Jarrard. They released a Latin-style version of The Doors’ Light My Fire that became a blockbuster hit. As a result, Jose Feliciano won Grammy Awards in 1969 for both Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year.

Here is Jose Feliciano in a live version of Lonely Teardrops.

As usual, Jose Feliciano gives a unique twist to a popular song. Here, he slows down the tempo and produces a raw and searing version of the Jackie Wilson classic.

Feliciano provides a couple of short but stunning flamenco and jazz-inspired guitar runs, one at about the 2:30 mark in the song and a second right at the ending. Those touches are worth the sub-par quality of the video.

One of the hallmarks of a great pop song is that it can be reprised in many different formats, and still retain its power. That is certainly the case with Lonely Teardrops, as evidenced by Jose Feliciano’s jazz-flamenco cover.

Following his one massive hit with Light My Fire, Jose Feliciano hit the big time once more in 1970 with his Latin-inspired song, Feliz Navidad, which has become a Christmas classic.

Since then he has continued to record, to tour around the world, and to garner occasional awards for his records, and for his collaborative efforts with musicians in many varied fields.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Lonely Teardrops
Wikipedia, Jackie Wilson
Wikipedia, Jay and the Americans
Wikipedia, Jose Feliciano

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

Wooly Bully: Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs; Joan Jett & the Blackhearts; Los Pacaminos

Hello there! This week our blog features a novelty rock song, Wooly Bully. We will first discuss the original by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. Next, we will review a cover of this song by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and we will finish with a cover by Los Pacaminos.

Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs and Wooly Bully:

Domingo “Sam” Samudio was born in January 1937 in Dallas, Texas. He began his singing career in school, where he formed a group with school mates who included Trini Lopez.

In 1961, Samudio formed a pop group called “The Pharoahs.” He was inspired by Yul Brynner’s “Pharoah” costume in the 1956 Cecil B. DeMille epic The Ten Commandments.

Although the original “Pharoahs” disbanded after only one year, Samudio later formed a new group with the same name. Below is a publicity photo for Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. Sam Samudio is in front wearing a turban.

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Sam Samudio wrote the novelty tune Wooly Bully in 1964. Samudio based his song on a 12-bar blues tune called Hully Gully Now by Big Bo and the Arrows. The song Hully Gully Now was itself based on the song Feelin’ Good by Junior Parker.

In his version, Samudio simply replaced the words ‘Hully Gully’ with ‘Wooly Bully,’ which he claimed was the name of his pet cat. Sam retained the phrase “watch it now, watch it now” from the tune by Big Bo and the Arrows.

The song Wooly Bully recounts a discussion between ‘Mattie’ and ‘Hattie’ regarding a strange creature that Mattie had seen.

Uno, dos, one, two, tres, cuatro
Mattie told Hattie about a thing she saw
Had two big horns and a wooly jaw

[CHORUS] Wooly bully, wooly bully,
Wooly bully, wooly bully, wooly bully

Hattie told Mattie, let’s don’t take no chance
Let’s not be L-seven, come and learn to dance

[CHORUS]

So here is Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs in a live performance of Wooly Bully from 1965.

Wooly Bully features an insistent beat that propels the song forward. This is buttressed by Sam Samudio’s strong vocals, pulsating keyboards, and a rocking horn section.

The song shot up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. It was beaten out for #1 first by the Beach Boys Help Me, Rhonda and then by Back In My Arms Again from The Supremes.

However, despite the fact that it never cracked #1, Wooly Bully was named Number One Record of 1965 by Billboard. This was primarily because the tune remained on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for an unusually long 18 weeks, by far the longest tenure on the charts for any song in 1965.

Note that Sam the Sham and his group are dressed up in Egyptian costumes (hence the name The Pharoahs). It was typical of early Hispanic rock groups to conceal their ethnic origins, out of concern that their popularity would suffer if it was known that they were Hispanic or Mexican.

However, Sam reveals his Hispanic roots when he counts out the beat at the beginning in Tex-Mex lingo – “uno, dos, one, two, tres, cuatro.”

The lyrics to Wooly Bully are somewhat obscure. Some people suspected that the song contained sly obscene references, and there are reports that the song was banned on some radio stations.
The warning, “Let’s not be L-7”, means “Let’s not be square”, from the shape formed by the fingers making an L on one hand and a 7 on the other.

By the way, Wooly Bully was initially released in 1964 on the obscure XL label from Memphis. The tune was subsequently given a national release by MGM in 1965, and it then shot up the charts. Wooly Bully was recorded in the Sam C. Phillips studios in Memphis, the successor to Phillips’ legendary Sun Records studios.

A couple of trivia notes. First, Wooly Bully was the biggest hit ever recorded in the Sam C. Phillips studios. Also, the song was the first American record to sell over a million copies during the period of the British Invasion.

Wooly Bully has appeared in a number of movies that reference youth culture in the 60s. For example, the song appears in the films The Rookie, Full Metal Jacket, Splash, Scrooged, Monsters vs. Aliens and Mr. Holland’s Opus.

Here is a clip of Wooly Bully appearing in the teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

This scene appeared at the end of the movie. At a high school dance, student Jeff Spicoli jumps onstage and joins the band in their vocals.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High was directed by Amy Heckerling. The script was written by Cameron Crowe and is based on the book by Crowe (with the same title) after he went undercover impersonating a student at Clairemont High School in San Diego.

The film was a surprise hit, and was the breakout role for Sean Penn who played surfer slacker Jeff Spicoli. Spicoli spent the entire movie being hassled by sarcastic teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walton). The film also featured prominent roles by young actors Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates (appearing in a memorable topless scene), Nicolas Cage and Forest Whitaker.

Despite Roger Ebert’s dismissive review that termed it “a scuz-pit of a movie,” Fast Times At Ridgemont High has become a cult classic. It was rated #87 on the American Film Institute’s 2000 list “AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Laughs.”

And now back to Sam The Sham. Following his success with Wooly Bully, Sam became somewhat typecast as a producer of novelty songs. He struck gold once more with Li’l Red Riding Hood in 1966, which made it to #2 on the Billboard pop charts. However, follow-up songs such as The Hair On My Chinny-Chin-Chin, I Couldn’t Spell !!*@! and Oh That’s Good, No That’s Bad all tanked.

In the 1980s, Sam Samudio collaborated with Ry Cooder and Freddy Fender on the soundtrack for the Jack Nicholson film The Border. Some time after that, Sam quit the music business. He was employed in Mexico as an interpreter, and also worked on fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nowadays Sam Samudio works as a motivational speaker. We are told that he also makes the occasional concert appearance even today. We salute Mr. Samudio, who had a couple of big novelty hits and “walked like an Egyptian.”

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and Wooly Bully:

Joan Jett has been a female rock icon for a few decades now. She can rock out with the best of them, and has crafted a career that has spanned the eras of hard rock, glam rock, punk rock and now hip-hop.

Joan Marie Larkin was born in September, 1958 in a suburb of Philadelphia. As a child, she began taking guitar lessons, but quit when her instructors insisted on teaching her folk music. After her parents divorced, Joan adopted her mother’s maiden name Jett.

In 1975, Joan Jett was one of the founding members of the West Coast all-girl band The Runaways. They developed a strong regional following and opened on tour for bands such as Cheap Trick, Van Halen and The Ramones.

Although the Runaways became international favorites in Europe, Asia and South America, they never achieved much commercial success in the U.S.  When the group disbanded in 1979, Joan Jett set out on a solo career.

While pursuing a number of potential projects, Joan met songwriter and producer Kenny Laguna. The two teamed up and recorded a demo album in England, which they brought back to the States. After the album was rejected by 23 different record companies (!) Laguna took his daughter’s college savings, created Blackheart Records, and issued Jett’s record on his own label.

Laguna then formed The Blackhearts to serve as Joan’s backing band. Over the next couple of years, the group steadily built up a following, although they were sufficiently strapped for funds that they were reduced to selling albums out of the trunk of their car following concerts.

Below is a photo of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, circa 1989.

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However, this all changed in 1982 when I Love Rock and Roll, the title single from the group’s album of the same name, rocketed up to #1 on the Billboard singles chart.

That song became a youth anthem and a cult classic. It is currently rated #56 all time by Billboard magazine, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2016. The  success of this song catapulted Joan Jett and her band to superstar status, and she has remained on top for the past few decades.

Here is Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in a live performance of Wooly Bully.

This took place in 1982 and was filmed on the German TV rock show Rockpop. Joan and the Blackhearts barrel through their cover of Wooly Bully. Lead guitarist Ricky Byrd provides an energetic guitar solo that matches Joan’s powerful vocals, to the delight of the German audience who are clapping and bopping throughout.

Well, Joan Jett has been described as “The Godmother of Punk” and “The Original Riot Grrrl.” Hard rock has not been a welcoming place for female artists, and women have to work overtime to be accepted into this male-dominated society. However, few would argue with Joan Jett’s credentials as a bona fide rocker.

You know that you have achieved fame when you become a household name in popular culture. Thus, Joan Jett knew she had truly made it when Mattel released a “Joan Jett Barbie doll” in 2009. Also, cartoonist Berke Breathed introduced a band called Tess Turbo and the Blackheads in his comic strip Bloom County.

MMA fighter Ronda Rousey used the Joan Jett song Bad Reputation as her walking-out music. And the Women’s NCAA basketball tournament chose a Joan Jett tune as the theme song for their Final Four Weekend.

Cementing her reputation as a genuine rocker, Joan Jett is ranked #87 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.  Ms. Jett has also appeared in a number of films to generally supportive reviews.

So, here’s to Joan Jett. She worked hard at her craft in a genre where very few women have made it to the top. And she succeeded on her own terms. We hope that she continues to enjoy her success.

Los Pacaminos and Wooly Bully:

Los Pacaminos are a really interesting group. They were formed by frontman Paul Young, a British singer who had several pop hits.

Paul Young was born in Luton, Bedfordshire, England in January 1956. As a youth, he divided his time between semi-pro soccer and music. He joined a couple of bands as a bass player and vocalist, and they built up a following in England.

In 1980 Young was the lead singer with a group called the Q Tips. They specialized in covers of R&B songs, performing a “blue-eyed soul” routine similar to that of the great American duo Hall and Oates.  But the Q Tips never quite managed to break through commercially, so in 1982 they disbanded and Young signed a solo contract with Columbia Records.

In 1983 Young’s cover of the Marvin Gaye song Wherever I Lay My Hat reached #1 on the UK pop charts. Young became a star in Britain and had considerable success in Europe.

Then in 1985, Young’s cover of the Hall & Oates tune Everytime You Go Away became a smash international hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. At this point Young’s career really took off.

Young was a headliner at the Live Aid charity concert, and he sang a cover of the Crowded House tune Don’t Dream It’s Over at the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert. In 1992, Young performed the song Radio Ga Ga with the surviving members of Queen at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.

Given Young’s popularity as a singer of blue-eyed soul tunes and “adult contemporary” music, it seemed a great surprise when he formed the group Los Pacaminos in 1990.

Los Pacaminos are a Tex-Mex band. They were inspired by music from Ry Cooder and groups such as the Texas Tornados. Young assembled a group of musicians who were expert in this genre, and they began performing in small clubs before heading out on tour.

Below is a photo of Los Pacaminos performing at the Camp Bestival Festival in Dorset.

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Los Pacaminos has released a couple of albums and continues to tour. Here is Los Pacaminos in a live cover of Wooly Bully.

I enjoy this studio version of the classic from Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs. The band really wails through this number, including a fine pedal steel guitar solo and that Tex-Mex staple, the accordion. The song was recorded in a single take at London’s Berry Street Studios in July 2010.

It would certainly be a treat to catch Los Pacaminos in concert. I wish Paul Young all the best. He continues to combine touring and performing his solo hits with the occasional performance by Los Pacaminos.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Wooly Bully
Wikipedia, Sam the Sham
Wikipedia, Joan Jett
Wikipedia, Paul Young

Posted in Hard Rock, Pop Music, Rock and roll, Tex-Mex Music | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wild World: Cat Stevens; Jimmy Cliff; Jose Feliciano.

Hello there! This week our blog features a lovely pop song, Wild World. We will first discuss the original by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam). Next, we will review a cover by Jimmy Cliff, and we will finish with a cover by Jose Feliciano.

Cat Stevens and Wild World:

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

As a youth Mr. Georgiou bought a guitar, taught himself how to play, and began to compose pop songs. He was performing at age 17, and signed a record contract at 18 under his stage name Cat Stevens. He had his first single hit, Matthew and Son, at age 19.

Below is a photo of Cat Stevens performing in 1971.

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Initially, Stevens gained fans in Britain both as a solo artist and as a songwriter. However, his solo career did not blossom in the U.S. until 1970, when his folk-rock album Mona Bone Jakon was released, and became a big seller.

Stevens released this album after signing a new record deal with Island Records where he began to work with producer Alun Davies. Their partnership has now endured for nearly five decades.

Stevens’ major international breakthrough was the late-1970 release Tea For The Tillerman. A really big single hit from Tea For The Tillerman was Wild World, a song that Stevens wrote after his two-year relationship with American actress Patti d’Arbanville ended.

Wild World is a lament written by a man to his lover who is leaving him. He declares his heartbreak, while warning her that she could be hurt by the “wild world” that she is entering.

Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you want to start something new
And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving
Baby, I’m grieving

But if you want to leave, take good care
Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there

[CHORUS] Oh baby baby it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh baby baby it’s a wild world
I’ll always remember you like a child, girl

Wild World made it to #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists, and became Stevens’ first big international hit.

So here is Cat Stevens in a live performance of Wild World on the BBC in 1970. Mr. Stevens is accompanied by Alun Davies on guitar.

Isn’t this lovely? Wild World was the first Cat Stevens song that I heard, and it made a vivid impression on me. Stevens’ voice, soft and vulnerable, was a perfect match for his highly personal and moving lyrics. And the melody was haunting and memorable.

In this case, there is no doubt that Wild World was deeply heartfelt for Mr. Stevens. The breakup of his relationship with Patti d’Arbanville was devastating to him.

At the same time, some feminists have criticized this song as misogynistic. I think they have a point. Stevens portrays Ms. d’Arbanville as “like a child,” and though he cautions her about the dangers of the “wild world,” he adds “I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear.” Despite the criticism, Wild World is still a favorite song of mine.

In addition to the two covers that we feature in this blog post, there have been many other covers of Wild World. In 1988, the artist Maxi Priest released a reggae cover of the song. His version, which appeared to be strongly influenced by Jimmy Cliff’s cover, reached #27 on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists.

In 1987, a controversy arose when Jonathan King accused the group Pet Shop Boys of plagiarizing the Wild World melody in their #1 UK hit It’s A Sin. In order to demonstrate his point, King released a cover of Wild World that was deliberately arranged in the style of It’s A Sin.

Unfortunately for Mr. King, his tactic backfired badly. King’s cover of Wild World flopped commercially; then King was subsequently sued by Pet Shop Boys and had to settle out of court.

Wild World was one of several best-selling singles from Tea For The Tillerman, which also included such Cat Stevens classics as Hard-Headed Woman and Father and Son. Four of the songs from that album were incorporated into the 1971 black comedy film Harold and Maude.

Buoyed by the breakout success of this album, Cat Stevens became an international superstar. He released a series of albums that went gold and spun off successful singles. His name was mentioned in the same category as great singer-songwriters such as Paul Simon and Elton John.

As time went by , Cat Stevens became increasingly interested in religion and philosophy. He had contracted tuberculosis in 1969, an illness that became a near-death experience and required a year of convalescence. During that period he wrote a slew of songs, but also spent much time thinking about his life and purpose.

After nearly drowning while swimming in Malibu, California in 1976, Cat Stevens converted to Islam, taking the name Yusuf Islam.  After his conversion, Mr. Islam abandoned his musical career, and began to donate royalties from his songs to various charities. He did not perform again for many years.

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

Yusuf Islam has steadfastly denied ever supporting the fatwa against Rushdie. He claims that he was merely trying to explain to reporters the meaning of a fatwa. Given his long-time charity work and his award-winning efforts on behalf of peace and non-violence, I am inclined to give Mr. Islam the benefit of the doubt.

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

In 2004, Yusuf Islam received the Man of Peace Award from the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.  Despite receiving this honor, he was denied entry into the U.S. when he attempted to fly into Washington from London. He successfully sued the British papers The Sun and The Sunday Times after they claimed he was a supporter of terrorism.

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

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

In 2014, Cat Stevens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Below is a recent photo of Yusuf in concert. He was performing at a service of remembrance in Christchurch, New Zealand following the massacre of worshippers in  mosques.

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It’s great to see Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam back on the road again. Critics say that he seems to be enjoying himself immensely.

Jimmy Cliff and Wild World:

Jimmy Cliff is a Jamaican singer-songwriter, and also an actor. He was born James Chambers in 1948; he was raised in St. James, Jamaica and began writing songs at quite an early age.  He began a collaboration at age 14 with producer Leslie Kong. Kong got Cliff a deal with the major Jamaican record company, Island Records.

Here is a photo of Jimmy Cliff from about 1970.

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Although Cliff had some commercial success with his early songs, his career really took off in 1972 when he starred in the reggae movie drama, The Harder They Come. That movie introduced people all over the world to reggae music, and is undoubtedly the best movie ever to feature reggae. Cliff sang a number of songs in that film.

Jimmy Cliff issued a cover of Wild World in 1970, just a few months after Cat Stevens’ own single was released. Here is a live (or possibly lip-synched) performance by Jimmy Cliff of this song.

Cliff has a really terrific tenor voice, which he uses to great effect here. I especially like the gospel choir that appears on the chorus, and forms an impressive counterpoint to Cliff’s high, clear vocals.

Cliff slows down Wild World a bit, and to great effect. I play both versions of Wild World when I am down, and one can get rid of quite a lot of emotion singing these songs in the shower.

Jimmy Cliff has had a long and relatively successful career. Although all reggae musicians live in the gigantic shadow of Bob Marley, Cliff is the only living musician who has been awarded the Order of Merit by the Jamaican government.

Originally a Rastafarian, Cliff converted to Islam in the late 1970s. However, he now states that he is not aligned with any religion, but “now I believe in science.” This physicist gives that remark a thumbs-up!

In 2010, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. We salute him for his long, successful career.

Jose Feliciano and Wild World:

We discussed Jose Feliciano in our blog post on the Doors’ song Light My Fire, and also for his cover of the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Here we will briefly review his life and career.

Jose Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico in 1945. He was blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma. At the age of five his family moved to Spanish Harlem.

He became obsessed with the guitar, reportedly practicing up to 14 hours a day. Feliciano loved rock and roll, although his greatest stylistic influences were classical guitarist Andres Segovia and jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery.

Here is a photo of Jose Feliciano performing in the late 1960s.

Embed from Getty Images

Jose Feliciano developed a trademark guitar style that prominently features both his jazz and flamenco influences. He applied his guitar technique to a number of popular songs with some spectacular success. Through his familiarity with flamenco style, he was the first guitarist to introduce nylon-string guitars into rock music.

Feliciano began his musical career by playing in clubs in the US and Canada, and signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. He then traveled to Argentina and the UK, and became famous across Latin America.

After moving to LA, he hooked up with producer Rick Jarrard. They released a Latin-style version of The Doors’ Light My Fire that became a blockbuster hit. As a result, Jose Feliciano won Grammy Awards in 1969 for both Pop Song of the Year and New Artist of the Year.

So here is Jose Feliciano in a live performance of Wild World.

I have great admiration for Mr. Feliciano. He applies his unique guitar playing and vocal styling to every song he encounters. Here, he blasts through an up-tempo version of Wild World, giving an impressive combination of flamenco and jazz playing.

Feliciano’s powerful vocals provide this song with new meaning. One of the hallmarks of a great pop song is that it can be reprised in many different formats, and still retain its power. That is certainly the case with Wild World.

In October 1968, Jose Feliciano sang The Star-Spangled Banner prior to a World Series game in Detroit. As was his custom, he gave a Latin-influenced, stylized version of the national anthem. We covered his presentation in our blog post on performances of the national anthem.

Jose Feliciano’s version became highly controversial, with traditionalists deeply criticizing his interpretation of the song. At that time, people were not accustomed to a non-standard treatment of our national anthem.

However, with the passage of time his performance has become appreciated as a creative and sincere expression of this song. He has been invited back to reprise his version of the national anthem at major-league baseball games.

Following his first big hit Light My Fire, Jose Feliciano had a second best-selling single in 1970 with his Latin-inspired song, Feliz Navidad, which has become a Christmas classic.

Since then he has continued to record, to tour around the world, and to garner occasional awards for his records, and for his collaborative efforts with musicians in many varied fields. There is currently a campaign to have Jose Feliciano inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It has not yet been successful, but he’s got my vote!

We wish Jose Feliciano many more happy and productive years.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Wild World (song)
Wikipedia, Cat Stevens
Wikipedia, Jimmy Cliff
Wikipedia, Jose Feliciano

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