White Rabbit: The Great Society; Jefferson Airplane; Elephant Revival.

Hello there! This week our blog features a terrific 60s hard-rock tune, White Rabbit. We will first discuss the original version by The Great Society. Next, we will review a cover by Jefferson Airplane and we finish with a cover by Elephant Revival.

The Great Society and White Rabbit:

The Great Society was one of the early Bay Area acid-rock bands. It was formed in the summer of 1965 by musicians who were inspired by the Beatles. After a couple of personnel changes, the group eventually featured Grace Slick, who was born Grace Barnett Wing in October 1939, on lead vocals. The other band members were Grace’s husband at the time Jerry Slick on drums, Jerry’s brother Darby Slick on guitar, and Peter Van Gelder on bass and other instruments.  Below is a photo of The Great Society.

The 60s Bay Area rock band The Great Society.

The Great Society developed some notoriety in the Bay Area. They only released a single song, Someone To Love written by Darby Slick. The producer of that record was Sylvester Stewart, who later achieved fame as the leader of Sly and the Family Stone.

Grace Slick wrote the song White Rabbit in 1965. Legend has it that she composed it after an acid trip, and that would certainly make sense. The song chronicles events described in Lewis Carroll’s masterpieces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through The Looking-Glass (1871).

Slick injects references to several of Lewis Carroll’s characters – the White Rabbit, the caterpillar, the White Knight, the Red Queen, and of course The Dormouse.

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all
Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call
And call Alice, when she was just small

When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know

What an inspired idea – to use scenes from Alice In Wonderland, so redolent of a drug trip, as a means to smuggle in allusions to drug use. In hindsight, it is mind-boggling that these lyrics made it past the censors on AM radio. There is nothing at all subtle about the drug references here!

White Rabbit contains some absolutely memorable lines – “One pill makes you smaller, one pill makes you tall, and the ones that Mother gives you don’t do anything at all …. Remember what the Dormouse said, Feed Your Head.”

This song was frequently featured by The Great Society in live performances. Here is audio of The Great Society featuring lead singer Grace Slick, in a live performance of White Rabbit.

This performance took place in April 1966 at The Matrix in San Francisco. We will hear more about The Matrix in the following section.

Anyway, this is a long, drawn-out version of White Rabbit. It begins with a 2 ½ minute soprano sax solo by Peter Van Gelder, where you can definitely see the influence of John Coltrane on Van Gelder. It then segues into a 2-minute guitar solo by Darby Slick that is – how can I say? – pretty darn awful. Darby displays pedestrian guitar skills and his solo simply wanders around aimlessly.

In the last two minutes of the song we finally hear from Grace Slick. At the beginning her vocals are somewhat halting; however, by the end we get the powerful contralto voice with the shimmering vibrato that we associate with Grace.

I always like to show live video performances of my bands. If I can’t locate a video of the desired song, I will include a clip of a different tune. However, for The Great Society I have struck out; I am unable to locate any live video of the band.

Despite this, I am happy to profile The Great Society. They were one of the early Bay-Area psychedelic bands, along with The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. They featured lead singer Grace Slick, who would rapidly reach super-star status with Jefferson Airplane.

Based on their live sets at The Matrix, and also opening for local bands such as Jefferson Airplane, the Great Society began to gain a devoted following in northern California. In fall 1966 Columbia Records offered the band a record deal.

Unfortunately, just days earlier Jefferson Airplane’s lead singer Signe Toly Anderson quit after she had a baby, and Grace Slick had agreed to join the Airplane. The Great Society could not survive without their lead singer and main songwriter, so they folded.

However, after Grace became world-famous as the lead singer for Jefferson Airplane, Columbia Records released two Great Society albums that were compiled from tapes of live performances at The Matrix.

When she changed bands, Grace brought along two songs from her former group. These two tunes – White Rabbit and Somebody To Love – would become the first mammoth commercial hits for the Airplane, and turned into two of the signature Jefferson Airplane tunes.

So although they were never very successful as a rock band, The Great Society nevertheless played a significant role in the history of psychedelic rock, and on the growth of hippie culture in the Bay Area.

Jefferson Airplane and White Rabbit:

In 1965, singer Marty Balin bought an old pizza joint in San Francisco and opened a club called The Matrix. Inspired by groups such as The Byrds, Balin was interested in the folk-rock scene. Piece by piece, Balin began assembling the house band at The Matrix, which became Jefferson Airplane.

By summer 1966, Jefferson Airplane included Balin and Signe Toly Anderson as co-lead vocalists, Paul Kantner on rhythm guitar, Jorma Kaukonen on lead guitar, Jack Casady on bass and Spencer Dryden on drums.

When Grace Slick replaced Signe Toly Anderson in October 1966, this formed the “classic lineup” of Jefferson Airplane. Rock entrepreneur Bill Graham took over as the band’s manager, and within a few months the band’s fame spread from the Bay Area to the world stage.  Below is a photo of Jefferson Airplane.

The psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane.

In February 1967, Jefferson Airplane released the album Surrealistic Pillow, which shot up the Billboard album charts, eventually peaking at #3. Two single releases from that album, Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, made it to #5 and #8, respectively, on the Billboard Hot 100 playlists.

Next, Jefferson Airplane were headliners at the 1967 “Summer of Love” Monterey Pop Festival. The band prominently featured in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the festival – whereupon Jefferson Airplane, in addition to Monterey Pop performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin, rocketed to international stardom.

Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were bands that seemed to exemplify the Bay Area music and culture scene. San Francisco, and in particular the Haight-Ashbury district, became the epicenter for the hippie lifestyle.

So here is Jefferson Airplane in a live performance of White Rabbit.

This is from an appearance by the Jefferson Airplane on the Smothers Brothers TV show. I am not sure whether the band is actually playing or just lip-synching. However, I include this clip because it features pulsating colored shapes in the background. This involved a new ‘Chroma Key’ process and was considered a breakthrough in TV video technology. These increasingly complex psychedelic light shows became a signature look for the Airplane, and represented an integral part of their prominence in the acid-rock scene.

It is stunning to see the transformation of the tune White Rabbit. Where the Great Society version was long, slow and meandering, the Jefferson Airplane version is short and snappy. It begins with a brief intro featuring Jack Casady on bass and Jorma Kaukonen on guitar. Legend has it that the tempo chosen by Grace Slick was inspired by Ravel’s Bolero, and you can certainly hear the similarities.

There is nothing hesitant about Grace Slick’s vocals, which start out strong and continue to build. The tune climaxes with Grace’s stirring vibrato declaiming “Feed your head.” It is said that Grace was attracted by the professionalism of the Jefferson Airplane musicians, in contrast to the Great Society amateurs (apparently their record producer Sly Stone quit after Great Society required 50 takes on a song, before they got it right).

Below we show one of those great 60s posters for Jefferson Airplane that explicitly refers to White Rabbit.

A 1967 psychedelic poster for Jefferson Airplane.

And here is yet another poster for White Rabbit, this one featuring a profusion of psychedelic mushrooms (plus a tiny ‘Jefferson Airplane’).

A poster for the Jefferson Airplane tune White Rabbit.

In August 1969 Jefferson Airplane were headliners at the Woodstock Festival. Given their breakout two years earlier at the Monterey Pop Festival, it is not surprising that the Airplane were also triumphant at Woodstock – in fact, they were the only band to headline all three of the iconic late-60s festivals: Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont.

In the late 60s, Jefferson Airplane were flying high; however, strong tensions arose within the group. A major issue was antipathy between their co-lead singers Marty Balin and Grace Slick. While Marty favored sophisticated ballads, Grace was associated with the band’s hard-rocking anthems.

With the advent of hard-rock ensembles such as Jimi Hendrix and Cream, Jefferson Airplane followed suit and increasingly began to emphasize psychedelic music. Several of their new hits were co-written by Slick and Paul Kantner.

As a former model, Grace was a charismatic presence and she rather eclipsed Balin in the public eye. To make matters worse, Grace was prone to sleeping with various of her bandmates. This is never a recipe for stability in a group, and her behavior in this regard really bothered Balin.

In 1969, Grace Slick had throat surgery and during her recuperation, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady fronted a combo called Hot Tuna, that oscillated between acoustic folk-rock sets and power-blues electric jams reminiscent of Cream. For the next couple of years, Hot Tuna would frequently open for Jefferson Airplane concerts, and that band began to occupy more and more of Kaukonen and Casady’s time.

A competing faction was led by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. In late 1970 Kantner released an album titled Blows Against The Empire that was credited to “Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship.” Starship was a group that initially included David Crosby and Graham Nash from CSN, Grateful Dead members Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, plus several others.

Tired of being shunted to the side, Balin left Jefferson Airplane in 1971. Another reason for Balin’s departure was that he had taken up yoga and began abstaining from drugs and alcohol. This put him at odds with the notorious substance abuse by Airplane band members.

Although they never officially left Airplane, Kaukonen and Casady began working full-time on Hot Tuna sometime in 1973. With several new musicians, Kantner and Slick fronted a rather bloated Jefferson Starship ensemble for several years. Eventually Marty Balin re-joined his old mates in Starship.

Then in 1989, all members of the “classic” Jefferson Airplane lineup (except for drummer Spencer Dryden) re-united. They released an album that had indifferent sales, but the subsequent tour was a commercial success.

In 1996 the classic Jefferson Airplane lineup was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All members were present at the induction ceremony and performed, except for Grace Slick who was unable to travel for medical reasons.

Jefferson Airplane was the quintessential acid-rock band. Their classic lineup was a tight, hard-rocking band that featured two extremely talented lead singers (Balin and Slick). The Airplane became a symbol of San Francisco’s hippie movement, and they helped attract a horde of counterculture youth to the Bay Area.

Jefferson Airplane produced several rock anthems and became known for their psychedelic light shows and politically-tinged tunes. They were also infamous for their rampant drug and alcohol use.

It has now been more than 50 years since the 1967 “Summer of Love,” but I still remember it vividly. Both the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were right at the heart of the action. By now several of the Airplane have passed away – Spencer Dryden in 2005, Paul Kantner in 2016 and Marty Balin in 2018.

To the surviving members we say “Power to the people.”

Elephant Revival and White Rabbit:

Elephant Revival is an indie musical ensemble. They originally formed in 2006 and hail from Colorado and Oklahoma. Their style of music is described as “transcendental folk,”
which incorporates elements of Scottish/Celtic fiddle tunes, original folk pieces, traditional ballads, bluegrass, and indie rock. I first noticed the group after they got a shout-out from NY Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman.

Each member of Elephant Revival plays several different instruments. They operate as a collective, where each of them takes part in the songwriting process, and they all contribute to the vocals.

Elephant Revival is sufficiently eclectic that they have collaborated with or opened for artists as diverse as Bela Fleck and Nickel Creek, to John Paul Jones and George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic.

The group released their first self-titled album in 2008. Here is Elephant Revival in a live performance of White Rabbit.

Isn’t this neat? It was performed at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in 2015. I especially enjoy lead singer Bonnie Paine’s vocals.  Although Paine does not possess the sheer power of Grace Slick, she does have a pleasant vibrato, and overall her vocals are an excellent fit to White Rabbit.

Somewhat to my surprise, I also enjoyed hearing the guitar solo from White Rabbit reprised on electric violin and, of all things, an electrified banjo. The song builds to a powerful conclusion, aided by an interesting mix of percussion instruments; I found this to be a successful cover of an iconic acid-rock anthem.

Sadly, Elephant Revival has been on hiatus since 2018. In the meantime, several of the band members are involved in solo projects. My hope is that “Elephant Revival” has a long memory and that they reunite soon – they appear to be a talented and creative group.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, White Rabbit (song)
Wikipedia, The Great Society (band)
Wikipedia, Jefferson Airplane
Wikipedia, Elephant Revival

Posted in Classic Rock, Folk-rock music, Hard Rock, Psychedelic music, Rock and roll | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

To Love Somebody: The Bee Gees; Nina Simone; Janis Joplin.

Hello there! This week our blog features a great 60s pop ballad, To Love Somebody. We will first discuss the original version by The Bee Gees. Next we review a cover by Nina Simone and we finish with a cover by Janis Joplin.

The Bee Gees and To Love Somebody:

The Bee Gees were an extraordinary pop group. Over their long career, there were arguably three distinctly different manifestations of this trio of brothers.

The Gibb family lived in Manchester, England. They had five children; the oldest was a girl, Lesley, then four brothers including Barry, twins Robin and Maurice, and Andy.

The brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice started a music group called The Rattlesnakes in England. Similar to The Beatles, this was initially a skiffle group that morphed into a rock and roll band. The Gibb family then moved to Queensland, Australia.

Once again, the Gibb boys began to perform as a trio. A Brisbane DJ re-named the boys “The BGs.” Although legend has it that The Bee Gees name stands for “The Brothers Gibb,” the initial name referred to the fact that the DJ Bill Gates, race-car driver Bill Goode (the boys used to perform at the Redcliffe Speedway in Brisbane) and Barry Gibb all had initials “BG.”

Here are the Bee Gees circa 1968. Back row from L: Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb, Barry Gibb; front row Robin Gibb, Colin Petersen.

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The group subsequently changed their name to The Bee Gees, and added lead guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen to the ensemble. Although the band developed a loyal following in Australia, they returned to the U.K. in early 1967 because of their inability to land a major record contract in Australia.

They mailed a demo tape to the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Epstein’s family owned a major record store, so Epstein passed the tape along to one of the record store employees, Robert Stigwood. Stigwood would become the group’s manager and promoter over the next several decades.

With Stigwood as their promoter, the Bee Gees began to score hits. Starting in 1967 with their first hit New York Mining Disaster, they began a long run in the pop charts.

The song To Love Somebody was the 2nd Bee Gees hit. It was written by Barry and Robin Gibb, but intended for Otis Redding after Otis requested that Barry write a song for him. The tune was a ballad designed to fit Otis’ soulful style.

There’s a light
A certain kind of light
That never shone on me
I want my life to be lived with you
Lived with you

There’s a way everybody says
To do each and every little thing
But what does it bring
If I ain’t got you, ain’t got you? Hey, babe,

You don’t know what it’s like, baby
You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I love you

The Bee Gees released To Love Somebody as a single in summer 1967, and the song made it to #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. Tragically, Otis Redding died in a plane crash in fall 1967 before he was ever able to record the tune.

Here are the Bee Gees in a live performance of To Love Somebody.

This took place in 1974. The Bee Gees are backed up by a full orchestra, and the tune is highlighted by Barry Gibb’s terrific lead vocals — but I believe the highlight is the superb three-part harmony from the Gibbs brothers.

The Bee Gees remind me of the Everly Brothers – a family group that sang together so frequently that their vocals were invariably perfectly synched. The Bee Gees are capable of producing a superb live show.

The song To Love Somebody has become incredibly popular. There are at least 150 covers of this tune. In addition to the two covers that we feature, there are versions by Roberta Flack, Michael Bolton and Hank Williams, Jr. In 2017, Australian country singer Keith Urban produced a great live version of this tune as a salute to the Bee Gees at the Grammys.

From 1967-1969 The Bee Gees had a very successful run as a pop group. They developed a fan base heavily loaded with teeny-boppers, and their songs and albums generally landed in the Billboard Top 20 playlists.

In the Bee Gees, Barry and Robin were the most prolific songwriters, and took nearly all the lead vocals. However, Maurice was by far the most versatile musician of the group: he played
bass guitar, acoustic guitar, lead guitar, harmonica, piano, organ, mellotron, keyboard, synthesizer and drums.
Later in the group’s career, Maurice became the Bee Gees’ musical director.

But in 1969, tensions surfaced in the group. Initially, the band’s songs generally featured Robin Gibb’s beautiful high tenor voice in the lead. As time went by, Barry became more frequently the lead vocalist, and Robin believed that producer/manager Robert Stigwood favored Barry.

By 1970, the Bee Gees had disbanded, and it looked as though they might never re-form. However, one year later the brothers once again hooked up and released a couple of successful albums.

However, by 1973 the hits again ceased and the group’s fortunes seriously declined. In 1975, Eric Clapton suggested that the band re-locate to Miami, where Clapton was then recording. It was here that the boys had an epiphany.

Barry Gibb discovered that he could sing falsetto really, really well. So the Bee Gees began recording disco songs, enlisting the services of producers Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson.

The first big Bee Gees disco song was Jive Talkin’. At this point the Bee Gees began the second major phase of their career: as disco superstars.  Below is a photo of the Bee Gees in their unforgettable disco outfits (featuring acres of chest hair).

The Bee Gees during their “disco” era.

Well, the Bee Gees rode the crest of the disco wave during the 70s. Buoyed by songs such as Stayin’ Alive, and featuring Barry Gibbs’ powerful falsetto, they became the kings of disco.  At one point, all of the top 5 songs on the Billboard pop charts were either written or performed by the Bee Gees! It seemed as though their popularity would continue indefinitely; however, the group was headed for a crash.

Their first big mis-step was the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The rock opera, brainchild of Robert Stigwood and featuring covers of dozens of Beatles tunes, starred the Bee Gees as the band and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears. Below is the poster for that movie.

Poster for the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Although Stigwood foresaw the film as a smash hit and the soundtrack album a best-seller, critical reviews for the movie were viciously negative, and the album also sank like a stone.

To make matters worse, when the disco bubble popped around about 1980, so did the Bee Gees’ career. People seemed eager to blame the Bee Gees for the excesses of the disco era. In retrospect this seems terribly unfair, but the Bee Gees did not have another U.S. top 10 single until 1989.

During the interlude between hits, each of the brothers worked as a producer, and they continued to write songs that were best-sellers, but for other artists. Eventually, the Bee Gees once again began releasing hit records.

Once when I was visiting Australia, I got the chance to see the Bee Gees live. They did not disappoint, running through a number of great hits from their catalog.

In January 2003, Maurice Gibb died of a heart attack at age 53, while awaiting emergency surgery for a strangulated intestine. After his death, Robin and Barry continued to perform occasionally. In 2011 it was announced that Robin Gibb was suffering from liver cancer, and he died in May 2012 from liver and kidney failure.

So, Barry Gibb is currently the last surviving Bee Gee. They had a remarkable career – initial fame in the late 60s and early 70s as a folk-pop group; phenomenal commercial success in the disco era, propelled by Barry Gibb’s powerful falsetto; and re-emergent pop recognition in the 1990s.

We salute the Bee Gees – what a memorable group, we remember them with great fondness.

Nina Simone and To Love Somebody:

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

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

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

When her manager offered to double her salary if she would also sing, Nina added vocals to her repertoire. She used her classical piano training and a great “ear” for music to branch out into jazz, and at first she was completely self-taught as a vocalist.  Below is a 1969 photo of Nina Simone.

Portrait of the singer Nina Simone, October 1969. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1958, Nina Simone released a recording of George Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy, basing her style on a Billie Holiday record. The song made it into the top 20 on the pop charts. Nina would have profited handsomely from the royalties from her subsequent debut album, but she had sold the music rights for $3,000.

Here is Nina Simone in a live version of To Love Somebody.

This is typical of Nina Simone’s performing style. She made little effort to “make contact” with her audience, and her facial expression remained relatively unchanged throughout the tune. She simply sang her songs, backing herself on piano. Because of the distance she kept from her audience, I found it difficult to “warm up” to Nina at first.

However, if you pay attention to her vocals, she converts the Bee Gees pop song into a stirring soul ballad, with some clear influences from both jazz and gospel. Nina uses her classical music training to provide an impressive piano backing to the song. Her cover of To Love Somebody reached the top 10 in the UK pop charts in 1969.

Furthermore, Nina Simone had tremendous musical range. She mastered everything from classical to jazz to gospel to pop music – her repertoire even included folk music.

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

But it was Simone’s 1964 protest song Mississippi Goddam that made the most dramatic impact. She wrote the tune in 1963, shortly after the assassination of civil rights activist Medger Evers in Jackson, Mississippi (taken to the hospital with a bullet through his heart, Evers was initially refused admission because of his race), and the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young children.

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

Although Nina Simone participated in several civil-rights marches, her personal sympathies were closer to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King. She favored the idea of a separate black state, and would have supported an armed revolt to accomplish this.

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

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

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

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

Janis Joplin and To Love Somebody:

Janis Joplin was one of the greatest rock and blues singers. Born in Port Arthur, Texas, Janis was a loner in high school. She suffered from serious acne and hung out with a small group of misfits. She could not wait to leave town after high school.

After a short stint at the University of Texas, Joplin dropped out and headed for San Francisco. There she tried without much success to break into the music scene. Eventually, her over-the-top blues style caught the attention of psychedelic rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company, who signed her on as their lead singer.

Janis and Big Brother garnered much local fame in the Bay Area. However, their breakout performance took place at the 1967 ‘Summer of Love’ Monterey Pop Festival.

Here is a photo of Janis Joplin standing next to her psychedelically painted Porsche roadster in 1969.

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One secret to Janis’ appeal was that she held absolutely nothing back. Her songs often addressed feelings of loneliness, abandonment and despair, expressed in a rough and brutal vocal style. She wailed, screamed and pleaded until her voice gave out.

Unfortunately, Janis had serious issues with both alcohol and drugs, in particular with Southern Comfort and heroin. She struggled with addictions throughout her career, and these issues had surfaced even before she became famous. However, being stoned apparently released Janis’ inhibitions and allowed her to reveal those naked emotions in her performances.

Here is Janis Joplin in a live version of To Love Somebody on the Dick Cavett Show.

This took place in July 1969. Here Janis is backed by the Kozmic Blues Band. This ensemble included Sam Andrew, her guitarist from Big Brother. However, it also included a horn section, as the group aimed for a sound similar to the soul offerings of Otis Redding and The Bar-Kays.

It is fascinating to see Janis’ take on the Bee Gees’ To Love Somebody. She transforms the sophisticated pop sounds of the Gibb Brothers into her own unique brand of blues. This was one of the cuts on Joplin’s 1969 release I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! The album achieved gold status.

Joplin’s version is a raw, searing blues lament. As always, she bares her soul and shreds her vocal cords for the listener. It’s a treat to experience three radically different treatments of To Love Somebody from the Bee Gees, Nina Simone and Janis.

In September 1970, Janis and her band Full Tilt Boogie were laying down tracks in LA for the album Pearl. Janis was staying at the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood during the tapings. Unfortunately, Joplin’s associates, who were making a concerted effort to keep her off drugs, seem not to have realized that the Landmark was a major hangout for heroin dealers.

On Oct. 4, 1970, Janis Joplin was found dead in her hotel room at the Landmark. The cause of death was a heroin overdose, compounded by alcohol.

Janis Joplin’s career was like a shooting star – a sudden brilliant appearance, a blazing trajectory, followed by an equally sudden extinction. Her untimely death was a tremendous shock to rock and roll fans, particularly since Jimi Hendrix had died just three weeks earlier and at the same age (27).

We had anticipated watching her career unfold over several years. Could Janis maintain her intensity? Would she transition to other musical genres, or would she stay focused on the blues? Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, To Love Somebody (song)
Wikipedia, The Bee Gees
Wikipedia, Nina Simone
Wikipedia, Janis Joplin

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

Lola: The Kinks; Andy Taylor; Weird Al Yankovic.

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic British Invasion song, Lola. We will first discuss the original version by The Kinks. Next we will review a cover by Andy Taylor, and we finish with a parody cover by Weird Al Yankovic.

The Kinks and Lola:

The Kinks were one of the most influential British Invasion bands. Although they first appeared on the charts in the mid-60s, the band continued on with significant commercial success until they broke up in 1996.

The Kinks were apparently named after their unusual tastes in fashion. Below is a photo of the original lineup of The Kinks from 1965. From L: lead singer and rhythm guitarist Ray Davies, bassist Pete Quaife, Ray’s brother Dave Davies on lead guitar, and drummer Mick Avory. In 1969, the group added keyboardist Nicky Hopkins to their lineup.

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The Kinks’ first big hit was the 1964 song You Really Got Me. As with almost all Kinks song, it was written by Ray Davies with lead guitar from Dave Davies.

Lola was written in 1970 by Ray Davies. It describes an encounter in a club between a young man and someone who could be either a transvestite or a trans woman.

I met her in a club down in North Soho
Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like cherry cola
C-O-L-A cola

She walked up to me and she asked me to dance
I asked her name and in a dark brown voice she said, “Lola”
L-O-L-A Lola, lo lo lo lo Lola

….Well, I’m not dumb but I can’t understand
Why she walks like a woman and talks like a man
Oh my Lola, lo lo lo lo Lola, lo lo lo lo Lola

Well, we drank champagne and danced all night
Under electric candlelight
She picked me up and sat me on her knee
And said, “Little boy won’t you come home with me?”

As you might guess, there are some interesting anecdotes connected with this tune. Ray Davies claims that the idea for the song arose after the band’s manager picked up a trans woman at a club in Paris.

However, Kinks drummer Mick Avory states that inspiration for the tune came from his habit of hanging out at clandestine transvestite bars in London. He claims that Ray Davies accompanied Avory when Mick visited one of these clubs.

Dave Davies constructed the iconic opening chords for the song by combining the sounds from Dave’s Martin guitar with those from a Dobro resonating guitar played by Ray Davies. As you can see, this produces an epic and unforgettable beginning to the tune.

So here are The Kinks performing Lola.

This was an appearance on the British TV show Top of the Pops in 1970. It looks like The Kinks are merely lip-synching their big hit here. But isn’t this great? Ray Davies’ gritty lead vocals mesh perfectly with Dave Davies’ guitar solos. With Ray Davies spelling out “L-O-L-A” and singing the name repeatedly, the tune can easily get stuck in your head for days.

Not only does the song have a wonderfully catchy melody, but the topic was basically new to rock music. The controversial issue caused some problems – some radio stations would fade out before the line “I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola.” Australian radio went even further and temporarily banned the entire song!

Ray Davies ran into even more difficulty with the tune. After it had been recorded, he discovered that the BBC would not play a song that mentioned a product by its brand name. So Davies had to fly back to London from an American tour, just to change the words “Coca-Cola” to “cherry cola” for the single release (the original phrase “Coca-Cola” remained on the album cut).

Lola was a big hit (and rather unexpected), reaching #2 on the UK Singles charts and #9 on the Billboard Hot 100. It became one of the Kinks’ signature songs, a crowd favorite at their live concerts.

Although the Kinks are best known for their hard-rocking style, Ray Davies also wrote a number of more standard pop tunes. Later Ray Davies songs such as Waterloo Sunset, Sunny Afternoon and Come Dancing
exemplified the development of Davies’ songwriting style … toward songs rich in social commentary, observation and idiosyncratic character study, all with a uniquely English flavor.

One feature of the Kinks was their frequent on-stage aggression. At one venue, Mick Avory and Dave Davies got into a squabble that ended with Mick cold-cocking Dave with his high-hat stand. On other occasions, Ray and Dave would get into violent arguments during concerts.

One result of their behavior was that in 1965 the American Federation of Musicians banned the Kinks from performing in the U.S., because of their rowdy on-stage antics. Unfortunately, this kept the group from American audiences for almost five years, during the period of their greatest fame.

The Kinks were one of the most influential musical groups from the British Invasion. Their early music is now heralded as one of the first examples of heavy-metal and punk music. Both the vocal and instrumental contributions from the Kinks were a major force in the development of hard rock, paving the way for groups like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The Kinks were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Ray and Dave Davies are still active. Nowadays each of them mainly produces his own individual work, but they reunite from time to time and either release new material or go on tour. We wish the fighting Davies brothers all the best – what an amazing legacy they have created!

Andy Taylor and Lola:

Andy Taylor was the lead guitarist for the 80s British rock band Duran Duran. The band formed in the late 70s, and took their name from the character Dr. Durand Durand in Roger Vadim’s 1968 sci-fi film Barbarella.

Duran Duran churned through several different lineups before their most successful incarnation, with Andy Taylor joining lead singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, drummer Roger Taylor and bassist John Taylor (none of the Taylors is  related).  Below is a photo of Duran Duran.

The 80s rock group Duran Duran.

Duran Duran became famous during the 80s. They had the great good fortune to appear at almost the exact time when MTV burst upon the pop scene. I was not paying much attention to that era’s pop music. From casual exposure to MTV, I was aware of their big hit Hungry Like The Wolf, a release from the band’s second album in 1982.

That single initially experienced disappointing U.S. sales, until the Hungry Like The Wolf music video received almost continuous airplay on MTV. The catchy melody of the tune, slick production values of the music video, and MTV saturation caused the song to rise to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Duran Duran made heavy use of synthesizers in their songs, and were trail-blazers in a “synthpop” movement (not my favorite musical style).

For a while, the band members became pop superstars and teen idols. But my impression was that Duran Duran were pretty much “one-hit wonders.” I remember a second song Rio that cracked the Billboard top 20 singles, but I guessed that the band pretty much disappeared after that.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that Duran Duran placed 21 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and that, over the years, the band has sold more than 100 million records! In addition, they won two Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award from MTV Video.

Duran Duran benefited from very savvy marketing. The lads capitalized on their good looks by inking marketing deals with fashion designers such as Giorgio Armani. Their polished music videos were produced using cutting-edge techniques (they were shot by experienced movie producers using 35-mm film, rather than the more common videotape).

For a few years, Duran Duran rode a wave of popularity. Princess Diana joined a small army of adoring teeny-boppers when she announced that they were her favorite band.  But while Duran Duran remained superstars in Britain, their record sales in the U.S. fell off dramatically.

The group were headliners in the 1985 world-wide spectacular Live Aid concert that was watched by an estimated 1.5 billion people. In contrast to the Queen Live Aid act from London, now considered one of the world’s greatest live performances, Duran Duran’s Philadelphia appearance was sufficiently bad that the group did not perform live again for another 18 years.

Around 1985, various members of Duran Duran began releasing solo albums. This is almost invariably an ominous sign for a band’s viability, and sure enough in 1986 both Roger Taylor and Andy Taylor left the group.

Here is the music video from Andy Taylor’s cover of Lola.

This was from Taylor’s 1990 album Dangerous, which was a series of covers of songs that influenced Taylor and his guitar style. The song is quite enjoyable although unremarkable. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect is the video, which was shot using classic MTV-video techniques.

The clip is a succession of rapid jump cuts, combining black and white footage with insertions of color.  Quick shots of the musicians are interspersed with snippets showing scantily-clad women dancers (or could they be trans women)? The video takes me right back to the 80s and the zenith of the MTV era.

Well, Duran Duran is still in existence even today. In 2003 the original lineup (with the exception of Nick Rhodes) re-united, issued a couple of albums and embarked on a few successful tours of Britain, Japan and the U.S.

In terms of musical style, Duran Duran is not really my cup of tea. However, one has to be impressed at a group that has shown so much longevity. Over the years, apparently their music has evolved considerably.

In the beginning, Duran Duran was the target of scathing reviews from critics, who considered them a pretty-boy pop band with limited musical talent (it didn’t help that their nickname “The Fab Five” invited comparisons with the Beatles). However, some view them as early exemplars of significant trends in rock music of the 80s and 90s.

Weird Al Yankovic and Yoda:

Think about this: a geeky young accordion player and polka aficionado decides to try his hand at writing rock music parodies. How would you rate his chance of long-term success?

Alfred Yankovic was born in October 1959 and raised in Lynnwood, California. When his parents were offered music lessons for Al on either guitar or accordion, they chose the latter — possibly the only known time where this was the correct choice.  Below is a photo of Weird Al Yankovic.

Parody rock performer Weird Al Yankovic.

Al was inspired to try his hand at music parodies when he listened to a weekly syndicated radio program, The Dr. Demento Show, the brainchild of ethnomusicologist Barry Hansen. Dr. Demento would play a collection of unusual and weird records, in addition to music parodies by people like Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer.

When Dr. Demento visited Yankovic’s high school, the 16-year-old gave Demento/Hansen a homemade tape containing some of his parody songs accompanied by himself on accordion. These were immediately featured on the Dr. Demento Show and earned Al some early public exposure.

Then in 1979 during his senior year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Al produced two parodies. The first was a parody of My Sharona by The Knack (“My Bologna”). This song earned Yankovic a 6-month recording contract at Capitol Records after Doug Fieder, lead singer with The Knack, recommended to his record company that they release the parody.

The second parody was Another One Bites The Dust by Queen (“Another One Rides The Bus”). This song got “Weird Al” a TV appearance on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder.

In the early 1980s, Weird Al received a big boost from MTV. He was able to produce “music videos” of parody songs that spoofed not only the original song, but also the official music video.

For example, in 1984 Yankovic released a parody of Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Jackson’s music video featured a simulated knife fight between two members of rival gangs. Weird Al’s parody, “Eat It,” showed gang members facing down one another with forks in their hands.

“Eat It” also included a spot-on spoof of the dance routines in Jackson’s video, and of the iconic guitar solo supplied by Eddie Van Halen. Much to everyone’s surprise, Weird Al’s send-up shot up to #12 on the Billboard Hot 100.

After this time, Weird Al Yankovic regularly scored best-selling parody songs. He segued effortlessly from rock ‘n roll to grunge to rap music. Until 1992, his albums and music videos were produced by rock guitarist Rick Derringer, who won two Grammy Awards for his efforts.

So here is Weird Al Yankovic and the music video for Yoda.

This song follows Weird Al’s standard format, taking a popular song (The Kinks’ “Lola”), but completely changing the focus. Here, instead of a song about a transvestite, Yankovic refers to the elf-like guru Yoda who appeared in several episodes of George Lucas’ Star Wars saga. Yoda was first seen in The Empire Strikes Back, part of the original Star Wars trilogy.

The video features clips from The Empire Strikes Back that show Yoda interacting with Luke Skywalker.  One of Weird Al’s lines regarding the Star Wars series (“The long-term contract that I had to sign says I’ll be making these movies till the end of time”) was funny when it was written, but now seems quite literally accurate.

Note that Weird Al follows the format and rhyming scheme of the original song very closely. Here are some of his lyrics for Yoda.

I met him in a swamp down in Dagoba
Where it bubbles all the time like a giant carbonated soda
S-O-D-A, soda

I saw the little runt sitting there on a log
I asked him his name and in a raspy voice he said “Yoda”
Y-O-D-A, Yoda
Yo-yo-yo-yo Yoda

…. Well, I left home just a week before
And I’ve never ever been a Jedi before
But Obi Wan, he set me straight, of course
He said, “Go to Yoda and he’ll show you the Force”

One of Yankovic’s most useful skills is that his voice is extremely plastic. He can produce a reasonably close imitation of many of the vocalists that he parodies, and Ray Davies is no exception.

Now, here is an opportunity to see Weird Al Yankovic in concert. Here he is with a live version of Yoda.

Before the song, the audience is revved up with an organ lick reminiscent of a baseball or hockey game. Weird Al and his band are dressed in robes such as were worn by members of the rebel alliance in Star Wars.

Clutching his accordion, Weird Al then launches into his parody routine. As is his custom, Yankovic mimics the instrumental accompaniment almost exactly. In fact, on a few of his parodies he was accompanied by some of the artists who produced the original song.

We get the iconic initial guitar riff, as well as a parody of the repeated phrase “L-O-L-A Lola, Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo Lo-La, Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo Lo-La.” At about the 3:30 mark, the audience is invited to sing the chorus.

After that there is roughly half a minute of nonsensical rock syllables, including “Boom-shaka-laka-laka.” After that, Al returns to the ending of the “Lola” parody, and the audience goes wild. It appears that this is the final song on his program.

Many of the artists that we highlight have faced serious addiction issues, and several have died from drug or alcohol overdoses. So it is refreshing to feature an artist who abstains from alcohol, drugs, tobacco – and even profanity!

Since his parodies are so close to the original songs, it is important that Yankovic get the permission of the artist before releasing a song. In a few cases, artists have refused permission. In one famous case, Lady Gaga’s manager refused Weird Al permission to release a parody of her song Born This Way (“Perform This Way”).

However, since Al had already recorded the song, he released it for free on the Internet. It then transpired that Gaga’s manager had never talked to his client. She enjoyed Al’s parody, and he was given permission to release the song.

Another contretemps occurred with rap artist Coolio. Under the impression that the record label had granted him permission, Yankovic released a parody of a Coolio song, only to have the artist insist that Al had never been granted permission. Eventually the two musicians made up, but since these issues Weird Al has always communicated directly with the artist.

Paul McCartney refused Weird Al permission to release a parody of his song Live and Let Die (“Chicken Pot Pie”). Because McCartney is a vegetarian, he
didn’t want a parody that condoned the consumption of animal flesh.
On McCartney’s suggestion, Al tried “Tofu Pot Pie” as an alternative, but was not satisfied with the outcome.

Weird Al is still touring and releasing albums. His latest was the 2018 “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.” He has hosted numerous TV specials, and in 1997 he even had his own Weird Al Yankovic Show on CBS (a children’s show that lasted for 13 episodes). In addition, he has appeared on various TV shows, both live and animated (The Simpsons). He does voice-over work for several animated films, and he has authored a couple of children’s books.

Who would have thought that a novelty song-writing accordion player could have a career that spanned four decades and made him a headliner on tour? Weird Al has recorded over 150 songs and sold at least 12 million records.  He has been nominated for 16 Grammy Awards and has won 5 times. An album released in 2014, nearly 40 years after his first release, reached #1 on the album charts in its debut week.

We salute the always-wacky Alfred Matthew Yankovic, congratulate him on never growing up, and wish him a long and happy life.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Lola (song)
Wikipedia, The Kinks
Wikipedia, Duran Duran
Wikipedia, Andy Taylor (guitarist)
Wikipedia, “Weird Al” Yankovic

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

Stairway To Heaven: Led Zeppelin; Frank Zappa; Ann & Nancy Wilson.

Hello there! This week our blog features a song that many rate as the greatest rock ‘n roll song ever, Stairway To Heaven. We will first discuss the original version by Led Zeppelin. Next, we will review a cover by Frank Zappa, and we will finish with a cover by Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.

Led Zeppelin and Stairway To Heaven:

In 1968 Jimmy Page had left the Yardbirds, and he set out to create a new blue-based group.  He eventually settled on a quartet with himself on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, John Bonham on drums and vocalist Robert Plant. This turned out to be a true rock supergroup, as each member of the group is generally considered to be one of the world’s greatest on his particular specialty.

Below is a photo of Led Zeppelin performing at the Bath Festival in June, 1970. From L: Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham.

Embed from Getty Images

Led Zeppelin was an incredibly successful combo. The quartet combined tremendous virtuosity with an extraordinary musical range. Although they were known as the quintessential hard-rock band, initially focusing on heavy-metal covers of blues standards, they also produced some exceptional acoustic music.

Stairway To Heaven is arguably the best-known Led Zeppelin tune. The song was written in fall 1970. The genesis for this and other Zeppelin songs was a trip by Page and Plant to the remote Bron-Yr-Aur cottage in Wales. There, the two became interested in branching out to include acoustic songs, and also in Celtic music and traditional folk tales.

Page recorded snippets of the tune on a portable tape recorder, while Plant worked out the lyrics. Recording of Stairway To Heaven began in December 1970, but then continued into 1971 as Plant added the lyrics and Page supplemented his guitar solos. Stairway To Heaven was a cut on the band’s fourth untitled album (generally referred to as Led Zeppelin IV).

Robert Plant’s lyrics describe a mythical woman who is so wealthy that she is reputed to be purchasing a stairway to heaven.

There’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven

When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
Oh oh oh oh and she’s buying a stairway to heaven

There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings

In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving
Ooh, it makes me wonder
Ooh, it makes me wonder

Here is Led Zeppelin in a live performance of Stairway to Heaven.

Stairway to Heaven contains a number of different segments. The song begins as a stately ballad in Baroque style, with Robert Plant singing his intricate lyrics while Jimmy Page finger-picks the melody.  On the record this is played on a Harmony acoustic guitar, accompanied by four recorders (multi-tracked by John Paul Jones).

In the live performance Page’s guitar solos are played on a double-necked guitar, so that he could play the “acoustic” parts on one guitar and the later hard-rock segment on the second guitar [bad joke: why do rock musicians employ double-necked guitars? So they can rock – and roll!].  John Paul Jones arranged the recorder parts on a synthesizer.

After a few minutes, Jimmy Page transitions to a slow rock tune. Shortly before the 5-minute mark, John Bonham’s drums enter for the first time.  A couple of minutes later, Jimmy Page commences a tour de force guitar solo that picks up speed and power; on the studio cut, this was played on Page’s 1959 Fender Telecaster electric guitar that he used during his days with the Yardbirds. During this segment, Robert Plant’s vocals shift from his normal range to falsetto.

Right at the very end, Plant sings the final solo line “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”

Jimmy Page’s extremely inventive and intricate guitar solos, combined with Robert Plant’s lyrics and tremendous vocal range, make the tune simply unforgettable.

Despite great demand and massive play on the radio, Stairway To Heaven was never released as a single. At the time, if you wanted the song you had to purchase the album.

Several critics cite Jimmy Page’s guitar solos on this piece as the best ever in rock music. In 2001, VH1 ranked the song #3 on its list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs. Rolling Stone ranked the song #31 on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. Stairway To Heaven was the most-requested song on FM radio stations during the 70s (this despite never being released as a single!).

The arcane lyrics are famously confusing (e.g., “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now, it’s just a spring clean for the May Queen”) – which I always misheard as “it’s just a sprinkling.”

Apparently I am not the only person who confused the song’s lyrics — there is a massive list of misheard lyrics for Stairway To Heaven. It’s hard to imagine that some of these “misheard lyrics” are genuine – for example, can you imagine the line “and as we wind on down the road” being mistaken for “and there’s a rhino down the road,” or “and there’s Bill Wyman down the road” [Wyman was the bass player for the Rolling Stones]?

As a side note, in 1982 Paul Crouch of the Christian TV Trinity Broadcasting Network claimed that Satanic messages were being programmed into pop songs through a technique called “backmasking.” Crouch claimed that Stairway To Heaven was one of those backmasked songs.

Crouch’s claim was that, if these songs were played backwards, a hidden message would be revealed. For Stairway to Heaven,
the alleged message, which occurs during the middle section of the song (“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now…”) when played backward, was purported to contain the Satanic references “Here’s to my sweet Satan \ The one whose little path would make me sad whose power is Satan \ He’ll give, he’ll give you 666 \ There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”

Well, the California Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee took this seriously. They brought in self-proclaimed “neuroscientific researcher” William Yarroll, who claimed that the human brain could decode backward audio messages. The committee briefly considered passing a law that would require warning labels on any songs containing encrypted messages. Led Zeppelin’s record company felt compelled to release a statement that “Our turntables play in only one direction – forwards.

In addition to their stunning musical abilities, the musicians in Led Zeppelin were famed for their legendary sexual excesses, alcohol and drug usage. In the late 70s, Jimmy Page’s heroin use apparently became sufficiently incapacitating that John Paul Jones took over most of the band’s composing and producing duties.

Tragically, in October 1980 John Bonham died from alcohol-related asphyxiation after reportedly consuming 40 shots of vodka. Following that, the surviving members of the group decided to disband, rather than continue on without Bonham. The band has occasionally reunited for short periods or for special occasions. Page and Plant went out on tour in the 1990s, and each of the surviving members continues to produce records and to tour with other groups.

The three remaining Zeppelin members successfully made it through the turbulent 70s, and produced some breathtaking music.  We salute them and wish them all the best.

Frank Zappa and Stairway To Heaven:

Frank Zappa was one of the most prolific and inventive rock musicians of all time. There is no way we can do justice to his entire career, so we will provide a brief intro to his life and work.

Frank Antonio Zappa was born in Baltimore in 1940. His father was a chemist who worked on chemical weapons for the defense industry. As a youth, Frank began amassing a vast record collection and an eclectic taste for music ranging from experimental classical to funky R&B.

By the end of his senior year in high school, Zappa was writing and arranging avant-garde music for his school band. Afterwards, he began to work at a recording studio that had experimental multi-track capabilities in an era that was dominated by monotonic sound.

Below is a photo of Frank Zappa.

Musician Frank Zappa.

In his spare time, Zappa produced a number of movies. In 1966 Zappa was “discovered” by producer Tom Wilson, who had produced Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. Wilson produced the first album by Frank Zappa and his band, The Mothers of Invention.

Zappa’s debut album, Freak Out, was typical of Zappa’s eclectic tastes. It was a diverse mixture of
R&B, doo-wop, musique concrète, and experimental sound collages.
Zappa gained fame as an innovative and prolific artist. This continued with a series of albums that combined avant-garde musical ideas with wicked satire.

Although Frank Zappa amassed a devoted worldwide cult following, his records never sold that well, and he was chronically short of funds. In 1969 he dissolved the Mothers of Invention and became a solo artist.

Here is Frank Zappa and his entourage with a live cover of Stairway to Heaven. This was from Zappa’s final tour in 1988 with a 12-member band.

As is often the case, it is not evident whether Zappa is being serious or whether he is spoofing. As soon as they finish the previous song, the band segues directly into the guitar intro to Stairway to Heaven.

Frank Zappa is at left front playing guitar, while the vocalist is sitting at far right. While the arrangement largely follows the Led Zeppelin version, Zappa throws in the occasional bizarro touches, including animal noises and electronic special effects.

Note that the horn section is throwing in some coordinated dance moves during the song. However, right at the 5-minute mark in the song, the horn section commences a note-for-note reproduction of Jimmy Page’s guitar solo.

So, as it happens, Zappa is creating an homage to Jimmy Page. At the very end, the entire ensemble sings the final line. The audience is extremely pleased with this, and erupts into thunderous applause.

Frank Zappa’s career was legendary. Although he died from prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 52, he had released over 60 albums. And following his death, another 40 albums have been released posthumously by the Zappa Family Trust, which consists of his wife and the four Zappa children Dweezil, Moon Unit, Ahmet and Diva.

When he passed away, among the people lamenting his passing were L.A. Symphony conductor Zubin Mehta and classical pianist and composer Pierre Boulez. Both had collaborated with Zappa and had high praise for his creativity.

Apparently Zappa managed to maintain a high level of productivity by working every day for at least 12 hours. In addition to his music, he also produced music videos and full-length movies, and designed album covers.

Frank Zappa was an extreme libertarian. He was deeply opposed to any restrictions on free speech, and as an atheist was bitterly critical of the religious right in the U.S. When Czechoslovakia became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its first president Vaclav Havel designated Zappa a “Special Ambassador on Trade, Culture and Tourism.”

Frank Zappa’s biting satire made him a number of enemies in the music industry. I enjoyed his frequently sophomoric humor (one of his albums was titled Sheikh Yerbouti, and another Weasels Ripped My Flesh :-)). After being turned down a couple of times, Zappa was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995. Well-deserved, Frank.

Ann & Nancy Wilson and Stairway To Heaven:

Heart is a hard-rock band that was fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson. In the late 60s, a number of rock bands formed in the greater Seattle area. White Heart became Hocus Pocus, and then in 1973 Heart was formed in Vancouver.  Below is a photo of the Wilson sisters in their early years.

The Wilson sisters from Heart: L: Ann Wilson; R: Nancy Wilson.

Lead vocalist Ann Wilson was an original member of Heart, and her sister Nancy soon signed on as a rhythm guitarist. One feature of Heart has been its ability to switch effortlessly from folk-inspired acoustic ballads to hard-rocking anthems.

In 1973 the band released its debut album Dreamboat Annie, which became quite popular in Canada and was subsequently released in the U.S.

In 1976 two singles from that album, Crazy On You and Magic Man, turned into best sellers. Featuring Ann Wilson’s powerhouse vocals, Heart rode a series of single hits to rock ‘n roll stardom. The band headlined a number of festivals, including the 1978 California Jam with an audience of 350,000, and the inaugural Texxas Jam the same year that drew 100,000.

By 1984, Heart’s record sales had begun to slide, although the group was still pulling in big crowds on their tours. In 1985, a re-tooled Heart band moved to Capitol Records, where they developed a more hard-edged “arena rock” sound.

In 1986, Nancy Wilson married writer-director Cameron Crowe, who had begun his career as a teen-age rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine. In the mid-90s Nancy was in charge of the musical score for several of Crowe’s most successful movies, including Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky.

Here are Ann and Nancy Wilson, with Jason Bonham on drums, in a live performance of Stairway to Heaven.

This took place in Dec. 2012 at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Led Zeppelin. Nancy Wilson begins by reprising Jimmy Page’s acoustic guitar intro. Ann Wilson’s powerful vocals are a good fit for this song, particularly as it shifts from soft folk-rock to the harder-edged finale.

Ann is joined in the middle of the song by not one but two choirs of background singers; and there appears to be a full orchestra supporting this tune. Of course, the arrangement follows closely the iconic original version, even though the final guitar solo is merely a pale imitation of Jimmy Page’s licks.

You can see the surviving members of Zeppelin (Page, Plant and Jones) in the audience, who seem to be greatly enjoying the music, as well as the Obamas. The tribute by the Wilson sisters was only available on iTunes for two weeks, but it immediately shot to #1 on those charts.

Heart achieved great commercial success over a sustained period of time. Worldwide, they have sold over 35 million records, and they placed 10 albums in the Billboard Top 200 charts over a period of four decades. In 2013 the original lineup of Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately, the sisters had a falling-out in 2016 when Ann’s husband pleaded guilty to assaulting Nancy’s twin sons. After a couple of years where the sisters went their separate ways, they have apparently reunited and Heart is currently part of the Love Alive Tour in 2019.

Ann and Nancy, glad to see you back together. All the best, your fans are “crazy on you.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Stairway To Heaven
Wikipedia, Led Zeppelin
Wikipedia, Frank Zappa
Wikipedia, Heart (band)

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

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Crowded House; Paul Young; Sixpence None the Richer.

Hello there! This week our blog features a big pop hit by an Australian band, Don’t Dream It’s Over. We will first discuss the original version by Crowded House. Next, we will review a cover by Paul Young and we will finish with a cover by Sixpence None The Richer.

Crowded House and Don’t Dream It’s Over:

The band Crowded House was formed in Australia in 1985 by New Zealander Neil Finn, together with Australian musicians Nick Seymour on bass and Paul Hester on drums. Later, multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart was added to make a quartet. Finn wrote the songs and was lead vocalist for the band. Below is a photo of Crowded House.

The band Crowded House; Neil Finn is 2nd from right.

Neil Finn and Paul Hester had been mates in the band Split Enz. This was originally a New Zealand band led by Neil’s older brother Tim Finn. Split Enz then moved to Australia in 1975.

Crowded House issued its debut album in 1986 and in December, 1986 they released the single Don’t Dream It’s Over from that album. In that song, the vocalist assures his lover that if they stick together, they can survive whatever the world throws at them.

There is freedom within, there is freedom without
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup
There’s a battle ahead, many battles are lost
But you’ll never see the end of the road
While you’re traveling with me

[CHORUS] Hey now, hey now
Don’t dream it’s over
Hey now, hey now
When the world comes in
They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won’t win

Now I’m towing my car, there’s a hole in the roof
My possessions are causing me suspicion but there’s no proof
In the paper today tales of war and of waste
But you turn right over to the T.V. page

[CHORUS]

Don’t Dream It’s Over became a smash hit. It rose to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, reaching #1 in New Zealand and Australia. The success of this song was a big surprise to their record company Capitol Records, which had spent very little on promotion for the album.

Don’t Dream It’s Over is one of my favorite songs, and I will attempt to explain why. The melody is really lovely and seems a perfect fit for Neil Finn’s vocals. In addition, the song features a couple of haunting organ solos.

The lyrics are a bit mysterious – I think that the song has an upbeat message but I’m not 100% certain. In my opinion, this is a true gem of a pop song. All I know is that once this tune gets stuck in my head, it can remain there for weeks.

The first Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Awards took place in 1987. Crowded House won awards for Best New Talent, Song of the Year and Best Video. The band also won the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist.

In one year, Crowded House suddenly became a hot group. The second single from their debut album, Something So Strong, also charted in the Billboard top ten.

After their first album was so successful, Neil Finn found himself under great pressure to craft another smash hit. Finn’s bandmates took to referring to the upcoming second album as “Mediocre Follow-Up.”

Sure enough, the band’s next album reached #1 in New Zealand and #2 in Australia, but made it only to #40 on the Billboard album playlist. And none of the singles from the second album dented the top 40 in the American pop charts.

In 1996, Crowded House decided to break up, and they embarked on a farewell tour.  At the end of that tour, they added a charity benefit “Farewell To The World” concert outside the Sydney Opera House on Nov. 24, 1996.

Here is Crowded House at that charity concert, in a live performance of Don’t Dream It’s Over.

This is a very emotional performance, as it is the final song in the final performance by Crowded House. Funds from this concert went to the Sydney Children’s Hospital.

From the video, it appears that drummer Paul Hester is near tears during this song. Of course, this is also an emotional experience for fans of the band. Right at the end, the audience sings the chorus. The band members hug one another and come together to acknowledge their fans.

After the Crowded House breakup in 1996, the band’s musicians went their separate ways. Neil and Tim Finn collaborated on a couple of albums, and Paul Hester and Nick Seymour joined the brothers on a couple of their concert tours. Mark Hart joined the alt-rock band Supertramp in the late 90s and also toured with Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band.

In 2005, Paul Hester committed suicide. He had suffered from depression for some time. In 2006, the surviving members of Crowded House reunited. Neil Finn, Mark Hart and Nick Seymour joined up with drummer Matt Sherrod to form a new edition of Crowded House.

They issued a few albums and performed in some festivals. The albums tended to chart in the top 5 in Australia and New Zealand, and in the top 20 in the UK, but did not fare well in the U.S.

The Crowded House reunion continued until 2016. At that time, guitarist Lindsey Buckingham was kicked out of Fleetwood Mac, and Neil Finn and Mike Campbell (formerly with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) were brought in to replace Buckingham. So at the moment, Neil Finn is one of the lead vocalists for the re-constituted Fleetwood Mac, and Mike Campbell is their lead guitarist.

Crowded House had only a few hits, but for me they were memorable. Don’t Dream It’s Over is one of my favorite tunes, and I am also a big fan of their second hit, Something So Strong. I wish Neil Finn all the best in his musical journey.

Paul Young and Don’t Dream It’s Over:

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. The Q Tips never quite managed to break through commercially, so in 1982 they disbanded and Young signed a solo contract with Columbia Records.  Below is a photo of Paul Young.

British pop star Paul Young.

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 superstar in Britain and had considerable success in Europe.

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

Here is Paul Young in a live performance of Don’t Dream It’s Over.

I really enjoy Paul Young’s vocals. Of course, the Crowded House version of Don’t Dream It’s Over provides the definitive arrangement for the song, so Paul Young copies the original in rather straightforward fashion (we will see a similar arrangement from Sixpence None The Richer in the next section).

This performance is from the British pop show Top Of The Pops (TOTP) in October 1991. That show was a key factor in the rise of rock ‘n roll in Britain – it began in 1964 and ran until 2006. In the 90s, TOTP licensed itself in many other countries. Eventually, there were as many as 100 versions of TOTP playing around the world.

Don’t Dream It’s Over has become one of Paul Young’s signature tunes. He sang it at the 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in London’s Wembley Stadium. Young also sang Radio Ga Ga with the surviving members of Queen at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert.

In 1992, Paul Young formed the Tex-Mex band Los Pacaminos. The group initially began playing in clubs and small venues; but as they established a fan base, they issued a couple of albums and did some touring.

Paul Young continues to tour today. He has a lovely voice and we wish him much success.

Sixpence None The Richer and Don’t Dream It’s Over:

Sixpence None The Richer is an alternative Christian band. Although the band formed in Texas in the early 90s, after a short period of time they moved to Nashville.

The band’s name was taken from a story told by C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity. A man gives his son a sixpence, which the boy uses to purchase a Christmas gift for his father. The father is appreciative of the gift even though it was purchased with his own money. The moral of the story is that we should be grateful for the gifts God has bestowed upon us, and should credit God for whatever we have.

The group’s big breakthrough came in 1998 when their song Kiss Me was nominated for a Grammy, and their self-titled album was also Grammy-nominated for Best Rock Gospel Album (I didn’t know there was such a category!).  Below is a photo of Sixpence None The Richer.

Alternative Christian rock band Sixpence None The Richer.

Shortly afterwards, the band appeared on late-night shows such as The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. They also were featured on many syndicated morning TV shows. The band headlined a number of tours with alt-rock or Christian rock groups. For a few years Sixpence None The Richer were rather successful.

Here is Sixpence None The Richer in a live performance of Don’t Dream It’s Over.

I quite enjoy the tender and vulnerable vocals of lead singer Leigh Nash. In particular, for this song her vocal style is just perfect. However, both the audio and video in this clip is sub-par, for which I apologize. The song Don’t Dream It’s Over was from the band’s 2002 album Divine Discontent.

In 2004, Sixpence None The Richer disbanded and its musicians went their separate ways. However, at the end of 2007 the band reunited. They released a couple more albums, including a Christmas album (it would seem a natural for a Christian band to have a Christmas album).

They have appeared in a few festivals in the past few years. Don’t Dream It’s Over is one of the band’s signature tunes. We wish all the best to the group’s founding members Leigh Nash and lead guitarist Matt Slocum.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Don’t Dream It’s Over
Wikipedia, Crowded House
Wikipedia, Paul Young
Wikipedia, Sixpence None The Richer

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

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