Little Wing: The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood

Hello there! This week our blog features a great 60s R&B tune, Little Wing. We will begin with the original version by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Next, we will review an instrumental cover by Stevie Ray Vaughan, and finally a cover by Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Little Wing:

Jimi Hendrix is generally considered the greatest rock guitarist of all time. He had a meteoric career – Jimi seemed to appear out of nowhere; took the field of rock music by storm; and died less than five years after his launch as a soloist.

James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle in Nov. 1942. He was a shy, introverted youth who spent considerable time in foster care as his parents were both alcoholics who became violent when they were intoxicated.

Jimi Hendrix’s first musical instrument was a ukulele with just one string. In 1958, he got his first guitar and taught himself to play by copying the guitar parts to famous rock ‘n roll songs.

Below is a photo of Jimi Hendrix performing at Royal Albert Hall, in Feb. 1969.

Embed from Getty Images

After being discharged from the Army, Jimi moved to Nashville, where he performed at a number of black venues on what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. He also worked as a session musician for artists such as Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

In 1964, Hendrix moved to New York and began frequenting clubs in Harlem. He was hired as a guitarist with the Isley Brothers band, and later worked with Little Richard’s backup group The Upsetters.

The song Little Wing had its genesis when Jimi was trying to break through in the music business. He had been greatly influenced by Curtis Mayfield, for whom he had opened back in 1963. Jimi admired and copied some of Mayfield’s complex and nuanced guitar phrases. He said that Mayfield
“probably influenced me more than anyone I’d ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know”.

In 1966, Jimi joined a short-lived group called The Icemen. They recorded a few songs that were produced by John Brantley. One of those was called “My Girl (She’s a Fox).” This tune was a precursor to Little Wing, and here is the audio from that song.

On this tune, Jimi’s lead guitar is clearly influenced by Curtis Mayfield. Lonnie Youngblood is the lead vocalist with Jimi contributing backing vocals.

Eventually Hendrix assembled his own band and began performing in Greenwich Village. There, Hendrix caught the eye of Chas Chandler, who had been the bass player for the British Invasion group The Animals. Chandler brought Hendrix to London, and hooked him up with guitarist Noel Redding, who agreed to play bass with the group, and drummer Mitch Mitchell. They formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience caused a sensation when they began live performances in London. The band released three hit singles in the U.K. – Hey Joe, Purple Haze, and The Wind Cries Mary – before they ever issued an album.

Jimi Hendrix wrote Little Wing in 1967. As you will see, the guitar work on Little Wing is extremely similar to that on She’s a Fox. The lyrics refer to a woman with ethereal qualities. On other occasions Jimi said that the song referred to an angel.

Well she’s walking through the clouds
With a circus mind that’s running round
Butterflies and zebras
And moonbeams and fairy tales

That’s all she ever thinks about
Riding with the wind.

When I’m sad, she comes to me
With a thousand smiles, she gives to me free
It’s alright she says it’s alright
Take anything you want from me,

Fly on little wing,
Yeah yeah, yeah, little wing

Jimi spent considerable time getting the sound just right for this song. He tried out several different versions of the song. Eventually Chas Chandler convinced Jimi that the song was most effective when played much more slowly than Jimi’s usual pace.

Recording engineer Eddie Kramer then fed Jimi’s lead guitar through a Leslie speaker, which was commonly used only for organ sounds. They were able to produce a sound with considerable tremolo and vibrato. The final touch occurred when Jimi found a glockenspiel lying on the floor in a corner of the recording studio, and decided to include it on the song.

So here is the audio of Little Wing, which was included on the band’s second album Axis: Bold As Love.

The net result was a sensational sound experience. Jimi’s lead guitar playing is superb, and is perfectly complemented by the electronic effects that produce the vibrato in his solos. And the glockenspiel also adds a lovely touch.

I can’t remember another Hendrix song that is so short and sweet. Coupled with Jimi’s masterful guitar work, Little Wing has become a tune that guitar maestros around the world have emulated.

Next, here is Jimi Hendrix live in Stockholm, Sweden in 1968, performing Little Wing.

Alas, this is just audio of a live performance by Jimi; but the audio quality is pretty good. And you can hear more of Jimi’s absolute mastery of the electric guitar.

Jimi Hendrix had an incandescent coming-out at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (literally, as he set fire to his guitar at the end of his set). He followed that up with a sensational performance at Woodstock in August 1969. In just two years’ time, Hendrix had become the highest-paid rock musician in the world.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted for three mind-blowing albums. After that, the trio broke up at the end of June, 1969 due to personal and musical differences. Jimi then performed with various groups of musicians. In 1970 he assembled a new trio, replacing Noel Redding from the original Jimi Hendrix Experience with Billy Cox. In mid-1970 this group commenced the City of Love tour.

In September the City of Love tour had reached Europe. Hendrix spent the night of Sept. 17 with girlfriend Monika Dannemann. Dannemann testified that they had a bottle of wine, visited some friends, and returned to her apartment.

The following morning, Dannemann found Hendrix unconscious and unresponsive. He was taken to a hospital, but pronounced dead early that afternoon. A post-mortem autopsy revealed that Hendrix died of asphyxia while intoxicated with barbiturates.

Jimi Hendrix’ tragic death was a major loss for rock music. Although he only performed as a solo artist for about five years, his creative contributions were truly astounding. He was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992. Both Rolling Stone magazine and Guitar World rank Hendrix #1 on their list of the greatest guitarists of all time, which is where he belongs.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Little Wing:

Stevie Ray Vaughan was one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. He was born in the Dallas area, where his older brother Jimmie taught him how to play guitar. Stevie subsequently dropped out of high school and moved to Austin to take part in their music scene.

Below is a photo of Stevie Ray Vaughan working on his guitar at a live performance in May, 1987.

Embed from Getty Images

From an early age, Stevie was inspired by blues and rock guitarists such as Muddy Waters, Albert King and Jimi Hendrix. However, probably the biggest influence on his style was Lonnie Mack, a Memphis blues guitarist. Although Mack is not as well known as many other musicians, his guitar style was emulated by artists such as Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Duane Allman.

Vaughan spent a decade in Austin, working with several different blues bands and perfecting his craft. He became well known in Texas, but had a hard time gaining national recognition.

However, this all changed dramatically in 1982. Noted producer Jerry Wexler recommended Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band, Double Trouble, as performers for ‘blues night’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Vaughan and his band were a sensation at Montreux. The night after his performance at the jazz festival, he appeared at the Montreux Casino where Jackson Browne was in the audience.  Browne
offered [Vaughan] free use of his personal recording studio in Los Angeles. … While they were in the studio, Vaughan received a telephone call from David Bowie, who … invited him to participate in a recording session for his next studio album, Let’s Dance.

At this point, Vaughan’s career took off. The following spring the band played at The Bottom Line in New York, where celebrities like Mick Jagger, John McEnroe and Johnny Winter caught his show. New York Post reporter Martin Porter wrote that the venue had been
“rendered to cinders by the most explosively original showmanship to grace the New York stage in some time.”

Stevie Ray Vaughan developed a reputation for his virtuoso guitar work and his incredibly energetic live sets. He was known to superglue his fingernails, to ensure that they would not get ripped off while he was playing. His albums became best-sellers, and SRV and his group were headliners on major tours.

Stevie Ray greatly admired Jimi Hendrix, and Little Wing was a particular favorite of Stevie’s. Here he is in a live performance of Little Wing.

This took place at Toronto’s renowned nightclub El Mocambo in 1983. This is an instrumental version of Little Wing. Stevie repeats Jimi’s rolls and trills with great fidelity and terrific technique. The last 2 ½ minutes of the song comprise a fantastic guitar solo, with Stevie riffing off the Jimi Hendrix guitar line. It’s exciting to see one guitar hero paying homage to another.

You can see why Stevie Ray Vaughan was so popular. Here he is dressed in his trademark cowboy hat, accessorized by a bolo tie and cowboy boots. You can see the sweat pouring down his face as he plays. What a moving performance!

By the mid-80s Vaughan had really hit the big time, but problems with alcohol and drugs threatened to derail his career. Reportedly Vaughan had begun drinking at age 6, when he would finish off the half-empty liquor bottles that his alcoholic father would leave around the house.

At the height of his career, Vaughan would drink a quart of whiskey and do a quarter-ounce of cocaine daily. In 1986 during a European tour, Vaughan was taken to the emergency room. After his doctors warned him that he would likely die within a year unless he sobered up, Vaughan entered rehab in Austin in October, 1986.

Stevie Ray had worried that sobriety would rob him of his musical talents. However, after leaving rehab and rehearsing with his band, he emerged better than ever.

In August, 1990, Stevie Ray Vaughan and his band performed at a concert with Eric Clapton at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in Wisconsin. Following the concert, the bands were loaded onto four helicopters waiting to take them to Chicago.

Vaughan’s helicopter took off, but shortly afterwards veered left and crashed into the top of a nearby ski hill. Vaughan, his three fellow passengers and the helicopter pilot were killed instantly.

What a tragic ending for a great musical talent. Stevie Ray Vaughan created a blues style that borrowed from the great blues predecessors. Vaughan also incorporated elements from jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Wes Montgomery. He played his signature 1959 Fender Stratocaster guitar with tremendous verve.

Vaughan was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Rolling Stone magazine named him the #7 in their “100 Best Guitarists of All Time.” Miss you, Stevie.

Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and Little Wing:

In 1969, various British rock groups were disintegrating. Eric Clapton was disenchanted with his supergroup trio Cream for several reasons. For one thing, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Jack Bruce loathed each other, and Clapton felt caught in the middle of their feuds. In addition, the perfectionist Clapton believed that the group was “coasting,” often producing third-rate performances.

A couple of years earlier, Steve Winwood had left the Spencer Davis Group over creative differences – Winwood was interested in jazz-influenced progressive rock, while other members of the band favored heavy-metal blues-infused music. Winwood formed Traffic in order to pursue these new directions. However, Winwood took a temporary hiatus from Traffic temporarily in 1969, and
Winwood started to jam with his good friend Clapton in Clapton’s basement in Surrey, England.

The band Blind Faith in 1969. From L: Steve Winwood; Ric Grech; Ginger Baker; Eric Clapton.

Eventually, Clapton and Winwood teamed up with drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech to form the supergroup “Blind Faith.” The photo above shows the group; from L: Steve Winwood; Ric Grech; Ginger Baker; Eric Clapton. The band’s first gig, a free concert at London’s Hyde Park in summer 1969, drew 300,000 people! But after just one album, the group disbanded.

Steve Winwood (L) and Eric Clapton performing in Madison Square Garden in 2008.

Clapton and Winwood remained good friends, and in the past decade began to appear together again. This started at Clapton’s second Crossroads Guitar Festival held outside of Chicago, where they performed together with a set that included a few Blind Faith numbers.

Above is a photo of Winwood and Clapton in 2008 at Madison Square Garden. And here they are in a live performance of Little Wing at that venue.

Initially Eric and Steve take turns on the lyrics, and then they sing together in the second half of the tune. Eric contributes his usual stunning guitar licks. He produces beautiful notes and throws in perfectly timed runs on his Fender Stratocaster, while Steve chimes in on his Hammond B-3 organ.  The audio is exceptional, and the camera focuses on Eric’s hands as he rolls through his solos. What an enjoyable video!

Unlike the lovely, mellow original by Jimi Hendrix, this version of Little Wing builds to a climax. It is easy to see why this song is so appealing to guitar heroes. In addition to the songs that we feature in this post there are over 100 covers of this tune, including impressive live performances by Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana and Paul Rodgers.

After they teamed up at Crossroads, Clapton and Winwood reunited for a limited series of concerts in the US, Europe and Japan between 2008 and 2011. I am frustrated that I have never caught one of their concerts.

I have been a fan of Steve Winwood ever since I saw him perform with the Spencer Davis Group in 1966; I have seen him with Traffic and as a solo act since then.

And I have seen Clapton performing solo a few times in recent years, although as a grad student in England I spent a fair amount of time “missing Eric Clapton,” having caught the Yardbirds and John Mayall shortly after Clapton left each of those groups.

In the history of rock music, Blind Faith was simply a brief interlude in the careers of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. After the group broke up, Baker continued on with Ginger Baker’s Air Force. Winwood soon re-united with Traffic, while Clapton formed the super-group Derek and the Dominos before finally embarking on a long and distinguished solo career.

The British Invasion produced an incredibly large number of superstars, including Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. We wish each of them all the best, and we are saddened that we have lost Ginger Baker in the past year.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Little Wing
Wikipedia, Jimi Hendrix
Wikipedia, Stevie Ray Vaughan
Wikipedia, Eric Clapton
Wikipedia, Steve Winwood
Wikipedia, Blind Faith

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

I Wanna Be Your Man: The Rolling Stones; The Beatles; Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band

Hello there! This week our blog features an enjoyable early British Invasion rocker, I Wanna Be Your Man. We will begin with the first recorded version by The Rolling Stones. Next, we will review the tune as recorded by The Beatles, and finally a cover by Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band.

The Rolling Stones and I Wanna Be Your Man:

The Rolling Stones originated with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had been primary school classmates and friends until their parents moved apart. Meeting up again when they were both in college, they realized that they shared an interest in blues and rock music.

After a few early personnel changes, the group settled on a quintet with Jagger on lead vocals, Richards and Brian Jones on guitar, Bill Wyman on bass and Charlie Watts on drums. The photo below shows the cover of the Rolling Stones 1965 single Satisfaction. Back row, L to R: Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones; front row Bill Wyman, Keith Richards.

Embed from Getty Images

The original bandleader of the group was Brian Jones. In the beginning, he was the most accomplished musician, having played guitar with Alexis Korner’s influential band Blues Incorporated. Initially the Stones played almost exclusively covers, becoming leaders in an American blues revival movement in London.

But the Stones were also on the lookout for other songs that would fit their hard-rock style. So when Mick and Keith ran into Paul McCartney and John Lennon, the two Beatles pitched a song they were writing as a great vehicle for the Stones (in an alternate version of this story, the meeting took place between John & Paul and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham).

This sounded promising to Keith and Mick. So John and Paul stopped by while the Stones were rehearsing at De Lane Lea Studios in Soho, London. Although Paul had written a couple of verses for I Wanna Be Your Man, the song was by no means finished. While the Stones were rehearsing in the studio, Paul & John went off into a corner, and in about 30 minutes they completed the song.

The two Beatles played the song for the Stones, and all agreed that it would be suitable as a Rolling Stones tune. As Bill Wyman recalled,
“We kind of learned it pretty quickly because there wasn’t that much to learn.”

The next step was to convert it to a typical Stones song. It took a while for the Stones to settle on the appropriate style. Eventually, they agreed that Brian Jones would play lead with his slide guitar, which would be supplemented with pulsating bass lines from Bill Wyman. According to Wyman, this
“made it much more tough, Stones- and Elmore James-like.”

The Stones were playing close attention while Lennon and Paul McCartney finished the tune. Jagger and Richards were impressed that Lennon and McCartney could toss off a rock song in roughly half an hour. “Gee, that looked pretty easy,” they remarked. Soon afterwards Jagger and Richards decided to try their luck writing original songs.

But perhaps the most impressed was the Stones’ manager and producer Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham understood that song-writing could be exceptionally lucrative – when a song is played on the radio, royalties are paid to the songwriter, but not the performers. So Oldham pushed hard to steer the Stones in the direction of original songs.

The lyrics of I Wanna Be Your Man are extremely simple and repetitive, as they merely describe the song’s title.

I wanna be your lover, baby
I wanna be your man
I wanna be your lover, baby
I wanna be your man

Love you like no other, baby
Like no other can
Love you like no other, baby
Like no other can

[CHORUS] I wanna be your man, I wanna be your man,
I wanna be your man, I wanna be your man

Like most early Beatles tunes, the song is straightforward and direct, much like Love Me Do. The Stones recording was released in the U.K. in November 1963; it was the second single from that group.

So here are the Rolling Stones in a live version of I Wanna Be Your Man.

This performance took place on the in February 1964 on The Arthur Haynes Show, a British variety show headlined by comedian Arthur Haynes. That show occasionally featured musical acts. On January 1, 1964 I Wanna Be Your Man by the Rolling Stones had the distinction of being the first song ever broadcast on the long-running BBC series Top of the Pops.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this is the only song written by the Beatles and performed by the Rolling Stones.

I Wanna Be Your Man made it to #12 on the British pop charts. It was released only as a single; however, the song has been included on later compilations of Stones hits. The tune was not released in the U.S. until 1964; it contained the B-side “Stoned” (an instrumental Stones tune) but did not chart. The song was then re-released in the States as the B-side of the Buddy Holly tune Not Fade Away.

Now here are the Rolling Stones live at London’s O2 Arena in Nov. 2012 for their 50th Anniversary tour. And their first song is I Wanna Be Your Man!

Although the audio and video are not great, it is fun to see the excitement as the Stones are introduced to begin their tour. Mick Jagger rips through the song (with special emphasis on the word ‘lover’), and it is astonishing that they still have three original members, including Keith Richards and Charlie Watts.

All our best to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, still touring nearly 60 years after their founding.

The Beatles and I Wanna Be Your Man:

Before the Beatles became a world-wide sensation, when “Beatlemania” was just beginning in the UK, their playlist featured a combination of original songs plus covers of their favorite tunes.

The photo below shows the Beatles in Decca Studios in March, 1963. Fourteen months earlier, the young and upcoming Beatles had auditioned for a recording contract with Decca. After driving down to London, the nervous Liverpudlians (with Pete Best on drums) played 12 covers and 3 original songs for Decca executives.

Embed from Getty Images

In one of the biggest financial blunders in history, the Decca execs spurned The Beatles, signing instead a London pop group, The Tremeloes. Well, the Tremeloes were a perfectably respectable pop group, although their financial worth fell about a trillion dollars short of the Beatles. The Decca brass explained to Beatles manager Brian Epstein that “guitar groups are on the way out” and that “the Beatles have no future in show business.”

As we remarked in the preceding section, McCartney and Lennon tossed off I Wanna Be Your Man in fall 1963. After giving it to the Rolling Stones, they quickly recorded their own version of the tune which was released just weeks after the Stones.

So here are the Beatles with a live version of I Wanna Be Your Man.

Well, both the audio and video are lousy, but it does give a great look at Beatlemania in action. Ringo sings the lead while Paul and John provide the backing vocals and George stands off to the right on lead guitar. You can hardly hear the tune for the screaming, but Ringo is extremely energetic.

I Wanna Be Your Man appeared on the Beatles’ second album, With The Beatles, released in the UK in November 1963. In the US, it was on the album Meet the Beatles! released in January 1964.

In assessing the quality of this tune, John Lennon was his usual caustic self. In 1980 he said,
“It was a throwaway. The only two versions of the song were Ringo and the Rolling Stones. That shows how much importance we put on it: We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?”

In 1966 Bob Dylan recorded a tune called I Wanna Be Your Lover that was clearly an homage to Lennon & McCartney. It was initially intended for Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album but did not survive the cut, and it was eventually included on Dylan’s 1985 Biograph boxed set.

Whatever one thinks of the quality of I Wanna Be Your Man, it occupies a special place in being recorded by both the Beatles and the Stones, with a ‘tribute’ from Bob Dylan. Even Bo Diddley got into the act; his 1965 London Stomp has lyrics “Hey Liverpool, we got the London Stomp” to a beat reminiscent of the Beatles tune (this is ironic, as the Beatles’ beat on I Wanna Be Your Man was influenced by Bo Diddley’s sound!)

Our hats are off to the surviving Beatles Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, members of the best pop group ever, and still on the road!

Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band and I Wanna Be Your Man:

After the breakup of the Beatles, each member of the band had to figure out what to do next. For a while, Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) embarked on a solo career.

Ringo played drums in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, and had an extended collaboration with George Harrison. Three of Ringo’s greatest hits (Photograph, It Don’t Come Easy, and Back Off Boogaloo) were co-written by Starr and Harrison. Despite his limited singing ability, Ringo’s solo career was rather successful. In fact, in 2015 Ringo Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work as a solo artist.

An important event occurred in late 1988 when Ringo and his wife, Barbara Bach, checked into alcohol rehab at a clinic in Tucson. Energized by his new sobriety, Ringo went back to touring.

Working with producer David Fishof, Ringo formed a group called Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. The idea was to create a supergroup consisting of the best musicians on their respective instruments, and to go out on tour.

The All-Starr Band setlist would include roughly a dozen of the tunes that Ringo sang with the Beatles or during his solo career. In addition, each band member would perform two or three of their most famous tunes.

Poster for the first Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, from 1989.

The first edition of the All-Starr band in 1989, shown above, included Joe Walsh (of the Eagles) and Nils Lofgren (E Street Band) on guitar, Jim Keltner and Levon Helm (The Band) on drums, Dr. John and Billy Preston on keyboards, Rick Danko (The Band) on bass, and Clarence Clemons (E Street Band) on saxophone. An All-Starr band, indeed!

So here is the 1989 first edition of Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band performing I Wanna Be Your Man.

Isn’t this fun? It took place at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre. As he did on the original Beatles record, Ringo sings lead. The group rocks through the tune, including energetic solos by Clarence Clemons on sax and Billy Preston on keyboards.

You can see why Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band is so popular. Ringo seems to have essentially no ego, so he is perfectly happy to give his bandmates the opportunity to showcase their biggest hits. In addition, he never fails to meld a group of extraordinary individual musicians into a tight and impressive musical ensemble.

Wishing ‘success’ for Ringo Starr seems unnecessary. He was appointed a Knight Bachelor (Sir Richard Starkey, MBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2018. As we have mentioned, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a Beatle and the second time for his solo career. Oh by the way, Ringo is the richest drummer in the world, with a net worth estimated at $350 million. Not bad for a person whose childhood upbringing was
“a Dickensian chronicle of misfortune,”
and who received no more than a 5th-grade education because of a number of serious health issues.

We wish Ringo all happiness. He invariably finishes his concerts with his most famous tune, A Little Help From My Friends, from the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. Now that Ringo is sober, he no longer includes the line “I get high with a little help from my friends.” Good for him. By all accounts, a great guy and a fabulous musician.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, I Wanna Be Your Man
Wikipedia, The Rolling Stones
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, The Beatles’ Decca audition
Wikipedia, Ringo Starr
Wikipedia, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band

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

Mr. Blue Sky: Electric Light Orchestra; Tony Visconti; Postmodern Jukebox

Hello there! This week our blog features a fascinating pop song from the 70s, Mr. Blue Sky. We will first discuss the original version by ELO. Next, we will review a cover by Tony Visconti, and finally a cover by Postmodern Jukebox.

ELO and Mr. Blue Sky:

Electric Light Orchestra was an extremely successful group for about a 15-year period. The group was the concept of Birmingham musicians Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan. Wood initially envisioned a band that would produce a fusion of rock and classical elements, and would include
violins, cellos, string basses, horns and woodwinds to give their music a classical sound, taking rock music in the direction to “pick up where the Beatles left off”.

Wood had been a guitar player, vocalist and songwriter for the band The Move. He brought in multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jeff Lynne from another Birmingham band and drummer Bev Bevan from The Move. Below is a photo of the founding members of Electric Light Orchestra from April 1972. From L: Jeff Lynne; Bev Bevan; Roy Wood.

Embed from Getty Images

Richard Tandy also joined the band in 1972, first as a bass player and later as keyboardist. The group decided on the clever name Electric Light Orchestra. One meaning of their name is that the group added electric music to a “light orchestra,” while a second meaning would be the association with an “electric light” bulb.

To highlight this, the group initially adopted a logo where the acronym for their band, ELO, is written out in a script that is reminiscent of the General Electric logo. This is shown below.

Original logo for Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO.

In addition to Wood, Lynne, Bevan and Tandy, the group added bass, cellos, and violin. They released an album that was critically acclaimed, and embarked on a tour.

Unfortunately, friction developed between the band members, and Roy Wood and other band members departed while the second ELO album was being recorded. Several musicians had problems with the band’s manager; in addition, during their tour the group had significant technical difficulties trying to balance the sound of the electric and acoustic instruments.

Many people predicted that ELO would fold without founding member Roy Wood. However, Jeff Lynne took over the songwriting and arranging duties. Also, the string instruments adopted new pickups; this solved the technical difficulty of allowing the strings to be heard over the guitars.

At this point, ELO became a rock powerhouse. They issued a number of top-selling albums, and developed a lush signature sound that included strings, synthesizers, and significant overdubbing.

The song Mr. Blue Sky was written and produced by Jeff Lynne in 1978. Lynne had rented a Swiss chalet in an attempt to create songs for a new album. At first, the weather did not cooperate and it rained for two straight weeks.

But when the rain finally stopped, Lynne was surrounded by majestic Alpine peaks and beautiful blue skies. At that point he wrote Mr. Blue Sky and 13 additional songs that were included in the ELO album Out Of The Blue.

The song begins with a simulated weather forecast — Morning! Today’s forecast calls for blue skies. It then segues into the tune, which describes everyone’s reaction when it stops raining and the Sun emerges to a lovely cloudless day.

Sun is shining in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped raining
Everybody’s in the play
And don’t you know
It’s a beautiful new day, hey-ay-ay!

Runnin’ down the avenue
See how the sun shines brightly
In the city
On the streets where once was pity
Mr. Blue Sky is living here today, hey-ay-ay!

[CHORUS] Mr. Blue Sky
Please tell us why
You had to hide away
For so long (so long)
Where did we go wrong? [2X]

The song relies on many technical innovations and studio tricks; so here is the official music video of Mr. Blue Sky.

The single of this tune reached #6 on the British pop charts. It was less successful in the U.S., making it only to #35. Because of its sophisticated electronic effects, it has been compared to several later Beatles tunes, including A Day In The Life.

Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I really enjoy Mr. Blue Sky. The song bangs along at a hearty and upbeat pace, buoyed by Jeff Lynne’s vocals and backed up by a large choir. It certainly makes use of the “orchestra” part of ELO’s name, with lush strings and a full orchestra.

You will notice that the last half of the song relies heavily on a device called the vocoder. This word, a portmanteau of ‘voice’ and ‘encoder,’ describes an electronic device that records human speech and allows it to be re-transmitted or altered.

Schematic for the original vocoder, invented by Homer Dudley in 1938.

ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy uses the vocoder extensively in this song. Mr. Blue Sky became one of ELO’s signature tunes (their other signature tune, for obvious reasons, was Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven).

ELO continued through the 70s and early 80s as a hit-producing machine. They sold over 50 million records worldwide, and they placed 15 songs in the top 20 in the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

Through the years, the membership of ELO changed significantly; but Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy continued as founding members of the group. However, in 1986 Lynne essentially left the group and they disbanded.

Lynne subsequently teamed up with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to form The Traveling Wilburys. At that time, Bev Bevan formed ELO II. Bevan and his associates released a couple of albums and toured until 1999, when ELO disbanded.

Up to this point, the name “ELO” was jointly owned by Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne. But in 2000 Bevan sold his share of the naming rights to Lynne, who began issuing albums, particularly retrospectives, re-masters and box sets of earlier ELO hits.

Then in 2014, Lynne formed a band that he called “Jeff Lynne’s ELO.” The name was chosen to differentiate this group from Bev Bevan’s ELO II, and also various other ELO spin-offs and tribute bands.

“Jeff Lynne’s ELO” included keyboardist Richard Tandy and violinist Chereene Allen; it also included members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 2014, 31 years after Jeff Lynne and ELO had last performed live, they gave a concert at Hyde Park. And here they are in a live performance of Mr. Blue Sky.

There was some question whether the group was still popular after such a long lapse. They should not have worried – the 50,000 tickets to their Hyde Park concert sold out in 15 minutes!  Note that the audience is joyfully singing along with ELO on this tune.

In my opinion, this song is pretty amazing. Jeff Lynne’s voice is still strong, and the musical backing is splendid, combining the BBC Orchestra with members from the British pop group Take That. Chereene Allen on violin is also terrific. But the star of this piece is definitely Richard Tandy, on keyboards and vocoder.

Along their musical journey, ELO accrued a devoted group of fans and sold a ton of records, although the response of critics was mixed. Some were impressed by the fusion of strings and rock band elements. Others felt that the group relied too heavily on special effects from the recording studio.

However, there seems little doubt that Jeff Lynne turned out to be an extremely creative songwriter and arranger, and that ELO prospered under his leadership. Four members of ELO (Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

So, our best wishes to Jeff Lynne, Richard Tandy and the other members of ELO.

Tony Visconti and Mr. Blue Sky:

Tony Visconti is an acclaimed producer and musician. Born in Brooklyn in 1944, Visconti first took up the ukulele and then graduated to the guitar. He became a valued performer backing up lounge acts in New York, but commercial success eluded him.

Visconti then turned to producing records. In 1968 he met Denny Cordell, who was producing groups such as the Moody Blues, Leon Russell and Joe Cocker. Cordell persuaded Visconti to move to London, which turned out to be a defining step in his career.

Visconti proceeded to produce groups like The Iveys (who soon changed their name to Badfinger) and T Rex. Visconti then met David Bowie and began producing records for him.

Tony Visconti (L) with David Bowie.

Over time, Tony Visconti would produce 11 David Bowie albums, including the last album, Darkstar, before Bowie’s death in 2016. As Bowie frequently made radical changes in his musical style, Visconti presided over albums that reflected great differences in Bowie’s sound.

Visconti himself played bass on David Bowie’s 1970 album The Man Who Sold The World. Since 2015, he has toured with the Bowie cover band Holy Holy. That band specializes in performing old Bowie albums in their entirety. In 2007, Visconti wrote an autobiography titled Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy.

Here is Tony Visconti in a cover of Mr. Blue Sky. This appeared on the 2001 two-record album Lynne Me Your Ears, that featured covers by several artists of Jeff Lynne’s work with ELO, also with his earlier bands The Idle Race and The Move, and Lynne’s later group The Traveling Wilburys.

I have been unable to find any live videos of Tony Visconti, so we will have to make do with the audio of this song. What do you think? Online comments reveal that this tune was extremely polarizing.

Several commenters felt, as I did, that the musical accompaniment was sophisticated and for the most part successful. I quite enjoyed this cover; like the original, it relies heavily on lush strings and extensive use of electronic tricks.

Tony Visconti’s contribution was the most controversial part. Visconti is not really ‘singing;’ he simply talks his way through the piece, similar to William Shatner’s “dramatic readings” of pop songs. And the critics are as harsh towards Visconti as they were to Shatner.

So perhaps Tony Visconti should stick to producing records, where he has an enviable track record. We wish Tony every success in his record-producing career.

Postmodern Jukebox and Mr. Blue Sky:

Postmodern Jukebox is a fascinating phenomenon. It is a ‘musical collective,’ a rotating group of musicians who specialize in ‘covers’ of pop songs, particularly performed in styles of American music of the early 20th century.

Postmodern Jukebox, or PMJ, is the brainchild of pianist Scott Bradlee, who founded the group in 2011. This project began when Bradlee and friends from college began making videos of their live performances in Bradlee’s basement.

Scott Bradlee, originator and arranger of songs by Postmodern Jukebox.

Bradlee had considerable difficulty breaking into the music business, and his home videos were an attempt to gain publicity for his covers. The first big viral YouTube hit was Robyn Adele Anderson’s 2012 cover of the song Thrift Shop by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. That video had over 1 million views in its first week, and 4 million in its first year.

So here is Postmodern Jukebox in a cover of Mr. Blue Sky by ELO.

Isn’t this wonderful? Allison Young does a terrific turn as a sultry lounge singer, with beautifully expressive vocals. That’s PMJ founder Scott Bradlee on piano, and he also arranged the piece. As you can see, the production values have improved greatly since the early days of recording from Bradlee’s basement.

Well, PMJ continues their run of success. One of their YouTube covers from 2015 has garnered 69 million views. Now, PMJ uploads a new video every week on YouTube. And the total audience for Postmodern Jukebox videos is over 1 billion views – that’s right, ‘billion’ with a B! So this musical collective has become a media sensation.

PMJ has uploaded videos with nearly 100 guest artists. And they have created touring groups that have visited six continents. Intelligent, creative covers of pop hits in retro formats such as doo-wop, Dixieland, swing and big-band — no wonder they’re so popular!

After viewing just one of their videos, I’m hooked! I look forward to showing more of their covers on my blog, and I wish Scott Bradlee and his PMJ collective all future success.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mr. Blue Sky
Wikipedia, Electric Light Orchestra
Wikipedia, Jeff Lynne
Wikipedia, Tony Visconti
Wikipedia, Postmodern Jukebox
Wikipedia, Scott Bradlee

Posted in Classic Rock, Electronic music, Pop Music, Progressive Rock, Psychedelic music, Rock and roll, Swing Music | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Land Is Your Land: Blind Willie Davis; The Carter Family; Woody Guthrie; Peter, Paul & Mary

Hello there! This week our blog features a folk anthem, This Land Is Your Land. We will first discuss predecessors to this melody from Blind Willie Davis and The Carter Family. Next, we will review Woody Guthrie’s timeless tune, and finally we present a cover by Peter, Paul & Mary.

Blind Willie Davis and Rock of Ages:

Blind Willie Davis was a southern gospel singer. Aside from the fact that he was blind, very little is known about him. He was born sometime around 1890 and died in the 1930s. Not only is there no video of Blind Willie Davis performing, but there are no known photographs of him.

The best guess from historians is that he lived in Bude, Mississippi, a town in the southwest corner of that state. He sang gospel songs in a blues format, backed by his slide guitar. The best-known songs that he performed are Rock of Ages, When The Saints Go Marching In, and Keys to the Kingdom.

In 1928 and 1929, Willie Davis recorded six sides of songs for Paramount Records.

Here is audio of Willie Davis singing Rock of Ages, a song released in 1928. As you will see, the melodies of When The World’s On Fire, and later This Land Is Your Land, have very strong similarities to Willie Davis’ tune (thanks to Glenn Gass for pointing this out).

Apart from the chorus, it is believed that Willie Davis improvised his lyrics. As you can hear, Davis’ lyrics are quite repetitive. His guitar playing is powerful and up-tempo, although like his lyrics the guitar riffs repeat themselves.

After his two recording sessions, Willie Davis did not record again. It was rumored that he feared if he sat through more recording sessions, he would be required to perform secular songs.

You can find the complete works of Blind Willie Davis on Document Records. We are fortunate to have a permanent record of the work of this simple but powerful gospel singer.

The Carter Family and When The World’s On Fire:

The Carter Family became America’s First Family of country music. Initially, the head of the family, Alvin Pleasant “A.P.” Carter (1891-1960), joined with his wife Sara Carter and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter to form a family trio. Below is a photo of the Carter Family. From L: Maybelle Carter; A.P. Carter; Sara Carter.

Embed from Getty Images

The Carters lived in extreme southwest Virginia, right at the point where Virginia adjoins Kentucky and Tennessee. A.P. Carter was a traveling salesman, and as he moved through his territory, he collected traditional folk and gospel songs in Appalachia. The music featured tight harmonies and shape note singing, from tunes that had been passed around by generations of folk living in isolated valleys in this region. In addition, A.P. composed several songs of his own.

The Carter Family got their big break in August, 1927, when A.P., Sara and Maybelle travelled to Bristol, Tennessee to audition with producer Ralph Peer. Peer was a trailblazer who utilized “field recording,”
when in June 1923 he took remote recording equipment south to Atlanta, Georgia to record regional music outside the recording studio in such places as hotel rooms, ballrooms, or empty warehouses.

Peer’s mobile recording studio had already produced the first blues recording aimed at the African-American market in 1923. The following year Peer oversaw the first commercial recording session in New Orleans, where he recorded blues, jazz and gospel groups.

In 1927 Peer repeated his success with hillbilly music. At what are now called the “Bristol sessions,” Peer recorded both the Carter family and Jimmie Rodgers, two of the most important and influential country music artists.

Peer also invented the “royalty system.” In lieu of a raise, Peer was paid one penny for every side of a record that he produced. Peer kept half of this royalty, and shared the other half with the composer. These transactions made a fortune for Ralph Peer, but they also provided a powerful incentive for regional music groups.

After being recorded by Ralph Peer, the Carter Family became nationally famous for their brand of country music. A.P. typically sang backup, while his wife Sara on autoharp and sister-in-law Maybelle Carter on guitar often sang the lead parts.

Maybelle’s guitar style ushered in a major change in country music. She single-handedly invented what became the dominant style of bluegrass guitar picking. Maybelle used her thumb (with a thumbpick) and two fingers
to play melody lines (on the low strings of the guitar) while still maintaining rhythm using her fingers, brushing across the higher strings.

This blazed a trail in country music, where beforehand the guitar was used only infrequently as a solo instrument. An entire guitar-picking industry was inspired by Mother Maybelle’s style.

Here is a clip, a tribute to Mother Maybelle, that focuses on her guitar technique. I like it because it shows off her trademark picking style to great advantage.

A.P. Carter made another major contribution, from his drive to collect and publish songs from all over the Appalachian region; indeed, between 1927 and 1941 the Carter Family recorded an astonishing 300 songs. This included gospel and traditional folk tunes, in addition to A.P.’s original songs.

Attracted by the half-penny royalty, A.P. Carter copyrighted all these songs in his own name. As a result, the Carter Family “owned” the rights to an entire catalog of traditional music. They were responsible for such iconic bluegrass songs as Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Wildwood Flower and Wabash Cannonball.

Here is audio of the Carter Family singing When The World’s On Fire.

This was a 1930 recording. As you can see, both the melody and many of the lyrics are identical to Blind Willie Davis’ Rock of Ages. Folk-song aficionados will also recognize the melody from another Carter tune — Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine.

In the late 30s the Carter family moved to Texas and began broadcasting radio shows there. In 1942 they moved their operation to Charlotte, NC where they produced a twice-daily show.

A.P. and Sara Carter separated in 1932 and divorced in 1939, but they continued to perform together for several progressively more uncomfortable years. Finally, the group split up in 1944. At that time, A.P. left the music business and opened a general store in Hiltons, VA.

But Mother Maybelle continued on. She assembled her daughters and the children of A.P. and Sara, and traveled the country as Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters. June Carter subsequently married Johnny Cash, and descendants of the Carter family such as grand-daughters Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash are still performing country music today.

The Carter clan are rightly known as the First Family of country music. Their influence on song collecting, song-writing, and musical style has set the standard for country music for nearly 100 years. Hats off to them!

Woody Guthrie and This Land Is Your Land:

Woody Guthrie was one of the greatest American folk singers, and was dedicated to fighting for social justice through his songs and writing. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912. Woody’s mother suffered from the hereditary affliction Huntington’s disease. However, it was never properly diagnosed during her lifetime, and she spent her last four years at the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane.

Woody’s family left the Oklahoma Dust Bowl for California, where Woody befriended a number of socialists and Communists, including John Steinbeck. In California, Woody performed folk and country songs and also wrote a column called Woody Sez for the Communist newspaper People’s World.

Although Woody Guthrie was friends with many Communists, there is no evidence that he ever joined the Communist Party; he acted more as a ‘fellow traveler.’ Woody moved to New York City in 1940. His album Dust Bowl Ballads recounted his boyhood days in Oklahoma; eventually, that album greatly increased his reputation as a singer-songwriter. Below is a photo of Woody Guthrie.

Woody Guthrie (inset) and his guitar, with the message ‘this machine kills Fascists.’

In February 1940, Woody Guthrie wrote down lyrics for a song called God Blessed America. It was written in protest of Irving Berlin’s song God Bless America, which Woody thought was too uncritical and complacent in its attitude towards the U.S. (also, he was tired of hearing Kate Smith singing it).

Woody jotted down lyrics for the song in New York’s Hanover House Hotel. The first verse is shown here, together with words stricken from his original notes.

This land is your land, and this land is my land
From California to the Staten New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
[This land was made for you and me.]

As you can see, Woody decided to change the title to This Land Was Made for You and Me. He then put the song aside for four years, when he returned with an updated set of lyrics. He wanted to emphasize his conviction that America should be a resource for everyone.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

Woody dropped two verses from his original; those were more political and dealt with private property and poverty. One of those verses was the following:

Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

So here is a video of Woody Guthrie and the song This Land Is Your Land.

That is certainly Woody’s voice, and the video clips are authentic, but I can’t tell whether  Woody is singing This Land Is Your Land in this video.

Over the years this song has become an anthem for progressive causes. The song gained particular resonance during the civil-rights era, and the rise of the folk-singing movement in the 60s. It was even adopted by a right-wing group (the National Organization for Marriage, which crusaded against gay marriage, adoption of children by gays, and transgender rights).

The song was performed by Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger at the Obama Inaugural gala at the Lincoln Memorial in January, 2009. Covers of this song have been made by over 150 artists, and the lyrics have been transcribed to fit other countries, including Canada, Ireland, Turkey and Scotland.

Hilariously enough, a song that ridicules “private property” became the object of a lawsuit over copyright. When the Website Jibjab issued a parody of This Land Is Your Land in 2004, Ludlow Publishing Company threatened legal action, claiming that they held the copyright to that song. Eventually Ludlow was persuaded that their copyright had expired.

In the 1940s, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger formed a folk group, the Almanac Singers. Woody lent “authenticity” to the group’s social-justice efforts, as he was a legitimate member of the working class, rather than an intellectual. Woody’s songs such as This Land Is Your Land, coupled with pro-union efforts like Union Maid, made him a hero to social-justice advocates in the U.S. and abroad.

During World War II, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Woody Guthrie wrote a number of anti-Fascist songs. Woody also collaborated with American unions on anti-Nazi activity; in fact, he was able to get the warring AFL and CIO factions to unite for  this cause. At this time Woody became famous for the sign “this machine kills Fascists” taped to his guitar (shown in the photo above).

However, in the late 40s Woody Guthrie’s health began to suffer.  His behavior changed dramatically, and he became aggressive and emotionally volatile. Eventually he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, which he had inherited from his mother.

Unfortunately, as little was known about this progressive disease at the time, Woody’s condition went essentially untreated. As his muscular control worsened, Woody was sent to several psychiatric hospitals for care.

Before he died in 1967 from complications of Huntington’s disease, Woody Guthrie became a hero to a new generation of folksingers. This was particularly true of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who had been mentored by Guthrie.

Elliott reported that Woody’s advice for a folk musician was “If you want to learn something, just steal it.” This was consistent with a statement Woody made regarding music publishing rights.
“This song is Copyrighted … and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern [sic]. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it.”

Bob Dylan revered Woody Guthrie; when he arrived in New York in 1061, Dylan visited Woody frequently while Guthrie was confined at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital.

We salute the folk idol and tireless social-justice advocate Woody Guthrie.

Peter, Paul & Mary and This Land Is Your Land:

Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers were folksingers in New York City in the late 1950s, and Noel Stookey was an aspiring stand-up comedian who had arrived in the Big Apple from the Midwest. The legendary manager Albert Grossman auditioned several musicians for the purpose of assembling a folk-singing group.

Grossman hand-picked these three, told Noel Stookey to change his name to Paul, and rehearsed the group for several months in Boston and Miami. Following their rehearsals, he took the group back to Greenwich Village and checked them into the Bitter End coffee house.

Below is a photo of Peter, Paul and Mary, appearing at an event for Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

Embed from Getty Images

The group released their debut album in 1963, and it immediately became a commercial bombshell. The album, packed with hit singles such as If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, shot up to #1 on the Billboard album list, remained in the top 10 for ten months, and eventually was certified double platinum.

I remember vividly first hearing their album and subsequently seeing them perform. Their music was compelling, with their pleasing harmonies complemented by Yarrow and Stookey’s guitars and an upright bass. Visually they were also striking, with Yarrow and Stookey’s dark-haired beatnik visages offset by Travers’ platinum-blond hair, square chin and stunning good looks.

Although the trio had been “manufactured” by Albert Grossman, they quite genuinely adopted their role in the folk-protest movement. Their first major activist performance was at the August 1963 March on Washington best known for Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. There they sang If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind.

This was followed by fifty years of performing and social activism. The trio broke up in 1970 but reunited in 1978. They then continued to perform together until Mary Travers’ death in 2009 from leukemia. I saw the group a couple of times in the mid-60s and once much later on. It was always a joy to hear their signature renditions of folk song classics. In addition, the trio appeared to have genuine affection for one another.

In November 1969 I took part in the march on Washington, DC against the Vietnam War, along with roughly a million of my close friends (desperate to disparage the anti-war movement, the Nixon administration estimated the crowd at 100,000). Peter, Paul & Mary performed there; my recollection is that they sang If I Had a Hammer and possibly also This Land Is Your Land. Peter Yarrow was one of the organizers of that event, whose performers included Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra who played a Beethoven quartet, and the cast of Hair.

Here are Peter, Paul & Mary and the audio of This Land Is Your Land. This is from their second album Moving. Released in 1963, it made it up to #2 on the Billboard album charts, buoyed by the gigantic single hit Puff, The Magic Dragon.

Well, this is a rousing version of the Woody Guthrie classic. Peter, Paul & Mary provide their signature close harmonies (here in a remastered version of the original). It is an up-tempo version of Woody’s own song. I like it – it makes you want to rush out and join a protest!

And here is a live version of the song by Peter, Paul & Mary.

This is from their live 25th anniversary concert in 1986. Peter, Paul & Mary are significantly older than when they started out, but they provide an enjoyable rendition of this classic. Peter Yarrow starts out with a slight and vulnerable solo, and then he is joined by Noel/Paul and Mary. The audience clearly loves it.

Peter Yarrow and Noel Stookey have continued to perform on occasion following Mary Travers’ death. I continue to listen to my old PP&M albums with great affection. They bring me straight back to the 60s.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, This Land Is Your Land
Wikipedia, Blind Willie Davis
Wikipedia, Carter Family
Wikipedia, Ralph Peer
Wikipedia, Woody Guthrie
Wikipedia, Peter, Paul & Mary

Posted in Country music, Folk music, Folk-rock music, Gospel Music, Pop Music | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

People Get Ready: The Impressions; Neville Brothers Band; Jeff Beck

Hello there! This week our blog features a beautiful gospel/soul tune, People Get Ready. We will first discuss the original version by The Impressions. Next, we will review a cover by The Neville Brothers, and finally a cover by Jeff Beck.

The Impressions and People Get Ready:

The Impressions were an R&B group with a strong gospel flavor. Sam Gooden, Richard Brooks and Arthur Brooks first formed a group called The Roosters. In 1958 they added two members, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler, whom they knew as classmates at Chicago’s Washburn High School.

The group changed their name to Jerry Butler and the Impressions. The group had one big hit, the 1958 For Your Precious Love, which reached #11 on the pop charts.  Here is a photo of The Impressions.

R&B group The Impressions. circa 1960.

Then in 1962, Jerry Butler and the Brooks brothers left the group, so Mayfield and Gooden added a new singer Fred Cash and signed a deal as The Impressions with ABC-Paramount Records.

With Curtis Mayfield as the lead singer, songwriter and guitarist, The Impressions became pop stars and were mentioned in the same class as Motown powerhouses like The Temptations and Four Tops.  Below is a photo of the 1962 version of The Impressions.

The Impressions from 1962. L: Sam Gooden; C: Curtis Mayfield; R: Fred Cash.

The song People Get Ready was written in 1965 by Curtis Mayfield. He took the melody directly from his experiences singing gospel music in church. The image of a train taking people to freedom or heaven has been a staple in African-American churches for quite a while (viz. The Gospel Train).

The song narrates that a train is coming to carry all of the righteous to glory.

People get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith, to hear the diesels hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord

So people get ready, for the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers coast to coast
Faith is the key, open the doors and board ’em
There’s hope for all, among those loved the most

There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner
Whom would hurt all mankind, just to save his own, believe me now
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there is no hiding place, against the kingdom’s throne

The song paints an inspiring picture of hope for people of faith. It was released as a single in 1965, and it reached #3 on the Billboard R&B charts and #14 on the pop playlists.

So here are the Impressions in a “live” version of People Get Ready.

This took place on the Dick Clark Show. Obviously, the Impressions are simply lip-synching the tune (and what’s up with the boat, when the song describes a train?). However, Curtis Mayfield has reported that this is the only surviving version of the Impressions “singing” their highest-rated song.

The vocals are truly beautiful, both the solo and harmony parts, and Curtis Mayfield throws in some lovely guitar licks. Don’t be misled by the apparently simple guitar solo – it was extremely influential. Jimi Hendrix remarked that some of his own guitar licks were patterned after this Curtis Mayfield solo.

For a tune that never made it into the top 10 on the pop charts, People Get Ready has had tremendous staying power. Rolling Stone magazine rated it #24 on their list of the top 500 Rock ‘n Roll Songs, and #20 on their Greatest Guitar Tracks list.

The song was named one of the Top 10 songs of all time by Mojo magazine, and it was selected for preservation by the National Recording Registry due to its “cultural, historic, or artistic significance.” This is entirely appropriate recognition for a song that Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement.” There are over 150 covers of this song — it is truly a national treasure.

In 1970, Curtis Mayfield left to commence a solo career. But even after he departed, he continued to write songs for The Impressions. Mayfield’s biggest success as a solo artist was probably the soundtrack for the movie Superfly.

In 1990, Curtis Mayfield suffered a horrific injury. At a live concert in Brooklyn, Mayfield was struck by lighting equipment that fell on his head. He was subsequently paralyzed from the neck down. Despite his injury, Mayfield continued to release songs. He had to sing while lying on his back, and he needed to develop a system of breathing that would allow him to sing.

The Impressions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. In addition to the Jerry Butler and the Impressions lineup of Gooden, Richard and Arthur Brooks, Mayfield and Butler, Fred Cash was also included in the induction. Then in 1999, Curtis Mayfield was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist.

Curtis Mayfield died in 1999 of type 2 diabetes, and Arthur Brooks passed away in 2015. We salute The Impressions, one of the great R&B vocal groups from the 60s.

The Neville Brothers and One Love/People Get Ready:

Shortly after The Impressions released their single of People Get Ready, the Jamaican reggae group the Wailers released a single called One Love. That song was written by the Wailers lead singer Bob Marley. Here is the music video for this song.

One Love featured Bob Marley’s famed steady-rocking reggae beat, coupled with an inspiring plea for unity among all people. It became the first big international hit by The Wailers.

The music video includes people from all over the world dancing and jamming to the beat, including a few clips of Bob Marley and a guest appearance by Paul McCartney. The song is sufficiently famous that the World Health Organization named it “song of the millennium.” What a great tune!

However, if you were paying attention, you will have noted that the song includes some lyrics and melody from People Get Ready. The original version of the song (then called “One Love”) was attributed to Bob Marley; but when it was subsequently included in several Bob Marley albums and compilations, songwriting credits were extended to Marley and Curtis Mayfield, and it is now listed as “One Love/People Get Ready.”

I don’t believe that Bob Marley meant to ‘steal’ music from Curtis Mayfield.  Marley always credited Mayfield’s songs as having a big influence on his own music, for both the infectious melodies and the uplifting lyrics.

The Neville Brothers Band released a cover of the song One Love/People Get Ready. They are a perfect group to cover this tune.  The Neville Brothers (Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril) hailed from New Orleans. The brothers had a mixture of Native American, Caucasian and African-American heritage.

The Neville Brothers.

They formed their band in 1976, and rapidly developed a devoted following in NOLA. Not only did they live in the city (except for Charles who was a Massachusetts resident), they would often perform in their home town.

The Neville Brothers had wide-ranging talents; they could perform R&B, soul, funk, reggae, and even country music. Here they lend their talents to the Bob Marley-Curtis Mayfield classic One Love/People Get Ready.

Fittingly enough, this live concert took place in New Orleans. As you can see, the Neville Brothers play this as a sort of reggae-gospel mix. It features Aaron Neville on lead vocals and is exceptionally entertaining.

The brothers would assemble as a group for various concerts, but they also carried on with individual projects. Art Neville formed a band The Funky Meters, and was eventually joined by his brother Cyril on percussion. And Aaron Neville had a highly successful solo career.

Aaron first struck gold in 1967 with the song Tell It Like It Is. He had a couple of big hits in duets with Linda Ronstadt in the late 1980s. Then in the early 1990s, Aaron issued some country albums. He won a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, becoming one of the few African-American musicians to win a country Grammy.

For many years, The Neville Brothers were the closing act in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. However, following the Hurricane Katrina disaster in 2005, Cyril and Aaron moved out of NOLA. For several years they no longer performed in that city, until they returned to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2008.

Alas, two of the Neville Brothers are no longer with us. Charles Neville died of pancreatic cancer in April 2018. And Art Neville, who had been in poor health for several years, passed away in July, 2019 at the age of 81.

The Neville Brothers were extremely talented and versatile musicians. When they came together as a group, they were symbols of the musical heritage of New Orleans. We salute the surviving Neville Brothers, and wish them all success.

Jeff Beck and People Get Ready:

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

After short gigs with several bands in the early 1960s, Beck surfaced as the lead guitarist for the British Invasion blues group The Yardbirds. He replaced Eric Clapton after Eric left the band in March, 1965. In June of 1966, Jimmy Page joined the Yardbirds as their bass player (!) There was a brief period that fall when Beck and Page shared lead guitar on various Yardbirds songs.

Beck has always been a perfectionist, and that is accompanied by a volatile personality. For obvious reasons, this combination created friction in several of his bands. At the end of 1966, Beck was fired from the Yardbirds because he was so hard to get along with.

After Beck and the Yardbirds parted company, Jimmy Page took over as lead guitarist. Think of it – between them, those three former Yardbird guitarists have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seven times!

Guitar legend Jeff Beck with his Fender Stratocaster.

At this point he formed the Jeff Beck Group, that included lead vocalist Rod Stewart and rhythm guitar (and later bass) Ronnie Wood. The Jeff Beck Group produced two albums; however, that band dissolved in 1969. By this time, Beck’s technical reputation was exceptionally high.

A few years later, Beck joined up with bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice to form the group Beck, Bogert and Appice, a blues-based power trio reminiscent of Cream. They eventually issued only two albums, and the second album was released after the group had disbanded. After that, Jeff Beck has become a legend as a solo artist.

Here is the Jeff Beck Group in a live instrumental performance of People Get Ready.

This took place at the New Orleans Jazz Fest 2010. The video begins with a 3-minute piece by Beck’s bassist, Rhonda Smith. She really beats the crap out of her instrument, producing a mind-boggling solo.

Then Jeff Beck segues into an instrumental version of People Get Ready. The only word I can think of for his solo is “breathtaking,” as he coaxes some stunning sounds out of his Fender Stratocaster.

I love the video, which for the most part stays focused on Beck’s guitar and his fingering. You will notice that he makes considerable use of an attachment to his guitar called a “whammy bar.” This is a bar attached to the body of the guitar, just next to the right hand of the artist. Here is a picture of a whammy bar – the bent metal bar attached just to the right of the strings.

A ‘whammy bar’ – the bent metal rod to the right of the strings.

When a guitarist pushes on the whammy bar, it will bend the strings and either raise or lower the pitch. When the whammy bar is jiggled up and down it will produce a vibrato. Some guitarists never use it (if one is not careful it can throw your guitar out of tune), some use it occasionally, and some (particularly Eddie Van Halen) use it incessantly. You can find a detailed review of whammy bars here.

Beck uses the whammy bar frequently, but it does not dominate his sound. This performance is what one comes to expect from Jeff Beck; on several occasions I have heard him produce unique and seemingly impossible sounds from his guitar – sometimes beautiful, occasionally just plain weird.

Jeff Beck also pioneered a number of technical innovations, such as wah-wah pedals, echo units, and distortion and feedback techniques. He is often called a “guitarist’s guitarist,” as other musicians flock to his shows to see what he is currently doing.

Beck’s acidic personality has not mellowed with age. In 1992
at his induction with The Yardbirds into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Beck remarked “Someone told me I should be proud tonight … But I’m not, because they kicked me out. … They did … F*** them!”

Regardless of his personality, it is undeniably true that Jeff Beck is one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time. Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists” has Beck at #5. Even today, he is still living on the edge, experimenting with his instrument, and stretching the boundaries of the field. We salute you, Beck!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, People Get Ready
Wikipedia, The Impressions
Wikipedia, Curtis Mayfield
Wikipedia, The Neville Brothers
Wikipedia, Jeff Beck

Posted in Gospel Music, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Soul music | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Stuck In The Middle With You: Stealers Wheel; Jeff Healey Band; Larkin Poe

Hello there! This week our blog features a catchy pop tune from the 70s, Stuck In The Middle With You. We will first discuss the original version by Stealers Wheel. Next, we will review a cover by The Jeff Healey Band, and finally a cover by Larkin Poe.

Stealers Wheel and Stuck In The Middle With You:

Stealers Wheel was a Scottish folk-rock group in the early 70s. It consisted of guitarists Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan, who had been school chums in Paisley, Scotland. Rafferty’s mother had introduced him to Irish and Scottish folk songs.

In 1972, Rafferty and Egan assembled a backing band and called themselves Stealers Wheel. Other than Egan and Rafferty, the members turned over frequently.  Below is a photo of Stealers Wheel (the pic is reversed — they are not left-handed).

The Scottish folk-rock group Stealers Wheel in 1973.

The song Stuck In The Middle With You was co-written by Rafferty and Egan and appeared on their 1972 eponymous debut album. The lyrics were meant to be a parody of a music industry party, full of ‘jokers and clowns.’

Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair,
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down the stairs,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you

Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

Well you started out with nothing,
And you’re proud that you’re a self-made man,
And your friends, they all come crawlin’
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please

So here is Stealers Wheel in a live performance of Stuck In The Middle With You. This took place on the BBC show Top of the Pops in May 1973.

Stuck In The Middle With You was the one big hit for Stealers Wheel. That song, produced by the great American producer-songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, reached #6 on the Billboard pop charts and #2 in Canada. The sound is reminiscent of a Bob Dylan folk-rock song, and apparently people still mistake it for a Dylan tune.

Stuck In The Middle With You has proved a very popular song. There are over 50 covers of the tune. By the way, until acquiring the lyrics for this post, for almost 50 years I had mis-heard the line “and your friends, they all come crawlin’” as “and your friendly uncle Colin.” Apparently another misheard lyric is “Crowns to the left of me, smokers to the right” instead of “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.”

The song gained notoriety in 1992 when it was part of an infamous scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut film Reservoir Dogs. I will spare you video of that scene, which features Michael Madsen torturing a policeman while that song plays in the background.

Unfortunately, Gerry Rafferty had already left the band by the time their album was released in 1972, but he was persuaded to return when both the single and the album became smash hits. In performances like the TOTP appearance in 1973, Egan and Rafferty would assemble a group of studio musicians to join them. Stealers Wheel then disbanded in 1975; but Egan and Rafferty briefly re-joined forces in 2008.

From 1975 to 1978, both Rafferty and Egan were unable to release records because of legal issues related to the breakup of Stealers Wheel. After that, Egan issued a couple of albums, but left the music industry when he was unable to generate any lasting success.

Gerry Rafferty also embarked on a solo career; however, he found considerable success. He hit it big with the song Baker Street from his 1978 album, City to City. That song shot into the top 10 on the pop charts, and its haunting saxophone solo has made it a classic.

Rafferty was always uncomfortable with fame and took considerable steps to avoid the limelight. For example, he refused to play concert tours in the U.S., a move that limited his commercial exposure.

In addition, he hated appearing on talk shows and giving interviews to the press, so he avoided them as much as possible. Rafferty’s situation was exacerbated by the fact that he suffered from depression, and in addition he had significant issues with alcoholism.

After his best friend, producer Hugh Murphy passed away in 1998, Rafferty continued to become more and more solitary. In 2004, Rafferty announced that he would issue a free download on his Website every few weeks; however, only a couple of downloads ever appeared on this site.

In November 2010, Gerry Rafferty was admitted to Royal Bournemouth Hospital, suffering from multiple organ failure. His condition improved sufficiently that he was taken off life support and released from the hospital. However, on Jan. 4, 2011, he died of liver failure. We deeply miss Gerry Rafferty, who passed away far too soon.

The Jeff Healey Band and Stuck In The Middle With You:

Jeff Healey was a Canadian guitarist and songwriter who achieved renown in both blues and jazz. He was born in Toronto, Canada in March 1966.

Healey was adopted as a baby, and as an infant he suffered from retinoblastoma, a cancer that attacked his eyes. Healey lost his sight and his eyes had to be surgically removed.

Healey began playing the guitar at a very young age. He was self-taught, and developed a unique style where he played the guitar while it was sitting on his lap.

At age 16, Healey had formed a trio with bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen. The group began performing in clubs in Toronto. Below is a photo of the Jeff Healey Band.

Embed from Getty Images

While he was playing at a blues club called Albert’s Hall, Healey was discovered by Stevie Ray Vaughn and Albert Collins. After his first couple of albums, Jeff Healey became a well-known blues guitarist. He sat in with several notable groups and toured with other blues bands, including The Allman Brothers, Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Eric Clapton.

Here is the Jeff Healey Band playing a live cover of Stuck In The Middle With You.

This took place at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1999. Healey’s cover of Stuck In The Middle With You was one of the tracks on his 1995 Cover To Cover album. This was a collection of covers ranging from classic blues (Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon) to roots rock (Yardbirds) to classic rock (Cream, Jimi Hendrix).

This is a more up-tempo version and harder-rocking version of the Stealers Wheel song. I really enjoy this video, as it gives a terrific view of Jeff Healey’s unique guitar style. He sits with his Fender Stratocaster guitar on his lap and produces some impressive licks with his fingers at the end of the song. Guitarist Pat Rush throws in some mean slide guitar.

Healey also issued some jazz albums; on the jazz albums he played both guitar and trumpet. Jeff was a famous collector of 78 RPM jazz records. Eventually this led to a nationally-broadcast show on Canadian radio called My Kind of Jazz, where Healey played selections from his massive collection of vintage jazz recordings.

In 2005, Jeff Healey underwent surgery to remove sarcomas from both of his legs. Then in January 2007, he had another surgery to remove metastatic tissue from his lungs. Finally, in March 2008 Jeff Healey died of sarcoma in his home town of Toronto.

Jeff Healey was only 41 years old when he passed away. The world lost a brilliant and unique blues guitar player and jazz historian. Healey’s name should be added to the list of musicians in ‘Rock and Roll Heaven.’

Larkin Poe and Stuck In The Middle With You:

In 2005, when Rebecca Lovell was 14 and Megan Lovell was 16, they formed a bluegrass trio with their sister Jessica called the Lovell Sisters.  After that group broke up in 2009, Rebecca and Megan formed the band Larkin Poe. That was the name of their great-great-great-grandfather.

Megan plays lap steel guitar and dobro, while Rebecca appears on everything from guitar and mandolin to banjo, violin and piano.  Below is a photo of the Lovell sisters.

Larkin Poe. L: Rebecca Lovell; R: Megan Lovell.

Larkin Poe is a roots-rock band that combines R&B-inspired guitar licks with steel guitar. They remind me of some of the country-rock offerings from Keith Urban.

After self-releasing a number of EPs and albums, Larkin Poe signed a record deal with RH Music in 2013. The group’s breakthrough occurred in 2014 when they appeared at the Glastonbury Festival in Pilton, England. That annual five-day event includes musical acts but also comedy, dance and theatre. Larkin Poe were named “best discovery at Glastonbury” by The Observer.

So here are the Lovell sisters in a cover of Stuck In The Middle With You.

This is just a home-made video of Rebecca on acoustic guitar, accompanied by Megan on lap steel guitar. I find this a very enjoyable cover of the hit by Stealers Wheel. It contains a short but lovely steel guitar solo by Megan, and the sisters produce fine vocals together.

I found this video on a post by Nobel-Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. He produces a regular blog on economics and current events that includes links to songs that he likes. Krugman tends towards ‘roots’ rock and folk music – as might be expected, he has extraordinary taste (from my point of view).

In Feb. 2017, Larkin Poe appeared as part of the backing band on a tribute to Tom Petty. Other artists appearing on this program were Jeff Healey (featured in the previous section of this post), and Jackson Browne.

In 2018, the Larkin Poe album Venom and Faith was issued and subsequently hit #1 on the Billboard blues album charts. That album has also been nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

We are happy to see Larkin Poe riding a wave of success, and we wish them long and satisfying careers.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Stuck In The Middle With You
Wikipedia, Stealers Wheel
Wikipedia, Gerry Rafferty
Wikipedia, Jeff Healey
Wikipedia, Larkin Poe

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

Boom Boom: John Lee Hooker; The Animals; Buddy Guy

Hello there! This week our blog features an iconic R&B tune, Boom Boom. We will first discuss the original version by John Lee Hooker. Next, we will review a cover by The Animals, and finally a cover by Buddy Guy.

John Lee Hooker and Boom Boom:

John Lee Hooker was an R&B singer-songwriter. We generally give the year of birth for our subjects, but in Hooker’s case this is the source of much conjecture. You can find his birthdate listed as 1912, 1915, 1917, 1920 and 1923, with the most popular choice being 1917. It is believed that he was born in Tutwiler, Mississippi, the youngest of 11 children to his sharecropper and Baptist preacher father.

The Hooker children were not allowed to have access to any music except religious spirituals. However, John Lee Hooker’s parents divorced and his mother subsequently married blues singer William Moore. Hooker credits Moore and his sister’s boyfriend Tony Hollins for teaching him how to play blues guitar.

At the age of 14 John Lee ran away from home. He located first in Memphis, Tennessee, but then traveled to the North where he got a job in Detroit working for Ford Motor Company. Hooker connected with blues and jazz musicians in Detroit, and got his first break when a demo of his song Boogie Chillen was released and became the best-selling ‘race record’ (the predecessor to the ‘rhythm & blues’ category) of 1949.

At this time, African-American musicians typically received next to nothing in royalties for their records. So Hooker traveled around making recordings for several record labels. He was paid cash up front, and he used a number of aliases on his songs, to avoid being caught violating his record contract. So, 50s blues recordings by Johnnie Lee, John Lee, John Lee Cooker, Texas Slim, Delta John, Johnny Williams or the Boogie Man were quite likely to be John Lee Hooker songs.

John Lee Hooker’s real exposure began when he participated in annual tours of Europe by American artists, called The American Folk Blues Festival. This started in 1962.

Below is a photo of John Lee Hooker from 1997. With his shades and his Gibson electric guitar, Hooker looks like one of the cooler dudes on the planet.

American blues musician John Lee Hooker, in 1997.

John Lee Hooker wrote and recorded Boom Boom in 1961. As he was performing in Detroit at the time, he assembled a band of outstanding studio musicians. Many of them later became members of Motown’s famed Funk Brothers house band. This included James Jamerson on bass, Joe Hunter on piano, Benny Benjamin on drums, and Hank Cosby and Mike Terry on saxophone.

Hooker’s extremely straightforward lyrics are directed at his woman. He describes what he intends to do to her, plus a vivid description of how she makes him feel.

Boom, boom, boom, boom
I’m gonna shoot you right down
Knock you off of your feet
And take you home with me
Put you in my house
Boom, boom, boom, boom

Haw haw haw haw
Hmm hmm hmm
Hmm hmm hmm hmm

I love to see you strut
Up and down the floor
When you’re talking to me
That baby talk
I like it like that
Oh yeah

Talk that talk
Walk that walk

But it is not the lyrics that make the song great. A classic 12-bar R&B blues tune, it starts out with a short guitar riff, followed by a four-note response from guitar and bass. This is then repeated two times, and is one of the great openings to any R&B song.

Here is a scene from The Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood are trying to round up members of their old ensemble to re-form the Blues Brothers Show Band. As they drive along an inner-city Chicago street, we hear a street musician playing an electric guitar. It is John Lee Hooker, and he is playing Boom Boom in front of a diner called the Soul Food Cafe.

Hooker essentially reprises his recording of Boom Boom. His deep rasping voice is just perfect for this tune, and he plays his signature electric guitar licks. The line “haw haw haw haw” is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard a ZZ Top song. The guitar part is sufficiently iconic that everyone who covers the song (more than 150 covers at present) reprises the same notes.

After listening to Hooker, Jake and Elwood step into the Soul Food Cafe, a greasy-spoon diner, where they are addressed by the waitress (Aretha Franklin).  At this point, we immediately realize that this version of Blues Brothers has been overdubbed into Italian. Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who is apparently a cook at this establishment, greets the Blues Brothers. When Jake & Elwood invite Matt to re-join their band, Aretha breaks into “Think,” warning Matt of the consequences should he leave her (spoiler alert: Murphy joins up with Jake & Elwood, and leaves Aretha despite her admonition).

What a great R&B song! Aretha (who co-wrote the tune) is in great form, with a superb group of backup singers. Apparently it was nearly impossible for Blues Brothers director John Landis to film Aretha in this scene, because she never performs a song the same way twice. As a result, she had no idea how to ‘lip-sync’ her song, as she could not remember how she had performed a given take.

Anyway, the combination of the two songs is priceless, and it is great to see John Lee Hooker’s appearance in this classic movie.

Boom Boom reached #16 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1962. It was also something of a crossover hit as it climbed to #60 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop playlists. Strangely, Boom Boom was not included in the Blues Brothers soundtrack album.

In the late 60s, Hooker began collaborating with rock musicians. He was one of the R&B greats who merged the blues with rock ‘n roll. His first major collaboration was with the blues-rock group Canned Heat; in 1970, they released an album Hooker ‘n Heat. Hooker’s 1989 album The Healer included collaborations with Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Los Lobos and George Thorogood.

In 1995 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame produced a list of “The Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n Roll.” Hooker’s Boom Boom and Boogie Chillen were included on that list. Boom Boom was also inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 2009.

John Lee Hooker was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. He was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 (Hooker won four Grammy Awards between 1990 and 1998).

In 2001, John Lee Hooker died in his sleep at his home in Los Altos, California. He was a terrific artist whose main fame came rather late in his life. But better late than never!

The Animals and Boom Boom:

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

Eric had particularly grim memories of his childhood education. He had the following to say about his primary-school education:
“Some teachers were sadistic– others pretended not to notice– and sexual molestation and regular corporal punishment with a leather strap was the order of the day”.
Like so many British Invasion musicians, Burdon attended Art College, where he and his pals listened to as much American blues music as they could get their hands on.  In 1962 Burdon joined a Newcastle band, the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. Shortly after Burdon joined, the group changed its name to The Animals.

Below is a photo of Eric Burdon and the Animals in the 60s. Eric Burdon is second from right.

Embed from Getty Images

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

The Animals soon positioned themselves as a successful British Invasion band. Burdon’s great bluesy vocals were combined with Price’s inventive keyboard work and Valentine’s creative guitar solos.

The group notched a number of hits, including their cover of House of The Rising Sun that reached #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Other Animals hits included We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

So here are Eric Burdon and The Animals in a live performance of Boom Boom. This took place at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1965.

Well, both the audio and video here are rather crappy, but I hope you can sense the excitement that this group generated, and their devotion to iconic blues songs. Alan Price on keyboards is quite talented, whereas the other instrumentalists are simply competent. But it is evident that Eric Burdon is a great blues vocalist. One can easily see the influence that Burdon’s hero Ray Charles had on Eric’s vocal style.

Unfortunately, the “golden era” of The Animals did not last long. Their first hit was in mid-1964, and Alan Price left the band in 1965. He was followed by John Steel one year later.

There were a number of reasons for the rapid break-up of The Animals. For one thing, the musical rights for the Animals songs belonged to Alan Price. Burdon and the other Animals were under the impression that the Animals tunes had been a collaborative effort with everyone contributing. They claimed that Price was listed as the songwriter merely because his name (Alan) was first alphabetically.

Nevertheless, Price was the sole recipient when the royalty checks began rolling in. This caused considerable resentment among his bandmates, and that was coupled with dodgy management of the group. The Animals re-shuffled their lineup, but the “New Animals” lasted only until 1969.

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

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

There was a period of a few years in the 1980s when Burdon lost the rights to “The Animals.” However, he re-gained the rights a few years later. A pivotal issue in the lawsuit between Burdon and John Steel was that Burdon had gone on tour as “Eric Burdon and The Animals.” The judge ruled that this implied Burdon had relinquished the rights to “The Animals.” Ain’t the law weird?

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

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

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

It’s nice to see Eric still on tour, and it is refreshing that his pipes are still in good form. “Don’t let me be misunderstood,” I hope that Eric Burdon continues on tour for as long as his health allows.

Buddy Guy and Boom Boom:

About 35 years ago, I saw the great blues singer and harp player Junior Wells perform at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge. The venue made a strong impression on me – it was really a dump! Everything about the place, from the storefront to the club’s neighborhood to the décor, struck me as grubby and low-class.

And the food was also pretty basic. On the other hand, the music was terrific. Junior Wells was an extremely talented blues musician. Both his singing and harmonica playing were first-rate and a real treat.

After the show I was talking with my friends, and I remarked on something that had  impressed me. “The house band was really rocking,” I said, “particularly the guitarist, who was just terrific.”

“I should hope so,” said my friend, “because that was Buddy Guy performing with his old friend Junior Wells.” I was embarrassed to tell my friend I didn’t know who Buddy Guy was, so I bought one of his albums the next chance I got.  I was blown away to experience one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time.

Below is a photo of Buddy Guy performing in New York in 1970.

Embed from Getty Images

Buddy Guy has had an epic career. After he arrived in Chicago from his native Louisiana in the late 1950s, he began backing up musicians such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf at Chess Records studios.

Theoretically, Guy’s career should have taken off at this time, but the Chess Records brass were convinced that Buddy Guy’s performing style would never be commercially successful. In fact, Chess Records CEO Leonard Chess described Guy’s music as “noise.”

So Chess relegated him to backing up their stable of stars, or saddled him playing soul ballads or jazz instrumentals on his solo releases. In the meantime, blues guitarists who heard Buddy play were blown away by his talent and creativity.

Listening to artists like Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck and Bill Wyman rave about Buddy Guy’s playing style and his technical innovations, one would expect that Buddy was a proven superstar. However, although he had an established reputation in Chicago blues circles, on the national level he was still toiling in relative obscurity until the early 1990s. In fact, Buddy’s circumstances were sufficiently dire that
as late as 1967, Guy worked as a tow truck driver while playing clubs at night.

Buddy’s big break finally occurred when Eric Clapton produced an epic series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1990 and 1991. Clapton invited many of the world’s premier guitarists to appear on those shows, and Buddy Guy was one of the invitees.

The sessions produced a couple of CDs and a DVD of the performances, titled 24 Nights. Buddy Guy’s guitar playing at these concerts established him as a legitimate superstar, and he rapidly signed a recording contract that jump-started his career. Since then Buddy Guy has gained worldwide fame as one of the great blues guitarists. In 2005, Buddy Guy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where he was introduced by Eric Clapton and B.B. King.

Here is Buddy Guy in a live version of Boom Boom. This took place at the 2008 Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival in New Brunswick, Canada.

You may notice that Buddy Guy’s version is extremely close to the original by John Lee Hooker. This is because many of Buddy’s concerts include a segment where he plays guitar in the style of other great bluesmen. Here, Buddy is playing and singing Boom Boom in the style of John Lee Hooker, sort of an homage to his old friend.

Until now we have emphasized Buddy Guy’s guitar playing. However, he is also a terrific blues vocalist. He has a powerful voice, and is a really impressive singer. Buddy can instantly switch from ear-splitting power chords to barely audible notes, and he has clearly mastered (and sometimes introduced) a host of playing styles and special effects.

Several guitarists, including Eric Clapton, readily admit to “borrowing” various of Buddy’s licks. Even Jimi Hendrix copied some of Buddy’s theatrical tricks, such as playing the guitar behind his back, or with his teeth. I saw Buddy Guy perform about 2 years ago; although he was then 81 years old, and looking rather frail, he still produced some awesome sounds.

After watching Buddy Guy perform, one has to ask – what was Leonard Chess thinking? Why didn’t Chess see what appears immediately obvious, namely that Buddy Guy was one of the great guitarists of our time? Perhaps Buddy’s guitar technique was so advanced that Leonard Chess couldn’t relate to it? This is hard to fathom.

Even in 2019, Buddy Guy performed over 100 concerts. We hope that he continues to perform as long as humanly possible. What a living treasure!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Boom Boom (John Lee Hooker song)
Wikipedia, John Lee Hooker
Wikipedia, The Animals
Wikipedia, Eric Burdon
Wikipedia, Buddy Guy

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

No Woman, No Cry: Bob Marley & the Wailers; Joan Baez; Fugees.

Hello there! This week our blog features one of the greatest, if not the greatest, reggae songs — No Woman, No Cry. We will first discuss the original version by Bob Marley. Next, we will review a cover by Joan Baez, and then a cover by Fugees. We end with a “bonus track.”

Bob Marley & the Wailers and No Woman, No Cry:

Bob Marley was a Jamaican musician who became a legend in reggae music and an inspirational figure worldwide. Born in February 1945, he formed the group Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1963, when he was 18 years old.

In 1965, the band released their first album, which contained the single One Love/People Get Ready. That song began a stellar career – the tune (actually a mash-up of two songs) had a great melody and was also uplifting. Marley would reprise this formula several times throughout his career.

Below is a photo of Bob Marley on stage in a concert with the Wailers in Voorburg, Holland in 1976.

Embed from Getty Images

Bob Marley rapidly gained fame as an inspirational reggae singer. His first major international success occurred when Eric Clapton recorded a cover of Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff in 1974. That song became a big hit for Clapton, and introduced many people to reggae music in general, and Marley in particular.

Bob Marley’s album Rastaman Vibration then became a big Billboard charts hit in 1976. By this time Marley was on his way to becoming a major star worldwide.

The song No Woman, No Cry was initially released in 1974; however, a revised version appeared on the 1975 Live! album. In this song, Marley’s words are an effort to comfort his woman while he is gone.

No, woman no cry, No, woman no cry
No, woman no cry, No, woman no cry

I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown
Observing the hypocrites
As they would mingle with the good people we meet

Good friends we have, oh, good friends we’ve lost
Along the way
In this great future, you can’t forget your past
So dry your tears, I say

And no, woman, no cry
No, woman, no cry
Dear little darlin’, don’t shed no tears
No, woman, no cry

I remember when we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown
And then Georgie would make the fire light
As it was logwood burnin’ through the night

Then we would cook cornmeal porridge
Of which I’ll share with you
My feet is my only carriage
So I’ve got to push on through

I am told the lyrics are pronounced “no woman, nuh cry;” the word “nuh” is apparently Jamaican slang for “don’t.” So the invocation is “no woman, don’t cry.” The song became an anthem for people of Caribbean descent. It finishes with a repeated phrase “everything’s gonna be alright,” which is moving and inspiring.

The best-known version of No Woman, No Cry is from the 1975 Live! Album. This was recorded at a concert at The Lyceum in London. There are people who maintain that this is the best live version of any song, since the audience is deeply involved in singing along with Bob. Also, the audio fidelity is just great.

So here is the audio of Bob Marley and the Wailers in No Woman, No Cry at The Lyceum. In Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 best rock ‘n roll songs, this ranks at # 37, and could be much higher.

I usually don’t use clips that are only audio, but this is an exception. So to make up, here are Bob Marley and the Wailers in a live performance of No Woman, No Cry. This took place in Boston in 1979.

Let’s see, is this a popular tune? This particular YouTube video has been viewed 160 million times — you do the math! Neither the audio nor the video are great, but Bob provides a soulful version of his signature tune.

This song contains all of the classic elements of reggae music – the funky guitar; the conga drums; the crisp keyboards; and the stately, steady-rocking beat. In addition, you have the women backup singers who provide a soulful background.

Is this my favorite reggae song? I would have to put this tune, and Pressure Drop by Toots and the Maytals, right at the top of my list.

Bob Marley was not only a major artist, but he was also a charismatic political and social activist. A pan-Africanist, many of Marley’s songs reflect a commitment to social justice and anti-colonial aspirations.

His Rastafarian religion also underlies many of Marley’s songs. Today Marley is widely admired for his commitment to peace and social justice. In fact, he is a hero to native communities worldwide, including aboriginals in Australia, native Americans in the U.S., and various cultures in Southeast Asia.

Marley was also an outspoken advocate for the legalization of marijuana, which apparently occupies a special place in Rastafarian philosophy and religious practice. This led to some difficulties with the law in both Jamaica and Great Britain.

By the way, a bit of trivia: in 1966, Bob Marley and his wife, Rita, moved to Wilmington, Delaware where his mother lived. He took a job as a lab assistant with DuPont. My dad was a research chemist at DuPont; although I was in England as a grad student at the time, my younger brothers and sisters were all in Wilmington. To the best of my knowledge, none of my siblings ever met Donald Marley, the alias he was using at that time.

In 1977, a malignant melanoma was discovered under the nail of one of Marley’s toes. His doctors advised that he have the toe amputated. However, Marley felt that this would be inconsistent with his Rastafarian beliefs.

As a result, physicians removed the nail and adjacent tissue. For a while, this seemed to solve the problem, and Marley continued touring. He was in the middle of a U.S. tour in fall 1980 when the melanoma re-appeared.

At this time, Marley traveled to a German clinic where he underwent a New-Age regimen that involved avoidance of certain foods, removal of teeth containing metal fillings, and nutritional supplements. This method, called the Issels Treatment, is listed as an “ineffective cancer treatment” by the American Cancer Society.

In any case, the treatment was ineffective for Marley. The melanoma metastasized, and Marley died in May 1981 at the age of 36.

This was a devastating loss to the music community. Reggae music had lost its biggest and most charismatic star. Following Marley’s death, however, he continued to sell millions of records; and T-shirts, posters and other memorabilia also became best-selling items.

In 1994, Bob Marley was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Buoyed by sales of his greatest-hits album Legend, Bob Marley has by now sold over 75 million records. He is greatly missed.

Joan Baez and No Woman, No Cry:

Joan Baez is an American folk icon. She has now been performing for 60 years, and to me she is the female equivalent of Pete Seeger. Her bright, shining voice and staunch convictions have been utilized for decades to further progressive causes.

Joan became a legend in the civil-rights movement after performing We Shall Overcome at the 1963 Washington March (site of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech). Both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan performed at that rally. She was also active in anti-Vietnam war activities, including draft resistance efforts and tax protests against the war. She has also been a champion for women’s rights, and for human rights around the globe.

On spring break in 1961, some of my buddies and I drove in to New York City for a weekend – just turned 18, ’57 Chevy convertible, top down, feelin’ groovy. It was my first time in The City, and as soon as we arrived there we headed up to Greenwich Village – the beatniks, the hipsters, “where it’s happening.” We ended up at a place called Café Bizarre (on Washington Square, kind of a dump), that featured live music.

After about half an hour, a young lady appeared in a blue denim dress with long black hair flowing all the way down to her butt. She seemed to be less than five feet tall, with a guitar nearly as large as she was. However, when she commenced to sing it was a revelation.

Her voice was exceptionally clear and strong, with a piercing vibrato. I had never heard anything like it. Of course, it was Joan Baez. I have since seen her perform a few times, and I always marvel at her voice – initially for the clarity and timbre, more recently for the staying power. Sitting about 30 feet away from her at Café Bizarre was a palpable, unforgettable thrill. The photo below shows her performing at Passim folk club (previously Club 47) in Cambridge, Mass, in 1963.

Joan Baez performing at folk club Passim (previously Club 47), in November, 1963 (AP Photo)

In her first few records Joan Baez worked her way through the catalog of traditional American and English folk ballads. She later expanded her portfolio to include modern-day folk songs and pop tunes. I still find her earliest songs haunting and riveting, particularly the compilations (Joan Baez I and Joan Baez II) of her early work.

Here is Joan Baez, accompanied by the Neville Brothers, singing No Woman, No Cry. This took place at Giants Stadium in June, 1986.

Reggae is not really in Joan Baez’ wheelhouse, but what the heck, this is a benefit performance for Amnesty International, so of course Joan is on hand. Her bright, clear voice lends dignity to the song, which she dedicates to the people of South Africa, who were then suffering under the brutal apartheid regime.

The Neville Brothers provide great backing for this song. Although they were primarily an R&B group, they were amazingly eclectic and do a great job here. They are a terrific band (we discussed them in our post on Jimmy Cliff’s Sitting in Limbo).

The documentary Joan Baez: How Sweet The Sound was made to commemorate the 50th year of her performing career. Her debut appearance was in 1958 at Club 47 in Cambridge, Massachusetts (at the time her father, physicist Albert Baez, was a faculty member at MIT).

Then in the fall of 1959, Joan appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, where she accompanied folksinger Bob Gibson on two songs. After that, she continued to make strides in her career until she became a folk superstar. In addition to her appearance at the 1963 Washington March, Joan also was one of the artists at Woodstock and had a prominent appearance in the Woodstock concert film.

I believe Joan finished off a “farewell tour” in spring 2019, so Joanie’s performing career may be over. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017. All the best, Joan – good luck and good health!

Fugees and No Woman, No Cry/Fu-Gee-La:

Fugees were an American trio that seemed to appear out of nowhere, and took the music world by storm in the 1990s.

Pras Michel was an American immigrant from Haiti. He met Lauryn Hill when the two were in high school in Maplewood, New Jersey. They formed a trio with a mutual friend, Marcy Harriell; that became a quartet when Michel’s cousin, another Haitian immigrant named Wyclef Jean, joined them.

However, Harriell soon dropped out of the group, leaving it once again a trio. They took the name “Fugees,” a shortened term for “Refugees.” The name also referred to a group of musicians associated with Wyclef Jean, who termed themselves “Refugee Camp.”

Hip-hop group Fugees. From L: Pras Michel; Lauryn Hill; Wyclef Jean.

The group soon settled on hip-hop as their genre and released an album in 1994. Although the album received some critical acclaim, it did not sell many records.

That changed dramatically in 1996 when Fugees released their second album, The Score. This was a dynamite album, one of the most successful records of that year, and remains one of the most acclaimed (and best-selling) hip-hop records. The Score won two Grammys, for Best Rap Album and Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.

The Score spawned two best-selling singles, both covers. The first was their cover of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song, and the second was their cover of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry.

Here are the Fugees in a live performance of No Woman, No Cry/Fu-Gee-La.

I believe this video is from 1996. The Fugees produce a hip-hop version of the great Bob Marley tune. Wyclef Jean begins with a slow take on the opening verses, except that they substitute Wyclef’s “Brooklyn” for Marley’s Jamaican neighborhood “Trenchtown.” The intro is highlighted by a lovely electric guitar.

The song then segues into the Fugees’ slow-motion hip-hop. For the first 2 ½ minutes, it features a solo Wyclef Jean. After that, Lauryn Hill chimes in, and the song switches over to Fu-Gee-La.

Fu-Gee-La was also a single from the 1996 album The Score, and was the best-selling song ever by Fugees.  The chorus is based on the song Ooo La La La by Teena Marie.  The song also samples a bit from the Ramsey Lewis tune If Lovin’ You is Wrong, I Don’t Want to be Right.  The Fugees’ song starts out slowly but quickly speeds up the tempo.  It is classic Fugees hip-hop.

One year later in 1997, each member of Fugees began working on their own projects. Lauryn Hill began recording a critically acclaimed solo album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Wyclef Jean recorded a solo album and began to produce records for other groups. And Pras Michel collaborated on a single that was included in the soundtrack for the film Bulworth.

It looked like the Fugees were breaking up. However, from time to time they re-grouped for a live concert or movie soundtrack. Then in 2005, Fugees mounted a tour of Europe, to generally positive reviews.

However, an album that was supposed to be released following the reunion tour never materialized. In 2007, both Pras Michel and Wyclef Jean made remarks that suggested they would never again collaborate with Lauryn Hill.

It now appears that the Fugees are history. Wyclef Jean continues to work with Haitian emergency relief efforts and youth education projects. Pras Michel is active in political movements in Haiti and projects to help the homeless in L.A. And Lauryn Hill has worked on projects to increase the number of women in the music industry.

So, Fugees shot onto the music scene in the mid-90s, blazed a trail through the hip-hop community, and then flamed out. However, their music was extremely influential, and each of these musicians still individually contributes to the pop music scene. We wish them all success.

Bonus Track:  No Woman, No Drive.

In 2013, a YouTube video was posted of a satire on No Woman, No Cry. It is an a capella version called No Woman, No Drive. Here it is.

This is a video that pokes fun at the second-class status of women in Saudi Arabia. It particularly focuses on the Saudi practice of forbidding women to drive a car. It became a viral hit, and the video has been accessed over 11 million times.

Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi artist and activist who created the video, has overdubbed himself singing and whistling all (or most?) of the parts. He also appears in the video in a range of different costumes. I wish him all health and happiness, as Saudi officials are not known for their sense of humor. Enjoy!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, No Woman, No Cry
Wikipedia, Bob Marley and the Wailers
Wikipedia, Joan Baez
Wikipedia, Fugees

Posted in Hip-Hop Music, Pop Music, Reggae | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Down Under: Men At Work; Ringo Starr & his All-Starr Band; Pennywise

Hello there! This week our blog features an infectious pop tune, Down Under. We will first discuss the original version by Men At Work. Next, we will review a cover by Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, and finally a cover by Pennywise.

Men At Work and Down Under:

Men At Work was an Australian quintet. They were formed in 1979 in Melbourne by a pair of guitarists, Colin Hay and Ron Strykert. Hay and Strykert produced the group Men At Work by adding bassist John Rees, drummer Jerry Speiser, and Greg Ham on keyboards and flute.

The Australian rock band Men At Work. Colin Hay is in the middle of the back row.

Men At Work released their first record in 1980. It consisted of the song Keypunch Operator on the “A” side, and Down Under as the “B” side. Although the band developed an enthusiastic following in Melbourne, they were unable to score a recording deal, so their first song was self-financed and did not make a splash.

In late 1981, Men At Work secured a contract with the Australian division of CBS Records. They released an album, Business As Usual, that shot up to #1 on both the Australian and New Zealand charts. But for a while CBS Records refused to release the album or singles in the U.S.

However, CBS finally relented and released Business As Usual in the U.S.  Down Under was the second single from that album.

The song Down Under describes the adventures of a young Australian with people from various cultures. He connects with each of them when they discover his homeland.

Traveling in a fried-out Kombi
On a hippie trail, head full of Zombie
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She took me in and gave me breakfast

And she said
[CHORUS] Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover.

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscles
I said, “do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

And he said
I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover, yeah

So here is Men At Work and their music video for Down Under.

As you can see, this is an extremely catchy tune with a clever arrangement. Apparently the song changed significantly since its first release in 1980. In particular, a bouncy jazz-inspired flute solo by Greg Ham was added, together with some rather sophisticated drumming.

The song contains a fair amount of Australian slang, which we will translate for the untutored reader. First, a “Kombi” is slang for the Volkswagen Type 2 combination van, and a “fried-out Kombi” would be a particularly grubby van. The “hippie trail” refers to a
subcultural tourist route popular in 1960s and 70s which stretched from Western Europe to South-East Asia.

“Head full of Zombie” means that the singer is high on a particular strain of marijuana. One cannabis Web site describes Zombie as likely to induce a “peaceful weed coma.” “Chunder” is Australian slang for ‘vomit,’ a common occurrence for the hard-drinking Aussies.

‘Vegemite’ deserves its own special mention. Vegemite is made from yeast extract; initially it was made from leftover brewer’s yeast from Australian breweries. The original yeast extract was the British product Marmite, which was popular in Australia. However, in World War I it became difficult to obtain Marmite in Oz, so Cyril Callister was assigned the task of developing a substitute for Marmite.

Callister used food waste discarded by the Carlton Brewery Company. He added salt, celery and onion extracts, and came up with Vegemite. It turns out that Vegemite is a terrific source of B vitamins, containing B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), and B9 (folate). The product is sometimes fortified with B6 and B12, to make it a “vitamin B bomb.”

When I was a grad student in England, I actually developed a fondness for Marmite, so it was natural for me to take to Vegemite when I visited Australia. The product has a potent “umami” flavor, much like a concentrated beef bouillon. Below is a photo of a jar of Vegemite, with the dark brown substance smeared on a couple of muffins.

A jar of Vegemite, and a pair of muffins with butter and Vegemite.

My one complaint about Vegemite is that both the Brits and the Aussies gave me grief about the American fondness for peanut butter, despite their affection for this smelly, dark substance. And the Aussies really like their Vegemite – 90% of Australian households have it on hand.

Now, back to Men At Work and Down Under. At the beginning of 1983, the song made it to #1 on both the US and UK singles playlists. In addition, the album containing the song spent 15 weeks at #1 on the U.S. Billboard albums chart.  And Men At Work won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1983.

The tune has since become an Australian anthem – in 1983, the crew of the yacht Australia II adopted the song in their successful bid to win the America’s Cup sailing race, and in 2000 the song was played in the closing ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Sydney.

Despite the song’s upbeat, bouncy arrangement, Colin Hay claims that this is actually a protest song. If so, it has to be one of the more subtle protest songs ever. However, if you watch the music video, when they are out on sand dunes the lads are interrupted by a man who plants a “SOLD” sign on their tablecloth.

The end of the tune features a coffin being carried over the sand. Hay asserts that these images represent the desecration of the environment from overdevelopment. Finally, he claims that the line “Can’t you hear the thunder, you better run, you better take cover” makes the point that the Australian ecology and lifestyle are threatened. So now you know.

Here is Men At Work in a live performance of Down Under.

This took place at a concert in Dortmund, Germany in 1983. As you can see, the audience is extremely enthusiastic about the tune. And Men At Work produce a very competent live version of their smash hit.

The song Down Under was involved in a complicated plagiarism lawsuit. In 2009, Men At Work were sued by Larrikin Music, who claimed that the flute solo in Down Under was similar to the tune of Kookaburra, one of Australia’s most popular folk tunes (Larrikin owned the rights to that song, which was written in 1932).

Now, I have listened to both Kookaburra and Down Under, and in my opinion there is only a slight similarity between the song and the flute solo. In addition, Larrikin filed its suit 28 years after Down Under was released; furthermore, many people would claim that after 77 years as a traditional song, Kookaburra should be in the public domain.

Nevertheless, the judge in the case ruled that the flute solo in Down Under had copied “a substantial part of Kookaburra.” Larrikin Music requested that Men At Work pay them 40-60% of royalties from that song from the previous six years (note that the flute solo represents only a small fraction of the song, and has nothing to do with the overall melody!). The judge ruled that Men At Work pay Larrikin 5% of the royalties from the song, beginning in 2002 and continuing forever. The band subsequently lost their appeal of the case.

Greg Ham, the musician who composed and played the flute solo on the piece, was devastated by the result. He believed that his reputation had been irreparably damaged, and that he would ever afterwards be known as a plagiarist. In 2012, Ham died of a heart attack at age 58.

Men At Work produced three albums before they broke up and disbanded in 1986. Their first two albums were blockbusters, but the third album unveiled a very different musical style and was a commercial flop.

Since that time, some members of the band re-united for a tour or two; later Colin Hay re-formed Men At Work where he was the only original member. Since their break-up, the members of Men At Work pursued their own projects; and for the past few years Colin Hay has been a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band.

We loved the song Down Under. We never saw Men At Work in concert, although we did see a solo performance by Colin Hay where he unveiled a quite different arrangement of his most popular tune. We wish the surviving members of Men At Work all the best.

Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band and Down Under:

After the breakup of the Beatles, each member of the band had to figure out what to do next. For a while, Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) embarked on a solo career.

Ringo played drums in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, and had an extended collaboration with George Harrison. Three of Ringo’s biggest solo hits (Photograph, It Don’t Come Easy, and Back Off Boogaloo) were co-written by Starr and Harrison. Despite his limited singing ability, Ringo’s solo career was relatively successful. In fact, in 2015 Ringo Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work as a solo artist.

An important event occurred in late 1988 when Ringo and his wife, Barbara Bach, went into alcohol rehab at a clinic in Tucson. Energized by his new sobriety, Ringo went back to touring.

Working with producer David Fishof, Ringo formed a group called Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band. The idea was to create a supergroup consisting of the best musicians on their respective instruments, and to go out on tour with Ringo.

The All-Starr Band setlist would include roughly a dozen of Ringo’s songs from his time with the Beatles or during his solo career. In addition, each band member would perform two or three of their most famous tunes.

The membership of the All-Starr band changes each time.  Since 1989, Ringo has toured with 14 different All-Starr bands.

The first edition of the All-Starr band, in 1989, included Joe Walsh (of the Eagles) and Nils Lofgren (E Street Band) on guitar, Jim Keltner and Levon Helm (The Band) on drums, Dr. John and Billy Preston on keyboards, Rick Danko (The Band) on bass, and Clarence Clemons (E Street Band) on saxophone.

Poster for the first Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, from 1989.

Our upcoming video is from the 2003 version (the 8th) of the All-Starr Band. In addition to Ringo and Colin Hay, the band included Paul Carrack (of Mike & the Mechanics and several other bands) on keyboards and guitar, John Waite of The Babys on bass, Sheila E on drums, and Mark Rivera on every other instrument.

Ringo Starr with “The 8th All Starr Band” in July 2003. Photo: REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

So here is Colin Hay with the Ringo Starr All-Starr Band in a live performance of Down Under.

I enjoy this immensely. The song includes the essential flute solos (here with some additional jazzy touches from Mark Rivera). The amazing Ringo contributes his terrific  drumming – nothing flashy, just technically perfect. He is joined here by Sheila E, who throws in some of the more esoteric drum licks.

You can see why Ringo Starr’s All-Starr band is so popular. Ringo seems to have essentially no ego, so he is perfectly happy to give his band-mates the opportunity to showcase their biggest hits. In addition, he never fails to meld a group of extraordinary individuals into a tight and impressive musical ensemble.

Wishing ‘success’ for Ringo Starr seems superfluous. He was appointed a Knight Bachelor (Sir Richard Starkey, MBE) by Queen Elizabeth in 2018. As we have mentioned, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, once as a Beatle and the second time for his solo career. And by the way, Ringo is the richest drummer in the world, with a net worth estimated at $350 million. Not bad for a person whose childhood upbringing was “a Dickensian chronicle of misfortune,” and who received no more than a 5th-grade education because of a number of serious health issues.

We wish Ringo all happiness. He invariably finishes his concerts with his signature tune, A Little Help From My Friends, from the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. Now that Ringo is sober, he no longer includes the line “I get high with a little help from my friends.” Good for him. By all accounts, a great guy and a fabulous musician.

Pennywise and Down Under:

The band Pennywise is a punk rock quartet that was formed in 1988. The members were from Hermosa Beach, CA. They consisted of lead vocalist Jim Lindberg, guitarist Fletcher Dragge, bassist Jason Thirsk and drummer Byron McMacklin. Three of their four members had been students at Mira Costa High School. They adopted the name of the evil clown in the Stephen King horror novel It.

The punk-rock band Pennywise.

Initially, the band found little commercial success. However, over time the California punk-rock scene burgeoned with groups such as Green Day, Blink-182 and Rancid. At that time, Pennywise became more successful.

During their career, Pennywise have released 12 studio albums and one live album. They have sold 3 million records, which is quite successful for a punk-rock band. Their lineup has also been remarkably stable.

In 1996, Pennywise bassist Jason Thirsk died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had dealt for some time with alcohol addiction; after apparently achieving sobriety, he relapsed and then shot himself. Thirsk was replaced in Pennywise by bassist Randy Bradbury.

The band’s cover of Down Under by Men At Work was included on the group’s fourth album in 1999. That song was released as a single, but only in Australia and New Zealand.

Here is Pennywise in a live performance of Down Under.

This is a song from the Pennywise 25th anniversary tour, here at a stop in Adelaide, Australia in April, 2013. This is your standard testosterone-fueled head-banger’s music. The drummer whacks on his instruments non-stop. The guitar and bass thrash away at warp speed, while lead singer Jim Lindberg does not sing so much as he shouts the lyrics.

I must admit I don’t get the appeal. I see little musical ability or creativity on display here. On the other hand, I acknowledge that a band has to have a faithful following to continue for 30 years. So somebody likes this stuff, and certainly the Adelaide audience in the music video appear to be having a good time.

The band released their latest album, Never Gonna Die, in April 2018. Their record label Epitaph Records claims that the group’s music is designed to
inspire radical change, personal empowerment, relentless hijinks, and reckless fast times.
I had never thought of punk-rock music providing “personal empowerment,” but I suppose that it does give a sense of empowerment to its fans.  So, power on, Pennywise.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Down Under (song)
Wikipedia, Men At Work
Wikipedia, Ringo Starr
Wikipedia, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band
Wikipedia, Pennywise (band)

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

Working My Way Back To You: The Four Seasons; The Spinners; Boyzone

Hello there! This week our blog features a catchy pop tune, Working My Way Back To You. We will first discuss the original version by The Four Seasons. Next, we will review a cover by The Spinners and then a version by Boyzone.

The Four Seasons and Working My Way Back To You:

Nearly every rock ‘n roll group goes through a change of name, or shuffles its lineup from time to time. However, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons may have set a record for the sheer number of name changes.

First of all, Francesco Stephen Castelluccio initially began performing under the stage name Frankie Valley, and then adopted the name Frankie Tyler before settling on Frankie Valli. In 1953, at age 19, Frankie formed a band called The Variatones; then in 1956 they changed to The Four Lovers.

Between 1956 and 1958 Frankie and his bandmates performed under 18 (!!) different band names. However, in 1959 the band settled into its “classic” lineup – Frankie Valli on lead vocals, backed up by keyboardist Bob Gaudio, bassist Nick Massi and guitarist Tommy DeVito.

Here is a publicity shot of The Four Seasons, from L: Bob Gaudio; Tommy DeVito; Nick Massi; Frankie Valli.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, circa 1963.

DeVito’s friend, actor Joe Pesci, had introduced him and Valli to Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was 15 when he joined the group, after leaving the one-hit wonders The Royal Teens, for whom he wrote their smash novelty hit “Short Shorts.”  The other two band members had checkered pasts. Tommy DeVito had been in and out of prison several times, and Nick Massi had also spent time behind bars. Frankie and Tommy were also friends with mobster “Gyp” DeCarlo, who owned several of the Jersey bars where the Four Seasons performed.  All of these details were carefully covered up while the band was hot.

The band eventually chose their final name in 1960, after they failed an audition to perform at a lounge in a New Jersey bowling alley. The name of that establishment? The Four Seasons.

In 1961 Gaudio wrote a song for the Four Seasons called “Sherry.” The band’s producer Bob Crewe recorded it and shopped it around to various record companies. Eventually the group signed with Vee-Jay Records, where The Four Seasons had the distinction of being the first white group signed by the Vee-Jay label.

Vee-Jay released Sherry, and it shot straight to the top of the Billboard charts. This began a remarkable string of hits by the Four Seasons, most of which were co-written by Crewe and Gaudio. They followed up with songs such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, and Candy Girl.

The Four Seasons developed a signature sound and almost never deviated from their winning formula. The close verbal harmonies from the Four Seasons were backed by Frankie Valli’s soaring falsetto lead vocals. Gaudio on keyboards, Massi on bass and DeVito on guitar were often supplemented by horn sections.

The band was doing great until Vee-Jay Records ran into a bizarre problem. For a couple of years, that label had been releasing American copies of records by an obscure British band, The Beatles. When the Beatles suddenly became international stars, Vee-Jay struggled to keep up with the demand.

Eventually the Beatles cancelled their contract with Vee-Jay; however, for another year the company continued to release Beatles records, until they were sued and eventually shut down. The Four Seasons then left Vee-Jay for Philips Records.

For a few years, the Four Seasons were second only to the Beach Boys in record sales by an American group. The Four Seasons was also one of the few American bands that were able to weather the British Invasion without getting wiped out.

Working My Way Back To You, written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell, was released in 1966 and reached #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. The song describes a man who initially treated his lover unkindly. However, now that she has gone, he is determined to repent and regain his lost love.

[CHORUS] Workin’ my way back to you, babe
With a burnin’ love inside
Yeah, I’m workin’ my way back to you, babe
And the happiness that died
I let it get away
Paying every day

When you were so in love with me
I played around like I was free
Thought I could have my cake and eat it, too
But how I cried over losin’ you

See me down and out
But I ain’t about to go livin’ my life without you
For every day I made you cry
I’m payin’, girl, till the day that I die.

Here are The Four Seasons in a “live” performance of Working My Way Back To You.

Although this is advertised as a live performance, it appears to be lip-synched. I don’t believe that the close harmonies of the Four Seasons could be reproduced this well in a live performance. Furthermore, there is no sign of the horn section that features significantly in this tune.

But what the heck, we can enjoy Frankie Valli’s trademark falsetto soaring over the top of the signature close harmonies of the Four Seasons. As we will see, the Four Seasons’ version of Working My Way Back to You is somewhat slower and more stately than the cover version by The Spinners.

By the end of the 60s, the hits had dried up for the group; in 1970 they changed their name to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, in recognition of Frankie’s pre-eminence in producing the group’s sound. However, after several lean years, the group would later score a few more big hits.

The first of these was the 1976 tune December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night), which shot up to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. Then in 1978, Frankie Valli had a #1 hit with the title song to the musical Grease. After that, the group released a few “greatest hits” compilations that were best-sellers.

But the group would have one last moment of fame. The musical Jersey Boys, a bio-pic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, became a Broadway smash and later was turned into a hit movie, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Frankie Valli is still performing today, although his former bandmates appear to have retired. We salute the Four Seasons – they developed a signature style featuring Frankie Valli’s remarkable falsetto vocals, and churned out a string of hits over a couple of decades.  We are delighted that they would keep on keepin’ on, even after the Four Seasons bowling alley turned them down back in 1960.

The Spinners and Working My Way Back To You:

The Spinners (also known as the Detroit Spinners or the Motown Spinners) were an R&B group that formed in Ferndale, MI in 1954. They originally met as they all lived in Detroit’s Herman Gardens public housing project.

The group was originally produced by Harvey Fuqua. They had one top-25 hit in 1961 on Fuqua’s Tri-Phi Records, but were not able to repeat their success. So Fuqua passed the group on to his brother-in-law Berry Gordy, Jr, who signed them to Motown. Here is a publicity photo of the Spinners from around 1970.

Atlantic Records artists The Spinners. image: Getty Images.

The Spinners had only limited commercial success with Motown, so Berry Gordy had the boys perform various jobs for his record label.  The Spinners really earned their salaries, taking on tasks that included shipping clerks, chauffeurs, and road managers. Eventually Aretha Franklin recommended that the group sign with Atlantic Records.

In the 1970s, the Spinners hit the jackpot at Atlantic, working with producer Thom Bell. The group’s 1973 album Spinners spawned at least 3 chart-busters, beginning with the song I’ll Be Around, that reached #3 on the Billboard Top 100 songs.

And a single from their next album, a collaboration with Dionne Warwick called Then Came You, hit #1 on the Billboard playlists. This sustained success put the Spinners in the company of such great R&B ensembles as The Temptations and The Four Tops.

The Spinners were unusual in that three of their members, Bobby Smith, Henry Fambrough and Philippe Wynne, each sang lead on some of the group’s hit songs. The Spinners appeared in the 1979 movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, playing an R&B band. The movie was a stinker, but the film’s soundtrack was a successful album.

The song Working My Way Back to You (combined with Forgive Me, Girl) was one of the last big hits for the Spinners. It was released in 1979 and in spring 1980 it hit #2 on the charts, just behind Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall.

Here is the audio of the Spinners record, Working My Way Back to You/Forgive Me, Girl.

You can see the influence of disco here, with the pulsating, insistent drum beat. It is backed by the terrific harmonies of the Spinners, fronted here by Jonathan Edwards on lead vocals (and also featuring the sonorous bass voice of Pervis Jackson). Isn’t this an infectious song?

So here are The Spinners in a live version of Working My Way Back To You/Forgive Me, Girl. This is from a concert in Waukesha, WI in July of 2014.

It’s great to see the band in live performance. We get the Motown-inspired choreographed dance moves, paired with the impressive vocal harmonies.  At the 2:30 mark, the group shifts to Forgive Me, Girl for a minute before a segue back to Working My Way Back to You.

By this time, all of the original singers from The Spinners had passed away, except for Henry Fambrough. It’s hard to believe, but the Spinners are still touring, even 65 years after their formation! They are extremely popular at ‘oldies’ concerts, and it’s still great to see the ensemble singing their great old hits — they can still bring it!

The Spinners have been nominated as finalists for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times – in 2011, 2014 and 2015. They have been unsuccessful every time.  But we are rooting for the boys, and hope they get inducted as they richly deserve.

Boyzone and Working My Way Back To You:

Boyzone was an Irish boy band that found success in Ireland and the U.K. During their heyday they placed over 20 songs in both the U.K. and Irish pop charts, with 6 singles reaching #1 in the U.K. and 9 in Ireland. As we have seen for several other performers, they became a really big group in the U.K. (they were the 2nd biggest boy band ever in the U.K.), while remaining virtually unknown in the U.S.

All boy bands are “synthetic;” they are assembled by an impresario who carefully plans their every song, harmony and dance move. In this case the entrepreneur was Louis Walsh, who placed an ad in Irish newspapers for young men interested in forming a vocal group.

The 300 applicants were recorded singing a particular tune, and then Walsh and his associates interviewed 10 finalists. After a bit of shuffling of personnel, the group settled on a quintet consisting of Stephen Gately, Keith Duffy, Shane Lynch, Ronan Keating and Mikey Graham. Below is a photo of Boyzone.

The Irish 90s boy band Boyzone.

Boyzone then followed the classic “boy band” routine. They were rehearsed and  meticulously orchestrated, and then given a number of songs to cover. The group’s first hit was their 1994 cover of Working My Way Back to You by the Four Seasons.

So here is Boyzone and the music video for the song Working My Way Back to You.

This song features Stephen Gately on lead vocals. It was filmed at Digges Lane Dance Studios.  The video features the boys rehearsing their dance steps, spliced together with insertions of some impressive moves.

This tune reached #3 on the British pop charts. At this point, Boyzone was on their way. They became teen idols in Ireland and the U.K., and continued to find success in both record sales and European tours. After a few years in the spotlight, Ronan Keating began to write original songs for Boyzone.

For a few more years, Boyzone continued their run of success. Meat Loaf covered one of Keating’s tunes, and tenor Luciano Pavarotti joined the boys in an Italian tour. After that, the results were predictable. Creative differences arose between members of the group. Ronan Keating began issuing solo records.

In 1999, the band announced that they were “taking a break to pursue solo projects.” Then in 2008, Boyzone re-united and toured during 2008 and 2009. However, in Oct. 2009 Stephen Gately died suddenly in Majorca.

Following Gately’s death, the remaining four Boyzone members have reunited for a few more tours and a couple of albums. They continued to have remarkable success in Ireland, the U.K. and Europe, although they never made a dent in the American market.

I never fail to marvel at the success of the “boy band” concept. These groups invariably follow the same playbook – an ad for male singers in a trade magazine, followed by auditions, then a choice of band members (using exactly the same “cookie cutter” method for selecting various desired characteristics – a hunky bass, a couple of teen idols, a rebel, a nerd, all pretty good dancers), and endless coaching on vocal styles, ensemble dancing, and charisma. Then a record release accompanied by breathless publicity, young teen girls screaming at their performances, and establishment as teen idols.

It is remarkable how many times this hackneyed formula has worked. In some cases the Svengali entrepreneur has formed a second or even third boy band using exactly the same formula. In a few instances I enjoy the songs, even though it is easy to see the hand of the puppet-master behind the product.

Oh well, Boyzone had a successful run, they are decent singers, and the four surviving members continue to perform today. We wish them all the best.

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