Stayin’ Alive: The Bee Gees [Saturday Night Fever]; Bruce Springsteen; NSYNC

Hello there! This is a continuation of our new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major movie.

Our second song in this series is Stayin’ Alive. This is one of the most memorable disco songs written by the Gibb brothers. It was featured in the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever, directed by John Badham and starring John Travolta.

We will start with a brief review of the career of The Bee Gees. We will then discuss  the movie Saturday Night Fever, with an emphasis on the importance of music in the film, and in particular the song Stayin’ Alive. We will then wrap up with two covers of this song, one by Bruce Springsteen and the second by NSYNC.

The Bee Gees, Stayin’ Alive:

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a photo of the Bee Gees circa 1968. Back row from L: Vince Melouney, Maurice Gibb, Barry Gibb; front row Robin Gibb, Colin Petersen.

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

The Bee Gees’ first big hit was New York Mining Disaster 1941. That song was marketed using a bit of trickery: the record label was blank except for the title of the song.

As a result, a number of DJs assumed that the song was by the Beatles. This had both positive and negative consequences.  On the plus side, the song received considerably more airplay than it would have from a new, unknown group.

The negative result was that the Bee Gees were constantly compared to the Beatles. This was unfortunate, as no group could live up to such standards. The Bee Gees were a fine ensemble – all of them wrote their own songs, their work was sophisticated and memorable, they had lovely voices and impressive harmonies – but they were not the Beatles.

For the next three years The Bee Gees enjoyed a successful run as a pop group. They developed a fan base heavily loaded with young teeny-boppers, and their songs and albums generally landed in the Billboard Top 20.

However, in 1969 tensions surfaced in the band. Initially, Robin Gibb’s beautiful high tenor voice had frequently been the lead in Bee Gees’ songs. As time went by, Barry became more frequently the lead vocalist, and Robin believed that producer/manager Robert Stigwood was favoring Barry.

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

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

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

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

The Bee Gees during their “disco” era.

The first big Bee Gees disco song was Jive Talkin’; this was followed by You Should Be Dancing. At this point the Bee Gees began the second major phase of their career — as disco superstars.

At left are Robin, Barry and Maurice in the midst of their disco era. There they are – gold tops; open shirts revealing hairy chests; and gold chains. And at this point, the Bee Gees’ story intersects that of the film  Saturday Night Fever.

Saturday Night Fever and Stayin’ Alive:

In 1976, British writer Nik Cohn wrote an article for New York magazine called Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night. It was ostensibly about the young people who frequented New York’s disco scene.

Cohn has now admitted that he fabricated that article.
A newcomer to the United States and a stranger to the disco lifestyle, Cohn was unable to make any sense of the subculture he had been assigned to write about.
The lead character in Cohn’s story, who became Tony Manero in the movie Saturday Night Fever, was based on one of Cohn’s acquaintances.

Cohn’s story was then turned into a movie script. The lead character, Tony Manero, has a dead-end job at a hardware store and lives with his parents. Tony’s major outlet is dancing at a local disco club, where he is a star.

A local girl Annette has a crush on Tony and is thrilled when he agrees to be her partner at a dance contest. However, at the contest Tony becomes attracted to Stephanie, who is an elegant dancer. Stephanie agrees to be a dance partner with Tony, but on the condition that their relationship remain strictly platonic.

Tony and Stephanie win the dance contest, but Tony is convinced that a Puerto Rican couple were better dancers, and that his victory was the result of a racially-tainted decision. After the contest, Stephanie and Tony get into an argument, and he attempts to rape her.

Meanwhile, Tony’s friend Bobby C is in desperate circumstances. His girlfriend is pregnant, and Bobby is trying to avoid being forced to marry her. Furthermore, Bobby and his mates are involved in an altercation with a Hispanic gang.

Tony, Bobby C and their friends frequently hang out on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge. The bridge has a symbolic function as it links Tony’s run-down neighborhood in Brooklyn with the more desirable suburban areas of Staten Island.

One evening, when the boys climb around the chains of the bridge, Bobby C undertakes some risky stunts. In an outburst, he relates his frustrations and berates Tony for abandoning his friend. Then he slips from the cables and falls to his death in the water.

At the end of the movie, Tony apologizes to Stephanie, and states his determination to move to Manhattan in an attempt to re-start his life. Stephanie forgives Tony and the two agree to be friends.

The Bee Gees’ manager Robert Stigwood was executive producer for Saturday Night Fever. He contacted the Bee Gees and suggested that they write some songs for his movie.  The Gibb brothers were in Paris at that time, and that is where Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote Stayin’ Alive and several other songs.

Stayin’ Alive describes a macho fellow who has succeeded despite all obstacles placed in his way. However, the singer’s sense of desperation is highlighted by the lines “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.”

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm, I’ve been kicked around
Since I was born

And now it’s all right, it’s okay
And you may look the other way
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

The disco beat is pulsating and insistent in this song, which features Barry Gibb’s falsetto lead vocals as well as the Bee Gees’ trademark close harmonies.

Here are the opening credits from Saturday Night Fever. They feature John Travolta (as Tony Manero) strutting down the street while carrying a can of paint, as the Bee Gees’ song Stayin’ Alive plays.

This iconic and memorable opening scene sets the tone for the entire movie. It vividly displays Manero’s determination and macho character, at the same time that it highlights the frustrations of his life.

A distinctive feature of Stayin’ Alive is the persistent, never-varying drum beat. This resulted from a “fix” to a problem that occurred during the recording of the song.

In the middle of the recording sessions, drummer Dennis Bryon’s mother passed away, and he left to take care of funeral arrangements. The Bee Gees and their producers lifted a few bars of the drum part from the already-recorded song Night Fever.

They created a “loop” from that drum part, and used that loop throughout Stayin’ Alive. This accounts for the unnaturally steady drum-beat in Stayin’ Alive. As a sly joke, the group listed the “drummer” for Stayin’ Alive as “Bernard Lupe.”

When the song became a smash hit, several other bands inquired after the services of “Mr. Lupe,” only to discover that he did not exist.

It turns out that the beat frequency in Stayin’ Alive (104 beats per minute) is very close to the 110-120 beats per minute recommended for people performing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

As a result, Stayin’ Alive is commonly used when teaching CPR.  Apparently it has been shown that people administering CPR perform better if they hum Stayin’ Alive as they apply chest compressions. Do they also need to sing falsetto and wear gold chains?

Here are the Bee Gees in a live performance of Stayin’ Alive.

This took place in 1989 at the National Tennis Center in Melbourne. Barry Gibb sings the entire song in falsetto except for the line “I’m goin’ nowhere, somebody help me.” The audience is extremely appreciative of their Aussie mates.

Well, the Bee Gees rode the crest of the disco wave during the late 70s.  In fact, they could be called the crew of the Good Ship Disco.  At one point, the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart consisted of three Bee Gees’ songs, and two other songs from the Saturday Night Fever album that were written by the Gibb brothers.  This had never happened before.

The Saturday Night Fever album stayed at #1 on the album charts for 25 consecutive weeks. But eventually the public tired of disco music, as well as the gold chains and the excessive drug use at disco clubs such as New York’s Club 54.

And at that point the Bee Gees’ career went down with the ship.  People even seemed to hold the brothers Gibb responsible for the excesses of the disco era.  Although that was patently unfair, after the heights of their career during the period 1975-1979, the Bee Gees did not place another single in the top 20 until 1989.

Fortunately, the boys continued to find commercial success during this period, but as solo artists, or as songwriters and producers for artists such as Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Rogers.

In the early 1980s, the Gibb brothers released solo albums and continued  songwriting and producing.  In 1987 they re-united and produced an album that was a big hit in the U.K. and Australia but had disappointing U.S. sales.

The Bee Gees issued several compilation albums, including two Greatest Hits albums that became colossal best-sellers.  In 1997, the Bee Gees performed a live concert called One Night Only at Las Vegas.  It was intended to be their final performance, as Barry was suffering from serious back and arthritis problems, and believed that he would no longer be able to play guitar.

However, that concert was so well received that the Bee Gees subsequently reprised that concert in London and Sydney.  Also in 1997 the Bee Gees were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 2002, Maurice died of a heart attack while awaiting emergency surgery for a strangulated intestine.  This was a great shock to the brothers, and they subsequently retired the name Bee Gees.

Brothers Barry and Robin continued with occasional solo performances over the next few years, but in 2009 they returned to performing together.  However, in 2011 it was revealed that Robin was suffering from liver cancer.

Robin subsequently died in May, 2012.  Since that time Barry has performed occasionally, sometimes accompanied by his son Stephen Gibb.

So, the Bee Gees had three very different careers.  The first was as folk-pop rockers, much like the British Invasion group The Hollies.  The second was as disco superstars, in the Saturday Night Fever days.  Later in life, they returned with more pop songs, but they also performed oldies from earlier eras.

My most vivid memory of the Bee Gees will be from their disco phase, with Barry blasting away in falsetto while the brothers contributed their incredible close harmonies.  Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive …

Bruce Springsteen, Stayin’ Alive:

Bruce Springsteen is one of the greatest rock and rollers of the modern era. We discussed Bruce and his career in an earlier blog post on the song Brown-Eyed Girl, so here we will provide a short bio of his life and career.

Springsteen grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s, where his father was largely unemployed and his mother worked as a legal secretary. Springsteen’s maternal grandfather had emigrated to the U.S. from Naples, Italy.

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

Here is a photo of Bruce Springsteen performing in the mid-70s. From L: Clarence Clemons; Bruce Springsteen; Steven van Zandt; Gary Tallent.

After graduating from high school, Springsteen participated in a number of different groups. He gathered a following along the Jersey coast, and began assembling a backup group that would eventually become the E Street Band.

Bruce Springsteen’s first big break came in 1972, when legendary producer John Hammond signed him to a contract with Columbia Records, just like Hammond had signed Bob Dylan a decade earlier.

Springsteen’s songs tend to focus on social issues such as the plight of middle class Americans, veterans, and the poor. Early in his career, Springsteen was the recipient of much critical praise. Furthermore, he developed a cult following due to the energy and exuberance of his live performances.

This led to Springsteen’s nickname “The Boss,” even before he had achieved any notable commercial success. However, in his early career Springsteen’s record sales were somewhat disappointing, and matched neither the promise of his reviews nor the enthusiasm of his fans.

His first big single was Born To Run, the title cut of Springsteen’s third album released in 1975. Although the song only made it to #23 on the Billboard Hot 100 (and performed rather poorly outside the U.S.), it established Springsteen as a young artist to watch.

I was conflicted over Born To Run. The song featured an impressive “wall of sound” instrumental backing, with a great climax. And the lyrics were terrific, bringing to mind some of the best work by artists such as Bob Dylan and Billy Joel.

Furthermore, the album was packed with similar songs that have become staples of “classic-rock” radio stations. However, I thought that the production values on the record were third-rate, and I waited to see if Bruce would live up to the hype.

Well, Bruce succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. His 1984 album Born in the U.S.A. established him as one of the great rockers of his generation. Like Born To Run, the album was chock-full of hits – in fact, seven of the songs on this album made the Billboard Top 10 list. Furthermore, the advent of music videos meant that millions of Americans were introduced to Springsteen’s energy in live performance.

Moreover, on the Born In The U.S.A. album the production values were superb. Springsteen’s E Street Band was in great form, and the album sold like hotcakes, with over 30 million units sold worldwide.

A delicious irony is that politicians tried to jump on the bandwagon, by saluting what they believed to be the patriotism expressed in the title cut Born in the U.S.A. For example, Ronald Reagan stated that
“America’s future rests in … the message of hope in the songs of … New Jersey’s own, Bruce Springsteen.”

Had Reagan ever actually listened to the song, he would have realized that Born in the U.S.A. contained no such “message of hope.” The song described a disillusioned American veteran returning from Vietnam to find that no one cared, and unable to land a job.

So here is Bruce Springsteen in a live performance of Stayin’ Alive.

This took place in Brisbane, Australia on Feb. 26, 2014. Bruce brings the Aussies his own version of the great Bee Gees disco song, which is more of a jazzy re-mix. The song begins with a trumpet cadenza, features solos in the middle from trumpet, trombone and saxophone, and also includes a string section presumably borrowed from a local symphony orchestra.

Bruce’s voice is in great form here, and he gives his audience the large-orchestra treatment that perhaps only he can afford to provide nowadays.

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

Springsteen’s live performances also tend to be epic events. He and the E Street Band generally appear in stadiums or major venues, and his energetic concerts last up to three hours or more.

The musicianship is first-rate, and Springsteen’s energy does not flag – he still produces the dynamic live show that was his calling-card from the earliest stages of his career. Bruce, my hope is that you continue “stayin’ alive” for a long, long time!

NSYNC, Stayin’ Alive:

NSYNC was a “boy band” created by the notorious con man Lou Pearlman, who was also the creator of The Backstreet Boys. Before discussing NSYNC, we will briefly review Pearlman’s career.

Promoter Lou Pearlman with his group The Backstreet Boys.

Lou Pearlman was born in 1954 in Flushing, NY. He was the cousin of Art Garfunkel. Pearlman had a deep interest in flying, and started various air charter companies.

At left is a photo of Pearlman hanging with his musical group The Backstreet Boys.

For those of you familiar with boy bands, note that the Backstreet Boys look more or less exactly like New Kids On The Block, who in turn have an amazing resemblance to NSYNC.

Pearlman’s most lucrative scheme was an airline and travel service company called Trans Continental Airlines. Pearlman managed to persuade a large number of investors to purchase shares in this company.

Unfortunately, the company existed only on paper. To mislead investors, Pearlman created falsified statements from the FDIC, AIG and Lloyd’s of London. He also used financial statements from the auditing firm Cohen and Siegel to obtain bank loans. Alas, Cohen and Siegel did not exist.

In 2007, the state of Florida charged Pearlman with operating a massive Ponzi scheme. In response, Pearlman fled the country, and was subsequently arrested in Indonesia. Pearlman eventually pled guilty to a series of charges, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Although Pearlman’s sentence included reduction in time served for every million dollars that was returned to investors, very little money from Pearlman’s scheme was ever recovered. Pearlman suffered a stroke in prison, and later died in 2016 from cardiac arrest at the age of 62.

Although Lou Pearlman was a notorious fraud and con man, he had a genuine interest in music and used a substantial amount of money from his Ponzi scheme to create a couple of boy bands.

Pearlman’s bands, The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, were formed in exactly the same manner. Pearlman copied in considerable detail the methods used to create and merchandise the boy band New Kids On The Block.  The creators of that band had themselves had taken a page out of “The Monkees” playbook.

Pearlman hooked up with Johnny and Donna Wright, who had previously worked with “New Kids.” They set up a highly-publicized search for members of a new boy band, and signed five previously-unknown young men. The Backstreet Boys were then rigorously trained and groomed, and their record releases were heavily publicized.

Although Lou Pearlman’s air charter companies were pure fiction, his boy bands turned out to be solid gold. The Backstreet Boys became the best-selling boy band of all time; they sold some 130 million records in 45 different countries.

NSYNC followed exactly the same formula. Chris Kirkpatrick had unsuccessfully tried out for the Backstreet Boys, and contacted Pearlman with the idea of creating a second boy band. Pearlman agreed, provided that Kirkpatrick could come up with viable candidates.

Eventually Kirkpatrick enlisted Joey Fatone, former Mickey Mouse Club alum Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass and J.C. Chasez. The name of the band supposedly came from a remark by Timberlake’s mother that the boys were really “in sync.”

Another story was that the group’s name consisted of the last letter in the first name of each member.  That worked for an earlier lineup that included Jason Galasso. Once Galasso was replaced by Lance Bass, they created a nickname “Lansten” so the acronym would still make sense, e.g. justiN, chriS, joeY, lansteN and jC.

Below are the members of NSYNC at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. From L: Justin Timberlake; Joey Fatone; Lance Bass; Chris Kirkpatrick; J.C. Chasez.

NSYNC subsequently became major pop stars. Every artificially-created boy band is a “synthetic” product, designed to capitalize on an authentic phenomenon. So for example, The Monkees were constructed to resemble The Beatles.

The template for the later boy bands was probably the Jackson 5. The singing and dancing are strongly reminiscent of the Jacksons. However, while the Jacksons played their own instruments, boy bands such as New Kids, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were strictly singers and dancers.

NSYNC’s second album, No Strings Attached, released in 2000, became the best-selling album of the first decade of the 21st century. It sent the group to the top of the charts, and propelled them to big stadium tours.

Here are NSYNC in a live Bee Gees tribute.

This is a very enjoyable a capella contribution from the boys. It took place at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony. NSYNC riff through a series of Bee Gees favorites, including Good Morning Mr. Sunshine; Lonely Days, Lonely Nights; How Can You Mend a Broken Heart; How Deep Is Your Love; and finish off with Stayin’ Alive.

Listening to NSYNC gives a new appreciation for the sophisticated melodic schemes of Bee Gees songs. This tribute by NSYNC is quite impressive.

With his boy bands, Lou Pearlman struck it rich in the music business. Unfortunately, the con man in Pearlman also surfaced in these venues. Nearly every group that Pearlman created ended up suing him for ripping them off.

In 1998, the same year that they scored their first big hit, NSYNC filed a lawsuit against Pearlman and his record company. They claimed that instead of taking 16% of the NSYNC income, Pearlman had defrauded the group out of half their earnings.

Pearlman counter-sued for $150 million, plus he asked for the group to forfeit the  rights to the NSYNC name. The suits were settled out of court, but NSYNC subsequently switched record labels.

NSYNC issued a third album in 2001. Once again, it enjoyed tremendous record sales, and the group went on two high-grossing tours promoting that album.

However, following their 2002 Celebrity Tour, the group announced they were going on hiatus. A subsequent album was cancelled, and the group has now dissolved.

Of the band members, Justin Timberlake has gone on to a highly successful solo career, and has also turned out to be a fine actor. He has appeared in such films as Bad Teacher, The Social Network, Friends With Benefits and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Since they disbanded in 2002, NSYNC have issued a couple of “greatest hits” compilations, and they re-united for a single performance at the 2013 MTV Video Awards.

For a band formed by Lou Pearlman, it is no surprise that NSYNC participated in a raft of marketing gigs,
including board games, microphones, lip balm, marionettes, books, key chains, bedding, clothing, video games, and various other articles.
The boys also had marketing agreements with McDonalds (commercials with the group and Britney Spears) and Chili’s (commercials for the restaurant chain, plus Chili’s sponsored an NSYNC tour).

I have to admit to a deep prejudice against “boy bands.”  I think this has a lot to do with the fact that they were assembled using a “cookie-cutter” formula, and that they were so aggressively merchandised.

Having said that, one has to be impressed at the immense success of these groups.  New Kids, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC each made a ton of money.  And despite the crass commercialism, each group ended up producing music that was technically impressive and rather appealing.  Not high on my personal list of music favorites, but probably well-received by my grand-kids.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Stayin’ Alive
Wikipedia, Saturday Night Fever
Wikipedia, Bee Gees
Wikipedia, Bruce Springsteen
Wikipedia, NSYNC
Wikipedia, Lou Pearlman

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Mrs. Robinson: Simon and Garfunkel (The Graduate); Bon Jovi; The Lemonheads

Hello there! Welcome to a new feature: “Tim’s Cover Story Goes To The Movies.” In this series, we will discuss a famous song that makes an important contribution to a major motion picture.

Our first song in this series is Mrs. Robinson. This is a terrific folk-rock song written by Paul Simon. It was featured in the 1967 movie The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Dustin Hoffman.

We will start with a brief review of the career of Simon and Garfunkel. We will then review the movie The Graduate, with an emphasis on the importance of music in the film, and in particular the song Mrs. Robinson.  Then we will review two covers of this song, one by Bon Jovi and the second by The Lemonheads.

Simon and Garfunkel, Mrs. Robinson:

We have previously written about Simon and Garfunkel in our blog post on their song Bridge Over Troubled Water. In that post, I mentioned that I saw Paul Simon in fall 1965 when he was performing solo in London.

Below is a photo of Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon at a concert in Madrid in 1967, at the start of their European tour.

Simon and Garfunkel’s career was kick-started by the tune The Sound of Silence from their 1964 album, Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. Although the album was initially a flop, that song started to gain traction on the East Coast when a Boston DJ began playing it on his show.

At this point, producer Tom Wilson decided to re-mix the song by adding an instrumental backing. Inspired by the recent musical style introduced by The Byrds, Wilson converted The Sound of Silence into a folk-pop hybrid, and re-released it. The tune then became a blockbuster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts and establishing a tremendous demand for Simon and Garfunkel songs.

Unfortunately, Tom Wilson neglected to tell Paul Simon that his track was being re-mixed. Simon was horrified to see his “pure” folk song turned into folk-rock. But the re-packaged folk-pop Simon and Garfunkel songs were smash hits.

Their next album, the October 1966 release Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, was another blockbuster. In addition to the song Scarborough Fair/Canticle, the album included such hits as Homeward Bound and The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).

Again, this album combined Simon and Garfunkel’s beautiful harmonies with Simon’s acoustic guitar, plus a number of pop touches here and there – a harpsichord, some memorable keyboards, chimes, and bongos.

Several of the songs on this album had been written by Simon during his period in London. There was some grumbling from folk purists: they didn’t like the pop touches; and wasn’t it a bit much that Simon and Garfunkel assigned themselves songwriting credit for Scarborough Fair, a traditional tune at least a couple of centuries old?

But these were minor quibbles. Simon and Garfunkel were a dynamite duo and for as long as their partnership lasted, their albums went straight to the top of the charts.

We will now take a detour to discuss the movie The Graduate, and the relationship between the movie and the song Mrs. Robinson. We will then return to Simon and Garfunkel.

The Graduate and Mrs. Robinson:

The Graduate was a 1967 film based loosely on the novel of that name by Charles Webb. The movie was directed by Mike Nichols, with a script written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham.

Nichols had originally been a big success when he teamed up with Elaine May to form a comedy duo. The two had released a number of best-selling comedy record albums. Nichols then set his sights on Broadway, and rapidly became one of its most successful stage directors.

In 1966, Nichols turned his attention to directing films. His first movie, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starred the husband-and-wife team of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a film version of Edward Albee’s caustic play.  This was a major hit; in fact, every single member of the cast of that movie was nominated for an Academy Award.

The Graduate was Nichols’ second film. Apparently the original idea was that Doris Day would play Mrs. Robinson and Robert Redford would play the male lead, Benjamin Braddock. However, Day refused to do a nude scene, and Mike Nichols was convinced that nobody would find Redford credible as an insecure nerd.

So the choice was made to cast Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson. This turned out to be an absolutely brilliant pairing. At the time, The Graduate was one of the top-grossing films in movie history. It received seven Academy Award nominations.

Publicity photo from the 1967 film The Graduate.

At left is a publicity photo from The Graduate; it pictures Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) staring at Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) extended leg.

An interesting bit of trivia is that the only Oscar won by The Graduate was Best Director for Mike Nichols. No picture since has won the Oscar only for Best Director, and in no other category.

During the filming of the movie, Mike Nichols was obsessed with Simon and Garfunkel’s music, so he played their song The Sound of Silence while shooting scenes. The idea was that the Simon and Garfunkel song would be replaced in editing by a custom-written film score. However, as filming progressed, Nichols became more convinced that Simon and Garfunkel’s songs would be a perfect fit for his movie.

So Nichols met with Paul Simon and pitched his idea. They contracted for Simon to write three songs specifically for the film. However Simon, who found it difficult to compose songs under a deadline, had written only one song when filming was completed and the movie was being edited.

Simon told Nichols that he had recently written one new song, but it was not for the movie. Nichols convinced Simon to play him a few notes of a song tentatively titled Mrs. Roosevelt. Nichols immediately said, “It will be called Mrs. Robinson, and it’s perfect for my film.”

The narrator in Mrs. Robinson appears to be someone at a retreat or medical center, talking with a potential patient. The lyrics are somewhat ambiguous.

[CHORUS] And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jesus loves you more than you will know
Wo wo wo
God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson
Heaven holds a place for those who pray
Hey hey hey, hey hey hey.

We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files
We’d like to help you learn to help yourself
Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes
Stroll around the grounds until you feel at home


Hide it in the hiding place where no one ever goes
Put it in your pantry with your cupcakes
It’s a little secret just the Robinson’s affair
Most of all you’ve got to hide it from the kids

There has been much speculation regarding the lines “Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio … Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.” Although the lyrics appear to be critical of Dimaggio, Simon has argued that
the line was meant as a sincere tribute to DiMaggio’s unpretentious heroic stature … He further reflected: “In these days of Presidential transgressions and apologies and prime-time interviews about private sexual matters, we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.”

Here is a music video for The Graduate.

This video plays Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, accompanied by clips from The Graduate.

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, here is a summary of its plot. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has just graduated from college and is spending the summer back home in Pasadena while he tries to determine his future.

Braddock is seduced by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a bored housewife and friend of his family. Although he rebuffs her initial offer, Benjamin commences an affair with the much older woman. However, he finds that apart from the sex, they have virtually nothing in common.

Benjamin becomes attracted to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). His parents urge him to date Elaine, although Mrs. Robinson warns Benjamin to stay away from her. When Benjamin starts dating Elaine, Mrs. Robinson tells both her husband and Elaine that Benjamin raped her.

Elaine subsequently rejects Benjamin, and her family arranges a marriage between her and her Berkeley classmate, Carl.  After searching frantically for Elaine, Benjamin eventually discovers that she is being married that very day in Santa Barbara. He interrupts the ceremony, and Elaine abandons her wedding and runs off with him.

In the movie’s final scene, Elaine and Benjamin board a bus while running away from the enraged wedding party. The two sit together in the back of the bus, with Elaine in her wedding dress, and gaze silently and awkwardly at one another.

At this point in time, it was rare for a movie soundtrack to feature pop music. The movie included five songs written by Paul Simon and performed by Simon and Garfunkel. The tune The Sound of Silence was particularly appropriate, since much of the movie deals with Benjamin’s largely non-verbal attempts to sort out his future.

In retrospect, the Simon and Garfunkel songs were absolutely integral to both the plot and the atmosphere of The Graduate. As an interesting side note, The Graduate contains two different snippets of the song Mrs. Robinson; each is distinctly different from the recorded song, which appeared on the 1968 Simon & Garfunkel album Bookends.

OK, now back to Simon and Garfunkel. Here they are in a live performance of Mrs. Robinson.

Isn’t this terrific? It is from the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in New York’s Central Park in 1981. The free open-air concert drew well over 500,000 people.

Apparently, there was significant friction between Simon and Garfunkel during their career. Tensions between the duo were sufficiently high that they agreed on a temporary separation after recording their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Although they re-united a few times during the 70s, there was still a fair amount of hostility between the pair. But their Sept, 1981 Concert in Central Park was a phenomenal success, clearly demonstrating a great interest in future projects by the duo. As a result, Simon and Garfunkel planned a subsequent tour in 1982.

However, that tour was cancelled, and although the pair recorded several tracks for another album, Paul Simon decided to issue that album as a solo project, the 1983 release Hearts and Bones.

I have seen Simon and Garfunkel performing together a few times on TV since their breakup. My impression is that while Art Garfunkel makes an effort to be civil, Paul Simon goes out of his way to behave like a jerk.

For example, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, Art Garfunkel called Simon
“the person who most enriched my life by putting those songs through me,” to which Simon responded, “Arthur and I agree about almost nothing. But it’s true, I have enriched his life quite a bit.”

In 2000, Paul Simon was inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame as a solo artist, and he said
“I regret the ending of our friendship. I hope that some day before we die we will make peace with each other,” then after a pause “No rush.”

What a shame – on their best songs, Simon and Garfunkel shared a magical chemistry. They were a brilliant pop duo. And we cherish the few albums that the two produced.

Bon Jovi, Mrs. Robinson:

Bon Jovi is a tremendously successful rock band that hails from New Jersey. The band was formed in 1983 with lead singer Jon Bongiovi, and was initially called “Jon Bongiovi and the Wild Ones.”

Eventually Jon assembled a quintet. The “big-hair” band is shown in 1986. From L: lead vocalist and guitar Jon Bon Jovi; lead guitarist and fellow songwriter Richie Sambora; keyboardist David Bryan; bassist Alec John Such; percussionist Tico Torres.

Over the period 1984-85, the group adopted the name Bon Jovi and issued a couple of albums. Although record sales were modest, they allowed Bon Jovi to go out on tour where they opened for heavy-metal groups. The band was also invited to perform at a few festivals.

However, Bon Jovi really made a splash with their third album, the 1986 release Slippery When Wet. That album contained two monster single hits, You Give Love a Bad Name and Livin’ On a Prayer.

Slippery When Wet was the top-selling album of 1987 on the Billboard pop charts, and Bon Jovi won an MTV Video Music Award, a People’s Choice Award and an American Music Award.

In the space of a year, Bon Jovi went from an opening act in small venues to headlining at large arenas. The band literally exploded into the public consciousness and became an overnight sensation, and Jon Bon Jovi became a superstar.

Bon Jovi followed up their first big album with an even bigger record; their 1988 release New Jersey contained five Top Ten hits and hit #1 on the charts in most English-speaking countries.

Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora performed an acoustic set at the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards show. It is generally believed that this was the inspiration for the MTV Unplugged series, and that their appearance sparked the entire “Unplugged” phenomenon.

This is interesting because, as you will see below, Jon and Richie perform a version of Mrs. Robinson that is reminiscent of their “Unplugged” performance. Although the song features electric bass and keyboards, Jon and Richie perform with acoustic guitars.

Here are Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora in a live performance from the UK entertainment show TFI Friday in March 1996.

How delightful! Jon and Richie sing and play acoustic guitars (Sambora’s is a double-neck job), with additional contributions from a bass, bongo drums and keyboards. The net result is highly entertaining.

Sambora’s guitar work and the presence of the bongo drums are reminiscent of the style of the Dave Matthews Band.  This might explain why my copy of the audio of this Bon Jovi cover is incorrectly credited to the Dave Matthews Band.

For several decades now, Bon Jovi has maintained its superstar status. A couple of their tours were certified as the top-grossing tour of the year, and in 2009 Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

The band has sold more than 130 million records worldwide and has performed for over 34 million fans in 50 countries. The band has also been remarkably stable; until 2013 the only personnel change was to replace Alec John Such with Hugh MacDonald in 1994.

On a couple of occasions, Bon Jovi went on hiatus while its members recuperated from grueling non-stop touring. During those periods, both Jon and Richie issued solo albums.

However, in 2013 Richie Sambora left the band, amidst rumors that he had been fired, although both Jon and Richie deny this. Although Richie was replaced on guitar with Phil X, it’s difficult for me to recognize this as the band “Bon Jovi” without such an important member. To me, it’s something like “The Beatles” without Paul McCartney.

Oh well, I wish both Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora all the best in their respective careers.

The Lemonheads, Mrs. Robinson:

The Lemonheads are an alternative-rock band. The band formed in 1986 from a group of students at Boston’s Commonwealth School. Evan Dando and Ben Deily were initially the lead singers and songwriters.

For the next five years, the band played at small venues and issued records on minor labels while trying to score a major-record-label gig. They eventually succeeded with their breakout album It’s A Shame About Ray, a 1992 release from Atlantic Records.

Below is a photo of the guitarist and lead vocalist Evan Dando of The Lemonheads.

The album It’s A Shame About Ray reached #5 on the Modern Rock Tracks charts, and gave the group some national exposure. The exposure increased when that album was re-released to include as a bonus track The Lemonheads’ cover of the Simon and Garfunkel classic Mrs. Robinson.

Here is a live performance of Mrs. Robinson by The Lemonheads.

This took place on the British TV show Top Of the Pops, in 1993. As mentioned by the MC, the Lemonheads recorded Mrs. Robinson as part of the 25th anniversary of Simon and Garfunkel’s big hit.

This is an energetic and pleasing hard-rocking version of that song. The Lemonheads cover has itself been featured in a couple of movies, the 1993 comedy film Wayne’s World 2, and also the 2013 Martin Scorsese drama The Wolf Of Wall Street.

Over the years, The Lemonheads have had a large number of band members. In fact, the only constant in these shifting bands has been guitarist and lead singer Evan Dando.

By the way, the Lemonheads have a connection with my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. The bassist on the Mrs. Robinson record is Juliana Hatfield. She had previously been a member of the band Blake Babies, a Boston-area group that featured Bloomington natives guitarist John Strohm and drummer Freda Love.

In 1996, Strohm joined The Lemonheads as a guitarist, where he remained for four years. Following a fairly successful career with a number of alternative bands, Strohm eventually enrolled in law school. He is currently senior counsel for the firm Loeb & Loeb in their Nashville, TN office, where his field of expertise is Music Industry practice and he represents a number of Nashville musicians.

Back to The Lemonheads. Their last album was a series of covers called Varshons, released in 2009. I have heard rumors of Lemonhead reunion tours; however this spring Evan Dando is doing a solo tour of Europe, Australia and the U.S. This coincides with a re-release of Dando’s 2003 album Baby I’m Bored.

So we shall see if any genuine Lemonheads reunions materialize. Otherwise, we have to say “It’s a shame about Evan.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mrs. Robinson
Wikipedia, Simon & Garfunkel
Wikipedia, The Graduate
Wikipedia, Mike Nichols
Wikipedia, Bon Jovi
Wikipedia, The Lemonheads

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

Mama Told Me (Not To Come): Randy Newman; Eric Burdon & the Animals; Three Dog Night.

Hello there! This week we will focus on Mama Told Me (Not To Come). This is a witty and funky pop song written by Randy Newman. We will review Newman’s version, and then discuss covers by Eric Burdon & The Animals, and by Three Dog Night.

Randy Newman, Mama Told Me (Not To Come):

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles in November, 1943. His early years were spent in New Orleans, but at age 11 his family returned to L.A.

One could have predicted Randy’s future career just by looking at his family history. His uncles Alfred, Lionel and Emil Newman were all noted composers in Hollywood.

Sure enough, Randy studied music at UCLA, although he dropped out one semester shy of earning his BA degree. Randy began writing songs in an attempt to kick-start a career in the music business.

His biggest early successes were as a songwriter for artists such as Gene Pitney, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield and Jackie DeShannon.

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

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

Randy Newman quickly established himself as a unique songwriter. For one thing, he was capable of churning out pop songs very rapidly. Another trademark was Newman’s sly wit. He poked fun at a number of issues, and showed off his sardonic humor in several songs.

In the mid-60s, Randy Newman became a member of the band The Tikis. After Newman left the band, they changed their name to Harpers Bizarre and had one big hit with a cover of the Simon and Garfunkel song The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy). Harpers Bizarre also recorded several of Randy’s songs.

Randy Newman wrote Mama Told Me (Not To Come) in 1966 for British blues singer Eric Burdon. Newman knew Burdon through his close association with Burdon’s keyboardist Alan Price in the group The Animals.

Mama Told Me Not To Come paints a vivid picture of a naïve youth who becomes paranoid while attending a party in the big city. Everything about the party – the noise, stale perfume, a joint? – bothers the narrator.

Want some whiskey with your water
Or sugar with your tea
What are these crazy questions
That they’re asking of me

This is the craziest party
That there ever could be
Don’t turn on the light
‘Cause I don’t want to see

[CHORUS] Mama told me not to come
Mama told me not to come
That ain’t the way to have fun

Open up the window
Let some air into this room
I think I’m almost choking from
The smell of stale perfume

And that cigarette you’re smoking
‘Bout to scare me half to death
Open up the window, sucka
Let me catch my breath

Here is Randy Newman in a live performance of Mama Told Me (Not To Come). This is from a BBC Live in Concert show from 1971.

Newman gives the song his trademark vocal treatment. His voice is a bit harsh and he sounds rather like a country singer. Here, the singer is clearly freaking out, and his only recourse is to repeat the warnings of his “Mama” regarding life in the big city.

Randy Newman wrote this song to poke fun at his own experiences after arriving in L.A. The idea of a social affair gone horribly wrong certainly shines through this song.

Well, Randy Newman carved out a reasonably successful career as a pop singer. But he was much more successful with his songwriting. Artists such as
Bette Midler, Alan Price, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers, Claudine Longet, Dusty Springfield, Nina Simone, Lynn Anderson, Wilson Pickett, [and] Pat Boone
released covers of Randy Newman songs. In 1970 Harry Nilsson issued an entire album of Newman covers, Nilsson Sings Newman.

Newman’s 1983 song I Love L.A. is a witty and somewhat caustic song about Los Angeles. Despite the numerous negative comments about L.A., this has become an incredibly popular tune in that city. It is played at home games for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Lakers, and the NHL hockey team the L.A. Kings.

Relatively early in his career Randy Newman discovered his greatest talent, writing songs for the movies. One big success was his 1972 song You Can Leave Your Hat On, which became the closing song for the 1997 male stripper movie The Full Monty.

Also in 1972, Newman released the song Burn On,
an ode to an infamous incident in which the heavily polluted Cuyahoga River literally caught fire.
That was used as the opening song in the 1989 movie Major League, a comedy  about the Cleveland Indians baseball team.

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

Unless you already know the answer, I predict your guess will be way too low. Newman has received an unbelievable 20 Oscar nominations for Best Original Song and Best Original Music Score! Alas, he has not been that successful; Newman has won only two Oscars, both for Best Original Song, and he set a record by receiving 15 nominations before his first win.

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

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

Nice going, Randy, keep up the good work! And, “you can leave your hat on.”

Eric Burdon & the Animals, Mama Told Me Not To Come:

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 a particularly grim view 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. 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.

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 group quickly established a reputation for their fusion of blues with hard rock, and they moved to London once they developed a following.

Over the next few years, The Animals became one of the more successful British Invasion bands. Burdon’s great bluesy vocals made a great combination 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, and that we discussed in an earlier blog post. They had other hits including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Here is the audio of the record Mama Told Me Not To Come. Note that in Randy Newman’s original version, the phrase “Not To Come” is in parentheses; however, that is not the case for this recording.

This song appeared on the 1967 album Eric Is Here, credited to Eric Burdon and the Animals. It is unusual in a number of respects. First off, this song was scheduled to be released as a single in 1966; however, it was withdrawn and then included on this album in 1967.

Another unusual aspect is that, although the performers are listed as Eric Burdon and the Animals, the backing band is actually the Horace Ott Orchestra. This album was released between the time that the original band “The Animals” broke up, and the formation of the new group “Eric Burdon and The Animals.”

As mentioned previously, Randy Newman wrote this song for Eric Burdon. We included Randy Newman’s performance first, because after all Randy wrote the music and lyrics; however, the Eric Burdon song presented here is the first recorded version. Newman’s own version was first released on his 1970 album, 12 Songs.

I like Eric Burdon’s version a lot. As we will see, the smash hit from Three Dog Night closely copies Burdon’s version. The song benefits greatly from some funky keyboards, a throbbing bass guitar, and drums. Furthermore, Eric Burdon is a terrific blues vocalist. One can easily see that Burdon’s hero Ray Charles had a significant effect on Eric’s vocal style.

Unfortunately, the “golden era” of The Animals did not last long. Their first hit was in mid-1964, and one year later Alan Price left the band. He was followed by John Steel one year after that.  There were a number of reasons for the rapid break-up of The Animals. For one thing, the musical rights for their big hit House of The Rising Sun belonged to Alan Price.

Burdon and the other Animals members were under the impression that this song, as well as other Animals tunes, had been a collaborative effort with participation from everyone in the band. They maintained 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 to roll in. This caused a great deal of resentment among his bandmates.  That was coupled with dodgy management of the group, so that the band members received almost no money from their hits.

Following the break-up of the band, membership of The Animals was re-shuffled, 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 then breaking up again. Following that period, Burdon has continued his career for an additional 35 years.

There were 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 toured as “Eric Burdon and The Animals.” The judge initially ruled that this implied that Burdon had given up the rights to the title “The Animals.” Ain’t the law weird?

Burdon also re-united briefly with War to stage a concert in 1988, at which time Rhino Records re-released all of the War albums.

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.

Eric Burdon is still performing today. And his blues vocals are still strong and hearty. Here is Eric Burdon live at the Kitchener Blues Festival in August 2016, in a live performance of Mama Told Me Not To Come.

Isn’t this great? Eric can still belt out the blues, and he is backed here with a funky group of musicians. I really enjoy his version of this song.

Following the band’s acrimonious breakup, several touring groups have used the name “The Animals.” In 2016 Eric Burdon formed a new group, “Eric Burdon and The Animals,” and this was the band seen in the video clip above.

It’s nice to see Eric still on tour, and so refreshing that his pipes are still in terrific form. “Don’t let me be misunderstood,” I hope that Eric Burdon continues on tour for a good long time.

Three Dog Night, Mama Told Me Not To Come:

Three Dog Night were a highly successful pop group in the late 60s and early 70s. The group featured three vocalists Cory Wells, Danny Hutton and Chuck Negron.

Hutton, Wells and Negron initially called themselves Redwood, and made some recordings with Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. However, in 1967 they re-named themselves Three Dog Night and added a group of backing instrumentalists.

Supposedly, the group’s name was suggested by the girlfriend of one of the singers. She had seen a (probably fictional) account that aboriginal Australians would endure cold nights by digging a hole in the ground and covering themselves with a wild dog. The idea was that a particularly cold evening would be described as a “three dog night.”

Below is a photo of Three Dog Night. From L: Danny Hutton; Chuck Negron; Cory Wells.

In 1969, Three Dog Night released their eponymous first album. One of the singles from that album, One written by Harry Nilsson, reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles charts. The group was off and running, and then went from one pop success to the next.

Here is Three Dog Night in 1970 with a live performance of Mama Told Me Not To Come.

Cory Wells provides the funky lead vocals on this song, with assistance from Chuck Negron and Danny Hutton. The singers are ably complemented here by Jimmy Greenspoon on Wurlitzer electric piano, Michael Allsup on guitar, Joe Schermie on bass and Floyd Sneed on drums.

The Three Dog Night version of Mama Told Me Not To Come hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts in summer 1970. In fact, it was just one of a string of smash hits by these boys.  During the period 1969 to 1975, Three Dog Night placed 21 songs in the Billboard Top 40 charts, including three (including Black and White and Joy To The World) that made it to #1.

An interesting aspect of this group was that each of their #1 records featured a different lead singer. Danny Hutton sang lead on Black and White, while Chuck Negron was lead vocalist on Joy To The World.

Another interesting aspect of Three Dog Night’s career was that, although the boys wrote a few of their own songs, virtually every one of their major hits was written by an outside songwriter.

I have been told that during the period 1969 – 1975, every single released by Three Dog Night made it into the Top 40. What a record of success! It seemed that the group could not fail.

However, by late 1975 the string of Three Dog Night pop hits ended, and that marked the end of the “golden era” for the band. Danny Hutton was replaced by Jay Gruska, and this began a long string of replacement members and re-shuffling of personnel.

Apparently, drug use was rampant among band members during their heyday. For various periods of time, both Chuck Negron and keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon had to be replaced while they entered drug rehab.

This is all laid out in Chuck Negron’s autobiography, Three Dog Nightmare. This gritty account of show-biz life describes Negron’s serious heroin addiction in graphic detail. Apparently Negron entered some 30 different rehab facilities before a religious conversion enabled him to get straight.

Vocalists Danny Hutton and Cory Wells continued to perform with a replacement third vocalist for many years, until Wells died from multiple myeloma in 2015. However, Three Dog Night is still touring, with vocalists Paul Kingery and David Morgan joining Danny Hutton. That should bring some “joy to the world.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mama Told Me Not To Come
Wikipedia, Randy Newman
Wikipedia, Eric Burdon
Wikipedia, The Animals
Wikipedia, Three Dog Night

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

This Magic Moment: The Drifters; Jay & the Americans; Lou Reed.

Hello there! Our song this week is This Magic Moment. This was a great pop song that originally debuted in 1960. We will review the original performed by The Drifters. We will then discuss cover versions by Jay and the Americans, and by Lou Reed.

The Drifters, This Magic Moment:

The Drifters were one of the most unique and unusual pop groups of all time. For a group as successful as this one, The Drifters turned out to be highly unstable.

The Drifters were originally formed in 1953. Allegedly, the great producer Ahmed Ertegun attended a performance of one of his favorite groups, Billy Ward and the Dominoes. Ertegun knew that the lead singer of that group was not Billy Ward, but was actually tenor Clyde McPhatter.

At the show Ertegun noticed that McPhatter was not present, and learned that he had left the group. Once he managed to track down Clyde, Ertegun agreed to assemble a group with McPhatter as the lead singer. That group was named The Drifters.

In September 1953, the song Money Honey was released by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters. The song was a big hit, and over the next year they released a few more hit records. However, in Sept. 1954 McPhatter was drafted into the Army and left The Drifters.

In dealing with Ahmed Ertegun, Clyde had negotiated a contract that guaranteed him a significant cut of the royalties from the group’s records. However, when McPhatter left the group, he sold the rights to The Drifters to George Treadwell, a producer who was married to Sarah Vaughn. This proved to be a fateful decision.

In the 50s, musicians were frequently signed to contracts that did not compensate them fairly. They were often cheated out of royalties for their songs, and in many cases made the bulk of their money from live concert appearances.

However, even in those bad old days, George Treadwell was notoriously tight-fisted. He tended to pay his musicians a flat (and notably small) wage, and to provide them with little or no royalties for record sales. Even for live concerts and tours, Treadwell continued to pay low salaries.

Since The Drifters were churning out hit records, it was not long before the artists were demanding more pay and better working conditions. When this happened, Treadwell frequently replaced them. On several occasions, he summarily fired members from the group.

Not surprisingly, this treatment guaranteed a rapid turnover of Drifters members – they just drifted away, so to speak. During a 40-year period, The Drifters had more than 60 musicians.

In 1958, after a dispute with his current group The Drifters, Treadwell fired them all and replaced them with a group called The Five Crowns.

Treadwell then re-named that group The Drifters. The lead singer from The Five Crowns was Benjamin Earl Nelson, who performed under the stage name Ben E. King. The two-year period (May 1958 to May 1960) with Ben E. King as lead vocalist is what I consider the “golden era” of The Drifters.

Below is a photo of The Drifters lineup from 1959, their golden era. From L: Ben E. King; Charlie Thomas; Dock Green; and Elsbeary Hobbs.

Atlantic Records producers Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler assigned Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce The Drifters. Leiber and Stoller were a great songwriting duo. They wrote Elvis tunes like Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock, the cross-over hit Kansas City, and followed that up with girl-group songs such as Chapel of Love and Leader of the Pack.

However, Leiber and Stoller had also been successful producers, most notably with the group The Coasters. With Leiber and Stoller producing them, The Drifters released a number of dynamite singles.

Their first big hit was the 1958 release There Goes My Baby. A creative aspect of that song was its use of instrumental backing from a group of violins. The Drifters were the first rock ‘n roll ensemble to feature a string section, and to include a violin solo in the middle of a song.

During the Ben E. King years, nearly all of the hit records by The Drifters had violin accompaniment. The next big hit from the group was Dance With Me.

This Magic Moment was written by composer Mort Schuman and lyricist Doc Pomus. The song was assigned to The Drifters in early 1960.

The lyrics are simple and straightforward. The singer testifies that his life was transformed when he and his lover first shared a kiss.

This magic moment, so different and so new
Was like any other until I kissed you.
And then it happened, it took me by surprise
I knew that you felt it too, by the look in your eyes.

Sweeter than wine
Softer than the summer night
Everything I want, I have
Whenever I hold you tight.

This Magic Moment was another Drifters success. It spent 11 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching a peak at # 16 in April, 1960. Ben E. King’s beautiful voice is front and center, and the ubiquitous violins are also featured, both at the beginning of the song and in a solo in the middle.

So here is audio of The Drifters performing This Magic Moment. This is listed as featuring Ben E. King’s vocals (this is important because many of the Drifters’ most popular songs were re-recorded for “Greatest Hits” compilations after King left the group).

Alas, I was unable to find live video of The Drifters with Ben E. King performing This Magic Moment. So here is the closest I could come to live performance from The Drifters in their golden era. They appear on the TV show Hullaballoo from Feb. 1965, singing At The Club.

The Drifters members for this show are Bill Davis and lead singer Johnny Moore in the back row, and Gene Pearson, Johnny Terry and Charlie Thomas in the front row.

One might ask “Is this really a live performance, or are they just lip-synching to the record?” I’m not entirely sure, although the presence of a string section suggests it might not be live. I welcome your guess about this.

Well, Ben E. King’s tenure with The Drifters followed the usual format. King asked Treadwell for a raise and a more generous cut of The Drifters royalties. When Treadwell refused, King left and began a successful solo career.

the Drifters continued to produce hit records with King’s replacement as lead singer, Rudy Lewis. Notable successes during this period were Up On The Roof, Please Stay, and On Broadway.

Unfortunately, the night before the group was going to record Under The Boardwalk, Rudy Lewis died and was replaced by Johnny Moore. This marked the last big Drifters hit, and after a few years the group left Atlantic Records and moved to the U.K.

In the U.K. the group was managed by Faye Treadwell, George Treadwell’s wife. However, the revolving-door membership of the group continued under Faye’s leadership.

With so many former “Drifters” members, it is not surprising that more than one “Drifters” group exists. Do you want to see The Drifters perform? Well, you can take your pick from the following:
Bill Pinkney’s Original Drifters (Pinkney died on July 4, 2007) continue to tour and record. Charlie Thomas leads another group billed as “Charlie Thomas’ Drifters.” Rick Sheppard also tours with another group … Ray Lewis and Roy Hemmings have led a Drifters group. Bobby Hendricks leads a group, as does Billy Lewis. Don Thomas leads a group, Don Thomas and the Drifters Review. In addition, Ronn McPhatter, son of Clyde McPhatter leads a group called Clyde McPhatter’s Drifters … [Faye] Treadwell managed a second group, The Drifters Legends, composed of former members Rick Sheppard, Butch Leake, Joe Blunt and Clyde Brown.

It seems only fitting that an ensemble whose membership constantly turned over should produce so many “Drifters” splinter groups. And not surprisingly, the Treadwell family seems to have spent most of their time in court over the last 30 years, suing various ensembles that tried to use “The Drifters” name.

All that matters to me is that neither of the two great lead singers, Clyde McPhatter or Ben E. King, is still alive. Clyde died way back in 1972, and Ben E. King died from heart problems in April 2015.

In 1988, The Drifters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame had to choose which performers to induct among the 60 former members. They came up with members from the two greatest incarnations of the group: Clyde McPhatter, Bill Pinkney, Gerhart Thrasher, Johnny Moore, Ben E. King, Charlie Thomas, and Rudy Lewis.

Jay and the Americans, This Magic Moment:

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

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

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

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

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

Below is a photo of Jay and the Americans from 1970. I’m not sure of the identity of the various members, but Jay Black is on the left in the front row.

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

The next couple of years were not as successful for the band. However, in 1968 they released an album of covers of oldies called Sands of Time. That album contained a cover of The Drifters’ This Magic Moment. That song made it to #6 on the Billboard charts, sold over a million records, and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A.

Here is the audio from This Magic Moment by Jay and the Americans. This single was released a few years after the group’s earlier chart hits in the era 1962-1965.

I greatly enjoy this cover of The Drifters’ romantic ballad. After a brief solo electric guitar intro, This Magic Moment features Jay Black’s lovely tenor voice as well as a horn section.

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

Here is Jay Black in a live performance of This Magic Moment from an “oldies” record show.

Unlike several “oldies” musicians, who continue to perform long after their voices have given out, Jay Black is still able to produce some impressive vocals. Indeed, in recent concerts he still belts out the operatic Cara Mia; he reaches for the highest notes, and usually nails them.

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

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

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

Lou Reed, This Magic Moment:

Lou Reed was a singer and songwriter in the New York City area. Born in 1942, Reed was a member of the group The Velvet Underground from 1964-1970. Afterwards he had a long and memorable solo career.

The Velvet Underground was a quartet that one might describe as “the most influential commercially unsuccessful band of all time.” Below is a photo of the Velvet Underground in 1969. From L: singer-songwriter Lou Reed; guitarist Sterling Morrison; multi-instrumentalist John Cale; drummer Maureen Tucker.

Andy Warhol acted as a mentor for the Velvet Underground, and welcomed them as members of his New York intellectual scene. At Warhol’s urging, the group added European model and singer Nico.

In 1967 the group released the album The Velvet Underground and Nico. Despite the fact that the album sold poorly, over the years it has become an incredibly important album. Rolling Stone rates it the 13th best rock album of all time. Brian Eno has described its influence as follows:
Only 30,000 people bought the Velvet Underground album, but every one of those people subsequently formed his own band.
As an extreme example, writer Vaclav Havel claims that the Velvet Underground album inspired him to become President of Czechoslavakia!

Well, the Velvet Underground did not last long. John Cale left the band in 1968 and Lou Reed departed in 1970. Reed then went on to a distinguished solo career.

The subjects of Reed’s songs were frequently people living on the edge of society: drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and loners. Some of his songs also discussed aspects of suicide. However, Reed understood these people and their struggles.

As a youth, Lou Reed was socially awkward and fragile. He suffered panic attacks, and had a mental breakdown in his first year at Syracuse University.

His parents then took him to a psychologist who recommended electro-convulsive therapy. Apparently it was a pretty terrible experience for Reed, who described it:
… they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland County then to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable.

At Syracuse, Lou Reed became an acquaintance of poet Delmore Schwartz, who inspired Reed to become a great novelist or artist. Reed was also introduced to heroin at Syracuse.

After Lou Reed left the Velvet Underground, his second solo album Transformer rocketed him to fame and became his best-known record. It contained the single Walk On The Wild Side, which became Reed’s signature song and which we will feature later.

Lou Reed recorded a cover of This Magic Moment in 1997. It appeared in a tribute album to lyricist Doc Pomus, Till The Night Is Gone. Here is the audio of that song.

Lou Reed’s cover of This Magic Moment was featured in David Lynch’s film Lost Highway. As a result, in this video there are several clips from David Lynch movies.

The song features Reed’s trademark deadpan vocals. His flat, nearly monotone delivery is somewhere halfway between singing and speaking. Nevertheless, it gives an entirely novel take to This Magic Moment.

In the conventional treatment by The Drifters or Jay and the Americans, This Magic Moment is a sweet song filled with joy and wonder. In Reed’s hands, the song becomes much darker and more ambiguous. Reed even alters the lyrics to make them more confrontational. As a result, I find Lou Reed’s version a very arresting cover of this classic pop song.

Since I was not able to find live video of Lou Reed singing This Magic Moment, I will present Lou Reed singing his trademark tune, Walk On the Wild Side. Here are some of the lyrics to this song.

Holly came from Miami F.L.A.
Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A.
Plucked her eyebrows on the way
Shaved her legs and then he was a she
She said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side,
Said, hey honey, take a walk on the wild side.

Candy came from out on the island,
In the backroom she was everybody’s darling,
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side
Said, hey babe, take a walk on the wild side

And the colored girls go,
Doot di-doot di-doot doot-di-doot [this line is repeated 8x]

And here is a live performance by Lou Reed of Walk On The Wild Side.

The people mentioned in this tune are all colleagues of Reed from Andy Warhol’s studio The Factory. “Holly” was transvestite actress Holly Woodlawn; “Candy” was Candy Darling, a transgender actress (both Woodlawn and Darling were featured in Andy Warhol films); “Little Joe” was Joe Dellasandro, an actor who appeared in underground films by Warhol and other New York directors; “Sugar Plum Fairy” refers to actor Joe Campbell; and “Jackie” was Jackie Curtis, a drag queen and singer in New York.

Walk On The Wild Side is notable for its references to drugs, transvestites, and sexual practices. It is remarkable that the song made it past the censors and onto commercial radio in the 70s. One rumor is that the song had been recorded in the U.K., and the British censors had never heard the colloquial term for oral sex, “giving head.”

Although a censored version of Walk On The Wild Side was issued in the U.S. that edited out the phrases “giving head” and “colored girls,” I have never heard that version.

Walk On The Wild Side became such a signature song for Lou Reed that he would later joke
“I know my obituary has already been written. And it starts out, ”Doot, di-doot, di-doot…”

Lou Reed continued his career for many years afterwards. He had a few albums that sold well; however, later in his career he frequently re-released songs that he had recorded with the Velvet Underground.

Reed always seemed to be an incredibly cool, cynical character. Below is a photo of a much older Lou Reed in 2000.

In about 1990, Lou Reed began to collaborate with performance artist Laurie Anderson. Anderson collaborated on songs on a few of Reed’s albums, and Reed contributed to a couple of Anderson’s albums.

In 2008, Reed and Anderson were married. This completed a rather remarkable transformation in Reed’s life. The New York Times commented on the changes made by Lou Reed:
in the 1970s, Reed had a distinctive persona: “Back then he was publicly gay, pretended to shoot heroin onstage, and cultivated a ‘Dachau panda’ look, with cropped peroxide hair and black circles painted under his eyes.” The newspaper went on to note that, in 1980, “Reed renounced druggy theatrics, even swore off intoxicants themselves, and became openly heterosexual, openly married.”

In 1994, the Velvet Underground were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, they performed a song in memory of their guitarist Sterling Morrison, who had passed away the previous year.

Lou Reed was nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist three times. After his third nomination, Reed was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Unfortunately, the induction came too late for Reed. In 2013, he underwent a liver transplant operation at the Cleveland Clinic. Although the transplant appeared to be a success, Reed died from liver disease in October 2013, at the age of 71.

Lou Reed lived a rough, gritty life “on the wild side,” and he managed to relate those experiences through his songs, both with the Velvet Underground and later as a solo act.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, This Magic Moment
Wikipedia, The Drifters
Wikipedia, Jay and the Americans
Wikipedia, Lou Reed
Wikipedia, The Velvet Underground
Wikipedia, Walk On The Wild Side (Lou Reed song)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Black Magic Woman: Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green); Santana; Dennis Brown

Hello there! Our song this week is Black Magic Woman. This is a very fine R&B song written by guitarist Peter Green. We will review the original performed by Fleetwood Mac. We will then discuss a cover version by Carlos Santana, and a reggae-style cover by Dennis Brown.

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, Black Magic Woman:

In 1965, when I moved to Oxford to begin graduate school, I was eager to see some of the exciting “British Invasion” groups. People soon told me that if I wanted to hear some rhythm & blues, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers were one of the “must-see” bands.

Many of the finest blues players in the world participated in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. His ensemble was like an incubator for promising young musicians.

Think about it: at one time or another, Mayall’s band included Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor (the Rolling Stones) and Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) on guitar; Jack Bruce (Cream) and John McVie (Fleetwood Mac) on bass; Paul Butterfield (Butterfield Blues Band) on harmonica; and scores of other great artists.

One of the characteristics of Mayall’s band was the high turnover in its members. So I am embarrassed that I can’t remember exactly who was in the lineup when I caught them in 1966, although I am quite certain that Eric Clapton was not the lead guitarist at that time.

I can’t remember whether Peter Green was the lead guitarist for Mayall when I saw them, or whether the Bluesbreakers were in the transition period between Clapton and Green. My guess is that the band may well have included Mick Fleetwood on drums and John McVie on bass.

In any case, Peter Green was born Peter Greenbaum in October 1946. In the early 60s, he was a member of various British blues bands. He met Mick Fleetwood in 1966 when Green was playing with a group called Peter B’s Looners.

Green then joined the Bluesbreakers as their lead guitarist in mid-1966. About a year later, Green and Fleetwood left Mayall’s band to form their own blues combo. Shortly thereafter, John McVie joined the group.  At this time, the band chose the name “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer.” “Fleetwood Mac” was a mashup of the names of Fleetwood and McVie.

The group consisted of Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and two guitarists – Peter Green on lead guitar and Jeremy Spencer on slide guitar. In 1969 the group added a third guitarist, Danny Kirwan. The band initially played covers of classic blues songs; however, Green soon began writing original songs for the group.

Below is the 1969 version of Fleetwood Mac. From L: Danny Kirwan; John McVie; Peter Green; Jeremy Spencer; Mick Fleetwood.  Note the robe that Green is wearing; this will be mentioned later in our blog post.

Peter Green was an extraordinary guitarist and a darn good songwriter. In particular, a number of Green’s songs transformed Fleetwood Mac from a classic blues cover band to one that featured more creative power-pop tunes.

One of the songs Peter Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac was Black Magic Woman. The song describes a man infatuated with a woman who is reputed to be proficient in the dark arts.

I got a black magic woman
Got me so blind I can’t see
That she’s a black magic woman
She’s tryin’ to make a devil out of me.

Don’t turn your back on me baby
Don’t turn your back on me baby

Yes, don’t turn your back on me baby
Stop messin’ round with your tricks
Don’t turn your back on me baby
You just might pick up my magic sticks.

Fleetwood Mac released Black Magic Woman as a single in 1968. The song was a modest hit in Britain, reaching #37 on the UK Singles charts. For quite a while it was a favorite with Fleetwood Mac, being performed in concert for some time even after Green had left the group.

Here is a clip of Fleetwood Mac, with Peter Green on lead guitar, in a live performance of Black Magic Woman.

This took place in 1970 at the South Boston venue the Boston Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party was a favorite location for rock performances from 1967 until 1971. At that point it closed, because it could no longer compete with the arenas and outdoor stadiums that were hosting large rock concerts during that period.

This is a very interesting version of Black Magic Woman. Initially, it starts out as a twelve-bar blues tune, rather similar to Carlos Santana’s cover of the song. However, after a couple of verses it segues into an interesting blues jam, featuring some very creative guitar licks by Peter Green.

However, I find the video to be curious and unsatisfying.  Although we get closeups of Fleetwood, McVie and Kirwan playing, the cameraman focuses exclusively on Peter Green’s face.  As a result, we see nothing of Green’s guitar technique. In addition, is it just my imagination or are exactly the same clips repeated several times during this video?

Peter Green is a very under-appreciated musician. His guitar technique was often stunning. In 1996, Mojo magazine rated him the third-best guitarist of all time. Guitar legends such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and B.B. King mentioned Green as one of the greatest guitarists they had encountered.

So why do so few people know about Peter Green and his music?

First, the ‘Peter Green’ incarnation of Fleetwood Mac lasted for only a few years. Green left that band in May 1970, and for a short time he pursued a solo career.

However, Green’s most serious issues were his psychological problems, which were exacerbated by his continuing struggle with drug addiction. Green had been a heavy user of cocaine in the late 60s. But his subsequent introduction to LSD was associated with dramatic mental health problems.

In retrospect, it was an ominous sign when Green grew a beard and began wearing robes with a crucifix, as seen in the photo above. Green was later diagnosed with schizophrenia, spent a fair amount of time in mental hospitals, and was treated with electro-shock therapy. This continued through the remainder of the 70s.

Peter Green returned to performing in the 1980s, with limited commercial success. He did contribute some unattributed guitar licks to the 1979 Fleetwood Mac double album Tusk.

After Peter Green left Fleetwood Mac in 1970, the band experienced a chaotic few years. They brought in a number of new members, many of whom left after a short period of time. However, one new recruit who stuck around was vocalist and keyboard player Christine Perfect, who subsequently married John McVie and became Christine McVie.

The nadir for the band occurred in 1974, when the group’s manager Clifford Davis assembled a fake Fleetwood Mac. He brought in an entirely new group of musicians, and sent them on tour as ‘Fleetwood Mac.’

Davis told the musicians that the other members of the band had quit, but that Mick Fleetwood and Christine McVie would be joining them shortly. This was a lie, and the ‘fake’ band soon dissolved. However, it took Fleetwood and McVie a year to re-gain the rights to the band’s name.

However, at the very end of 1974, Fleetwood Mac re-formed. Mick Fleetwood persuaded American guitarist Lindsey Buckingham to join the group. Buckingham agreed, provided that his girlfriend and musical partner Stephanie (Stevie) Nicks was also brought aboard.

This produced the “classic lineup” of Fleetwood Mac. That group has been together off and on for the past forty years.  The band has weathered an enormous amount of personal chaos to become one of the best-selling pop groups in the world.

Fleetwood Mac contined to perform until a couple of years ago.  Our suggestion to them: “Don’t Stop.”

Santana, Black Magic Woman:

Carlos Santana is one of the greatest guitar players of our time. He was born in Mexico in July 1947, and he was taught violin and guitar at a young age by his father, a mariachi musician.

Santana’s family moved to Tijuana and then to San Francisco, where Carlos graduated from high school. Although he was accepted into college, he chose instead to pursue a career in music.

Carlos began to sit in with a number of groups in the San Francisco area in the 60s. His music was extremely eclectic. Santana developed a unique blues guitar style that incorporated Latin rhythms, jazz, and African music.

Below is a photo of the band Santana performing at the Altamont Speedway in Dec. 1969. From L: David Brown, bass; Michael Shrieve, drums; Carlos Santana, guitar.

Santana’s first big break involved a great deal of good fortune. Carlos knew a number of musicians who were associated with Bill Graham’s Fillmore West auditorium. One Sunday in 1966, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band was scheduled to perform at Fillmore West, but Butterfield turned up too drunk to perform.

Graham and his associates scrambled to assemble an impromptu group to jam in Butterfield’s place, and Carlos Santana was invited to join this band. Santana’s guitar work was sufficiently impressive that he subsequently formed a group, the Santana Blues Band; this was soon shortened to “Santana.” Original members of this band were bassist David Brown, Marcus Malone on percussion, and Gregg Rolie on lead vocals and keyboards.

When the list of performers for the Woodstock Festival was assembled in 1969, Bill Graham pushed hard for Santana to be included, despite the fact that the group had not yet released an album.

Well, Graham was vindicated when Santana’s performance at Woodstock was a revelation. In particular, the band’s 11-minute instrumental performance of Soul Sacrifice was a highlight of both the Festival and the Woodstock concert movie.

His performance at Woodstock made Santana an overnight sensation. Santana became famous for his ability to sustain beautiful, clear notes, and to combine those with electrifying runs and trills.

Here is a video clip of a very youthful Carlos Santana in a live performance of Black Magic Woman.

This took place in 1971, just a few months following the release of Santana’s single record. Black Magic Woman was a smash hit for Santana, eventually reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. The song was included on the album Abraxas, which spent 6 weeks at #1 on the Billboard album list, and which remained on the charts for an astonishing 88 weeks.

Santana’s cover of Peter Green’s Black Magic Woman transforms that song into a Latin-infused pop tune that incorporates African rhythms. His work reminds me of a mash-up where “Tito Puente meets Jimi Hendrix.”

A distinctive feature of Santana’s music was the exceptional percussion work from multiple drummers and congas.  This is a real highlight of this piece.

Santana combined the Peter Green song by finishing up with the instrumental tune Gypsy Queen by Gabor Szabo. Szabo was a major influence on the young Carlos Santana, who found inspiration in Szabo’s combination of jazz and gypsy influences.

And here is a later video of Santana performing Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen.

I believe that this video marks an historic occasion, the 1998 induction of the original Santana band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Accompanying Santana on guitar is Peter Green. He is the person playing second guitar lead along with Carlos. This is a gracious touch, as after all Peter Green wrote the song.

Green himself was also inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998. He was brought in together with original Fleetwood Mac bandmates Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. The newer Fleetwood Mac members Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie were also inducted. Although Green sat in with Santana, he did not play with his old FM mates at this ceremony.

Santana’s cover of Black Magic Woman so overshadowed the original Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac version that whenever Fleetwood Mac played the tune in concert, they felt obliged to inform the audience that, by the way, Fleetwood Mac had actually written and first performed that song.

It’s kind of sad for Peter Green when his best-known song becomes so associated with a different group that the original version is more or less forgotten.

After Santana’s first few blockbuster albums, Carlos embarked on a long and illustrious career. He was incessantly pushing the envelope of rock ‘n roll, first bringing Latin and African influences into his music, and later focusing on jazz fusion.

In the mid-70s, Santana became interested in the work of John McLaughlin of The Mahavishnu Orchestra. At this time, McLaughlin introduced Santana and his wife Deborah to spiritual guru Sri Chimnoy, and they became followers of Chimnoy.

Santana then turned his focus to jazz fusion with overtones of spirituality inspired by Chimnoy. Although that work received critical acclaim, album sales plummeted. Furthermore, there was extensive turnover in band members; Santana’s Latin power-pop bandmates left as the move towards jazz fusion intensified.

Tension between the Santanas and Sri Chimnoy increased, as the couple became concerned that the guru was micro-managing their life. The spiritual lifestyle was largely incompatible with life as a rock musician, and in addition Carlos and Deborah were upset that Chimnoy refused to allow them to start a family.  Eventually the Santanas split with Chimnoy.

In the past few decades, Carlos Santana has cemented his reputation as one of the great living guitarists. He has collaborated on records with a large and eclectic group of musicians, including Booker T. Jones, Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, ‘roots’ blues guitarist John Lee Hooker and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart.

I caught Carlos Santana live in concert in about 2010. It was a thrilling performance – he played most of his old classic hits from the 60s and 70s, together with a number of his newer songs.

The band was in great form. In addition to the usual bass, drums and rhythm guitar, Santana included conga drummers, backup singers, and a full-throated horn section.

Carlos, keep on trucking!

Dennis Brown, Black Magic Woman:

I knew nothing of Dennis Brown before deciding to include him in this post.  So I was greatly surprised to learn that he had released 75 albums during his brief lifetime, and that he was Bob Marley’s favorite reggae performer.

Dennis Brown was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1957. He was something of a child prodigy. A fan of crooners such as Nat King Cole and Dean Martin, Brown began performing professionally at age eleven.

Following that, Brown would regularly appear as an opening act for American pop tours of Jamaica, where he was billed as “The Boy Wonder.” At age twelve, Brown issued a single No Man Is An Island, which became a bit hit in Jamaica.

Below is a photo of Dennis Brown, taken in London in 1980.

By the time he was 15, Dennis Brown was a seasoned veteran performer. He gained substantial exposure on international tours, and collaborated with a number of Jamaican reggae groups.

There seemed to be a recurring theme in Dennis Brown’s career. He recorded for a number of different record companies. A large number of these companies subsequently went bankrupt. This had a significant negative impact on Brown’s recognition as a performer, but it had an even larger effect on his finances.

When record companies went bust, their albums tended to be absorbed into the inventory of other companies. It appears that Brown (along with many other artists) was not fairly compensated by his new companies.

Here is a video clip of Dennis Brown performing Black Magic Woman.

The video was advertised as “Dennis Brown Black Magic Woman live.” I must quibble with that. We hear the audio of Brown’s reggae-styled version of Black Magic Woman. The clip alternates between just the audio of the song (accompanied by several shots of a mysterious bikini-clad model, and what appears to be a Greek temple floating in the clouds?), and bits of live performances by Brown.

The video clips of Dennis Brown are extremely interesting, as it was not easy to obtain shots of Brown performing live. However, it is not at all clear that Brown is singing “Black Magic Woman” in those clips.

Dennis Brown has a lovely voice, but I was not all that impressed with his cover of Black Magic Woman. He turns it into a slow reggae jam, accompanied by some rather pedestrian and repetitive guitar licks.

In the late 1990s, Dennis Brown’s health deteriorated dramatically. He developed serious respiratory issues, which were exacerbated by his struggles with addiction to cocaine. In May 1999, he became ill during a tour of Brazil, and was diagnosed with pneumonia.

In June 1999 he returned to Jamaica, where he was admitted to hospital in Kingston suffering from cardiac arrest. On July 1, 1999, Dennis Brown died from a collapsed lung. He was just 42 years old.

Both the current and former Prime Ministers of Jamaica spoke at Brown’s funeral, and he was interred in Jamaica’s National Heroes Park.

In April 2010, Dennis Brown was one of the artists saluted in an NPR program called 50 Great Voices. Others honored on that program included Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson.  In August 2011, the Governor-General of Jamaica conferred on Dennis Brown the Order of Distinction.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Black Magic Woman
Wikipedia, Peter Green (musician)
Wikipedia, Fleetwood Mac
Wikipedia, Carlos Santana
Wikipedia, Dennis Brown

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

The Letter: The Box Tops; Joe Cocker; Bachman-Turner Overdrive

Hello there! Our song this week is The Letter, an R&B tune that has been covered nearly 200 times. We will review the original by The Box Tops. We will then discuss a cover version by Joe Cocker, and a second cover by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

The Box Tops, The Letter:

The group called The Box Tops was formed in Memphis, TN in the early 60s. Initially the band was called The Devilles, but changed their name when they discovered another group also called The Devilles.

For a few years, the group performed in the Memphis area while enduring several changes in personnel. In 1967, the group consisted of Alex Chilton on lead vocals, lead guitarist Gary Talley, Danny Smythe, John Evans on keyboards, Bill Cunningham on bass and Larry Spillman on drums.

Below is a photo of the Box Tops circa 1967. Clearly they have been influenced by the Beatles Sgt. Pepper. I can’t find a listing of the band members, but lead singer Alex Chilton is at center left.

The group’s genre was what would now be considered “blue-eyed soul.” They continued to perform in the Memphis area while they attempted to score a recording contract. They had little success until mid-1967 when suddenly everything came together for the group.

The song The Letter was written by Wayne Carson Thompson. Thompson’s father was a professional musician who had given his son the line, “Gimme a ticket on an airplane.”  Starting from this line, Wayne then wrote the remainder of the song.

The premise of the song is that the singer’s girlfriend has written a letter asking him to return; as a result, he wishes to get back as quickly as possible.

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane
Ain’t got time to take a fast train
Lonely days are gone, I’m goin’ home
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter

I don’t care how much money I gotta spend
Got to get back to my baby again
Lonely days are gone, I’m goin’ home
My baby, just-a wrote me a letter

Well, she wrote me a letter
Said she couldn’t live without me no more
Listen mister, can’t you see I got to get back
To my baby once more
Anyway, yeah!

Thompson subsequently sent a demo tape to producer Chips Moman, at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Moman had an assistant Dan Penn, who was eager to produce records but who apparently did not work well with Moman.

In an effort to find a workable situation at American Sound Studio, Penn persuaded Moman to give him “the worst group you got,” and to allow Penn to produce a record on his own. As part of the deal, Moman threw in a couple of demos by Wayne Thompson, including The Letter.

Penn worked with the five-man ensemble, and they eventually settled on the name “The Box Tops.” Neither Penn nor the Box Tops had ever cut a record before. But Penn rehearsed with lead singer Alex Chilton, suggesting that he pronounce the word “aer-o-plane” with three syllables, and that he utilize rough, raspy vocals in singing the tune.

Cover of 1974 re-release of The Letter, by The Box Tops.

Since The Box Tops were recording for the first time, the song took over thirty takes before a final version was achieved. At the beginning of the record, Penn added the sound of an airplane taking off. Apparently there was an argument between Penn and Moman over whether that audio should be removed from the tune, and Penn prevailed.

The Letter was released in July 1967 and had reached the #1 rating on the Billboard Hot 100 charts by September. The song was a major international hit, making the top 10 on the charts in at least 20 countries, and eventually selling over four million records. Above left is a photo of the cover of a 1974 re-release of The Letter.

So here are the Box Tops performing live at Greenwich Village’s legendary Bitter End coffee house. This took place in 1967, shortly after The Letter hit #1 on the pop charts.

Lead singer Alex Chilton’s vocals are quite pleasing here. Unfortunately, I can’t say much for the band – they look rather bored during this piece. And alas, the audience is positively soporific; they look like they are ready to go to sleep.

A couple of bits of trivia here. First, with a playing time of 1:58, the record of The Letter is one of the shortest #1 pop hits of all time. Second, lead singer Alex Chilton was only 16 years old when the song was recorded.

The Box Tops followed up The Letter with two more hits. In 1968, after a couple of personnel changes, they released Cry Like A Baby. That song reached #2 on the Billboard charts.

And in 1969, the Box Tops released their final hit, Soul Deep, which made it to #18 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, the band soon fell on hard times. In early 1970, the only two remaining original members of The Box Tops, Gary Talley and Alex Chilton, disbanded the group.

In particular, Alex Chilton was burned out by the group’s grueling tour schedule. The band members also felt that as young musicians with little experience in the business, they had been treated poorly by their record company.

Sure enough, their label Bell Records continued to release previously recorded Box Tops material for another couple of years after the group had dissolved. The record company even released new “Box Tops” material, using studio musicians to produce records credited to the non-existent band.

Various members of the Box Tops band continued their musical careers after the band broke up. Vocalist Alex Chilton fronted a couple of groups, guitarist Gary Talley found work as a session musician in Memphis, Atlanta and Nashville, and Bill Cunningham earned a music degree and transitioned to classical music.

Alex Chilton died of a heart attack in March 2010, at age 60.

Over the years, The Letter has proved to be an exceptionally popular song. All manner of musicians have recorded it. In addition to those featured in this post, it has been covered by artists such as Al Green, The Beach Boys, Bobby Darin, Trini Lopez, Barbara Mandrell, Lou Rawls, and Dionne Warwick.

Joe Cocker, The Letter:

Joe Cocker was a British blues musician. He was one of my favorite artists, despite the fact that he had relatively few original songs. Most of his best-known songs were covers of other tunes. However, he was a terrific bluesman whose best recordings formed a new take on a classic song.

For some earlier blog posts that feature covers by Joe Cocker, see here or here or here or here.

Below is a famous photo of Joe Cocker performing at Whiskey Au Go Go. Apparently the woman directly in front of Mr. Cocker has her hand up his trousers, which may account for his emphatic response.

Born in 1944, in his teens Joe Cocker was attracted to music by following the career of British skiffle musician Lonnie Donegan, the same artist who inspired the early Beatles.

Cocker then became interested in rock and blues. He had the good sense to pattern his vocal stylings after rockers like Chuck Berry and soul singers like Ray Charles. Ray Charles inspired an entire generation of British blues singers, artists like Roger Waters, Steve Winwood and Joe Cocker. You can definitely detect the influence of Ray Charles in Cocker’s vocals.

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

After a couple of minor successes in the UK, Joe Cocker hit the big time in 1969 with his cover of the Beatles’ With a Little Help From My Friends. Cocker’s version was interesting in that it was totally different from the Beatles’ original.

After 1969, Cocker disbanded his Grease Band, as apparently they were unwilling to go on long tours. With the assistance of Leon Russell, he assembled a dynamite group of session musicians.

Russell produced Cocker’s 1970 album, Mad Dogs & Englishmen. The album was named after the Noel Coward song. It also referred to the fact that Russell and Cocker assembled a large orchestra for a tour associated with that album.

There were over 20 musicians in the group assembled for this tour, including three drummers. Leon Russell himself arranged the songs and played keyboards on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. It became one of the most famous tours of the rock era. The combination of Cocker’s great blues vocals and Russell’s terrific arrangements proved magical.

Here is a great example of Russell and Cocker’s collaboration in their rendition of The Letter.

What a great live performance! Leon looks incredibly cool, pounding on the keyboard with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Cocker, on the other hand, is at his manic best, arms flailing as he riffs through the song.

As you can see, there are as many backup singers as one would encounter in a church  choir. There is also accompaniment from a terrific horn section. The saxophone player looks a lot like the late, great Bobby Keys; he played that dynamite sax solo on the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar.

The Cocker-Russell version of The Letter has a wonderfully insistent beat. As you can see from the crowd shots, the audience just loves the tune. Although Cocker put out a single of The Letter in his Mad Dogs & Englishmen album, once a live version of this song from his tour was released, it rapidly surpassed the studio version.  Nowadays you almost always hear Cocker’s live version of this song, still a favorite on classic-rock radio stations.

Once Joe Cocker gained fame as one of the stars of the Woodstock concert film, he carved out an incredibly successful career as a blues vocalist.

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

Joe Cocker died from lung cancer in Dec. 2014. What a great loss; he is deeply missed.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, The Letter:

Bachman-Turner Overdrive were a terrific “no frills” classic-rock band. In terms of both their straightforward ‘garage band’ rock music, and their rock-quartet format, they remind me a lot of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The founding members of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, or BTO as they were known colloquially, were Canadian rockers Randy Bachman and Fred Turner.

Below is a photo of Bachman-Turner Overdrive in concert. From L: guitarist Randy Bachman; lead guitarist Blair Thornton; bassist Fred Turner.

Randy Bachman had been the guitarist for the Canadian rock group The Guess Who. In the late 60s and early 70s, The Guess Who had a number of hit records, most notably their 1970 song American Woman.

American Woman was the first song by a Canadian group to reach #1 in the Billboard Hot 100 playlists. However, shortly after that song hit the charts, Randy Bachman abruptly left the Guess Who.

One reason for Bachman’s departure was his conversion to the Mormon faith. Following his conversion, Bachman became a vehement critic of drugs, pre-marital sex, and alcohol (so much for two-thirds of the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll” trilogy).

At this point, Bachman decided to form a country band with members of his family. He joined up with Chad Allan, former lead singer for The Guess Who, and brothers Robbie Bachman on drums and manager Gary Bachman. They called their band Brave Belt.

After issuing one album, Brave Belt added yet another Bachman brother, Tim, on guitar and also added Winnipeg bassist and vocalist Fred Turner. Brave Belt had sufficiently little commercial success that a promoter decided to drop them from a tour and replace them with a classic-rock band.

However, the classic-rock act fell through. So the promoter agreed to keep Brave Belt on, provided that they scrap their country songs in favor of a set of classic-rock covers. The group was pleasantly surprised to see the popularity of their hard-rocking act.

Unfortunately, Brave Belt was dropped by their record company, so Randy Bachman personally financed the recording of a demo tape of classic-rock tunes. Bachman’s demo was rejected 26 times by different record companies.

Finally, Mercury Records took a flyer on the group. That company had just lost two of their biggest rock acts, Rod Stewart and Uriah Heep, and were willing to give Bachman’s group a try. However, Mercury insisted that the group take on a grueling tour schedule to promote their album.

At that point, Brave Belt changed their name to Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and they released a self-titled album. Even though that album had no single hits, the group traveled non-stop to promote it. BTO was willing to perform live shows in any market where their album was selling.

This paid off for the group when their second album, Bachman-Turner Overdrive II, became a smash hit. It contained two cuts that became single hits, Let It Ride and Takin’ Care of Business.

At this point, Tim Bachman left BTO and was replaced by new lead guitarist Blair Thornton. In 1974, BTO released an album called Not Fragile, which became their biggest record ever. It contained the cuts You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, which hit #1 on the Billboard singles charts, and Roll On Down The Highway.

I could not find live video of BTO performing The Letter. So here is Bachman-Turner Overdrive in a live performance of their signature hit, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.

This is a live concert from November 1974. The song is simple but very enjoyable. The band shuffles along at a rapid pace, while Randy Bachman chimes in on lead vocals.

The song includes a famous stutter supposedly uttered by the singer’s girlfriend. Apparently Randy Bachman included this as a joke for his brother Gary, who stuttered. Legend has it that this song was originally not intended for release; it was simply a “warm-up” tune that the group performed while doing sound checks in the studio.

But their promoter Charlie Fach loved the song’s infectious rhythm, and insisted that the group include You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet on their album. This became BTO’s best-selling hit ever. However, some music critics have asserted that it is a copy of the song My Generation by The Who, which also featured stuttering.

OK, now here is the audio of Bachman-Turner Overdrive doing a cover of The Letter. This is from the BTO Anthology album that was released in 1993.

Here, BTO turn The Letter into a garage-band hard rocker. Fred Turner’s gritty vocals back up the guitar work by Bachman and Thornton.

The BTO logo was a gear (“overdrive,” get it?) with the initials BTO inscribed inside it. We show the logo at lower left. The group’s loyal fans called themselves “gearheads,” and it is easy to see why the group has remained a darling of classic-rock radio stations for the past four decades.

The BTO “gearhead” logo.

However, by 1979 the group had reached a crossroads. Bachman wanted to try out a new sound for the band, while Turner and the other bandmates suggested that the group go on hiatus for several months, and then continue on with the same format.

The net result was that BTO disbanded. And then the lawsuits began. When he left the group, Randy Bachman sold the remaining band members the rights to the name “BTO” and the gear logo.

But Bachman started using the name and logo again, prompting a suit against Randy from the other band members.  Randy Bachman then counter-sued his old mates.

A final straw occurred in 2003 when BTO was scheduled to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. The Hall insisted that the “classic lineup” of Randy and Robbie Bachman, Fred Turner and Blair Thornton perform. The other three members refused to perform with Randy, so the induction ceremony never took place.

However, since 2009 Randy Bachman and Fred Turner have re-united and perform under the name “Bachman & Turner.” Even that name sparked a copyright-infringement lawsuit from Rob Bachman and Blair Thornton; however, the courts ruled that the duo could tour using their real names.

The group BTO capitalized on public demand for their product: straightforward hard-rocking songs that coupled catchy melodies with memorable lyrics. Like CCR and Grand Funk Railroad, BTO churned out great garage-band music. They hit paydirt in the era of stadium tours and glam rock.

Here are two impressive indicators of BTO’s name recognition. First, the band was featured in an episode of The Simpsons, titled Battlesore Galactica. Second, writer Steven King was told by his publisher to pick a pseudonym, which would enable King to publish more than one book per year using a pen name. As King was listening to a BTO song at the time, he picked “Richard Bachman.”

To Bachman & Turner, we wish them continued success on oldies tours, and we hope that “you ain’t seen no-no-no-nothin’ yet.”

Source Material:

Wikipedia, The Letter (The Box Tops song)
Wikipedia, The Box Tops
Wikipedia, Joe Cocker
Wikipedia, Bachman-Turner Overdrive

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

Long Tall Sally: Little Richard; Elvis Presley; The Beatles

Hello there! Our song this week is Long Tall Sally. This is a great ‘roots’ R&B song. We will review the original version by Little Richard. We will then discuss a cover version by Elvis, and a second cover by The Beatles.

Little Richard, Long Tall Sally:

Richard Penniman was born in Macon, Georgia in 1932. He was the third of twelve children of a local pastor. At an early age, Richard showed considerable musical ability both in playing saxophone and singing in his family’s gospel choir at the Pentecostal church.

Penniman’s early opportunities were limited because his family refused to allow him to perform secular music. However, at the age of 16 he left home and began performing on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” and he also was featured as a drag performer in some vaudeville shows.

Although Penniman was recording songs as early as 1951, he found it difficult to break into the recording scene. He took the stage name “Little Richard,” learned how to play boogie-woogie piano, and fronted a band called The Upsetters. Below is a photo of Little Richard in the mid-1950s.

At this point, Little Richard’s fortunes began to improve dramatically. The management at Specialty Records hooked Richard up with producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell. Blackwell had previously worked with R&B legend Ray Charles, and Blackwell believed that Little Richard had the potential to be as successful as Charles.

During a break in a recording session, Blackwell heard Little Richard and his band playing a smutty song that Richard had performed on the vaudeville circuit. Blackwell was taken by the infectious beat of the song, and brought in songwriter Dorothy La Bostrie to “clean up” the lyrics. The result was Little Richard’s first big record, Tutti Frutti, released as a single at the end of 1955.

Tutti Frutti was a significant hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard R&B charts. It also was a major “cross-over” success, making it up to #17 on the Billboard Top 100 charts. Crooner Pat Boone also released a cover of Tutti Frutti.

Many black artists would have been thrilled that their record had been covered by a teen idol such as Pat Boone; however, Little Richard was not amused. He was offended that Boone’s cover out-sold his own record. Richard was upset because although Pat Boone was a talented artist, Boone was in no way an R&B singer. Below is a 1956 publicity photo of Little Richard’s nemesis, Pat Boone.

Little Richard then collaborated with Bumps Blackwell on the song Long Tall Sally. Richard also gave co-writing credit to his friend Enotris Johnson.
Richard’s producer, Bumps Blackwell, had him record the vocal exceptionally fast in an effort to thwart Pat Boone … Blackwell tried to make it very difficult for Boone to copy. He had Richard work on the line “Duck back down the alley” over and over until he could sing it very fast. He figured Boone could never match Richard’s vocal dexterity … Richard’s delivery did help get his song past some censors, however. A standards and practices guy at NBC once said: “How can I reject it when I can’t even understand it?”

The lyrics to Long Tall Sally are quite simple. They describe the singer’s “Uncle John,” who although married to “Aunt Mary,” is apparently having a fling with the tall and beautiful Sally, who is possessed with “everything that Uncle John need.”

Well long, tall Sally
She’s built for speed, she got
Everything that Uncle John need,
Oh baby, yeah baby, wooooh baby,
Havin’ me some fun tonight yeah

Well, I saw Uncle John with long tall Sally
He saw Aunt Mary comin’ and he ducked back in the alley
Oh baby, yeah baby, wooooh baby,
Havin’ me some fun tonight, yeah ow

Long Tall Sally was recorded at the New Orleans studio of legendary producer Cosmo Matassa. The song featured Little Richard on boogie-woogie piano, backed by several of Matassa’s house musicians.

Long Tall Sally was Little Richard’s highest-placing single ever. It made it to #1 on the R&B charts, where it remained for six weeks. The song also made it to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here is Little Richard in a “live” performance of Long Tall Sally.

Of course, this performance is not “live” at all; Little Richard and his band The Upsetters are simply lip-synching to the record of this song. Note that The Upsetters don’t even attempt to simulate playing their instruments. This is a clip from the 1956 rock ‘n roll movie Don’t Knock The Rock.  A poster for that movie is shown below left.

Like most early rock ‘n roll films, the staged “performances” are as cheesy as the movie’s premise. Rock performer Arnie Haines, played by pop singer Alan Dale, returns to his home town to find that they have banned rock music because of its danger to impressionable teen-agers (shades of Footloose!).

Poster for the 1956 Columbia Pictures movie Don't Knock The Rock.

Poster for the 1956 Columbia Pictures movie Don’t Knock The Rock.

To combat the ban, Arnie stages a “pageant of art and culture.” The show features classical music and dance, but ends with a sexually-charged performance of the Charleston, the “edgy” dance performed by their parents.

The town fathers realize that their stance against rock ‘n roll is hypocritical, and the movie ends with a rock concert hosted by legendary DJ Alan Freed. Little Richard had two numbers in this film.

Now, just as Little Richard anticipated, Pat Boone also issued a cover of Long Tall Sally. Here is the audio of Boone’s version of Long Tall Sally.

I am at a loss for words here. Don’t get me wrong; Pat Boone has an absolutely beautiful voice, and apparently he was genuinely fond of rock music. However, as Boone could never compete with Little Richard’s iconic voice and R&B styling, Pat Boone simply re-purposes the song in his own “white bread” style.

Boone sanitizes the lyrics and presents this as an up-tempo pop tune. Perhaps the less I say about Pat Boone’s version, the better?

But now we have an actual live clip of Little Richard performing Long Tall Sally. Here, he is in concert at the Olympia venue in Paris, in 1966.

OK, here is some gen-u-wine live rock music! Mr. Penniman is clearly having a great time. Rivulets of perspiration run down his face as he growls, shouts and howls. Little Richard’s shirt is open to his waist, and he pounds away at the piano. He regularly punctuates the lyrics with his trademark “Wooooo!”

As you can see, this music is dominated by piano and saxophone. There is a great sax solo, so typical of the ‘roots’ R&B songs, at about the 2-minute mark. One can readily believe that “we’re gonna have some fun tonight.”

In the late 1950s, Little Richard was riding the crest of a wave of popularity. However, during a tour of Australia in 1957, he shocked his supporters by announcing that he was retiring from rock ‘n roll in order to enter the ministry.

A number of incidents had convinced Richard that God was sending him a message. In addition, Little Richard became seriously dependent on drugs at one point, particularly heroin, PCP and cocaine. His work in the ministry was an important element in weaning him from drug addiction.

For the next few years, Little Richard spent his time preaching and recording gospel music, produced by his old partner Bumps Blackwell. However, in 1962 he was persuaded to undertake a tour of Europe. His first show was devoted to gospel music. But he opened his second show, accompanied by organist Billy Preston, with Long Tall Sally – and the audience went wild!

After that, Little Richard continued with a triumphant rock ‘n roll tour of Europe. Up-and-coming bands vied to play in his concerts. The Beatles opened a couple of concerts for Little Richard, who gave them tips on performing, and helped Paul develop his “Little Richard” voice (see the last section of this post).

When you hear the vocal stylings of Bob Seger, or John Fogerty, or Rod Stewart, or AC/DC’s Bon Scott, you realize that they are simply channeling Little Richard. Other artists such as John Lennon, Mick Jagger and David Bowie didn’t copy Little Richard’s vocal style, but nevertheless looked to him as an inspirational figure and tried to model their own careers after his.

Little Richard is now in his mid-80s. Even a couple of years ago, he was still performing occasionally. He is one of the original kings of rock ‘n roll. Wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!

Elvis Presley, Long Tall Sally:

Here we will present a vignette from Elvis Presley’s early career. Elvis was born in Tupelo, MS in January 1935. His family moved to Memphis, TN when Elvis was a teen.  Below is a photo of Elvis performing in 1956.

Elvis was trying to break into the music industry, and in July 1954 was recording some tunes in Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio. Phillips had brought in session musicians Scotty Moore and Bill Black to accompany Elvis on guitar and bass, respectively.

Eventually the group produced an up-tempo version of Arthur Crudup’s blues song That’s All Right. It was recorded in what we now recognize as “rockabilly style.” Sam Phillips subsequently gave a copy to local DJ Dewey Phillips (no relation to Sam), who began playing it. The public reaction was remarkable, and started Elvis on his meteoric rise.

By mid-1955, Elvis’ career began to take off. In November of that year, he was voted most promising young male artist at the Country Disc Jockey Convention. Elvis signed a deal with RCA Victor, and then signed ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker as his manager.

Elvis really broke through with his recordings of Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel. In particular, Elvis’ 1956 performances of Hound Dog on the Milton Berle and Steve Allen TV shows, and subsequently on the Ed Sullivan Show, made Elvis an overnight sensation.  For many people, Elvis was the personification of rock ‘n roll.

These performances also made Elvis the center of controversy, and a teen sex symbol. Apparently Elvis was extremely nervous when he first appeared in public, so his leg would shake while he performed. He noticed that teen-agers in his audience, and particularly young girls, would scream when his legs started shaking.

So Elvis began to swivel his pelvis, using moves copied from burlesque parlors. I have the feeling that Elvis initially introduced this as something of a joke. However, the effect of these moves on crowds was fascinating. While their parents were often taken aback, and even repulsed, young girls were thrilled.  At an early Elvis concert, you could cut the sexual tension with a knife.

Here is Elvis in a live performance of Long Tall Sally (sorry about the poor audio and video quality). This took place on Sept. 26, 1956.

This was a momentous occasion for Elvis. His first album for RCA Victor, Elvis Presley, had rocketed to #1 on the Billboard album charts. His second album, called Elvis, had just been released, and was also climbing to the #1 ranking. At the time, Elvis was the first performer ever to have his first two albums both reach #1 in the charts.

Below we show the cover for the 1956 Elvis album. It contained three Little Richard songs; in addition to Long Tall Sally, these were Rip It Up and Ready Teddy. None of the Little Richard covers was released as a single by Elvis.

Cover of the 1956 RCA Victor album Elvis.

Cover of the 1956 RCA Victor album Elvis.

Nevertheless, as you can see from the video, Long Tall Sally was a great fit for Elvis. Elvis converts Little Richard’s R&B screamer into a very enjoyable rockabilly tune.

Here, Elvis was performing at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair, and this marked Elvis’ return to his hometown of Tupelo, MS as a rock ‘n roll sensation. The show was attended by 10,000 people, and Elvis felt compelled to be at his best when appearing before a home-town crowd.

Backed by his band the Blue Moon Boys featuring Scotty Moore on guitar, Bill Black on upright bass and D.J. Fontana on drums, Elvis puts on a great show for the crowd. He wiggles his pelvis a couple of times, and generally enchants the mixture of adults and teens. This is the “young Elvis” at his best.

Note that after his performance, Elvis receives a commendation from the Mississippi governor that salutes him as “America’s greatest entertainer in the field of popular music.”

As the first great rock superstar, Elvis was subjected to an enormous amount of fame. This would have been difficult for anyone to handle, but it proved particularly tough for this shy, diffident Southern Mama’s boy. Elvis attracted a legion of fans who devotedly bought his records, attended his concerts and watched his movies.

However, Elvis was unfortunate that, after his mother died in 1958, very few of his associates had his best interests in mind. His manager Tom Parker was a shrewd businessman, but the contracts he signed with Elvis were scandalously tilted towards Parker himself.

Elvis starred in 33 movies. Almost all of them made money, but with a couple of exceptions the quality of his films was embarrassingly poor. To make matters worse, the songs in Elvis movies
seemed to be “written on order by men who never really understood Elvis or rock and roll.”
Critic Dave Marsh wrote about Elvis’ movie songs:
“Presley isn’t trying, probably the wisest course in the face of material like ‘No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car’ and ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby.'”

As time progressed, Elvis’ doctors prescribed for him an astonishing array of powerful pharmaceuticals. The dashing young king of rock ‘n roll slowly but surely morphed into the shockingly bloated and over-medicated figure who died at age 42 of a series of ailments, either caused or aggravated by prescription drug abuse.

What a shame. Elvis would have been 80 in January 2015. But his music lives on, and we choose to remember him as the young, vibrant rock ‘n roller who burst upon the scene in 1956.

The Beatles, Long Tall Sally:

The Beatles originally formed as a skiffle band in the late 1950s. John Lennon brought in Paul McCartney, and then George Harrison to produce a guitar trio. The group subsequently added Stu Sutcliffe on bass.

When Stu Sutcliffe left the band, Paul switched from guitar to bass.  After trying out a number of drummers, the group finally settled on Ringo Starr.  Below is a photo of the Beatles performing in 1963. From L: Paul McCartney, bass; Ringo Starr, drums; George Harrison, lead guitar; John Lennon, rhythm guitar.

Initially, the Beatles were a competent musical group, but they became a really terrific band during a few visits to Hamburg, Germany in the early 60s. There, the lads lived in abject poverty while playing in gritty venues scattered amidst the strip clubs in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district.

In Hamburg, the group essentially had nothing to do but play and practice. They used this time to become a tight and highly skilled ensemble.

In the early days of the Beatles, Lennon and McCartney were just beginning to write songs, so the Beatles played covers of tunes by their favorite artists. They especially chose songs that would show off their harmonizing or their instrumental skills.

The Beatles idolized Little Richard. In fact, the “Wooo” sounds favored by Lennon and McCartney were borrowed directly from Little Richard Penniman. In addition, Paul McCartney fashioned his hard-rocking vocals directly after Little Richard’s iconic delivery. In 1962, the Beatles opened for Little Richard during tours of England, and during that time Richard gave Paul some tips on his vocals.

Long Tall Sally was a long-time favorite of the Beatles. The song was an infectious up-tempo tune that would bring the audience to their feet. George could contribute with some tasty guitar licks, but a major attraction of this song was that Paul got to show off his “Little Richard” vocals.

In addition to Long Tall Sally, Paul McCartney trots out his “Little Richard” voice on several other Beatles classics. These would include Oh Darling, Helter Skelter, She’s a Woman, and the opening of Sgt. Pepper.

Amazingly enough, in addition to his “normal” singing voice, Paul had yet another distinctive “girl voice.” This was reserved for songs that he had written with female artists in mind. For example, Paul wrote Here, There and Everywhere for Marianne Faithfull, and Goodbye for Mary Hopkins. Listening to those songs, it is straightforward to pick out Paul’s unique vocal stylings.

Here are the Beatles performing in April 1964. This was at the New Musical Express (NME) 1963-64 Annual Poll Winners’ All-Star Concert, that was held at the Empire Pool venue in Wembley. The Beatles were the star attraction, and they performed five songs before a crowd of 10,000.

In addition to three Lennon-McCartney tunes, the group performed covers of Twist and Shout and Long Tall Sally. Here is Long Tall Sally featuring Paul on lead vocals.

It’s obvious why the Beatles found this a perfect song for them, and a great “concert-closer” number. Paul most certainly does not describe Sally as “built for speed;” perhaps he sings that she is “pretty sweet;” I can’t quite tell as Paul’s delivery is rather frenetic.

George Harrison also gets in some energetic rockabilly licks, while John and Ringo thump away on rhythm guitar and drums, respectively. There are a few shots of the young crowd, and it is obvious that we are in full “Beatlemania” phase. The crowd screams their approval in between the verses.

Long Tall Sally became such a staple at Beatles concerts that the group included it even after they were playing almost entirely Lennon-McCartney compositions. Eventually, Paul wrote I’m Down so that they could replace Long Tall Sally with one of their own compositions to end a show.

Now here are the Beatles performing Long Tall Sally live at D.C. Stadium in Washington, DC. This was the closing number at this concert on August 15, 1966.

Once again, the Beatles appear to be relatively carefree, while the audience screams with delight. However, this American tour (the last live tour ever for the Beatles) was anything but enjoyable.

By this point, the Beatles were frustrated at their inability to reproduce their newer, more complex songs in a live performance. As a result, none of the songs from their latest album Revolver were included in this tour.

In addition, you can see that the Beatles were still performing with amplifiers that were ridiculously under-powered for stadium shows. And their tour schedule was brutal: here, they gave 19 concerts in 18 days!

The ultimate insult occurred on August 21. After a concert in Cincinnati was rained out on the preceding evening, the Beatles performed in Cincinnati, then traveled 300 miles to St. Louis, where they performed a second concert on the same day!

But that was not the worst aspect of this tour. In March 1966, John Lennon gave an interview to journalist Maureen Cleave for a series in the London Evening Standard. In that interview, Cleave asked Lennon about his interest in religion. In his typical cheeky style, Lennon responded:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink … We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first – rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

In Britain, Lennon’s remark went more or less unnoticed. However, the interview was picked up by the American teen magazine Datebook, which featured Lennon’s boast “We’re more popular than Jesus” on the cover of its August 1966 issue. And then – Ka-boom!

American Christian religious leaders vied with one another to criticize Lennon. Radio DJs stopped playing Beatles songs, and a few “record-burning” events were scheduled, particularly in the South. Most seriously, Lennon and the Beatles received numerous death threats.

Although they considered cancelling their American tour, the Beatles nevertheless proceeded with their schedule. At Chicago, their first stop on the tour, Lennon gave an apology and attempted an explanation. However, the same questions were raised in press conferences at nearly every venue, which irritated both Lennon and his band-mates.

By the time of their final event, the August 29 concert at Candlestick Park, the Beatles had determined that this would be their final live concert ever. From then until the disintegration of the group four years later, the Beatles would exclusively work in the recording studio.

Although several of their best albums (Sgt. Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road) were still to come, the Beatles were no longer a live band.

One can sympathize with the Beatles. While in Germany honing their skills, the boys were scraping out a living in a famously tough Hamburg neighborhood. Once they became famous back in Britain, they would give show after show with exactly the same playlist.

Unfortunately, the Beatles were about a decade too early to be able to satisfy their desire to stage live concerts with state-of-the-art sound and fidelity, while employing a range of sophisticated instruments. Perhaps it is too much to wonder what might have transpired if the Beatles had stuck it out a little longer?

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Long Tall Sally, Long Tall Sally
Wikipedia, Little Richard
Wikipedia, Robert Blackwell
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, The Beatles
Wikipedia, More popular than Jesus

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