If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Madonna

Happy Wednesday and welcome to another installment of my desert island song exercise. If you’re a first-time visitor, I hope you’ll stick around and come back.

My song choice this week falls outside my ’60s and ’70s core wheelhouse, so in case you dig music from these two decades but are less excited about this pick, I hope you’ll check out some of the other posts and return. Should you love the tune I selected but are less sure about the ’60s and ’70s, come back anyway and allow me to demonstrate how much great music these two decades have to offer. BTW, you’ll also find some contemporary music on this blog.

After this shameless attempt of self-promotion, here are the rules: I’m about to embark on an imaginary trip to a desert island and need to decide which one song (not an album!) to take with me. Moreover, it must be a tune by an artist or a band I’ve only rarely written about or not covered at all. I’m doing this exercise in alphabetical order, based on my music library, and I’m up to the letter “m”.

Artists (their last names) and bands starting with the letter “m” are a sizeable pool in my music universe and, for example, include The Mamas & The Papas, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Paul McCartney, John Mellencamp, Men At Work, The Moody Blues and Mumford & Sons. And my pick is La Isla Bonita by Madonna.

Yes, I like a good number of her songs but must immediately qualify for the most part I’m referring to music on her first four albums. I’m also not familiar at all with her two most recent albums Rebel Heart (March 2015) and Madame X (June 2019). I vaguely recall sampling a few tunes from MDNA (March 2012). Afterwards, I stopped paying attention altogether. Other contenders for my specific song choice included Borderline, Into the Groove, Papa Don’t Preach and Like a Prayer. Not only has La Isla Bonita been among my favorite Madonna tunes for many years, but I also felt it’s a perfect fit for the occasion.

The Spanish pop-flavored tune was co-written by Madonna and co-producers Patrick Leonard and Stephen Bray. It first appeared on Madonna’s third studio album True Blue, which came out in May 1986. The song was also released separately as the album’s fifth and last single in February 1987.

Both the single and the album enjoyed substantial international chart success. La Isla Bonita went to no. 1 in Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland in the UK, while the album topped the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. Europe definitely loved Madonna!

True Blue also became Madonna’s most commercially successful record globally, with more than 25 million units sold worldwide, and her third-highest seller in the U.S. where it reached 7x Platinum certification (verified sales of 7 million units) as of February 1995. In a review for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine called True Blue “the album where Madonna truly became Madonna the Superstar – the endlessly ambitious, fearlessly provocative entertainer who knew how to outrage, spark debates, get good reviews — and make good music while she’s at it.” The album was also well-received by many other music critics.

How about La Isla Bonita gypsy style. This cool live reinterpretation captured in 2007 features guitarist Eugene Hütz and violinist Sergey Ryabtsev, both from Gogol Bordello, a gypsy punk band formed in New York City in 1999. Check this out – man, what a performance!

I’m leaving you with a few additional tidbits from Songfacts:

“La Isla Bonita” means “The Beautiful Island” in Spanish. In the song, Madonna sings about the beautiful island of San Pedro, where she longs to be. San Pedro is not a real island. In a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone, Madonna said, “I don’t know where that came from. I don’t know where San Pedro is. At that point, I wasn’t a person who went on holidays to beautiful islands. I may have been on the way to the studio and seen an exit ramp for San Pedro.”

This song provided yet another look and sound for Madonna, as it had a Spanish theme. In an interview with the New York Times, she called the song, “A tribute to the beauty and mystery of Latin American people.”

Songwriter and producer Patrick Leonard wrote this for Michael Jackson, but Jackson claimed he didn’t like the title and turned down the song. Leonard then offered it to Madonna, who rewrote some of the lyrics in her style. Leonard worked with Madonna on many of her other hits including: “Live To Tell,” “Who’s That Girl,” “The Look Of Love,” “Like A Prayer,” “Cherish,” “Oh, Father,” “Frozen” and “Nothing Really Matters.”

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue

The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood  “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo.  Countless other major artists, such as Miles DavisAretha FranklinB.B. King  and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate  The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

The theater reopened under new management in 1978, before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo  Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo  is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.”

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th-anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s  annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Merry Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville  (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

– End –

Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six – man, it’s hot this weekend in my neck of the woods (central New Jersey). In case you’re also experiencing sweltering temperatures I hope you stay cool! Are you ready for some hot music? 🙂

Melody Gardot & Philippe Powell/This Foolish Heart Could Love You

If you’re a more frequent traveler on The Sunday Six, by now, you’re probably not surprised I’m starting today’s journey with another relaxing jazz tune. But there are two differences: My pick has vocals and it’s brand new. American jazz vocalist Melody Gardot released her debut album Worrisome Heart in 2006. Her difficult recovery from brain injuries sustained during a 2003 bicycle accident played a significant part in her personal life and music journey. You can learn more about Gardot’s incredible story on her Wikipedia page. Philippe Powell (full name: Philippe Baden Powell) is a French-born pianist and composer, and the son of Baden Powell de Aquino, a prominent Brazilian jazz and bossa nova guitarist who professionally was known as Baden Powell. According to this online bio, Philippe Powell started his professional recording career in 1995. This Foolish Heart Could Love You, co-written by Gardot and Powell, is the beautiful opener of their great collaboration album Entre eux deux, which came out on May 20. So soothing!

The Alarm/Sold Me Down the River

Ready for some time travel? Let’s first jump to the late ’80s with a cool rocker by The Alarm. Shout-out to Max from PowerPop blog who featured another song by the Welsh rock band on Friday, which brought them on my radar screen! After I had found and listened to 68 Guns in the “Top Songs” list of my streaming music provider, Sold Me Down the River came on. Well, I guess you could say that tune completely sold me on the group. I love when stuff like that happens! The Alarm were initially formed in Rhyl, Wales, in 1981, emerging from a punk band with the lovely name The Toilets. During their original 10-year run as The Alarm, they released five studio albums. After the surprise departure of co-founder and lead vocalist Mike Peters in 1991, the group broke up. In the late 90s, Peters relaunched a new version of the group titled The Alarm MM++. They have released 14 albums and remain active to this day. Sold Me Down the River, co-written by Peters and original Alarm bassist Eddie Macdonald, is included on their fourth studio album Change that appeared in September 1989. That guitar riff just makes me smile. Yes, you can’t deny it’s an ’80s production, but it’s still great!

Foo Fighters/This Is a Call

I guess I wasn’t kidding when I told Dave from A Sound Day on Friday night about my need to take a closer look at Foo Fighters after he had posted about their 1997 sophomore album The Colour and the Shape. By now, some of you may be thinking, ‘okay, is this a post of borrowed ideas from other bloggers?’ A key reason I enjoy blogging is interacting with fellow bloggers and, yes, getting inspired! Even after having listened to music for more than 40 years, I can say without any doubt my awareness/knowledge today wouldn’t be the same without great fellow bloggers I’m following, and I can’t thank them enough! Anyhoo, getting back to the Foos who started in 1994 in Seattle as a music project of former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, an artist I’ve come to immensely respect. During their 27-year-and-counting recording career, they have released 10 studio albums, most recently Medicine at Midnight from February 2021. This Is a Call, a great grungy power-pop tune written by Grohl, takes us back to Foo Fighters’ project stage. Grohl played all instruments and did all vocals with two small exceptions. Starting with their above-mentioned sophomore release, Foo albums became band efforts.

Donald Fagen/Mary Shut the Garden Door

After two rock-oriented tunes, let’s take it back down a few notches for this next stop on our little journey. Like most great longtime music writing partnerships, Steely Dan masterminds Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were best when working together and off each other. But they also recorded some decent music as solo artists. A case in point is Mary Shut the Garden Door, a track off Donald Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat, released in March 2006. Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government, explain the song’s liner notes, cited by a New York Times story published 10 days ahead of the album’s release. “I’m afraid of religious people in general,” Fagen told the Times, “any adult who believes in magic.”Morph the Cat was influenced by the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 and the gruesome death of Fagen’s mother from Alzheimer’s in January 2003. The article also observed the album’s dark lyrics contrast Steely Dan songs, which usually take a dark humor or indifferent stance on doom and gloom. That may be the case, but if you had told me Mary Shut the Garden Door was a Steely Dan song from the vault, I would have bought it. In addition to Fagen’s distinct voice, it’s got this smooth jazzy Dan sound and cool groove, all coming together in a high-quality production. At first, I thought Fagen’s melodica part was a harmonica and kept picturing Stevie Wonder playing this. I’m hoping to do it again and see Mr. Fagen’s Steely Dan in late June – knock on wood!

Chicken Shack/The Way It Is

A Sunday Six without at least one ’60s track is pretty much unthinkable. The next song doesn’t only meet this criterion but also represents one of my favorite music genres. British blues band Chicken Shack were formed in 1965 by Stan Webb (guitar, vocals), Andy Sylvester (bass) and Alan Morley (drums). The group’s biggest commercial success coincided with the 1968-1969 tenure of vocalist and keyboarder Christine Perfect. After her unsuccessful eponymous solo debut album, she joined Fleetwood Mac in 1970 as Christine McVie. Since 1968, she had been married to Mac bassist John McVie. The Way It Is, penned by Webb, is from Chicken Shack’s third studio album 100 Ton Chicken, released in November 1969. By that time, Perfect/McVie had been replaced by Paul Raymond (keyboards, vocals). I dig both the tune and the record, but neither gained any chart traction. In 1971, Raymond, Sylvester and then-Chicken Shack drummer Dave Bidwell left to join fellow English blues-rock band Savoy Brown. Webb ended up with them in 1974 as well and can be heard on their studio album Boogie Brothers, released that same year. Webb subsequently revived Chicken Shack and has since performed under that name with rotating members.

The Police/Peanuts

All things must pass, and once again it’s time to wrap up another zig-zag journey to the amazing world of music. Our final stop takes us to November 1978 and Outlandos d’Amour by The Police. It was the first of five excellent albums the British group released during their official run from 1997 to 1986. In reality, their active period ended in March 1984 after the end of their Synchronicity tour. By that time, Sting had already decided to go it alone and immediately started work on his solo debut The Dream of the Blue Turtles while the band was officially on hiatus. Turtles appeared in June 1985 and became a huge success. An attempt by the band to record a new album in July 1986 quickly came to an end after Stewart Copeland broke his collarbone in a fall from a horse and wasn’t able to play the drums. The Police officially disbanded shortly thereafter. I dig the raw sound of Outlandos d’Amour and deliberately avoided picking any of its three hit singles Roxanne, Can’t Stand Losing You and So Lonely – not because I can’t stand them, but I feel we’ve heard each of these tunes many times. Instead, I’m offering Peanuts – nope, it’s not a joke, that’s the title of the song, which Sting and Copeland wrote together. “I was thinking about a former musical hero who had dwindled to a mere celebrity, and I was more than willing to pass judgment on his extracurricular activities in the tabloids, never thinking for a moment that I would suffer the same distorted perceptions at their hands a few years later,” Sting said according to Songfacts.

This post wouldn’t be complete with a Spotify playlist featuring the above tunes. Hope there’s something you like. I couldn’t stand losing you!

Sources: Wikipedia; Far Out Recordings website; New York Times website; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Happy Saturday! Hope you join me in taking a fresh look at newly-released music. All featured tunes appear on albums that were released yesterday. (May 20).

Zach Bryan/Something in the Orange

Kicking things off today is Zack Bryan, a red dirt country singer-songwriter from Oklahoma I first featured in a previous Best of What’s New installment in November 2020. According to Wikipedia, red dirt is a music genre named after the color of soil found in Oklahoma, which includes elements of Americana, folk, alt-country and a few other genres. Soon after receiving his first guitar as a 14-year-old, Bryan learned how to play and started writing songs. Later he followed in the footsteps of his family and enlisted in the Navy. But he didn’t give up music, and during a break in Jacksonville, Fla., Bryan and his friends spontaneously decided to record some tunes that would become his 2019 debut album DeAnn. Now Bryan is out with his third studio effort, American Heartbreak, an ambitious 34-track triple album. Check out Something in the Orange. I can hear traces of Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Jason Isbell – great song!

Cola/At Pace

Cola are a Canadian post-punk band from Toronto. The group’s origins date back to late 2019 when Tim Darcy (vocals, guitar) and Ben Stidworthy (bass) who were members of Ought, another Toronto post-punk group, started working on music with Evan Cartwright, drummer of U.S. Girls, which Wikipedia describes as an experimental pop project by musician and record producer Meghan Remy – all completely new names to me. I’m also a bit puzzled how a group can name themselves Cola and not get in trouble with the mighty American beverage maker! Anyway, here’s At Pace, a track co-written by Stidworthy and Darcy from the group’s debut album Deep in View. There’s something about it – I kind of like their bare bones sound. What do you think?

Courtney Jaye/Hymns and Hallelucinations

Next up is folk singer-songwriter Courtney Jaye. Here’s more from her Apple Music profile: Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, singer/songwriter Courtney Jaye was signed on the spot after a mutual friend managed to set up an audition with several A&R executives at Island Def Jam Music Group. She made her major-label debut with 2005’s Traveling Light, and several of her songs found their way onto TV programs like Laguna Beach and One Tree Hill. Her partnership with Island proved to be short-lived, however, and she spent the rest of the decade issuing independent albums like 2007’s Who’ll Stop the Rain. The Exotic Sounds of Courtney Jaye, her most accomplished album to date, followed in 2010, and featured a combination of Laurel Canyon folk and tropical pop. Which brings me to Hymns and Hallelucinations, the title track of her sixth and latest album (yes, it’s spelled that way) – kind of a riveting tune!

Alex Izenberg/Gemini Underwater

Alex Izenberg is an English chamber pop singer-songwriter. From his AllMusic bio: Touching on influences like Harry NilssonVan Dyke Parks, and King Crimson, the intimate chamber pop of singer/songwriter Alex Izenberg is colored by vintage Baroque and psychedelic pop as well as a flair for the romantic. He emerged with his full-length debut, Harlequin, in 2016. He drew inspiration from Alan Watts‘ writings on situational personas for his third album, 2022’s I’m Not Here. Here’s a track off that album, Gemini Underwater, which like all other tunes was penned by Izenberg.

SOAK/Purgatory

My last pick for this week is SOAK, the stage name of Northern Irish singer-songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson. The stage name is a combination of soul and folk. Here’s more from Monds-Watson’s Apple Music profile: Bridie Monds-Watson’s breathy, emotionally revealing songs and evocative, often spare performing style are certainly soulful and folk-influenced, but there’s just as much indie rock in their musical formula. SOAK released a series of EPs beginning in 2012 before issuing their debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream, as a teen in 2015. It was nominated for a Mercury Prize. The songwriter grappled with the realities of young adulthood on 2019’s Grim Town, then revisited formative experiences on 2022’s If I Never Know You Like This Again after embracing a non-binary identity. The opener of that album, Purgatory, was co-written by Monds-Watson and Thomas McLaughlin.

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above and a few other tunes.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

Elton John’s Honky Château at 50 Remains a Classic

While I know a good number of Elton John songs from throughout his 50-plus-year recording career, I cannot make that claim when it comes to his 30 studio albums. So why pick Honky Château to highlight in a post? Well, to start with, it includes Rocket Man, one of my all-time favorite tunes by John. I’ve also always dug Honky Cat. But the main reason for writing about Honky Château again today is the album’s 50th anniversary, another 1972 classic to hit the big milestone.*

Released on May 19, 1972, and named after Château d’Hérouville, an 18th-century French castle where it was recorded, Elton John’s fifth studio album is a gem that definitely has more to offer than the above-noted tunes. Moreover, it’s a significant album in his recording career. Honky Château became John’s first of seven consecutive no. 1 records in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. It also performed very well elsewhere: No. 2 in the UK, no. 3 in Canada and no. 4 in Australia, to name a few countries where it charted. John truly ruled during the first half of the ’70s!

Honky Château also marked the first record to feature core members of John’s road band: David Johnstone (acoustic and electric guitars, steel guitar, mandolin, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass) and Nigel Olsson (drums). Murray and Olsson had joined John’s touring band from The Spencer Davis Group. Johnstone, a session musician, had first played with John on predecessor Madman Across the Water from November 1971. He pretty much has been with John ever since. Johnstone, Murray and Olsson became instrumental in shaping Elton John’s sound during the ’70s.

Let’s get to some music, and what better way to start than with the opener  Honky Cat. Like all other songs on the record, the music was composed by John with lyrics from his long-time partner in crime Bernie Taupin. I always liked the tune’s New Orleans vibe. The brass section, which was arranged by producer Gus Dudgeon, featured Jacques Bolognesi  (trombone), Ivan Jullien (trumpet), as well as saxophonists Jean-Louis Chautemps and Alain HatotHonky Cat also appeared separately as the album’s second single in July 1972, backed by Slave.

I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself has some of Honky Cat’s New Orleans vibe as well. According to Songfacts, John said the song about a moody teenager’s suicide thoughts isn’t to be taken too seriously. I’m not sure a tune like this could be released today without causing controversy. Of course, the times they are a-changin’, and you could make the same observation for other ’70s tunes. The tap-dancing routine was performed by “Legs” Larry Smith, the former drummer of the comedy satirical rock group the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Smith was friends with George Harrison who would include a tribute song about him, His Name Is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen), on his 1975 studio album Extra Texture (Read All About It).

Closing out Side 1 is the majestic Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time), as it’s officially titled. Not surprisingly, the tale about a Mars-bound astronaut’s mixed feelings about leaving his family behind to carry out his mission became the album’s big hit. Separately released as the lead single in April 1972, backed by Susie (Dramas), it rose all the way to no. 2 in the UK and reached no. 6 in the U.S. Rocket Man also was a hit in various other countries, including Canada (no. 8), Germany (no. 18), Ireland (no. 6) and New Zealand (no. 11). It truly is a timeless classic!

Side 2 opens with Salvation. There isn’t much to say about this tune other than it’s the kind of ballad John excelled at in the ’70s, in my view.

Amy is another nice tune on Side 2. The song about young lust has a great groove. It features French jazz violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty on electric violin.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Honky Château’s closer Hercules. Initial plans to make Hercules the album’s third single did not materialize. While I haven’t read this anywhere, I’m wondering whether there may have been concerns it could have interfered with Crocodile Rock. One of John’s biggest hits, it was released in October 1972 as the lead single for his next studio album Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Here’s a Spotify link to the entire album.

Honky Château was generally well received by music critics at the time and is regarded as one of Elton John’s best albums. In October 1995, the record was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America  (RIAA), meaning it had reached certified sales of one million units.

In 2003, Honky Château was ranked at no. 357 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, a position that remained nearly unchanged (no. 359) in the 2012 list. Interestingly, the album moved up by more than 100 spots to no. 251 in the list’s most recent revision from September 2020.

* This post was originally published on May 31, 2021. It has been slightly updated.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Los Lobos

It’s Wednesday and time again for another imaginary trip to a desert island. And that also means I have to pick a song I would take with me by an artist or band I like but haven’t written about or only rarely covered. Thank goodness I don’t have to do this in real life – I’d go nuts with one song only and the other “rules”.

I’m doing this little exercise in alphabetic order and I’m up to “l”. Artists/ bands in my music library, who start with that letter, include Larkin Poe, Cindy Lauper, Led Zeppelin, Little Richard, The Lovin’ Spoonful and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others. And my pick are Los Lobos and Kiko and the Lavender Moon, a really cool tune I wouldn’t have picked without the above restrictions. Frankly, this was a tough decision for me, since I still don’t know the band from East L.A. very well.

Kiko and the Lavender Moon appeared on the band’s sixth studio album Kiko released in May 1992. The tune was written by co-founding members David Hildago (guitars, accordion, violin, banjo, piano, percussion, vocals) and Louie Pérez (drums, vocals, guitars, percussion). Both remain part of the group’s present line-up. I dig the vibe of this tune, though it’s tricky to characterize. I can hear some retro jazz and a dose of Latin groove. If it doesn’t speak to you the first time, I’d encourage you to give it at least one more listen!

Los Lobos, who blend rock & roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues and soul with traditional Spanish music like cumbia, bolero and norteño, were founded by Hildago and Pérez in East Los Angeles in 1973. When they met in high school, they realized they liked the same artists, such as Fairport ConventionRandy Newman and Ry Cooder. Subsequently, they asked their fellow students Frank Gonzalez (vocals, mandolin, arpa jarocha), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, bajo sexto) and Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals) to join them, completing band’s first line-up. Rosas and Lozano are also still around.

In early 1978, the band, then still known as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, self-released their eponymous debut album in Spanish. By the time of sophomore album How Will the Wolf Survive?, their first major-label release from October 1984, the band had shortened their name to Los Lobos and started to write songs in English. In 1987, Los Lobos recorded some covers of Ritchie Valens tunes for the soundtrack of the motion picture La Bamba, including the title track, which became their biggest hit. While it’s a great cover, I deliberately avoided it. Los Lobos are much more than a one-hit wonder! To date, they have released more than 20 albums, including three compilations and four live records. 

Here’s how Kiko and the Lavender Moon and Los Lobos sound in 2022:

Following are some additional insights from Songfacts:

This song is about a magical, albeit lonely character called Kiko, who comes out at night to “dance and dance.” In our interview, Los Lobos’ drummer and songwriter, Louie Pérez, told us he reflected upon his childhood when writing the lyrics: “I took this remembrance of the little house that I grew up in and Mom’s dresser-top altar, and was able to fold that into a song.”

In 1993, Los Lobos performed this on Sesame Street, changing the lyrics to “Elmo and the Lavender Moon.”

Kiko saw Los Lobos adopt a more experimental sound, that mixed blues, rock, folk and psychedelic influences. Perez spoke to us about the spiritual experience that was the making of Kiko, which is his favorite Los Lobos album: “There’s a point when all songwriters fall into this vacuum where it seems so amorphic and almost surreal… all of us were on this crazy trip. It was like a canoe into the fog, all of us were right there paddling away, and knowing we just have to paddle. We don’t know where we’re going, but we just trusted it. And it was amazing.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Songfacts

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Happy Sunday! After another busy week on other fronts, I’m ready to time-travel to explore different flavors of the music world. Hope you’ll join me!

The Horace Silver Quartet/Serenade to a Soul Sister

Today’s journey starts in June 1968. This month saw some notable new music releases by artists like Aretha Franklin (Aretha Now), Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida) and Pink Floyd (A Saucerful of Secrets). And Serenade to a Soul Sister, a studio album by The Horace Silver Quartet. The group was formed in 1956 by jazz pianist Horace Silver after he had left The Jazz Messengers which had co-founded with drummer Art Blakey in the early 1950s. The Horace Silver Quartet became Silver’s long-term combo he led into the ’80s. He continued to release albums until 1998. In 2007 and passed away in June 2014 at the age of 85. Here’s the groovy title track of the aforementioned record, composed by Silver. He was backed by Charles Tolliver (trumpet), Stanley Turrentine (tenor saxophone), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Mickey Roker (drums).

Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs/Maggie Mae

Ever since I first listened to power pop artist Matthew Sweet’s collaborations with Susanna Hoffs, who is best-known as a co-founder of The Bangles, I was hooked by how well their vocals blend in their covers of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s songs. Here’s their version of Rod Stewart classic Maggie Mae, which Stewart co-wrote with Martin Quittenton and recorded for his studio album Every Picture Tells a Story. Sweet and Hoffs included the tune on Under the Covers, Vol. 2, their second of three collaborative efforts that appeared in July 2009. The album featured covers of ’70s songs. From a vocal perspective, admittedly, there are perhaps more compelling examples of the Sweet/Hoffs harmony singing, but I just love that Rod Stewart tune!

Leon Russell/A Song For You

Our next stop takes us to March 1970 and the solo debut album by Leon Russell. Over a 60-year career that started as a 14-year-old in 1956, Russell proved to be a versatile artist spanning multiple genres, including rock & roll, country, gospel, bluegrass, R&B, southern rock, blues rock, folk, surf and Tulsa Sound. A Song For You from his eponymous solo debut album that came out in March 1970 is one of his best-known compositions. It’s probably not a coincidence the soulful ballad is Russell’s most popular song on Spotify. In addition to singing and playing the piano, he also provided the tune’s tenor horn part. The album featured multiple notable guests, including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and most members of The Rolling Stones.

Sting/The Soul Cages

Ever since my wife and I recently considered seeing Sting who is currently on the road, the ex-Police frontman has been on my mind. I was going to pick a track off Ten Summoner’s Tales, my favorite solo album by the British artist but then decided to select the title track from predecessor The Soul Cages. Sting’s third full-length solo effort from January 1991 was a concept album focused on the death of his father. It helped him overcome a prolonged period of writer’s block he had developed after his dad’s passing in 1987. I always dug the rock vibe of the title track, which also yielded Sting his first Grammy award in 1992, for Best Rock Song.

Bruce Hornsby and The Range/Mandolin Rain

During a recent interview, Bonnie Raitt revealed that Bruce Hornsby is her favorite artist, citing his versatility if I recall it correctly. I guess this planted a bug in my brain to feature a track from the album that brought Hornsby on my radar screen in April 1986: The Way It Is, the first with The Range, his backing band during his early recording career. And what a debut it was it was for the singer-songwriter and pianist who had been active since 1974. Led by the huge success of the title track, The Way It Is achieved multi-Platinum status and helped the band the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987. I pretty much love every tune on that album. Here’s the beautiful Mandolin Rain, co-written by Bruce Hornsby and his brother John Hornsby.

Quaker City Night Hawks/Suit in the Back

And once again, we’ve reached the final stop of our little music excursion. In the past, I’ve repeatedly recognized examples of great music suggestions Apple Music had served up. This time the credit needs to go to Spotify. That streaming platform has what I find is an interesting feature where once you’ve listened to all songs in a playlist you created they continue playing music, selecting tunes they feel fit with your playlist. And that’s exactly how I came across this tune, Suit in the Back, by Quaker City Night Hawks. I had never heard of the Texas band combing southern rock, country and blues, who released their debut ¡Torquila Torquila! in May 2011. Suit in the Back, written by the band’s vocalist, songwriter and guitarist Sam Anderson, is from their most recent album QCNH released in March 2019. Quaker City Night Hawks, who also include David Matsler (vocals, guitar) and Aaron Haynes (drums), certainly look like a band worthwhile to further out.

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above tune. Hope you enjoyed this Sunday’s mini-trip.

Sources: Wikipedia; Quaker City Night Hawks website; YouTube; Spotify

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

All tunes appear on albums that were released yesterday (May 13).

The Black Keys/Good Love

My first pick this week is new music by The Black Keys. While I had been aware of their name, I only started paying attention a year ago when the rock duo of high school friends Dan Auerbach (vocals, guitar) and Patrick Carney (drums) released their then-latest album Delta Kream. Now, they are back with Dropout Boogie, their 11th studio release. When they started work on the album in the summer of 2021, Auerbach and Carney first envisaged recording it as a duo but subsequently decided to collaborate with other artists. One includes Billy Gibbons, a longtime friend of the duo from Akron, Ohio. Here’s Good Love, co-written by Auerbach, Carney and Gibbons and featuring the ZZ Top guitarist. Like on predecessor Delta Kream, I dig the rawness of The Black Keys’ sound. Gibbons is a great match!

49 Winchester/All I Need

49 Winchester are a Russell County, Va.-based group who on their website describe their music as “tear-in-your-beer alt-country, sticky barroom floor rock-n-roll, and high-octane Appalachian folk.” Following is a bit more from their website: Formed eight years ago on Winchester Street in the small mountain town of Castlewood, Virginia (population: 2,045), the band started as a rag tag bunch of neighborhood teenagers who just wanted to get together for the sake of playing together. Aside from Gibson [Isaac Gibson, singer/guitarist – CMM], there’s also his childhood friend, bassist Chase Chafin, alongside other Castlewood cronies — guitarist Bus Shelton, and Noah Patrick on pedal steel. Here’s All I Need, a track from the group’s fourth and latest studio album Fortune Favors The Bold. The country rocker, credited to Blaine Gibson, reminds me a bit of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Good stuff!

State Champs/Here to Stay

Next up are Albany, N.Y.-based pop-punk band State Champs, who according to Apple Music are known for their vocal harmonies and layered guitar riffs. Here’s more from their Apple Music profile: The group’s first album, 2013’s The Finer Things, reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart. They won two Alternative Press Music Awards, including Best Breakthrough Band in 2016 and Music Video of the Year in 2017, for “Losing Myself.” Both 2015’s Around the World and Back and 2018’s Living Proof include two songs cowritten with All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth. “Time Machine,” from 2018’s Living Proof, featured a guest vocal appearance from blink-182’s Mark Hoppus. This brings me to the group’s new album Kings of the New Age and the opener Here to Stay. Much of contemporary pop isn’t my cup of tea, but in this case, the combination with rock works for me.

Say Sue Me/Still Here

I’m pleased to wrap up this week’s music revue with indie rock from South Korea, Say Sue Me, the first time I feature a band from that country. From their website: Cited as one of 2018’s ‘break-out bands‘, Say Sue Me are a Surf Rock inspired indie band from Busan, South Korea. Members consist of Byungkyu Kim on lead guitar, Sumi Choi on vocals and rhythm guitar, Jaeyoung Kim on Bass and Sungwan Lim on Drums. Releasing their first album “We’ve Sobered Up” in 2014, and EP “Big Summer Night” in 2015, on Korean label Electric Muse, UK label Damnably Records released a self-titled compilation that paired their first record and EP in 2017, marking the band’s first release outside of Korea, which served as their introduction to International audiences. Fast forward five years to The Last Thing Left, which appears to be their third full-length album. Here’s Still Here written by Choi, a tune with a pleasant laidback sound. Also, check out her vocals – cool!

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist featuring all of the above tracks and a few others.

Sources: Wikipedia; 49 Winchester website; Apple Music; Say Sue Me website; YouTube; Spotify

Another Rolling Stones Classic Hits Big Milestone

Exile On Main St. Turns 50

Today 50 years ago, The Rolling Stones released what many of their fans consider one of their best albums. While my no. 1 Stones album remains their 1971 predecessor Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St. has substantially grown on me over time, and I would now put it on my top 3, together with the live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!

Exile On Main St. took a significant amount of time to make. It seems to me the fact it came to fruition at all bordered on a near-miracle. Work on the album started in England in 1969 during the Sticky Fingers recording sessions. Many of the tracks were recorded at Olympic Studios in London and Mick Jagger’s country house Stargroves.

By the spring of 1971, the Stones found themselves as tax refugees from the British government. Jagger moved to Paris with his new wife Bianca, Keith Richards rented Nellcôte, a 16-room mansion on the Côte d’Azur in Southern France, while the other members of the band settled in Southern France as well. Since the Stones couldn’t find a suitable studio to continue work on the album, they ended up using Richard’s basement at Nellcôte and the group’s mobile recording truck.

The work at Nellcôte was very different compared to previous albums. Richards had begun using heroin daily, which frequently prevented him from attending sessions. Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman oftentimes were absent as well. Time and again, this forced the band to record in altered forms. In addition to Jagger, Richards and Wyman, guitarist Mick Taylor, drummer Charlie Watts, keyboarder Nicky Hopkins, saxophonist Bobby Keys and producer Jimmy Miller, a capable drummer who filled in for Watts on a couple of tunes, participated in the Nellcôte sessions.

The basic tracks that were recorded at Nellcôte were subsequently taken to Sunset Sound Recorders studio in Los Angeles where vocal and instrumental overdubs were added between December 1971 and March 1972. This second stage of the recording included keyboarders Billy Preston and Dr. John, along with top-notch session vocalists. Unlike in France where he was often MIA, Mick Jagger took charge during the LA sessions.

In spite of what looks like a chaotic process, especially during the first stage in Southern France, the outcome was pretty remarkable. I’d say it’s time for some music. In its original configuration, Exile On Main St. is a double-LP album. I’m going to feature one track from each side. A Spotify link to the entire album is included at the end of this post.

Let’s kick things off with Rip This Joint, the second track on side one. Like all other songs, the uptempo rocker is credited to Jagger and Richards. Wikipedia notes it’s one of the fastest songs in the Stones’ catalog. It became a concert staple between the early to mid-’70s before it disappeared from the Stones’ setlists completely until the mid-’90s.

And we’re on to side two and the first track Sweet Virginia, one of the Stones’ country-influenced tunes. Among others, the song features great harmonica and saxophone parts by Jagger and Keys, respectively. The backing vocalists include Dr. John. “‘Sweet Virginia’ – were held over from Sticky Fingers,” Richards said in 2003, according to Songfacts. “It was the same lineup and I’ve always felt those two albums kind of fold into each other… there was not much time between them and I think it was all flying out of the same kind of energy.”

This next tune always makes me, well, Happy. The first track on side three features Richards on lead vocals. It also was the Stones’ first such song to chart. It did best in France where it climbed to no. 5. In Canada, it reached no. 9. In the UK, it missed the charts. Perhaps folks there weren’t happy about the group’s tax refugee status. “It just came, tripping off the tongue, then and there [at NellcôteCMM],” Richards said per Songfacts, citing his 2010 autobiography, Life. “…There has to be some thin plot line, although in a lot of my songs you’d be very hard-pressed to find it. But here, you’re broke and it’s evening. And you want to go out, but you ain’t got s–t. I’m busted before I start. I need a love to keep me happy, because if it’s real love it will be free!” Got it? Now you know how to write a great song!

The final tune I’d like to call out is Shine a Light, the second-to-last track on side four. The song’s original lyrics date back to 1968 when Jagger wrote a song titled Get a Line On You about then-Stones guitarist Brian Jones and his drug addiction. After Jones’ untimely death in July 1969 at age 27, Jagger changed some of the tune’s lyrics and the title. Shine a Light features Billy Preston on piano and organ. It also became the name of a 2008 Stones concert documentary by Martin Scorsese.

When Exile on Main St. originally came out, critics had mixed feelings about it. But as isn’t uncommon, sentiments subsequently changed and the album has since been regarded by many critics as The Rolling Stones’ best work. I’m sometimes a bit puzzled how drastically opinions can change. Rolling Stone ranked Exile on Main St. at no. 7 on their 2003 and 2012 lists of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the 2020 revision, the album held up pretty well at no. 14, making it the Stones’ highest-ranked album on the list. In 2012, Exile on Main St. became the fourth Stones album to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Exile on Main St. is among the Stones’ best-performing records. It topped the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, and climbed to no. 2 in Australia and Germany. The album also received Platinum certification in Great Britain, the US and Australia.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Kansas

Happy Wednesday! By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors of the blog know that I have to make another important decision today. For less frequent flyers or first-time visitors, I’m about to leave for an imaginary desert island. Since survival without music would be impossible, I have to pick what to take with me on the trip, but there’re a few twists.

I can only select one song at a time. Albums don’t qualify. It also needs to be a tune by a band or an artist I’ve only rarely written about or not covered at all to date. I’m doing this exercise in an alphabetical fashion, largely relying on my own music library.

We’re up to the letter “K”. Some of the options I could have selected include B.B. King, Carole King, The Kinks, Kiss, The Knack, Lenny Kravitz and Kris Kristofferson. Based on the above criteria, my pick is Kansas and Carry On Wayward Son.

I can’t claim much familiarity with the American rock band beyond their best-known tunes, but once I decided to select Kansas, my specific song choice was easy. Carry On Wayward Son is one of my favorite ’70s rock tunes. While I’m usually in the camp of less is more when it comes to guitar riffs, I find the guitar work on this song really cool, even though it’s pretty complex.

Carry On Wayward Son was penned by guitarist Kerry Livgren, one of the band’s founding members, who also played keyboards and sang backing vocals. The song first appeared on the group’s fourth studio album Leftoverture released in October 1976. In November of that year, it also became the record’s first of two singles and the band’s first charting song.

In the U.S., Carry On Wayward Son climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would be the group’s second-highest charting single there after Dust in the Wind, the 1978 ballad that reached no. 6 and brought Kansas on my radar screen. Elsewhere, Carry On Wayward Son charted in Canada (no. 5), the UK (no. 51) and Australia (no. 58). Undoubtedly, the tune’s performance helped propel Leftoverture to 5X Platinum certification status in the U.S., making it the band’s highest-selling album to date.

Except for a 7-month break-up period between August 1984 and March 1985, Kansas have been active since 1970. Their origins go back to 1969 when Kerry Livgren and Don Montre (keyboards, backing vocals), who had played together in a group called Reasons Why, formed a new band, Saratoga, together with Dan Wright (keyboards) and Lynn Meredith. In 1970, that group became Kansas. They were joined by Dave Hope (bass) and Phil Erhart (drums). Greg Allen (lead and backing vocals) and Larry Baker (saxophone) completed the inaugural line-up.

After some twists and turns, Kansas released their eponymous debut album in March 1974. It would be the first of 16 records that have appeared to date. The most recent album The Absence of Presence came out in July 2020. At the time, I featured one of the tracks in a Best of What’s New installment.

As you would imagine, Kansas have gone through multiple line-up changes. One of the more significant chapters in the band’s long history was the departure of Livgren in 1983, who had been one of their major songwriters. In the late ’70s, Livgren became a born-again Christian. His lyrics increasingly reflected a Christian perspective, which resulted in growing tension among members of the band and eventually to their above noted short break-up in August 1984.

In March 1985, Ehart and longtime Kansas members Rich Williams (guitars, backing vocals) and Steve Walsh (lead and backing vocals, keyboards, percussion) reunited, joined by Billy Greer (bass, acoustic guitar, backing and lead vocals) and Steve Morse (lead and rhythm guitars, backing vocals). Ehart, Williams and Greer remain with the group’s current line-up.

The current line-up of Kansas (from left): David Ragsdale, Phil Ehart, Ronnie Platt, Richard Williams, Tom Brislin, and Billy Greer. CREDIT: EMILY BUTLER PHOTOGRAPHY

Following are some additional insights in Carry On Wayward Son from Songfacts:

According to Livgren, the song was not written to express anything specifically religious, though it certainly expresses spiritual searching and other ideas.

Livgren became an evangelical Christian in 1980, and has said that his songwriting to that point was all about “searching.” Regarding this song, he explained: “I felt a profound urge to ‘Carry On’ and continue the search. I saw myself as the ‘Wayward Son,’ alienated from the ultimate reality, and yet striving to know it or him. The positive note at the end (‘surely heaven waits for you’) seemed strange and premature, but I felt impelled to include it in the lyrics. It proved to be prophetic.”

…Sitting at his parent’s home, in front of the family organ, Livgren composed the music for what would become “Carry On Wayward Son.” In late 2011, Livgren stated in a short interview at his home that the lyrics were partially about himself and the struggles and pressures he was facing at the time when the band’s career was on the line. The piano interlude and accompanying verse express how happy the band’s success had made him, as well as how sad and fearful he was that it might possibly be over (“I was soaring ever higher, but I flew too high”). However, the chorus expresses hope that everything will work out and that he must simply keep going. (“Carry on, my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done”).

In reality, the song was almost not included on the album, and thus contributes to the album’s title of Leftoverture. The album title comes from the idea that many of the songs are leftover songs from the band’s past. For instance, the string part at the end of the second track, “The Wall”, was an old song idea that was added on to the end of the song for the record. The album, while met with mixed reviews by critics, was commercially successful, going platinum five times. “Carry On” became the bands’ first Top 40 hit (peaking at #11), and is often regarded as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. It gave Kansas the staying power it needed to keep producing records with Kirshner, and earned Kerry Livgren the reputation as one of the most respected musicians and lyricists in rock and roll.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube