Masters of the High Register

A selection of great falsetto vocalists

In late December, I did a four-part series on the Bee Gees here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). One of the group’s distinct features was the frequent use of falsetto singing, starting with their 1975 studio album Main Course. My most recent Best of What’s New installment included Aaron Frazer, a young vocalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also happens to be a falsetto singer. In fact, while I’m not a voice expert, I think he’s incredible! These posts triggered the idea to write about music artists I like, who are masters of the falsetto.

Before getting to some great music and singing, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. I’ll keep it light! According to Wikipedia, falsetto “is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.” Essentially, modal voice generates the richest tone that unlike falsetto isn’t breathy. It’s the most frequently used vocal register in speech and singing in most languages.

I always thought falsetto and head voice are the same – not so! As this post on Ramsey Voice explains, “While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.” Didn’t you always want to know that? 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about different voice registers and singing modes, the above Ramsey Voice post goes into all the gory details, illustrated with video clips. The only thing I’d like to add is that females have falsetto as well, though I think it’s fair to say this singing mode is primarily associated with male singers, and the examples in this post are all male artists. But as Ramsey Voice notes, “plenty of studies have…shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.” Time for some falsetto action!

Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind & Fire/September

September, one of my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire songs, initially appeared as a single in November 1978. Co-written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis, it became one of the group’s biggest hits. The song was also included on the compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which came out a few days after the single. The tune, on which Bailey shared lead vocals with White, is a great example of Bailey’s amazing falsetto.

Smokey Robinson, of The Miracles/OOO Baby Baby

OOO Baby Baby is one of the most beautiful examples of falsetto I can think of. Smokey Robinson’s voice sounds so sweet and gentle that it almost makes me want to cry! Robinson was also a co-writer of the ballad, together with Miracles bass vocalist Pete Moore. OOO Baby Baby became the lead singles of The Miracles’ studio album Going to a Go-Go in March 1965. The album came out in November that year.

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

When thinking of great falsetto vocalists, one of the first artists who came to my mind was Curtis Mayfield. While there are other tunes where his falsetto is more dominant, Move On Up is one of my absolute favorites, so I simply couldn’t skip it. Written by Mayfield, the song was first recorded for his debut solo album Curtis from September 1970. It also appeared separately as the record’s second single in June 1971. I just love that tune – the infectious groove, Mayfield’s singing and his effortless switching between modal voice and falsetto – it’s just perfect!

Marvin Gaye/Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)

Marvin Gaye is another exceptional vocalist, no matter what singing mode you’re talking about. On Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., the boundaries between Gaye’s head voice and falsetto are so fluid that to me it’s hard to tell, which is which. The tune was first recorded for his 11th studio album What’s Going On, a true gem released in May 1971. In September of the same year, it became the album’s third single.

Prince/Kiss

No post about falsetto vocalists would be complete without Prince. The funky Kiss was one of his biggest hits. Written by Prince, it became the lead single to his eighth studio album Parade, released in February 1986, just ahead of the album that followed in March. Frankly, the tune wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I’ve come to dig it.

The last two tracks shall belong to the artists who inspired the post. Here’s Nights on Broadway, the tune that started the frequent use of falsetto for the Bee Gees.

Co-written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, Nights on Broadway was recorded for the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album Main Course released in June 1975 in the U.S. and the following month in the U.K. The groovy track also became the album’s second single in September of the same year.

Aaron Frazer/Bad News

Bad News is another great tune from Aaron Frazer’s impressive debut album  Introducing…. The song was co-written by Frazer and producer Dan Auerbach. It actually reminds me a bit of Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ramsey Voice; YouTube

Happy New Year!

This is it – well, almost! As the remaining hours of 2020 are ticking away, the time has come for my final post of this year. Since I’ve already expressed my thoughts about this year in comments to posts by fellow bloggers, I’m keeping this short and sweet.

I’d like to wish all readers a happy and healthy new year and hope you come back for more. Also, please keep the comments coming. I always enjoy reading your thoughts, even though we may not agree all the time on the music we post about. Thank goodness! Can you imagine how boring it would be, if everybody always had the same taste? Reading different perspectives is a good thing!

I’d like to leave you with a few new year’s songs. They aren’t all happy, but I feel choices are limited to begin with. Plus, obviously, the following is based on what I could find. I’m sure there are other tunes that would have been worthwhile to include. Plus, I wanted to keep it to a handful only.

Death Cab For Cutie/The New Year

I only know this indie rock band from Bellington, Wa. by name. Credited to all four members of the band at the time, Ben Gibbard (vocals, guitar, piano), Nick Harmer (bass), Chris Walla (guitar) and Jason McGerr (drums), The New Year is the opener of their fourth studio album Transatlanticism from October 2003.

Eagles/Funky New Year

Co-written by Don Henley and Glen Frey in 1978 but apparently not released at the time, Funky New Year was included in the Eagles’ box set Legacy, which appeared in 2018. Groovy!

Otis Redding & Carla Thomas/New Year’s Resolution

How about throwing in some sweet Stax soul music? My kind of music. Here’s New Year’s Resolution by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. Co-written by Randle Catron, Willie Dean “Deanie” Parker and Mary Frierson, the tune was included on a studio album titled King & Queen. It appeared in March 1967 and was Redding’s final album prior to his untimely death in an airplane crash on December 10, 1967.

U2/New Year’s Day

Let’s wrap it up with what’s perhaps my favorite tune related to the new year: New Year’s Day by U2. The Irish rock band recorded it for their third studio album War from February 1983. Like all other tracks on the record, it was credited to U2. Here’s the live version from Under a Bloody Red Sky, released in November 1983, which I’ve always preferred over the studio take.

Happy New Year and be well!

Sources: Google; Wikipedia; YouTube

Of Slides and Bottlenecks

The sound of a well played slide guitar is one of the coolest in music in my opinion. I’ve always loved it. It’s also one of the most challenging techniques that requires great precision and lots of feeling. You can easily be off, which to me is the equivalent of a violin player who hasn’t mastered yet how to properly use the bow or a trumpet player who is still working on their blowing technique – in other words real torture, if you miss!

I thought it would be fun putting together a post that features great slide guitarists from different eras. Before getting to some music, I’d like to give a bit of background on the technique and a very brief history. More specifically, I’m focusing on slide guitar played in the traditional position, i.e., flat against the body, as opposed to lap steel guitar where the instrument is placed in a player’s lap and played with a hand-held bar.

How to Play Slide Guitar - Quickstart Guide | Zing Instruments

Slide guitar is a technique where the fret hand uses a hard object called a slide instead of the fingers to change the pitch of the strings. The slide, which oftentimes is a metal of a glass tube aka “bottle neck,” is fitted on one of the guitarist’s fingers. Holding it against the strings while moving it up and down the fretboard creates glissando or gliding effects and also offers the opportunity to play pronounced vibratos. The strings are typically plucked, not strummed with the other hand.

The technique of holding a hard object against a plucked string goes back to simple one-string African instruments. In turn, these instruments inspired the single-stringed diddley bow, which was developed as a children’s toy by Black slaves in the U.S. It was considered an entry-level instrument played by adolescent boys who once they mastered it would move on to a regular guitar.

Clockwise starting from left in upper row: Sylvester Weaver, Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Brian Jones, Mike Boomfield, Muddy Waters, Duane Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and Derek Trucks

The bottleneck slide guitar technique was popularized by blues musicians in the Mississippi Delta near the beginning of the twentieth century. Country blues pioneer Sylvester Weaver made the first known slide guitar recording in 1923. Robert Nighthawk, Earl Hooker, Elmore James, Muddy Waters and other blues artists popularized the use of slide guitar in the electric blues genre. In turn, they influenced the next generation of blues and rock guitarists like Mike Bloomfield (The Paul Butterfield Blues Band), Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), Duane Allman (The Allman Brothers Band) and Ry Cooder.

Time for some music. Here’s Sylvester Weaver with the instrumental Guitar Blues, one of the earliest slide guitar recordings.

One of the masters of Delta blues who prominently used slide guitar was Robert Johnson. Here’s the amazing Cross Road Blues from 1936 from one of only two recording sessions in which Johnson participated. If you haven’t heard this version but it somehow sounds familiar, chances are you’ve listened to Cream’s cover titled Crossroads.

Are you ready to shake it? Here’s smoking hot Shake Your Money Maker written by Elmore James. James released this classic blues standard in December 1961.

The Rolling Stones were fans of the Chicago blues. One of their blues gems featuring Brian Jones on slide guitar was Little Red Rooster, which they released as a single in the UK in November 1964. It was also included on their third American studio album The Rolling Stones, Now! from February 1965. Written by Willie Dixon, the tune was first recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in October 1961.

Next is Walkin’ Blues, which The Paul Butterfield Blues Band covered on their second studio album East-West from August 1966, featuring Mike Bloomfield on slide guitar. The tune was written by Delta blues artist Son House in 1930.

In May 1969, Muddy Waters released his sixth studio album After the Rain. Here’s slide guitar gem Rollin’ and Tumblin’, which was first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern (gotta love this name!) in 1929. It’s unclear who wrote the tune.

Here’s one of the greatest slide guitarists of all time: Duane Allman with The Allman Brothers Band and One Way Out. This amazing rendition appeared on an expanded version of At Fillmore East released in October 1992. The original edition appeared in July 1971, three months prior to Duane’ deadly motorcycle accident. Co-written by Marshall Sehorn and Elmore James, the tune was first recorded and released in the early to mid-’60s by Sonny Boy Williamson II and James.

A post about slide guitar wouldn’t be complete without the amazing Bonnie Raitt, an artist I’ve dug for many years. Here’s Sugar Mama, a song co-written by Delbert McClinton and Glen Clark, which she recorded for her fifth studio album Home Plate from 1975.

Let’s do two more tracks performed by two additional must-include slide guitar masters. First up is Ry Cooder with Feelin’ Bad Blues, a tune Cooder wrote for the soundtrack of the 1986 picture Crossroads, which was inspired by the life of Robert Johnson. This is a true slide beauty!

Last but not least, here’s Derek Trucks who is considered to be one of the best contemporary slide guitarists. Trucks is best known as an official member of the Allmans from 1999-2014 and as co-founder of the Tedeschi Trucks Band, which he formed together with his wife Susan Tedeschi in 2010. Here’s a great live performance of Desdemona by The Allman Brothers, featuring some amazing slide guitar playing by Trucks. Co-written by Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes, the tune was included on the band’s final studio album Hittin’ the Note that came out in March 2003.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 4: Downfall, Comeback and Last Man Standing

“We didn’t categorize our songs as disco, but then we weren’t thinking that way at all. We were just thinking about writing songs based on the discovery of this falsetto voice and how well that seemed to work.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

By the end of the ’70s, the Bee Gees had become ubiquitous. Saturday Night Fever won Album of the Year at the 1979 Grammy Awards, one of four music awards they scored related to the film. At one point, the Bee Gees and their younger brother Andy Gibb held five of the top 10 spots on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. Perhaps not surprisingly, what goes up, must come down. Or crashing down in this case.

The Bee Gees Are Disco Icons, but Robin Gibb Was Pure Pop - The Atlantic
Bee Gees in 1979 (from left): Robin Gibb, Barry Gibb and Maurice Gibb

Apart from ubiquity, whether they liked it or not, it was the Bee Gees’ close association with disco that triggered their precipitous downfall when disco rapidly declined in popularity by the end of the ’70s and became the subject of outright backlash. More and more radio stations refused to play disco and Bee Gees music. And it got even worse. In the Broken Heart documentary, Maurice Gibb noted, “We had FBI and Secret Service around the airplane every time we landed in a certain place because of the bomb threats. It was scary stuff.”

Essentially, the situation forced the Bee Gees to stop performing as a group. While for their 1981 album Living Eyes, they stylistically turned away from their ’70s albums that had brought them past fame, it only sold 750,000 copies worldwide – not too shabby on the surface but measly compared to 16 million predecessor Spirits Having Flown had generated. Living Eyes stalled at no. 41 in the U.S. and at no. 73 in the UK. Here’s the title track, a co-write by the three brothers.

For the next six years, the Bee Gees largely focused on writing songs for other artists. Barry Gibb worked with Barbara Streisand on her hugely successful 1980 studio album Guilty, which he co-produced and for which he wrote or co-wrote all songs. This included the ballad Woman in Love, which like the album topped the charts in the U.S., UK and many other countries. The title track, written by the three Gibb brothers, also became a hit. Interestingly, the album cover showed a picture of Streisand and Barry Gibb who also sang backing vocals on Guilty.

Additional examples of Bee Gees songs performed by other artists in the 80s include Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick), Islands in the Stream (Dolly Parton & Kenny Rodgers) and the Diana Ross album Eaten Alive. The Gibb brothers also did some solo work during that period. Robin Gibb enjoyed some success with his solo music in Germany.

In 1987, the Bee Gees decided to record a new album, E.S.P., six years after their last unsuccessful studio release. For the first time in 12 years, they also worked again with Arif Mardin, who had produced their mid-’70s album Main Course, the career-defining record that previously revived the group, introducing their R&B-driven dance pop and Barry’s falsetto.

While I’m not sure Mardin had a comparable influence on E.S.P., the album launched another comeback for the Bee Gees. It performed particularly well in Europe, reaching no. 1 in Germany and Switzerland, no. 2 in Austria and no. 5 in the UK. In the U.S., it barely cracked the top 100, stalling at no. 96 on the Billboard 200. Here’s the lead single You Win Again, co-written by all three Gibb brothers like all other tracks on the album.

Then fate hit again. Andy Gibb, who like his older brothers was a music artist and had enjoyed some success in the late ’70s, passed away on March 10, 1988 from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by years of cocaine abuse that had fatally weakened his heart. He was only 30 years old. In addition to drug addiction, Andy had struggled with depression.

Andy’s death delayed the Bee Gees’ next album One. After taking an eight-month break, Barry, Maurice and Robin returned to the studio to finish the album. It appeared in April 1989 and was dedicated to Andy. Here’s the moving tribute Wish You Were Here.

The Bee Gees went on to release four additional studio albums between March 1991 and April 2001. Still Waters, which appeared in March 1997, marked their last triumph. In spite of lukewarm reviews, it became their best-selling album in almost 20 years. Here’s opener Alone, co-written by Barry, Maurice and Robin, which also became the lead single.

The remaining story of the Bee Gees is sad. On January 12, 2003, Maurice Gibb unexpectedly died at the age of 53 due to complications from a twisted intestine, which caused cardiac arrest. While Barry and Robin occasionally performed together thereafter, Maurice’s death ended the Bee Gees. In November 2011, it was announced Robin had been diagnosed with liver cancer. Six months later on May 20, 2012, he passed away. Robin was only 62 years old. Barry Gibb had lost all of his brothers.

In February 2013, Barry kicked off his first solo tour in Australia “in honour of his brothers and a lifetime of music,” as he told British newspaper Express in April 2013. Performing without any of his brothers was extremely challenging, as he noted in the aforementioned article. In the end, things worked out well. “The Australian leg of this tour was a great test of my self-doubt because even though I’ve done solo performances before it wasn’t going to be the same without Robin and Mo,” Barry said. “The opening night in Sydney was incredible. That’s where we grew up so to go back and see people that we knew was therapeutic.”

HOROSCOPE: Sept. 1, 2020
Barry Gibb, September 2020

Gibb has continued to tour over the years. In October 2016, he released his second solo album In the Now, together with his sons Stephen Gibb and Ashley Gibb. Last month, he announced a new solo album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol 1, which is scheduled to appear on January 8, 2021, as reported by JamBase. It includes new recordings of Bee Gees songs like I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, Lonely Days and Jive Talkin’, featuring many guests, such as Jason Isbell, Alison Krauss and Cheryl Crow.

“I think everything we set out to do, we did against all odds. I can’t honestly come to terms with the fact they’re not here anymore. Never been able to do that. I’m always reliving it. It’s always, ‘what would Robin think’, ‘what would Maurice think’ – and Andy. It never goes away. And, what I wanted to say earlier is that I’ve rather have them all back here and no hits at all.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heartdocumentary directed by Frank Marshall; Express; JamBase; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 3: Change in Musical Direction and Singing Style

“They [Atlantic Records] were about to drop us. We had to adopt a new sound. We had to adopt a new attitude.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

At the beginning of 1975, the Bee Gees relocated to Miami. Interestingly, the man who encouraged the move thinking it would help them creatively was none other than Eric Clapton. Not only did Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb and Robin Gibb follow his advice, the entire band lived in the very same house where Clapton had stayed while recording his second solo album 461 Ocean Boulevard.

BeeGeesLove_4649 on Twitter: "The #BrothersGibb with producer Arif Mardin.  #BeeGees #BarryGibb #MauriceGibb #RobinGibb #family #siblings #brothers  #musicians #singers #songwriters #composers #artists #legends #tbt…  https://t.co/DTl1WnKLbH"
The Bee Gees with Arif Marden (from left): Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Arif Marden and Robin Gibb

The Bee Gees worked with Atlantic producer Arif Marden, who had also produced their previous album Mr. Natural, and engineer Karl Richardson at Criteria Studios in Miami. Initially, the Gibb brothers started writing songs in their old, more ballad-oriented way. When their manager Robert Stigwood heard the tunes, he urged them to adopt more of an R&B style. With Marden, who had worked with Aretha Franklin and other R&B artists, they had the right producer.

The result was Main Course, the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album released in June 1975. In addition to listening to contemporary R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Marden had encouraged the use of synthesizers and dual bass lines to create a more technological sound. When they were working on Nights on Broadway, Marden also suggested to the band to add some background parts to the song like a screaming. This is when Barry came up with repeating lines of the tune sung in falsetto. The singing of the Bee Gees would be changed forever.

Nights on Broadway and Jive Talkin‘ catapulted the Bee Gees back to the top of the charts, especially in the U.S. where the tunes hit no. 1 and no. 7, respectively, and Canada (no. 1 and no. 2, respectively).

“The way they changed and the groove they got into there was so profound. If that was something that was initiated by me, I can’t think of any… that’s one of the great things I’ve done in my life. I’ll take full credit!” (Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

The group’s next album Children of the World was characterized by Barry’s falsetto and synthesizer sounds. And it brought more chart success. You Should be Dancing became another no. 1 single in the U.S. and Canada. Children of the World also did very well on both countries’ albums charts, peaking at no. 8 and no. 3, respectively. By contrast, the reception was cool in the UK where the album failed to chart.

The Bee Gees were on the up. They went to even bigger heights with their next project: their involvement in the creation of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The Gibb brothers wrote five new songs for it that all became hits: Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever, More Than a Woman and If I Can’t Have You. The soundtrack also included their previously released tunes Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing.

With 40 million copies sold worldwide, Saturday Night Fever is one of the best-selling albums in history and the second-best selling soundtrack of all time. The album is also credited with prolonging the mainstream appeal of disco. Notably, the Bee Gees never saw themselves as a disco band, even though critics, media and other artists called them “Kings of Disco.” While there’s no doubt Bee Gees tunes from that period included elements of disco and were very danceable, they also were strongly influenced by R&B. Here’s the excellent Night Fever – love that smooth funky sound.

After Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were on top of the world. So perhaps it’s not a surprise their next studio album Spirits Having Flown became another major success producing more no. 1 singles. Here’s one of them ironically titled what was ahead when disco not only lost its luster but led to outright hostility: Tragedy.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart – documentary directed by Frank Marshall; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 2: Rise to International Fame

“You can’t deny talent. And the talent was so obvious.” (Robert Stigwood, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

Prior to leaving Australia for England, Hugh Gibb, the father of Barry, Maurice and Robin and their manager at the time, had sent some demos to Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Epstein passed on the tapes to Australian born expatriate Robert Stigwood who had recently joined NEMS, a music store directed by Epstein. Stigwood liked what he heard, and after an audition in February 1967, the Bee Gees got a 5-year deal with Polydor Records to oversee their releases in the UK, while Atco Records would handle U.S. distribution.

Before going to the studio, Vince Melouney (lead guitar) and Colin Petersen (drums) joined the group. In July 1967, the Bee Gees released their first international album titled Bee Gees’ 1st. Stigwood launched an aggressive promotional campaign boldly declaring the Bee Gees were the “most significant new musical talent of 1967.” Lead single New York Mining Disaster 1941 became another hit, reaching no. 12 in the UK and peaking at no. 14 in the U.S. Co-written by Barry Gibb and Robin Gibb, the stunning tune became a top 10 in New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany, where it reached no. 3, no. 4 and no. 10, respectively.

Bee Gees’ 1st also featured another classic: To Love Somebody, which was co-written by Barry and Robin as well. It also became the album’s second single in June 1967. While it almost matched the chart performance of the predecessor in the U.S. where it peaked at no. 17, it was less successful in the UK, reaching no. 41 there.

Only three months after To Love Somebody, the Bee Gees released another gem that became their first no. 1 single in the UK: (The Lights Went Out In) Massachusetts. The beautiful tune, co-written by the three Gibb brothers, also topped the charts in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria, and peaked at no. 2 in Switzerland, Ireland and Australia. The Bee Gees had fully arrived on the international scene.

1968 saw the first trips to the U.S., including an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in March, as well as tours to Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. The Bee Gees also scored their second no. 1 in the UK with I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, released in September that year. Co-written by all three brothers, the tune climbed to no. 8 in the U.S. and also was a hit in many other countries.

While the Bee Gees had achieved significant international success, not all was well and things would soon unravel. By 1969, Robin began to sense that Robert Stigwood was favoring Barry as the group’s frontman. Following the release of the next studio album Odessa in March 1969, Robin left to launch a solo career. Barry, Maurice and Colin Petersen went on to record the Bee Gees’ next album Cucumber Castle. Vince Melouney had left the group in 1968.

In December 1969, Barry and Maurice parted ways as well. They each worked on solo albums that didn’t appear. Meanwhile, Robin released his solo debut Robin’s Reign in February 1970 and had a no. 2 single in the UK, Saved by the Bell. But the brothers realized they needed other and reunited later that year. In November 1970, the Bee Gees’ next studio album 2 Years On came out. Here’s the record’s single Lonely Days co-written by all three brothers.

The Bee Gees’ next studio album Trafalgar, which came out in the U.S. in September and in the UK in November 1971, brought mixed success. While lead single How Can You Mend a Broken Heart became the group’s first no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, the album only reached no. 34 on the Billboard 200 and did not chart in the UK at all. By 1973, chart success had largely become elusive. After touring the U.S. and Canada in 1974, the Bee Gees found themselves playing small clubs in England. Something needed to happen to reignite the group. A change in musical direction and singing style would open their next chapter.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Bee Gees – Part 1: The Beginnings

“When I think about it now, I think about how it all sort of all started. We just had this dream. And we thought, well, what do we wanna be famous for? It turns out it was the songwriting.” (Barry Gibb, Miami 2019). I would humbly add some of the most amazing three-part harmonies I’ve ever heard! I was reminded of this the other night when watching the documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart on HBO Max. The film about the highs and lows of brothers Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb and Robin Gibb spontaneously inspired this four-part feature.

The story of the Bee Gees starts in 1955 in Manchester, England, when 9-year-old Barry Gibb (guitar, vocals) and his younger brothers 6-year-old Maurice Gibb (vocals) and 6-year-old Robin Gibb (vocals), who are fraternal twins, formed skiffle and rock & roll group The Rattlesnakes, together with their friends and neighbors Paul Frost (drums) and Kenny Horrocks (tea-chest bass).

In December 1957, the brothers were going to lip-sync to a record at a local cinema, just like other kids had done there before. But on the way to the venue, the fragile shellac 78-RPM record broke, forcing them to sing live and in harmony – possibly one of the best accidents they ever had. Encouraged by the audience’s positive reception, Barry, Maurice and Robin knew what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives: singing together professionally.

Fight to save Bee Gees debut venue raises £250k - BBC News
The Rattlesnakes

In May 1958, Forst and Horrocks left, which put an end to The Rattlesnakes. But determined to pursue a career in music, the Gibb brothers immediately formed a new group, Wee Johnny Hayes and the Blue Cats. Only three months later, their family emigrated to the metropolitan area of Brisbane, Australia. But that didn’t stop the three brothers who soon started performing locally. In 1960, they met speedway driver and promoter Bill Good who hired them to entertain the audience at the local Redcliffe Speedway in 1960.

Good also introduced the boys to Brisbane radio-presenter jockey Bill Gates. It was Gates who came up with the name ‘BGs’ after his, Good’s and Barry Gibbs’ initials, which was later changed to Bee Gees. The Bee Gees started to appear on TV shows and perform at resorts on the Queensland coast. After Barry presented some of his songs to Col Joye, an Australian pioneer rock artist, Joye helped the Bee Gees get a deal with Leedon Records, a subsidiary of Festival Records in 1963.

In March 1963, the Bee Gees released their debut single The Battle of the Blue and the Grey. Written by Barry Gibb, the country-oriented tune made it into the Australian charts, placing at no. 98.

The Bee Gees continued releasing two to three singles a year, while Barry also kept writing songs for other artists. In November 1965, their debut album The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs appeared. It was largely a compilation of their previous singles. One of the new songs was the opener I Was a Lover, a Leader of Men.

The early releases by the Bee Gees lacked commercial success, and by 1966, their record company was on the verge of dropping them. At that time, the Gibb brothers met Nat Kipner, who had just been appointed A&R manager of Spin Records, a new independent label. Kipner not only successfully managed the Bee Gees’ transfer to Spin but also introduced them to engineer and producer Ossie Byrne. Through Byrne, the Gibb brothers gained generous access to his own small, self-built St Clair Studio. Over several months in mid-1966, the Bee Gees recorded a large amount of original songs there.

Disillusioned by their lack of success in Australia, Barry, Maurice and Robin decided to return to England, hoping they could be more successful there. While at sea in January 1967, they found out that Spicks and Specks, one of the tunes they had recorded at St Clair Studio, had been named Best Single of the Year by Australia’s most popular and influential music newspaper Go-Set.

Spicks and Specks hit no. 1 and no. 2 in New Zealand and the Netherlands, respectively, and climbed to no. 5 on the Australian charts. The Bee Gees had scored their first hit. England would bring them international fame.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heartdocumentary directed by Frank Marshall; YouTube

Where the Blues Crosses Over

For more than 25 years, the independent German label Ruf Records has been a remarkable force for blues music

When blogging about music, it’s about the artists and their work first and foremost- seems obvious! Sometimes, I also like to get a bit nerdy and write about gear. What I rarely do is paying attention to music labels with a few exceptions like Stax or Motown. In fact, oftentimes, I don’t even bother to mention on which label an album was released.

One name that has kept popping up for contemporary blues is Ruf Records (pronounced “roof”). I noticed it again just yesterday while compiling my latest Best of What’s New installment that included blues rock artist Jeremiah Johnson whose latest album Unemployed Highly Annoyed appeared on Ruf Records.

Like the majority of Ruf’s roster of current artists, Johnson is an American musician. Yet Ruf isn’t located say in Chicago or anywhere else in the U.S. for that matter. London? Nope. Ruf is based in Lindewerra, a picturesque German village with a whopping 256 inhabitants (as of 2019) in the region of Thuringia, which used to be part of the former German Democratic Republic. I had to look that geographic location.

Lindewerra, location of Ruf Records

Germany and the blues? Not to mention a tiny village? That’s not the most obvious association, in my opinion. Or how about the fact the founding of this independent label in 1994 was connected to Luther Allison? Finally, Ruf got my attention.

This is how the label’s website describes how Ruf came about, from the perspective of founder Thomas Ruf. While they may have embellished it a bit, it’s just a wonderful story that would be perfect for a movie: It all started in the Black Forest, late at night, when it seems all great things begin. There in a small village bar, with the doors locked, window shades rolled down, an after- hours party was happening inside. Blues great, Luther Allison was jamming with a bunch of eighty-year old Black Forest folklore musicians.

I was young, lucky and overwhelmed by the communicating power of music. I left the farm to pay my dues as a concert promoter, agent and manager. Soon I collaborated with Allison, eventually becoming his representative on the European side of the world.

I was a student learning from a man who traveled the rocky blues road for more than thirty years. It became apparent that relationships between artists and record companies can be frustrating for the artists, with companies lacking enthusiasm and understanding of the music. So management had a baby and it was named Ruf Records. Born of the need and love to promote what we believe in… the communicating power of music.

Ruf Records founder Thomas Ruf with Cyril Neville

Based on this March 2012 post from the Blues.Gr, the above events happened in the late 1980s when Thomas Ruf started working in the music business as a European tour promoter. Ruf and Allison became friends and, eventually, Ruf started to represent the blues artist in Europe. In 1994, Allison who lived in Paris, France at the time, found himself without a label and a publisher. Apparently, that’s what triggered the formation of Ruf Records.

Fast-forward some 26 years and you’re looking at an independent label with an impressive roster of artists. Apart from Luther Allison and Jeremiah Johnson, the current and former line-up includes Canned Heat, Spooky Tooth, Walter Trout, Ana Popovic, Samantha Fish, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Jane Lee Hooker. Following, I’d like to highlight some music by some of the label’s current artists. Occasionally, the label ventures beyond the blues.

Ally Venable/White Flag

Ally Marie Venable is a 21-year-old blues rock guitarist and singer-songwriter from Kilgore, Texas. She released her debut EP Wise Man in 2013 at the age of 14. White Flag is from her third and most recent full-length album Texas Honey, which according to this Rock & Blues Muse review appeared in March 2019 and features Mike Zito and Eric Gales, among other guests.

Bette Smith/Fistful of Dollars

According to her website, Bette Smith is a rock and soul singer who grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her 2017 debut Jetlagger received rave reviews from the likes of NPR, American Songwriter, MOJO and The New York Times. Fistful of Dollars is the tasteful, funky opener of Smith’s new album The Good, The Bad and the Bette released on September 25.

Ghalia/Release Me

Ghalia Volt, who hails from Brussels, Belgium, is a natural-born rock star with the leather jacket and wicked grin, leaning from her album sleeve to offer you a hit on her hip flask, her website confidently states. Six years ago, Ghalia was a best-kept secret, her days spent busking on the streets of the Belgium capital, her nights shaking the city’s blues clubs. But as a die-hard R&B and blues fan, the singer-songwriter found the siren call of America too strong to resist. Visiting Chicago, Memphis and Nashville, Ghalia’s livewire talent saw her embraced by the musical motherland and elevated to headliner status. Release Me is a track written by Ghalia, which appears on her sophomore album Mississippi Blend from September 2019. And, yes, that lady is a rock star!

Whitney Shay/Stand Up!

According to Apple Music’s artist profile, Whitney Shay is a blues, soul and jump R&B singer-songwriter from San Diego, Calif. Her debut album Soul Tonic came out in 2012. She has since released two additional albums and received four San Diego Music Awards including Artist of the Year for her sophomore release A Woman Rules the World from 2018. Stand Up!, co-written by Shay and Adam J. Eros, is the soulful funky title track of Shay’s third studio album released in February this year.

Bernard Allison/Crusin for a Bluesin

Bernard Allison, who is based in Paris, France, is a blues guitarist and the son of Luther Allison. Though you’d perhaps think otherwise, Bernard taught himself how to play guitar as a child while his father was touring all over the world. While his old man wisely demanded that Bernard remain in school, he supported his music ambitions. Eventually, Bernard became part of Luther’s band and a musical collaborator. His European solo debut The Next Generation appeared in 1990. His first U.S. album Keepin’ the Blues Alive was released in 1997. Cruisin for a Bluesin is the groovy opener of Allison’s most recent studio album Let It Go from February 2018.

Jeremiah Johnson/Burn Down the Garden

Since it was Johnson and his new album that triggered this post, it felt appropriate to include the St. Louis-based guitarist and singer-songwriter, who according to his website merged Texas style with STL blues to create the unique sound you hear today.  Here’s another great tune from his new album Unemployed Highly Annoyed: Opener Burn Down the Garden, written by Johnson, which sounds more like southern flavored country rock than blues.

Michael Lee/Praying for Rain

Michael Lee is a blues guitarist from Fort Worth, Texas. Here’s more from his his website: Raised around blues music his entire life, Michael spent the majority of his young life in blues clubs receiving an ivy league education from watching and playing with blues legends such as Andrew “Jr Boy” Jones (Freddie King), Buddy Whittington (John Mayall), Lucky Peterson (Willie Dixon). On nights he was not in the blues clubs he was down in the stockyards soaking in the Country sounds which emanated from those honky tonks. Like Delbert McClinton and many Fort Worth musicians before him, Michael’s style of music has the perfect blend of Blues and Country. Praying for Rain, written by Lee, is from his eponymous sophomore album released in June 2019.

Ryan Perry/Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone

Let’s do one more. Ryan Perry, who hails from Mississippi, has established himself as leader of the award-winning Homemade Jamz Blues Band since 2007. According to his profile on Ruf, Although still in his twenties, Perry has the soul, scars and war stories to rival the most hard-bitten road dog. In March this year, Perry released his solo debut album High Risk, Low Reward. Here’s the tasty opener Ain’t Afraid to Eat Alone, which like most other tracks on the album was penned by Perry.

Ruf Records’ story looks impressive. Apart from its artist roster, some 300 albums have appeared on this independent label to date. In 2007, Ruf Records received the Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tenn. According to Wikipedia, they also got nominations for two Grammy Awards and 10 Blues Music Awards, and that’s as of 2008.

In an undated interview on Ruf’s website, Thomas Ruf explained the label’s philosophy as follows: “It’s right there in our motto: ‘Where The Blues Crosses Over’. We want to produce the blues of tomorrow, not just re-record the blues of yesterday, and that’s why we work with some of the bravest and most visionary artists around. People often ask me why Ruf has such a devoted following, but really it’s our artists – the Ruf Records family – who create that. Our role is to help them. To succeed in this business, it’s about working hard and being honest all the time. Speak the truth. Strive for quality in everything you do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Ruf Records website; Blues.Gr; Rock & Blues Muse; Bette Smith website; Apple Music; Michael Lee website; YouTube

In Appreciation of German Radio and TV Personality Frank Laufenberg

Moderator, journalist and author is a distinguished rock and pop expert who has influenced my music journey

This post was inspired by fellow blogger msjadeli who writes the Tao Talk blog. Msjadeli is a true music lover who frequently likes to discuss the subject. She also writes about it. Just yesterday, she published this post about “the Friday Song”, played on 97 WLAV FM, a Grand Rapids, Mich. radio station that became part of her music journey. This led to a discussion about radio DJs and how they can impact us. It reminded me of my radio days while growing up back in Germany in the ’70s and ’80s and one host, a pop and rock connoisseur who introduced me to lots of music from the ’50s and ’60s: Frank Laufenberg.

In previous posts, I acknowledged several people who had a major influence on my music journey, sometimes unknowingly: my six-year-older sister and her vinyl collection that, among others, included timeless gems like Carole King’s Tapestry, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu, all albums I love to this day; my grandfather, a music professor and piano teacher who was thrilled when I told my parents I wanted to learn the guitar, and payed for most of my instruments; and my guitar and bass teacher who really got me into The Beatles and, of course, taught me how to play both instruments. Yesterday’s discussion made me realize the one person that’s missing is Laufenberg. Acknowledging him is overdue.

Frank Laufenberg in his home studio

Frank Laufenberg was born on January 2, 1945 in the East German small town of Lebus. He grew up in Cologne where he started his professional career at record label EMI Electrola, working in A&R from 1967 to 1970. In 1970, while accompanying an artist to an interview at SWF3, he met Walther Krause, who created and oversaw a then-new radio show called Pop-Shop and offered Laufenberg a trial period as moderator. It would turn out to be a career-changing encounter.

The artist (I don’t remember who it was) did the interview,” recalls Laufenberg in this short online background section on the website of Internet radio station PopStop, one of his current professional homes. “Afterwards, I went to the boss of Pop-Shop, to Walther Krause, to politely thank him, and he asked me how I thought the interview went. ‘If I had recorded it with the artist, it would have been better for him, for me and the listeners’, I replied. And Krause went: ‘If you feel you could do better than the current moderator, why don’t you give a try for a week?’ Evidently, Laufenberg didn’t lack confidence!

Frank Laufenberg’s Rock and Pop Almanach

A week turned into many years, and Laufenberg became a key moderator at SWF3, a popular mainstream radio station on regional TV and radio network Südwestfunk. In addition to Pop-Shop, one of the other shows Laufenberg moderated at SWF3 was Oldies on Sunday nights. To the best of my recollection, the program aired from 9:00 pm to 11:00 pm. That’s the show through which Laufenberg introduced me to a lot of ’50s and ’60s music, really helping me establish a deeper appreciation for music from these decades. I’ll get back to that later.

In the ’80s, Laufenberg also moderated various television shows for regional networks Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) and Südwestfunk. On the latter, this included an excellent live music program called Ohne Filter (literal translation: without filter). In September 1990, Laufenberg started moderating programs on privately owned channel Sat1. Idiotically, this led SWF3 to terminate him with the stupid explanation Laufenberg could not work for public broadcast while also moderating programs for a private channel. Subsequently, he worked at various other private and public channels.

Some of my old music cassettes with music taped from SWF3 Oldies show

In 2013, Laufenberg founded the above mentioned internet radio station PopStop, where he is a moderator to this day. Since April 2018, he also hosts two shows on SR 3 Saarlandwelle, a radio channel on regional broadcast network Saarländischer Rundfunk. In addition to having worked as a radio and TV moderator, Laufenberg has published various music-related books, perhaps most notably Frank Laufenbergs Rock- und Pop Lexikon, which also has been published in English as Rock und Pop Diary.

Now it’s time for some music. Let’s start with the above noted SWF3 Oldies show. Obviously, I don’t have YouTube clips from actual program episodes. But, as you can see in the above photo, I still have music cassettes with songs I taped from the program. So I guess the closest I can offer is YouTube clips of some of the songs that are on these tapes. Unfortunately, when I started taping music on MCs, I didn’t note dates. This tells me these MCs must be from the late ’70s/early ’80s. Here’s a tune from the earliest SWF3 Oldies MC I could find: I’m Into Something Good, co-written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and popularized by Herman’s Hermits in 1964 – a tune I’ve always dug.

I’m fairly certain the first time I heard Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee was on Laufenberg’s SWF3 Oldies. The classic was released as a single in 1959.

Here’s another track that has become one of my all-time favorite ’60s tune with a killer guitar riff: Oh, Pretty Woman by Roy Orbison, the rocker with an opera voice. Co-written by him and Bill Dees, the song first appeared as a single in 1964. It was also included on the compilation album Orbisongs (clever title!) from November 1965.

Here’s one more tune I taped from the show: The Rolling Stones’ version of Under the Boardwalk. The song was co-written by Kenny Young and Arthur Resnick and first recorded by The Drifters in 1964. The Stones included their rendition, the first version of the song I heard, on their sophomore studio album 12 X 5, which appeared in October 1964.

The last clip I’d like to feature is from the above noted Ohne Filter TV show Laufenberg moderated: Excellent English guitarist Chris Rea and his tune Josephine, which received lots of radio play on (radio station) SWF3 when it came out. The song is from Rea’s seventh studio album Shamrock Diaries, which was released in December 1984. The footage is from a 1986 episode of Ohne Filter Extra I watched at the time.

The last word shall belong to Frank Laufenberg. Here’s a translation of what he says on the PopStop website about the internet radio station: PopStop – das Musikradio’ wants to bring back variety to radio, variety that’s not only missing to me. We can’t reinvent radio – but we can bring back the good aspects it had. Content that predated the days of “Radio GaGa.” As Queen correctly warned in 1984: ‘Radio – don’t become some background noise’. That’s what it unfortunately has become. But Queen also sing: ‘Radio what’s new? Radio, someone still loves you’. ‘PopStop’ will appeal to exactly these lovers of radio and those who are interested in music. We’re always happy about new listeners and would appreciate if you could recommend us.

Yours Frank Laufenberg

Sources: Wikipedia; PopStop website; YouTube