Baby, You Can Drive My Car, and Yes, You’re Gonna Be a Star!

Since my recent post about Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman, the above creatively borrowed and somewhat adjusted phrase had been stuck in my head, just like the catchy song. The first part of the statement is true, the second half is perhaps debatable. But while this British rock band only had one real hit, there’s no doubt in my mind Thunderclap Newman was more than just a one-hit-wonder.

As a fan of The Who, I’m intrigued by Pete Townshend’s role in the band’s history – in fact, without Townshend, there would have been no Thunderclap Newman. He brought the band’s core members together in late 1968/early 1969: Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Speedy Keen (born John David Percy Keen), Dixieland jazz pianist Thunderclap Newman (born Andrew Lawrence Newman) and lead guitarist Jimmy McCulloch (born James McCulloch). They are pictured in that order from left to right in the above photo.

Something in the Air Single

Interestingly, prior to the band’s formation, Keen had been The Who’s chauffeur and shared an apartment with Townshend. He also had written Armenia In the Sky, the opener to The Who’s third studio album The Who Sell Out from December 1967. Apparently, Townshend was impressed with the songwriting talents of Keen who had played in different bands since 1964, so he decided to introduce him to Newman and McCulloch. Townshend was also instrumental in getting the band a contract with Track Records, an independent label established by The Who’s managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp.

The first song Thunderclap Newman recorded was their big hit Something in the Air written by Keen. The sessions took place at Townshend’s home studio. He also produced the single and played bass on the recording under the pseudonym Bijou Drains. Released in May 1969, Something in the Air topped the UK Singles Chart only three weeks after its appearance, replacing The Beatles’ Ballad of John and Yoko. The tune’s original title was Revolution, but it was changed because The Beatles already had a song with that title, which had come out in 1968.

Thunderclap Newman_Hollywood Dream

Following the success of Something in the Air, an initially reluctant Thunderclap Newman agreed to go on the road. They brought in Jim Pitman-Avery (bass) and Jack McCulloch (drums), Jimmy’s older brother, to support Deep Purple on a 26-date tour of England and Scotland from July to August 1969. After the tour, Pitman-Avery and Jack McCulloch exited and formed country-rock band Wild Country, leaving Thunderclap Newman with their three core members. Keen, Newman and McCulloch went back into the studio and recorded Hollywood Dream, their only studio album.

Like Something in the Air, Townshend played a key role, producing Hollywood Dream and again playing bass under the name of Bijou Drains. And while the final track Something in the Air undoubtedly is the hit, there are other gems on this album. Let’s kick things off with the nice opener Hollywood #1, which like most of the other tracks was written by Keen.

Here’s Open the Door Homer, a great cover of a Bob Dylan song. If I see it correctly, Dylan did not release the tune until 1975 when he included it on The Basement Tapes, a collection of tracks he had recorded in 1967, mostly with backing by The Band. In particular, I dig Keen’s singing on this tune.

Next up: Accidents, another original tune written by Keen. There’s a lot going on in this more than nine-minute track, including some great piano and guitar work. In fact, as much as I dig Something in the AirAccidents is the album’s tue standout to me. A shorter version was released separately and peaked at no. 46 on the UK Singles Chart in June 1970, becoming Thunderclap Newman’s only other single to make the charts.

The last song I’d like to call out is the title track. To readers who know my affection for vocals, it may come as a bit of a surprise that I chose to highlight an instrumental. Well, it’s not that I don’t like instrumentals – after all, I’m a big fan of Pink Floyd’s ’70s albums that are filled with instrumental parts. But after a while, I simply feel the need to hear some vocals! In part, I also chose Hollywood Dream since it was co-written by the McCulloch brothers, making it the only original that wasn’t penned by Keen. BTW, Jimmy McCulloch was only 15 years when he recorded this tune with the band.

In early 1971, Thunderclap Newman brought in Australian musicians Roger Felice (drums) and Ronnie Peel (bass) to create a new touring lineup. This was followed by another tour with Deep Purple through England and Scotland between January and April 1971. And then it was suddenly all over for the band. Why? Referencing a 1972 interview Newman gave to the New Musical Express (now known as NME), Wikipedia hints to personal friction between Newman and Keen. It’s unfortunate when egos clash, but certainly not unheard of, especially in music!

Keen went on to record two solo albums, Previous Convictions (1973) and Y’ Know Wot I Mean? (1975), and also played as a session musician with Rod Stewart, The Mission and Kenny G. Sadly, he passed away from heart failure at the age of 62 on March 12, 2002.

Newman also recorded a solo album, Rainbow, which appeared in 1971. Other than that he was “was musically dormant and worked as an electrician, until he put together a new version of Thunderclap Newman in 2010,” according to an obituary in The Guardian. In addition to Newman, the band’s new line-up featured Tony Stubbings (bass), Nick Johnson (lead guitar), Mark Brzezicki (drums) and Pete Townshend’s nephew Josh Townshend (rhythm guitar and vocals). Shortly thereafter, the band released Beyond Hollywood, an album of studio and live tracks of old Thunderclap Newman songs. In 2011, they toured the UK with Big Country. The last two gigs listed on the band’s official website are from 2012. Newman died on March 29, 2016 at the age of 73.

Jimmy McCulloch formed his own group in October 1971 and also played guitar in various other bands, most importantly Paul McCartney’s Wings, which he joined in August 1974. After exiting Wings in September 1977, McCullogh joined the reformed Small Faces. Another own band and a few additional stints followed. On September 27, 1979, McCulloch was found dead, apparently having died from a heart attack attributed to morphine and alcohol poisoning. He was only 26 years old.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Guardian; YouTube

You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

This is it, Baby: Time For Bringing in a Brand New Year

At the stroke of midnight
On that great big holiday
We’re going to have a ball, and that ain’t all
I’m gonna chase my blues away

What could possibly be a better way than ending the year on a high note? Of course, there’s lots of great music but there was only one B.B. King. And while the blues and happiness may sound contradictory, I just love the blues, the man and Lucille, so here’s Bringing in a Brand New Year. Plus, this tune nicely illustrates the blues can also be a happy affair!

Co-written by Charles Brown and Gene Redd, Bringing In A Brand New Year appeared on King’s holiday studio album A Christmas Celebration of Hope released in November 2001. While according to Wikipedia’s tally, incredibly, it was one of only four of King’s records that topped the U.S. Blues chart, it earned him two Grammy awards in 2003: Best Traditional Blues Album (shared with recording engineer Anthony Daigle and John Holbrook for mixing) and Best Pop Instrumental Performance for Auld Lang Syne, the album’s closer.

I’ll be bringin’ in a brand new year
Bringin’ in a brand new year
So listen dear, won’t you meet me here
While I’m bringin’ in a brand new year

To all blog visitors – frequent, occasional and first-time – wherever you may be, I’d like to wish all of you a happy and healthy new year, and may the best be yet to come, in music and otherwise!

Cheers!

David McWilliams: Days of Pearly Spencer

I have no idea how Days of Pearly Spencer suddenly popped into my mind the other day. After listening to the tune, I just couldn’t get it out of my head again. The song’s haunting lyrics about a homeless man stay with you. At the same time, the string arrangement is weirdly catchy, and the recording of the chorus through a telephone line is memorable as well.

Days of Pearly Spencer was written by David McWilliams and first appeared in October 1967. I don’t know any other songs by McWilliams, who was a singer-songwriter from Nothern Ireland. Interestingly, the tune’s initial release was as the B-side to Harlem Lady, a single from his eponymous sophomore album. BTW, that string arrangement came from producer Mike Leander, who also provided orchestral arrangements for The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home and Marianne Faithful’s version of As Tears Go By.

David McWilliams

While Days of Pearly Spencer did not chart in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, it became a success in continental Europe, where it topped the French charts, hit no. 2 in Belgium and climbed to no. 8 in The Netherlands. Because of Major Minor label executive Phil Solomon’s involvement with pirate radio station Radio Caroline, where the song received substantial exposure, the BBC refused to play it, effectively dooming its chances to chart in the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland.

In one of those sad stories of the music business, McWilliams apparently never profited from what was his best-known song. A cover by Marc Almond released in 1992 rose to no. 4 on the U.K. charts and peaked at no. 8 in Ireland. McWilliams suddenly passed away from a heart attack on January 8, 2002.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Multi-Part Harmonies And Seductive Grooves – The Magic Of The Temptations

When it comes to vocal groups, I can’t think of a more compelling example than The Temptations. Their perfect multi-part harmonies have impressed me from the very first moment I heard them sometime during my early teenage years. I was reminded of The Temptations’ mighty singing while listening to a Christmas playlist yesterday that includes their beautiful rendition of Silent Night. Since I’m a huge fan of great harmony vocals, I decided a tribute post was an order.

The story of The Temptations began in Detroit in 1960 when members of two other vocal bands formed a group called The Elgins: Otis Williams, Elbridge “Al” Bryant and Melvin Franklin of Otis Williams & the Distants, and Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams who came from a group called The Primes. Following an audition in March 1961, an impressed Berry Gordy signed the group to Motown imprint Miracle Records. However, there was one problem. The name Elgins was already taken by another band. According to Wikipedia, Miracle Records employee Billy Mitchell, songwriter Mickey Stevenson, Otis Williams and Paul Williams came up with the idea to call the group The Temptations.

In April 1961, the group released their debut single Oh, Mother of Mine. Co-written by Otis Williams and Mickey Stevenson, who also produced the track, the tune was not successful. Neither were the following seven singles The Temptations released. In January 1964, Al Bryant was replaced by David Ruffin, marking the start of “The Classic Five” era that would turn the group into superstars. In the meantime, Smokey Robinson had become their producer, and it was one of his tunes that became the group’s first no. 1 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts: My Girl, released in December 1964. Every time I hear that song, I got sunshine, no matter how cloudy my day may be. By the way, that cool bass intro is played by the amazing James Jamerson. Feel free to snip and groove along!

While it would take The Temptations another four and a half years before scoring their second double no. 1 on the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, they released plenty of other hits in the meantime, many of which topped the Hot R&B Singles. Here’s one of my favorites: Get Ready, another tune written and produced by Smokey Robinson. I was going to feature an audio clip of the track but couldn’t resist using the below footage instead, which was captured during a TV appearance in 1966. The song appeared in February that year. Even though none of the singing and music are live, just watching the dance choreography of these guys and the female backing dancers is priceless!

And then the era of The Classic Five came to an end after success and fame apparently had gotten to David Ruffin’s head. His behavior led to friction with the other members of the group, and The Temptations ended up firing him on June 27, 1968. The very next day, he was replaced by Dennis Edwards, a former member of The Contours. The new line-up became what some called the group’s “second classic line-up.” But more changes were in store.

Norman Whitfield took over as producer, and The Temptations started adopting a more edgy sound, influenced by contemporaries like Sly & The Family Stone and Funkadelic. The group’s four-year psychedelic soul period kicked off with their ninth studio album Cloud Nine from February 1969. The record climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and brought the group their first Grammy Award in the category Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance, Vocal or Instrumental. Here’s Run Away Child, Running Wild, a co-write by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. A shorter version of the tune was also released separately as a single and became another no. 1 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here’s the full album version. That’s one hell of a hot funky tune!

Even though The Temptations had come a long way from their oftentimes romantic songs that marked their early years, the group did not entirely abandon sweet ballads. Here’s one of the most beautiful in my opinion, released in January 1971: Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me). Evidently, the public liked it as well. The song became the group’s third and last to top both the Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts. Interestingly, it was written by the same guys who penned Runaway Child, Running Wild. Perhaps appropriately, the track also appeared on an album called Sky’s The Limit. Damn, these guys could harmonize – it’s pure perfection and actually no imagination!

Writing about The Temptations’ psychedelic soul era wouldn’t be complete without including another epic tune: Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett gem. Initially, it was recorded and released as a single in May 1972 by another Motown act called The Undisputed Truth – something I had not known until I did some research for this post. While their original is pretty cool, I still prefer The Temptations’ version. Interestingly, it hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 but “only” peaked at no. 5 on the Hot R&B Singles chart. Here it is in its full 12-minute glory!

By the time of the release of 1990 in December 1973, The Temptations had become tired of psychedelic soul and wanted to move back to their more upbeat style and lyrics of the ’60s. The album turned out to be the final record produced by Whitfield. January 1975 saw the release of the group’s next studio album A Song For You. Wikipedia lists a hodge-podge of producers, including Berry Gordy, Jeffrey Bowen, James Anthony Carmichael, Suzy Wendy Ikeda, Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford. The record was the group’s last to top the Billboard Hot R&B LPs chart. It also featured their two last no. 1 singles on the Hot R&B Singles chart, Happy People and Shakey Ground. Here’s the latter, a nice groovy tune co-written by Jeffrey Bowen, Alphonso Boyd and Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who also played lead guitar on the track.

Following A Song For You, success dried up. After the release of The Temptations Do The Temptations in August 1976, the group left Motown and signed with Atlantic Records. That didn’t change their trajectory, and after two albums, they returned to Motown in 1980. Two years later, they reunited with co-founder Eddie Kendricks and “Classic Five” era member David Ruffin for a tour, during which they recorded a studio album appropriately titled Reunion. Released in April 1982, the record marked a comeback of sorts, peaking at no. 2 on the Hot R&B LPs and a respectable no. 37 on the Billboard 200. Here’s opener Standing On The Top, a funk tune written and produced by Rick James, who also contributed vocals and clavinet.

While success has largely eluded them since Reunion, The Temptations have released 17 additional studio albums. The most recent, All The Time, appeared in 2018. Here’s Stay With Me, a cover of the beautiful pop soul tune by English songwriter and vocalist Sam Smith. In fact, when I heard this version for the first time, I thought it was Smith together with The Temptations, but apparently it’s not. The tune is credited to Smith, James Napier and William Phillips, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, following a legal settlement. After the song’s release, Petty’s published had noticed a similarity to I Won’t Back Down and reached out to Smith’s team.

Altogether, The Temptations have had an impressive 14 chart-toppers on the Hot R&B LPs, including eight in a row between March 1965 and February 1969 – I suspect this must be a record. The group also scored 14 no. 1 hits on the Hot R&B Singles chart and topped the Hot 100 chart four times. In 1989, The Temptations (Dennis Edwards, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, David Ruffin, Otis Williams and Paul Williams) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone has ranked them at no. 68 on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

The Temptations are active to this day, with Otis Williams remaining as the only original founding member. The other current line-up includes Ron Tyson (since 1983), Terry Weeks (since 1997) and Willie Green (since 2016). Next year, the group will embark on a tour through the U.S., U.K. and Germany to celebrate their 60th anniversary. This includes two dates in May in my area. My wife and I saw The Temptations once in the early 2000s at The Apollo in New York City, together with The Four Tops. We both remember it as a great show, so we’re thinking to catch them again. The current tour schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; Temptations website; YouTube

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! 🙂 A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube

Time For Some Additional German Music

This post was inspired by a recent short trip back to Germany, the country in which I was born and lived for the first 26 years of my life. While I didn’t have time to look for new CDs by German music artists, I ended up listening to a playlist of German rock and pop songs while driving on the Autobahn from Frankfurt to the beautiful Rhine city of Bad Honnef near Bonn.

Once again, I was reminded there is some great German music out there, except it’s barely known beyond the country’s borders. To be clear, what I’m talking about is German language music, not German bands singing in English like Scorpions or electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. While I already previously posted about German music artists here and here, I thought this would be a good time for an encore. Since I left Germany more than 25 years ago, I’m not aware of any younger acts, so I’m revisiting artists I’ve known and liked for many years.

I’d like to kick things off with Wolf Maahn, a singer-songwriter, actor and producer. Born on March 25, 1955 in Berlin, Maahn got his initial start in 1976 as a founding member of the Food Band, which mixed soul, jazz, pop and rock and sang in English. His German language music debut was the album Deserteure from 1982. In 1985, he gained broad popularity as the first German act performing during Rockpalast Nacht, a recurring live six-hour concert event broadcast throughout Europe. To date, more than 20 studio, live and compilation Maahn albums have appeared. Slow-Mo In New York is his recently released latest single from an upcoming new studio album titled Break Out Of Babylon. ‘Wait a moment,’ you might think, didn’t I just note this post is about German language music? Yep, the lyrics are in German – for the most part. 🙂

Another longtime German music artist is Marius Müller-Westernhagen, also simply known as Westernhagen. The rock musician, who was born on December 6, 1948 in Düsseldorf, started his career as an actor at the age of 14. While he became interested in music during the second half of the ’60s, success didn’t come until the release of his fourth studio album Mit Pfefferminz Bin Ich Dein Prinz in 1978. Today, with 19 studio albums and various live and compilation records, Westernhagen is one of the most successful German music artists. Here’s a clip of Mit 18 from his upcoming release titled Das Pfefferminz-Experiment (Woodstock Recordings Vol. 1), scheduled for November 8. Based on what I’ve seen on the web, this appears to be a remake of the above album with new stripped down versions of the tracks. The album was recorded at Dreamland Studio in Woodstock with American musicians. This included multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who has worked with the likes of Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow and Paul Simon. I have to admit the orginal Mit 18 is one of my favorite Westernhagen tunes, but after having listened to the remake a few times, I find it intriguing.

Udo Lindenberg, born on May 17, 1946 in Gronau, is a rock musician, writer and painter. He entered the music scene as a 15-year-old drummer playing in bars in Düsseldorf. In 1968, Lindenberg went to Hamburg and joined the City Preachers, Germany’s first folk-rock band. In 1969, he left and co-founded the jazz-rock formation Free Orbit. They released an album in 1970, Lindenberg’s first studio recording. Only one year later, his enponymous solo album appeared. Commerical breakthrough came with the third studio album Alles Klar Auf Der Andrea Doria. While Lindenberg has consistently recorded throughout the decades, success began to vane in the mid ’80s. Since 2008 and his 35th studio album Stark Wie Zwei, Lindenberg has experienced a late career surge. Today, the 73-year-old continues to go strong. His most recent album MTV Unplugged 2: Live vom Atlantik appeared last year. Here is Du Knallst In Mein Leben, which first appeared on Lindenberg’s 1983 studio album Odyssee. In this version, he shares vocals with German indie pop artist Deine Cousine.

Herbert Grönemeyer is one of the most versatile German artists. The musician, producer, vocalist, composer, songwriter and actor was born on April 12, 1956 in Göttingen. After his acting role in the acclaimed 1981 motion picture Das Boot, which also became an international success, Grönemeyer increasingly focused on music. His big national breakthrough as a music artist came in 1994 with his fifth studio record Bochum. To date, Grönemeyer has released 15 studio albums, as well as various compilations and live records. With more than 18 million units, he has sold more records than any other music artist in Germany since 1975, according to Wikipedia. While Grönemeyer has written some rock-oriented songs, for the most part, I would characterize his music as straight pop. Here is the ballad Warum from his most recent album Tumult, which came out in November 2018.

If I could only select one German rock band, it would be BAP, a group around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken, which nowadays performs as Niedecken’s BAP. The band has been around with different line-ups since 1976, and I’ve followed them since the early 1980s. They perform their songs in the dialect spoken in the region of Cologne, the home town of Niedecken who remains the group’s only original member. Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are among his key influences. In fact, Niedecken is also friends with the Boss and has performed with him on the same stage. Niedecken’s BAP’s most recent release is a live album, Live & Deutlich, which was released in November 2018. Here’s Nix Wie Bessher, a track that first appeared on BAP’s excellent 10th studio album Amerika from August 1996.

Sources: Wikipedia; Wolf Maahn website; Westernhagen website; Udo Lindenberg website; Herbert Grönemeyer website; BAP website; YouTube