What I’ve Been Listening to: Fanny/Fanny

Early ’70s group was an all-female rock trailblazer

When listening to the eponymous debut album by Fanny the other day, I knew immediately I was going to love this all-female rock band. I have to thank fellow blogger Max from PowerPop, who pointed them out to me. Not only were Fanny’s songs and musicianship compelling, but these four young women were true trailblazers for all-female rock in the early ’70s. Bands like The Runaways, The Go-Go’s and The Bangles were still unheard of. What’s also intriguing is that Fanny were formed by two Philippine-American sisters.

Before getting to some music, here’s a bit more background. Fanny were founded by June Millington (guitar) and her sister Jean Millington (bass) after they had moved from the Philippines to Sacramento, Calif. in 1961. Initially, the group was called Wild Honey that in turn had evolved from The Svelts, a group the sisters had started in high school. As Wild Honey were about to call it quits since they felt they didn’t have a chance to make it in a male-dominated rock scene, they were spotted during an open-mic appearance at LA’s prominent Troubadour Club by the attentive secretary of record producer Richard Perry.

Perry, who apparently had been looking for an all-female band to mentor, liked what he heard and convinced Warner Bros. to sign them to their Reprise Records label. Prior to recording their debut album, the group was renamed Fanny. According to their AllMusic profile, the name was suggested to Perry by none other than George Harrison. At the time, the band’s line-up included June Millington (vocals, guitar), Jean Millington (bass, vocals), Nickey Barclay (keyboards, vocals) and Alice de Buhr (drums). The Millington sisters had previously played with de Buhr in The Svelts.

This brings me to the band’s self-titled debut album, which appeared in December 1970 and was produced by Perry. Let’s kick it off with opener Come and Hold Me co-written by the Millington sisters. I love this tune, which sounds a song Christine McVie could have written for Fleetwood Mac in the ’70s. The excellent harmony singing is reminiscent of The Bangles. And check out Jean’s melodic bassline – so good!

I Just Realised is a great mid-tempo rocker penned by Barclay and June Millington. The raspy vocals are fantastic, which I believe are Barclay’s. I also love her honky-tonk style piano. Again, Jean does a great job on bass. June’s guitar work is cool as well. Man, these ladies were rockin’ and doing so at a pretty sophisticated level!

As I started listening to Conversation With a Cop, a great ballad by Barclay, I thought, ‘wait a moment, when was that tune written, in 1970 or in 2021?’ Check out the lyrics: …And I wonder how it feels to be afraid of everyone you see/I wonder why you keep those nervous fingers on your gun/I’ve done no wrong; I’m just looking for some place to walk my dog/Yeah, now don’t get me wrong, I’m just looking for some place to walk my dog. Just remarkable!

Here’s a cover of Cream’s Badge, which earned Fanny some radio play. Co-written by Eric Clapton and George Harrison, the tune appeared on Cream’s final studio album Goodbye from February 1969, and became their second-to-last single – all after the group already had broken up. I like how Fanny made the rendition their own!

The last track I’d like to call out is the closer Seven Roads – and, boy, what an outstanding final track! The smoking rocker was co-written by the Millington sisters and de Buhr. Again, there’s great guitar work and a killer keyboard solo by Barclay.

According to Wikipedia, Fanny weren’t happy with Perry’s production of the record. They thought it didn’t show them at their best or reflect their live performances. Apparently, their sentiment improved on the next two records, which Perry produced as well.

Fanny was the first of five studio albums during the band’s run. June Millington, who felt constrained by the group’s format and had clashes with Barclay, left after the September 1973 release of Fanny’s forth album Mother’s Pride that had been produced by Todd Rundgren. Subsequently, De Buhr also departed. Fanny with a different line-up released one more album, Rock and Roll Survivors in 1974, before they split in 1975.

A forthcoming film, Fanny: The Right to Rock, documents the band’s history. For more information, visit https://www.fannythemovie.com. Here’s the trailer. This looks quite intriguing! As Bonnie Raitt notes, “Fanny was the first all-female rock band that could really play and really get some credibility within the musician community.” I think Raitt’s statement captures the essence of what made Fanny trailblazers, i.e., their high level of musicianship and great songs, I should add, not the fact that they were an all-female group.

To conclude, here’s what David Bowie wrote in colorful words about the group in Rolling Stone in late December 1999, as documented by the website Fanny Rocks: “One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary: They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful, and nobody’s ever mentioned them. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; Fanny Rocks website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Little Feat/Dixie Chicken

In March 2018, I listened to Waiting For Columbus by Little Feat after a dear longtime friend from Germany had highly recommended this great live album from 1978. I also wrote about it at the time. Then, as oftentimes happens, before I knew it, I was on to other music avenues, and the band fell off my radar screen again. Luckily, my streaming music provider served up the song Dixie Chicken as part of a playlist the other day. The title track of Little Feat’s third studio album from January 1973 prompted me to take a closer look at the record. It didn’t take long to realize that Dixie Chicken is a true gem.

Before I get to some music, I like to provide a bit of background on the group. Little Feat were formed in 1969 in Los Angeles by singer-songwriter, lead vocalist and guitarist Lowell George and pianist Bill Payne, together with Roy Estrada (bass) and Richie Hayward (drums). George and Estrada had played together in The Mothers of Invention.

Little Feat in 1975 (from left): Kenney Gradney, Bill Payne, Sam Clayton, Lowell George, Paul Barrere & Richie Hayward

While Frank Zappa was instrumental in the formation of Little Feat and getting them a recording contract, the details are disputed. One version is that Zappa encouraged George to form his own group after he had listened to George’s song Willin’. A second version is that Zappa who was strongly opposed to drugs fired George from the Mothers after he noticed some references to drugs in the lyrics of Willin’. The third version is the weirdest: Zappa kicked out George after George had played a 15-minute guitar solo with his amplifier off!

Whatever the true circumstances were, Little Feat signed a deal with Warner Bros. Records and soon thereafter started recording their eponymous debut album, which appeared in January 1971. By the time Little Feat went into the studio to make Dixie Chicken, the group had become a six-piece. Estrada had been replaced by Kenney Gradney on bass, and the band had added Paul Barrere (guitar, vocals) and Sam Clayton (congas). Among additional guest musicians were Bonnie Bramlett, of Delaney & Bonnie fame; Danny Hutton, vocalist in Three Dog Night; and Bonnie Raitt, who each provided backing vocals.

On to some music. Here’s the album’s opener and title track, which is widely viewed as the band’s signature song. Dixie Chicken was co-written by George, who had established himself as Little Feat’s frontman, producer and main songwriter, and Martin Kibbee, who according to Songfacts was credited as Fred Martin. Bramlett supported Lowell on lead vocals. Love the New Orleans vibe this tune has!

Two Trains, another George composition, is a nice groovy track. I dig the guitar work and the great singing. Check out the mighty group of backing vocalists: Bramlett, Raitt, Daring Dan Hutton, Debbie Lindsey and Gloria Jones.

Another tune on side one (in vinyl speak) is a great cover of On Your Way Down, a song by influential R&B New Orleans artist Allen Toussaint. It first appeared on his 1972 studio album Life, Love and Faith.

On to side two and Walkin’ All Night. Co-written by Barrere and Payne, it’s one of only three tracks on the album that were not penned by George. It’s got a bit of a Stones vibe. Of course, that’s also true for many of the other tunes on the record.

Fat Man in the Bathtub (gotta love that title!) was also written by George. Not much more that I can say here other than it’s yet another gem on an album that’s packed with great music.

Let’s do one more. Here’s Juliette, yet another song written by George.

Dixie Chicken is viewed as Little Feat’s landmark album that defined their sound, a tasty gumbo of southern rock, roots rock, blues rock, New Orleans R&B and swamp rock. Just like the band’s first two records, Dixie Chicken missed the charts, though it did reach Gold certification. This just goes to show that chart positions and sales certifications don’t necessarily capture an album’s greatness.

Following George’s death in late June 1979 from a cocaine overdose-induced heart attack at the age of 34 and the release of Little Feat’s seventh studio album Down On The Farm in November that year, the band called it quits. In 1987, surviving members Barrere, Clayton, Gradney, Hayward and Payne revived Little Feat, and added songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Craig Fuller and Fred Tackett (guitar, mandolin, trumpet) to the line-up.

Between 1988 and 2012, Little Feat released nine additional albums. Barrere passed away from cancer in October 2019. He was 71. The group remains active to this day, with Clayton, Gradney, Tackett and founding member Payne being part of the current line-up. According to Little Feat’s official website, they have scheduled a series of U.S. dates starting November 11 in Port Chester, N.Y. Also, if you feel like catching them in Jamaica, together with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams and Band, Tommy Emmanuel and Jack Broadbent, and have the time, not to mention the necessary dollars to go on a music adventure, you can do so from January 30 – February 5, 2022 at Featcamp.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Little Feat website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Jackson Browne/For Everyman

The other day, I found myself listening to Redneck Friend, a great early rocker by Jackson Browne. This prompted me to pull up For Everyman, Browne’s sophomore album that came out in October 1973. While he’s one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I’ve listened to him for 40 years, for the most part, I really didn’t know this record. Just like for many other artists I dig, I’m mostly familiar with certain songs and perhaps a handful of albums. It didn’t take me long to recognize what a gem For Everyman is, and I decided then and there to blog about it once I would get a chance.

As I started reading up on the album, one of the things that struck me first is the impressive cast of guests. David Crosby, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Elton John, Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt are among Browne’s songwriter peers. In addition, you have top notch session musicians like David Lindley, Jim Keltner, Russ Kunkel, David Paich and Leland Sklar. Kunkel and Sklar were part of The Section, a group of top-notch musicians who together or individually backed the likes of Carole King, James Taylor, Warren Zevon and, well, Jackson Browne.

While I completely realize that having high-caliber guests on an album doesn’t automatically guarantee high quality, a good rule of thumb is that great artists play with other great artists. These guys knew what they had in Jackson Browne. Yes, he already had released his well received eponymous debut album in January 1972. And, yes, he had written songs since the mid-’60s and given the Eagles their first single and top 40 U.S. hit with Take It Easy. Still, I find it impressive how well established the then-25-year-old artist already was at this early stage in his own recording career.

Let’s get to some music. Here’s Browne’s version of the aforementioned Take It Easy, the album’s opener. Originally, Browne began work on the song in 1971 and wanted to include it on his debut album. But he couldn’t finish it at the time. When he played the unfinished tune to his friend Glenn Frey, who lived in the same building, Frey completed the song and received a co-writing credit. At first, I preferred the Eagles’ version but over time, I’ve increasingly come to like Browne’s recording and now dig it at least as much as the rendition by the Eagles. That sweet pedal steel guitar was provided by Sneaky Pete Kleinow, an original member of The Flying Burrito Brothers.

What can I say about Colors of the Sun other than it’s a beautiful singer-songwriter type song. In addition to singing lead, Brown played piano on this track. Don Henley provided harmony vocals. It’s simply a great tune – no need to over-analyze. The neat acoustic guitar fill-ins were provided by David Lindley, an incredible musician who bears a significant degree of responsibility for the album’s great sound.

The last track on side one is These Days, a song Browne wrote as a 16-year-old. German singer-songwriter Nico was the first of many artists to record the tune. It was included on her debut album Chelsea Girl from October 1967. Another great version appeared in October 1973 on Gregg Allman’s first solo album Laid Back. Until Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood came out in September 2017, which features Browne as a guest on Allman’s cover of Brown’s Song for Adam, I had no idea these seemingly very different artists had great appreciation of each other and had been good friends. The beautiful harmony vocals on Browne’s original were provided by Doug Haywood who also played a great bass line. Once again Lindley shined, this time on slide guitar.

One to side two and the first track there, Redneck Friend, the tune that prompted my deep exploration of this album. This is one seductive melodic rocker featuring a killer cast of guests: Lindley (slide guitar), Elton John (piano) and Frey (backing vocals), along with Haywood (bass) and Keltner (drums). In addition to lead vocals, Browne provided rhythm guitar. Redneck Friend was also released separately as a single. While it spent 10 weeks on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, it only peaked at no. 85, significantly lower than Browne’s previous two singles Rock Me On the Water (no. 48) and Doctor, My Eyes (no. 8).

Next up: The Times You’ve Come. In addition to the track’s great melody, the standout to me is the melodic bass part by Leland Sklar – absolutely beautiful! I also want to call out Bonnie Raitt who sang harmony and Lindley’s acoustic guitar work.

This brings me to the title track, which is the album’s closer. The idea of the song came to Browne while he was temporarily living with David Crosby on his boat in the San Francisco Bay and met two of Crosby’s neighbors who also owned boats. All three boat owners shared the vision to escape on their boats and create a new civilization elsewhere – essentially the same theme Crosby, Stills & Nash had voiced on their 1969 single Wooden Ships. For Everyone featured Crosby on harmony vocals. Sklar (bass) and Lindley (acoustic and electric guitar) once again were among Browne’s backing musicians.

For Everyman was produced by Jackson Browne. Just like his eponymous debut album, For Everyman made the U.S. and Australian mainstream album charts, reaching no. 43 and no. 48, respectively. It was ranked at no. 450 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 edition of the list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The album didn’t make the most recent revision from September 2020. While Browne’s Mount Rushmore Running on Empty was still four years away, For Everyman is a great early album by a singer-songwriter who after a close to 50-year recording career as a solo artist is still going strong.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: John Hiatt/Perfectly Good Guitar

John Hiatt is a great artist I’ve been aware of for many years. I’m glad his excellent recent collaboration album with Jerry Douglas, Leftover Feelings, brought the acclaimed singer-songwriter back on my radar screen. It finally made me start exploring some of Hiatt’s other albums in their entirety, including Perfectly Good Guitar, his 11th studio release that appeared in September 1993. I’m sure Hiatt aficionados are well aware of it; if you’re not and dig heartland and roots-oriented rock, you’re in for a treat.

Hiatt who was born in Indianapolis had a difficult childhood. After the death of his older brother and his father, he used watching IndyCar races and listening to music by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and blues artists as escape mechanisms. At the age of 11, Hiatt learned to play guitar and started his music career as a teenager in Indianapolis, playing local venues with the a variety of bands.

When he was 18, Hiatt moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he landed a job as a songwriter for the Tree-Music Publishing Company. He also continued local performances, both solo and with a band called White Duck. Hiatt got his break in June 1974 when Three Dog Night turned his song Sure As I’m Sitting Here into a top 40 hit. His original version he had released as a single in February that year had gone nowhere.

In July 1973, Hiatt recorded his debut album Hangin Around The Observatory, which came out the following year. While it received favorable reviews, the album was a commercial failure. When the same thing happened with his sophomore release Overcoats, his label Epic Records was quick to drop him. Meanwhile, other artists kept covering Hiatt’s songs. Unfortunately, the story pretty much kept repeating itself until Bring the Family from May 1987, finally giving Hiatt his first album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 107.

Bring the Family featured the gems Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willy DeVille, and the list goes on and on.

To date, Hiatt has released 28 albums, including two live records and two compilations. In 1991, he also formed the short-lived group Little Village together with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Previously, Hiatt had worked with each of the three artists on Bring the Family. After issuing a self-titled album in February 1992 and a short supporting tour the group disbanded.

Let’s get to some music from Perfectly Good Guitar. Here’s the great opener Something Wild. Like all other tracks except one, the tune was solely written by Hiatt. I dig the nice driving drum part by Brian McLeod. With the recent death of Charlie Watts, perhaps it’s not surprising that Satisfaction came to mind right away!

The title track perfectly captures my sentiments when I see footage of Pete Townshend trashing his guitar at the end of a Who gig; or Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire for that matter. Oh, it breaks my heart to see those stars/ Smashing a perfectly good guitar/I don’t know who they think they are/Smashing a perfectly good guitar…Yes, of course, it was all for show and I believe Townshend at least glued some of his smashed guitars back together. And while I certainly don’t support jail sentences for guitar-smashing, destroying instruments still rubs me the wrong way! Instead, make some kid happy and give it to them! Who knows, you might even change their trajectory!

Another nice track is Buffalo River Home. I really like the guitar work on that tune.

Another track that got my attention, primarily because of the drum part, is Blue Telescope. McLeod’s drum work reminds me a bit of Steve Gadd’s action on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I have no idea whether Gadd’s unique drum part served as an inspiration here. Regardless, it sure as heck sounds cool to me!

The last track I’d like to call out is Old Habits, which has a great bluesy vibe. It’s the one song on the album Hiatt co-wrote with somebody else: Female singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Similar to Hiatt, it appears her songs have been covered by many other artists, such as Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Irma Thomas and Ronnie Milsap.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d to acknowledge the other fine musicians on this great album. In addition to Hiatt (guitar, vocals, piano, organ) and MacLeod (drums, percussion), they include Michael Ward (guitar), Ravi Oli (electric sitar; Ravi Oli is a pseudonym of David Immerglück), Dennis Locorriere (harmony vocals) and John Pierce (bass guitar).

Perfectly Good Guitar was Hiatt’s last studio album with A&M Records. Once again, another great record failed to meet the commercial expectations of the label, though ironically, it became Hiatt’s most successful record on the U.S. mainstream charts to date, peaking at no. 47 on the Billboard 200. Hiatt subsequently signed with Capitol Records, which released his next two studio albums, including the Grammy-nominated Walk On from October 1995.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: America/ History: America’s Greatest Hits (Re-Post)

America’s vocal harmonies and smooth folk rock sound make for one of the best ’70s greatest hits compilations

On Monday, I found myself listening to America. I realize the trio has been dismissed by some critics as a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff. If anything, frankly, I would consider sounding like one of the best harmony-singing bands of all time as a compliment. But that may just be me. In any case, I’ve loved America’s music for many years and always enjoy revisiting it.

My listening experience made me want to post about the album that started my America journey as a nine- or 10-year-old back in Germany: History: America’s Greatest Hits. Then, I nebulously recalled a previous musing about their first compilation from November 1975. Checking my blog revealed a post from September 2018. Yes, I sometimes have to search my own stuff to remember what I previously wrote! 🙂

When it comes to old posts, sometimes, I wish I had written them differently. My views may have evolved. I also guess there’s a certain learning curve here. In this case, I was happy to see that I continue to fully stand behind each word I wrote almost three years ago. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Re-publish a previous post.

– Re-Post –

I was nine or 10 years old when I listened to History: America’s Greatest Hits for the first time. The album grabbed me right from the beginning. It was one of the vinyl records my older sister had, which among others also included Carole King’s TapestryCrosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu; and Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits – all albums I dig to this day.

Recently, I rediscovered History. To me, it’s one of the best greatest hits compilations I know, which were released in the ’70s. Others that come to my mind are Neil Young’s DecadeEagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), Santana’s Greatest HitsSteely Dan’s Greatest Hits and the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel album. There are probably some others I’m forgetting – in any case, it’s not meant to be a complete list.

I recall reading somewhere that America were dismissed by some as a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young knock-off. While I generally don’t think highly of music critics in the first place, I feel this notion is silly. Yes, America’s three-part harmony vocals are reminiscent of CSN/CSNY, but this doesn’t make them a copycat or somehow bad artists! On the contrary, if anything, the vocal similarity to CSN/CSNY is a huge accomplishment – after all, there aren’t many bands that can harmonize like CSN/CSNY did! On to History.

America
America (from left): Gerry Beckley, Dan Peek & Dewey Bunnell

Released in November 1975, History encompasses America’s 11 most successful singles at the time, plus an edited take of Sandman from their December 1971 eponymous debut. In addition to that album, History includes material from four additional studio records: Homecoming (November 1972), Hat Trick (October 1973), Holiday (June 1974) and Hearts (March 1975).

History opens with one of my favorite America tunes: A Horse With No Name from their debut album. It was written by Dewey Bunnell, who formed America with Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley in London in 1970. The three had met there in the mid-’60s as high school students whose fathers were stationed on a nearby U.S. Air Force base.

A Horse With No Name became America’s most successful single topping the Billboard Hot 100. It also stirred some controversy due to the similarity of Bunnell’s voice to Neil Young, and what some viewed as mediocre lyrics. Coincidentally, the song knocked Young’s Heart Of Gold off the Billboard Hot 100 top spot. I really don’t care whether it sounds like Young, who by the way is one of my favorite artists. With its two chords and killer harmony vocals, this tune simply gives me goosebumps each time I hear it.

Ventura Highway, another Bunnell composition, is from the Homecoming album. When I listen to this song and close my eyes, I can literally picture myself in an open convertible driving on the Pacific Coast Highway 1 from L.A. up north to San Francisco. I actually did that trip in 1980 as a 14-year-old, together with my parents. Even though we had a lame station wagon as a rental, not some hot convertible, it was an unforgettable experience! Ventura Highway became a top 10 Billboard single for America, reaching no. 8 and no. 3 on the Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts, respectively.

Another beautiful tune is Lonely People, which was credited to Dan Peek and his wife Catherine Peek. The song was written a few weeks after their marriage. An obituary in TMR that appeared in the wake of Peek’s death in July 2011 at the age of 60 quotes him: “I wrote it probably within a month of getting married to my long-lost love Catherine…I always felt like a melancholy, lonely person. And now I felt like I’d won.” America  initially recorded Lonely People for their fourth studio album Holiday. It topped the Billboard Easy Listening chart and peaked at no. 5 on the Hot 100.

One of my favorite songs on History written by Gerry Beckley is Sister Golden Hair. Recorded for America’s fifth studio album Hearts, the tune also became the band’s second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics were inspired by Jackson Browne. In this context, John Corbett’s America Revisited quotes Beckley: “Jackson Browne has a knack, an ability to put words to music, that is much more like the L.A. approach to just genuine observation as opposed to simplifying it down to its bare essentials… and it was that style of his which led to a song of mine, “Sister Golden Hair,” which is probably the more L.A. of my lyrics.” I guess this means in addition to CSN/CSNY, America also stole from Browne – unbelievable!

The last song I’d like to call out is the final track on the History compilation:  Woman Tonight. It’s another tune from the Hearts album and was written by Peek. Released as the third single, it charted within the top 50 in the U.S.

History was produced by none other than George Martin, who had started working with America on their fourth studio album Holiday. Martin also remixed the first seven tracks on History, which he had not produced originally. The compilation became a huge success in the U.S., giving America a no. 3 on the Billboard 200. In October 1986, the Recording Industry Association of America certified the album 4X Multi-Platinum.

Since History, America have released 12 additional studio albums, 10 live records and numerous other compilations. Now in their 51st year [updated from original post – CMM], America continue to perform, featuring co-founders Beckley and Bunnell. Peek left the band in May 1977, long before his death, after he had renewed his Christian faith.

– End of Re-Post –

Apparently, America will be touring the U.S. starting in late summer. According to their current schedule listed on their website, things are set to kick off in North Bethesda, Md. on August 13. Some of the other gigs include Hyannis, Mass. (Aug 27); Mulvane, Kan. (Sep 11); Lawrence, Kan. (Sep 25); Reno, Nev. (Oct 2), Mankato, Minn (Oct 22); and San Antonio (Nov 14). The last currently listed show is Sarasota, Fla. (Nov 21). I saw America once in the late ’90s on Long Island, N.Y., and they sounded fantastic.

Sources: Wikipedia; TMR; John Corbett: “America Revisited”, AccessBackstage.com, May 29, 2004; RIAA Gold & Platinum certifications; America website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Elton John/Honky Château

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 now is that I recently grabbed a used vinyl copy of the album at a small vintage record store close to my house. The cover is captured in the images I used to illustrate the post.

Released in May 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. It also is 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 than 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 Hatot. Honky 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 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.

Honky Château is regarded as one of Elton John’s best albums. It was generally well received by music critics. In October 1995, the album 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.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Bettye LaVette/Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

One thing I love about music blogging is how much I learn about artists I didn’t know or only had heard of by name. Oftentimes, I find myself stepping through one door only to find many others I’ve yet to open. Frankly, I probably would have run out of ideas a long time ago, if it were any different! Plus, I’d get bored if I only wrote about music and artists I know.

The latest example is Bettye LaVette, a versatile vocalist who has been active since 1962. I included her in two previous posts, most recently on Saturday in a piece about artists who have covered songs by The Rolling Stones. LaVette’s great rendition of Salt of the Earth led me to take a closer look at the album that includes her version of the tune. I was quickly intrigued by what else I found on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which was released in May 2010. Her soulful, at times somewhat fragile voice reminds me a bit of Tina Turner and is right up my alley.

Bettye LaVette - Soulful Detroit

While LaVette enjoyed some chart success early in her career, for decades, she was more of a cult figure in soul circles. At least in part that was due to bad luck with record labels. After LaVette recorded what was supposed to become her first full-length album Child of the Seventies, Atlantic Records decided not to move forward with the project, apparently without giving her any explanation. In 1982, Motown’s Lee Young, Sr. signed LaVette to the storied label, which led to the recording of her first released album Tell Me Lie. However, following a corporate shake-up, Young was removed, the label never promoted LaVette’s record, and it failed to chart.

Fast-forward to 2000 when a French collector and label owner called Gilles Petard discovered the tapes for the aforementioned Child of the Seventies album in Atlantic Records’ vaults. He liked what he heard, licensed the tracks and released them under the title Souvenirs in France on his Art & Soul label. Around the same time, Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, a live recording of LaVette in the Netherlands, appeared on the Dutch label Munich. The two near-simultaneous releases created new interest in LaVette as a recording artist and resulted in a contract with label Blues Express.

Bettye LaVette Interview - Blues Matters Magazine

In January 2003, LaVette released A Woman Like Me, only her third full-length studio album. It won the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year and the Living Blues critic pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004. LaVette’s recording career was finally going somewhere. She has since released eight other studio albums and won additional awards, including a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (2006), Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer (2008), Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society (2015) and Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation (2016). LaVette is also in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame and has been nominated three times for a Grammy.

LaVette is an unusual artist. According to her website, she is no mere singer. She is not a song writer, nor is she a “cover” artist. She is an interpreter of the highest order. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 60s and is still creating vital recordings today. This certainly becomes obvious when listening to Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which brings me back to the album. Let’s get to some intriguing interpretations!

The opener is a funky version of The Word by The Beatles. While the John LennonPaul McCartney co-write, which was included on the Rubber Soul album from December 1965, is barely recognizable, I find LaVette’s take pretty cool. It’s got a bit of a James Brown vibe, and I can almost hear his “uhs” in the background.

How about some Led Zeppelin reimagined? Here’s All My Love, a song I’ve always dug. Co-written by John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, the tune first appeared on Zep’s eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door released in August 1979. Check this out – damn!

Let’s move on to Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. The title track of their ninth studio album from September 1975 was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Who would have thought a Floyd track could ever sound so soulful!

Nights in White Satin is one of my favorite songs by The Moody Blues. Written by Justin Hayward, the track appeared on Days of Future Passed, one of the most beautiful concept albums of the ’60s. Here it is in Bettye LaVette style – amazing!

Let’s do two more. First up is another great funky rendition: Why Does Love Got to be So Sad by Derek and the Dominoes. Co-written by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the tune appeared on the band’s sole studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs from November 1970. Groovy!

Last but not least, here is the closer Love, Reign O’er Me, a highlight on the album. It captures LaVette’s unedited live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008 in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, who were among the honorees that year. Townshend wrote the tune for The Who’s sixth studio album Quadrophenia that came out in October 1973. Here’s the actual footage from the Kennedy Center. Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend almost seem to have a Led Zeppelin moment. Check this out. This is friggin’ intense!

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which appeared on U.S. label Anti-, was co-produced by Rob Mathes, Michael Stevens and LaVette. It reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, staying in that chart for 39 weeks. The album also enjoyed some mainstream success in the U.S., climbing to no. 56 on the Billboard 200. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook became one of the three aforementioned Grammy nominations for LaVette.

Thanks to great images on Discogs, I was able to look at the album’s liner notes that reveal some interesting things about LaVette’s approach to interpretations. “I never think of a song as a record,” she is quoted. “I think of songs as songs. I don’t think of a Rolling Stones recording. I think of the Rolling Stones singing this song and now I’m going to sing it. That helps me tremendously…There’s no process of ‘how can I make this different.’ I hear it immediately differently. It’s very hard for another singer to satisfy me. No matter where a singer went with the vocal, if I can think of somewhere else to go, then wherever they went no longer interests me.”

In addition to the vocal approach, LaVette also took artistic freedom with the lyrics, which she changed significantly on a number of songs. “I think the most difficult thing about putting the album together was that many of the words didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “These songs belong to white fans who are now in their fifties…The biggest hang-up was I didn’t want to disrespect them because I knew that there are people who have altars built to many of these songs…When I got into them I realized there were things worth saying but I had to make them things I could sing about.”

So what do some of the artists who wrote the original songs think of LaVette’s renditions? Following are some quotes from a sticker on the CD’s jewel case. Again, I have Discogs to thank for featuring some great images. “A great record. Put me in the Bettye LaVette fan club” (Keith Richards). “Bettye is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once” (Pete Townshend). “Bettye is blessed with an instantly recognizable voice full of power & emotion” (Steve Winwood). “Bettye has recorded an amazing version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me'” (Elton John).

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Savoy Brown/Street Corner Talking

What do you do when you’re in the mood for some great blues rock? You get some! And so I did with Street Corner Talking by Britain’s Savoy Brown released in September 1971. As it oftentimes goes with these types of posts, I got the idea to listen to their seventh studio album after my streaming music provider had served up Tell Mama, the record’s dynamite opener.

Savoy Brown – btw, what a cool name! – have been around for a bit. ‘How long’, you might wonder. How about more than 55 years! Not surprisingly, their line-up has changed many times over the decades, though the founder is still around and going strongly. Before getting to the album, a bit of history is in order. The following background is taken from the band’s bio on their website.

Savoy Brown was formed in 1965 by guitarist Kim Simmonds in London, England. Simmonds has been the group’s guiding hand from the first singles released in 1966 through the band’s newest effort, their forty-first album “Ain’t Done Yet” [released in August 2020. At the time, I featured one of the album’s tunes in a Best of What’s New installment]

Energetic blues has been the calling card of the band from the beginning. Blues Rock became the catch-all phrase in the late 1960s to describe the band’s music along with that of contemporaries including Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and Jimi Hendrix

...Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980’s songs such as “I’m Tired”, “Train to Nowhere”, “Tell Mama” and “Lay Back In The Arms Of Someone” became Hot 100 entries. Two of the band’s albums in the 1970s, “Looking In” and “Hellbound Train”, appeared on the Billboard Top Forty charts…Along the way, Savoy Brown has toured continuously, making it one of the longest running blues rock bands in existence. Through the years, the band has headlined concerts at many prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, the Fillmore East, the Fillmore West, and London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall...

…Former [Savoy Brown] members, having cut their teeth under Simmonds’ leadership, have gone on to complete their careers with other bands. Among others, these include singer Dave Walker with Fleetwood Mac and Black Sabbath, Bill Bruford with King Crimson, Andy Pyle with the Kinks and Paul Raymond with UFO… Three other band alumni – Lonesome Dave Peverett, Roger Earl, and Tony Stevens, went on to become the founding members of the multi-platinum act Foghat. Sounds a bit like John Mayall to me!

Kim Simmonds (guitar, vocals), who has lived in the U.S. since 1980, remains the only original member of Savoy Brown’s current line-up. The other core members include Pat DeSalvo (bass, backing vocals) and Garnet Grimm (drums). Both have been with the band since 2009. With that, let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick it off with the song that inspired the post. Tell Mama, the first track on the album, was co-written by Simmonds and Paul Raymond, the band’s keyboarder at the time. Just a great catchy rocker with some cool slide guitar action.

Taking on The Temptations perhaps is a near-impossible task, but I have to say I really dig where Savoy Brown took I Can’t Get Next to You. Co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, this psychedelic soul gem was first released by The Temptations as a single in July 1969. It also appeared on their 11th studio album Puzzle People that came out in September of the same year. Check out how nicely Savoy Brown’s version of the tune is shuffling along. I also dig the keyboard work.

Time Does Tell is another great track. It was written by Simmonds. Andy Sylvester’s bass work gives this tune a great groove. I also like Simmonds’ guitar solo that starts at about 2:42 minutes. Damn, this is really cool – don’t take it from me, give it a listen!

Here’s the title track, another song Simmonds wrote. I can hear some Cream in that guitar riff. And that’s never a bad thing!

I’d like to wrap things up with another nice cover: Willie Dixon’s Wang Dang Doodle. Dixon wrote that tune in 1960, and it was first released by Howlin’ Wolf in 1961. Haven’t we all felt like hanging out with automatic slim, razor totin’ jim, butcher knife totin’ annie and fast talkin’ fanny to pitch a wang dang doodle all night long? 🙂

This is the first album by Savoy Brown I’ve explored in greater depth, and I really dig it – can you tell? 🙂 This certainly wants me to listen to more from this band. Any tips are welcome!

Sources: Wikipedia; Savoy Brown website; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Pete Townshend/White City: A Novel

The other day, while listening to “my” radio station, which is fed by my streaming music provider based on my library and other previously played tunes, I came across Give Blood by Pete Townshend. The tune is the opener of White City: A Novel, released in November 1985. While I couldn’t remember the previous time I had listened to it, I recalled I had come to really dig this record back in the ’80s. This triggered my curiosity, and it turns out I still like Townshend’s fourth solo effort.

Interestingly, the first song I heard back in the ’80s didn’t impress me much initially: The lead single Face the Face. I felt the drums sounded monotonous and kind of retarded. Ironically, the drums track ended up becoming one of my favorite features of the tune, which in turn became one of my favorite songs on the album – go figure! But before getting to some music, let’s start with the bigger picture.

According to Wikipedia, White City: A Novel is a loose concept album around a low-income housing project in White City, a West London district located close to where Townshend had grown up. The themes revolve around cultural conflict, racial tension and youthful hopes and dreams in the ’60s.

There was also a 60-minute companion film, White City: The Music Movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Richard Lowenstein. It appeared on video in 1985 as well, starring Pete Townshend, and English actor and actress Andrew Wilde and Frances Barber, respectively. Now let’s get to some songs. Unless noted otherwise, all tracks were written by Townshend.

I’d like to kick things off with the aforementioned Give Blood featuring David Gilmour on guitar and prolific session bassist Pino Palladino. “Give Blood was one of the tracks I didn’t even play on,” Townshend recalled, per Wikipedia. “I brought in [drummer] Simon Phillips, Pino Palladino and David Gilmour simply because I wanted to see my three favourite musicians of the time playing on something and, in fact, I didn’t have a song for them to work on, and sat down very, very quickly and rifled threw [sic] a box of stuff, said to Dave, ‘Do one of those kind of ricky-ticky-ricky-ticky things, and I’ll shout ‘Give Blood!’ in the microphone every five minutes and let’s see what happens.” Now we know how to write a great song!

I don’t have much to say about the next tune, Brilliant Blues, except it was love at first listen. In particular, I dig Townshend’s vocals, his guitar sound and the catchy melody. He was backed by John “Rabbit” Bundrick (keyboards), Steve Barnacle (bass) and Mark Brzezicki (drums), who also played on most of the other tracks. BTW, I find Townshend’s singing pretty compelling throughout the album – a reminder he’s a decent vocalist, though it’s fair to say his voice sounds worn these days.

This brings me to Face the Face. “Face the Face was done on a new keyboard,… and I was very keen to get something very, very fast and upbeat knocked out, and I knocked out a few sections that I couldn’t play all together,” Townshend said. “This was very much a new age type of recording, and that’s why it sounds pretty modern, I think. Simon Philips overdubbed the drums [a drum loop from a box], we later overdubbed the brass, we overdubbed backing vocals, we overdubbed everything. It was all overdubbed onto Rabbit’s [John “Rabbit” Bundrick] synthesizer playing.”

Let’s do two more. First up: Crashing by Design. It’s another well written and quite catchy tune. Townshend definitely has a knack for coming up with melodies that are easy on the ears.

The last track I’d like to highlight is White City Fighting, a highlight on the album. Initially, David Gilmour had composed the song’s music for his second solo album About Face from March 1984 and asked Townshend to write the lyrics. Townshend did but Gilmour couldn’t relate to the words. The tune didn’t make Gilmour’s album and ended up on Townshend’s record with Gilmour playing guitar – certainly a great outcome!

White City: A Novel was produced by Chris Thomas, a prominent English record producer whose impressive credits include The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Badfinger, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Pretenders, among others. Thomas also had produced Townshend’s two previous solo albums All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (June 1982) and Empty Glass (April 1980).

The performance of White City: A Novel didn’t match Townshend’s earlier solo albums, especially in the U.K., where it stalled at no. 70 on the Official Albums Chart. By comparison, Empty Glass had peaked at no. 11. The album did better in the U.S. where it reached no. 26 on the Billboard 200, though similar to the U.K., it couldn’t match Empty Glass, which had surged all the way to no. 5. In Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland, on the other hand, White City: A Novel placed in the top 20, outperforming Empty Glass.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Michael Jaskewicz/Crooked Tree

Crooked Tree is the debut solo album by Michael Jaskewicz, a singer-songwriter from New Jersey. I met him sometime in 2019 while he was performing at a bar with Cosmic Jerry Band (now called Cosmic), which then mainly was a tribute to the Grateful Dead that has since evolved into focusing on original music. In fact, they just came out with their own debut album Bloom on December 27. I finally got to listen to Crooked Tree and really dig the warm, bare bones acoustic sound.

As Jaskewicz notes in a blog post on his website, in addition to Jerry Garcia and the Dead, his influences include Warren Haynes, Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Trey Anastasio. In an interview with Music Life Now, he also noted Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, among others. Listening to the album before I had seen that interview Taylor came to my mind as well, as did Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Marc Cohn, who is best known for his 1991 signature tune Walking in Memphis. Jaskewicz’s voice occasionally reminds me a bit of Cohn.

Under normal circumstances, Crooked Tree could have appeared last April. But as Jaskewicz pointed out in the above blog post, COVID-19 and his struggle with depression and anxiety delayed things. “I spent a lot of time wrestling with the demons in my head trying to figure out why it seemed every imaginable roadblock to my success in music was being placed before me,” he explains. “Getting ready to step out into the world with songs, only to have the world hold a giant red stop sign in front of my face was pretty much a surefire way to send my mind straight into the darkness. And boy did it ever.”

Time for some music. Here’s the opener and title song, which was inspired by Jaskewicz’s infatuation with oddly shaped trees, as well as the terminal cancer of a close friend. “As I thought of his pain and suffering aligned with the intense light of a human being he was, he became the Crooked Tree in my mind and the words started flowing, ” he told Music Life Now. “I wanted to paint a picture of how beautiful he was, how life had taken its toll on him, and how in reality we are all Crooked Trees. Our flaws make us beautiful. We should not bear shame for the mental and physical scars we have from enduring life.”

In What Is a Life Jaskewiciz muses about the factors that oftentimes limit life. In a separate blog post on his website, he explained, “The absurdity of the verses in What Is A Life are an homage to imagination. Wishes on a feather, bury the clouds and sow seeds of whim, windows of time on a golden swing…. All just random musings of the mind eventually pushed into some corner of your mind to die. Without opening your imagination, you never can truly see the beauty of things, you can’t paint the canvas of your life.”

War That Can’t be Won is a dark, powerful tune. Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics: …Future’s falling from a poison sky/Future’s calling with a look in her eyes/Blood is flowing over government gold/Seeds of vengeance will grow no more…

I’d like to call out one more track: Falling in Your Eyes, the album’s beautiful closer.

“I am so proud to have released Crooked Tree,” Jaskewicz stated. “In a past life I would have been so content with just that, but the truth is I’m already working on the follow up and my goal is to have it completed by the end of the year.”Jaskewicz appears to be on a roll. At the time of his aforementioned statement, he already had 46 completed songs. On November 30, he released a new single titled Stars In Our Eyes.

I think Jaskewicz is off to a great start and I look forward to his sophomore album.

Sources: Michael Jaskewicz website; Music Life Now; YouTube