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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Yola/Walk Through Fire

When I included the latest single by Yola in my last Best of What’s New installment, I noticed her first full-length solo album Walk Through Fire received many accolades. Since the strong voice of the English singer-songwriter immediately grabbed me, I checked it out and have to say it’s a true gem, both musically and in terms of her vocal performance.

Getting to that point wasn’t exactly an easy path for Yola who was born as Yolanda Quartey in 1983 in Bristol, England. According to this review in Popmatters, Yola had a tough childhood characterized by poverty and a parent who didn’t care for her and banned music. Later she lived homeless in London for some time before establishing herself as a session singer and touring with acts like DJ collective Bugz in the Attic and electronic music outfit Massive Attack.

Yola Carter

In 2005, she co-founded country-soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two studio albums and a live record with them. But ultimately, as her artist profile in Apple Music notes, Yola felt the need to strike out on her own. Over the next few years, she started writing her own songs that were influenced by Muscle Shoals era country-soul, R&B and classic singer-songwriter style. In 2016, she released her debut EP Orphan Offering under the name of Yola Carter.

Eventually, Yola went to Nashville where she met Dan Auerbach after he had seen a video of her. Apparently, Auerbach was immediately impressed by her. “Her spirit fills the room, just like her voice,” he reportedly said. “She has the ability to sing in a full roar or barely a whisper and that is a true gift.” Auerbach teamed up with Yola to co-write songs, together with other writers, including Bobby Wood, Pat McLaughlin and Dan Penn.

Yola and Dan Auerbach

Auerbach also assembled an impressive group of seasoned studio musicians, including Dave Roe (bass), who played with Johnny Cash and John Mellencamp, among others; harmonica player Charlie McCoy (credits include Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, etc.) and drummer Gene Crisman, who together with Bobby Wood was a member of the Memphis Boys. They were the house band of American Sound Studio in Memphis, Tenn. where artists like Elvis, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield recorded. Auerbach also produced Walk Through Fire, which appeared in February 2019 on his Easy Eye Sound label.

With all of the above, it’s not surprising the album has a retro late ’60s sound. This is also matched by the cover. And yet, to me, Walk Through Fire feels like an album that will hold up well over time. It simply is a work of beauty. Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the opener Faraway Look. The track was co-written by Auerbach, McLaughin and Yola. BTW, McLaughlin’s compositions have been performed by artists like Bonnie Raitt, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal and Al Kooper, among others. Sure, the production might be a bit on the lush side, but this is just a beautiful tune.

Ride Out in the Country is another great track. The song was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Joe Allen. Allen is a county songwriter and bassist who since the early ’70s has worked with the likes of Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Next up is the title track, which according to Wikipedia references both a fire that damaged Yola’s home and an abusive relationship from which she escaped. The tune was co-written by Auerbach, Yola and Dan Penn. Penn has co-written many soul hits of the ’60s, including The Dark End of the Street and Do Right Woman, Do Right Man and Cry Like a Baby.

Rock Me Gently is my current favorite on the album. It’s another Auerbach-Allen-Yola co-write.

Let’s do one more: Love All Night (Work All Day), co-credited to Wood, Auerbach and Yola.

As noted above, Walk Through Fire was very well received. The album also generated three Grammy nominations: Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song (Faraway Look) and Best New Artist. Walk Through Fire was also nominated for Album of the Year at the Americana Music Honors & Awards. And, yes, the album also did score a win: UK Album of the Year at the UK Americana Awards.

At age 37, Yola still is relatively young. I look forward to much more great music from this talented songwriter and vocalist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Popmatters; Apple Music; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Mick Hayes/My Claim to Fame

If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog, the name Mick Hayes may ring a bill. I included him and a tune from his fantastic new album My Claim to Fame in the last installment of my Best of What’s New feature. On his website, Hayes gave the record the tagline “Southern Soul Music with a California Finish.” I’m not sure I understand the California finish, but folks who are aware of my music taste know that I’m all ears when it comes to southern soul.

One of the truly remarkable things about this album is that Hayes recorded it at FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. on vintage equipment, together with musicians who backed artists like Ray CharlesEtta James and B.B. King during their recording sessions at the legendary studio. I’m mean, think about this for a moment, how friggin’ cool is that!

As I complained in my previous Best of What’s New post, Hayes doesn’t do a great job to put out some information on his background, such as a bio. Why still beats me! But at least his website has links to some reviews, and the folks who wrote them apparently got some insights from him.

Additionally, when you google Hayes, his birthday pops up as June 17, 1978, which means he’s 42 years old. Apparently, he was born in Buffalo, N.Y. A review by American Blues Scene notes Hayes became interested in the Muscle Shoals scene while browsing record stores as a young man and seeing albums by the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman and Wilson Pickett, who were recorded at FAME. So using different sources, one can kind of get at least a blurry picture of him.

The American Blues Scene review also reveals some of the above studio musicians and artists they backed: Bassist Bob Wray (Ray Charles, The Marshall Tucker Band), electric piano and organ player Clayton Ivey (Etta James, B.B. King), trumpet and flugelhorn player Vinnie Ciesielski (Gladys Knight, Lyle Lovett), saxophonist and flute player Brad Guin (Jason Isbell) and rhythm guitarist Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt, Levon Helm). I mean, damn, let’s face it, Hayes isn’t exactly Stevie Wonder, so having gotten all these musicians is really something!

And the list continues. Also on the record are backing vocalists Marie Lewey and Cindy Walker, aka The Muscle Shoals Singers. Moreover, Hayes secured some impressive “outsiders”: Trombone player Billy Bargetzi (The Temptations, The Four Tops, The O’Jays, Bobby Vinton) and trumpet player Ken Watters (Natalie Cole, W.C. Handy Jazz All-Stars). Hayes provides lead guitar and vocals. And, as I stated in my last Best of What’s New, he co-produced My Claim to Fame with John Gifford III, who assisted with engineering Gregg Allman’s final studio album Southern Blood. Okay, on to the real fun part!

Here’s opener Sweet to Me. Like all tunes on the album, it was written by Hayes. He’s definitely got soul. I also think his voice isn’t bad.

Parking Lot Romance is another great tune. It openly pays homage to Ray Charles, undoubtedly one of Hayes’ musical heroes.

Want a bit of funky soul with a message? Ask and you shall receive! Hey, hey, hey, hey, here’s Political Funk.

Next up: No Second Chances. Frankly, I could have picked any other tune. They all sound great, in my opinion!

The last song I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer Saddest Picture of Me.

You might say, ‘Hayes isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel on this record.’ That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, I feel these recordings are beautifully executed, making My Claim to Fame a joyful listening experience. I’m curious to see what Hayes is going to come up with next. I feel with this album he set a high bar for himself.

Sources: Mick Hayes website; American Blues Scene; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Jessy Wilson/Phase

Does it sometimes happen to you as well that suddenly you remember an artist you really liked when you first discovered them but then they somehow completely disappeared from your radar screen? That’s exactly the experience I had earlier today with Muddy Magnolias and their fantastic debut album Broken People from October 2016. I had first come across this urban-R&B-meets-country-and-delta-blues duo of Jessy Wilson and Kallie North in August 2017 and blogged about the record’s title track here.

So when I checked whether they had released any new music in the meantime, it turned out North had left at the end of 2017. That’s too bad since I really dug their sound! But there was some good news. I couldn’t find any trace of North but learned Wilson went on to release her solo debut Phase in May 2019. And while at least initially I don’t like it as much as Broken People, there are some pretty intriguing tunes on this album.

MuddyMagnolias
Jessy Wilson (left) and Kallie North

Before getting to the record, I’d like to say a few words about Wilson. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, listening to artists like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z and Biggie. After high school, Wilson became a backup singer, working and touring with artists like Alicia Keys, Usher, Kanye West, Faith Hill and Macy Gray. She also met John Legend who became her mentor. In 2013, she decided to strike out on her own as a full-time songwriter and moved to Nashville, Tenn.

There she met North, who originally hailed from Beaumont, Texas, and had worked as a photographer before deciding to pursue a career in music. Eventually, Muddy Magnolias got to Third Generation Records, which released their above-mentioned debut in October 2016. North left at the end of 2017. While her departure was a surprise to those following the band and no official reason was given at the time, Wilson during a November 2019 interview with NPR said she had seen it coming. Unlike Wilson who had been well accustomed to the ebbs and flows of the music business and the demands of touring, the lifestyle became too overwhelming for a married woman like North whose husband as a farmer could not accompany her on the road.

20191014_jessywilson_wc4

Wilson decided to soldier on by herself. Not only that but she already had decided she wanted to work with Patrick Carney, drummer for the Black Keys. “Growing up in New York listening to hip hop…but still loving rock & roll music, I really became infatuated with the Black Keys,” Wilson told NPR. “And it was not just because it was rock music, it was music that was informed by all of the other stuff I really love. You know, when I would listen to Dan’s (Auerbach) vocals, I could hear Smokey Robinson in there. When I would listen to Patrick’s drumming, I could hear like that Wu-Tang girth, just like swag…for my ears and my taste, they were the only rock band that struck me that had like that swag, that street swag.”

Apparently, it took Wilson some time to convince Carney who initially did not appear to be impressed with her songs. But eventually, he agreed to work with her. This resulted in 11 tracks that with one exception are all co-written by Wilson, Carney and Jim McFarlin. In addition to being the producer, Carney also provides drums, bass, guitar and keyboards. McFarlin handles keyboards and backing vocals, while Wilson sings lead and backing vocals and plays keyboards. Other musicians on the album include Casey Kaufman (cello) and Steve Marion (guitar). Let’s get to some music.

Here’s the great opener Oh, Baby!

Clap Your Hands is an intriguing mix of hip hop, rock and R&B. Here’s the official video.

Waiting On… is a beautiful soulful ballad and a standout on the album. The tune is credited to an army of people who in addition to Wilson, Carney, McFarlin and Wilson’s former partner Kallie North include Luke Enyeart, Weldon Irvine, Calvin Knowles and interestingly Nina Simone. Not sure what the deal with Simone is – perhaps they sampled a part of one of her songs.

Another cool tune is aptly called Stay Cool.

Let’s do one more: Cold In the South.

Phase definitely is outside my core wheelhouse. But lately, the boundaries of that core wheelhouse have started to become a bit fuzzy. Plus, at the end of the day what really matters is whether I dig music or not.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; AllMusic; YouTube

James Taylor Releases American Songbook Cover Album

I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.

I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.

So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”

James Taylor in this studio
James Taylor in his barn studio in Western Mass.

“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”

Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.

Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.

Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.

My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King ColeElla Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.

American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.

Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube

My Favorite Female Vocalists

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of vocals. Oftentimes, this becomes clear to me when listening to instrumental music. After a while, something seems to be missing. So I thought it would be fun to think about my favorite vocalists and feature some of them in a post. And since much of the blog is focused on male artists, I decided to keep the list to females. While I can’t deny a certain bias for artists I generally dig for their music, this selection first and foremost is based on vocal ability that grabs me. And with that let’s roll.

I’d like to kick things off with Annie Lennox, who of course is best known for Eurythmics, her pop duo with Dave Stewart, which became a powerhouse during the ’80s. Following Eurythmics’ hiatus in 1990, Lennox launched a solo career. Here’s Why, a beautiful tune that nicely showcases her amazing voice. She wrote this song for her solo debut album Diva released in April 1992.

Alicia Keys is an artist I rarely listen to, but every time I do what typically stands out to me is her vocal performance. One of her most compelling songs I know in this context is called Fallin’. Written by Keys, it was included on her debut record Songs in A Minor from June 2001. Listening to this tune gives me goosebumps!

Carole King needs no further introduction. I’ve been a fan from the first time I heard her 1971 album Tapestry. Since my sister who had this record on vinyl was a young teenager then, I must have been eight years old or so. I didn’t understand a word of English. But King’s beautiful music and voice were more than enough to immediately attract me. From Tapestry here is Way Over Yonder.

Next, I’d like to highlight an artist I bet most readers don’t know, though frequent visitors of the blog may recall the name of the band she’s in: Tierinii Jackson, the powerful lead vocalist of Southern Avenue. This contemporary band from Memphis, Tenn. blends traditional blues and soul with modern R&B. I’ve covered them on various previous occasions, most recently here in connection with a concert I saw. That lady’s voice is something else, especially live! Check out Don’t Give Up, a great tune co-written by Jackson and Southern Avenue guitarist Ori Naftaly. It’s from their eponymous debut album that came out in February 2017.

Another artist I dig both as a guitarist and a vocalist is Bonnie Raitt. In fact, I have to admit, I’ve really come to love her over the years, so there could be a bit of bias at play. But I don’t care what you may think, Raitt does have a great voice. One of my favorite songs she recorded is Angel from Montgomery written by John Prine. It appeared on Raitt’s fourth studio album Streetlights from September 1974.

Perhaps the artist with the most distinctive voice in this playlist is Stevie Nicks. No other vocalist I know sounds like her. The first tune that came to mind was Landslide, a timeless gem she wrote and recorded with Fleetwood Mac on their second eponymous studio album released in July 1975, the tenth overall in their long catalog.

An artist who to me was both an amazing performer and a great vocalist is Tina Turner – I say was, since she retired from performing in 2009. I was going to feature a song from her 1984 Private Dancer album, but then I thought what could possibly be better than her killer version of John Fogerty’s Proud Mary. Her initial recording is from 1971 as part of Ike & Tina Turner. Instead, I decided to select this clip capturing an amazing and extended live performance. I’ve been fortunate to see Tina Turner twice, including this tune. It was mind-boggling! Every now and then, she liked to do things nice and easy. But somehow she never ever seemed to do nothing completely nice and easy. Why? Because she liked to do it nice and rough. Go, Tina!

No list of my favorite female vocalists would be complete without Linda Ronstadt. Here is her beautiful cover of When Will I Be Loved. Written by Phil Everly, this great tune was first released by The Everly Brothers in May 1960, giving them a top 10 hit. Ronstadt’s version, which was included on her fifth solo album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974, became even more successful, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It’s not hard to see why!

The next artist in this playlist may be the biggest surprise, at least for folks who have read previous posts: Christina Aguilera. Yep, an artist I have never covered, since I generally don’t listen to her music. But I think she’s one of the best female vocalists I know. Beautiful is a powerful ballad written by Linda Perry, the former lead vocalist of 4 Non Blondes, who has a pretty decent voice herself. Aguilera recorded the track for her fourth studio album Stripped that appeared in October 2002. To me, singing doesn’t get much better!

This brings me to the final artist I’d like to highlight – Aretha Franklin. No playlist of female vocalists would be complete without the Queen of Soul either! In addition to being a songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist, Franklin was an incredible singer. Here’s her cover of the beautiful Sam Cooke song A Change Is Gonna Come from her 10th studio album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, released in March 1967. I was reminded of this great record by hotfox63, who covered it the other day.

Sources: Wikipedia; 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

If You Can’t See The One You Love, See The One You Can – Part 2

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I generally dig tribute bands and wrote a feature about some of them about a year ago. While then I did not plan a part 2, the reality is I’ve seen many more tribute acts than I could ever feature in one post. So, who knows, this may turn into a series of occasional posts with additional parts in the future. For now, I’d like to focus on part 2. Since I couldn’t figure out in which order to lists the acts, I decided to do so alphabetically.

Almost Queen

As their name suggests, this band is a tribute to Queen. While I could not find public information on the backgrounds of the musicians, these guys from New York surely impressed me when I saw them last September at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J. Almost Queen are Joseph Russo as Freddie MercurySteve Leonard as Brian MayRandy Gregg as John Deacon and John Cappadona as Roger Taylor. Their delivery of four-part harmonies and Queen’s music, combined with their looks, make for a fun live experience. More information on the band and their impressive touring schedule that extends beyond the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, can be found on their website and Facebook page. Here’s a sample: We Will Rock You and We Are The Champions.

Beginnings

This tribute to Chicago is one of the most compelling tribute bands I’ve seen, and without meaning to brag, I’ve seen many! Another group from New York, Beginnings is a national act, performing over 100 shows each year – great news for Chicago fans. Founded in the fall of 2002, the band consists of Mason Swearingen (bass, vocals), Johnny Roggio (guitar, vocals), Dan Hendrix (trombone, percussion, vocals), Adam Seely (saxophone, percussion), Doug Woolverton (trumpet, percussion), Scott Chasolen (keyboards, vocals) and Chris Milillo (drums, vocals). Beginnings’ impressive member credits include recording and performing with artists like Peter Frampton, Don Henley, Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and Blood Sweat & Tears, and awards like the Billboard Songwriter’s Award and ASCAP Songwriter’s Award – frankly, way too many credits I can list here! Check out their website and Facebook page for more information. Here’s a great rendition of Just You ‘N’ Me I saw during a recent summer concert. BTW, the band mostly focuses on Chicago’s early and in my opinion best work.

Brit Floyd

This amazing tribute to Pink Floyd is the brainchild of musical director Damian Darlington, who also provides vocals and plays guitar and lap steel. Prior to forming the band in Liverpool, England in 2011, he had played for 17 years with long-running Aussie tribute The Australian Pink Floyd Show. The other members of Brit Floyd include Rob Stringer (keyboards, vocals), Ian Cattell (bass, vocals Chapman Stick, trumpet), Edo Scordo (guitar, vocals), Arran Ahmum (drums), Thomas Ashbrook (keyboards, vocals), as well as backing vocalists Ola BienkowskaAngela CervantesRoberta FreemanEmily Jollands and Jacquie Williams – quite a mighty line-up! For more on this band, read my previous post from March of this year when I saw them in Bethlehem, Pa., and visit their website and Facebook page. Here’s Brit Floyd with Pink Floyd classic Comfortably Numb.

Decade

I have mentioned Decade on previous occasions, but as a huge Neil Young fan, I simply couldn’t resist to include this fantastic tribute from New Jersey in this post. The band revolves around singer-songwriter and Neil Young tribute artist John Hathaway. A life-long fan of Young, Hathaway has faithfully studied this artist in and out, and it shows. While he typically focuses on capturing the music, he can also act like Young, which I have witnessed myself. To bring the Canadian artist’s music to life in its full mighty, Hathaway is usually backed by a varying line-up of other long-time musicians. This clip of Old Man was captured during a gig earlier this year at Tim McLoone’s Super Club in Asbury Park. The backing musicians that night included Gordon Bunker Strout (guitar, backing vocals), Pam McCoy (backing vocals), John Dickson (bass), Bob Giunco (drums), Thomas Stevenson (banjo),  Dave O’Brien (pedal steel guitar), Jeff Levine (keyboards) and James Doyle (guitar, banjo). More information about Decade and John Hathaway is available on Facebook here and here.

The Doobie Others

I really dig The Doobie Brothers, so a tribute I came across last month caught my immediate attention. Ingeniously called The Doobie Others, this six-piece band from New York and New Jersey features Pat Montefusco (lead vocals, guitar), Joe Torres (lead vocals, percussion), Eddie Profet Jr. (bass, backing vocals), Allan Korenstein (keyboards, backing vocals), Mike Quadrino (saxophone, keyboards, backing vocals), Ron Lovisa (lead guitar) and Jim Del (lead & backing vocals, drums). While The Doobie Others mostly seem to perform in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tri-state area, their current schedule shows they occasionally venture out to other states on the East Coast. For more information, check their website and Facebook page. Here’s the band in action with Jesus Is Just Alright. Captured during a summer concert last month, the footage doesn’t do their high musical caliber full justice, but I feel you still get a good idea.

Free Fallin

This band from Minneapolis is a great tribute to Tom Petty, one of my all-time favorite artists. Founded in September 2007 and named after one of Petty’s songs, Free Fallin  are Tom Brademeyer (as Tom Petty, guitar & lead vocals), Mark Larsen (as Stan Lynch, drums), Russ Lund (as Ron Blair, bass), Karl Swartz (as Mike Campbell, guitar & vocals), Dale Peterson  (as Benmont Tench, keyboards, percussion & vocals) and Craig Volke (as Scott Thurston, guitar, keyboards, harmonica, percussion & vocals). Free Fallin is a full-time tribute band performing throughout the U.S. and even internationally. Check out their website and Facebook page, as well as this cover of Refugee from last year’s Rock The Farm Festival in Seaside Heights, N.J., which I previously covered here.

Good Stuff

Good Stuff is another outstanding tribute act I covered before here, but similar to Decade, I did not want to leave them out – how could I as a huge Steely Dan fan? Formed about a year ago and named after a Donald Fagen tune, Good Stuff features Mike Caputo (lead vocals), Don Regan  (guitar), Axel Belohoubek  (keyboards), Jay Dittamo  (drums), Scott Hogan (bass), Phil Armeno (saxophones, flute) and vocalists  Deanna Carroll and Linda Ferrano. Among them, these professional musicians have very impressive credits, such as tour pre-production for Madonna and David Bowie, and touring musicians for Chuck BerryBo DiddleyThe Duprees , The Les Paul TrioJose Feliciano and  Keith Emerson – yep, that Keith of ELP. Similar to Beginnings, there is too much to list. I should also mention that in addition to Steely Dan, the band performs music by Gino Vannelli, Sting and Stevie Wonder. While this may look somewhat arbitrary, combining music from these four artists works pretty well. The key is selecting songs that have a common denominator, which is a jazz influence. Check out more about this unique tribute act on their website and Facebook page. Oh, and here’s My Old School.

Kiss The Sky

With the 50th anniversary of Woodstock going on, I’d like to close this post with a compelling tribute act to Jimi Hendrix. Again, if you are a frequent reader of the blog, the name Kiss The Sky may sound familiar, since I covered them before here. The band revolves around Jimi Hendrix tribute artist Jimy Bleu, who actually met Hendrix in 1968 as a teenager. The following year, Bleu attended Woodstock and got one of the guitar straps Hendrix used during his performance there. You can read more about his cool background story in the above post. Kiss The Sky covers music from both the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Band of Gypsys. Bleu’s excellent backing musicians for The Experience include bassist A.J. Hager as Noel Redding and drummer Ted Edwards as Mitch Mitchell. The Band of Gypsys tribute features Jay Powerz as Billy Cox (bass) and James Jaxon as Buddy Miles (drums). You can find more information about this tribute act on their Facebook page. I also encourage you to check out this clip of Voodoo Child I took last October. Filming conditions weren’t ideal, but I think the footage still gives a good impression about this outstanding band.

Pictured in the image on top of the post are (clockwise from upper left corner) Almost Queen, Beginnings, Brit Floyd and Jimy Bleu/Kiss The Sky.

Sources: Almost Queen website and Facebook page; Beginnings website and Facebook page; Brit Floyd website and Facebook page; Decade and John Hathaway Facebook pages; The Doobie Others website and Facebook page; Free Fallin website and Facebook page; Good Stuff website and Facebook page; Kiss The Sky Facebook page; YouTube