Is Monkee-Mania Still Alive?

Yesterday, I coincidentally listened to a new live album by The Monkees. And, nope, this isn’t some old material somebody had dug out from an archive. It was actually recorded in March 2019 from the so-called Mike & Micky Show and is the first live album released by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, who toured as The Monkees in 2018/2019. No matter how you feel about what initially was a fictitious band created for an American television show in the mid-’60s, listening to the 24 tracks isn’t only fun but also vividly illustrates how many great songs The Monkees have had. Plus, let’s not forget that Nesmith and Peter Tork had instrumental skills from the beginning and Davy Jones was a capable vocalist, while Dolenz eventually learned how to play the drums.

The collection spans the entire 50-plus year catalog of The Monkees. Frankly, I had not realized how active the band had remained in more recent years. Their latest studio album Christmas Party appeared in October 2018. And while it has a Christmas theme, it’s not just pop versions of holiday tunes. It also came out only less than two years after Good Times!, their previous studio release from May 2016. By the way, both of these albums were co-produced by Fountains of Wayne co-founder and key song contributor Adam Schlesinger, who passed away last Tuesday from complications caused by COVID-19. It’s kind of crazy how much the coronavirus already has impacted the music industry in less than two months!

Michael Nesmith & Micky Dolenz
Michael Nesmith (left) & Micky Dolenz

Even after The Monkees had become a “real” band, they largely continued to rely on outside writers like the songwriting duos of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and Jerry Goffin and Carole King. But they also penned some of their songs themselves, especially Michael Nesmith. The album features various tunes he wrote, such as The Girl I Knew Somewhere, Listen to the Band and Papa Gene’s Blues. Two of them, St. Matthew and Auntie’s Municipal Court, the band didn’t perform during their heyday. ‘Nuff talk, let’s get to some music!

The album kicks off with Last Train to Clarksville, the band’s debut single released in August 1966. It’s one of the tunes written by Boyce and Hart. And it’s certainly no coincidence that it sounds very Beatle-esque. Frankly, this is an awesome song that is comparable to some of the mid-’60s tunes by The Beatles, and I say this as a fierce Fab Four fan! Here’s the official video.

Nesmith wasn’t the only member who contributed to the band’s own songs. For Pete’s Sake was co-written by Peter Tork and Joey Richards. The tune appeared on The Monkees’ third studio album Headquarters from May 1967.

A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You, a tune written by Neil Diamond, was the band’s third single released in March 1967. It didn’t quite match the chart success of their previous smash hit I’m a Believer, but still climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, hit no. 1 in Canada, and reached the top 10 in many other countries. It’s a fun tune that reminds me a bit of That’s What I Like About You by The Romantics.

Next up, one of the above noted Nesmith tunes: Papa Gene’s Blues. As Nesmith points out, it’s an acoustic version. Originally, that song appeared on The Monkees’ eponymous debut album from October 1966. Apart from the track, it’s kind of entertaining to listen to the announcement, with Nesmith and Dolenz trading jokes.

Let’s do two more. I’ve always loved these tunes and simply couldn’t skip them. Daydream Believer, written by John Stewart, is a track from the band’s fifth studio album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees released in April 1968. It’s the perfect sing-along, and not surprisingly, Mike & Micky asked the audience to join them – feel free to follow their lead!

And, of course, no concert by The Monkees would be complete without I’m a Believer. Their second single from November 1966 and biggest hit topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and numerous European countries is another Neil Diamond composition. It also was included on the band’s sophomore album More of the Monkees, which came out in January 1967.

At the time Nesmith and Dolenz were planning their 2018/2019 tour, Tork was still alive but declined to join. Sadly, he since passed away in February 2019. Jones had died seven years earlier in February 2012. Initially, Nesmith and Dolenz had planned to take their show out on the road again in the U.S. and Canada starting later this month. But given COVID-19, most dates have been pushed back until July and September. The current schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Monkees website; 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

Clips & Pix: Carole King/Beautiful

Today, Carole King turned 78 years. She’s one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time, so it felt right to post something. And what could possibly be better than selecting a tune titled Beautiful!

Moreover, this song is from Tapestry, the timeless 1971 gem that means a lot to me. This record, together with a few others (all vinyl, of course), marked the start of my journey into the beautiful world of music in the mid-’70s.

Happy birthday!

Sources: Wikipedia; 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

Clips & Pix: Carole King/New Year’s Day

Everybody makes a dream this time of year
From now on it’s gonna be good for you
All your friends and family
Gather ’round in peace and harmony…

I came across the above clip this morning and felt it was the perfect tune to post on New Year’s Day. Carole King recorded this beautiful song for her holiday album A Holiday Carole, released in November 2011.

The track was co-written by Louise Goffin, the daughter of Carole and Jerry Goffin, and English songwriter, musician and record producer Guy Chambers. Louise, who not only has a striking resemblance to her mother but is a singer-songwriter as well, also produced the album, which received a Grammy nomination.

…And it could be the time of your life
Everything’s gonna turn out alright
It’ll be okay, in every way makin’ it better
It’s New Year’s Day…

Such uplifting words – dig it! Hope you will as well.

Happy New Year!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Carole King/Believe In Humanity

And I thought I had known Carole King pretty well! Yes, I had been aware of her versatility as a songwriter, especially during the ’60s with her husband Gerry Goffin. But I had not been quite prepared for the above tune, Believe In Humanity, from Live At Montreux 1973, which came out in September. This great live album captures a 1973 show at the Montreux Pavillon in Switzerland, conducted as part of the Montreux Jazz Festival.

I don’t recall having heard King as soul and funk-oriented as on this track. This is really cool! I figured some readers who may know her primarily from the iconic and very different Tapestry album, may be surprised as well.

Undoubtedly, much of Believe In Humanity’s groove has do do with King’s 11-piece backing band that featured six horn and woodwind players, among others. Originally, Believe In Humanity appeared on her fifth solo album Fantasy from June 1973, a record I had hardly known. Oh, well, now I do!

According to King’s website, the material from Fantasy “was, at the time, untested.  To up the stakes, almost everything about the new music broke with Carole’s past.  This was her first attempt at a song cycle, a format which purposely blurs the songs into an unbroken piece, starting and ending with two distinct versions of the title track.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Carole King website; YouTube

 

Clips & Pix: Carole King/It’s Too Late

When I saw that clip, I didn’t have to think twice about posting it: Carole King performing It’s Too Late on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. King was backed by the show’s excellent house band The Roots. Live music really doesn’t get much better!

Written by her (music) and Toni Stern (lyrics), the beautiful tune appeared on the  Tapestry album, a timeless gem and a record that after more than 40 years when I listened to it for the first time remains one of my all-time favorites.

King who turned 77 years old in February looks and sounds fantastic. Her appearance on Jimmy Fallon occured ahead of her performance at Global Citizen Festival 2019 in New York City’s Central Park on September 28. Frankly, that event had completely escaped my attention. I had all been focused on Rock the Farm, a great annual music tribute festival and fundraising event for after drug rehab programs, which also happened on September 28 and which I previously covered here.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube