What I’ve Been Listening To: Elvis Presley/Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite

1973 concert showed Elvis at his last peak as the world around him started to crumble

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After recently watching the excellent two-part HBO documentary The Searcher, I’ve gained new appreciation for Elvis Presley. He was my music idol as a young kid; I even tried to impersonate him. Then I discovered The Beatles and other artists, and quickly realized there was more to music than Elvis. While I didn’t start to dislike him, it’s fair to say he slowly faded away in my mind.

Although Elvis was called the “King of Rock & Roll,” he didn’t invent rock & roll, but similar to Chuck Berry, I believe classic rock & roll would have been different without him. In the case of Elvis it was the interpretation of the music, and how he mixed rock & roll with other genres like country, gospel and R&B. He was also an ace vocalist and to me one of the best performers of all time, especially during the early part of his career in the ’50s. Nobody was moving like Elvis.

Elvis Presley 1956

Of course, one cannot think about Elvis without acknowledging the mediocre movies, in which he appeared during much of the ’60s and for which he was asked to perform mostly forgettable songs. Much of that had to do with Elvis manager Colonel Tom Parker, who had full control over Elvis and clearly didn’t care much about him. Luckily, Elvis stood up to Parker when it came to the 1968 NBC special, where Parker wanted him to perform Christmas songs in a Santa suit. Instead, Elvis embraced the vision of producer Steve Binder to sing his old hits and play with his old band.

While the NBC special was a big success and marked the beginning of a comeback for Elvis, Parker continued to exert major influence. Elvis had always wanted to perform abroad, but Parker without his knowledge turned down lucrative offers for international tours. That is because Parker actually was an illegal immigrant and was concerned his status would be exposed when traveling abroad. And, no, Parker wasn’t Mexican or came from a “shit hole country,” he was a white man born in the Netherlands.

This brings me to Aloha From Hawaii. A concert to be broadcast worldwide via satellite conveniently allowed Parker to tell Elvis it would give him a chance to perform for the entire planet without having to travel to other countries. While Parker’s plan succeeded, fortunately, Elvis once again listened to the event’s producer Marty Pasetta, who suggested various ideas how to make the show more engaging. By the time Elvis stepped out on stage on January 14, 1973, he had shed 25 pounds and was a confident man, even though the world around him already had started to crumble and would rapidly deteriorate after his divorce from Priscilla Presley had become effective in October that year. Time for some music.

First up: Burning Love. Written by country songwriter Dennis Linde and first recorded by country and soul artist Arthur Alexander in 1972, it was covered by Elvis the same year. It became his biggest hit since Suspicious Minds in 1969 and his last top 10 single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 2.

You Gave Me A Mountain shows the soulful side of Elvis. The tune was written in the ’60s by country singer-songwriter Marty Robbins. While the lyrics aren’t autobiographic, you cannot escape the pain in these words and wonder what Elvis must have felt singing the tune. When I listened to it this morning, I have to say it really touched me.

Elvis’ rendition of Steamroller Blues is one of the highlights of the show. In fact, I knew this version a long time before I listened to the original by James Taylor. Taylor originally recorded the tune for his second studio album Sweet Baby James, which appeared in February 1970.

Another standout is Fever, which Elvis initially included on Elvis Is Back!, his tenth studio album from April 1960 and the first record after his discharge from the U.S. Army. The song was co-written by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell and first recorded by American R&B singer Little Willie John as the title track for his 1956 debut record.

Suspicious Minds remains one of my favorite Elvis songs to this day. It was written by American songwriter Mark James who also recorded it in 1968. But it became a flop and was given to Elvis, who released it as a single in August 1969. His version became a major hit that topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada, and peaked at no. 2 in the UK.

The last tune I’d like to call out is A Big Hunk O’Love. Co-written by Aaron Schroeder and Sidney Wyche, the rocker was cut by Elvis in June 1958 and released as a single a year later. It was the only recording session Elvis did during his two-year service in the Army.

Aloha From Hawaii aired in over 40 countries across Asia and Europe. Notably, it wasn’t shown live in the U.S., since it coincided with the Super Bowl. So NBC waited until April 4, 1973 before broadcasting an edited version of the concert.

The worldwide audience for the show was estimated between 1 and 1.5 billion – more people than watched the moon landing. At $2.5 million, it was the most expensive entertainment special at the time.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

 

Well, If You Ever Plan To Motor West…

Just take my way, it’s the highway, it’s the best…

Get your kicks on Route 66. These lines of course are the beginning of the opening verse from the well-known R&B standard composed by American songwriter Bobby Troup in 1946. Frequent readers of the blog may notice it’s not the first time I write about this tune. So what’s going on here?

To me Route 66 simply is one of the best car songs I know, along with Highway Star, Born To Be Wild (wait, isn’t that from a famous picture about bikers?) and Radar Love, to name a few others. And, yes, I also enjoy driving and believe a road trip is the best way to explore the U.S., even though it sounds so 20th century! Heck, most of the music I like is from that period as well, so I guess I’m living in the wrong century!

Now that my slight obsession with Route 66 and car travel is out of the way, I thought it would be fun to put together a playlist of different versions of the song. The tune has been covered by numerous artists over the decades. In fact, if I would look long enough, it might even be possible to find 66 versions. While perhaps that may be clever, it would be a bit of overkill, even for a Route 66 fan like me. Therefore, I’d like to keep this post to six versions.

Let’s kick things off from the beginning with the first recording of the tune by the King Cole Trio. BTW, the song’s full title is (Get Your Kicks) On Route 66. This first recorded version was released in 1946, some 72 years ago! I love that jazz groove and how relaxed the musicians are playing in this clip. It shows that great music stands the test of time.

Next up is the excellent cover by Chuck Berry. He included it on his fifth studio LP from March 1961 New Juke Box Hits. Unlike many of his other tunes he had released before then, it didn’t become a hit. Neither did the record, which came out while Berry was in legal trouble that led to 1.5 years of incarceration starting in 1962 – not good for PR!

Perhaps one of the best known covers is the version by The Rolling Stones, which appears on both their 1964 UK and US debut records The Rolling Stones and The Rolling Stones (England’s Newest Hit Makers), respectively. Instead, I’m highlighting the 1965 cover by Them from that band’s debut The Angry Young Them. I like this take even better than the Stones, and I say this as a Stones fan. The musicians are giving a killer performance here, including great piano and guitar solos, while Van Morrison’s voice is a bit reminiscent of Mick Jagger. They don’t call him Van the Man for nothing!

Another cool hard-charging cover of Route 66 is by British pub rockers Dr. Feelgood. They included the tune on their 1975 debut Down By The Jetty. I’d go see these guys in a bar!

And how about a largely a cappella version by The Manhattan Transfer? If I see it correctly, the jazz vocal group first recorded Route 66 for their eighth studio album Bop Doo-Wopp, released in 1984. The clip below apparently was captured during a 2008 live performance. There is just something special about a vocal band, particularly if they can sing like these guys!

The last Route 66 cover I’m including here is another nice jazzy version by an unexpected artist: Glenn Frey. I also like the touch of country created by the pedal steel guitar. This version appears on Frey’s final studio album After Hours from May 2012, a collection of tunes from the Great American Songbook. It proves what a versatile artist Frey was. Here’s the official video – makes me want to snip my fingers right along with the groove.

While I understand there is very little left of the Mother Road, one of these years, I’d like to take that California trip from Chicago to LA, more than 2,000 miles all the way – according to Wikipedia, the original Route 66 covered a total of 2,448 miles. Maybe something for my 66th birthday? Okay, I guess I’m starting to overthink it now!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Rod Stewart & The Faces With Keith Richards/Sweet Little Rock & Roller

While looking for clips of The New Barbarians after listening to their excellent album Buried Alive: Live In Maryland, I came across the above gem: Rod Stewart & The Faces with Keith Richards as a guest, performing an amazing version of the Chuck Berry classic Sweet Little Rock & Roller. Apparently, this footage was captured during a gig in London in December 1974.

Not only are the musicians killing it, but Stewart proves he once was a bad ass rock vocalist. The Faces consisted of Ronnie Wood (guitars, vocals), Ian McLagan (piano, organ, vocals), Kenney Jones (drums) and Tetsu Yamauchi (bass). Richards, Wood and McLagan would also become part of The New Barbarians, a band formed by Wood and Richards in 1979 to support Wood’s third solo album Gimme Some Neck.

Sweet Little Rock & Roller was first released by Berry as a single in October 1958. It is also included on his third studio album Chuck Berry Is On Top, which appeared in July 1959. Like many of Berry’s songs, Sweet Rock & Roller has been covered by various other artists over the years. I don’t believe I’ve heard a better version than the above.

Sources: Wikipedia, Setlist.fm, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Gary Clark Jr., Jon Batiste & Joe Saylor/Ain’t That A Shame & Maybellene (Medley)

The above clip captures one of the highlights from Sunday night’s 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremony: Gary Clark Jr. teaming up with Jon Batiste and Joe Saylor, the leader and drummer of the house band of the Late Night Show With Stephen Colbert, respectively, for Ain’t That A Shame and Maybellene. Featuring great piano and guitar solos, the medley was performed in honor of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry, who both passed away last year.

Ain’t That A Shame, co-written by Domino and Dave Bartholomew, appeared on Domino’s 1955 debut album Rock and Rollin’ With Fats Domino. It was also released as a single ahead of the record and became one of his biggest hits, peaking at no. 1 and no. 10 on the Billboard R&B Chart and Hot 100, respectively. Ranked at no. 438 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time list, the tune ended up selling one million copies.

Also recorded and released in 1955, Maybellene is credited to Berry, Russ Fratto and Alan Freed. An adaptation from Ida Red, a Western swing fiddle tune that first had been made famous in 1938 by Bob Willis and The Texas Playboys, Maybellene was Berry’s first single and became his first hit. Like Domino’s Ain’t That A Shame, it reached the top of the Billboard R&B chart and sold one million copies. It climbed to no. 5 on the Hot 100 and is included in the above Rolling Stone list at no. 18. The song also appeared on Berry’s third studio album Chuck Berry Is On Top, released in July 1959.

Sources: Rolling Stone, Wikipedia, YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part IV

Some of the great artists who passed away

In the last installment of this year-in-review feature, I’d like to honor some of the great artists we lost in 2017. With most of my rock & roll heroes having gotten into music during the ’60s and ’70s, decades that ween’t exactly known for a healthy lifestyle, perhaps not surprisingly it has been another rough year for artists from the older generation.

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry’s influence on rock & roll music cannot be overstated. There was simply no known guitarist at the time who could play the electric guitar “like a ringing bell.” In addition to popularizing a signature guitar sound The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds and many other artists embraced in the ’60s, Berry was an incredible showman. To me his “duckwalk” was an equivalent to Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk.”

And then there are of course all the iconic tunes Berry wrote. They read like a greatest hits of classic rock & roll. From Roll Over BeethovenToo Much Monkey Business and  Sweet Little Sixteen to Johnny B. GoodeCarol and Little Queenie – and the list goes on! For additional thoughts on Berry, who passed away in March at the age of 90, you can read this. Here is one of my favorite clips showing Berry perform the iconic Johnny B. Goode with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

J. Geils

J. Geils led what Rolling Stone once called the “world’s greatest party band.” The J. Geils Band emerged in 1968 when Snoopy and the Sopwith Camels, an acoustic blues trio Geils had co-founded with bassist Danny Klein and blues harpist Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz in 1965, added singer Peter Wolf and drummer Stephen Bladd, and later that year keyboarder Seth Justman. Initially, they called the new band The J. Geils Blues Band. Prior to the release of their eponymous 1970 debut album, they dropped “Blues” from their name.

Justman and Wolf wrote most of band’s original material. Geils only has writing credits on their debut album, for which he wrote the instrumental Ice Breaker and co-wrote Hard Drivin’ Man together with Wolf, which I think is the best original tune of the album. Read here for more about J. Geils, who died in April at the age of 71. Below is a clip of Hard Drivin’ Man from the band’s excellent 1972 album Live Full House.

Gregg Allman

Even though I had known Gregg Allman was not in good health, his death in May at age 69 still hit me. From today’s perspective, it’s hard to believe that he and The Allman Brothers Band were late discoveries in my rock & roll journey. I thought a Rolling Stone obituary hit the nail on the head: “Gregg Allman was blessed with one of blues-rock’s great growling voices and, along with his Hammond B-3 organ playing (beholden to Booker T. Jones), had a deep emotional power.”

Allman’s voice and emotional power are also omnipresent on his final studio album Southern Blood, which was released postmortem in September and is among my favorite new records this year. More thoughts on his death and the album are here and here. Following is one of my favorite clips of Allman performing Just Another Rider with his great band from his excellent 2011 album Low Country Blues.

Walter Becker

Walter Becker was best known as Donald Fagen’s longtime partner in Steely Dan, which is hands down one of coolest bands I know. The two met in 1967 at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where they both studied at the time. Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and guitarist Danny Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter  (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). In November 1972, Steely Dan released their excellent debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill. And the rest is history.

For more thoughts on Becker’s untimely death in September at the age of 67, which I learned only recently was caused by esophageal cancer, read this. Here is a great clip of what is perhaps my most favorite Steely Dan tune: Deacon Blues, from their sixth studio album Aja, which was released in 1977. Not sure when that life performance was captured.

Tom Petty

The sudden death of Tom Petty on October 2 at just 66 years was a true shocker. Barely a week earlier, he had wrapped up a successful 40th anniversary tour with The Heartbreakers at the legendary Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Petty founded The Heartbreakers in 1976, together with guitarist Mike Campbell and keyboarder Benmont Tench from his previous band Mudcrutch, as well as Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums).

The Heartbreakers released their eponymous debut album in November 1976. Over the next 38 years, the band put out 12 additional studio records, the last of which was 2014’s Hypnotic Eye. Petty’s impressive studio catalog also encompasses three solo records, two albums with Mudcrutch and two releases with the Traveling Wilburys, the “super group” that in addition to him included Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Ray Orbison. More thoughts on Petty’s death are here. Following is how I prefer to remember him – through his great music. Here’s great clip of Refugee, which has always been one of my favorite Petty tunes.

Other music artists we lost in 2017

Some of the other artists who passed away this year include early rock & roller Fats Domino (89), AC/DC co-founder and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (64), country singer and guitarist Glen Campbell (81), Soundgarden co-founder and lead vocalist Chris Cornell (52), Allman Brothers co-founder and drummer Butch Trucks (69), and jazz, R&B and soul singer Al Jarreau (76).

Sources: Rolling Stone, Wikipedia, YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me

Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)

Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.

Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)

John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.

Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.

Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)

Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.

Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!

New music from young blues rock artists

There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.

Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!

Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.

Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!

Anniversary editions of standout albums

As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.

Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.

The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.

Other notable new releases

It is impossible to cover all new 2017 music I liked, even with breaking down this year-in-review feature into four parts. But at least, I’d like to mention other albums that are noteworthy to me: Ryan Adams/Prisoner (Feb 17), Deep Purple/inFinite (Apr 7), John Mayer/The Search For Everything (Apr 14), Sheryl Crow/Be Myself (April 21), Little Steven/Soulfire (May 19), Chuck Berry/Chuck (Jun 9), Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Jun 16), Alice Cooper/Paranormal (July 28), Steve Winwood/Greatest Hits Live (Sep 1), Ringo Starr/Give More Love (Sep 15), The Church/Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Oct 6), Bob Seger/I Knew You When (Nov 17), U2/Songs Of Experience (Dec 1) and The Rolling Stones/On Air (Dec 1).

The next part of this year-in-review feature will look at some of concerts I attended this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Making Your Christmas Groove

A list to get you into the mood for that most wonderful time of the year

When I was looking back at previous posts on the blog, I came across a list of Christmas rock, soul, rap and pop tunes I had put together last year. For the most part, I still stand behind it and thought it would be fitting to publish a slightly updated version.

One of the things I liked to do during the Christmas holiday while growing up in Germany many moons ago was to listen to my favorite radio station, which was then called SWF III. At that time of the year, the DJs would frequently play song requests from listeners. Not surprisingly, Christmas pop and rock songs were high in demand. Some of these tunes became seasonal anthems, such as Wham’s Last Christmas, Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time and Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas. Okay, maybe these are not the most compelling examples, but these tunes come to mind first when I think about those times.

Some folks may cringe about the thought of pop and rock artists dressing up as Santa and performing Christmas songs, whether they are covers of traditional tunes or new songs with holiday themes. Others may get cynical about music artists and record companies all for a sudden discovering Jesus and Santa when people conveniently are willing to spend insane amounts of money on Christmas presents. I get all of that and being cynical about it is not unfounded.

Christmas Rocks

I still think there are some great Christmas rock and pop songs that have come out over the years – in fact, make that over the decades! Plus, let’s be honest, while many traditional Christmas tunes have beautiful melodies, they don’t exactly groove. I don’t know about you, but I like listening to music that makes me want to get up and move – by the way, probably not such a bad thing during the holiday season when many folks like to indulge on food and drink. So how about rockin’ and rollin’ off that of these extra calories!

Below are some clips of some of my favorite Christmas rock and pop tunes in no particular order: From John Lennon’s haunting Happy Xmas, to Chuck Berry’s rockin’ & rollin’ Run Rudolph Run, to Run-D.M.C.’s cool rap Christmas in Hollis, to AC/DC’s hard-charging Mistress For Christmas, to a fantastic live version of Feliz Navidad with José Feliciano and Daryl Hall, to the unforgettable James Brown and his funky Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto, these tunes come in many different genres!

John Lennon/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1971)

Chuck Berry/Run Rudolph Run (1958)

The Pogues/Fairytale Of New York (1987)

Run-D.M.C./Christmas In Hollis (1987)

AC/DC/Mistress For Christmas (1990)

José Feliciano/Feliz Navidad (2010)

James Brown/Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto (1968)

Otis Redding/Merry Christmas Baby (posthumous, 1968)

The Ravers/(It’s Gonna Be) A Punk Rock Christmas (1978)

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band/Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (2007

Happy Holiday season!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube