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

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

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

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

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

– Re-Post –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– End of Re-Post –

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

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

Clips & Pix: Neil Young & Graham Nash/Birds (Demo)

This nice demo of Neil Young and Graham Nash performing Young’s Birds appears on the massive Déjà Vu 50th Anniversary Reissue that appeared last Friday, May 14. In addition to remastered edits of the original tunes, the reissue features 38 previously unreleased tacks, including session recordings, outtakes and demos.

Déjà Vu, the sophomore studio album by Crosby, Stills & Nash, and their first as a quartet with Neil Young, originally was released on March 11, 1970. Due to the pandemic and some bad blood between the former band mates, the reissue was delayed by more than a year. Plus, as Rolling Stone sarcastically reported, these guys always broke the rules, starting with the use of their names as a band.

While I’ve only heard bits and pieces so far, the reissue looks like something fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are going to enjoy. More casual listeners of CSNY will probably get less out of it. The box set is available in five-vinyl-LP and four-CD/ one vinyl-LP formats. Both boxes come with a 12×12 hardback book.

While David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young at least each gave their blessing to the reissue, it mostly appears to have been Nash and Stills who were committed to it. Among the additional tracks, Young is only represented with two: The above Birds and an alternate take of Helpless.

According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Crosby told Rolling Stone, “I am very proud of the record, [but] this is like a repackaging. It’s probably a good thing, but it’s not that big a deal to me. The guy who looks backwards and does this kind of stuff is Nash. He always has been. I don’t really give much of a shit about that.” If anybody was harboring any hope of a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion, insensitive commentary like this certainly doesn’t help!

Let’s end it on a more positive note. Here’s what Nash had to say to Rolling Stone about the demo of Birds with Young. “I know it’s just me and Neil doing it with his acoustic guitar, but that’s a beautiful piece of music. It’s me trying to be the best harmony singer I can be with somebody of the stature of Neil Young. I don’t want to stick out singing extra words that he’s not singing. I have to be on my game. And ‘Birds’ is a perfect example of that.” Young included a piano version of Birds on his third solo album After the Gold Rush from September 1970.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

My Top 5 Debut Albums Turning 50

Earlier this week, I wrote about my top 5 studio albums turning 50 this year. That post was inspired by “Top 50 Albums Turning 50,” a fun program on SiriusXM, Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26) I had caught the other day. But capturing the greatness of 1971 with just five albums really doesn’t do justice to one of the most remarkable years in music, so I decided to have some more fun with it.

This time, I’m looking at great debut albums from 1971. While that caveat substantially narrowed the universe, an initial search still resulted in close to 10 records I could have listed here. Following are my five favorites from that group, again in no particular order.

Electric Light Orchestra/The Electric Light Orchestra

Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO, were formed in Birmingham, England in 1970 by songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, along with drummer Bev Bevan, as an offshoot of British rock band The Move. The idea was to combine Beatlesque pop and rock with classical music. I always thought the result was somewhat weird, feeling like The Beatles and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” on steroids; yet at the same time, ELO created a signature sound and songs that undoubtedly were catchy. The band’s debut album, the only record with Wood, first came out in the UK on December 3, 1971 as The Electric Light Orchestra. In the U.S., it appeared in March 1972, titled No Answer. Fun fact: According to Wikipedia, that title was accidental when a representative from U.S. label United Artists Records unsuccessfully tried to reach an ELO contact in the UK and wrote down “no answer” in his notes. Here’s the record’s opener 10538 Overture, a tune Lynne wrote, which initially was recorded by The Move to become a B-side to one of their singles.

Bill Withers/Just As I Am

Bill Withers got a relatively late start in music. By the time his debut single Three Nights and a Morning appeared in 1967, Withers already was a 29 year-old man who previously had served in the U.S. Navy for nine years. It took another four years before his debut album Just As I Am was released in May 1971. Unlike his first single that went unnoticed, the record became a significant success, reaching no. 35 and no. 37 in the U.S. and Canadian mainstream charts, and peaking at no. 9 on the Billboard Soul charts. Much of the popularity was fueled by lead single Ain’t No Sunshine, one of Withers’ best known songs and biggest hits. Just As I Am was produced by Booker T. Jones, who also played keyboards and guitar. Some of the other musicians on the album included M.G.’s bassist and drummer Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson, Jr., respectively, as well as Stephen Stills (guitar) and Jim Keltner (drums). While Ain’t No Sunshine is the crown jewel, there’s more to this record. Check out Do It Good, a soul tune with a cool jazzy groove, written by Withers.

ZZ Top/ZZ Top’s First Album

While guitarist Billy Gibbons recorded ZZ Tops’s first single Salt Lick (backed by Miller’s Farm) in 1969 with Lanier Greig (bass) and Dan Mitchell (drums), the band’s current line-up with Dusty Hill (bass) and Frank Beard (drums) has existed since early 1970. This makes ZZ Top the longest-running group in music history with unchanged membership. It was also the current line-up that recorded the band’s debut ZZ Top’s First Album released on January 16, 1971. It was produced by Bill Ham, who was instrumental to ZZ Top’s success. Not only did he produce or co-produce all of their records until their 12th studio album Rhythmeen from September 1996, but he also served as the band’s manager until that year. Here’s the great blues rocker Brown Sugar, one of my favorite early ZZ Top tunes written by Gibbons.

Bonnie Raitt/Bonnie Raitt

As a long-time fan of the amazing Bonnie Raitt, picking her eponymous debut album for this post was an easy choice. According to Wikipedia, it was recorded at an empty summer camp located on an island on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota. That location had been recommended to Raitt by John Koerner and Dave Ray, two close friends and fellow musicians. We recorded live on four tracks because we wanted a more spontaneous and natural feeling in the music, a feeling often sacrificed when the musicians know they can overdub their part on a separate track until it’s perfect, Raitt explained in the album’s liner notes. Here’s Mighty Tight Woman written and first recorded by Sippie Wallace as I’m a Mighty Tight Woman in 1926.

America/America

America sometimes are dismissed as a Crosby, Stills & Nash knockoff. I’ve loved this band since I was nine years old and listened for the first to their 1975 compilation History: America’s Greatest Hits, which my six-year older sister had on vinyl. The folk rock trio of Dewey Bunnell (vocals, guitar), Dan Peek (vocals, guitar, piano) and Gerry Beckley (vocals, bass, guitar, piano) released their eponymous debut album on December 26, 1971 in the U.K. That was the year after they had met in London where their parents were stationed with the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. version of the record, which appeared on January 12, 1972, included A Horse with No Name, a song that initially was released as the group’s first single and was not on the UK edition. Remarkably, that single became America’s biggest hit, topping the charts in the U.S., Canada and France, and surging to no. 3 in the UK. Here’s a track from the original UK edition: Sandman written by Bunnell. Beckley and Bunnell still perform as America to this day. Peek left the group in 1977, renewed his Christian faith, and pursued a Christian pop music career. He passed away in July 2011 at the age of 60.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

This is the fourth installment in a row of my recently introduced feature that highlights six random songs I like. I’m becoming cautiously optimistic I can keep up the pace and make this a weekly recurring series.

Clannad/Caisleán Õir

Irish folk group Clannad was formed in 1970 in the parish of Gweedore located on the Atlantic coast in northwest Ireland by siblings Ciarán Brennan, Pól Brennan and Moya Brennan, together with their twin uncles Pádraig Duggan and Noel Duggan. Initially known as Clann as Dobhar and since 1973 as Clannad, according to Wikipedia, the group has adopted various musical styles over the decades. This includes folk, folk rock, as well as traditional Irish, Celtic and new-age music, often incorporating elements of smooth jazz and Gregorian chant. Clannad’s eponymous debut album came out in 1973. They have since released 15 additional studio albums, the most recent of which, Nádúr, appeared in September 2013. The group remains active to this day, with Ciarán, Moya, Pól and Noel still being part of the line-up. Pádraig passed away in August 2016. Caisleán Õir is the breathtaking opener of Macalla, their eighth studio album from 1985. It became one of their most successful records, partially because of a collaboration between U2’s Bono and Clannad vocalist Moya Brennan on the tune In a Lifetime. Macalla brought Clannad on my radar screen in the mid-’80s. The vocals on Caisleán Õir, co-written by Ciarán Brennan and Máire Brennan, still make my neck hair stick up. I recommend using headphones for that tune!

Fretland/Could Have Loved You

Fretland are an Americana band from Snohomish, Wa., which I featured last May in a Best of What’s New installment. Unfortunately, it appears the situation hasn’t changed, and publicly available information on this band continues to be very limited. Fretland were founded by singer-songwriter Hillary Grace Fretland  (vocals, guitar). The line-up also includes Luke Francis (guitar), Jake Haber (bass) and Kenny Bates (drums). Could Have Loved You is the opener and title track of the band’s upcoming sophomore album scheduled for March 26. Here’s the official video of the pretty tune, which was written by Hillary Grace Fretland. Her voice reminds me a bit of Sarah McLachlan.

 John Mellencamp & Carlene Carter/Indigo Sunset

Heartland rock and Americana singer-songwriter John Mellencamp, one of my long-time favorite artists, needs no introduction. To country music fans, the same is probably true for Carlene Carter, the daughter of June Carter Cash and her first husband Carl Smith, who just like June was a country singer. June’s third husband, of course, was the man in black, Johnny Cash. With so much country in the gene pool, it’s perhaps not surprising Carlene became a country artist as well – and a pretty talented one I should add! During Mellencamp’s 2015–2016 Plain Spoken Tour, where Carter opened each show for him, the two artists started writing songs together. Eventually, this resulted in Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, Mellencamp’s 23rd and most recent studio album of original material, which was released in April 2017. Here’s one of the tunes Mellencamp and Carter wrote and performed together, the beautiful Indigo Sunset. I absolutely love this song. Check out the incredibly warm sound. I also think Mellencamp’s and Carter’s voices go perfectly with each other, even though they couldn’t be more different.

Simply Red/If You Don’t Know Me By Now

British pop and soul band Simply Red were formed in Manchester in 1985. They came very strongly right out of the gate with their studio debut Picture Book from October 1985. The album, which spawned various popular singles including Money’s Too Tight (to Mention) and Holding Back the Years, brought the group around smooth lead vocalist and singer-songwriter Mick Hucknall on my radar screen. After a four-year break between 2011 and 2015, they remain active to this day and have released 12 albums as of November 2019. Their amazing cover of If You Don’t Know Me By Now was included on their third album A New Flame that appeared in February 1989. It became hugely successful, topping the charts in the UK, Switzerland and New Zealand, and placing within the top ten in various other countries, except the U.S. where it stalled at no. 22. If You Don’t Know Me By Now was co-written by songwriting and production duo Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who are credited for developing the so-called Philly sound. The tune was first recorded and released in 1972 by Philly soul group Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. Man, Hucknall’s got soul – so good!

America/Ventura Highway

Formed in London in 1970, folk and pop rock group America was one of the bands my sister unknowingly introduced me to as a 7 or 8-year-old. She had their first greatest hits compilation History: America’s Greatest Hits, a fantastic introduction to the group. I realize the trio that originally consisted of Dewey Bunnell (vocals, guitar), Dan Peek (vocals, guitar) and Gerry Beckley (vocals, bass) sometimes is dismissed as a copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even if you think that’s true, I’d consider it to be a compliment; because that comparison largely stems from America’s harmony singing. How many bands can you name that sing in as perfect harmony as CSN? Or America, for that matter? Anyway, Ventura Highway, written by Dewey Bunnell, is the opener of America’s sophomore album Homecoming from November 1972. Every time I hear that song, I picture myself driving in some convertible on the California coastal Highway 1, with the free wind blowin’ through my hair. BTW, America exist to this day, with Bunnell and Beckley still being around. Peek, who left the group in 1977 and became a born again Christian, passed away in July 2011 at the age of 60.

Cream/Strange Brew

You didn’t really think I could do a Sunday Six without at least one ’60s tune, did ya? Of course, you didn’t! I trust you’ve heard about British rock trio of ingenious bassist and vocalist Jack Bruce, guitar god Eric Clapton and drummer extraordinaire Ginger Baker. Co-written by Clapton, producer Felix Pappalardi and Gail Collins, Strange Brew is the opener of Cream’s second studio album Disraeli Gears that came out in November 1967. If you had asked me, I would have bet Sunshine of Your Love was the highest-charting song from the album. Not so, at least not in the U.K. – turns out Strange Brew climbed to no. 17 there, while Sunshine of Your Love peaked at no. 25. In the U.S. it was different. Sunshine surged all the way to no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, while Brew didn’t chart at all. Funny how these things can go – perhaps it was too strange for American taste!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Fistful of Mercy/As I Call You Down

Fistful of Mercy are a supergroup founded by three singer-songwriters in February 2010: Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison, son of George Harrison. According to Wikipedia, it sounds like the band’s formation happened pretty spontaneously. Arthur had asked his friend Harper to accompany him in the studio. In turn, Harper who had met Harrison at a skate park in Santa Monica, suggested that he join the two. Apparently, that’s exactly what happened, and when the three met at Carriage House studio in L.A., they immediately clicked.

Within a short period of time, Harper (lead, harmony, and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, slide guitar), Arthur (lead, harmony, and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards) and Harrison (lead, harmony, and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards) co-wrote and recorded nine acoustic tracks. Subsequently, Harrison reached out to longtime session drummer Jim Keltner to overdub percussion. In addition, Jessy Greene was brought in to contribute violin.

Fistful of Mercy (from left): Ben Harper, Joseph Arthur and Dhani Harrison

The result was As I Call You Down, a beautiful album released in October 2010 under the name of Fistful of Mercy. I had never heard of it or the band until last Friday when I featured Harper in my latest Best of What’s New installment and read up on him a little. Harper’s, Arthur’s and Harrison’s three-part harmony vocals sound great and sometimes remind me of Crosby, Stills & Nash, other times of The Beatles.

While Fistful of Mercy played a series of concerts leading up to and following the release of the album, it doesn’t look like As I Call You Down charted or received much recognition otherwise. With the possible exception of fans of Harper, Arthur and Harrison, I suspect this is a largely obscure record. Well, it may not be widely known, but it sure as heck sounds beautiful to me. Let’s get to some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the opener In Vain or True. Like all of the album’s other eight tracks, the tune is credited to Arthur, Harper and Harrison.

Father’s Son couldn’t be more appropriately titled. When Dhani Harrison starts singing, he really reminds me of this dad. I also dig the bluesy vibe of this track. Check it out.

Here’s the band’s namesake, another great sounding tune.

Let’s mix things up a little with 30 Bones, a beautiful instrumental.

The last tune I’d like to call out is With Whom You Belong, the final track on the “regular” version of the album. There’s an iTunes edition that has live versions of Fistful of Mercy and In Vain or True as bonus tracks. Here’s the official video. Just like the album, it has a charming low key feel to it.

Fistful of Mercy never officially dissolved. In fact, Harper told the Los Angeles Times in August 2016 he, Arthur and Harrison have discussed making additional music. “I think about those songs all the time,” he noted. “My main frustration with Fistful of Mercy is not knowing when the three of us are gonna have the same opening at the same time to get back to the music that’s waiting in the ether for us. We have an email chain that’s going back and forth; we know it’s something we’ve got to do.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Los Angeles Times; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 6

After having done more than 50 installments of this recurring feature, I still find it intriguing what turns up when you look at a specific date throughout music history. I’ve said it before and I say it again: It’s a rather arbitrary way to do this. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all about great music. Without further ado, let’s see what happened on June 6.

1960: Roy Orbison, the rock & roller with an operatic voice, released Only the Lonely, his first big hit peaking at no. 2 in the U.S. and Canada, and topping the charts in Ireland and the U.K. According to Songfacts, it was one of the first tunes Orbison wrote together with Joe Melson. Among others, the two also co-wrote Crying and Blue Bayou. Songfacts also includes the following Orbison told NME in 1980 about writing “sad songs” like Only the Lonely: “I’ve always been very content when I wrote all those songs. By this I’m saying that a lot of people think you have to live through something before you can write it, and that’s true in some cases, but I remember the times that I was unhappy or discontent, and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate, and I certainly couldn’t write a song, no way. All the songs I wrote that were successful were written when I was in a contented state of mind.”

1962: The Beatles came together for their first artist test recording session at EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London. According to The Beatles Bible, the action went down in studio no. 2, where between 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm they recorded four tracks: Besame Mucho, Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why. The session was produced by George Martin with assistant Ron Richards and was the only one to feature Pete Best on drums. Initially, Richards was in charge, and Martin was only brought in after engineer Norman Smith was intrigued with Love Me Do. At the end of the session, which was hampered by quality issues due to the poor equipment The Beatles had brought along, Martin called them to the control room to tell them what they would need to do to become professional recording artists. When none of them reacted, Martin said: “Look, I’ve laid into you for quite a time, you haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?” After an awkward pause, George Harrison responded: “Yeah, I don’t like your tie!” That cracked the ice, and the rest is history. While none of the material recorded at the session was used, four months later, The Beatles featuring Ringo Starr on drums re-recorded Love Me Do with George Martin. Backed by P.S. I Love You, it became their first single (not counting My Bonnie they had recorded with Tony Sheridan in June 1961).

1971: After 23 years on the air, CBS aired the last episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a repeat. The last original telecast, episode no. 1,068, had aired on March 28 of the same year. Originally co-created and produced by Marlo Lewis, the show’s initial title was Toast of the Town. On September 25, 1955, it officially became The Ed Sullivan Show. Countless famous artists performed on the program, such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. CBS and Sullivan were quite conservative, and there were some “controversial” performances on the show. One of the most notorious appearances were The Doors on September 17, 1967. For the song Light My Fire, Jim Morrison had been told to alter the line Girl, we couldn’t get much higher. He complied during the rehearsal, but when it came to the live performance, he sang the original line – committing the ultimate sin! The Doors were never invited back on the program. Here’s a short clip documenting the horrible transgression!

1982: The Peace Sunday: We Have a Dream concert took place at The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which attracted a crowd of 85,000 people. The six-hour event to promote nuclear disarmament featured artists like Tom Petty, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne. It was partly broadcast on ABC Television’s Entertainment Tonight program on the same day. Here’s a clip of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing the Dylan tune With God On Our Side. Dylan first recorded the song for his third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ from January 1964.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts: Music History Calendar; Songfacts; The Beatles Bible; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 2

February 2nd is Groundhog Day in the U.S. and Canada. BTW, I heard that this morning, the groundhog emerged from its burrow and did not see the shadow, which means an early spring! February 2nd also saw the birth of a great songwriter and vocalist, the day before the music died, a recording of a masterpiece and the release of a new album by a Southern Rock staple. Let’s get to it!

1942: Graham William Nash was born in Blackpool, England. Nash, who according to Wikipedia has been active since 1958, is best known for his vocal and songwriting contributions to The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of both bands. Between May 1971 and April 2016, Nash has also released six solo albums. Here’s Myself At Last, a pretty tune from Nash’s most recent solo record This Path Tonight, which appeared in April 2016 and was his first new studio album in 14 years. Like all songs on that record, it was written by Nash and producer Shayne Fontayne. Nash who turned 78 today is planning to embark on a tour of the U.S. and Europe in early March. The current schedule is here. Long may you run!

1959: This was the day before the music died. Rock & rollers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, artistically known as The Big Bopper, played their last gig at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was the 11th show of the 24-date Winter Party Tour through the midwestern U.S. The next scheduled stop was 365 miles away in Moorhead, Minn. Rather than doing the entire trip by bus in freezing temperatures as the musicians had done up to this point, Holly decided to charter a plane to Fargo, N.D., close to Moorhead. Initially, his touring bassist Waylon Jennings was supposed to be one of the three passengers (in addition to the pilot). But he gave his seat to Richardson who had fallen ill with the flu to spare him a gruesome bus trip. The V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza embarked on its fateful flight from Mason City Municipal Airport in the early morning hours of Feb 3 and the rest is history.

The_Day_the_Music_Died

1967: The Beatles were working on their masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at Abbey Road Studios in London, according to The Beatles Bible. While it may not be quite as popular as Jesus, this source captures the ultimate truth about The Fab Four in all of its gory details. During the recording session that evening, Paul McCartney added his lead vocals to the album’s title track, joined by Lennon John and George Harrison in the chorus. For the nerds, and yes, I like that shit, The Beatles Bible further points out their voices were captured on track four of the tape. Track three was used to overdub additional harmonies. Afterwards, a reduction mix was created to free up space on the tape. All instruments were now on track one, and all vocals were on track four. I sharply conclude this left tracks two and three to add additional overdubs. And, yes, separately I read Sgt. Pepper was still recorded in four-track since music studios in London did not start using eight-track tape recorders until late 1967.

1976: Southern rockers Lynryd Skynyrd released Gimme Back My Bullets, their fourth studio album and the second-to-last recorded with original members Ronnie Van Zandt and Allen Collins prior to the October 1977 plane crash. Peaking at no. 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200, it was less successful than Skynyrd’s two previous records. Van Zant and Collins attributed the performance to the loss of the band’s three-guitar attack that had been one of their early hallmarks. While the album didn’t match the Platinum status of the band’s other pre-crash records, it still earned a respective Gold certification in January 1981. Here’s lead single Double Trouble co-written by Van Zandt and Collins.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day in Music; The Beatles Bible; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: David Crosby/Sky Trails

As somebody who considers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to be one of the best vocal harmony bands, you’d think I’d pay more attention to their individual members. With the exception of Neil Young, I guess I simply accepted that the sum is more than the parts. Even if that’s oftentimes true when it comes to top-notch bands, ignoring the parts can mean missing out on great music. Case in point: David Crosby and his album Sky Trails from September 2017, which is only his sixth solo record – pretty remarkable for an artist who released his solo debut in Feb 1971.

David Crosby

With David Crosby having been a founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Still & Nash (CSN), and CSN having been active on and off between 1968 and 2015 – sometimes with, most of the time without Neil Young – I think it’s fair to say most people associate Crosby with the aforementioned bands. But, as noted above, he has released various solo albums. Sky Trails recently popped up as a listening suggestion in my streaming music platform. I’ve since listened a few times to the album and have to say I really dig it. I was also surprised how jazzy it is. I guess I had expected something more folk rock-oriented.

Let’s get to some music and kick it off with the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. This Steely Dan style tune is my favorite on the album. It was written by James Raymond, who produced the record, played keyboards, and, it turns out, is Crosby’s son – one of his four kids, not counting the two children born to Melissa Etheridge via artificial insemination.  Commenting on the tune, Crosby says on his website, “We didn’t consciously do that. We just naturally go to a place where Donald [Fagen] goes. I loved Steely Dan right from the first notes I heard.” Well, the man has good taste!

The album’s dreamy title track was co-written by Crosby with American singer-songwriter and guitarist Becca Stevens. The tune reminds me a bit of music I’ve heard by Clannad. Admittedly, it’s been a long time I’ve listened to the Irish folk band, and it would probably be worthwhile revisiting them. The saxophone fill-ins add a dose of jazz to the tune. “She’s a stunning, amazing singer and a great writer,” Crosby says of Stevens. “I’d rather be in a band with her than almost anybody.”

Here It’s Almost Sunset is a track co-written by Crosby and Mai Agan, an Estonian bass player and composer. It’s another tune on the quieter side. Most tracks on the album are. Again, there are nice saxophone accents. Wikipedia lists three saxophonists who supported the recording, Chris Bullock, Jeff Coffin and Steve Tavaglione, but unfortunately does not reveal who played on which song. Neither do the YouTube clips, which only list the aforementioned core musicians.

Capitol is a protest song co-written by Crosby and Raymond, expressing their less than flattering opinion about legislators: …And you think to yourself/This is where it happens/They run the whole damn thing from here/Money just burns, filling up their pockets/Where no one can see/And no can hear… Sadly, these words seem to ring true more than ever in this country these days.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is called Curved Air. It’s another co-write by Crosby and Raymond. The flamenco guitar sounded was created by Raymond using keyboards. “Hell no, I can’t play like that,” Crosby comments on the track that examines life’s contradictions.  “It’s James on keyboard. So is the bass. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard anybody write singer/songwriter music with flamenco playing.”

In addition to Raymond, Agan and Tavaglione, the core musicians on the album include Jeff Pevar (guitar), British-born, Canadian-raised singer-songwriter Michelle Willis (keyboards, vocals) and Steve DiStanislao (drums). “All the people in the Sky Trails band are much younger than me, so I have to paddle faster to keep up,” Crosby says with a laugh. This was not the first time he had played with them. Between 1996 and 2004, Crosby performed with Raymond and Prevar in the jazz rock band CPR, or Crosby, Prevar & Raymond. DiStanislao and Tavaglione played on CPR albums as well.

David Crosby, who turned 78 years in August, is still going strong. His most recent studio album Here If You Listen appeared in October last year. With four of his seven solo albums having been released since 2014, it appears Crosby is on some sort of late-career surge. He also continues to tour. In fact, he’s currently on the road in the U.S., with confirmed dates until September 17. The tour schedule is here.

There is also a new documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name. Released on July 19, the film was directed by A.J. Eaton and produced by Cameron Crowe, who has known Crosby for many years. Based on the trailer, the film looks intriguing, and I’m going to watch it on Sunday evening at a movie theater in my area.

Sources: Wikipedia, David Crosby website, YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening To: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young/4 Way Street

As oftentimes seems to happen lately, this post was inspired by a coincidence – earlier this week, I spotted 4 Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in my Apple Music album suggestions. While I had been aware of the record (and somewhere still must have a taped recording on music cassette!), unlike Déjà Vu, it had pretty much exited my radar screen. But it didn’t even take the 34 seconds of the opener Suite: Judy Blue Eyes to remind me what a killer album it is. As such, it felt appropriate to dedicate the 50th installment of the What I’ve Been Listening To feature to this gem.

Originally released in April 1971 as a double LP, 4 Way Street captured music from a turbulent 1970 U.S. tour CSNY conducted after the release of Déjà Vu in March that year. It includes material from gigs at Fillmore East (New York, June 2-7), The Forum (Los Angeles, June 26-28) and Auditorium Theatre (Chicago, July 5). CSNY were at a peak both artistically and in terms of tensions between them. Unfortunately, the latter proved to be unsustainable, and they broke up right after the recording of the album.

CSNY 1970
From left to right: Graham Nash, David Crosby, Neil Young and Stephen Stills at Fillmore East, New York, 1970

Of course, CSNY never were a traditional band to begin with, but four exceptional singer-songwriters who ended up playing together, mostly as CSN, with Young becoming an occasional fourth member. Each already had established himself as a member of other prominent bands: Crosby with The Byrds, Stills and Young with Buffalo Springfield, and Nash with The Hollies. Additionally, Crosby had released his first solo album, while the prolific Young already had two solo records out – his eponymous debut and the first album with Crazy Horse.

Given their history and egos, it’s not a surprise that CSNY wasn’t meant to last. But while it was going on, it was sheer magic. Apart from Déjà Vu, I think this live album perfectly illustrates why, so let’s get to some music!

First up: Teach Your Children, undoubtedly one of the best known CSNY songs, first appeared on the Déjà Vu album. The tune was written by Nash when he was still with The Hollies.

Triad is a song Crosby wrote while working with The Byrds on their fifth studio album The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Although they recorded the song and performed it during a live gig in September 1967, it didn’t make the record. Crosby ended up giving it to Jefferson Airplane, and they included it on their fourth studio album Crown Of Creation from September 1968. Perhaps even more intriguing than the tune is listening to Crosby’s announcement.

Chicago is a song by Nash, which he dedicated to Richard Daley, who was then the city’s powerful mayor. It’s about anti-Vietnam war and counter-cultural protests around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the ensuing federal charges against eight protesters who became known as the Chicago Eight for conspiracy to incite a riot. Nash also included the tune on his debut solo album Songs For Beginners, which was released in May 1971.

Cowgirl In The Sand is one of Young’s great early songs, which initially appeared on his second studio album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the first of many he recorded with his backing band Crazy Horse. Songfacts points out the liner notes to Young’s 1977 compilation album Decade explain that he wrote Cowgirl In The Sand, together with Down By The River and Cinnamon Girl in a single afternoon while being sick with a 103 degree temperature – it’s quite amazing what a fever can do!

The last tune on the first LP of 4 Way Street is Still’s Love The One You’re With, which also concludes CSNY’s acoustic set. The song became the lead single to Stills’ eponymous debut album from November 1970. It climbed all the way to no. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his biggest hit single.

The second LP of 4 Way Street captures songs from CSNY’s electric rock-oriented set. Long Time Gone is a tune by Crosby, which was included on CSN’s eponymous studio debut from March 1969. Not that Déjà Vu would have needed any additional strong tunes, but it would have been a perfect fit for that album as well!

Southern Man is another classic by Young, which he included on his third studio album After The Gold Rush released in September 1970. Together with Alabama from his follow-on record Harvest, it triggered a response by Lynyrd Skynyrd with southern rock anthem Sweet Home Alabama. While that tune explicitly tells him to take a hike, the band and Young were actually mutual fans, and there never was a serious feud between them. Young in his 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream said his words in Southern Man were “accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”

While with so much great material on the album I could easily go on and on calling out tunes, the last track I’d like to highlight is Carry On. Written by Stills, it’s another gem from Déjà Vu. Like Southern Man, the take of Carry On on 4 Way Street is an extended version.

4 Way Street’s musicians include Crosby (vocals, guitar), Stills (vocals, guitar, piano, organ), Nash (vocals, guitar, piano, organ), Young (vocals, guitar), Calvin “Fuzzy” Samuels (bass) and Johnny Barbata (drums). The album was produced by CSNY. In June 1992, an expanded CD version appeared, which was produced by Nash and included four solo acoustic performances, one by each artist.

Like Déjà Vu, the record topped the Billboard 200. It was certified Gold by RIAA just a few days after its release. On December 18, 1992, U.S. sales hit 4 million certified units, giving it 4X Multi-Platinum status. Unlike Déjà Vu, interestingly, the album didn’t make Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: March 11

1968: (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Co-written by Redding and Stax house band Booker T. & the M.G.’s guitarist Steve Cropper, the song had only been released as a single on January 8 that year, following Redding’s untimely death in a plane crash on December 10, 1967 at the age of 26. The tune, which topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and climbed to no. 3 on the UK Singles Chart, became his biggest hit. As of December 13, 2017, it has reached 3x Multi-Platinum certification.

1970: The Beatles released Let It Be in the U.S., five days after the song had appeared in the UK, their last single prior to the announcement of their official breakup. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the ballad was actually written by McCartney who also sang lead. Undoubtedly one of the best known Beatles songs to this day, Let It Be gave the band another no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 2 in the UK.

1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released Déjà Vu, the first studio album by the quartet and second studio record by Crosby, Stills & Nash. The record, which became the band’s most successful album, includes numerous gems like Carry On, Teach Your Children, Our House and the brilliant cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. The aforementioned songs also appeared as singles, and each charted in the Billboard Hot 100, with Woodstock reaching the highest position at no. 11. The album topped the Billboard 200 in May 1970 and stayed in the charts for 97 weeks. RIAA certified the record Gold on March 25, 1970, only two weeks after its release. As of November 4, 1992, Harvest has reached 7x Multi-Platinum certification, numbers that are unheard of these days. Here’s a clip of the mighty Woodstock.

1972: Neil Young’s fourth studio album Harvest hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200, staying in that position for two weeks. The record featured various notable guest vocalists, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Stephen Hills and James Taylor. The album includes some of Young’s best known songs, such as Old Man, The Needle And The Damage Done and Heart Of Gold, his first and only no. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100. That tune also topped the charts in Young’s native Canada, as did the record. Harvest was certified Gold by RIAA less than three weeks after its release and became the best selling album of 1972 in the U.S. As of June 27, 1994, the album has reached 4x Multi-Platinum status. Here’s a clip of The Needle And The Damage Done.

1975: English Art rockers 10cc came out with their third studio album The Original Soundtrack. The record is best known for I’m Not In Love, which was also released separately as a single on May 23, 1975. Co-written by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the ballad is one of the band’s most popular songs and enjoyed massive radio play. It became 10cc’s second of three chart-topping singles in the UK, and their best performing U.S. single, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album’s lead single Life Is A Minestrone climbed to no. 7 on the UK Singles Chart but did not chart in the U.S.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, RIAA.com, Billboard Chart History, YouTube