The Hump Day Picker-Upper

Cheering you up for a dreadful Wednesday, one song at a time

For those of us taking care of business during the regular workweek, I guess it’s safe to assume we’ve all felt that dreadful Wednesday blues. Sometimes, that middle point of the workweek can be a true drag. But help is on the way!

Today’s proposed remedy to chase the clouds away is Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. While Wonder wrote that song as a tribute to musicians he loves, especially Duke Ellington, to me, it has a very happy feel that always lifts my mood instantly. And it’s also really groovy.

Sir Duke first appeared on Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder’s 18th studio album from September 1976, and a true masterpiece. The tune also became the record’s third single in March 1977. In the U.S., it topped the Billboard Hot 100 and Best Selling Soul Singles (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs) charts. Among ex-U.S. chart placements, it also hit no. 1 in Canada and climbed to no. 2 in the UK.

In addition to Ellington, Sir Duke celebrates Louis Armstrong (“Satchmo”), Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Sodarisa Miller. “I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us,” Wonder said, according to Songfacts. “So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation. They gave us something that is supposed to be forever. That’s the basic idea of what we do and how we hook it up.”

Happy Hump Day, and always remember the wise words of George Harrison: All things must pass!

The Hump Day Picker-Upper will go on a short hiatus for the holidays and be back on Wednesday, January 5.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another installment of The Sunday Six, my weekly zig-zag excursions exploring different styles of music over the past 70 years, six tunes at a time. This installment kicks off with jazz from 1956, followed by new jazzy pop-rock from 2021, country rock from 1976, new wave from 1984 and soft rock from 2013, before finishing up with some rock from 1967.

Charles Mingus/Profile of Jackie

I’d like to embark on this little journey with beautiful music by Charles Mingus, who is considered to be one of the greatest jazz musicians. Over a 30-year career, the double bassist, pianist, composer and bandleader played with many other greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and released about 50 albums as a bandleader. Initially, Mingus started on the trombone and later studied the cello before picking up the double bass. As a teenager, he felt excluded from the classical music world since he couldn’t join a youth orchestra because of his inability to read musical notation quickly enough due to a poor education. These experiences, along with lifelong racism Mingus encountered influenced his music that oftentimes focused on themes like racial discrimination and injustice. By the mid-70s, sadly, Mingus had ALS. Eventually, this heinous disease made it impossible for him to play bass. Mingus continued to compose music until his untimely death in January 1979 at the age of 56. Here’s Profile of Jackie, a composition from a 1956 album titled Pithecanthropus Erectus. Mingus’ backing musicians included Jackie McLean (alto saxophone), J.R. Monterose (tenor saxophone), Mal Waldron (piano) and Willie Jones (drums).

ShwizZ/Overboard

For this next tune, I’d like to jump to the present and a cool band I first featured on the blog back in April as part of another Sunday Six installment: ShwizZ. Their website describes them as a one of a kind powerhouse from Nyack, New York. Drawing a substantial influence from classic progressive rock and funk, they consistently put their musical abilities to the test to deliver a high intensity and musically immersive show. ShwizZ note Frank ZappaYesP-Funk and King Crimson as their influences. The band, which has been around for about 10 years, features Ryan Liatsis (guitar), Will Burgaletta (keyboards), Scott Hogan (bass) and Andrew Boxer (drums). Here’s their latest single Overboard. Not only do I love the cool Steely Dan vibe, but I also find the clip pretty hilarious.

Hoodoo Rhythm Devils/Safecracker

Any band that calls itself the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils gets my attention. Until a week ago or so, I had never heard of this ’70s American group until I came across their tune Safecracker. According to Apple Music, Hoodoo Rhythm Devils blended blues boogie with country-rock, rock & roll and some soul. Initially, they were formed in San Francisco in 1970 by guitar teacher John Rewind (guitar), his student Lee Humphries (guitar) and Humphries’ friend Joe Crane (vocals). They were later joined by Glenn Walter (drums) and Richard Greene (bass). Between 1971 and 1978, Hoodoo Rhythm Devils released five studio albums. The group’s line-up changed various times over the years until they disbanded in 1980 following Crane’s death from leukemia. Here’s the above-mentioned Safecracker, an awesome tune from the band’s fourth studio album Safe In Their Homes from 1976. The song also appeared separately as a single that year. I can hear some Doobies in here.

The Cars/You Might Think

The Cars are a band I always realize know much better than I think I do once I start listening to their music. While I’m not very familiar with their background and can only name a few of their songs off the top of my head, I recognize a good deal of their songs when I hear them. It’s not really surprising since the American new wave and pop-rock band had hits throughout much of their career. The Cars were formed in Boston in 1976 and included Elliot Easton (lead guitar), Ric Ocasek (rhythm guitar), Greg Hawkes (keyboards), Benjamin Orr (bass) and David Robinson (drums). During their initial run until 1988, six studio albums appeared. After reuniting in 2010, The Cars released one more album before going on another hiatus in 2011. A second reunion followed in 2018 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In September 2019, Ocasek was found dead in his apartment in New York at the age of 75. You Might Think, written by Ocasek, is from the band’s fifth studio album Heartbeat City that appeared in March 1984. It also became the record’s lead single that same month, and one of the band’s biggest U.S. hits, reaching no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Mainstream Rock chart. Quite a catchy tune!

Lenny Kravitz/I May Not Be A Star (Light Piece For Vanessa)

For this next track, let’s go to January 2013 and the 20th-anniversary edition of Are You Gonna Go My Way, which initially appeared in March 1993 as the third studio album by Lenny Kravitz. Kravitz entered my radar screen in late 1991 when I first heard his excellent sophomore album Mama Said that had been released in March of the same year. Since he started his recording career in 1989, Kravitz has released 11 studio albums, one greatest hits collection and various box set compilations, among others. I May Not Be A Star (Light Piece For Vanessa) is a bonus track on the aforementioned 20th-anniversary reissue of the Are You Gonna Go My Way album. I came across the tune coincidentally the other day. With the only lyrics being baby, I may not be a star, it sounds like an unfinished song – still, I dig it! I assume Vanessa refers to French singer and model Vanessa Paradis who Kravitz was dating at the time the original record came out.

The Doors/Break On Through (To The Other Side)

And once again, it’s time to wrap up things. For my final pick, I’d like to jump back to January 1967 when The Doors released their eponymous debut album. It was the first of six albums recorded by all four members of the great L.A. rock group, Jim Morrison (lead vocals, harmonica, percussion), Robby Krieger (guitar, vocals), Ray Manzarek (keyboards, keyboard bass, vocals) and John Densmore (drums, percussion, backing vocals). After Morrison’s death in July 1971 in Paris, France, The Doors released two more albums, Other Voices (October 1971) and Full Circle (1972), before they disbanded in 1973. A third Morrison post-mortem album, An American Prayer, appeared in 1978. Krieger and Densmore are still alive and remain active. Manzarek passed away in May 2013. Here’s one of my favorite tunes from the band’s first album, Break On Through (To The Other Side), credited to all four members.

Sources: Wikipedia; ShwizZ website; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

What do a folk-oriented singer-songwriter from Sydney, an indie rock band from New York, a power pop group from Toronto, and a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter from Melbourne have in common? The first and the last are from Australia. Moreover, all of of these artists released new music yesterday (February 19), and they are featured in my new installment of Best of What’s New.

Indigo Sparke/Colourblind

Indigo Sparke is a singer-songwriter from Sydney, Australia. According to a profile on the website of her record label Scared Bones Records, her parents, a jazz singer and a musician, named her after the Duke Ellington song “Mood Indigo,” and her childhood was spent serenaded by a rich soundtrack of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. From a young age Indigo felt called to the stage, attending a performing arts high school, and followed it with three years in an acting school, working as an actress before embedding herself and heeding the call to the path of music. Indigo taught herself to play guitar in her early twenties. Over the next few years, she established herself on the Australian music scene, and released her EP Night Bloom in 2016. Indigo’s career continually bloomed, opening for Big Thief on the Australian dates of their 2017/2018 tour, and then was invited to play at South by Southwest 2019. Colourblind, written by Sparke, is the nice opener of her first full-fledged studio album Echo.

The Hold Steady/Lanyards

The Hold Steady are an indie rock band from Brooklyn, New York, formed in 2003. The current lineup includes co-founders Craig Finn (lead vocals, guitar), Tad Kubler (lead guitar, backing vocals) and Galen Polivka (bass), along with Steve Selvidge (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Franz Nicolay (piano, keyboards, accordion, harmonica, backing vocals) and Bobby Drake (drums, percussion). Wikipedia notes the band is known for their “lyrically dense storytelling”, “classic rock influences” and “narrative-based songs [that] frequently address themes, such as drug addiction, religion and redemption, and often feature recurring characters within the city of Minneapolis.” The Hold Steady released their debut album Almost Killed Me in 2004. Boys and Girls in America, the band’s third album from October 2006, brought greater prominence. It was ranked no. 8 on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2006 list. Lanyards, co-written by Finn and Kubler, is a track from The Hold Steady’s new album Open Door Policy, their eighth studio release. At first, I wasn’t too wild about Finn’s vocals, which oftentimes are more speaking than singing, but his style does work well with the songs.

Sam Coffey & The Iron Lungs/What This City Needs

Sam Coffey & The Iron Lungs are a power pop band from Canada. According to their Apple Music profile, Emerging out of Toronto’s punk scene, [the band is] a sextet of Ontario natives whose combined efforts result in a freewheeling, ’70s-indebted power pop sound. Originating out of Kitchener, Ontario, Coffey debuted the project in 2011 with the self-released Bedroom Rock EP, followed later that year by the band’s eponymous debut album. After a handful of D.I.Y. singles, they signed with California punk/garage indie Southpaw Records to release 2014’s Gates of Hell LP. Shows with Redd Kross, Flamin Groovies, and the Black Lips followed as their reputation grew throughout North America. Eschewing some of their more lo-fi leanings, they worked with producer Alex Bonenfant (METZ, Crystal Castles) in 2017, releasing their self-titled third full-length, this time via American indie Burger Records and Canadian punk staple Dine Alone Records. Here’s What This City Needs, a nice rocker from the band’s new and fourth studio album Real One.

Tash Sultana/Coma

Let’s wrap up this Best of What’s New installment with another artist from down under: Tash Sultana, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Melbourne. According to her website, she is an explosive global producer and artist who has commanded attention world wide since homemade videos went viral on YouTube. ‘Tash’ was soon selling out major arenas, a string of sold out world tours and headlining the world’s biggest festivals – no mean feat for an artist who just a year before was recording songs on a go pro in a bedroom back in 2016. Since Tash’s grandfather gifted a guitar at the age of three, the artist developed a love for self teaching an array of different instruments…Tash plays over 12 instruments (guitar, bass, drums/ percussion, piano/ keyboard/ synth/ Oud, trumpet, saxophone, flutes, Pan pipes, Sitar, harmonica, beat production) with guitar as their main love, a self trained vocal range spanning 6 octaves (From C2-A7 on piano) and a live show that needs to be seen to be believed. The one-person powerhouse started out playing open mic nights at age 13 with the help of a fake ID. Soon to finish school with the reluctance to get a ‘real’ job, took to the streets to busk every day of the week on Melbournes famous Bourke St back in 2009-2015. Coma is a tune from Sultana’s new sophomore album Terra Firma.

Sources: Wikipedia; Sacred Bones Records website; Apple Music; Tash Sultana website; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 22

Today, my recurring music history feature is hitting a bit of a milestone with the 50th installment. While 50 sounds like an impressive number, it means I still have 315 dates left to cover! The music nerd in me tells me that’s actually not a bad thing! Plus, it turns out there’s lots of fodder for March 22, so let’s get to it.

1963: Please Please Me, the debut studio album by The Beatles, appeared in the UK. According to The Beatles Bible, the record was rush-released to capitalize on the success of the singles Love Me Do and Please Please Me. Both singles were on the album, along with their b-sides P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why, respectively. The remaining 10 tracks were recorded during a marathon session on February 11, 1963, which lasted just under 10 hours. The other fun fact about the record is that George Martin initially had planned to call it Off The Beatle Track – kind of clever, though he obviously abandoned the idea. Naming it after a successful single probably was also part of the plan to maximize sales. As was common on the early Beatles albums, Please Please Me featured various covers. Here’s one of my favorites: Twist and Shout, co-written by Phil Medley and Bert Berns, and first recorded by U.S. R&B vocal group The Top Notes in 1961.

1965: Robert Allen Zimmerman, the genius known as Bob Dylan, released his fifth studio album Bringing It All Back Home. It marked his first top 10 record in the U.S., climbing to no. 6 on the Billboard 200, and his second no. 1 studio release in the UK, following The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from May 1963. Perhaps more significantly, Bringing It All Back Home was also Dylan’s first album to feature recordings with electric instruments; in fact, on the entire A-side, he was backed by an electric band. The b-side was acoustic. Four months later, on July 25, the electric controversy turned into a firestorm with Dylan’s appearance at the Newport Folk Festival. Here’s Maggie’s Farm. It was the much faster and more aggressive performance of that song at Newport, which caused most of the controversy there.

1971: John Lennon released his fifth solo single Power to the People in the U.S., 10 days after its debut in the UK. Credited to Lennon and Plastic Ono Band, the non-album tune peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Lennon’s second most successful single to date. In the UK, the song climbed to no. 6. It performed best in Norway where it hit no. 3. Power to the People was recorded at Ascot Sound Studios in Berkshire, England as part of sessions that also yielded tunes for Lennon’s second solo album Imagine. “I wrote ‘Power to the People’ the same way I wrote ‘Give Peace a Chance,’ as something for the people to sing,” Lennon reportedly said. “I make singles like broadsheets. It was another quickie, done at Ascot.” Quickie or not, I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t his best tune.

1974: The Eagles dropped their third studio album On the Border. After two country-rock records, the band decided they wanted a more rock-oriented sound. Therefore, most of the album was produced by Bill Szymczyk, who had previously worked with then-future Eagles member Joe Walsh and The James Gang, among others. It also marked the band’s first record with rock guitarist Don Felder. Here’s Already Gone, featuring Felder on lead guitar and Glenn Frey on lead vocals. Co-written by Jack Tempchin and Robb Strandlund, the tune also appeared separately as the album’s lead single. It’s one of my favorite rockers by the Eagles.

1975: Led Zeppelin hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 with their sixth studio album Physical Graffiti. The double LP, which includes recordings spanning from January 1970 to February 1974, maintained the top spot for 6 weeks and marked Zeppelin’s fourth no. 1 record in the U.S. The album also topped the charts in the UK and Canada. Viewed as one of the band’s strongest albums, Physical Graffiti was certified 16x Platinum in the U.S. in 2006, which means sales of more than eight million copies – unreal from today’s perspective! Here’s the bombastic Kashmir, co-written by Jon Bonham, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. It’s one of the most unusual rock songs I know; frankly, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me, though over the years, I’ve come to dig it.

1977: Stevie Wonder released Sir Duke, the third single off his 18th studio gem Songs in the Key of Life. Both are long-time favorites in my book. The tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington marked Wonder’s fifth and last no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the ’70s. It also topped the R&B chart and became a hit internationally, reaching no.1 in Canada and top 10 positions in Germany, Switzerland and the UK. I just love the groove of this tune. The horn work is outstanding – take it away, Stevie!

1980: Pink Floyd scored their only no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2), where it would stay for four weeks. Given the Roger Waters song, off Floyd’s 11th studio album The Wall, was their most pop-oriented, radio-friendly tune, perhaps that’s not exactly a surprise. It also became a chart-topper in the UK, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand. I can confirm firsthand that it was played to death on the radio in Germany. On a lighter note, I also recall a funny incident at a school party when I was in seventh grade. For some reason, which I can’t remember, we had a little get-together in our classroom. When our English and homeroom teacher walked in, the song was blasting out of a boom box. He couldn’t suppress a brief smile before looking serious again. What happens when you think you don’t need no education is now vividly on display among some young people in the U.S. and other countries, who continue to hang out in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic as if nothing had happened.

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