The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six. Can you believe we’re already in August? It feels like July came and went before we knew it – crazy how time seems to fly these days! So what’s in store for this installment? In a nutshell six tracks representing different flavors of rock, a dose of Americana, and some classic rock & roll, spanning the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and the current decade. Ready to embark on another unpredictable music excursion? Let’s do it!

Spirit/I Got a Line on You

Kicking it off today are Spirit, and I’m not talking about liquor. The American rock band perhaps is best remembered for writing the signature acoustic guitar intro to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Let me rephrase that. Somehow, Jimmy Page unconsciously got inspired by Spirit’s instrumental Taurus after Led Zeppelin had opened up for Spirit during their first American tour. Evidently, Messrs. Page and Robert Plant also had better lawyers, leading to a favorable verdict in a copyright infringement lawsuit the estate of Taurus composer Randy California had brought several years ago. To be clear, I love Stairway to Heaven and have come to dig Led Zeppelin big time. I just wish they would have given credit where credit was clearly warranted – nuff said! Let’s get to what I really wanted to highlight: I Got a Line on You, Spirit’s second single released in October 1968 and another tune written by California. The great song also appeared on the band’s second album The Family That Plays Together, which came out in December of the same year.

Beki Hemingway/Cost Me Everything

Beki Hemingway and her husband Randy Kirkman are an Americana wife and husband duo based in the Americana hot spot of Dundalk, Ireland. Shout-out to fellow blogger Darren Johnson who through his recent review of Hemingway’s latest album Earth & Asphalt brought the duo on my radar screen. For some additional context, following is an excerpt from Hemingway’s online bio: Her long and varied career has found her singing in several bands, including comical punk-rockers This Train, as well as singing live and studio backup vocals on everything from industrial to inspirational music. Things really clicked when she started collaborating with Randy Kerkman in the late 1990’s, releasing 5 CDs on the Minneapolis-based indie Salt Lady Records, performing up to 150 shows per year, and sharing the stage with nationally and internationally acclaimed singer/ songwriters such as Aimee Mann, Shawn Colvin, and Duke Special. After several years on hiatus living a “normal life” as a tour guide and Deputy Sheriff in Denver, Beki and Randy released a 6-song ep entitled I have big plans for the world and followed up with 2017’s Whins and Weather. Since the fall of 2016, Hemingway and Kirkman have lived in Ireland. Here’s Cost Me Everything, a tune from the aforementioned Earth & Asphalt album that was released in December 2020. Check out that beautiful warm sound!

Neil Young/Like a Hurricane

I trust Neil Young doesn’t need an introduction. A couple of weeks ago, my streaming music provider served up Hangin’ On a Limb, and I was going to feature this nice deep cut from Young’s 17th, 1989 studio album Freedom that’s best known for the anthemic Rockin’ in the Free World. Things changed on Thursday when my family and I found ourselves seeking shelter in our basement for two hours after a tornado warning had been issued for my area. Of course, tornadoes are pretty common in certain regions of the U.S. but in friggin’ central New Jersey? While there were several confirmed tornadoes that caused significant damage in other areas of the state, luckily, we were spared. It was a surreal and pretty humbling experience, and it wasn’t the first time. With getting blown away on my mind, I suppose Like a Hurricane wasn’t much of a leap. Appearing on American Stars ‘n Bars, Young’s eighth studio album from May 1977, the track also happens to be my all-time favorite among his crunchy rock songs.

ZZ Top/Heard It on the X

Sadly, longtime ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill passed away on Wednesday at the age of 72. I think it’s fair to say guitarist Billy Gibbons has gotten most of the attention when it comes to the Texan rockers. That’s because he has played the cool guitar riffs and solos and has done most of the lead vocals. While I’ve enjoyed ZZ Top’s music since their 1983 Eliminator album and hits like Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs, I’m far from being an expert on the band. In fact, until the news about Hill’s untimely death, I had not realized it was actually Hill who sang lead on my favorite ZZ Top tune Tush. Well, he did! And here’s another track from the Fandango! album, featuring Hill on vocals – in this case sharing duties with Gibbons. When that record appeared in April 1975, the difference between their voices wasn’t as pronounced as in later years. Check out this cool clip from Live from Texas released in various video and audio formats in June 2008. It captured ZZ Top’s November 1, 2007 gig at Nokia Theatre in Grand Prairie, Texas. Makes you wonder a bit why Hill didn’t get to sing more often.

The Kinks/Sunny Afternoon

The other day, fellow blogger Hans from Slice the Life picked Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks as part of his ongoing fun 2021 song draft. Not only did this remind me of the great tune but also that The Kinks are among my longtime favorite British rock bands, together with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Cream, to name a few others. When it comes to the group from Muswell Hill, I’m mostly familiar with their ’60s and early ’70s output. I still love You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Got My Feet On the Ground, A Well Respected Man, Till the End of the Day, Dead End Street…The list of great tunes that were mostly written by Ray Davies goes on and on. One of my favorite songs by The Kinks is Sunny Afternoon, yet another track penned by Ray. It first appeared as a single in the UK in June 1966, yielding the band’s third and final no. 1 hit there. In the U.S., where it was released the following month, Sunny Afternoon peaked at no. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was also included on The Kinks’ fourth studio album Face to Face that came out in October and December 1966 in the UK and U.S., respectively. According to Songfacts, Davies wrote the tune while recovering from a challenging period of group tensions and lawsuits. The song’s success “did bring Davies out of his funk for a while.”

Elvis Presley/Jailhouse Rock

And once again this brings me to the last tune for this installment. Elvis Presley was my childhood idol and, come to think of it, my only idol. Usually, I don’t idolize people, not even The Beatles, my all-time favorite band. Well, when I adored Elvis and would do crazy stuff like trying to impersonate him in front of a mirror I was pretty young – 12 years or so. Anyway, while I no longer idolize Elvis, I still think he was one of the most compelling music artists I know, especially during his early phase before he entered the U.S. Army. Here’s an absolute classic rock & roll gem: Jailhouse Rock, one of many great tunes co-written by the songwriting and record-producing duo of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. First released as a single in September 1957, Jailhouse Rock also became the title track of the third movie starring Elvis Presley. While Elvis movies are generally pretty dismal, this picture will forever be remembered for its amazing dance routine. In some regards, this feels like looking at an early version of a Michael Jackson video. The choreography is pretty stunning. Come on Spider Murphy, play that tenor saxophone, and Little Joe, blow that slide trombone!

Sources: Wikipedia; Beki Hemingway website; Songfacts; YouTube

Taking An Imaginary Journey Back to My Original Home

A collage of music and places from Germany

The idea for this post came to me over the weekend when I found myself listening to my long-time favorite German rock band Niedeckens BAP, previously simply known as BAP. Suddenly, I longed to be back in Germany, the country where I was born and lived for the first 27 years of my life. Not for good, but just for a visit, which feels long overdue!

Images of key places started popping up before my eyes: My town of birth Heidelberg (image below), the small village in the countryside close to Bonn where I grew up, the cities of Bonn (second image from right in the lower row of the collage on top of the post) and Cologne (left image in collage), as well as the town of Tübingen (right image in lower row of collage) where I did my graduate studies, to name a few.

Heidelberg

I’ve now lived permanently in the U.S. for close to 25 years, almost as long as I lived in Germany – hard to believe! There’s no question the States have become my home. While over the more recent past I’ve witnessed things I never thought could happen in this country, I’m firmly rooted here.

I never really felt homesick since I left Germany in 1993. After all, I’ve been back many times, once every other year on average, to visit my parents and other family. I also still have friends there from high school and university. Returning to Germany has always been important. But my last visit dates back to the fall of 2019, and it’s currently unclear whether I’ll be able to go back this year. This sucks!

Former house of my parents (left) close to the city of Bonn in the village of Buschhoven (right) where I grew up

So, yes, I miss visiting good ole Germany. My family and friends. The above mentioned places. The food. And, I know it sounds like a cliché, the beer – it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Note I’m not saying it’s the best in the world, though it probably is – sorry, Budweiser or Miller! 🙂

This brings me to German rock and pop music performed in the German language. The above mentioned BAP, a band from Cologne, were the first Deutsch Rock I started to explore more deeply in the early ’80s. I turned to many other German acts thereafter. Fortunately, I still got access to plenty of their music, which is very reassuring! Here’s is a small selection.

Wolf Maahn/Kannst Du Sehen

Let’s kick things off with Kannst Du Sehen (can you see), a groovy tune by Wolf Maahn from his 2010 studio album Vereinigte Staaten (United States). Maahn, who was born in Berlin in 1955 and grew up in Munich, has been a professional music artist since the late ’70s. After recording two English language albums with Food Band, he launched his solo career in 1982, mostly singing in German ever since. Two years later, his great breakthrough album Irgendwo in Deutschland (somewhere in Germany) appeared. Maahn remains active to this day and has released 15 studio albums, as well as various live records and compilations. If you’d like to know more about him, you can check out this previous post.

Spider Murphy Gang/Schickeria

Spider Murphy Gang, formed in Munich in 1977, became known for mostly ’50s rock & roll and other retro style songs performed in Bavarian dialect. I think there’s just something about dialects. They can add a certain charm to a song. Country rocker Schickeria (in crowd) is the opener of Spider Murphy Gang’s third studio album Dolce Vita from 1981, which greatly expanded their popularity in Germany beyond Bavaria. BTW, the band’s name comes from Spider Murphy, the guy playing the tenor saxophone in the Leiber-Stoller classic Jailhouse Rock that first became a hit for Elvis Presley in 1957. After nearly 45 years, Spider Murphy Gang rock on with lead vocalist and bassist Günther Sigl and guitarist Barny Murphy remaining as original members in the current eight-piece line-up. I’ve never been to one of their shows, though I’d love to see them some day. Their music is quite fun!

Marius Müller-Westernhagen/Schweigen Ist Feige

If you count his start as a 14-year-old actor in 1962 before turning to music in the second half of the ’60s, Marius Müller-Westernhagen, or just Westernhagen, has been active for nearly 60 years. After meager beginnings his music career took off in 1978 with his fourth studio album Mit Pfefferminz Bin Ich Dein Prinz (with peppermint I’m your prince). Westernhagen whose catalog includes 19 studio albums, four live records and various compilations is one of Germany’s most successful music artists. Here’s Schweigen Ist Feige (remaining silent is cowardice), a Stonesey rocker from Affentheater (monkey business), Westernhagen’s 14th studio release that appeared in 1994.

Udo Lindenberg/Ich Zieh’ Meinen Hut

Udo Lindenberg, who is turning 75 years later this month, is another German rock and pop institution. Already as a 15-year-old, he performed in bars in the West German town of Düsseldorf, playing the drums. After relocating to the northern city of Hamburg in the late ’60s and stints with folk rock band City Preachers and jazz rock outfit Free Orbit, which he co-founded, Lindenberg launched his solo career in 1971, focused on writing and singing his own songs in German. He has released more than 30 studio and numerous other albums to date. You can read more about him here. Following is Ich Zieh’ Meinen Hut (I tip my hat), the opener of Stark Wie Zwei (strong like two), a triumphant comeback album for Lindenberg from 2008.

Herbert Grönemeyer/Was Soll Das?

Pop music is Herbert Grönemeyer’s second act. The versatile artist, who was born on April 12, 1956 in Göttingen, first came to prominence as an actor. He gained some international attention after his role in the acclaimed 1981 World War II motion picture Das Boot. His eponymous studio debut Grönemeyer from 1979 went unnoticed. Things changed dramatically in 1984 with his fifth studio release 4630 Bochum (name and then-zip code of a West German city). It became Grönemeyer’s first no. 1 record in Germany, a chart position he incredibly has been able to achieve for each of his 10 albums that have since come out! Here’s Was Soll Das? (what’s that supposed to mean), the first track from Grönemeyer’s seventh studio album Ö that appeared in 1988.

Niedeckens BAP/Mittlerweile Josephine

Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without Niedeckens BAP. If you’ve followed my blog for some time, the name may sound familiar. The band around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken, which used to be known as BAP for most of their career, was founded in Cologne in 1976. Not surprisingly, there have been many line-up changes over the decades. For the past six years, the band essentially has been a solo project for Niedecken, the only remaining original member. The other constant is Niedeckens BAP continue to perform their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. You can read more about the band here. Following is Mittlerweile Josephine (now Josephine) from their most recent studio album Alles Fliesst (everything is groovy) released in September 2020. It was this beautiful ballad Niedecken wrote for his daughter, which triggered this post.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 24

Time again for a dose of music history, which has recurred irregularly since June 2016 and is my longest running feature on the blog. For any new visitors, in a nutshell, the idea is to look at events that happened on a certain date throughout rock and pop history. As always, the selections reflect my music taste and do not aim to present a full account. With that, let’s embark on some music time travel!

1958: An obscure band called The Quarrymen hit the Cavern Club in London for their first live performance. They were billed as The Quarry Men Skiffle Group. “They’d only been playing for a short while so you wouldn’t expect them to be any good…,” recalled Cavern owner Alan Sytner. “At the time, they couldn’t play to save their lives and all I can remember is their cheek and their chat.” While it hasn’t been definitively documented, The Quarrymen are believed to have performed at the Cavern Club on several other occasions. Four years later, the group would change the music world forever with a different line-up. Their name? The Beatles. Here’s In Spite of All the Danger, one of the first songs recorded by The Quarrymen. Co-written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the tune is thought to have been recorded sometime between May and July 1958. It was shortly after Harrison (guitar, vocals) had joined the band, which at the time apart from McCartney (vocals, guitar) also featured John Lennon (vocals, guitar), John Lowe (piano) and Colin Hunton (drums).

1958: While The Quarrymen were getting their feet wet the Cavern Club, a music phenomenon from the U.S. stood at no. 1 of the UK singles chart: Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock became the first-ever single to enter the chart at no. 1 and was the second no. 1 for Elvis in the UK after All Shook Up. Co-written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Jailhouse Rock was the title track of the picture of the same name that had hit the widescreen in September 1957. It also topped the charts in the U.S. and Canada and reached the top 10 in several other countries.

1967: Pink Floyd were at Sound Techniques Studios in Chelsea, London, to work on their debut single Arnold Layne, backed by Candy and a Currant Bun. Both tracks were written by the band’s initial leader Syd Barrett. When the band performed the latter tune live in 1967, it was titled Let’s Roll Another One and included the line I’m high – Don’t try to spoil my fun. Columbia (EMI) didn’t like the obvious references to drugs and forced Barrett to change the title and rewrite the corresponding line. Songfacts notes the outcome was still strange since the lyrics included the word “f–k,” making it one of the first songs to use the expletive.

1970: Dr. Robert Moog unveiled the Minimoog at a price of $2,000, an analogue synthesizer designed as a portable, simplified instrument that combined the most useful components of the Moog synthesizer in a single device. It became the first synthesizer sold in retail stores and quickly gained popularity among progressive rock and jazz musicians. It also ended up being widely used in disco, pop, rock and electronic music. Not everybody was enthusiastic. According to Songfacts Music History Calendar, The American Federation of Musicians feared the Minimoog’s realistic sounds would put horn and string sections out of business. Yes keyboarder Rick Wakeman, an early adopter of the Minimoog, said the synthesizer “absolutely changed the face of music.”

Minimoog.JPG

1975: Elton John, who was flying high, topped the Billboard 200 with his first compilation album Greatest Hits, bringing to a close an impressive 9-week run in the no. 1 spot. It became the most sold album of 1975 in the U.S. and remains his best-selling t0 date. The compilation, which featured 10 of John’s biggest singles, also topped the charts in Australia, Canada and the UK. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time). Composed by John with lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, the tune was first released as a single in March 1972 and included on John’s fifth studio album Honky Château that came out in May of the same year.

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

Clips & Pix: Elvis Presley/Santa Claus Is Back In Town

When I recently wrote about the formidable songwriting partnership of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, I had come across this song they wrote for Elvis Presley. While I selected what I feel is the much better Jailhouse Rock for that post, Santa Claus Is Back In Town isn’t a shabby rock & roll Christmas tune. Plus, it obviously fits the occasion.

Presley recorded it in September 1957 as the opener for Elvis’ Christmas Album. According to Wikipedia, that record is America’s and the world’s best-selling Christmas/holiday album of all time. Including its various reissues, it has sold at least 17 million copies in the U.S. and more than 20 million worldwide.

Leiber and Stoller also produced the track. In addition to Elvis on lead vocals, it features his core backing musicians at the time, Scotty Moore (guitar), Bill Black (bass) and D.J. Fontana (drums), jazz musician Dudley Brooks on piano, as well as The Jordanaires, his frequent backing vocals group. The tune was also released separately as a single that appeared together with the album on October 15 that year.

Happy Holidays!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

 

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! 🙂 A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube