James Taylor Releases American Songbook Cover Album

I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.

I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.

So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”

James Taylor in this studio
James Taylor in his barn studio in Western Mass.

“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”

Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.

Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.

Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.

My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.

The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King ColeElla Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.

American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.

Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube

I Got A Name: Jim Croce

Prolific singer-songwriter’s life was cut short after his career had just taken off

…If I had a box just for wishes/And dreams that had never come true/The box would be empty/Except for the memory/Of how they were answerd by you…

The above is an excerpt from the lyrics of one of the most beautiful love songs I know, written by a great singer-songwriter whose life was tragically cut short. Time In A Bottle became one of Jim Croce’s biggest hits topping the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in January 1974, not even four months after he had died at age 30 in a plane crash.

James Joseph Croce was born on January 10, 1943 in South Philadelphia. His parents James Albert Croce and Flora Mary (Babusci) Croce were both Italian Americans. While Croce git into playing accordion at the age of 5, he did not start taking music seriously until he was a student at Villanova University in the early 1960s. At that time, he began forming bands and playing local gigs at fraternity parties, coffee houses and universities around Philadelphia, performing a broad variety of cover music.

Jim Croce & family
Jim & Ingrid Croce with their son Adrian James

In 1966, Croce self-published his debut album Facets with a $500 cash gift he had received from his parents for his wedding to Ingrid Croce (née Jacobson), an author and singer-songwriter. The two had met in November 1963 and performed as a duo since 1964. Croce’s parents had hoped their son’s record would fail and he would come to realize he should use his eduction to pursue a “respectable” profession. Instead, Croce not only managed to sell all 500 copies of the record that had been pressed but also made a profit of close to $2,500. Here’s Texas Rodeo, the album’s only tune solely credited to Croce. Despite that promising start, true success for Croce was still years away.

In 1968, record producer Tommy West persuaded Croce and his wife to relocate to New York. By that time, they had started writing their own songs. This led to the release of Croce’s second record in September 1969, the duos album Jim & Ingrid Croce. Here’s the lovely Spin, Spin, Spin, which like most songs on the record was co-written by the couple.

The music business in New York City and playing small clubs and college gigs to promote the couple’s album proved to be tough. Disullisioned they returned to Pennsylvania to live on an old farm in the countryside. Since music wasn’t bringing in enough money, Croce took on a variety of odd jobs like driving a truck, contruction work and teaching guitar lessons. Meanwhile, he continued writing songs.

Following the birth of their son Adrian James, Ingrid became a stay-at-home-mother while Jim played concerts to promote his music. The breakthrough came in 1972 after Croce had signed a contract with ABC Records and released his third studio album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim in April that year. The record’s title track came out as a single in July and climbed to no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. By comparison, the album’s second single Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels) “only” made it to no. 17 on the U.S. chart. And then ther is the above mentioned Time In A Bottle, which didn’t appear as a single until after Croce’s death and became his second of two no. 1 hits in the U.S.

In July 1973, Croce’s fourth studio album Life And Times came out. The last record released during his life time included his first Billboard Hot 100 no. 1 hit Bad, Bad Leroy Brown. The great piano-driven boogie woogie tune was inspired by a guy with that name Croce had met during his short time in the National Guard. One evening the guy said he was fed up and went AWOL. When he inexplicably decided to come back at the end of the month to get his paycheck, he was caught and taken away in handcuffs.

On September 20, 1973, during the supporting tour for Life And Times, Croce was planning to fly from Natchitoches, La. after a show there to his next gig in Sherman, Texas. During takeoff, the pilot of a chartered propeller plane clipped a tree at the end of the runway, causing a crash. Croce, pilot Robert N. Elliott; guitarist Maury Muehleisen; comedian George Stevens, manager and booking agent Kenneth D. Cortese, and road manager Dennis Rast were all killed. The next day, the lead single and title track from Croce’s fifth and final studio album I Got A Name was released. Co-written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, the song was one of record’s the few tunes that were not written by Croce.

After Jim’s death, Ingrid Croce among other activities released two solo albums. She also did various things to keep Jim’s legacy alive. In 1985, she started a restaurant in downtown San Diego in the same spot where in 1973 Jim had joked about opening Croce’s Restaurant & Jazz Bar and inviting their friends and fellow artists like James Taylor, Jimmy Buffet, Arlo Guthrie and Bonnie Raitt perform there. After various expansions and opening a second restaurant in the ’80s, Ingrid closed all restaurant operations in 2016. In 1996, she wrote Thyme in a Bottle, an autobiographical cookbook with memories and recipes from Croce’s Restaurant. And in 2004, she published Time in a Bottle, a photographic memoir of Jim’s songs with lyrics and her favorite photos. Jim’s and Ingrid’s son Adrian James “A.J.” Croce also became a singer-songwriter and has released 10 albums since 1993.

A bio on Jim Croce’s website quotes Ingrid: “Jim poured everything he heard and saw into his music. He was like a sponge, soaking up experiences and – sometimes it might take him a while, ‘Roller Derby Queen’ took him two or three years to write. But sooner or later, everything would make it into a song, and people recognized that.”

I’d like to close this post with a nice clip of a 1973 live performance of Operator, showing Croce with Muehleisen. Croce had met the classically trained pianist-guitarist and singer-songwriter from Trenton, N.J. in 1970. Muehleisen became a collaborator in the studio who influenced Croce’s song-writing. For 18 months, they were also frequently together on the road. He was only 24 years at the time of the crash.

Sources: Wikipedia; Jim Croce website; Ingrid Croce website; YouTube

Sheryl Crow Goes Out With Big Bang On Final Full-Length Studio Album

Threads features collaborations with Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks and others from her music bucket list

“Well, I have loved the tradition of making records. I grew up holding the actual physical record and poring over the album notes and just dreaming about doing what I’m doing now. And with technology, it’s a little bit like putting the toothpaste back into the tube. We can’t go back and expect — particularly young people — to listen to albums from top to bottom. It’s almost a dying art form in that people cherry-pick songs and put them on playlists. So, I don’t know that the listening audience really ever gets the sense of the full artistic statement.” (Sheryl Crow)

So this it it for Sheryl Crow? After nine Grammys and more than 50 million albums sold and at less than 60 years of age? Yes and no. The singer-songwriter, who originally hails from Kennett, Mo., is not planning to release any additional full-fledged studio albums. But it should be a consolation to fans that Crow isn’t retiring from recording and touring. What the above Crow told NPR means is the realization that the music business has changed dramatically since she burst on the scene in August 1993 with Tuesday Night Music Club. Back then, selling records still was a rewarding proposition. Today in the age of music streaming not so much.

Sheryl Crow

“We had a great experience last year with Wouldn’t Want To Be Like You,” Crow further explained in that NPR interview, referring to one of the tunes from Threads, which were released ahead of the album that appeared today. “We put out a song that meant something at that moment in the immediacy and didn’t wait for a full length record. And it was kind of liberating to be able to do that. So I think that’s what I’ll aim for. Then, if people want to put together an album, they can do that; they can put together a compilation or their own playlist. But I like the idea of being able to write in the immediate and putting it out when it really matters.”

Sounds like a valid point to me, though I feel the last sentence of Crow’s statement in the first paragraph of the post represents the essence of her decision. In a modern social media-driven, instant gratification culture, most listeners no longer have the attention span to enjoy entire albums. As much as it pains me to admit this, I’m not entirely immune to this mentality either. There’s also the reality that most albums are not like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tapestry and Aja, to name three of my all-time favorite records, where pretty much every song is a gem you really want. Of course, that has always been the case. In the pre-streaming era, you’d still buy the vinyl record or CD, if it had at least two our three great songs. Today, with iTunes, Spotify, etc. it’s very easy to pick and choose only the tracks you like without ever buying an album.

Okay, let’s get to Threads. Saying Crow’s eleventh studio album features an impressive array of guests would be an understatement. Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Joe Walsh, Emmylou Harris and James Taylor, to name some, are all friends who as NPR put it were “her bucket list collaborators.” With some like Richards, Nicks, Harris and Clapton, Crow had worked before over her 18-year recording career. The catchy opener Prove You Wrong, which was co-written by Crow, Al Andersen and Leslie Satcher and features Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, is an anthem to strong women. Apple Music in their “liner notes” quotes Crow: “Stevie was one of my first calls. Not only has she been a great friend and collaborator over the years, but she was one of the original inspirations for doing what I do…Inviting Maren in just made sense. She’s sort of like a godchild to Stevie and I – super fierce, loves that connection with her audience, and truly has her own perspective on life.”

Since I already previously covered Live Wire, a nice bluesy track for which Crow teamed up with Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, I’m going to skip it in this post and move on to Beware Of Darkness. The cover of the George Harrison tune is one of the gems on the album. And, yes, I may be a bit biased here! 🙂 It first appeared on his 1970 solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass. Quite appropriately, one of the guests on Crow’s recording is Harrison’s friend Eric Clapton. The two other artists are Sting and Brandi Carlile. According to the Apple Music liner notes, “…I wanted to record this as a tribute to George, but also as a message to my children: To let them know while they’re living through what we’re going through, they must witness people either moving towards light or towards darkness. I think that explains a lot about why we are where we are…”

Next up: Cross Creek Road, an original tune Crow co-wrote with long-time collaborator Jeff Trott. The called out guests on this recording include Lukas Nelson and Neil Young. Nelson is sharing vocals, while Young contributes acoustic and electric guitars. A closer look also reveals Don Henley as one of the backing vocalists – interesting why he wasn’t called out. In any case, the track is a nice mid-tempo roots-oriented rocker.

Now we come to The Worst. Blame Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the cheerful title of this tune, which The Rolling Stones recorded for their 1994 studio album Voodoo Lounge. Richards also is a guest in the current version of the country-oriented tune, providing acoustic, electric and nylon-string guitars, bass and piano, as well as some backing vocals. Frankly, I had no idea Richards plays bass and piano! Here’s another enlightening Crow quote from Apple Music: “Not a lot of people know this, but in the late ’80s, I was a school teacher in St. Louis and went to see the taping of [the music documentary] Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll with Chuck Berry and Keith Richards…Cut to 20 years later, I’m recording with Keith Richards, with Steve Jordan producing, so you never now what can happen to a small town girl – a town with three stoplights. It’s amazing what can happen in your life.” Apparently, Crow misspoke, it’s actually 30 years down the road from the above movie.

The next song I’d like to highlight is Still The Good Old Days, which Crow co-wrote with Joe Walsh. He also provides electric slide guitar Walsh kickass style, acoustic guitar and shares vocals. This is a great tune. Here’s the official video, which is also fun to watch.

I’d like to end this review on a quieter note with a beautiful track titled Nobody’s Perfect. Co-written by Crow and Trott, the recording features Emmylou Harris. Gee, the more I hear from this lady, the more I realize I should check her out more closely. “It’s such a joy to sing with her, and she, for me, is my great hope with my career,” Crow told NPR. “I look at what she’s done and who she has constantly been and who she’s become — how she’s still curious, still growing, still rocking, still out there fighting for the things she believes in and still looks like herself and is just beautiful. For me to get to sing with her and to have our voices blend is, I mean, that’s my kind of high.” Harris is 72, while Crow turned 57 this February.

Reflecting on her last studio album overall, Crow in a statement on her website said, “I became inspired to record an album of musical experiences with the legacy artists who inspired me to want to be a great songwriter, musician, and producer. It is a celebration with them, and a tribute to them. Just as importantly, I wanted to work with younger artists on this record, who I believe will pick up the torch and continue to light the way for humanity with their stories and their songs for many years to come. Their music inspires me every day.” I would say, if you officially declare an album is your final full-length record, Threads is a great way to go out with a big bang.

Sources: Wikipedia, NPR, Apple Music, Sheryl Crow website, YouTube

The Venues: Beacon Theatre

In July 2017, I introduced The Venues, a category featuring famous concert halls, such as The Apollo Theatre and well known TV music programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. For some reason, the category fell off the bandwagon after the third post in November that year – not quite sure why. In any case, I felt the time was right for another installment. One of the venues that came to my mind immediately is the Beacon Theatre in New York City, in part because the beautiful historic theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is associated with two of my favorite bands: The Allman Brothers Band and Steely Dan, which both had frequent annual residencies there. The Dan still does! But first things first – a bit of history.

The Beacon Theatre opened as the Warner’s Beacon Theatre on December 24, 1929. It was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager as a venue for silent films. But when the original owners financially collapsed, Warner Theatres acquired the theater to be a first-run showcase for Warner Bros. films on the Upper West Side. By that time, the movie genre of silent films had already become obsolete. The Beacon, which subsequently was operated by Brandt Theaters, remained a movie theater over next few decades. It would take until 1974, when Steven Singer became the first owner who turned the Beacon into a venue for live music.

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Fortunately, an effort in 1987 to convert the theater into a night club was blocked in court, given its historic and protected architecture. In 1982, it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the Beacon Theatre continued to fill a spot in the midsize category venue in New York between the larger Radio City Music Hall and various smaller clubs and ballrooms. In 2006, sports and entertainment holding company The Madison Square Garden Company started operating the Beacon. In November that same year, the theater began a 20-year lease by Cablevision, which also leases Radio City Music Hall and owns Madison Square Garden.

Between the second half of 2008 and early 2009, the theater underwent a complete renovation. As reported by The New York Times, the work involved about 1,000 workers, lasted seven months and cost $16 million. The result can be seen in the above photo and is certainly stunning. I was fortunate to experience the mighty venue myself when I saw Steely Dan there in October 2018.

In addition to pop and rock concerts, the Beacon Theatre has hosted political debates, gospel choirs, comedians and many dramatic productions. The 2008 Martin Scorsese picture Shine a Light, which captured The Rolling Stones live in concert, was filmed there. In January 2016, Joan Baez celebrated her 75th birthday with a show at the Beacon. She also played the venue in May this year as part of her now completed 2018/2019 Fare Thee Well Tour. Time for some music that was performed at the Beacon.

Let’s kick things off with the Grateful Dead, who performed two shows at the theater on June 14 and 15, 1976. Apparently, the following footage of Not Fade Away was captured during a soundcheck there, not one of the actual concerts but, hey, close enough! Plus, it’s a fun clip to watch. Not Fade Away was written by Charles Hardin, a.k.a. Buddy Holly. His producer Norman Petty received a co-credit. The tune was first released as a single in October 1957. It was also included on Holly’s debut album The “Chirping” Crickets, released in November of the same year.

Next up: The Black Crowes and Remedy. Co-written by lead vocalist Chris Robinson and his brother and rhythm guitarist Rich Robinson, the tune appeared on the band’s sophomore album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion from May 1992. The footage is from late August 1992 when the Black Crowes played a series of four shows at the Beacon.

James Taylor is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. One tune I dig in particular is Fire And Rain.  He recorded it for his second studio album Sweet Baby James, which was released in February 1970. The song also came out separately as a single and became Taylor’s first hit, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. This clip was captured during a show on May 30, 1998.

Here are The Rolling Stones with Jumpin’ Jack Flash from the aforementioned Martin Scorsese concert film. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune was released as a single in May 1968. The film includes footage from two shows the Stones played at the Beacon. This performance is from their second night there on November 1, 2006.

Starting from 1998, The Allman Brothers Band played spring residencies at the Beacon for 19 years in a row except for 2010 when the theater wasn’t available. This performance of Dreams is from their March 2013 series of gigs. The Gregg Allman song first appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from November 1969.

On April 1 and 2, 2016, Bonnie Raitt played the Beacon Theatre as part of her extended Dig In Deep Tour, named after her most recent studio album from February 2016. I caught her during that tour in August 2016, which thus far was the first only time. Her gig at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. Co-written by Gordon Kennedy  and Wayne KirkpatrickGypsy In Me is one of the tracks from Dig In Deep. Not only is Raitt a superb guitarist and great vocalist, but she also is as genuine as it can get. There is no BS with this lady. What you get is what you see!

From The Allman Brothers it wasn’t a big leap to former member Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi and the group they formed in 2010: Tedeschi Trucks Band. My knowledge of their music is fairly limited, and I definitely want to explore them more closely. Here’s their take of Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, another great tune written by Gregg Allman. It first appeared on the Allmans’ third studio album Eat A Peach from February 1972, long before Trucks joined them in 1999. The song was also released separately as a single in April that year. This clip was captured on October 11, 2017 during what looks like a six-date residency the band did at the Beacon that year.

The last and most recent clip I’d like to feature is footage of Steely Dan from their 2018 U.S. tour, which ended with a seven-date residency at the Beacon. Of course, I couldn’t leave out the Dan! This performance of Pretzel Logic was from their final gig on October 30. Co-written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Pretzel Logic is the title track of Steely Dan’s third studio album that appeared in February 1974.

Until last year when I saw them twice, which included the Beacon for an October 20 show dedicated to my favorite album Aja, I had never seen Steely Dan. Both concerts were fantastic. Fagen and co are currently touring again, which will bring them back to the Beacon in October. While the thought of returning to this beautiful venue is tempting, I can’t justify it to myself, given I saw them twice last year and other shows I’ve been to or still consider for this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, setlist.fm, YouTube

My Playlist: Music Artists Who Do It All

Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s

The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. All Music adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.

With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.

Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.

Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!

In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.

I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!

Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).

More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.

While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could  go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.

When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.

The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.

Sources: Wikipedia, All Music, Songfacts, YouTube

My Playlist: Yusuf/Cat Stevens

Here’s an artist I pretty much had forgotten about, even though I dig many of his songs – until yesterday, when I spotted Tea For The Tillerman as a listening suggestion in my streaming music service. It immediately took me back to my teenage days in Germany when I was taking guitar lessons and learning Cat Stevens tunes like Lady D’Arbanville and Father And Son. And before I knew it, I was strumming my acoustic to see whether I could still remember the chords of the latter – I did, and while I rarely grab my guitar these days and my playing has become rusty, it still felt great!

Once I had Father And Son on my mind, other tunes popped up: Morning Has Broken, Peace Train, Miles From Nowhere, Moonshadow – so much great music written by this British artist who I feel has rightly been called one of the great singer-writers during his heyday in the ’70s, along with James Taylor, Carole King and others. At the same time, I can’t think of another popular music artist who has had such an unusual and at times tumultuous journey as Yusuf/Cat Stevens, as he is known today.

Born Steven Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in London, U.K. to Stavros Georgiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Ingrid Wickman from Sweden, Stevens started his recording career as an 18-year-old in 1966. He pretty much had immediate success in the U.K. His first single I Love My Dog charted at no. 28. The song was also included on Stevens’ debut album Matthew And Son, which appeared in March 1967. Not only did the title track climb to no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart, but the record became a top 10 album, peaking at no. 7.

In 1969, Stevens almost died from tuberculosis. Not only did this traumatic experience impact his future music, but it also started a spiritual journey that eventually would lead him to convert to the Muslim faith in December 1977 and give up his music career. But before that he had reached international stardom with a series of albums in the early ’70s, including the above mentioned Tea For The Tillerman.

Cat Stevens In Concert 1970s
Cat Stevens in concert during the 1970s

In 1989, Stevens, who by then was known as Yusuf Islam, returned to the spotlight, but it wasn’t the kind of attention he had looked for. Comments he had made were widely seen as endorsing a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie related to his novel The Satanic Verses. The reaction was harsh, especially in the U.S. Some radio stations banned his music, and a radio host in LA even called for a mass burning of Stevens’ records. The band 10,000 Maniacs, which had covered Peace Train on their 1987 album In My Tribe, decided to remove the track from later releases.

While Stevens repeatedly maintained his remarks had been misunderstood, he also said his comments were foolish. I don’t have enough insights to come to a definitive conclusion here and it’s also not my place to judge. But I think if this controversy had occurred today in the age of social media, Yusuf would have been finished as a music artist.

Yusuf-Cat Stevens in Concert
Cat Stevens performing in New Zealand in 2017

Starting from the mid-1990s, Yusuf Islam resumed his recording activity with a series of albums focused on Islamic themes. In November 2006, he released An Other Cup, his first all-new pop album in 27 years. Three additional such records have since come out. His most recent album from September 2017 is called The Laughing Apple. Let’s get to some music.

I’d like to start with the above mentioned Matthew & Son, the title track of Stevens’ debut album from March 1967. Like all other songs on the record except for one, the catchy tune was written by Stevens. BTW, it features John Paul Jones on bass. The then-session musician joined the New Yardbirds the following year, the band that subsequently changed their name to Led Zeppelin.

Stevens’ sophomore release New Masters didn’t get much attention, but it includes a tune I’ve always liked: The First Cut Is The Deepest. Rod Stewart turned the song into a no. 1 single in the U.K. in 1977. Another well-known version is the cover by Sheryl Crow, who included it on her 2003 best of compilation, scoring a no. 14 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

In April 1970, Stevens released his third studio album Mona Bone Jakon. His near-death experience with TB had changed him. The tone of his lyrics had become darker. Another contrast to his first two albums was a more stripped back sound, which I love. Initially, the record was a modest success but received more attention after the release of the follow-on Tea For The Tillerman. Here’s the opener Lady D’Arbanville, one of several songs Stevens wrote about former girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville, a model and later an actress. I’ve always dug the cool guitar part on this tune.

Another great track from Mona Bone Jakon is Katmandu featuring then 20-year-old Peter Gabriel on flute. It’s just a beautiful tune!

Next up: Wild World from Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ fourth studio album released in November 1970, and his commercial breakthrough. It’s another tune about his ex-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville.

Also appearing on the album is Father And Son, one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs.

In October 1971, Stevens released his fifth studio album Teaser And The Firecat, another gem in his catalog. Among the tracks I find particularly beautiful is Morning Has Broken. According to Wikipedia, this tune is a Christian hymn that was first published in 1931, with lyrics by English author Eleanor Farjeon. The piano arrangement on Stevens’ version was composed and performed by classically trained keyboarder Rick Wakeman, who is best known for his five tenures with Yes between 1971 and 2004.

Another standout on the record is Moonshadow. According to Songfacts, Yusuf today considers it his favorite of his old songs.

Up to this point, this playlist only focused on Stevens’ early years, since that’s the period I’m familiar with. But I also like to give a nod to his more recent work. I still have to explore this music in greater detail. Here’s a tune called Everytime I Dream, which appears on Roadsinger from May 2009, Yusuf’s second album since his return to pop music.

The last song I’d like to feature is See What Love Did To Me. It’s a tune from The Laughing Apple, released in September 2017 as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. This album, which mostly includes reinterpretations of old tunes and some new music, represents various milestones. It was the first since 1978 that used the Cat Stevens name. The release came 50 years after his debut record. It also reunited him with Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced his most successful records in the ’70s, and Alun Davies, his guitarist during that period.

In addition to numerous music accolades, Stevens has received various awards for his charitable humanitarian work. In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, he conducted a 50th anniversary tour that kicked off in Toronto on September 12 and included 11 dates in the U.S. It appears that after a long and tumultuous journey, Yusuf/Cat Stevens is finally in a place where he is comfortable with his spiritual beliefs and his music.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yusuf/Cat Stevens website, Songfacts, YouTube

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

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

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

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

Elvis Presley 1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube