What I’ve Been Listening to: Donald Fagen/The Nightfly

The other day, I found myself listening to Donald Fagen’s excellent solo debut album The Nightfly. More frequent visitors of the blog know I dig Steely Dan big time, so one wonders what took me so long to write about this record released in October 1982. Well, to my defense, I included The Nightfly in a previous post about Fagen’s 70th birthday in January 2018 but haven’t dedicated an entire piece to this gem. Until now.

In many ways, The Nightfly mirrors previous Steely Dan albums. To start with, the producer was Gary Katz, who also had produced all of the Dan’s seven records that had appeared by then. Driven by Fagen’s and Katz’s perfectionism and some technical challenges, The Nightfly took eight months to record, about on par with the Aja album, though shorter than Gaucho, Steely Dan’s final album prior to their 20-year recording hiatus. Like previous Steely Dan records, The Nightfly featured an army of top-notch session musicians. Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jeff Porcaro (drums), Rick Derringer (guitar) and many other of these guys had played on Steely Dan albums.

Donald Fagen_The Nightfly Back Cover

But one musician was absent: Fagen’s long-time collaborator Walter Becker. While initially, Fagen thought he could easily handle the song-writing by himself, there came a point when he began to struggle. After the album’s release, he developed a full-blown writer’s block. It would take more than 11 years for his second solo album Kamakiriad to come out. That record was produced by Becker and was the first time he and Fagen collaborated since their breakup in 1981. Another key difference compared to Steely Dan albums were the largely autobiographical lyrics. Many of the songs incorporated topics from Fagen’s childhood in suburban New Jersey. Unlike most Steely Dan albums that were recorded live, for The Nightfly, Fagen opted to overdub each part separately.

Let’s get to some music. I was going to skip the excellent opener I.G.Y., since it was included in my above-mentioned post on Fagen’s 70th birthday. But as one of the album’s standouts, I simply couldn’t resist. I.G.Y, which stands for International Geophysical Year, captures America’s widespread optimistic vision about the country’s future in the late 1950s. The song includes concepts like undersea rail, solar-powered cities and public space travel – and a good dose of sarcasm. I.G.Y. also became the album’s lead single. It peaked at no. 26 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is Donald Fagen’s only solo top 40 single on that chart.

According to Wikipedia, the title of the next song Green Flower Street was inspired by the jazz standard On Green Dolphin Street. During his childhood, Fagen became a huge jazz fan. It’s no coincidence that the album’s cover pictures him as a radio DJ with a turntable and a copy of 1958 jazz album Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders.

Ruby Baby is the only cover on the album. Co-written by music songwriting machine Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the tune was first recorded by The Drifters in 1956. Fagen’s take is jazzier than the original doo-wop version. It also was released as the record’s third and final single.

Another great tune is New Frontier. The title was taken from a quote by John F. Kennedy, who said during his acceptance speech for the Presidential nomination in 1960: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.” The lyrics are about teenage romance, which prompted a Wall Street Journal reporter to speculate the title may be a humorous metaphor to sex and adulthood. Here’s the song’s official video clip, which combines animation and live action, and is considered an early classic played on MTV. The tune also appeared separately as a single.

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use

This is the first verse from the album’s title track, which captures Fagen’s fascination with jazz during his teenage years and his dream to become a late-night radio DJ. It’s the final tune I’d like to call out.

During a British radio segment about The Nightfly, which apparently aired around the time of Fagen’s 70’s birthday and featured archive interview soundbites of him from 1982, he commented: “I guess I’m 34 now, and I started to think back about how I came to be a musician. And in exploring that, I started thinking about the late ’50s and early ’60s when I first started listening to jazz and rhythm and blues and that kind of music. And that’s the kind of music that formed a lot of my attitudes at the time, not only the music but the whole culture connected with jazz and late-night radio and hipster culture and all those things, which I thought of as an alternative to the rather bland life I was leading out in the suburbs near New York City. So that theme runs through most all of the songs in the album.”

The Nightfly was not only a standout musically, but also technologically. It is one of the earliest fully digitally recorded albums. In fact, it brought to a successful conclusion Fagen’s and Katz’s previous experimentation with digital recording on Steely Dan’s Gaucho, which ended up being an analog record. But it wasn’t an easy feat and led to various challenges with the digital recording machines. In a 1983 story by Billboard magazine, Fagen said, “I was ready to transfer to analog and give it up on several occasions, but my engineering staff kept talking me into it.”

The album was positively received by music critics. It was also nominated for seven Grammy Awards in 1983. While performing worse commercially than Dan’s Gaucho, The Nightfly still was certified platinum in the U.S. and the UK. It climbed to no. 11 on the Billboard 200, making it Fagen’s second-best chart performing solo album after Kamakiriad, which peaked at no. 10 on that chart.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Billboard Magazine; 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

Tumultuous Path Of A Journeyman And Survivor

For more than 50 years, Eric Burdon has been one of rock’s most distinctive vocalists

Oftentimes, I feel the best blog ideas are inspired by a previous post. In this case, it was my writing about great covers performed by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which included I’m Crying by The Animals. The tune reminded me of Eric Burdon and a voice I’ve always felt was made for singing the blues. Just like many other blues artists or more generally those who started out during the ’60s and ’70s, Burdon has experienced it all, from the highest high to the deepest low and everything else in-between. Unlike many fellow artists, he’s still there, which I think makes him one of the ultimate survivors.

Eric Victor Burdon was born on May 11, 1941 in the northeastern English industrial town of Newcastle upon Tyne. His upbringing in a lower class working family was rough. Burdon started smoking at the age of 10 and skipping school with friends to drink beer. He described his early school years as a Dickens novel-like “dark nightmare,” which included bullying, sexual molestation and sadistic teachers hitting kids with a leather strap. While his father Matt Burdon struggled as an electric repairman, this allowed the family to have a TV by the time Eric was 10. Yet again the TV sparking it all!

Seeing Louis Armstrong on the tube triggered Burdon’s initial interest in music, first in the trombone, then in singing. The next decisive stage in his life was secondary school and a teacher named Bertie Brown who helped him get into the local art college. There he met John Steele, the original drummer of The Animals. They ended up playing in a band called The Pagan Jazzmen. By early 1959, keyboardist Alan Price had joined. After a few iterations and name changes, the band evolved into The Animals in 1962.

The Animals
The Animals (from left): John Steele, Eric Burdon, Hilton Valentine, Alan Price and Chas Chandler

The initial lineup featured Burdon (lead vocals), Steele (drums), Price (keyboards), Hilton Valentine (guitar) and Chas Chandler (bass), who later became the manager of Jimi Hendrix. Between September and December 1963, The Animals developed a following in Newcastle by playing local clubs there. During that period, Burdon met some of his blues heroes, including John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy WilliamsonThe Animals also backed Williamson during a local gig.

In December 1963, The Animals recorded their first single Baby Let Me Take You Home. It climbed to a respectable no. 22 on the UK singles chart. But it was the second single, The House Of The Rising Sun from June 1964, which brought the big breakthrough, topping the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada and Sweden. It also started the beginning of the band’s demise when the arrangement of the traditional was only credited to Price who collected all the songwriting royalties.

The band’s first studio album The Animals appeared in the U.S. in September 1964. Their British debut record followed two months later. As was quite common at the time, the track listing between the two versions differed. Altogether, the original incarnation of The Animals released five U.S. and three U.K. studio albums. Here’s the above mentioned I’m Crying, which was included on the second U.S. record The Animals On Tour, a peculiar title for a studio album. Co-written by Burden and Price, it’s one of only a few original tracks by the band that was mostly known for fiery renditions of blues and R&B staples by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Ray Charles.

In May 1966, The Animals released Don’t Bring Me Down. Co-written by songwriter duo Gerry Goffin and Carole King, the tune became Burdon’s favorite single, he told Louder/The Blues during a long interview in April 2013. The song also became the opening track to the band’s fourth U.S. album Animalization released in July 1966. The great tune is characterized by a distinct Hammond B3 sound played by Dave Rowberry, who had replaced Alan Price  following his departure in late 1965, and Hilton Valentine’s fuzz guitar.  Burdon recalled the song’s recording in a hotel in the Bahamas. “There was an old record player in the room where we were recording and it had this strange, thin electrostatic speaker. Dave Rowberry connected it to his Hammond B3 and that’s where the sound comes from on that track.”

By September 1966, The Animals had dissipated and Burdon started work on his first solo album Eric Is Here, which wouldn’t appear until the following year. Meanwhile, in December 1966, he formed Eric Burdon & The Animals. In addition to him, the band included Barry Jenkins, who had replaced John Steel on drums during the first incarnation of The Animals, John Weider (guitar, violin, bass), Vic Briggs (guitar, piano) and Danny McCulloch (bass). The band subsequently relocated from the U.K. to San Francisco. By that time, Burdon had become a heavy user of LSD.

In October 1967, Eric Burdon & The Animals released their debut. Appropriately titled Winds Of Change, it featured mostly original tracks and psychedelic-oriented rock, a major departure from the past. But, as Louder/The Blues noted, except for San Franciscan Nights, “the British public were reluctant to accept Eric’s transformation from hard-drinking Geordie bluesman to LSD-endorsing, peace and love hippy.” Three more albums followed before this second incarnation of The Animals dissolved in late 1968. Here’s Monterey, the opener to their second record The Twain Shall Meet from May 1968. Reflecting the band’s drug-infused experiences at the Monterey Pop Festival, where they also had performed, the tune is credited to all five members.

Disillusioned with the music business, Burdon went to LA to try acting. But after one year, he returned to music, fronting a Californian funk rock band that would be called War. Together they recorded two original albums in 1970. Here’s Spill The Wine from the first, Eric Burden Declares “War”, which appeared in April 1970. Credited to the members of War, the tune became the band’s first hit, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also marked Burdon’s last major chart success.

Burdon’s relationship with War abruptly unraveled after the band had decided to record their next album without him. It was around the same time his friend Jimi Hendrix passed away. Burden was devastated. “That became the end of the parade because it affected us so much,” he stated during the above Louder/The Blues interview. “It was tough for me. It was tough for everybody.” Unfortunately, one of Burdon’s answers was drugs and more drugs.

During the ’70s and ’80s, Burdon had numerous drug excesses. In 1983, this lead to an arrest in Germany where he had lived since 1977. Subsequently, he returned to the U.S. Yet despite all the upheaval, Burdon still managed to continue recording albums and touring. In 1971, he teamed up with American jump blues artist Jimmy Witherspoon for a record titled Guilty! Here’s Home Dream, a great slow blues tune written by Burdon.

In August 1977, the first incarnation of The Animals released the first of two reunion albums, Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted, billed as The Original Animals. Despite positive reviews, the record only reached no. 70 on the Billboard 200. Lack of promotion, no supporting tour and most importantly appearing at a time when punk and disco ruled were all factors. Here’s the great opener Brother Bill (The Last Clean Shirt), a tune co-written by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Clyde Otis.

Next up: Going Back To Memphis, a song co-written by Burdon and Steve Grant. It appeared on Burdon’s 1988 album I Used To Be An Animal. Released in the wake of his autobiography I Used To Be An Animal, But I’m Alright Now,  it was Burdon’s first new album in almost four years.

In April 2004, My Secret Life appeared, Burdon’s first new solo record in almost 16 years. Here’s the opener Once Upon A Time, a nice soulful tune co-written by Burdon and Robert Bradley.

‘Til Your River Runs Dry is Burdon’s most recent studio release, which came out in January 2013. His website calls it his “most personal album to date.” Here’s Old Habits Die Hard, co-written by Burdon and Tom Hambridge. “This song is dedicated to the people in Egypt and Libya trying to throw off the shackles of all those centuries of brutality,” Burdon told Rolling Stone a few days prior to the record’s release. “It reminds me of Paris in 1968 when I saw the kids going up against the brutal police force or the L.A. uprising. I went through these experiences and they’re still with me today. The struggle carries on. I wrote this song so I won’t forget and to say, even though I’m older now, I am still out there with you.”

Burdon’s most recent recording is a nice cover of For What It’s Worth, written by Stephen Stills and originally released by Buffalo Springfield in December 1966. He commented on his website: The whole idea of recording this song came as a result of a conversation I had with a young fan backstage, when she asked me, “Where are the protest songs today?” Right then and there, I wanted to write something about the brutality that’s going on in the world today but I couldn’t find any better way to say it than Buffalo Springfield did in “For What It’s Worth.

In 1994, Eric Burdon was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame as part of The Animals, along with the other original members of the band. He did not attend the induction ceremony. Burdon remains active to this day and uses the name The Animals for his backing band, which includes Evan Mackey (trombone), Davey Allen (piano), Dustin Koester (drums), Johnzo West (guitar), Justin Andres (bass) and Ruben Salinas (saxophone).

While Burdon’s website currently does not list any upcoming gigs for this year, according to Consequence of SoundEric Burdon & The Animals are part of the lineup for the KAABOO Festival in Arlington, Texas, May 10-12. The band is also scheduled to perform on May 26 at Avila Beach Blues Festival in California.

Asked by Louder/The Blues during the above interview how he would sum up the past 50 years, Burdon said, “I’d been screwed by [War], I’d been screwed by The Animals. All use Burdon because he’s a great front guy and then come payday where’s the money? A lot of people had a great ride off me being on stage and I didn’t get much of it.” With a little chuckle he added, “I’m not bitter. I’m bittersweet.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Louder/The Blues, Deutsche Welle, Eric Burdon website, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound, Eventbrite, YouTube