My last installment in this recurring irregular feature dates back to late June, so I thought it would be a good moment to do another post. In case you’re a first-time visitor of the blog or haven’t seen these types of posts before, the idea is to explore what happened on a specific date in music history. It’s not my intention to provide a comprehensive listing of events. Instead, the picks are quite selective and closely reflect my music taste. With these caveats being out of the way, let’s take a look at September 3.
1964:The Beatles played State Fair Coliseum in Indianapolis as part of their 30-date U.S. tour in August and September that year. It was the same tour during which they had met Bob Dylan in New York in August. According to The Beatles Bible, their Indianapolis engagement included two gigs that were attended by a total of 29,337 people – they had to count them all! The Beatles performed their standard 12-song set of Twist And Shout, You Can’t Do That, All My Loving, She Loves You, Things We Said Today, Roll Over Beethoven, Can’t Buy Me Love, If I Fell, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Boys, A Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. Prior to the first show, Ringo Starr decided to have some fun driving a police car around a nearby race track. Unfortunately, he completely forgot to check his watch and made it to the Coliseum just minutes before he and his bandmates were scheduled to go on stage. The Beatles Bible also notes the two concerts earned them $85,231.93, after $1,719.02 was deducted as state income tax. Be thankful they didn’t take it all!
1966:Donovan hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Sunshine Superman. The single, which also became the title track of his third studio album from August that year, had been released in the U.S. on July 1. Due to a contractual dispute, it did not appear in the UK until December 1966, where it reached no. 2 on the Official Singles Chart. Sunshine Superman remained Donovan’s only no. 1 and no. 2 hit in the U.S. and the UK, respectively. Sunshine Superman is an early example of psychedelia. The backing musicians, among others, included Jimmy Page (electric guitar) and John Paul Jones (bass), who were both busy session players at the time. They ended up playing together in the New Yardbirds the following year, the band that became Led Zeppelin.
1971:Fleetwood Mac released their fifth studio album Future Games. The record, the first with Christine McVie (keyboards, vocals) who at the time was still married to John McVie (bass), falls into an interesting transition period for the band. Their blues days with Peter Green were a matter of the past, and their classic period that started with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks and the Fleetwood Mac album from 1975 was still a few years away. Future Games also was the first of five records to feature guitarist Bob Welch. The band’s remaining line-up at the time included Danny Kirwan (guitar, vocals) and Mick Fleetwood (drums, percussion). Welch immediately left his mark, writing both the title track and this song, Lay It All Down.
1982: The first of two Us Festivals (with Us pronounced like the pronoun, not as initials) kicked off near San Bernardino, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The festivals were initiated by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak who partnered with rock concert promoter Bill Graham. The idea of the extravagant event, which Wozniak bankrolled with $8 million to pay for the construction of the open-field venue, was to celebrate the passing of the “Me” Decade (1970s) and encourage more community orientation and combine technology with rock music. Performing acts at the first three-day Us Festival included Talking Heads, The Police, Santana, The Kinks, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac, among others. A second (four-day) Us Festival took place nine months later around Memorial Day weekend 1983. Here’s Santana’s performance of the Tito Puente classic Oye Cómo Va at the 1982 event.
2017:Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker passed away at the age of 67 from esophageal cancer at his home in New York City. Together with his longtime partner Donald Fagen, who he had met at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. in 1971 where both were students, Becker had formed the core of the group. By the time of Steely Dan’s fourth album Katy Lied from March 1975, Becker and Fagen had turned the group into a studio band, relying on top-notch session musicians to record their albums. After their seventh studio album Gaucho, Becker and Fagen split to pursue solo careers. They reunited in 1993, recorded two more albums and toured frequently until Becker’s death. Fagen has since continued to carry on the Steely Dan torch. Here’s Black Friday from Katie Lied, a nice example of Becker’s guitar chops. Oftentimes, he stepped back to let other musicians handle guitar duties – not so in this case where he did some killer soloing, using the guitar of Denny Dias, Steely Dan’s original guitarist during their early stage as a standing band. Dias appeared as a guest musician on the Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and Aja albums
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music History Calendar; This Day In Music; The Beatles Bible; YouTube
The other day while driving in my car, I caught a cool program on SiriusXM, Classic Vinyl (Ch. 26) titled the “Top 50 Albums Turning 50.” Hosted by former Doors guitarist and drummer Robby Krieger and John Densmore, respectively, it was a countdown of records that came out in 1971, as voted by listeners. Once again, this reminded me what an outstanding period the early ’70s were for music, and I’m not only talking about classic rock. The radio show also triggered the idea for this post. While I don’t want to call this a series, I have a funny feeling I’ll do more about 1971, now that I’ve been bitten by the bug.
The amount of great albums released in 1971 is mind-boggling, especially from today’s perspective. It’s a true gold mine! Some artists and bands like Johnny Cash, Carole King, Faces and Yes released even more than one record. Following are my top five albums turning 50 this year. I’m not great at ranking, so I’m listing my picks in no particular order. Live records and debuts are excluded, since I’m contemplating separate posts for these categories. I guess it’s another way to admit that if you love early ’70s music, summing up 1971 with just five albums is mission impossible!
The Who/Who’s Next
As my favorite album by The Who, including Who’s Next in this short list was a no-brainer. The fifth studio album by the British rockers appeared on August 14, 1971. It came out of Lifehouse, another rock opera Pete Townshend had conceived as a follow-up to Tommy. Eight of the nine songs from Who’s Next had initially been written for Lifehouse. Additional tracks from the abandoned project were subsequently released as singles and appeared on other Who and Townshend (solo) records. Except for My Wife, which was penned by John Entwistle, Townhend wrote all tracks. I pretty much could have highlighted any song from the album. Here’s Bargain, which according to Songfacts is an homage to Indian spiritual master Meher Baba. Townshend believed in his message of enlightenment, which also influenced songs like Baba O’Riley and See Me, Feel Me. “Bargain” refers to losing all material goods for spiritual enlightenment.
Folks who follow the blog or know me otherwise won’t be shocked by this pick. When it comes to the singer-songwriter category, Carole King will always remain one of my all-time favorite artists. Tapestry, released on February 10, 1971, is her Mount Rushmore in my book. A couple of months ago, leading up to the 50th anniversary date, I devoted a 10-part series to the album (“Ten Days of Tapestry”, see final part here, which includes links to all previous installments). Therefore, I’m keeping it brief here. Tapestry’s great opener I Feel the Earth Move was solely written by King, like most other tracks on the album.
Led Zeppelin/Led Zeppelin IV
Led Zeppelin IV and Stairway to Heaven marked the start of my Led Zeppelin journey. While they were an acquired taste, Led Zeppelin have become one of my favorite rock bands. To me, their fourth studio album, which came out on November 8, 1971, remains one of the most exciting ’70s rock albums, though I’ve also come to really dig their other records. Instead of the obvious tune Stairway, which I would select if I could only choose one classic rock song, let’s do Rock and Roll. It’s the record’s only tune credited to all four members of the band. In addition to Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham, Rock and Roll features Rolling Stones co-founder Ian Stewart on keyboards.
The Rolling Stones/Sticky Fingers
Speaking of the Stones, Sticky Fingers is another must-include on my top five short list of the greatest albums released in 1971. You can read more about my favorite Stones album in this recent post I published a few days ahead of the April 23 50th anniversary date. Here I’d like to highlight a track I did not call out in that post: Sway, which also became the b-side of the album’s second single Wild Horses, released on June 12, 1971. The slower blues track features some sweet slide guitar action by Mick Taylor. Another factoid worthwhile noting is the song marked Mick Jagger’s first electric guitar performance on a Stones album. Oh, and there were some notable backing vocalists: Pete Townshend, Ronnie Lane (of Small Faces and Faces) and Billy Nichols, an American guitarist and songwriter who first came to prominence during the ’60s for his work with Motown.
With so many great albums that were released in 1971, it’s tricky to keep this list to five, but that’s what I set out to do, at least for now. Meddle was the sixth studio album by Pink Floyd, which appeared on October 31, 1971. It foreshadowed the band’s mid ’70s masterpieces The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, especially on the 23-minute-plus track Echoes. While I was tempted to feature this epic track, I think it’s safe to assume very few readers would listen. Instead, let’s go with the opener One of These Days. The characteristic pumping bass line was double-tracked, played by bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour. The instrumental is credited to all members of the band, which in addition to Waters and Gilmour included Richard Wright (organ, piano) and Nick Mason (drums, percussion). The only spoken line in the song, the cheerful and digitally warped “One of these days I’m gonna cut you up into little pieces,” was spoken by Mason.
One thing I love about music blogging is how much I learn about artists I didn’t know or only had heard of by name. Oftentimes, I find myself stepping through one door only to find many others I’ve yet to open. Frankly, I probably would have run out of ideas a long time ago, if it were any different! Plus, I’d get bored if I only wrote about music and artists I know.
The latest example is Bettye LaVette, a versatile vocalist who has been active since 1962. I included her in two previous posts, most recently on Saturday in a piece about artists who have covered songs by The Rolling Stones. LaVette’s great rendition of Salt of the Earth led me to take a closer look at the album that includes her version of the tune. I was quickly intrigued by what else I found on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which was released in May 2010. Her soulful, at times somewhat fragile voice reminds me a bit of Tina Turner and is right up my alley.
While LaVette enjoyed some chart success early in her career, for decades, she was more of a cult figure in soul circles. At least in part that was due to bad luck with record labels. After LaVette recorded what was supposed to become her first full-length album Child of the Seventies, Atlantic Records decided not to move forward with the project, apparently without giving her any explanation. In 1982, Motown’s Lee Young, Sr. signed LaVette to the storied label, which led to the recording of her first released album Tell Me Lie. However, following a corporate shake-up, Young was removed, the label never promoted LaVette’s record, and it failed to chart.
Fast-forward to 2000 when a French collector and label owner called Gilles Petard discovered the tapes for the aforementioned Child of the Seventies album in Atlantic Records’ vaults. He liked what he heard, licensed the tracks and released them under the title Souvenirs in France on his Art & Soul label. Around the same time, Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, a live recording of LaVette in the Netherlands, appeared on the Dutch label Munich. The two near-simultaneous releases created new interest in LaVette as a recording artist and resulted in a contract with label Blues Express.
In January 2003, LaVette released A Woman Like Me, only her third full-length studio album. It won the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year and the Living Blues critic pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004. LaVette’s recording career was finally going somewhere. She has since released eight other studio albums and won additional awards, including a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (2006), Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer (2008), Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society (2015) and Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation (2016). LaVette is also in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame and has been nominated three times for a Grammy.
LaVette is an unusual artist. According to her website, she is no mere singer. She is not a song writer, nor is she a “cover” artist. She is an interpreter of the highest order. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 60s and is still creating vital recordings today. This certainly becomes obvious when listening to Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which brings me back to the album. Let’s get to some intriguing interpretations!
The opener is a funky version of The Word by The Beatles. While the John Lennon–Paul McCartney co-write, which was included on the Rubber Soul album from December 1965, is barely recognizable, I find LaVette’s take pretty cool. It’s got a bit of a James Brown vibe, and I can almost hear his “uhs” in the background.
How about some Led Zeppelin reimagined? Here’s All My Love, a song I’ve always dug. Co-written by John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, the tune first appeared on Zep’s eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door released in August 1979. Check this out – damn!
Let’s move on to Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. The title track of their ninth studio album from September 1975 was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Who would have thought a Floyd track could ever sound so soulful!
Nights in White Satin is one of my favorite songs by The Moody Blues. Written by Justin Hayward, the track appeared on Days of Future Passed, one of the most beautiful concept albums of the ’60s. Here it is in Bettye LaVette style – amazing!
Let’s do two more. First up is another great funky rendition: Why Does Love Got to be So Sad by Derek and the Dominoes. Co-written by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the tune appeared on the band’s sole studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs from November 1970. Groovy!
Last but not least, here is the closer Love, Reign O’er Me, a highlight on the album. It captures LaVette’s unedited live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008 in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, who were among the honorees that year. Townshend wrote the tune for The Who’s sixth studio album Quadrophenia that came out in October 1973. Here’s the actual footage from the Kennedy Center. Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend almost seem to have a Led Zeppelin moment. Check this out. This is friggin’ intense!
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which appeared on U.S. label Anti-, was co-produced by Rob Mathes, Michael Stevens and LaVette. It reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, staying in that chart for 39 weeks. The album also enjoyed some mainstream success in the U.S., climbing to no. 56 on the Billboard 200. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook became one of the three aforementioned Grammy nominations for LaVette.
Thanks to great images on Discogs, I was able to look at the album’s liner notes that reveal some interesting things about LaVette’s approach to interpretations. “I never think of a song as a record,” she is quoted. “I think of songs as songs. I don’t think of a Rolling Stones recording. I think of the Rolling Stones singing this song and now I’m going to sing it. That helps me tremendously…There’s no process of ‘how can I make this different.’ I hear it immediately differently. It’s very hard for another singer to satisfy me. No matter where a singer went with the vocal, if I can think of somewhere else to go, then wherever they went no longer interests me.”
In addition to the vocal approach, LaVette also took artistic freedom with the lyrics, which she changed significantly on a number of songs. “I think the most difficult thing about putting the album together was that many of the words didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “These songs belong to white fans who are now in their fifties…The biggest hang-up was I didn’t want to disrespect them because I knew that there are people who have altars built to many of these songs…When I got into them I realized there were things worth saying but I had to make them things I could sing about.”
So what do some of the artists who wrote the original songs think of LaVette’s renditions? Following are some quotes from a sticker on the CD’s jewel case. Again, I have Discogs to thank for featuring some great images. “A great record. Put me in the Bettye LaVette fan club” (Keith Richards). “Bettye is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once” (Pete Townshend). “Bettye is blessed with an instantly recognizable voice full of power & emotion” (Steve Winwood). “Bettye has recorded an amazing version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me'” (Elton John).
Recently, I remembered a post from July 2017, which featured some of my favorite cover versions of songs I dig. This triggered the idea to put together a second part. Rather than focusing on covers I already knew, this time, I decided to take a slightly different approach. Except for one instance, I picked some of my all-time favorite songs and checked whether they have been covered and, if yes, by whom. Not only did I find some intriguing renditions, but there were also a couple of real surprises.
Ella Fitzgerald/Sunshine of Your Love
Did you know that one of the greatest voices in jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, covered Cream? I had absolutely no idea! Not only did she do so, but she even named a live album after the tune: Sunshine of Your Love, released in 1969. Composed by Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton with lyrics by Pete Brown, the original was included on Cream’s sophomore album Disraeli Gears from November 1967. Fitzgerald’s orchestral version is really cool. Obviously her singing is amazing. Check it out!
Richie Havens/Won’t Get Fooled Again
Richie Havens performing The Who’sWon’t Get Fooled Again was another unexpected find. He recorded the tune for his final studio album Nobody Left to Crown that appeared in March 2008. The original, written by Pete Townshend, was included on my favorite album by The Who, Who’s Next, their fifth studio release from August 1971. Haven’s acoustic guitar-driven taken is great. I also like the violin. He really made the epic rocker his own.
Townes Van Zandt/Dead Flowers
Townes Van Zandt wrote almost all tunes that are on his 10 studio albums, and many of them have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. One exception is the live album Roadsongs, a collection of live covers from the mid-’70s through the early ’80s, which was released in 1994. It includes a fantastic take of Dead Flowers, which has become my favorite song by The Rolling Stones, at least on most days! Co-written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Dead Flowers was included on Sticky Fingers, which also happens to believe is the best Stones album that appeared in April 1971. It’s almost a bit painful to listen to Van Zandt’s version, considering he had struggled with drug addiction for most of his short life.
Noah Guthrie/Whipping Post
Noah Guthrie is a 27-year-old South Carolina-based singer-songwriter. According to his website, he taught himself to play guitar and began writing songs at 14. Here’s a “quarantine” cover version of Whipping Post Guthrie recorded with his band Good Trouble in April 2020. Written by Gregg Allman, Whipping Post appeared on the eponymous debut album of The Allman Brothers Band from November 1969. While this cover stays close to the original, these guys are doing a great job, giving this classic a nice build.
Heart/Stairway to Heaven
This cover of the Led Zeppelin gem is the exception I noted above. In other words, I had known about it. Just the other day, I watched this footage again from the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors, during which Heart with Jon Bonham’s son Jason Bonham on drums honored the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. This is one of the most amazing renditions of Stairway to Heaven, co-written by Jimmy Page, Robert Plant (and Randy California of Spirit!), and included on Led Zeppelin IV from November 1971. Messrs. Page, John Paul Jones and Plant were visibly touched. Yes, it’s a bit bombastic but still so good!
Kenny Lattimore/While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Here’s a great soulful version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps by Kenny Lattimore, an R&B and gospel singer-songwriter who has released seven studio albums to date. This cover of the George Harrison tune – one of his best during his period with The Beatles, IMO – is included on his sophomore album From the Soul of Man that came out in October 1998. While My Guitar Gently Weeps was first recorded for the White Album from November 1968. Thank goodness John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t reject all of Harrison’s songs!
Green Day/Like a Rolling Stone
In case you’ve ever asked yourself how Bob Dylan would sound grunge style, here’s one possible answer. Green Day’s eighth studio album 21st Century Breakdown from May 2009 includes this version of Like a Rolling Stone as a bonus track. The maestro first recorded the tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited released in August 1965.
Willie Nelson/Have You Ever Seen the Rain (feat. Paula Nelson)
The last cover I’d like to call out is a breathtakingly beautiful rendition of my favorite Creedence Clearwater Revival song: Have You Ever Seen the Rain, written by John Fogerty and included on CCR’s sixth studio album Pendulum from December 1970. Willie Nelson recorded this rendition with his daughter Paula Nelson for his 62nd studio album To All the Girls…, which appeared in October 2013. Nelson, who at age 87 remains active, has a new album coming out on February 26, his 71st! In April 2019, Nelson toldRolling Stone weed had “saved his life,” adding, “I wouldn’t have lived 85 years if I’d have kept drinking and smoking like I was when I was 30, 40 years old.”
Sources: Wikipedia; Noah Guthrie website; Rolling Stone; YouTube
Usually, I don’t blog about YouTube clips showing talented hobby musicians in action, but this isn’t just any footage. You’re looking at 10-year-old Nandi Bushell from Ipswich, England, challenging ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl to a drum battle.
Frankly, while I think the song doesn’t even matter, it’s called Dead End Friends. It was included on the eponymous 2009 album by L.A. rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, in which Grohl also drummed. The other core members include guitarist and vocalist Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones (yep, the former Led Zeppelin member). The band has been on hiatus since 2010.
The little girl may be a bit over the top, but I just can’t help it: Watching Nandi Bushell working her drum kit really is something else. And what a show girl! If she has this kind of talent at age 10, one wonders how great she is going to be in a few years. Oh, and BTW, Grohl conceded defeat. Not all people have that kind of grace, as we know!
You can read more about this amazing story in this New York Timesarticle.
The last part of this mini-series reviews highlights from the U.S. portion of Live Aid at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Things there got underway at close to 9:00 a.m. EDT (2:00 p.m. BST) on July 13, 1985. The British concert at London’s Wembley Stadium ended at 10 pm BST (5:00 pm EDT). As such, both shows overlapped by eight hours. Unfortunately, this meant viewers could not see all artist performances on their television broadcasts.
The Philly concert included reunions of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne and The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson. It also featured a less than stellar appearance of Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who were joined by Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums.
With Page’s guitar out of tune and Plant’s hoarse voice, unfortunately, it was one of Zep’s poorest performances. Later, Page blamed the drumming of Collins who had played at Wembley earlier and traveled to the U.S. by supersonic jet, so he could perform in Philly as well – the only artist who pulled off that stunt. It seems to me the reality of the fiasco was a combination of factors, including lack of rehearsal, some technical challenges and probably a portion of bad luck.
While white artists were well represented at Live Aid, the same cannot be said for artists of color, especially at Wembley, where I believe only two performed: Sade and Brandon Marsalis – a bit of an oddity for a charity concert put on for the African nation of Ethiopia. The U.S. did better in this regard. The show line-up featured The Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Run-D.M.C., Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle, as well as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations. In addition, U.S.A. for Africa performed their charity single We Are the World, which included additional artists of color, such as Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte and Dionne Warwick.
Let’s kick off this last part with one of the above noted reunions: Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s Paranoid, the epic title track of the band’s sophomore album from September 1970. The music was credited to all members of Sabbath, while the lyrics were written by bassist Geezer Butler.
One of my favorite bands performing in Philly were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They closed their mini-set with Refugee, one of their best songs, in my opinion. Co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, the tune is from Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s third studio album released in October 1979. It also became the record’s second single that appeared in January 1980.
Neil Young is another of my all-time favorite artists. Here is Powderfinger, a beloved tune among Young fans. He first recorded the song for his live album Rust Never Sleeps from June 1979. It was also included on various other live albums he released thereafter.
As a fan of Cream, of course, I couldn’t skip Eric Clapton and his rendition of White Room. Composed by Jack Bruce with lyrics by poet Pete Brown, the classic tune was included on Wheels of Fire, Cream’s third studio album that appeared in August 1968.
The last clip I’d like to call out is a great medley of tunes by The Temptations performed by Hall & Oates, together with Eddie Kendricks und David Ruffin: Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and My Girl, which all first appeared as singles. Get Ready from February 1966 was penned by Smokey Robinson. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, co-written by Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., came out in May 1966. And My Girl was first released in December 1964. Robinson and Ronald White wrote that tune together.
While you may not agree with Bob Geldof who in his introduction to Live Aid 35 said it was commonly called the ‘greatest concert of all time,’ I think there can be no doubt Live Aid was a one of a kind event. Sure, there were other historic concerts like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival that brought together many of the leading music artists at the time. One must also mention the Concert for Bangladesh, the first benefit music event of significant magnitude. But none of these concerts came anywhere close to Live Aid in terms of audience reach and logistics – and in the case of the Concert for Bangladesh the scale of fundraising.
The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks
Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTubedemo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? 🙂
I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.
Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…
Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! 🙂 This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‘swinging flutes’ and, towards the end of the song, ‘piano riff’ settings.
I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. 🙂 And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!
Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.
The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Soundexplains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.
For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!
As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.
Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.
Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.
Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.
The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.
In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.
There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.
In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.
In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.
If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.
Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.
And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.
Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.
Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.
One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!
Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones’s fake strings are heard during the “All I see turns to brown…” bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune’s closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.
This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube
Led Zeppelin’s 2007 tribute concert at London’s O2 arena to stream on band’s YouTube channel this Saturday
In 2007, the surviving members of Led Zeppelin – Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – reunited for a tribute concert for Ahmet Ertegün, which they performed on December 10 that year at London’s O2 Arena, together with drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham. This Saturday, that show will stream live on Led Zeppelin’s YouTubechannel at 8:00 p.m. BST (3:00 p.m. EST).
Ertegün was the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, the label that issued the band’s first five albums. Zep’s tribute gig was their first full-length show in almost three decades. The tribute opened with an all-star band, including Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, Alan White and Simon Kirke, who were backed by the brass section from Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. The concert also featured Paul Rodgers, Paolo Nutini and Foreigner as supporting acts, who played together with the Rhythm Kings as well. Other guests on the Rhythm Kings’ set were Maggie Bell and Alvin Lee.
Zep’s show, the headliner of the event, has been captured in various formats, including a limited big screen release in October 2012, DVD, home audio and CD. My streaming music provider includes the latter, and I listened to it this morning. While perhaps not quite as outstanding as Cream’s 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, I think it’s pretty great stuff, especially, once you get past the opener Good Times Bad Times, where to me Plant sounds like he’s holding back a bit.
I’m certainly planning to watch this Saturday. Apparently, the stream will be up for two or three days. Here are two clips – a little appetizer, if you want! First up: Black Dog, from Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s forth studio album released in November 1971. The song was co-written by Page, Plant and Jones.
And here’s Kashmir, from Physical Graffiti. Co-written by Bonham, Page and Plant, I’ve always found this tune both a bit weird, yet brilliant at the same time. Physical Graffiti, which appeared in February 1975, was Zep’s sixth studio album, and the first record they released on their own label Swan Song Records, which the band had launched in May 1974.
This may still be a new year and we’re even in a new decade, but some things don’t change, at least not on this blog. One of them is this recurring rock music history feature. By now, I guess I must have put together more than 30 installments; but as a music nerd, this tells me I have more than 300 other dates left to cover! Let’s start with January 12 and the debut single by a then-teenaged Etta James.
1955: The first single by Etta James, The Wallflower, was released. It was co-written by James, who was only 16 years at the time, together with Johnny Otis and Hank Ballard. While due to the lyrics the song’s original version was considered “too risque” to be played on pop radio, it became a hit on the Billboard R&B Chart, which it topped for four weeks. The same year, the tune was covered as Dance With Me, Henry by Georgia Gibbs for the pop market. James released her own cover version of Dance With Me, Henry in 1958. Here’s the scandalous original tune, for which James received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2008.
1968: George Harrison recorded the origins of what became The Inner Light at a studio in Bombay, India (now known as Mumbai). He had traveled there to record the soundtrack for Wonderwall, a psychedelic picture by Joe Massot co-starring 21-year-old Jane Birkin. According to The Beatles Bible, by January 12, Harrison had almost completed the work on the soundtrack and found himself with additional studio time he did not want to go to waste. He decided to record some additional ragas, one of which formed the basis for The Inner Light. The tune was completed at London’s Abbey Road Studios in early February of 1968 and appeared as the B-side to the single Lady Madonna. I think it’s the most beautiful Indian music-influenced tune Harrison wrote. I also love the lines, The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows. This is how I often feel when it comes to exploring music!
1969: Led Zeppelin released their mighty eponymous debut album in the U.S. The recording took place at Olympic Studios in London in September and October that year. Since the band had not secured a contract yet, the album was self-produced by Jimmy Page. He also paid the £1,782 for the 36 hours of studio time it took to complete the sessions. A key reason for the short recording time was a well-rehearsed band that had just performed as the New Yardbirds during a Scandinavian tour. Much of the music was recorded live in-studio. While Led Zeppelin initially received some poor reviews, the album was an instant chart success, peaking at no. 10 on the Billboard 200 and climbing to no. 6 on the UK Albums Chart where it spent a total of 71 weeks. Here’s the great opener Good Times Bad Times, which is credited to Page, John Paul Jones and Jon Bonham.
1974: The Steve Miller Band abracadabra scored their first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with The Joker. Co-written by Eddie Curtis, Ahmet Ertegün and Steve Miller, the tune also was the title track of the band’s 8th studio album that appeared in October 1973. Ertegün is best-known as co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, and I admittedly had no idea he also was involved in writing classic blues and pop songs! The farther one travels…More than 16 years later in September 1990, The Joker again flew like an eagle and rose to the top in the UK, after the tune had been used in a Levi’s TV ad. According to Wikipedia, this makes it the single with the longest gap between transatlantic chart-toppers – wow, it’s amazing what people track!
1993: The eighth annual Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony took place in Los Angeles. Honored inductees included Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doors, Etta James, Van Morrison, Sly & the Family Stone, Ruth Brown and Cream, who reunited for the event for the first time in 23 years. And what would the spectacle be without some drama? John Fogerty refused to perform with his former CCR bandmates Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. But fans still got to hear some CCR music. Fogerty recruited session musicians on drums and bass, and also got some help from Bruce Springsteen and Robbie Robertson. Here’s Cream’s performance of Sunshine of Your Love from that night. Boy, did Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker sound mighty sweet! While apparently Bruce and Baker were interested in touring at the time, solo projects and I imagine some other issues prevented reunion shows until early May 2005 when Cream performed a series of concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfascts Music History Calendar; YouTube
Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history
If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Jack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.
While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.
According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck Rainey, Geddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.
Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.
During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.
Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’sWhat’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.
But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!
I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.
Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.
Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.
I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.
For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.
James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.
I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”
Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube