What I’ve Been Listening to: Frankie Miller/The Rock

When Max from PowerPop blog recently posted about I Can’t Change It by Frankie Miller, I was immediately intrigued by the Scottish rock singer-songwriter’s soulful vocals. I also instantaneously recognized the name from an appearance on the German TV concert program Rockpalast I had watched in August 1982, though I still can’t remember any of the songs Miller performed during that show. Anyway, this is what prompted me to start listening to his music including his third studio album The Rock from September 1975.

Before getting to this gem, a few words about Miller are in order. He was born as Francis John Miller in Glasgow on November 2, 1949. Miller’s first exposure to music was his mother Cathy’s record collection. She particularly liked Ray Charles who interestingly ended up covering the above I Can’t Change It on his 1980 album Brother Ray Is at It Again, a song Miller had written as a 12-year-old and recorded for his debut album Once in a Blue Moon released in January 1973.

Going back to Miller’s childhood days, another music music influence were his older sisters Letty and Anne, who introduced him to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Miller started writing his first songs at the age of nine after his parents had given him a guitar. While still being at school, he started singing in a series of bands. Eventually, he joined Glasgow outfit The Stoics. While Chrysalis signed them in 1970, the band broke up before making any recordings.

In 1971, Miller formed a band called Jude, together with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, ex Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker and James Dewar, a Glasgow bassist and vocalist. While the band got attention from the British music press, they dissolved in April 1972, also without recording any music. Miller ended up signing a contract with Chrysalis later that year and released his above debut album in January 1973.

Frankie Miller at Rockpalast, Germany, 1982

Until 1985, Miller recorded eight additional solo albums. After his second-to-last solo release Standing on the Edge from 1982, he mostly focused on songwriting, including film music. Miller’s professional career came to a tragic end in August 1994 when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while writing music for a new band he and Joe Walsh had formed with English keyboarder and drummer Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace, respectively.

According to a bio on Miller’s website, the brain hemorrhage should have killed him but he has shown remarkable courage to claw his way slowly back to health, after spending 15 months in hospital. With massive support from his partner Annette, Frankie is learning to walk and talk again and has even written a new song with lyricist Will Jennings called “Sun Goes Up Sun Goes Down”. But sadly, Miller has not been able to resume performing.

The Rock back cover

While Miller’s records apparently received positive reviews, they were not commercially successful. His singles did not fare much better. Only two of them reached the top 40 in the UK: Be Good to Yourself from May 1977 (no. 27) and Darlin’ from October 1978 (no. 6). Miller’s songs have won writing awards and been performed by an impressive array of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh and Eagles.

Time to get to The Rock, Miller’s only album officially credited to the The Frankie Miller Band. All tracks were written by Miller. Here’s the excellent opener A Fool in Love. Like other tunes on the album, it reminds me of Joe Cocker. The song was actually covered by Etta James on her 1990 album Stickin’ to My Guns.

The title track was inspired by the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, which could be seen from the studio where the album was recorded. According to Wikipedia, Miller said that music saved him from prison. He dedicated the song to the plight of prisoners, apparently a reference to his second cousin Jimmy Boyle, a Scottish former gangster and convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist after his release from prison in October 1981. The Rock has got a cool Faces, early Rod Stewart vibe.

Another gem is Ain’t Got No Money. It’s probably not a coincidence that it became the album’s most covered tune, including by artists like Cher, Chris Farlowe and Bob Seger. Frankly, this would be a great song for The Rolling Stones.

Let’s slow things down with All My Love to You, a dynamite soulful tune. Why this didn’t become a hit beats me. Check it out this beauty!

Frankly, there’s no weak track on this album and I could have selected any other. Let’s do one one more: I’m Old Enough.

The Rock was produced by Elliot Mazer, one of the co-producers of Neil Young’s Harvest album. Musicians included Henry McCullough (lead guitar, backing vocals), Mick Weaver (keyboards), Chrissy Stewart (bass), Stu Perry (drums, percussion) and Miller’s former Jude mate James Dewar. The album also featured two ingredients for shaping its soul sound: The Memphis Horns and The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Frankie Miller website; YouTube

My Playlist: Emmylou Harris

While I had known her name for decades, it really wasn’t until July 2017 that I started paying closer attention to Emmylou Harris when seeing her in Philadelphia as part of a concert headlined by John Mellencamp. There was something special about this lady with her all-white hair who recently had turned 70. Now 73, Harris has been active for more than 50 years, released dozens of solo and collaborative albums, scored 20 top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts and collected numerous Grammy and other awards. This playlist is an attempt to shine a light on her long and impressive career.

Harris was born on April 2, 1947 in Birmingham, Ala. Her dad, Walter Harris, was a Marine Corps officer, while her mom Eugenia was a wartime military wife. After high school graduation in Woodbridge, Va., Harris went to the School of Music, Theater and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on a drama scholarship. It was there where she started to learn songs by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez on guitar and develop her musical aspirations. Harris dropped out, moved to New York City during the second half of the ’60s, and started performing on the folk circle in Greenwich Village while waiting tables.

In 1969, Harris married fellow songwriter Tom Slocum who wrote the title track for her debut album Gliding Bird. The folk record also included five songs written by Harris. The label Jubilee Records went under shortly after the release, so all distribution and promotion was ceased. Subsequently, Harris disowned the record. She regards her second release Pieces of the Sky from February 1975 as her official debut.

In 1971, after he had seen her perform, Flying Burrito Brothers co-founder Chris Hillman introduced Harris to his music partner Gram Parsons who became a key figure in her early career. Harris worked with Parsons on his solo debut GP from January 1973 and toured as a member of his band the Fallen Angels. Later that year, she also worked with Parsons on his second and final solo album Grievous Angel, which was released in January 1974, following his death from an accidental overdose of drugs and alcohol in September 1973.

In February 1975, the aforementioned Pieces of the Sky appeared. It’s the album that launched Harris’ career as a country artist and established what she became mainly known, i.e., covering songs written by other artists. The album also coincided with the formation of The Hot Band, Harris’ high-profile backing band until 1991. The initial lineup included James Burton (guitar), Glen Hardin (piano), Hank DeVito (pedal steel guitar), Emory Gordy, Jr. (bass) and John Ware (drums).

To date, Harris has released 21 solo studio albums, three live records and a dozen compilations. Additionally, her impressive catalog includes seven collaboration albums with artists like Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Rodney Crowell. Harris also has worked as a guest with numerous other artists, including The Band, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Guy Clark, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle, among others. Let’s get to some music!

While perhaps not as representative of Harris as her other records, I’d like to kick off this playlist with a tune from 1969’s Gliding Bird, which was written by her: Black Gypsy.

If I Could Only Win Your Love from her second album Pieces of the Sky became Harris’ first hit single, climbing to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1975. Co-written by Charlie Louvin and Ira Louvin who formed the country and gospel duo The Louvin Brothers, it also marked the first of only a handful of Harris singles that charted on the Billboard Hot 100, in this case at no. 58. Linda Ronstadt sang backing vocals on the album.

While Emmylou Harris is best known as a country artist, her song choices can be eclectic. Here’s an example from her third studio album Elite Hotel released in December 1975: A beautiful cover of The Beatles tune Here, There and Everywhere. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the McCartney ballad originally appeared on the Revolver album from August 1996.

Harris’ next album Luxury Liner from December 1976 included the first cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty, which subsequently became the revered singer-songwriter’s best known composition. The tune has also been covered by other artists, most notably Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who recorded it as the title track of their collaboration album that came out in January 1983.

Roses in the Snow, Harris’ first ’80s album, appeared in May 1980. Unlike her preceding country and country rock records, this album was more bluegrass-oriented. Here’s a great rendition of the Paul Simon tune The Boxer, featuring beautiful harmony singing by Cheryl White and her sister Sharon White. The Boxer first appeared on Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water from January 1970.

In February 1985, Harris released The Ballad of Sally Rose, a concept album loosely based on her relationship with Gram Parsons. The record also stood out for another reason. Like her debut 16 years earlier, it illustrates Harris is more than just a cover artist. All songs were co-written by her, mostly together with her then-second husband Paul Kennerley, an English singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, who also produced this record. Here’s White Line, one of the record’s two singles.

Next, I’d like to jump to the ’90s and Wrecking Ball, Harris’ 18th studio album. The record became her first since Pieces of the Sky that did not make the country charts. Perhaps that wasn’t too surprising, given the music moved away from her traditional acoustic to a more edgy and atmospheric sound. Producer Daniel Lanois who produced and co-produced various U2 albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby undoubtedly had something to do with it. Here’s the title track written by Neil Young who also provided harmony vocals. Young had first recorded the tune for his 1989 studio album Freedom. And, coming back to U2, Larry Mullen, Jr. played drums on most of the album’s songs including this one.

Given the significance of collaboration albums in Harris’ catalog, I’d like to at least acknowledge one: Trio II from February 1999, the second album she did together with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. All tracks had actually been recorded in 1994, but label disputes and conflicting schedules had prevented the release at the time. While I’ve featured it on the blog before, I just couldn’t resist including the ladies’ angelic rendition of After The Gold Rush, the title track of Neil Young’s third studio album from September 1970. Interestingly, while the remake did not chart when it was released as a single from Trio II, it won the 2000 Grammy for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals. The intensity of this version is just killing me. This is why I dig vocals!

In September 2003, Harris released Stumble into Grace, her second album of the current century. Like some of her previous records, it includes a significant number of her own compositions. She also co-wrote most of the remaining tracks. Here’s the opener Here I Am, one of her tunes.

I’d like to wrap up this playlist with a track from what is Harris’ most recent solo album, Hard Bargain, released in April 2011. Her two latest records are collaborations with Rodney Crowell from February 2013 and March 2015. There’s also the Complete Trio Collection, a compilation of the Trio I and Trio II collaborative albums with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, which came out in September 2016. Given the enormous role of Gram Parsons, it felt right to highlight opener The Road, a tune Harris penned about her musical mentor – the first to focus on his death since Boulder to Colorado, a song from Pieces of the Sky. It’s also noteworthy that Hard Bargain became Harris’ highest chart entry since the above Roses in the Snow from 1980, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Top Country Albums. It also hit no. 18 on the Billboard 200, her highest mainstream chart success since 1977’s Luxury Liner, a remarkable late-stage career success.

Emmylou Harris has sold 75 million records in the U.S. alone. She has won 14 Grammy awards out of 48 for which she had been nominated. She has also won numerous country, bluegrass and Americana awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in February 2008.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Best of “Bobfest”

Sometimes one beautiful thing leads to another. In my previous post, I wrote about Tom Petty’s affection for The Byrds and how he covered some of their tunes. One of the clips I included was a performance of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Bob Dylan tune popularized by The Byrds with their beautiful jingle-jangle version in the mid-’60s. The footage came from a concert that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s eponymous debut album. This prompted me to further check out that tribute show and boy, do I love what I found!

The four-hour concert took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 16, 1992. Regardless of what you think of Dylan, the fact that he is revered by so many top-notch artists speaks for itself. It was certainly reflected in the concert’s line-up, which featured John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn, among others.

The house band for the show included Booker T. Jones (organ) and other former members of the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar), along with Anton Fig and Jim Keltner (each on drums). And there were countless other musicians in different capacities I haven’t even mentioned. This was possibly a one-of-a-kind concert!

Let’s kick off the music with Like a Rolling Stone performed by John Mellencamp and special guest Al Kooper on the organ – great way to open the night! Dylan first recorded the classic tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited from August 1965.

Among the show’s true gems was Stevie Wonder’s performance of Blowin’ in the Wind. One of the defining protest songs of the ’60s, it was the opener to Dylan’s sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in May 1963. As Wonder eloquently said, it’s a tune that “will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours.” I’m afraid his words still ring true today.

Next up: Tracy Chapman and her beautiful version of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Recently, I’ve gained new appreciation of the singer-songwriter thanks to badfinger20, who covered Chapman the other day on his great PowerPop blog. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track of Dylan’s third studio album that appeared in January 1964.

Ready for some hardcore blues? Enter Johnny Winter and his scorching version of Highway 61 Revisited, the title track of the above-noted album from August 1965. Ohhh, wham bam thank you man, to borrow creatively from David Bowie. Unfortunately, I could only find the audio version, but I think you can still picture it.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is yet another tune from the Highway 61 Revisited album. If I would have to name my favorite Dylan record, I think this would be it. Of course, the caveat is I haven’t listened to all of his records, not even close! The artist who got to perform the tune during the concert was Neil Young, who did a great job. BTW, he dubbed the concert “Bobfest,” according to Wikipedia.

Here’s a great cover of I Shall Be Released by Chrissie Hynde. The first officially released version of the song was on the July 1968 debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink. Dylan’s first recording occurred during the so-called Basement Tapes sessions with The Band in 1967, which was released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 in 1991. In 1971, Dylan recorded a second version that appeared on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II from November that year.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, so I faithfully followed his advice and didn’t hesitate to call it out. It’s another song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton did a beautiful job making it his own. Don’t think twice, check it out!

George Harrison’s appearance at the show was remarkable. It marked his first U.S. concert performance in 18 years. Sadly, it would also be his last time performing in public, as Rolling Stone noted in a January 2014 story previewing the March 2014 super deluxe reissue of the concert. Harrison covered Absolutely Sweet Marie, a tune from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s seventh studio album from June 1966.

Of course, I couldn’t write about the bloody concert without including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who performed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, another track from Blonde on Blonde. Love it!

For the final clip in this post, it’s about time to get to the man himself and My Back Pages. He first recorded the tune for his fourth studio album Another Side of Bob Dylan, which appeared in August 1964. For his rendition at the show, he got a little help from his friends Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. That’s what friends are for, and they did a great job!

The last word shall belong to guitarist and the show’s musical director G.E. Smith, who is quoted in the above Rolling Stone story: “That gig was one of the highlights of my career… There aren’t a lot of people that can attract a lineup like that, and everyone was on their best behavior. Lou Reed and Neil Young can be prickly, but not in the three days we were prepping that show. I also got to talk to Johnny Cash. What’s cooler than that?”

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down

An incredible story behind an incredible song

Well I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head
That didn’t hurt
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t
Bad so I had one more for dessert

Then I fumbled through my closet
For my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt
And I shaved my face
And combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs
To meet the day…

The above lyrics from Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down have to be among the best I know. Ever since I “rediscovered” that tune a few months ago, I’ve wanted to post about it – not sure what took me so long. I think story-telling in a song doesn’t get much better.

This is just brilliant. You can literally see the story unfold before your eyes. Like in a movie. Apart from great lyrics, there is a fascinating story behind the tune, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, written by Kris Kristofferson. Frankly, it almost sounds unbelievable.

This excerpt from Songfacts is so intriguing that I’m going to quote since I couldn’t write it any better: Kris Kristofferson wrote this song while living in a run-down tenement in Nashville when he was working as a janitor for Columbia Records – a strange occupation considering he had a master’s degree from Oxford University and risen to the rank of captain in the US Army. But Kristofferson wanted to be a songwriter, so he turned down a professor position at the US Military Academy at West Point and swept floors at Columbia waiting for his break.

Image result for kris kristofferson sunday mornin' comin' down

No kidding! But wait, it gets even better: In the military, Kristofferson learned to fly planes and he worked as a commercial helicopter pilot in Nashville, and the story of how he got his demo tape of this song to Cash has become legend: He flew his National Guard helicopter to Cash’s front yard, where he landed and delivered the tape.

The story is often skewed to imply that Cash had never met Kristofferson, but they had known each other since 1965. In a 2008 interview with the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Kristofferson explained: “I knew John before then. I’d been his janitor at the recording studio, and I’d pitched him every song I ever wrote, so he knew who I was. But it was still kind of an invasion of privacy that I wouldn’t recommend.”

“To be honest, I don’t think he was there. He had a whole story about me getting out of the helicopter with a tape in one hand and a beer in the other. John had a pretty creative memory but I would never have disputed his version of what happened because he was so responsible for any success I had as a songwriter and performer. He put me on the stage the first time I ever was, during a performance at the Newport Folk Festival.”

…I’d smoked my brain the night before
With cigarettes and songs
That I’ve been pickin’
But I lit my first and watched a small kid
Cussin’ at a can that he was kickin’

Then I crossed the empty street and
Caught the Sunday smell
Of someone fryin’ chicken
And it took me back to something
That I’d lost somehow
Somewhere along the way…

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down was covered by many artists. The most successful version is by Johnny Cash. Initially, it was included on his third live album The Johnny Cash Show from October 1970. Here’s a great clip from another live performance in January 1987 on Austin City Limits, a local Texas television show. This concert was also released postmortem as a live album, Live From Austin, TX, in November 2005.

…On the Sunday morning sidewalk
Wishing lord that I was stoned
Cause there’s something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone
And there’s nothing short of dying
Half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleeping city sidewalk
Sunday morning coming down

In the park I saw a daddy
With a laughing little girl
He was swingin’
And I stopped beside the Sunday school
And listened to the song
That they were singing…

The very first artist who recorded the tune was Ray Stevens, an American country and pop singer-songwriter and comedian. He included it on his 1969 studio album Have a Little Talk with Myself.

…Then I headed back for home
And somewhere far away
A lonely bell was ringing
And it echoed thru the canyon-like
The disappearing dreams of yesterday

On the Sunday morning sidewalk
Wishing lord that I was stoned
Cause there’s something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone
And there’s nothing short of dying
Half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleeping city sidewalk
Sunday morning coming down

The last clip shall belong to the man wrote the great tune. He recorded it for his debut album Kristofferson, which appeared in April 1970.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

My Playlist: Fab Four Covers

What do you do in music when you run out of ideas? Get “inspired” by the work of others and claim it as your own ingenious creation. And get good legal representation. Just ask Led Zeppelin!

For any first time visitors, I totally dig Zep and Stairway To Heaven. I’m glad they recorded that song, which probably is my most favorite rock tune. Messrs. Page and Plant just should have given credit where credit was due, even if ripping off Taurus by Spirit was a subconscious act. Okay, ’nuff going on a tangent, this is supposed to be a happy post. And guess what? It totally was my idea! 🙂

This morning, I watched a clip of a Paul McCartney appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At some point, Colbert noted many other artists had done covers of Beatles songs, adding he believed Yesterday was the most covered tune. He then asked McCartney about his favorite version. Thinking about Yesterday, McCartney mentioned Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and his favorite, Marvin Gaye. Then I completely erased the clip from my memory.

Fast-forward 30 minutes. I’m sitting at my computer, and suddenly out of nowhere, a flash of ingenuity hit me. What if I did a playlist of Beatles songs covered by other artists? What a brilliant and original idea, I thought, so here it is!

Got To Get You Into My Life (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Essentially, this was an homage to Motown, which The Beatles recorded in 1966 for the Revolver album. In July 1978, Earth, Wind & Fire released a fantastic cover of the tune as a single. It also was part of the less than stellar feature film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Feel free to snip along!

Yesterday (Marvin Gaye)

I trust this song needs no further introduction. What you may not have known is that none other than the fabulous Marvin Gaye recorded a take of the timeless ballad. And when Marvin sang, magic happened most of the time. He included his version of Yesterday on his tenth studio album That’s The Way Love Is from January 1970. Just listen to this – makes me feel like floating in space!

We Can Work It Out (Stevie Wonder)

We Can Work It Out is a non-album single The Beatles issued in December 1965 as a double A-side with Day Tripper. Stevie Wonder liked the song and decided to record a take for his August 1970 studio album Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Who can blame him? According to Wikipedia, Wonder performed the tune for McCartney on various occasions. Even if you’re Paul McCartney, it’s gotta be cool to witness Stevie Wonder playing one of your songs!

Eleanor Rigby (Ray Charles)

This is one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes and another track from the Revolver album. I also dig this cover by Ray Charles, which he recorded as a single in 1968.

In My Life (Johnny Cash)

In My Life is one of the most beautiful and moving songs John Lennon has written and a standout on the Rubber Soul album, in my opinion. Gosh, I can’t deny this tune gets me every time! At first, I wanted to feature the cover by Bette Midler, a fantastic vocalist. Then I came across this take by Johnny Cash, which blew me away. There’s perhaps nobody better than the Man in Black when it comes to conveying raw emotion and vulnerability, especially during the later stages of his career. This take is from American IV: The Man Comes Around, a studio album released in November 2002, about 10 months before he passed away.

She’s A Woman (José Feliciano)

José Feliciano is an artist I’ve admired for many years, not only because of his outstanding guitar-playing, but also because of great covers he has done and how he has made them his own. Check out this amazing version of She’s A Woman, which The Beatles initially released as the B-side to their I Feel Fine single in November 1964. Feliciano’s take also first appeared as a single, in 1969. I love how he gave it a Latin jazz type groove.

If I Needed Someone (Roger McGuinn)

If I Needed Someone has become one of my favorite Beatles and George Harrison tunes. And who better to cover it than Roger McGuinn, the man who after seeing George playing a Rickenbacker guitar on TV knew that jingle-jangle sound was made for him and The Byrds. If I Needed Someone is another gem on Rubber Soul. McGuinn recorded his version for his seventh solo album Limited Edition that came out in April 2004. Every time I hear that distinct Rickenbacker sound, I’m getting the same sentiment than listening to a Hammond B3 – I want one. So badly!

I’m leaving you with one more cover, which perhaps is the ultimate rock remake of all time: With A Little Help From My Friends by Joe Cocker. Cocker has recorded strong versions of various Beatles tunes, but this one from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the crown jewel. It became the title track of his debut album from May 1969.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

It’s That Time Of The Year Again…Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Nominations

Class of 2020 encompasses nine first-time nominees, including Pat Benator, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and The Doobie Brothers

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has unveiled the class of 2020 nominees. Inevitably, this will respark the annual debate whether artists who fall outside the rock genre like Whitney Houston, The Notorious B.I.G. or Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan should have been nominated in the first place, or why certain rock bands or artists who have been eligible for many years once again did not make the class. But despite all the Rock Hall’s imperfections, the music nerd in me still gets excited. Following are the artists I dig the most among the nominations.

If you glanced at the subhead of this post, you already know where I’m going with this. Ladies first: Pat Benatar. Having been eligible since 2004, Benatar is one of the great female rock vocalists in my book. According to her bio published on the Rock Hall’s website, Benator is a classically trained mezzo-soprano who quit her job in 1971 to pursue a career in singing. In 1979, she met guitarist Neil Giraldo, and the two formed a long-lasting duo, established their own entertainment company, and are still performing to this day. Here’s Heartbreaker from Benatar’s debut album In The Heat Of The Night, which was released in August 1979. Co-written by Geoff Gill and Cliff Wade, the tune was her breakthrough single, climbing to no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. The clip, which is from Benator’s 35th anniversary tour that took place in 2015, also throws in Ring Of Fire by Johnny Cash – fun to watch!

T. Rex, initially called Tyrannosaurus Rex, were formed as a psychedelic folk rock group by singer-songwriter and guitarist Marc Bolan in 1967. In 1970, the band changed their name to T. Rex and began their transition toward glam rock, which first was on full display on their sixth studio album Electric Warrior from September 1971. The band went on to record six more albums until Bolan’s untimely death in a car accident in September 1997, just two weeks prior to his 30th birthday. T. Rex had many members over the years. From the line-up that existed at the time of Bolan’s death, it appears only Herbie Flowers (bass) and Tony Newman (drums) are still alive. Here’s what’s perhaps the band’s best known song, Get It On. Written by Bolan, it appeared on the Electric Warriors album. T. Rex have been eligible for the Rock Hall since 1993.

Next up: Thin Lizzy, a great band formed in Dublin, Ireland in 1969, who has been eligible for a nomination since 1996. In particular, I dig them for their twin lead guitar harmonies. Until the band’s breakup in September 1983, Thin Lizzy released 12 studio albums. In January 1986, co-founding member, bassist, lead vocalist and principal songwriter Phil Lynott, who had been the group’s de facto leader, passed away from pneumonia and heart failure caused by sepsis. In March 1996, guitarist John Sykes, who had been part of Thin Lizzy’s final line-up, decided to revive the band. While he is no longer part of it, the group remains active to this day. Essentially, they are performing as their own tribute and except for a few live albums have not released any new records. In addition to their great guitar sound, one of the cool things about Thin Lizzy was the band’s interracial aspect – Lynott’s father was from British Guiana. His mom was from Dublin. The Boys Are Back In Town from Jailbreak, Thin Lizzy’s sixth studio album that appeared in March 1976, is a great example of the aforementioned twin lead guitars. On this song, they were played by Brian Robertson and Brian Downey.

As more frequent visitors of the blog know, I’m a fan of The Dobbie Brothers, so I was particularly pleased to see their nomination. The band had been eligible since 1996. What always attracted me to the Dobbies, which were founded in San Jose in 1970, was the combination of rock and their amazing three-part harmony singing. Two of the original vocalists, Tom Johnston (guitars, vocals, harmonica) and Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals), remain part of the band’s current line-up. John McFee (guitars, pedal steel, violin, harmonica, vocals) has been a part of the group since 1979. I’ve seen the Dobbies twice over the past 20 years, most recently last year, and they still sound phenomenal. While I generally prefer the band’s early phase, here’s a great rocker from their 10th studio album Cycles released in May 1989: The Doctor, a tune co-written by Johnston, Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz. The clip was captured during a concert in April 2017.

The induction ceremony will be held at Public Auditorium in Cleveland, Ohio on May 2, 2020. It will be preceded by induction week with celebratory events and the opening of the 2020 inductee exhibit. Music fans can vote once a day from now on through January 10, 2020 and pick up to five nominees per ballot. The top five artists will comprise a “fans’ ballot” that will be tallied along with the other ballots to choose the 2020 inductees.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website; YouTube

Phil Ochs, Brilliant Yet Widely Obscure Troubador

What do Robert Allen Zimmerman and Philip David Ochs have in common? Both wrote brilliant protest songs in the ’60s. The difference? Robert changed his name to Bob Dylan and became one of the most famous music artists of our time. Philip chose to perform as Phil Ochs and remained largely obscure outside singer-songwriter circles.

Until recently, I had never heard of Phil Ochs myself. Then I saw somebody ranting on Facebook that Bob Dylan undeservedly gets all the credit for being this brilliant protest singer when the recognition should really go to Ochs. The truth is while both artists at some point were important protest singer-songwriters, none of them invented the genre. According to Wikipedia, the tradition of protest songs in the U.S. long predates the births of Dylan and Ochs – in fact going all the way back to the 18th century.

One of the important forerunners to the 1950s and 1960s protest singer-singwriters were the Hutchinson Family Singers, who starting from 1839 became well known for singing about social issues, such as abolition, war and women’s suffrage. And let’s not forget Woody Guthrie, who was born in 1912 and started learning folk and blues songs during his early teens. Over a 26-year-period as an active music artist, Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk and children’s songs. He was a major influence on numerous other songwriters who in addition to Dylan and Ochs included Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and many other former and contemporary artists.

Hutchinson Family Singers
Hutchinson Family Singers in 1845 painting by an unkown artist

‘I get it,’ you might think, ‘but who the hell is Phil Ochs?’ Sadly, it’s a pretty rough story, and it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending.

Ochs was born on December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas. His dad Jakob “Jack” Ochs was a physician from New York, and his mom Gertrude Finn Ochs hailed from Scotland. The two met there and got married in Edinburgh where Jack was attending medical school at the time. After their wedding, they moved to the U.S. Jack joined the army as a doctor and was sent overseas close to the end of World War II. He returned as a sick man with bipolar disorder and depression.

Jack’s health conditions prevented him from establishing a successful medical practice. Instead, he ended up working at a series of hospitals around the country and frequently moving his family. As a result, Phil Ochs grew up in different places, along with an older sister (Sonia, known as Sonny) and a younger brother (Michael). His father was distant from the family, eventually got hospitalized for depression, and passed away from a brain bleeding in April 1963. Phil’s mother died in March 1994.

Phil Ochs as teen with clarinet
Phil Ochs as a teenager playing the clarinet

During his teenage years, Ochs became a talented clarinet player. Prior to the age of 16, he was principal soloist with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. Although Ochs had become an accomplished classical instrumentalist, he soon discovered the radio and started listening to the likes of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Initially, Ochs wanted to become a journalist. Well, he of sort did, combining his interest in writing about politics with music. During his journalism studies at Ohio State University, he met fellow student, activist and future folk singer Jim Glover in the fall of 1960, who introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers, and taught him how to play guitar. It wouldn’t take long before Ochs merged his interest of politics and music and started writing his own songs. He preferred to characterize himself as a topical rather than a protest singer.

Glover and Ochs started performing as a duo called The Singing Socialists and later The Sundowners but broke up before their first professional gig. Glover went to New York, while Ochs started performing professionally at a local fok club in Cleveland. In 1962, he went to the Big Apple as well and soon established himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scence. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” explaining his songs were inspired by stories he saw in Newsweek. By the summer of 1963, he had developed a sufficiently high profile and was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, along the likes of Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.

Ochs’ debut album All The News That’s Fit To Sing, an allusion to The New York Times‘ slogan “All the news that’s fit to print,” appeared in 1964. Here is Ballad of William Worthy. The tune tells the story about an American journalist who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. embargo and was forbidden to return to the U.S. Check out the brilliant lyrics of this tune – safe to assume Ochs’ words didn’t endear him to the Johnson Administration.

In 1965, Ochs’ sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Anymore came out. Here’s the excellent satirical anti-war tune Draft Dodger Rag, which quickly became an anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

After Ochs’ first three albums with Electra Records had gone nowhere commercially speaking, he signed with A&M Records and in October 1967 released his fourth studio record Pleasures Of The Harbor. Unlike his first three folk music-oriented records, the album went beyond folk, featuring elements of classical, rock & roll, Dixieland and even experiental synthesized music. Apparently, the idea was to produce a folk-pop crossover. While the album included great tunes, it’s safe to say it didn’t bring Ochs commercial success. Here is Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, which became one of Ochs’ most popular songs. The tune was inspired by the case of a 28-old woman who was stabbed to death in front of her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help.

Tape From California is Ochs’ fifth album. Released in July 1968 on A&M Records, it continued his shift away from straight folk-oriented protest songwriting, though he was far from abandoning topical songs. The War Is Over is a tune that was inspired by poet Allen Ginsberg who in 1966 declared the Vietnam war was over. Ochs decided to adopt the idea and organize an anti-war rally in Los Angeles, for which he wrote the song.

Phil Ochs’ final studio album came out in February 1970. Weirdly, it was called Greatest Hits, even though it was not a compilation but a collection of 10 new tracks. Most of the record was produced by Van Dyke Parks, who previously had appeared on Tape From California, contributing piano and keyboards to the title track. Greatest Hits featured an impressive array of guest artists, including Clarence White and Gene Parsons, both from The Byrds; Ry Cooder; Jim Glover; and members of Elvis Presley’s backing band, among others. The album cover was an homage to Elvis, showing Ochs in a gold lamé suit reminiscent of the outfit Elvis wore for the cover of his 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong greatest hits compilation. Here is Jim Dean Of Indiana, a tune about the actor James Dean, who like Elvis was one of Ochs’ idols.

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ final attempt to connect with average Americans, who he was convinced weren’t listening to topical songs. Disillusioned by key events of 1968, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago around the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, Ochs felt he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara,” as Wikipedia puts it. Ochs supported the album with a tour, performing in the Elivs-like suit and being backed by a rock band, singing his own songs, along with tunes by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Merle Haggard. But his fans weren’t sure what to make of the “new Phil Ochs.”

Pretty much from there, things went downhill for Ochs. He developed writer’s block and slipped into depression and alcoholism. He did not release any additional records. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in the home of his sister Sonny. He was only 35 years old.

I’d like to conclude this post with a few quotes I found on Life of a Rebel, a blog dedicated to Ochs. “As a lyricist, there was nobody like Phil before and there has not been anybody since,” said fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk. “He had a touch that was so distinctive that it just could not be anybody else. He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” In a note to Ochs in 1963, Pete Seeger wrote, “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.” And what did the mighty Bob Dylan tell Broadside magazine in 1964? “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Life of a Rebel; YouTube

Woodstock 50 Clips & Pix: Tim Hardin/If I Were A Carpenter (Part 1 of 4)

Today 50 years ago, Woodstock kicked off in Bethel, N.Y. To celebrate one of the most pivotal moments in music history, I decided to feature a different clip for each of the four anniversary dates. While my recent Woodstock post was fairly long, I still felt I had to leave out lots of great music. This four-part mini series will feature additional songs.

August 15, 1969 was a Friday. The above clip shows one of the performers on the festival’s opening day, Tim Hardin, who played in the evening (from 9:20 to 9:45 pm ET, according to Wikipedia). Written by him, If I Were A Carpenter became the American folk singer’s best known song, which first appeared on his second studio album, Tim Hardin 2, released in April 1967.

The tune was covered by many other artists, including Bobby Darin, Joan Baez, The Four Tops, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Bob Seger and Robert Plant. Darin’s cover turned out to be the highest charting, peaking at no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Hardin’s original was a top 40 hit.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Keb’ Mo’ Releases Roots-Oriented Album Oklahoma

Keb’ Mo’ fully entered my radar screen only two years ago with TajMo, a collaboration album with Taj Mahal and one of my favorite new records from 2017. My fondness for Mo’ grew further when I saw him together with Mahal during the TajMo supporting tour, one of the greatest shows I’ve been to in recent years. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was full of anticipation about Mo’s new album Oklahoma, which appeared yesterday. Let me say this right upfront: It’s very different from TajMo, but after having listened to the 10 tracks for a few times, I like it and with every additional run-through, I like it even better.

Typically, the Nashville-based guitarist and singer-songwriter whose real name is Kevin Roosevelt Moore, is characterized as a blues artist. But based on my understanding, Mo’ has frequently ventured beyond the blues into other styles like R&B, Americana and roots music. While Oklahoma has some bluesy moments, it primarily falls into the Americana/roots genre.

Keb' Mo' & Dara Tucker
Dara Tucker & Keb’ Mo’

According to Mo’s website, the inspiration for the album’s title track came to Mo’ after he had visited the state for a benefit show in the aftermath of a tornado and seen all the destruction. But it wasn’t until he met American vocalist and Oklahoma native Dara Tucker that the idea of making an album focused on The Sooner State was born. As Mo’s website puts its, Together, they set about to portray the complicated depth of American history played out in her home state. Native American connection and tragedy, natural and man made disasters, incredible musicians and the Tulsa Sound, and western ruggedness and fortitude are all themes.

Initially, Mo’ had set out to make an acoustic solo album, and it wasn’t supposed to be called Oklahoma. “I just wanted some good songs, like I always do—I wanted 10 really good, authentic songs,” Mo told Blues Rock Review. “I had this idea about Oklahoma, and I was like, ‘Oh god, Oklahoma—that’s just crazy. That has nothing to do with me.’ I had a writing session with a writer I’d never written with, Dara Tucker. I said, ‘Where are you from?’ She says, “Oklahoma.” I go, ‘Okay—there might be something with this Oklahoma idea. Let’s just write this idea; I don’t know what’s going to come of it.'”

Well, let’s find out! Here’s the title track co-written by Mo’ and Tucker. The tune features great lap steel guitar playing by Robert Randolph.

Put A Woman In Charge features singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash, the eldest daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto Cash. The track was co-written by Mo’, John Lewis Parker and Beth Nielsen Chapman. “That was supposed to be a stand-alone single, but I loved the way it turned out, so I had to put it on the album,” Mo’ noted on his website. “I’d never worked with Rosanne before, but somebody suggested that she might like it. She said yes, and she put down her part, and it was just so badass.” The message of the groovy tune is pretty clear. Here’s an excerpt of the lyrics.

Way back when/In the beginning of time/Man made the fire then the wheel/Went from a horse to an automobile

He said “the world is mine”/He took the oceans and the sky/He set the borders – build the walls/He won’t stop till he owns it all

And here we are/Standing on the brink of disaster/Enough is enough is enough is enough/I know the answer

Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge/Put a woman in charge…

Since I previously wrote about This Is My Home, one of my favorite tunes on Oklahoma, I’m skipping it here and jump right to Don’t Throw It Away. Co-written by Mo, Charles Esten and Colin Linden, Mo’s friend and the album’s primary producer, with Mo’ co-producing, the bluesy tune about the virtues of recycling features Taj Mahal and is the closest it gets to TajMo.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Ridin’ On A Train, another bluesy tune co-written by Mo’ and Jenny Yates. The song only features Mo’ on vocals and resonator guitar and drummer Marcus Finnie.

Commenting on the album overall on his website, Mo’ said, “I’m more interested in pleasing myself, and making records that make me feel proud and make me feel like I’ve done my best. And if other people like it, that’s gravy.” He further pointed out, “When you are in a certain part of your life, the concept of an album is woven into the process. All of these songs stemmed from important issues and topics worldwide that really resonated with me during the time we were recording the project.”

Oklahoma appears on Concord Records. Mo’ dedicated the album to his late mother, Lauvella Cole, who passed away in September 2018 at the age of 91. Mo’ is currently on the road to support the record. After finishing a U.S. leg, he is headed overseas at the end of the month for a series of dates in Europe, lasting well into the second half July, before returning to the U.S. in late August after taking a break. The full schedule is on his website.

Sources: Wikipedia, Keb’ Mo’ website, Blues Rock Review, Glide Magazine, YouTube

 

Clips & Pix: Sheryl Crow Featuring Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staple/Live Wire

I came across this great bluesy tune from Sheryl Crow a few days ago. Called Live Wire and written by Crow, the track features Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples – quite a female power trio! It is the second single from Crow’s upcoming studio album Threads, which is scheduled for August 30th.

“Mavis Staples means so much more to me than any words I could write about her,” Crow told Rolling Stone. “I feel like, in many ways, she is the Godmother to Bonnie Raitt. To say that having both of these soulful women on ‘Live Wire’ is a treat would be a huge understatement.”

Threads is a collaboration album, which in addition to Raitt and Staples features many other heavyweights like Stevie Nicks, Eric Clapton, Sting, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, Don Henley and Joe Walsh. Additionally, it includes a posthumous duet with Johnny Cash, Redemption Day, which appeared as the lead single in April. There is also already a third single out, Prove You Wrong, a collaboration with Nicks and Maren Morris.

As reported by Madison.com, Crow talked about the album at the CMT Music Awards in early May, saying it could be her last. “It may be my final album, so I am going out big. I grew up in the age where people made albums. But now, I think people do playlists and they will only hear one of two songs off a full-length album that you tried to make a full artistic statement. I kind of like the idea now of just putting out songs.”

Apparently, Crow is not planning to retire from music, just stop making full-fledged albums and instead focusing on singles and EPs. If that’s true, it certainly looks like it’s going to be compelling final album.

Sources: Wikipedia, Sheryl Crow website, Rolling Stone, Madison.com, YouTube