Smokey Shines at Philly Met

Motown legend takes audience on a miraculous journey with music and memories

Shop Around by The Miracles must have been among the very first Motown songs I heard many moons ago. Motown and the infectious groove of the tunes that came out of the Detroit label started my lifelong love of soul music. When I coincidentally saw a couple of months ago that Motown legend Smokey Robinson was touring and scheduled to play the Met in Philadelphia, I immediately got tickets – yes, it totally was an impulse purchase. Saturday night, the time had finally come, and ooo, baby baby, what a miraculous show it was!

Smokey Robinson. Where do you even start? Now 82 years young, the man has enjoyed a 67-year career and counting – 67 years! It all started in 1955 when he formed the first lineup of the Five Chimes, the group that a couple of years later would become The Miracles. In August 1957, Robinson and his band met Berry Gordy Jr., who in 1959 with Robinson’s encouragement borrowed $800 from his family to create Tamla Motown and changed music history.

In September 1960, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles became Motown’s first stars with Shop Around. Credited to Robinson and Gordy, the tune topped Billboard’s R&B Chart and became a no. 2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. In the following years, Robinson continued to write hits for the group, including You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, The Tears of a Clown (a co-write with Stevie Wonder) and I Second That Emotion, to name a few.

In the mid-’60s, Robinson also became Vice President of Motown Records, serving as in-house producer, talent scout and songwriter. Apart from The Miracles, he penned and produced hits for other Motown acts, such as The Temptations, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye. Robinson also became a successful solo artist with hits like Quiet Storm (1976), Cruisin’ (1979), Being with You (1981) and Just to See Her (1987). According to his online bio, he has amassed writing credits for more than 4,000 songs.

Smokey Robinson (front, right) with The Miracles: Claudette Robison (front left), as well as (back left to right) Bobby Rogers, Marv Taplin and Ronald White

Robinson has won numerous accolades, including the Grammy Living Legend Award, NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate (Howard University), Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States. He’s also in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

While it is impossible to do Robinson’s impressive career justice with a brief summary, I’d like to mention two additional things. Bob Dylan once called him America’s “greatest living poet.” Among the bands who covered Robinson’s songs are two of the greatest of all time: The Beatles (You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me – 1963) and The Rolling Stones (Going to a Go-Go – 1982).

Smokey Robinson, Met gig shots and yours truly with the real star of the show

Let’s get to some music! Robinson’s set featured a nice mix of songs spanning five decades, including some of the big ’60s hits by The Miracles, a medley of mid-’60s Temptations tunes he co-wrote, as well as select solo tunes from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2018. He also included a rendition of Fly Me to the Moon, which he covered on his 2006 standards album Timeless Love. Not only did Robinson still hit extremely high notes with his falsetto, but the man’s physical flexibility was astonishing and frankly age-defying!

I Second That Emotion, co-written by Robinson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, first appeared as a single by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in October 1967. It was their third no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart and peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their second-highest charting single there since Shop Around in 1960, which had made it to no. 2. The tune was later also recorded by Diana Ross & the Supremes and separately by Diana Ross & the Supremes with The Temptations.

On Ooo Baby Baby, Smokey slowed it down and went very high – the ladies loved it! And, yes, yours truly was impressed as well. Ooo Baby Baby, co-written by Robinson and Pete Moore, the bass singer of The Miracles, was released as a single by The Miracles in March 1965. It reached no. 2 on the Hot R&B Singles chart and no. 16 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. The tune has been covered by numerous other artists over the years, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt.

With The Tears of a Clown, Robinson presented yet another hit billed as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, though with the distinction that it was the group’s only ’70s single in his set. Co-written by Robinson, Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder in 1967, The Tears of a Clown wasn’t released as a single until July 1970 when it first appeared in the UK. In September of the same year, it also became a U.S. single. The tune ended up topping the Hot R&B Singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts in the U.S., as well as the UK Official Singles Chart, making it the group’s biggest hit. The Tears of a Clown had first been included on the group’s August 1967 album Make It Happen.

The last two songs I’d like to highlight are both from Smokey Robinson’s solo career. Just to See Her, co-written by Jimmy George and Lou Pardini, was first recorded by Robinson and released as the lead single of his popular 1987 studio album One Heartbeat in March of that year. The tune is his last big U.S. hit to date, peaking at no. 8 and no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, respectively, and topping the Adult Contemporary chart. In the UK, it reached no. 52.

And then the time had come for the final song of the night and Smokey to take us on a cruise by car – a long cruise! Cruisin’, one of his best-known solo songs, first appeared on his studio album Where There’s Smoke…, which came out in May 1979. Penned by Robinson, the tune was also released separately as a single in August of the same year. It climbed to no. 4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, as well as no. 34 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Personally, I would have been okay with a shorter cruise and instead a couple of additional tunes, such as my beloved Shop Around. At the same time, it was heart-warming to see Smokey evidently having a ball and engaging with the audience, including two ladies he asked to come up on stage.

Following is Saturday night’s setlist:

Intro – Overture
Being With You (1981)
I Second That Emotion (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cover – 1967)
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me (The Miracles cover – 1962)
Quiet Storm (1975)
Ooo Baby Baby (The Miracles song – 1965)
The Way You Do the Things You Do / Get Ready / My Girl (The Temptations covers – 1964, 1966 & 1964)
The Tears of a Clown (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cover – 1967)
I Love Your Face (1992)
Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words) (Kaye Ballard cover – 1954)
La Mirada (2018)
Just to See Her (1987)
The Tracks of My Tears (The Miracles cover – 1965)
Cruisin’ (1979)

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist that captures all songs of the above setlist sans La Mirada, the most recent solo tune Robinson performed, which I couldn’t find in Spotify. Robinson joked it hasn’t come out yet. By that, he meant the tune hasn’t been included on an album. It did appear digitally as a single in June 2018.

Sources: Wikipedia; Smokey Robinson website; Setlist.fm; YouTube; Spotify

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Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book Turns 50

On October 27, 1972, Stevie Wonder released his 15th studio album Talking Book. While I missed the actual anniversary date, I did not want to skip this milestone. Not only does Talking Book represent a gem in Wonder’s long music catalog and marked the beginning of his “classic period”, but it also was an artistic turning point. This post borrows from a previous review of the album I published in May 2017.

Even though Stevie Wonder was only 22 years when he recorded Talking Book, he already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. Remarkably, he took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, the album proved his independence as an artist, his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.

The sound of Talking Book was largely shaped by Wonder’s keyboard work, especially his use of synthesizers. “I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”

A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades; Clavinet; Moog bass synthesizer; T.O.N.T.O., a massive multi-module synthesizer, and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Jeff Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder followed contemporary artists like Marvin GaveCurtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album  Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City.

Let’s get to some music with the beautiful opener of side one (speaking in vinyl terms), You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder got some support on vocals from singers Jim GilstrapLani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the album’s second single and Wonder’s third no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won him the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Next up is You and I (We Can Conquer the World), another love song. In addition to singing lead vocals, Wonder played all instruments, including piano, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by multiple other artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker and Macy Gray. According to Songfacts, it also holds the distinction of having served as the wedding song for former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who are both huge Stevie Wonder fans.

Side two of Talking Book starts off with what became Wonder’s second U.S. no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a signature tune: Superstition. That said, the album’s lead single ruffled some feathers. Jeff Beck who participated in the recording sessions for Talking Book came up with the opening drum beat. Wonder improvised the guitar-like riff, playing a Hohner Clavinet. They created a rough demo of the tune with the idea that Beck would record the song for his next album. However, by the time Beck did so, Wonder had recorded the tune for Talking Book, and at the insistence of Berry Gordy who saw a hit, it had been released as a single. In addition to Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums, Moog bass), the recording featured Trevor Lawrence (tenor saxophone) and Steve Madaio (trumpet). Apparently, Beck wasn’t happy and made some comments to the press Wonder didn’t appreciate. Eventually, he released his version of  Superstition on his 1973 eponymous debut album with Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Here is the above-mentioned Big Brother. It’s another tune entirely performed by Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums/percussion, harmonica, Moog bass). An excerpt from the lyrics: …Your name is big brother/You say that you got me all in your notebook/Writing it down everyday/Your name is I’ll see ya’ (Your name is I’ll see ya’)/I’ll change if you vote me in as the Pres’/ President of your soul/I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time…

The last track I’d like to call out is I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), one of two tunes on Talking Book Wonder co-wrote with Yvonne Wright, a frequent collaborator for various of his other ’70s albums. Once again, it was solely performed by Wonder who in addition to singing lead and background vocals played piano, Clavinet, drums and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by Art Garfunkel, George Michael and British female vocal duo E’voke, among others.

Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album  Music of My Mind. Following is a Spotify link to the album.

Talking Book became a major chart success, especially in the U.S. where it climbed to no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and was Wonder’s first album to top the R&B chart. Elsewhere, it reached no. 12 in Canada, no. 16 in the UK, no. 24 in Norway and no. 34 in Australia. The record was also well-received by critics. In a review at the time, Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Talking Book at no. 90 in its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent 2020 revision, it moved up to no. 59. The album was also voted no. 322 in the third edition of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums, published in 2000.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; Songfacts; Rolling Stone, AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

Musings of the Past

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

Time for another installment of this infrequent feature, in which I republish select content that first appeared in the earlier stage of the blog when I had fewer followers. The following post about my favorite saxophone players originally appeared in November 2017. I’ve slightly edited it and also added a Spotify playlist at the end.

In Appreciation Of The Saxophonist

A list of some of my favorite saxophone players and solos

Music instruments have always fascinated me. I also have a deep appreciation for musicians who master their gear. Oftentimes, I wish I would have learned more than just the guitar and the bass. For regular readers of the blog or those who know me otherwise, none of this should come as a big surprise. I’ve written a bunch of posts on some of the gear I admire, from guitars like the Fender StratocasterGibson Les Paul and Rickenbacker 360/12, to keyboards like the  Hammond B3, as well as some of my favorite drummers and bassists. One of the coolest instruments I haven’t touched yet is the saxophone.

Let me address the big caveat to this post right away: Since I know next to nothing about jazz, I’m focusing on genres that are in my wheelhouse: rock, blues and pop. While many of the saxophonists I highlight come from the jazz world, it’s still safe to assume I’m missing some outstanding players. On the other hand, where would I even start, if I broadened the scope to jazz? With that being out of the way, following is a list of some of favorite saxophonists and sax solos.

Update: Since subsequently I’ve started to explore the jazz world, mostly in my Sunday Six feature, I’m going to add some tracks in the Spotify playlist featuring some additional outstanding jazz saxophonists.

Raphael Ravenscroft

I imagine just like most readers, I had never heard of this British saxophonist until I realized he was associated with a ’70s pop song featuring one of the most epic sax solos: Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. The breathtaking performance put Ravenscroft on the map. He went on to work with other top artists like Marvin Gaye (In Our Lifetime, 1981), Robert Plant (Pictures At Eleven, 1982) and Pink Floyd (The Final Cut, 1983). Ravenscroft died from a suspected heart attack in October 2014 at the age of 60. According to a BBC News story, he didn’t think highly of the solo that made him famous, saying, “I’m irritated because it’s out of tune…Yeah it’s flat. By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.” The same article also noted that Ravenscroft “was reportedly paid only £27 for the session with a cheque that bounced while the song is said to have earned Rafferty £80,000 a year in royalties.” Wow!

Wayne Shorter

The American jazz saxophonist and composer, who started his career in the late ’50s, played in Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet in the 1960s and co-founded the jazz fusion band Weather Report in 1971. Shorter has recorded over 20 albums as a bandleader and played as a sideman on countless other jazz records. He also contributed to artists outside the jazz realm, including Joni MitchellDon Henley and Steely Dan. For the latter, he performed a beautiful extended tenor sax solo for Aja, the title track of their 1977 gem.

Clarence Clemons

The American saxophonist, musician and actor was best known for his longtime association with Bruce Springsteen. From 1972 to his death in June 2011 at age 69, Clemons was a member of the E Street Band, where he played the tenor saxophone. He also released several solo albums and played with other artists, including Aretha FranklinTwisted Sister, Grateful Dead and  Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band. But it was undoubtedly the E Street Band where he left his biggest mark, providing great sax parts for Springsteen gems like Thunder RoadThe Promised Land and The Ties That Bind. One of my favorite Clemons moments is his solo on Bobby Jean from the Born In The U.S.A. album. What could capture “The Big Man” better than a live performance? This clip is from a 1985 concert in Paris, France.

Curtis Amy

The American West Coast jazz musician was primarily known for his work as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. Among others, Amy served as the musical director of Ray Charles’ orchestra for three years in the mid-60s. He also led his own bands and recorded under his own name. Outside the jazz arena, he worked as a session musician for artists like The Doors (Touch Me, The Soft Parade, 1969), Marvin GayeSmokey Robinson and Carole King (Tapestry, 1971). One of the tunes on King’s masterpiece is the ballad Way Over Yonder, which features one of the most beautiful sax solos in pop I know of.

Dick Parry

The English saxophonist, who started his professional career in 1964, has worked as a session musician with many artists. A friend of David Gilmour, Parry is best known for his work with Pink Floyd, appearing on their albums The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973), Wish You Were Here (1975), The Division Bell (1994) and Pulse (1995). He also worked with Procol Harum  guitarist Mick Grabham (Mick The Lad, 1972), John Entwistle (Mad Dog, 1975) and Rory Gallagher (Jinx, 1982), among others. One of Parry’s signature sax solos for Pink Floyd appeared on Money. Here’s a great clip recorded during the band’s 1994 Division Bell tour.

Ronnie Ross

Albert Ronald “Ronnie” Ross was a British jazz baritone saxophonist. He started his professional career in the 1950s with the tenor saxophone, playing with jazz musicians Tony KinseyTed Heath and Don Rendell. It was during his tenure with the latter that he switched to the baritone sax. Outside his jazz engagements during the 60s, Ross gave saxophone lessons to a young dude called David Bowie and played tenor sax on Savoy Truffle, a track from The Beatles’ White Album. In the 70s, his most memorable non-jazz appearance was his baritone sax solo at the end of the Lou Reed song Walk On The Wild Side. I actually always thought the solo on that tune from Reed’s 1972 record  Transformer was played by Bowie. Instead, he co-produced the track and album with Mick Ronson. According to Wikipedia, Bowie also played acoustic guitar on the recording.

Walter Parazaider

The American saxophonist was a founding member of Chicago and played with the band for 51 years until earlier this year (2017) when he officially retired due to a heart condition. In addition to the saxophone, Parazider also mastered the flute, clarinet, piccolo and oboe. Here is a clip of Saturday In The Park and 25 Or 6 To 4 from Chicago’s great 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction performance, which features Parazaider on saxophone.

Alto Reed

Thomas Neal Cartmell, known as Alto Reed, is an American saxophonist who was a member of The Silver Bullet Band since it was founded by Bob Seger in the mid-70s. He toured with Seger and the band for 40-plus years, starting with Live Bullet in 1976. Reed has also performed with many other bands and musicians like FoghatGrand Funk RailroadLittle FeatThe Blues Brothers  and George Thorogood. Among his signature performances for Seger are the saxophone solo in Old Time Rock And Roll and the introduction to Turn the Page. Here’s a great live clip of Turn the Page from 2014.

Junior Walker

Autry DeWalt Mixon Jr., known by his stage name Junior Walker or Jr. Walker, was an American singer and saxophonist whose 40-year career started in the mid-1950s with his own band called the Jumping Jacks. In 1964, Jr. Walker & The All Stars were signed by Motown. They became one of the company’s signature acts, scoring hits with songs like Shotgun(I’m a) RoadrunnerShake And Fingerpop and remakes of Motown tunes Come See About Me and How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). While Walker continued to record with the band and solo during the ’70s and into the early ’80s, one of his most memorable performances resulted from his guest performance on Foreigner’s 1981 album 4. His saxophone solo on Urgent is one of the most blistering in pop rock. Walker died from cancer in November 1995 at the age of 64.

Bobby Keys

No list of saxophonists who have played with rock and blues artists would be complete without Bobby Keys. From the mid-1950s until his death in December 2014, this American saxophonist appeared on hundreds of recordings as a member of horn sections and was a touring musician. He worked with some of the biggest names, such as The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd SkynyrdGeorge HarrisonJohn LennonEric Clapton and Joe Cocker. Some of these artists’ songs that featured Keys include Don’t Ask Me No Questions (Lynyrd SkynyrdSecond Helping, 1974), Whatever Gets You Thru The Night (John Lennon, Walls And Bridges, 1974) and Slunky (Eric Clapton, Eric Clapton, 1970). But he is best remembered for his sax part on Brown Sugar from the Stones’ 1971 studio album Sticky Fingers.

– End –

The original post, which was published on November 11, 2017, ended here. Here’s the previously mentioned Spotify list featuring all of the above and some additional saxophone greats.

Sources: Wikipedia; BBC; YouTube; Spotify

Clips & Pix: The Boss Does The Commodores

I’d like to interrupt the broadcast with some breaking news I just spotted on YouTube. Bruce Springsteen has released a new single from his upcoming studio covers album Only the Strong Survive. Scheduled for November 11, this marks Springsteen’s second covers release, following We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006).

Unlike the Seeger collection, which focused on folk and Americana, Only the Strong Survive celebrates R&B and soul songs from the catalogues of Motown, Gamble and Huff and Stax, among others. Here’s Nightshift, co-written by Walter Orange, lead singer of The Commodores, together with Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde. The tribute to soul/R&B singers Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye became the title track of The Commodores’ 11th studio album released in January 1985 and a major hit for the group.

Nightshift follows Do I Love (Indeed I Do), the first single off Only the Strong Survive, which premiered on September 29. Both renditions sound mighty cool to me!

“I wanted to make an album where I just sang,” Springsteen commented in a recent statement on his website. “And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music. My goal is for the modern audience to experience its beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it. I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”

Here’s more from the above statement: This 21st studio album from Bruce Springsteen will also feature guest vocals by Sam Moore, as well as contributions from The E Street Horns, full string arrangements by Rob Mathes, and backing vocals by Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King Jr., Dennis Collins and Fonzi Thornton...Only The Strong Survive was tracked at Thrill Hill Recording in New Jersey, produced by Ron Aniello, engineered by Rob Lebret and executive produced by Jon Landau.

I can see some ignorant cynics say the Boss is trying to make a quick buck here or running out of ideas or both. But if you’ve ever been to a Springsteen show, you know how much this man loves soul music. And has prominently featured it during his concerts for decades. In fact, during my first Springsteen concert in Germany in the second half of the ’80s, he delivered at least an hour’s worth of outstanding soul covers. Dare I say it, these renditions were at least as good as his originals. The E Street Band, which at the time still featured sax giant Clarence Clemons, was on fire!

So kudos to Bruce for celebrating some sweet soul music. Count me in among the folks who are looking forward to his new album. The cynics can go and take a hike!

Sources: Wikipedia; BruceSringsteen.net; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My “real” desert island song playlist

If you’ve followed this feature over the past six months, perhaps by now you may think, ‘jeez, when is he going to get it over with?’ I got news for you: This is the final installment!

For first-time visitors, this weekly series looked at music I would take with me on a trip to a desert island, one tune at a time and in alphabetical order by the name of the picked band or artist (last name). In addition, my selections had to be by a music act I had only rarely covered or even better not written about at all.

In last week’s installment, I featured the playlist that resulted from the above exercise. Obviously, the criteria limited my choices, as I also noted to some commenters throughout the series. Today, I’d like to present my “real” desert island playlist. The only rule I kept was to pick one song by a band or artist’s last name in alphabetical order.

In the following, I’m going to highlight four tunes. The entire playlist can be found at the end of the post.

Jethro Tull/Hymn 43

Over the years, Hymn 43 by Jethro Tull has become one of my favorite tunes by the English rock band. Penned by Tull’s flutist, frontman and lead vocalist Ian Anderson, Hymn 43 is off their fourth studio album Aqualung. Released in March 1971, that record is best known for the epic Locomotive Breath, even though incredibly, the single missed the charts in the UK, just like Hymn 43! In the U.S., Locomotive Breath and Hymn 43 became Tull’s first charting singles, reaching no. 62 and no. 92 on the Billboard Hot 100, respectively. Of course, one could argue that Tull’s music wasn’t about the charts!

Randy Newman/Guilty

American singer-songwriter Randy Newman has penned many tunes and film scores over his 60-year-plus-and-counting career. Some like Short People (1977), I Love L.A. (1983) and You’ve Got a Friend in Me (1995) became well known under his name, while others such as Mama Told Me Not to Come (1966), I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (1968) and You Can Leave Your Hat On (1972) were popularized by Three Dog Night, UB40 and Joe Cocker, respectively. Many other artists covered Newman’s songs as well. One of my favorite tunes by Newman is Guilty, included on his fourth studio album Good Old Boys, which appeared in September 1974. Evidently, Cocker liked the ballad as well and recorded it for his 1974 studio album I Can Stand a Little Rain.

Stevie Ray Vaughan/Pride and Joy

If you’re a frequent visitor of the blog or know my music taste otherwise you know I love the blues and blues rock. When it comes to that kind of music, in my book, it doesn’t get much better than Stevie Ray Vaughan. Not only was the man from Dallas, Texas an incredible guitarist – perhaps the best electric blues rock guitarist ever – but he also elevated the blues to the mainstream in the ’80s thanks to his great live performances and albums. Vaughan did both original songs and covers. I would argue that his rendition of Voodoo Child (Slight Return) is better than the original by Jimi Hendrix! Anyway, here’s Pride and Joy, penned by Vaughan, off his debut studio album Texas Flood.

Yes/Roundabout

Full disclosure: My first pick for “y” would have been Neil Young and Like a Hurricane. But since most of Neil’s music was pulled from Spotify earlier this year, I went with Yes. I’ve never gotten much into progressive rock (not counting Pink Floyd and a few others whose music includes prog-rock elements). Yes are one of the few exceptions, together with Genesis. That said, my knowledge of the British band’s music is mostly limited to their earlier catalog. In this context, a song I’ve really come to love is Roundabout. Co-written by vocalist Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe, the track is from the group’s fourth studio album Fragile, released in November 1971. Until Owner of a Lonely Heart (1983), the band’s songs weren’t exactly radio-friendly. That said, Roundabout was released as a single and became the first top 20 song Yes had in the U.S.

Last but not least, here’s the entire playlist. In addition to the above, it includes many of the suspects you’d expect to see if you know my music taste, such as AC/DC, The Beatles, Cream, Deep Purple, Marvin Gaye and The Rolling Stones, to name some.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

Super Fly at 50 Still Sounds Mighty Cool

“Fly”, other than an insect that can be annoying, means “unusual and exceptional, particularly when it comes to fashion,” Songfacts explains. “Super Fly” is even better. It refers to the flashy clothes cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest was wearing in the 1972 U.S. blaxploitation neo-noir crime drama picture of the same name, starring Ron O’Neal as the aforementioned pusherman. Super Fly is also the title of the soundtrack, which was released today 50 years ago as the third studio album by Curtis Mayfield, an artist I’ve loved for many years.

To say it upfront, other than a couple of clips, I haven’t watched the picture. Based on what I’ve read, it seems to take a rather ambiguous stance when it comes to drug dealers. While Mayfield wrote the score for the film, his socially aware lyrics look more critical, though he also appeared to have some sympathy for the main character Priest who yearns to go straight, despite the fortune he makes from dealing drugs.

Along with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Super Fly is considered a pioneering soul concept album, addressing poverty, crime and drug use in America’s inner cities of the early ’70s. Notably, just like they did with Gaye’s album, record executives didn’t think Mayfield’s soundtrack would fly. It turned out they were wrong again. Not only was Super Fly a near-immediate hit, but it also holds the distinction to be among a handful of soundtracks that out-grossed the companion movie.

For those of you who know me, it won’t come as a big surprise that my main interest in Super Fly is the music. And there’s some pretty cool funk as well as psychedelic and progressive soul on this album. Let’s take a closer look at some of the tracks, which were all written by Mayfield.

The album opens with Little Child Runnin’ Wild. The groove immediately draws you in. All it takes are a few words to paint a powerful picture. An excerpt: Little child/Runnin’ wild/Watch a while/You see he never smiles//Broken home/Father gone/Mama tired/So he’s all alone…

The title of Pusherman is self-explanatory. Songfacts notes Mayfield takes an observer’s view on this song, refraining from judgment and showing the pusherman from the perspective of a potential client. To a kid on the street, the drug dealer shows up everywhere, and can take on many forms: mother, father, doctor, friend. Said Mayfield: “The first thing I wanted to do was not condone what was going down, but understand it, and speak in terms of how one can keep from getting locked into these things which youngsters and a lot of people see all around them.” And there’s of course more of that seductive wah-wah guitar-driven funky groove!

Freddie’s Dead became the album’s first single. It peaked at no. 2 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart and reached no. 4 on the mainstream Hot 100. So much for smart forecasts by record executives!

I’m three clips into this review, and I haven’t even touched any track from Side two – speaking in vinyl terms here! Okay, let’s give a listen to Give Me Your Love (Love Song), the first song on Side two. I will say stylistically, there’s not much variation in the music. Since I dig Mayfield’s groove that’s not a problem for me!

Obviously, this post wouldn’t be complete without the amazing title track. Super Fly was also released separately as the album’s second single in October 1972. It became another U.S. hit for Mayfield. It came close to the first single’s chart success, climbing to no. 8 and no. 3 on Billboard’s mainstream and R&B charts, respectively. Super Fly’s lead character appealed to Mayfield because he had a vivid backstory and was not just a stock drug dealer, Songfacts explains. In the song, Mayfield examines how he’s really doing what we all are: trying to get over...“We couldn’t be so proud of him dealing coke or using coke, but at least the man had a mind and he wasn’t just some ugly dead something in the streets after it was all over,” Mayfield told Q magazine. “He got out.”

Super Fly was well received by music critics. Even Robert Christgau gave it an A- in a contemporary review for The Village Voice at the time, praising Mayfield’s songwriting. Jeez, what was wrong with him? The album became Mayfield’s only no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and his highest-charting record in the UK where it reached no. 26, though interestingly, none of the singles charted there. Within only two months, Super Fly got Gold status in the U.S., meaning it had reached 0.5 million sold units, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Super Fly was ranked at no. 69 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the magazine’s most recent 2020 revision, it remained within the top 100, coming in at no. 76. In 2019, the album was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In addition, the title track is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify link to the album.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; RIAA website; YouTube; Spotify

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Suzi Quatro

Happy Wednesday with another decision which one tune to take on an imaginary trip to a desert island.

In case you’re new to this weekly recurring feature, the idea is to pick one song by an artist or band I’ve only rarely mentioned or not covered at all on my blog to date. This excludes many popular options like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Carole King and Bonnie Raitt, to name some of my longtime favorite artists. I’m also doing this exercise in alphabetical order, and I’m up to the letter “q”.

How many bands or artists do you know whose names/last names start with “q”? The ones that came to my mind included Quarterflash, Queen and Quiet Riot. And, of course, my pick, Can the Can by Suzi Quatro. Yes, perhaps it’s not the type of song that would be your first, second or even third pick to take on a desert island, but it’s a great kickass rock tune anyway!

Can the Can, penned by songwriters and producers Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, was Quatro’s second solo single and her first to chart. And it was a smash, topping the charts in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Australia. It also climbed to no. 2 in Austria and no. 5 in Ireland. In Quatro’s home country the U.S., the tune fared more moderately, reaching no. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. American music listeners just weren’t as much into glam rock as audiences in other parts of the world, especially in Europe. Can the Can was also included on Quatro’s eponymous debut album, released in October 1973.

Here’s a bit of additional background on Suzie Quatro from her bio on AllMusic: With her trademark leather jump suit, instantly hooky songs, and big bass guitar, Suzi Quatro is a glam rock icon with a window-rattling voice and rock & roll attitude to spare. After getting her start in garage and hard rock bands, 1973’s breakthrough single “Can the Can,” a stomping blast of glam rock that combined ’50s-style song craft with Quatro’s powerful vocals, made her an international star. She followed up with a string of similar-sounding singles and albums — and made an impression on TV viewers with her role on the hit sitcom Happy Days — before softening her sound and scoring a hit with the 1978 ballad “Stumblin’ In.” While her work in the future would encompass everything from new wave pop on 1983’s Main Attraction to starring in a musical based on the life of Tallulah Bankhead in 1991, Quatro never lost her instincts as a rocker, as evidenced by albums like 2006’s Back to the Drive and 2021’s The Devil in Me.

When I heard Can the Can for the first time in the mid-’70s, it was not by Suzi Quatro but by German vocalist Joy Fleming. While I don’t know much about Fleming except for a 1974 live album titled Joy Fleming Live, I know one thing. She was a hell of a vocalist! Check this out!

Here are a few additional tidbits on Can the Can and Suzie Quatro from Songfacts:

…Quatro is an American who joined Mickie Most’s RAK label roster, becoming part of the glam rock revolution. Most produced her first single, “Rolling Stone,” but it went nowhere, so he asked songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman to write and produce her next single. The result was “Can The Can.”

When asked what “Can The Can” means, Nicky Chinn replied: “It means something that is pretty impossible, you can’t get one can inside another if they are the same size, so we’re saying you can’t put your man in the can if he is out there and not willing to commit. The phrase sounded good and we didn’t mind if the public didn’t get the meaning of it.”

Suzi Quatro: “I can hear a record for the first time and know whether it will be a hit. And I knew as soon as we had finished recording that we had a big hit on our hands.” (above quotes from 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh)

This was the first #1 UK hit for a solo female artist since “Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin in 1968.

Quatro never hit it big in her native America, although she did have a memorable role on the TV series Happy Days playing Leather Tuscadero. She landed several more UK hits, including the #1 “Devil Gate Drive,” and influenced a generation of female rockers, notably Joan Jett.

Quatro wrote many of her own songs, but they tended to be album cuts, with the Chapman/Chinn team getting the singles. In a Songfacts interview with Quatro, she explained: “I was very boogie-based, very bass-based. And they went away and wrote ‘Can the Can.’ We had the arrangement where I could write the albums, and they would write the three-minute single – although I did have singles out myself, like ‘Mama’s Boy.’ I didn’t learn anything from their songwriting, because I always had my own thing. Whatever I did, I did.”

Suzi Quatro, who turned 72 a few weeks ago, continues to rock on. And tour. Her current schedule is here. Here’s Can the Can captured at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April this year. What a cool lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; Suzi Quatro website; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by The Neville Brothers

It’s Wednesday and I’m back with my little exercise to pick one tune to take with me on an imaginary trip to a desert island. Given my arbitrary self-imposed rules, perhaps I should change the title of the recurring feature. When most folks hear the term ‘desert island song’, understandably, they associate with it their most favorite music. That’s not what I’m doing here, at least not on an absolute scale.

The idea of this feature is to pick an artist or band I have rarely or not covered at all to date and select one song from them I like. Oftentimes, the choice comes down to only a handful of their tunes I know. As such, this excludes many of all-time favorites like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Carole King, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy or Steely Dan who otherwise would be preferred picks. Another restricting factor is I’m doing this exercise in alphabetic order.

What that said, let’s get to today’s pick. I’m up to the letter “n”. Looking in my music library reveals artists and bands, such as Graham Nash, Johnny Nash, Nazareth, Willie Nelson, Randy Newman, Nilsson and Nirvana. My pick is Yellow Moon by The Neville Brothers.

Sadly, The Neville Brothers are among the music acts whose names I had known for years but had not been able to identify a specific tune. To inform the above pick I sampled tracks of two compilations, including the one pictured in the clip, Uptown Rulin’, which came out in 1999.

I couldn’t find much information on Yellow Moon. This groovy tune is credited to band co-founder, keyboarder and vocalist Arthur Neville, who was also known as Art Neville, and Jack Neville who based on my findings in AllMusic was a songwriter, predominantly for country artists. Here’s a nice live version of the tune, featuring the great John Hiatt as a guest. While the group’s sax player Charles Neville introduces him, he notes the Nevilles had performed a song written by Hiatt on their 1978 eponymous debut album (Washable Ink).

Yellow Moon was the title track of a studio album The Neville Brothers released in March 1989. According to Wikipedia, it peaked at no. 66 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. Notably, the album was produced by Daniel Lanois who also worked with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson, among others. He also collaborated with Brian Eno to produce various albums for U2 including my favorite The Joshua Tree.

A review of Yellow Moon by Ron Wynn for AllMusic notes the album charted and remained there for many weeks, while the Nevilles toured and generated lots of interest. It didn’t become a hit, but it did respectably and represents perhaps their finest overall pop LP. The group won a 1990 Grammy for Best Instrumental Pop Performance for another track on that album, titled Healing Chant.

The seeds for The Neville Brothers were planted in 1976 during a recording session of The Wild Tchoupitoulas. This Mardis Gras Indian group was led by the Nevilles’ uncle, George Landry, known as Big Chief Jolly. In addition to the previously noted Art Neville (keyboards, vocals) and Charles Neville (saxophone), The Neville Brothers featured Aaron Neville (vocals) and Cyril Neville (vocals, percussion). All four were siblings and participated in the above recording session.

AllMusic and Wikipedia list nine studio albums The Neville Brothers released during their active period between 1976 and 2012. In the latter year, they formally disbanded but reunited one more time in 2015 for a farewell concert in New Orleans. Charles Neville and Art Neville passed away in April 2018 and July 2019 at the ages of 79 and 81, respectively. Aaron Neville, now 81, is retired. Seventy-two-year-old Cyril Neville, the youngest of the four brothers, still appears to be an active musician.

Sources: Wikipedia; AllMusic; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by Golden Earring

Happy Wednesday! Once again, the desert island is calling and I must make an important music decision. This time it’s picking a band or artist starting with the letter “G”.

Looking at my library, I could have selected Peter Gabriel, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, Greta Van Fleet, Grateful Dead, Green Day and Guns N’ Roses, among others, but didn’t since I wrote about all of them previously. Instead, I picked Dutch rock band Golden Earring and one of the coolest driving songs I know: Radar Love.

Co-written by the band’s Barry Hay (lead and backing vocals, flute, saxophone, percussion) and George Kooymans (guitar, lead and backing vocals), Radar Love first appeared on Golden Earring’s ninth studio album Moontan from July 1973. Subsequently, a shortened version of the tune was released as a single in Europe in August 1973, except for the UK where it appeared in November that year. The U.S. release of the single took even longer, until April 1974. Here’s the album version.

Radar Love became Golden Earring’s biggest hit. In addition to topping the charts in The Netherlands, it climbed to no. 5 in Germany, no. 6 in Belgium, no. 7 in the UK, no. 10 in Austria and no. 13 in the U.S. Undoubtedly, the tune also helped make Moontan the band’s most successful album.

Here are some additional insights from Songfacts:

Before you could send a text message or call someone in their car, there was no way to communicate to a driver – unless you had a certain telepathic love that could convey from a distance your desire to be with that person, something you might call – Radar Love. In this song, the guy has been driving all night, but keeps pushing the pedal because he just knows that his baby wants him home.

Like many of Golden Earring’s songs, this began with the title and grew from there. Originally intended only as an album track, it turned out to be the only cut on their US debut album Moontan that they could whittle down to a single for radio. It became their showstopper at concerts, and provided a striking moment for their drummer Cesar Zuiderwijk, who would take a few steps back and leap at the drum kit near the end of the song.

Following is a smoldering live version, which according to the clip was captured in 1973:

And here’s something for the geeks among us: 🙂

The song is all in 4/4 time, and the original tempo is around 100 BPM. It’s a very clever arrangement: the intro is on the beat of each bar at the start. The shuffle on the snare is semi triplets which give the illusion of the song speeding up. You have to quantize drum machines to a 6th beat. Consequently the chorus is doubled up to give the impression that the tempo has speeded up to 200 BPM. You have to transpose the 4/4 bar so it can be played with in 1 beat of the bar. It does take a bit of lateral thinking to get your head around the math, but the song is all 4/4 at 100 BPM.

Golden Earring, initially formed as The Tornadoes in 1961 in The Hague, were active until last year. Since 1970, their line-up had consisted of co-founders Rinus Gerritsen (bass, keyboards) and Kooymans, along with Hay and Cesar Zuiderwijk (drums, percussion). In 2021, they disbanded following Kooymans’ diagnosis with ALS, a devastating neurodegenerative condition aka Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

My Top Singles Turning 50

A final look at 1971, one of the most exciting years in music

As 2021 is drawing to a close, I decided to revisit 1971 one more time. With releases, such as Who’s Next (The Who), Tapestry (Carole King), Led Zeppelin IV (Led Zeppelin), Sticky Fingers (The Rolling Stones) and Meddle (Pink Floyd), it truly was an extraordinary year in music. And let’s not forget At Fillmore East by The Allman Brothers Band, perhaps the ultimate southern and blues-rock record, and certainly a strong contender for best live album ever.

I wrote about the above and other records in a three-part series back in April, which you can read here, here and here. What I didn’t do at the time was to look at singles that came out in 1971. I’ve put my favorites in a playlist at the end of this post. Following I’m highlighting 10 of them, focusing on songs I didn’t cover in the aforementioned three-part series.

Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On

I’d like to start this review with What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, released in January 1970. Co-written by him, Al Cleveland and Four Tops co-founding member Renaldo “Obie” Benson, this classic soul gem was inspired by an incident of police brutality Benson had witnessed in May 1969 while The Four Tops were visiting Berkely, Calif. The tune became Gaye’s first big U.S. hit in the ’70s, climbing to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Best Selling Soul Singles chart.

Deep Purple/Strange Kind of Woman

In February 1970, Deep Purple released Strange Kind of Woman as a non-album single. The follow-on to Black Night was credited to all members of the band: Ian Gillan, Ritchie Blackmore, Jon Lord, Roger Glover and Ian Paice, their most compelling lineup, in my view. The song reached no. 8 in the UK and Germany, but didn’t chart in the U.S. The track was also included in the U.S. and Canadian editions of Deep Purple’s fifth studio album Fireball from July 1971 in lieu of Demon’s Eye on the UK edition.

Jethro Tull/Hymn 43

Hymn 43 is a great rock song by Jethro Tull. Penned by Ian Anderson, it appeared in late June 1971 as the second single off Aqualung, the group’s fourth studio album that had come out in March of the same year. Hymn 43 followed lead single Locomotive Breath. Incredibly, it only charted in Canada and the U.S., reaching an underwhelming no. 86 and no. 91, respectively.

T. Rex/Get It On

In July 1970, glam rockers T. Rex released one of their signature tunes, Get It On. In the U.S., it was re-titled Bang a Gong (Get It On), since there was a song with the same title by American jazz-rock band Chase. Get It On, written by T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan, was the lead single from the British band’s sophomore album Electric Warrior that appeared in September that year. Get It On became the band’s second no. 1 in the UK and their only U.S. top 10 hit (no. 10) on the Billboard Hot 100.

Santana/Everybody’s Everything

In September 1970, Santana released their third studio album Santana III and lead single Everybody’s Everything. The tune was co-written by Carlos Santana, Milton Brown and Tyrone Moss. The classic Santana rock song became the band’s last top 20 hit (no. 12) in the U.S. until the pop-oriented Winning from 1981.

Sly and the Family Stone/Family Affair

Family Affair is a track off Sly and the Family Stone’s fifth studio album There’s a Riot Goin’ On that came out in November 1971. Released the same month, the psychedelic funk tune was the first single from that album. It became the group’s third and final no. 1 hit in the U.S., topping both the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Soul Singles chart.

Badfinger/Day After Day

Day After Day, first released in the U.S. in November 1971 followed by the UK in January 1972, became the biggest hit for British power pop-rock band Badfinger. Written by Pete Ham, the tune, off their third studio album Straight Up from December 1971, climbed to no. 4 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 10 in the UK. In Canada, it went all the way to no. 2. This gem was produced by George Harrison who also played slide guitar along with Ham.

Elton John/Levon

Levon is one of Elton John’s beautiful early songs that first appeared on his fourth studio album Madman Across the Water from early November 1970. Composed by John with lyrics by Bernie Taupin, the ballad also became the record’s first single in late November. Producer Gus Dudgeon has said Taupin’s lyrics were inspired by Levon Helm, co-founder, drummer and singer of The Band, a favorite group of John and Taupin at the time. Levon reached no. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100 and climbed to no. 6 in Canada.

The Beach Boys/Surf’s Up

Various music connoisseurs have told me their favorite album by The Beach Boys is Surf’s Up from late August 1971. I can’t say it’s been love at first sight for me, but this record is definitely growing on me. The Beach Boys released the title track as a single in late November that year. Co-written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, Surf’s Up originally was supposed to be a track for Smile, an unfinished album that was scrapped in 1967. Brian and Carl Wilson completed the tune. By the time Surf’s Up was released as a single, the last major hit by The Beach Boys Good Vibrations was five years in the past. While the single didn’t chart, the album reached no. 29 on the Billboard 200, their highest-charting record in the U.S. since Wild Honey from 1967.

The Kinks/20th Century Man

The last song I’d like to call out is 20th Century Man by The Kinks. Penned by Ray Davies, the tune in December 1970 became the sole single off the group’s 10th studio album Muswell Hillbillies. The record had appeared in late November that year. 20th Century Man stalled at no. 106 in the UK and reached no. 89 in Australia. It didn’t chart in the U.S. The album didn’t fare much better, though it received positive reviews and remains a favorite among fans.

Check out the playlist below for additional 1971 singles I dig.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube