Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

It’s Wednesday and I hope this week has been kind to you. Time to take another look at a song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. My pick for this installment is I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John. A search of the blog for this tune came up empty – hard to believe, given I’ve loved this tune since 1983 when I first heard it, and it remains one of my favorite ’80s pop songs.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues was composed by John and his longtime guitarist and collaborator Davey Johnstone. The lyrics were provided by Bernie Taupin, who first became John’s lyricist in 1967 and for the album resumed his full-time partnership with John, which had been paused in 1977 and had only partially been restored since the early ’80s. And, yes, that beautiful harmonica was played by the great Stevie Wonder. The song first appeared in April 1983 as the lead single for Too Low for Zero, the 17th studio album by the English music artist.

Following three non-charting singles in 1982, I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues marked John’s return to the international charts. In the U.S., it climbed to no. 2 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart and no. 4 on the Hot 100. In his home country, the tune peaked at no. 5, the same as in Ireland. It also made the top 30 in various other European countries, including Switzerland (no. 12), Belgium (14) and Germany (no. 22). Elsewhere, it reached no. 4 in Australia, no. 12 in New Zealand and no. 9 in Canada.

Too Low for Zero also did well, marking a comeback for John, whose previous four albums had failed to yield many enduring international hit singles and had disappointing sales. In each New Zealand and Australia, the album climbed to no. 2. In Europe, it was most successful in Germany (no. 5) and Norway (no. 6). In the UK and the U.S. it reached no. 7 and no. 25, respectively. Too Low for Zero became one of John’s best-selling records in the ’80s, especially in Australia where it was certified 5x Platinum. In England, Canada and the U.S., it earned Platinum status.

The above original music video was directed by Russell Mulcahy, an Australian film director who also directed 19 other videos for John. Filmed in the Rivoli Ballroom in London and at Colchester Garrison Barracks, Essex, the video tells the tale of two 1950s-era lovers. They get separated when the man needs to leave for National Service in the armed forces. After going through trials and tribulations there, he is finally reunited with his girl.

I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues became a fan favorite and a staple of John’s concerts. Later, he also performed the tune live with Mary J. Blige and separately with Luciano Pavarotti. Here’s a clip of John and Blige captured at New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 2000.

Following are some additional tidbits from Songfacts:

Elton’s lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote this song as a love letter to his wife at the time, Toni Russo, who is the sister of the actress Rene Russo. In the album credits, Bernie wrote, “Hey Toni, this one’s for you.”

Discussing the meaning of the song, Bernie Taupin said: “I wrote this in Montserrat, an island that, tragically, no longer exists. [Devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995 left the entire southern half of the Caribbean island uninhabitable – CMM] Basically, it’s a letter home with a small tip included about making the most of time, not wishing it away just because you can’t be with the one you love. Time is precious; read books, paint a picture, bake a cake. Just don’t wallow, don’t be content.”

Too Low for Zero was the first Elton John album since Blue Moves in 1976 with Bernie Taupin as the exclusive lyricist. During their time apart, each had success working with other artists. Taupin collaborated with Alice Cooper, and Elton turned to Gary Osbourne for lyrics.

This song contains one of the few lyrics that Bernie Taupin regrets. He said: “The whole ‘loving you more than I love life itself’ is something I would never say now. It’s kind of a crass sentiment and totally false. It’s quite another thing to love someone deeply with your whole heart without stooping to this kind of lie. I loathe giving songwriting advice, but were I pushed, I’d say, ‘Never say you love someone more than life or that you’d die for someone in a song.’ It’s just such a disservice to your own spirit. I’d like to think that I’d lay down my life for my children, but until you’re faced with the reality, it’s kind of a moot point. Rambling, I know, but relative nonetheless.”

The Too Low For Zero album has special meaning for Elton, as it reunited him with Taupin and is also where he met his first spouse, Renate Blauel, who was an engineer on the sessions. Elton cites this song as his favorite from the set, telling Rolling Stone, “It’s just a great song to sing. It’s timeless.”

The album also reunited John with the core of his backing band of the early ’70s: Johnstone (guitar, backing vocals), Dee Murray (bass, backing vocals), and Nigel Olsson (drums, backing vocals). Perhaps that explains at least in part the album’s great sound!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s a gray and rainy Sunday morning in New Jersey, at least in my neck of the woods. But I’m determined not to let that bring me down. Plus, we’ve had plenty of sunshine over the past couple of weeks, so there’s no good reason to complain and every reason to expect the sun will come back. Most importantly, bad weather isn’t a deterrent to listen to great music. In fact, one could argue a rainy day is a perfect opportunity to do just that. And, guess what, I have some suggestions! 🙂

ShwizZ /Clock Tower

Let’s get into the mood with an amazing brand new rock instrumental by ShwizZ. I had never heard of the group until Friday when I spotted the below clip on Facebook. I’m not even sure how to properly pronounce that name! According to their website, ShwizZ is a one of a kind powerhouse from Nyack, New York. Drawing a substantial influence from classic progressive rock and funk, they consistently put their musical abilities to the test to deliver a high intensity and musically immersive show. ShwizZ call out Frank Zappa, Yes, P-Funk and King Crimson as their influences – notably, all artists I essentially don’t listen to, except for Yes. Still, Clock Tower grabbed me right away! The band’s members include Ryan Liatsis (guitar), Will Burgaletta (keyboards), Scott Hogan (bass) and Andrew Boxer (drums). I know Scott who is a very talented bassist. Frankly, when I see him play, sometimes, I ask myself ‘what’s the point’ of me trying. But while skill is great, at the end of the day, playing an instrument should be about fun first and foremost. Anyway, after I watched the video, I messaged Scott with a few inquisitive questions. I think he has no idea I’m writing about him – sneaky, huh? Anyway, he told me ShwizZ have been around for about 10 years. He joined them 1.5 years ago. Most of their music is instrumental. Their website lists a few albums and singles, including Clock Tower, which was released as a single on Friday, April 8. Apparently, they’re working on other new music. Meanwhile, let’s give this cool-sounding tune a listen!

Gerry Rafferty/Baker Street

From the very first moment I heard Baker Street by Scottish singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, I loved that tune. The saxophone part by Raphael Ravenscroft and the guitar solo by Hugh Burns still give me the chills. Rafferty wrote Baker Street for his second studio album City to City that came out in January 1978. The song was also released separately as a single and became Rafferty’s biggest hit, peaking at no. 2 and no. 3 in the U.S. and the UK, respectively, and charting within the top 10 in various other European countries. In Australia, it went all the way to no. 1. Rafferty had a complicated relationship with fame and the music industry, and unfortunately, he struggled with alcoholism and depression. On January 4, 2011, Rafferty passed away from liver failure at the untimely age of 63. Primarily fueled by Baker Street, City to City ended up to become his most successful album. Altogether, Rafferty released 10 albums during his solo recording career from 1971 to 2009. He also gained popularity as co-founder of Scottish folk rock band Stealers Wheel and their hit Stuck in the Middle with You.

Muddy Magnolias/Broken People

In December 2016, about seven months after I had started the blog, I named Muddy Magnolias “my new discovery for 2016 I’m most excited about.” Then the now-defunct duo of African American singer-songwriter Jesse Wilson from Brooklyn, New York, and Kallie North, a white pianist from Beaumont, TX, kind of fell off my radar screen until I remembered them out of the blue the other day. They got together in 2014 and released an amazing album titled Broken People in October 2016. The music represents an intriguing blend of each artist’s background. Wilson’s influences include Aretha FranklinSmokey RobinsonLauren HillMary J. Blige and The Notorious B.I.G., while North grew up listening to artists like The CarpentersAlison KraussJames Taylor and Eagles. Unfortunately, the duo dissolved at the end 0f 2017. Wilson went on by herself and released her debut solo album Phase in May 2019, which was produced by Patrick Carney, the drummer of The Black Keys. No idea what happened to North who apparently initiated the duo’s breakup. While Muddy Magnolias only released one album, they certainly made it count. Here’s the cool title track.

Tom Faulkner/Lost in the Land of Texico

A few weeks ago, my longtime music buddy from Germany recommended that I check out Tom Faulkner and his 1998 album Lost in the Land of Texico. Usually, he has a good idea what will appeal to me, and once again he was right! While the singer-songwriter and producer, who was born in New Orleans, already at the age of five knew music was his calling, unfortunately, it appears he never quite broke through as a music artist. To date, decades into his career, Faulkner has only released two albums: Lost in the Land of Texico (1997) and Raise the Roof (2002). For the most part, he has made his living with commercial music for radio and TV. As his bio on last.fm notes, Faulkner has created hundreds of national jingles and scores, including some of the most memorable commercial music on television and radio. Most notably, he composed and sang the wildly popular “I Want My Baby Back” for Chili’s, a jingle that has since found its way into motion pictures (Austin Powers) and over a dozen major network TV shows. He also created the multi-award winning music theme for Motel 6 and Tom Bodett, the longest running commercial campaign in the history of advertising (23 years, 5 CLIOs, and counting). As of June 2019, when his bio was last updated, Faulkner was working on his third CD. Here’s the bluesy title track, which has a nice musical New Orleans flavor.

The Subdudes/Light in Your Eyes

Let’s stay with New Orleans and The Subdudes, another great tip from my German music friend. This band from The Big Easy blends folk, swamp pop, New Orleans R&B, Louisiana blues, country, cajun, zydeco, funk, soul and gospel into a tasty musical gumbo. They have been around since 1987 with breaks from 1996-2002 and 2011-2014. The band’s current members include Tommy Malone (vocals, guitar), John Magnie (vocals, accordion, keyboards), Steve Amedée (tambourine, drums, other percussions, vocals), Tim Cook (percussion, bass, vocals) and Jimmy Messa (bass, guitar), which is almost still their original line-up. Since their eponymous debut from 1989, The Subdudes have released nine additional studio and two live albums. Light in Your Eyes is a track from the band’s first album. It was co-written by Malone and Johnny Ray Allen, the band’s former bassist. The Subdudes’ harmony singing and the warm sound of their music are sweet. Check it out!

Chicago/Free

As has sort of become a Sunday Six tradition, the last tune I’d like to highlight is a rocker: Free by Chicago. Formed as The Chicago Transit Authority in The Windy City in 1967, a name that after the threat of legal action from Chicago’s actual transit authority was shortened to Chicago, the band doesn’t need much of an introduction. They started out as a rock group with horns before moving to an easy listening sound that was dominated by ballads, especially in the late ’70s and ’80s. Over their nearly 55-year career, Chicago have seen numerous line-up changes, as you’d expect. Notably, the current 10-piece still includes original members Robert Lamm (keyboards, lead vocals), Lee Loughnane (trumpet, flugelhorn, backing vocals) and James Pankow (trombone, backing vocals). Free dates back to a period when Chicago were rockin’ and on a true roll: Chicago III, the group’s third consecutive double album in less than two years. Written by Lamm, Free is part of the so-called Travel Suite of tunes that make up side 2 of the double LP. Featuring amazing lead guitarist Terry Kath on lead vocals, the tune also became the album’s lead single in February 1971. It’s hard for me to say and I’m sorry, while Chicago’s ’80s ballads were popular, it’s the rock & horns songs like Free where the band truly shines.

Sources: Wikipedia; ShwizZ website; last.fm; YouTube