Tonight I’m leaving for Germany to spend Christmas with my parents. Therefore, I’ve decided to put the blog on a short hiatus until my return close to the new year. In lieu of Song Musings, my weekly feature looking at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date, I’m republishing a post that first appeared recently on Dave’s blog A Sound Day as part of his fun Turntable Talk series. The topic was perfect for this time of the year: “Songs of the Season”, i.e., writing about a Christmas/holiday song the invited participants love and why it has meaning to them. Following is what I contributed.
Once again, I’m happy to share my thoughts for Turntable Talk – thanks, Dave, for keeping this great feature going and inviting me back.
When I received the notification with the topic, it immediately took me back to my years growing up in Germany. I have fond memories of Christmas, which was a pretty big deal in my family.
For many years, we (my parents, my six-year-older sister and I) drove to Heidelberg to gather at my grandma’s (from my mom’s side) house. My dad picked up his parents, who also lived in Heidelberg, and we all celebrated Christmas eve (December 24) together.
Every year, my grandma got a Christmas tree – a relatively small but real tree with real candles – nothing like the scent of wax candles! On many occasions, my sister and I got to decorate the tree. While working we listened to my favorite mainstream radio station where they played song requests from listeners. Apart from straight pop songs, there were many, typically modern Christmas songs, such as John Lennon’sHappy Xmas (War Is Over), Chuck Berry’sRun Rudolph Run and Wham’sLast Christmas.
Christmas songs weren’t limited to the radio. My grandparents liked to sing traditional Christmas carols on December 24 in the evening before we exchanged Christmas presents. This was preceded by my dad lighting the candles on the Christmas tree and switching off all other lights in the room. It was a festive atmosphere I enjoyed, especially as a small child. I was also full of anticipation about opening presents, which would follow the singing!😊
This brings me to my Christmas song pick. There are many Christmas tunes I like, both traditional carols and modern Christmas songs. For this post, I decided to select a traditional Christmas carol performed by what I think probably is the best vocal group I know: Silent Night by The Temptations.
Composed in 1818 by Austrian church organist and composer Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest and writer, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht became a popular Christmas carol. It was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. In 1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church in New York City, wrote and published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses.
Silent Night has appeared in various films and television specials. It has also been recorded by numerous artists, such as Nat King Cole, Percy Sledge, Elvis Presley, Mariah Carey and, of course, The Temptations. The mighty-sounding vocal group from Detroit included it on their second Christmas album Give Love At Christmas, released in August 1980.
In addition to being a beautiful song with an outstanding vocal rendition by The Temptations, Silent Night (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) has a special meaning to me. It is one of the carols my family and I used to sing each Christmas eve back in Germany.
Before signing off temporarily, if you celebrate it, Merry Christmas. If you don’t, have a great time anyway!
Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time
Welcome to another Sunday music mini-excursion. I’m excited this is the first Sunday Six to feature music from my native country Germany, though admittedly you wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t told you. The trip is going to involve some contemporary jazz, blues rock, rock, blues, psychedelic garage rock and R&B. It’ll be touching the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and the first two decades of the current century. I think it’s another pretty eclectic set of tunes that will hopefully have something for every reader. Hop on board!
Klaus Graf Quartett/Homezone
The first stop on this little journey in Germany and some great contemporary jazz by Klaus Graf Quartett. And, nope, that’s not a typo, “Quartett” is the German word for quartet. I have to give credit to my brother-in-law, who knows much more about jazz than I do and who recently brought the German alto saxophone player Klaus Graf to my attention. According to his website, Graf started playing the clarinet at the age of 10 but soon thereafter switched to the alto saxophone. He found his true love for jazz as a 15-year-old after he had joined a youth music school big band. Following his studies of the saxophone at Cologne University of Music, Graf mainly played as a sideman in various German and international jazz bands. In 2002, he founded his own quartet and released his debut album Changes in Life. In addition to him, the present line-up includes Olaf Polziehn (piano), Axel Kühn (upright bass) and Meinhard Obi Jenne (drums). Klaus Graf Quartett is one of various music projects of Graf who also teaches jazz saxophone at Nuremberg University of Music. Here’s Homezone, a composition by Graf from a 2007 album album titled Moving On. According to the credits listed on Discogs, the recording features all of the quartet’s current members, except for the bassist who on that album was Uli Glaszmann.
The Rolling Stones/Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Next we go back to May 1968 when The Rolling Stones first released their non-album single Jumpin’ Jack Flash in the UK, backed by Child of the Moon. The single also appeared in the U.S. the following month. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards only as usual, even though Bill Wyman contributed, this tune has one of the coolest rock guitar riffs I know. I recall reading several years ago that Richards during an interview said he still gets excited when he plays that riff – who can blame him! Speaking of Richards, according to Songfacts, he explained the tune’s title to Rolling Stone in 2010 as follows: “The lyrics came from a gray dawn at Redlands. Mick and I had been up all night, it was raining outside, and there was the sound of these boots near the window, belonging to my gardener, Jack Dyer. It woke Mick up. He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s Jack. That’s jumping Jack.’ I started to work around the phrase on the guitar, which was in open tuning, singing the phrase ‘Jumping Jack.’ Mick said, ‘Flash,’ and suddenly we had this phrase with a great rhythm and ring to it.” Now you know how to write an iconic rock song! After the Stones’ psychedelic Their Satanic Majesties Request album, Jumpin’ Jack Flash was considered to be a return to their blues roots. It became a major hit, topping the mainstream charts in the UK and Germany, climbing to no. 3 in the U.S., and reaching no. 2 in France, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Australia, as well as no. 5 in Canada. Man, this just rocks!
Steve Miller Band/Rock’n Me
On October 5, Steve Miller turned 78. Amazingly, the man still fronts the Steve Miller Band, the group he founded in 1966 as the Steve Miller Blues Band. And had it not been because of this dreadful pandemic, he would probably be out on the road. As he toldBillboard earlier this year, the group had to cancel a planned 55-city tour with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives that was supposed to kick off in June 2020. On the upside, Miller put the downtime to good use and dug into his archives. Out came a concert film, Breaking Ground concert, and a companion album, Steve Miller Band Live! Breaking Ground: August 3, 1977, which were released on May 14 this year. You can watch a trailer of the film here. And here’s Rock’n Me from the companion album. Originally, the tune was recorded for the Steve Miller Band’s ninth studio album Fly Like an Eagle released in May 1976. It also appeared separately as a single in August 1976 and became the group’s second no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. It topped the charts in Canada as well. This is neat rock & roll!
Buddy Guy/Stay Around a Little Longer (feat. B.B. King)
Next, let’s slow it down for some great blues by two of the best electric blues guitarists: Buddy Guy and B.B. King. Guy at age 85 thankfully is still with us and still playing, while King sadly passed away in May 2015 at the age of 89. This beautiful recording is from Guy’s 15th studio album Living Proof that came out in October 2010. The tune was co-written by producer Tom Hambridge and country and blues singer-songwriter Gary Nicholson, who both have become frequent collaborators ever since. It’s just great to hear B.B. King sing on this tune, in addition to playing guitar. His voice sounds so good. He was 85 years at the time, Guy’s current age. I can’t deny I find this tune and clip quite emotional. That’s what great music does – it touches you!
After some emotional blues, it’s time to step on the gas again with a terrific tune by American garage rockers The Fuzztones. According to their profile on Apple Music, the New York City-based psychedelic/garage rock combo played a large role in the mostly underground ’60s revival during the 1980s. Led by the enigmatic Rudi Protrudi, the Fuzztones were one of the major “successes” (particularly in Europe) of the revival that flourished in 1984 and that also boasted the Chesterfield Kings, the Cynics, the Miracle Workers, and Plasticland. Their debut studio LP, Lysergic Emanations, was released in 1985. Thanks to praise from Ian Astbury of the Cult, the newly refitted Los Angeles-based Fuzztones were one of the few to get a major-label deal, and a second album, In Heat, was released by Beggars Banquet in 1989. Due to the album’s lackluster sales performance, the Fuzztones went back to the indies. That might have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. Thanks to a hugely successful tour of Europe in 1985, the group built a loyal and dedicated fan base there, and one version or another of the Fuzztones has toured there regularly ever since. Here’s Cinderella from the band’s above noted 1985 debut album, which mostly featured covers, including this tune that originally was recorded by The Sonics in 1965. With that cool organ, the rendition reminds me a bit of The Animals. Founding member Rudi Protrudi (vocals, guitar, harmonica) remains with the band’s current line-up.
Ray Charles/Hit the Road Jack
Let’s conclude this mini-excursion with a tune that randomly popped up in my head the other day. When it did, I immediately thought it would be a terrific song to feature: Hit the Road Jack by the great Ray Charles. They didn’t call the singer-songwriter and pianist “The Genius” for nothing. Frank Sinatra reportedly said Charles was the “only true genius in show business.” Charles identified Nat King Cole as a primary influence. Others included Louis Jordan and Charles Brown. Hit the Road Jack, written by R&B artist Percy Mayfield and first recorded as an a cappella demo in 1960, was Charles’ second of three no. 1 mainstream hits in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. The other two were Georgia on My Mind and I Can’t Stop Loving You. Any of them would have been great picks as would have many other tunes by Charles, but I felt like finishing with a more up-tempo song like Hit the Road Jack.
Sources: Wikipedia; Klaus Graf website; Discogs; Songfacts; YouTube
I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.
I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’sYou’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.
So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”
“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”
Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.
Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.
Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.
My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.
The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.
American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.
Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!
Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube
This clip felt right to post on Earth Day. Usually, I try to keep this a “happy” blog and stay away from social issues. No matter where one stands politically, preserving our planet shouldn’t be about politics in the first place. But sadly this country continues to be more divided than ever. And, as mind-boggling as it is in the 21st Century, there are still folks out there who believe climate change is a hoax or that mankind can somehow beat the laws of chemistry, physics and biology – and most of it for selfish short-term gain!
Anyway, to get back to music, according to Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote Mother Nature’s Son after listening to a speech from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, where The Beatles were attending a camp to learn transcendental meditation. McCartney recorded the tune by himself in two sessions on August 9 and 20, 1968. It was included on the “White Album,” The Beatles’ ninth studio record that appeared in November 1968.
In October 2008, McCartney told Mojo magazine the song was influenced by Nature Boy, a Nat King Cole standard from 1948. “At that time I considered myself a guy leaning towards the countryside,” he reportedly said. “But I would have to tip a wink to Nature Boy. Though, when you think about it, the only thing they have in common is the word ‘nature’- the rest of the link is pretty tenuous.”