What I’ve Been Listening To: Paul Simon/Still Crazy After All These Years

My introduction to Paul Simon happened many moons ago with Simon & Garfunkel and their second compilation Greatest Hits from 1972, which my sister owned on vinyl. I loved that record from the very beginning and still do to this day. Not long after I had heard it for the first time, I started taking guitar lessons and eventually got a songbook for that collection. I practiced hard to learn the tunes and soon found out what a formidable acoustic guitarist Paul Simon is. Eventually, I managed to figure out the finger-picking for The Boxer – haven’t tried playing that tune in 20-plus years. Anyway…

While there’s an obvious connection to Simon & Garfunkel, this post is about Paul Simon’s fourth studio album Still Crazy After All These Years, which appeared in October 1975. I would say I know a good deal of Simon’s tunes he recorded as a solo artist, but other than the fantastic Graceland from August 1986, I cannot really make the same claim for his albums. As oftentimes happens, the idea for this post was triggered when my streaming music provider served up the record as a listening suggestion. It didn’t take me long to realize this is a great album with a smooth jazz, blues and soul-influenced sound – my kind of music!

Let’s kick things off with the excellent opener and title track. Like all songs on the record, it was written by Simon, one of my favorite American singer-songwriters. It nicely sets the mood for the album. BTW, the recording features the Muscle Shoals Rhythm SectionBarry Beckett (Fender Rhodes piano), David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums). Also, check out that beautiful saxophone solo by Michael Brecker, which starts at around 2:12 minutes.

My Little Town reunited Simon with Art Garfunkel. The tune, which also appeared on Garfunkel’s second solo album Breakaway that was released about 10 days prior to Still Crazy, became the first single credited to the duo since America, a single off their above Greatest Hits compilation. Simon and Garfunkel may have had a complicated relationship, but they surely recorded some great music together and their voices blended perfectly with each other. While perhaps a little bit lush in the second part (hey, it’s the ’70s!), the song has a nice build.

The big hit from the album of course is 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover. Yes, I realize it’s perhaps an obvious choice everybody knows, but I just dig that tune way too much to skip it. I love that cool drum part played by Steve Gadd, as well as the song’s bluesy feel and clever lyrics. It became the record’s third single and Simon’s only solo song to top the Billboard Hot 100.

Next up: Gone At Last, another gem on the album with a great soul and gospel vibe. Phoebe Snow and The Jessy Dixon Singers provided dynamite guest vocals. The track also became the album’s lead single in August 1975. According to Wikipedia, Phoebe received a credit on the single. The song charted in the top 25 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The last track I’d like to highlight is Have A Good Time, which nicely sums up what I feel when listening to this record. This is another great song with a nice bluesy feel. Musically, it’s the slide guitar, as well the alto saxophone played by Phil Woods, which speak to me in particular. Check it out!

Still Crazy After All These Years was co-produced by Simon and South African born recording engineer and producer Philip Ramone. The record won Grammy Awards for Album Of The Year and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1976. It hit no. 1 on the Billboard 200 and received Gold certification from the Recording Industry Association of America, making it one of Simon’s most successful solo albums.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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Jersey Singer-Songwriter Rick Barth Releases Acoustic Roots-Oriented Sophomore Album

I met Rick Barth in June 2018 and at the time wrote about his 2015 debut album Hand Me Down Soul. Now the singer-songwriter from Budd Lake, N.J. is out with his second record titled Fade. It’s a nice continuation of his acoustic-oriented rock, singer-songwriter ballads, as well as country and roots-oriented music.

While Barth has been performing on the New Jersey music scene as a solo artist and a member of various bands and duos for about three decades, he only decided to start writing his own music less than 10 years ago. His named influences include Butch Walker, Ryan Adams, John Lennon, Ryan Bingham, Tom Petty, Michael Trent, Jason Isbel and Parker Milsap. I can also hear traces of John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with the opener We Had Fun (Didn’t We?). Like all other tunes on the album, the song was written by Barth.

Next up is the title track featuring nice pedal steel guitar accents.

A vocal highlight on the album is Shine, in my opinion, where Barth’s voice beautifully blends with backing vocalist Louise Trezza.

Here is another tune I like: Stranger Things. Check out the nice dobro work!

The last track I’d like to call out is Change, a country song that to me is perhaps the musical highlight of the record. I dig the beautiful violin playing and the pedal steel guitar, which sound great together. This is perhaps somewhat ironical coming from a guy who used to say he doesn’t like country. Oh well, it just goes to show again that genres don’t need to define great music.

Apart from lead vocals, Barth handles guitars, bass and mandolin. In addition to Louise Trezza (backing vocals), other musicians on the album include Keith Dunham (bass), Wayne Wilson (pedal steel), Jim Reeber (keyboards), Rick Krueger (lap steel, dobro), Ralph Heiss (bass), Dawn Patrick (violin) and Rob Ot (percussion).

Fade was produced by Barth and Dunham and recorded at Rifftide Studio in Ledgewood, N.J. Dunham also served as recording engineer. The album is available on streaming platforms and since yesterday on CD through Barth’s website. By the way, the picture on the cover shows the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pa., which during its heyday was one of the world’s largest steel producers.

Sources: Rick Barth website, ReverbNation, BandMix.com, GigMasters, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Carole King/It’s Too Late

This great clip of Carole King performing It’s Too Late is from Live At Montreux 1973, a new released film documenting her concert at the Montreux Pavillon. According to King’s website, this appearance during the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival was her first landmark show outside the United States. Watching this clip just gives me goosebumps.

As previously noted, my older sister introduced me to Carole King as an eight-year-old or so with the Tapestry album, one of the first vinyl records I ever heard. I loved King from the very beginning, even though I couldn’t understand a word she was singing. It didn’t matter. Her powerful voice and beautiful music were more than enough, though of course only add to the timeless classic. I still believe Carole King is one of the best American singer-songwriters I know.

Like most songs from Tapestry, the music for It’s Too Late was written by King. The words are by lyricist Toni Stern, who also wrote or co-wrote the lyrics for several other Carole King songs in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Live At Montreux 1973 is available on DVD, CD and LP.

Sources: Wikipedia, Carole King website, Toni Stern website, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Bob Dylan/Hurricane

Hurricane has been among my favorite Bob Dylan songs for a long time. I’ve always dug the amazing violin playing by Scarlet Rivera, which gives the tune a very distinct sound. And while the lyrics take some creative liberties, I think Hurricane represents excellent cinematic story-telling and is one of the most compelling protest songs I know.

Co-written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy, Hurricane is the opener of Dylan’s 17th studio album Desire that came out in January 1976. The above clip is from Dylan’s appearance on the American live concert TV series Soundstage in December 1975.

Hurricane tells the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, an American middleweight boxer who along with his friend John Artis was wrongfully convicted of a triple murder that occurred at a bar in Patterson, N.J. in 1966. After he had been sent to prison, Carter continued to maintain his innocence and, helped by a writer, published his autobiography in 1974. Knowing about Dylan’s civil rights engagement, Carter had a copy sent to Dylan.

rubin carter and bob dylan
Bob Dylan visiting Rubin Carter in prison in December 1975

Prompted by the autobiography, Dylan visited Carter in prison in December 1975. He and Levy wrote Hurricane thereafter, based on the book and news accounts. Dylan also raised money for Carter’s legal defense during two shows of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour at the time.

Following the autobiography’s publication, two of the prosecution’s key witnesses changed their testimony. In 1976, Carter’s and Artis’ convictions were overturned, but only a few months later, both men were found guilty again during a second trial. Appeals continued. Artis was paroled in 1981. In 1985, a U.S. district judge in New Jersey exonerated Carter, noting the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”

Carter was finally set free in November 1985, after 19 years in prison. He relocated to Toronto, earned Canadian citizenship and became an advocate for people who like him had become victims of judicial injustice. From 1993 until 2005, he was executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. Carter passed away from prostate cancer in April 2014.

After Carter’s second conviction, Dylan had moved on and never performed Hurricane live again. Apparently, Carter was still grateful for everything Dylan had done for him and did not hold the artist’s apparent lack of interest after his second conviction against him.

Sources: Wikipedia, Songfacts, YouTube

My Playlist: Music Artists Who Do It All

Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s

The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. All Music adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.

With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.

Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.

Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!

In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.

I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!

Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).

More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.

While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could  go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.

When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.

The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.

Sources: Wikipedia, All Music, Songfacts, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Carole King/One (2018)

Here’s a clip from one of my all-time favorite artists, Carole King. Thanks to my older sister, who had the Tapestry album on vinyl, Carole was one of my first “discoveries” when I started listening to music as a 10-year-old or so. At the time, I didn’t speak English, so I couldn’t even understand any of her lyrics, which of course are essential to fully appreciate Tapestry. Even without grasping the lyrics, I was immediately drawn to the powerful and beautiful way Carole performs her songs. As the recently released above clip shows, she still has that magic passion to this day!

One is a tune Carole originally wrote and released in 1977 as part of her 9th solo album Simple Things. Worried about the current situation in the country, she was inspired to rewrite some of the lyrics. ” I kept thinking about the song “One” for which I had written both music and lyrics in 1977,” Carole noted. “It’s a song about wondering what we can do when we see injustice, and it expresses my long held belief that we – all of us humans – are most effective when we come together as “One” and stand up for our values such as dignity, inclusivity, equality of opportunity, and caring for our most vulnerable neighbors.” Eloquently said!

Part of what attracted me to the U.S. when I decided to live in this country more than 20 years ago were the above values. I also liked the idea of the melting pot and that if you were willing to work hard, the sky was the limit and it didn’t matter much where you came from and what accent you spoke. I realize this an idealistic view. I also understand that as a white guy, I easily fit in at least visually speaking. If my skin color were different, my experience may have been different. Unfortunately, racism and prejudice exist in all societies, and New York is hardly representative of America. But even with all these caveats, this country today feels very different than what I encountered 20-plus years ago.

I hope at the end of the day, despite the deep political division, people realize we’re all in this together. Each of us can play a constructive role. It starts with our everyday behavior. Stop aggressive driving. If you see somebody wants to enter a busy street, let them in. Hold the door for other people, even if you are in a rush to get to work in the morning. If you see an elderly person who has trouble moving wanting to cross the street, help them. This isn’t fucking rocket science. We can do this.

Here are the updated lyrics:

Poetic phrases come to mind
Whenever I find injustice being done
And I wonder, what am I gonna do
What am I gonna do

What can one do except be one
Talking to two, touching three, growing to four million
Each of us is one
All of us are one

Open your heart and let the love come shining through
And you will do what you need to do
To know just where the other you is coming from
We are one

It just amazes me that I can be
Part of the energy it takes to serve each other
And I wonder, what am I gonna do
What am I gonna do

What will we do
We’re gonna run
Reach for the sun
Come together as one
Show ‘em how it’s done
At the end of the day we’ll be able to say
Love won. 

Sources: Wikipedia, Facebook

Clips & Pix: Beth Hart/Leave The Light On

Sometimes you come across music that blows you away. Completely. It rarely happens. When it does it’s a beautiful thing. Check out the above clip of Beth Hart performing Leave The Light On. Turn up the volume and tell me this isn’t powerful shit! Frankly, I was close to tears when I did.

Leave The Light On is the title track of Hart’s fourth studio album. The above clip is from an upcoming record called Live At The Royal Albert Hall, which is scheduled for release on November 30th. I’ll be looking for that one!

Hart is an American singer-songwriter from Los Angeles, who according to Wikipedia began playing clubs in Hollywood at the age of 15. Based on her birthday, that was back in 1987. Six years later, she released her first record as Beth Hart and the Ocean of Souls. After sampling a few tunes, this seems to be one smoking hot record! She has since released eight additional studio albums, one extended play, three collaboration albums and three live records, including the upcoming one. I’ll be sure to further check her out!

Here’s an excerpt from the lyrics of Leave The Light On. This is painful stuff:

Daddy ain’t that bad he just plays rough
I ain’t that scarred when I’m covered up 
I leave the light on 
Little girl hiding underneath the bed was it something I did 
Must be something I said 
I leave the light on, better leave the light on.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube