The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors know what’s about to happen. To new readers, The Sunday Six is all about enjoying the diversity and beauty of music. I make a deliberate effort to feature different music genres including some I don’t listen to frequently. While the resulting picks, therefore, can appear to be random, these posts don’t capture the first six tunes that come to my mind. At the end of the day, anything goes as long as it speaks to me.

George Benson/Breezin’

Kicking is off is some groovy guitar pop jazz by George Benson. Benson started to play the guitar as an eight-year-old, following the ukulele he had picked up a year earlier. Incredibly, he already recorded by the age of 9, which means his career now stands at a whooping 57 years and counting! He gained initial popularity in the 1960s, performing together with jazz organist Jack McDuff. Starting with the 1963 live album Brother Jack McDuff Live!, Benson appeared on various McDuff records. In 1964, he released his debut as a bandleader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, which featured McDuff on piano and organ. In the ’70s, Benson started to venture beyond jazz into pop and R&B. Breezin’ from May 1976 is a good example. Not only did it top Billboard’s jazz chart, but it also climbed to no. 1 on the R&B and mainstream charts. Here’s the title track, written by Bobby Womack who also originally recorded it in December 1970, together with Hungarian jazz guitar great Gábor Szabó. It appeared on Szabó’s 1971 album High Contrast. Here’s Benson’s version. The smooth and happy sound are perfect for a Sunday morning!

Steely Dan/Home at Last

Let’s stay in pop jazzy lane for a bit longer with Steely Dan, one of my all-time favorite bands. I trust Messrs. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for jazz and other music, don’t need much of an introduction. By the time they met guitarist Denny Dias in the summer of 1970, they already had written a good amount of original music. Steely Dan’s  first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter  (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters. It was also Katz who signed the Dan to the label. By the time their sixth and, in my opinion, best album Aja appeared in September 1977, Steely Dan had become a studio project by Fagen and Becker who surrounded themselves with a changing cast of top-notch session musicians and other artists. In this case, the latter included Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jim Keltner (drums) and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), among others. Here’s Home at Last, which like all other tracks on the album was co-written by Fagen and Becker. In addition to them, the track featured Carlton (though the solo was played by Becker who oftentimes left lead guitar responsibilities to a session guitarist like Carlton), Rainey (bass), Victor Feldman (vibraphone), Bernard Purdie (drums), Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals), and of course an amazing horn section, including Jim Horn (what an appropriate name!), Bill Perkins, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary and Dick Hyde.

The Temptations/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone

Time to start switching up things with a dose of ’70s funk and psychedelic soul, don’t you agree? Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations is one of the coolest tunes I can think of in this context. Co-written by Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was first released as a single in May 1972 by the label’s recording act The Undisputed Truth. While the original to which you can listen here is pretty good as well, it’s the great rendition by The Temptations I heard first and have come to love! They recorded an 11-minute-plus take for their studio album All Directions from July 1972. In September that year, The Temptations also released a 6:54-minute single version of the song. While it still was a pretty long edit for a single, it yielded the group their second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’70s. It would also be their last no. 1 hit on the U.S. mainstream chart. By the time Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone appeared, the group already had seen various changes and only featured two members of the classic line-up: Otis Williams (baritone) and Melvin Franklin (bass). The other members were Dennis Edwards (tenor), Damon Harris (tenor) and Richard Street (second tenor). Amazingly, The Temptations still exist after some 60 years (not counting the group’s predecessors), with 79-year-old Otis Williams remaining as the only original member. I have tickets to see them together with The Four Tops in early November – keeping fingers crossed! Meanwhile, here’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, of course, the mighty album version, coz I don’t do things half ass here! 🙂

Peter Gabriel/Don’t Give Up (feat. Kate Bush)

Let’s go to a different decade with another artist I’ve come to dig, which in no small part was due to this album: Peter Gabriel and So, his fifth studio release from May 1986. It’s probably Gabriel’s most mainstream-oriented album. Much of the former Genesis lead vocalist’s other solo work has been more of an acquired taste. I also didn’t pay much attention after his follow-on Us that appeared in September 1992. Fueled by the hit single Sledgehammer, which topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and Canada, peaked at no. 3 in Australia and New Zealand, and reached the top 10 in Germany and various other European countries, So became Gabriel’s best-selling solo album. I did catch him during the supporting tour in Cologne, Germany, and still have fond memories of that gig. Here’s Don’t Give Up, a haunting duet with Kate Bush. Inspired by U.S. Depression era photos from the 1930s Gabriel had seen, he applied the theme to the difficult economic conditions in Margaret Thatcher’s mid-1980s England. While the tune is a bit of a Debbie Downer, I find it extremely powerful. You can literally picture the lyrics as a movie. I also think the vocals alternating between Gabriel and Bush work perfectly.

The Turtles/Happy Together

I suppose after the previous tune, we all could need some cheering up. A song that always puts me in a good mood is Happy Together by The Turtles. Plus, it broadens our little musical journey to include the ’60s, one of my favorite decades in music. The Turtles started performing under that name in 1965. Their original members, Howard Kaylan (lead vocals, keyboards), Mark Volman (backing vocals, guitar, percussion), Al Nichol (lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Chuck Portz (bass) and Don Murray (drums), had all played together in a surf rock-oriented band called The Crossfires. That group turned into The Tyrtles, a folk rock outfit, before becoming The Turtles and adopting more of a sunshine pop style. The band’s initial run lasted until 1970. Vollman and Kaylan subsequently launched pop duo Flo & Eddie and released a series of records between 1972 and 2009. In 1983, Vollman and Kaylan legally regained the use of the name The Turtles and started touring as The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie. Instead of seeking to reunite with their former bandmates, Vollman and Kaylan relied on other musicians. The group remains active in this fashion to this day. Their website lists a poster for a Happy Together Tour 2021 “this summer,” though currently, no gigs are posted. Happy Together was the title track of the band’s third studio album from April 1967. Co-written by Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner, the infectious tune became The Turtles’ biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 2 in Canada, and reaching no. 12 in the UK, marking their first charting single there.

Simple Minds/Stand by Love

I can’t believe it’s already time to wrap up this latest installment of The Sunday Six. For this last tune, I decided to pick a song from the early ’90s: Stand by Love by Simple Minds. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the Scottish new wave and pop rock band and don’t follow them closely, I generally enjoy their music. I also got to see them live once in Stuttgart, Germany in the early ’90s and remember it as a good show. Simple Minds emerged in late 1977 from the remains of short-lived punk band Johnny & The Self-Abusers. By late 1978, the band’s first stable line-up was in place, featuring Jim Kerr (lead vocals), Charlie Burchill (guitar), Mick MacNeil (keyboards), Derek Forbes (bass) and Brian McGee (drums). That formation recorded Simple Minds’ debut album Life in a Day released in April 1979. Their fifth studio album New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84) was the first to bring more significant commercial success in the UK and Europe. This was followed by a series of additional successful albums that appeared between 1984 and 1995, which included the band’s biggest hits, such as Don’t You (Forget About Me), Alive and Kicking, Belfast Child and Let There Be Love. Today, more than 40 years after their formation, Simple Minds are still around, with Kerr and Burchill remaining part of the current line-up. Here’s Stand by Love, co-written by Burchill and Kerr, from the band’s ninth studio album Real Life that came out in April 1991. This is quite a catchy tune. I also dig the backing vocals by what sounds like gospel choir, which become more prominent as the song progresses.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie website; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Spring has officially arrived – Yay, finally, as it’s been a long and lonely winter! I’m also happy to report that with today’s installment, The Sunday Six has hit its first mini-milestone: This is the 10th post in the weekly recurring series that celebrates the beauty of music from different periods and genres, six random tunes at a time. I think I found a nice set of tracks I hope you will like.

Sonny Rollins Quartet/My Reverie

Let’s kick things off with some amazing saxophone action by American tenor sax player Sonny Rollins. I have to give a shoutout to fellow blogger Cincinnati Babyhead, who recently posted about Tenor Madness, a studio album Rollins released in 1956 as the Sonny Rollins Quartet. In addition to him, it also featured Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (double bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) – what a cool name, Philly Joe Jones – I love the flow! Oh, and there was this other fellow called John Coltrane, who joined the band on tenor sax for the album’s opener and title track. The track I’m featuring is called My Reverie. Apparently, the first jazz recording was by Larry Clinton and His Orchestra in 1938, featuring Bea Wain on vocals, with lyrics by Clinton. The music is based on Rêverie, a piano piece by French classical composer Claude Debussy, dating back to 1890. This really goes to show there’s such a thing as truly timeless and beautiful music!

The Horace Silver Quartet/Song for My Father

Let’s shake up things a bit on The Sunday Six with another another instrumental and another jazz track back to back. And, nope, Donald Fagen or Walter Becker are not Horace Silver’s father or otherwise related to the American jazz pianist, composer and arranger. But Becker and Fagen both loved listening to jazz. Undoubtedly, they also got inspired by the intro of Song for My Father. Somehow, it became the introductory riff of Steely Dan’s 1974 single Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, their most successful U.S. single, peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Whether consciously or unconsciously, to me, this looks a bit like yet another case where a credit should have been given to the original composer. Perhaps Messrs. Becker and Fagen lost his number! Silver who began taking classical piano lessons as a child was active between 1946 and 2004. Initially, he started as a sideman before leading mainly smaller jazz groups. In the early ’50s, he became a co-founder of The Jazz Messengers, which at first he ran together with drummer Art Blakey. After leaving the band in 1956, Silver formed his own five-piece combo, which he led into the 1980s. He continued to release albums until 1998. In 2007, it became known that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He passed away in June 2014 at the age of 85. Song for My Father, composed by Silver, is the title track of an album he released with his band in late 1965. Great tune!

Jackson Browne/Shaky Town

I trust Jackson Browne needs no introduction. The American singer-songwriter who has been active since 1966 is one of my all-time favorite music artists. I dig both his vocals and his songwriting. I also have something in common with him: We were both born in the lovely town of Heidelberg, Germany. He went on to become a rock star. I ended up playing bass in two bands in my late teens and early ’20s with short-lived ambitions to become a professional musician. It’s probably a good thing it didn’t happen (though never say never! 🙂 ), and I’m a daddy though not rocking in the U.S.A. Instead, I get to enjoy listening to great music by fantastic artists and giving my two cents as a hobby blogger – not such a terrible thing, after all! The one Jackson Browne album I keep coming back to is Running on Empty, his fifth studio release that appeared in December 1977. When I had that aforementioned dream to become a professional musician, I actually envisaged sounding like Browne on Running on Empty, notably, not like The Beatles – true story. I was tempted to go with the title track. Instead, perhaps somewhat ironically, I decided to pick a tune that’s not by Browne: Shaky Town. The song was written by guitarist Danny Kortchmar, who has worked with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Neil Young, Carly Simon and not to forget Carole King. Kortchmar also provided harmony vocals. And check out that sweet lap steel guitar by the amazing David Lindley.

The Church/Under the Milky Way

The Church are an alternative rock band from down under, formed in Sydney in 1980. Their debut album Of Skins and Heart appeared in April 1981. Since then, the band that remains active to this day, has released 16 additional studio albums. Their most recent one, Man Woman Life Death Infinity, came out in October 2017. I covered it here at the time. But it was their fifth international breakthrough album Starfish from February 1988, which brought the Aussie band on my radar screen. I just love the sound, and it remains one of my favorite ’80s records. Here’s the fantastic lead single Under the Milky Way. It was co-written by the band’s bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey and his then-girlfriend and guitarist Karin Jansson, founder of alternative Australian rock band Curious (Yellow). The atmospheric sound and Kilbey’s distinct vocals still give me good chills.

George Harrison/Blow Away

What’s better than enjoying some sweet slide guitar? You guessed it – more sweet slide guitar action! One of the artists I’ve always admired in this context for his unique tone is George Harrison. I don’t know of any guitarist who got that same sweet slide sound. Blow Away was first released in February 1979 as the lead single from Harrison’s eighth, eponymous studio album that came out a few days later. Written by him, it became one of eight top 20 mainstream hits Harrison had in the U.S., peaking at no. 16 on the Billboard Hot 100. It did even better in Canada, hitting no. 7, one of his nine top 10 hits there. The recording features former Sly and the Family Stone member and session drummer Andy Newmark. Nuff said – let’s get blown away!

Elton John/Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll)

Time to wrap things up. How about kicking ass with some good ole rock & roll Elton John style? Ask and you shall receive! I guess Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll) is more of a deep track. As usual, the lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin, while Sir Elton composed the music. According to Songfacts, the tune is a “throwback to music of the late ’50s and early ’60s when lots of songs were about dance crazes and teenage girls.” Songfacts also quotes John from a 1973 interview with now-defunct American rock magazine Circus, in which he reportedly characterized the tune as “a cross between surfing music and Freddie Cannon records” that was intended “to end the ‘Crocodile Rock’ thing.” Sounds like John had hoped it would help people forget about that latter tune. While it’s a great song that appeared on his masterpiece Goodbye Yellow Brick Road from October 1973, it’s fair to say Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock ‘n’ Roll) was completely overshadowed by other tunes from the album, such as Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting, Bennie and the Jets, Candle in the Wind and of course the title track. John also didn’t release it as a single.

Source: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Can you believe it’s Sunday morning again? After having done home office for about a year now and also spent most of my other time at my house, I’ve pretty much lost sense of time. On the upside, Sunday morning also means it’s time for another Sunday Six. This new installment, which btw is the sixth of the weekly recurring feature, includes jazz-oriented instrumental music, soul, blues, funky R&B, straight rock and glam rock – in other words, a good deal of variety, and that’s the way uh huh I like it!

Mike Caputo/Space and Time

Let’s kick things off with a beautiful journey through space and time. Not only does this newly produced saxophone-driven instrumental by Mike Caputo feel timely in light of NASA’s recent landing of the Mars rover, but it also represents the kind of smooth music I like to feature to start Sunday Six installments. If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, Mike’s name may ring a bell. The New Jersey singer-songwriter, who has been active for more than 50 years, is best known for his incredible renditions of Steely Dan’s music, faithfully capturing the voice of Donald Fagen. His current project Good Stuff also features music of Gino VannelliStevie Wonder and Sting, who have all been major influences. Like many artists have done during the pandemic when they cannot perform, Mike went back into his archives and unearthed Space and Time, which he originally had written as part of a movie soundtrack a few years ago. BTW, that amazing saxophone part is played by Phil Armeno, a member of Good Stuff, who used to be a touring backing musician for Chuck BerryBo Diddley and The Duprees in the ’70s. Check out that smooth sax tone! Vocals? Who needs vocals? 🙂

The Impressions/People Get Ready

Before Curtis Mayfield, one of my favorite artists, launched his solo career with his amazing 1970 album Curtis, he had been with doo-wop, gospel, soul and R&B group The Impressions for 14 years. When he joined the group at the age of 14, they were still called The Roosters. People Get Ready, written by Mayfield, was the title track of the group’s fourth studio album that came out in February 1965, about seven years after they had changed their name to The Impressions. People Get Ready gave the group a no. 3 hit on the Billboard Hot R&B Songs (now called Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). On the mainstream Hot 100, the tune climbed to no. 14. Many other artists like Bob Marley, Al Green, Aretha Franklin and The Staple Singers have covered it. Perhaps the best known rendition is by Jeff Beck, featuring Rod Stewart on Beck’s 1985 studio album Flash. But on this one, I always like to go back to the original and the warm, beautiful and soulful vocals by The Impressions – to me, singing doesn’t get much better!

Peter Green/A Fool No More

I think it’s safe to assume Peter Green doesn’t need much of an introduction. The English blues rock singer-songwriter and guitarist is best known as the first leader of Fleetwood Mac, initially called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac featuring Jeremy Spencer, the band he formed following his departure from John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with former Bluesbreakers members Mick Fleetwood (drums) and Jeremy Spencer (guitar), as well as Bob Brunning (bass) who was subsequently replaced by Green’s first choice John McVie. What’s perhaps less widely known outside of fan circles is Peter Green’s solo career he launched after leaving Fleetwood Mac in May 1970 due to drug addiction and mental health issues. Unfortunately, these demons would stay with him for a long time and impact his career, especially during the ’70s. A Fool No More, written by Green, is a track from his excellent second solo album In the Skies. The record was released in May 1979 after eight years of professional obscurity due to treatment for schizophrenia in psychiatric hospitals in the mid-’70s. Yikes- it’s pretty scary what havoc LSD can cause! Considering that, it’s even more remarkable how amazing Green sounds. Check it out!

Stevie Wonder/I Wish

Let’s speed things up with the groovy I Wish, a tune by Stevie Wonder from his 18th studio album Songs in the Key of Life released in September 1976. Frankly, I could have selected any other track from what’s widely considered Wonder’s magnum opus. It’s the climax of his so called classic period, a series of five ’70s albums spanning Music of My Mind (1972) to Songs in the Key of Life. I Wish, which like most other tracks on this double-LP were solely written by Wonder, also became the lead single in December 1976 – and his fourth no. 1 ’70s hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also topped the charts in Canada, and was a top 10 in Belgium, Ireland, The Netherlands and the UK. Take it away, Stevie!

John Mellencamp/Melting Pot

Here’s what you might call an out-of-left-field pick from John Mellencamp, one of my long-time favorite artists. Melting Pot is a great rocker from his 11th studio album Whenever We Wanted that appeared in October 1991. It marked a bit of a departure from Mellencamp’s two previous albums Big Daddy (1989) and The Lonesome Jubilee (1987), on which he had begun incorporating elements of roots music. Instead, Whenever We Wanted is more reminiscent of the straight rock Mellencamp had delivered on earlier albums like American Fool (1982), Uh-Huh (1983) and Scarecrow (1985). Like all other tunes except for one on the album, Melting Pot was written by Mellencamp. While Whenever We Wanted didn’t do as well on the charts as the aforementioned other albums, it still placed within the top 20 in the U.S., reaching no. 17 on the Billboard 200. The album performed best in Australia where it peaked at no. 3.

David Bowie/Suffragette City

Time to wrap up this installment of The Sunday Six. Let’s go with another great rocker: Suffragette City by David Bowie. If you’ve read my blog, you probably know I really dig Bowie’s glam rock period. As such, it’s perhaps not surprising that his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is my favorite. It was released in June 1972. Suffragette City also became the B-side of lead single Starman that appeared ahead of the album in February that year. Eventually and deservedly, Suffragette City eventually ended up on the A-side of a 1976 single that was backed by Stay to promote the fantastic compilation Changesonebowie. This is one kickass rock & roll song. Bowie said it best, or I should say sang it best: Ohhh, wham bam thank you ma’am!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Welcome to the second installment of this feature, which I spontaneously launched last Sunday. Now I guess I gotta keep feeding the bear! 🙂 The good news is in music the possibilities are endless. With that being said, let’s start it nice and easy, before we finish it nice and rough!

Donald Fagen/I.G.Y.

I’d like to kick things off with some smooth pop jazz from the great Donald Fagen, who together with Walter Becker was the mastermind behind one of my favorite music acts of all time, Steely Dan. I.G.Y., which stands for International Geophysical Year, is the opener to Fagen’s solo debut album The Nightfly. Released in October 1982, it remains my favorite Fagen solo effort. I.G.Y., which ran from  July 1957 to December 1958, was a global project to promote collaboration among the world’s scientists. The tune, written by Fagen, also became The Nightfly’s lead single in September 1982.

Paul Simon/Train in the Distance

For some reason, that Paul Simon song randomly popped into my head the other day, so what could be a better selection for this feature? Of course, this may pose the question what’s going to happen when something like Itsy Bitsy Spider suddenly comes to my mind – well, I guess we have to wait and see. As for Train in the Distance, I’ve always dug this tune. Simon wrote and recorded it for his sixth solo album Hearts and Bones from November 1983. Interestingly, the track wasn’t released as a single…Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true/Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance/Everybody thinks it’s true…Love the soothing sound of that song and the great image of the sound of a distant train.

Sade/Smooth Operator

Let’s do another smoothie – after all, it’s Sunday morning! Smooth Operator was the first Sade tune I recall hearing on the radio in Germany back in the ’80s. It’s on the British songwriter and vocalist’s smash debut album Diamond Life from July 1984. Sade, also professionally known as Sade Adu, began her career as a model before becoming a backing vocalist in a British band called Pride. Subsequently, she and three other members of the band, Paul Anthony Cook, Paul Denman and Stuart Matthewman, left to form a group named after her, Sade. Co-written by Ray St. John, another member of Pride, and Sade, Smooth Operator also appeared separately as a single in September 1984 and became a major international hit. Yes, the tune about a con man and pimp sounds like gentleman club music. I still love Sade’s soulful singing and the smooth jazzy sound.

World Party/Ship of Fools

My dear long-time music friend from Germany reminded me of this great tune yesterday, which is a perfect fit to our crazy times. Ship of Fools was the debut single by World Party, released in January 1987. World Party was the name of a music solo project by Welsh multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter and record producer Karl Wallinger. He started it in 1986 after his departure as keyboarder of The Waterboys. Ship of Fools, written by Wallinger, was also included on World Party’s 1986 debut album Private Revolution. Wallinger’s love of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and other ’60s music is quite evident, both sonically and visually. In fact, the vocals on Ship of Fools at times remind a bit of Mick Jagger. In 2001, Wallinger was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm, which required surgery and put his music career to a near-full stop for five years. He was able to resume touring in 2006, though no additional World Party albums have appeared since Wallinger’s dangerous health episode. Based on World Party’s website, the project appears to have been on hiatus since 2015. No idea what Wallinger is doing these days.

Leon Russell/Crystal Closet Queen

Let’s get it going with some great rock & roll from Leon Russell. When my streaming music provider recently served up Crystal Closet Queen as a listening suggestion, I decided right away to feature this tune in my next Sunday Six installment. Why? Coz I can! Plus, that’s the beauty of a feature about random songs. Composed by Russell, the tune is from his second solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People, which came out in May 1971. This really cooks!

The Spencer Davis Group/Gimme Some Lovin’

To wrap up this collection, what’s even better than a rocker like Crystal Closet Queen? Yep, you guessed it correctly – more rock! I’ve always loved this gem by The Spencer Davis Group. When then-18-year-old Steve Winwood hits and holds those keys of his mighty Hammond B3, it still sends chills through my spine, not to mention his amazing soulful voice! Co-written by Winwood, Spencer Davis and Steve’s older brother Muff Winwood, Gimme Some Lovin’ appeared as a non-album single in October 1966 and became one of the band’s biggest hits. The title is also a good motto we should all embrace, especially these days.

Sources: Wikipedia; World Party website; YouTube

My Playlist: Steely Dan

Together with a handful of other bands and artists I’ve dug for many years, I couldn’t think of a better group to dedicate the first playlist of 2021 than to the amazing Steely Dan. While I’ve covered them on previous occasions, this is the first time I’ve put together a career-spanning playlist.

Before getting to some music, as usual, I’d like to provide a bit of background, for which I’m going to borrow from previous posts. The original masterminds behind Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Fagen was impressed with Becker’s guitar skills. They soon discovered they liked similar music and decided to write songs together. They also started playing together in various local bands.

The seeds for Steely Dan were sown in the summer of 1970, when Fagen and Becker responded to a Village Voice ad by guitarist Denny Dias, looking for a “bassist and keyboard player with jazz chops.” Becker was playing bass at the time and would switch to the electric guitar later. When they met Dias, Becker and Fagen had already written a good amount of original music.

Donald Fagan & Walter Becker
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

Steely Dan’s first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff song writers. It was also Katz who signed the band to the label.

In 1972, Steely Dan’s first single Dallas was released but sold poorly. The debut studio album Can’t Buy a Thrill followed in November that year. The producer was Katz, who also served in that role for each of the band’s following seven studio albums: Countdown To Ecstasy (1973), Pretzel Logic (1974), Katy Lied (1975), The Royal Scam (1976), Aja (1977) and Gaucho (1980).

Steely Dan: The Very Best Of | Music | Entertainment | Express.co.uk
Steely Dan in 1972 (from left): Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter, Walter Becker, David Palmer, Denny Dias, Donald Fagen and Jim Hodder

In June 1981, Fagen and Becker disbanded and went on a 20-year recording hiatus. Becker and his family moved to Maui where he became sober from drug use and eventually started working as a record producer. Fagen went on to launch a solo career.

In 1993, Fagen and Becker reunited for an American tour in support of Fagen’s second studio album Kamakiriad, which had appeared in May that year and had been produced by Becker. While Fagen and Becker continued Steely Dan tours, it took until February 2000 before their next new album Two Against Nature appeared. One more album followed: Everything Must Go from June 2003.

UPDATED] Walter Becker Estate Issues Statement Regarding Donald Fagen  Lawsuit
Walter Becker (left) and Donald Fagen

After the release of Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat in March 2006, Steely Dan resumed regular touring. At the same time, Becker and Fagan occasionally released solo albums without involvement of the other partner. On September 3, 2017, Becker passed away from esophageal cancer at the age of 67.

At the time of Becker’s death, Donald Fagen said on his Facebook page, “I intend to keep the music we created together alive as long as I can with the Steely Dan band.” And that’s exactly what he has been doing until COVID-19 hit. I was fortunate to see him twice in 2018 and wrote about it here and here. I’m currently scheduled to see him again open air in early July together with Steve Winwood – keeping fingers crossed. Time for some music!

I’d to kick things off with the aforementioned Dallas, Steely Dan’s first single. Like all tracks in this post, the song was co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Sung by drummer Jim Hodder, the county-flavored tune was not included on Steely Dan’s debut album but appeared in 1978 on a compilation titled Steely Dan.

Perhaps my favorite early Dan tune is the rocker Reelin’ In the Years, which first appeared on the band’s debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill from November 1972. It also became the album’s second single in March 1973. The song’s kickass guitar solo was played by session musician Elliott Randall, which none other than Jimmy Page called his favorite guitar solo of all time.

Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s sophomore release from July 1973, was the band’s first album without vocalist David Palmer that saw Donald Fagen sing lead on every tune. Here’s the album’s second single My Old School. While the record didn’t have a hit and couldn’t match the debut’s chart success, it was well received by critics at the time, and My Old School became a fan favorite.

Pretzel Logic, Dan’s third studio album released in February 1974, was the last to feature the full core lineup of Fagen, Becker, Dias, Baxter and Hodder. It also included contributions from many prominent LA musicians, such as future Toto members David Paich (piano, keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums), then-Poco bassist and vocalist Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals) who would later join the Eagles, and session bassist Chuck Rainey. Here’s opener Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, which also became the lead single in April 1974.

By the time Steely Dan’s next album Katy Lied came out in March 1975, most of their original members had left. The band essentially became Becker and Fagen who continued to hire top-notch musicians to support their recording sessions. In addition to Paich and Porcaro, the latter included Rick Derringer and Michael McDonald. Katy Lied also became the first Dan album to feature amazing session guitarist Larry Carlton. Here’s Doctor Wu. The alto saxophone solo was played by jazz saxophonist Phil Woods.

Next up: Kid Charlemagne, the lead single from The Royal Scam, Steely Dan’s fifth studio album. Both appeared in May 1976. The funky tune features the above noted Larry Carlton whose guitar solo was ranked #80 in Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs in May 2008. I also dig Chuck Rainey’s bass work on that tune.

This brings me to Aja, which to me is Steely Dan’s Mount Rushmore. Released in September 1977, this album is pure perfection. While I could have selected any track, I simply couldn’t ignore my all-time favorite Dan tune: Deacon Blues. Even after having listened to it countless times, I still get excited about this song. I think it represents a perfect blend of jazz, pop and rock, and I love the smooth sound. BTW, Becker played bass on this one. But the real standout are the horns.

Steely Dan’s next album Gaucho from November 1980 proved to be a huge challenge to make, which ultimately resulted in the above breakup in June 1981. Driven by Fagen’s and Becker’s perfectionism, the recording sessions used at least 42 musicians and took more than a year. In January 1980, Becker’s girlfriend Karen Roberta Stanley died of a drug overdose at his home. Her family subsequently brought a $17.5 million lawsuit, charging he had introduced her to drugs. The case was settled out of court. Shortly after Stanley’s death, Becker was hit by a taxi shattering his right leg. During his six-month recovery, he and Fagen collaborated via phone. Here’s the album’s lead track Babylon Sisters.

February 2000 saw the release of Two Against Nature, Fagen’s and Becker’s first new Steely Dan studio album in 20 years since Gaucho. It became one of their most successful albums. In addition to earning a Platinum certification in the U.S., Two Against Nature won four Grammy Awards in 2001, including Album of the Year. Here’s the groovy Cousin Dupree, which won Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the title track of Steely Dan’s ninth studio album Everything Must Go, the final with Walter Becker, released in June 2003. I think Apple Music correctly notes the lyrics sound like the song is a permanent sign-off: Guess it’s time for us to book it/Talk about the famous road not taken/In the end we never took it/And if somewhere on the way/We good a few good licks in/No one’s ever gonna know/Cause we’re goin’ out of business/Everything must go.

If Everything Must Go indeed signaled Steely Dan’s final studio album, it wasn’t a total sign-off. Fagen and Becker continued to tour as Steely Dan almost every year thereafter until 2017. Becker’s final performance was on May 27 that year at the Greenwich Town Party in Greenwich, Conn.

Steely Dan have sold more than 40 million albums worldwide. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March 2001. In December 2015, Rolling Stone ranked Steely Dan at No. 15 on its list of 20 Greatest Duos of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

The Year that was 2020 – Part 2 of 2

A look back on my music journey over the past 12 months

This is second and last installment of my two-part year in review. In case you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Celebrating new music one song at a time

With more than 150 songs highlighted since the launch of the Best of What’s New feature, I find it impossible to call out the best tunes. As I wrote in the inaugural March 21 post, While I don’t see myself starting to write about electronic dance music or Neue Deutsche Haerte a la Rammstein, I’m hoping to keep these posts a bit eclectic. I realize the characterization “best” is pretty subjective. If a song speaks to me, it’s fair game. I should perhaps have added that I don’t need to like other tunes by an artist to include them. It’s literally about the specific song.

Best of What’s New installments have featured tunes ranging from prominent artists like Sheryl Crow, The Rolling Stones and Tom Petty to lesser known acts like rock bands Brother Man and Mondo Silicone and Austin, Texas-based band leader Joe Sparacino, aka. Dr. Joe. Frequently, these posts triggered new album reviews, e.g., LeRoux (One of Those Days), Mick Hayes (My Claim to Fame) and Niedeckens BAP (Alles Fliesst). Following are four songs I discovered in the context of Best of What’s New.

Dr. Joe: Believer

From Dr. Joe’s websiteBased in Austin TX but raised on a farm outside Salina, Kansas, band leader Joe Sparacino spent his early childhood learning piano from a southern gospel choir matron and listening to his family’s old vinyl collection of Ray Charles, Leon Russell and James Booker. Released on April 10, Believer was Dr. Joe’s then-latest single and it’s cooking!

The Reverberations: Under Your Spell

The Reverberations are a five-piece band from Portland, Ore. Their Bandcamp profile characterizes their music as “’60s influenced psychedelic jangle.” I’d call it psychedelic garage rock. Under Your Spell, the B-side to their single Palm Reader released May 28, features some cool Byrds-ey guitars and nice keyboard work. Did I mention it’s also got a quite catchy melody? And check out the lovely psychedelic cover art – super cool all around! For more on this great band, you can read my review of their February 2019 album Changes, their most recent full-fledged studio release.

Kat Riggins: No Sale

Kat Riggins is a blues artist hailing from Miami. According to her website, She travels the world with the sole mission of keeping the blues alive and thriving through her Blues Revival Movement. She has been vocally compared to Koko Taylor, Etta James and Tina Turner to name a few. The nice blues rocker No Sale, which has a bit of a ZZ Top vibe, is from Riggins’ fourth album Cry Out released on August 14. That woman’s got it!

Greta Van Fleet: Age of Machine

Age of Machine is the second single from Greta Van Fleet’s next album The Battle at Garden’s Gate, which is scheduled for April 16, 2021. I think this kickass rocker provides more evidence the young band has evolved their style, moving away from their initial Led Zeppelin-influenced sound. Looking forward to the album!

Live music in the year of the pandemic…

Except for two tribute band concerts in January, pretty measly for the ‘King of the Tribute Band,’ I didn’t go to any live gigs this year. Shows for which I had tickets, including The Temptations and The Four Tops, Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band, and Steely Dan with special guest Steve Winwood, were rescheduled until April, June and July 2021, respectively. Perhaps with the exception of the last concert, I hope all other shows will be rescheduled a second time and moved back to the second half of the year. For somebody who loves live music and over the past 4-5 years has gotten into the habit of seeing an average 20-30 shows per year (counting lower cost tribute band and free summer type concerts), seizing live concerts it’s a bitter but necessary pill to swallow until this lethal pandemic is behind us.

I ended up watching two live concerts via Internet stream: Southern Avenue at Instrumenthead Live Studio in Nashville, Tenn. last week, and Mike Campbell’s band The Dirty Knobs at the Troubador in Los Angeles in late November. It was fun and also a nice opportunity to support music via voluntary donations in lieu of buying official tickets, but no virtual experience can replace the real deal.

Some final musings…

While my primary motivation for the blog has always been the joy I get from writing about a topic I love, i.e., music, it’s nice to see continued growth in visitor traffic, followers and feedback. Just like in 2019, the most popular post remained my January 2018 piece about Bad Company’s live CD/DVD collection from their May 15, 2016 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre; personally, I find the post average at best. By comparison, my July 12, 2020 post about the mellotron, which I’m proud of, received less than one percent of traffic than the Bad Company post. Perhaps, it was too geeky! 🙂 It’s funny how these things sometimes go.

I’d like to thank all visitors of the blog. If you’re here for the first time, you’re welcome back anytime. If you’re a regular, I hope you keep coming back. I also enjoy receiving comments, including different opinions. All I ever ask is to keep things civil.

Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with a great song by Southern Avenue they also played during the above noted virtual concert. I feel it’s a great message, especially during these crazy times: Don’t Give Up, from their eponymous debut album released in February 2017. Since I couldn’t capture footage from the above gig, here’s an alternative I can offer: a clip I recorded during a show at The Wonder Bar, a small venue in Asbury Park, N.J. in July 2019.

Sources: Christian’s Music Music Musings; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

While McCartney III kept me busy yesterday, Paul McCartney’s new album wasn’t the only great new music. Ringo Starr also released a new single. I wonder how many times has it happened before that two ex-Beatles come out with new music during the same week! But wait, there’s more.

How about an indie rock band from LA and a young R&B artist and producer from South Korea? Or a prolific Australian rock band I had never heard of before, which apparently is considered to be one of the most genre-hopping bands of all time.

Last but not least, this latest Best of What’s New installment also features a longtime New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician, who is perhaps best known for having performed the music of Steely Dan for more than 26 years, faithfully capturing the vocals of Donald Fagen.

The Wrecks/Static

The Wrecks are a band from the Los Angeles area, which was formed in 2016. Apple Music’s profile describes their music as exuberant, melodic, emo- and punk-influenced indie rock. The group found early success with their 2016 breakout single, “Favorite Liar,” and after a pair of EPs signed to the Big Noise label for their 2020 full-length Infinitely Ordinary. Hailing from Thousand Oaks, California, singer/guitarist Nick Anderson, guitarist Nick Schmidt, guitarist Westen Weiss, bassist Aaron Kelley, and drummer Billy Nally had barely formed when they chanced on the opportunity for a few covert days in a local studio. In just three hectic days, they recorded their 2016 debut EP, We Are the Wrecks, which featured the catchy single “Favorite Liar.” The song picked up steam online and helped the Wrecks land some key gigs opening for Paramore and the Struts along with festival slots at Lollapalooza and BottleRock. A second EP, Panic Vertigo, arrived in 2018, followed in 2020 by the Wrecks’ first LP, Infinitely Ordinary, on the Big Noise imprint. Static, co-written by Anderson and Schmidt, is the title track of The Wrecks’ new EP, which appeared yesterday. Admittedly, it falls outside my core wheelhouse, but my pop ear can’t deny it’s catchy.

Mike Caputo/Maya Lee

Unless you’ve read my blog for a long time, you probably haven’t heard of New Jersey singer-songwriter and musician Mike Caputo. Mike has been active for over 50 years. According to a bio on his website, A vocalist who plays keyboards and drums, Mike was signed to ABC Dunhill records at 15 years old after playing the Cafe Wha? in NYC in 1967. From that point he performed as a lead vocalist and either drummer, or keyboardist in a variety of local bands in the club circuit. Performing 5 to 6 nights a week playing Pop, Progressive, Jazz, R&B, Funk and his own Original Compositions, led him to more studio experience at Private Stock Records in the 70’s...Mike is also a published writer who wrote lyrics and melody for “A Question Of  Time” by B.J. Thomas from the album “Once I Loved” and “Manhattan Blue” for Rich Cecere’e Big Band. For the past more than 26 years, he has performed the music of Steely Dan, faithfully capturing the voice of Donald Fagen. His current project Good Stuff also features music of Gino Vannelli, Stevie Wonder and Sting, all artists who influenced him. Mike’s also a dear friend, and I’ve been to many of his shows. This doesn’t mean I’m featuring Maya Lee, a song he recently wrote, to do him a favor. In fact, he has no idea what’s coming at him! 🙂 When I saw this tune on Facebook the other day, I immediately dug it. It’s got a great smooth pop jazzy sound – and, yes, I can definitely hear some Donald Fagen/Steely Dan in here. I also really like the bass and guitar work, provided by Scott Hogan and Don Regan, respectively, who are also members of Good Stuff.

Ringo Starr/Here’s to the Nights

It turns out Paul McCartney wasn’t the only ex-Beatle who was busy working on new music during the pandemic. His former band mate Ringo Starr released Here’s to the Nights on Wednesday (December 16), the lead single from his forthcoming EP Zoom In scheduled for March 19, 2021. An announcement on his website notes, As this crazy year comes to a close, Ringo is offering a song of peace, love and friendship – “Here’s To The Nights” available today as a single…Written by Diane Warren, Ringo is joined by his friends, some longtime and some new, including: Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh, Corinne Bailey Rae, Eric Burton (Black Pumas), Sheryl Crow, FINNEAS, Dave Grohl, Ben Harper, Lenny Kravitz, Jenny Lewis, Steve Lukather, Chris Stapleton and Yola. Of course, I can see cynics dismissing this as an aging pop star getting a little help from celebrity musician friends. While it’s coming out just prior to the holidays, I don’t think this is about making a quick buck. Instead, I fully buy Ringo’s statement: “This is the kind of song we all want to sing along to, and it was so great how many wonderful musicians joined in. I wanted it out in time for New Years because it feels like a good song to end a tough year on. So here’s to the nights we won’t remember and the friends we won’t forget – and I am wishing everyone peace and love for 2021.”

Miso/Let It Go

Here’s another selection that’s not the kind of music I usually listen to, but there’s just something about Miso, a 28-year-old R&B artist and producer from South Korea. According to a mini bio on last.fm, Miso lived in England during her childhood. Her songs are characterized by a very peculiar modern and soft beat. Her name has often been associated with artists like DEAN and she has worked with CRUSH too – no idea who these artists are. Let It Go, for which Miso wrote both the music and lyrics, is from her new EP Metanoia released December 14. I guess it’s mostly her voice that drew me in. And check out that cool bassline! This tune definitely has something.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard/If Not Now, Then When?

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (what a name!) are an Australian rock band founded in 2010 in Melbourne. Initially, they started as a group of friends jamming together until a mutual friend asked them to play at a show – sounds like the rest is history. The current line-up features Stu Mackenzie (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, flute), Ambrose Kenny-Smith (vocals, harmonica, keyboards), Cook Craig (guitar, bass, vocals), Joey Walker (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals), Lucas Harwood (bass, keyboards) and Michael “Cavs” Cavanagh (drums, percussion). Their profile on Apple Music notes they have built a reputation as one of the most prolific and adventurous genre-hopping bands of all time. Their debut studio album 12 Bar Bruise appeared in September 2012. And, yes, this band has been pretty prolific indeed ever since, releasing 15 additional studio albums, six live albums, two EPs, one compilation and more than 40 singles. If Not Now, Then When? is their latest single that came out on December 10. This is just a cool tune. The groove and the falsetto vocals remind me a bit of Prince. Check it out!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Ringo Starr website; last.fm; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s hard to believe another week has flown by. I’m happy to present my latest picks of newly released music. This time, the collection features red dirt country (yes, apparently that’s a music genre), a beautiful melodic acoustic tune by a New York rock band, an indie rock artist from New Zealand, a longtime singer-songwriter taking on an iconic Steely Dan tune, as well as an artist who has been associated with various genres like new wave, post-punk, R&B, rap and indie rock – or is it perhaps music folks trying to slap a label on him? Let’s get to it!

Zach Bryan/Quiet, Heavy Dreams

Zach Bryan is a young singer-songwriter hailing from Oklahoma. An artist profile on Apple Music calls him a plaintive, quivering country troubadour indebted to the literary side of Red Dirt Country. According to Wikipedia, red dirt is a music genre named after the color of soil found in Oklahoma, which includes elements of Americana, folk, alt-country and a few other genres. Soon after receiving his first guitar as a 14-year-old, Bryan learned how to play and started writing songs. Later he followed in the footsteps of his family and enlisted in the Navy. But he didn’t give up music, and during a break in Jacksonville, Fla., Bryan and his friends spontaneously decided to record some tunes that would become his 2019 debut album DeAnn. Encouraged by a favorable reception among red dirt fans, he recorded his follow-on Elisabeth that appeared in May this year. Quiet, Heavy Dreams is the title track of Bryan’s new EP released today (November 27). His voice and the bare bones approach drew me in.

Bayside/Light Me Up

Bayside are a rock band named after the neighborhood in Queens, New York, where they were founded in October 2000 by lead vocalist Anthony Raneri and his childhood friend Mike Kozak (drums). Kozak left the following year to form his own group. Bayside released their debut album Sirens and Condolences in January 2004. The eponymous sophomore album from August 2005 was the band’s first to chart in the U.S., peaking at no. 153 on the Billboard 200. They have since released six additional full-length albums. Their catalog also features a live album and 10 EPs. The band’s line-up has changed various times over the years and currently includes Jack O’Shea (lead guitar, backing vocals), Nick Ghanbarian (bass, backing vocals) and Chris Guglielmo (drums, percussion), along with Raneri, the only remaining original member. Light Me Up is a single credited to all members of the band, released on November 20. It’s from Bayside’s upcoming 11th EP Acoustic Volume Three, which is scheduled for December 11. Check out the melodic sound of this tune and the harmony singing – love it!

KennyHoopla/Estella (feat. Travis Barker)

KennyHoopla is a 23-year-old Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter who was born as Kenneth La’ron in Cleveland. According to his Apple Music artist profile, he emerged out of the midwestern underground in the latter years of the 2010s with a series of buzz-worthy singles that merged aspects of new wave, post-punk, and R&B...Hoopla began making music at a young age, influenced by acts like Funeral Suits, Passion Pit, and the Drums…His early tracks were loosely labeled rap, though his dark-toned, guitar-based songs and aching contemplative vocals had more in common with indie rock and alt-R&B. He gained traction both regionally and online with 2017’s “Waves//” single and its 2018 follow-up, “Sickness.” Admittedly, I had never of heard of these tunes or KennyHoopla before. With so many genres flying around in the above profile, it also appears to be tricky to characterize his music. I’ve said it before and say it again: It all comes down to whether music speaks to you, not the genre. And there’s something about Hoopla’s new single Estella, which came out on November 20, featuring Travis Barker, drummer of American pop rock band Blink-182. At just under two minutes, it could almost be a contemporary version of a Ramones tune.

Emily Edrosa/Drinking During the Day

Emily Edrosa is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Auckland, New Zealand. According to a bio on the website of her record label Park The Van, Edrosa had fronted New Zealand indie rock band Street Chant for 10 years before she decided to relocate to Los Angeles in 2016 and start over. While living there, she continued to work on songs that ended up on her new solo record Another Wave Is Coming released November 20. Edrosa wrote the parts for all instruments. Except for the drums, which were provided by Bosh Rothman (U.S.) and New Zealand peers Alex Freer and Liz Stokes, she also played all instruments by herself. A review of the album in No Depression notes Edrosa recently returned to New Zealand. Here’s Drinking During the Day. Check out the neat transition from mid tempo to a slower pace starting at around 2:24 minutes with a somewhat Beatle-esque guitar part – pretty cool!

Bill Callahan/Deacon Blues (feat. Bill Mackay)

Let me preface this last clip by saying that Steely Dan are one of my all-time favorite bands and their album Aja from September 1977 is music perfection to my ears. As such, I think covering Deacon Blues, one of the album’s tracks that also happens to be my favorite Dan tune, does take a good deal of self-confidence. American singer-songwriter and guitarist Bill Callahan, who has been around for three decades, not only decided to take on the challenge but turn the jazz pop-oriented original co-written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker into a stripped back acoustic version. In addition to Callahan, this cover only features composer and guitarist Bill MacKay and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the adopted artist name of American singer-songwriter Joseph Will Oldham. With no horns and most other instruments that are on Steely Dan’s original and Callahan’s voice sounding much closer to Yusuf/Cat Stevens than Donald Fagen, this is quite different. I imagine not all Dan fans may be with me here, but I think Callahan did an amazing job, making an iconic tune truly his own.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; Park The Van website; No Depression; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Stevie Wonder/Innervisions

“Innervisions gives my own perspective of what’s happening in my world, to my people, to all people. That’s why it took me seven months to get together – I did all the lyrics – and that’s why I think it is my most personal album. I don’t care if it only sells five copies – this is the way I feel.” (Stevie Wonder, The New York Times, July 20, 1973)

On May 13, Stevie Wonder turned 70 years old. Yesterday, I came across his moving acceptance speech at the 1989 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both of these events prompted me to post about one of my longtime favorite artists. Instead of a playlist, which I’m sure I’m going to do at some point, I decided to write about Innervisions. This album from August 1973 may well be Wonder’s equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry or Steely Dan’s Aja, i.e., a career-defining true masterpiece.

Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden in March 1974

The comment from Wonder in the lead paragraph appeared in a New York Times story that reported about an interesting PR tactic to create some buzz among journalists two weeks ahead of the album’s official release. A group of blindfolded journalists boarded a bus in New York City’s Times Square and was brought to a nearby recording study. Upon arrival, each member – still blindfolded – was assigned an individual guide, allowed to taste various foods, touch various musical instruments and dance to the music of Innervisions, which was playing in the background.

And, yes, Wonder was there as well. Though he was delayed coming in from Texas, but thanks to a police escort from the airport, he just made it in time to receive the group of journalists at the studio for this unusual album preview listening party. “The idea of the blindfolds was to try to give people an idea of what’s happening in my mind,” Wonder explained. “When you look at something, your hearing is distracted by your eye.” While doubt the temporary blindfolds allowed the participants to enter the mind of a musical genius, Wonder and his PR folks certainly deserve credit for coming up with a creative tactic.

Which brings me to Innervisions, Wonder’s 16th studio album. Rightfully, it’s widely considered to be a landmark. According to Wikipedia, it made Wonder “the first artist to experiment with the ARP synthesizer on a large scale”, adding this had a huge impact on the future of commercial black music. Based on this apparently well researched post by The Music Aficionado, it sounds like it would be more accurate to describe Wonder as one of a number of artists who were experimenting with ARP synthesizers in the early ’70s. But I don’t think this context diminishes the significance of the record!

Innervisions also marked an important step in Wonder’s transition away from primarily romantic tunes to musically and lyrically more mature songs. Arguably, that journey began with Music of My Mind, Wonder’s 14th studio album released in March 1972, which some consider the first record of his “classic period” that culminated in Songs in the Key of Life from September 1976.

Stevie Wonder in 1973

Innervisions tackles a broad range of issues, including drugs, racism and religion, and only includes three love songs. In fact, there’s a quote from Wonder I read somewhere and now can no longer find (I hate when that happens!), where he essentially said people no longer want to hear love songs. Looking at this comment today, I think it’s important to keep in mind the context of 1973 America, a country that was struggling with racism, poverty, and a rampant drug epidemic, not to mention a crook in the White House – sound familiar?

Okay, time to get to some music. Let’s kick it off with the album’s opener Too High. Like all of the other eight tracks, the tune was written, arranged and produced by Wonder. It’s also one of four songs, on which he played all instruments, in this case a Fender Rhodes electric piano, harmonica, drums and Moog (synthesizer) bass. I’m too high/I’m too high/I can’t ever touch the sky/ I’m too high/I’m so high/I feel like I’m about to die, Wonder sings, leaving no doubt this ain’t some romantic ballad. BTW, just to be clear, I’m with Paul McCartney here: Nothing wrong with a silly love song!

Next up is what to me is the stand-out track on the album: Living for the City, the cinematic tale of a poor young African American man from Mississippi who innocently ends up in a rotten jail in New York City just after he had arrived to what he had thought would be his big city dream. The tune was also released separately as a single in November 1973, reaching no. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping what was then called the Hot Soul Singles chart (now known as Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs). Songfacts quotes Wonder: “I think the deepest I really got into how I feel about the way things are was in ‘Living For The City.’ I was able to show the hurt and the anger. You still have that same mother that scrubs the floors for many, she’s still doing it. Now what is that about? And that father who works some days for 14 hours. That’s still happening.”

Higher Ground is the first track on the (vinyl) album’s B-side. According to a track-by-track review in Billboard, it’s a call to action (maybe the grooviest ever?), where he encourages people to “keep on learnin’,” outs politicians that talk while their “people keep on dyin’,” and those doing nothing to “stop sleepin’.” Adds Songfacts: Guided by a mix of Christian morality and astrological mysticism, Wonder believed he was writing a “special song” whose lyrics suggested a coming day of judgment. “I did the whole thing in three hours” he told Q magazine. It was almost as if I had to get it done. I felt something was going to happen. I didn’t know what or when, but I felt something.” One thing’s for sure: That song, which also became the album’s lead single in July 1973, grooves like hell! Evidently, people noticed. The tune climbed to no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was another chart-topper on the Hot Soul Singles.

One of the “lighter” tunes is Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing, which has an upbeat Latin vibe. According to Songfacts, Stevie Wonder encourages his lady to be fearless in exploring all life has to offer because he’ll always be by her side. Although he claims to speak fluent Spanish in the intro, saying “Todo está bien chévere” (“Everything’s really great” or “Everything’s cool”), Wonder didn’t really know the language…The Spanish lyric was inspired by a Puerto Rican woman that Wonder met in a record store. He recalled: “I remember the night I was going to do this song. And I just so happened to meet this girl named Rain. And she was beautiful. And she worked at this record shop – this record store. And I’m like saying to her, hey, you know, it’s amazing. You know, she sings. You know, she’s Puerto Rican. I say, yeah, OK, well, you know, I’m doing a little thing and like a little something called ‘Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing.’ What can I – I mean, give me something, something. I’ll let you come to the studio if you have anything to say. I’ll say some things, and it will be a wonderful day. And she said, ‘todo esta bien chevere.’ And that’s how I got that in a song. And, you know, we fell in love, and it was a beautiful thing.”

The final tune I’d like to highlight is the album’s closer He’s Misstra Know-It-All. He’s a man/With a plan/Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, Wonder sings. Playing hard/Talking fast/Making sure that he won’t be the last/He’s Misstra Know-It-All, he carries on. Makes a deal/With a smile/Knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile/He’s Misstra Know-It-All…The above Billboard review calls the song “a cautionary tale about a hustler.” According to Wikipedia, It has been alleged has been alleged that this is a reference to United States’ President Richard Nixon. Considering the album’s context and other songs, this looks like a safe bet to me.

Three days after the release of Innervisions, Wonder was involved in a bad car accident that nearly killed him when he was hit by a log into his forehead. He was hospitalized with a severe brain contusion that caused him to be in a coma for four days. It took Wonder more than a year to completely recover from his injuries. Kind of creepy, especially if you consider his above quote about Higher Ground.

And, yes, Innervisions sold more than five copies. While I didn’t come across specific sales figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, the album reached Gold status in Canada and the U.K. It peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard 200 and hit no. 1 on the Top R&B Albums chart, which since 1999 has been called Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums. At the 1974 Grammy Awards, the record won Album of the Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Living for the City captured Best R&B Song. Innervisions is ranked at no. 24 on the 2012 edition of Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; The New York Times; The Music Aficionado; Songfacts; YouTube