On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 7

Once again I’ve decided to do another installment in my recurring and now more regular music history feature. This time it’s February 7, and it turns out I found a number of events that sufficiently intrigued me to highlight.

1959: New Orleans blues guitarist Guitar Slim passed away from pneumonia in New York at the untimely age of 32. Born Eddie Jones in Greenwood, Miss. on Dec 10, 1926, he had a major impact on rock and roll and influenced guitarists like Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. In fact, he experimented with distorted overtones 10 years before Hendrix did. Slim is best known for writing the blues standard The Things That I Used to Do, arranged and produced by a young Ray Charles. After the tune was released in the fall of 1953, it topped Billboard’s R&B chart for weeks and sold more than a million copies, becoming one of label Specialty Records’ biggest hits. Guitar Slim was a favorite of Hendrix who recorded an impromptu version of The Things That I Used to Do in 1969, featuring Johnny Winter on slide guitar. The tune, which is on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, was also covered by Pee Wee Crayton, Tina Turner, James Brown and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others.

1963: Please Please Me, The Beatles’ first U.S. single and their second single overall was released by Vee-Jay Records. This followed rejections by Capitol Records, EMI’s U.S. label, and Atlantic. Chicago radio station WLS‘s Dick Biondi, a friend of Vee-Jay executive Ewart Abner, became the first DJ to play a Beatles record in the U.S. Initially, the tune, written by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney, was a moderate success, peaking at no. 35 on the WLS “Silver Dollar Survey.” It would take until the song’s re-release in January 1964 that Please Please Me became a major U.S. hit, reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-March 1964, trailing I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You. Three weeks later, The Beatles held the top 5 spots on the U.S. chart, with Please Please Me at no. 5. Chart-topper Can’t Buy Me Love was followed by Twist and Shout, She Loves You and I Want to Hold Your Hand.

1970: Led Zeppelin topped the Official Albums Chart in the UK for the first time with their sophomore album Led Zeppelin II. The record also became a chart-topper in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany and The Netherlands, and reached no. 2 in Austria, Norway and Sweden.  Recording sessions for the album had taken place at several locations in both the UK and North America between January and August 1969. Zep guitarist Jimmy Page was credited as producer. Eddie Kramer, who by that time had already worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Small Faces, Traffic and Jimi Hendrix, served as engineer. Here’s the opener Whole Lotta Love, one of my favorite Zep rockers that also was released separately as a single. The tune was credited to all four members of the band and, following settlement of a lawsuit in 1985, to Willie Dixon. Once again, the group had borrowed from somebody else’s work without acknowledgment. It’s an unfortunate pattern by one of my all-time favorite rock bands!

1970: Meanwhile, in the U.S., Dutch rock band Shocking Blue topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Venus. Their biggest hit also reached no. 1 in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and France, no. 2 in Germany and Norway, and no. 3 in The Netherlands. According to Wikipedia, the song’s music is from the 1963 tune The Banjo Song by American folk trio The Big 3 with lyrics by Shocking Blue guitarist Robbie van Leeuwen. Officially, only van Leeuwen was credited – sounds a bit like the previous item! Shocking Blue who at the time of Venus also included Mariska Veres (lead vocals), Klaasje van der Wal (bass) and Cor van der Beek (drums), were active from 1967 until 1974 and had a few short-lived reunions thereafter. In 1986, British girl group Bananarama took Venus back to no. 1 in the U.S. and various other countries. While I appreciate they revived a great song, I much prefer the original.

1976: Paul Simon scored his first and only no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, one of my all-time favorites by the American singer-songwriter. Penned by Simon, the song was the third single off his fourth solo album Still Crazy After All These Years from October 1975. The distinct drum part, one of the coolest I can think of, was performed by highly regarded session drummer Steve Gadd. He also played drums on Steely Dan song Aja and has worked with numerous other renowned artists. Backing vocals on 50 Ways were performed by Patti Austin, Valerie Simpson and Phoebe Snow. According to Songfacts, In a 1975 interview published in Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews, Simon told the story of this song: “I woke up one morning in my apartment on Central Park and the opening words just popped into my mind: ‘The problem is all inside your head, she said to me…’ That was the first thing I thought of. So I just started building on that line. It was the last song I wrote for the album, and I wrote it with a Rhythm Ace, one of those electronic drum machines so maybe that’s how it got that sing-song ‘make a new plan Stan, don’t need to be coy Roy’ quality. It’s basically a nonsense song.”

1993: Neil Young recorded an installment of the MTV series Unplugged. Apparently, Young was not happy with the performances of many of his band members. It was his second attempt to capture a set he felt was suitable for airing and release. In spite of Young’s displeasure, the album still appeared in June that year. It was also published on VHS. Here’s Unknown Legend, a tune from his then-latest studio album Harvest Moon that had come out in November 1992. My ears can’t find anything wrong with how this sounds. Of course, it’s always possible certain kinks were fixed in the production process.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six where I time-travel through the past 70 years or so to celebrate the diversity of music by picking six tunes. This installment features saxophone jazz from 2013, pop from 1980, rock & roll from 1977, blues-rock from 1990, rockabilly from 1957 and rock from 1969. Can you guess what and the last one might be?

Kenny Garrett/Homma San

Today, I’d like to kick off our little music excursion with American post-bop jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett. According to his Apple Music profile, Garrett is among the most distinctive instrumentalists to emerge from Detroit’s 1980s and 1990s jazz scenes. A versatile musician, he is equally at home playing classic jump-and-rhythm & blues, standards, modal music and jazz-funk. Garrett’s professional career took off in 1978 when he became a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra as an 18-year-old. He also played and recorded with Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, among others. In 1985, he released his debut album as a bandleader, Introducing Kenny Garrett. Wikipedia lists 16 additional records in this capacity to date. Here’s Homma San, a Garrett composition that’s perfect for a Sunday morning. It’s from a September 2013 studio album titled Pushing the World Away. It reached no. 6 on the Billboard Top Jazz Albums chart and received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Album.

Paul Simon/Long Long Day

Let’s stay on the mellow side with this beautiful tune by Paul Simon. Long Long Day is a song from the soundtrack of One-Trick Pony, a 1980 film written by and starring Simon as a once-popular but now struggling folk-rock musician. The soundtrack, Simon’s fifth solo album released in August 1980, is best known for Late in the Evening. The Grammy-nominated tune reached no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, marking Simon’s final top 10 hit on the U.S. mainstream chart. Long Long Day became the B-side of the album’s second single One-Trick Pony. Written by Simon, Long Long Day features Patti Austin on backing vocals. Other musicians on the recording, among others, include Richard Tee (piano), Toni Levin (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums), who also appeared in the film as members of Simon’s backing band.

AC/DC/Whole Lotta Rosie

After two quiet tunes, I’d say it’s time to push the pedal to the metal. In order to do that I could hardly think of any better band than hard-charging Australian rock & rollers AC/DC. Here’s one of my favorites among their early tunes: Whole Lotta Rosie, off their fourth studio album, Let There Be Rock from March 1977. Co-written by the band’s Angus Young (lead guitar), Malcolm Young (rhythm guitar) and Bon Scott (lead vocals), Whole Lotta Rosie also appeared separately as the album’s second single. It became AC/DC’s first charting tune in the U.K. and The Netherlands where it reached no. 68. and no. 5, respectively. Their international breakthrough hit Highway to Hell was still two years away. Whole Lotta Rosie rocks just as nicely!

Gary Moore/Walking By Myself

Let’s keep up the energy level with some electric blues-rock by Gary Moore. The Northern Irish guitarist started his career in the late ’60s as a member of Irish blues-rock band Skid Row. In 1971, he left to start a solo career. Following the release of the album Grinding Stone in May 1973, credited to The Gary Moore Band, he became a member of Thin Lizzy in early 1974. This reunited him with Phil Lynott, Skid Row’s lead vocalist at the time Moore joined that group. While still playing with Thin Lizzy, Moore released his first album solely under his name, Back on the Streets, in 1978. After his departure from the band in 1979, he focused on his solo career. This brings me to Walking By Myself, a great cover of a blues tune written by Jimmy Rogers and released in 1956, together with Little Walter and Muddy Waters. Moore’s rendition was included on his eighth solo album Still Got the Blues from March 1990. It became his most successful solo record climbing to no. 13 in the UK and no. 5 in Australia, topping the charts in Finland and Sweden, and charting within the top 5 in Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Walking By Myself also appeared as a single in August that year, reaching no. 48 and no. 55 in the UK and Australia, respectively.

Carl Perkins/Matchbox

For this next pick, let’s go back to early 1957 and rockabilly classic Matchbox by Carl Perkins. According to Wikipedia, the tune was sparked when Perkins’ father Buck told him to write a song based on some lines of lyrics he remembered from Match Box Blues, a tune Blind Lemon Jefferson had recorded in 1927. As Perkins began to sing these lyrics at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn. in December 1956, a session pianist called Jerry Lee Lewis started playing a boogie-woogie riff. In turn, this prompted Perkins to improvise on his guitar, and the rest is history. While Matchbox ended up as the B-side to Perkins’ single Your True Love, it still became one of his best-known songs. The tune was also included on his debut record Dance Album Of Carl Perkins that appeared in 1957. Matchbox has been covered by various other artists, most notably The Beatles who included it on their UK EP Long Tall Sally released in June 1964. In the U.S., it appeared on their fifth American album Something Else from July 1964 and subsequently as a single in August of the same year.

The Beatles/Don’t Let Me Down

Speaking of The Beatles, having just watched the Disney+ premiere of Peter Jackson’s docuseries The Beatles: Get Back, not surprisingly, the four lads have been very much on my mind. As such, I’d like to end this installment of The Sunday Six with Don’t Let Me Down. Written by John Lennon as a love song for Yoko Ono and credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, the tune became the B-side of the single Get Back that came out in April 1969. Not only did both songs feature Billy Preston on electric piano, but they also were released as The Beatles with Billy Preston. Here’s a clip with footage from the rooftop performance in late January 1969, the last time The Beatles played in front of an audience.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: John Hiatt/Perfectly Good Guitar

John Hiatt is a great artist I’ve been aware of for many years. I’m glad his excellent recent collaboration album with Jerry Douglas, Leftover Feelings, brought the acclaimed singer-songwriter back on my radar screen. It finally made me start exploring some of Hiatt’s other albums in their entirety, including Perfectly Good Guitar, his 11th studio release that appeared in September 1993. I’m sure Hiatt aficionados are well aware of it; if you’re not and dig heartland and roots-oriented rock, you’re in for a treat.

Hiatt who was born in Indianapolis had a difficult childhood. After the death of his older brother and his father, he used watching IndyCar races and listening to music by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and blues artists as escape mechanisms. At the age of 11, Hiatt learned to play guitar and started his music career as a teenager in Indianapolis, playing local venues with the a variety of bands.

When he was 18, Hiatt moved to Nashville, Tenn. where he landed a job as a songwriter for the Tree-Music Publishing Company. He also continued local performances, both solo and with a band called White Duck. Hiatt got his break in June 1974 when Three Dog Night turned his song Sure As I’m Sitting Here into a top 40 hit. His original version he had released as a single in February that year had gone nowhere.

In July 1973, Hiatt recorded his debut album Hangin Around The Observatory, which came out the following year. While it received favorable reviews, the album was a commercial failure. When the same thing happened with his sophomore release Overcoats, his label Epic Records was quick to drop him. Meanwhile, other artists kept covering Hiatt’s songs. Unfortunately, the story pretty much kept repeating itself until Bring the Family from May 1987, finally giving Hiatt his first album to make the Billboard 200, reaching no. 107.

Bring the Family featured the gems Thing Called Love and Have a Little Faith in Me, which became hits for Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, respectively. Hiatt’s songs have also been covered by an impressive and diverse array of other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Buddy Guy, Emmylou Harris, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Willy DeVille, and the list goes on and on.

To date, Hiatt has released 28 albums, including two live records and two compilations. In 1991, he also formed the short-lived group Little Village together with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Previously, Hiatt had worked with each of the three artists on Bring the Family. After issuing a self-titled album in February 1992 and a short supporting tour the group disbanded.

Let’s get to some music from Perfectly Good Guitar. Here’s the great opener Something Wild. Like all other tracks except one, the tune was solely written by Hiatt. I dig the nice driving drum part by Brian McLeod. With the recent death of Charlie Watts, perhaps it’s not surprising that Satisfaction came to mind right away!

The title track perfectly captures my sentiments when I see footage of Pete Townshend trashing his guitar at the end of a Who gig; or Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire for that matter. Oh, it breaks my heart to see those stars/ Smashing a perfectly good guitar/I don’t know who they think they are/Smashing a perfectly good guitar…Yes, of course, it was all for show and I believe Townshend at least glued some of his smashed guitars back together. And while I certainly don’t support jail sentences for guitar-smashing, destroying instruments still rubs me the wrong way! Instead, make some kid happy and give it to them! Who knows, you might even change their trajectory!

Another nice track is Buffalo River Home. I really like the guitar work on that tune.

Another track that got my attention, primarily because of the drum part, is Blue Telescope. McLeod’s drum work reminds me a bit of Steve Gadd’s action on Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. I have no idea whether Gadd’s unique drum part served as an inspiration here. Regardless, it sure as heck sounds cool to me!

The last track I’d like to call out is Old Habits, which has a great bluesy vibe. It’s the one song on the album Hiatt co-wrote with somebody else: Female singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Similar to Hiatt, it appears her songs have been covered by many other artists, such as Joe Cocker, Jimmy Buffett, Emmylou Harris, Irma Thomas and Ronnie Milsap.

Before wrapping up this post, I’d to acknowledge the other fine musicians on this great album. In addition to Hiatt (guitar, vocals, piano, organ) and MacLeod (drums, percussion), they include Michael Ward (guitar), Ravi Oli (electric sitar; Ravi Oli is a pseudonym of David Immerglück), Dennis Locorriere (harmony vocals) and John Pierce (bass guitar).

Perfectly Good Guitar was Hiatt’s last studio album with A&M Records. Once again, another great record failed to meet the commercial expectations of the label, though ironically, it became Hiatt’s most successful record on the U.S. mainstream charts to date, peaking at no. 47 on the Billboard 200. Hiatt subsequently signed with Capitol Records, which released his next two studio albums, including the Grammy-nominated Walk On from October 1995.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

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