A First Glance at Albums Hitting the Big 50 This Year

With a new year upon us, I thought this would be a good opportunity to preview albums that are turning 50 in 2023. Taking a closer look quickly confirmed my expectation that 1973 was yet another great year in music. Based on Wikipedia, I came up with an initial list of 40 records released that year. I’m going to touch on six of them. A Spotify playlist at the end features songs from those albums, as well as one tune from each of the remaining 34 records.

Pink FloydThe Dark Side of the Moon (March 1, 1973)

Pink Floyd’s eighth studio album The Dark Side of the Moon remains among my favorites by the English rock band. Released in March 1973, it was primarily developed during live performances and premiered before the recording sessions began. In fact, as reported by Variety and other music outlets, last month, Pink Floyd quietly released 18 of these concerts on streaming services before the recordings hit 50 years and would have lost copyright protection. The Dark Side of the Moon, a concept album around themes like conflict, greed, time, death and mental illness, is Floyd’s best-selling record and one of the most critically acclaimed albums in music history. Here is Time, with lyrics by Roger Waters (bass, vocals) and the music credited to all members of the band, who also included David Gilmour (guitar, vocals), Richard Wright (keyboards, vocals) and Nick Mason (drums, percussion).

Steely DanCountdown to Ecstasy (July 1973)

Steely Dan’s sophomore album Countdown to Ecstasy, released in July 1973, was recorded when they were still a standing band. In addition to masterminds Donald Fagen (acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizer, lead and backing vocals) and Walter Becker (electric bass, harmonica, backing vocals), the line-up featured Denny Dias (electric guitar), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (electric and pedal steel guitars) and Jim Hodder (drums, percussion, backing vocals). Countdown to Ecstasy followed the departure of David Palmer and was the group’s first album where Fagen sang lead on every song. After their third record Pretzel Logic, Fagen and Becker turned Steely Dan largely into a studio project, relying on top-notch session musicians. One of my favorite tracks on Countdown to Ecstasy is My Old School, which like all other tunes was co-written by Becker and Fagen. Baxter’s guitar work shines and is among his best.

Stevie WonderInnervisions (August 3, 1973)

Innervisions, Stevie Wonder’s 16th studio album released in August 1973, is part of his so-called classic period, which spans six records, bookended by Music of My Mind (March 1972) and Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” (October 1979). Following his 21st birthday on May 13, 1971, Wonder allowed his contract with Motown to expire. He returned to the Detroit label with Music of My Mind and a much more lucrative contract that also freed him from the artistic straitjacket of the past. Wonder’s lyrics changed and started to explore social and political topics in addition to standard romantic themes. Musically, he began exploring overdubbing and recording most of the instrumental parts himself. Innervisions and the excellent Living for the City perfectly illustrate these changes.

Lynyrd Skynyrd(Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) (August 13, 1973)

August 1973 also saw the release of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd). And what a debut it was, featuring classics like Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone and the epic Free Bird. You wouldn’t necessarily guess it, based on the album’s relatively moderate chart performance when it came out. In the U.S., it reached no. 27 on the Billboard 200. Elsewhere, it climbed to no. 20 in Switzerland, no. 44 in the UK and no. 47 in Canada. But over time, the picture looks better. As of July 1987, it was certified 2X Platinum in the U.S. The album also made Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and was ranked at no. 381 in the most recent revision from 2020. Here’s the aforementioned Free Bird, co-written by the group’s original lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins.

Elton JohnGoodbye Yellow Brick Road (October 5, 1973)

Elton John truly ruled during the first part of the ’70s. With Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, a double LP and his seventh studio album, he scored his third of six consecutive chart-toppers in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The album also topped the charts in the UK, Canada and Australia. It spawned four singles, which charted in different countries. In the U.S., Bennie and the Jets became John’s second no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, while the title track topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand. I decided to highlight the magnificent opening medley of Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding. As usual, John wrote the music to lyrics by his longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. What an opus!

Paul McCartney and WingsBand on the Run (December 5, 1973)

The final album I’d like to call out here is what I consider the Mount Rushmore of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles period: Band on the Run, his fifth after the break-up of The Fab Four and the third with Wings. By the time recording in Lagos, Nigeria began, drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist Henry McCullough had departed. This left Wings as a trio, which in addition to McCartney included his wife Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. As such, Paul ended up playing bass, drums, percussion and most of the lead guitar parts, with Laine providing guitars and Linda keyboards. Both also sang backing and harmony vocals. After recording the majority of the album’s basic tracks and some overdubbing in Lagos under difficult conditions, Wings returned to England and finished the album in George Martin’s AIR Studios in London. After initial modest sales, Band on the Run became the top-selling studio album of 1974 in the UK. More importantly, it revitalized the critical standing of Paul McCartney whose earlier post-Beatles records had received a mixed reception. Band on the Run’s opener and title track, credited to Paul and Linda, is a longtime favorite of mine.

I’m planning dedicated posts on each of the above albums and possibly others released in 1973, timed to their respective 50th anniversaries. Last but not least, here’s the above-noted Spotify playlist.

Sources: Wikipedia; Variety; YouTube; Spotify

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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to the final 2022 installment of The Sunday Six! I can’t believe I’m writing this. But, yep, not only is this year quickly coming to an end, but this blog will also be on a short holiday hiatus. I’m going back to Germany next week to spend Christmas with my parents and planning to resume posting shortly after my return close to the new year.

Michael Brecker/I Can See Your Dreams

Always curious to learn about new jazz saxophone players, I asked my friend Phil Armeno the other day. Phil plays saxophone in Good Stuff, a great band celebrating the music of Steely Dan, Sting, Stevie Wonder and Gino Vannelli (I previously covered them here.) The first sax player Phil mentioned was Michael Brecker. The name sounded vaguely familiar and no wonder – Brecker, who was active from 1969 until his untimely death in 2007 at the age of 57, collaborated with many music artists outside the pure jazz realm, including Steely Dan, Dire Straits, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon…the list goes on and on! Brecker began studying the clarinet at age six before moving on to alto saxophone in eighth grade and finally settling on what became his main instrument, the tenor saxophone, in his sophomore year. While his recording career as a sideman started in 1969, his solo eponymous debut album didn’t appear until 1987. I Can See Your Dreams is a beautiful Brecker composition included on his seventh studio album Nearness of You: The Ballad Book released in June 2001. Check out that sweet sound!

Mink DeVille/Each Word’s a Beat of My Heart

Let’s kick up the speed a bit with a great 1983 pop tune by Mink DeVille: Each Word’s a Beat of My Heart. Formed in 1974, Mink DeVille was a band to showcase the music of frontman and versatile singer-songwriter Willy DeVille. While initially associated with New York’s early punk scene, the group’s roots were in R&B, blues and even Cajun music. Between 1977 and 1985, they put out six albums. After their breakup, DeVille continued to release a series of solo albums as Willy DeVille until February 2008. In early 2009, he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, followed by a pancreatic cancer diagnosis a few months thereafter. DeVille passed away in August of the same year, shortly prior to what would have been his 59th birthday. Each Word’s a Beat of My Heart, penned by DeVille, was included on the band’s second-to-final album Where Angels Fear to Tread. The tune also appeared separately and became their only single to chart in the U.S. (no. 89). While both the band and DeVille were more successful elsewhere, overall, their chart success was moderate.

The Beatles/Day Tripper

Time for a stopover in the ’60s and The Beatles with a great tune featuring what I feel is one of their best guitar riffs: Day Tripper. Written primarily by John Lennon and credited to him and Paul McCartney, as usual, the non-album single was released in December 1965, paired with We Can Work It Out. According to Wikipedia, the single was the first example of a double A-side in Britain where it became the band’s ninth no. 1 on the Official Singles Chart. Elsewhere, it also passed the audition, reaching the top of the charts in The Netherlands, Finland, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts notes the lyrics were Lennon’s first reference to LSD in a Beatles tune and can be viewed as him teasing Paul about not taking acid.

John Prine/Take a Look At My Heart

Our next stop is the ’90s. For the occasion, I have a perfect country rock-flavored tune I came across recently: Take a Look At My Heart by John Prine. It appears the more songs I hear from him, the more I dig his music, and the better I understand why he was held in such high esteem by many other artists and music fans. Take a Look At My Heart, co-written by Prine and John Mellencamp and featuring Bruce Springsteen on backing vocals, was included on Prine’s 10th studio album The Missing Years. Released in September 1991, it won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. In spite of this recognition, it didn’t make the charts – incredible! But Prine’s music cannot be measured by chart success in the first place. Of course, the same can be said about other music artists!

Rainbow/Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll

Fasten your seatbelt for this next kickass hard rock tune. We’re going back to April 1978 and the title track of Rainbow’s third studio album Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. The British-American band was formed in 1975 as Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow after the guitarist’s departure from Deep Purple. In addition to Blackmore, the short-lived original line-up included killer vocalist Ronnie James Dio, Micky Lee Soule (keyboards), Craig Gruber (bass) and Gary Driscoll (drums). Blackmore was extremely difficult to work with and frequently fired members from the band. By the time Rainbow recorded Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll, Soule, Gruber and Driscoll were gone. Cozy Powell had already taken over on drums for Driscoll later in 1975. Unfortunately, Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll was the final Rainbow album for Dio. Starting with the successor Down to Earth, Blackmore steered the group to a more radio-friendly sound that apparently was inspired by his liking of Foreigner. I’ve always loved Long Live Rock ‘n Roll, which was co-written by Blackmore and Dio.

Mudcrutch/The Wrong Thing to Do

This brings us to the final destination of our last music time travel excursion of 2022. Prior to forming the Heartbreakers in 1976, Tom Petty had another band, Mudcrutch, he co-founded in 1970 with Tom Leadon in Gainesville, Fla. With Petty on bass and vocals and Leadon on guitar and vocals, the group’s line-up also included Jim Lenehan (vocals), Mike Campbell (guitar) and Randall Marsh (drums). By the time they relocated to Los Angeles in 1974 to seek a deal with a major record label, Leadon and Lenehan had left and been replaced by Danny Roberts (bass, guitar, vocals) and Benmont Tench (keyboards). After signing with Leon Russell’s independent label Shelter Records, Mudcrutch released a single, Depot Street, in 1975. It went nowhere, and the group disbanded later that year. Petty went on to form the Heartbreakers, together with Campbell, Tench, Ron Blair (bass) and Stan Lynch (drums). Fast-forward 32 years to August 2007 when Petty decided to revive Mudcrutch. Apart from his Heartbreakers bandmates Campbell and Tench, the line-up featured original Mudcrutch members Leadon and Marsh. Off their first full-length eponymous studio album, released in April 2008, here’s the Petty-written The Wrong Thing to Do. The group’s second album, Mudcrutch 2 from May 2016, is the last studio material Petty recorded prior to his tragic death in October 2017.

Last but not here’s a Spotify playlist featuring the above tracks. Hope you dig it and will join me for more zigzag music journeys in 2023.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

Smokey Shines at Philly Met

Motown legend takes audience on a miraculous journey with music and memories

Shop Around by The Miracles must have been among the very first Motown songs I heard many moons ago. Motown and the infectious groove of the tunes that came out of the Detroit label started my lifelong love of soul music. When I coincidentally saw a couple of months ago that Motown legend Smokey Robinson was touring and scheduled to play the Met in Philadelphia, I immediately got tickets – yes, it totally was an impulse purchase. Saturday night, the time had finally come, and ooo, baby baby, what a miraculous show it was!

Smokey Robinson. Where do you even start? Now 82 years young, the man has enjoyed a 67-year career and counting – 67 years! It all started in 1955 when he formed the first lineup of the Five Chimes, the group that a couple of years later would become The Miracles. In August 1957, Robinson and his band met Berry Gordy Jr., who in 1959 with Robinson’s encouragement borrowed $800 from his family to create Tamla Motown and changed music history.

In September 1960, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles became Motown’s first stars with Shop Around. Credited to Robinson and Gordy, the tune topped Billboard’s R&B Chart and became a no. 2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. In the following years, Robinson continued to write hits for the group, including You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, The Tears of a Clown (a co-write with Stevie Wonder) and I Second That Emotion, to name a few.

In the mid-’60s, Robinson also became Vice President of Motown Records, serving as in-house producer, talent scout and songwriter. Apart from The Miracles, he penned and produced hits for other Motown acts, such as The Temptations, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye. Robinson also became a successful solo artist with hits like Quiet Storm (1976), Cruisin’ (1979), Being with You (1981) and Just to See Her (1987). According to his online bio, he has amassed writing credits for more than 4,000 songs.

Smokey Robinson (front, right) with The Miracles: Claudette Robison (front left), as well as (back left to right) Bobby Rogers, Marv Taplin and Ronald White

Robinson has won numerous accolades, including the Grammy Living Legend Award, NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate (Howard University), Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States. He’s also in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

While it is impossible to do Robinson’s impressive career justice with a brief summary, I’d like to mention two additional things. Bob Dylan once called him America’s “greatest living poet.” Among the bands who covered Robinson’s songs are two of the greatest of all time: The Beatles (You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me – 1963) and The Rolling Stones (Going to a Go-Go – 1982).

Smokey Robinson, Met gig shots and yours truly with the real star of the show

Let’s get to some music! Robinson’s set featured a nice mix of songs spanning five decades, including some of the big ’60s hits by The Miracles, a medley of mid-’60s Temptations tunes he co-wrote, as well as select solo tunes from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2018. He also included a rendition of Fly Me to the Moon, which he covered on his 2006 standards album Timeless Love. Not only did Robinson still hit extremely high notes with his falsetto, but the man’s physical flexibility was astonishing and frankly age-defying!

I Second That Emotion, co-written by Robinson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, first appeared as a single by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in October 1967. It was their third no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart and peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their second-highest charting single there since Shop Around in 1960, which had made it to no. 2. The tune was later also recorded by Diana Ross & the Supremes and separately by Diana Ross & the Supremes with The Temptations.

On Ooo Baby Baby, Smokey slowed it down and went very high – the ladies loved it! And, yes, yours truly was impressed as well. Ooo Baby Baby, co-written by Robinson and Pete Moore, the bass singer of The Miracles, was released as a single by The Miracles in March 1965. It reached no. 2 on the Hot R&B Singles chart and no. 16 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. The tune has been covered by numerous other artists over the years, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt.

With The Tears of a Clown, Robinson presented yet another hit billed as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, though with the distinction that it was the group’s only ’70s single in his set. Co-written by Robinson, Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder in 1967, The Tears of a Clown wasn’t released as a single until July 1970 when it first appeared in the UK. In September of the same year, it also became a U.S. single. The tune ended up topping the Hot R&B Singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts in the U.S., as well as the UK Official Singles Chart, making it the group’s biggest hit. The Tears of a Clown had first been included on the group’s August 1967 album Make It Happen.

The last two songs I’d like to highlight are both from Smokey Robinson’s solo career. Just to See Her, co-written by Jimmy George and Lou Pardini, was first recorded by Robinson and released as the lead single of his popular 1987 studio album One Heartbeat in March of that year. The tune is his last big U.S. hit to date, peaking at no. 8 and no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, respectively, and topping the Adult Contemporary chart. In the UK, it reached no. 52.

And then the time had come for the final song of the night and Smokey to take us on a cruise by car – a long cruise! Cruisin’, one of his best-known solo songs, first appeared on his studio album Where There’s Smoke…, which came out in May 1979. Penned by Robinson, the tune was also released separately as a single in August of the same year. It climbed to no. 4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, as well as no. 34 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Personally, I would have been okay with a shorter cruise and instead a couple of additional tunes, such as my beloved Shop Around. At the same time, it was heart-warming to see Smokey evidently having a ball and engaging with the audience, including two ladies he asked to come up on stage.

Following is Saturday night’s setlist:

Intro – Overture
Being With You (1981)
I Second That Emotion (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cover – 1967)
You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me (The Miracles cover – 1962)
Quiet Storm (1975)
Ooo Baby Baby (The Miracles song – 1965)
The Way You Do the Things You Do / Get Ready / My Girl (The Temptations covers – 1964, 1966 & 1964)
The Tears of a Clown (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cover – 1967)
I Love Your Face (1992)
Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words) (Kaye Ballard cover – 1954)
La Mirada (2018)
Just to See Her (1987)
The Tracks of My Tears (The Miracles cover – 1965)
Cruisin’ (1979)

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist that captures all songs of the above setlist sans La Mirada, the most recent solo tune Robinson performed, which I couldn’t find in Spotify. Robinson joked it hasn’t come out yet. By that, he meant the tune hasn’t been included on an album. It did appear digitally as a single in June 2018.

Sources: Wikipedia; Smokey Robinson website; Setlist.fm; YouTube; Spotify

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Happy Sunday and welcome to another Sunday Six where I embark on time travel into the great world of music, six tracks at a time. If you’re in the U.S., celebrated Thanksgiving and had a long weekend, hope you had a great time with family and friends with no stress while traveling or cooking. Regardless of your situation, music can work its magic on pretty much any occasion, so I invite you to join me on yet another excursion.

Lester Young & Harry Edison/Red Boy Blues

Today, our journey starts in 1955 when two American jazz musicians, saxophonist Lester Young and trumpeter Harry Edison, teamed up for an album titled Pres & Sweets. Young, nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez”, was active between 1993 and 1959. He first gained prominence with the Count Basie Orchestra, in which he played from 1933 until 1940. After the Second World War, Young joined Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic and frequently toured with the troupe for the next 12 years. Harry Edison who started playing the trumpet as a 12-year-old became a member of the Jeter-Pillars Orchestra in 1933 before joining Basie’s orchestra in 1937. That’s where he played first with Young who nicknamed him “Sweets”. In the ’50s, he also toured with the Jazz at the Philharmonic and played with other orchestras, in addition to leading his own groups. This brings me back to Pres & Sweets, and Red Boy Blues, a composition by Young. He and Edison got a little help from some formidable friends: Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass) and Buddy Rich (drums).

The Wild Feathers/The Ceiling

My recent post for Thanksgiving reminded me of The Wild Feathers, a country rock band I first came across two years ago when featuring a tune from their then-latest album Medium Rarities. The group was founded in 2010 in Nashville. Their current line-up includes founding members Ricky Young (guitar, vocals), Taylor Burns (guitar, vocals) and Joel King (bass, vocals), as well as Ben Dumas (drums). The Wild Feathers began touring frequently in 2013, sharing bills with the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and ZZ Ward. Since the release of their eponymous debut in August 2013, they have released four additional studio albums, most recently Alvarado (October 2021), which I reviewed here. The Ceiling, co-written by King, Young and Burns, is a great tune from the band’s aforementioned first album.

Stevie Wonder/Sir Duke

Next, let’s pay a visit to the ’70s with an absolute soul gem by Stevie Wonder who I trust needs no further introduction. Sir Duke, off Wonder’s 1976 masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life, is a beautiful tribute to jazz great Duke Ellington who had passed away in 1974. The lyrics also mention Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Sir Duke was Wonder’s first tribute to people he admired. In the early 1980s, he also recorded Master Blaster, dedicated to Bob Marley, and Happy Birthday, which pleaded for what would eventually become the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday in the United States. Sir Duke is one of these tunes that immediately put me in a great mood and make me move. Feel free to groove along!

Chuck Prophet/Credit

Are you ready for a stop-over in the ’90s? Ready or not, here we go with great music by Chuck Prophet. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist is a relatively recent discovery for me. Blending rock, country, blues and folk, Prophet has released 16 solo albums since 1990, according to Wikipedia. Before launching his solo career in 1990, he was a member of rough-edged Paisley Underground band Green on Red and can be heard on 10 of their albums. He also been a guest musician on more than 20 albums by other artists, such as True West, Cake, Warren Zevon and Kim Carnes. Most recently, he worked with songwriter Jenifer McKitrick for her forthcoming album Road Call scheduled for December 1. Credit, penned by English singer-songwriter Pete Shelley, co-founder of early punk band Buzzcocks, is the opener of Prophet’s 1997 solo album Homemade Blood. The more I hear of Prophet, the more I like him!

The Impressions/It’s All Right

I don’t know about you, but I’m in the mood for some more soul, and I got a true beauty that takes us back to August 1963: It’s All Right by The Impressions. Written by the amazing Curtis Mayfield, the tune first appeared on the eponymous debut album by The Impressions. The gospel, doo-wop, R&B and soul group was co-founded by Mayfield and Jerry Butler in 1958 as Jerry Butler & the Impressions, along with Sam Gooden, Arthur Brooks and his brother Richard Brooks, who all had been members of doo-wop group the Roosters. After releasing 12 additional albums with The Impressions, Mayfield left them in 1970 to launch a solo career. The group went on without Mayfield until their retirement in 2018, after a 60-year career. It’s All Right was also released as a single in October 1963 and became The Impressions’ biggest hit, topping Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides chart and climbing to no. 4 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. In my book, it’s one of the most beautiful and uplifting songs I know. The tune also shows the magic music can do. Listening to it instantly makes you feel okay.

Pat Benatar/Hit Me With Your Best Shot

Once again, we’re reaching the final destination of yet another Sunday Six. My proposition for this week is a great rocker by 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Pat Benator. I was glad to see this great lady inducted. Hit Me With Your Best Shot, penned by Canadian musician Eddie Schwartz, first appeared on Benatar’s sophomore album Crimes of Passion, released in August 1980. It also became the album’s second single in September of that year and Benatar’s first top 10 U.S. hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Of her songs I know, I think it’s my favorite. Pat Benator, now 69 years and in the 50th year of her career, is still going strong. I happened to catch her recent Rock Hall induction performance and she was still kicking butt showing the younger cats how it’s done. So was her longtime partner in crime lead guitarist Neil Giraldo who also has been her husband since 1982.

This post wouldn’t be complete without a Spotify playlist featuring all of the above tunes. Hope there’s something you dig!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book Turns 50

On October 27, 1972, Stevie Wonder released his 15th studio album Talking Book. While I missed the actual anniversary date, I did not want to skip this milestone. Not only does Talking Book represent a gem in Wonder’s long music catalog and marked the beginning of his “classic period”, but it also was an artistic turning point. This post borrows from a previous review of the album I published in May 2017.

Even though Stevie Wonder was only 22 years when he recorded Talking Book, he already had a 10-year recording career under his belt. Remarkably, he took the bold step to abandon the Motown template of radio-friendly songs that had brought him fame. As reported in this excellent NPR segment from 2000, the album proved his independence as an artist, his first real growth as a boy becoming a man…making all of the artistic decisions himself and relying less on Motown head Berry Gordy for direction.

The sound of Talking Book was largely shaped by Wonder’s keyboard work, especially his use of synthesizers. “I felt that the Moog synthesizer enabled me to reshape the oscillator, having control of the ataxias and sustained release,” Wonder explained to NPR. “I was able to really create various sounds, bass sounds and was able to bend notes the way that I heard them being bent, create different sounds of horns, string sounds and string lines and really arrange them in the way that I felt I wanted them to sound.”

A multi-instrumentalist, Wonder played most of the instruments himself, including drums, Fender Rhoades; Clavinet; Moog bass synthesizer; T.O.N.T.O., a massive multi-module synthesizer, and harmonica. Notable guest musicians included Jeff Beck (electric guitar), Buzz Feiten (electric guitar), Ray Parker Jr. (electric guitar) and David Sanborn (alto saxophone).

For the most part, the lyrics on Talking Book deal with love and heartbreak. A notable exception is Big Brother, where Wonder followed contemporary artists like Marvin GaveCurtis Mayfield and James Brown with socially conscious lyrics – an approach he would further embrace on his next studio album  Innervisions with songs like Too High and Living For the City.

Let’s get to some music with the beautiful opener of side one (speaking in vinyl terms), You Are the Sunshine of My Life. Wonder’s Fender Rhoades electric piano and the congas played by Daniel Ben Zebulon give this beautiful mid-tempo ballad a very relaxed feel. Wonder got some support on vocals from singers Jim GilstrapLani Groves and Gloria Barley. The tune became the album’s second single and Wonder’s third no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In March 1974, it also won him the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

Next up is You and I (We Can Conquer the World), another love song. In addition to singing lead vocals, Wonder played all instruments, including piano, T.O.N.T.O. synthesizer and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by multiple other artists, such as Barbra Streisand, Joe Cocker and Macy Gray. According to Songfacts, it also holds the distinction of having served as the wedding song for former U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who are both huge Stevie Wonder fans.

Side two of Talking Book starts off with what became Wonder’s second U.S. no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and a signature tune: Superstition. That said, the album’s lead single ruffled some feathers. Jeff Beck who participated in the recording sessions for Talking Book came up with the opening drum beat. Wonder improvised the guitar-like riff, playing a Hohner Clavinet. They created a rough demo of the tune with the idea that Beck would record the song for his next album. However, by the time Beck did so, Wonder had recorded the tune for Talking Book, and at the insistence of Berry Gordy who saw a hit, it had been released as a single. In addition to Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums, Moog bass), the recording featured Trevor Lawrence (tenor saxophone) and Steve Madaio (trumpet). Apparently, Beck wasn’t happy and made some comments to the press Wonder didn’t appreciate. Eventually, he released his version of  Superstition on his 1973 eponymous debut album with Beck, Bogert & Appice.

Here is the above-mentioned Big Brother. It’s another tune entirely performed by Wonder (lead vocals, Clavinet, drums/percussion, harmonica, Moog bass). An excerpt from the lyrics: …Your name is big brother/You say that you got me all in your notebook/Writing it down everyday/Your name is I’ll see ya’ (Your name is I’ll see ya’)/I’ll change if you vote me in as the Pres’/ President of your soul/I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time…

The last track I’d like to call out is I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), one of two tunes on Talking Book Wonder co-wrote with Yvonne Wright, a frequent collaborator for various of his other ’70s albums. Once again, it was solely performed by Wonder who in addition to singing lead and background vocals played piano, Clavinet, drums and Moog bass. The tune has been covered by Art Garfunkel, George Michael and British female vocal duo E’voke, among others.

Talking Book was produced by Wonder with some help from Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, with whom he had also worked on his preceding album  Music of My Mind. Following is a Spotify link to the album.

Talking Book became a major chart success, especially in the U.S. where it climbed to no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and was Wonder’s first album to top the R&B chart. Elsewhere, it reached no. 12 in Canada, no. 16 in the UK, no. 24 in Norway and no. 34 in Australia. The record was also well-received by critics. In a review at the time, Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti called it, “an exceptional, exciting album, the work of a now quite matured genius and, with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Sly’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (an answer album?) and Wonder’s own Music of My Mind, one of the most impressive recent records from a black popular performer.” AllMusic’s John Bush characterized the album as “a laser beam of tight songwriting, warm electronic arrangements, and ebullient performances.”

In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Talking Book at no. 90 in its list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the most recent 2020 revision, it moved up to no. 59. The album was also voted no. 322 in the third edition of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums, published in 2000.

Sources: Wikipedia; NPR; Songfacts; Rolling Stone, AllMusic; YouTube; Spotify

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Wet Wet Wet

It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time again to pick a song to take on an imaginary trip to a desert island. If you’re a frequent flyer on this blog, chances are you’ve seen previous installments of this recurring feature. For first-time travelers, the idea is to pick one tune only, not an album, I would take to an island in the sun. There are a few additional rules to guide my selections.

The song must be by an artist or band I’ve only rarely covered or not written about at all. Selections are in alphabetical order, meaning the band’s or artist’s name (last name) must start with a specific letter. This week, I’m up to “w.”

Options that came to mind include The Wallflowers, The Walker Brothers, The Waterboys, Weather Report, The White Stripes, The Who, Steve Winwood, Stevie Wonder and World Party, among others. And my pick is Wet Wet Wet and the Scottish soft rock band’s cover of Love Is All Around.

Love Is All Around was written by Reg Presley, lead vocalist of The Troggs. It also was the British garage rock band, who first released the song as a single in October 1967, giving them a no. 5 hit on the British charts. Fast-forward 27 years to May 1994, when Wet Wet Wet released their rendition of the song and took it to no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart, a position it held for 15 consecutive weeks. The tune was part of the soundtrack of the popular 1994 British romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Wet Wet Wet were formed in 1982 as Vortex Motion at a local high school in Clydebank, Scotland. The original line-up of the group, which initially mostly played covers of The Clash and Magazine, featured Mark McLachlan (vocals), Lindsey McCauley (guitar), Neil Mitchell (keyboards), Graeme Clark (bass) and Tommy Cunningham (drums). By the time Graeme Duffin replaced McCauley as guitarist in 1983, the band had already changed their name to Wet Wet Wet.

In March 1987, their debut single Wishing I Was Lucky came out, reaching an impressive no. 6 on the British Singles Chart. The tune was also included on Wet Wet Wet’s debut album Popped In Souled Out released in September of the same year. Three additional studio albums followed before the group started to unravel in 1997.

Wet Wet Wet reformed in 2004 and recorded Timeless, their sixth studio album that appeared in November 2007. Fourteen years later, in November 2021, the group’s seventh and most recent album The Journey was released. Earlier this year, Cunningham and keyboarder Niel Mitchell departed, leaving the band with Clark and lead vocalist Kevin Simm as their only current members.

Following is some additional background on Love Is All Around from Songfacts:

Troggs lead singer Reg Presley wrote this in about 10 minutes. He was inspired by the Joy Strings Salvation Army band he’d seen on TV. The song is a gentle folk ballad and a far cry from The Troggs previous hit “Wild Thing.”…

…The UK record for longest stay at #1 is held by Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You).” Wet Wet Wet’s record company tried to tie this record by announcing they were pulling the single after 16 weeks, hoping people would rush out to buy it. The plan failed and Whigfield knocked them out of #1 with “Saturday Night.” Wet Wet Wet claimed they asked their record company to pull the song because they were sick of it. Their version does hold the record for most weeks at #1 for a UK based act. In the US it reached #41.

When this was revived by Wet Wet Wet, Reg Presley got massive royalties as the songwriter. He denoted the proceeds to crop circle research.

R.E.M. did a cover of this as well, which they played on an episode of MTV Unplugged. The video for this can be found on their VHS/DVD This Film Is On, featuring all the videos for the songs off their 1991 album Out Of Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Reelin’ In The Years At PNC Bank Arts Center

Steely Dan treat New Jersey audience with great show in Donald Fagen’s home state

Last night, I saw Steely Dan at PNC Bank Arts Center, a great midsize amphitheater-style outdoor venue in Holmdel, N.J. My fourth and last concert in June was dynamite, ending a busy month of live music on a high note.

Should I have been surprised that Donald Fagen and his band once again put on a stellar performance? After all, the two previous times I had seen them were both fantastic.

PNC Bank Arts Center is a 7,000-seat venue with an additional grass area capacity to accommodate about 10,500 people

The songs Fagen wrote with his longtime partner Walter Becker remain compelling. Since Becker’s untimely death in 2017, Fagen also successfully continued what had been a key ingredient to the Dan’s sound: Surround himself with top-notch musicians. And, boy, what a killer backing band he had last night!

But even with all of the above, I think one should never take a music artist for granted. And, let’s face it: At age 74, Fagen isn’t exactly any longer, hey, nineteen! I also still remember reading accounts leading up to the two previous times I saw Fagen & co. in 2018, which were less than favorable, criticizing Fagen’s singing, among others. But just like four years ago, he did it again, proving any such concerns to be unfounded!

Steely Dan in action: Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards, melodica), Jon Herington (lead guitar & musical director), Adam Rogers (guitar), Jim Beard (keyboards), Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg (saxophones), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), “Ready” Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums) & The Danettes: Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonart and La Tanya Hall (backing vocals)

Before I get to Steely Dan, I’d like to acknowledge opening act Dave Stryker Trio. Until I learned and read about Dave Stryker, I had not heard of this great American jazz guitarist who has been active since the ’80s. Quoting his online bio, Whether you’ve heard guitarist Dave Stryker leading his own group (with 34 CD’s as a leader to date),  or as a featured sideman with Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff, and many others, you know why the Village Voice calls him “one of the most distinctive guitarists to come along in recent years.”

Last evening, Stryker (electric guitar) was joined by Jared Gold, who I thought was terrific on the Hammond, as well as McClenty Hunter, a fine jazz drummer. They played neat jazz instrumental jam versions of songs by artists like Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and The Temptations.

The Hammond reminded me of the man who originally was supposed to join Steely Dan on their Earth After Hours Tour, Steve Winwood. I’m not gonna lie, seeing Winwood for the third time would have been the ultimate thrill. A short February 1 announcement on Winwood’s website cited “unforeseen circumstances” for the change in plans. Back to Dave Stryker. Here’s a cool clip of Papa Was a Rolling Stone from a 2019 performance at jazz radio station WBGO 88.3 fm – groovy with no static at all!

Okay, after seven paragraphs into this review, you may start to wonder when am I finally getting to some Steely Dan music? Alrighty then! Let’s shake it! First up is Night by Night, a tune from Steely Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic released in February 1974 – the last that featured the band’s original quintet lineup of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Unfortunately, it appears the dreadful pandemic has made audiences pretty restless. I don’t recall people getting up during shows pre-COVID as frequently as I’ve experienced it during all of my four concerts in June. Frankly, I find it pretty dreadful!

I think it’s safe to say many Steely Dan fans consider Aja to be Messrs. Fagen’s and Becker’s Mount Rushmore. It certainly remains my favorite Dan album. Let’s hear it for the title track. According to Songfacts, Fagen told Rolling Stone magazine that the title came from a high school friend whose brother was in the army and came back with a Korean wife named Aja, although he wasn’t sure how she spelled it.

For this next tune, let’s go to Gaucho, the seventh and final Steely Dan album from November 1980 before Fagen and Becker split and went on a 12-year hiatus. Becker moved to Maui, managed to overcome his longtime drug abuse, and did some occasional production work, most notably for British pop group China Crisis. Meanwhile, Fagen launched a solo career that among others yielded The Nightfly, his solo debut gem from October 1982. Back to Gaucho with Babylon Sisters with another fun tidbit from Songfacts, probably less fun for those involved: Donald Fagen made seemingly endless tweaks to this song, creating one mix after another. Someone in the studio must have been keeping count, because when he hit 250 mixes, the crew gave him a “platinum” disk they created just for him. Fagen kept going, and it was mix number 274 that finally won his approval. He took that mix home to New York, but heard a note in the bass line he didn’t like, so he returned to Los Angeles a week later and reconvened the team to fix it. You gotta shake it, baby, you gotta shake it!

I guess our memories of school can be good and not so good. Clearly, this next tune falls into the latter category. Songfacts notes My Old School, the final track of last night’s main set, is at least partially inspired by an event that occurred at Bard [Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. where Fagen and Becker met in 1967 – CMM], where both Becker and Fagen, along with their girlfriends, were arrested in a pot raid on a party that was orchestrated by an ambitious young District Attorney named G. Gordon Liddy (hence the line “Tried to warn ya about Geno and Daddy G”). Despite the fact that California has not (yet) tumbled into the sea, both Fagen and Becker have returned to Bard.

The last tune I’d like to call out, from the encore, is a song that reportedly was one of the Dan’s least favorite. Again citing Songfacts: In Rolling Stone, September 17, 2009, Donald Fagan said, “It’s dumb but effective.” Walter Becker added, “It’s no fun.” Well, Reelin’ in the Years may not have a million chord changes and breaks, but in my humble opinion, this tune, off Steely Dan’s November 1972 debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, is a terrific rocker with a dynamite guitar solo. I wonder how Fagen feels about the song these days. It surely still looks effective!

What else is there to say. Donald Fagen clearly seemed to be energized last night, saying at one point, ‘what a night!’ – and he wasn’t referring to the one in late December back in sixty-three. Playing in his home state of New Jersey, as he called the garden state at the end of the show, appeared to be a thrill. Who, knows, it may even have influenced Fagen’s decision to replace Green Earrings and Any Major Dude Will Tell You with Josie and Black Cow, respectively – two additional tracks from the above-mentioned beloved Aja album. The only thing that could have topped the set would have been Deacon Blues, my all-time favorite Dan tune. But, hey, nineteen, stop complaining! 🙂

I already briefly mentioned the exceptional band that backs Fagen on the tour. These amazing musicians, some of whom have played with Steely Dan for many years, deserve to be called out: Jon Herington (lead guitar & musical director), Adam Rogers (guitar), Jim Beard (keyboards), Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg (saxophones), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), “Ready” Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums) & The Danettes: Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonart and La Tanya Hall (backing vocals).

Here’s the setlist:
Phantom Raiders (Stanley Wilson cover)
Night by Night
Hey Nineteen
Black Friday
Aja
Kid Charlemagne
Home at Last
Green Flower Street (Donald Fagen song)
Time Out of Mind
Babylon Sisters
• Josie
• Black Cow
Dirty Work
Bodhisattva
Keep That Same Old Feeling (The Crusaders cover)
Peg
My Old School

Encore:
Reelin’ in the Years
A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry (Joe Williams cover)

The Earth After Hours Tour still is in full swing. Tomorrow night, the Dan are scheduled to play Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass., before moving on to Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Bethel, N.Y. (July 3) and First Bank Amphitheater, Franklin, Tenn. (July 13). The full tour schedule is here. If you’re a fan of the Dan and still can get a ticket you can afford, I can highly recommend the show!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Dave Stryker website; Steve Winwood website; Steely Dan website; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Suzi Quatro

Happy Wednesday with another decision which one tune to take on an imaginary trip to a desert island.

In case you’re new to this weekly recurring feature, the idea is to pick one song by an artist or band I’ve only rarely mentioned or not covered at all on my blog to date. This excludes many popular options like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Carole King and Bonnie Raitt, to name some of my longtime favorite artists. I’m also doing this exercise in alphabetical order, and I’m up to the letter “q”.

How many bands or artists do you know whose names/last names start with “q”? The ones that came to my mind included Quarterflash, Queen and Quiet Riot. And, of course, my pick, Can the Can by Suzi Quatro. Yes, perhaps it’s not the type of song that would be your first, second or even third pick to take on a desert island, but it’s a great kickass rock tune anyway!

Can the Can, penned by songwriters and producers Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, was Quatro’s second solo single and her first to chart. And it was a smash, topping the charts in the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Australia. It also climbed to no. 2 in Austria and no. 5 in Ireland. In Quatro’s home country the U.S., the tune fared more moderately, reaching no. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. American music listeners just weren’t as much into glam rock as audiences in other parts of the world, especially in Europe. Can the Can was also included on Quatro’s eponymous debut album, released in October 1973.

Here’s a bit of additional background on Suzie Quatro from her bio on AllMusic: With her trademark leather jump suit, instantly hooky songs, and big bass guitar, Suzi Quatro is a glam rock icon with a window-rattling voice and rock & roll attitude to spare. After getting her start in garage and hard rock bands, 1973’s breakthrough single “Can the Can,” a stomping blast of glam rock that combined ’50s-style song craft with Quatro’s powerful vocals, made her an international star. She followed up with a string of similar-sounding singles and albums — and made an impression on TV viewers with her role on the hit sitcom Happy Days — before softening her sound and scoring a hit with the 1978 ballad “Stumblin’ In.” While her work in the future would encompass everything from new wave pop on 1983’s Main Attraction to starring in a musical based on the life of Tallulah Bankhead in 1991, Quatro never lost her instincts as a rocker, as evidenced by albums like 2006’s Back to the Drive and 2021’s The Devil in Me.

When I heard Can the Can for the first time in the mid-’70s, it was not by Suzi Quatro but by German vocalist Joy Fleming. While I don’t know much about Fleming except for a 1974 live album titled Joy Fleming Live, I know one thing. She was a hell of a vocalist! Check this out!

Here are a few additional tidbits on Can the Can and Suzie Quatro from Songfacts:

…Quatro is an American who joined Mickie Most’s RAK label roster, becoming part of the glam rock revolution. Most produced her first single, “Rolling Stone,” but it went nowhere, so he asked songwriters Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman to write and produce her next single. The result was “Can The Can.”

When asked what “Can The Can” means, Nicky Chinn replied: “It means something that is pretty impossible, you can’t get one can inside another if they are the same size, so we’re saying you can’t put your man in the can if he is out there and not willing to commit. The phrase sounded good and we didn’t mind if the public didn’t get the meaning of it.”

Suzi Quatro: “I can hear a record for the first time and know whether it will be a hit. And I knew as soon as we had finished recording that we had a big hit on our hands.” (above quotes from 1000 UK #1 Hits by Jon Kutner and Spencer Leigh)

This was the first #1 UK hit for a solo female artist since “Those Were The Days” by Mary Hopkin in 1968.

Quatro never hit it big in her native America, although she did have a memorable role on the TV series Happy Days playing Leather Tuscadero. She landed several more UK hits, including the #1 “Devil Gate Drive,” and influenced a generation of female rockers, notably Joan Jett.

Quatro wrote many of her own songs, but they tended to be album cuts, with the Chapman/Chinn team getting the singles. In a Songfacts interview with Quatro, she explained: “I was very boogie-based, very bass-based. And they went away and wrote ‘Can the Can.’ We had the arrangement where I could write the albums, and they would write the three-minute single – although I did have singles out myself, like ‘Mama’s Boy.’ I didn’t learn anything from their songwriting, because I always had my own thing. Whatever I did, I did.”

Suzi Quatro, who turned 72 a few weeks ago, continues to rock on. And tour. Her current schedule is here. Here’s Can the Can captured at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April this year. What a cool lady!

Sources: Wikipedia; Suzi Quatro website; YouTube

Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue

The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood  “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.

To start with, Ella FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo.  Countless other major artists, such as Miles DavisAretha FranklinB.B. King  and Bob Marley, have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.

The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers  Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.

After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate  The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.

The theater reopened under new management in 1978, before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo  Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.

Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.

Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.

Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo  is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.”

In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th-anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.

The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s  annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Merry Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville  (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.

Today, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.

– End –

Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.

Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six – man, it’s hot this weekend in my neck of the woods (central New Jersey). In case you’re also experiencing sweltering temperatures I hope you stay cool! Are you ready for some hot music? 🙂

Melody Gardot & Philippe Powell/This Foolish Heart Could Love You

If you’re a more frequent traveler on The Sunday Six, by now, you’re probably not surprised I’m starting today’s journey with another relaxing jazz tune. But there are two differences: My pick has vocals and it’s brand new. American jazz vocalist Melody Gardot released her debut album Worrisome Heart in 2006. Her difficult recovery from brain injuries sustained during a 2003 bicycle accident played a significant part in her personal life and music journey. You can learn more about Gardot’s incredible story on her Wikipedia page. Philippe Powell (full name: Philippe Baden Powell) is a French-born pianist and composer, and the son of Baden Powell de Aquino, a prominent Brazilian jazz and bossa nova guitarist who professionally was known as Baden Powell. According to this online bio, Philippe Powell started his professional recording career in 1995. This Foolish Heart Could Love You, co-written by Gardot and Powell, is the beautiful opener of their great collaboration album Entre eux deux, which came out on May 20. So soothing!

The Alarm/Sold Me Down the River

Ready for some time travel? Let’s first jump to the late ’80s with a cool rocker by The Alarm. Shout-out to Max from PowerPop blog who featured another song by the Welsh rock band on Friday, which brought them on my radar screen! After I had found and listened to 68 Guns in the “Top Songs” list of my streaming music provider, Sold Me Down the River came on. Well, I guess you could say that tune completely sold me on the group. I love when stuff like that happens! The Alarm were initially formed in Rhyl, Wales, in 1981, emerging from a punk band with the lovely name The Toilets. During their original 10-year run as The Alarm, they released five studio albums. After the surprise departure of co-founder and lead vocalist Mike Peters in 1991, the group broke up. In the late 90s, Peters relaunched a new version of the group titled The Alarm MM++. They have released 14 albums and remain active to this day. Sold Me Down the River, co-written by Peters and original Alarm bassist Eddie Macdonald, is included on their fourth studio album Change that appeared in September 1989. That guitar riff just makes me smile. Yes, you can’t deny it’s an ’80s production, but it’s still great!

Foo Fighters/This Is a Call

I guess I wasn’t kidding when I told Dave from A Sound Day on Friday night about my need to take a closer look at Foo Fighters after he had posted about their 1997 sophomore album The Colour and the Shape. By now, some of you may be thinking, ‘okay, is this a post of borrowed ideas from other bloggers?’ A key reason I enjoy blogging is interacting with fellow bloggers and, yes, getting inspired! Even after having listened to music for more than 40 years, I can say without any doubt my awareness/knowledge today wouldn’t be the same without great fellow bloggers I’m following, and I can’t thank them enough! Anyhoo, getting back to the Foos who started in 1994 in Seattle as a music project of former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, an artist I’ve come to immensely respect. During their 27-year-and-counting recording career, they have released 10 studio albums, most recently Medicine at Midnight from February 2021. This Is a Call, a great grungy power-pop tune written by Grohl, takes us back to Foo Fighters’ project stage. Grohl played all instruments and did all vocals with two small exceptions. Starting with their above-mentioned sophomore release, Foo albums became band efforts.

Donald Fagen/Mary Shut the Garden Door

After two rock-oriented tunes, let’s take it back down a few notches for this next stop on our little journey. Like most great longtime music writing partnerships, Steely Dan masterminds Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were best when working together and off each other. But they also recorded some decent music as solo artists. A case in point is Mary Shut the Garden Door, a track off Donald Fagen’s third solo album Morph the Cat, released in March 2006. Paranoia blooms when a thuggish cult gains control of the government, explain the song’s liner notes, cited by a New York Times story published 10 days ahead of the album’s release. “I’m afraid of religious people in general,” Fagen told the Times, “any adult who believes in magic.”Morph the Cat was influenced by the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 and the gruesome death of Fagen’s mother from Alzheimer’s in January 2003. The article also observed the album’s dark lyrics contrast Steely Dan songs, which usually take a dark humor or indifferent stance on doom and gloom. That may be the case, but if you had told me Mary Shut the Garden Door was a Steely Dan song from the vault, I would have bought it. In addition to Fagen’s distinct voice, it’s got this smooth jazzy Dan sound and cool groove, all coming together in a high-quality production. At first, I thought Fagen’s melodica part was a harmonica and kept picturing Stevie Wonder playing this. I’m hoping to do it again and see Mr. Fagen’s Steely Dan in late June – knock on wood!

Chicken Shack/The Way It Is

A Sunday Six without at least one ’60s track is pretty much unthinkable. The next song doesn’t only meet this criterion but also represents one of my favorite music genres. British blues band Chicken Shack were formed in 1965 by Stan Webb (guitar, vocals), Andy Sylvester (bass) and Alan Morley (drums). The group’s biggest commercial success coincided with the 1968-1969 tenure of vocalist and keyboarder Christine Perfect. After her unsuccessful eponymous solo debut album, she joined Fleetwood Mac in 1970 as Christine McVie. Since 1968, she had been married to Mac bassist John McVie. The Way It Is, penned by Webb, is from Chicken Shack’s third studio album 100 Ton Chicken, released in November 1969. By that time, Perfect/McVie had been replaced by Paul Raymond (keyboards, vocals). I dig both the tune and the record, but neither gained any chart traction. In 1971, Raymond, Sylvester and then-Chicken Shack drummer Dave Bidwell left to join fellow English blues-rock band Savoy Brown. Webb ended up with them in 1974 as well and can be heard on their studio album Boogie Brothers, released that same year. Webb subsequently revived Chicken Shack and has since performed under that name with rotating members.

The Police/Peanuts

All things must pass, and once again it’s time to wrap up another zig-zag journey to the amazing world of music. Our final stop takes us to November 1978 and Outlandos d’Amour by The Police. It was the first of five excellent albums the British group released during their official run from 1997 to 1986. In reality, their active period ended in March 1984 after the end of their Synchronicity tour. By that time, Sting had already decided to go it alone and immediately started work on his solo debut The Dream of the Blue Turtles while the band was officially on hiatus. Turtles appeared in June 1985 and became a huge success. An attempt by the band to record a new album in July 1986 quickly came to an end after Stewart Copeland broke his collarbone in a fall from a horse and wasn’t able to play the drums. The Police officially disbanded shortly thereafter. I dig the raw sound of Outlandos d’Amour and deliberately avoided picking any of its three hit singles Roxanne, Can’t Stand Losing You and So Lonely – not because I can’t stand them, but I feel we’ve heard each of these tunes many times. Instead, I’m offering Peanuts – nope, it’s not a joke, that’s the title of the song, which Sting and Copeland wrote together. “I was thinking about a former musical hero who had dwindled to a mere celebrity, and I was more than willing to pass judgment on his extracurricular activities in the tabloids, never thinking for a moment that I would suffer the same distorted perceptions at their hands a few years later,” Sting said according to Songfacts.

This post wouldn’t be complete with a Spotify playlist featuring the above tunes. Hope there’s something you like. I couldn’t stand losing you!

Sources: Wikipedia; Far Out Recordings website; New York Times website; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify