Bee Gees – Part 3: Change in Musical Direction and Singing Style

“They [Atlantic Records] were about to drop us. We had to adopt a new sound. We had to adopt a new attitude.” (Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

At the beginning of 1975, the Bee Gees relocated to Miami. Interestingly, the man who encouraged the move thinking it would help them creatively was none other than Eric Clapton. Not only did Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb and Robin Gibb follow his advice, the entire band lived in the very same house where Clapton had stayed while recording his second solo album 461 Ocean Boulevard.

BeeGeesLove_4649 on Twitter: "The #BrothersGibb with producer Arif Mardin.  #BeeGees #BarryGibb #MauriceGibb #RobinGibb #family #siblings #brothers  #musicians #singers #songwriters #composers #artists #legends #tbt…  https://t.co/DTl1WnKLbH"
The Bee Gees with Arif Marden (from left): Barry Gibb, Maurice Gibb, Arif Marden and Robin Gibb

The Bee Gees worked with Atlantic producer Arif Marden, who had also produced their previous album Mr. Natural, and engineer Karl Richardson at Criteria Studios in Miami. Initially, the Gibb brothers started writing songs in their old, more ballad-oriented way. When their manager Robert Stigwood heard the tunes, he urged them to adopt more of an R&B style. With Marden, who had worked with Aretha Franklin and other R&B artists, they had the right producer.

The result was Main Course, the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album released in June 1975. In addition to listening to contemporary R&B artists like Stevie Wonder, Marden had encouraged the use of synthesizers and dual bass lines to create a more technological sound. When they were working on Nights on Broadway, Marden also suggested to the band to add some background parts to the song like a screaming. This is when Barry came up with repeating lines of the tune sung in falsetto. The singing of the Bee Gees would be changed forever.

Nights on Broadway and Jive Talkin‘ catapulted the Bee Gees back to the top of the charts, especially in the U.S. where the tunes hit no. 1 and no. 7, respectively, and Canada (no. 1 and no. 2, respectively).

“The way they changed and the groove they got into there was so profound. If that was something that was initiated by me, I can’t think of any… that’s one of the great things I’ve done in my life. I’ll take full credit!” (Eric Clapton, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart)

The group’s next album Children of the World was characterized by Barry’s falsetto and synthesizer sounds. And it brought more chart success. You Should be Dancing became another no. 1 single in the U.S. and Canada. Children of the World also did very well on both countries’ albums charts, peaking at no. 8 and no. 3, respectively. By contrast, the reception was cool in the UK where the album failed to chart.

The Bee Gees were on the up. They went to even bigger heights with their next project: their involvement in the creation of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The Gibb brothers wrote five new songs for it that all became hits: Stayin’ Alive, How Deep Is Your Love, Night Fever, More Than a Woman and If I Can’t Have You. The soundtrack also included their previously released tunes Jive Talkin’ and You Should Be Dancing.

With 40 million copies sold worldwide, Saturday Night Fever is one of the best-selling albums in history and the second-best selling soundtrack of all time. The album is also credited with prolonging the mainstream appeal of disco. Notably, the Bee Gees never saw themselves as a disco band, even though critics, media and other artists called them “Kings of Disco.” While there’s no doubt Bee Gees tunes from that period included elements of disco and were very danceable, they also were strongly influenced by R&B. Here’s the excellent Night Fever – love that smooth funky sound.

After Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees were on top of the world. So perhaps it’s not a surprise their next studio album Spirits Having Flown became another major success producing more no. 1 singles. Here’s one of them ironically titled what was ahead when disco not only lost its luster but led to outright hostility: Tragedy.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart – documentary directed by Frank Marshall; 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

Dylan by Others

A playlist of great Bob Dylan covers

The idea of putting together a playlist of great Bob Dylan covers came when I listened to Them and their fantastic version of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. I have to give credit where credit is due. The impetus to revisit the Northern Irish garage rockers who launched the musical career of Van Morrison came from Max at PowerPop and his post about Them tune Mighty Like a Rose.

With so many artists having covered Dylan tunes, finding examples was very easy. The hard part was to limit the list to ten tracks, even though I deliberately focused on his ’60s albums for all but one track. I just couldn’t help it – Dylan’s early phase is the one I know and like the best!

Stevie Wonder/Blowin’ in the Wind

Kicking off this playlist is the great Stevie Wonder who included Blowin’ in the Wind on his studio album Up-Tight released in May 1966. His cover also came out separately as a single, yielding a No. 9 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Originally, Dylan recorded the track for his second studio album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan from May 1963. I love how Wonder took a folk song and turned it into a beautiful soul tune.

Leon Russell/It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

When Leon Russell covers a tune, you just know you gonna get something great. It’s a Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall was included on his sophomore solo album Leon Russell and the Shelter People that came out in May 1971. The tune is another track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

Tracy Chapman/The Times They Are a-Changin’

Tracy Chapman’s version of the title track from Dylan’s third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ is one of my favorite renditions in this playlist. This is from a special concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden that took place on October 16, 1992 to celebrate Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist. It was captured on a live double album appropriately titled The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration and released in August 1993. Dylan’s original recording first appeared in January 1964.

Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash/It Ain’t Me, Babe

I simply couldn’t leave out The Man in Black from this collection. Here’s Johnny Cash’s version of It Ain’t Me, Babe featuring June Carter Cash. It was included on The Essential Johnny Cash, a compilation that appeared in February 2002 to commemorate Cash’s 70th birthday. The original was part of Another Side of Bob Dylan, his fourth studio album from August 1964.

The Byrds/Mr. Tambourine Man

Not many other things get me as excited as the beautiful jingle-jangle sound of a Rickenbacker electric guitar. I also couldn’t think of anyone better in this context than Roger McGuinn and The Byrds who covered various Dylan tunes. My favorite remains Mr. Tambourine Man, their first single released in April 1965. The tune also was the title track of their debut album that came out in June of the same year. Dylan’s original was included on Bringing It All Back Home, his fifth studio album from March 1965.

Them/It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

Now on to the tune that trigged the idea for the entire list. Them’s rendition of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue has to be one of the best Dylan covers of all time. They included it on their second album Them Again from January 1966, the last to feature Van Morrison who subsequently launched a solo career and remains active to this day. Dylan’s original is another track from Bringing It All Back Home.

Mick Ronson & David Bowie/Like a Rolling Stone

Until today, I had never heard of this version of Like a Rolling Stone, which appeared on Mick Ronson’s final solo album Heaven and Hull from May 1994. For this tune, the ex-Spiders From Mars guitarist teamed up with the former band’s frontman David Bowie. What a cool rendition! Dylan first recorded the track for Highway 61 Revisited released in August 1965. The maestro’s sixth studio album remains my favorite.

Joe Cocker/Just Like a Woman

A covers playlist definitely has to feature who perhaps is the ultimate master of the cover: Joe Cocker. His take of Just Like a Woman was included on his debut With a Little Help From My from My Friends released in May 1969. That album’s title track may well be the ultimate rock cover. As for Dylan, he first recorded the tune for his seventh studio album Blonde on Blonde from June 1966.

Jimi Hendrix/All Along the Watchtower

This next tune was another must to feature. Jimi Hendrix’s version of All Along the Watchtower, which appeared on Electric Ladyland, the third and final studio album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, just is absolutely killer! No disrespect to Bob Dylan, who after all penned the song, but after listening to Hendrix, one could be forgiven to forget about the original. Admittedly, I had known this cover for many years before I first heard Dylan’s rendition, which he included on his eighth studio album John Wesley Harding released in December 1967.

Indigo Girls/Tangled Up in Blue

I’d like to wrap things up with a beautiful cover of one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, Tangled Up in Blue. It first appeared on his 15th studio album Blood on the Tracks from January 1975. In October 1995, Atlanta folk rock duo Indigo Girls released a live album titled 1200 Curfews, which features this incredible eight-minute version of the Dylan gem.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

Since the sudden death of my beloved mother-in-law Carmen Anaya Acevedo last week, I essentially took a break from blogging, including Best of What’s New. It just didn’t feel right. Meanwhile, new music didn’t pause, which is good news. This week’s installment could have easily been longer, but I’d like to keep these posts to four to six songs.

I’m particularly excited about new music by Stevie Wonder, one of my favorite artists, who last July announced he needed a kidney transplant. The surgery happened in December, and apparently Wonder, who turned 70 in May, is doing well. There’s also new music by Tom Petty, Americana rockers Cordovas, as well as three additional artists including a German alternative rock band. Let’s get to it!

Tom Petty/Leave Virginia Alone

Leave Virginia Alone is a tune from Wildflowers & All the Rest, the substantially enhanced reissue of Tom Petty’s second solo album, which came out on October 16. Written in 1995, the song was first recorded by Rod Stewart for his 17th studio album A Spanner in the Works from May that year. While Stewart’s version, which I hadn’t heard before until now, isn’t bad, I much prefer Petty’s take. The track also appeared separately as a single on October 1. I really miss Tom Petty, and it’s great to hear his voice.

Cordovas/Destiny

Cordovas are an Americana rock band from Memphis, Tenn. formed in 2011. The members are vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Joe Firstman, Sevans Henderson (keyboards), Lucca Soria (guitar, vocals) and Toby Weaver, another vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. Destiny is a track and the lead single of the band’s new album Destiny Hotel released on October 16. According to the band’s website, the album expands on the harmony-soaked roots rock of Cordovas’ ATO Records debut That Santa Fe Channel, a 2018 release that earned abundant praise from outlets like Rolling Stone and NPR Music. I covered it here at the time.

Stevie Wonder/Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate (feat. Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes)

Can’t Put It in the Hands of Fate is one of two new tunes Stevie Wonder released on October 13, coinciding with the 36th birthday of his oldest son Mumtaz Morris. He is joined by hip hop artists Rapsody, Cordae, Chika & Busta Rhymes, which definitely makes this a song that’s outside my core wheelhouse. But I actually love it! Lyrically, it’s almost a present day version of You Haven’t Done Nothin’ or Living For the City, both tunes Wonder recorded in the ’70s. “In these times, we are hearing the most poignant wake-up calls and cries for this nation and the world to, please, heed our need for love, peace and unity,” he stated, as reported by Jambase. According to Billboard, Wonder will also release a new full-length album to be titled Through the Eyes Of Wonder. His last such album A Time to Love dates back to September 2005.

Jeremy Ivey/Hands Down in Your Pocket

Jeremy Ivey is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. According to Apple Music, he established himself in the early 2010s as a member of the country-soul band Buffalo Clover alongside his wife, singer/songwriter Margo Price. When Price’s career took off in 2016, Ivey served as her guitarist and sideman before signing a deal with Anti- and launching a solo career of his own with 2019’s The Dream and the Dreamer. Hands Down in Your Pocket is a tune from Ivey’s sophomore solo album Waiting Out the Storm, which was produced by Price and came out on October 9. “I think that having the opportunity to put out my own records, I’ve got a lot of pent-up inspiration,” Ivey told Apple Music. “Because there are just certain freedoms that I can take when I’m singing the song that I can’t take when I’m writing it for someone else to sing.”

Yola/Hold On (feat. Sheryl Crow, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby & Jason Isbell)

Yola, born Yolanda Quartey, is an English singer-songwriter from Bristol, England. She was the lead vocalist of English country and soul band Phantom Limb and recorded two albums with them in 2008 and 2012. In February 2016, she released her solo EP Orphan Offering. A full-length debut album Walk Through Fire followed in February 2019. Yola has also sung backing vocals for numerous artists, including Massive Attack, The Chemical Brothers and Iggy Azalea. In addition, she was a guest on the 2019 eponymous debut album by country super group The Highwomen, together with Sheryl Crow. Yola’s latest single Hold On, released October 9, features Crow on piano, Jason Isbell on guitar, as well as The Highwomen’s Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby on backing vocals. As reported by Pitchfork, a portion of the tune’s proceeds will benefit MusiCares and the National Bailout Collective.

Die Happy/Story of Our Life (feat. Daniel Wirtz)

I’d like to wrap up this post with new music by alternative rock band Die Happy, formed by Czech singer Marta Jandová and guitarist Thorsten Mewes in 1993 in Ulm, Germany. The current line-up also includes Ralph Rieker (bass) and Jürgen Stiehle (drums). Die Happy’s debut album Better Than Nothing appeared in 1994. They have since released 13 additional albums including their most recent Guess What from April this year. Story of Our Life featuring Daniel Wirtz, a German rock singer-songwriter, is on the bonus version of the album and was released as a single on September 18.

Sources: Wikipedia; Cordovas website; Jambase; Billboard; Apple Music; Pitchfork; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Paul McCartney/Tug of War

As a huge fan of The Beatles and Paul McCartney, I was really excited when Tug of War was released in April 1982. Catching Take It Away on the radio yesterday prompted me to revisit McCartney’s third solo album, which I had not listened to for many years. It turned out I still dig it, though not for the primary reason that initially attracted me back then: Ebony and Ivory, a smash hit in Germany, as well as many other countries.

While McCartney’s duet with Stevie Wonder isn’t a bad tune, I think it’s fair to say both artists have written better songs. One also must remember the ’80s were a time period when high profile duets were very much en vogue. I still like the ballad’s message, as well as the idea to use the black and white keys on a keyboard as a metaphor for perfect harmony – sadly a state of affairs that nowadays seems to be more elusive than ever.

No matter how you feel about it, Ebony and Ivory was the big hit single from Tug of War, which came out about a month prior to the album. I have to say I wasn’t particular impressed with McCartney II and that record’s hit single Coming Up, even though both had impressive chart success as well. I thought Tug of War was a far superior album. I think I still do but like to caveat the statement by adding that I haven’t listened to McCartney II in a long time.

Tug of War was McCartney’s first album after the breakup of Wings. It also was his first record following the murder of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, which not only impacted the record’s timing but also its content. Initially, McCartney’s plan was to make another album with Wings, but then things changed.

While apparently he had grown weary about continuing his band, McCartney started rehearsing songs with them in October 1980. He brought in George Martin as producer, but they both felt McCartney’s latest compositions weren’t a good fit for Wings and decided to pursue a record without the band.

The project was paused for two months after Lennon had been killed. In February 1981, work on the album resumed. Between February 3rd and March 2nd, recording sessions took place in the Caribbean at AIR Studios in Montserrat, which included Wonder, bassist Stanley Clarke, Carl Perkins and Ringo Starr.

During Tug of War recording sessions at AIR Studios in Montserrat: Paul McCartney with Ringo Starr and I believe Eric Stewart.

Additional sessions at Martin’s AIR Studios in London followed over the summer. They also yielded songs McCartney would use for Pipes of Peace, the follow on to Tug of War from October 1983. Apparently, McCartney and Martin weren’t in a huge hurry and used the remainder of 1981 to put the finishing touches on the record. Time for some music!

I’d like to kick things off with the above noted Take It Away. Like all other tracks on the album except for one tune, it was written by McCartney. In June 1982, Take It Away also was released separately as Tug of War’s second single. While it charted in many countries, including the UK and the U.S. where it climbed to no. 15 and 10, respectively, the power pop tune didn’t match the success of Ebony and Ivory. It features Ringo Starr on drums, George Martin on piano and 10cc’s Eric Stewart on backing vocals. Take it away, boys!

In addition to Ebony and Ivory, Tug of War included a second duet with Stevie Wonder: What’s That You’re Doing. Apart from providing vocals, Wonder also co-wrote the funky tune with McCartney. In fact, to me it sounds more like a Stevie Wonder song. Stewart made another appearance on backing vocals.

Here Today is a moving tribute to John Lennon, which can still make me emotional. It may not be quite as compelling as Elton John’s Empty Garden, but I still find it beautiful. When I saw McCartney live last time in July 2016, he performed the tune solo with just his acoustic guitar – a quite powerful moment!

Next up: Ballroom Dancing, a nice pop rocker. Guests on this tune include Starr (drums), Stewart (backing vocals) and former Wings band mate Denny Laine (electric guitar).

The last track I’d like to call out is McCartney’s great duet with Carl Perkins, Get It. I love the tune’s rockabilly retro vibe and Perkins’s electric guitar work, which he provided in addition to vocals. You can also literally feel the fun they had when recording the track, and it’s not only because of Perkins’ laughter at the end.

The final words of this post shall belong to Paul McCartney. “I think, you know, with my songs, I have my own approach,” he told Andy Mackay in an in-depth interview about the album in August 1982, which is transcribed on fan website The Paul McCartney Project. “I’ll tell you the way I see it: the thing I like about my stuff, when I like it, is that the listener can take it the wrong way, it may apply to them, you know.”

Sources: Wikipedia; The Paul McCartney Project; YouTube

Ural Thomas May be the Greatest Soul Artist You Didn’t Know

This is just an incredible story I wanted to share right away. Until earlier today, I had never heard of Ural Thomas. It’s safe to assume many other fans of soul music are in the same boat. Then I caught a performance of the now 80-plus-year-old Thomas with his band called The Pain at the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore. that was streamed earlier today on local listener-funded radio station KBOO-FM. And I can assure you, it was everything else but painful!

Before we get to some sweet soul music, here’s some background on Thomas from his website. Obviously written a few years ago, this text captures the story better than I could ever do, especially given than other than this website, there appears to be little publicly available information on Thomas out there. Therefore, I decided to do something I rarely do: Copy and paste, except for the images.

If life was at all fair Ural Thomas would be a household name, his music slotted into countless sweet, seductive mixtapes between James Brown, Otis Redding, and Stevie Wonder (all of whom Thomas has performed with.) Straddling the line between hot soul shouter and velvety-smooth crooner, Thomas released a few singles in the late 60’s and early 70’s; most notably “Can You Dig It”, which featured backing vocals from soul luminaries Merry Clayton, Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway. Thomas played over forty shows at the legendary Apollo Theater before turning his back on an unkind business and heading home to Portland, OR.

It goes without saying that a man practically built out of rhythm would never stop playing music. Thomas began hosting a regular Sunday night jam session at his home that ran for nearly twenty years. A de facto mentor to many of the younger players, Thomas reminds us all that “If you care about what you’re doing, you need to build those muscles and do the work. Don’t get discouraged, do it for love. Even if you’re digging ditches, do it with passion.”

In 2014, local soul DJ Scott Magee sat in on drums. The two became fast friends and at Magee’s urging Thomas decided to give his musical career another shot. Magee became the musical director, they put together a band, and in 2016 released a self-titled album on Mississippi Records.

In 2017 Thomas signed with Tender Loving Empire and began work on what, in many respects, will be his debut full length. Diving deep into lifetime of melodic creativity, Thomas and his band got to work. Recorded in Magee’s studio Arthur’s Attic, The Right Time features the air-tight work of Magee on drums, percussion, and backing vocals, Bruce Withycombe (The Decemberists) on baritone sax, Portland jazz scene fixture Brent Martens on guitars and vibraphone, Arcellus Sykes on bass, Steve Aman (Lady Rizo) on piano and organ, Dave Monnie on trumpet, Willie Matheis (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) on tenor sax, and Jasine Rimmel, Joy Pearson, Sarah King, Rebecca Marie Miller on backing vocals. The Arco Quartet performed the strings, and the record was engineered and mixed by Jeff Stuart Saltzman (Blitzen Trapper) and mastered by JJ Golden (Sharon Jones, Ty Segall).  

One might think after a sizeable taste of early success Thomas would be more than a touch bitter – yet the opposite is true. “We have to be positive if we want the world to get better” Thomas advises. “We’ve come a long way, but if you carry a grudge with the whole world you’ll stop your growth. We’re a family, all just brothers and sisters, descendants of Adam. You can’t get anywhere without an open heart.”

A developing artist at nearly eighty years old, for Thomas music has always been about bringing people together. “If we play for twenty people we cook it like it’s twenty thousand” says Thomas. “If we make someone smile we’re satisfied. They’re ain’t no difference between us. It’s all love and brotherhood. If folks listen to my record and feel that I’ll feel very blessed.”

Standing in bold defiance of the idea that aging is a reason to slow down and stop living, for Thomas the right time to get down is the next time someone plugs in a guitar or puts on a record. Ural is ready – are you?

Well, that’s a perfect segue into some music. Let’s kick it off with the above noted Can You Dig It? Co-written by Russ Regan and producer Jerry Goldstein, Thomas released this funky soul tune in 1967. And, yes, I sure as heck dig it!

Following are a few tracks from the above noted debut album by Ural Thomas and The Pain. It’s titled The Right Time and appeared in 2018. Here’s No Distance (Between You and Me).

Next up: Smoldering Fire. Oh, man, I just love this tune! How come pretty much nobody knows about it? It’s just incredible!

Here’s the album’s funky title track!

Let’s do one more tune from this great album: Show Ya.

I’ll leave you with one more song I found on YouTube: A 2015 live performance of a tune called Deep Soul. Holy moly. It’s a got a dose of a James Brown vibe!

As for the 2019 Waterfront Blues Festival, it’s still streaming today and tomorrow at https://kboo.fm/media/81471-blues-fest-air. I’m currently listening to Southern Avenue, a great band from Memphis, Tenn. I’ve covered on numerous previous occasions. Coming up later today:  Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram and Bettye Lavette with Texas Horns, among others. Tomorrow’s line-up looks great as well!

Sources: Ural Thomas website; Discogs; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 6

After having done more than 50 installments of this recurring feature, I still find it intriguing what turns up when you look at a specific date throughout music history. I’ve said it before and I say it again: It’s a rather arbitrary way to do this. But, hey, at the end of the day, it’s all about great music. Without further ado, let’s see what happened on June 6.

1960: Roy Orbison, the rock & roller with an operatic voice, released Only the Lonely, his first big hit peaking at no. 2 in the U.S. and Canada, and topping the charts in Ireland and the U.K. According to Songfacts, it was one of the first tunes Orbison wrote together with Joe Melson. Among others, the two also co-wrote Crying and Blue Bayou. Songfacts also includes the following Orbison told NME in 1980 about writing “sad songs” like Only the Lonely: “I’ve always been very content when I wrote all those songs. By this I’m saying that a lot of people think you have to live through something before you can write it, and that’s true in some cases, but I remember the times that I was unhappy or discontent, and I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate, and I certainly couldn’t write a song, no way. All the songs I wrote that were successful were written when I was in a contented state of mind.”

1962: The Beatles came together for their first artist test recording session at EMI Studios at 3 Abbey Road, St John’s Wood, London. According to The Beatles Bible, the action went down in studio no. 2, where between 7:00 pm and 10:00 pm they recorded four tracks: Besame Mucho, Love Me Do, P.S. I Love You and Ask Me Why. The session was produced by George Martin with assistant Ron Richards and was the only one to feature Pete Best on drums. Initially, Richards was in charge, and Martin was only brought in after engineer Norman Smith was intrigued with Love Me Do. At the end of the session, which was hampered by quality issues due to the poor equipment The Beatles had brought along, Martin called them to the control room to tell them what they would need to do to become professional recording artists. When none of them reacted, Martin said: “Look, I’ve laid into you for quite a time, you haven’t responded. Is there anything you don’t like?” After an awkward pause, George Harrison responded: “Yeah, I don’t like your tie!” That cracked the ice, and the rest is history. While none of the material recorded at the session was used, four months later, The Beatles featuring Ringo Starr on drums re-recorded Love Me Do with George Martin. Backed by P.S. I Love You, it became their first single (not counting My Bonnie they had recorded with Tony Sheridan in June 1961).

1971: After 23 years on the air, CBS aired the last episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a repeat. The last original telecast, episode no. 1,068, had aired on March 28 of the same year. Originally co-created and produced by Marlo Lewis, the show’s initial title was Toast of the Town. On September 25, 1955, it officially became The Ed Sullivan Show. Countless famous artists performed on the program, such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and The Doors. CBS and Sullivan were quite conservative, and there were some “controversial” performances on the show. One of the most notorious appearances were The Doors on September 17, 1967. For the song Light My Fire, Jim Morrison had been told to alter the line Girl, we couldn’t get much higher. He complied during the rehearsal, but when it came to the live performance, he sang the original line – committing the ultimate sin! The Doors were never invited back on the program. Here’s a short clip documenting the horrible transgression!

1982: The Peace Sunday: We Have a Dream concert took place at The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., which attracted a crowd of 85,000 people. The six-hour event to promote nuclear disarmament featured artists like Tom Petty, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne. It was partly broadcast on ABC Television’s Entertainment Tonight program on the same day. Here’s a clip of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez performing the Dylan tune With God On Our Side. Dylan first recorded the song for his third studio album The Times They Are a-Changin’ from January 1964.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts: Music History Calendar; Songfacts; The Beatles Bible; 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

Best of “Bobfest”

Sometimes one beautiful thing leads to another. In my previous post, I wrote about Tom Petty’s affection for The Byrds and how he covered some of their tunes. One of the clips I included was a performance of Mr. Tambourine Man, the Bob Dylan tune popularized by The Byrds with their beautiful jingle-jangle version in the mid-’60s. The footage came from a concert that celebrated the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s eponymous debut album. This prompted me to further check out that tribute show and boy, do I love what I found!

The four-hour concert took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City on October 16, 1992. Regardless of what you think of Dylan, the fact that he is revered by so many top-notch artists speaks for itself. It was certainly reflected in the concert’s line-up, which featured John Mellencamp, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Johnny Winter, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roger McGuinn, among others.

The house band for the show included Booker T. Jones (organ) and other former members of the MG’s Donald “Duck” Dunn (bass) and Steve Cropper (guitar), along with Anton Fig and Jim Keltner (each on drums). And there were countless other musicians in different capacities I haven’t even mentioned. This was possibly a one-of-a-kind concert!

Let’s kick off the music with Like a Rolling Stone performed by John Mellencamp and special guest Al Kooper on the organ – great way to open the night! Dylan first recorded the classic tune for his sixth studio album Highway 61 Revisited from August 1965.

Among the show’s true gems was Stevie Wonder’s performance of Blowin’ in the Wind. One of the defining protest songs of the ’60s, it was the opener to Dylan’s sophomore album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan released in May 1963. As Wonder eloquently said, it’s a tune that “will always be relevant to something that is going on in this world of ours.” I’m afraid his words still ring true today.

Next up: Tracy Chapman and her beautiful version of The Times They Are A-Changin’. Recently, I’ve gained new appreciation of the singer-songwriter thanks to badfinger20, who covered Chapman the other day on his great PowerPop blog. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track of Dylan’s third studio album that appeared in January 1964.

Ready for some hardcore blues? Enter Johnny Winter and his scorching version of Highway 61 Revisited, the title track of the above-noted album from August 1965. Ohhh, wham bam thank you man, to borrow creatively from David Bowie. Unfortunately, I could only find the audio version, but I think you can still picture it.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues is yet another tune from the Highway 61 Revisited album. If I would have to name my favorite Dylan record, I think this would be it. Of course, the caveat is I haven’t listened to all of his records, not even close! The artist who got to perform the tune during the concert was Neil Young, who did a great job. BTW, he dubbed the concert “Bobfest,” according to Wikipedia.

Here’s a great cover of I Shall Be Released by Chrissie Hynde. The first officially released version of the song was on the July 1968 debut album by The Band, Music From Big Pink. Dylan’s first recording occurred during the so-called Basement Tapes sessions with The Band in 1967, which was released on The Bootleg Series 1-3 in 1991. In 1971, Dylan recorded a second version that appeared on Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II from November that year.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right is one of my favorite Dylan tunes, so I faithfully followed his advice and didn’t hesitate to call it out. It’s another song from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Eric Clapton did a beautiful job making it his own. Don’t think twice, check it out!

George Harrison’s appearance at the show was remarkable. It marked his first U.S. concert performance in 18 years. Sadly, it would also be his last time performing in public, as Rolling Stone noted in a January 2014 story previewing the March 2014 super deluxe reissue of the concert. Harrison covered Absolutely Sweet Marie, a tune from Blonde on Blonde, Dylan’s seventh studio album from June 1966.

Of course, I couldn’t write about the bloody concert without including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who performed Rainy Day Women #12 & 35, another track from Blonde on Blonde. Love it!

For the final clip in this post, it’s about time to get to the man himself and My Back Pages. He first recorded the tune for his fourth studio album Another Side of Bob Dylan, which appeared in August 1964. For his rendition at the show, he got a little help from his friends Roger McGuinn, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and George Harrison. That’s what friends are for, and they did a great job!

The last word shall belong to guitarist and the show’s musical director G.E. Smith, who is quoted in the above Rolling Stone story: “That gig was one of the highlights of my career… There aren’t a lot of people that can attract a lineup like that, and everyone was on their best behavior. Lou Reed and Neil Young can be prickly, but not in the three days we were prepping that show. I also got to talk to Johnny Cash. What’s cooler than that?”

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube