It Was 35 Years Ago

A look back on Live Aid benefit concert – Part 3

The last part of this mini-series reviews highlights from the U.S. portion of Live Aid at John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia. Things there got underway at close to 9:00 a.m. EDT (2:00 p.m. BST) on July 13, 1985. The British concert at London’s Wembley Stadium ended at 10 pm BST (5:00 pm EDT). As such, both shows overlapped by eight hours. Unfortunately, this meant viewers could not see all artist performances on their television broadcasts.

The Philly concert included reunions of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the original Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne and The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson. It also featured a less than stellar appearance of Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones who were joined by Phil Collins and Tony Thompson on drums.

With Page’s guitar out of tune and Plant’s hoarse voice, unfortunately, it was one of Zep’s poorest performances. Later, Page blamed the drumming of Collins who had played at Wembley earlier and traveled to the U.S. by supersonic jet, so he could perform in Philly as well – the only artist who pulled off that stunt. It seems to me the reality of the fiasco was a combination of factors, including lack of rehearsal, some technical challenges and probably a portion of bad luck.

While white artists were well represented at Live Aid, the same cannot be said for artists of color, especially at Wembley, where I believe only two performed: Sade and Brandon Marsalis – a bit of an oddity for a charity concert put on for the African nation of Ethiopia. The U.S. did better in this regard. The show line-up featured The Four Tops, Billy Ocean, Run-D.M.C., Ashford & Simpson, Patti LaBelle, as well as Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin of The Temptations. In addition, U.S.A. for Africa performed their charity single We Are the World, which included additional artists of color, such as Lionel Richie, Harry Belafonte and Dionne Warwick.

Let’s kick off this last part with one of the above noted reunions: Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne. Here’s Paranoid, the epic title track of the band’s sophomore album from September 1970. The music was credited to all members of Sabbath, while the lyrics were written by bassist Geezer Butler.

One of my favorite bands performing in Philly were Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. They closed their mini-set with Refugee, one of their best songs, in my opinion. Co-written by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, the tune is from Damn the Torpedoes, the band’s third studio album released in October 1979. It also became the record’s second single that appeared in January 1980.

Neil Young is another of my all-time favorite artists. Here is Powderfinger, a beloved tune among Young fans. He first recorded the song for his live album Rust Never Sleeps from June 1979. It was also included on various other live albums he released thereafter.

As a fan of Cream, of course, I couldn’t skip Eric Clapton and his rendition of White Room. Composed by Jack Bruce with lyrics by poet Pete Brown, the classic tune was included on Wheels of Fire, Cream’s third studio album that appeared in August 1968.

The last clip I’d like to call out is a great medley of tunes by The Temptations performed by Hall & Oates, together with Eddie Kendricks und David Ruffin: Get Ready, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg and My Girl, which all first appeared as singles. Get Ready from February 1966 was penned by Smokey Robinson. Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, co-written by Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., came out in May 1966. And My Girl was first released in December 1964. Robinson and Ronald White wrote that tune together.

While you may not agree with Bob Geldof who in his introduction to Live Aid 35 said it was commonly called the ‘greatest concert of all time,’ I think there can be no doubt Live Aid was a one of a kind event. Sure, there were other historic concerts like Woodstock and the Monterey Pop Festival that brought together many of the leading music artists at the time. One must also mention the Concert for Bangladesh, the first benefit music event of significant magnitude. But none of these concerts came anywhere close to Live Aid in terms of audience reach and logistics – and in the case of the Concert for Bangladesh the scale of fundraising.

Sources: Wikipedia; 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

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: January 20

January 20 presented various memorable moments in music history, from surf rock to The Fab Four to Dylan to an all-star concert to celebrate the first official Martin Luther King Day. Let’s get to it!

1962: Dick Dale (born Richard Anthony Monsour) and The Del-Tones entered the Billboard Hot 100 with the instrumental Let’s Go Trippin‘ at no. 60, marking the first surf rock song to chart. While Dale became known as The King of the Surf Guitar, he never reached the success and popularity of fellow surf rockers like Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. In addition to being a surf music pioneer, Dale was also instrumental in advancing guitar amplifier technology. Working with guitar manufacturer Fender, he helped develop customized amplifiers, including the first 100-watt amp. Dale who was of Lebanese descent incorporated Middle Eastern music scales in his playing and experimented with reverb, which both became key elements of his surf rock sound. He also had an unusual technique, playing a left-handed guitar upside down, i.e., without restringing the instrument.

1964: Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ second U.S. album and the first on Capitol Records was released. While the cover cheerfully stated, “The First Album by England’s Phenomenal Pop Combo,” the record actually was the second U.S. release. Ten days prior to its appearance, Vee-Jay Records issued the Fab Four’s actual U.S. debut Introducing… The Beatles. Originally, that album had been scheduled for July 1963. Still, Meet the Beatles beat Introducing…The Beatles in the charts, entering the Billboard 200 one week prior to the latter and peaking at no. 1, denying the top spot to Vee-Jay’s release that got stuck at no. 2. While the cover of Meet the Beatles looked almost identical to the UK album With the Beatles, the song line-up on each record was different. Here’s I Saw Her Standing There, a tune that in the UK already had appeared on The Beatles’ debut Please Please Me and therefore was not on With the Beatles.

1968: John Fred & and his Playboy Band topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Judy in Disguise (With Glasses). Co-written by John Fred Gourrier and Andrew Bernard, the song was the only hit for the U.S. band. The title was a play on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles. Apparently, when he first heard the Beatles tune, Gourrier understood the words as Lucy in disguise with diamonds. Ironically, Judy in Disguise knocked Beatles song Hello, Goodbye out of the Billboard Hot 100 top position. The tune also became a no. 1 hit in Australia, Germany, South Africa and Switzerland, and climbed to no. 3 in Canada, Ireland and the UK. Well, John Fred & and his Playboy Band may have hit it big time only once, but at least they made it count!

1975: Bob Dylan released his 15th studio album Blood on the Tracks. After receiving mixed reviews initially, the album has since been acclaimed as one of Dylan’s greatest. Isn’t it funny how music critics oftentimes change their minds? Apparently, people were faster to embrace the record. By March 1, 1975, Blood on the Tracks stood at no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album also topped the charts in Canada and New Zealand and climbed to no. 3 in the UK. In 2003, it was ranked at no. 16 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all Time. Here’s Shelter From the Storm.

1986: Stevie Wonder commemorated the first official celebration of Martin Luther King Day with a star-studded concert in Washington, D.C. For many years, Wonder had supported the idea for the national holiday, which first had been proposed in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. But sadly it took Congress many years to embrace the idea. During the Carter administration, a bill to establish Martin Luther King Day was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives. This prompted Wonder to write the song Happy Birthday and release it as a single in September 1980. After Congress received petitions in excess of six million signatures, the Senate and the House passed legislation, which was signed by President Regan in November 1983. The first official observance of Martin Luther King Day took three more years. Here’s a clip of the above concert’s finale, featuring Diana Ross and Wonder, along with many other artists.

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

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

I believe Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller first entered my radar screen as a 13-year-old when I got an Elvis Presley songbook for guitar. It was shortly after I had started taking lessons and was able to play a few chords. Elvis was my idol at the time. What I didn’t know then and frankly didn’t fully appreciate until conducting some research for this post was the enormous scope of Leiber-Stoller’s work, which goes far beyond some of the best-known early classic rock & roll tunes.

For some time, I had contemplated writing about important songwriting partnerships including Leiber-Stoller, but once I noticed how many songs these guys wrote and how many artists they worked with, I felt they warranted a dedicated post. I also decided to largely exclude their production work and primarily focus on their writing during the ’50s and early ’60s, which is their most exciting period, in my opinion.

Lyricist Jerry Leiber was born as Jerome Leiber on April 25, 1933 in Baltimore, Md. Composer Michael Stoller, who later changed his legal fist name to Mike, was born on March 13, 1933 in Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y. In addition to being born the same year to Jewish families, Leiber and Stoller also shared a love for blues, boogie-woogie and black culture. They met in Los Angeles in 1950, while Leiber was a senior in high school and Stoller was a college freshman.

Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller
Mike Stoller (l) & Jerry Leiber in 1980

According to an extended interview Lieber and Stoller gave to NAMM Oral History Program in December 2007, Leiber had written some lyrics and knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was how to write music. A drummer referred him to piano player Mike Stoller. Once they met and Stoller looked at some of Leiber’s lyrics, he noticed they were 12-bar blues. He said, “I love the blues” and started playing the piano, with Leiber singing along. And Stoller said, “Mike, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Okay, I made up that last quote, borrowing from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time. What is true is that day the two men agreed to form a partnership that would generate some of the best-known songs of the ’50s and ’60s.

The first artist who recorded a Leiber-Stoller composition was Jimmy Witherspoon, one of the blues singers the duo followed to help them develop their “black style” of writing music and lyrics. Real Ugly Woman appeared as a single in 1951. The words are just as lovely as the title! 🙂 A little excerpt: Well, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yeah, she’s a real ugly woman/Don’t see how she got that way/Yes, and every time she comes around/she runs all my friends away

The following year in 1952, Leiber and Stoller scored their first hit with Hard Times, which was recorded by Charles Brown. The tune climbed to no. 7 on the Billboard R&B Chart.

1952 also saw one of Leiber and Stoller’s best-known songs, Hound Dog, which was first recorded by Big Mama Thornton. It was also the first time the duo produced music, though the production credits went to Johnny Otis, who was supposed to lead the recording session but ended up playing the drums on the tune. Released in February that year, it sold more than half a million copies and topped the Billboard R&B Chart. Three years later, Elvis Presley turned Hound Dog into a mega-hit. I like his version but have to say Thornton really killed it, so here’s her original.

Another early rock & roll classic penned by Lieber-Stoller is Kansas City, which according to Wikipedia is one of their most recorded tunes with over three hundred versions – they had to count them all! Initially, the tune was titled K.C. Loving and recorded by American boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield. It appeared in August 1952. While the song had some regional success, it didn’t chart nationally. That changed in April 1959 when Wilbert Harrison released his version, which became a no. 1 on the Billboard’s Hot 100 and R&B charts. Here’s the original. Feel free to shuffle along!

Going back to Elvis, while Leiber and Stoller didn’t mind having written a million-seller with Hound Dog, they weren’t particularly fond of Presley’s cover. But it led to writing more songs for Elvis, including one of my favorite ’50s rock & roll tunes of all time: Jailhouse Rock. Released in September 1957, is was the title track of the Elvis motion picture that came out in November of the same year. Leiber-Stoller played a prominent role in the making of the film’s soundtrack. Apart from Jailhouse Rock, they wrote three other tunes and worked with Elvis in the studio. Of course, I had to take a clip from the picture, which has to be one of the most iconic dance scenes ever captured on film. Doesn’t it feel a bit like watching an early version of a Michael Jackson music video?

Blues and rock & roll represent the early years of Leiber and Stoller’s songwriting. Beginning in the mid-’50s after they had started working for Atlantic Records, the duo branched out and became more pop-oriented. Among other artists, they wrote a number of songs for The Drifters and The Coasters. Here’s Ruby Baby, a great soulful, groovy, doo-wop tune from 1956. More than 25 years later, Donald Fagen became one of the other artists covering the song, when he included it on his excellent debut solo album The Nightfly from October 1982.

Next up: Yakety Yak by The Coasters. The song was released in April 1958 and topped the Billboard Pop Chart, Billboard R&B Chart and Cash Box Pop Chart. The track was also produced by Leiber-Stoller and became the biggest hit for The Coasters.

The last Leiber-Stoller tune I’d like to highlight is Stand By Me, which they co-wrote with Ben E. King. He first recorded it in April 1961, a year after he had left The Drifters to start a solo career. In addition to writing, once again Leiber-Stoller also produced the beautiful track, which remains one of my favorite ’60s songs to this day.

Asked during the above NAMM interview to comment on the fact that “nice Jewish boys didn’t really write a whole lot of hit records for blues singers at that point” (in the early ’50s), Stoller said, “Actually, they did later on, or at least later on we did know…It was considered to be somewhat peculiar at the time.” Added Lieber: “Black people always thought we were black until they came in contact with us and saw that we weren’t.” BTW, if you’re into rock & roll history, you may enjoy watching the entire interview, even though it’s close to 90 minutes. Again, you can do so here.

Altogether, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote or co-wrote 70-plus chart hits. According to lieberstoller.com, their songs have been performed by more than 1,000 artists, who in addition to the above include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix, Muddy Waters, Joe Williams, Tom Jones, Count Basie, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin and even Edith Piaf, among others – wow, it almost poses the question which artists did not sing their songs!

Leiber-Stoller’s work has extensively and rightly been recognized. Accolades include inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and 1985, respectively, as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Songwriters in 1996. As reported by The New York Times, Jerry Leiber died from cardio-pulmonary failure on August 22, 2011 in Los Angeles at the age of 78. Mike Stoller is 86 years old and still alive. He can be heard introducing Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul on their great 2018 Soulfire Live! album for a gig at the Orpheum Theatre in New York – priceless!

Sources: Wikipedia; NAMM; Leiberstoller.com; The New York Times; YouTube

The Who Remain A Formidable Rock Force On New Album

“Although it’s been 13 years since their last LP and more than half a century since they formed, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey still know who they are” (Rolling Stone). “While Who is an album brimming with experience, emotion and ideas, it’s ultimately aimed at the fans who have always stuck with them, through thick and thin. Their best since Quadrophenia, then. Just don’t leave it so long next time, eh?” (UNCUT). “Whether Roger Daltrey is bellowing through anti-war flamenco or slagging off copycat bands, The Who have lost none of their vim and vigour. Just don’t mention Brexit.” (NME).

On Friday, The Who released WHO, their widely anticipated new studio album. From what I have seen, it has received mostly positive reviews. While I oftentimes feel music critics are desperately trying to be clever in an effort to say something memorable, I have no problem citing reviews I happen to agree with! The Who are among my favorite ’60s rock bands, so I realize there’s no way I can be completely unbiased here. After having listened to WHO various times, I have to agree with NME there is plenty of vim and vigour on this album.

The Who have now existed for some 55 years, which is incredible in and of itself. Okay, there were some breaks in-between when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey worked on solo projects. And, yes, it is fair to say the band hasn’t been 100 percent the same since the untimely death of Keith Moon in September 1978 at age 32 – not to mention The Ox John Entwistle who passed away in June 2002. Still, The Who’s longevity is truly remarkable. Think about it, how many bands other than The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys can you name that have lasted for more than half a century?

Here’s another remarkable aspect: WHO is only the 12th studio album by The Who, and their first since Endless Wire, which came out in October 2006 – a whopping 13 years ago! And the preceding record It’s Hard dates back all the way to June 1982. That’s the one with Eminence Front, one of my favorite tunes from the band’s later-stage career – actually, from today’s perspective, it’s not even their midstage if you base it on the number of years the band has been in existence!

Pete Townshend & Roger Daltrey

Back to WHO. There are various tracks on the album showing Pete Townshend still knows how to write great music. But what really stands out to me is Roger Daltrey’s singing. At age 75, he still is a formidable vocalist. “It’s a feat made all the more incredible given his brush with the Grim Reaper in 2015 following a bout of viral meningitis,” UNCUT’s above review rightly points out – and, as USA Today reported, after recurring laser surgeries Daltrey apparently needs to undergo to remove precancerous cells from his throat.

And let’s not forget about the fine backing musicians, including long-time drummer Zak Starkey, bassist Pino Palladino and keyboarder Benmont Tench. There are also Gordon Giltrap (acoustic guitar) and Gus Seyffert, who plays bass on three tracks, as well as various additional drummers: Carla Azar, Matt Chamberlain, and Joey Waronker. Last but not least, Pete’s younger brother Simon Townshend, who is also part of the band’s touring line-up, contributed one of the songs: Break The News. All other tracks except for one were written by Pete. Time for some music!

The album kicks off with three great tunes, which so far are my favorite tracks: All This Music Must Fade, Ball And Chain and I Don’t Wanna Get Wise. In addition to the music, some of the lyrics stand out as punchy. On the opener, Daltrey sings, I don’t care, I know you gonna hate this song, and that’s fair, we never really got along/It’s not new, not diverse/It won’t light up your parade/It’s just simple verse…Townshend ends the tune with the words, Yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine/And what’s mine is mine, and what’s mine is yours/Who gives a fuck?

Or take Ball And Chain, a re-recording of a Townshend solo track that initially was called Guantanamo and appeared on his 2015 compilation album Truancy: The Very Best of Pete Townshend: …Down in Guantanamo/We still got the ball and chain/There’s a long road to travel/For justice to make its crane/Let’s bring down the gavel/Let the prisoner say his name

And here’s I Don’t Wanna Get Wise and yet another lyrics excerpt, which may be an eye-opener to some folks: …That the crap that we did/Brought us money, God bless/And those snotty young kids/Were a standing success/ Helped us conquer and rise/And we learned in this hell/We didn’t wanna get wise/(I don’t wanna get wise/I don’t wanna get wise)/Life teaches us well

While I’ll Be Back, one of the quieter songs on the album, may not be among the best tunes, it proves that Townshend still has a decent voice – and that Daltrey is a credible harmonica player.

The last track I’d like to highlight is another standout: Rockin’ In Rage, which has a bit of theatrical/musical vibe to it. Daltrey is on fire here vocally, while Townshend throws in some nice rock guitar chops.

“I think we’ve made our best album since Quadrophenia in 1973,” said Daltrey in a statement. “Pete hasn’t lost it, he’s still a fabulous songwriter, and he’s still got that cutting edge”. While Quadrophenia dates back a mighty 46 years, that statement rings true to me.

Added Townshend: “There is no theme, no concept, no story, just a set of songs that I (and my brother Simon) wrote to give Roger Daltrey some inspiration, challenges and scope for his newly revived singing voice. Roger and I are both old men now, by any measure, so I’ve tried to stay away from romance, but also from nostalgia if I can.”

Without meaning to be Debbie Downer here, unless Messrs. Townshend and Daltrey rapidly accelerate their rate of releasing new records, it’s safe to assume WHO is the band’s final album. Well, if it is, I think they are going out on a high note!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; UNCUT; NME; USA Today; The Who website; YouTube

Vocals In Perfect Harmony

I dig vocals. Great vocals. Especially multi-part harmony singing. Big time! As some visitors of the blog know, that’s why I sometimes can get a bit impatient when it comes to instrumentals. Don’t get me wrong, listing to such music can be very enjoyable. But after a while, I tend to start missing vocals. This gave me the idea to put together a post about tunes featuring great harmony singing.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat random list. I didn’t want to overthink it. Let’s kick it off with The Beach Boys. While I generally wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of their music, much of which sounds quite repetitive to my ears, especially their early tunes, I’ve always loved how these guys could harmonize. One example I like in particular is In My Room. Credited to music genius Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, an early outside collaborator, the track was included on the band’s third studio album Surfer Girl from September 1963. It also appeared separately as a single in October that year.

One of the first bands that comes to my mind when thinking about harmony vocals are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Boy, when they get into it, they sound like they came from some other planet. Here’s Carry On, the opener to CSNY’s amazing second studio record Déjà Vu. Stephen Stills wrote this song. Harmony singing doesn’t get much better than that, in my humble opinion!

Perhaps the next choice may surprise you: Huey Lewis and the News. Say what? While undoubtedly that band primarily was known for slick pop rock and hits like I Want A Drug and The Power Of Love, these guys could also sing. Don’t believe me? Check out their a cappella version of It’s Alright  – and, yes, have a good time! The song was first recorded in 1963 by The Impressions and written by the great Curtis Mayfield. Huey Lewis and the News recorded their a cappella cover in 1993 for a tribute album to Mayfield titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. No matter how you feel about Lewis, this take is just awesome!

Speaking of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions, why don’t we throw in one of their other tunes and a clip of them performing it: People Get Ready. I’ve said it before and I’m not ashamed to say it again, sometimes music really moves me. And, yes, it can bring me to tears, depending on my mood. This is one of these tunes, which was the title tack of the band’s fourth studio album released in February 1965. It’s another composition by Mayfield.

A band I dig for both their music and their singing are the Eagles. One of the best illustrations of their vocal power I can think of is Seven Bridges Road. What I hadn’t known until now is that it’s not an Eagles tune, which for some reason I had always assumed. Nope, it was actually written by American country singer Steve Young in 1969. He also recorded it that year for his debut album Rock Salt & Nails. The Eagles version, which became the most popular cover of the song, was inspired by Iain Matthews’ take of the tune he recorded for his 1973 album Valley Hi. I realize, it’s a bit of a convoluted background story, but you have to give credit where credit is due. This finally brings me to the Eagles’ cover, which they recorded for their Eagles Live album from November 1980. It just sounds breathtaking!

If you looked at the image on top of the post, you already may guess what’s coming next – and last: The Temptations. I think to say that harmony singing doesn’t get better than that is not an overstatement. Their multi-part harmonies ranging from very low to very high are simply insane. Here’s Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).  And, no, this is not an illusion, though it sounds heavenly – is that a real word? In any case, co-written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and produced by Whitfield, the song first appeared as a single in January 1971. The tune was also included on the The Temptations’ 14th studio album Sky’s The Limit from April 1971. It became their third no. 1 in the U.S.

I realize there are many more songs I could have included. Feel free to let me know which tunes featuring harmony singing you like.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Paul McCartney, Accidental Bassist Extraordinaire

When it comes to Paul McCartney and his accomplishments, where do you even start? Co-founding member of The Beatles, which in my book was the greatest band of all time; a man who has written hundreds of songs, including timeless classics; multiple award-winning two-time inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and great musician who after more than five decades is sill hungry to perform live are some of the highlights that come to mind. This post focuses on something folks outside musician circles may not fully appreciate: McCartney’s significance in pop and rock music as a bassist.

As frequent readers of the blog know, I used to play bass guitar in my late teens and early twenties. As such, the topic should be right up my alley, so what the heck took me so long to write about it? Frankly, I don’t really have a good answer. I included McCartney in a previous post about some of my favorite bassists, and of course I’ve also covered him on other occasions. Still, as one of my all-time music heroes, Macca and his remarkable bass playing certainly deserve more attention.

The interesting thing one may sometimes forget is that McCartney not only started out as a guitarist but did not have any initial intention to become a bassist. A long interview with Macca, which Tony Bacon conducted in November 1994 as part of his research for a book about the bass, provides some great insights. It was published by online music gear and news website Reverb in January 2018. I’m relying on this interview for quotes throughout the remainder of the post.

The Beatles 1960 Lineup
The Beatles’ lineup in 1960 (from left): John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe

“The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back,” Macca told Bacon. [Note: This bassist was skinny, and while he has developed a little bit of the belly over the years, he’s far from fat. In fact, his dear wife still says he’s pretty handsome!😆] “In our minds it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be up front, singing, looking good. That was what we wanted, to pull the birds. There’s no other reason, basically.”

The above photo shows an early lineup of The Beatles. It must have been taken during the second half of 1960, after Pete Best had joined the band as a drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon from art school, had been added in January that year, after John and Paul had persuaded him to use prize money he had won for art to purchase a Hofner bass guitar. “So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could,” Macca said. Ouch…

“The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit,” Macca further pointed out. “He was a smallish guy. But it looked kind of heroic—he stood a certain way, he had shades, he looked the part—but he wasn’t that good a player. And that was the problem with me and Stu. It was always much reported that we didn’t get along. There were two reasons, really. One, I was very ambitious for the group, and I didn’t actually like anything that might hold us back. There’s enough stuff holding you back anyway, without someone in the group who’s not that good, you know?”

Stuart Sutcliffe with Hofner
Stuart Sutcliffe with his 1959 Hofner 500/5 semi-hollow bass

In July 1961, after The Beatles had returned from one of their engagements in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue painting. “So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me,” Macca recalled. “I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then. I don’t think you could have caught John doing it—I don’t think he would have done it. ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker.’ I didn’t have a guitar [at the time], see, so I couldn’t really say, ‘But I want to be a guitarist.’ They’d say, Well get a fucking guitar then—that might be a start! As I say, I’d been playing piano, which was on the stage, and that was quite good for me, gave me a lot of piano practice. I couldn’t really play but I learned. So I was quite glad to get back in the front line.”

Sutcliffe ended up lending McCartney his bass for a short time. “Eventually I saw a bass in the window of a shop in Hamburg, this violin-shaped bass, the Hofner. It was a good price, because my dad, as I say, had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never, but we were earning reasonable money.” And so McCartney essentially became the bassist of The Beatles by, well, accident. “That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there.” Well, he certainly did.

It’s fair to say that McCartney didn’t become a brilliant bassist overnight. He started out largely playing root notes, which probably wasn’t that much different from Sutcliffe. But McCartney liked to push himself forward by experimenting. “The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once,” he explained. “So, I’ll try a capo on a bass…I often used to tune ‘em down, too – tune the strings down a tone, so the E would become a D. You’d have to be careful how hard you hit them, but it was kind of interesting. I would just mess around with any experimental effects, just to try it.”

Macca with Bass and Capo
Paul McCartney on the cover of Beat Instrumental magazine, with his Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a capo, together with George Martin and George Harrison

After The Beatles had stopped touring, the studio became a major enabler for experimentation. Advances in technology also allowed the separate recording of instruments. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, Macca would oftentimes record the bass part as one of the last tracks. This allowed him to hear all other instrumental parts and take the bass beyond it’s traditional role of timekeeper to becoming an additional melody-driving instrument. And this is where Macca’s true magic as a bassist happened. From a strictly technical standpoint, his playing is nothing extraordinary, which he himself has stated in various interviews I’ve read over the years.

When after the breakup of The Beatles Macca formed Wings, many things changed, including his bass playing. Not only did he now consistently use his Rickenbacker 4001S he had been given by Mr. Rickenbacker himself as a freebie during The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour, but his playing became more traditional again. Asked about it, he said, “I think it was OK, but I think I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something.”

Macca Key Bass Guitars
Paul McCartney with his two signature bass guitars, a Hofner 500/1 violin bass and a Rickenbacker 4001S

“See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this,” he went on. “We didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache – that’s difficult. In The Beatles, I’d been free of all of that. We had a manager, we had three other great guys.” Macca also could have added that unlike The Beatles in their later stage, Wings was not set up as a studio band.

Asked about his influences for the bass, McCartney said, “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested. Actually he and Brian Wilson [from The Beach Boys] were my two biggest influences: James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”

I’d like to wrap up this post by highlighting some of McCartney’s great basslines during his time with The Beatles. I apologize to the non-musicians, who may find the following clips a bit geeky. I think the best way to hear Macca in action, especially on a computer or other non hi-fi device, is to listen to his isolated bass parts. First up: Rain, the B-side from the non-album single Paperback Writer, released in May 1966. The song was written by Lennon and, as usually, credited to Lennon-McCartney. This is quite a busy bassline that provides a nice complementary melody to the tune. Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip with the original isolated part, I’m relying on a chap called Norby Hofner, who does a pretty decent job.

With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an example of a melodic bassline where McCartney nicely varies between sparing and busy playing. The tune wasn’t only credited to Lennon-McCartney but was also written collaboratively.

Another great example of a busy Macca bassline is Hey Bulldog, a song off the Yellow Submarine album, primarily written by Lennon and again credited to Lennon-McCartney. I dig how the bass is pushing the tune forward.

The last bassline I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites by Macca: Something. Should I ever go back to playing the bass, this would be on top of my list to learn. This bass part represents such great melodic playing that one can easily enjoy listening to it all by itself. I also think that Something, which appeared on Abbey Road, is one of George Harrison’s best compositions.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reverb, YouTube