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
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.
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
“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 OxJohn 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!
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 Todayreported, 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
Every time I do another installment of this ongoing series, I’m amazed how many dates I still have left to cover. November 17 turned out to be one of them.
In case you see one of these posts for the first time, the idea is to highlight things that happened on a specific date throughout rock history. By no means are these posts meant to be a comprehensive list of events. Instead, I select stuff I find interesting, mainly focusing on the ’60s and ’70s, my two favorite music decades. With that little disclaimer being out of the way, let’s get to November 17!
1964:The Beatles recorded a session for the BBC radio program Top Gear, which at the time was still a new show that only had debuted four months earlier. In addition to an interview with host Brian Matthew, who by the way worked for the BBC for a whopping 63 years from 1954 until 2017, The Beatles recorded six songs: I’m A Loser, Honey Don’t, She’s A Woman, Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby, I’ll Follow The Sun and I Feel Fine. The program first aired on November 24, 1964. Except for I’ll Follow The Sun, all recordings from the show were included on the compilation album Live At The BBC released in November 1994. Here’s I Feel Fine, a song with a great guitar riff I’ve always dug. Credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the tune first appeared as the A-side of the band’s eighth single in the UK. The track hit no. 1 there, as well as in the U.S. and many other countries.
1966:The Beach Boys topped the UK Singles Chart with Good Vibrations, the first of only two no. 1 singles they scored in that country; the second one in 1968 was appropriately called Do It Again. Unlike these days where Britain makes lots of waves, I suppose back then the waters were calm and folks there didn’t care much about surfing and cruising in cars. While I enjoy The Beach Boys’ surfing and car songs, although they all sound very similar, it was always their fantastic harmony vocals that attracted me the most. If I could only choose one song, it would be Good Vibrations. Composed by Brian Williams with lyrics by Mike Love, the tune was recorded in Los Angeles at various studios over a two-month period. Songfacts notes the making of the complex track included 17 recording sessions and many top studio musicians, resulting in an approximate cost of $50,000, making it the most expensive pop song ever recorded when it came out. Widely recognized as one of the most important compositions and recordings of its time, Good Vibrations was ranked no. 6 on Rolling Stone’s500 Greatest Songs of All Time in 2011 and included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll.
1971:Faces, an excellent British band that was always a bit undervalued compared to contemporaries like The Who and The Rolling Stones, released their third studio album A Nod’s As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse. Faces’ second record that year and their second to last album became their best-selling release worldwide, hitting no. 2 in the UK and no. 6 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. The record also featured the band’s highest-charting single in the U.S.: The excellent Stay With Me, which reached no. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune was co-written by Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Stewart once was a smoking hot rocker!
1973:Quadrophenia, the sixth studio album by The Who, entered the British charts at no. 2, a position it held for another week. It was the band’s second rock opera after Tommy from May 1969. Among the record’s distinct features are Pete Townshend’s use of multi-track synthesizers and sound effects, as well as John Entwistle’s layered horn parts. While Quadrophenia was received positively in the UK and the U.S., the supporting tour was impactd by technical issues with taped backing tracks. These tapes provided the album’s instrumentation The Who could not replicate on stage. Perhaps foolishly, Roger Daltrey insisted that the band stick to their four-piece line-up and not add any supporting backing musicians. After various setbacks, the tour ended early in February 1974 . It would take 22 years before Quadrophenia was revived as a live show in London’s Hyde Park in June 1996. Instead of The Who, the performance was credited to Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle. The show also featured actors and other musicians who among others included David Gilmour and Zak Starkey, marking the beginning of the drummer’s ongoing association with The Who. Here’s the album’s powerful closer Love, Reign O’ver Me. I still get goose bumps each time I listen to Daltrey’s crazy vocals on that tune.
1980: The last item in this list of events shall belong to John Lennon, who on that day released Double Fantasy, the final album during his lifetime. The record marked Lennon’s return to music after a five-year break during which he had mostly focused on family life. While I’m admittedly not a fan of Yoko Ono’s music, Lennon’s songs still make this record a great listening experience. After a less than stellar initial reception, Double Fantasy became a huge international success in the wake of Lennon’s murder in New York City three weeks after the album had come out. It’s kind of idiotic how people oftentimes suddenly “discover” musicians after their death, especially if it involved tragedy. Here’s one of my favorite tunes from the record: Watching The Wheels.
Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day in Music; This Day In Rock; Songfacts; YouTube
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.
Splitting his legs, bouncing his knees, shaking his body, profusely sweating and at times seemingly screaming off the top of his lungs – they didn’t call James BrownMr. Dynamite or The Hardest Working Man In Show Biz for nothing. I was reminded of his incredible performances recently, when my music streaming platform served up one of Brown’s great live albums at the storied Apollo Theater in New York’s Harlem. And voila, an idea for a new blog was triggered!
Brown was born James Joseph Brown on May 3rd, 1933 in Barnwell, S.C. to a 16-year-old mother and a 22-year-old father. The family lived in extreme poverty, and from a young age, Brown essentially took care of himself with hustling to get by. He dropped out of school after sixth grade and began singing at talent shows as a nine-year old. In 1954, Brown joined a gospel group that had been founded by singer Bobby Byrd, which evolved into The Famous Flames. By 1957, they called themselves James Brown and the Famous Flames.
In 1956, The Famous Flames signed a deal with Federal, a Cincinnati-based subsidiary of King Records. In March that year, they released Please Please Please, which eventually became their first hit single reaching no. 6 on the Billboard R&B charts. Co-written by Brown and Flames backing vocalist Johnny Terry, it also was the title track of their debut album from December 1958. A series of follow-up singles went nowhere, and it wasn’t until October 1958 that Brown and his band stroke again with the ballad Try Me – the first of 17 singles topping the R&B chart. According to Wikipedia, Brown has the distinction to be the artist with the most singles on the Billboard Hot 100 without hitting no. 1 – not only do I wonder who comes up with these stats, but I also find this hard to believe, given all the music Brown prolifically released over his 50-year recording career, including so many well-known tunes!
During the late ’60s, Brown started to move away from gospel and soul and became instrumental in shaping funk music. Often referred to as The Godfather of Soul, perhaps a more appropriate title would be “The Godfather of Funk.” In fact, some music critics consider his 1967 tune Cold Sweat to be the first real funk song. Brown continued to record and perform through the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s. He passed away on December 25, 2006 at age 73 from congestive heart failure, resulting from complications of pneumonia.
Let’s hit it with footage from some of Brown’s legendary performances. This clip of Please Please Please is from the T.A.M.I. Show, a concert held in Santa Monica, Calif. on October 28 and 29, 1964. It featured top artists from the U.S. and the U.K., who in addition to James Brown and the Famous Flames included The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Gerry & the Pacemakers and The Rolling Stones, among others. The concert was captured in a movie that appeared in December 1964. It’s just mind-boggling to watch Brown in action, repeatedly dropping on his knees and being lifted up by his band mates while seemingly singing himself into a trance-like state.
I Got You (I Feel Good) is one of Brown’s signature tunes. Written by him and first recorded for his 10th studio record Out Of Sight released in September 1964, it also became Brown’s highest charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 3. The following clip apparently is from a concert in Paris, France in 1966.
Another incredible performance happened in Boston on April 5, 1968. Brown’s show at the Boston Garden took place just one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Apparently, the mayor had planned to cancel all public events including Brown’s concert, but in the end the local authorities were more concerned a cancellation could trigger unrest and allowed the event to go ahead. Here’s the above noted Try Me, a beautiful soulful tune written by Brown, which like Please Please Please appeared on the debut album. Check out Brown’s moves at around 1:30 minutes into the song. You can literally picture him starting to launch into the moonwalk at any moment!
Next up: A great medley of Cold Sweat and Ride The Pony (Mother Popcorn) from the same 1968 gig in Boston. Cold Sweat was co-written by Brown and the leader of his backing band Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis. It also became the title track to his 21st studio album released in August 1967. It’s simply impossible to listen to this tune without starting to groove, especially when watching Brown’s dance moves.
A post about James Brown’s live performances wouldn’t be complete without one of his biggest concert staples: Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine. It’s perhaps the ultimate funk tune. First released in July 1970 as a two-part single, Sex Machine was co-written by him; Bobby Byrd, who by then had become the keyboarder of Brown’s new band The J.B.s; and Brown’s recording engineer Ron Lenhoff. The guitar part is performed by Phelps “Catfish” Collins and one of the coolest funk riffs in my book. It’s also propelled by the terrific rhythm section of Phelps’ brother William “Bootsy” Collins on bass and drummer John “Jabo” Starks. The following footage apparently was captured sometime in 1971.
To me James Brown is in the same group of extraordinary artists like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson who pushed stage performances to a new level. Brown has received many honors, including inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s included at no. 7 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. According to the music magazine, Brown is also the most sampled music artist of all time.
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 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?”
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.”
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.”
“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.