On This Day in Rock & Roll History: February 14

Time again to go on some music time travel. For a change, this latest installment of my long-running music history feature around a specific date is skewed toward the ’80s. Usually, my favorite music decades the ’60s and ’70s rule these posts. Given it’s Valentine’s Day, I actually tried to discover a romantic song that was released on February 14, which I thought would be easy-peasy – well, not so. The closest I could find was an album that has various love songs. It’s part of the reason this post is more ’80s-focused.

1964: British beat group The Dave Clark Five released Bits and Pieces in the UK, the second single from their debut album Glad All Over. While it couldn’t quite match the chart success of the record’s title track that had knocked The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand off the top spot in the UK, the tune came pretty close, climbing to no. 2. Officially, Bits and Pieces was credited to the band’s leader, manager and drummer Dave Clark and lead vocalist and keyboarder Mike Smith, though British singer-songwriter Ron Ryan claimed he actually had penned the tune. Bits and Pieces also became a U.S. single on March 20 that year, peaking at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. In this case, it beat Glad All Over, which had reached no. 6.

1970: Sly & The Family Stone hit no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100 with Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). Yes, the words in parentheses are actually written that way. According to Wikipedia, it’s an intentional so-called “sensational spelling” for “thank you for letting me be myself again.” Written by Sly Stone, this great funk tune was part of a double-A single with Everybody Is a Star. Both songs had been intended for a studio album that was subsequently canned. Instead, the tunes ended up on the compilation Greatest Hits that appeared in November of the same year. Thank You was ranked at no. 410 on Rolling Stone’s December 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. That’s one hot funky tune!

1980: Heart released their fifth studio album Bébé le Strange, which became their highest charting on the U.S. Billboard 200 at the time, climbing to no. 4. Here’s the title track co-written by Heart co-founders Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson and Roger Fisher, together with Sue Ennis, a frequent collaborator. By the time the album came out, Fisher had departed. Bébé le Strange also became the record’s second single but missed the Billboard Hot 100. Heart’s biggest chart success with their eponymous eighth studio album and the smash hit These Dreams was still five years away. I only know a handful of Heart’s songs and had not been familiar with this tune.

1985: Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut album appeared. After an initial slow response, the album started to get traction in the summer of that year and eventually topped the Billboard 200 for 14 weeks in 1986. It spawned various singles, including three no. 1 hits. Here’s one of them: Saving All My Love for You, co-written by Michael Masser and Gerry Goffin. While musically it’s a typical ’80s ballad, Houston’s vocals were just extraordinary. Plus, it’s a fitting tune for all the love birds celebrating today.

1987: Undoubtedly, some eyes are going to roll on this one. New Jersey rockers Bon Jovi hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Livin’ on a Prayer, their second chart-topper in the U.S. Co-written by frontman and lead vocalist Jon Bon Jovi, then-lead guitarist Richie Sambora and songwriter Desmond Child, Livin’ on a Prayer appeared on the band’s third studio album Slippery When Wet. It became an instant success in the U.S. and internationally and remains Bon Jovi’s best-selling album to date. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I think the band has some great songs. Okay, I have to say I much prefer how Jon Bon Jovi looks nowadays. But, hey, it was the hairy ’80s ! 🙂

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

The Hardware: Vox Continental

Compact keyboard with characteristic sound became hit among touring bands in ’60s

When I listened to Light My Fire by The Doors the other day, I was reminded of Ray Manzarek’s distinct keyboard on that tune, a sound I’ve always loved. It also came to me that I hadn’t done a post on important music hardware in a long time – two good reasons to write about the Vox Continental, a handy and cool-looking organ that became popular in the ’60s and can be heard on many songs released during that decade and thereafter.

For those who are visiting my blog for the first time or haven’t seen one of my previous hardware posts, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not an engineering guy; in fact, having two left hands, it’s more of the opposite! As such, one could say there’s a certain degree of irony that I write about the subject. But while I’m not exactly a techie and therefore don’t go deeply into the technical aspects, music gear can still excite me like a little child, primarily from a sound and visual perspective. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to it.

Thomas Walter Jennings
Jennings Organ Company founder Thomas Walter Jennings at his Dartford factory in Kent, England in 1964

Prior to the Vox Continental’s introduction in England in 1962, the Vox brand name had been synonymous with guitar amplifiers, especially the Vox AC30 used by The Shadows, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and other ’60s bands. However, as its name already indicates, the company that made the amps, The Jennings Organ Company founded by Thomas Walter Jennings in Kent, England after the Second World War and renamed Jennings Musical Industries (JMI) in 1957, started out as a manufacturer of home and church organs. Their first successful product was the Univox, an electronic keyboard similar to the Clavioline.

The Vox Continental is a so-called combo keyboard. Does it come with French fries and a Coke you might ask? Well, not quite. Combo actually is another (British) term for band. Okay, it’s a keyboard for a band, but so is a Hammond or a regular piano, so what’s the big deal? While pianos were frequently used in the recording studio, amplifying their sound during live performances was tricky. Hammond organs like the mighty B3 certainly could meet volume requirements, but they were pretty clunky. A compact combo keyboard like the Vox Continental offered a great solution. It also looked pretty cool!

Vox Continental Electronics
The electronic inside of a Vox Continental

The Vox Continental was made possible by the invention of transistors that were less heavy and smaller than the electron tubes used in big electronic organs. The handy keyboard came in two basic variations, a single manual and a dual manual. One of the Continental’s distinct visual features is its reversed colored keys: what on a regular keyboard are the white keys are black, while the traditionally black keys are white (see image on top of the post). The top part covering the electronics with its orange or grey finish stands out as well. The curving and removable chrome stand is another distinct feature. Without a bass section, no bass pedals, no percussion, no sustain and only a single-speed vibrato, the Vox Continental was fairly archaic. Yet because of its sound and the aforementioned design features, the instrument became very popular.

Initially, Vox Continental keyboards were made at two plants in Kent: JMI’s facility in Dartford and the Vox Sound plant in Erith. In 1964, Jennings signed a licensing deal with the Thomas Organ Company in the U.S. JMI and Thomas subsequently also formed EME (Elletronica Musicale Europea), a joint venture with Italian guitar and keyboard manufacturer EKO. With the advent of the Moog and other more elaborate keyboards by the early ’70s, the appeal of Vox Continental organs started to decrease, and production was phased out. While it continued to have a significant following and remains sought-after, it took until September 2017 that Vox revived the Continental with an updated version. Since 1992, the company has been owned by Japanese electronics corporation Korg.

As noted at the outset, the Vox Continental is featured in many songs released during the ’60s and thereafter. This post wouldn’t be complete without some examples.

The House Of The Rising Sun (The Animals)

The version of the traditional by The Animals featuring Alan Price on keys is one of the most compelling showcases of the Vox Continental, in my humble opinion as somebody who isn’t a keyboard player. Sure, the sound isn’t as fat and growling as the Hammond B3; in fact, it’s rather thin by comparison, and yet it still sounds awesome at least to my ears!

Because (The Dave Clark Five)

Written by Dave Clark, Because was recorded for the band’s third U.S. studio album American Tour from August 1964. The song also appeared as a single and became the band’s second most successful hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Here’s a nice clip of an appearance on American music variety TV program Shindig! from 1965. While it is much less dominant than in The House Of The Rising Sun, one can nicely see Mike Smith playing the organ.

I’m A Believer (The Monkees)

I’m A Believer appeared on More Of The Monkees, the band’s second studio album released in January 1967, and as the record’s lead single in November the previous year. Written by Neil Diamond, the song became the band’s most successful hit, topping the charts in many countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and Germany, among others. While Peter Tork had known how to play keyboards, the keyboarder on the studio recording was Stan Free. Initially formed a musical acting quartet for a TV series, all of The Monkees eventually learned how to play their instruments.

Light My Fire (The Doors)

Credited to all members of the band, Light My Fire was included on The Doors’ eponymous debut album issued in January 1967. It also became the record’s second single released in April that year. It was the first of their two no. 1 U.S. hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The tune is another great example where the Vox Continental is quite dominant.

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (Iron Butterfly)

In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is the title track of Iron Butterfly’s second studio album from June 1968. It was written by the band’s lead vocalist and keyboarder Doug Ingle. Clocking at more than 17 minutes, the track makes up the record’s entire side B. Iron Butterfly also released a single version, which was shortened to just under three minutes. Here’s a clip of the track in its entire mighty.

Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello)

After production of Vox Continental keyboards had seized, the combo organs remained popular, as previously noted. One of their champions was Steve Nieve, who among others became known as keyboarder in Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions. Here’s a clip of Watching The Detectives from Costello’s debut album My Aim Is True, released in July 1977. Written by Costello, the tune became his first hit, peaking at no. 15 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart.

Don’t Do Me Like That (Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers)

Don’t Do Me Like That, the last song I’d like to highlight in this post, is another post ’60s example featuring a Vox Continental, played by Benmont Tench in this case. It appears on Damn The Torpedoes, the third studio album by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers from October 1979. In November that year, the song also came out as the record’s lead single. Written by Petty, it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., reaching no. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Sources: Wikipedia, Engineering And Technology History Wiki (ETHW), Combo Organ Heaven, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: January 1st

What could possibly happen on a January 1st when it’s safe to assume many folks are recovering from celebrating the New Year? Well, it turns out quite a bit!

1956: Carl Perkins released Blue Suede Shoes as a single on Sun Records. Written by him, it is considered to be one of the first rockabilly tunes. The song spent 16 weeks on the Best Selling Singles chart from music industry publication Cash Box, a competitor to Billboard at the time, peaking at no. 2. The song was also covered by many other artists, including Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley.

1959: Johnny Cash performed one of his first prison shows at San Quentin prison in San Rafael, Calif. Among the audience members was future country artist Merle Haggard who was serving a sentence for burglary. According to Songfacts, the performance captivated the then 19-year-old who later credited Cash for his “outlaw sound.” About 10 years later, the two men ended up performing together on the TV series The Johnny Cash Show. In February 1969, Cash recorded a live album at that prison, Johnny Cash At San Quentin. Here’s a clip of I Walk The Line, one of the tunes Cash likely also performed during the 1959 gig.

1962: Decca Records Head of A&R (singles) Dick Rowe became the record company executive who rejected The Beatles after A&R representative Mike Smith recorded a session with them at Decca’s studios in West Hampstead, London. At the time, the band’s line-up consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. While manager Brian Epstein and The Beatles were confident Decca would sign them, instead they went with Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, a local band. According to the Beatles Bible, Rowe thought it would be easier to work with them than a band from Liverpool. The official reason given to Epstein: “Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” While it is safe to assume Rowe bitterly regretted his decision, he did sign up The Rolling Stones, ironically following Harrison’s recommendation.

The Beatles with Pete Best

1964: The television music program Top of the Pops (TOTP) debuted on the BBC. The inaugural of the show that aired weekly until July 2006 featured The Rolling Stones (I Wanna Be Your Man), Dusty Springfield (I Only Want To Be With You), The Dave Clark Five (Glad All Over), The Hollies (Stay), The Swinging Blues Jeans (Hippy Hippy Shake) and The Beatles (I Want To Hold Your Hand). Thanks to its large viewing audience, TOTP became a significant part of British pop culture, according to Wikipedia.

The Dave Clark Five on TOTP

1966: The Sound Of Silence (originally called The Sounds Of Silence) by Simon & Garfunkel reached no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Paul Simon, the duo initially recorded it in March 1964 for their studio debut Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. But the record bombed and they broke up. After the song had received growing radio play during the spring of 1965, producer Tom Wilson decided to remix the track and release it in September that year. Simon & Garfunkel were only informed about this after the fact. The song’s chart success led them to reunite and record their second album, Sounds Of Silence. On that record, the tune appeared as The Sound Of Silence.

1972: Carole King’s third studio album Music, which had been released in December 1971, reached no. 1 on the Billboard 200. The follow-up to King’s iconic 1971 record Tapestry from maintained that position for three consecutive weeks. In fact, both albums were simultaneously in the top 10 for many weeks. Here is a clip of Sweet Seasons, which was co-written by King and Toni Stern and also released separately as a single.

Sources: This Day In Music.com, Songfacts Music History Calendar, The Beatles Bible, Wikipedia, YouTube