Cheering you up for a dreadful Wednesday, one song at a time
For those of us taking care of business during the regular workweek, I guess it’s safe to assume we’ve all felt that dreadful Wednesday blues. Sometimes, that middle point of the workweek can be a true drag. But help is on the way!
My proposition for today is I’m a Believer by The Monkees. While it’s a silly love song, it always makes me happy. And what’s wrong with that?
It may come as a surprise to some readers that I’m a Believer was written by then-25-year-old Neil Diamond. He actually spent his early career as a songwriter in New York’s legendary Brill Building. By the time Diamond penned I’m a Believer, he already had created a top 20 hit for Jay and the Americans with Sunday And Me that had come out in November 1965.
According to Songfacts, Don Kirshner while looking for material for The Monkees came across I’m a Believer. As part of a deal with Diamond, he allowed him to record the song as well. The Monkees’ version appeared first in November 1966 as their second single. It became a smash, topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia, UK and various other European countries.
Diamond’s version certainly wasn’t bad. It appeared on his sophomore album Just for You from August 1967 but wasn’t among the three singles that were released from the record – probably a smart decision, given it would have been very unlikely to match the success of The Monkees or even come anywhere close to it.
A few additional tidbits from Songfacts: The Monkees sang on this, but did not play any instruments. The producers used session musicians because they were not convinced The Monkees could play like a real band. This became a huge point of contention, as the group fought to play their own songs. [We know eventually they did – CMM]
Neil Diamond had intended the song to be recorded by the Country artist Eddy Arnold, and was surprised when record executive Don Kirshner passed it instead to The Monkees.
Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith didn’t believe this would be a hit, complaining to the producer, Jeff Barry, “I’m a songwriter, and that’s no hit.” Jeff Barry banned him from the studio while Micky Dolenz recorded his lead vocal.
A cover version by Smash Mouth was featured in the 2001 movie Shrek and went to #25 in the US. Diamond wrote the song “You Are My Number One” for Smash Mouth’s next album.
Mojo magazine July 2008 asked Neil Diamond if he resented at all the Monkees’ success with this song at a time when his own recording career was less successful. He replied: “I was thrilled, because at heart I was still a songwriter and I wanted my songs on the charts. It was one of the songs that was going to be on my first album, but Donny Kirshner, who was their music maven, hears ‘Cherry, Cherry’ on the radio and said, ‘Wow, I want one like that for The Monkees!’ He called my producers, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich…But the head of my record company freaked. He went through the roof because he felt that I had given #1 records away to another group. I couldn’t have cared less because I had to pay the rent and The Monkees were selling records and I wasn’t being paid for my records.”
Happy Hump Day, and always remember George Harrison’s wise words: All things must pass!
A three-part mini series of songs related to the three transportation modes
Here’s part II of a mini series of three posts featuring songs related to planes, trains and automobiles. Each installment includes five tunes in chronological order from oldest to newest. Part I focused on planes. Now it’s on to trains. Hop on board!
In case you didn’t read the previous installment, the idea of the mini series came from the 1987 American comedy picture Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The film is about a marketing executive (Steve Martin) and a sweet but annoying traveling sales guy (John Candy) ending up together as they are trying to get from New York home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Their plane’s diversion to Wichita due to bad weather in Chicago starts a three-day odyssey and one misadventure after the other, while the two, seemingly incompatible men use different modes of transportation to get to their destination.
Elvis Presley/Mystery Train
Let’s kick of this installment with Mystery Train, written and first recorded by Junior Parker as a rhythm and blues track in 1953. When Elvis Presley decided to cover the song, it was turned into a rockabilly tune featuring him on vocals and rhythm guitar, together with his great trio partners Scotty Moore (guitar) and Bill Black (bass). Produced by Sam Philips at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., Presley’s version was first released in August 1955 as the B-side to I Forgot to Remember to Forget, which became his first charting hit in the U.S., hitting no. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs. This has got to be one of the best rockabilly tunes ever!
The Monkees/Last Train to Clarksville
Last Train to Clarksville is the debut single by The Monkees, which was released in August 1966. While at that time they still were a fake band that didn’t play the instruments on their recordings, which as a musician is something that generally makes me cringe, I just totally love this song. It was co-written by the songwriting duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who used their band Candy Store Prophets to record the tune’s instrumental parts. At least there was one member from The Monkees on the recording: Micky Dolenz, who would become the band’s drummer for real, performed the lead vocals. Last Train to Clarksville, a Vietnam War protest song disguised by ambiguous lyrics and a catchy pop rock tune inspired by The Beatles’Paperback Writer, was also included on The Monkees’ eponymous debut album from October 1966.
The Doobie Brothers/Long Train Runnin’
Long Train Runnin’ has been one of my favorite tunes by The Doobie Brothers since I heard it for the first time many moons ago. As such, it was a must to include in this post. Written by Tom Johnston, the groovy rocker is from the band’s third studio album The Captain and Me that appeared in March 1973. The song was also released separately later that month as the album’s lead single, backed by Without You. Long Train Runnin’ became the first U.S. top 10 hit for the Doobies on the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 8, as it did in Canada. In the U.K., it reached no. 7, marking their highest charting single there.
The Allman Brothers Band/All Night Train
I had not known about this tune by The Allman Brothers Band and wouldn’t have found it without a Google search. All Night Train, co-written by Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes and Chuck Leavell, is included on the band’s 11th studio album Where It All Begins, their second-to-last studio release that appeared in May 1994. The track features some nice guitar action by Haynes and Dickey Betts and, of course, the one and only Gregg Allman on lead vocals and keys. Great late-career tune!
AC/DC/Rock ‘n’ Roll Train
For the final track let’s kick it up. How much? How about kick-ass rock & roll level with AC/DC! Rock ‘n’ Roll Train is the opener to their October 2008 studio release Black Ice. By then, the time periods in-between AC/DC albums had significantly lengthened, especially compared to the ’70s and ’80s. Predecessor Stiff Upper Lip had come out in February 2000. The next release, Rock or Bust, would be another six years away. Obviously, AC/DC has had their share of dramatic setbacks, but last November’s Power Up album proved one shouldn’t count them out yet. There has been some chatter about touring, though I haven’t seen any official announcements. Earlier this month, Brian Johnson joined Foo Fighters at a Global Citizen Vax Live concert in Los Angeles to performBack in Black. Of course, one song is different from an entire concert, not to speak of an entire tour. Still, I guess it gives AC/DC fans some hope that maybe they’ll get another chance to see the band. Meanwhile, let’s hop on the rock ‘n’ roll train!
Celebrating female artists in blues, country, jazz, rock & roll, soul and pop
The idea behind this two-part post was inspired by fellow blogger Lisa, aka msjadeli, a talented poet who also likes great music. Throughout this month, she’s doing “Women Music March,” a series I’ve been enjoying. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to check it out. While female artists aren’t a novelty in my blog, the closest I previously came to celebrate their music in a dedicated fashion were two posts on ladies singing the blues. You can find them here and here. Female talent certainly isn’t limited to the blues. This two-part post includes ten of the many female music artists I admire.
It’s also good timing to recognize female music artists in a dedicated way. March happens to be Women’s History Month, a celebration of contributions women have made and are making to society. Obviously, music is an important part of this, and some of the artists I feature were true trailblazers. Initially, I had planned to include all of my 10 selections in one post but quickly realized it made more sense to break things up. Here’s the first of two installments.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Sister Rosetta Tharpe who started playing the guitar as a four-year-old and began her recording career at age 23 in 1938 was a prominent gospel singer and an early pioneer of rock & roll. Playing the electric guitar, she was one of the first popular recording artists to use distortion. Her technique had a major influence on British guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. She also influenced many artists in the U.S., including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few. After Elvis had seen her being backed by vocal quartet The Jordanaires, he decided to work with them as well. Tharpe has been called “the original soul sister” and “the godmother of rock & roll.” Unfortunately, her health declined prematurely and she passed away from a stroke in 1973 at the untimely age of 58. In May 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence. Here’s Strange Things Happening Everyday, a traditional African American spiritual that became a hit for Tharpe in 1945. This recording is historic, as it’s considered to be one of the very first rock & roll songs. Tharpe’s remarkable guitar-playing, including her solos, distorted sound and bending of strings, is more pronounced on later tunes, but you can already hear some it here. This lady was a true early rock star and trailblazer!
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, N.C. in February 1933, Nina Simone was the sixth of eight children growing up in a poor family. She began playing the piano at the age of three or four. After finishing high school, she wanted to become a professional pianist, so she applied to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. When they rejected her, she decided to take private lessons. In order to pay for them she started performing at a night club in Atlantic City, N.J. The club owner insisted that she also sing, which ended up launching her career as a jazz vocalist. In February 1959, Simone’s debut album Little Blue Girl appeared. It was the start of an active recording career that lasted for more than 30 years until 1993. Afterwards she lived in Southern France and died there in April 2003 at the age of 70. Here’s Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, a medley of the songs Ain’t Got No and I Got Life from the musical Hair, with lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and music by Galt MacDermot. It appeared on Simone’s 1968 album ‘Nuff Said and became one of her biggest hits in Europe.
“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, who was born in Memphis, Tenn. in March 1942, began singing as a child at a Baptist church in Detroit, Mich. where her father C.L. Franklin was a minister. The Reverend began managing his daughter when she was 12 years old. He also helped her obtain her first recording deal with J.V.B Records in 1956, which resulted in two gospel singles. After Franklin had turned 18, she told her father she wanted to pursue a secular music career and moved to New York. In 1960, she signed with Columbia Records, which in February 1961 released her debut studio album Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo. Thirty-seven additional studio recordings followed until October 2014. In 2017, she came out of semi-retirement for a planned short tour. I had a ticket to see her in Newark on March 25, 2018, her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. A few months prior to the gig, it was announced Franklin’s doctor had put her on bed rest and that all remaining shows of the tour were canceled. In August 2018, Aretha Franklin died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. Here’s (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone, a great soul tune co-written by Franklin and Ted White, her first husband and manager from 1961 until 1968. It was included on her 12th studio album Lady Soul released in January 1968.
More frequent visitors of the blog know how much I admire Carole King. With the recent 50th anniversary of Tapestry, I’ve written extensively about her. Before releasing one of the greatest albums in pop history in 1971 at age 29, for more than 10 years, King wrote an impressive array of hits for many other artists, together with her lyricist and husband Gerry Goffin: Will You Still Love Me (The Shirelles), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), I’m Into Somethin’ Good (Herman’s Hermits), Don’t Bring Me Down (The Animals), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) – the list of Goffin-King hits goes on and on. This songwriting duo helped shape ’60s music history. They were rightfully inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1987. King is also currently nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While given her general modesty I imagine she doesn’t even care much about it, it’s just mind-boggling to me why this extraordinary artist wasn’t inducted decades ago! If you share my sentiments and like to do something about it, you can go to rockhall.com and participate in the fan vote. You can do so every day between now and April 30. King is currently trailing in sixth place. Only the first five will be included in the fan vote tally, so she definitely could need some support! To celebrate another true trailblazer in music, let’s get the ground shaking with I Feel the Earth Move from Tapestry!
What can I say about Tina Turner? Where do I even begin? The Queen of Rock & Roll wasn’t only one of the most compelling live performers, as I had the privilege to witness myself on two occasions. She’s also one of the ultimate survivors. Her initial role as front woman of Ike & Tina Turner brought her great popularity but came at a terrible price. Physically and emotionally abusing your woman wasn’t cool, Ike, and will forever tarnish you. And look what happened after Tina walked out on you on July 1, 1976 with 36 cents and a Mobil credit card in her pocket. She launched a successful solo career, while you struggled. At the time Tina was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as part of Ike & Tina Turner, you were in prison – ’nuff said! BTW, Turner is also among the 2021 nominees – this time as a solo artist. Currently in second place in the fan vote, she would certainly deserve a second induction. Here’s The Bitch Is Back from Turner’s first solo album Rough, released in September 1978 after her divorce from pathetic wife beater Ike Turner. It almost sounds like she was giving him the middle finger! Co-written by Bernie Taupin (lyrics) and Elton John (music), the tune first appeared on John’s eighth studio album Caribou from June 1974.
On February 10, 2021, Carole King’sTapestry is turning 50. Not only is it one of the most iconic pop albums ever recorded, but Tapestry holds a special place in my heart. Over the next 10 days, I intend to celebrate this timeless gem largely one song at a time. Since Tapestry has 12 tracks, I guess I should have started this series two days earlier to truly make it one track each day. Well, obviously I didn’t, so I need to cheat a little to fit the series within 10 days. I’m going to kick it off and finish up with two songs and highlight one tune on each day two to day nine.
Tapestry is one of the very first music vinyl records I ever heard when I was a seven or eight year-old growing up in Germany. Even though I didn’t understand a word of English at the time, Carole’s music spoke to me right away. And, believe it or not, pretty soon, I found myself singing along, mimicking the English language. I memorized much of the lyrics that way, and later on when I started taking English lessons in fifth grade, I actually began to understand word by word what I had phonetically mimicked years before.
Tapestry was Carole King’s sophomore solo album. It came out nine months after her debut Writer. While Carole was only 29 years old when Tapestry was released, she already had had an impressive 13-year music career under her belt. Most of that time she had spent writing songs together with lyricist Gerry Goffin. Carole met Gerry while they were students in Queens College and married him at age 17 after she had become pregnant with her first daughter Louise.
Goffin-King became one of the most prolific and most successful songwriting partnerships of the ’60s. Some of the hits they wrote include Will You Love Me Tomorrow (The Shirelles), Chains (The Cookies, The Beatles), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), Up on the Roof (The Drifters), I’m into Something Good (Earl-Jean, Herman’s Hermits), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin). They even dabbled somewhat in psychedelic rock with Don’t Bring Me Down, which The Animals recorded and released in 1966.
Back to Tapestry. Unless noted otherwise all music and lyrics were written by Carole. Here’s the opener I Feel the Earth Move, a piano-driven rocker with a bluesy touch, fueled by Carole’s honky tonk style piano and guitarist Danny Kootch’s great fill-ins. What a terrific way to kick off the album! I Feel the Earth Move also became the A-side of Tapestry’s lead single, backed by It’s Too Late. Billboard lists I Feel the Earth Move as a no. 1 tune on the Hot 100, though according to Songfacts, there is some debate over this. Apparently, after a few weeks of frequent airplay of I Feel the Earth Move, DJs discovered the B-side and ended up playing it more. Billboard subsequently designated the single a double-A. As the result, the tunes were no longer tracked separately and are now both considered to be no. 1 songs.
After an energetic opener, Carole decided to slow things down with the ballad So Far Away. So far away/Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more?/It would be so fine to see your face at my door/It doesn’t help to know you’re just time away/Long ago I reached for you and there you stood/Holding you again could only do me good/Oh how I wish I could but you’re so far away…Such beautifully written lyrics.
According to Songfacts, Tapestry producer Lou Adler said, “So Far Away’ is my favorite song on Tapestry. I use the phrase a lot, ‘Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?’ It’s the road, it’s the people traveling. It just seems to me an anthem of that particular time and so well written and one of the earlier songs she wrote for this album.”
Long before Carole King launched her solo career in 1970, she was part of one of the most successful songwriting partnerships in pop music history with lyricist Gerry Goffin. The two met in New York’s Queens College in 1959 where Carole Klein (her birth name) had begun writing songs as Carole King. They started collaborating soon thereafter, with Carole composing music and Gerry writing lyrics.
The songwriting partnership quickly led to romance, pregnancy and marriage in August 1959. King was 17 years old while Goffin was 20. That same year, she composed Oh Neil for her high school friend Neil Sedaka who recorded the tune as a single. He co-wrote the lyrics with Howard Greenfield and Goffin. The B-side A Very Special Boy was a Goffin-King composition.
The single flopped. But it resulted in professional contracts for King and Goffin with Aldon Music, a Manhattan-based music publishing company founded by Don Kirshner and a significant force in what became known as the Brill Building sound.
Goffin-King’s breakthrough occurred in 1960 with Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which was recorded by The Shirelles and came out in November that year. The tune climbed all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first no. 1 in the U.S. by an African American all-girl group. King would later record a version of the song for her iconic Tapestry album.
The next big Goffin-King hit is another ’60s classic: Take Good Care of My Baby, recorded by Bobby Vee and released in July 1961. It became the second no. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 for the young songwriting couple.
Another great ’60s tune written by Goffin-King is The Loco-Motion, which was first recorded with Little Eva (born Eva Narcissus Boyd) and came out in June 1962. Boyd was Goffin’s and King’s babysitter. Originally, the song had been written for R&B singer Dee Dee Sharp who turned it down. The tune has been covered by many other artists, including Grand Funk Railroad (1974), who like Little Eva took it to no. 1, as well as King herself on her 1980 album Pearls: Songs of Goffin and King.
And the hits kept coming for Goffin-King. In May 1963, it was One Fine Day by the The Chiffons. The tune peaked at no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. And it’s yet another song King recorded herself many years later, in 1980, giving her a no. 12 on the U.S. mainstream chart.
I’m Into Somethin’ Good is another of my favorite ’60s pop tunes. The best known version is by Herman’s Hermits, who released the song as their debut single I’m Into Something Good in August 1964. It topped the UK Singles Chart and reached no. 13 in the U.S. The tune was first recorded earlier that year by Earl-Jean. Her original climbed to no. 38 on the Billboard Hot 100, not too shabby either.
Let’s do three more Goffin-King compositions. First up: Don’t Bring Me Down released by The Animals in May 1966. While it gave the British band a hit in the UK and the U.S. where it reached no. 6 and no. 16, respectively, they preferred a more straightforward R&B sound and as such were lukewarm about it.
No Goffin-King post would be complete without Pleasant Valley Sunday, which became an international hit for The Monkees in 1967, reaching no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 and no. 10 in Canada, New Zealand, the U.S. and Australia, respectively.
The last tune I’d like to highlight is (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Aretha Franklin first recorded and released this gem in September 1967. The song was inspired by Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler who received a co-credit. It’s yet another tune King also recorded herself for the Tapestry album.
While the Goffin-King songwriting partnership lasted for 10 years and yielded remarkable success throughout that period, their personal relationship hit the rocks in 1964 when Goffin fathered a daughter with above singer Earl-Jean (full name: Earl-Jean Reavis, née McCrea). King and Goffin remained together until their divorce in 1969.
King went on to launch a successful solo career and released her debut album Writer in May 1970, followed by the career-defining Tapestry in February 1971. Goffin began working with other composers and also had a solo album in 1973, though it did not become successful. In 1987, Goffin and King were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll of Fame in 1990. Goffin passed away in June 2014 in Los Angeles at the age of 75.
Yesterday, I coincidentally listened to a new live album by The Monkees. And, nope, this isn’t some old material somebody had dug out from an archive. It was actually recorded in March 2019 from the so-called Mike & Micky Show and is the first live album released by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, who toured as The Monkees in 2018/2019. No matter how you feel about what initially was a fictitious band created for an American television show in the mid-’60s, listening to the 24 tracks isn’t only fun but also vividly illustrates how many great songs The Monkees have had. Plus, let’s not forget that Nesmith and Peter Tork had instrumental skills from the beginning and Davy Jones was a capable vocalist, while Dolenz eventually learned how to play the drums.
The collection spans the entire 50-plus year catalog of The Monkees. Frankly, I had not realized how active the band had remained in more recent years. Their latest studio album Christmas Party appeared in October 2018. And while it has a Christmas theme, it’s not just pop versions of holiday tunes. It also came out only less than two years after Good Times!, their previous studio release from May 2016. By the way, both of these albums were co-produced by Fountains of Wayne co-founder and key song contributor Adam Schlesinger, who passed away last Tuesday from complications caused by COVID-19. It’s kind of crazy how much the coronavirus already has impacted the music industry in less than two months!
Even after The Monkees had become a “real” band, they largely continued to rely on outside writers like the songwriting duos of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and Jerry Goffin and Carole King. But they also penned some of their songs themselves, especially Michael Nesmith. The album features various tunes he wrote, such as The Girl I Knew Somewhere, Listen to the Band and Papa Gene’s Blues. Two of them, St. Matthew and Auntie’s Municipal Court, the band didn’t perform during their heyday. ‘Nuff talk, let’s get to some music!
The album kicks off with Last Train to Clarksville, the band’s debut single released in August 1966. It’s one of the tunes written by Boyce and Hart. And it’s certainly no coincidence that it sounds very Beatle-esque. Frankly, this is an awesome song that is comparable to some of the mid-’60s tunes by The Beatles, and I say this as a fierce Fab Four fan! Here’s the official video.
Nesmith wasn’t the only member who contributed to the band’s own songs. For Pete’s Sake was co-written by Peter Tork and Joey Richards. The tune appeared on The Monkees’ third studio album Headquarters from May 1967.
A Little Bit Me, a Little Bit You, a tune written by Neil Diamond, was the band’s third single released in March 1967. It didn’t quite match the chart success of their previous smash hit I’m a Believer, but still climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, hit no. 1 in Canada, and reached the top 10 in many other countries. It’s a fun tune that reminds me a bit of That’s What I Like About You by The Romantics.
Next up, one of the above noted Nesmith tunes: Papa Gene’s Blues. As Nesmith points out, it’s an acoustic version. Originally, that song appeared on The Monkees’ eponymous debut album from October 1966. Apart from the track, it’s kind of entertaining to listen to the announcement, with Nesmith and Dolenz trading jokes.
Let’s do two more. I’ve always loved these tunes and simply couldn’t skip them. Daydream Believer, written by John Stewart, is a track from the band’s fifth studio album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees released in April 1968. It’s the perfect sing-along, and not surprisingly, Mike & Micky asked the audience to join them – feel free to follow their lead!
And, of course, no concert by The Monkees would be complete without I’m a Believer. Their second single from November 1966 and biggest hit topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, Australia and numerous European countries is another Neil Diamond composition. It also was included on the band’s sophomore album More of the Monkees, which came out in January 1967.
At the time Nesmith and Dolenz were planning their 2018/2019 tour, Tork was still alive but declined to join. Sadly, he since passed away in February 2019. Jones had died seven years earlier in February 2012. Initially, Nesmith and Dolenz had planned to take their show out on the road again in the U.S. and Canada starting later this month. But given COVID-19, most dates have been pushed back until July and September. The current schedule is here.
Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s
The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. All Music adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.
With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.
Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.
Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!
In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.
I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!
Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).
More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.
While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.
When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.
The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.
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.
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!
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
From the first to the last note Tapestry beautifully shines, truly making it a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
Carole King’sTapestry set a new standard in the singer-songwriter category. The benchmark has yet to be surpassed, almost 46 years after the album’s release in February 1971.
Apart from its great music, I will always connect Tapestry with the time in the mid-70s when I started to get into music. My sister had the record and was playing it all the time. Recently, I got a vinyl copy of this gem as well. I had owned it on CD for many years, but nothing beats the vinyl experience!
While Tapestry brought Carole King on the map as a solo artist, at the time of its release she already had been a successful songwriter for other artists for more than a decade. Together with her lyricist and first husband Gerry Goffin, Carole had written a number of major hits during the 60s, such as The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and, not to forget, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).
But back to Tapestry, which was Carole’s second studio release. Her debut, Writer, did not receive much initial attention, though that changed after Tapestry became popular. It’s one of those rare albums where I almost find it impossible to point out obvious highlights – each of its 12 tunes is simply outstanding, making it worthwhile to listen from the first song to the last song.
The opener I Feel The Earth Move is one of only a few up-tempo tunes on the album with a dose of rock and blues. Another great song in this category is Smackwater Jack. It is also one of three tunes from the ’60s Goffin-King songwriting era. The other two are the beautiful ballads Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and Natural Woman.
If I would have to choose my favorite from Tapestry, it would be You’ve Got A Friend, both musically and in terms of its exceptionally beautiful lyrics. It is one of various tunes featuring James Taylor, whoalso recorded his own version, which became one of his signature songs.
Another tune I’m particularly fond of is Way Over Yonder. In addition to great lyrics, Carole’s singing and piano-playing are outstanding. But what’s really giving me the goose bumps is the background vocal (Merry Clayton) and the tenor sax solo (Curtis Amy).
Speaking of additional musicians, Tapestry features numerous of them, though most of the songs are dominated by Carole’s powerful voice and piano. Additional instrumentation is oftentimes in the background, especially for the ballads, which gives the songs great dynamic. Some of the fantastic musicians include Danny Kootch (acoustic and electric guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Charles Larkey (bass), Carol’s second husband at the time. Oh, and there is Joni Mitchell, who shares background vocals with James Taylor on Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
Tapestry has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, including more than 10 million in the U.S., making it one of the most successful albums of all time. It is No. 36 on Rolling Stone’s500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Here’s another gem: It’s Too Late.
This post was updated with images and clips on November 28, 2020.