You’re So Good, Baby, You’re So Good

A tribute to the amazing voice and versatility of Linda Ronstadt

The other night, I caught the great documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice on CNN. While I had been well aware of Linda Ronstadt’s amazing vocals, I had not fully appreciated her musical versatility. I’d like to focus this post on the latter, since it’s safe to assume her biography has been covered a million times.

Yes, Ronstadt “only” performed music written by others, which perhaps in part explains why it took me so long to write about her. But it would be a serious mistake to underappreciate her. You don’t need to take it from me.

Let’s start with a few comments from other artists I dig, who are featured in the documentary. “Linda could literally sing anything” (Dolly Parton). “Linda was the queen. She was what Beyoncé is right now” (Bonnie Raitt). “Linda was a very determined woman” (Don Henley). “There’s just no one that will have a voice like Linda’s” (Emmylou Harris). “Try following Linda Ronstadt every night” (Jackson Browne).

Linda Ronstadt Feb 2019
Linda Ronstadt in Feb 2019

And then there’s Ronstadt’s sheer success. The documentary noted she “was the only female artist with five platinum albums in a row:” Heart Like a Wheel (November 1974), Prisoner in Disguise (September 1975), Hasten Down the Wind (August 1976), Simple Dreams (September 1977) and Living in the USA (September 1978). I assume that statement refers to the ’70s only. According to Wikipedia, Mad Love from February 1980 also hit platinum, which would actually make it six such albums in a row. Plus, there’s another series of five platinum records in a row Ronstadt released between September 1983 and October 1989.

Let’s get to some music. I’d like to kick things off with Rescue Me, from Ronstadt’s eponymous album, released January 1973, her third record. Co-written by Raynard Miner and Carl Smith, this nice rocker was recorded live at The Troubador in Los Angeles. In addition to Ronstadt’s great vocals, I’d like to call out her impressive backing band: Glenn Frey (guitar, backing vocals), Don Henley (drums, backing vocals) and Randy Meisner (backing vocals), along with Sneaky Pete Kleinow (pedal steel guitar), Moon Martin (guitar), Michael Bowden (bass). Among the album’s many other guests was Bernie Leadon. Following the record’s release and with Ronstadt’s approval Frey, Henley, Leadon and Meisner formed that other band called the Eagles.

When Will I Be Loved is one of the gems on Ronstadt’s breakthrough album Heart Like a Wheel from November 1974. The Phil Everly tune nicely illustrates her ability to select great songs and make them her own. I dig the original by The Everly Brothers, but Ronstadt took it to another level. Apart from beautiful harmony singing, it’s the guitar work by Andrew Gold that stands out to me. Similar to her eponymous album, Heart Like a Wheel features an impressive array of guests, including Frey, Henley, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmidt, Russ Kunkel, David Lindley and Emmylou Harris, among others. Once again, it goes to show great artists like to play with other great artists.

In September 1977, Ronstadt released her eighth studio album Simple Dreams, which became one of the most successful records of her entire career. Among others, it includes Blue Bayou, one of her best-known songs. And then there’s this fantastic version of Rolling Stones classic Tumbling Dice. Check out that great slide guitar solo by Waddy Wachtel, who in addition to electric also played acoustic guitar and provided backing vocals, together with Kenny Edwards. According to It Came With The Frame, Ronstadt at the time had a fling with Mick Jagger who helped her overcome challenges in mastering the song’s lyrics. That little help from her friend came to end when Bianca Jagger flew straight to California to confront her husband. Apparently, she actually liked Ronstadt as long as she didn’t get too cozy with Mick!

After having become one of the biggest female music artists on the planet and having firmly established herself in the country, pop and rock genres, Ronstadt took the gutsy decision to turn to Broadway in the summer of 1980. She became the lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, alongside actor and vocalist Kevin Kline. While people in the music industry tried to talk her out of it, saying it would be the end of her career, it all made perfect sense to Ronstadt. Her grandfather Fred Ronstadt had once created a musical arrangement of The Pirates of Penzance. Ronstadt also co-starred in the 1983 film version of the operetta, for which she won several Tony Awards and earned a Golden Globe nomination. Here’s Poor Wandering One.

During her Broadway and operetta phase and beyond, Ronstadt continued to release studio albums and took excursions into new musical territory.First up: An album of pop standards, ironically titled What’s New and featuring songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Sammy Kahn. It was the first in a trilogy of jazz-oriented albums. Again, Ronstadt’s record company Asylum and her manager Peter Asher were quite reluctant to produce such a record. But Don Henley didn’t call her “a very determined woman” for nothing, and in the end, the record label and Asher knew they couldn’t talk Ronstadt out of it. The album actually turned out to be a success, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and spending 81 weeks on the chart. Here’s Ronstadt’s take of I’ve Got a Crush On You, co-written by George Gershwin and his older brother Ira Gershwin.

In 1987, Ronstadt took yet another musical turn. Inspired by her Mexican heritage (her father Gilbert Ronstadt was of German, English and Mexican ancestry) and her exposure to Mexican music, which was sung by her family throughout her childhood, she recorded Canciones De Mi Padre, an album of traditional Mariachi music. Released in November 1987, it became the first of four Spanish language albums Ronstadt released. It also remains the biggest-selling non-English language album in American record history, with 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. and nearly 10 million worldwide as of 2012. According to Wikipedia, it also is the only recording production that used the three best Mariachi bands in the world: Mariachi Vargas, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Los Galleros de Pedro Rey. Ronstadt simply didn’t do anything half-ass! Here’s Tú Sólo Tú.

If you’re new to Linda Ronstadt, I suppose by now, nothing would really surprise you. Plus country isn’t perhaps as big a leap as operetta and Mariachi music. Here’s a tune from Trio II, the second country collaboration album Ronstadt recorded with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. The album appeared in February 1999. I have to say I’ve rarely heard such beautiful harmony vocals. It’s like angels singing. And dare I add it as a huge Neil Young fan, I like Ronstadt’s take better than the original, which is one of my favorite Young tunes.

I’d like to wrap things up with one more song: Back in the U.S.A. Ronstadt’s cover of the Chuck Berry tune was the opener of Living in the USA, released in September 1978, her third and last record to peak the Billboard 200. Back in the U.S.A. also became the album’s lead single in August of the same year. Dan Dugmore and Waddy Wachtel on guitar and Don Grolnick on the piano do a beautiful job. Russ Kunkel (drums), Kenny Edwards (bass, backing vocals) and Peter Asher (backing vocals) round out the backing musicians.

Linda Ronstadt has had an exceptional career. In addition to having released more than 30 studio albums, including three no. 1 records on the Billboard 200, she has appeared on approximately 120 albums by other artists. According to her former producer and manager Peter Asher, Ronstadt has sold over 45 million albums in the U.S. alone. She has also produced for other artists like David Lindley, Aaron Neville and Jimmy Webb. In April 2014, Ronstadt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also became a Kennedy Center Honoree last year.

In a February 2019 interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Ronstadt said that it was in 2000 when she started noticing something was wrong with her voice. “I would start to sing and it would start clamp up. It was like a cramp. It was like a freeze…It’s very slow-moving this disease, so it took a really long time to fully manifest.” After these first signs, Ronstadt recorded one more album, Hummin’ to Myself, released in November 2004. During an April 2011 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, she said, “I’m 100 percent retired and I’m not doing anything any more. I’m at the ripe old age of getting to be 65 and I find that I don’t have the power that I had and that’s not worth inviting people to spend their money.”

While Parkinson’s is a bad disease, especially for a vocalist, Ronstadt is very gracious about it. “You know, I’m grateful for the time I had,” she said in the documentary. “I got to live a lot of my dreams and I feel lucky about it…Another person with Parkinson’s said that life after death isn’t the question. It’s life before death. So how you gonna do it? How you gonna live?” BTW, in good old CNN fashion to repeat content, the documentary airs again tonight at 9:00 pm ET and tomorrow (January 5, 12:00-2:00 am ET). If you like Linda Ronstadt, I highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; It Came With The Frame; CBS Sunday Morning; Arizona Daily Star; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: December 30

Before this year and decade are finally over, I thought why not throw in another installment of this recurring feature. For first-time visitors, the idea of these posts is simple: Look what happened on a specific date in rock throughout the decades. Admittedly, it’s a rather arbitrary way to cover music history. Moreover, these posts reflect events I find interesting and are not supposed to be comprehensive summaries. Usually, the selections are heavily focused on the ’60s and ’70s, which generally are my favorite music decades. This time, I’m also throwing in two birthdays. With that being said, let’s get to it!

1928: Ellas McDaniel (born Ellas Otha Bates), the American artist who became known as Bo Diddley, was born in the tiny city of McComb, Miss. When he was six years old, the McDaniel family who had adopted him from his mother, moved to Chicago, where the boy studied the trombone and the violin before taking up the guitar. Initially, he played on street corners with friends. By 1951, he had secured a regular gig at Chicago South Side’s 708 Club. In April 1955, then already known as Bo Diddley, he released his namesake tune featuring his signature Bo Diddley beat. Diddley, who passed away on June 2, 2008, influenced many artists, such as early rock & rollers Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, as well as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Here’s Bo Diddley, his only tune to top the Billboard Hot R&B chart.

1947: Jeffrey (Jeff) Lynne was born in the Birmingham suburb of Erdington, England. Jeff got his first (acoustic) guitar as a child from his father Philip Lynne. In 1963, he formed his first band, The Rockin’ Hellcats – that’s when bands still had fun names! Three years later, Jeff joined Birmingham rock group The Idle Race as lead guitarist, keyboarder and vocalist, and played on their first two albums. While the band developed a cult following, it did not achieve commercial success. In 1970, Lynne’s friend Roy Wood invited him to join The Move, the band that eventually morphed into Electric Light Orchestra. After a successful run that lasted 11 albums and 15 years, ELO disbanded in 1986. In 2000, Lynne revived ELO, but until 2013, they mostly released re-issues and played occasional mini-reunions. Since 2014, the band essentially has been a Jeff Lynne project billed as Jeff Lynne’s ELO and released two albums. Lynne also was a co-founder of Traveling Wilburys. In addition to producing for “his” bands, Lynne produced for many other artists, such as Dave Edmunds, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh. Here’s Livin’ Thing from ELO’s sixth studio album A New World Record, released in July 1976. Like most ELO tunes, the song was written by Lynne who turned 72 years today. Happy birthday!

1967: For the 15th time, The Beatles stood at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, this time with Hello, Goodbye. Written by Paul McCartney, the tune was released as a non-album single in November 1967, backed by I’m The Walrus. According to Songfacts, John Lennon wasn’t fond of the tune, calling it “three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions.” Apparently, he was also mad that his song I’m The Walrus was relegated to the B-side. While Hello, Goodbye has nice harmony singing and a cool bassline, I have to say I’m with Lennon here. The lyrics are silly and the much stronger I’m The Walrus would have deserved to be an A-side release.

1973: Jim Croce topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Time In A Bottle, his second and last no. 1 hit. Sadly, he didn’t get a chance to witness this milestone. On September 20, 1973, Croce was killed in a plane crash during a tour while taking off from Natchitoches, La.  He was en route to Sherman, Texas for his next scheduled gig at Austin College. All of the other five people who were on board of the chartered Beechcraft E18S died as well. Time In A Bottle was the third single off Croce’s third studio album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, which had come out in April 1972. The poetic love song is a timeless gem!

1974: Bob Dylan recorded the take of Tangled Up In Blue that ended up on his 1975 album Blood On The Tracks while visiting his brother David for the holidays in Minnesota. Written in the summer of 1974, the tune deals with personal matters Dylan was going through at the time, including his failing marriage to his first wife Sara Dylan (born Shirley Marlin Noznisky). Dylan had first recorded the song with producer Phil Ramone in New York but not released it. During the session that generated the album version, Dylan asked Kevin Odegard, a local singer and guitarist who had been brought in to support the recording, what he thought about the song. Odegard suggested changing the key from G and A. Dylan gave it a try and apparently was satisfied with the outcome. Odegard never received any credit on the record but graciously said the experience was instrumental in launching his own successful music career.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts; This Day In Rock; YouTube

The Year That Was 2019

Highlights of my rock & roll journey during the past 12 months

It feels unreal to me Christmas and New Year’s are upon us again – not to mention a new decade! I still recall a conversation with a school friend when we were 12 years old. He and I imagined where we might be when the year 2000 comes. At the time, the turn of the century was still more than two decades out. It seemed so far away. Now, not only has 2000 come and go, but we’re 20 years down the road, baby – crazy how time flies!

Well, this post doesn’t span decades. The idea is much more moderate: Looking back at my personal music journey over the past 12 months, as documented by this blog. While to some extent it reflects what happened in music this year, it’s not a broad review piece. Since I mostly listen to ’60s and ’70s artists or new music they release, I couldn’t do a legitimate comprehensive look-back on 2019 in music.

In the past, I’ve said more than once most new music nowadays lacks true craftsmanship and sounds generic and soulless to me. And while I still largely ignore what dominates today’s charts, I’ve finally come to accept contemporary music isn’t inherently bad. It’s just different and I generally don’t like it. Here’s the good news: I don’t have to. There’s so much “old” music out there I’ve yet to discover, and while artists may retire or pass away, their music will stay. Forever. That’s the beauty of music. It means for those of us who dig it, rock & roll will never die! Okay, enough with the wise-cracking and on to some highlights of my music journey this year.

Concerts

As a retired band-turned-closet musician, live music remains the ultimate thrill to me. Yes, ticket prices continue to be outrageous for most top acts, and that’s not going to change. But this hasn’t deterred me yet from seeing artists I dig. However, it did require being more selective (for example, I skipped Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, since I had seen both in 2018) and oftentimes settling for cheaper seats.

My two concert highlights this year were The Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. in early August and The Who at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May. I had seen both before, but since they are among my longtime favorite bands and in the twilight of their careers, I simply did not want to miss the opportunity. I’m glad I was able to catch both, especially The Who. At the time I bought my ticket, I had not realized this wasn’t a “regular” gig but The Who backed by a symphonic orchestra. Had I understood this, it may have deterred me. But the concept worked pretty well, so I’m happy I didn’t read the fine print! Here’s a clip from each show: Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the Love Reign O’er Me, two tunes that will never go out of style in my book!

I also saw various other great shows: Walter Trout (The Iridium, New York, April 9), Joe Jackson (State Theatre, New Jersey, New Brunswick, May 18), Govt’ Mule (The Stone Pony, Asbury Park, N.J., June 28), Southern Avenue (The Wonder Bar, Asbury Park, N.J., July 11) and Hall & Oates (Fairgrounds, Allentown, Pa.). I wouldn’t have gone to that last concert, had it not been for my wife. While I wouldn’t call myself a Hall & Oates fan, it was a great show.

As King/Emperor of Tribute Bands (blame Music Enthusiast for the title! 🙂 ), this concert section wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the many tribute shows that continued to attract me. I know some folks roll their eyes when they hear the word tribute band. I find nothing wrong listening to music I dig, especially when it’s faithfully captured. Among the many tribute concerts I saw, two stood out: Pink Floyd tribute Brit Floyd (Sands Bethlehem Event Center, Bethlehem, Pa., March 30) and the annual Rock The Farm Tribute Festival (Seaside Heights, N.J., September 28). Here’s a clip from the Brit Floyd gig: Comfortably Numb – epic!

And then there’s of course Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. I finally got to see the director’s cut of the documentary on the big screen. While I can’t deny 224 minutes is pretty massive, I enjoyed every minute of it. Here’s the main post I did to commemorate the festival. And here’s a clip of one of the most iconic rock performances of all time: Joe Cocker and With A Little Help From My Friends.

New Music

As stated above, for the most part, new music means new albums released by “old” artists I dig. As I looked back through my previous posts, I was surprised to find that I reviewed 22 new albums. Granted this number includes three live albums (The Doobie Brothers/Live From The Beacon Theatre, The Rolling Stones/Bridges To Bremen and Paul McCartney/Amoeba Gig) and an excellent posthumous compilation by Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers (The Best Of Everything), which do not feature new music. Even if you exclude these, it still leaves you with 18 albums. This makes me wonder what I would do if I also paid more attention to contemporary artists. It pretty much would be impossible to review their new music as well, given I have a family and a full-time job – another good reason to focus on what I truly dig! 🙂

Albums by “old hands” I’d like to call out are The Who (WHO), Booker T. (Note By Note), Neil Young (Colorado), Ringo Starr (What’s My Name), Santana (Africa Speaks),  Little Steven And The Disciples of Soul (Summer of Sorcery), Joe Jackson Fool and Sheryl Crow (Threads). One artist who seems to be missing here is Bruce Springsteen and Western Stars. While I dig Springsteen and don’t think it’s a bad record, it just doesn’t speak to me the way other music by The Boss does, so I ended up skipping a review. Crow said Threads is her final full-fledged release, explaining in the age of streaming music, most people make playlists and no longer listen to entire albums. Boy, this statement really reflects how much listening habits and the music business have changed! Here’s Live Wire, a nice bluesy tune co-written by Crow and Jeff Trott and featuring Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples.

There were also some new blues releases I enjoyed by both older and younger artists, including Walter Trout (Blues Survivor), Jimmie Vaughan (Baby, Please Come Home), Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band (The Traveler) and “wunderkind” Jontavious Willis (Spectacular Class), as Taj Mahal has called him. How about some music from Willis’ sophomore album? By the way, it was executive-produced by Mahal. Here’s opener Low Down Ways.

I also would like to call out albums from three other contemporary artists: Rick Barth (Fade), SUSTO (Ever Since I Lost My Mind) and Southern Avenue (Keep On). If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall Southern Avenue is one of the very few young bands I truly dig. I just love how these guys blend blues, soul and R&B, and the vocals are just killer! Here’s the title track from the above album, which is their second one. The tune was co-written by guitarist Ori Naftaly, lead vocalist Tierini Jackson and producer Johnny Black. There’s just something about Southern Avenue’s sound I find really seductive.

Coolest Clip

I think I came across a number of great clips I posted throughout the year. One of the best has to be this footage of The Who performing Won’t Get Fooled Again. That’s the raw power of rock & roll! It was filmed on May 25, 1978 at England’s Shepperton Studios, about 20 miles southwest of London, for the closing sequence of the band’s rockumentary The Kids Are Alright. And then, there’s this very different but equally mesmerizing clip: a live demonstration of the Hammond B3 by the amazing Booker T. Jones. To really get excited about it, I realize maybe you need to be a musician.

And Finally…

2019 marks the third full year I’m doing this blog. While I really wanted to start writing about my passion, I wasn’t sure whether I could keep it going when I set out in June 2016. Due to personal reasons, I had to slow down a bit during the past couple of months. But music and writing about artists I dig is therapy to me, so I have every intention to continue and hopefully pick up the pace again. When starting the blog, I also felt I’m doing this for myself first and foremost, not to become some “Internet sensation.” While that is still the case, I can’t deny it’s great to see visitors and that traffic has trended up nicely. Of course, growing from tiny numbers is relatively easy, and there is realistically no way I can keep up the current momentum.

Blog Stats

I’m leaving you with a clip from my most popular post this year (measured by total views): The above mentioned Rock The Farm Tribute Festival. The positive reception made me really happy, since it’s great music for a great cause. Here’s It’s Late by Canadian Queen tribute Simply Queen.

I’d like to thank all visitors for reading and especially those who go through the trouble of leaving comments. I always love getting feedback, even if I may not agree with everything folks say. But that’s cool.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas Emoji

Sources: Christian’s Music Musings; YouTube

Leiber-Stoller, Songwriting Partnership Extraordinaire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Who Remain A Formidable Rock Force On New Album

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

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

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

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

Pete Townshend & Roger Daltrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Turkey Day Brings Another Rock & Roll Radio Marathon

I’m not much of a radio guy, not even in the car, where despite having access to Sirius XM, I prefer listening to music from my streaming provider most of the time. An exception for the past few years has been a massive four and a half-day countdown of songs New York classic radio station Q104.3 does around each Thanksgiving. Ingeniously, they call it the Top 1043 Classic Rock Songs of All Time.

To come up with the list, the station asks listeners to submit their top 10 songs in no particular order, which each counting as one vote. They then tally the submissions, determine the 1043 songs with the most votes, and play all of them in one shot, starting with the tune that got the least votes. The only interruption happens at noon on Thanksgiving, when they play Arlo Guthrie classic Alice’s Restaurant in its entire 18 minutes plus. The whole thing lasts from 1:00 pm ET on Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving until sometime on Sunday evening after the holiday!

Q104.3 Countdown

This year marks the 19th annual annual countdown. Wow, that’s what I call devotion – and smart marketing/audience engagement! Remarkably, each year Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven has been the most popular song. And while the station does not reveal actual vote totals, the hosts have said in the past the tune has always won by many votes.

Don’t get me wrong, I dig Stairway – big time. In fact, if I could only choose one rock song, it probably would be that Zep classic, even though The Beatles generally remain my all-time favorite band. There are other tunes that usually make the top 10, such as Hey Jude and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Again, there’s nothing wrong with these songs and I like them as well.

But the recurrence of the above tracks makes the countdown predictable. To me this means it’s not as much fun as it could be. As I noted before, I think it’s time to shake things up a bit. Following is the set of tunes I submitted. I almost would have forgotten about it and literally did so at 3:00 am this morning when I went to the bathroom and remembered – okay, call me a loony! Here are my choices in no particular order.

Of course, it’s unlikely my selections will change much if anything. On the other hand it’s like elections. If everybody thought they couldn’t impact the outcome, nobody would vote. And that would indeed guarantee that nothing would ever change! So here’s to hoping for a new number one this year. How about Hey Jude?😆

Sources: Q104.3 website; Wikipedia; YouTube