On This Day in Rock & Roll History: March 15

Time for another installment in my long-running, somewhat geeky music history feature. I still get a kick out of researching what happened on a certain date throughout the decades in rock & roll, even though it’s such an arbitrary concept. Admittedly, I’m using the term rock & roll loosely here. It pretty much includes all music genres I dig – hey, it’s my blog, so I get to make the rules. Without further ado, let’s get to March 15!

1967: The Beatles began work on Within You Without You, a song by George Harrison. According to The Beatles Bible, Harrison had written the tune at the London home of longtime Beatles friend Klaus Voormann who first had met the band in Hamburg and had shared a flat with Harrison and Ringo Starr in the British capital in early ’60s. Several musicians from the collective Asian Music Circle played traditional Indian instruments during the recording session. They were joined by Harrison and The Beatles’ then-personal assistant Neil Aspinall on tamburas. “The tabla had never been recorded the way we did it,” commented sound engineer Geoff Emerick. “Everyone was amazed when they first heard a tabla recorded that closely, with the texture and the lovely low resonances.” Within You Without You was included on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of Only a Northern Song, another Harrison tune that would later appear on Yellow Submarine.

1969: Cream hit the top spot on the UK Albums Chart with their fourth and final studio album appropriately titled Goodbye. It would stay in that position for two weeks. Here’s one of the record’s tracks, Politician, which also is one of my favorite Cream tunes. Co-written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown, Politician was one of three live tracks on the record that were captured on October 19, 1968, at The Forum in Los Angeles during the band’s farewell tour. By the time Goodbye came out in February 1969, Cream had already disbanded.

1975: Black Water, a classic by The Doobie Brothers, climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only two no. 1 hits the band had in the U.S. The second one was What a Fool Believes in 1979. Penned by Patrick Simmons who also sang lead, Black Water first appeared on the Doobies’ fourth studio album What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits released in February 1974. Interestingly, the initial single release of Black Water was as the b-side to the record’s lead single Another Park, Another Sunday. While it’s not a bad song, you still have to wonder about that decision, which seems to suggest that between the band and the record company, they hadn’t quite noticed what a gem Black Water was.

1986: The Bangles reached no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart with Manic Monday, scoring their first hit, which also peaked at no. 2 in the U.S., Australia, Germany and Ireland, and placed in the top 5 in Austria, Norway, New Zealand and Switzerland. Written by Prince under the pseudonym Christopher, the tune was included on the American pop-rock band’s sophomore album Different Light, which had appeared in January of the same year. I generally find listening to The Bangles fairly enjoyable. In particular, I like their harmony singing, plus they have some pretty catchy songs. Just please spare me with Eternal Flame, which at the time was hopelessly burned by overexposure on the radio back in Germany and I suspect in many other countries. BTW, The Bangles are still around in almost their original lineup. Following the band’s breakup in 1989, they reunited in 1998.

1999: Curtis MayfieldDel ShannonDusty SpringfieldPaul McCartneyThe Staple SingersBilly Joel, and Bruce Springsteen were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Sean Combs, Art Alexakis, Elton John, Neil Young, Lauryn Hill, Ray Charles and Bono, respectively –  sounds fucking unreal to me! Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band to perform at the ceremony. Here are Bruce and the boys with Wilson Pickett, performing a scorching version of In The Midnight Hour, a Stax classic Pickett had co-written with Steve Cropper in 1965. Watching Pickett say he wants to kick Bruce in the ass but will keep it light since he’s The Boss and Bruce responding ‘Let’s give it a shot’ is priceless –  damn, this wants me to go and listen to some kickass live music, so badly – fuck you, COVID-19!

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; This Day In Music; This Day In Rock; Songfacts Music History Calendar; YouTube

My Playlist: Huey Lewis And The News

In the ’80s when I was still living in Germany, you couldn’t switch on the radio without encountering Huey Lewis And The News. By the end of that decade, I think it’s fair to say their popularity had significantly decreased. Just recently, I was reminded of the band when it was, well, back in the news, revealing a new single and their upcoming 10th studio album scheduled for next year. That announcement came after Huey Lewis revealed last April he was suffering from hearing loss as a result of Ménière’s disease. According to Wikipedia, it’s an incurable disorder of the inner ear, which leads to a variety of symptoms, including vertigo, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), hearing loss and a fullness in the ear. The condition forced Lewis to cancel all upcoming tour dates.

I started paying attention to Huey Lewis And The News when they released their third studio album Sports in September 1983. The record, which yieled four top 10 hits in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, catapulted the band to international stardom. I got the album on vinyl at the time and really dug it. I like the group to this day and saw them first in the ’80s in Germany and a second time in July 2011 at a local theatre in New Brunswick, N.J. The second show was in the wake of their last studio from 2010,  Soulsville, a nice tribute to artists and music of Stax Records. The band still sounded great. I thought it would be fun putting together a playlist featuring some their songs.

I’d like to kick things off with Do You Believe In Love, the first top 10 hit for Huey Lewis And The News on the Billboard Hot 100. Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange, it appeared on their sophomore album Picture This from January 1982.

On to the aforementioned hugely successful Sports. How successful? How about seven times Platinum! Records selling like this simply no longer exist these days. Here is the great opener The Heart of Rock & Roll. Co-written by Huey Lewis and the band’s co-founding member, guitarist and saxophone player Johnny Colla, the uptempo pop rocker showcases Colla’s nice sax chops.

Next up is The Power Of Love, which gave the band their first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Co-written by Lewis, Colla and lead guitarist Chris Hayes, it’s probably their best known song, largely because it was featured in the 1985 blockbuster motion picture Back To The Future staring Michael J. Fox. Here’s a clip with footage from the film, one of the most memorable of that decade, in my opinion.

In August 1986, Huey Lews And The News released their fourth studio album Fore! Not only did the album top the Billboard 200, but it also gave the band two additional no. 1 hits: Jacob’s Ladder and tune I’d like to feature here: Stuck With You, a co-write by Lewis and Hayes. In addition to Lewis’ lead vocals, the song nicely illustrates the News’ great harmony singing.

The band’s next album Small World from 1988 featured a full-blown horn section, giving it a nice soulful vibe. But while the record climbed into the top 20 on the Billboard 200, it wasn’t as successful as Fore! and Sports. Here’s Perfect World, a tune written by Alex Call, guitarist, vocalist and founding member of a country rock band called Clover, in which Lewis had played with Call from 1972 until 1979, prior to forming Huey Lewis And The News.

In 1993, the band recorded a beautiful a cappella cover of the Curtis Mayfield tune It’s All Right for a tribute album titled People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. It’s another impressive illustration of the News’ vocal harmony abilities. Mayfield wrote the song in 1963 and recorded it with his band The Impressions for their eponymous debut record that came out in August that year. Feel free to snip along!

For the next tune, I’d like to jump to the News’ most recent album, the aformentioned Soulsville that was released in October 2010. Here’s the band’s great take of Respect Yourself. It features gospel singer Dorothy Combs Morrison who is sharing vocals with Lewis. Co-written by Luther Ingram and Mack Rice, the song was first recorded by The Staple Singers for their 1972 album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.

The last track I’d like to highlight is the band’s new single Her Love Is Killing Me, a nice rocker with a bluesy touch, featuring a great sounding Lewis on vocals and harmonica, the band’s first new tune in more than a decade. According to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, the song was recorded and produced by the News at their own studio in San Rafael, Calif. In addition to Lewis, the band still includes three co-founding members: Colla, Bill Gibson (drums) and Sean Hopper (keyboards). The title and exact timing for the new album have not been announced yet.

Will fans be able to see Huey Lewis And The News on the road again? While Lewis, who is 69 years old, obviously was able to record the song and sounds well, the prospects for doing concerts look less certain. “My hearing fluctuates episodically from bad to almost deaf,” Lewis told the Chronicle. “When it’s simply ‘bad,’ with the use of my earpieces, I can hear speech. I’m hoping fluctuating is a good sign and I can improve enough to hear music and sing.” He also said, “I haven’t sung with the band in a year and 10 months.”

Sources: Wikipedia, San Francisco Chronicle, YouTube

Debate Over Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Selection Process Likely To Continue With 2019 Inductees

Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, The Cure, Roxy Music and The Zombies make up class of 2019

By now it’s an all too familiar annual ritual in the music world, at least in America. On Thursday, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame revealed its new inductees. The 2019 class includes Radiohead, Janet Jackson, Stevie Nicks, Def Leppard, The Cure, Roxy Music and The Zombies. While a good deal of music fans stopped paying attention long ago, others still care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a music nerd, so I count myself as being part of the latter group.

I’ve no doubt that among those who follow the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the debate about the selection process and who should be in is going to continue. While I don’t want to be overly judgmental and I’m luckily not a music critic and don’t aspire to become one, I have to say I’m a bit surprised about some of the inductees. Of course, I can’t claim this would be the first time.

Radiohead Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2019

Let’s start with Radiohead. In June 2017, guitarist Ed O’Brien told Rolling Stone, “I don’t want to be rude about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because for a lot of people it means something, but culturally I don’t understand it. I think it might be a quintessential American thing. Brits are not very good at slapping ourselves on the back…It just feels non-authentic to us.” Most of the band’s other members expressed reservations as well. That’s totally fine with me. What I don’t get is why the Rock Hall has inducted them anyway. Presumably, they won’t show for the induction ceremony, and I just feel sorry for their fans – unless of course they don’t care either!

Janet Jackson Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Janet Jackson. I hate to say this, but the thought her selection at least in part reflects political correctness can’t escape my mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s dreadful that the Rock Hall mostly remains a white boys club, and there’s no question women are underrepresented, especially women of color. But should Janet Jackson really have been the choice here? How about Ella Fitzgerald? Sure, you can say as a jazz singer, she wouldn’t be a perfect fit for an institution that has ‘rock and roll’ in its name. But they inducted Nina Simone last year. Or how about Mavis Staples, an amazing African American female artist? Yes, she’s already in the Rock Hall as part of The Staple Singers, who were inducted in 1999. Still, there are numerous examples of artists who have been inducted more than once – as part of a band and solo. Just look at 2019 inductee Stevie Nicks!

The Cure_Def Leppard Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I never paid much attention to The Cure. Boys Don’t Cry was kind of nice at the time but completely over-exposed. Ironically, it might actually make me cry if I have to listen to the song one more time! Def Leppard, who won the fan ballot and got in the first time they had become eligible, may also trigger some debate. A British band that became hugely popular in the ’80s by mixing hard rock with pop elements, Leppard were oftentimes dismissed by the critics. In this context, I think The New York Times rightly called them the equivalent to Bon Jovi, who were inducted last year. While I wouldn’t have considered them, I don’t have any particular problem with Leppard or Bon Jovi for that matter – in fact, I generally like the latter.

Steve Nicks_The Zombies_Roxy Music Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I’m happy about Stevie Nicks, a great singer-songwriter who like Leppard made it in the first she had become eligible. Additionally, I’ve always liked Time Of The Season and She’s Not There, so I find it nice to see The Zombies among the 2019 inductees. I also generally like Roxy Music, though I have to add I don’t know them particularly well beyond their big hits.

This year, the induction festivities will happen at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. on March 29. HBO and SiriusXM will broadcast an edited version of the event sometime thereafter. Last year, the broadcast happened in early May.

What do you think about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the 2019 inductees? Feel free to leave comments. My only request is let’s keep any discussion civil, please.

Sources: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, Rolling Stone, New York Times

Stars of Stax

Some of my favorite artists who recorded at the legendary Memphis record label

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Stax Records. I’ve always been impressed with the amazing array of artists who are associated with this record label: Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Albert King, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes, Kim Weston and The Staple Singers, to name some of them. I thought this would be a great theme for a list, but before I get to it, a bit of history is in order.

Stax Records was originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 in Memphis, Tenn. by Jim Stewart, a banker who played the fiddle in a country band on the side. Initially operating in a garage, Stewart started out focusing on country, rockabilly and straight pop. In 1958, his sister Astelle Axton co-invested in the company by mortgaging her family home.

Jim Stewart & Estelle Axton

In 1959, Satellite set up a small recording studio in Brunswick, Tenn. and released its first record in the summer of  that year, Fool In Love, by R&B band The Veltones. Following the release of the record, Satellite moved back to Memphis and set up shop in an old movie theater. In the summer of 1960, Rufus Thomas and his daughter Carla became the first artists to record at the new facility. Their record Cause I Love You was nationally distributed by Atlantic Records, laying the foundation for an important yet fateful distribution partnership.

Stax Records Museum

Due to a legal dispute, Satellite Records changed its name to Stax in September 1961, using the first two letters from the siblings’ last name – Stewart and Axton. In addition to a recording studio in the movie theater’s former auditorium, the company also set up a record store in the cinema’s old foyer. The store carried records from many different labels and became a popular hangout for local teenagers, which gave the company valuable insights into what music was selling.

Stax also established a house band that backed up the company’s artists during recordings. Eventually, that band consisted of the members who formed Booker T. & the M.G.’s in 1962: Booker T. Jones (organ), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They served as the session band during most recordings until 1970.

Booker T & the MGs

In 1962, Stax also signed Otis Redding, who would become its biggest star until his untimely death in 1967. By the mid ’60s, Stax had also signed other major artists, including Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Wilson Pickett and Isaac Hayes. Stax’s Booker T. & the M.G.’s and other ethnically integrated bands, along with a racially integrated team of staff and artists was unprecedented amid the civil rights-era racial strive and deep-seated tensions of the late ’50s and ’60s, especially in Memphis and the South.

In 1968, Stax ended its distribution deal with Atlantic Records and in the process lost the rights to all recordings Atlantic had distributed between 1960 and 1967. A new co-owner, Al Bell, stepped up and substantially expanded the label’s operations in an effort to better compete with its main rival Motown Records. In 1972, Bell got a distribution deal with CBS Records, but CBS lost interest in Stax, which eventually forced the label to close in 1975.

In 1977, Fantasy Records purchased the post-1968 Stax catalog and some of the pre-1968 recordings. In 1978, Stax under Fantasy’s ownership began signing new acts. But by the early ’80s, no new material appeared on Stax, and it became strictly a reissue label. In 2004, the Stax label was reactivated after Fantasy had been acquired by Concord Records. Today, Stax continues to be owned by Concord and issues both new recordings and its 1968-1975 catalog. Atlantic Records still owns most of the Stax material from 1959 to 1968.

Following is a selection of songs from some of my favorite artists whose records have been issued on Stax, old and new:

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions (1962)

Otis Redding/I’ve Been Loving You For Too Long (1965)

Wilson Pickett/In the Midnight Hour (1965)

Sam & Dave/Soul Man (1967)

Isaac Hayes/Theme From Shaft (1971)

The Staple Singers/I’ll Take You There (1972)

Albert King/That’s What the Blues Is All About (1974)

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats/S.O.B. (2015)

Melissa Etheridge/Hold On I’m Coming (2016)

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis (2017)

Between its initial establishment and 1975, Stax has released more than 800 singles and nearly 300 LPs, winning eight Grammys and an Academy Award. The label has had 243 hits in the Top 100 R&B Charts and more than 167 hits in the top 100 Pop Charts. In April this year, Concord and Rhino Entertainment, which manages the Stax catalog owned by Atlantic Records, announced a joint campaign to celebrate the 60th anniversary with multiple albums, boxed sets and live performance releases throughout the year. Among others, this includes the Stax Classic Series, which consists of collection albums for each of the label’s 10 biggest stars, the Complete Stax Singles boxed set series, as well as a 4-CD anthology of Isaac Hayes to coincide what would have been his 75th birthday.

Sources: Wikipedia, Stax Records website, YouTube