Tonight I’m leaving for Germany to spend Christmas with my parents. Therefore, I’ve decided to put the blog on a short hiatus until my return close to the new year. In lieu of Song Musings, my weekly feature looking at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date, I’m republishing a post that first appeared recently on Dave’s blog A Sound Day as part of his fun Turntable Talk series. The topic was perfect for this time of the year: “Songs of the Season”, i.e., writing about a Christmas/holiday song the invited participants love and why it has meaning to them. Following is what I contributed.
Once again, I’m happy to share my thoughts for Turntable Talk – thanks, Dave, for keeping this great feature going and inviting me back.
When I received the notification with the topic, it immediately took me back to my years growing up in Germany. I have fond memories of Christmas, which was a pretty big deal in my family.
For many years, we (my parents, my six-year-older sister and I) drove to Heidelberg to gather at my grandma’s (from my mom’s side) house. My dad picked up his parents, who also lived in Heidelberg, and we all celebrated Christmas eve (December 24) together.
Every year, my grandma got a Christmas tree – a relatively small but real tree with real candles – nothing like the scent of wax candles! On many occasions, my sister and I got to decorate the tree. While working we listened to my favorite mainstream radio station where they played song requests from listeners. Apart from straight pop songs, there were many, typically modern Christmas songs, such as John Lennon’sHappy Xmas (War Is Over), Chuck Berry’sRun Rudolph Run and Wham’sLast Christmas.
Christmas songs weren’t limited to the radio. My grandparents liked to sing traditional Christmas carols on December 24 in the evening before we exchanged Christmas presents. This was preceded by my dad lighting the candles on the Christmas tree and switching off all other lights in the room. It was a festive atmosphere I enjoyed, especially as a small child. I was also full of anticipation about opening presents, which would follow the singing!😊
This brings me to my Christmas song pick. There are many Christmas tunes I like, both traditional carols and modern Christmas songs. For this post, I decided to select a traditional Christmas carol performed by what I think probably is the best vocal group I know: Silent Night by The Temptations.
Composed in 1818 by Austrian church organist and composer Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest and writer, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht became a popular Christmas carol. It was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria. In 1859, the Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, then serving at Trinity Church in New York City, wrote and published the English translation that is most frequently sung today, translated from three of Mohr’s original six verses.
Silent Night has appeared in various films and television specials. It has also been recorded by numerous artists, such as Nat King Cole, Percy Sledge, Elvis Presley, Mariah Carey and, of course, The Temptations. The mighty-sounding vocal group from Detroit included it on their second Christmas album Give Love At Christmas, released in August 1980.
In addition to being a beautiful song with an outstanding vocal rendition by The Temptations, Silent Night (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht) has a special meaning to me. It is one of the carols my family and I used to sing each Christmas eve back in Germany.
Before signing off temporarily, if you celebrate it, Merry Christmas. If you don’t, have a great time anyway!
Motown legend takes audience on a miraculous journey with music and memories
Shop Around by The Miracles must have been among the very first Motown songs I heard many moons ago. Motown and the infectious groove of the tunes that came out of the Detroit label started my lifelong love of soul music. When I coincidentally saw a couple of months ago that Motown legend Smokey Robinson was touring and scheduled to play the Met in Philadelphia, I immediately got tickets – yes, it totally was an impulse purchase. Saturday night, the time had finally come, and ooo, baby baby, what a miraculous show it was!
Smokey Robinson. Where do you even start? Now 82 years young, the man has enjoyed a 67-year career and counting – 67 years! It all started in 1955 when he formed the first lineup of the Five Chimes, the group that a couple of years later would become The Miracles. In August 1957, Robinson and his band met Berry Gordy Jr., who in 1959 with Robinson’s encouragement borrowed $800 from his family to create Tamla Motown and changed music history.
In September 1960, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles became Motown’s first stars with Shop Around. Credited to Robinson and Gordy, the tune topped Billboard’sR&B Chart and became a no. 2 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. In the following years, Robinson continued to write hits for the group, including You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me, The Tears of a Clown (a co-write with Stevie Wonder) and I Second That Emotion, to name a few.
In the mid-’60s, Robinson also became Vice President of Motown Records, serving as in-house producer, talent scout and songwriter. Apart from The Miracles, he penned and produced hits for other Motown acts, such as The Temptations, Mary Wells and Marvin Gaye. Robinson also became a successful solo artist with hits like Quiet Storm (1976), Cruisin’ (1979), Being with You (1981) and Just to See Her (1987). According to his online bio, he has amassed writing credits for more than 4,000 songs.
Robinson has won numerous accolades, including the Grammy Living Legend Award, NARAS Lifetime Achievement Award, Honorary Doctorate (Howard University), Kennedy Center Honors and the National Medal of Arts Award from the President of the United States. He’s also in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.
While it is impossible to do Robinson’s impressive career justice with a brief summary, I’d like to mention two additional things. Bob Dylan once called him America’s “greatest living poet.” Among the bands who covered Robinson’s songs are two of the greatest of all time: The Beatles (You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me – 1963) and The Rolling Stones (Going to a Go-Go – 1982).
Let’s get to some music! Robinson’s set featured a nice mix of songs spanning five decades, including some of the big ’60s hits by The Miracles, a medley of mid-’60s Temptations tunes he co-wrote, as well as select solo tunes from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2018. He also included a rendition of Fly Me to the Moon, which he covered on his 2006 standards album Timeless Love. Not only did Robinson still hit extremely high notes with his falsetto, but the man’s physical flexibility was astonishing and frankly age-defying!
I Second That Emotion, co-written by Robinson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, first appeared as a single by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in October 1967. It was their third no. 1 in the U.S. on the BillboardHot R&B Singles chart and peaked at no. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their second-highest charting single there since Shop Around in 1960, which had made it to no. 2. The tune was later also recorded by Diana Ross & the Supremes and separately by Diana Ross & the Supremes with The Temptations.
On Ooo Baby Baby, Smokey slowed it down and went very high – the ladies loved it! And, yes, yours truly was impressed as well. Ooo Baby Baby, co-written by Robinson and Pete Moore, the bass singer of The Miracles, was released as a single by The Miracles in March 1965. It reached no. 2 on the Hot R&B Singles chart and no. 16 on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. The tune has been covered by numerous other artists over the years, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt.
With The Tears of a Clown, Robinson presented yet another hit billed as Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, though with the distinction that it was the group’s only ’70s single in his set. Co-written by Robinson, Hank Cosby and Stevie Wonder in 1967, The Tears of a Clown wasn’t released as a single until July 1970 when it first appeared in the UK. In September of the same year, it also became a U.S. single. The tune ended up topping the Hot R&B Singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts in the U.S., as well as the UK Official Singles Chart, making it the group’s biggest hit. The Tears of a Clown had first been included on the group’s August 1967 album Make It Happen.
The last two songs I’d like to highlight are both from Smokey Robinson’s solo career. Just to See Her, co-written by Jimmy George and Lou Pardini, was first recorded by Robinson and released as the lead single of his popular 1987 studio album One Heartbeat in March of that year. The tune is his last big U.S. hit to date, peaking at no. 8 and no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, respectively, and topping the Adult Contemporary chart. In the UK, it reached no. 52.
And then the time had come for the final song of the night and Smokey to take us on a cruise by car – a long cruise! Cruisin’, one of his best-known solo songs, first appeared on his studio album Where There’s Smoke…, which came out in May 1979. Penned by Robinson, the tune was also released separately as a single in August of the same year. It climbed to no. 4 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B Singles charts, as well as no. 34 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Personally, I would have been okay with a shorter cruise and instead a couple of additional tunes, such as my beloved Shop Around. At the same time, it was heart-warming to see Smokey evidently having a ball and engaging with the audience, including two ladies he asked to come up on stage.
Following is Saturday night’s setlist:
• Intro – Overture • Being With You (1981) • I Second That Emotion (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cover – 1967) • You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me (The Miracles cover – 1962) • Quiet Storm (1975) • Ooo Baby Baby (The Miracles song – 1965) • The Way You Do the Things You Do / Get Ready / My Girl (The Temptations covers – 1964, 1966 & 1964) • The Tears of a Clown (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles cover – 1967) • I Love Your Face (1992) • Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words) (Kaye Ballard cover – 1954) • La Mirada (2018) • Just to See Her (1987) • The Tracks of My Tears (The Miracles cover – 1965) • Cruisin’ (1979)
Last but not least, here’s a Spotify playlist that captures all songs of the above setlist sans La Mirada, the most recent solo tune Robinson performed, which I couldn’t find in Spotify. Robinson joked it hasn’t come out yet. By that, he meant the tune hasn’t been included on an album. It did appear digitally as a single in June 2018.
Bruce Springsteen released his anticipated new album of soul and R&B covers on Friday, November 11. First revealed by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner in mid-September and formally announced by Springsteen at the end of that same month, Only the Strong Survive is his 21st studio album. If you follow The Boss, you may have seen reviews to date have been mixed. While I feel some of the criticism is fair, overall, I think Springsteen has delivered an enjoyable album.
Only the Strong Survive comes two years after Letter to You (October 2020), and is Springsteen’s second all-covers collection since We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (April 2006). Springsteen made the album at his Thrill Hill Recording studio in New Jersey “in early lockdown during “off hours”, as reported by Pitchfork. Perhaps that explains in part why producer Ron Aniello played nearly all instruments (drums, bass, percussion, guitar, vibes, piano, organ, glockenspiel, keyboards, farfisa). Springsteen himself mostly provided lead vocals and also played some guitar.
The number of other contributors was limited. Most notable is the now 87-year-old Sam Moore, one half of legendary Stax duo Sam & Dave. Other listed contributors include backing vocalists Soozie Tyrell, Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King Jr., Dennis Collins and Fonzi Thornton, as well as The E Street Horns and Rob Mathes who provided string arrangements. Notably absent were soul fan Steven Van Zandt, who came up with the great horn arrangement for Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, and other members of the E Street Band. Again, perhaps it’s a reflection of the circumstances, or Springsteen simply wanted to leave no doubt the album was a solo effort.
“I wanted to make an album where I just sang,” he stated. “And what better music to work with than the great American songbook of the Sixties and Seventies? I’ve taken my inspiration from Levi Stubbs, David Ruffin, Jimmy Ruffin, the Iceman Jerry Butler, Diana Ross, Dobie Gray, and Scott Walker, among many others. I’ve tried to do justice to them all—and to the fabulous writers of this glorious music.”
Time to get to some of the goodies. Let’s kick it off with Soul Days, written by Jonnie Barnett and recorded by Dobie Gray as the title track of his 2001 studio album – perhaps not the most obvious choice if Springsteen’s goal was to highlight ’60s and ’70s soul music. That said, I think it’s a great rendition. It’s also one of two tunes featuring Sam Moore on backing vocals. Just like with the other tracks on the album, Springsteen evidently did not aim to remake any of these songs – appropriate for an album that pays homage.
Another tune I think came out really well is Do I Love You (Indeed I Do). It was written by Motown producer Frank Wilson, who also recorded it as a single in 1965. But Berry Gordy felt lukewarm about Wilson’s singing. More importantly, he wanted his producers to focus on producing rather than becoming recording artists. None of the pressed copies of the single were formally released and apparently are now prized items among collectors. Yes, the strings on Springsteen’s cover are perhaps a bit lush, but the tune has that infectious Motown beat that wants you to be dancing in the street. I also think Springsteen’s raspy vocals work rather well. Of course, he does get a little help from a potent backing choir. Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) also became the album’s first single on September 29.
Turn Back the Hands of Time, co-written by Jack Daniels and Bonnie Thompson, was first released as a single in February 1970 and became the second major hit for blues and soul singer Tyrone Davis. Again, Springsteen does a nice job of delivering a faithful cover.
For the most part, Springsteen chose to cover tunes that aren’t known very widely, which I think was a smart choice. While his raspy vocals go well with the rock-oriented music he usually makes, the reality is his vocal range has limitations. One of the exceptions is I Wish It Would Rain, which became a no. 4 hit for The Temptations in 1967 on the Billboard Hot 100 and one of their numerous ’60s tunes to top the R&B chart. It was penned by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong and Rodger Penzabene. Taking on the mighty Temptations is gutsy, but once again Springsteen does a commendable job. He even throws in some falsetto. The backing vocals are excellent as well.
The last track I’d like to call out is the second tune featuring Sam Moore on backing vocals: I Forgot to Be Your Lover. Co-written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones, Bell recorded and first released the beautiful soul ballad in late 1968. The tune reached no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at no. 10 on the Hot R&B Singles chart.
Only the Strong Survive appears on Columbia Records. It was engineered by Rob Lebret and executive-produced by long-time Springsteen collaborator Jon Landau. Following is a Spotify link to the album.
“My goal is for the modern audience to experience [the music’s] beauty and joy, just as I have since I first heard it,” Springsteen explained. “I hope you love listening to it as much as I loved making it.”
Throughout his entire career, Springsteen has included soul songs in his sets, so I feel there can be no doubt his proclaimed love for this music is genuine. Could some of his picks have been different? Sure. Is it odd he had Sam Moore as a guest and didn’t cover a Sam & Dave tune? Perhaps. Or that there weren’t any members of the E Street Band, especially since he will be touring with them next year? Not necessarily, given the album came together during COVID lockdown.
One important aspect is Springsteen picked songs that work well with his voice. Together with great backing vocals and musical arrangements that largely stay faithful to the original songs, Only the Strong Survive is a pleasant listening experience. Another question is how the album will be remembered in the context of Springsteen’s overall catalog. Time will tell.
Sources: Wikipedia; Pitchfork; Bruce Springsteen website; YouTube; Spotify
Over the past six months, I’ve presented songs I would take with me on an imaginary trip to a desert island. There were some rules to the exercise. It needed to be a tune by a band or artist I had only rarely written about or even better not mentioned at all to date. And my picks needed to occur in alphabetical order by band or artist name (last name).
Last week, I finally reached the letter “z.” Of course, I could have started over with “a” but felt that 26 songs picked according to the above criteria were enough – as attractive as I find the thought to escape to a desert island on hump day! For today’s post, I thought it might be fun to present a playlist featuring all of my previous 26 selections.
While undoubtedly my choices would have been different, had it not been for the above restrictive rules, I’m still quite happy with my picks and this playlist. Following I’m briefly revisiting four of the tunes. At the end of the post, you can find all 26 of them in a Spotify playlist.
Atlanta Rhythm Section/Spooky
I’ve always loved Spooky by Atlanta Rhythm Section, so it was an easy decision to highlight this tune a second time. Originally, the song was written as an instrumental by saxophonist Mike Shapiro and Harry Middlebrooks Jr. Performed by Shapiro and released under the name Mike Sharpe, the track first appeared in 1967. The song’s next iteration occurred in 1968 when a band called Classics IV included it as the title track of their debut album and added the lyrics. Finally, Atlanta Rhythm Section recorded Spooky for their eighth studio album Underdog, which came out in June 1979. It became one of their best-known tunes and one of four top 20 singles they had in the U.S.
Los Lobos/Kiko and the Lavender Moon
Kiko and the Lavender Moon is perhaps the coolest tune I discovered in the course of this desert island song selection exercise. I’m still relatively new to Los Lobos and found that track while doing some research. Written by the band’s co-founding members David Hildago (guitars, accordion, violin, banjo, piano, percussion, vocals) and Louie Pérez (drums, vocals, guitars, percussion), the song was included on their sixth studio album Kiko released in May 1992. It’s an unusual tune with traces of retro jazz and a dose of Latin groove – pretty neat!
The O’Jays/Back Stabbers
Another song I had loved for a long time but not covered prior to this feature is Back Stabbers by The O’Jays. There’s just something about smooth Philly soul sound! Back Stabbers, co-written by Philadelphia International label songwriters Leon Huff, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, is the title track of The O’Jays’ sixth studio album. Released in August 1972, it was their breakthrough and the first for Philadelphia International Records, a label that had only been founded in 1971. Check out the sweet harmony singing on that tune – sounds a bit like The Temptations!
XTC/Making Plans For Nigel
“Forced” to pick a band or artist whose name starts with “x”, I’m glad I finally got to take a look at XTC, a group I essentially had known by name only. And because of one tune: Making Plans For Nigel. The song was written by Colin Moulding (bass, vocals), one of XTC’s founding members. It first appeared in August 1979 on the group’s third studio album Drums and Wires. The following month, it became the record’s lead single and marked the band’s commercial breakthrough. Even though I find this tune somewhat odd, I think it’s quite ingenious!
And here’s a Spotify playlist of all previously selected 26 desert island tunes. Even though it’s safe to assume you wouldn’t pick many or perhaps even any of these tracks to take with you to an island in the sun, I hope you still enjoy the playlist.
Happy hump day! Once again, I need to pick a song I would take with me on a desert island. Not any tune. My selection needs to come from an artist or band I have only rarely written about or not covered at all to date. And the name of the chosen group or artist (last name) must start with a specific letter, which for this installment is “z.”
Z-options that came to mind include Zager & Evans, Frank Zappa, The Zombies and ZZ Top. I decided to go with American pop rock one-hit wonder Zager & Evans and In the Year 2525. It’s a bit of an odd song, but I’ve always liked it.
Written by one of the duo’s members, Rick Evans, the tune was first released as a single in June 1969. It ended up topping the charts in the U.S., Canada, the UK and Australia – they certainly made that one count! The song, completely titled In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus), also appeared on Zager & Evans’ debut studio album 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) that came out in July of the same year.
Denny Zager (guitar, vocals) and Rick Evans (guitar, vocals) met at Nebraska Wesleyan University in the year 1962. Initially, they formed a band called The Eccentrics, together with Danny Schindler (drums). The group disbanded when Schindler departed for his tour of Vietnam in 1965. Evans reunited with Zager in 1968. By the time they recorded In the Year 2525, they were backed by Mark Dalton (bass) and Dave Trupp (drums).
Following the success of 2525, which peaked at a respectable no. 30 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200, Zager & Evans’ record label White Whale Records released an album titled The Early Writings of Zager & Evans and Others. It featured recordings of The Eccentrics on side one and songs by a band called J.K. and Co., on side two. That latter group had absolutely no connection to Zager & Evans. It all looks like an attempt to make a quick buck in the wake of a big hit. But it didn’t work. The album failed to chart.
Zager & Evans released two additional records, Zager & Evans (1970) and Food for the Mind (1971), before calling it quits. Evans later put out a record with Pam Herbert titled I Need This Song. In the late 1970s, he formed his own label, Fun Records, and released Fun Songs, Think Songs, an album featuring new songs and re-recordings of Zager & Evans material. Today, Zager builds custom guitars at Zager Guitars in Lincoln, Nebraska. Evans who had largely retired from public life passed away in February 2018.
This bleak futuristic tale is a very unusual song, but 1969 was a very unusual year, with hippie anthems like “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” going to #1 along with bubblegum songs like “Sugar, Sugar.” The Beatles, Elvis Presley and The Temptations all had classic #1s as well, but one of the top songs was “In the Year 2525,” which stayed at #1 for six weeks.
The song reflected the apprehension of the times and also the wonder of technology. It started its run at the top of the US chart the week before the Apollo 11 moon landing.
…The song was subtitled “Exordium & Terminus,” which is a fancy way of saying “Beginning & End.” The song took itself quite seriously in its description of what will become of man as technology takes over.
Happy Wednesday! It’s time to prepare for another imaginary desert island trip. As usual, this means I need to figure which one song to take with me.
In case you’re new to this weekly recurring feature, there’re a few other rules. My pick needs to be by an artist or band I’ve only rarely written about or not covered at all to date. I’m also doing this exercise in alphabetical order, and I’m up to “t”.
There are plenty of artists (last names) and bands whose name starts with the letter “t”. Some include Taj Mahal, Tears For Fears, Tedeschi Trucks Band, The Temptations, Thin Lizzy, Pete Townshend, Tina Turner, Toto, Traffic, T. Rex and The Turtles. And then there’s the group I decided to pick: Talking Heads. My song choice: Burning Down the House.
Burning Down the House, credited to all four members of the band, David Byrne (lead vocals, guitar), Jerry Harrison (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals), Tina Weymouth (bass, backing vocals) and Chris Frantz (drums, backing vocals), first appeared on their fifth studio album Speaking in Tongues released in June 1983. It also became the record’s first single and the group’s highest-charting song in North America, climbing to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 8 in Canada. It did best in New Zealand where it peaked at no. 5. In Australia, on the other hand, it stalled at no. 94.
The origins of Talking Heads go back to 1973 when Rhode Island School of Design students David Byrne and Chris Frantz started a band called the Artistics. The following year, fellow student and Frantz’s girlfriend Tina Weymouth joined on bass after Byrne and Frantz had been unable to find a bassist. At that point, all three had relocated to New York.
In early June 1975, the group played their first gig as Talking Heads, opening for the Ramones at renowned New York City music club CBGB. After signing to Sire Records in November 1976, Talking Heads released their first single Love → Building on Fire in February 1977. The following month, Jerry Harrison joined, completing the group’s lineup ahead of recording their debut album Talking Heads: 77.
While Talking Heads: 77 enjoyed moderate chart success, it was voted the year’s seventh-best album in The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Subsequently, it was ranked at no. 291 in Rolling Stone’s 2012 list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It didn’t make the most recent revision published in 2020. Until their break-up in December 1991, Talking Heads released seven additional albums. Also noteworthy is the acclaimed concert film Stop Making Sense shot over three nights in December 1983 during the tour that supported the Speaking in Tongues album.
After their disbanding, David Byrne launched a solo career, while the three remaining members toured in the early ’90s, billed as Shrunken Heads. In October 1996, they released an album, No Talking, Just Head as The Heads. Byrne wasn’t amused and took legal action to prevent the band from using the name The Heads. Talking Heads reunited one more time in March 2002 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hame of Fame. During an induction performance, they were joined on stage by former touring members Bernie Worrell and Steve Scales.
Following are a few additional tidbits on Burning Down the House from Songfacts:
Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz and bass player Tina Weymouth, married since 1977, are big fans of funk. When they went to a P-Funk show at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the crowd started chanting, “Burn down the house, burn down the house” (this is before “The Roof Is on Fire”), which gave Frantz the idea for the title...
…With a lot of help from MTV, who gave the video a lot of play, this song became Talking Heads’ biggest hit. It didn’t get a great deal of radio play at the time, but has endured as an ’80s classic and is often used in movies and TV shows, including Gilmore Girls, 13 Going on 30, Six Feet Under, Revenge of the Nerds and Someone Like You…
…The music video was directed by David Byrne and was the first Talking Heads video to show the full band – their famous “Once In A Lifetime” video is just Byrne. The house seen in the video was located in Union, New Jersey, but it was shot at a New York City club called The World…
…The Talking Heads original recording failed to reach the UK charts. The song only became a British hit in 1999 when Tom Jones teamed up with The Cardigans for an entirely different version. Released as a single from his album of collaborations titled Reload, it peaked at #7.
There is also a cool cover of Burning Down the House by Bonnie Raitt, which she included on her live album Road Tested that came out in November 1995. Here’s a great clip of her rendition from December 2010. In my completely unbiased opinion, I think Bonnie is stealing the show, truly burning down the house! 🙂
Steely Dan treat New Jersey audience with great show in Donald Fagen’s home state
Last night, I saw Steely Dan at PNC Bank Arts Center, a great midsize amphitheater-style outdoor venue in Holmdel, N.J. My fourth and last concert in June was dynamite, ending a busy month of live music on a high note.
Should I have been surprised that Donald Fagen and his band once again put on a stellar performance? After all, the two previous times I had seen them were both fantastic.
The songs Fagen wrote with his longtime partner Walter Becker remain compelling. Since Becker’s untimely death in 2017, Fagen also successfully continued what had been a key ingredient to the Dan’s sound: Surround himself with top-notch musicians. And, boy, what a killer backing band he had last night!
But even with all of the above, I think one should never take a music artist for granted. And, let’s face it: At age 74, Fagen isn’t exactly any longer, hey, nineteen! I also still remember reading accounts leading up to the two previous times I saw Fagen & co. in 2018, which were less than favorable, criticizing Fagen’s singing, among others. But just like four years ago, he did it again, proving any such concerns to be unfounded!
Before I get to Steely Dan, I’d like to acknowledge opening act Dave Stryker Trio. Until I learned and read about Dave Stryker, I had not heard of this great American jazz guitarist who has been active since the ’80s. Quoting his online bio, Whether you’ve heard guitarist Dave Stryker leading his own group (with 34 CD’s as a leader to date), or as a featured sideman with Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff, and many others, you know why the Village Voice calls him “one of the most distinctive guitarists to come along in recent years.”
Last evening, Stryker (electric guitar) was joined by Jared Gold, who I thought was terrific on the Hammond, as well as McClenty Hunter, a fine jazz drummer. They played neat jazz instrumental jam versions of songs by artists like Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and The Temptations.
The Hammond reminded me of the man who originally was supposed to join Steely Dan on their Earth After Hours Tour, Steve Winwood. I’m not gonna lie, seeing Winwood for the third time would have been the ultimate thrill. A short February 1 announcement on Winwood’s website cited “unforeseen circumstances” for the change in plans. Back to Dave Stryker. Here’s a cool clip of Papa Was a Rolling Stone from a 2019 performance at jazz radio station WBGO 88.3 fm – groovy with no static at all!
Okay, after seven paragraphs into this review, you may start to wonder when am I finally getting to some Steely Dan music? Alrighty then! Let’s shake it! First up is Night by Night, a tune from Steely Dan’s third studio album Pretzel Logic released in February 1974 – the last that featured the band’s original quintet lineup of Becker, Fagen, Denny Dias, Jim Hodder, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. Unfortunately, it appears the dreadful pandemic has made audiences pretty restless. I don’t recall people getting up during shows pre-COVID as frequently as I’ve experienced it during all of my four concerts in June. Frankly, I find it pretty dreadful!
I think it’s safe to say many Steely Dan fans consider Aja to be Messrs. Fagen’s and Becker’s Mount Rushmore. It certainly remains my favorite Dan album. Let’s hear it for the title track. According to Songfacts, Fagen told Rolling Stone magazine that the title came from a high school friend whose brother was in the army and came back with a Korean wife named Aja, although he wasn’t sure how she spelled it.
For this next tune, let’s go to Gaucho, the seventh and final Steely Dan album from November 1980 before Fagen and Becker split and went on a 12-year hiatus. Becker moved to Maui, managed to overcome his longtime drug abuse, and did some occasional production work, most notably for British pop group China Crisis. Meanwhile, Fagen launched a solo career that among others yielded The Nightfly, his solo debut gem from October 1982. Back to Gaucho with Babylon Sisters with another fun tidbit from Songfacts, probably less fun for those involved: Donald Fagen made seemingly endless tweaks to this song, creating one mix after another. Someone in the studio must have been keeping count, because when he hit 250 mixes, the crew gave him a “platinum” disk they created just for him. Fagen kept going, and it was mix number 274 that finally won his approval. He took that mix home to New York, but heard a note in the bass line he didn’t like, so he returned to Los Angeles a week later and reconvened the team to fix it. You gotta shake it, baby, you gotta shake it!
I guess our memories of school can be good and not so good. Clearly, this next tune falls into the latter category. SongfactsnotesMy Old School, the final track of last night’s main set, is at least partially inspired by an event that occurred at Bard [Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. where Fagen and Becker met in 1967 – CMM], where both Becker and Fagen, along with their girlfriends, were arrested in a pot raid on a party that was orchestrated by an ambitious young District Attorney named G. Gordon Liddy (hence the line “Tried to warn ya about Geno and Daddy G”). Despite the fact that California has not (yet) tumbled into the sea, both Fagen and Becker have returned to Bard.
The last tune I’d like to call out, from the encore, is a song that reportedly was one of the Dan’s least favorite. Again citing Songfacts: In Rolling Stone, September 17, 2009, Donald Fagan said, “It’s dumb but effective.” Walter Becker added, “It’s no fun.” Well, Reelin’ in the Years may not have a million chord changes and breaks, but in my humble opinion, this tune, off Steely Dan’s November 1972 debut album Can’t Buy a Thrill, is a terrific rocker with a dynamite guitar solo. I wonder how Fagen feels about the song these days. It surely still looks effective!
What else is there to say. Donald Fagen clearly seemed to be energized last night, saying at one point, ‘what a night!’ – and he wasn’t referring to the one in late December back in sixty-three. Playing in his home state of New Jersey, as he called the garden state at the end of the show, appeared to be a thrill. Who, knows, it may even have influenced Fagen’s decision to replace Green Earrings and Any Major Dude Will Tell You with Josie and Black Cow, respectively – two additional tracks from the above-mentioned beloved Aja album. The only thing that could have topped the set would have been Deacon Blues, my all-time favorite Dan tune. But, hey, nineteen, stop complaining! 🙂
I already briefly mentioned the exceptional band that backs Fagen on the tour. These amazing musicians, some of whom have played with Steely Dan for many years, deserve to be called out: Jon Herington (lead guitar & musical director), Adam Rogers (guitar), Jim Beard (keyboards), Walt Weiskopf & Roger Rosenberg (saxophones), Michael Leonhart (trumpet), Jim Pugh (trombone), “Ready” Freddie Washington (bass), Keith Carlock (drums) & The Danettes: Carolyn Leonhart, Jamie Leonart and La Tanya Hall (backing vocals).
Here’s the setlist: • Phantom Raiders (Stanley Wilson cover) • Night by Night • Hey Nineteen • Black Friday • Aja • Kid Charlemagne • Home at Last • Green Flower Street (Donald Fagen song) • Time Out of Mind • Babylon Sisters • Josie • Black Cow • Dirty Work • Bodhisattva • Keep That Same Old Feeling (The Crusaders cover) • Peg • My Old School
Encore: • Reelin’ in the Years • A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry (Joe Williams cover)
The Earth After Hours Tour still is in full swing. Tomorrow night, the Dan are scheduled to play Xfinity Center in Mansfield, Mass., before moving on to Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Bethel, N.Y. (July 3) and First Bank Amphitheater, Franklin, Tenn. (July 13). The full tour schedule is here. If you’re a fan of the Dan and still can get a ticket you can afford, I can highly recommend the show!
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Dave Stryker website; Steve Winwood website; Steely Dan website; YouTube
Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time
Another Sunday is upon us, which means the moment has come again for some music time travel. Hop on board, fasten your seat belt and let’s do this!
Our journey today starts in 1973 with jazz fusion by Santana – very different from Evil Ways, Jingo, Soul Sacrifice, Oye Cómo Va, Samba Pa Ti and, of course, Black Magic Woman, which brought Carlos Santana and the classic line-up of his band on my radar screen 40-plus years ago. Welcome is the title track of Santana’s fifth studio album released in November 1973, and the follow-on to Caravanserai, which had marked a major departure from their classic seductive blend of Latin grooves and rock to free-form instrumental jazz fusion. I have to admit it was an acquired taste, and I still need to be in the right mood to listen to this type of music. If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to give this a listen. It’s amazing music!
Joe Jackson/Friend Better
After a six-and-a-half minute-trance-inducing instrumental, it’s time to add some vocals and pick something a bit more mainstream. Enter Joe Jackson, a British artist I’ve admired since ca. 1980 when I received his sophomore album I’m the Man as a present for my 14th birthday. Initially called “an angry young man,” Jackson quickly proved to be a versatile artist. Over a 40-year-plus-and-counting recording career, he has gone far beyond his origins of punk-oriented pub rock and embraced multiple other genres like new wave, big band jazz and pop. Friend Better is from Jackson’s most recent 20th studio album Fool, which came out in January 2019. All songs were written, arranged and produced by Jackson. I also got to see him during the supporting tour and thought he was still the man. If you’re so inclined, you can read more about Foolhere and the gig here.
For our next stop, let’s jump to February 1988 and The Church, and I’m not talking about a house of worship. That’s when Starfish came out, the Australian rock band’s fifth album, which brought them their international breakthrough. Fellow blogger Bruce from Vinyl Connection had a great post about this gem a couple of weeks ago. When back in the day I heard the album’s first single Under the Milky Way, I was immediately hooked by the amazing sound and got Starfish on CD right away. Only mentioning Milky Way gives me some chills. Okay, admittedly, I’m also listening to the bloody tune as I’m writing this! While this song undoubtedly is the best-known track on Starfish, there’s definitely more to the album. Point in case: Reptile, the second single, credited to all four members of the group Steve Kilbey (lead vocals, bass), Peter Koppes (guitars, lead vocals), Marty Willson-Piper (guitars, lead vocals) and Richard Ploog (drums, percussion). Kilbey remains the only original member in the Aussie band’s current incarnation.
The Temptations/Get Ready
I trust Motown legends The Temptations need no introduction. When it comes to multi-part harmony singing, the Detroit vocal group ruled in my book. If you haven’t heard it, check out their heavenly rendition of Silent Night, and you quickly know what I mean. This brings me to Get Ready, released in February 1966, the group’s third no. 1 single in the U.S. on Billboard’s R&B charts and their second top 10 on the UK Official Singles Chart. Written and produced by Smokey Robinson, the tune also appeared on The Temptations’ fourth studio album Gettin’ Ready, released in June that same year. Motown founder and head Berry Gordy Jr. wasn’t impressed with the song’s performance on the mainstream Billboard Hot 100 (no. 29). Subsequently, he replaced Robinson with Norman Whitfield as the group’s producer. Whitfield would become instrumental in shaping what became known as psychedelic soul in the late ’60s. Among others, he co-wrote and produced the epic Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.
Counting Crows/Mr. Jones
We’re starting to get into the final stretch with one of my all-time favorite tunes by Counting Crows and the ’90s for that matter. Like I bet was the case for many other music listeners as well, Mr. Jones brought the rock band from San Franciso on my radar screen when they suddenly burst on the scene in December 1993. Not only marked Mr. Jones the group’s breakthrough, but it also was their very first single. Interestingly, the lead single off their studio debut August and Everything Thereafter, which had come out three months earlier, failed to chart in the U.S. but proved successful elsewhere. Mr. Jones, co-written by Counting Crows guitarist and lead vocalist David Bryson and Adam Duritz, respectively, hit no. 1 in Canada and no. 13 in Australia. In the UK, it reached a respectable no. 28. I wonder whether American audiences felt the tune sounded too much like R.E.M. – not an unfair comparison, though it never bothered me. Last year, Counting Crows hit their 30th anniversary (unreal to me!). Bryson and Duritz remain part of the current line-up.
Little Richard/Tutti Frutti
And once again, this brings us to our final destination for this Sunday. While he called himself Little Richard, there was nothing small about Richard Wayne Penniman. The flamboyant artist was a giant of the classic rock & roll era, one of the most exciting performers who also wrote and co-wrote gems like Tutti Frutti, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Long Tall Sally and Jenny, Jenny. And I’m only talking about tunes from Richard’s debut album Here’s Little Richard released in March 1957. As was common at the time, it essentially was a compilation of Richard’s singles that had appeared earlier. Tutti Frutti, co-written by Penniman and Dorothy LaBostrie, had first been released in October 1955 and become Little Richard’s first U.S. hit, a no. 2 on Billboard’s R&B charts. It also reached the top 20 on the mainstream pop chart (no. 18). Inexplicably, at least from a musical perspective, Penniman never had a no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. His most successful tune there, Long Tall Sally, reached no. 6.
This wraps up another installment of The Sunday Six, folks, but we’ll embark on a new trip next Sunday. Meanwhile, this post wouldn’t be complete without a Spotify playlist of the above tunes.
It’s already been more than a month since the last installment of this irregular feature, so I thought this would be a good time to unearth another previously published post. This one, about the storied Apollo Theater in New York City, first appeared in November 2017, about one and a half years into my blogging journey. It has been slightly edited.
Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made
The history of the Apollo Theater and a list of artists who performed at the legendary venue
The Apollo Theater has fascinated me for a long time. At around 2003 or so, I watched a great show there, featuring Earth, Wind & Fire and The Temptations. According to its website, the storied venue in New York’s Harlem neighborhood “has played a major role in the emergence of jazz, swing, bebop, R&B, gospel, blues and soul.” When you take a look at the artists who are associated with the performance venue, I guess the claim is not an exaggeration.
To start with, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Gladys Night and “Little” Stevie Wonder are some of the artists whose journey to stardom began at the Apollo. Countless other major artists, such as Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Bob Marley,have performed there. Oh, and in February 1964, a 21-year-old guitarist won first place in the Amateur Night contest. His name? Jimi Hendrix.
The long history of the venue starts with the construction of the building in 1913 to 1914, which would later become the Apollo Theater. Designed by architect George Keister, it was first called the Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater after its initial producers Jules Hurtig and Harry Seamon. As was sadly common during those times, they enforced a strict “Whites Only” policy until the theater closed its doors in 1928. In 1933, the property was purchased by businessman Sidney Cohen and following extensive renovations reopened as the Apollo Theater in January 1934. Cohen and his business partner Morris Susman adopted a variety revue show format and targeted Harlem’s local African-American community. They also introduced Amateur Night, which quickly became one of New York’s most popular entertainment events.
After Cohen’s death, the Apollo merged with the Harlem Opera House in 1935. This transaction also changed its ownership to Frank Schiffman and Leo Brecher whose families operated the theater until the late ’70s. From 1975 to 1982, the Apollo was owned by Guy Fisher, the venue’s first black owner. Unfortunately, Fisher was also part of African-American crime syndicate The Council that controlled the heroin trade in Harlem during the ’70s. He has been serving a life sentence at a New York federal prison since 1984. Following the death of an 18-year-old due to a shooting, the Apollo was closed in 1976.
The theater reopened under new management in 1978, before shutting down again in November 1979. In 1983, Percy Sutton purchased the venue. Under the ownership of the prominent lawyer, politician and media and technology executive, the Apollo was equipped with a recording and TV studio. It also obtained federal and city landmark status. In 1991, the State of New York purchased the theater and created the non-profit Apollo Theater Foundation, which runs the venue to this day. The years 2001 and 2005 saw restorations of the building’s interior and exterior, respectively. In celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Apollo established a historical archive during 2009-10 season, and started an oral history project in collaboration with Columbia University.
Now comes the part of the post I enjoy the most: clips capturing performances of some of the artists who have performed at the Apollo Theater. First up: Count Basie Orchestra playing One O’ Clock Jump and He Plays Bass In The Basie Band. Apparently, this footage is from a 1955 show. I just get a kick out of watching these guys and the obvious fun they had on stage.
Sarah Vaughan was one of the many artists who won Amateur Night at the Apollo in 1942. According to Wikipedia, her prize was $10 and a promised engagement at the venue for one week. The latter materialized in the spring of 1943 when she opened for Ella Fitzgerald. Here’s a clip of a tune called You’re Not The Kind Of A Boy, which apparently was captured in 1956.
Perhaps the artist who is best known for his legendary shows at the Apollo is James Brown. Various of his gigs there were recorded and published as live albums, such as 1963’s Live At The Apollo and 1968’s Live At Apollo, Volume II, both with The Famous Flames, and Revolution Of The Mind: Live At The Apollo, Volume III (1971). Here’s a clip of a medley including It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World and a few other songs. The footage is from James Brown: Man To Man, a concert film recorded live at the Apollo in March 1968 and broadcast as an hour-long TV special. The intensity of Brown is just unreal. No wonder they called him “Mr. Dynamite” and “The Hardest Man Working In Show Business.”
In 1985, the Apollo celebrated a renovation with a 50th-anniversary grand reopening and a TV special called Motown Salutes the Apollo. Very fittingly, one of the performers included Stevie Wonder. While I wish he would have played Sir Duke in its full length, I just find Wonder’s tribute to the great Duke Ellington beautiful and inspirational.
The Apollo is mostly known to focus on African-American acts, but white artists have performed there as well throughout its history. More recent examples include Guns N’ Roses, who were there in July to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1987 studio album Appetite For Destruction. In October 2015, Keith Richards played at the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual benefit concert. Here’s a great clip of Gimme Shelter, which he performed in honor of Merry Clayton. The American soul and gospel singer sang on the original studio version. Richards was backed by Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville (keyboards), Willie Weeks (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums), his solo band also known as the X-Pensive Winos, as well as Sarah Dash (vocals), and longtime Rolling Stones backup singers Lisa Fischer and Bernard Fowler.
Today, music remains at the core of the Apollo Theater’s offerings. The Amateur Night at the Apollo competition is still part of the theater’s regular schedule. In fact, the current schedule lists Amateur Night at the Apollo Quarterfinal for tomorrow night (May 25), the first time the competition returns after being dark for nearly two years. The organization’s programming also extends to dance, theater, spoken word and more.
– End –
Pre-COVID, the Apollo Theater attracted an estimated 1.3 million visitors annually. I imagine it is going to take some time to restore this kind of visitor traffic. But the level of activity seems to be picking up.
Sources: Wikipedia, Apollo Theater website, Rolling Stone, YouTube
If you’d asked me over the past couple of weeks whether I was ready for Christmas and New Year’s, most days, I would have said ‘nope’ to the former and ‘hell yes!’ to the latter. Undoubtedly, the second year of this dreadful pandemic has brought many challenges, and with omicron spreading quickly and furiously, the outlook for the near future isn’t great either. Still, while it’s always easy to find reasons to complain, I feel I really shouldn’t do it.
Instead, I should be grateful for many things I oftentimes take for granted: A loving wife and son who haven’t gotten sick; the fact thus far I’ve been able to escape the bloody virus; a roof above my head, even though we literally just needed to have it replaced, which wasn’t cheap; a job I’ve been able to do from home for the past two years; writing this blog about music, a topic I love; and so on and so forth.
As such, it’s time to stop having the blues about the inconveniences the pandemic has brought, especially missing out on live music, and to embrace the holiday season. And, yes, you guessed it, music can help. Following are some contemporary Christmas songs in different genres, including pop, rock, punk, rap, funk, classic rock & roll and even hard rock – as well as one breathtaking rendition of a traditional Christmas carol. I’m borrowing picks from a post I did four years ago. All songs are also captured in a Spotify playlist at the end.
John Lennon/Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (1971)
Chuck Berry/Run Rudolph Run (1958)
The Pogues/Fairytale Of New York (1987)
Run-D.M.C./Christmas In Hollis (1987)
AC/DC/Mistress For Christmas (1990)
José Feliciano/Feliz Navidad (1970)
James Brown/Santa Claus, Go Straight To The Ghetto (1968)
The Ravers/(It’s Gonna Be) A Punk Rock Christmas (1978)
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band/Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (2007)
The Temptations/Silent Night
Below is the Spotify playlist. In the case of (It’s Gonna Be a) Punk Rock Christmas, the version by The Ravers wasn’t available, but I found another rendition of the song by what sounds like a female punk band, The Majorettes.
Happy Holiday Season! If you don’t celebrate Christmas and/or the New Year, I hope this won’t prevent you from having a great time anyway!