If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song playlist

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 HuffGene 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.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Zager & Evans

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.

Here’s more on In the Year 2525 from Songfacts:

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.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

If I Could Only Take One

My desert island song by Talking Heads

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! 🙂

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

Reelin’ In The Years At PNC Bank Arts Center

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.

PNC Bank Arts Center is a 7,000-seat venue with an additional grass area capacity to accommodate about 10,500 people

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!

Steely Dan in action: Donald Fagen (vocals, keyboards, melodica), 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)

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. Songfacts notes My 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

The Sunday Six

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!

Santana/Welcome

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 Fool here and the gig here.

The Church/Reptile

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.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

Musings of the Past

Where Stars Are Born And Legends Are Made

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 FitzgeraldBillie HolidayCount Basie OrchestraSarah VaughanSammy Davis Jr.James BrownGladys 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 DavisAretha FranklinB.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

‘Tis the Season – Lighten Up!

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!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

The Temptations and Four Tops Shine On After 60-Plus Years

Iconic Motown acts deliver sweet soul music old school style and in perfect harmony at St. George Theatre on Staten Island, N.Y.

Nope, it wasn’t just my imagination, runnin’ away with me. On Thursday evening, I actually found myself at my first larger-scale indoor concert since January 2020: The Temptations and Four Tops at St. George Theatre, an old beautiful 2,800-seat performance venue on Staten Island, N.Y. I literally didn’t make the final decision to go until the morning of the show. In the end, perhaps I’m weaker than a man should be, I can’t help myself. One thing is for sure: It felt so damn good!

I’ve deliberately been avoiding large crowds since this bloody pandemic began, especially in closed rooms, so my decision to attend this show didn’t come easy. In the end, I felt the risk was acceptable, given the Covid numbers have been trending down, I’m fully vaccinated and I was wearing a mask for additional protection. In addition, performance venues in New York require that all visitors provide proof of vaccination before they can be admitted. Frankly, I wish New Jersey would do the same. On to the show!

Yours truly at St. George Theatre, which first opened its doors on December 4, 1929. And, yes, there was a big smile behind that mask!

I trust none of these two iconic Motown acts need much of an introduction. The Temptations, who opened the evening, were formed in 1960 in Detroit, Mich. Initially called The Elgins, the original members included Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Elbridge “Al” Bryant. Not surprisingly, the group’s composition has changed many times over the decades. Notably, Williams who just turned 80 on October 30, is still part of the current line-up, which also includes Terry Weeks (since 1997), Willie Greene (since 2015), Ron Tyson (since 1983) and Larry Braggs (since 2016). Braggs couldn’t be there since he was under the weather, as Williams put it, but the four of them did a marvelous job on vocals.

Following are a few clips I took from their set. First up: Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. Co-written by producer Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland Jr., part of the songwriting and production powerhouse of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg was first released as a single in May 1966 and also included on The Temptations’ fourth studio album Gettin’ Ready from June of the same year. The song became their fourth no. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Singles chart. It also reached no. 13, no. 32 and 21 on the mainstream charts in the U.S., Canada and UK, respectively.

For the most part, The Temptations presented their songs blending into each other, which made recording a bit tricky. Luckily, Setlist.fm included the song line-up from another recent show and, as far as I could tell, they replicated that same set. Here’s the highlight of their show and perhaps the highlight of the night: Just My Imagination (Runnin’ Away With Me) and Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Just My Imagination, co-written by Whitfield and Barrett Strong, first appeared as a single in January 1971 and was also part of the group’s 14th studio album Sky’s the Limit. The song became their third to top the Billboard Hot 100 and reached no. 8 in the UK, one of their most successful hits there. Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, another Whitfield-Barrett co-write, with its edgy psychedelic soul sound set quite a contrast. Originally, this tune was released as a single in May 1972 by The Undisputed Truth, another Motown act. But it was the version by The Temptations from September that year, which turned the great tune into a major hit, both in the U.S. and internationally. Once again, it topped the Billboard Hot 100, reached no. 12 in Canada, and became a top 20 hit in the UK and various European countries.

The last tune from the group’s set I’d like to call out was the closer My Girl, which Williams called The Temptations’ anthem. Co-written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White who also both produced the tune, My Girl became the group’s first big hit and a signature song. First released in December 1964, it reached no. 1 in the U.S. on both the mainstream and R&B Singles charts, climbed to no. 8 in Canada, and peaked at no. 2 in each the UK and Ireland. My Girl was also included on The Temptations’ sophomore album The Temptations Sing Smokey, which appeared in March 1965.

Here’s the entire setlist (based on the aforementioned entry in Setlist.fm)

Get Ready
Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)
The Way You Do the Things You Do
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg
Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)
I Wish It Would Rain
Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone (The Undisputed Truth cover)
I Can’t Get Next to You
Is it Gonna Be Yes Or No
Waitin’ On You
Treat Her Like a Lady
My Girl

After a 10 to 15-minute intermission, it was the Four Tops’ turn. That vocal quartet was first established as the Four Aims in 1953 in the Motor City. This means the group has been around for some 68 years, which I find absolutely incredible. What’s even more amazing is that one of the founding members, Abdul “Duke” Fakir, who is turning 86 years in December, is still part of the current line-up! The other original members were Levi Stubbs, Renaldo “Obi” Benson and Lawrence Payton. That line-up remarkably performed for more than 40 years until 1997 without any changes. Apart from Fakir, the group’s present members are Ronnie McNeir (since 1999), Alexander Morris (since 2019) and Lawrence Payton Jr., the son of original member Payton (since 2005).

Here’s Baby I Need Your Loving, the Four Tops’ first Motown single. Written by the aforementioned Holland-Dozier-Holland and released in July 1964, it marked an impressive start, reaching no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and going all the way to no. 4 in Canada. The song was also included on the Four Tops’ eponymous debut album from January 1965.

Similar to The Temptations, the Four Tops hardly left breaks between their songs and combined some in medleys. Here’s a mighty triple combo of Reach Out (I’ll Be There), Standing in the Shadows of Love and I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch). All of these three tunes, which formed the finale of the group’s set, were penned by Holland-Dozier-Holland. First released in 1966, Reach Out was the second Four Tops song to top both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. Also reaching no. 1 in the UK, no. 4 in Ireland, no. 6 in each The Netherlands and Canada, and no. 10 in Belgium, Reach Out became one of the group’s biggest hits and one of Motown’s best-known songs. Standing in the Shadows of Love couldn’t quite match that enormous chart success, but still climbed to no. 6 on the U.S. and British mainstream charts. I Can’t Help Myself marked the first no. 1 for the Four Tops in the U.S. on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the Hot R&B Singles charts. In the U.K., it got to no. 23.

Here’s the list of songs the Four Tops performed:

Loco in Acapulco
Baby I Need Your Loving
Bernadette
Same Old Song / Shake Me, Wake Me
I Believe in You and Me
I Got a Feeling
Mack the Knife
What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye cover)
When She Was My Girl
Ain’t No Woman (Like the One I’ve Got)
Reach Out (I’ll Be There) / Standing in the Shadows of Love
I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

What else can I say? Other than sharing a 10-piece horn section, The Temptations and Four Tops were backed by excellent separate bands. One cool factoid the Four Tops‘ Fakir shared is that their backing band featured Earl Van Dyke Jr. on keyboards. He’s the son of Earl Van Dyke, the main keyboarder for Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers. Similar to Booker T. & the M.G.’s at Stax, The Funk Brothers can be heard on countless Motown recordings between 1959 and 1972.

Speaking of Stax, I’ve noted before that Motown introduced me to soul, which eventually led me to Stax, my favorite soul label these days. Having said this, while the Motown formula they used during the ’60s can become repetitive, many of these songs were done incredibly well, thanks in part due to excellent studio musicians like The Funk Brothers. That’s something I realized once again listening to this music on Thursday night.

The final thoughts in this post shall belong to Otis Williams, who was quoted on the website of St. George Theatre as follows: “When I tell people we are God’s group…I don’t mean it arrogantly. It’s just that we have been tested time and again and keep coming back. We have suffered the death of so many legendary singers…Paul Williams, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin. Other’s like Dennis Edwards, Richard Street, Ali-Ollie Woodson and Theo Peoples have left, and yet our unity is tighter, our sound brighter and our popularity greater. Someone has watched over this group. Someone has protected our integrity. Someone has said…just go on singing and it’ll get better.”

Sources: Wikipedia; St. George Theatre website; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

It’s Sunday again and a new mini music excursion is upon us. This time, we start in April 1993 with some jazzy blues, move on to rock from 1975, soul from 1965, pop rock from 2002 and blues rock from 2011, before finishing with classic rock & roll from 1957. Let’s go!

Chris Isaak/5:15

I’d like to begin today’s journey with Chris Isaak, a name I feel I hadn’t heard in ages – until the other day when I stumbled across this great tune: 5:15. Isaak recorded it for his fourth studio album San Francisco Days that was released in April 1993. It’s the follow-on to Heart Shaped World from June 1989, which became Isaak’s breakthrough record, thanks to Wicked Game, his biggest hit. Coming back to 5:15, I just love the jazzy blues vibe of this tune. It would have made a good single. Check it out!

Little River Band/It’s a Long Way There

Next, let’s go down under and 18 years back: It’s a Long Way There by Australian rockers Little River Band. I’ve dug this tune from the first time I heard it in Germany on the radio sometime in the late ’70s. In those days, I taped songs from the radio like a maniac to create one mixed music cassette after the other. This tune, off Little River Band’s eponymous debut album from October 1975, ended up on one of those mixed MCs. It was written by the group’s lead vocalist and guitarist Graham Goble. Yes, with its orchestration, the tune doesn’t exactly suffer from underproduction, but this guitar sound the harmony vocals are just sweet!

Four Tops/I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

On Thursday night, I saw The Temptations and Four Tops at a midsize theatre on Staten Island, N.Y. Watch for a forthcoming separate post on this show, but in a nutshell, I had a great time listening to some old-school Motown soul. So I just couldn’t help myself to feature one of my favorites by the Detroit quartet that helped shape the Motown sound. Co-written by the songwriting and production power trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland, I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) became the Four Tops’ first no. 1 U.S. single on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1965, about six weeks after it had been released as a single. It was also their first charting single in the UK where it climbed to no. 23. In addition, the song was included on the group’s sophomore album ingeniously titled Four Tops Second Album. Okay, feel free to snip and move to that great bassline by James Jamerson!

Coldplay/Clocks

I trust this next song doesn’t need much of an introduction. After it had come out in March 2003 and many months thereafter, it was pretty much impossible to listen to mainstream radio without hearing Clocks by Coldplay. I never explored the British pop rock band but always liked this track, credited to all four members, Chris Martin (lead vocals, piano, guitar), Jonny Buckland (lead guitar, backing vocals), Guy Berryman (bass) and Will Champion (drums, percussion, backing vocals) – the same lineup that exists to this day. Clocks was also included on Coldplay’s sophomore album A Rush of Blood to the Head that had been released in August 2002. It became one of the top 10 selling albums in the U.S. in 2003.

Gregg Allman/Just Another Rider

For this next tune, let’s stay in the current century but jump to the next decade. Just Another Rider is a track from Gregg Allman’s seventh solo album Low Country Blues, a late-career gem from January 2011, and sadly his final solo album released during his lifetime. The song was co-written by Allman and his Allman Brothers bandmate Warren Haynes. Low Country Blues, produced by T Bone Burnett, became Allman’s highest-charting solo record, reaching no. 5 on the Billboard 200 and topping the Top Blues Albums chart. It was also nominated for a 2011 Grammy Award for Best Blues Album.

The Crickets/That’ll Be the Day

For the sixth and final tune of this music excursion, I like to go back to 1957. Every time I listen to a collection of Buddy Holly tunes, which I did the other day, I’m blown away by how many great songs he wrote during his short career. The bespectacled, somewhat geeky appearing young Texan may not have had the looks and moves of Elvis Presley, but in my book, he sure as heck was just as cool. Not only did Holly write or co-write an impressive amount of great songs, but he also was a pretty talented guitarist. That’ll Be the Day was written by Holly together with Jerry Allison, the drummer of his backing band The Crickets. Initially, Holly had recorded it in 1956 with The Three Tunes. He re-recorded the song with The Crickets, which was released in May 1957 and topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and UK. That’ll Be the Day was also included on the band’s debut album The “Chirping” Crickets that came out in November of the same year.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: June 29

After more than three months, I thought the time was right to do another installment of my irregular music history feature. In case you’re new to these posts, the idea is to capture things that happened on a specific date in rock & roll’s past. It’s an arbitrary but fun way to look at music, since you never know what you are going to dig up. I mostly focus on the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. These posts are not meant to be comprehensive; in fact, they are highly selective and reflect my music taste. With that being said, let’s take a look at June 29.

1962: Motown singing group The Contours released their third single Do You Love Me. Written by the Detroit soul label’s president Berry Gordy Jr., the tune initially was intended for The Temptations. But after Gordy wasn’t able to locate them and had run into The Contours in the hallway, he spontaneously handed the song to them, confident it would become a hit. It turned out to be a good decision. While The Temptations went on and scored multiple mainstream top 40 hits, Do You Love Me became the only such chart success for The Contours, topping Billboard’s Hot R&B Sides and climbing to no. 3 on the Hot 100 mainstream chart.

1964: The Beatles played their first of two nights at Festival Hall in Brisbane, Australia, as part of their only world tour, which also included Denmark, The Netherlands, Hong Kong and New Zealand. They performed two sold out shows on both nights, which were each seen by 5,500 people. But evidently not everybody loved The Beatles, even before John Lennon’s controversial remark about the band being more popular than Jesus. After their arrival to Brisbane from New Zealand, they were pelted with food and bits of wood by some in the crowd while riding in an open-top truck. At the concerts, eggs were thrown at the stage, though The Beatles played on, and the perpetrators were quickly ejected from the music hall. Here’s another fun fact. John, Paul, George and Ringo stood at a hotel called Lennons Hotel. The day after their second night in Brisbane, The Beatles embarked on their long trip back to England. Don’t take it from me. It’s all documented in The Beatles Bible, the ultimate source of truth about the Fab Four! 🙂

Beatles fans in Brisbane – no egg throwers here!

1968: A Saucerful of Secrets, the sophomore album by Pink Floyd, appeared in the UK. The U.S. release occurred on July 27. Sadly, it turned out to be the final album with co-founder and key early songwriter Syd Barrett whose mental condition declined to a point where the group felt compelled to recruit David Gilmour to help out. Barrett left Pink Floyd prior to the album’s completion. Unlike the band’s debut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn from August 1967, for which Barrett was the major songwriter, his role on Pink Floyd’s second album was much reduced. He only wrote one of the seven tracks and contributed some guitar work to two others. Here’s the aforementioned sole tune written by Barrett, Jugband Blues. He also sang lead vocals and provided acoustic and electric guitar.

1974: Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot hit no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Sundown. He was the second Canadian artist in 1974 to top the U.S. main chart following Terry Jacks with Seasons in the Sun in early March. Written by Lightfoot, Sundown is the title track from his 10th studio album that had been released in January 1974. While he was also successful with other songs, such as If You Could Read My Mind (1970), Carefree Highway (1974), Rainy Day People (1975) and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1976), Sundown remains Lightfoot’s only no. 1 hit on the Hot 100.

1984: Bruce Springsteen kicked off his Born in the U.S.A Tour at St. Paul Civic Center in St. Paul, Minn. to support his seventh studio album that had come out on June 4. The tour, which ended on October 2, 1985 in Los Angeles and also included Canada, Asia and Europe, would become Springsteen’s longest and most successful tour to date. It was the first since portions of the 1974 Born to Run tours without Steven Van Zandt who had decided to launch a solo career after Born in the U.S.A. had been recorded and was replaced by Nils Lofgren. It was also the first tour to include Patti Scialfa who became Springsteen’s wife in 1991. And then there was the filming of the video for Dancing in the Dark during the opening night, which featured then-unknown actress Courteney Cox who had been planted in the first row, looking adoringly at Springsteen before he pulled her up on stage to dance with him. It would make The Boss an MTV sensation. I wonder how he views of this today. Well, it was the ’80s…

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts Music Calendar; The Beatles Bible; YouTube