Song Musings

What you always wanted to know about that tune

Happy Wednesday and welcome to another installment of Song Musings where I take a closer look at tunes I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. Today’s pick is Amelia by Joni Mitchell.

My intro to the Canadian singer-songwriter happened some 40 years ago with her 11th studio album Wild Things Run Fast from 1982 and I instantly loved Chinese Café / Unchained Melody. That said, I didn’t start to further explore her music until a couple of years ago.

From Mitchell’s albums I’ve heard to date, Hejira has become a favorite. Amelia is the second cut on Side one (speaking in vinyl terms). Like all other tracks on the great record, it was solely written by her. Check out that beautiful and warm sound – I totally dig it!

Amelia was inspired by Mitchell’s breakup of a short relationship with John Guerin, the drummer of jazz fusion ensemble L.A. Express, her backing band from the mid to late ’70s. According to Wikipedia, The song interweaves a story of a desert journey (the “hejira within the hejira”) with the famous aviator Amelia Earhart who mysteriously vanished during a flight over the Pacific Ocean.

Mitchell has commented on the origins of the song: “I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another… sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do.” Here’s a nice live version from 1983.

Hejira had some notable guests. Amelia featured prominent session guitarist Larry Carlton, who played on hundreds of albums by artists, such as Steely Dan, Linda Ronstadt, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and Sammy Davis, Jr. Vibraphone was provided by English jazz musician Victor Feldman, who has played with the likes of Cannonball Adderley, Gregg Allman, Johnny Cash and Rickie Lee Jones, among many others. Carlton and Feldman also appeared on various other albums by Mitchell.

Hejira, which captures Mitchell’s experiences during a period of frequent travel in late 1975 and early 1976, was received favorably when it appeared but neither matched sales nor chart performance of its predecessors. In Canada, it peaked at no. 22 and in the U.S. it climbed to no. 13. It did best in the UK where it reached no. 11.

But, as happens frequently in music, in the years since its release the album has been considered one of the gems in Mitchell’s recording catalog. The most recent revision of Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, published in September 2020, ranks Hejira at no. 133. It was also voted no. 776 in the third edition (2000) of Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums.

Following are some additional insights on Amelia by Songfacts:

Mitchell (from a 1996 interview with the Los Angeles Times): “I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it… the sweet loneliness of solitary travel...

Amelia Earhart vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. Mitchell alludes to this when she sings:

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms

Icarus is a figure from Greek mythology whose father, Daedalus, crafted him a set of wings made of wax. Despite his father’s warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun and his wings melted, sending him to his death in what is now called the Icarian Sea.

Joni Mitchell sings in the first verse about:

Six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
it was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

She explained the lyric to Robert Hepburn for Mojo magazine in 1994. “Basically the false alarm was the end of a relationship. Two scorpios couldn’t let each other go. It was done, but we couldn’t let go; we belonged to each other. It was winding down and I am driving solo without a driver’s license across the country. I think of Amelia I think solo flight. I can’t remember how many hotel rooms later it was complete.”

The late David Crosby, who was in a brief relationship with Joni Mitchell in 1967 and remained a friend thereafter, covered Amelia on his sixth solo album Sky Trails, which came out in September 2017. Nice rendition!

Going back to Songfacts, here’s what Crosby reportedly told Uncut about the tune:

“I’ve always wanted to sing that song. I love that song! What a stunning piece of work she did, the two levels of it talking about Amelia Earhart and taking about her own love life at the same time, so eloquently, with such a beautiful set of words. Her version is quite ornate. I tried to sing it very simply.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

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The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Happy Sunday and hope you are spending a great morning, afternoon, evening, or night, in whichever timezone you are in. Let’s embark on another excursion into the great world of music. As always, we are doing this six tunes at a time.

The Sonny Stitt Quartet/Down Home Blues

Our first stop today is the year 1956 and New York Jazz, an album by American saxophonist Sonny Stitt. The bebop/hard bop player, who started his career in the early ’40s, was known for his warm tone, which can be heard on more than 100 albums. Some critics viewed him as a Charlie Parker mimic, especially during his early years, but he gradually developed his own sound and style. During the ’40s, he played alto saxophone in the big bands of Tiny Bradshaw, Billy Eckstine and Gene Ammons. He also led the Bebop Boys and Galaxy in 1946 and 1948, respectively. In the ’50s, he also played with other bop musicians, such as Horace Parlan, Bud Powell and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. This brings me to New York Jazz, one of the many albums Stitt recorded as a leader. His quartet also featured Jimmy Jones (piano), Ray Brown (bass) and Jo Jones (drums). Here is Down Home Blues, one of Stitt’s compositions.

Steely Dan/Josie

Let’s stay in the jazzy lane and add a dose of pop with a Steely Dan classic from September 1977: Josie, off what I feel is their Mount Rushmore, the Aja album. Starting with Katy Lied from March 1975, the Dan’s masterminds Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had abandoned the standing band concept in favor of recording with a revolving cast of top-notch session musicians. It certainly worked out nicely for them, though it also was an extensive effort, with Aja featuring nearly 40 musicians alongside Messrs. Becker and Faxen. Josie nicely illustrates the caliber of talent. In addition to Fagen (lead vocals, synthesizer, backing vocals) and Becker (guitar solo), the recording included Larry Carlton and Dean Parks (guitar), Victor Feldman (Fender Rhodes), Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals), Chuck Rainey (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums).

Foo Fighters/Best of You

Time to pay a visit to the current century, more specifically June 2005. That’s when Foo Fighters issued their fifth studio album In Your Honor. At that time, the rock band from Seattle around former Nirvana drummer-turned-guitarist Dave Grohl had released a string of increasingly successful albums that enjoyed international chart success. In Your Honor was no exception, topping the charts in Australia and New Zealand, reaching no. 2 in the U.S., the UK and Ireland, and placing in the top 5 in Canada, Austria, Germany and The Netherlands. The double album also featured notable guests like John Paul Jones (ex-Led Zeppelin), Josh Homme (Queen of the Stone Age) as well as singer-songwriter and pianist Norah Jones. Here’s Best of You, credited to all four members of the band, who in addition to Grohl at the time also included Chris Shiflett (lead xuitar), Nate Mendel (bass) and Taylor Hawkins (drums). The tune also appeared separately as the album’s lead single on May 30, 2005. The Foos, who lost Hawkins in March this year due to his untimely death at the age of 50 and have honored their longtime drummer with a series of tribute concerts, appear to rock on.

Dire Straits/Industrial Disease

Our next stop are the ’80s with one of my favorite bands and an album for which I’ve gained a new appreciation, thanks in part to fellow blogger Graham from Aphoristic Album Reviews. In September 1982, Dire Straits released their fourth studio album Love Over Gold. It came two years after its predecessor Making Movies, which is one of my longtime favorites by the British rock band. Love Over Gold with its outstanding sound and Mark Knopfler’s cinematic songwriting was very well received. It became the group’s most successful album at the time, topping the charts in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Austria and The Netherlands, climbing to no. 2 in France, and reaching no. 4 in Germany. In the U.S., it fared more moderately with a no. 19 on the Billboard 200. In Canada, it got to no. 6. Industrial Disease became the second of two singles in November of the same year. It couldn’t match the chart success of the lead single Private Investigations. Interestingly, the two markets in which Industrial Disease charted were Canada and the U.S. American and Canadian audiences would enthusiastically embrace Dire Straits less than three years later when they released Brothers in Arms, their most successful album.

Collective Soul/The World I Know

We haven’t paid a visit to the ’90s yet, so let’s travel there now. March 1995 saw the release of Collective Soul’s eponymous sophomore album, aka the Blue Album to distinguish it from the southern grunge rock band’s 2009 release, which was also self-titled. While I had heard The World I Know before, I had forgotten about this great tune until recently when I coincidentally came across it. The sing is credited to lead vocalist and guitarist Ed Roland and the group’s original lead guitarist Ross Childress (Roland since disputed that Childress had any role in writing it – CMM). The official video, which includes a warning because of the depiction of attempted suicide (though the individual recognizes in time it would be wrong and does not go through with it), is pretty powerful. The World I Know was the fourth of five singles the album spawned. It became the group’s only no. 1 in Canada, and in the U.S., it topped Billboard’s Mainstream Rock and Adult Alternative Airplay charts. The single also made the top 20 in the mainstream Billboard Hot 100. Elsewhere, it reached no. 25 in New Zealand and no. 41 in Australia. Collective Soul are still around with Roland remaining part of the present line-up. In fact, they released a new album on August 12 this year, which I haven’t heard.

The Miracles/Shop Around

Recently, I saw Motown soul legend Smokey Robinson in Philadelphia. If you’re interested, I wrote about the amazing show here. One of the songs the now 82-year-old Robinson, who still is in great vocal and physical shape, did not perform to my regret and surprise is Shop Around. I’ve always loved this tune and thought it make for a great final stop of today’s music journey. Co-written by Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., the song first appeared as a single in September 1960 for Robinson’s vocal group The Miracles, aka Smokey Robinson and the Miracles from 1965 to 1972. It became their first no. 1 in the U.S. on the Billboard R&B chart. and one of their highest-charting singles on the Billboard Hot 100 where it climbed to no. 2. The Miracles were Motown’s first million-selling artists. Shop Around was also included on the group’s debut album Hi… We’re the Miracles, which appeared in June 1961.

Last but not least, following is a Spotify playlist featuring all the above goodies. Hope there’s something that makes you smile.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; Spotify

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

By now it’s safe to assume more frequent visitors know what’s about to happen. To new readers, The Sunday Six is all about enjoying the diversity and beauty of music. I make a deliberate effort to feature different music genres including some I don’t listen to frequently. While the resulting picks, therefore, can appear to be random, these posts don’t capture the first six tunes that come to my mind. At the end of the day, anything goes as long as it speaks to me.

George Benson/Breezin’

Kicking is off is some groovy guitar pop jazz by George Benson. Benson started to play the guitar as an eight-year-old, following the ukulele he had picked up a year earlier. Incredibly, he already recorded by the age of 9, which means his career now stands at a whooping 57 years and counting! He gained initial popularity in the 1960s, performing together with jazz organist Jack McDuff. Starting with the 1963 live album Brother Jack McDuff Live!, Benson appeared on various McDuff records. In 1964, he released his debut as a bandleader, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, which featured McDuff on piano and organ. In the ’70s, Benson started to venture beyond jazz into pop and R&B. Breezin’ from May 1976 is a good example. Not only did it top Billboard’s jazz chart, but it also climbed to no. 1 on the R&B and mainstream charts. Here’s the title track, written by Bobby Womack who also originally recorded it in December 1970, together with Hungarian jazz guitar great Gábor Szabó. It appeared on Szabó’s 1971 album High Contrast. Here’s Benson’s version. The smooth and happy sound are perfect for a Sunday morning!

Steely Dan/Home at Last

Let’s stay in pop jazzy lane for a bit longer with Steely Dan, one of my all-time favorite bands. I trust Messrs. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, who first met in 1967 as students at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. and quickly bonded over their mutual admiration for jazz and other music, don’t need much of an introduction. By the time they met guitarist Denny Dias in the summer of 1970, they already had written a good amount of original music. Steely Dan’s  first lineup was assembled in December 1971, after Becker, Fagen and Dias had moved to Los Angeles. The additional members included Jeff “Skunk” Baxter  (guitar), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (vocals). Earlier, Gary Katz, a staff producer at ABC Records, had hired Becker and Fagen as staff songwriters. It was also Katz who signed the Dan to the label. By the time their sixth and, in my opinion, best album Aja appeared in September 1977, Steely Dan had become a studio project by Fagen and Becker who surrounded themselves with a changing cast of top-notch session musicians and other artists. In this case, the latter included Larry Carlton (guitar), Chuck Rainey (bass), Jim Keltner (drums) and Michael McDonald (backing vocals), among others. Here’s Home at Last, which like all other tracks on the album was co-written by Fagen and Becker. In addition to them, the track featured Carlton (though the solo was played by Becker who oftentimes left lead guitar responsibilities to a session guitarist like Carlton), Rainey (bass), Victor Feldman (vibraphone), Bernard Purdie (drums), Timothy B. Schmit (backing vocals), and of course an amazing horn section, including Jim Horn (what an appropriate name!), Bill Perkins, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso, Chuck Findley, Lou McCreary and Dick Hyde.

The Temptations/Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone

Time to start switching up things with a dose of ’70s funk and psychedelic soul, don’t you agree? Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone by The Temptations is one of the coolest tunes I can think of in this context. Co-written by Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was first released as a single in May 1972 by the label’s recording act The Undisputed Truth. While the original to which you can listen here is pretty good as well, it’s the great rendition by The Temptations I heard first and have come to love! They recorded an 11-minute-plus take for their studio album All Directions from July 1972. In September that year, The Temptations also released a 6:54-minute single version of the song. While it still was a pretty long edit for a single, it yielded the group their second no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ’70s. It would also be their last no. 1 hit on the U.S. mainstream chart. By the time Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone appeared, the group already had seen various changes and only featured two members of the classic line-up: Otis Williams (baritone) and Melvin Franklin (bass). The other members were Dennis Edwards (tenor), Damon Harris (tenor) and Richard Street (second tenor). Amazingly, The Temptations still exist after some 60 years (not counting the group’s predecessors), with 79-year-old Otis Williams remaining as the only original member. I have tickets to see them together with The Four Tops in early November – keeping fingers crossed! Meanwhile, here’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone, of course, the mighty album version, coz I don’t do things half ass here! 🙂

Peter Gabriel/Don’t Give Up (feat. Kate Bush)

Let’s go to a different decade with another artist I’ve come to dig, which in no small part was due to this album: Peter Gabriel and So, his fifth studio release from May 1986. It’s probably Gabriel’s most mainstream-oriented album. Much of the former Genesis lead vocalist’s other solo work has been more of an acquired taste. I also didn’t pay much attention after his follow-on Us that appeared in September 1992. Fueled by the hit single Sledgehammer, which topped the mainstream charts in the U.S. and Canada, peaked at no. 3 in Australia and New Zealand, and reached the top 10 in Germany and various other European countries, So became Gabriel’s best-selling solo album. I did catch him during the supporting tour in Cologne, Germany, and still have fond memories of that gig. Here’s Don’t Give Up, a haunting duet with Kate Bush. Inspired by U.S. Depression era photos from the 1930s Gabriel had seen, he applied the theme to the difficult economic conditions in Margaret Thatcher’s mid-1980s England. While the tune is a bit of a Debbie Downer, I find it extremely powerful. You can literally picture the lyrics as a movie. I also think the vocals alternating between Gabriel and Bush work perfectly.

The Turtles/Happy Together

I suppose after the previous tune, we all could need some cheering up. A song that always puts me in a good mood is Happy Together by The Turtles. Plus, it broadens our little musical journey to include the ’60s, one of my favorite decades in music. The Turtles started performing under that name in 1965. Their original members, Howard Kaylan (lead vocals, keyboards), Mark Volman (backing vocals, guitar, percussion), Al Nichol (lead guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Jim Tucker (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Chuck Portz (bass) and Don Murray (drums), had all played together in a surf rock-oriented band called The Crossfires. That group turned into The Tyrtles, a folk rock outfit, before becoming The Turtles and adopting more of a sunshine pop style. The band’s initial run lasted until 1970. Vollman and Kaylan subsequently launched pop duo Flo & Eddie and released a series of records between 1972 and 2009. In 1983, Vollman and Kaylan legally regained the use of the name The Turtles and started touring as The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie. Instead of seeking to reunite with their former bandmates, Vollman and Kaylan relied on other musicians. The group remains active in this fashion to this day. Their website lists a poster for a Happy Together Tour 2021 “this summer,” though currently, no gigs are posted. Happy Together was the title track of the band’s third studio album from April 1967. Co-written by Alan Gordon and Garry Bonner, the infectious tune became The Turtles’ biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, climbing to no. 2 in Canada, and reaching no. 12 in the UK, marking their first charting single there.

Simple Minds/Stand by Love

I can’t believe it’s already time to wrap up this latest installment of The Sunday Six. For this last tune, I decided to pick a song from the early ’90s: Stand by Love by Simple Minds. While I wouldn’t call myself a fan of the Scottish new wave and pop rock band and don’t follow them closely, I generally enjoy their music. I also got to see them live once in Stuttgart, Germany in the early ’90s and remember it as a good show. Simple Minds emerged in late 1977 from the remains of short-lived punk band Johnny & The Self-Abusers. By late 1978, the band’s first stable line-up was in place, featuring Jim Kerr (lead vocals), Charlie Burchill (guitar), Mick MacNeil (keyboards), Derek Forbes (bass) and Brian McGee (drums). That formation recorded Simple Minds’ debut album Life in a Day released in April 1979. Their fifth studio album New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84) was the first to bring more significant commercial success in the UK and Europe. This was followed by a series of additional successful albums that appeared between 1984 and 1995, which included the band’s biggest hits, such as Don’t You (Forget About Me), Alive and Kicking, Belfast Child and Let There Be Love. Today, more than 40 years after their formation, Simple Minds are still around, with Kerr and Burchill remaining part of the current line-up. Here’s Stand by Love, co-written by Burchill and Kerr, from the band’s ninth studio album Real Life that came out in April 1991. This is quite a catchy tune. I also dig the backing vocals by what sounds like gospel choir, which become more prominent as the song progresses.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Turtles…Featuring Flo and Eddie website; YouTube