The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time

Welcome to another Sunday Six, my zig-zig music journeys featuring six seemingly random tunes from the past 70 years or so. This time, it’s mostly different flavors of rock, including smoking British Invasion rock, grungy alternative rock, groovy ’70s funk, more alternative rock, jazzy soft rock and pop rock. Let’s go!

The Animals/We Gotta Get Out of This Place

I’d like to start with the The Animals, one of my favorite ’60s bands that became part of the British Invasion. I’ve always loved their edgy blues rock-oriented sound and frontman Eric Burdon’s distinct deep vocals that perfectly fit their music. Undoubtedly, the group is best known for their rendition of the traditional The House of the Rising Sun. While I love that tune, there are so many other great songs. One of my favorites that is also one of their most popular tracks is We Gotta Get Out of This Place. Co-written by prominent U.S. songwriting duo Barry Mann and his wife Cynthia Weil, the tune initially was intended for The Righteous Brothers. After Mann got a record deal for himself, his label Red Bird Records wanted him to release the song. At the same time, hard-charging record executive Allen Klein had heard the track and handed a demo to Animals producer Mickie Most. The Animals ended up recording it before Mann could – perhaps they should have renamed it “We Gotta Get Out This Song!” We Gotta Get Out of This Place was first released as a single in the UK in July 1965, followed by the U.S. the next month. It also became the opener of the band’s third U.S. album Animal Tracks released in September of the same year.

Nirvana/Come As You Are

Let’s jump to the early ’90s next and Nirvana. Co-founded by lead vocalist and guitarist Curt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Wash. in 1987, the group was an acquired taste for me. Oftentimes, I still find it hard to digest their loud and dissonant music combined with depressing lyrics. But when I’m in the right mood, there’s just something about Nirvana. Come As You Are is a track from their sophomore album Nevermind from September 1991. The first record to feature drummer Dave Grohl, Nevermind enjoyed a surprising degree of mainstream success and was key in popularizing the Seattle grunge movement and alternative rock. Come As You Are, written by Cobain, also appeared separately as the album’s second single. While it didn’t match the chart success of Smells Like Teen Spirit, it still became one of the group’s most successful songs. It climbed to no. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 and to no. 27 in Canada, and placed within the top 20 mainstream charts of many European countries.

Curtis Mayfield/Super Fly

After that haunting Nirvana tune, I’m ready for something groovy, something funky. Something like Super Fly. Written by the amazing Curtis Mayfield, the tune is the title track of Mayfield’s third solo album that came out in July 1972. It’s also the soundtrack for the Blaxploitation crime drama picture of the same name. Together with What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye, Super Fly is viewed as a pioneering soul concept album featuring then-unique socially aware lyrics about poverty, drug abuse, crime and prostitution. Both albums proved skeptical record executives wrong and became major commercial successes. For Mayfield, Super Fly also was the first of five soundtrack scores he wrote in the ’70s. In August 1990, Mayfield became paralyzed from the neck down when he was hit by stage lightening equipment while being introduced at an outdoor show in Brooklyn, New York. Sadly, that freak accident marked the start of a downward spiral in Mayfield’s health, which culminated in his death from diabetes complications at age of 57 in December 1999.

R.E.M./Orange Crush

Warning: Once you listen to the next tune, it might get stuck in your brain. And while with that crazy ongoing heat wave you might feel thirsty, it has nothing to do with the orange flavored soft drink. Orange Crush is a track off R.E.M.’s sixth studio album Green from November 1988. The title refers to Agent Orange, the horrific chemical used by the U.S. during the Vietnam war to defoliate the Vietnamese jungle. Songfacts explains that while R.E.M. lead vocalist Michael Stipe’s lyrics do not refer to a specific war-related experience, his father served in Vietnam as part of the helicopter corps. Like all other tracks on Green, Orange Crush was credited to all members of R.E.M., who apart from Stipe included Peter Buck (guitar, mandolin), Mike Mills (bass, keyboards, accordion, backing vocals) and Bill Berry (drums, percussion, backing vocals). The tune also appeared separately as the album’s lead single in December 1988, becoming R.E.M.’s then-most successful song on the UK Singles Chart where it peaked at no. 28. According to Wikipedia, Orange Crush wasn’t released as a commercial single in the U.S. But it became a promotional single and hit no. 1 on both Billboard’s Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Tracks charts.

David Crosby/She’s Got to Be Somewhere

Yesterday, David Crosby turned 80 – wow! After all his past struggles with drugs and alcohol and even incarceration, I wonder whether he himself thought he would ever reach this milestone – well, I’m glad he did and wish him many happy returns! Of course, Crosby is best known as a co-founding member of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, both groups I dig. In addition to appearing on their albums, Crosby has also had a solo career that started in February 1971 with the release of If I Could Only Remember My Name. But until 2014, his solo output was pretty uneven. The next album after his debut, Oh Yes I Can, came out in January 1989 and was followed by Thousand Roads in May 1993. Since 2014’s Croz, Crosby has been on a late stage career surge that has since seen the release of four additional albums. The most recent one, For Free, dropped just last month. My knowledge of Crosby’s solo work is pretty spotty. One of his albums I’ve listened to previously and reviewed here, is Sky Trails from September 2017. Here’s the opener She’s Got To Be Somewhere. And nope, even though it sounds like Donald Fagen could have written it, the tune was actually penned by James Raymond, Crosby’s son who has worked with his father since 1997, both on the road and in the studio. Crosby is a big Steely Dan fan. Fagen knows and even co-wrote a song for Crosby’s last album, Rodriguez for a Night.

George Harrison/All Things Must Pass

Yes, the time has come again to wrap up yet another Sunday Six installment. All Things Must Pass looks like an appropriate tune for the occasion. Apart from the fitting title, the pick is also inspired by the recent appearance of the massive 50th anniversary reissue of George Harrison’s third solo album from November 1970 and his first after the breakup of The Beatles. Frankly, I’ve yet to listen to it. The super deluxe format, which my streaming music provider offers, has 70 tracks. In addition to remixed songs of the original 3-LP album, it features numerous outtakes, jams and demos – altogether close to 4.5 hours of music! Anyway, let’s turn to the title track. I did not know that it was Billy Preston who first released the song as All Things (Must) Pass on his album Encouraging Words that appeared two months prior to Harrison’s record – nice version that’s here in case you’re curious! Also unbeknownst to be Preston included a great rendition of My Sweet Lord as well.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

When I started Best of What’s New in March 2020, I really didn’t know whether there would be enough newly released music I sufficiently like to make this a frequently recurring feature. After all, while one occasionally encounters new artists who embrace aspects of the ’60s and ’70s, I’m under no illusion that the kind of music from my two favorite decades won’t come back. And yet, except for one occasion due to a family matter, I’ve been posting new installments weekly.

After more than a year it’s very clear to me some decent new music continues to come out. Since it’s not as easy as simply checking the charts, this can take some time. And, yes, it also requires me to be open-minded and occasionally push beyond my comfort zone. I think my selections for this week, which all appeared yesterday (May 28), illustrate the point, especially when it comes to a young artist from Canada who is of Sudanese heritage.

Jane Lee Hooker/Drive

If you’re a more frequent visitor of the blog, you may recall some of my previous posts about this blues rock-oriented band from New York. Jane Lee Hooker have been around since 2015. Their current line-up features founding members Dana “Danger” Athens (vocals), Tracy Hightop  (guitar), Tina “T-Bone” Gorin (guitar) and Hail Mary Z (bass), along with ‘Lightnin’ Ron Salvo who joined as the band’s new drummer last year. To date, Jane Lee Hooker have released two full-length albums, No B! (April 2016) and Spiritus (November 2017), which I covered here and here. Drive is their latest single, following Jericho from February. Both tunes will be on the band’s next album that’s slated for later this year. The new track is a departure from their hard-charging blues rock sound. A statement explained due to COVID-19 restrictions Jane Lee Hooker “found themselves locked out of their Brooklyn rehearsal room – the creative space where they write and rehearse with amps cranked up at maximum volume. Out of necessity, band catch-ups were moved to the grapevine-filled backyard of singer Dana Athens’ family home in Brooklyn – with tiny practice amps, acoustic guitars and drummer Ron Salvo keeping the beat on upturned plastic garbage cans and recycling bins.” Well, whatever impact the new setting may have had, I dig the outcome, which is more like a rock ballad with a nice soul vibe.

Lou Barlow/In My Arms

Lou Barlow is an alternative rock singer-songwriter who has been active since the early 1980s. Viewed as a pioneer of low-fi rock, Barlow has been a founding member of various bands, including Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion. Just five weeks ago, Dinosaur Jr. released their latest album Sweep It Into Space, from which I featured a track in a previous Best of What’s New installment. After 25 years, Barlow remains involved with indie rock band Sebadoh as well. In addition to his group engagements, he has also released various solo albums including his latest, Reason to Live. Here’s the opener In My Arms. I like the laid back vibe and also find this tune quite catchy.

Mustafa/Stay Alive

Mustafa Ahmed, aka Mustafa the Poet and Mustafa, is a Canadian poet, singer-songwriter and filmmaker from Toronto, who is of Sudanese heritage. According to his Apple Music profile, Mustava became known for socially conscious poetry during his youth. When he was 18, in 2014, he made his first recorded appearance as Mustafa the Poet on Lorraine Segato’s “Rize Time.” Shortly thereafter, he gained more notice when a poem he wrote was shared by Drake on social media. In 2016, Mustafa was named to the Prime Minister’s Youth Council by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and, in addition to contributing to “Feel” by Halal Gang partner SAFE, he also gained his first major songwriting credit on the Weeknd’s “Attention,” contained on the chart-topping Starboy. Over the next few years, he continued to write poetry and collaborate with other artists, and, following the murder of friend and Halal member Smoke Dawg, he made Remember Me, Toronto, a short documentary addressing gun violence and its root causes (with Drake among those whom he filmed for it). Fast-forward to the present and When Smoke Rises, Mustava’s solo debut. Here’s the album’s opener Stay Alive, co-written by him, Frank Dukes, Mohammed Omar and Simon Hessmann. Don’t let the tune’s soft acoustic sound and lovely melody distract you from the serious lyrics. Here’s an excerpt: A bottle of lean, a gun in your jeans/And a little faith in me/A plane in the sky, the only starlight/On this never-ending street/The cameras and cops, we could’ve been stars/On our mothers news screens…It’s almost a Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On approach.

Blackberry Smoke/Ain’t the Same

The last track I’d like to highlight in this Best of What’s New is a great song by Blackberry Smoke, a southern rock band formed in Atlanta, Ga. in 2000. Their line-up includes Charlie Starr (vocals, guitar), Paul Jackson (guitar, vocals), Brandon Still (keyboards), Richard Turner (bass, vocals) and Brit Turner (drums). Blackberry Smoke released their debut album Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime in 2003. The third album The Whippoorwill from August 2012 brought the band their first chart success in the U.S. and the UK. They have performed throughout the U.S. as headliner and supporting acts for the likes of Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ain’t the Same, co-written by Starr and Keith Nelson, is a track from Blackberry Smoke’s new album You Hear Georgia, their seventh studio release. I’ll be sure to check it out more closely!

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

Is it really Sunday again? It is. Crazy how time seems to be flying. On the upside, Sunday is fun day and time for my favorite recurring feature. I think I’ve put together another set of six tunes that celebrates the beauty of music in its different flavors. Hope you enjoy it!

Henry Mancini/The Pink Panther Theme

Long before I had ever heard of Peter Sellers, Inspector Jacques Closeau and The Pink Panther movies, I was familiar with The Pink Panther Theme. That’s because I watched the cartoon series as a child growing up in Germany. I always loved the instrumental theme, which was composed by Henry Mancini in 1963 for the first movie in the series titled The Pink Panther. When that track came to my mind the other day, I figured it would be great to feature one of the coolest jazz instrumentals I know in a Sunday Six installment. Apart from being included in the film’s soundtrack album, The Pink Panther Theme also became a top 10 single in the U.S. on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, then known as Middle Road Singles. And it won three Grammy Awards. Undoubtedly, the standout is the tenor saxophone solo played by American soul-jazz and hard bop tenor saxophonist Plas Johnson who is still alive at 89 years.

Solomon Burke/A Change Is Gonna Come

Solomon Burke may not have enjoyed the chart success of peers like James Brown, Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding, but he still is considered to be one of the founding fathers of soul music in the ’60s. Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler called him “the greatest male soul singer of all time.” Burke was also known as “King Solomon”, the “King of Rock ‘n’ Soul”, “Bishop of Soul” and the “Muhammad Ali of Soul”. No matter what you want to call him, there’s no doubt that Burke was an amazing vocalist, and I got a powerful example to illustrate my point: His amazing rendition of A Change Is Gonna Come, which has literally brought me to tears. The tune was written by Sam Cooke and first appeared on his final studio album Ain’t That Good News from February 1966, 10 months prior to his mysterious death from a gun shot at a Los Angeles motel in December 1964. Burke who passed away in October 2010 recorded A Change Is Gonna Come as the title track of a studio album that appeared 1986. If you haven’t heard this cover, you need to check it out. It’s incredibly moving!

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

At the time I decided to feature the previous Solomon Burke tune, I also thought of Move On Up by Curtis Mayfield. Then I saw fellow blogger Music Enthusiast featured the same song earlier this week in one of his posts and considered scrapping it. When I told him, Music Enthusiast encouraged me to keep it, saying “It’s a great song that shouldn’t be forgotten and deserves the widest audience possible.” He’s right. Move On Up is the title track of Mayfield’s debut solo album Curtis, which came out in September 1970. Addressing challenges faced by many African Americans, the album was somewhat comparable to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, except it predated Gaye’s seminal record by eight months. Move On Up, which like all other tracks on the record was written by Mayfield, appeals to listeners not to let obstacles get in the way to pursue dreams and make the best of life. As such, the tune has a more upbeat message than some of the other darker tracks on the album. Sometimes, I can get a bit impatient when it comes to long songs. Not so in this case where I love each and every second of the 8:49 minutes: The horns, the congas, the cool bass line, Mayfield’s falsetto vocals – it’s just perfect!

Jean-Michel Jarre/Oxygène (Part IV)

Let’s continue with the idea of moving up. Way up. All the way to outer space. To those who have followed my blog for a long time and have witnessed my occasional criticism of “artificial music” that is “generated by computers,” the selection of Jean-Michel Jarre may come as a bit of a surprise. After all, we’re talking electronic music that’s entirely generated by synthesizers. Not even the drums are real. So what’s up with that seemingly contradictory pick? Well, perhaps Jarre is the exception that proves my rule! 🙂 It’s simple. I’ve always had a thing for space music and Oxygène, Jarre’s third studio album released in December 1976, is exactly that. The best way to listen to this album is with headphones. The sound effects are just amazing, and before you know it, you feel like floating in space. I’ve listened to this music countless times to fall asleep. Here’s the best known track from the album, Oxygène (Part IV). It also appeared separately and became the most successful single of Jarre’s still-ongoing recording career, topping the charts in Spain and reaching the top 10 in various other European countries and in New Zealand. Happy floating!

Héroes del Silencio/Entre dos tierras

Héroes del Silencio were a Spanish rock band from Zaragoza. They were formed as Zumo de Vidrio in 1984 by guitarist Juan Valdivia and vocalist Enrique Bunbury. Bassist Joaquín Cardiel and drummer Pedro Andreu completed the line-up of the band, which in 1985 changed their name to Héroes del Silencio. The group’s debut EP Héroe de Leyenda from 1987 was followed by full-length debut album El Mar No Cesa, which came out in October 1988. The breakthrough came with sophomore studio release Senderos de traición from May 1990. It topped the charts in Spain and reached no. 17 in Germany. Altogether, Héroes del Silencio recorded four studio and various live and compilation albums before they disbanded in 1996. In 2007, as part of a 20th anniversary celebration, the band organized a 10-concert world tour. Entre dos tierras, credited to all members of the group, is the opener to their aforementioned sophomore album. While it’s the only Héroes del Silencio tune I know, I’ve always liked its amazing sound.

The Who/Success Story

I guess we’ve already reached the point again when it’s time to wrap up. Let’s do so with another rocker: Success Story by The Who. The track from their seventh studio album The Who by Numbers from October 1975 may not be the most popular or best tune by The Who. But when I coincidentally stumbled across the song the other day, I immediately earmarked it for a Sunday Six. Notably, it’s one of the few tunes written by John Entwistle. I also dig the lyrics, which Songfacts calls “a cynical autobiography of The Who.” Songfacts further notes, The line, “I’m your fairy manager” is an allusion to The Who’s gay manager Kit Lambert, who they were in the process of suing. Referring to a preacher becoming a rock musician, Entwistle also poked fun at Pete Townshend who followed Indian spiritual master Meher Baba and included spirituality in his songs. Perhaps most importantly, this song simply rocks and is bloody catchy!

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” Turns 50

Seminal album transformed Motown’s most successful artist to a social observer

Mother, mother/There’s too many of you crying/Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today – Ya

Father, father/We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today

It’s incredible to realize these music lyrics that could have come out today instead appeared exactly 50 years ago on May 21, 1971 when Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On. Earlier this month, I was reminded of this seminal studio album when I caught the CNN documentary What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages. With Gaye being one of my all-time favorite soul vocalists, it wasn’t a difficult decision to dedicate a post to the 50th anniversary of this remarkable record.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

The following lightly edited background on What’s Going On comes from a previous post I published about the album in April 2017. I thought it’s a perfect fit for this 50-year anniversary commemoration.

In the spring of 1970, Marvin Gaye found himself in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High EnoughYour Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The lyrics had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the catalyst Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” As a business man, he was concerned a song with such political lyrics would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released as as single without Gordy’s knowledge – a gutsy move!

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further encouragement and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot his own son Marvin Gaye to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984 with a gun Marvin had previously given to him for protection.

Time for some music! And what better tune to start than the album’s marvelous title track. The tune ended up being credited to Benson, Gaye and Al Cleveland. The Originals provided backing vocals along with Gaye. Gaye also played piano and box drum. The remaining instrumentation was provided by Motown session musicians The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Save the Children is a haunting track about the failure of current generations to preserve the world for their children. The song was co-written by Cleveland, Gaye and Renaldo Benson. Motown female session group The Andantes sang backing vocals, with instrumentation provided by The Funk Brothers. An excerpt of the lyrics:…When I look at the world/(When I look at the world)/Oh, it fills me with sorrow/(It fills me with sorrow)/Little children today/(Children today)/Really gonna suffer tomorrow/(Really suffer tomorrow)…

Next up: Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), the album’s only track that Gaye wrote all by himself. Apart from singing lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano and Mellotron. The Andantes and The Funk Brothers were also featured in this tune. I had not realized what an accomplished musician Gaye was and that he started out as a session drummer. In the CNN documentary, Smokey Robinson noted Gaye backed The Miracles on drums. …Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me/Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)/Where did all the blue skies go?/Poison is the wind that blows/From the north and south and east…

Let’s do one more track: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), the album’s powerful closer. The song about the bleak situation in certain inner cities in America was co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr. In addition to lead and backing vocals, Gaye played piano. The distinct bongos were provided by percussionist Bobbye Jean Hall. Once again, the tune also featured The Funk Brothers and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Check out this lyrical excerpt, which sounds like it could be from a present day song about Black Lives Matter: …Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading/Oh, make me wanna holler/They don’t understand…

Despite the charged topics it addresses, What’s Going On doesn’t come across as rabble-rousing or preachy. Undoubtedly, much of it has to do with Gaye’s soft and beautiful vocals. I think this quote from Sheila E., which was taken from the CNN film and included in this accompanying story, sums it up nicely: “His melodies were like a voice of cry…(He) talked about the ghetto, talked about injustice, talked about the war. But he wasn’t yelling and protesting.”

Somebody else in the CNN documentary made another observation I found interesting. What’s Going On sounded like a Motown production without following the traditional formula. During the ’60s and early ’70s, that formula generated the Motown sound and one hit after the other.

What’s Going On was Marvin Gaye’s first top 10 album on the Billboard 200. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the mainstream chart for almost one year. It also topped Billboard’s Top R&B Chart, then known as the Soul Chart. The album became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On.

What’s Going On was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the list’s most recent revision from September 2020, the album moved up all the way to no. 1 – a clear sign how relevant the lyrics remain in present-day America! In the UK, the record also topped the 1985 list of NME Writers All Time 100 Albums. What’s Going On was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

In January, Universal Music Enterprises released three new digital collections to commemorate the 50th anniversary, as reported by uDiscoverMusic: What’s Going On: Deluxe Edition/50th Anniversary features the original album, plus 12 bonus tracks, including each of the LP’s original mono single versions and their B-sides. What’s Going On: The Detroit Mix is the album’s original mix, which Gaye cancelled at the last minute to have it redone in Los Angeles. The third release is Funky Nation: The Detroit Instrumentals, which includes 14 tracks Gaye recorded in the late summer and fall of 1971 after What’s Going On had come out.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On”, PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Variety; CNN; uDiscoverMusic; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

It’s another Sunday morning in good ole’ New Jersey. The weather looks decent with temperatures supposed to hit the ’60s – perfect for an Easter egg hunt, if you’re into it! In case you prefer music or perhaps combine Easter egg hunting with some great tunes, I encourage you to read on. I think I’ve put together another nice and diverse set of six random tunes: Some instrumental rock, bluegrass, alternative rock, soul and blues rock.

The Shadows/Apache

I’m a huge fan of Hank Marvin, the lead guitarist of The Shadows, whose combination of his Fender Stratocaster and a Vox amplifier created a cool signature sound. Initially founded in 1958 under the name of The Drifters as the backing group for Cliff Richard, the instrumental band became The Shadows in July 1959, after the U.S. vocal group of the same name had threatened legal action. The Shadows soon stepped out of – well – Richards’ shadow and gained popularity on their own. Apache, released in July 1960, became their first no. 1 hit in the UK. It also topped the charts in France, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. Written by English composer Jerry Lordan, the tune was first recorded by English guitarist Bert Weedon. But Lordan didn’t like it. I have to agree the version by The Shadows sounds much more dynamic. Still, Weedon’s recording of the track, which came out at the same time, made it to no. 24 on the British charts.

Alison Krauss & Union Station/My Opening Farewell

I’ve yet to more fully explore American bluegrass and country artist Alison Krauss, who I primarily know because of her 2007 collaboration album with Robert Plant. When I came across My Opening Farewell the other day, I immediately liked the tune, so it wasn’t a hard decision to feature it a Sunday Six installment. Written by Jackson Browne, Opening Farewell is the closer of Krauss’ 14th studio album Paper Airplane from April 2011, which she recorded together with her longtime backing band Union Station. While Krauss has continued to perform with Union Station, Paper Airplane is her most recent album with the band. In February 2017, Krauss released Windy City, her fifth and latest solo album. Hope you enjoy Opening Farewell as much as I do!

Counting Crows/Round Here

When I heard Mr. Jones for the first time, I fell in love immediately with American alternative rock band Counting Crows and immediately got their debut album August and Everything After from September 1993. While Mr. Jones, which also became the lead single, is the obvious hit, there are many other great tunes on that record as well. One of them is the opener Round Here. Co-written by lead vocalist Adam Duritz and the band’s guitarist David Bryson, together with Dave Janusko, Dan Jewett and Chris Roldan, the tune also became the album’s second single in 1994. Counting Crows remain active to this day and have released six additional studio albums to date, with Somewhere Under Wonderland from September 2014 being the most recent. Some new music may be on the way. In February 2020, Duritz revealed the band was working in the studio on a suite of songs that could be released as a series of EPs. I guess we have to stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s the excellent Round Here.

Marvin Gaye/Mercy Mercy Me

I trust Marvin Gaye doesn’t need an introduction. In my book, he was one of the greatest soul vocalists of all time. After gaining initial fame with a string of hits at Motown and helping shape the Detroit label’s infectious sound, Gaye emancipated himself from Berry Gordy’s production machine in the 1970s and recorded and produced a series of highly regarded albums. The first one was What’s Going On from May 1971, a true ’70s soul gem. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful music and Gaye’s smooth singing. The concept album explored themes like drug abuse, poverty, environmental degradation and the Vietnam War. Just because Gaye didn’t believe in “shouting,” this doesn’t mean his social commentary wasn’t biting. Here’s the amazing Mercy Mercy Me, expressing Gaye’s sadness about ecological decay.

Southern Avenue/80 Miles From Memphis

As we start approaching the end of this Sunday Six installment, it’s time to speed things up, don’t you agree? More frequent visitors of the blog have probably noticed my deep affection for Southern Avenue, a band from Memphis, Tenn., which blends blues and soul with flavors of contemporary R&B. I think these guys are dynamite and are one of the best contemporary bands. I also love the racial diversity they represent. Southern Avenue are Israeli blues guitarist Ori Naftaly; two amazing African American ladies, lead vocalist Tierinii Jackson and her sister Tikyra Jackson who plays the drums and sings backing vocals; white bassist Evan Sarver; and African American keyboarder Jeremy Powell. Here’s 80 Miles From Memphis, a tune written by Naftaly from the band’s eponymous debut album released in February 2017. BTW, in 2016, Southern Avenue became the first new act signed to Stax Records in many years. How cool is that?

ZZ Top/Tush

Okay, with this last tune, let’s push the pedal to the metal. In my book, Tush by ZZ Top is perhaps the ultimate blues rocker. I just love the guitar riff, the bottleneck action, and how tight the band sounds. Formed in 1969 in Houston, the trio of Billy Gibbons (guitar, vocals), Dusty Hill (bass, vocals) and Frank Beard (drums) is rocking to this day. Fun fact: Beard is the only member of the band without a beard! ZZ Top have released 15 studio albums, four live albums, seven compilations and more than 40 singles to date. Looks like their most recent release was a compilation from 2019 titled Goin’ 50. Tush, credited to all members of the band, is the closer of ZZ Top’s fourth studio album Fandango!, which appeared in April 1975. Take it away, boys!

Last but not least, to those who celebrate it, I’d like to wish you a Happy Easter. To those who don’t, have a great Sunday anyway!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Masters of the High Register

A selection of great falsetto vocalists

In late December, I did a four-part series on the Bee Gees here (part 1), here (part 2), here (part 3) and here (part 4). One of the group’s distinct features was the frequent use of falsetto singing, starting with their 1975 studio album Main Course. My most recent Best of What’s New installment included Aaron Frazer, a young vocalist from Brooklyn, N.Y., who also happens to be a falsetto singer. In fact, while I’m not a voice expert, I think he’s incredible! These posts triggered the idea to write about music artists I like, who are masters of the falsetto.

Before getting to some great music and singing, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. I’ll keep it light! According to Wikipedia, falsetto “is the vocal register occupying the frequency range just above the modal voice register and overlapping with it by approximately one octave.” Essentially, modal voice generates the richest tone that unlike falsetto isn’t breathy. It’s the most frequently used vocal register in speech and singing in most languages.

I always thought falsetto and head voice are the same – not so! As this post on Ramsey Voice explains, “While falsetto and head voice have been used interchangeably in the past, falsetto is understood to be a breathy version of high notes and head voice produces a richer and more balanced tone on the high pitches in a singer’s voice. Falsetto and head voice are two different modes for singing the same notes in the upper registers of the voice.” Didn’t you always want to know that? 🙂

If you’re curious to learn more about different voice registers and singing modes, the above Ramsey Voice post goes into all the gory details, illustrated with video clips. The only thing I’d like to add is that females have falsetto as well, though I think it’s fair to say this singing mode is primarily associated with male singers, and the examples in this post are all male artists. But as Ramsey Voice notes, “plenty of studies have…shown that everyone’s vocal cords work in basically the same way, and everyone is capable of falsetto singing.” Time for some falsetto action!

Philip Bailey, of Earth, Wind & Fire/September

September, one of my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire songs, initially appeared as a single in November 1978. Co-written by Maurice White, Al McKay and Allee Willis, it became one of the group’s biggest hits. The song was also included on the compilation The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire, Vol. 1, which came out a few days after the single. The tune, on which Bailey shared lead vocals with White, is a great example of Bailey’s amazing falsetto.

Smokey Robinson, of The Miracles/OOO Baby Baby

OOO Baby Baby is one of the most beautiful examples of falsetto I can think of. Smokey Robinson’s voice sounds so sweet and gentle that it almost makes me want to cry! Robinson was also a co-writer of the ballad, together with Miracles bass vocalist Pete Moore. OOO Baby Baby became the lead singles of The Miracles’ studio album Going to a Go-Go in March 1965. The album came out in November that year.

Curtis Mayfield/Move On Up

When thinking of great falsetto vocalists, one of the first artists who came to my mind was Curtis Mayfield. While there are other tunes where his falsetto is more dominant, Move On Up is one of my absolute favorites, so I simply couldn’t skip it. Written by Mayfield, the song was first recorded for his debut solo album Curtis from September 1970. It also appeared separately as the record’s second single in June 1971. I just love that tune – the infectious groove, Mayfield’s singing and his effortless switching between modal voice and falsetto – it’s just perfect!

Marvin Gaye/Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)

Marvin Gaye is another exceptional vocalist, no matter what singing mode you’re talking about. On Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler), co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., the boundaries between Gaye’s head voice and falsetto are so fluid that to me it’s hard to tell, which is which. The tune was first recorded for his 11th studio album What’s Going On, a true gem released in May 1971. In September of the same year, it became the album’s third single.

Prince/Kiss

No post about falsetto vocalists would be complete without Prince. The funky Kiss was one of his biggest hits. Written by Prince, it became the lead single to his eighth studio album Parade, released in February 1986, just ahead of the album that followed in March. Frankly, the tune wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I’ve come to dig it.

The last two tracks shall belong to the artists who inspired the post. Here’s Nights on Broadway, the tune that started the frequent use of falsetto for the Bee Gees.

Co-written by Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb and Maurice Gibb, Nights on Broadway was recorded for the Bee Gees’ 13th studio album Main Course released in June 1975 in the U.S. and the following month in the U.K. The groovy track also became the album’s second single in September of the same year.

Aaron Frazer/Bad News

Bad News is another great tune from Aaron Frazer’s impressive debut album  Introducing…. The song was co-written by Frazer and producer Dan Auerbach. It actually reminds me a bit of Gaye’s Inner City Blues.

Sources: Wikipedia; Ramsey Voice; YouTube

What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube

Celebrating James Jamerson

Uncredited on countless Motown songs, Jamerson was one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern music history

If you had asked me as recently as a few weeks ago to name influential bass players in pop and rock, I might have mentioned Paul McCartney, John EntwistleJack Bruce and John Paul Jones. Then I read that McCartney, one of my all-time favorite artists, noted  James Jamerson and Brian Wilson as key influences for his bass playing. Admittedly, that was the first time I had heard about Jamerson.

While given my history as a hobby bassist I’m a bit embarrassed about my ignorance regarding Jamerson, I can point to one key difference between him and the other aforementioned bassists. Unlike them, Jamerson was kind of invisible for a long time – literally. While he played on countless Motown recordings in the ’60s and early ’70s, usually, he wasn’t credited, at least at the time. That’s even more unbelievable once you realize how revered this man was among other professional bass players.

According to Bass Player magazine, which named Jamerson no. 1 on its 2017 list of The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time, “The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels.” In addition to McCartney, many other prominent bassists have pointed to Jamerson as a primary influence, including Jones, Enwistle, Wilson, Randy Meisner, Bill Wyman, Chuck RaineyGeddy Lee and Pino Palladino, to name some.

Jamerson was born on January 29, 1936 on Edisto Island near Charleston, S.C. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother. Soon, while still being in high school, he began playing in local blues and jazz clubs. After graduation, Jamerson started getting session engagements in local recording studios. In 1959, he found a steady job as a studio bassist at Motown where became part of The Funk Brothers, essentially the equivalent of Stax  houseband Booker T. & the M.G.s, except it was a much larger and more fluid group of musicians.

James Jamerson 2

During his earliest Motown sessions, Jamerson used a double bass. In the early ’60s, he switched to an electric Fender Precision Bass most of the time. Like him, most of The Funk Brothers originally were jazz musicians who had been hired by Motown founder Berry Gordy to back the label’s recording artists in the studio. For many years, the members of The Funk Brothers would do session work at the Motown studio during the day and play in local jazz clubs at night. Occasionally, they also backed Motown’s stars during tours.

Not only did the musicians make substantially less money than the label’s main artists, but they also did not receive any recording credits for most of their careers. It wasn’t until 1971 that Jamerson was acknowledged on a major Motown release: Somewhat ironically, that album was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Eventually, Motown put Jamerson on a weekly retainer of $1,000 (about $7,200 in 2018 dollars), which enabled him and his family to live comfortably. In 1973, Jamerson ended his relationship with Motown, which had since been relocated to Los Angeles. For the remainder of the ’70s, he worked with artists like Eddie Kendricks, Robert Palmer, Dennis Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Ben E. King.

But Jamerson did not embrace certain trends in bass playing that emerged during the ’70s, such as simpler and more repetitive bass lines and techniques like slapping. As a result, he fell out of favor with many producers, and by the 1980s, sadly, he essentially could not get any serious session work. Eventually, Jamerson’s long history with alcoholism caught up with him, and he died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia on August 2, 1983. He was only 47 years old. Time for some music featuring this amazing musician!

I’d like to kick things off with an early recording that did not appear on Motown: Boom Boom by John Lee Hooker. Written by him, it became one of his signature tunes. According to Wikipedia, apparently it was Detroit pianist Joe Hunter, who brought in Jamerson and some other members from The Funk Brothers to the recording session.

Here’s one of the many Motown tunes on which Jamerson performed: For Once In My Life, the title track of Stevie Wonder’s album from December 1968. The song was co-written by Ron Miller and Orlando Murden.

Next up: The aforementioned What’s Going On, which I think is one of the most soulful Marvin Gaye songs. The title track of his 11th studio album released in May 1971 was co-written by Gaye, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson, a founding member of The Four Tops.

I also like to touch on a couple of songs after Jamerson had parted with Motown. Here is Boogie Down by Eddie Kendricks, another title track. The fourth studio album by the former vocalist of The Temptations appeared in February 1973. The groovy tune was co-written by Anita Poree, Frank Wilson and Leonard Caston.

For the last track let’s jump to November 1975 when Robert Palmer released his second studio album Pressure Drop. Here’s the great opener Give Me An Inch, which was also written by Palmer.

James Jamerson received numerous accolades after his death. In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one of the first inductees to be honored in the “sideman” category. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as part of The Funk Brothers. Along with the other members of the group, Jamerson was also inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. in 2007.

I’d like to close with Paul McCartney, who during a 1994 interview with bass book author Tony Bacon said: “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Bass Player magazine, Reverb.com, YouTube