Happy Humpday and welcome to another installment of my weekly feature where I’m taking a closer look at a song I’ve only mentioned in passing or not covered at all to date. For today, I decided to write about a tune by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, who I also admire for his great acoustic guitar skills – the one and only James Taylor.
When thinking of Taylor, the first thing that comes to my mind is his warm smooth voice. I feel it has the amazing quality to instantly put listeners at ease. At least, I can confirm it does so for me! That said, this doesn’t mean Taylor is only singing about pretty things. In fact, the song I chose to highlight in this post is a great illustration: A Junkie’s Lament.
Taylor wrote A Junkie’s Lament for his seventh studio album In the Pocket released in June 1976. That record is best known for Shower the People, which became Taylor’s third single to top Billboard’sEasy Listening chart, following his covers of How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You) and You’ve Got a Friend in June 1975 and May 1971, respectively.
According to Wikipedia, A Junkie’s Lament was also released as a single, though I couldn’t find any evidence of that on Discogs.com. What I did find is that Art Garfunkel and Carly Simon who was Taylor’s wife at the time provided duet vocals and backing vocals, respectively. The backing musicians included Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums), who along with guitarist Danny Kortchmar were core members of The Section, a band of top-notch session musicians who frequently can be heard on albums by Taylor and many other artists. Here’s a great live version from Taylor’s 2001 Pull Over Tour, which was also captured on DVD.
Following are some additional insights from Songfacts:
This is an autobiographical song about Taylor’s battles with addictions (primarily heroin), the “monkey on his back.”
Speaking with Rolling Stone in 2015, Taylor explained: “This one’s a warning not to think of a junkie as a complete functioning human being. Heroin should’ve killed me about five times, but it never did. My kids suffered from their father being an addict. I think there’s no way they can’t. People take drugs to be in control. They want to short-circuit any risk that they might take in life, any uncertainty, any anxiety. They just want to find the chemical route, to just push the button that gets the final result. So all of your relationships suffer, no question about it.”
You don’t think of mellow singer-songwriters like James Taylor as junkies, which made this song rather surprising. But drug addicts come in many forms, which is his point: the guy you see dropping off his kids at school could be shooting heroin an hour later. The song led to a better understanding of addiction. [I couldn’t have said it any better – while prospects of getting into drugs vary, the reality is nobody is immune, so this tune has an important message – CMM]
“A Junkie’s Lament” is the second track on Taylor’s seventh album, In The Pocket, following “Shower The People.” Taylor had taken some time off and wasn’t the hit-maker he was in the early ’70s, but his music didn’t suffer. He survived the decade and sustained a long and fruitful career that found him performing well into his 70s.
Well, he still is. In fact, I’m thrilled to say I have a ticket to see James Taylor in Philly on Saturday, July 1, my first time!
Last but not least, here are the song’s lyrics:
Ricky’s been kicking the gong, lickity-split, didn’t take too long. A junkie’s sick, a monkey’s strong, that’s what’s wrong. Well, I guess he’s been messing around downtown, so sad to see the man losing ground. Winding down behind closed doors on all fours.
Mama, don’t you call him my name, he can’t hear you anymore. Even if he seems the same to you, that’s a stranger to your door. Go on, ask him what’s he come here for.
Oh my God, a monkey can move a man. Send him to hell and home again. An empty hand in the afternoon, shooting for the moon. It’s halfway sick and it’s halfway stoned. He’d sure like to kick but he’s too far gone. They wind him down with the methadone, he’s all on his own.
But baby, don’t you throw your love away, I hate to seem unkind. It’s only that I understand the man that the monkey can leave behind, I used to think he was a friend of mine.
Oh, La la la la la la la la, Oh, la la la la la la la la. La la la, la la la, la la la la.
Celebrating music with six random tracks at a time
I can’t believe it’s Sunday again – boy, this first week of 2022 flew by really quickly! Well, this means it’s time for another installment of my favorite weekly feature where I time-travel to celebrate music of the past and sometimes the present, six tunes at a time. Off we go!
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble/Chitlins con Carne
Let’s kick it off with a great jazzy instrumental by Stevie Ray Vaughan, one of my favorite electric blues guitarists. Chitlins con Carne is from the fifth and final album of Vaughan and his backing band Double Trouble, appropriately titled The Sky Is Crying. This record appeared in November 1991, 14 months after Vaughan’s tragic and untimely death in a helicopter crash. He was only 35 years old – what a huge loss! Chitlins con Carne, composed by jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, was first released on his 1963 album Midnight Blue. In case you’re curious you can check out the original here. Following is Vaughan’s excellent rendition!
Christine McVie/Got a Hold on Me
Christine McVie is best known as keyboarder, vocalist and songwriter of Fleetwood Mac, which she joined in 1970, coming from British blues band Chicken Shack. At the time she became a member of the Mac, she was the wife of bassist John McVie whom she had married in 1968. Their union fell apart after Christine had an affair with the band’s lighting engineer Curry Grant during the production of the Rumours album in 1976. Let’s just say there were many on and off relationships within Fleetwood Mac! Christine McVie wrote some of the band’s best-known songs, such as Don’t Stop, You Make Loving Fun (about her affair with Grant, though at the time she claimed it was about a dog!) and Say You Love Me. To date, she has also recorded three solo albums. Got a Hold on Me, co-written by her and Todd Sharp, is from her second solo effort Christine McVie, which came out in January 1984. I’ve always loved this pop-rock tune – simple and a bit repetitive, but quite catchy!
James Taylor/Fire and Rain
Last Sunday, I caught a great CNN documentary, Carole King & James Taylor: Just Call Out My Name, focused on their 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour – I could still kill myself that I completely missed that tour! Anyway, one of the tunes they played was Fire and Rain, my favorite James Taylor original song. I also love his rendition of King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Fire and Rain is off Taylor’s sophomore album Sweet Baby James from February 1970. The tune also appeared separately as a single in August that year. It became his first hit, reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, no. 2 in Canada and no. 6 in Australia. It also charted in the UK (no. 48) and The Netherlands (no. 18). Here’s a beautiful live performance captured from the BBC’sIn Concert series in November 1970. James Taylor, his smooth voice and his great guitar-playing – that’s really all you need!
Next, let’s jump back further to December 1964 and some dynamite British garage rock: Gloria by Them, a band formed in April 1964 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Fronted by Van Morrison (lead vocals, saxophone, harmonica), the group’s original line-up also included Billy Harrison (guitar, vocals), Eric Wrixon (keyboards), Alan Henderson (bass) and Ronnie Milling (drums). Gloria, penned by Morrison, was first released in November 1964 as the B-side to Baby, Please Don’t Go, Them’s second single. The tune was also included on the group’s debut album The Angry Young Them from June 1965, which in the U.S. was simply titled Them. This song’s just a classic. I wish I could say the same about Van Morrison these days!
Elvis Presley/Heartbreak Hotel
As frequent visitors of the blog may recall, my childhood idol was Elvis Presley who, btw, would have turned 87 yesterday (January 8). While I no longer idolize him or anyone else for that matter, I still dig Elvis, especially his early period. One of the coolest songs I can think of in this context is Heartbreak Hotel. Credited to Tommy Durden, Mae Boren Axton and Presley, the slow jazzy blues tune first appeared as a single in January 1956 and became Elvis’ first big hit. Among others, it topped the charts in the U.S., Canada and The Netherlands, and reached no. 2 in the UK. Heartbreak Hotel was also included on the compilation Elvis’ Golden Records from March 1958. In addition to Presley’s regular backing musicians Scotty Moore (electric guitar) and Bill Black (double bass), the recording featured Chet Atkins (acoustic guitar), Floyd Cramer (piano) and D.J. Fontana (drums). Feel free to snip along!
Mark Knopfler/Prairie Wedding
And once again, this brings me to the sixth and final track in this installment. It’s yet another tune my streaming music provider recently served up as a listening suggestion: Prairie Wedding by Mark Knopfler. The song is from the former Dire Straits frontman’s second solo album Sailing to Philadelphia that came out in September 2000. Written by Knopfler like all other tunes on the album, the track features Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings on backing vocals, as well as Guy Fletcher on keyboards. Fletcher also served in that role in Dire Straits from 1984 until the band’s final dissolution in 1995. Great tune with a nice cinematic feel!
Tina Turner and Carole King have now joined Stevie Nicks as only female music artists inducted twice into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
On Saturday night, Tina Turner and Carole King were officially inducted for the second time into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Prior to them, only one other female music artist had accomplished that feat: Stevie Nicks.
I fully realize many music fans are highly critical of the Rock Hall, some to the point where they no longer care, as do certain artists based on what they’ve said. Debates about the secretive selection process and who’s in the Rock Hall and who’s not are certain to continue.
Instead of rehashing controversy, I’d like to celebrate these three amazing women, Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner and Carole King, and their great music. All three are among my longtime favorite artists and very deserving inductees, IMHO.
Nicks was first inducted as a member of Fleetwood Mac in 1998, together with former and current band members Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, Lindsey Buckingham, John McVie, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan and Christine McVie.
From Rock Hall website: After forming as a British blues band in the late ’60s, Fleetwood Mac evolved into one of the most influential rock groups of the ’70s. Not only did they write some of the decade’s most indelible songs—and release one of the best-selling albums of all time, 1977’s Rumours—but the troupe created a distinctive “California sound” that endures today as a sonic touchstone for countless bands.
Here’s one of my favorite tunes written by Nicks for Fleetwood Mac from the band’s second eponymous album that appeared in July 1975: Landslide. I really dig her singing and Buckingham’s acoustic guitar playing.
Nicks’ induction as a solo performer happened in 2019. From Rock Hall website: Stevie Nicks’ life and career have always had a touch of magical enchantment. Tonight represents a crowning validation of her spellbinding gifts as a rock & roll icon, as she becomes the first woman to be twice inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – with Fleetwood Mac in 1998, and now as a solo artist.
Following is Stand Back, a tune from Nicks’ sophomore solo album The Wild Heart, which appeared in June 1983. Also released as a single, the song became one of her highest-charting, climbing to no. 5 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at no. 10 in Canada, and reaching the top 40 in various other countries, including The Netherlands, Germany and Australia. It’s definitely a child of its time!
Tina Turner was first inducted into the Rock Hall in 1991 as part of Ike & Tina Turner. From Rock Hall website: A charismatic bandleader and an unbridled whirlwind of sexual energy formed one of the most formidable live acts in history. Ike and Tina Turner were such a presence onstage that even their own albums don’t do them justice. The explosive duo made such enduring hits as “River Deep–Mountain High,” “Proud Mary” and “Nutbush City Limits.”Ike Turner was a talented songwriter and guitarist. Unfortunately, his physical and psychological abuse of Tina Turner will forever diminish him. Here’s the amazing Nutbush City Limits, which actually was written by Tina Turner – I always mistakenly had thought Ike had penned it! The tune was the title track of Ike & Tina Turner’s studio album from November 1973 and became a signature song.
From Rock Hall press release announcing 2021 inductees: …Tina Turner is known as the Queen of Rock & Roll, a title she earned not just once but twice. The first time, she rose to fame in the 1960s as part of the duo Ike and Tina Turner, belting out soulful rock songs in a non-stop stage show where she danced the audience into a frenzy. But all of that is backstory to the most successful and triumphant rebirth in the history of rock…
The most important album of Turner’s solo career is Private Dancer from May 1984, which not only turned her into a viable solo artist but an international superstar. Here’s the title track, written by Mark Knopfler. While it’s obviously a radical departure from the R&B sound of Ike & Tina Turner, I still love that tune!
Carole King’s initial induction into the Rock Hall occurred in 1990, together with her ex-husband and former lyricist Jerry Goffin. From Rock Hall website: Gerry Goffin and Carole King wrote much of the soundtrack of the Sixties. Chances are, you have danced around to a hit single by the dynamic songwriting duo. Goffin wrote the lyrics and King wrote the music for such hits as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
After their breakthrough Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which The Shirelles took to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January 1961, Goffin-King became a hit machine. There are so many tunes I could have picked here. I decided to go with Chains, first recorded by American girl group The Cookies in 1962, climbing to no. 6 on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart and reaching a respectable no. 17 on the mainstream Hot 100. The tune was also covered by The Beatles and appeared on their UK debut album Please Please Me.
This brings me to Carole King’s second induction as a solo artist. From Rock Hall website: After writing the soundtrack of the 1960s, Carole King wove a tapestry of emotion and introspection as a singer-songwriter in the 1970s. Her solo work was a clarion call to generations of female artists and millions of fans – giving them voice and confidence. King has too many accolades to list – six Grammys, the 2013 Library of Congress Gershwin Prize, a 2015 Kennedy Center Honor, and beyond.
As somebody who has loved Carole King’s music since his childhood days, I’m very happy she also finally got the Rock Hall’s well-deserved recognition as a solo artist. It was also great to read that she was able to attend Saturday’s induction ceremony – unlike Tina Turner who is turning 82 on November 26 and sadly not in good health. You can watch King’s performance of You’ve Got a Friendhere, featuring Danny Kortchmar (guitar) and Leland Sklar (bass), among others – probably King’s last major public performance, since she has said she’s no longer touring.
Similar to Goffin-King, there were so many songs I could have picked from King’s solo career, including pretty much any track from Tapestry. Instead, I decided to highlight Hard Rock Cafe, a song from her eighth album Simple Things that appeared in July 1977. I’ve always liked this happy song, which also was released as a single and charted in the top 30 in the U.S., Canada, Australia and various European countries, including Austria, Belgium and Switzerland.
This is it – today, exactly 50 years ago, on February 10, 1971, one of greatest records in pop history was released: Tapestry by Carole King. As such, we’ve come to the final part of my series to celebrate this iconic record. Perhaps some readers will breathe a sigh of relief, after having seen Carole King-related posts from me for the past nine days in a row! 🙂
To quickly recap, during the previous nine parts, I’ve covered all of side A – I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, It’s Too Late, Home Again, Beautiful and Way Over Yonder – and most of the B-side, i.e., You’ve Got a Friend, Where You Lead, Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Smackwater Jack. This leaves two tracks: The album’s title song and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
I’ll leave it up to Carole to comment on the title track: “It is typical of the magic that seems to surround that album, a magic for which I feel no personal responsibility, but just sort of happened, that I had started a needlepoint tapestry a few months before we did the album, and I happened to write a song called ‘Tapestry,’ not even connecting the two up in my mind,“ she explained during a recorded 1972 conversation with producer Lou Adler, as quoted by Songfacts. “I was just thinking about some other kind of tapestry, the kind that hangs and is all woven, or something, and I wrote that song. And, you being the sharp fellow you are, (giggles), put the two together and came up with an excellent title, a whole concept for the album.”
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is a tune Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote together with input from Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler. It was first recorded and released by the amazing Aretha Franklin in 1967. One of Franklin’s signature songs, it peaked at no. 8 in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100.
Apparently, the tune was inspired by a chance encounter between Gerry Goffin and Jerry Wexler. Songfacts again quotes Lou Adler: “Last year (2007) I spoke to Jerry Wexler at his home in Florida, and he told me the story that Gerry was coming out of a building in New York, (Goffin now remembers it as an Oyster House), and Jerry Wexler is passing in a car, and yells out, ‘Why don’t you write a song called ‘Natural Woman’?’ They felt the title was so distinct and so important to the song that they gave him a piece of it.” Certainly a nice way to earn a credit!
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is yet another track from Tapestry that never became a single. I guess in this case, it’s understandable – after all, who could possible trump the Queen of Soul. Here’s Aretha Franklin’s incredible cover.
According to this Los Angeles Timesstory, Tapestry was recorded in just three weeks. Carole and her studio musicians worked pretty quickly, recording two to three tracks per day. Adler noted the album’s studio budget was only $22,000.
Tapestry is one of the most successful albums in pop history. It topped the Billboard 200 for 15 consecutive weeks and to this day holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number one by a female solo artist. Altogether, Tapestry was listed on this chart for 318 weeks between 1971 and 2011, including 302 weeks consecutively from April 10, 1971 to January 15, 1977. It took until 2017, until English songwriter and vocalist Adele beat that record with her album 21.
Tapestry has been certified13x Multi-Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), as of February 5, 2021, meaning it has reached at least 13 million sold copies. The album won four Grammy Awards in 1972, including the particularly prestigious Album of the Year. In Rolling Stone’s most recent 2020 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Tapestry was ranked at no. 25.
The above Los Angeles Times article also noted Carole was largely indifferent about the popularity Tapestry had brought her. While she went on to release 15 additional studio albums, she didn’t tour behind her records or do much else to promote her music.
One exception happened in 2010 when Carole teamed up with James Taylor for an international tour – that’s the one I missed, for which I could still kill myself! “It worked extremely well,” Taylor told the L.A. Times. “Then at the end of it, when everybody’s saying, ‘Keep the big ball rolling,’ Carole says, ‘No, let’s quit while we’re still ahead.’ And she walked away.”
On March 4, 2004, Tapestry was among 50 recordings that were added for 2013 to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Recordings added to this registry are selected to be preserved in the Library of Congress, since they are considered to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Some of the other additions for 2013 included Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (The Beatles), At Folsom Prison (Johnny Cash), What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye) and Born to Run (Bruce Springsteen).
Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; Los Angeles Times; RIAA website; Library of Congress website; YouTube
We’re almost there. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of Carole King’s Tapestry, her iconic album from 1971, which I’ve been celebrating with this series over the past eight days. Up to now, I’ve explored all of side A, i.e., I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, It’s Too Late, Home Again, Beautiful and Way Over Yonder, and the first three tracks on side B: You’ve Got a Friend, Where You Lead and Will You Love Me Tomorrow. Next up: Smackwater Jack.
Smackwater Jack is Tapestry’s second tune Carole co-wrote with Gerry Goffin. Unlike Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Smackwater Jack wasn’t released until Tapestry. It’s a great mid-tempo bluesy rocker. Rolling Stone’sJon Landau called it an “uptempo shuffle.” In particular, I dig the piano work including Ralph Schuckett’s electric piano, and Danny Kortchmar’s electric guitar. Also, as a retired bassist, I have to call out Charles Larkey’s great bassline.
In addition to its music, Smackwater Jack stands out lyrically. It sounds less personal and less emotional than the other tunes on Tapestry. This doesn’t make it any worse; in fact, I think it’s a great outlaw story told in a very cinematic fashion you could picture in a Western movie.
Check out this excerpt from the lyrics: …The account of the capture/Wasn’t in the papers/But you know, they hanged ol’ Smack right then/Instead of later/You know, the people were quite pleased/’Cause the outlaw had been seized/And on the whole, it was a very good year/For the undertaker…
Smackwater Jack also appeared separately as Tapestry’s second single, paired with So Far Away. Like the album’s first single It’s Too Late/I Feel the Earth Move, Billboard treated it as a double A. It peaked at no. 14 on the Hot 100.
Interestingly, Quincy Jones covered Smackwater Jack as the title track of his studio album that also appeared in 1971. I had not been aware of this. I can’t say I like it as much as Carole’s original version. Still, I think Jones deserves credit for making the tune his own by giving it a funky soul vibe – check it out!
Part VIII of my 10-day celebration of Carole King’sTapestry is bringing us close to the album’s 50th anniversary day, which is this Wednesday, February 10. The previous parts have featured all of side A – I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, It’s Too Late, Home Again, Beautiful and Way Over Yonder – and the first two tracks of side B, You’ve Got a Friend and Where You Lead. Next up is the third track on the B side, and it’s a true standout: Will You Love Me Tomorrow.
Also sometimes known as Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, this beautiful ballad is one of two tracks on Tapestry, co-written in 1960 by Carole and her then-husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin. It was first recorded and released by American girl group The Shirelles that same year. The song became their first no. 1 single in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. It also climbed to no. 4 in the U.K., giving them their biggest hit there. Will You Love Me Tomorrow became the breakthrough hit for Goffin-King.
On the Tapestry version, James Taylor not only provided acoustic guitar but also backing vocals. Oh, and there was another prominent backing vocalist: Joni Mitchell. The vocals of the three artists beautifully blend, making the tune one of the outstanding gems on Tapestry.
According to Songfacts, apparently because of its perceived sexual lyrics, Will You Love Me Tomorrowmet with some resistance from radio stations, but not enough to stop it from becoming a huge hit – absolutely laughable, especially from today’s perspective!
Songfacts also notes Shirley Alston, the lead vocalist of The Shirelles, initially dismissed the song as “too Country and Western”. But producer Luther Dixon reassured her the group could adapt the tune to their style. He also asked Carole and Gerry to add strings and speed up the tempo. They did and the rest is history.
Tapestry producer Lou Adler, who also owned King’s record company, explained, as quoted by Songfacts: “The only thing we reached back for, which was calculated in a way, which of the old Goffin and King songs that was hit should we put on this album? And, that’s how we came up with ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.’ I thought that song fit what the other songs were saying in Tapestry. A very personal lyric.” Interestingly, Carole’s version of Will You Love Me Tomorrow was not released as a single.
This is part VI of Ten Days of Tapestry, a celebration of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the legendary Carole King album released on February 10, 1971. Parts I-V covered the six tracks on the record’s A-side: I Feel the Earth Move, So Far Away, It’s Too Late, Home Again, Beautiful and Way Over Yonder. On to side B!
The opening track of the B-side is one of Carole’s best known tunes, mainly because of James Taylor’s great cover: You’ve Got a Friend. It’s yet another track with beautifully written lyrics by Carole who also composed the music.
When you’re down and troubled/And you need some love and care/And nothing, nothing is going right/Close your eyes and think of me/And soon I will be there/To brighten up even your darkest night…Such a great pick her upper!
As quoted by Songfacts, Carole said the song “was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside of myself, through me.”
Notably, You’ve Got a Friend never became a hit for Carole. Instead, it was the aforementioned great cover by her friend James Taylor that topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974, giving him his only no. 1 single in the U.S. to this day. Taylor, who played guitar on Tapestry, was working on his third studio album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon in parallel and recorded the tune for that album.
I suppose if you’re a cynic you could point out that when an artist releases a cover album of American standards or Christmas tunes for that matter, it’s a sign they’ve run out of ideas and may consider retirement, or they simply are trying make a quick buck. While in some cases this notion may not be unfounded, I feel differently when it comes to James Taylor. To me, his just-released new album American Standard is a legitimate undertaking by an artist who wants to highlight songs that have played an important role in his musical journey.
I’ve admired James Taylor for many years for his warm and soothing vocals and his impressive acoustic guitar chops. I wish I could play like that! His cover of Carole King’sYou’ve Got a Friend is one of my all-time favorite tunes. And, yes, Taylor has also written beautiful songs like Carolina in My Mind, Sweet Baby James and of course the amazing Fire and Rain. I realize this may make me a bit biased when it comes to his latest release.
So why come out with a cover album of American standards? Do we really need another version of Moon River and God Bless the Child? Here’s what the album’s liner notes say, as reported by American Songwriter: “These are songs I have always known. Most of them were part of my family’s record collection, the first music I heard as a kid growing up in North Carolina…Before I started writing my own stuff, I learned to play these tunes, working out chord changes for my favorite melodies. And those guitar arrangements became the basis for this album.”
“My collaborator, John Pizzarelli, is a living encyclopedia of the best popular music that the West has ever produced. Like his father, Bucky, he is a master guitarist and a casual, matter-of-fact genius. I asked John to come out to Western Massachusetts, where I live and do my recording in a big barn in the middle of the forest, to help me put down some tracks. I’d show him what changes I had found for a handful of songs and we’d work up the arrangements.”
Call me naive, but to me Taylor doesn’t sound like some artist who is just out there to cash in on his big name late in his recording career. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on the American songbook. I’m not. It’s simply not the kind of music I typically listen to. I also doubt this will change all for a sudden. What I do know is that I love how Taylor and Pizzarelli arranged these tunes. I think it’s time to let the music do some of the talking or writing.
Teach Me Tonight was written in 1953 by pianist Gene De Paul with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. This jazz standard has been covered by Dinah Washington, Count Basie, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder, among other countless artists. I dig the beautiful arrangement, including the trumpet solo and percussion played by Walt Fowler and Luis Conte, respectively. Here’s the official video.
Another beautiful tune is Almost Like Being in Love. The music and the lyrics were written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner, respectively, for the score of their 1947 musical Brigadoon. The song was first performed on Broadway by David Brooks. Gene Kelly sang the 1954 film version. The tune was also recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey. As a fan of old James Bond movies, she entered my radar screen with Goldfinger, perhaps the best 007 tune.
My Heart Stood Still was composed by Richard Rodgers in 1927, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart. It was written for a British musical revue by Charles Cochran, which opened in London in May 1927. It was also featured later that same year in the American Broadway musical A Connecticut Yankee. Like with most other tracks on the album, it’s a tune that was recorded by many artists over the decades, including Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The lovely violin part is played by Stuart Duncan.
The last tune I’d like to call out is It’s Only a Paper Moon, which I previously only knew from the 1973 motion picture Paper Moon. But the song’s origin dates all the way back to 1932, when it was titled If You Believed in Me and first performed by Claire Carleton during a Broadway play called The Great Magoo. The music was composed by Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Yip Harburg and Billy Rose. According to Wikipedia, the song’s lasting fame stems from its revival by popular artists during the last years of World War II, with hit recordings being made by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Goodman.
American Standard, which was released yesterday (Feb 28), is Taylor’s 20th studio album. It was co-produced by Dave O’Donnell, Taylor and Pizzarelli. O’Donnell has worked in different capacities (engineering, mixing, producing) with an impressive array of artists, who in addition to Taylor include Sheryl Crow, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and John Mayer, among others. Pizzarelli, a jazz guitarist and vocalist, isn’t exactly obscure either. According to Wikipedia, apart from recording more than 20 solo albums, he has appeared on more than 40 albums, including Paul McCartney, Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole.
Taylor will be touring Canada and the U.S., starting in mid-April and featuring special guests. In Canada, it is going to be Bonnie Raitt, while for most U.S. gigs Jackson Browne will be his special guest. This surely does sound tempting to me. If Raitt would be the special guest in the U.S., I’d probably get a ticket right away. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Jackson Browne as well but saw him relatively recently in May 2018. My previous and so far only Bonnie Raitt show, on the other hand, dates back to August 2016. And, yes, I admit it, I do have a weak spot for her – she’s just an amazing lady!
Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; James Taylor website; Dave O’Donnell website; YouTube
Some of my favorite singer-songwriters from the 1960s through the 2000s
The singer-songwriter category is very broad, depending on how you define it, spanning different music genres, including folk, rock, country and pop. According to Wikipedia, singer-songwriters are artists who write, compose and perform their own music, oftentimes solo with just a guitar or piano. AllMusic adds that although early rock & roll artists like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly wrote and sang their own songs, the term singer-songwriter “refers to the legions of performers that followed Bob Dylan in the late 60s and early 70s.” You could make the same observation about blues pioneers like Lead Belly, Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Based on the above definition, artists who write and perform songs as part of a band are not singer-songwriters. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger would be popular examples in this context. While I’ve seen Elton John being mentioned as a singer-songwriter, to me he’s not, at least not in the strict sense. While he has written the music to his songs and performed them, he has relied on Bernie Taupin for the lyrics. By comparison, the other big pop piano man of our time, Billy Joel, has written the music and lyrics for pretty much all of his songs, so he fits the category.
With the singer-songwriter definition being out of the way, let’s get to some of my favorite artists in that category. I’d like to tackle this chronologically, starting with the 60s and Bob Dylan. The Times They Are A-Changin’ is the title track from his third studio album, which appeared in January 1964. According to Songfacts, the tune “became an anthem for frustrated youth,” expressing anti-establishment sentiments and reflecting the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. Songfacts also quotes Dylan from the liner notes of his Biograph box set compilation album from November 1985: “I wanted to write a big song, some kind of theme song, with short, concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. This is definitely a song with a purpose. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to.” Sadly, the song has taken on new relevance in present-day America, especially over the past couple of years.
Next up: Donovan and Sunshine Superman, one of my longtime favorite ’60s tunes. The song is the title track of Donovan’s third album released in August 1966 in the U.S. It did not come out in the U.K. due a contractual dispute between British label Pye Records and U.S. label Epic Records. This also impacted the release of Donovan’s fourth album Mellow Yellow, which like Sunshine Superman appeared in the U.S. only. After the labels had worked out their issue, Pye Records released a compilation from both records in the U.K. in June 1967 under the title of Sunshine Superman.
Jumping to the ’70s, here’s Fire And Rain by James Taylor. Apart from his cover of the Carole King tune You’ve Got A Friend, the opener of his second album Sweet Baby James from February 1970 is my favorite Taylor song. It became his first big hit in the U.S., peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Songfacts quotes Taylor from a 1972 interview with Rolling Stone, during which he explained how the song came about: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend [Susie Schnerr, “Suzanne”]. The second verse is about my arrival in this country [the U.S.] with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs [from drug addiction] which lasted about five months.” Wow, certainly a lot of stuff packed in one song!
In November 1970, Cat Stevens (nowadays known as Yusuf/Cat Stevens) released Tea For The Tillerman, his fourth studio album. One of my favorite tunes from that record is Father And Son. According to Songfacts, while Stevens made up the story about a son wanting to join the Russian Revolution and his dad pleading with him to stay home to work on the farm, the lyrics were inspired by Stevens’ lonely childhood and differences of opinion between him and his father about his chosen path to become a professional musician.
I already mentioned Carole King, one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time – in fact, make that one of my all-time favorite music artists! Sometimes one forgets that before becoming a recording artist and performer, King had a close to 10-year career writing songs for other artists, together her then-husband Gerry Goffin. More than two-dozen of these tunes entered the charts, and various became hits. Examples include Chains (The Cookies, later covered by The Beatles on their debut record), The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), One Fine Day (The Chiffons) and Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees). King composed the music for these tunes, while Goffin wrote the lyrics. Then, in February 1971, Carole King released her second solo album Tapestry. Instead of obvious choices like I Feel The Earth Move, It’s Too Late or You’ve Got A Friend, I’d like to highlight Way Over Yonder. Among others, this gem features James Taylor on acoustic guitar and Curtis Amy who plays the amazing tenor saxophone solo. To me, this is as close to perfection as music can get – emotional, beautiful and timeless!
Joni Mitchell is one of those artists I really should know much better than I currently do. In June 1971, her fourth album Blue appeared, which according to Wikipedia is widely regarded by music critics as one of the greatest records of all time. Here’s This Flight Tonight. If you don’t know Mitchell’s original, yet the melody and the lyrics somehow sound familiar, you’ve probably heard the cover by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth. I certainly have, since they scored a no. 1 hit with it in Germany in 1973. The song also charted in the U.K. (no. 11), U.S. (no. 177) and Canada (no. 27).
More frequent visitors of the blog won’t be surprised about my next choice: Neil Young. Wait a moment, some might think, based on what I wrote in my clever introduction, should he be in the list? After all, he has been affiliated with bands like Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and he continues to perform frequently with Crazy Horse. Well, in addition to these bands, Young has done plenty of solo work, plus Crazy Horse is his backing band. At the core, there’s no doubt to me that Young nicely fits the singer-songwriter definition. Here’s The Needle And The Damage Done, one of Young’s finest songs first recorded for Harvest, his fourth studio album from February 1972. The tune was inspired by the death of Young’s friend and former Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten from heroin addiction. With the U.S. battling a horrific opioid addiction crisis, eerily, the song’s lyrics remain as relevant today as they were more than 45 years ago.
While with the explosion of the singer-songwriter category in the late ’60s and 70s I could go on featuring artists from that time period, I also would like to least touch on more recent decades. In the ’80s, Suzanne Vega emerged as one of the most popular artists in the category. At the time, I frequently listened to her second album Solitude Standing from April 1987 – yes, it’s the one with Tom’s Diner. While that song represents cinematic-type storytelling at its best and perfectly describes the New York morning rush, I’ve become a bit tired of the tune due to over-exposure. Interestingly though, it wasn’t much of a chart success at the time, unlike Luka, the track I’m featuring here, which became Vega’s biggest hit. The song’s upbeat melody is in marked contrast to the lyrics addressing the horrible subject of child abuse.
When it comes to ’90s singer-songwriters, one name that comes to mind is Alanis Morissette. In June 1995, the Canadian artist released her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, which became her first record that appeared worldwide and catapulted her to international stardom. The album became a chart topper in 13 countries, including Canada, the U.K. and the U.S., and is one of the highest-selling records of all time, exceeding more than 33 million copies worldwide. It won five Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. Here’s the record’s second single Hand In My Pocket, a nice rock tune Morissette co-wrote with Glen Ballard who also produced the album.
The last artist I’d like to highlight in this post is English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. During her career, which was tragically cut short in July 2011 when she died from alcohol poisoning at the age of 27, Winehouse only released two albums. Her acclaimed second record Back To Black from October 2007 won Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2007 Grammy Awards. With close to 3.6 million units sold in the U.K. alone, Back To Black became the U.K.’s second best-selling album of the 21st century; worldwide sales exceeded 12 million. Here’s the opener Rehab, which also was released separately as the album’s lead single. The lyrics describe Winehouse’s refusal to attend rehab for alcoholism following her management team’s suggestion. The tune has a nice soul vibe and like many of her other songs has a retro feel.
From the first to the last note Tapestry beautifully shines, truly making it a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
Carole King’sTapestry set a new standard in the singer-songwriter category. The benchmark has yet to be surpassed, almost 46 years after the album’s release in February 1971.
Apart from its great music, I will always connect Tapestry with the time in the mid-70s when I started to get into music. My sister had the record and was playing it all the time. Recently, I got a vinyl copy of this gem as well. I had owned it on CD for many years, but nothing beats the vinyl experience!
While Tapestry brought Carole King on the map as a solo artist, at the time of its release she already had been a successful songwriter for other artists for more than a decade. Together with her lyricist and first husband Gerry Goffin, Carole had written a number of major hits during the 60s, such as The Loco-Motion (Little Eva), Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee), One Fine Day (The Chiffons), Pleasant Valley Sunday (The Monkees) and, not to forget, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman (Aretha Franklin).
But back to Tapestry, which was Carole’s second studio release. Her debut, Writer, did not receive much initial attention, though that changed after Tapestry became popular. It’s one of those rare albums where I almost find it impossible to point out obvious highlights – each of its 12 tunes is simply outstanding, making it worthwhile to listen from the first song to the last song.
The opener I Feel The Earth Move is one of only a few up-tempo tunes on the album with a dose of rock and blues. Another great song in this category is Smackwater Jack. It is also one of three tunes from the ’60s Goffin-King songwriting era. The other two are the beautiful ballads Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and Natural Woman.
If I would have to choose my favorite from Tapestry, it would be You’ve Got A Friend, both musically and in terms of its exceptionally beautiful lyrics. It is one of various tunes featuring James Taylor, whoalso recorded his own version, which became one of his signature songs.
Another tune I’m particularly fond of is Way Over Yonder. In addition to great lyrics, Carole’s singing and piano-playing are outstanding. But what’s really giving me the goose bumps is the background vocal (Merry Clayton) and the tenor sax solo (Curtis Amy).
Speaking of additional musicians, Tapestry features numerous of them, though most of the songs are dominated by Carole’s powerful voice and piano. Additional instrumentation is oftentimes in the background, especially for the ballads, which gives the songs great dynamic. Some of the fantastic musicians include Danny Kootch (acoustic and electric guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Charles Larkey (bass), Carol’s second husband at the time. Oh, and there is Joni Mitchell, who shares background vocals with James Taylor on Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
Tapestry has sold over 25 million copies worldwide, including more than 10 million in the U.S., making it one of the most successful albums of all time. It is No. 36 on Rolling Stone’s500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Here’s another gem: It’s Too Late.
This post was updated with images and clips on November 28, 2020.