Friday, October 20, 2017

You Are the Woman (1976)

Performer: Firefall                                              Writer: Rick Roberts
Highest US Chart Position: #9                           Label: Atlantic Records
Musicians: Rick Roberts, Larry Burnett, Jock Bartley, David Muse and Michael Clarke

Initially this seems like something that would have been written by John and Johanna Hall for Orleans. Most Firefall songs were not kind to women. But the group no doubt learned what every performer in the seventies did: sentiment sells. In the words of lead guitarist Jock Bartley, “Every female between the ages of 18 and 24 wanted to be the woman portrayed in the song, and that caused their boyfriends and spouses to call radio stations and subsequently flood the airwaves with dedications.” Rick Roberts’ “You Are the Woman” was the second single released off the group’s self-titled debut album and would be their only top ten hit, going to number nine in mid-December of 1976. The song will always be important to me because of the strong associations it has with my first girlfriend in high school. The moment I learned about her was in October of my freshman year, sitting in the lunchroom with a couple of my friends. A guy from our class came up to us and, looking right at me said, “I know who likes you, and she’s a babe.” Obviously I was thrilled, but also completely mystified. I lived in a tiny town and in the course of grade school and junior high had become well acquainted with all of the babes in school. I couldn’t imagine any of them suddenly changing their minds about me. My confusion was soon dispelled when he gave me the only possible answer for who this person could be: a new girl. What a great way to start high school.

The song begins with Michael Clarke’s toms on the and of three, a single-string slide up the frets of his electric guitar by Jock Bartley on four, and acoustic guitars hitting on the downbeat. The distinctive flute line of David Muse comes in on the and of one and at the end of the intro the band hits three eight notes together and stops, before Bartley does the guitar slide into the chorus. Rick Roberts’ lyrics are simple and straightforward. “You are the woman that I’ve always dreamed of. I knew it from the start. I saw your face and that’s the last I’ve seen of my heart.” The structure of the song is interesting because it reverses the usual arrangement of the verses and choruses, even going so far as harmonizing Roberts’ vocal on the verses while leaving him to sing solo on the chorus. The first verse is accompanied by acoustic guitars, with occasional fills by Muse on flute. Also prominent on the mix are congas played by Joe Lala. The verses have a nice contrasting chord progression, supported by Bartley’s electric guitar. After another chorus the second verse adds some electric piano by Muse and dense backing vocals that fade into the next chorus, which precedes Bartley’s distinctive guitar solo. The bridge is vintage Firefall: “It’s hard to tell you all the love I’m feeling, that’s just not my style.” It’s the one part of the song that didn’t reflect my sentiments, as that was very much my style. The bridge concludes with the three eight notes that ended the intro and another slide into the final chorus. The last line repeats a couple of times with Roberts ad-libbing and the song ends with the band retarding on two sets of the three eight-note stops and a final trill by Muse.

The song had an impressive twenty-two week chart run, entering the Hot 100 at number 82 at the end of August, just before school started. It reached the top forty a month later and stayed on the charts for the rest of the year, peaking at number nine on December 11 and staying there for another week before taking another month to drop of the charts at the end of January. On the B-side is “Sad Ol’ Love Song” by the group’s other writer and lead vocalist, Larry Burnett. It’s a medium slow country rock number with some tasty slide guitar by Bartley, but the chord progression is just a bit too convoluted to be catchy. I definitely bought the single along with a bunch of other songs that were popular, because it reminded me of my girlfriend, but it was ubiquitous on the radio that fall and so I heard it all the time. It also reminds me now me of my Washington State history class because sometimes the teacher would play the radio low while we were reading, and she sat right in front of me. “You Are the Woman” is easily one of my favorite songs from late 1976 because I had found the girl I had always dreamed of. I can’t remember now if the song was one of her favorites, but it certainly was one of mine, and seemed to express--for the most part--exactly how I felt about going out with the best looking girl in the school.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Rockford Files (1975)

Performer: Mike Post                                         Writers: Mike Post & Pete Carpenter
Highest US Chart Position: 10                           Label: MGM Records
Musicians: Tommy Morgan (harp), Dan Ferguson (dobro), Mike Baird (drums)

Though the show ran from the time I started junior high until I graduated high school, I can’t remember ever sitting down to watch any episodes of The Rockford Files. In thinking back on it, I never really watched any crime dramas. Manix, Cannon, Ironside, Kojak, Hawaii Five-0, The Streets of San Francisco all passed unnoticed by me throughout the decade. The theme song to "The Rockford Files" by Mike Post, however, was an entirely different story. I’m pretty sure it was my sister who bought the 45, but it spent a lot of time in my room. Another of the great things about pop music in the seventies is how many instrumental TV themes made it into the charts. This is one of the good ones. Because James Garner himself was from Oklahoma, Post decided to go slightly Southern blues with the song, using harmonica and dobro, and it definitely set it apart from other themes at the time. The backing orchestra is something Post called “a chamber group on steroids,” two flutes, two French horns, and two trombones. Post and co-writer Pete Carpenter actually set out to make a hit record with the song--as they did with most of their themes. But Post was smart. He waited until the show had a season under its belt and had become a hit on television before releasing the song as a single.

The song begins with a three eighth-note pick-up by the rhythm section. But then it is only the brass who hit on the downbeat, with the melody waiting until the upbeat of one to finish the phrase with two quarter notes, Tommy Morgan’s harmonica playing over the first time and Dan Ferguson’s dobro playing over the second. After two times around the intro the distinctive melody comes in on the Moog synthesizer and plays twice through. Though Mike Baird plays a backbeat on the snare, the way the melody comes down on all four beats evenly seems to give the whole song a call-and-response feel underneath. Morgan plays the harmonica on the bridge with the horns playing countermelody, but the emphasis on the four-beat nature of the song gives it the feel of a march at that point. At the end of the bridge the drums and horns play a series of accents together, then the everyone drops out but the bass playing beneath Morgan’s single-note vibrato. Then the whole thing begins again. On the third time through, however, Dan Ferguson plays a terrific solo over a section with just drums and percussion punctuated by the horns that Post added later for the single. This time on the bridge it’s just the horns playing the melody without Morgan and ends with some terrific slide work by Dan Ferguson on guitar. From there the song repeats the melody with Ferguson soloing as the song fades out.

Everything about the song is unique, and is undoubtedly the reason for its chart success. The harmonica and dobro are incredibly distinctive, but then so is the synthesizer. What really cements everything together, though, is the low brass. With no trumpets to compete with the solo instruments it’s the perfect accompaniment. The song entered the Hot 100 on May 17th, debuting at number 93, then proceeded to march up the charts ten spots a week until it slowed down in the middle of July and made its way from 26 up to number 10 a month later. It stayed there for two weeks before plummeting off the charts two weeks later in September. The B-side of the single, the song “Dixie Lullabye,” begins as a piano ballad, then brings in the distinctive synthesizer from the A-side playing the melody, before the horns come in to support and give the whole thing an equally theme-song like feel. I may not have watched the show, but the song is a vivid reminder of that crucial summer of 1975 when I came alive to music and my father was in the hospital. I’ve always loved instrumental music, and the seventies was the last time they appeared on pop radio with any frequency. Forty years later, Mike Post’s theme to "The Rockford Files" is still just as impressive.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Dance With Me (1975)

Performer: Orleans                                            Writer: John & Johanna Hall
Highest US Chart Position: #6                           Label: Asylum Records
Musicians: John Hall, Larry Hoppen, Lance Hoppen and Wells Kelly

Thinking back this long after, I don’t remember exactly why I received my parents’ old tape deck but it seems that I’d probably been using it for a while before 1975 and so that summer they finally just gave it to me. One of the first things I did was to make a tape of my favorite songs on the radio. At the time I had no idea you could just walk down to the department store and buy the records, so that tape remains a treasured memory and I can still remember every song on it. One of my favorites was “Dance With Me” by the band Orleans. But it wasn’t until decades later that I learned there were two other versions of the song. The first was from their second album on ABC Records, Orleans II, from 1973. This version is very open sounding, with more clarity between the instruments, namely the mandolin and the vocals on the opening, but it also has an electric piano solo by John Hall. Hall’s vocals are also more up front and distinct from the harmonies backing him. The second version is off of their third album, from 1975, titled Let There Be Music, released on David Geffen’s Asylum Records after ABC had dropped the band. The album cut has the distinctive melodica solo that’s on the single, but on the album it begins behind the mandolin for a full verse before the solo. The single version cuts out that first half of the solo and is only about twenty seconds shorter than the album cut.

The song begins on the downbeat with acoustic guitars of John Hall and Larry Hoppen and Hall’s overdubbed mandolin, followed by two upbeats and an ascending and descending line on the upbeats that continues playing the entire, medium tempo melody of the verse. This is followed by a nice, galloping vamp before the vocals come in, dense with harmonies, singing the verse over the same into by the stringed instruments that now includes Lance Hoppen’s bass. The bass walks quarter notes down to the second verse while Hall plays some electric piano fills and Wells Kelly plays heavily baffled drums. The verse ends with the words from the title and the bass walks down into the bridge, which has some interesting muted drum work from Kelly and acoustic strumming on the guitars throughout. The vocals are the real focus of the song, especially at the end of the bridge when the instruments drop out. There’s not really a chorus, as such, as the title line is sung at the beginning and ends of the verses. After the third verse is a terrific melodica solo by Larry Hoppen, supported by the mandolin work of John Hall and the audible snare drum by Kelly. The bridge is an interesting piece of writing, lengthy and ending with the trademark vocal harmonies the group was known for. The last verse has the full band playing, with the melodica in the background. The song plays out with the intro rhythm, the mandolin forward in the mix, three times through and then the band stops on an intricate run by all the stringed instruments together and fading out on the last held note.

The song was written by Hall with his wife and writing partner, Johanna. He had come up with the melody and when she suggested the title he thought it was too simplistic. But when more words came later it was clear she had been right all along. It’s one of the couple’s many love songs that, while elementary in terms of sentiment, are nevertheless musically intricate and melodically satisfying. It entered the Hot 100 at number eighty-nine on July 19, 1975, the summer my dad was in the hospital in Seattle, and gradually climbed the charts for thirteen weeks through the summer and early fall, finally peaking at number six three months later in mid October. It managed to stay on the charts for another month on the way down for an impressive eighteen week run. The B-side of the record is called “Ending of a Song,” also from the album, a piano based ballad written by Larry Hoppen and Marilyn Mason, and sung by Hall. The single was covered a year later in a jazz fusion version by saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, who had played for decades with Ray Charles, on his album Mr. Fathead. But for me, “Dance With Me” will always remind me of the summer of 1975, between seventh and eighth grade, hanging out in the living room of one of my dad’s friends, listening to his stereo, while dad was in the hospital. And, of course, recording it on my tape deck as soon as I got home.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

It Don't Matter to Me (1970)

Performer: Bread                                                Writer: David Gates
Highest US Chart Position: #10                          Label: Elektra Records
Musicians: David Gates, Jimmy Griffin, Robb Royer and Mike Botts

While the early seventies are a nebulous time for me in terms of music associations, David Gates and Bread feel as if they were as much a part of that time in my life as eating and breathing. What’s interesting to me looking back is that I never bought The Best of Bread during my high school days. The reason is probably because the band ceased to be a recording unit by 1972--though they did make a comeback in 1976 with the song “Lost Without Your Love”--and so I never went back to consciously revisit their music. I do remember that one of my best friends, Loren, had a copy and even though I borrowed every other album he owned to tape on cassette for myself, I can’t remember recording that one. “It Don’t Matter to Me” has a fascinating back story because the song was originally on the group’s 1969 self-titled debut album. But that version sounds almost like a demo compared to the more polished single, recorded and released year later when I was in the third grade. The album cut features a much more distinctive and up front high harmony, and the electric rhythm guitar is also mixed farther forward in the mix. There’s even a fuzz guitar solo in the middle. All of that is very different from the much smoother string-laden version that would become the hallmark sound of the group from that point on. The B-side, "Call Me," is a mid-tempo minor blues by Jimmy Griffin that was pulled from the group’s second album.

The song begins with David Gates’ acoustic guitar and Robb Royer’s bass on the downbeat, with Gates’ vocals entering singing the title on the second beat. The guitar continues strumming quarter notes during the verse, the bass only playing on the chord changes, while Jimmy Griffin’s electric guitar and Mike Botts’ floor toms join in on a separate rhythm pattern after four bars. They drop out briefly two bars later but then come in with the full band on the second verse. Harmony vocals and strings fill out the space that was left open on the album track, but the harmony is decidedly back in the mix, letting Gates’ lead vocal carry the song. The bridge has a lovely serpentine quality with a continuous stream of sixteenth-note syllables, and each phrase is followed by a distinctive doubled electric guitar line that, on the album, is a thin, single guitar in the middle of the mix. The third verse goes back to acoustic guitar and bass, but this time with the electric guitar playing fills. Also, the whole band comes in after the first four bars with the strings playing a counter-melody instead of just sustained chord backing. At the end of the verse there’s an extra measure before the words of the title are repeated throughout a short guitar solo with some nice syncopated double string work that is repeated a few bars later with a full chord. The strings soar behind the vocals at the end, while Mike Botts’ muted drums fills urge the song to a close, Gate’s harmonized vocal of the title alone with the strings and then quickly fading out.

The song was written before Gates had joined the group, and there’s a sense that the single was re-recorded because the first album was put together in a rather hurried way with the musicians having to hire session drummer Jim Gordon, who didn’t even last until the second album. The song debuted on the Hot 100 in late September of 1970 at a respectable 78. Seven weeks later in mid November it peaked at number 10, and after falling to number 25 three weeks later it dropped off the charts. One of the things that has always bothered me about the song are lyrics in the bridge. In the verse the narrator tells about a woman he loves, in the era of free love, who wants to explore relationships with other men. Fair enough. He’s willing to wait, and those other men don’t matter to him. From there the bridge begins with him saying “some people have an ego hang-up because they want to be the only one.” Clearly he can’t be talking about her because she’s going to be with someone else for a while. Then the line concludes with, “how many came before it really doesn’t matter just as long as you’re the last.” That doesn’t make sense, saying “you’re,” because if he wants her to be his last lover all he has to do is remain celibate. He should have said “as long as I’m the last,” because what he ultimately wants is to be her last lover. But that’s a minor quibble in a song that is wonderfully haunting. “It Don’t Matter to Me,” is the first charting single by Bread, and still one of their best.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Brand New Key (1971)

Performer: Melanie Safka                                    Writer: Melanie Safka
Highest US Chart Position: #1                             Label: Neighborhood Records
Musicians: Melanie, Roger Kellaway, Don Payne, Buddy Saltzman and Johnny Pacheco

I have very little memory of pop music before 1973, but the songs from then that are still lodged in my memory remain very distinct. One of those is “Brand New Key” by Melanie Safka, which was a huge number one hit in the fall of 1971. And while this particular memory has nothing specific attached to it, I clearly remember being conscious of the song at the time. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. Though the obvious double entendre of the title is no doubt responsible for the early popularity of the song, there’s a lot more going on that accounts for its chart longevity than just a childish song about sex. The most obvious thing is the deceptive nature of Melanie’s voice. While she seems to chant the lyrics in a childlike sing-song, the quality of her voice is anything but childish. There’s a plaintive cry to her vocals, accompanied by a distinctive vibrato that augurs much more than a playground rhyme set to music. As the song progresses her voice seems to get stronger and more assured, and when she makes the declaration that she’s “done all right for a girl” it seems to be a naked reference to the women’s movement that was already in full swing by this time. And yet she is still able to convey an inescapable truth when she sings at the end of the last verse that, “I’m okay alone, but you’ve got something I need.”

The tune begins quite simply, with Melanie’s guitar playing a very light, almost syncopated beat. After one bar Roger Kellaway’s piano enters in the upper register and then plays a heavy ascending bass run for three beats, along with Don Payne’s bass, hitting the downbeat of the third bar on one where, a beat later, Melanie begins her vocals. The rather simple sounding accompaniment is actually fairly dense with percussion, particularly the brushed snare drum of Buddy Saltzman, along with a cabasa, a guiro. and Johnny Pacheco’s congas. But all of the instruments are playing in a percussive manner, Kellaway’s piano most of all. He provides a sort of upper register dissonant counter melody on the chorus that gives the effect of a child’s toy piano without being so obvious as to use one, and it’s an impressive effect. The lyrics that Melanie wrote and sings on the chorus, of her brand new pair of roller skates and her anonymous second person boy with his brand new key has to be one of the best hooks of the decade. The second verse is supported by a chorus of backup singers, primarily male, which is another interesting wrinkle, and instead of a second chorus they set up a rhythmic chant while the band comps and Melanie sings a wordless vocal over the top, which leads into the third verse. The third verse and chorus are filled out with the backup singers alternating long held notes with the rhythmic pattern from the pseudo bridge, and after the final chorus is it just the percussion that is left to fade the song to the end.

The song debuted in the Hot 100 at number 87 on the day before Halloween in 1971, and began a steady climb up the charts hitting number two six weeks later in the middle of December. On Christmas day it reached the top spot and stayed there for two more weeks. But what is most impressive about the song is not the three weeks it stayed at number one, but that it held the number two spot for three more weeks with only Don McLean’s “American Pie” keeping it out of a longer run at the summit. And it still only dropped to number three the following week before its inevitable fall. Even with that, however, Melanie’s song stayed on the charts for thee more weeks until the end of February 1972. The B-Side of the single is “Some Say (I Got Devil),” a minor key ballad featuring strings and the guitar work of Sal DeTroia, who played on the entire album. I had no idea of the adult nature of the song when I heard it in grade school, but hearing it again as an adult makes it clear that it was that aspect that accounted for its incredible popularity. Though “Brand New Key” can obviously be interpreted as sexual innuendo--and some stations banned the record because of it--as is often the case that was not Melanie’s intention when she wrote it. Nevertheless, it is one of the most distinctive songs of the era, as well as my own childhood.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Rock the Boat (1974)

Performer: The Hues Corporation                       Writer: Waldo Holmes
Highest US Chart Position: #1                             Label: RCA Records
Musicians: Fleming Williams, Bernard St. Clair Lee, H. Ann Kelly and Wally Holmes

One of the undeniable occurrences in popular music happened in 1974, when the complete shift from the sixties ethos took hold and the seventies era in music was unofficially ushered in. To understand that change one only has to look at The Hues Corporation. The group had formed in late 1969 and consisted of three singers, Wally Holmes, Bernard St. Clair Lee and Ann Kelly, and three musicians, Joey Rivera, Monti Lawston and Bob "Bullet" Bailey. Their style at that time, to say the least, was raw. Though they had opened shows for some big names touring through Southern California, their big brake came when composer Gene Page of the Blaxploitation film Blacula hired them to sing for the nightclub scenes in the film. They wound up performing three songs, all of which were written by Wally Holmes, and this led to a recording contract and an eventual number one record in “Rock the Boat” two years later. The footage of the group in Blacula is almost painful to watch as they are clearly still under the sway of Sly Stone and similar groups mired in sixties excess. But between then and their chart topper, the more elegant style of Motown began to assert itself as those acts began to re-enter the charts, ushering in the disco era just a year later.

The song begins on the downbeat with a heavy piano part by Joe Sample of the fusion group The Crusaders, supported by strings and horns, and the drumming of Hal Blaine and the percussion of Gary Coleman playing a medium tempo loping rhythm that borders on reggae. The three vocalists enter after four bars with the chorus, holding out the last note while a soaring strings part takes them into the first verse. Beneath the vocals of Fleming Williams is Larry Carlton on guitar and Wilton Felder on bass, both of whom were also members of the Crusaders. Kelly and Lee join in on something of a short bridge that extends one measure to 7/4, urged on by the strings and horns before the chorus comes around again, all of which is preceded by a two measure break on the high hats and floor toms. Williams takes the second verse again, with the drum and piano backing. After another bridge the group comes in on the final chorus with the horns blaring and the strings doing downward slides, tambourines shaking and Williams singing the unforgettable line, “Rock on wit cha bad self.” By the time Larry Carlton comes in with some blistering lead guitar work the vocals drop out completely and the record slowly fades out.

Just looking at the promotional film that was made for the song, the group has come a long way from their Blacula appearance and the ecstatic movements and faux-African costumes that accompanied it. By 1974 they have elegant yellow jumpsuits in the Motown mold, and while their dancing is still energetic, it’s much more controlled, a signal of the disco era they were helping to usher in. The song itself is incredibly catchy, with a wonderful melodic hook, as well as the vivid metaphor of love as a boat that needs to be handled with care lest it be overturned. While the album was recorded and released in late 1973, the song wasn’t released as a single until February of the following year and it stiffed, going nowhere. It wasn’t until it became a dance club hit in New York City that radio stations began playing it and it entered the charts at the end of May at number eighty-three, reaching number one just five weeks later. And the song would stay on the charts nearly three months more until the end of September. The B-side, “All Goin’ Down Together,” is a clavinet-driven slow groove with the trio mostly singing together, and the individual members taking brief solo turns. Songwriter Wally Holmes credits the success of the song to the distinctive beat conceived by producer Tom Sellers, as well as RCA exec David Kershenbaum who chose the song as a single after seeing the reaction to it at the group’s live shows. While “Rock the Boat” may not be the first disco song, it is easily the most memorable, and remains as distinctive today as it was in the summer of seventy-four.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Thrill is Gone (1970)

Performer: B.B. King                                             Writer: Roy Hawkins & Rick Darnell
Highest US Chart Position: #15                            Label: ABC Records
Musicians: B.B. King, Hugh McCracken, Paul Harris, Gerald Jemmott and Herbie Lovelle

By the time “The Thrill is Gone” became a chart hit for blues star B.B. King, it was already nearly twenty years old. The song had originally been composed in 1951 by Los Angeles blues singer Roy Hawkins, who released the song on Modern Records and saw it become a hit, going all the way to number six on the rhythm and blues charts. The song featured Hawkins’ piano playing, and his singing in a Charles Brown style, along with the saxophone of the great West Coast tenor Maxwell Davis. But Roy Hawkins saw himself become the Erskine Hawkins of rhythm and blues. In the same way that Erskine had his hits co-opted by jazz bands like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, Roy found his songs covered by the likes of Ray Charles, James Brown and, of course, B.B. King. King’s version most likely became a hit because of the departure of the sound from the tradition Memphis blues style he had been playing in since the late fifties. Producer Bill Szymczyk had been working as an engineer in the mid-sixties and took a pay cut to work for ABC Records in order to become a producer. He wanted to update King’s sound to appeal to a wider audience by adding strings and a more polished sound. He succeeded in producing the artist’s first ever, top 100 album as well as the biggest hit of his career, and one that would remain his signature song for the rest of his career.

The song begins just like any other ballad from the late sixties, with drums and electric piano. Herbie Lovelle plays a pickup on the drums that hits on the and of two, rests on three, and on the and of three plays sixteenth notes into the downbeat where B.B. King hits a ringing, single-string note. Underneath King’s unique blues playing, Paul Harris adds some licks of his own on the Fender Rhodes. King continues to play through a complete verse with some interesting chromatic runs, supported by Harris and the guitar of until Hugh McCracken, until the first vocal verse comes around. Bill Szymczyk managed to get some incredible separation on the production because all of the instruments, including Gerald Jemmott’s bass, can be heard very clearly as they work together. The progression is a straight, twelve-bar blues, but the minor key makes the turnaround feel as if it’s more unique than it actually is. On the second verse a small string section playing sustained chords is suddenly pushed up into the mix behind the vocals. When King’s solo section begins, the strings are pushed up even louder, this time playing quarter-note phrases that comprise something of a counter melody, all while the guitar’s vocal emulations strain to be heard over the top. A third verse is followed by a fourth with the instrumentation--especially the drums and a low McCracken guitar part--building in intensity to match King’s vocals. Then the song finally fades out across two verses of King’s guitar solo and the string countermelody.

There’s no chorus in the song. Instead the title line is sung at the beginning of each verse, with the rest of the verse explaining why the narrator no longer has the feelings he once had for his lover. The album version is slightly longer than the single, adding an extra minute and a half of King soloing over a vamp on the tonic and a much slower fadeout. The song entered the charts in 1969, a couple of days after Christmas, at the very bottom in spot number one hundred. A month later, at the end of January, it was halfway up the chart, and in another month it reached its peak position of fifteen on February 21st, where it stayed for another week. The B-side is “You’re Mean,” another song pulled from King’s album, Completely Well. The tune is a medium tempo number with King doing some blues shouting about his woman. Like the flip side, Paul Harris’s electric piano is prominent in the mix. I was too young to have heard the song on the radio, but I did have the pleasure of playing it in a blues band I joined in the mid-eighties. After playing pop and rock for years, I left music for a while to go back to school, but then I saw an advertisement in a music store looking for a sax player. Thrilled with the idea of not having to play guitar and keyboards and instead focusing on my first instrument, I joined the band shortly after and they were the best group of musicians I have ever played with. I may have been vaguely familiar with the song before, but B.B. King’s version of “The Thrill is Gone” would forever after hold a permanent place in my memory thereafter.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Every 1's a Winner (1979)

Performer: Hot Chocolate                                     Writer: Errol Brown
Highest US Chart Position: #6                              Label: Infinity Records
Musicians: Errol Brown, Harvey Hinsley, Larry Ferguson, Patrick Olive and Tony Connor

Back when I was listening to the radio in high school I wasn’t really aware of the distinctions between U.S. and British groups. In fact, other that those artists I knew to be British already, like the former Beatles or David Bowie, I’m pretty sure I assumed every song on the radio was by an American group. And I certainly didn’t know there was any difference between the U.S. and British charts. Hot Chocolate was known to me primarily as a one-hit wonder for their terrific single, “You Sexy Thing,” back in 1975. But what I hadn’t known at the time is that they were much more popular in England and had already recorded a string of hits by 1975. One of them was actually my favorite song of 1973, “Brother Louie” by The Stories. Before the American group covered it, though, it had been a top ten song in England, and the fifth of their top forty hits in their home country before achieving even greater chart success a year later with the number three “Emma.” While that song made it to number eight in the States, it wasn’t something I remembered hearing on the radio. I can remember vividly, however, in the middle of my junior year thinking that Hot Chocolate had made a nice comeback with their newest single, “Every 1’s a Winner,” when in fact they had never left the charts in Britain, continuing to write chart hits that included the number one UK single “So You Win Again” from the same album.

The song begins with a backward strum by Harvey Hinsley on the guitar that sustains while a pulsing bass and keyboard rhythm punctuate the downbeats of every measure, an effect similar to the one Don Henley would use four years later on “Dirty Laundry.” Then comes the unmistakable sound of Hinsley’s distorted guitar playing the signature sixteenth-note lick of the song over a grinding wash of keyboards in the background. After two times around, the equally distinctive singing of the song’s composer, Errol Brown, comes in on the verse. His vocals are heavily processed giving them a distant quality that, again, was wholly unique in pop music at that time. The background on the verse is simply the steady beat of Connor’s drums with the pulsing keyboard bass of Larry Ferguson and bass fills by Patrick Olive, along with the occasional backward strum of the intro by Hinsley. Beneath the chorus that includes the title line, the band hits on the first three notes of every two-bar phrase, but in a subdued way that isn’t jarring, allowing the dance pulse to continue uninterrupted. In the second half of the chorus, horns join the three-note accent, and female background vocals enter and hold into the next of Hinsley’s intro licks. After another verse, chorus and intro, the horns assert themselves and a lengthy vamp concludes with a short solo by Hinsley punctuated by the horns. This is followed by another chorus, and more improve from Hinsley that fades out the song.

The song entered the U.S. charts in mid-November of 1978 at number seventy-five, then made an impressively gradual climb to number twenty-two by the end of the year. It entered the top twenty at the beginning of January, and by the end of the month had edged into the top ten, finally peaking at number six in early February. The B-side of the single is Harvey Hinsley’s “Power of Love,” which retains the pulsing bass line of the A-side, but softens the sound by featuring the piano work of Larry Ferguson and leaving Errol Brown’s duskier vocals unprocessed. What’s interesting about the group is that, despite having a U.K. hit in every year of the seventies--a feat only equaled by Elvis and Diana Ross--the group was not well received critically and was for the most part ignored by the music press during the decade. “Every 1’s a Winner” was pulled from the album of the same name, and also released as a 12-inch dance version, which simply extends every aspect of the original tune to make it twice as long. For me, it was simply part of the soundtrack of my junior year, and wasn’t one of the few songs I purchased as a single. Nevertheless, it is now a song that seems essential to me and an example of a major hit that, while embracing the ethos of disco in order to gain popularity and airplay, eschews the clich├ęs that had made the genre such an anathema, even at the time.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Ariel (1977)

Performer: Dean Friedman                                   Writer: Dean Friedman
Album US Chart Position: #26                              Label: Lifesong Records
Musicians: Dean Friedman, Rick Witkowski, Tony Levin, Rick Marotta and George Young

I’m not a big fan of wordplay in pop songs, especially of the John Lennon variety. But there are a couple of exceptions. The first is “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart, which has one of my favorite lines of all time. The other is the far less sophisticated, yet still grin inducing lyrics of Dean Friedman in “Ariel.” My associations with the tune began, of course, by hearing it on the radio. Despite not cracking the top ten, it had a very impressive run of twenty-two weeks on the charts in the spring and summer of 1977. But it was probably a year later, when I was dating my first real girlfriend, that acquired a copy of my own. She and her younger sisters had the 45 in rotation on their giant console stereo in the living room and I borrowed it along with a bunch of other songs I didn’t own and recorded it on my 8-track tape recorder. I’m not really sure I noticed the lyrics at all at the time, however, as I’ve always been much more interested in melody. The distinctive chorus was the real draw and was absolutely captivating for me. The single was released in late April and debuted at number eighty-six, peaking two months later at twenty-six on June 25th after having sat at twenty-seven for the previous two weeks. Interestingly, after dropping down to forty-seven the next week it began to inch upward for the next five weeks until it reached thirty-two before taking another five weeks to drop off completely.

The song begins with a Ricky Marotta drum pickup on the and of three and four, Dean Friedman’s piano and the bass of Tony Levin entering on the downbeat with a repeated descending pattern. The lyrics begin with Friedman talking about meeting a girl who lives in Paramis, New Jersey, “deep in the bosom of suburbia.” Rick Witkowski’s guitar comes in on the second half, as she was collecting money for a radio station and Friedman sings, in the first nice turn of a phrase, “she was looking for change and so was I.” The first verse is followed by a second in which Tony Levin takes some liberties with the bass line. Friedman falls in love, invites her to hear his band, and when he picks her up he sings the classic line, “Hi, and she said, ‘Yeah, I guess I am.’” Then he launches into the wonderfully Frankie Valli-esque chorus that consists lyrically of simply the title sung over and over again and ends with three staccato beats and two beats of silence, In the third verse, which is only on the album version, the couple stops at Dairy Queen before the dance with some humorous background vocals that hold throughout the second half. The next chorus is followed by a great fifties style R&B George Young sax solo. Young also makes some well-place honks in the following verse with Friedman and his girl on the couch, “fooling around with the vertical hold,” and finally making love to the sound of fireworks on the television as it’s signing off for the night. The final chorus modulates and then, in the album version, oddly goes into the first part of the first verse before suddenly ending.

There was a bit of controversy over the song from Friedman’s label, Lifesong Records, but it wasn’t about the drug reference, or the fact that Ariel “wore a peasant blouse with nothing underneath.” Instead, they objected to the fact that she was a “Jewish girl.” The label demanded that Friedman remove the line, not because they were racist but because they thought that radio stations would use it as an excuse not to play the record. They also stuck a chorus between the first and second verse and removed the third because they felt the song was too long to be a single. Friedman was unhappy about the changes--though removing the first verse reprise from the end and fading out on the last chorus is a much more satisfying ending. Nevertheless, with assistance from the Jewish Defense League, Friedman was able to convince the company to leave his original version on the album, though the single edit remained. Lifesong was a small record label with limited distribution, and the reason for the song’s strange chart journey is that the label actually ran out of records, causing the song to stall in the mid-twenties. A fresh infusion of 45s was the reason for the uptick on the charts but by then it was too late for it to break into the top ten. The B-side, “Funny Papers,” has Friedman playing piano and singing with a jazz trio including George Mraz on bass and Mel Lewis on drums. “Ariel” is sometimes interpreted as a reminiscence of early sixties love, but it clearly reflects an early seventies sensibility and remains one of my favorite songs from 1977.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Don't Go Breaking My Heart (1976)

Performer: Elton John & Kiki Dee                         Writers: Elton John & Bernie Taupin
Highest US Chart Position: #1                              Label: MCA Records
Musicians: Elton John, Kiki Dee, Davey Johnstone, Kenny Passarelli and Roger Pope

I never really liked Elton John all that much. With the exception of Barry Manilow, I usually preferred guitar bands to those led by a pianist. For the first half of the seventies he saturated the Top 40 airways, but by the middle of the decade his hit streak began to diminish. Still, there are a couple of his tunes that will always be among my favorites. The first is from my all-important summer of 1973, “Saturday Night’s Alright.” The other is this song, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” from the summer of 1976. My father had nearly died the summer before, from cancer, and miraculously it went into remission. He and my mother had traveled somewhat before, but after surviving this scare they began to go regularly, several times a year. I’m pretty sure this was their first trip after his recovery, and they decided to take the whole family along with them to Hawaii. For me, it was the summer between junior high and high school. We probably went in July, and that’s just about when the song was released, entering the charts at an impressive sixty-six on Independence Day of that bicentennial year and working its way up during our time on Maui and Oahu. The duo took only four weeks to claim the top spot from The Manhattans and stayed at number one for the entire month of August, part of a twenty-week stay on the charts that wouldn’t end until mid-November, accompanying the start of my high school career.

The song begins on the downbeat, with future film composer James Newton Howard on the electric piano and Kenny Passarelli on the bass for two measures, then joined by the string section heading into the third measure. A measure later the cellos are pushed up in the mix and joined by Roger Pope on the drums, while a distinctive guitar lick by Davey Johnstone takes everyone into the first verse. Most duets follow fairly traditional structures of alternating verses and harmony on the chorus, but this one is unique for employing a call-and-response pattern throughout. Elton John opens the chorus by singing the title line, and Kiki Dee answers him after every line. At the end of the verse the band holds while the strings and drums lead the band into the bridge, which actually functions more like a chorus, while the chorus line at the end functions more like a bridge. The orchestration of the strings, also done by James Newton Howard, is very intricate on the chorus and, combined with the conga playing of Ray Cooper, makes for a wonderfully dense sound on the chorus. A variation of the intro, again heavy with cellos, leads into the second verse, with the strings playing a sort of harmony with the singers right into the second chorus. During the third verse Howard has the strings playing the solo section to good effect, and the vocals return for the third chorus with both singers taking liberties with the melody while background singers vamp on the title line throughout a lengthy fadeout.

As per usual, the song was written by Elton John and his longtime collaborator, Bernie Taupin, and though it was originally intended as a tribute to Motown’s duets featuring Marvin Gaye, the presence of James Newton Howard’s orchestrations make it something much more. The first choice for the female vocalist was Dusty Springfield, but she was too ill at the time and the offer finally went to British singer Kiki Dee, one of the only white artists to record for Motown on their subsidiary, Tamla, but was at this time signed with John’s label, Rocket Records. The two singers weren’t even in the same studio when the song was finished. John had actually recorded the track in Toronto, and then sent it back to London to have Dee put her vocals on afterward. One surprising fact about the song is that although Elton John had achieved a string of number one hits in the United States, this was the first time he had been able to reach the top spot on the British Charts as well. The duo also managed to reach number two in England seventeen years later with a Cole Porter’s “True Love,” but only made it to number fifty-six in the States. The B-side of the single is “Snow Queen,” which seems almost stripped down in comparison with the flip side. John sings the medium tempo verses himself, with just bass, drums and acoustic guitar accompaniment, and Dee harmonizing on the chorus. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” was the number two song of 1976 in America and will always be associated with my first trip to Hawaii and my first year of high school.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Get Back (1978)

Performer: Billy Preston                                       Writers: Paul McCartney & John Lennon
Highest US Chart Position: #86                           Label: A&M Records
Musicians: Billy Preston, Larry Carlton, David Hungate and Jeff Porcaro

The summer of 1978 was the summer of two big musical films, Grease and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That summer I went with my family on our second trip to Hawaii and both me and my brother were allowed to bring our best friends along. My friend and I wound up seeing Grease on a tiny little screen in Lahaina on Maui, but we also stopped for three days in Honolulu before heading home and saw Sgt. Pepper’s on a big screen. But while the first film has gone on to critical acclaim and classic status, the second has been relegated to an embarrassing footnote on the career of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton. And while it is unarguably a horrible film, it holds a soft spot in my heart because of how and when I first saw it. For one thing, I was a huge fan of the Bee Gees at the time, and for another, it had the effect of putting those Beatle songs I had heard before into a single, unified context. What makes “Get Back” unique among the songs on the project is that Billy Preston had played the electric piano on the original recording by the Beatles for the album that would eventually become Let It Be. And of course he can be seen in the film of the same name. Their version of the single went all the way to number one in 1969 and Preston was given a rare performance credit on the record, something the group had done for no other artist.

Preston’s arrangement is exactly the same as the one on the Beatles record, though the opening is slightly different. Where the Beatles bring in the instruments together at a low volume and Ringo plays a shuffle, this version begins with repetitive eighth notes on all the instruments faded in until everyone accents the third and fourth beats heading into the opening chorus. Preston sings the title and pounds on the electric piano while the drums go into a shuffle. After a nice solo by Preston, he goes into the first verse, about Jojo leaving home. Preston harmonizes with himself on the next chorus, though it’s fairly low in the mix, and of course the distinctive accents on three and four are the only thing to break up the relentless nature of the shuffle rhythm. The guitar plays a sort of countermelody on the next verse about sweet Loretta Martin, and this leads into an extended third chorus and the false ending. A short drum fill then brings the band back in and Preston copies Paul McCartney’s ad-lib vocals from the original recording which then goes into a final extended chorus that ends with everyone hitting on the final note and fading. As on the original, George Martin produced the record, though in this instance he was in charge of a tremendous number of studio musicians who participated on the project.

In terms of the single itself, this is a strange record in a couple of ways. First, the Sgt. Pepper's soundtrack LP was released by RSO Records, Robert Stigwood’s record company, and yet the single came out on A&M. The second is that the B-side isn’t a song from the album at all, but an instrumental A-side by Preston that came out in 1973. Information on the single is difficult to come by, but there is a likely scenario for the odd nature of the release, which seems plausible. During this brief period in the existence of RSO, it was operating as an independent label and therefore had the ability to license its songs to whoever it wanted. At the same time, Billy Preston had been under contract to A&M for the entire decade. The fact was that Preston had only recorded the one song for the soundtrack and so it seems clear that A&M licensed the song in order to release it as a single by Preston and backed it with “Space Race,” which had been a number four hit in the winter of 1973. RSO would get the publicity for their film and the soundtrack LP, while A&M would take on the financial risk of distributing the single. Unfortunately for A&M, however, they waited until the summer was over to release the record and it stiffed. It entered the Hot 100 in October of 1978 at number 86, and was still stuck there the next week before dropping off altogether, making it the lowest charting single from the soundtrack. Nevertheless, Billy Preston’s “Get Back” is an exciting version of the song and, because of his relationship with the Beatles, it’s fitting that his performance closes both the film and the soundtrack album.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Dueling Banjos (1973)

Performer: Eric Weissberg                                    Writer: Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith
Highest US Chart Position: #2                              Label: Warner Brothers
Musicians: Eric Weissberg, Marshall Brickman, Clarence White and Gordon Terry

This is one of those incredible circumstances in which a song that has absolutely no business being on the Hot 100 becomes a hit by striking a chord in the American consciousness. In this instance it was the association with the film Deliverance, which featured Burt Reynolds and was a huge box-office success at the time. At the beginning of the movie, four friends are going out on a canoe trip in the backwoods of Georgia before the whole valley is flooded by the building of a dam. As Ronny Cox is tuning his guitar, an inbred boy with a banjo starts mimicking him and eventually the two of them launch into a rousing rendition of “Dueling Banjos.” The song is straight-ahead bluegrass and yet made it all the way to number two in the pop charts at the beginning of 1973 because of its infectious melody and its association with the film. Being very young at the time, I wouldn’t actually see the film until later, but I can vividly remember my dad’s friends being in complete awe at how well this mentally disabled kid could play and thinking he must be a musical savant--not realizing that it was just an actor, and on subsequent viewings it’s clear he’s not really playing the instrument. But those urban myths were just the kind of thing that helped to make the song, and the film, so popular.

The song begins with a couple of strummed notes by Marshall Brickman on the guitar, as if the tuning was being checked. Then Eric Weissberg on the banjo answers a half-note below and slides up to match the chord. This is followed by a bigger chord on the guitar and the banjo going an octave higher. From here the guitar individually picks out the six notes in the G chord, while the banjo answers with three. Finally, the guitar strums the distinctive five-beat call and answer, moving from a G chord to a C on the fourth beat, which the banjo repeats. This is played four times before the guitar picks out a descending melody, answered again by the banjo. Then a new melody is picked on the low notes of the guitar, and followed up twice by the banjo. When the same melody is picked up one string higher, the banjo repeats, before the call and response happens again another string up. The song is half over by the time the five-beat call and response chords happen again, and everything to this point has been slow and quiet. But now the pace picks up with the descending melody played on the guitar, the banjo playing underneath as well, before both descending into a loping version of the tune, the banjo picking out the melody and the guitar strumming beneath. Then the earlier melodies are picked out and echoed with the support of the other instrument before both of them launch into the full-speed version of the song with Weissberg playing a wonderfully intricate banjo solo. At the end of the song the guitar drops out and the banjo finishes with an extended series of licks and is joined on the last note by the guitar.

What’s so interesting about the success of this song is that this wasn’t the first time this had happened with a bluegrass tune, and it happened in almost exactly same manner. In 1967 the movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, was a box-office smash. In several spots on the soundtrack an old bluegrass tune by Flatt and Scruggs was used, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” from 1947, and the song unexpectedly became a hit on it’s own, going to number fifty-five in the pop charts twenty years after it was first recorded. When “Dueling Banjos” came out the songwriting credits were listed as Traditional, meaning that the song was based on an old tune long in the public domain. But that wasn’t actually the case. It had been written and recorded in 1955 by the great guitarist, Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and he successfully sued Warner Brothers for royalties on the new version. The song entered the charts in mid January and climbed all the way to the number two spot, where it sat for four weeks in March behind Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” unable to reach the top spot. The B-side was an actual traditional number called “Reuben’s Train” from the Civil War period, and pulled off an album recorded by Weissberg and Brickman ten years earlier which Warners would shamelessly repackage as the Soundtrack to Deliverance. Nevertheless, “Dueling Banjos” remains an iconic bluegrass song, and part of the popular consciousness because of its unexpected success in the winter of 1973.