Friday, August 28, 2009

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue

This is the one thousandth post in the history of "One Poor Correspondent." It is with very mixed emotions that I feel compelled to announce that it will also be the last.

The posts on this site have dwindled down to a precious few in recent months, and it's not as if the lack of quantity has been accompanied by a surge in quality. I don't want this to be one of those blogs that ends up getting a post every three weeks, and everyone starts to wonder whether it's gone defunct or not until they stop caring and no longer click on it at all. The problem is that I have at times found myself running out of things to write about, and more importantly, I feel like I have no longer have sufficient time to devote to it.

As some of you may know, I am a freelance writer and editor, and as Bruce Springsteen put it, lately there ain't been much work on account of the economy. When I do have work, I don't have the time to adequately fill up OPC each day; when I don't have work, I feel like I ought to focus on getting more paying assignments. So I have decided to start putting the creative energy and time I put toward this blog toward more serious and remunerative undertakings.

One of those undertakings is putting together a book proposal based on the one-hit wonders that have been such an important part of this site to me. (If any of my friends in publishing would care to assist in getting that project off the ground, please feel free to do so.) There were other things I was planning to write about, like the one-two punch of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (originally done by Johnny Rivers) and "Wichita Lineman," or what Mick Jagger's lack of enunciation has cost us (I just the other day noticed, in "Turd on the Run" [nice title, Mick], which I have heard fifty times, that he sings, "Fell down to my knees and I hung onto your pants/But you just kept on runnin' while they ripped off in my hands," which cracked me up). I promised Joe I would write a post about Jim Stafford, and never got around to it. Yet I found the time to write a glowing assessment of Bread. Go figure.

I probably would have shut this thing down long ago if not for the incredible support and ideas coming from my readers. Just this past week, someone named Indiana Joe piped in to this thread to tell us all that Bob Seger has said it was in Rochester, Minnesota, where he stopped in a bar to have a brew. A special thanks to MJN, and Rob, and Kinky Paprika (you should go read his blog), and Joe, and Gavin (his too), and Volly (hers too), and Innocent Bystander, and Doug from Denver, and Marshall (and pike), and Mark Lerner, and jb (his too), and Scraps (his too), and Alex (my goodness, his too), and repoz, and everyone else who commented here. (The comments to that recent Leonard Cohen thread were almost enough to make me reconsider and keep this thing alive.) I apologize to those I have left out, but rest assured that every single comment was read and appreciated, except the Chinese spammer we had for a while and the anonymous person who wondered why I bothered to blog about music when I was so ignorant about it.

A thousand posts is a respectable body of work, isn't it? At about 500 words a post, that's two bound volumes worth of inanities and Partridge Family trivia. It's been a very enjoyable and educational experience for me, and I hope for you as well.

- Tom Nawrocki, Blogger (ret.)


If you followed pop music in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the name "Jimmie Rodgers" wouldn't have signified the Singing Brakeman so much as a folk-pop singer of the same name, born James Frederick Rodgers in Camas, Washington. This Jimmie Rodgers was discovered by Hugo and Luigi at Roulette Records, and almost immediately had a big hit with "Honeycomb," which went to Number One in the fall of 1957.

That was followed by several more Top Ten hits before the decade was out, including "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Oh-Oh, I'm Falling in Love Again." But by 1960, the hits had mostly dried up. Rodgers made a couple of movies (including Monte Hellman's Back Door to Hell, costarring Jack Nicholson) and recorded a couple of dud albums before finally making it back to the pop charts with "It's Over" - which Elvis Presley covered so brilliantly on That's the Way It Is. Rodgers' version - he wrote it, too - peaked at Number 37 in the summer of '66, but hey, it was a hit. He also got a small part in another movie, and looked headed for a comeback.

Then, on December 20, 1967, Jimmie was pulled over by the Los Angeles Police Department. No one to this day is entirely sure why. "Some guy walked up to the window," Rodgers said many years later. "I rolled the window down. He hit me so hard, he broke the skull on my side. I put my arm up, and he broke my arm. I remember laying on the street. He was kicking me and I knew I was hurt real bad. He ran his foot down my leg and took all the skin off my legs.... He drove back and dumped me on the road and this black-and-white pulls up. I could see the feet and I knew it was cops."

Rodgers ended up in the hospital for a year, and needed a metal plate in his head. His career was more or less over, and he became addicted to painkillers. His first wife died. He sued the LAPD, which admitted that an off-duty cop had been involved in the beating, which Rodgers thinks was Mafia-connected. The notoriously mob-riddled Morris Levy had been the head of Roulette lo those many years ago, but why that means someone would have wanted to kill Jimmie Rodgers, I have no idea.

In 1969, Rodgers tried to cut a comeback album, Windmills of Your Mind, with forward-looking material like "Both Sides Now" and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," but it went nowhere. Eventually, he gave up on the music business altogether.

Jimmie Rodgers is still alive, at the age of 75. Last I heard he was a golf instructor somewhere in the Ozarks. I'm sure he's just happy to be alive.

Here's Jimmie singing his first and biggest hit. I have no idea why he's holding his guitar that way:

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Happy birthday to David Gates, the mastermind behind Bread, who turns 69 today. Bread purveyed a variety of music - wimp-pop - that is more or less reviled these days, but they did it far better than anyone else did, and that deserves our respect. Bread's oeuvre is much more satisfying than that of, say, Lobo, and worlds better than the likes of Ambrosia or Gino Vannelli.

The way Gates dis this was by avoiding the pompous self-pity of most wimp rockers, coming across instead as more ruminative about his often-pathetic fate. The basic theme of most Bread hits was to manfully face up to the fact that the woman you loved has become more interested in someone else; this is the idea behind "It Don't Matter to Me," "Aubrey," "Diary," "Everything I Own," "Lost Without Your Love," and probably a few others I'm forgetting. Even in "Baby I'm a-Want You," he is aware of the need to be a-praying that she'll always be a-staying beside him.

To see how these things can be handled badly, one need only listen to Chicago's bombastic "Look Away," maybe the worst Number One hit of all time. But Gates greets these moments with quiet acceptance, which makes them all the more heartbreaking. In "Diary," he ends up wishing for his ex-wife all the sweet things she can find with her new husband, which is probably more than I'd be capable of. It's not even like he's set his sights all that high; in "Aubrey," he sings, "I'd go a million times around the world just to say/She had been mine for a day." For a day!

"Aubrey" to me is the key song in the Bread catalog. In some ways, it's simple-minded - Gates actually rhymes "moon" and "June" - but it's also a gorgeous melody, and his singing, quietly evoking an obsessive memory, is stunning. "And Aubrey was her name/I never knew her, but I loved her just the same/I loved her name": The repetition of "name" echoes like the repetition of a memory you can't shake, and he sinks into a reverie when he sings that last line, wholly convincing himself that even her name had reached a kind of perfection. It is a nice name.

All of Bread's hits came in the short period between 1970 and 1973 (they were like the wimp-rock CCR), except for a brief reunion in 1976 that produced the hit "Lost Without Your Love." On that song Gates sounds like he has just returned from the dentist with a mouth full of novocaine; I would honestly like to know why his tongue sounds so thick. God only knows what was going on there.

Actually, David Gates' birthday is December 11. I just felt like writing about Bread. This, though, is the truth: Telly Savalas went all the way to Number One in the U.K. with a spoken-word cover version of "If." Crazy, huh?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Phrases That Leonard Cohen Got to Rhyme With "Hallelujah" in the Song of the Same Name

Do ya?

The moonlight overthrew ya

How to shoot at someone who outdrew ya

I used to live alone before I knew ya

Do ya? (again!)

What's it to ya?

I didn't come to fool ya

Monday, August 10, 2009

I Might Be Mistaken

On the American Top Forty from June 29, 1974, Casey Kasem introduced the latest hit from ZZ Top, a little song called "La Grange," entering the countdown at Number 33. There's only one problem with that: "La Grange" never even reached the Top Forty, peaking at Number 41.

How did this happen? Well, Casey had been invited to appear as a guest star on Hawaii Five-O, which necessitated his being away from the AT40 studios for a few weeks in the summer of 1974. They had a special countdown teed up for the Fourth of July weekend, "Top 40 Acts of the 1970s, So Far," but they tried to cheat the first week by guessing at how the Top Forty would fall that week and recording a show based on those estimates. They got the Number One song right, Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown," but according to my sources, they ended up with only three songs in exactly the right position.

And Casey inadvertently gave ZZ Top their first Top Forty hit. In actuality, the Top wouldn't make the countdown until 1975's "Tush," which went to Number 20.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Spirit of the Radio

To my dismay, but not to my surprise, Indie 101.5, Denver's best radio station, closed up shop last week. It's now trying to survive as the online-only, and hey, good luck with that.

What is surprising is what replaced it: 101.5 The Pole, which plays the kind of music you would hear in a strip club. I wish I were kidding about this. Do people go to those places to hear the music? It's like someone expecting baseball fans to tune in to a radio station that played the Mexican Hat Dance and "Charge!"

I'm mostly just listening to oldies stations these days anyway. When I first discovered oldies radio, it was Chicago's Magic 104 in the mid-1980s; I don't know how much earlier than that the format was in existence, although I'm sure Jim Bartlett does. At that point, the finishing line for the format was around 1979. As time has moved on, the oldies format now plays songs from as late as the mid-1980s. They traffic in nostalgia, and people my age - some of them, at least - have fond memories of going to the beach and listening to Bryan Adams and a-Ha. But in order to serve an audience interested in what you might call contemporary nostalgia, they never play anything older than the Beatles. No one has fond musical memories lasting from Bill Haley and the Comets all the way through to John Cougar Mellencamp.

What this has meant, fortunately enough, is that there's now a market for old oldies, going back to the 1950s and 1960s and ending around 1970. We have a station like that (on the AM dial, of course) out here in Denver now, and I listen to it far more than the new-oldies station. I do this not so much to relive my younger days - the first song I remember hearing on the radio is "American Pie," from 1971 - as for the tunes. Unlike most oldies listeners, I like it when I hear a song I haven't heard before.

Yes, I can remember listening to Huey Lewis and the News' "If This Is It." No, I don't particularly care to relive those memories.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Asking for a Ribbing

In his biography, Moonwalk, Michael Jackson clues us in on the origin of Quincy Jones' nickname. Jones, who famously produced Jackson's Off the Wall and Thriller, was known far and wide as Q. This was a result of, Michael tells us, Quincy's well-known love of barbecue.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Ballad of Faul and Yoko

I have one more Beatles tidbit for you, taken from the book Revolution in the Head, as have been the Beatles items of the past few days. The book, to tell the truth, is a bit disappointing; it purports to be a musicological look at each recorded Beatles number but ends up spending half its time telling the stories behind the songs and, in the end, isn't really satisfactory on either end.

It does have a neat Beatles timeline, though, which informs us that on November 9, 1966, Paul McCartney crashed his moped while out riding with his buddy Tara Browne. A rumor sprang up that Paul had been decapitated, leading to his being Officially Pronounced Dead. (Browne too would go down for the count just over a month later.)

Shortly thereafter Faul - the False Paul - was enticed to join the Beatles. The other Beatles would have gotten away with the whole thing had they not felt the need to taunt the newbie, making Faul wear a black carnation during the shooting of Magical Mystery Tour and whatnot, just to remind him that he wasn't a real Beatle.

Anyway, it was on that very same day, November 9, 1966, that John Lennon met Yoko Ono at her art exhibit in London. So if you're looking for the day that was the beginning of the end for the Beatles, that would be it.

Birthday Wishes, Eh?

Canadian pop singer Paul Anka turns 68 today. Anka was a huge star back in the late Fifties when he was just a teenager; "Diana," which he wrote and recorded when the native Ottawan was just 16, went to Number One in the summer of 1957. Before Anka turned 20, he had seven more Top Ten hits, including the Number One "Lonely Boy."

One hit that failed to reach the Top Ten was his spoken-word record "The Teen Commandments," on which he collaborated with George Hamilton IV and Johnny Nash. It topped out at Number 29 early in 1959 and, it says here, consisted of "inspirational talk from the three ABC-Paramount artists." I bet it's a hoot.

Anka's superstardom more or less ended when he turned 20, which is a little sad. He had six more Top Forty hits by 1963, but none of them made the Top Ten. According to Anka, though, he ran into Johnny Carson when he was about to take over The Tonight Show, and Johnny asked him to write some new theme music for him. Anka reworked a song he had written called "Toot Sweet," and the rest is history. He also wrote the English lyrics to "My Way."

Anka made his pop comeback in 1974, when his song "(You're) Having My Baby," a duet with Odia Coates (had her parents really never heard of the word odious? Did she have sisters named Execra and Ignominia?), went to Number One, his first chart-topper in 15 years. A nearly identical version called "I'm Having Your Baby," by the country singer Sunday Sharpe, went to Number 11 on the C&W charts.

There's a street in Ottawa called Paul Anka Drive. In 2008, Anka's second wife was arrested after she smacked him in the head with a piece of ice.

Monday, July 27, 2009

All of Chuck's Children Are Out There Playing His Licks

As everyone reading this blog already knows, the first lines of the Beatles' "Come Together" are "Here come old flat-top, he come/Grooving up slowly." There is a line in Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" that goes: "Here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me." Morris Levy, the music industry macher who owned the rights to "You Can't Catch Me," somehow decided that John Lennon had appropriated too much of Chuck's song for "Come Together" and sued.

When I first heard this story, I thought, What? You can sue someone for using half a line of a song? How is it that Bob Dylan is able to walk the streets a free man?

The upshot of this is that Lennon reached a settlement with Levy, out of court, that he'd include three songs Levy owned on his next album, the nostalgia collection called Rock 'n' Roll. (During the making of the record, to get that proper Fifties feel, Lennon and May Pang went to far as to visit the set of "Happy Days.") The Levy songs Lennon agreed to cut were "You Can't Catch Me," Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," and, I believe, "Ya Ya."

Lennon started making Rock 'n' Roll (at first called Oldies but Mouldies) in December 1973 with Phil Spector during his infamous Lost Weekend, but soon went back to New York to make Walls and Bridges, leaving the oldies collection unreleased. When Walls and Bridges came out, in October 1974, Levy was po'd that the record didn't have his promised three songs, and threatened to sue again. Lennon went back into the studio, quickly finished Rock 'n' Roll, then sent the rough tapes to Levy to assure him that everything was OK.

Then things got even weirder: Levy suggested that he and Lennon would make more money if they sold the album via mail-order, on late-night TV, with Lennon appearing in the ads. Bizarrely, Lennon agreed. Capitol, however, wasn't so excited, and reminded Lennon that he already had a recording contract. Putting out albums via late-night TV was apparently not permitted by that contract. Lennon told Levy the deal was off.

But Levy still had the tapes, remember? So for three days in January 1975, before Lennon and Capitol got their lawyers in gear, if you were watching TV at the right time, you could have bought yourself a vinyl copy of Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock 'n' Roll Hits. Lennon was reportedly very upset by the crappy cover art - as well as the fact that it took a month for his own mail-ordered copy to arrive.

All because of "You Can't Catch Me." Aside from the one line, Chuck's song has the vaguest resemblance to "Come Together" in the meter of the lyrics and a couple of similar chords, but you can be the judge:

Friday, July 24, 2009

Seconds of Pleasure

In May 1968, Richard Harris' epic, multi-part "MacArthur Park" reached the Top Forty, where it would eventually crest at Number Two. It clocked in at an epochal 7:20.

Two months later, the Beatles recorded their own lengthy single, "Hey Jude." It was released on August 26, 1968, and went to Number One for nine weeks.

But Jimmy Webb, the author of "MacArthur Park," wasn't peeved by the chart position of "Hey Jude" as much as he was by its length. "After I put 'MacArthur Park' out and it was 7 minutes 20 seconds long," Webb said in 2005, "the Beatles put out 'Hey Jude' and it was 7:21, one second longer." He has claimed that the band specifically edited the single so that it would be longer than "MacArthur Park."

There's only one problem with this theory: "Hey Jude" actually runs only 7:11, just like the store. It makes a nice story, though, Jimmy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And the Hits Just Keep On Comin'

That business about Silver Convention that I wrote about the other day leads to another question: Which act had the most hits, all of which reached the Top Ten? For a long time, I thought this record was held by the odious Milli Vanilli, which placed five songs not just in the Top Ten but in the Top Five before exploding in a sea of backing tapes and hair extensions.

It does make sense: The artist who holds this record is likely to be someone who has a lot of early success, then totally disappears from the charts. Dying isn't enough; posthumous hits tend to wander into the lower reaches of the Top Forty.

Many artists have looked as if they'd beat Milli's record easily. The Lovin' Spoonful's first seven hits all went to the Top Ten, before "Darling Be Home Soon" topped out at Number 15. The Captain and Tennille matched the Vanilli Brothers by having their first five hits all go to the Top Five. The Jackson Five's first six hits all went to the Top Five (Top Two, as a matter of fact). More recently, the R&B singer Monica had her first nine hits all make the Top Ten, until breaking the string with "U Should've Known Better," which went to Number 19.

All of those artists could have had Rob and Fab's record, but blew it. One who didn't, though was the actress and singer Gale Storm, star of TV's "My Little Margie" in the early Fifties. She was already an established TV star when a record exec heard her singing on the "Colgate Comedy Hour" in 1954 and signed her to a record deal. Storm's very first release, a cover of "I Hear You Knocking," went to Number Two late in 1955, and her next five hits (including a cover of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love") all followed it into the Top Ten, giving her an unbroken string of six Top Ten hits.

Storm's recording career more or less ended at that point in favor of her own sitcom and appearances in Vegas. Good thing, too, because I always hated Milli Vanilli.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two-Hit Wonders

I write an awful lot about one-hit wonders on this site, but near as I can figure, no act has ever been a pure two-hit wonder: two songs going to Number One without anything else even reaching the Top Forty. The closest was the German disco act Silver Convention, which sent "Fly, Robin, Fly" to the top spot on November 29, 1975, then had "Get Up and Boogie (That's Right)" stall out at Number Two for three weeks the following spring. The followup, "No No Joe," peaked at Number 60, and Silver Convention was done making hits.

"Fly, Robin, Fly" won a Grammy for Best R&B Instrumental, even though, as you'll probably recall, it had lyrics. The song had a total of six words, as a matter of fact; they were, in alphabetical order, "fly," "robin," "sky," "the," "to" and "up." "Get Up and Boogie (That's Right)" also had just six words, all of which are helpfully listed in the title, so I don't need to repeat them here. I don't know how many words "No No Joe" had.

There are a couple of footnotes to this feat. The Cuban bandleader Perez Prado had two Number One singles ("Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" and "Patricia") and no other hits during the rock era, but both those hits predate the Hot 100. "Cherry Pink" dates back to March of 1955, which is as early as my reference materials go, and I rather suspect that Prado had other Top Forty hits before 1955. He also wrote "Mambo No. 5," which Lou Bega turned into a hit in 1999.

Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders sort of matched Silver Convention's record. Their "Game of Love" went to Number One on April 24, 1965, and the next spring, the Mindbenders (note new band name) had another huge hit with "Groovy Kind of Love," which went to Number Two. But in between those two hits, Wayne Fontana left the group - in the middle of a show, from what I've read. He was replaced as lead singer by guitarist Eric Stewart, who would later form 10cc. Anyway, whether the two Mindbenders' hits are by the same band is a decision the reader will have to make.

A Taste of Honey went to Number One with "Boogie Oogie Oogie" in 1978, and then to Number Three with "Sukiyaki" in 1981. "Sukiyaki" did go to Number One on both the R&B and adult contemporary charts. Plus, it's better than anything Silver Convention ever did.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Strangers No More

I heard a strange and wonderful thing the other day: An Elvis Presley song used in a Coke commercial, and not just one of the old usual suspects like "Heartbreak Hotel" or "Teddy Bear" but a nonhit, "Stranger in the Crowd," from the 1970 album That's the Way It Is. It wasn't Elvis' version, but it sure sounded good. "Stranger in the Crowd" was written by Winfield Scott, who had also written, along with Bumps Blackwell, earlier Presley hits "Return to Sender" and "(You're the) Devil in Disguise," as well as a never-used title track to Roustabout.

That's the Way It Is
is my favorite Elvis album, accompanying a concert film of the same name, although most of it was cut in a Nashville studio. For much of Elvis' career, Colonel Parker demanded that writers submit songs to Elvis and give his management team a cut of the publishing, which meant that Presley rarely recorded covers that other people had already done. By 1970, for reasons I don't recall, Elvis was at liberty to do things like B.J.. Thomas' "I Just Can't Help Believin'" or George Harrison's "Something," and no matter who had done these songs originally, Elvis sang them better, because he was the best.

This period of Elvis' career is generally remembered for treacly hits like "Don't Cry Daddy" and the Mac Davis-penned "In the Ghetto," but the non-cover parts of That's the Way It Is is packed with what I think of as Kristofferson-type songs, full of adult emotion and quotidian detail. Love is negotiated around unpaid bills and babies crying at six a.m., and Elvis handles this territory marvelously. It's a wonderfully grown-up collection.

Truth be told, "Stranger in the Crowd" is one of the weaker songs on the album, but it's still real good:

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Swedish Thing

That March 1977 issue of Creem ("America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine") I mentioned the other day had the expected features on Boston, Jefferson Starship and Patti Smith, but also a big blowout on Abba. I wonder how well this went over with the metalheads in Detroit who thought Ted Nugent had gone soft with Free-for-All. I suspect it looked a bit silly back then, but it's aged pretty well, better than the rave review of the new Rory Gallagher album.

"Like all pop masters," the piece reads, "Abba express and sell themselves entirely according to the grooves; they've rarely performed live [Ed. note: Note even when they appeared on Saturday Night Live] and have no personality - few people know their names and nobody knows which girl is which." As it happens, I do know which girl is which: Agnetha is the blonde and Annifrid, better known as Frida, is the brunette.

On the other hand, I probably didn't know this until Frida's 1982 solo hit "I Know There's Something Going On," produced and drummed into submission by Phil Collins. I certainly believe that no one knew the difference in 1977, because Creem didn't know. "Benny and Bjorn started recording together as Bjorn and Benny in 1966," one part of the article goes, "and Anna and Frida started their successful solo careers soon after." But Anna and Frida are the same person!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Allen Klein, 1931-2009

Allen Klein, onetime manager of both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, dead at the age of 77, much to the relief of the surviving members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. After his mother died when he was two, Klein spent much of his childhood in a New Jersey orphanage, and eventually got a degree in accounting from Upsala College, where his friend Don Kirshner suggested he go into the music business.

Klein made a name for himself discovering unpaid royalties to the likes of Bobby Darin and Sam Cooke, and eventually got himself installed as the Rolling Stones' business manager. In 1966, Mick Jagger supposedly told Paul McCartney that the Stones were making much more money than the Beatles were, all because of Allen Klein. After Brian Epstein's death and the disaster that was Apple, the Beatles turned to Klein for financial help, trying to create a management mishmash with Paul's future in-laws the Eastmans. (McCartney was said to be impressed by the fact that Klein was wearing a sweater and sneakers when he came to meet the Beatles, as opposed to the rest of the suits Paul had to deal with.)

Klein wrested full control, and after the Let It Be sessions foundered on the rocks, it was Klein who called in Phil Spector to help rescue them. This helped spur McCartney to leave the group - they'd been screwed over by businessmen before, but having them meddle in the Beatles' music was just too much.

Klein went on to build a whole music-publishing empire at his company ABKCO, and kept himself busy harassing people who ever suggested that his motives weren't pure and righteous. One time I was working on a magazine story that mentioned ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears," including the fact that the song had never been released on CD, and that all CD versions of the song were remakes. My original version noted specially that Allen Klein had never allowed the song to be released on CD, but the editor took out Klein's name, saying that he didn't want to be the recipient of an angry phone call from Allen Klein the morning after the issue appeared.

But now, the truth can be told.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Birthday

Happy 233rd birthday to the greatest country in the history of the planet. How many songs mention the Fourth of July? You'd think there'd be a bunch, given rock & roll's fascination with summer, but I can't think of that many:

"Saturday in the Park," by Chicago
"Good," by Better than Ezra
"4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," by Bruce Springsteen (doesn't actually mention the Fourth of July, but whatever)

There are also songs called "Fourth of July" by U2, Soundgarden, Mariah Carey, X, and Galaxie 500.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Spirit of '76

Hey, were you wondering who won the readers poll over at Creem magazine ("America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine") back in 1976? Well, I just happen to have the March 1977 issue, on loan to the OPC archives from the permanent collection of Rob Sheffield. The choice of Creem readers for best album were:

Rocks, by Aerosmith
Frampton Comes Alive, by Peter Frampton
The Song Remains the Same, by Led Zeppelin
Destroyer, by Kiss
Agents of Fortune, by Blue Oyster Cult
Presence, by Led Zeppelin
Blue Moves, by Elton John
A Night on the Town, by Rod Stewart
Station to Station, by David Bowie
Black and Blue, by the Rolling Stones

Boy howdy, they loved the Zep, didn't they? Songs in the Key of Life came in 13th, Ramones 16th.

Here's the singles list:

"Don't Fear the Reaper," by Blue Oyster Cult
"Last Child," by Aerosmith
"Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," by Elton John and Kiki Dee
"Show Me the Way," by Peter Frampton
"Bohemian Rhapsody," by Queen
"Beth," by Kiss
"Magic Man," by Heart
"Tonight's the Night," by Rod Stewart
"More Than a Feeling," by Boston
"Rhiannon," by Fleetwood Mac

Interesting how much poppier that singles list is. But really, guys, "Last Child"?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Power of Ten

Is there anyone, anywhere, who thinks that this plan to announce ten Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards rather than the traditional five is a good idea? Certainly it has occurred to someone at the Academy that if every movie is a contender for Best Picture, then the distinction has no meaning.

What's going to happen next spring is that the Oscars will announce the ten Best Picture candidates, and before the producers of those films even have a chance to congratulate themselves, the story will become which movie didn't get nominated: Up, or Away We Go, or Night at the Museum 2: Another Night at the Museum. No one will much care who did get nominated, because when you're throwing a party that big, the most interesting part is who wasn't invited.

And then by the night of the Big Dance, no one east of Nikki Finke will even be able to remember which ten movies are up for the top prize. Every single person watching the awards ceremony will say to themselves, at least once, "That got nominated? No way." There will be no attendance bounce for any of the nominees. And even the winner will end up being screwy, because when you have people voting from a slate of ten names, the winner is going to be the movie favored by something like 19 percent of the voters. Well, I guess it couldn't be any worse than Crash.

I give this thing two years, tops.

I Want You Back

It's hard to overstate what the Jackson 5 meant to Motown when they signed with the label in 1969. The Four Tops, the Supremes, the Miracles, all were getting long in the tooth, and had one Top Ten hit left among them after 1970 (the Tops' "Ain't No Woman [Like the One I've Got]" from 1973). Holland-Dozier-Holland had long since left. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were both itching to create their own music, free from the Motown corporate constraints.

So when the Jackson 5 came along, everyone instinctively knew that this was the next generation of Motown stars. Diana Ross was installed as their official patron, and a writing-producing team called the Corporation was created to shepherd their music. The Corporation was a group of four gentlemen, one of them Motown founder Berry Gordy, who had long since left behind his hands-on in-studio duties. He had co-written "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops" for Jackie Wilson and "Money" for Barrett Strong, but that seemed like a long time ago, and one could be forgiven for wondering if Gordy still had his chops.

Till the Jackson 5 took over the world. Their first single, "I Want You Back," went to Number One in January 1970. Their next single, "ABC," also went to Number One. Their next single, "The Love You Save," also went to Number One. The one after that, "I'll Be There," also went to Number One. That brings us to 1971. The Jackson 5 were so good, and so popular, that MGM had a bunch of Mormons from Utah do a note-for-note imitation of the Jackson 5, and that went to Number One, too.

At the end of 1970, Michael Jackson was eleven years old, and if he had never done another thing in the world of music, he'd still be a legend. Say, say say what you want about his personal life, but those Jackson 5 records sound as fresh and exciting today as they ever did, as any pop records ever did. All the little birdies down on Jaybird Street loved to hear the robin going tweet, tweet, tweet.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

But Now, It's Up to Us, Babe

One more note on Elton John: Has any major pop-music figure done more projects with other stars throughout his career? We talked about his work with John Lennon, but it's been basically a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer a year for ol' Reg Dwight. I'm sure my list is incomplete, but I have compiled a pretty extensive list of notable Elton sidemen:

Beach Boys Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston (plus Toni Tennille), doing backup vocals on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," 1974

Dusty Springfield, backing vocals on "The Bitch Is Back," 1974

John Lennon, guitar on "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," 1974

Jackson Browne: Elton played piano (as Rockaday Johnny) on "Redneck Friend," 1974

Kiki Dee, co-vocalist on "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," 1976

Pete Townshend, acoustic guitar on "Ball and Chain," 1982

Stevie Wonder, harmonica on "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," 1983

Millie Jackson(!), backing vocals on "Act of War," 1985

Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight, plus Stevie again, on "That's What Friends Are For," 1985

Cliff Richard, backing vocals on "Slow Rivers," 1986

Aretha Franklin, co-vocalist on "Through the Storm," 1989

George Michael, co-vocalist on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," 1991

Sting: Elton played piano (as Nancy Treadway) on his cover of "Come Down in Time," 1991

Eric Clapton, guitar on "Runaway Train," 1992

Rick Astley (plus Kiki Dee again), backing vocals on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," 1994

Luciano Pavarotti, "Live Like Horses," 1996

Leann Rimes, co-vocalist on "Written in the Stars," 1999

Eminem, co-vocalist on "Stan" at the 2001 Grammys

Joss Stone, co-vocalist on "Calling It Christmas," 2007

The Killers: Elton played on their 2008 single "Joseph, Better You Than Me"

The George Michael single was actually from Elton's Duets album, on which he also paired up with k.d. lang, P.M. Dawn, Little Richard, Don Henley, Kiki Dee (again), Chris Rea, Tammy Wynette, Nik Kershaw, Gladys Knight (again), RuPaul, Marcella Detroit, Paul Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Leonard Cohen (!).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Public Service Announcement

I had reason to be in the car very early this morning, Sunday morning, and of course I was listening to the radio. As the clock turned over to 6:00 a.m., every station on the dial seemed to switch over to either public affairs programming or infomercials. I have nine FM music stations on my presets and two AM music stations, and the only music I could find on any of them was England Dan and John Ford Coley's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight."

Now I ask you, how is that serving the public?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Long-Dead Threads

We'd like to welcome a new reader to OPC, one who goes by the name of Alex and has been posting some choice comments in threads that are so dead Vincent Price is doing the voiceover for them. To this item on Warren Zevon, Alex contributed the following personal reminiscence:

Some friends of mine were apartment managers at the building where Warren lived. They used to run into him sometimes in the halls and he was always extremely friendly (and I think brought them cookies one Christmas).

After they told me this, I checked the directory outside the front door the next time I visited (it's one of those buildings where the buzzer to the front door is keyed to people's phone lines) and sure enough the last name listed was "Zevon." I almost called to say how much I admired his music, then decided he deserved his privacy, peace, and quiet.

I'm still not sure it was the right decision...

Then there's this one, as I was wondering whatever happened to Mal Evans:

Mal also managed Joey Molland's short-lived post-Badfinger band Natural Gas (whose only album was produced by Felix Pappalardi, who was shot and killed by his wife in 1983). Talk about a confluence of the doomed!

Of course we love the Beatles and Badfinger around here, so that kind of thing is much appreciated. Felix Pappalardi was the bassist for Mountain and the producer for Cream and was a totally different person from Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals, as I often have to remind myself. Pappalardi's wife, Gail Collins, is a totally different person from the Gail Collins who runs the New York Times editorial page, and co-wrote "Strange Brew" for Cream. She shot Felix in the neck at their Upper East Side apartment on April 17th, 1983, but claimed it was an accident. She was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and ended up serving just over 18 months. For killing a guy!

Thanks, Alex!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What's Going On?

Near the beginning of "Let's Get It On," Marvin Gaye points out, "We're all sensitive people." Now, Marvin had a tendency to be a bit out there, so I wouldn't put anything past him. But I'm very curious as to why this line isn't "We're both sensitive people." Just what exactly was he proposing here?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Clive Scott, 1945-2009

Clive Scott, the singer-songwriter-keyboardist genius behind the Jigsaw hit "Sky High," has died at the age of 64. Yes, he passed away last month, so I'm very late on this, but how many blogs are even going to mention his passing at all?

Jigsaw had been kicking around the U.K. since 1966 without making any headway on the pop charts, gaining a reputation as a strong live act and backing up the likes of Arthur "Sweet Soul Music" Conley. On the recommendation of their manager, Scott and his songwriting partner in Jigsaw, Des Dyer, the band's drummer, decided to try for a poppier sound and came out with a little gem called "Who Do You Think You Are." Jigsaw's version went nowhere, but Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods made it the followup to their Number One hit "Billy, Don't Be a Hero" and took it to Number Fifteen in the summer of '74.

Despite the success of the cover, Jigsaw was promptly dropped from their label. So the boys began recording on Splash, a label started by their own manager, and almost immediately hit big with "Sky High," which went all the way to Number Three in the fall of 1975. They had one more Top Forty hit, "Love Fire" in the spring of 1976, then that was it for Jigsaw.

Clive Scott's last words were: "The guys from Pilot live on."

Sunday, June 14, 2009

I Got the Blues

I have long had an aversion to white people playing the blues, and it has taken me a long time to figure out why. For one thing, the blues is far from my favorite style of music; what I most respond to is songwriting - chord changes, lyrics and melody - and blues songs tend to be fairly repetitive. Blues aficionados listen for vocal performance, which I quite like, and instrumental pyrotechnics, which ain't my cup of meat.

But you get Muddy Waters playing the blues, and that sounds pretty good. You hear the ache and desperation in both the singing and the playing, the pain of being a big music star and still having to paint the ceiling of the Chess studio. You don't get that with white people. White people aren't oppressed enough. Especially the ones who choose to sing the blues - they're too happy to sing the blues. Muddy sang the blues because he had no choice; white people sing the blues because they like to.

Sure, you get your occasional Allman Brothers, scraggly white trash from the non-Atlanta parts of Georgia, who are downtrodden enough for this music. If you shoot yourself in the foot on your eighteenth birthday to get out of going to Vietnam, then you really might know what it's like to have the blues. Or if you're as much of a mess as Janis Joplin was.

Yeah, I know, Eric Clapton playing "Crossroads," but at that velocity and volume, it's turned the corner from blues into heavy metal. What you usually get when white people play the blues is more like Jonny Lang's "Anything Is Possible," which only could have been written by a white person. When you got no job and no money and your woman done left you, very little is possible. I advise switching to power pop.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Elton and John

While I was researching yesterday's item on Elton John, I was struck by how serious his relationship with John Lennon was. Everyone knows that Elton sang backup on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," but there was a lot more to it than that.

The two of them met during Lennon's Lost Weekend in Los Angeles, at the time when Elton was becoming the biggest pop star in the world. Elton then popped into the studio while Lennon was making Walls and Bridges in the summer of 1974, and sang harmony and played piano on "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night." Elton loved the song and told Lennon it would be a big hit. When Lennon demurred, Elton got him to promise that if and when it hit Number One, he would appear onstage to sing it with Elton as a duet.

The pair had already recorded Elton's cover of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," which would come out as a non-album single in December 1974. Initially, Elton just invited Lennon up to Colorado's Caribou Recording Studio to watch him cut the track, but Lennon was so impressed with the little ska movement in the middle that he wanted to play guitar on it. Supposedly, he had forgotten the chords - and you know what, I believe it, since it would have been a good seven years since Lennon would have played the song - and had Davey Johnstone show him what they were. In the end, the song carried a credit of "with the reggae guitars of Dr. Winston O'Boogie."

"Whatever Gets You Thru the Night" came out in early October, and went to Number One on November 14, 1974. Elton John was near the end of his tour then, so he arranged to have Lennon appear at the final night, on Thanksgiving at Madison Square Garden. Elton asked him to do "Imagine," but John didn't want to trot out old hits like he was Frank Sinatra, so they settled on "Whatever," "Lucy in the Sky," and "I Saw Her Standing There." This, by the way, would be the last time John Lennon appeared on a concert stage. Unbeknownst to John, Yoko was in the audience; as the story goes, they reconnected at a party after the show, and the Lost Weekend was duly ended.

"Lucy in the Sky" was the first Number One hit of 1975. By then, John and Yoko were back together, and on October 9, 1975, John's 35th birthday, Sean Ono Lennon was born. John asked Elton to be Sean's godfather, in recognition of the role he had played in reuniting him with Yoko. However, John later admitted that since Elton was gay and would not likely produce any natural heirs, he figured it wouldn't hurt to have Sean in position to inherit the "Crocodile Rock" fortune. Good thinking.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Anyway, the Thing Is, What I Really Mean...

It has become kind of a truism that any music released by Elton John after 1976 wasn't worth the wax it was distributed on, as we discussed in the comments section a few weeks ago. And sure enough, Elton's last single released in 1976 was "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word," while the first in 1977 was "Bite Your Lip (Get up and dance!)," complete with the wonky Euro-capitalization on the parenthetical, according to Whitburn.

So what happened at the end of the Bicentennial Year? Let's take a look at some possibilities:

* For one thing, Elton turned thirty on March 25, 1977, exactly 23 years to the date before the birth of unofficial OPC adjunct Mark Nawrocki. Lots of rock & roll stars lose a bit of their mojo around this time. Dion never had another hit after he turned thirty.

* After Blue Moves came out in October 1976, Elton didn't release another album until A Single Man a full two years later. ("Bite Your Lip" was Blue Moves' second single.) At a concert shortly after Blue Moves came out, Elton said from the stage, "That's it, this is the last one." In November 1977, he formally announced his retirement. (It didn't take.)

* Bernie Taupin left Elton's side after Blue Moves, and did not return until the duo worked together on some songs for 1980's The Fox. Bernie would go on to write the lyrics for the Starship's "We Built This City," about which the less said the better.

* Disco reared its ugly head starting in 1976, and by the time Elton made his return in 1978, the Bee Gees had taken over the charts. Elton's dalliances with disco, from the single "Ego" to his work with Thom Bell, were rather unfortunate.

So if you look at everything that was going on, it would be remarkable if Elton John were able to carry on with as much proficiency after 1976 as he had before then. He still had a hefty thirty-nine post-'76 Top Forty hits, which is more than you've had.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Only a Motion Away

Graceland seemed like something totally new for Paul Simon when it came out in 1986, but if you listen to that opening itchy guitar figure on 1972's "Mother and Child Reunion," it sounds an awful lot like it could be on that later album. It's not totally dissimilar to the guitar part for "Gumboots."

"Mother and Child Reunion" was recorded in Jamaica with a bunch of reggae musicians, and the guitarist was a guy named Hucks Brown, who had been in Toots and the Maytals. It's probably not much of a stretch from Jamaican reggae to South African mbaqanga.

Hey, that's not really enough information to sustain a full item, is it? How about this: Do you know where the titled "Mother and Child Reunion" came from? It was an entry on a menu at a Chinese restaurant that Simon was eating at in lower Manhattan - specifically, Say Eng Look in Chinatown. "Mother and child reunion" refers to a dish with chicken and eggs - which is kind of sad and gross, if you ask me.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

This Post Has No Title

I figure the practice of giving songs titles that have nothing to do with the lyrics is a way of keeping some street cred, of distancing yourself from easy pop worship by casual fans. If you want to know what's going on with a band that gives its songs obscure names, you can't just hear them on the radio; you've got to buy the album , or at least download some of it. The true fans will be into the band enough to recognize that the song's real title is "Sliver," and they get to laugh at the Johnny-come-latelies who start screaming for "Grandma Take Me Home."

I think Led Zeppelin was the first well-known, major band to give songs those kinds of titles regularly: "Black Dog," "D'yer Mak'er," etc. I have been reliably assured that "Kashmir" doesn't quite fall into this category.

At the same time, though, the mighty Zep would haul out the occasional "Stairway to Heaven" or "Whole Lotta Love," where it would be pretty unmistakable which song you were talking about. Near as I can tell, it was New Order that took this to the next level: Hardly any New Order song titles reflect what's in the lyrics. "Blue Monday"? "True Faith"? What has that got to do with anything? I am a New Order fan, and I have to occasionally remind myself which song is which, although not with the titanic "Bizarre Love Triangle."

And it's pretty ridiculous. Why can't they just give us a name that we can quickly associate with the song? Some really good bands do a lot of this kind of thing these days, like Radiohead or the Shins, and it's time for them to cut it out. You know what the Beatles called that song that went "Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be"? Coldplay would have called it "Armored Arrow," but the Beatles called it "Let It Be."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Guess Who Quit

Back in 1965, a band out of Winnipeg called Chad Allan and the Expressions recorded a cover of "Shakin' All Over" that went to Number Twenty-Two on the U.S. charts. That same band went on to record six Top Ten hits, and became the first Canadian band to have a Number One hit in the United States.

If you've never heard of Chad Allan and the Expressions, there's a reason for that. The Expressions cut their cover of the old Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song (later torched by the Who on Live at Leeds) early in '65, and as a publicity stunt, their label, Scepter, put out the single with a label that just read "Guess Who?" When it came time to release an album, with "Shakin All Over" as the title track, the record was by then credited to "Guess Who? Chad Allan and the Expressions."

As you can imagine, folks found this mighty confusing, and not just Canadians. Pretty much everyone started calling the band Guess Who?, rather than Chad Allan and the Expressions. For the band's second album, Hey Ho (What You Do to Me), the crediting remained the same, but by the time of the third one, It's Time, they were down to merely Guess Who?

And guess who it wasn't: Chad Allan. The band had brought in Burton Cummings after that second album, and Allan, who was the band's vocalist and co-guitarist with Randy Bachman, started to develop throat problems in 1966. He also hated traveling, so he quit the band, and eventually was given the job of hosting a CBC music show called Let's Go. The house band was the Guess Who.

Randy Bachman left the Guess Who in 1970 to form a band called Brave Belt, and when he couldn't find anyone to play with him, Chad Allan volunteered. But Allan quit, again, after the first Brave Belt album, and after the second Brave Belt album, Brave Belt II, the band changed its name to Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

Oh, and the Guess Who finally lost that question mark by the their 1968 album Wheatfield Soul. Since they didn't return to the American charts until 1969's "These Eyes," Chad Allan and the Expressions and the Guess Who both had an American hit, but the Guess Who? never did.

Monday, June 1, 2009


There were a couple more notes I wanted to throw out here on all that one-hit stuff I've been doing. I want to thank everyone who suggested songs to write about, even though I didn't use most of them. I'm not sure how much of a purist to be about these things, but I decided to disallow any artist who had a second Top Forty hit, like Michael Sembello, who went to Number One with "Maniac," but also hit with something called "Automatic Man," which went to Number Thirty-Four in the fall of 1983. I really wanted to write about the Toys' "A Lover's Concerto" or Jimmy Soul's "If You Wanna Be Happy," but I had to deal with "Attack" (Number Eighteen in very early 1966) and "Twistin' Matilda" (Number Twenty-Two in the spring of 1962), respectively, even though no one has heard either of those songs in forty years.

I did find out that the S.O.S. Band, which went to Number Three in 1980 with "Take Your Time (Do It Right) Part 1," had a drummer named James Earl Jones III, although I don't think he's related to the real James Earl Jones. The Seventies disco group Silver Convention was almost a two-hit wonder: "Fly, Robin, Fly" went to Number One late in 1975, then "Get Up and Boogie" stalled out at Number Two (for three weeks!) in the late spring of 1976. Those were Silver Convention's only hits; I'm pretty sure no act has had two Number One hits and no other Top Forty action.

Incidentally, Whitburn lists "Fly, Robin, Fly" as an instrumental, but "Get Up and Boogie" as a non-instrumental. A few weeks ago, Gavin pointed out that a lot of instrumentals actually have their titles as their only lyric, like "Tequila" or "The Hustle" (yes, there's a "do" in there as well). It would seem a reasonable cutoff to me to call something an instrumental if it had virtually no words beyond its title, but of course "Fly, Robin, Fly" also says "up, up to the sky" in there. Surely, a topic for further investigation.

I also found a terrifying piece of video when researching "Lovin' You." It's a talk show featuring Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Pryor and Minnie Riperton, which really would be enough in and of itself, but you also get to see Minnie get attacked by a lion. And Richard imitates Minnie giving birth, but seriously, guys, this video shows MINNIE RIPERTON BEING ATTACKED BY A LION.

Friday, May 29, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Mickey," by Toni Basil

Everybody loved Sweet, the British boys who turned the corner from glam to power pop with "Ballroom Blitz" and "Little Willy." The masterminds behind Sweet were the writing/producing team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. When Sweet decided they wanted a harder-edged sound, they turned away from Chinn and Chapman, who went on to write "Stumblin' In" for Suzi "Leather Tuscadero" Quatro and "Kiss You All Over" for Exile.

The duo also wrote a song for a British pop combo named Racey, called "Kitty," released on the 1979 album Smash and Grab. Racey had a few hits in England, but nothing over here in the U.S.

But let's leave Racey for the moment and take the story back to 1961 and over to Las Vegas, where Louis Basil has recently moved his family from Chicago in order to become the bandleader for the house orchestra at the Sahara Hotel, and his daughter Toni (born Antonia Basilotta) is about to graduate from Las Vegas High School, where she has been head cheerleader. "There's nothing better than being head cheerleader, let me tell you," she said last year, and I don't doubt her for a second. Toni's mom was in Wells & the Four Fays, an acrobatic comedy act that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as the Beatles.

After leaving high school, Toni headed to Los Angeles, and by 1964, she had landed a job as an assistant choreographer on a new pop-music show called Shindig. (One of her dancers, who became a good friend, was Teri Garr.) Toni appeared as a go-go dancer in the 1964 film The T.A.M.I. Show, which led to appearances in such movies as Head, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. In 1966, she cut a single, the title song to the experimental film Breakaway, in which she also danced. (It's not the same song as the later Art Garfunkel classic.) Breakaway has been removed from all the customary Internet outlets, so I haven't seen it, but I have it on good authority that Toni appears very naked in it.

In the early 1970s, Basil worked with David Bowie on his Diamond Dogs tour, but left that behind for a while to found and dance with a street troupe called the Lockers, who generally consisted of five or six black dudes (including the late Fred "Rerun" Berry) and Toni Basil. The Lockers got a slot dancing on one of the first episodes of Saturday Night Live, then, for reasons that remain obscure to me, Toni was asked back later in the first season to sing a song called "Wham Re-Bop Boom Bam." She didn't have an album out, or a single, and as far as I can tell, she hadn't sung professionally since 1966. Go figure.

Later on, she conceived and choreographed a short film, directed by Gary Weis, for SNL that featured members of the Lockers dancing Swan Lake with some ballerinas. Toni wanted to do, for her next video, something with cheerleaders dancing and chanting, coincidentally right about the same time that a British label exec named Simon Lait met her in Los Angeles and thought he could turn her into a pop star. Lait went to his friend Nicky Chinn to see if he could get a song for his fledgling star, and Chinn suggested "Kitty."

Basil liked the song and thought it would work even better with the cheerleaders' chant appended on to it. (The cheerleaders were from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, class of '81.) She changed the title to "Mickey," both because it rhymed with "Kitty" and because she had developed a crush on Micky Dolenz while making Head. None of the other lyrics were changed, so "Any way you wanna do it, I'll take it like a man" had a different, less racy meaning in the Racey version. Basil recorded the song in 1980 and directed the video, in which she appeared in the same cheerleaders' outfit she wore back at Las Vegas High School. (She is very proud to say that she still, to this day, at the age of 65, fits into that uniform.)

When the BBC saw the video, it asked Basil to make her own TV special around it. That helped push "Mickey" to Number Two in the U.K.; the single was released here on October 5, 1982, around the same time as her album Word of Mouth (I have had a very hard time tracking down the release date for the album), which featured a couple of Devo covers and several members of Devo playing on it. (Toni was involved with Devo bassist and designer Jerry Casale at the time.) "Mickey" immediately leapt into the Top Forty the first week it was released, and on December 11, 1982, it replaced Lionel Richie's "Truly" as the Number One song in America.

Toni released a second album, Toni Basil, in 1983, with three more Devo covers, but none of them made any kind of a splash, although "Over My Head" won an MTV Video Award. Basil went back to her day job, choreographing David Byrne's herky-jerky dance for the "Once in a Lifetime" video and those great Gap commercials with all that bossa nova style dancing in them. (She has estimated that, since 1982, "Mickey" has earned her the grand sum of $3,000 in royalties.) She's now choreographing Bette Midler's Las Vegas revue.

I can't find the original cheerleading version of "Mickey" online, although Toni will have you know it's in the Musuem of Modern Art. But this is a mini-documentary synced up to that video, and it'll do:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "The Worst That Could Happen," by the Brooklyn Bridge

The Crests were one of the few interracial doo-wop groups of the 1950s, consisting of two black men, a black woman, a Puerto Rican man and an Italian man. The black woman was Patricia Vandross, Luther's big sister; the Italian dude was Johnny Maestro. "Johnny Maestro" is the fakest-sounding name I have ever come across; I'd sooner believe someone was born "Tre Cool" than "Johnny Maestro." Sure enough, he was born Johnny Mastrangelo.

Maestro was from Brooklyn, although the Crests were formed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was just 18 when the Crests got together in 1957, and they had a local hit almost out of the box with "My Juanita." In 1958 they recorded the immortal "Sixteen Candles," which was a monster, going to Number Two on the pop charts early in 1959. (Appropriately enough, it was on the Coed label.) The Crests followed that up with four more Top Thirty hits by the summer of 1960, at which time Johnny Maestro, still only 21, decided to go solo.

Billed as "Johnny Maestro, The Voice of the Crests," Johnny had two quick Top Forty hits in 1961, "Model Girl" and "What a Surprise," neither of which is remembered much today. His solo career apparently fell on hard times at that point; he had no more chart action. By 1967, a vocal group called the Del-Satins - whose claim to fame was backing up Dion after he cashiered the Belmonts, although they had no hits of their own - ran into Johnny Maestro at a gym in New York City and asked him to become their lead singer. Johnny agreed.

This didn't turn around the Del-Satins' fortunes, however, and in 1968, they found themselves playing in a Battle of the Bands in New York City. Another group in the competition was a seven-man brass outfit called the Rhythm Method. They decided to join forces, this four-man vocal group with a big horn band, and call themselves the Brooklyn Bridge.

At this point, our story shifts to the West Coast, where the 5th Dimension, in the summer of 1967, are recording their album The Magic Garden. After having their first big hit earlier that year with "Up, Up and Away," written by the brilliant Oklahoman Jimmy Webb, they turned the entirety of their next album over to Webb, still just 21, with the exception of a cover of "Ticket to Ride." It didn't really work; the LP spawned two minor hits, "Paper Cup" (which went to Number 34) and "Carpet Man" (Number 29).

It also included a song called "The Worst That Could Happen," another in the series of songs Webb wrote about his doomed love affair with a woman named Susan; other entries included "MacArthur Park" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." In fact, Mariyln McCoo called The Magic Garden "Susan's record." "The Worst" followed Susan to her wedding to another man, one who makes her "more safe, more sane and more secure." Given all of Webb's obsessing over his breakup with Susan, I believe the "sane" part.

Back in New York, the Brooklyn Bridge had been given two songs by Buddah Records to cut as singles, but no one was very happy with them. Johnny Maestro happened to listen to the new 5th Dimension album, and thought "Worst That Could Happen" might work for them. They recorded it, and it ended up being the leadoff single for their debut album, Brooklyn Bridge, released late in 1968.

"The Worst That Could Happen" entered the Top Forty in the first week of 1969. It eventually soared as high as Number Three. The Brooklyn Bridge released its second album, The Second Brooklyn Bridge, later that year, but singles like "Your Husband, My Wife" failed to recapture that "Worst That Could Happen" magic. Near as I can figure, they never covered another Jimmy Webb song, to their detriment. Let this be a listen to you, all you musicians out there: Cover Jimmy Webb songs.

This is already a really long item, so since hardly any of you are likely to have made it this far, I wanted to editorialize a bit and say that this entry turned out to be a great story, didn't it? I chose this song because I didn't have another single from the Sixties, I knew this had turned into an oldies-radio staple, and Johnny Maestro is always a cool name to write. But I had no idea that "Sixteen Candles" and Jimmy Webb and Luther Vandross' sister were involved. Every single one of these one-hit wonders I research ends up having a compelling story behind it, rich in detail, except maybe Pilot's "Magic," and at least with that one I found out that those guys were in an early version of the Bay City Rollers. I'd love to do a whole book of them.

The Brooklyn Bridge lasted for a total of four albums on Buddah, although on the last one they changed their name to the Bridge. They reconvened in 1989 to put out a Christmas EP (!), and they've been a standard on PBS oldies shows pretty much ever since. Somewhere along the line they slimmed down to a five-man group, all of whom sang and played instruments, and changed the name to Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite the fact that he had hits in the Fifties, Johnny Maestro just turned 70 a couple of weeks ago. Shoot, Jimmy Webb is only 62. He wrote "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (originally done by our old friend Johnny Rivers) when he was 19.

It appears that there used to be a contemporaneous video for this song on YouTube that has been removed for copyright reasons. And hey, you guys have heard "The Worst That Could Happen" a billion times already anyway. So here's an old video for the Bridge's follow-up, "Blessed Is the Rain," complete with a wrong title on the chromakey:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Love Is Strange," by Mickey and Sylvia

It all goes back, as so many things do, to Bo Diddley. Bo wrote and recorded "Love Is Strange," although the guitar lick had been composed by Jody Williams, who played with Bo, for an instrumental called "Billy's Blues." Bo took that lick, put it together with his own parts, and had himself a tune. In the ways of pop songs in the 1950s, though, Diddley couldn't take the songwriting credit because of a legal dispute, and there was no way he was giving it to Williams, so "Love Is Strange" went down on record as being written by Ethel Smith, Bo's wife.

I'm not sure when Bo cut his version of "Love Is Strange," whether it was a single, or B-side, or what, but that track did end up on I'm a Man: The Chess Masters 1955-1958, his 2007 box set. I do know that Bo and Jody Williams were playing it on tour in 1956, and one of the other acts on that tour was Mickey and Sylvia.

Raised in an orphanage in Kentucky, MacHouston "Mickey" Baker ran away to New York City at the age of 16. There he worked as a pool shark for a while before picking up a guitar at a pawnshop. He taught himself to play jazz on it but soon realized the bluesmen were the ones making the real money. By the mid-1950s, Baker was the lead session guitarist for Atlantic Records as well as on the Savoy and King labels.

He also taught guitar, and one of his students was a singer named Sylvia Vanderpool. Sylvia supposedly cut her first record at the age of 14, in 1950, and was signed to the Cat label as "Little Sylvia" when she met Mickey. Mickey, cognizant of the success of Les Paul and Mary Ford, asked her to form a musical duo with him. (Rumor has it that Mickey wanted them be a combo in more ways than one, but Sylvia rebuffed him.)

Their first single (I think we're in 1954 at this point) was on that Cat label, "Fine Love" b/w "Speedy Life"; they were billed as by "Little" Sylvia Vanderpool and Mickey Baker and His Band. Then they moved on to the Rainbow label and released three singles as Mickey and Sylvia in 1955. That apparently landed them the slot on the Diddley tour.

According to Dave Marsh, Bo didn't want to record "Love Is Strange" at all because of a war with his publishers, so when Mickey and Sylvia expressed interest in the song, he went ahead and gave it to them. On October 17, 1956, Mickey and Sylvia went into a studio and laid down the song with the drummer Bernard Purdie, making his recording debut. Producer Bob Rolontz overdubbed and overdubbed the guitars, and by the end of the day, Mickey and Sylvia had another single.

By the time Mickey and Sylvia got done with the song, it didn't sound much like Bo Diddley. The blues guitar contrasted nicely with M&S' harmonies, but it was the spoken-word passage - which had been a gruff call and response in Bo's version - that really made it special. "Love Is Strange" hit the Top Forty on January 12, 1957, and went as high as Number Eleven on the pop charts. It spent two weeks at Number One on the R&B chart.

Mickey apparently hated touring and the high life associated with being a pop star. M&S had a few more R&B hits, but in 1959, Mickey decided to break up the group. After a few more years of session work and a single billed to "Mickey and Kitty," Baker split for France in 1962 and went back to playing mostly jazz. Sylvia married a gentleman named Joe Robinson in 1964, and the two of them started a strong of indie labels in New Jersey: All Platinum, Stang, Turbo and Vibration.

In 1973, Sylvia offered a song called "Pillow Talk," which she had co-written, to Al Green, but the Reverend Al turned it down as too risque. So Sylvia recorded it herself, for her own Vibration label, and it turned out to be a huge smash, going to Number Three on the pop charts and spending two weeks at Number One on the R&B charts, just like "Love Is Strange" had 16 years earlier. Then, Sylvia pulled off a third act in 1979 when she herded a group of rappers into the studio and christened them the Sugarhill Gang.

Like Sylvia, "Love Is Strange" resurrected itself as well when it appeared in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, as lip-synced by Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. They were supposedly just goofing around in rehearsal, miming the famous spolen-word bridge, but director Emile Ardolino had the cameras rolling, and liked it so much he kept it in the final cut. By 1987, that eerie guitar still sounded futuristic.

Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Paul McCartney & Wings and Peaches and Herb all covered "Love Is Strange," as did, of course, Bo Diddley, at some point. None of them sounded as good as Mickey and Sylvia. There's no video from them; I can't find anything on YouTube showing M&S performing at all. But you can at least listen to it:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Lovin' You," by Minnie Riperton

The youngest of eight children, Minnie Riperton was recognized early on as a vocal prodigy, and she received serious operatic training while growing up in her hometown of Chicago. But the pop world called as well, and at age 15, Minnie joined a singing group called the Gems. While they didn't have any hit records, the Gems became well-known in Chicago, and before long they were a sought-after troupe of studio singers. Minnie reportedly cut high school to go do recording sessions for ten bucks a pop. After high school, she went to work as a receptionist at Chess Records, and she supposedly backed up people like Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Etta James at Chess sessions, but I don't know for sure that that's true.

Riperton eventually met a songwriter/producer named Billy Davis (not the one who married Marilyn McCoo), who had written "Rescue Me" for Fontella Bass. (The Gems did the backing vocals on that one.) Calling herself Andrea Davis, Minnie cut a single, "Lonely Girl," which was a local hit, then became the singer for a kind of psychedelic prog group called Rotary Connection, which had been put together by Marshall Chess, Leonard Chess' son. Still just 19 when she joined up, Riperton stayed with Rotary Connection for three years and five albums.

One songwriter that Rotary Connection worked with was a young man named Richard Rudolph, and when Minnie went to record her first solo album, Come to My Garden, in 1971, she brought along Rudolph to write most of the lyrics. They also got married. Future Earth, Wind and Fire-meister Maurice White played drums on the album, but it didn't go anywhere.

With her solo career not exactly gaining traction, Riperton kept on working as a backup singer, which led her to Stevie Wonder. She joined Wonderlove, Stevie's troupe of background singers, in 1973, and sang on his album Fulfillingness' First Finale. In turn, Stevie coproduced (with Richard Rudolph, under the nom de guerre Scorbu Productions) Minnie's second solo album, Perfect Angel, and wrote the title track and another song, "Take a Little Trip." (The other seven songs were all written by Riperton and Rudolph.) Stevie played piano, too, under the name El Toro Negro.

Epic released three singles from the album, including "Take a Little Trip," but none of them charted. The label was about to give up when Rudolph persuaded them to try one more single, "Lovin' You," which had initially been sung as a lullaby to Minnie's daughter, Maya. Maya, a year and a half old at the time, was there in the studio when her mother cut the track, and is name-checked on the outro.

"Lovin' You" was released in January 1975, and crashed the Top Forty on February 15. It reached the top of the chart on April 5, staying at Number One for a single week.

Minnie's follow-up album, Adventures in Paradise, spawned a Top Five R&B hit in "Inside My Love," but contained no pop hits. It was apparently around this time that Riperton discovered she had cancer. In 1976, she went on The Tonight Show and told guest host Flip Wilson - who had no prior knowledge of the situation - that she was suffering from breast cancer and had undergone a mastectomy. My guess is that he flipped.

Riperton continued to make records while also becoming a spokeswoman for cancer awareness. President Carter gave her the American Cancer Society's Courage Award; she was named that organization's national education chair. Though the spreading cancer had immobilized her right arm, she continued to sing on TV; there's a clip of her with Mike Douglas in which she hardly moves, but seems in good spirits. Her final album, Minnie, came out early in 1979 and went to Number 29 on the pop album charts. In what would be her final TV appearance, she appeared on The Merv Griffin Show on July 6th of that year. Six days later, in her husband's arms and with a song Stevie Wonder had written for her playing in the background, Minnie Riperton died at the age of 31. Maya Rudolph turned seven a couple of weeks later.

Those ridiculously high notes Minnie hits are known as the whistle register, and while a fair number of singers can hit them, Minnie was one of the few who could sing in those tones. She had a five-and-a-half-octave range. “I’ve met only three people who had a truly wonderful voice and spirit to match," Stevie Wonder said many years after Riperton's death. "My first wife Syreeta, Minnie Riperton and Mariah.” Here's the second of those two on The Midnight Special:

Monday, May 25, 2009

One-Hit Wonder Week: "Come On Eileen," by Dexys Midnight Runners

Kevin Rowland was a hairdresser in late 1970s London, trying to break into the music biz, when he formed his first band, Lucy and the Lovers, supposedly influenced by Roxy Music. They released a single, which didn't go anywhere, so Rowland broke up that band and started a punk group called the Killjoys, which cut a few singles and even appeared on the BBC's legendary Peel Sessions.

Rowland used his hairdressing skills to give the other dudes punk dos, but they still hated him. Band members kept dropping in and out - at one point, a guitarist named Kevin Archer joined up, but Rowland insisted he be called "Al Archer" so there would only be one Kevin in the band. The Killjoys got offered a contract but Rowland rejected it, because it was only for a series of singles, not an album, which pissed off the other members. After 18 months, before they ever put an LP together, the Killjoys broke up.

Rowland then decided that Irish soul was the next big thing, so he and Archer assembled a band complete with a horn section called Dexys [sic] Midnight Runners, named after Dexedrine. Their first single, "Dance Stance," flopped, but the second one, "Geno," a tribute to a soul singer named Geno Washington, went all the way to Number One in the U.K. in May 1980. By the end of the year, they had put out a debut album with the preposterous title Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, but still, everyone quit the band in short order, with the exception of the trombonist.

Rowland soldiered on, assembling an almost entirely new group under the Dexy brand. He also began a practice of rigorous exercise, expecting all the band members to go running together and to do group calisthenics before shows. He also changed their look from what he called "straight out of De Niro's Mean Streets" to hoodies and boxing boots. This incarnation put out a couple of singles in 1981, but before 1982 dawned, Rowland changed direction again.

The new Dexys added a trio of Irish fiddlers and began dressing like down-at-the-heels farmers from somewhere outside Wexford. They released an album called Too-Rye-Ay, and although the first single flopped, the second was "Come On Eileen." Released in the U.S very early in 1983, it became an MTV staple, in large part due to the enormous appeal of "Eileen" (portrayed by the sister of one of the girls in Bananarama), who appeared clad in overalls with nothing underneath. This vision was only partially negated by repeated shots of Rowland's armpits. Legend has it that the drummer, very visible in the daylight parts of the shoot, had been fired by the time they finished the video that night. I believe it.

"Come On Eileen" entered the Top Forty on February 26, 1983, and hit Number One on April 23rd. It stayed there for only a single week, sandwiched between Michael Jackson's twin colossi "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." The followup single was a cover of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said," which was a Top Ten hit in the U.K. but did nothing here. Not only did Dexys never return to the Top Forty here, but apparently they never even made it back to the Hot 100.

Dexys' followup to Too-Rye-Ay, Don't Stand Me Down, didn't come out till 1985, with the band (now down to four members) featured on the album cover in slicked-down hair and business suits. Ever the artiste, Rowland refused to release a single from the album - until it became apparent that the album, which was critically panned, wasn't going to sell anything.

Following that disaster, Rowland went solo. In 1993, he released an album of cover versions, My Beauty ("The Long and Winding Road," "Daydream Believer," etc.; he wanted to include a version of "Thunder Road" reworked with his own lyrics, but Springsteen didn't approve of the rewrite). The cover showed him in a dress, and not just in a dress but a dress pulled down to reveal his scrawny chest and hiked up to reveal a pair of black panties. It allegedly sold fewer than 500 copies. I believe it.

Dexys reunited (with which incarnation of the band, I couldn't tell you) for a tour and a greatest-hits album in 2003. Rowland recently announced he wants to go back in the studio and is looking for a record deal. Aren't we all.

But hey, "Come On Eileen" was really good. Watch out for that disappearing drummer:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Everything Is Going Wrong, but We're So Happy

It makes perfect sense to me that the Wombats' "Let Dance to Joy Division" should sound, aside from a bit of Stephen Morris-type drumming, nothing like Joy Division but an awful lot like the Cure. After all, who is it that would be going out to dance to Joy Division? Not Joy Division!

The Cure were contemporaries of Joy Division - each band released its first full-length album in 1979 - but I can certainly believe that they would be fans. Hey, look, it's a video:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Celebrity Sweepstakes

Three weeks ago, I had never heard of Jon and Kate, so when I saw them appear on the cover of Us Weekly, I had no idea who they were, although they certainly smacked of reality TV stars. I thought maybe one of them had appeared on Dancing With the Stars or something. Literally the first thing I knew about them was that Jon was accused of having a tryst at a motel. It must be a little demoralizing to have something like that be the first thing people learn about you.

Since then, I have figured out that Jon and Kate have eight kids, and that they're the stars of an unscripted show called Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Jon's adultery seems to have been confirmed - with a 23-year-old schoolteacher! - and now Kate's fidelity has been called into question, with a chauffeur. In fact, their whole marriage seems to have descended upon us from Marin County circa 1977.

That may be moot, because now Jon and Kate seem to be on the brink of divorce. The amazing thing about all of this is that this entire story has unfolded on the covers of gossip magazines that I've seen at the supermarket checkout stand. I don't know a single thing about Jon and Kate other than what's been on those covers; I've literally never touched one of those magazines, and I've never heard a word about them from anywhere else. Fortunately, since they've been on the covers of all of them lately, I've gotten a well-rounded, 3-D view of their situation.

There is so much I don't know about Jon and Kate. I don't know where they live; I don't know what network their show is on. (I did recently find out that their last name is "Gosselin.") And I'll probably never find that out; their gossip-worthiness must surely be reaching a merciful end by now. And there's no way I'm actually going to open up a copy of OK to find out.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

One-Hit Wonders, Part Three

Yesterday we left off with Lipps, Inc.'s 1980 hit "Funkytown." There were no pure one-hit wonders in 1981, not even Stars on 45, so our story resumes in the spring of 1982:

Vangelis, "Chariots of Fire," went to Number One in May 1982 Vangelis worked with Yes for several weeks in 1974 after Rick Wakeman left, but eventually decided not to join the band.

Toni Basil, "Mickey," December 1982 Basil, who started out as a choreographer on 'Shindig,' was pushing 40 when this song came out.

Dexy's Midnight Runners, "Come On Eileen," April 1983 Wikipedia lists 21 people who are former members of this band.

USA for Africa, "We Are the World," April 1985 Several members of this group did indeed have other Top Forty hits.

Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme," November 1985 More recently, Hammer did the score for the TV movie 'The Babysitter's Seduction.'

Gregory Abbott, "Shake You Down," January 1987 This to me is the most surprising entry on the list, maybe because there were eight other mid-80s R&B crooners who sounded exactly like Gregory Abbott. He was once married to Freda "Band of Gold" Payne, who is 11 years older than him.

Bobby McFerrin, "Don't Worry Be Happy," September 1988 This ascended to the top spot on the day I got married.

Sheriff, "When I'm With You," February 1989 It was recorded in 1982, and the band broke up in 1985, but for some reason a DJ started playing it in 1988.

R*S*F (Right Said Fred), "I'm Too Sexy," February 1992 Whitburn calls them R*S*F, but heaven only knows why.

Sir Mix-a-Lot, "Baby Got Back," July 1992 Sir Mix-A-Lot went on to work with the Presidents of the United States of America, but they never released any of the material they recorded.

The Heights, "How Do You Talk to an Angel," November 1992 I bet the suits at MTV figured if they could only give this wimped-out Monkees a big hit song, the show would be a long-lived sensation.

Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle, "A Whole New World (Aladdin's Theme)," March 1993 I wasn't sure how to score this one, since Peabo had other hits, but Regina never did.

Ini Kamoze, "Here Comes the Hotstepper," December 1994 How this found its way into a Robert Altman movie, I'll never understand.

And that's it, through the end of 2000. I end the list at 2000 for both practical reasons and because it's still too early to know if any acts from this decade will be shut out from future hits. Nobody really wants James Blunt to have another hit, but hey, it could happen; even Daniel Powter managed to slither his way back into the Top Forty.