Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #436: Pure ’70’s Funk! There were many quality funk groups in the ’70’s (Sly and the Family Stone, Funkadelic with George Clinton, Mandrill), but one of the most entertaining was Graham Central Station. Formed in 1972, the group’s name is take off on New York’s Grand Central Station. The group was led by Larry Graham, who left Sly and the Family Stone and met up with Neil Schon (guitarist from Santana who went on to form Journey), drummer Gregg Errico and keyboardist Pete Sears from Jefferson Starship. Graham is credited with inventing the “slapping” technique on the bass guitar, which expands it’s tonal range, and it has been emulated by many a funk and rock musician since. Graham was born in Beaumont, Texas; his parents were successful musicians, so his route to the music industry was pretty much preordained. He collaborated with Prince on several albums and often used the Tower of Power horn section to accompany his group. He became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1975, and he often blends gospel into his funk repertoire. Graham’s career is still going strong, at 71 he still tours with reconstituted versions of Graham Central Station as well as a solo act. Younger SNMHL readers may know of the rapper Drake (aka Aubrey Drake Graham), Larry Graham is his uncle. Here’s a kick-out tune from 1974 from the Station’s debut album (make sure you’ve had your coffee). My name is Robert Sam, but my friends call me Butch. Enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #435: An Irishman Singing About Melting Cakes. The ’60’s had some pretty wild music, including concept albums, wild guitar riffs and some outright noise. In 1968, record producer Bones Howe urged prolific and famed songwriter Jimmy Webb to write a pop song with classical elements, including changing time signatures, orchestration, separate movements and with lyrics. (You may recall the popular adaption and success of classical elements by The Moody Blues with “Nights In White Satin” the prior year.) Webb didn’t disappoint, but then marketing the tune proved problematic – musicians didn’t want to perform it due to it’s complexity, including a popular group of the time, “The Association” (“Along Comes Mary”, “Windy”) – who Webb was targeting when he wrote it. Enter Irish stage actor Richard Harris, who had just finished a fabulous run with “Camelot”, who, over dinner with Webb, suggested he would like to perform the song, having established confidence in his singing voice by singing several tunes in the play. Webb first resisted, but then relented, and Richard Harris had his first (and for all practical purposes, his last) pop song, complete with overdubbed string and horn components added by Howe and Webb. Getting radio airplay was difficult; at over seven minutes, commercial-hungry AM stations resented the length, so it was edited to four minutes, and the song, even with it’s goofy lyrics and separate movements, shot up to #2 on the Billboard charts, an Harris became a well-known icon. (Ironically, surveys now consistently rank the song as “one of the worst of all time”.) In an interview, Webb said he wrote the unorthodox lyrics as a metaphor over a love interest and consequent breakup with a friend, Susie Horton, who worked at a life insurance company near the park (a real place in Los Angeles) where the two would meet each other for lunch (I’m not sure if they had cake…) At any rate, MacArthur Park may be melting in the dark; but it’s place in music history will remain forever. Have a listen – at least once. And enjoy!
OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #434: Groovy. During the British invasion in the 1960’s, there were several singers and groups that made somewhat of an impact- not as much as The Beatles or Rollling Stones, but made a dent – both then and in future years. Wayne Fontana was a British singer known for his hits “Game of Love” in 1965. His band, “The Mindbenders” (named after a title of a British movie of the era), trying to capitalize on their success, conducted a U.S. tour, and their shine was fading, so Fontana left the band – right in the middle of a concert. Undeterred, the band dropped Wayne’s name and was led by Eric Stewart. They hit #2 on the charts with the iconic tune “Groovy Kind Of Love” in 1966, and they opened for James Brown and played at the Fillmore West, but their album failed commercially. They tried a concept album and other projects, but broke up permanently in 1968 after their last concert tour, opening for “The Who” and “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown” and Joe Cocker (a tough act in getting the crowd warmed up!). Stewart and bandmate Graham Gouldman, however, would move on to critical and commercial success with the band “10cc” (“I’m Not In Love”; “The Things We Do For Love”), and band member Graham Foote joined the reconstituted Herman’s Hermits and is still a band member today. Not bad for being “groovy!” Enjoy The Mindbenders’ 1966 hit that started it all (P.S. Phil Collins’ cover isn’t too bad, either).
Ok Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #433: Ragtime! At the turn of the 20th Century, a style of music developed incorporating a syncopated rhythm (sometimes called “ragged”); the genre soon became known as “ragtime.” The style originated in African-American communities, especially in St. Louis, where composers Scott Joplin and Ernest Hogan (considered the originator) wrote landmark tunes such as “Shake Rag” and “Maple Leaf Rag”. Although jazz began to displace ragtime, especially in the 1920’s, many jazz musicians co-opted the style in their work. Louis Armstrong performed ragtime early in his career and the style has had several comebacks; the most recent example is the cover of Joplin’s “The Entertainer”, featured on the 1973 movie “The Sting.” Most critical acclaim for ragtime has been fleeting, although Joshua Rifkin was awarded a Grammy for a compilation of Scott Joplin’s work in 1973. Tonight’s tune was inspired by listening to it being performed by Old Time fiddle players, who have adapted it; the “Twelfth Street Rag” was written by Euday Bowman in 1914. Inspired by a friend known as “Raggedy Ed” who declared he was going to get rich by opening a pawn shop on 12th Street in St. Louis, Bowman declared “if you get rich, I’ll write a song using just three notes.” Bowman didn’t write the song for ten years, and was initially offered just ten dollars for it by a Texas publishing company, but the tune caught on in Kansas City bars and he signed with Jenkins Publishing, who asked that he simplify the tune a bit (not sure how he did that) and pushed it with a lot of advertising. It finally gained fame in 1919, fulfilling Bowman’s bet (we don’t know how Raggedy Ed’s pawn shop turned out, though.) Have a listen to this happy toe-tapper from history. Enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #432: The Original “Wah Wah” Pedal. Back in the 1930’s, bands featuring wind instruments were a staple and playing the blues was part of the deal. Some groups were just wild (Cab Calloway), some were more sedate, but some had unique features – like tonight’s selection. Clyde McCoy was born in Ashland, Kentucky in 1903, and really was a member of the famous Hatfield and McCoy feuding families. He taught himself on the trumpet, and was soon playing in church groups and then asked to perform on Mississippi River paddlewheel boats, becoming one of the youngest performers in that venue at age 14. In 1920, Clyde was asked to play a short gig in Knoxville, and his talents quickly became popular, with the results being the “Clyde McCoy Orchestra”, which played at the Drake and other Chicago hotels for years. McCoy experimented with different styles of blues, and soon mastered the Harmon mute on the bell on his trumpet, resulting in the unique “wah-wah” style, which is featured on his first big hit, tonight’s selection, “Sugar Blues”, in 1931. He landed recording contracts with Decca and Columbia records with versions of the song on each, and the tune was a staple of radio airplay and sold well across the country. The war effort in World War II slowed down record production, but McCoy persevered by recording transcriptions of his music to be replayed on delayed radio broadcasts. McCoy married Maxine Means in 1945, and he would tour when his health would permit into the ’50’s, as he was diagnosed with slow-progressing Alzheimer’s disease. Maxine refused to put him in an extended care facility and cared for him at home until his death in 1990 at age 86 – nearly 40 years after being diagnosed. McCoy’s style is memorialized in modern electronic music; although he had nothing to do with the development of the device, Vox Industries, who came up with the “wah-wah” pedal to augment the electric guitar’s sound for rock and roll, named their device the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah Wah Pedal (it was also known later as the “Cry Baby.”) Anyway, have a listen to “Sugar Blues” – this clip has the original and a jazzed up version, all with the original “wah-wah” – coming from a trumpet.
OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #431: Reconstituted British Folk Songs. Aye, such is the legacy of the Olde English folk song – sea shanties, jigs, hornpipes and dance music, as well as others. The genre was representative of the classes of England; folk songs were stories, passed on orally, and were finally put in a written record when poor countrymen finally established a degree of literacy and acquired writing instruments and paper. The wealthy elite, however, imbibed in classical music and orchestral performances. Fast forward to 1970, where the rock group “Traffic”, led by Steve Winwood, put this tune on an album of the same title. “John Barleycorn Must Die” sounds rather violent until it’s original subject matter is disclosed; the actions depicted in the song were originally about a mythical figure in early Anglo-Saxon paganism, Beowa, meaning “barley”. Later, the personification evolved to become “John Barleycorn.” The subject matter is about the cultivation, growth, cutting, harvesting and storage of the grain, an important staple of early British agriculture. The song, originating as as poem, isn’t attributed to any author in particular at it’s outset, but Scottish poet Robert Burns is credited with formalizing the lyric in 1782, and his work is used as a model. The album, the first work by the band after Dave Mason left, had mixed reviews; “Glad”, a real toe-tapper and former SNMHL feature, was a popular track that received quite a bit of airplay. It was a commercial success, though, and Steve Winwood and Traffic would go on to record many more, although I think they gave up the Old English folk songs. Enjoy a bit of Olde English history!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #430: Drive-Thru Fun. America’s love affair with the automobile is long and storied; on any given sunny day (probably since 1920) you can find car owners spiffying up their rigs with a hose, soap and scrub; in an uniquely American tradition, automated drive-thru car washes developed (with unique brand names like “Pink Elephant” and “Brown Bear”) so folks could save labor getting their cars clean, along with some help. Fast forward to 1976, where George Carlin and Richard Pryor, along with a host of other noted personalities, appeared in a comedy movie “Car Wash”. It was originally slated to be a musical, and the group Rose Royce, named after a corruption of the high-end British car, recorded a double-album for it (even before the plot was written!). The group began in the Los Angeles area and was made up of session musicians and toured with Edwin Starr (“War – What Is It Good For”). They met up with Motown producer Norman Whitfield, who recruited Gwen “Rose” Dickey to be the vocalist in this production, which won a Grammy in 1977 for Best Soundtrack and yielded three Top Ten singles. The movie was a hit as well and is still a cult classic as a representation of mid-1970’s comedy. Rose Royce fielded two more sequel albums, each with a bit lesser success, but the group is still touring and performing with many of it’s original members to this day and is a marquee attraction in England. Is your beloved automobile a bit dingy? Take it to the Car Wash today – and sing along! Enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #429: The Pre-Warning Label Era. Back in the day, and with health consequences to many, cigarette smoking was looked upon as, er, fashionable. Many movies, television shows and even cartoons (Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble taking a smoke break in a Winston commercial, for instance) depicted the habit. Having heard a lot of Texas and Western Swing this weekend at a Bluegrass Festival in Shelton, WA, this song came to mind. Tex Stewart was born in Illinois in 1917, and his “talking blues” vocals landed him a gig with Texas Swing King Spade Cooley in the ’30’s and ’40’s. He later went on his own with his twelve-piece band, The Western Caravan, and co-wrote this tune with Merle Travis, which landed at #1 on the charts for sixteen weeks in 1947. Several covers of the tune by various artists also made the charts over the years (including Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen). The Williams version was used as the opening tune on the documentary movie of the tobacco industry, Thank You For Smoking, in 2006. Have a listen to this Texas-swing toe-tapper from the “40’s. I’m sure Tex smoked as well, (so many did back then), but interestingly, it was pancreatic cancer that claimed him at age 68 in 1985.
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #428: Singing the Alphabet. Louis Allen Rawls was born in Chicago at the height of the Great Depression and was raised by his grandmother on the city’s South Side. He displayed a singing talent beginning at age seven at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church choir. His talents didn’t go unnoticed; after graduating from high school he sang in various gospel and “r&b” groups in town, crossing paths with other singers and musicians destined for fame such as Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield. He became a paratrooper in the Army in 1955, and after leaving the Army in 1958, Rawls was involved in a terrible car crash that left him pronounced dead when arriving at the hospital. Thankfully it was determined he was in a coma, where he languished for five days. He was hospitalized for a month, and it took him a full year to recuperate, and after his (in his words), “life-changing experience”, he was back, performing in the Hollywood Bowl in 1959. His recording and performing career expanded, venturing into television as the summer host for the “Dean Martin Show”, as well as being a sought-after person to sing the National Anthem at major sporting events, including major league baseball playoff games and the World Series. Lou Rawls’ philanthropy was well-known, giving money to the United Negro College Fund and hosting their annual telethon. One of his most notable appearances was on the first episode of Sesame Street, where he sang the alphabet (but embarrassingly was issued cue cards after getting some letters out of order on the first take). Television viewers may also remember him as at police patrolman on “Baywatch” and a ranch hand on “The Big Valley”, and as a the pitch man on Colonial Penn Life Insurance commercials. His successful career unraveled with a decline with his health, being diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2005 which spread quickly, and he passed away in January 2006 in Los Angeles. He was married twice and had four children. Have a listen to this gifted voice – even when singing the alphabet – with Lou Rawls’ 1971 hit, “Natural Man.”
(Ok, KIds; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #427: Sentimental Truck Driving Songs. Country-western music has often been caricatured as sad songs about losing your girlfriend, losing your truck, losing your job, your dog died, and so on. The joke is if you play them backwards, you get your girl back, your job back, your truck, and your dog comes alive. 😀 Throw in long-haul truck driving and you have double the depression (although some can be downright funny!). Woodrow Wilson “Red” Sovine was born in 1917 (in honor of the President Woodrow Wilson) and captured the truck-driving country genre with a pair of truck-driving songs, “Teddy Bear” in 1976 and tonight’s selection, “Giddy Up Go”. Sovine was born in West Virginia and played with Jim Pike’s Carolina Tar Heels on a radio program in Wheeling in the ’40’s, and signed to record with MGM Records in 1949. He became the lead on a Grand Ole Opry competitor program called Louisiana Hayride after the departure of a guy named Hank Williams. Although he recorded 28 singles, none really caught fire, but he never quit his day job as a supervisor at a hosiery factory in Wheeling, so his income was steady. His first big hit was tonight’s tune, co-written with Tommy Hill, and it solidified the typecast of Sovine as a truck-driver ballad artist. He released several albums with most of the songs in this sub-genre, and several others, notably Dave Dudley (“Six Days On The Road”) and Del Reeves made their fame in recording truck-driving tunes. Sovine is often attributed to, but not credited with formally for writing the song “Lay Down Sally” performed by Eric Clapton (Sovine’s version is eerily similar but recorded ten years before). His compilation album, “The Best of Red Sovine”, is still sold on late-night infomercials on cable television. Sovine died in 1980 in an automobile accident in Nashville; apparently he had a heart attack behind the wheel and collided with another car. He was a widower (wife Norma died four years prior) and had three grown children. Get out your hankies; the steel guitar alone will make you cry on this sentimental 1965 truck-driving ballad.
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #426: Jumping Time. The title refers to an automotive malady (where the timing chain or belt slips and renders a motor useless), but tonight’s selection by jazz great Dave Brubeck is a study in a unique time signature, as well as an interesting history as to the origination of a song. Cue the late 1950’s, where Brubeck and his saxophonist partner Paul Desmond are traveling in Turkey, and come upon some street musicians, playing in one of the Turkish akshak time signatures – better known as 9/8 time. He asked them about it, and the musician said this beat in Turkey was the same as the “blues” in America. Brubeck coined the composition “Blue Rondo a la Turk” as a result, using the additive time signatures of 2+2+2+3 and 3+3+3 as the main and a 4/4 side theme as well (tap your toes or fingers while you listen, you’ll get it). The tune worked, as it appeared on the “B” side of his biggest hit and well-known tune “Take Five” in 1959 (that song is said to have been influenced by unique Turkish and Bulgarian time signatures as well). Columbia Records was eager to release the album “Time Out” with these two tunes, as well as others, but Brubeck was hesitant to do so because he didn’t know if America was ready for this kind of unprecedented style. He soon relented and the album became one of the biggest volume sellers in jazz history, and its still a common purchase on CD or download up to this day. Brubeck is no longer with us (he passed away at age 91 in 2012); Paul Desmond died in 1977 and dedicated all the royalties for his work to the American Red Cross. A personal note; this is one guy I wished I would have seen before he was gone, he toured up to just months before he died – a great American composer. Have a listen – it’s quite fun jumping time!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #425: Country Canada. The U.S. has had it’s list of famous country western musicians, but our neighbors to the North have an impressive list as well. Country-western music in Canada has developed over time in similar fashion to the U.S., with the exception of influences from the Maritime provinces augmenting the Appalachian roots, most notably in fiddle, and the singing of ballads and narratives as opposed to “honky-tonk” bar tunes (i.e., Hank Williams, Hank Thompson). Notable early Canadian country western singers include “Stompin'” Tom Collins and Rick Tippe, and in contemporary times, Shania Twain. True to form in Quebec, country music is performed in French (as well as English) by artists known in that genre, Renee Martel and Gildor Roy. Tonight’s group has been around since 1984; Blue Rodeo formed in Toronto with two high school buddies (Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor) who practiced and developed their style while in college. After meeting up with keyboardist Bob Wiseman, the group took off, playing gigs in Toronto. They cut their first record, “Outskirts” in 1986, to great success with the help of Terry Brown, producer for another famous Canadian band, Rush. Even with some personnel changes, Blue Rodeo has notched 15 successful albums since their formation, and still tours and performs. Tonight’s selection is from their 2005 album “Are You Ready”, and is a good (and pleasant, with a great steel guitar riff) example of the narrative ballad style of Canadian Country Music. Enjoy!
OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #424: Unconventional Conventions. Graham Nash, the British guitarist and songwriter who was with The Hollies and a founding member of Crosby, Stills and Nash, is well-known not only for his musicianship, academic life and photography, but also his activism. He has penned songs objecting to nuclear power, whale hunting and dedicated to habitat and nature preservation, but one of his most memorable tunes is a solo piece about the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago. It was a hot August, and the nation was in turmoil with a war in Vietnam, race riots in the cities and pain still fresh from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. President Lyndon Johnson had announced he would not seek re-election, and the contesting candidates for nomination, Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, bitterly fought for delegates. Simultaneously, activists, protesters and others battled Chicago police in the streets, and Chicago mayor Richard Daley, who was committed to keep peace and not have his city’s image tarnished, ramped up the conflict with force, jailing, beating and arresting hundreds, including roughing up and threatening to arrest reporters while inside the convention center. It was not America’s finest hour, as the television networks, having advanced to more sophisticated technology and live coverage, broadcast the conflict to a rapt America watching at home. Nash also includes references to the trial of Bobby Seale and “The Chicago Seven”, accused of fomenting the chaos and Seale, denied representation by a lawyer, at one point was bound and gagged and chained to a chair during his trial. This 1971 song is written from Nash’s viewpoint of being requested to perform a benefit for the defendants, and appeared on the album “Songs For Beginners”. It is followed up with a segue tune called “We Can Change the World”, and they are occasionally played together. It hit #29 on the Billboard 100. The mega-group Chicago (ironically named) also wrote and performed a song about the convention that starts out with the crowd of protesters chanting “The Whole World Is Watching.” And you thought today’s world was wild! Both songs may be looked at as historical artifacts someday. Graham Nash, at 76, still tours and performs this song in concert.
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #423: The guitar gets personal. I can recall, back in 1973, installing one of the new-fangled eight-track tape players in my girlfriend’s car. One of the first tapes I played was given to me by my brother; it had an innocent-looking cover of a guy juggling three oranges, with the quirky title “My Feet Are Smiling.” It was concert performance by a guitarist by the name of Leo Kottke. The deft and speedy finger-picking, masterful slide work and funny banter between songs was irresistible, and for this fledgling wannabe guitarist, he was someone I needed to study and emulate, for both style and skill. Kottke was born in Athens, Georgia, and moved around the country with his family when a youngster, and first learned to play the violin and trombone. After hitch-hiking around the country, he settled in Minnesota , and found that his guitar skills and subsequent unconventional picking style were his calling. Despite hearing loss from loud noises while serving in the Naval Reserve and a firecracker incident, he began recording in 1969 and landed with John Fahey’s Takoma Records. Fast forward to now, where Kottke, although not as widely known as some mega-stars, has a solid, almost “cult” following, with 40 albums released. He still tours extensively, mostly in smaller and sometimes unconventional venues (McCurdy Pavilion at Port Townsend comes to mind, with bats flying around the ceiling during the performance) and consistently sells them out. His style has changed a bit, since his aggressive picking style caused tendonitis, but his “geese farts on a muggy day” (his words) baritone, humor, quirky song titles and impressive guitar work still entertains and sticks to you. This weekend I will have attended probably my twentieth concert, and he has certainly inspired me on my guitar work over the years, and my humble opinion is that he should get the Medal of Freedom for his contribution to music. Have a listen to one example, or better yet, just hit You Tube and play his anthology. Enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #422: Guitarists that moonlight as scientists. Rock and Roll isn’t necessarily known to be a cerebral pursuit, but tonight’s selection breaks the mold. Many have heard of the English supergroup “Queen”, with the iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody”, among other monster hits. What some don’t know (but frankly, many do) is that the lead guitarist and vocalist of the group, Brian May, holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the Imperial College in London. May grew up in in Hampton, England, as an only child, and did quite well in grammar and and secondary school, receiving advanced levels of accomplishment in mathematics, applied mathematics and physics. He pursued and received his bachelor’s degree from Imperial in physics in 1968, and had several peer-reviewed papers published. As an accomplished musician who has built his own guitars, May started several bands, “Smile” and one called “1984” after the Orwell novel, but musical fame struck him with the formation of Queen in 1970. The group flourished until the death of Freddie Mercury in 1991; after a short hiatus they have returned with other personnel (Paul Rodgers, Adam Lambert) and tour to this day. Queen sidetracked his academic career, but May resumed his academic pursuits in 2006, submitting his thesis on the radial velocity of zodiacal light (a year-long project), and graduated from Imperial with a Ph.D. in 2008. The graduation ceremony was held at Royal Albert Hall in London and onlookers and press alike took great interest in the academic success of this musician/celebrity. An asteroid, “Brianmay 52665”, is named in his honor. May has been active in political and social pursuits, once considering a run for Parliament, serving as chancellor for a college in Liverpool, and working as an animal welfare and wildlife activist (he bought 157 acres near his home that was targeted for development for the purpose of preserving it as habitat) and also is a vegetarian and anti-smoking champion (his father was a long-time heavy smoker). Brian May is married to actress/singer Anita Dobson has three grown children from his first marriage, still lives in England and will turn 71 next summer. Have a listen to tonight’s selection from Queen and this astrophysicist guitarist, the pleasant 1975 tribute “You’re My Best Friend, (written by keyboardist John Deacon as a tribute to his wife) and enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #421: One chord, one hit, straight outta Barbados. Reggae is a popular genre of music; the Caribbean region has produced famous artists such as Jamaican Bob Marley and others. Many Caribbeans moved to Britain and contributed to the music scene there; tonight’s artist is a case in point. Edmond Montague Grant was born in British Guiana; his father, a musician, and mother lived in the UK and sent remittances back to Guiana so the young man could continue his education while living with relatives. Grant emigrated to the UK at age 12 to join his parents, and go to school there, where he learned music and got into the music scene. One of his first bands, The “Equals”, had five Billboard hits in the UK between 1968 and 1970. A health crisis struck him on New Year’s Day in 1971, where at age 23, he suffered a heart attack and collapsed lung. He soon recovered to start his own recording and publishing company, and broke through with some hits as a solo artist in the UK in the late ’70’s. Grant moved to Barbados in 1980 and started a production company there; Blue Wave Records was the vehicle that gave him his big hit in the U.S. “Electric Avenue” made it to #2 on the U.S. charts in 1982, went platinum, and was a staple on the video music channel MTV. (Interesting musician’s note: the song has only one chord in it’s entirety.) He had one follow-up song that made a minor dent in the charts, and his commercial success in the U.S. after that was somewhat limited, although he was noted for recording a song that was banned in South Africa since it protested apartheid. He still performs and is still very popular in the Caribbean basin, performing an offshoot of reggae called “ringbang.” Eddy Grant received a lifetime achievement award from the government of Guyana, still resides in Barbados, and turned 70 last week. Oy!
“Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #420: Rock Musicals draw the Strangest Bedfellows. Pete Townshend, of the rock band “The Who”, is famous for pushing musical envelopes; “Tommy” was the world’s first “rock opera” and he followed up with “Quadrophenia” a few years later. After some other studio albums with The Who, in 1989 he arranged a musical, based upon adaptation of a children’s science-fiction book, written over twenty years earlier by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. The “Iron Man” was a large metal monster that invaded England, with an appetite for destruction and a nasty habit of eating farm equipment. After a chance meeting and being befriended by a small boy, the Iron Man changes his tune, and becomes the good guy – just in the nick of time, as he fights off and defeats an invader from outer space. It doesn’t sound like the stuff of a musical, but Townshend, along with the two surviving members of The Who, assembles Australian rock singer-guitarist Deborah Conway (The Vixen), jazz and blues legends Nina Simone (The Space Dragon) and John Lee Hooker (The Iron Man), his younger brother Simon (the Owl), among others, and writes tunes around the story. The play (renamed the “Iron Giant” in some editions) appeared in London theaters in the early ’90’s, and Warner Brothers made a movie, albeit with a different adaptation altogether, but credited Townshend as Executive Producer. Being that you may not remember or even heard of this work, it’s because it wasn’t all that commercially successful (Rolling Stone only gave it one “star.”) But give credit to Pete Townshend for pushing the envelope, and tonight’s track off the album is an quirky work with John Lee Hooker, as the Iron Man, singing about how he “eats heavy metal” instead of his regular genre, the blues.
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #419 – A Double Feature: Breaker, breaker, good buddy, got some Mannheim Steamroller? There was quite a story behind an old CD that I found while cleaning the car last week. Louis F. “Chip” Davis, Jr. was a Ohio native who became quite a child prodigy, learning piano at age 4 and composing his own tunes at 6. He became an accomplished musician in high school and received a degree in music at the University of Michigan. His first major gig was playing in the Norman Luboff choir, and then he went on to establish a popular instrumental group called Mannheim Steamroller in 1974, specializing in instrumental music and a series of albums themed “Fresh Aire.” Davis created his own label, American Gramophone, to get his records distributed; all of them received “gold” level status by the Recording Industry Association of America. Concurrently with establishing the group, however, he had worked at an advertising agency in Omaha, writing jingles for commercials. One of those jingles was for a local bakery, featuring a fictional local truck driver named C.W McCall. This, along with other jingles, became immensely popular in the Omaha market, so Davis and his associate, William Fries, tried out and released a few non-jingle songs that also found the charts, including the wildly popular “Convoy”, with Fries doing the narration for the fictional McCall, jabbering in CB dialect that was representative of the Citizen’s Band radio craze in the mid-’70’s (The song was also the basis of a 1978 movie). The duo went on to produce five albums between 1974 and 1979, and Davis was honored as a Country Western Songwriter of the Year. He wasn’t done, though, as he continued with Mannheim Steamroller, and in 1984 began arranging Christmas music to modern instruments and styles. It was an incredible success, selling tens of millions of copies and “double touring” Steamroller concerts over the short Holiday season using two cover bands. Davis also produced a series of albums called “Day Parts”, with the theme “Sunday Morning Coffee” in 1991 and other similarly-themed albums in the ’90’s with more commercial success. His bread and butter is still with the popular Mannheim Steamroller concerts, but this noted musician will be known for success in the most widely-disparate genres ever – CB Country Western Truck Songs, Christmas music, New Age, Contemporary Jazz and Easy Listening instrumentals. Have a listen to the pleasant “Coffee with Carla” off Sunday Morning Coffee and the campy “Convoy” with C.W. McCall and you’ll see what I mean – Davis created them both. Enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #418: The Father of Easy Listening. If you’ve ever stood in an elevator or sat on the phone on hold for any length of time, you’ve probably heard music that fits in the genre of “easy listening.” Some radio stations featured the soft, slow floating music as their format (KBRD in Tacoma was the one I remember years ago). Percy Faith (1908-1976) was born in Ontario, Canada, and learned violin and piano at an early age, showing a mastery of music and theatre with performances at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Tragically, his hands were badly burned in an fire, so he turned to conducting and arranging the live orchestra to further his love of music. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on their live music programming in the late 1930’s, and then moved to NBC as the orchestra conductor for the “Carnation Contented” (a brand of evaporated milk) program and the “Coca-Cola Radio Hour” (with the subtitle “The pause that refreshes”). He moved to the states and became a U.S. citizen in 1945, and soon collaborated with bandleaders Mitch Miller and Ray Conniff and singer Tony Bennett, among other noted musicians. His style varied, but not by much, and even during the “rock and roll” era of the ’70’s his albums enjoyed consistent sales and radio airplay. The “Father of Easy Listening” has a discography that includes nearly 100 albums and a few hit singles; tonight’s selection is by far his most notable. “Theme from a Summer Place” was released in 1960. It’s a dreamy number, so take your sweetheart and have a spontaneous, romantic dance with your Valentine. Enjoy!
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #417: The tale of a Big Man who saved miners – and a career. Fables and other folklore about feats of strength from muscular, dominating men are common in history; tonight’s feature is another added to the list. In 1961, country singer Jimmy Dean’s career was floundering and Columbia Records was on the verge of dropping him from their label, meaning his career would essentially be over. Dean, still working hard on his music, and in collaboration with songwriter/composer Roy Acuff, penned the tale of a huge, strong, mysterious man from New Orleans, created in the same vein as Paul Bunyan and John Henry, whose strength and bravery saved the life of his fellow miners – at the cost of his own. Dean has said that the inspiration for Big John was meeting John Minto, a 6’5″, 250 lb. actor who was appearing in a play, a re-enactment of “Destry Rides Again.” The tune was released in November 1961 and shot right up to #1, on pop, country and easy-listening charts, receiving a Grammy for Album of the Year and Best Male Solo Artist of the Year, and with it reviving Jimmy Dean’s career. Several noted musicians were invited to play with Dean on the track, including pianist Floyd Cramer, who was ask to work in a piano background. In lieu of a piano, however, Cramer suggested the use of a hammer and piece of steel as the percussion for the tune, and the result is a distinctive trademark of the song. Several “Big John” sequels were recorded (he was rescued, had a son, etc.), with lesser success. The song has two versions, one for radio airplay and one for private consumption; back in 1961 you couldn’t say “hell” on the radio, so the end tag of “one hell of a man” is changed to “one big, big, man”. Jimmy Dean went on to record more tunes, become a television show host, and most of you may be familiar with his sausage company. He passed away at age 81 in 2010. Big John may have saved some miners, but also saved Jimmy Dean’s career.
OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #416: The “flower power” front man. Of the many rock bands of the mid-1960s, tonight’s group and song have a unique background, even with essentially having just a “one-hit wonder.” The Seeds were a “garage” band that came from Los Angeles; they got their start when Richard Elvern Marsh became their front man. Marsh had been involved in rock and roll for some time, performing doo-wop pop tunes in the early 60’s with the Electra-Fires and singing solo as “Little Richie” Marsh. After forming The Seeds, he changed his stage name to “Sky Saxon”, and his act consisted of on-stage antics and vocals that one critic termed “a phony Mick Jagger” and another praised as “a mix of Mick Jagger, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran.” “Pushin’ Too Hard” was on their debut album in 1967, hit #1 for several weeks and was an undisputed commercial success, but critics panned the remainder of the album as “weird psychotic blues” and Saxon’s vocals as “demented vocal sermonizing.” Ouch. Undeterred, the group and Saxon produced several other albums, focusing on blues and producing psychedelic music, coining the term “flower power” as part of their genre. After the Seeds broke up, Saxon worked on several other music projects, and in 1973 joined a religious group and commune called YaHoWha, and 25 years later (1998) he put together a thirteen, yes, 13-CD set of the psychedelic religious ritual chants of that group that he had collected on tape over the years. There were several reunion efforts, where Saxon and The Seeds would tour with The Electric Prunes and the group Love. Unfortunately, Saxon’s wild musical career came to an end in 2009, when a routine infection, left untreated, spread to his internal organs, and he passed away in Austin, Texas at 71. His death was overshadowed in the headlines due to Michael Jackson’s death the same day. The Smashing Pumpkins, the re-unified Electric Prunes and Love held a tribute performance in Los Angeles shortly thereafter to commemorate Sky Saxon, clearly one of the most unusual front men in rock and roll.
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #415: The accidental B-Side. Some folks change majors, some change sides, some change viewpoints, but Canadian pianist Frank Mills changed gears and careers and things worked out well. Mills, who was born in Quebec, attended McGill University and started out in the engineering program. Midway through college, he found his love for music too appealing and joined the Music Department. After getting his degree in music, he went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as their pianist (yes, apparently they had a position) and released several self-composed tunes on an album in 1974. Tonight’s tune (as well as many of his other works) labored in relative obscurity but earned a paycheck, with Polydor Records sending Mills’ music to ratings-starved “easylistening” radio stations in Canada. “Music Box Dancer” was the B-side of a single that was accidentally sent to a pop station, CFRA in Ottawa. The program director didn’t know what to do with it at first, as the A side was clearly elevator music; but after listening to the B-side, they decided to give it airplay and it took off, becoming a gold record in Canada. Polydor decided to ship the tune to the U.S., where a Nashville television station elected to use it as the closing tune during the credits for their news program (which seemed quite odd). Nashville DJs picked it up and gave it airplay, and five years after being recorded, it hit #3 on the Billboard charts in the States in 1979. Mills has fallen back into relative obscurity again, but is still recording and quite renowned in Canada, winning several Juno awards, releasing several more albums (including Christmas albums) and touring with Canadian singer Rita MacNeal, but he will always be remembered by many for this indelible one-hit wonder, which made fame by being accidentally played.
Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #414: Songs from Prison. The famous country-western singer and songwriter Johnny Cash was fascinated with prisons and their inmates; he had worked for a time as a prison security guard, and had an affinity for the power of redemption, rehabilitation and renewal, and often went to visit (and perform for) those who had committed crimes , often at their request. Cash’s personal story was in trouble as well, his career and health declining due to drug abuse, and playing at prisons, on his terms, helped with his revival, both in career, health, and spiritually. His first prison concert was at Huntsville, AL in 1958, and was well-received, but the story of his concerts at prisons never really became commercially successful until the release of tonight’s selection in 1968. Columbia Records wasn’t very warm to the idea of a prison recording and didn’t invest much in the groundwork or promotion, however, “Folsom Prison Blues”, written by Cash in 1955, and the rest of the album, recorded live at the California State Prison 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, became a hit at #13 on the pop charts. Joining Cash at the prison concerts (there were two the same day) were his wife June, his band the Tennessee Three, as well as Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers. The title tune’s success was somewhat short-lived, but not due to popularity, radio airplay was cut off after the assassination of Robert Kennedy because of sensitivity to the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die”. However, the album was re-released in 1999 to more commercial success, and became triple-platinum in 2003. Have a listen, as this album and song were recorded exactly 50 years ago this weekend (1/13) and is still in print.
OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #413: Songs of Moonshine and Wacky Tabacky. Songs about moonshine and other liquor have dotted the music scene over the years; one of the more recognizable tunes and noted artists is featured tonight. Steve Earle is a well-known songwriter and musician; tonight’s selection, which reached #10 on the charts, is his 1988 release. “Copperhead Road” is a story of a Vietnam vet who, when returning to his Tennessee home, started up his daddy’s (and his daddy before) tradition with a bit of a twist. Earle was raised in the San Antonio area, and got started in music early by moving to Nashville playing gigs and eventually landing with Guy Clark’s band, and landing a job as a staff songwriter for Sunbury Dunbar publishing. He moved back and forth from Texas to Nashville, and made a name with several hits, hitting the scene with his first EP in 1982; critics acclaimed his music as everything from “neo-hillbilly” to a cross between “heavy metal and bluegrass” (the genre assigned to this song). He still records and performs to this day (the most recent work a collaboration with Shawn Colvin), and has a marked activist streak to his work, advocating for kids with autism, working to abolish the death penalty and being highly critical of the Bush II administration’s war in Iraq. Have a listen to this tune, now 30 (!) years old, with the official video, and get tuned into Steve Earle. It still must be popular, Mountain City, Tennessee had to change the name of the road to Copperhead Hollow Road since the street signs kept getting stolen… Enjoy!
OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #412: Spaghetti Western Soundtracks. Younger audiences may have a giggle at the term, but the 1960’s had a entire genre of movies – shoot ’em up movies from Italian directors with good-guys and bad guys, some campy humor and settings that eerily resembled Italy instead of the Old West. “For a Fistful of Dollars”, the sequel “For a Few Dollars More” were quite popular and were commercial successes – including launching Clint Eastwood’s acting career. “Apache Gold” and “Terror In Oklahoma”, among many others, were not. Some were titled and spoken in Italian and subtitled in English. The overall European body of work of Old West movies is littered throughout the history of film and re-surged in the late 70’s. Tonight’s selection, from the 1966 film of the same name, was written by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, at the request of it’s famous “Spaghetti Western” director, Sergio Leone. Morricone also wrote the scores for Leone’s other films. Hugo Montenegro, an American orchestra leader, was impressed with the tune and released this cover version that shot up to #2 on the Billboard charts in 1968. (It was replaced by another movie tune, “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel). The tune has been used extensively on car commercials, intros to sporting events and other uses – and I’m sure the royalty payments are still coming in. Have a listen to this iconic “Spaghetti Western” tune – from another era, it seems – maybe with a heated-up can of Chef-Boy-R-Dee, perhaps? Enjoy.