Sunday Night Music History Lesson

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OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #440:  The Queen has left us.  Music took a huge loss this week with the passing of one of the foremost soul singers of our era.  Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, just as the nation was getting deeply involved in World War II (1942).  The family eventually settled in Detroit.    Her father, C.L. Franklin, was a popular Baptist minister, and her mother, Barbara, sang and played piano, and was on obvious influence on Aretha, who as a child learned to play the piano by ear.  Her voice was gifted, as demonstrated by her gospel singing, and she landed with singing with the Mavis Staples entourage; her father acted as promoter and manager and got the attention of Columbia Records, who signed her to a contract in 1960.   She appeared on some early music television shows such as Shindig!  and Hollywood A-Go-Go, and signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, where her career really took off, producing monster hits like “Chain of Fools”, “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman”. and “Respect”, which became a feminist and civil rights anthem.   Her career blossomed further, and over the last part of the 20th Century and well into the 2000’s, she launched hit after hit, and modified her style to meet up with changing music tastes, even doing a popular cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.  Other notable performances were filling in at the last minute for Luciano Pavaratti, who had cancelled his performance at the Grammys, singing the National Anthem with Aaron Neville at the Super Bowl and singing at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2015.  Aretha had little overall scandal in her career, she married twice, briefly, and had four sons (but not to the ones she married); and fought weight gain off and on for years.  She was diagnosed with a tumor on her pancreas in 2011, which was surgically removed, but it returned later and eventually became inoperable, and claimed the Queen of Soul this last week.  There’s so much to listen to in Aretha’s long list of works it’s hard to choose, so here’s a mellow selection from 1973.  Enjoy!

OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #439 An Old West Mystery.  Townes Van Zandt (1944-1997) was a renowned country western songwriter that may not be well known, since he didn’t perform commercially,  and he spent much of his life in dive bars and battling drug addiction, but his penchant for poetic songs steeped in heroism and romance have been covered by many artists.  “Pancho and Lefty”, a story that is loosely based on the life of Pancho Villa, was recorded by Hoyt Axton, Steve Earle, and others, but found the most success with the Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard (who both were featured in the song’s video) in 1983, reaching #1 on the country charts.  Van Zandt was coy when being interviewed about the plot line of the song, as it’s not reconcilable with the history of Pancho Villa (played by Willie in the video), but it involves the story of Pancho being betrayed by an associate, “Lefty” (played by Merle Haggard) who receives a bounty, paid by the Federales for Pancho’s capture.  Lefty then goes on to live an obscure, sad life in Cleveland.  The video is a little hokey (this was also during the heyday of music videos that built the MTV television network), but the story is touching and is the basis for the song’s enduring popularity.    Enjoy!

Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #438.  That’s a pretty big state ya got there, partner.   The country western genre known as Texas swing has had a lot of notable artists; among them are a more (somewhat) contemporary group that formed in Paw Paw, West Virginia in 1970.  Asleep at the Wheel’s first members  camped out of East Oakland, California to play gigs, and after gaining the attention of Commander Cody and a mention in Rolling Stone magazine by Van Morrison, they signed with United Artists records.  They originally opened for such rock artists as Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in the 1970’s, but soon gained notoriety in their own right, and despite a myriad of personnel changes over the years, continue to record and tour to this day.  They’ve gained nine Grammys, cut twenty albums and have had twenty singles show up on the country western charts.  They are often a staple of “Austin City Limits” and  other televised concerts including ones you’ve probably seen on PBS.  The group plays a lot of original material, but also many covers of old Texas swing tunes (and about as authentically as you can get), including tonight’s selection.  Keep an eye out for tour dates; they often with other groups like the Dixie Chicks, Vince Gill and other country acts.  Have a listen to this live Asleep at the Wheel version “Miles and Miles of Texas”, a tune written by Tommy Canfield and Diane Johnston and made famous by Bob Wills in the early 1950’s.  It’s also the title of a book and maybe the motto of the Texas Department of Transportation – they have miles and miles of roads..  😀   Enjoy!

OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #437:  I’m gonna fall on my face on somebody’s new-mowed lawn.  Summer songs can bring out some of the best in music as well as good memories; the Lovin’ Spoonful came out with this great summertime tune in 1966.  John Sebastian originally tried to write a answer to The Supremes’ “Baby Love”, but instead came up with this fun little song, which hit #2 on the Billboard 100.  The lyrics have more than a hint of humor; although the main attraction is Sebastian’s “bundle of joy” (which some say is a girlfriend, some say is a joint), it’s an essay about being inattentive, carefree and happy – although not without consequence; “a pie in the face for being a sleepiful Joe”.  This song reminds me of my summer youth in the ’60’s, as I would be happy to fall on my face in the grass (the lawn type) after mowing our yard.  (The flip side isn’t bad either, an instrumental blues number called “Night Owl Blues”, with a mean harmonica solo by Sebastian).  The Greenwich Village-based group (whose name originated from a Mississippi John Hurt tune called “Coffee Blues”) had another “summer” hit in “Summer In The City”, but it’s nowhere as fun as this one.  Enjoy, but you better pick up your ears, or you’ll be daydreaming for a thousand years!  Enjoy!

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!