Sunday Night Music History Lesson

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OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #445:  Medical advice, dispensed by a song.   Being raised by his poor grandparents, and in an effort to find a better life due his family’s situation, Harry Edward Nilsson left his Brooklyn home and ventured to America’s other coast.  In Los Angeles he found a job as a computer programmer at a bank (after telling them he had finished high school on his resume, which he hadn’t, but due to his talent they kept him anyway), but also became interested in musical composition and close-harmony singing.  Harry taught himself on piano and guitar, and as a gifted tenor he had a range of three and a half octaves, so he was soon writing and singing songs that were picked up by Little Richard, Glen Campbell and producer Phil Spector, among others.  His first recordings were released in 1964 (even though he was still working night shift at the bank), and he signed with RCA Victor records in 1967.   His  commercial success then flourished, culminating with tonight’s humorous selection, which appeared with two other hits, “Jump In To The Fire” and “Without You” on the 1971 release “Nilsson Schmilsson.”  As a fiercely independent artist, Nilsson resisted touring and concerts, preferring to work on artistic projects with John Lennon, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees (they were lifelong friends) and other famous acts,  only appearing periodically on stage.  The 1980 shooting death of his friend John Lennon affected him deeply, and he worked on fundraising for gun control, and made references to his vocation as a “retired musician”, although he did produce some other albums and set up a television and movie production company called Hawkeye, which was decimated by embezzlement from his financial advisor.  Harry Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack in February 1992, and with the prognosis grim, he urged RCA Victor to produce an anthology of his work and recorded several more tracks for it, which was released in 1995.  Nillson didn’t live to see his work, passing away from heart failure in January, 1994.  He was survived by his wife, Una, and seven children (one of them, Annie, is an accomplished songwriter in her own right).   Have a listen to a favorite among his fans – who probably already have the lyrics etched in your brain.  Enjoy!

OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #444:   Hysterical comedy albums from the ’60’s.  The vinyl record was noted for music, but also for some good comedy – irreverent or not.  Rich Little had presidential impressions, a group of New York comedians recorded the funny “A Child’s Garden of Grass”, Cheech and Chong followed up with their cannabis-oriented comedy, but it is hard to top the surreal zaniness of the Firesign Theatre.  So named because the four members of the group were born under astrological “fire” signs, it consisted of Peter Bergman, Philip Proctor, Phil Austin and David Ossman, all with various voice, musical and comedic talents.  The quartet made a presence on Los Angeles-area radio stations and recorded fourteen comedy albums, landing them in the top thirty of comedy groups of all time.  The albums featured goofy titles like “Don’t Touch That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers” and “I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus”, and notable personalities on their albums were car salesman Ralph Spoilsport (featured tonight – note the uncanny similarity to Ralph Williams, who ran dealerships up and down the west coast) and detective Nick Danger (Third Eye).   The group occasionally performed live, and although their heyday was during the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, they formed several iterations over the years, retreating during the conservative Reagan era but re-emerging in the ’90’s and releasing their last album in 2010.  Bergman, whose first known radio gig was getting kicked off the high school radio station by his principal for broadcasting “news reports” that Communists had taken over the school, died from leukemia in 2012;Austin died from cancer in 2015.  Have a listen to a favorite clip – the Ralph Spoilsport sales pitch (direct from the city of Emphysema).  Better yet, listen twice, maybe three times, as you’ll pick up nuances in their routine that you won’t catch on the first time around.  Enjoy!

Ok, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #443:  The long and short of the Moog Synthesizer.  As musical instruments became electrified and enhanced over the 20th century, the 1960’s brought the introduction of a new generation of sound.  Robert Moog invented and refined the Moog synthesizer in the mid 1960’s, and it’s popularity took off after being played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and with the immensely popular album “Switched On Bach” by Wendy Carlos a year later.  Dick Hyman, a famed jazz pianist and composer (who was named a National Endowment Jazz Fellow last year) came up with the following instrumental in 1969 as an experiment with the new-fangled device.  It made an appearance on the charts, and was viewed with some popularity, but as somewhat of a novelty.  It would have received more significant radio airplay except for one issue – it was too long.  Radio depended on advertising revenue, and they just couldn’t be playing all these long songs, as they cut into ad time.  Command Records accommodated the radio industry (like many recording artists did, unfortunately) and created a “radio version” – shortened quite a bit (some critics say they were thankful for the move).  “The MInotaur” was cut from a hefty 8:34 down to 3:15, but some fans weren’t pleased and neither were artists, so the recording company compromised and put the long and short version on alternating sides of the disc.   The rock group Emerson Lake and Palmer used the instrument heavily on their albums in the early ’70s, securing it’s popularity, and although as an analog device that was soon converted to digital technology, it still has it’s place in rock music history.  Below are the long and short versions – take your pick or stare and compare!  (BTW, at 91, Dick Hyman still performs, directs and composes as a respected jazz master.)

The long (original) version:

The Radio Version:

OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #442:  Origination of the term “Honky Tonk”.   In Jacksonville, Texas after the end of Prohibition, one Clarence Albert Poindexter ran a bar that featured country western and Texas swing music and dancing.  Being a musician himself, he started to write and perform at his bar and soon landed a recording contract with ARC Records and he shortened his stage name to a more manageable Al Dexter.  His first major hit was titled after the term that he had called his bar for years, a “honky tonk”.  “Honky Tonk Blues” is the first song making that reference, and it became a hit in 1943, even making it as a the marching chorus for the New York Yankees and earning him nearly $250,000 in royalties.  Dexter went on to record until 1968, and tonight’s selection was clearly his biggest hit.  “Pistol Packin’ Mama” was released in 1944, sat at #1 for most of the year, and is the story of a guy having a little too much fun at a honky tonk, and the female interest in his life didn’t quite like it.   Dexter died in Lewisville, TX in 1984 at age 78, and years after his death his family found fifty old tapes of studio recordings Dexter made during his career.  A son, Carl Poindexter, assembled and remastered the recordings into a  3-disc CD box set on the private “Al Dexter Estate” record label that he managed, featuring all of the various band configurations and tunes that his father performed.  The box set is now out of print and the label has folded due to Carl’s death in 2010, so it appears Al Dexter’s tunes and legacy will be a collector’s item –  if you can find them.

OK, Kids; Sunday Night Music History Lesson #441:  Happenstance begats  success.  It was 1984, and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, according to former Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers, was “at loose ends”.  After the breakup of Zeppelin, Page, who was at the time not playing his former band’s material and was looking for something to do, dropped by Rodgers’ house, and the two toyed around his home recording studio.  They decided to write and record some tunes; some were from their solo albums and the rest was original material.  (They did recycle a unreleased Led Zeppelin tune, though, “Midnight Moonlight.”)   Chris Slade, former drummer for Manfred Mann and Uriah Heep, and fretless bassist Tony Franklin were enlisted, and the result was a well-produced rock album with the same name as the chosen title of the band “The Firm”.   It reached #17 in the U.S. in 1985.  The “supergroup” (a moniker assigned by the music industry) was well-received, but they planned to do no more than two albums; their second was of a live performance.  They went on their ways two years later; Slade joined AC/DC, Rodgers went on to a storied career as a vocalist, and Page went on to rejoin Robert Plant and on other ventures.   Like “Blind Faith”, the supergroup of 1969, the success of such somewhat accidental blends can be significant.  Here’s their hit off their self-titled album.  Enjoy!

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!