Friday, May 30, 2008

If You Could Read My Mind, Gordon Lightfoot (1970)

I don't know where we went wrong but the feeling's gone and I just can't get it back

The sorrow of departing love has never been distilled to such powerful effect as in singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot's signature ballad If You Could Read My Mind. It's one of those songs that instantly taps into the boundless reservoir of pain and confusion that invariably accompanies a disintegrating romance.

A comment on the web site likely sums up what many have thought: "Anyone who ever sat down with a guitar and a pen and paper would make a deal with the devil to come away with this masterpiece." It is that kind of song - starkly, unflinchingly honest yet so poetic, lending itself to endless interpretation and with timeless appeal.

Although Lightfoot moved to California for a time to study music in depth, he is one of the few Canadian artists who didn't need to succeed first here to achieve validation in his own country, where he is often described as a national treasure.

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Lightfoot performed as a boy soprano on radio, in oratorio and operetta, and sang in a barbershop quartet as a teenager, before honing his youthful voice into the singular baritone he's known for today - a sound, together with the sterling musicianship of his songwriting, that set the tone for the early '70s acoustic music scene.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Goldfinger, Shirley Bassey (1964)

Here's a question I can never answer: what kind of music do you like? Growing up in the 60s, when the industry wasn't as specialized as it is today and there was little demographic profiling on the radio, we heard many genres. Hits flew in from everywhere. The only answer I can come up with is: my favorite music is just about anything where the performers succeed in entertaining me. It has nothing to do with a genre.

So with Ian Fleming's 100th birthday next week, and all things 007 the subject of today's New York Times crossword puzzle, I've recalled another anomaly of the 60s hit parade, Dame Shirley Bassey's incomparable recording of Goldfinger. (Because we all need a laugh, the clip I've selected is her performance on The Muppet Show; it begins at about 5:45 of the video.)

Bassey has been singing almost her whole life, and continues to, but on this side of the pond, she achieved immortality for this one song alone. She got her start at 15 in her native Wales. While working in the packing department of a sausage factory, she supplemented her income singing in clubs for workingmen. Before she was 20, she was a full-fledged star in the UK.

Goldfnger was originally recorded by one of its co-lyricists, the entertainer Anthony Newley. For the film soundtrack, Beatles producer George Martin (who was even busier than I realized) was enlisted to produce the Bassey version, which is legendary for its cacophonous brass intro and overall melodrama.

In Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!: The Unofficial James Bond 007 Film Companion, song composer John Barry described Goldfinger as "... the craziest song ever. Weird song. We couldn't have written that song as a song ... Shirley Bassey didn't know what it was about but she sang it with such extraordinary conviction that she convinced the rest of the world that it meant something."

Exactly! How else could you explain the wildfire success of a song with lyrics like "This heart is cold; he loves only gold"? You can't - but for the performer and the production values. It almost makes me nostalgic for the Cold War.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

I Saw Her Standing There, The Beatles (1963)

On far too many days of late, the cumulative effect of all the things that are pervasively wrong in the world, close to home and far away, weighs far too heavily on my psyche. Made worse by the sense that there is almost nothing that can be done to right many of the wrongs - or nothing that will be done, in any case - it's hard to look forward to a better day.

That's when the balm of music seems to have its most profound effect. And there are few songs that are as therapeutic as I Saw Her Standing There. Yeah, it's 45 years old, but every time I hear it, it sounds new. And it transports me into a realm where it's possible to believe that something good could be just around the corner.

A YouTube commenter writes about the song, "The rock'n'roll bass riff. Cool guitar solo dripping with reverb. Rock-solid drumming. Tight, soaring harmonies. Never ever let it be said that The Beatles couldn't rock!"

I certainly would never say that. I'm not sure which Beatles song was the first one I ever heard - it could have been this one - but regardless, I know that whatever I was doing at the precise moment Paul McCartney's 1-2-3-4 count-off assaulted my ears became supremely unimportant. (Count-offs ordinarily would have been edited out in the studio but Beatles producer George Martin intuited the shift in the zeitgeist that was about to occur and left it in - an inspired decision.)

I've said before that many of my favorite Beatles songs were the earliest, the ones that were steeped in their seminal influences. From The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul by Walter Everett, we learn that Paul's persistent (ostinato) bassline here was an homage to a similar one in Chuck Berry's I'm Talking About You (here they are performing it in Hamburg in 1962) and that many of the guitar licks from Little Richard's Ooh! My Soul were incorporated as well, primarily by George Harrison. The Beatles' joyful interpretations of the works of their musical heroes exposed young America to whole new galaxies of rhythm and melody that made us happy to be alive.

And even on a bad day - they still do.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Diamonds & Rust, Joan Baez (1975)

The publicity machine was working overtime this week for "A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties," the new memoir by Suze Rotolo, the young girl featured on the cover of the 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

In several interviews, Rotolo mentioned or was asked about the woman who succeeded her in Dylan's affections, Joan Baez, and that reminded me of Diamonds & Rust, one of the fiercest and most unsentimental, and yet hauntingly beautiful, songs ever written or sung about the aftermath of a big love that is never really extinguished despite every attempt to do so. At a certain point in my life, these words so closely mirrored my own emotions it was frightening.

One of our generation's most steadfast campaigners for human rights and social justice, Baez gained fame as a folk singer with a three-octave range who largely interpreted others' work, but this was a stunning exception. I don't think there's any doubt that the song is about Dylan, with whom she had a symbiotic on-again, off-again relationship in the early 60s.

When they met in Greenwich Village, her career was already a few steps ahead of his. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Baez famously invited Dylan to take the stage with her, and they sang With God On Our Side, the first of many duets they would perform until their paths diverged as had happened with Rotolo at an earlier stage. There's some interesting discussion about all of this in Martin Scorcese's Dylan documentary, No Direction Home. I can't recommend it highly enough.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that the Diamonds & Rust LP was the source of my discovery of John Prine, whose devastatingly sad Hello In There Joan covered for the album. Her version is not on YouTube but his is, so voilĂ  - it's only right that this be your introduction to it anyway, despite the loveliness of Baez' version.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Oh Well, Fleetwood Mac (1969)

Can't help about the shape I'm in / I can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin / But don't ask me what I think of you / I might not give the answer that you want me to

I must have been in the habit of singing these words around the house a lot, because when I was a high school senior, my dad could pretty much recite that whole verse by heart.

Other than the rhythm section of drummer Mick Fleetwood and bassist John McVie, the band that gained lasting notoriety as Fleetwood Mac bears little resemblance to the original, which was a standard bearer of the late-60s British blues movement.

Fleetwood Mac was fronted and founded by guitar virtuoso and songwriter Peter Green, who earlier replaced Eric Clapton in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers during one of Clapton's many career changes, and whose signature style tended toward free-form instrumentals. Those inclinations were showcased to fabulous effect in Oh Well Parts 1 & 2, a two-verse song that had a radio version and a lovely extended version that went on for 9 minutes. Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer completed this particular incarnation's lineup.

What was it about Oh Well? Well ... there was nothing else at the time that was quite like it. Call it progressive blues - it wasn't full throttle rock, but it totally belonged. The distinctive guitar workout and use of percussion was just so appealing, and the two quirky verses lodged in the brain. It was a song that, when you heard it, quite simply demanded your attention.

Fans of Green know well the sad story of his descent into schizophrenia, brought on at least in part by one too many LSD trips. He famously sold his 1959 Gibson Les Paul to Skid Row and Thin Lizzy's Gary Moore, who paid impressive homage to his hero in Blues for Greeny (stay to the end of the video for a cameo appearance by Green). Thanks go out to my sister Dawn for her contribution of this factoid, which had completely eluded me.

His departure from Fleetwood Mac in 1970 set the stage for the personnel changes that ultimately morphed the band into the pop-rock institution comprised of Fleetwood, McVie and his wife Christine, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. A worthy band in its own right, but a far cry from its blues-infused beginnings.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

It Hurts To Be In Love, Gene Pitney (1964)

Continuing with our cavalcade of male vocalists whose talents were well beyond what anyone would consider normal - let's look at an early song by Gene Pitney, It Hurts to Be In Love.

Gene Pitney and I were born in the same hospital in Hartford, Connecticut, so for some dopey reason I always felt a kinship with him. One of the pre-Beatles artists who proved able to withstand the siege of the British Invasion, Pitney was already very well known in 1964 as a singer, musician and songwriter when this song broke into the Top 10.

It's a recording with many unusual qualities, not the least of which is that the unrequited love theme is presented in such rocking fashion. Get out there on the dance floor, kids, and work off that heartbreak! Love sucks, but there's no reason not to get the endorphins flowing just the same!

The dramatic Pitney treble, usually multi-tracked to even more acute effect, also had the perfect showcase in this song. One of the notable features is the intervals of rushed lyrics - the breathless "who's not in love with you" and "no matter what you do" are awesome touches.

The song was co-written by Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka's Brill Building partner, with Helen Miller, and seemed a perfect vehicle for Sedaka. In fact, the song's first incarnation came in the form of a Sedaka demo but various contractual issues prevented its release. There seems to be a controversy over whether the Pitney version of the song was accomplished by merely laying his vocals over the existing backing tracks of the demo (see this interesting blog where some fairly first-hand knowledge from a commenter disputes the conventional wisdom).

And the controversies keep coming: One of the many songs Pitney wrote for others was He's A Rebel, by the Crystals. Should be a fairly straightforward statement, except that as I looked for the connection between Pitney and Darlene Love, who inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, I come to find that Phil Spector allegedly used Love and her Blossoms to record the song to rush it out ahead of a Vicki Carr version, yet still gave credit to the Crystals, who were not available for the recording session when it was scheduled. Oh, bad form, Phil!

By the end of his life in 2006, Gene Pitney had had many more interesting associations, but further anecdotes will make this post too long. I'll end with a final oddity of which I was completely unaware: before It Hurts was released, that same year Pitney recorded That Girl Belongs to Yesterday, written by none other than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, their first song to chart in America. How bizarre is that?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tell It Like It Is, Aaron Neville (1966)

The first time Aaron Neville opened his mouth to sing with people present must have been quite a memorable experience for all involved. In any man, that unearthly falsetto would be remarkable; from this towering gentle giant, it's well and truly surreal.

Last week's news about the triumphant return of Neville and his brothers Art, Charles and Cyril to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time since their homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reminded me that I wanted to write about his 1966 hit recording Tell It Like It Is.

Up to that point just kicking around the New Orleans clubs, working construction jobs to earn his living, Aaron's big break came when he learned that some local acquaintances were starting an R&B label called Par-Lo. George Davis and Lee Diamond had written Tell It Like It Is and, aware of Aaron's vocal talents, wanted him to cut the record.

Although a ballad, its message had certain anthemic qualities that resonated with the times, and it was a huge smash, kept at bay from the #1 spot only by the Monkees' I'm A Believer, of all things. As Art Neville says in the oral history The Brothers, "I heard Tell It Like It Is and I told Aaron, I said, 'Bro, this is the shit right here. This is the serious shit."

Unfortunately, the label wasn't solvent (the backstory on that is here), and Aaron never saw any return on that success. Though he continued to perform solo and with his brothers, it wasn't until 20+ years later when he began a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt, on which she acted as producer in some instances as well his duet partner, that he returned to the national spotlight.

Though the duets aren't his best songs by any stretch of the imagination - for one I would put in that category, check out his rendering of Ave Maria and prepare for your heart to burst - Ronstadt's care and feeding of Neville helped bring his gifts to the masses, where they deserve to be.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, B.J. Thomas (1966)

And while we're on the subject of B.J. Thomas ... I'll write about one of his songs that brings me to tears at the first note, his gorgeous cover of Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.
"Never listen to this sad song after cocktail hour," says one YouTube commenter. Probably good advice, unless you feel like having your heart ripped out.

Growing up, country music was a musical genre that was largely relegated to a subculture many associated with Hee Haw and cariacaturish women with gigantic wigs. Consequently, my primary exposure to its worthy songs came through more contemporary artists like B.J. Thomas who took Williams' version and made it his own.

A more pleasing singing voice you couldn't hope to find. Thomas began honing that voice in church as a child in Houston, and the rich, gospel-esque tones that I've always responded to must have been nourished in that environment. He was lead singer for a group called the Triumphs when I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry was first recorded, which led to his being signed by a national label. With national distribution, it became a Top 10 hit.

Thomas achieved more enduring stardom when as a solo artist he released Hooked on a Feeling and Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head. The story goes that Thomas was handed the opportunity to record the soundtrack version of the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid song thanks to Dionne Warwick, who was a fellow artist on Thomas' record label and brought him to Burt Bacharach's attention as he was casting about for the right singer. (Bob Dylan and Ray Stevens were among those who turned down the opportunity, apparently.)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

I Knew You When, Billy Joe Royal (1965)

(Note: I'm sure that's a CD cover over there, but I can't find the image for the original Down in the Boondocks album, on which I Knew You When was released, anywhere.)

I don't know what got me started thinking about I Knew You When this week. It's not like Billy Joe Royal can be easily found in the airwaves mainstream anymore, although apparently he still tours and is as active as ever. I'm listening right now to all kinds of recordings he's had since that I knew nothing of, and he's good!!!

Royal grew up in a thriving regional music scene in and around Atlanta that included the likes of Joe South, B.J. Thomas (with whom he still tours), Swinging Medallions and Classics IV. Best known for Down in the Boondocks, which broke nationally when he was busy working the club circuit in Cincinnati, Royal followed it with the chillingly irresistible I Knew You When, both of which Joe South wrote for him. A prolific songwriter, South attained national stardom with Games People Play, and was also the composer of (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden which became a huge hit for Lynn Anderson.

According to his fansite, Royal debuted as a paid performer when he worked a New Year's Eve show in Atlanta that also featured Gladys Knight. He began to get significant attention regionally when he became a regular on The Georgia Jubilee radio show; this is how he met South. He soon became part of a house band in Savannah, where he sang in front of thousands and with such acts as Fats Domino, George Jones, Roy Orbison and the Isley Brothers.

I've just learned from reading a fragment of Rock'n' Roll and the Cleveland Connection by Deanna R. Adams that an American Bandstand-inspired show called Upbeat that aired here was the launching pad for Royal's national breakthrough. Interesting! I didn't live here at the time so was not familiar with the show, but I love those local angles.

Royal's exposure to - and mining of - such diversity in his musical influences infused his work with sensibilities that ranged from soul to r&b to country, making him yet another example of a 60s artist who probably would have gotten limited airplay today because he was too hard to shoehorn into any one genre.