Monday, September 29, 2008

Gonna Take A Miracle, Laura Nyro and Labelle (1971)

Note: Another guest blogger, my friend who goes by the name of Mombi in the blogosphere, is on hand to contribute one of her most beloved tunes from 1971. Mombi was born in 1979, but she is the child of baby boomers, and so she was steeped in this stuff, and loves it as if she had been nourished on it, which, of course, she was ...

Gonna Take a Miracle was recorded by the earthy goddess Laura Nyro and soulful power trio Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash - aka Labelle - in a hurried, yet magical, one-week recording session in the throes of a 1971 Philadelphia summer heat of an album of Nyro's favorite "teenage heartbeat songs."

But just how did a little white Midwestern girl born in 1979 come into contact with such an eclectic album, pray tell? Well, I have my mother to thank for bestowing this precious gem upon me, as my mind has woven the family memories surrounding the whole album into the very fiber of my being.

So many nights as my mother and two sisters went about our daily lives, the deafening silence of our home would suddenly be broken with the album's opening track, and from all corners of the house, the background vocals would materialize. We would appear from our various hiding places to share in 34 minutes of joyful singing and dancing. I've always felt like this album was a little-known treasure to be protected, as if the very nature of it, so gentle and heartfelt, had to be sheltered from the world.

Originally recorded by the Royalettes in 1965, that version of Gonna Take A Miracle is outstanding in its own right, but comes across as a wee bit detached by comparison to the Nyro/Labelle version, which transports us between shock, loss and anger as we mourn the ending of a romantic relationship, and then come finally to moments of hope - either for reconciliation or the strength to carry on despite the dire situation at hand.

It begins by being blindsided by a lover leaving, never suspecting that something was wrong. At first she wallows in her sadness, but builds to frustration (Now I know I can’t get through to you / I promise I will show you how much you’re turning me around, destroying me / I’ll never be the same anymore!)

As if surprised by this outburst, she then follows with an almost apologetic plea (You must realize, you took your love and left me quite by surprise / I could have told you that it’s gonna take a miracle… to love someone new when I’m crazy for you), completing the full circle of emotions that goes along with grieving a failed relationship.

The sense of desperation and sadness is so deeply explored; yet again, faith in true love has been tested and failed. There’s not much more that crosses generations and races like knowing what it’s like to have your heart ripped out and fed to you, yes?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I Got You Babe, Sonny & Cher (1965)

Today I've been wallowing in the past, 1965 to be exact, seeing as how present day America is so fraught with peril it's difficult to focus on it without succumbing to a sense of utter impending doom.

So I've been watching that classic screwball duo Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 in old episodes of the groundbreaking spy spoof Get Smart, which debuted in 1965, and thinking about another duo that hit the scene the same year, Sonny & Cher.

To a sheltered 12-year-old, I Got You Babe was a treat (and as it turned out, also a trick). Just as Agent 99 was a role model of sorts in portraying the exciting career working alongside a man she adored, so 19-year-old Cher provided a glimpse into a different, but just as enthralling, world - where she could live a "you and me against the world" sort of life singing and laughing with the man she adored. What was not to like about either one of those fantasies?

The older Sonny Bono had been working as a promoter for Phil Spector when he met Cher and helped her land a job as a session singer. (That was her in You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' by the Righteous Brothers, and Be My Baby by the Ronettes, among others.) He also was a songwriter, and it was his Needles and Pins (written with Jack Nitzsche), that cemented stardom during the British Invasion for the Searchers.

Having initially recorded Baby Don't Go as a duet, Sonny then wrote I Got You Babe for the two of them and gave it to KHJ Radio in L.A. exclusively, to be played once an hour. Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun was certain the B-side, It's Gonna Rain, was the greater hit, a view Sonny did not share (thank God, it's awful!) and he decided to head Ertegun off at the pass by promising DJs exclusives. Given that kind of saturation exposure, I Got You Babe was a smash hit in one week, the Stones' Satisfaction hanging just behind it at #2.

I have always been a sucker for songs with dramatic shifts in the vocal key, and Cher's modulation at the "and if I get scared, you're always around" verse still gives me the shivers. And few songs of that time provided such a platform for an intimate look at the lives of its performers.

Though we would later learn that their wholesome-yet-rebellious image was just as carefully crafted in some ways as images are today, nonetheless it had an element of authenticity to it that was very appealing. Sonny & Cher made you think they were singing just for us, wanted us (not our parents) to get to know them and accept them in all their hippie glory, and we did. Their particular chemistry, while it was good, was nothing short of delightful.

Friday, September 19, 2008

What A Fool Believes, Doobie Brothers (1978-9)

What a fool believes he sees / no wise man has the power to reason away / What seems to be / is always better than nothing

I'm teetering perilously close to the brink of what I would consider the end of the baby boomer music years with this, but I heard What A Fool Believes today for the first time in a long time and it was so laden with memories that I can't resist adding it to the Estivator catalog. (Plus there's a part of me that thinks it's quite relevant to our current political scene as well.)

The characterization by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins of the mindset involved in unrequited love packs such a punch; when this song was released in 1978 on the Minute By Minute album (and the following year as a single, for which McDonald and Loggins were honored with the Song of the Year Grammy in 1980), I was the fool believing, and it was impossible to look in the mirror of this song and not see myself. Yet it was also somehow tremendously comforting to be enveloped in the universal sensibilities that What A Fool Believes captured so perfectly.

Michael McDonald, late of Steely Dan, was recruited for the band when Doobies co-founder Tom Johnston left due to ill health. Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, another Dan veteran who had been absorbed into the Doobies when Donald Fagen and Walter Becker decided to retire into session musicianship, suggested his former fellow bandmate as a fill-in. McDonald's keyboards and unearthly tenor took the Doobies into another stratosphere, from the California hippie band that it had been to a true pop sensation with a kick-ass rhythm section.

According to veteran rock critic Dave Marsh, in the The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, McDonald had written a good bit of the song but was stalling on the bridge. Loggins, whom McDonald did not know but who had recently split from his partner Jim Messina, was suggested as a possible collaborator by Doobie Brother Tiran Porter (not sure where the thought process came from here, but OK), and the rest is history. As Marsh wrote, "For once, the Grammys spent its accolades where they were deserved. Carefully crafted, gorgeously sung, beautifully arranged and pristinely recorded, What A Fool Believes holds up as one of the finest examples of seventies L.A. pop."

No argument, Dave!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Together Till the End of Time, Spencer Davis Group (1966)

Note: Another guest blogger is haunting our midst today, one KarmaSartre, as he's known in the blogosphere. KS had the great good luck to grow up in and around San Francisco so he's a veritable font of knowledge and insight on my favorite topic. He's got one of the most wicked senses of humor that I know, but he takes his baby boomer music very seriously, so here he is on one of his favorites:

One of the most beautiful songs in the history of rock and roll, Together Till the End of Time was written by Motown producer and songwriter Frank Wilson and was the lead track on the Spencer Davis Group's Autumn '66 album. Like most of their great songs, it was stunning, pure Stevie Winwood. His 17-year-old pipes are magnificent. I had heard his version of Georgia on My Mind (why didn't he play Ray in the movie?) , so I knew his capabilities were even greater than his Force-9 performances on Gimme Some Lovin and I'm A Man.

If you can hear it through your tears, Together Till the End of Time conveys the youthful promise of love as the pathway out of this place ... and a better life in the future ... and "Wouldn't It Be Nice"... and young lovers at the edge of an absurd, madding, thoughtless society ... and "there's a new world somewhere, they call it the Promised Land" ... and holding tight to each other before spinning forever into oblivion. We have heard that before.

But the melody is almost painfully beautiful, and Stevie's vocal, the soulful wailing of a 90-year-old in the precocious body of a young man blessed with perfect pitch, an incredible range, and a supernatural sense of the blues, separates it from all the rest. It's a song to live for.

I saw Stevie perform with Traffic, right after Dave Mason had left. He played organ and ran the bass line with the foot pedals, then broke out his guitar for a perfect "Dear Mr. Fantasy" - he was radiant. Then, decades later, back in the high life, he nearly lulled me to sleep with the low spark of his high-heeled dirge. Oh, would that he had sprung Together ... on me.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Louisiana 1927, Randy Newman (1975)

Louisiana ... Louisiana ... they're trying to wash us away, they're trying to wash us away ...

As inconceivable as it is, New Orleans and the surrounding area is again in the eye of a storm that threatens destruction of such magnitude that almost 2 million people have been evacuated to avoid a repeat of the unspeakable catastrophe Hurricane Katrina left in its wake.

Our hearts are in our throats for people whose choices come down to, as one resident put it, "Do you leave it and worry about it, or do you stay and worry about living?" (According to today's paper, this person picked option 1, taking one of the last buses out of town.)

The last time this happened, Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927 became the unofficial anthem of those fellow citizens who were ravaged by Mother Nature and poor civil engineering - left to their own devices by every public official who could have lifted a finger and didn't. It appears that won't be the case this time; we won't watch in horror as the government "... sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes," as Barack Obama observed in his acceptance speech Thursday night. Amazing what can happen when indifference is replaced with competence, or at the very least, determination to do the right thing.

Newman's mother was from the city, and he found himself researching its history, including the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River that followed months of heavy rain - and the disgraceful, racist handling of that relief effort. I didn't know this song in 1975, only becoming aware of it when New Orleans native Aaron Neville recorded his deeply affecting version for the 1991 Warm Your Heart album and performed it live after he was driven from his home 15 years later by Katrina and another disgraceful, racist relief effort.

As pointed out in a New York Times article from earlier this year, Louisiana has become a folk song in that it has been adapted by other artists to make it more relevant to current events. References to President Coolidge changed to Bush, Evangeline morphed into Lower Nine, river became levee, and Newman's original acerbic lyric "cracker" is sometimes Creole, farmer or people ... However it's tweaked, it is vintage Randy Newman - simple, mournful, packing a huge punch.

Godspeed to all who are facing the trials and tribulations of the upheaval, and to all who decided to stay.