Saturday, September 26, 2009

Duke of Earl, Gene Chandler (1962)

I've been wanting to write this for awhile now, and I was given the opportunity when it was revealed today on Facebook that singing Duke of Earl was a featured event of the wedding reception 22 years ago today for my friends Jim and Katie.

This is one of those classic songs that was released a few years before I started listening to popular music, but it has never really left the airwaves. It's similar to The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which, for people who love to exercise their vocal cords, simply never fails to please and just keeps on keepin' on.

Part of the Chicago street corner doo-wop scene that included his friend, the inimitable Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler was originally lead singer of a group called the Dukays.  The group recorded Duke of Earl, which they wrote themselves, in 1961, along with another, Nite Owl, but various contract issues with their record label prompted Chandler (not his real name) to leave the group and promote the song the Dukays had produced on his own power. 

That power was considerable, as the song sold a million copies practically overnight - the first record to achieve that on the Vee-Jay label.  It knocked Chubby Checker's The Twist out of the top spot, in fact.  Chandler, at least publicly, pretty much became the Duke of Earl, sporting a monocle, cape, top hat and cane.  Don't quite get that, myself, but it seemed to resonate with audiences and still does.

Another Chandler friend was Curtis Mayfield, with whom he worked closely for a number of years.  A song that I don't recall at all but which had a good following at slow dances, Rainbow '65, Part 1 & 2, was written by Mayfield for him. Very nice!  It was recorded and released three times, in 1963, 1965 and 1980. 

Chandler also had a career producing music.  Remember the 1969 Mel and Tim hit Backfield in Motion?  A product of Chandler's own label, Bamboo.  He continued to record in new genres, including disco (if you want to Get Down, he'll help you), and has been out there more or less continuously since he began. 

Here's to 22 more, you crazy kids! Wish I'd known you back then cause we'd have been singing this together.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My Old School, Steely Dan (1973)

California tumbles into the sea. That'll be the day I go back to Annandale. 

Been feeling like a bit of a stranger in a strange land of late, what with the citizenry trying to paint a sitting president with the brush of a "pastiche of right wing hobgoblins," as writer Max Blumenthal put it on Fresh Air this week.  

However, for some of us, it's our lot in life, and we seek out others of like sensibilities to help us realize we're not going barking mad. Trolling around on last night, I was catapulted into memories of a musical enterprise that was the epitome of the stranger in the early 70s - and a most welcome one amidst the other dreck: the cornucopia of verbal and instrumental wizardry that was Steely Dan.

Although it was never a rip-roaring commercial success, my favorite showcase of the skills of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker has got to be My Old School, which as one YouTube commenter puts it, has the "tastiest brass, rippinest guitar riff." There's nothing about the song that doesn't please at the highest levels.

I have the feeling I could research for some time on the lore of the band and its genesis. On their website, I found this amusing remembrance, How I Turned Down Steely Dan, that gives a glimpse into the early days.

On their official website, they are described as having grown up as "disaffected suburban youths" who luxuriated in jazz from an early age.  They met while students at Bard College in the Annandale(-On-Hudson) that was immortalized in My Old School.  They were always more interested in being songwriters, and moved to New York after school to try to affiliate in some way with the Brill Building.  They weren't having any success peddling their songs, but it was there that they met Kenny Vance of Jay and the Americans.  He helped them record demos of their compositions and secure various gigs as players with other groups. 

And in fact one of those groups was Jay and the Americans!  In 1970-71, Becker and Fagen were part of the rhythm section for the touring band, a part of their curriculum vitae about which they're less than enthralled. In an old radio interview, to the question "how long did you play with Jay," Becker answered, "as long as we had to." They apparently took on pseudonymns, and Jay Black called them the "Manson and Starkweather of rock and roll."  Good times!
Once striking out on their own, concluding it was the only way for their songs to see the light of day, it's not clear to me what soured them on live performance, about which they're famously ambivalent if not outright filled with loathing (although of course they're touring right now).  It seems they've always had an enthusiastic audience, but being in the studio was their first love and their obsession. And they were damn good at it. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hey Jude, The Beatles (1968)

Over the weekend, I heard an interview on NPR with Dr. Deforia Lane , who heads up the Toddler Rock early education program at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here in Cleveland.  I was not aware there was such a program, but its emphasis is on intervention with at-risk preschoolers, their caregivers and teachers, with the objective being to increase a child’s overall skill sets through the structured use of music. 
Dr. Lane, who is also director of Music Therapy at the Ireland Cancer Center of the University Hospitals of Cleveland, and Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, noted in the interview how the music of the Beatles melds particularly effectively with the toddler rock initiative.  It seems many of their songs have the qualities that produce the human response of “entrainment,” wherein the music’s rhythms are so resonant for their audience that the songs can be physically and emotionally healing or otherwise catalysts to promoting a state of liveliness or serenity.  
I’m glad I heard about that phenomenon, because I was asked by my dear friend Meghan to write a post about Hey Jude.  The occasion for this is one of profound sadness, as she was pregnant with a child she learned had Potter’s Syndrome, a fatal condition, and the child could not be carried to term.
Meghan subsequently delivered a baby girl whom she named Jude, after the patron saint of lost causes.  In the time that’s passed, as she has mourned her loss, she has been contemplating Hey Jude, a song she since realized was released in 1968 on the exact day that she found out about the fate of her unborn child.
One of the things Meghan pointed out to me was the high degree of comfort that Hey Jude has brought her in recent days, and there are numerous anecdotes of how it has served in that capacity for millions of people the world over.  We already know that the song was written by Paul McCartney to console John Lennon’s son Julian (the two had a very close relationship, closer than the father and son’s was) during John’s divorce from his first wife Cynthia.  I am assuming that one of the reasons for this effect upon the masses is that it is a living example of the entrainment transformation principle in action.  Anyone who wants to really dissect the song’s unusual structure from a musicologist’s perspective can always read Alan Pollack's extensive treatise on the subject.
I remember eagerly watching the only live performance of the song ever recorded for posterity – a previously aired David Frost Show appearance in the UK that later aired exclusively in the U.S. on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The lads had not appeared on TV for about a year at that point, and to say that I was feeling deprived is an understatement.  When Paul looked straight into the camera and sang the first “Hey Jude” as only he could, teenagers the world over swooned, figuratively and probably literally in some cases.    
I always felt the 4 minute fadeout was a bit monotonous, even despite the considerable effort McCartney expended in varying each segment of it with some new scream or scat-like vocal embellishment.  But the full 7:11 song held the #1 spot on the charts for nine weeks, so not everyone agreed with me, obviously.   
For Meghan, Hey Jude has helped her “take a sad song and make it better,” and that’s all that matters.  To her and her husband Kirk, my heartfelt condolences.   

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rain, The Beatles (1966)

I can't imagine being a bass player when this song hit the scene, It would've totally changed everything.- YouTube commenter

Well, look who's having a significant birthday today!  It's my friend Jim, and there's a party tonight so I told him I'd do a post in his honor, and I'm a woman of my word. 

First, a vignette about this day in musical history.  I can barely fathom this little item, and I certainly wouldn't have any way of knowing this without the internet, but something quite peculiar happened on James' birthday in 1964, when he was a teenager, let's just say.

On that day, if you happened to be in the Indianapolis area, you could have dropped in on the Indiana State Fair and seen the Beatles for $3, $4 and $5, depending on your budget, I guess. No, I didn't leave out a zero. There's a page where the old tickets are posted.  And another with concert footage.  And another, the set list.  I'm still scratching my head - the organizers knew they were dealing with the actual Beatles, didn't they?  And not a tribute band?  How, at the height of their fame, were the Beatles selling their wares for those prices?  It's a mystery. 

Anyway, Jim's favorite song wasn't on the playlist that day, but today it is and it's the legendary B-side to Paperback Writer that many consider to be the best B-side that anyone ever recorded - Rain

I remember Rain as one of the last 45s where the Beatles were playing as a powerful unified force of nature before it became all about the album and the artistic and/or personal splits began to be apparent.  Highly exotic, droning and masterful, Rain was especially notable for its prominent bassline - Paul McCartney is considered by some to be the greatest melodic bass player who ever lived, and his licks on this blew people away who understood such things.  Others point to the drumming as being exceptional in the Ringo canon, including Ringo himself.  

It was also the first song in which they used a backwards vocal track, which contributed to its psychedelic feel.  As described by Alan W. Pollack, the musicologist who analyzed every Beatles recording in his "Notes on ..." series,  the track was "the unprecedented (and in retrospect, historically significant) trailing vocal of John's, dubbed over the backing track by playing a tape of his earlier vocal in reverse.  The actual splicing and mixing in of this special effect was done very smoothly, especially by the standards of 1966 technology.  No pops, no clicks, no sudden change of ambiance, etc." 

The image above makes it appear as though Rain was the A-side of the record, but in fact the sleeve looked different on the two sides.  I remember finding that intriguing at the time, for no particular reason, but now it seems quite apt since history showed that Rain was probably as important a song as Paperback Writer, if not more so. 

Anyway, happy happy birthday Jimmy!  Have a delightful day, and I'll see ya later.