Saturday, March 27, 2010

Come 'Round Here (I'm the One You Need), Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (1966)

Now when you need the love he's never shown you - come round here
And when you need some loving arms to hold you - come round here
Now I may not be the one you want
But I know I'm the one you need

If I ever needed proof that music becomes a part of us, I confirmed it a few days ago when I was compiling a playlist for an upcoming Dance Dance Party Party event here in Akron. 

I sensed that a certain soul song from my early teens was straining to break out of my brain, its driving rhythm close by but still lurking just out of reach. I knew it was a song that was somewhat rare, not the biggest hit that this artist had ever had, but recalled that, whatever it was, it had rearranged my molecules when I first encountered it.

My mind kept fixating on Stevie Wonder, and I checked over his early discography, but nothing was jumping out. Then suddenly my thoughts drifted to Smokey Robinson.  That man's been everywhere on my radar screen lately - keynoting at SXSW, guesting on Elvis Costello's Spectacle show, tweeting, singing the heartbreaking eulogy for the Melvin Franklin character in the Temptations miniseries. Could it have been a Miracles song? 

Checking out his early discography with the Miracles, I saw Come 'Round Here (I'm the One You Need). That title stirred the embers of something deep within me, but I still wasn't sure if it was what I was thinking about.  Was it on YouTube?  It was!  And then I clicked on it ...

I'm always rediscovering songs that I once loved and had forgotten all about, but my reaction to this one was intense. To literally excavate something like that from the fiber of one's being produces a feeling that's hard to describe. I doubt that I've heard it more than a handful of times in the 44 years that have elapsed since I listened to the vinyl single obsessively and danced my heart out in my room at the age of 13.  It is probably the most underrated song in the Smokey-Miracles canon.  Now that it's back in my life, I know it will never leave.

As pretty much everyone knows, Robinson was and is a prolific songwriter for himself and the Miracles as well as any number of the Motown fixtures, such as the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes.  But this song was not one of those.  It was written by Motown's legendary writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.  The works of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says, "epitomized the Motown sound: a fluid, uptempo style that combined catchy lyrics with the fervor of gospel, the groove of R&B and the polish of pop."

I am guilty of overusing the word "masterpiece," but what can I do?  This is one.  Robinson's near-desperate pleas, half sung, half wailed ... Marv Tarplin's juicy riffs piling on the tension ... the inimitable James Jamerson on bass along with the rest of the Funk Brothers.  All in all, an almost otherworldly synthesis of astounding talent among young men who were the building blocks of the Motown empire that blessed us with, as it was known, "The Sound of Young America."


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Love Is The Answer, Todd Rundgren and Utopia (1977)

Over the years, we've been served up any number of rock anthems of brotherhood.  Few of them have moved me.  Maybe it's because I don't think most people honestly care about brotherhood in our "it's all about me" society.

But the other day, I happened to hear the soaring voice of Todd Rundgren singing Love Is The Answer with his prog-rock band Utopia on Philadelphia's WXPN, and it brought a tear to my eye.

I've written about the mercurial Todd before - he wears a ton of hats and marches to the beat of his own banging drummer, been there, done that.  But what really interests me is that amazing lush voice of his, coming out of such an unlikely-looking person. Granted, he's looked like many different people over the years.  But none of them seem congruent with what emerges from that voicebox. Where on earth does it come from?  Because it's the voice that gets to me when I hear a song like this (no, England Dan and John Ford Coley did not write or originate it), or any of the great songs he wrote.

It's pretty well known that Todd grew up in the musical melting pot of Philadelphia, and in a recent interview with blogger Gene Myers he explained that in Philly, mainstream radio carried a lot of what was then referred to as race music. One of his early bands, The Nazz, didn't have a lot of original material and performed the music of others including, he said, "Ooh Baby Baby by the Miracles with the full harmonies ..."

Now we're getting somewhere!  Channeling Smokey Robinson - that would certainly explain a lot about the operatic sweetness of his voice. However, I want to know more. So far I haven't come across much that pertains to the singing specifically. Lots on every other aspect of his plethora of talents.  I'll keep looking. 
And speaking of those talents, tomorrow in New York City a new class will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For the 15th year, free spirit Todd Rundgren, the very embodiment of rock and roll, won't be included in that class - and ABBA will. He has been considered, but never made the cut, and I can only imagine what the pro-con discussions at the HOF must be like. While his legions of fans find this unseemly in the extreme, he may not care one whit. Still, as one fan says at the Future Rock Legends site, "Just do it before the Rapture, OK?"

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Gone Gone Gone, Everly Brothers (1964)

Heaven. I'm in heaven. There's actually a connection between Gone Gone Gone and Richard Thompson.  Just one of the many reasons I love doing this blog.  More on that later.

I never knew much about these boys; their greatest success had largely occurred before I became cognizant of rock & roll.  But their hits were always played on the radio, so they were certainly part of the sonic backdrop of my teen years. I was vaguely aware that they'd had a long period after the 60s where they'd stopped speaking to each other, although they've long since gone into d├ętente. What I didn't know was how influential they were in the overall scheme of things and how many later artists - from Barry Gibb to Keith Richards - freely paid homage to their talents. 

So maybe I shouldn't be surprised that they were in the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 1986 by Neil Young, who made no bones about the fact that it was pretty impossible to duplicate the Everlys' harmonies, though many had tried, in his experience. And in the fall of 1964, they were tapped to be on the first episode of Shindig!, which was must-see TV for baby boomers. 

(Just for grins, I searched Twitter before writing this post, to see what, if any, profile they have today in the cyber-conversation. I expected nothing; I got page after page of tweets just covering the past few days.)

This appears to be another case of the talent being in the DNA. Don and Phil Everly were the sons of a Kentucky coal miner who, along with his brothers, perfected a thumbpicking guitar style that became all the rage in their county.  When the family moved to Chicago, the elder Everly brothers continued to ply their trade in the city's honky-tonks. Don Everly grew up thinking that families singing together was just what you did.

Moving further midwest where Ike Everly got the itch to forge a radio career, the sons soon were singing on their parents' live program on station KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa. Ike had taught them to play guitar and they apparently had naturally appealing singing voices. As records began to supplant live shows, the family continued its nomadic existence, landing in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

This put them within striking distance of Nashville and, when they got old enough, they went out on their own, hired by Roy Acuff's publishing company as songwriters. They were befriended by Chet Atkins, who found them enthralling and took them under his wing.  In 1957, songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant gave them Bye Bye Love, a song at which dozens of other acts had turned up their noses.  And they were off ... marrying their splendiferous close harmonies with their rollicking guitar licks into a rockabilly-style musical form that pleased crowds across the land.

Gone, Gone, Gone, co-written by Don and Phil, was a relatively rare (for them) full-out rocker, and they did a bang-up job at it.  It was one of the last songs they recorded that did reasonably well on the charts. I love watching them performing this (and so did the near-crazed go-go dancers in that video!); it reflects the best of them in their heyday. They radiated such joy, cocking their pompadoured heads toward and away from the shared mike, in constant motion from start to finish as they reveled in what their voices could do.  Of course now I realize that they were knee-high to a grasshopper when they learned how to be entertainers, and they were experts at it. 

Gone Gone Gone is a song that has enchanted others, most recently Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, who were bestowed with a Grammy for their efforts (I saw them perform this in concert and, honestly, it was the song I liked the least in their storied collaboration, but whatever ... ).  Circling back to Richard Thompson, though - Fairport Convention loved the song, too, and performed their cover of it for Heyday: the BBC Radio Sessions 1968-69. You can hear 30 seconds of it on Amazon.  I might just have to buy it.