Sunday, July 18, 2010

Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley (1969)

Though it's only mid-July, I'm time traveling into next month because it is entirely too hot for my liking.  My estivations today take us to the topic of Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds, a song I will always associate with the dog days of summer for two reasons - the song was released on August 26, 1969, and Elvis died August 16, 1977, a day that this song was played into the ground by disc jockeys everywhere.   

I remember exactly what I was doing when the news came.  I was tooling around in my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, baking with the sunroof open, on a day much like today on the temperature scale. Listening to the radio, as I always was. The song imprinted, and if I didn't associate it with high heat before, I did after that.

For someone my age, Elvis was a bit of an oddity.  I was too young to love him in his heyday, and then he became irrelevant for many years.  All that I knew of him when I was younger was that a family friend was mad about him and played Return to Sender endlessly, a song I found sort of catchy. I must have had no hormones at that point, because he was a terribly good-looking man with an electrifying smile and smoldering eyes (not to mention cheekbones that won't quit), as is evidenced in the photo on the above 45 sleeve (the last time he didn't look dissipated). In any event, to me he was more celebrity than musician.

In 1968, he staged what has been referred to as a "comeback," in a December unplugged concert special, a phenomenon of which I was completely unaware at that time. Since I was immersed in music then, why wouldn't I know about that?  The only thing I can think of is that the comeback occurred amidst a lot of other things that were more meaningful to me. The next year, he came out with the unforgettable Suspicious Minds, an operatic-style song deliciously long on melodrama that I truly loved.  I will never deny liking melodramatic songs if they're well done!

The song was written and first recorded by a Houston-based songwriter named Mark James. (I actually like his version too - a lot - which to me means it's a very good song at its core.) James was close friends with B.J. Thomas, and wrote Hooked on a Feeling for him; he was also the composer of Always On My Mind.  He recorded a demo of the song at Gold Star Studios, but nothing came of it.

James eventually left Houston to become a staff songwriter for the legendary producer Chips Moman at his American Sound Studios in Memphis. (I hate overusing that word, but Moman is legendary in the music business, so I don't know what other word to use.)  Moman was producing Thomas' stuff as well as, at that point, Presley's, and he presented Suspicious Minds to Elvis, having produced Mark James' earlier version to no particular effect. It was a collaboration that took Elvis further out of the wilderness that he had fallen into - way further. Suspicious Minds soared to #1, but it would be his last. 

Sadly, once he descended into drugs and Vegas getups, I never looked at him again while he was alive. Watching the comeback special, it's easy to see that, had I been just slightly older, I would have been every bit as much smitten as the rest. I will also admit to literally breaking down the first time I saw the video of him performing American Trilogy in the early 70's. (Watch to the end.) Already bloated and looking utterly ridiculous in his rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit, he still had a voice that could possibly have rearranged the planetary order. His premature and unnecessary death is one of the many great tragedies in American music.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Temptation Is Hard To Fight, George McGregor and the Bronzettes (1967)

I can be very late to a party sometimes, and in the case of AMC's Mad Men, I'm late by exactly three cable television seasons.  In the run-up to the premiere of the fourth on July 25, I am devouring - that's the only word for it - the first three seasons so that I can be current and enjoy the fun in real time. For my trouble, I was treated yesterday to a soundtrack song that made me snap out of my supine position and say, WTF?

The song was the outro to the second episode of the second season, and its ominous, haunted sensibility was scene-perfect. Doing some quick research, I learned that the song was Temptation Is Hard To Fight, by the musical obscurity George McGregor and the Bronzettes. And so it was off to the races for me.

Another one of those situations where the backstory isn't at one's fingertips, in all likelihood the Mad Men people excavated this song from the Eccentric Soul anthology of CDs (cover above), specifically the one called Twinight's Lunar Rotation.  I have a few of these Numero Group treasures but I didn't have this one - up until a few hours ago, when I rectified that by running over to the The Best Damn Independent Record Store in the Land, Akron, Ohio's Square Records!

The Twinight label was Chicago-based. While the label was prolific in scouting and recording local soul acts, the vast majority of its history is bound up in artists who could have been contenders for the public's attentions, but never were.  Whatever the formula for success might have been, it eluded these artists, many of whom got the most airplay in the wee hours.

The preamble of Twinight's Lunar Rotation companion booklet paints the picture: "It's a slot for high school talent show winners, major label cast offs, minor label upgrades, and girlfriends with decent voices. A few hits might squeak through, but for the most part it's the long, dark night of soul. The DJs call it lunar rotation, broadcast lingo for radio limbo, all-night airplay for 45s with no chance of making the charts, a nice time for a disc jockey to make good on that fifty dollar handshake. It's hope, but not much. Between 1967 and 1972, Chicago's lunar landscape was littered with Twinight labeled 45s. Of the 55 singles released ... only eight charted, and only one of those wasn't by Syl Johnson."

That's a damn shame, where Temptation Is Hard To Fight is concerned. The entire production - from instrumental flourishes, to George McGregor's anguished delivery, to the wails of the backing Bronzettes - is gritty and British Northern Soul-esque in its sound (for a minute I thought of dear old Chuck Wood).  What a find.  

Hailing from Alabama, George McGregor and his more famous brother Billy started their secular Chicagoland musical careers in 1960 in the Antennas and later Shirley and her Squires. Originally gospel singers, the need to make some real money led to soul music after Billy returned from the army in 1959. (Billy, as much a songwriter as a performer who worked in the steel mills his entire life, is perhaps best known for Mr. Shy. I myself never heard it, but regionally it achieved fame.)

Believing his brother had the greater singing talent, Billy wrote the song for George, and teamed up with his friend, steel guitarist Jimmy Jones, to craft what could have been - but wasn't - George's breakthrough. On the B-side, as the McGregor Brothers, they served up Every Time I Wake Up. With no promotion or distribution, and barely any airplay, the single went by the wayside.  George McGregor continued to open for other artists, but was murdered in 1979. Thanks to Mad Men, his spirit lives on.