Friday, February 27, 2015

Four versions of "Rings": Who's on the Stereo?

"Rings" was a #17 for Cymarron, a soft rock trio who'd later team up with Bread's Jimmy Griffin in the '90s as the Remingtons. Written by pro songwriters Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey (not the British cult rocker), the song's lyrics toyed with telephones, doorbells, and wedding bands, and it seemed to indicate that success in romantic relationships correlated with the comfort level of one's living room. Four versions of this song charted in Billboard in the early seventies, each of which altered the original line, "I've got James Taylor on the stereo," with a different artist in JT's place.

Cymarron - "Rings" (1971, Billboard #17)
Who's on the stereo? James Taylor.

Tompall and the Glaser Brothers - "Rings" (1971, Billboard country #7)
Who's on the stereo? Merle Haggard.

Lobo - "Rings" (1974, Billboard #43)
Who's on the stereo? The Allman Brothers.

Reuben Howell - "Rings" (1974, Billboard #86)
Who's on the stereo? Jim Croce.

Reuben Howell (a Motown label Caucasian) and Lobo, by the way, both entered the Billboard's Hot 100 on July 20, 1974 with versions that bypassed the stirring flat-VII ("laugh and sing"). Why they both checked in this way exactly three years after the song's first flurry of success isn't clear to me in spite of some digging. There's a story here, I'm sure. (Leo Kottke did a version of the song in 1983, expertly inserting Mel Blanc as the stereo artist but also bypassing the flat-VII.)


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: Last Tango in Paris (1973)


Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris depicted a steamy affair between two hopelessly damaged souls: an American widower (played by Marlon Brando in one of his quintessential performances) and a young French married girl who remain nameless to each other. At once a clear manifestation of post-sixties sexual freedom and its very seventies psychic complications, the bilingual film knocked critics off their theater seats and gave mere thrill seekers nightmares. What lingered in most moviegoers heads, though, was the moaning trumpet in Gato Barberi's theme music. Many instrumentalists got busy with personalized arrangements of the song, with only Herb Alpert and Tonight Show trumpeter Doc Severinsen checking in with chart listings. And I submit the following: Isn't it interesting how Jack Elliott's theme music for the Charlie's Angels TV show (1976-81) evoked the Last Tango theme to subconsciously heighten its sexual edge?

Herb Alpert and the TJB - "Last Tango in Paris" (1973, Billboard #77)
Doc Severinsen - "The Last Tango in Paris" (1973, Billboard # 106)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Singer-Songwriters and the "No Fault Divorce" Law

James Cushing, quoted in Harvey Kubernik's Turn Up the Radio!: Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972 (p. 232): "People say that the singer-songwriter genre happened because people were recovering from the sixties, but I think there's another reason - California adopted the 'no fault divorce' law in July 1970, and then the rest of the country followed suit. Before that time, it was really hard to get a divorce. You had to prove so many things, hire lawyers to get photographs, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown. Prior to 1970, the California Supreme Court ruled that, from now on, there will be exactly two reasons for divorce: incurable insanity or irreconcilable differences.

"This new law had enormous impact on everyone - the people who made the music, who listed to the music, who sold the music, their secretaries, their lawyers, and the listeners with their radios. All of a sudden, none of them had to worry about hiring a divorce detective. Now, if you got sick and tired of your spouse, you could get divorced right away. So it seemed that everybody got divorced.

"From an observer's viewpoint, divorce can be very liberating for both parties, but, according to psychologists, it's the equivalent of a death in the family, in terms of persona trauma. So everybody's newly liberated, but traumatized. In light of this situation, James Taylor singing 'You've Got a Friend' sounds really good. But Jim Morrison singing 'Break on Through' does not sound as good, because you've just broken on through to the other side of the conventional life, and now that you've broken on through, you're stuck with the fact that it's broken, and you broke it. I hope you like it broken, That's what you wanted. Oh, but you feel a strange nostalgia for the unbroken? You've got a friend."

James Taylor - "You've Got a Friend" (1971, Billboard #1)

Monday, February 2, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: Black Caesar (1973), Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), and Hell Up in Harlem (1974)

Black Caesar tends to get mentioned as one of the blaxploitation flim genre's better moments. Loosely based on the 1931 gangster classic Little Caesar, it tells the story of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), who climbs the organized crime ladder and becomes the scourge of New York City's corrupt lawmakers. James Brown's soundtrack gives the movie added muscle, with his "Down and Out in New York City" smoldering as theme music and his "Mama's Dead" sounding like he's in the studio shedding real tears.

According to the film's director Larry Cohen in Reflections on Blaxploitation (p. 56), though, the Godfather of Soul had a habit of ignoring directors' time specifications for each cue, saddling them with extra editing work. He had done the same thing with his music for Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), and when Cohen requested to use a Brown soundtrack for the Black Caesar sequel (Hell Up in Harlem), American International rejected it, opting instead for Motown's Edwin Starr. (Starr's own "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem" didn't turn out so bad, and the film sequence his "Big Papa" accompanies is kind of a scream). Brown released the rejected music on his Payback album, which was aptly named because its title track hit #1 on Billboard's R&B charts, while Starr's song only managed #110 on the pop charts and was shut out of the R&B listings. Also, the Payback album served as the score for Guy Ritchie's popular Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels twenty-four years later.

Here's a crucial bit of information one must know before viewing Black Caesar today: The ending on the DVD is different from how audiences experienced it in theaters in 1973. It contains a minute's worth of footage that was lopped off by Cohen after the first screenings. When you watch it on DVD, Tommy Gibbs staggers back to his old neighborhood, where a gang of black street thugs jumps him and presumably kills him. This is more in keeping with the comeuppance all gangsters received in thirties cinema and makes for a stronger, more poignant ending.

Test audiences were outraged by this original ending, though, and when it was trimmed to show Gibbs careening across a busy downtown sidewalk before credits rolled, peace was restored and the film became a big hit. When DVD and VHS versions came out in the early '80s, however, they used the original negative, so, according to Cohen, "there are two versions of the movie - the home video version and the theatrical cut" (pp. 51-52). Therefore, if you watch the critically unadmired Hell Up in Harlem immediately after Black Caesar, you scratch your head, wondering why the sequel starts with him at the crosswalk and never shows him getting the shaft at the old 'hood.

And by the way, if you're hoping to experience the James Brown soundtrack in action for Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973) (a sequel to 1972's Slaughter, both starring the unrelated Jim Brown), DVD versions with the original soundtrack, including the chart hit "Sexy Sexy Sexy," are pretty much impossible to find. They've all got a faux blaxploitation dummy score for some reason. More punishment for Soul Brother Number One for not following the original cue instructions?

James Brown - "Down and Out in New York City" (1973, Billboard #50, R&B #13)
James Brown - "Mama's Dead" (1973, did not chart)
James Brown - "Sexy Sexy Sexy" (1973, Billboard #50, R&B #6)
Edwin Starr - "Hell Up in Harlem" (1974, Billboard #110)
Edwin Starr - "Big Papa" (1974, did not chart)
James Brown - "The Payback, Pt. 1" (1974, Billboard #26, R&B #1)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wolfman Jack on the Charts

Wolfman Jack (born Bob Smith) created such a perfect radio persona that it's hard to imagine him not being around before he started howling from XERF, a 250,000 watt "border blaster" in Ciudad Acuña (near Del Rio, Texas) in 1963. Later in the sixties, the Wolfman's moon-bark and growling jive talk filled American midnight skies thanks to two additional airwave monsters, the Tijuana stations XERB and XEG. He was the hallucinating night driver's companion, the insomniac's blessing and curse, and the juvie's secret accomplice. (He remembers the '50s DJs he cut his fangs on as being "a lot cooler than even the toughest hood in the toughest street gang around.") It all sounds a bit mythical, but George Lucas was one listener who experienced the Wolfman's radio hoodoo and made it quasi mythical by featuring it as a crucial aspect of American Graffiti (1973), the ultimate manifestation of the early seventies nostalgia boom.

For me, what makes Wolfman Jack special among radio legends is that he was a true "personality DJ" fueled by music. Usually the personality jocks are inconvenienced by music while the music wonks tend not to sweat the manner of delivery. It was Wolfman Jack's passion for R&B 45's he discovered in the '50s, most of them oldies by the time he became a household name, that fueled his character and made him so addictive to listeners. This passion is all over his 1995 memoir Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal (written with Byron Laursen), and it's one reason why the book, published only a single month before his death, is such a pleasurable showbiz memoir. Other reasons are its voice, which anyone familiar with him would recognize as his (hats off to Laursen, who transcribed personal interviews), along with remarkable stories like the one where he explains how he joined forces with XERF. That's a tale of shadowy border intrigue, greenbacks in burlap sacks, and gun slinging bandidos worthy of a rock 'n' roll corrido or two.

The post-American Graffiti Wolfman Jack, of course, was a multimedia experience. In addition to ongoing radio work, he was the Midnight Special host from 1973 to 1981, a regular presence on TV commercials ("Clearasil's the triple threat!"), and the guest star/host of many a sitcom, drama, and variety show. All of this activity makes me think about the stuff the Wolfman didn't do. How would his involvement in Happy Days have reshaped the show had his staff not turned down the show's invitation? Or how might his ambitious road show I Saw Radio - featuring tributes to vintage rock 'n' roll, archived clips from classic DJs, and an elaborate set including a massive radio dial - have flourished had it not literally gone up in flames, thanks to some Union thugs? (His recounting of a confrontation between said thugs, the show's road crew, and some Detroit theater security who turned out to be "three of the wimpiest rent-a-cops this side of a Don Knotts film festival" is another story that sticks in my head.)  To his credit, whatever the media situation Wolfman Jack did find himself prowling through, his rock 'n' roll pedigree was always the clear reason why.

Here are a handful of Wolfman Jack-oriented singles that got airplay in the early to mid-'70s and charted in Billboard:

Wolfman Jack - "I Ain't Never Seen a White Man" (1972, #106): This racial equality offering appeared on Wolfman Jack's self-titled solo album, which was his first proper one (pictured above). It featured compositions by Richard Monda, who had already been writing songs for another wolfman and his monster friends on the Groovie Goolies cartoon. As Daddy Dewdrop, Monda took his song "Chick-A-Boom (Don't Ya Jes' Love It)", with its Wolfman Jack-influenced lead vocal, to #6 in 1971.

The Guess Who - "Clap for the Wolfman" (1974, #6): Canada got a real case of Wolfman fever in the mid-'70s and this might have had to do with his 1973 stints on WNEW and WNBC in New York City.  He credits this hit single and the Guess Who (who took him out on the road) for getting him out of what he describes as a self-destructive situation in the Big Apple.

Ray Stevens - "Moonlight Special" (1974, #73): A pretty funny parody featuring "The Sheepdog" introducing acts like "Mildred Queen and the Dips" (Gladys Knight and the Pips), "Agnes Stupor" (Alice Cooper), and "J. Joe Harry Lee Jimmy Bimmy" (Jerry Lee Lewis). This was Stevens' followup single for his chart-topping "The Streak."

Todd Rundgren - "Wolfman Jack (featuring Wolfman Jack)" (1974, #105): On Rundgren's 1972 Something/Anything? album, this song (which doubles up as a terrific Motown tribute), appears without the Wolfman's voice anywhere. The 1974 single release of "Wolfman Jack," though, rectified the situation.

Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta - "Don't Call Us, We'll Call You" (1974, #9): This Denver group was simply called "Sugarloaf" when they hit #3 with "Green Eyed Lady" in 1970. With this single, they were officially "Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta," since Corbetta had been working as a solo artist for another label before getting back together with the old gang. "Don't Call Us" razzes on CBS Records, who had recently rejected the band, and includes the dialtones to the label's private number. Also featured: winks to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder along with an imitation of the Wolfman.

The Stampeders - "Hit the Road Jack" (1975, #40): More Canadian love for the Wolfman, this time from the Calgary trio who scored a #8 hit in 1971 with "Sweet City Woman." Lacking in Ray Charles buoyancy, the single's still fun with contributions from Wolfman Jack himself. In 1976 and 1977 he would host a TV variety series called The Wolfman Jack Show, which was filmed in Vancouver and syndicated to the US.

Wings - "Listen to What the Man Said" (1975, #1): Although the radio version of this Paul McCartney smash often didn't include it, the Venus and Mars album version starts out with a spoken Wolfman Jack intro: "Heh, heh, very good to see you down in New Orleans, heh, heh, yeah, yeah..."

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids - "Did You Boogie (With Your Baby)" (1976, #29): This Sha Na Na-style '50s tribute band (also from Colorado, like Sugarloaf) appeared in American Graffiti as the prom combo and contributed the only freshly-recorded material to the movie's soundtrack album. An eventual team up with Wolfman Jack, then, seemed natural, even if it ended up sounding more like something from Happy Days' shark-jumping era. (Certain pressings of this single, for some reason, omitted his spoken interludes.)

Late '70s Bonus:
Tammy Wynette - "(I'd Like to See Jesus) On the Midnight Special" (1978, country #26): Wolfman Jack's response: "...To my knowledge, the Son of God never made a personal appearance for us [on the Midnight Special]. But practically everybody else in show business eventually did" (Have Mercy, p. 263).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Radio Memoirs: Superjock

Published in 1975, Larry Lujack's Superjock captures him freshly arrived at the top of Chicago's Top 40 airwaves. He was working the afternoon drive shift at WCFL ("The Voice of Labor") when this came out, a few years after the station, programmed by the brilliant John Rook, had managed to outpace the ratings of powerful WLS (where Lujack had previously worked until 1972). This would all come undone by 1976, though, when CFL switched formats to "The World's Most Beautiful Music," prompting Lujack, a few months later, to move back to WLS, where he'd stay until 1987.  (You can hear Lujack handling the 1976 format transition on YouTube, playing Reunion's "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" and following it up with ocean sounds.)

Although music programming philosophy is the side of radio history that interests me most, I still gobble up books like these and wish that every notable radio jock would write one. Superjock alternates between memoir and zinger-filled on-air/off-mic dialogues between Lujack and his producer/engineer "Spacey Dave," who's got a thing for records by Rare Earth. Like Don Imus, Lujack was one of the best of the new breed of early '70s Top 40 DJs who came across as the over-caffeinated grouch, seemingly hungover from the exuberance of the "boss radio" years. He'd pepper the playlists with two-to-three minute "Animal Stories," "The Klunk Letter of the Day," "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" and other features, projecting a resigned sense of "can you believe this?" This crucial attitude accompanies the irreverent material in Superjock and makes it funny. The loudmouth approach to today's morning drive time radio, which mostly comes across as spiteful and is done at the expense of music airtime, is both an unfortunate legacy for Lujack (who passed away in December 2013) and a testament of his influence.

Some tidbits from the book:

"Any kid of mine who wanted to be a disk jockey, I'd kick his head in" (p. 22).

"A DJ's life is ... accurately portrayed by Harry Chapin in the song about radio staton 'WOLD,' a very depressing story about the rise and fall of a Top 40 jock: the drinkin', divorce, and driftin'. You mothers who don't want your infant son to waste his life by becoming a rock jock the kid a copy of that record and make him listen to it over and over" (p. 29).

"In the late sixties and early seventies, when objections were raised to songs on the radio with drug-oriented lyrics, the popular radio cop-out was 'Well, we're not endorsing the stuff, nor are we encouraging its use. We're simply playing the music that reflects what's happening in today's society, the music the public wants to hear.' What crap! By playing those songs we endorsed it; we made drugs seem 'in,' hip, sophisticated. We helped make martyrs of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They weren't heroes, just ignorant people" (p. 33).

"A few years back there was a girl singer who reportedly made the rounds of all the big radio stations in the large markets offering her sexual favors to music directors and DJs in return for airplay of her first record. I say reportedly because I didn't happen to be there the day she dropped by the station I was working at then. But the story came from all over the country; so it must have been true. It worked. The record sold several million and established her as a major nightclub performer" (p. 61; I have my theories).

Lujack describes Janis Joplin as the "absolute snottiest person" he ever met (p. 79), Nancy Sinatra's behavior as being similar to a "pizza waitress," and the Monkees as juvenile, "silly little f*cks" (pp. 79-84). Tiny Tim, on the other hand, is described as a "very intelligent guy, one of the nicest people I've ever met in this business and really fun to talk to" (p. 84).

And this, from his real-life American Grafitti teenage years in Idaho:

"The biggest hood at Caldwell High School [Lujack's alma mater] was two years ahead of me. His first name was Revere. He was in a gang called the 'Nemows' (pronounced with a long 'e' and a long 'o': rhymes with Creamo). The derivation of the name? I'll give you a hint. It concerns something the gang was always in search of. You might as well give up; you'll never get it. Leave off the 's' and spell it backward.

"The Nemows were incredible idiots. At basketball games they would gather outside and wait till everyone was seated and the game had begun. Midway through the first quarter they would make their grand entrance. Twenty guys all wearing Levis and identical leather jackets would march single file all the way around the gym and then back out the door. They didn't give a sh*t about the game. They just wanted to make sure everybody saw them and noticed how cool they were.

"You'd look at Revere and think, 'No way is that sonofab*tch ever going to amount to anything. He'll end up doing either 20 years for armed robbery or life for murder.' So guess who the blond guy was who played piano for Paul  Revere and the Raiders, one of the biggest rock bands in the early and middle sixties?" (p. 98).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

God Rock Sunday: Amazing Grace


Judy Collins - "Amazing Grace" (1970, Billboard #15)

Often pointed to as evidence of early '70s radio listeners' quirky tastes, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards' 1972 version of "Amazing Grace" caught fire in the UK on late night BBC radio after which it marched into the American Top 40. Less of a reflection on any public hankering for bagpipe music, the record had everything to do with the Jesus Movement, which would send an unprecedented number of religion-theme songs to the top of the charts during this era. (Efforts by these Scottish drummers drumming and pipers piping to advance on the Harry Simeon Chorale's traditional Christmas pop chart turf with their own 1972 version of "Little Drummer Boy" fell short.)

The words for "Amazing Grace" were written by English poet and Christian clergyman John Newton and first published in 1779. In 1829, an American Baptist song leader named William Walker merged Newton's words with the familiar melody "New Britain," and it was under this title that certain 19th century versions of "Amazing Grace" were published.  It's tempting to connect the "New Britain" title with the song's stirring suitability for bagpipe music and assume British origins, but no evidence seems to take it farther than the USA.

In late 1970, folk singer Judy Collins paved the way for the Royal Scots' invasion by releasing an a cappella version of the song backed by a choir which she took to #15. ("Amazing Grace" had become a staple among sixties folk revivalists.) It appeared on her Whales and Nightingales album, which also included her human voice + humpback whale version of the British folk song "Farewell to Tarwathie," backed by humpback whales. The unique relationship of the Judy Collins and Royal Scots Dragoon Guards recordings of "Amazing Grace," one being voice-only and the other being music-only, begs for a mashup.