Sunday, November 25, 2012

The "My Sweet Lord" Chronicles

George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" is perhaps the most notorious plagiarism case in record biz history dues to its decades-long slog through courts concerning its similarities to the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." Most fascinating to me, though, are the possible effects the lawsuit had on the creativity of such an inventive songwriter. The "My Sweet Lord" saga likely informs everything Harrison wrote from 1971 onward.

A timeline:

The Chiffons - "He's So Fine" (Billboard #4, entered 2/23/63). Written by Ronnie Mack. Produced by Bright Tunes Productions. 45: "He's So Fine"/"Oh My Lover" (Laurie 1963). LP: He's So Fine (Laurie 1963).

The song Harrison was sued for plagiarizing when his "My Sweet Lord" became a hit had entered the US charts in 1963 and reached #12 in the UK that same year.

Edwin Hawkins Singers - "Oh Happy Day" (Billboard #4, entered 4/26/69). Written by Edwin R. Hawkins. Produced by La Mont Bench. 45: "Oh Happy Day"/"Jesus, Lover of My Soul" (Pavilion 1968). LP: Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord (Pavilion 1968).

This popular gospel recording by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, featuring the lead vocals of Dorothy Morrison, updated an eighteenth century hymn. It reached #4 in the US and #2 in the UK and most certainly influenced Harrison while creating "My Sweet Lord," but never came up in court. Hawkins claimed writer's credit for arranging the public domain piece (and also its B-side, Charles Wesley's "Jesus, Lover of My Soul").

Billy Preston - "My Sweet Lord" (Billboard #90, entered 2/13/71). Written by George Harrison. Produced by George Harrison and Billy Preston. 45: "My Sweet Lord"/"Little Girl" (Apple 1970). LP: Encouraging Words (Apple 1970).

Billy Preston's chugging interpretation of "My Sweet Lord," co-produced by Harrison, appeared on his Encouraging Words album two months before Harrison released his own version. The single entered Billboard's Hot 100, though, in early 1971.

George Harrison - "My Sweet Lord" (Billboard #1, entered 11/28/70). Written by George Harrison. Produced by George Harrison and Phil Spector. 45: "My Sweet Lord"/"Isn't It a Pity" (Billboard #1 [flip], entered 11/28/70) (Apple 1970). LP: All Things Must Pass (Apple 1970).

Harrison's glorious lead off single from his All Things Must Pass album.  It still stands as a distinct entity, no matter how much it may have borrowed from both "He's So Fine" and "Oh Happy Day." Harrison's - and co-producer Phil Spector's - awareness of its similarities with the recent public domain hit "Oh Happy Day" likely deflected notice that the song also shared marked similarities with "He's So Fine." How else to explain it? Spector had major girl group credentials, and it shouldn't have been lost on him. John Lennon in 1980: "He [Harrison] must have known, you know. He's smarter than that... Maybe he thought God would just sort of let him off."

The single's flipside, "Isn't It a Pity," clocked in at 7:10 and charted in tandem with "My Sweet Lord" as a double A-side, as per Billboard policy at the time. Its lyrics about heartbreak - then and now - sound like symbolic commentary on the dissolution of the Beatles and their era.

George Harrison - "Bangla Desh" (Billboard #23, entered 8/14/71). Written and produced by George Harrison. 45: "Bangla Desh"/"Deep Blue" (Billboard #23 [flip], entered 9/11/71) (Apple 1971). LP: The Best of George Harrison (Capitol 1976).

In February 1971, Bright Tunes Music, the company that owned "He's So Fine" at the time, filed suit against Harrison for plagiarism. It's unclear whether the suit was common knowledge before 1976, when stories about it finally appeared in Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times.

Harrison's "Bangla Desh" single, which featured complicated, non-intuitive chord changes and low memorability alongside a dour, uninviting demeanor, perhaps responded to the lawsuit as much as it did to the devastating famine in Bangla Desh. Harrison's post-1971 catalog would repeatedly tend toward unconventional, busy chord changes and elusive melodic turns in this way, as if to ensure ownership.

The flipside was called "Deep Blue," which earned charting status a month after "Bangla Desh" did. It made up for the A-side's severity with easy, major-to-minor acoustic guitar contentment. Oddly enough, the song hung in limbo as a non-album offering until just recently.

(The US picture sleeve used a "straight from the headlines" look that could have inspired the newspaper parody art for the sleeve of John Lennon's topical 1972 Some Time in New York City LP.)

Jody Miller - "He's So Fine" (Billboard #53, entered 6/26/71; country #5). Written by Ronnie Mack. Produced by Billy Sherrill. 45: "He's So Fine"/"You Number Two" (Epic 1971). LP: He's So Fine (Epic 1971).

The American country singer Jody Miller's version of "He's So Fine" verged on mockery, with an arrangement that borrowed blatant motifs from "My Sweet Lord."

The Chiffons - "My Sweet Lord" (did not chart). Written by George Harrison. Produced by Bill Frenz, Jr. 45: "My Sweet Lord"/"Main Nerve" (Laurie 1975). LP: (no album appearance).

One wonders whether Harrison viewed the Chiffons' sunny, pot-stirring 1975 cover of "My Sweet Lord" as a cheer or a jeer (or if he even knew of its existence).

George Harrison - "My Sweet Lord 2000" (did not chart): Harrison's 2000 revisitation of the song self-consciously alters the memorable melodic aspects that initially got him in trouble.

In the years following the "Bangla Desh"/"Deep Blue" 45, Harrison would release Living in the Material World (1973), Dark Horse (1974), Extra Texture (1975), and Thirty-Three and 1/3 (1976), albums that each include one or two memorable tracks among a majority of (deliberately?) unmemorable ones. In 1976, Harrison would be found guilty of "subconscious plagiarism" by the U.S. District Court with damages of $1.6 million. Harrison would later admit to having become "paranoid" about writing anything new.

In 1978, Allen Klein, who was Harrison's diabolical former business advisor, bought Bright Tunes and offered it to Harrison for exactly $1.6 million. In 1981, judges would decide that Klein had been duplicitous, ordering him to transfer ownership of Bright Tunes to Harrison for half a million. Although this ensured "He's So Fine" as Harrison's property, legal dickering regarding administrative fees and the like carried over into the 1990s.

In 2001, Harrison released an updated version of "My Sweet Lord" as a bonus track on the All Things Must Pass CD reissue, with his new lead vocal dancing purposefully around the original melody in a way that likely would not have attracted a lawsuit back in 1971.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thoughts on "Monster Mash" circa 1973

The appearance of this ad for Bobby (Boris) Pickett's "Monster Mash" in a May 1973 Billboard indicates two things: that the 1962 single was exploding on the radio somewhere unexpected or that London Records was engaging in a very careful strategy to return the oldie to late October radio glory.

I'm going with both. The "Top Single Picks" column in the same May 12 issue reports "Monster Mash" as having caught fire in Milwaukee at WOKY-AM and WZUU-AM in early '73. This surely prompted London to start making noise about it only to get premature payoff when the song peaked (very respectably) at #10 in ... August. No, not October. Weird.

As for reasons why "Monster Mash" found new life in the early '70s, I'll stick with my notion of it being a desperately nostalgic time. Here's what Billboard says: "...maybe with Watergate and other scandals in the headlines, today's impressionable young music listeners find humor in the music. What else do they have to laugh about?" In the words of Pickett himself, who was rescued from the ski resort folkie circuit by the single's revival, its new success had to do with a country "crying out for laughter."

What I'd really like to know more about, though, is the nostalgic mentality of Milwaukee, which happens to be the fictional home of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and That '70s Show. Is there anything to this or is it all just coincidence? 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Blue Haze's Reggae Pedigree

Blue Haze - "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (Billboard #27, entered 11/11/72). Written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. Produced by Johnny Arthey and Phillip Swern. 45: "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"/"Anna Rosanna" (A&M 1972). LP: (no album appearance).

A classic from the Great American Songbook, Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach's “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” appeared for the first time in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Roberta in 1933, after which jazz bandleader Paul Whiteman took it to the top of the Hit Parade the following year. The Platters would return it to #1 in 1959, but the song wouldn’t appear in the Top 40 again until Blue Haze, seemingly from out of the blue (sorry), resurrected it in 1972.

The group was a studio project led by British arranger Johnny Arthey and producer Phillip Swern, and their lone US Top 40 hit might strike listeners as a quick cash-in on both the nostalgia boom and the popular Caribbean sound. In fact, Swern and Arthey were already invested in reggae, which had been simmering to a boil in the UK throughout the late sixties. Arthey had done the British market string arrangements for Desmond Dekker's "You Can Get It If You Really Want," Bob and Marcia's "Young, Gifted and Black," and records by the Pioneers, among others. Along with Swern, he also produced and arranged Trojan singles by Teddy Brown, who sang lead on all of their Blue Haze output, including "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

The Seashells - "(The Best Part of) Breaking Up" (Billboard #115, entered 1/27/73). Written by Phil Spector, Pete Andreoli, and Vince Poncia. Produced by Johnny Arthey and Phillip Swern. 45: "(The Best Part of) Breakin' Up"/"Play That Song" (Columbia 1972). LP: (no album appearance).

Another single Arthey and Swern produced "bubbled under" in the US at #115 - a version of the Ronettes' 1964 hit "(The Best Part of) Breaking Up" that sounds, rather incredibly, like a lost vintage Abba track. The Liverpool girl group included Vicki Brown and Mary Partington, who were sisters, along with Laura Lee. Brown, who is now deceased, was the wife of UK musican Joe Brown and the mother of vocalist Sam Brown, who had a US charting hit called "Stop" in 1989.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Early '70s "Soul Country" on the Charts: A Playlist

Although "soul country" never officially took flight, the early '70s were the era when such a genre might have, and John C. Pugh even voiced concerns about its hypothetical eventuality in a 1971 Music City News (I talk about this on pp. 180-181 of my book). Stations specializing in hybrid radio formats were certainly poised to accept such a genre, with the high profile success of African-American country star Charley Pride dropping hints, even though he was never less than 100% country.

Although the other notable African-American country artists of the era - O.B. McClinton and Stoney Edwards - were also too hardcore to qualify as "soul country," a few soul artists came close. Among these were the Pointer Sisters, whose "Fairy Tale" (1974) would only qualify as such because it is a faithful country diversion recorded by an otherwise soul-focused group. ("Fairy Tale," incidentally, won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal by a Duo or Group Performance; future country credentials for them came in the form of Conway Twitty turning their "Slow Hand" into an early '80s country hit.)

The most consistent dabbler in soul country was Dobie Gray, especially with his 1973 Loving Arms album. Gray even based himself in Nashville in the eighties and has the distinction of being one of the very few black artists to infiltrate the country charts during that decade, with his biggest country hit being "That's One to Grow On" (#35) in '86.

The other early '70s country soul experimentalists were the Chi-Lites, who got name checked by Nashville promotional executive Chuck Chellman in a late seventies Music City News. He referred to recent adds of the Chi-Lites to country station playlists as evidence that country's dalliance with rock music was leading to far greater travesties.

When I first read that, I automatically assumed that "Oh Girl" was the track in question, with its laid back, harmonica-driven feel. A recent listen-through of the group's 1973 Letter to Myself album, though, has me convinced that the interloping song in question was "My Heart Just Keeps on Breakin'," which reached #92 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is a unique hodgepodge of barnyard fiddle, drawled vocals, Philly soul polish with pizzicatto strings and street corner doo wop. Soul country if there ever was any.

The following 16 songs are my picks for the ultimate "soul country" hybrid records that could have easily crossed over from soul radio playlists to country radio playlists in the early '70s. Most of them, though, succeeded in bringing songs and sounds directly from the country repertoire to the soul charts. All of these charted on - or bubbled under - the Billboard Hot 100 between 1970 and 1974 and are listed chronologically. (None of the songs, by the way, appeared on the Simon Country album picutred above.)

1. Brook Benton with the Dixie Flyers - "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" (Billboard #45, entered 5/30/70, soul #31). Written by Joe South. Produced by Arif Mardin. 45: "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home"/"I've Gotta Be Me" (Cotillion 1970). LP: Home Style (Cotillion 1970). 

Benton's version of Joe South's "Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" gave a deeply sentimental voice to the lyrics about highways, drag strips, and drive-in theaters blighting up the country fields of his youth.

2. Candi Staton - "Stand By Your Man" (Billboard #24, entered 8/29/70; soul #4). Written by Billy Sherrill and Tammy Wynette. Produced by Rick Hall. 45: "Stand By Your Man"/"How Can I Put the Flame Out (When You Keep the Fire Burning)" (Fame 1970). LP: Stand By Your Man (Fame 1970).

Staton's declaration of "after all, he's just a man," doesn't sound any less resigned than Tammy Wynette's original.

3. Joe Simon - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Billboard #69, entered 5/15/71; soul #13). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by John Richbourg. 45: "Help Me Make It Through the Night"/"To Lay Down Beside You" (Spring 1971). LP: The Sounds of Simon (Spring 1971).

Other than Sammi Smith's classic country version of this Kris Kristofferson-penned song, all other versions of it that charted in the Billboard Hot 100 were by soul artists, and they're all on this list.

4. Dee Dee Warwick - "Suspicious Minds" (Billboard #80, entered 6/26/71; soul #24). Written by Fred Zanborn. Produced by Dave Cranford and Brad Shapiro. 45: "Suspicious Minds"/"I'm Glad I'm a Woman" (Atco 1971). LP: (no album appearance).

The last Hot 100 appearance for Dionne Warwick's younger sister.

5. Joe Simon - "All My Hard Times" (Billboard #93, entered 9/25/71; soul #26). Written by Joe South. Produced by John Richbourg. 45: "All My Hard Times"/"Georgia Blue" (Spring 1971). LP: The Sounds of Simon (Spring 1971).

This is the second song written by Joe South on this list ("Don't It Make You Want to Go Home" is the other), although it's really just a minimally adjusted version of the folk song "All My Trials." Ray Stevens' version of "All My Trials," coincidentally, charted on the Hot 100 around the same time as this, while Mickey Newbury would incorporate the song into his Top 40 hit "An American Trilogy" later the same year.

6. O.C. Smith - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Billboard #91, entered 11/13/71; soul #38). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by 45: "Help Me Make It Through the Night"/"Diamond in the Rough" (Columbia 1971). LP: Help Me Make It Through the Night (Columbia 1971).

O.C. Smith was soul country before soul country was cool.  His version of Bobby Russell's "Little Green Apples" hit #2 in 1968, and here's what's especially interesting: it won the Grammy Award for country song of the year although it never appeared on Billboard's country singles chart.

7. Ray Charles - "What Am I Living For" (Billboard #54, entered 12/25/71). Written by Fred Joy and Art Harris. Producer: Joe Adams. 45: "What Am I Living for"/"Tired of My Tears" (ABC/TRC 1971). LP: Volcanic Action of My Soul (ABC/TRC 1971).

This oft-covered song was recorded first by Ernest Tubb in 1958.

8. Gladys Knight and the Pips - "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Billboard #33, entered 3/25/72; soul #13). Written by Kris Kristofferson. Produced by Clay McMurray and Johnny Bristol. 45: "Help Me Make It Through the Night"/"If You Gonna Leave (Just Leave)" (Soul 1971). LP: Standing Ovation (Soul 1971).

In her spoken intro, Gladys Knight puts the widespread appeal of Kris Kristofferson's song into perspective: "I'm imagining a lot of happy people, and most of you are with someone you love. Well, you are the lucky ones."

9. Candi Staton - "In the Ghetto" (Billboard #48, entered 6/24/72; soul #12). Written by Mac Davis. Produced by Rick Hall. 45: "In the Ghetto"/"Sure as Sin" (Fame 1972). LP: Candi Staton (Fame 1972).

What to make of the appearance of campfire harmonica in this version's arrangement of "In the Ghetto"? Maybe to remind us that the city song comes from a country industry point of view.

10. Bettye Swann - "Today I Started Loving You Again" (Billboard #46, entered 1/27/73; soul #26). Written by Bonnie Owens and Merle Haggard. Produced by Rick Hall and Mickey Buckins. 45: "Today I Started Loving You Again"/"I'd Rather Go Blind" (Atlantic 1972). LP: (no album appearance).

The Louisiana soul singer Swann recorded a version of this for Capitol in 1969 (crediting only Merle Haggard as the writer). This later version on Atlantic would be her final Hot 100 appearance.

11. Dobie Gray - "Drift Away" (Billboard #5, entered 2/24/73). Written and produced by Mentor Williams. 45: "Drift Away"/"City Stars" (Decca 1973). LP: Drift Away (Decca 1973).

Written and produced by Paul Williams's brother Mentor, "Drift Away" remains a staple on oldies and Adult Contemporary playlists. A version by Uncle Kracker went back to the Top Ten in 2003. Surprisingly, none of Dobie Gray's early seventies output made the soul singles charts.

12. The Chi-Lites - "My Heart Just Keeps on Breakin'" (Billboard #92, entered 6/9/73). Written by Eugene Record and Stanley (Stank) McKenney. Produced by Eugene Record. 45: "My Heart Just Keeps on Breakin'"/"Just Two Teenage Kids (Still in Love)" (Brunswick 1973). LP: A Letter to Myself (Brunswick 1973).

As I said above, this is "soul country" if there ever was such a thing.

13. Dobie Gray - "Good Old Song" (Billboard #103, entered 12/1/73). Written by Mentor Williams and Ron Davies. Produced by Mentor Williams. 45: "Good Old Song"/"Reachin' for the the Feeling" (MCA 1973). LP: Loving Arms (MCA 1973).

14. Gladys Knight and the Pips - "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" (Billboard #3, entered 2/16/74; soul #1). Written by Jim Weatherly. Produced by Kenny Kearner and Richie Wise. 45: "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" (Buddah 1973). LP: Imagination (Buddah 1973).

A new version of a Jim Weatherly-penned song that Ray Price charted with in '73 (#82) and which ended up being Price's very last Hot 100 hit.

15. Dobie Gray - "Watch Out for Lucy" (Billboard #107, entered 9/21/74). Written by Lonnie Mack. Produced by Mentor Williams. 45: "Watch Out for Lucy"/"Turning on You" (MCA 1974). LP: Hey Dixie (MCA 1974).

MCA's art department took the problematic Confederate flag route for the Hey Dixie album's lettering.

16. The Pointer Sisters - "Fairytale" (Billboard #13, entered 10/5/74; country #37). Written by Anita Pointer and Bonnie Pointer. Produced by David Rubinson and Friends, Inc. 45: "Fairytale"/"Love in Them There Hills" (ABC/Blue Thumb 1974). LP: That's a Plenty (ABC/Blue Thumb 1974).

Although "Fairytale," a Grammy winner for Country Vocal Group performance, might have felt like a breakthrough at the time, it really only ended up representing the end of a highly experimental era at the beginning of a carefully formatted one.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Grand Funk circa 1970

Here's a photo of Times Square from June 1970. Grand Funk Railroad, from Flint, Michigan, were a true "rock for rock's sake" vehicle for the early '70s generation, too irritatingly apolitical for the tastes of the fading sixties counterculture. Here's an illustrative companion clip for this billboard image, capturing the band playing "Closer to Home (I'm Your Captain)" at Shea Stadium, a show they sold out faster than the Beatles had done a half-decade previous.

Grand Funk Railroad - "Heartbreaker" (Billboard #72, entered 2/14/70). Written by Mark Farner. Produced by Terry Knight. 45: "Heartbreaker"/"Please Don't Worry" (Capitol 1970). LP: On Time (1969).

The single and album versions both play for the full 6:30.

Grand Funk Railroad - "Closer to Home" (Billboard #22, entered 8/15/70). Written by Mark Farner. Produced by Terry Knight. 45: "Closer to Home"/"Aimless Lady" (Capitol 1970). LP: Closer to Home (Capitol 1970).

The 45 version of "Closer to Home" (linked to above) clocked in at 5:30, while the Closer to Home album version (confusingly titled "I'm Your Captain") stretched out to 9:47 on the album.

Grand Funk Railroad - "Mean Mistreater (live)" (Billboard #47, entered 10/12/70). Written by Mark Farner. Produced by Terry Knight. 45: "Mean Mistreater"/"Mark Say's Alright" [sic] (Capitol 1970). LP: Live Album (Capitol 1970).

Side B, spelled "say's" on both the album and single, is an instructive, polarizing document.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Early '70s Radio featured on The Little Lighthouse

Stanislav Zabic interviewed me over the phone from Cleveland for this week's episode of his Little Lighthouse radio show, which is syndicated throughout Europe and available as a podcast. He also talked me into sending him some home recordings of me singing and strumming a handful of early seventies medleys:

Early '70s Medley 1 (Rubber Duckie/Brand New Key/(You're) Having My Baby)
Early '70s Medley 2 (School's Out/We're an American Band/Walk on the Wild Side)
Early '70s Medley 3 (Close to You/Fire and Rain/I Am Woman)
Early '70s Medley 4 ((For God's Sake) Give More Power to the People/Living for the City/Me and Mrs. Jones)
Early '70s Medley 5 (The Fightin' Side of Me/Uneasy Rider/Behind Closed Doors).

The Little Lighthouse (4/26/12)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chart Song Cinema: Love Story (1970)

The theme from Love Story (1970), composed by Francis Lai and Carl Sigman, was the last song to have had at least five versions of it chart on Billboard within a two-year time frame. Could "Love Story" be considered the final entry, then, in the Great American Songbook? Before Elvis established personality as the controlling factor in popular music, it was mostly all about "the song." All hits behaved like "Love Story," getting interpreted by numerous artists and clogging up the charts. With only a few minor exceptions (as in "Whoomp! (There It Is)"), this really hasn't ever happened again. It's likely that the "songbook" conception finally met its death when the Bacharach-David songs for Lost Horizon (1973) were rush-recorded by a number of artists like Tony Bennett, who ended up being deeply embarrassed (along with Bacharach and David themselves) by the film those songs were written for.

Below are the five versions of "Love Story" to have charted on Billboard along with their chart positions. My personal favorite is the one by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a top 5 hit in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Henry Mancini - "Theme from Love Story" (Billboard #13, entered 1/16/71). Written by Francis Lai. Produced by Joe Reisman. 45: "Theme from Love Story"/"Phone Call to the Past" (RCA Victor 1971). LP: Mancini Plays the Theme from Love Story (RCA Victor 1971).

As the album title declares, Mancini himself takes care of the piano solo. His version had the audacity to chart before before the official soundtrack version did and to climb to a higher position. The "phone call to the past" on side B was apparently a conference call with Floyd Cramer, Walter Wanderly, and Percy Faith.

Francis Lai - "Theme from Love Story" (Billboard #31, entered 1/30/71). Written by Francis Lai. Produced by Tom Mack. 45: "Theme from Love Story"/"Skating in Central Park" (Paramount 1971). LP: Love Story (Paramount 1971).

The official soundtrack single features French classical pianist Georges Pludermacher.

Andy Williams - "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story" (Billboard #9, entered 2/6/71). Written by Francis Lai and Carl Sigman. Produced by Dick Glasser. 45: "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story"/"Something" (Columbia 1971). LP: Love Story (Columbia 1971).

Williams won the release-date race with Tony Bennett on this one, which may be the main reason why, out of the two vocal versions, he sailed to the top.

Tony Bennett - "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story" (Billboard #114, entered 2/13/71). Written by Francis Lai and Carl Sigman. Produced by Teo Macero. 45: "(Where Do I Begin) Love Story"/"I'll Begin Again" (Columbia 1971). LP: Love Story (Columbia 1971).

Movie themes were the seventies strategy for Columbia's popular vocalists, hence the Andy Williams-Tony Bennett one-two punch in February. Note the B-side's A-side reference.

Nino Tempo and April Stevens - "Love Story" (Billboard #113, entered 12/9/72). Written by Francis Lai and Carl Sigman. Produced by Jeff Barry and Nino Tempo. 45: "Love Story"/"Hoochy Coochy-Wing Dang Doo" (A&M 1972). LP: (no album appearance).

Side B, the title and song itself, sounds like a lost shoo-in for the Ringo Starr catalog.

Bonus entries:

Sounds of Sunshine - "Love Means (You Never Have to Say You're Sorry)" (Billboard #39, entered 5/29/71). Written by Warner Wilder. Produced by Randy Wood and the Wilder Brothers. 45: "Love Means (You Never Have to Say You're Sorry)"/"Linda, the Untouchable" (Ranwood 1971). LP: Love Means You Never Have to Say You're Sorry (Ranwood 1971).

This Lettermen-style single, released on Lawrence Welk's Ranwood label, used the Love Story catchphrase that also appeared on the soundtrack album cover and movie poster. Fans of sunshine pop will want to give the B-side a spin.

The Whispers - "Can't Help But Love You" (Billboard #114, entered 2/19/72). Written by Mike Gately and Robert John. Produced by Ron Carson. 45: "Can't Help But Love You"/"A Hopeless Situation" (Janus 1972). LP: The Whispers' Love Story (Janus 1971).

This track appears on The Whispers' Love Story, the LA soul group's debut LP. It features a piano intro reminiscent of the film soundtrack and begins with the words "love means you never have to say you're sorry." The B-side, also written by Gately and John, sounds like something the mid-sixties Marvin Gaye would have recorded.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dean Martin's Early '70s Country Phase

Although the only Dean Martin song to reach the Billboard country singles chart was his "My First Country Song" (1983) (from his Nashville Sessions album), his big country phase actually happened between the years 1969 and 1973. His 1969 version of Merle Haggard's "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" was his final Hot 100 charting single, while his versions of Glen Campbell's "Gentle on My Mind," Marty Robbins' "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife," Bobby Bare's "Detroit City," and Jerry Reed's "Georgia Sunshine" all bubbled under the Hot 100 between 1969 and 1971 (1971 being the year he bowed out of the pop charts for good). This chart activity, though, explains why trade paper op eds expressing worry about certain interlopers sneaking tastes of the country pie would mention his name.

For Martin, dabbling in country was good business sense. By the '70s, the abyss between classic middle-of-the-road vocalists and the pop charts was wider than ever, and country was an acknowledged stepping stone in the era of "cross-country" stations. Although the notion of cross-country seems to be remembered most in terms of country/rock hybridity, it was the MOR/country fusion that had the biggest influence. Country artists such as Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette, and Ray Price crossed over easily to MOR stations, while MOR artists such as Martin, Bobby Vinton, and Patti Page transitioned almost as easily to country playlists. Martin's own television variety show, as a matter of fact, outlasted competing shows hosted by Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, and aired into the mid-'70s, when he would also host specials on NBC called Dean Martin Presents Music Country and Music Country USA. (Two of his early seventies films—Something Big (1971) and Showdown (1973)—were westerns.)

This country aspect of Martin's legacy all makes sense in light of early '70s radio and record industry market calibration, but it does run counter to the Rat Pack Dino persona that prevails in the collective memory.

P.S. Dino also had a fullblown country phase in '63 which spawned the albums Country Style and Dean "Tex" Martin Rides Again, but no country hits.

"My Woman, My Woman, My Wife" (1970)
Dean Martin

Written by Marty Robbins * Produced by Jimmy Bowen * Arranged by John Bahler * 45: "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife" / "Here We Go Again" * LP: My Woman, My Woman, My Wife * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#110) * Entered: 1970-08-01

Marty Robbins's #1 country single "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife" struck all the right chords for the older generation and the traditional mindset of country radio listeners. It delivered a touching message of spousal devotion, including a verse that addressed the couple's pain in enduring the death of their children. "Lord," he sings,"Give her that mansion up yonder, 'cause she's been through hell here on earth... Give her my share of heaven, if I've earned any here in this life."

Dean Martin's cover version of the song announced itself with a tone-deaf ad in the June 25, 1970, issue of Billboard, which read "An Open Letter to the Women's Liberation Movement from Dean Martin." What was that all about? Numerous possibilities, both positive and negative, and that was the problem. The country flavor Martin favored during this era manifested itself further on side B ("Here We Go Again"), albeit through a back door: Ray Charles had first recorded the song in 1967 with a soulful B-3 organ, but the track—written by country songwriters Red Steagall and Don Lanier—would have fit perfectly on either of his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music LPs from the early '60s.

Side A: "My Woman, My Woman, My Wife"

Side B: "Here We Go Again"

"Detroit City" (1970)
Dean Martin

Written by Denny Dill and Mel Tillis *  Produced by Jimmy Bowen * Arranged by Billy Strange * 45: "Detroit City" / "Turn the World Around" * LP: My Woman, My Woman, My Wife * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#101), easy listening (#36) * Entered: 1970-10-31 (both charts)

Dean Martin's version of "Detroit City," with its low tuning-peg guitar riff, just missed becoming the third version of the song to enter Billboard's Hot 100 by bubbling under at #101. (Bobby Bare's version reached #6 in 1963, while Tom Jones's rose to #26 in 1967.) Martin trills his way through Ben Peters's B side.

Side A: "Detroit City"

Side B: "Turn the World Around"

"Georgia Sunshine" (1971)
Dean Martin

Written by Jerry Hubbard * Produced by Jimmy Bowen * Arranged by Ernie Freeman * 45: "Georgia Sunshine" / "For the Good Times" * LP: For the Good Times * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#118) * Entered: 1971-01-23

"Georgia Sunshine" was a #16 country hit in 1970 for Jerry Reed, who usually used his real name of Jerry Hubbard for songwriting credits. Martin's version adds barroom piano. The rendition of the Kris Kristofferson-penned "For the Good Times," a #1 hit for Ray Price, turned the 45 into a "tribute to the country hits of 1970" affair.

Side A: "Georgia Sunshine"

Side B: "For the Good Times"

"She's a Little Bit Country" (1971)
Dean Martin

Written by Harlan Howard * Produced by Jimmy Bowen * Arranged by Ernie Freeman * 45: "She's a Little Bit Country" / "Raining in My Heart" * LP: For the Good Times * Label: Reprise * Billboard charts: Easy listening (#36) * Entered: 1971-05-08

Producer Jimmy Bowen and arranger Ernie Freeman went out of their way to keep this composition by Harlan Howard, a stalwart country songwriter, from sounding too much like its title. A version from the same year by George Hamilton IV hit closer to the mark. The "Raining in My Heart" on the flipside is the Boudleaux and Felice Bryant song that Buddy Holly recorded, not the Slim Harpo one.

Side A: "She's a Little Bit Country"

Side B: "Raining in My Heart"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"New Jersey" (1971) and "Summer Breeze" (1972)

I’m sure it’s all water under the bridge, but I wonder how future country star Dan Seals, aka “England Dan” of duo England Dan and John Ford Coley, felt when his older brother Jim, of Seals and Crofts, stole the chord sequence and melody for the verses of Dan’s “New Jersey” (1971, #103) and used it for “Summer Breeze” (1972, #6) and had the bigger hit. Maybe they had worked out some kind of a deal. Or maybe Jim pointed out that England Dan shouldn't point the finger since he and John Ford Coley lifted the opening lick from Joe Cocker's version of  "With a Little Help from My Friends."

England Dan and John Ford Coley - "New Jersey" (1971, Billboard #103). Written by Dan Seals and John Ford Coley. Producer: Louis Shelton. 45: "New Jersey"/"Tell Her Hello" (A&M 1971). LP: England Dan and John Ford Coley (A&M 1971).

Seals and Crofts - "Summer Breeze" (Billboard #6, entered 9/9/72). Written by James Seals and Dash Crofts. Produced by Louie Shelton. 45: "Summer Breeze"/"East of Ginger Trees" (Warner 1972). LP: Summer Breeze (Warner 1972).

Both singles had the same producer...

Friday, January 6, 2012

Fire and Rain and the "James Taylor Controversy"

Before I talked about my Early ‘70s Radio book as part of the “Views and Brews” series at the Cactus CafĂ© last October, the notion of a “James Taylor controversy” managed to work its way into the promotional language of Austin's KUT, who sponsored the event. The phrase turned out to be a pretty crafty attention-getter, prompting a flurry of phone calls and emails. What could possibly be controversial about James Taylor?, people wondered. Why haven’t I ever heard about this?

Taylor’s non-controversial persona was the controversy. Many among those who have stretched out in JT's comfortable, musical hammock have likely never considered his powers to alienate those whose ears habitually crave the slightest dose of aggression and confrontation. While his immense popularity and poster boy status for what Life magazine called the “un-radical young” ran counter to the musical experimentation and political activism that characterized the late sixties, it was the vehemently apolitical early seventies heavy rock crowd that hated him loudest.

Rock critic Lester Bangs voiced their thoughts in his 1971 article, “James Taylor Marked for Death.” This is where he fantasized about twisting a broken bottle into JT’s guts as payback for the “bardic auteur crap” the singer-songwriter epitomized. “By the end of the decade it had become obvious that perhaps the one constant of our variegated and strung-out peer groups was a pervasive sense of self-consciousness,” wrote Bangs in that same essay. “[It was] as if all of this meant something greater than that we were kids who liked rock 'n' roll and came out to have a good time.”

Bangs’s notorious words, though, have overshadowed how different Taylor seemed to the sixties generation, for whom the term "singer-songwriter" did not yet exist. He was different enough to grace the cover of Time magazine as a symbol of the “new rock.” At the Cactus that night, KUT’s Jay Trachtenberg talked about a seemingly nationwide sigh of exhaustion one could sense in post-Kent State America. To the irritation of musical adventurers like Jay, the mellow sounds of Sweet Baby James and its ilk oozed out of college dorm rooms all at once. With his soothing musicality offset by a history of mental illness and drug abuse, Taylor embodied a widespread, broken-hearted pause for personal reflection.

David Browne’s Fire and Rain, which came out on Da Capo the same month as my Early ‘70s Radio, captures this aspect of Taylor’s appeal. Browne zeroes in on the musical and cultural interlacings of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and James Taylor as vivid signposts for changing times. The book's overarching thread is the dismantling of a sixties “get together” ethos at the seemingly irresistible onset of the “me generation,” so called by Tom Wolfe only because it was true.

Browne supports this “lost story of 1970” with enough behind-the-music episodes to satisfy widely-read rock historians and dabblers alike: Paul Simon teaching songwriting courses at New York University while his increasingly AWOL partner racks up screen credits as “Arthur Garfunkel”; Simon’s first appearance as a solo entity in front of an apathetic crowd at Shea Stadium; Stephen Stills and Graham Nash fracturing the chances for CSNY’s survival by competing for Rita Coolidge; the touchy set list politics underneath the concerts CSNY audiences otherwise perceived as being “from the hip”; James Taylor on the set of Two Lane Blacktop, wherein we learn that the film is one of JT’s edgiest endeavors because he was extremely miserable; and narratives that depict all four Beatles as being alternately giddy and frightened about their forthcoming split.

Fire and Rain also serves as a useful one-stop summary of the very real onslaught of bombing and violence that was contaminating the New Left, the only resolution of which had to be a calming down of sorts, if not full cultural recalibration, by the end of 1970. “By then, the country, even the world, was exhausted after ten months of Vietnam-related anguish and homegrown terrorism, pandemonium and death on campus, and the collapse or failure of so much from the past decade, be it the Beatles or moon missions,” Browne writes. “The two previous years had jarringly demonstrated that social or political change was no longer in plain sight…the worlds of January 1970 and twelve months later felt like polar opposites.”

What this new mass impulse for personal reflection meant for pop music heavyweights like the Beatles, and "American Beatles" candidates like Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was that it was time to go solo. For John Lennon this meant naked honesty, while for Paul McCartney it was home studio dabbling. The personal statement, however a given artist saw fit to express it, was the important part. As baffling as Dylan's Self Portrait might have seemed to many a listener, therefore, it did march in step with the times.

In Early ‘70s Radio, I address this new pop music climate in terms of “feminization,” and now that I've just finished Fire and Rain, I suggest that one might do well to follow up that book with Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us for a look at the iconic early seventies female singer-songwriters Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. James Taylor, who was in close platonic and/or romantic relationships with all three, is the perfect bridge between the two books, and Browne, after all (who titled his book after Taylor's most famous song), zooms in on JT as the book’s closing image. “For many, there was no better way to wind down from one year, one decade, and one moment, than with James Taylor,” Browne writes. And this brings us back to the provocative notion of a "James Taylor controversy": All of that early seventies clamoring for a "new Beatles" or a "new Dylan" was entirely misguided because, like it or not, James Taylor - according to the revamped standards of a new decade - was both.