Friday, February 27, 2015

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

"Rings" was a #17 hit 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 suggested 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" (Billboard #17, entered 6/12/71)Written by Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey. Produced by Chips Moman. 45: "Rings"/"Like Children" (Entrance 1971). LP: Rings (Entrance 1971).

Who's on the stereo? James Taylor.

Tompall and the Glaser Brothers - "Rings" (Billboard country #7, entered 9/18/1971). Written by Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey. Produced by Jim Glaser. 45: "Rings"/"That's When I Love You the Most" (MGM 1971). LP: Rings and Things. 

Who's on the stereo? Merle Haggard.

Lobo - "Rings" (Billboard #43, entered 7/20/74). Written by Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey. Produced by Phil Gernhard. 45: "Rings"/"I'm Only Sleeping" (Big Tree 1974). LP: Just a Singer (Big Tree 1974).

Who's on the stereo? The Allman Brothers. The B-side is a sleepy cover of the 1966 Beatles tune.

Reuben Howell - "Rings" (1974, Billboard #86). Written by Eddie Reeves and Alex Harvey. Produced by Clayton Ivey and Terry Woodford. 45: "Rings"/"I'll Be Your Brother" (Motown 1974). LP: Rings (Motown 1974).

Who's on the stereo? Jim Croce.

Reuben Howell (a Motown label Caucasian) and Lobo, by the way, both entered Billboard's Hot 100 on the same day - July 20, 1974. Both of their versions also bypassed the poignant flat-VII (coinciding with "laugh and sing") that appeared in the choruses of Cymarron's version. Why did they both surface with similar renditions exactly three years after the song's first flurry of success?

Other non-charting versions: Leo Kottke did a version of the song in 1983, expertly inserting Mel Blanc as the "on the stereo" artist but also bypassing the flat-VII. In a 1982 version by Dr. Hook, they're listening to "sweet music."  And commenter James Porter has clued me in on a 1971 version by Lonnie Mack, who sticks with James Taylor on the stereo.

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 mental scars. What certainly lingered in all 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. Composer Jack Elliott's theme music for the Charlie's Angels TV show (1976-81) would evoke the Last Tango theme, perhaps as an effort to heighten its already sexual edge.

Herb Alpert and the TJB - "Last Tango in Paris" (1973, Billboard #77). Written by Gato Barbieri. Produced and arranged by Herb Alpert. "String and things" by Quincy Jones. 45: "Last Tango in Paris"/"Fire and Rain" (A&M 1973). LP: (no US album appearance).

Side B is a marimba-cha-cha version of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain."

Doc Severinsen - "The Last Tango in Paris" (1973, Billboard # 106). Written by Gato Barbieri. Produced by Joe Reisman. Arranged by Harry Betts. 45: "Last Tango in Paris"/"Alone Again (Naturally)" (RCA 1973). LP: (no US album appearance).

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Beach Boys' Radio Hits of the Early '70s

Possibly no musical act has derived more long-term energy from the tension of art vs. commercialism than the Beach Boys. Books and movies have focused on Brian Wilson's inventiveness as a paradoxical force of disturbance in the group's economics and a longtime source of internal Beach Boy strife. To this day the tension keeps nice and taut as various touring configurations of the group cater to different fan philosophies and Brian Wilson's latter-day creative renaissance continues to flower.

The introspective early '70s found the world's favorite summertime group redefining itself for a while, exploring and experimenting while adjusting to the times and coping with Wilson's troubled mental state, and their records from this era have become objects of increasing curiosity. The period ended when the decade's nostalgia wave finally prompted them to grab their boards and to ride it, putting an end to a five-year dearth of Top 40 singles with the reissue of "Surfin' USA" from their 1974 Endless Summer compilation. Here's a quick rundown of that early '70s lull in U.S. singles chart activity.

"Cottonfields" (1970)
The Beach Boys

Written by Huddie Ledbetter * Produced by the Beach Boys * Arranged by Alan Jardine * 45: "Cottonfields"/"The Nearest Faraway Place" * Label: Capitol * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#103) * Entered: 1970-05-16.

Although the group had already released a  version of this Leadbelly-penned folk standard on their 1969 20/20 album, Beach Boy Al Jardine headed up a re-do for the back-to-the-land early '70s, bringing in pedal steel guitarist Red Rhodes along with an unknown jaw-harpist and giving it a bouncier, dirt-road feel. The 1970 single may have ushered in a half-decade of disappointing chart action in the US, but it otherwise became a worldwide smash, going top 5 in the UK and launching a new era where the band's international success would outpace their fortunes at home. The single's B side contained the 20/20 album's "Nearest Faraway Place," written and arranged by Bruce Johnston and sounding like the fantasy expedition of a hotel lobby piano.

Side A: "Cottonfields"

Side B: "The Nearest Faraway Place"

"Add Some Music" (1970)
The Beach Boys

Written by Brian Wilson, Joe Knott, and Mike Love * 45: "Add Some Music to Your Day" / "Susie Cincinnati" * LP: Sunflower * Label: Brother/Reprise * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#64) * Entered: 1970-03-03

The only charting single from Sunflower—the Beach Boys' first album for Warner Bros. after leaving Capitol—was "Add Some Music," which stands out in their catalog for its uncharacteristic 12-string acoustic breeziness. With its soaring harmonies, the song became a crowd-pleasing staple of their 50-year reunion shows in the summer of 2012. Two awkward moments come from Mike Love (who sings "There's blues, folk and kun-treee and rock like a rolling stoooone") and Bruce Johnston (who sings "Your doctor knows it keeps you calm"). Brian Wilson might have given those lines the childlike charm they require and come off a bit less winceful.

Side B is an Al Jardine mono track about a cab driver whose "looks ain't exactly a plus." It wouldn't appear on an album until 1976's 15 Big Ones in a stereo mix with its car sounds moved from the intro to the end of the first verse. A new stereo mix (linked below) of the original 1970 track appeared on the Made in California (2012) box set. On November 24, 1976, the Beach Boys played in Cincinnati and reunited on stage with the cab driver who inspired the song, a mother of five named Joellyn Lambert who had been located by the Cincinnati Post. In spite of what the record said about her looks and being the city's "number one sinner" and not a "winner," the occasion passed without controversy.

Side A: "Add Some Music"

Side B: "Susie Cincinnati"

"See the Light" (1970)
The Flame

Written by Steve Fataar, Blondie Chaplin, Ed Fataar and Ricky Fataar * Produced by Carl Wilson * 45: "See the Light"/"Get Your Mind Made Up" * LP: The Flame * Label: Brother/Reprise * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#95) * Entered: 1970-11-07.

After Sunflower, Carl Wilson produced a cool album by South African rock band the Flame, which became the only non-Beach Boys release on their Brother label. The group's Ricky Fataar (a future Rutle) and Blondie Chaplin would join the official Beach Boys lineup in 1972. "See the Light," with its falsetto choruses, would have weathered some heavier AM radio airplay just fine in its day. Wilson can be heard singing backup.

Side A: "See the Light"

Side B: "Get Your Mind Made Up"

"Student Demonstration Time" (1971)
The Beach Boys

Written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller; New lyrics by Mike Love * Produced by the Beach Boys * LP: Surf's Up * Label: Brother/Reprise * Billboard charts: — (entered Boston's WMEX airplay chart 1970-09-23)

The Beach Boys hired Sunflower promoter Jack Rieley as their manager between 1971 and 1973, which became a distinct phase for the band where they recorded more topical subject matter (especially on their 1971 Surf's Up album) and received kinder treatment from the rock press. On "Student Demonstration Time," Beach Boy Mike Love—using a police megaphone vocal effect—put new words to the Robins' "Riot in Cell Block #9," which had already been part of the band's live repertoire. It now made references to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, "Bloody Thursday" at Berkeley's People's Park, the riots in Isla Vista, and the killings at Jackson State College and Kent State. Shortly after Kent State happened (May 1970), the Strawberry Statement bummer film had also come out, which drew inspiration from the violent 1968 student protests at Columbia University. The song's warning to "stay away when there's a riot going on" seemed to distinguish it as a current events exercise rather than one of explicit protest.

Although "Student Demonstration Time" had never been released as a single in the US, it racked up plenty of airplay as an album track on Boston Top 40 outlet WMEX, where it peaked at #5. Apart from its controversial subject matter, it would be safe to assess that the song's biggest drawback was its steady use of siren sound effects, which were a big no no with the FCC.

"Student Demonstration Time"

"Long Promised Road" (1971)
The Beach Boys

Written by Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley * Produced by the Beach Boys * 45: "Long Promised Road"/"'Til I Die" * LP: Surf's Up * Label: Brother/Reprise * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#89) * Entered: 1971-10-30

After he became the Beach Boys' new manager, Jack Rieley immediately began contributing sets of poetically phrased lyrics to the band's songwriting stockpile. On "Long Promised Road," Carl Wilson managed to chew gracefully on lines like "so hard to lift the jeweled scepter when the weight turns a smile to a frown." The track's easy melodicism, pensive vibe, and smooth production certainly helped. A better fit overall with album rock formats instead of Top 40, the song charted no higher than #89 in Billboard. An earlier pressing of "Long Promised Road," with Sunflower's "Dierdre" on side B, had actually stiffed; a post Surf's Up re-release, though, backed by that album's elegiac "Til I Die," is the one that charted. The popular 1972 surfing film Five Summer Stories showcased the Surf's Up title track—along with the album's "Long Promised Road" and "Feel Flows"—as suitable hang-ten music for the seventies generation. (An extended, more evocative mix of "Til I Die" later turned up on the 1998 Endless Harmony soundtrack.)

Side A: "Long Promised Road" 

Side B: "'Til I Die"

"Marcella" (1972)
The Beach Boys

Written by Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley * Produced by the Beach Boys * 45: "Marcella" / "Hold on Dear Brother" * LP: Carl and the Passions: So Tough * Label: Brother * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#110) * Entered: 1972-07-15

Wave off some of the smoke in the room and you'll find a classic girl-name song that might have charted higher elsewhere in time. The haziness here is crucial, though. Put on the headphones and hear all the vocal and instrumental layers billow, curl, and evaporate. The Carl and the Passions: So Tough album's very oddness—its misleading title, its initial appearance as a two-fer with Pet Sounds, the appearance of two new band members (Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar from the Flame), and its stoned aura—tends to overshadow some of its musical pleasures. A Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar composition from the album (with steel guitar by an uncredited player who may well have been "Cottonfields" Red Rhodes) appears on the flip.

Side A: "Marcella"

Side B: "Hold on Dear Brother"

"Sail On Sailor" (1973)
The Beach Boys

Written by Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Van Dyke Parks, Jack Rieley, and Ray Kennedy * Produced by the Beach Boys * 45: "Sail On Sailor" / "Only With You" * LP: Holland * Label: Brother/Reprise * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#79) * Entered: 1973-02-24

Recent chart success in the Netherlands prompted Beach Boys band manager Jack Rieley to talk them into moving to—and building an expensive studio in—Amsterdam, where plenty of successful pop music had been percolating during the early seventies. This resulted in another somewhat muted album-rock offering that included a bonus 45 with a Brian Wilson synthesizer fairy tale called "Mount Vernon and Fairway." The album's crowning glory, though, was "Sail On Sailor," another Brian Wilson track written primarily with his old Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks that was added to the album as an afterthought. (The other three co-writers, as Parks once put it, "came out of their little rooms" to claim ownership of certain ideas.) Blondie Chaplin sings lead on the single, which peaked at #79 in 1973. A 1975 re-release brought it up to #49, after which it settled comfortably into FM rock playlists ever since. During this period, drummer Dennis Wilson began contributing parlor-piano mood pieces to Beach Boys albums, and his "Only With You," with lyrics by Mike Love and lead vocals by brother Carl, appeared on the other side of "Sail On Sailor."

Side A: "Sail On Sailor"

Side B: "Only With You"

"California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)" (1973)
The Beach Boys

Written by Alan Jardine. Produced by the Beach Boys. 45: "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)" / "Funky Pretty" (Brother 1973). LP: Holland (Brother 1973). * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#84) * Entered: 1973-05-12

This sing-songy Al Jardine track, which—like "Cottonfields" before it—contained a jaw harp in the mix, appeared on the Holland album as the third part of its "California Saga" (where it's listed as "California Saga/California"). Americana aspects reminiscent of "Cottonfields," perhaps, propelled it to #37 in the UK. On the B-side is "Funky Pretty," a laid back Brian Wilson number with lyrics by Mike Love and Jack Rieley.

Side A: "California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)"

Side B: "Funky Pretty"

"Surfin' USA" (1963)
The Beach Boys

Written by Chuck Berry (and Brian Wilson) * Produced by Nick Venet * 45: "Surfin' USA" / "The Warmth of the Sun" * LP: Endless Summer * Label: Capitol * Billboard charts (as reissue): Hot 100 (#36) * Entered (as reissue): 1974-08-17

Capitol wisely released a Beach Boys compilation the year after two Beach Boys songs ("Surfin' Safari" and "All Summer Long") played crucial roles in the soundtrack for American Graffiti, the film that revved up the already-rumbling engines of cultural nostalgia. After this, the band would never stray too far from its original themes. The compilation's leadoff single—a #3 hit in 1963—was credited to Chuck Berry as its sole writer, the result of publishing disputes that had arisen when it first appeared with sole credit to Brian Wilson, who had given Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" new lyrics. The exquisite "Warmth of the Sun," written by Wilson and Mike Love in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, made a welcome appearance as the reissue's flipside. ("Shut Down" was the B-side in '63.)

Side A: "Surfin' USA"

Side B: "The Warmth of the Sun"

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."

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 smoldering version of Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon's "Down and Out in New York City" as its theme.

According to the film's director Larry Cohen in Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak (2009), 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. Brown released the rejected music on his Payback album, which was aptly named because its title track hit #1 on Billboard's soul chart, while Starr's song only managed to reach #110 on the pop chart and was shut out of the soul 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" (Billboard #50,  entered 3/10/73; soul #13). Written by Bodie Chandler and Barry De Vorzon. Produced by James Brown. 45: "Down and Out in New York City"/"Mama's Dead" (Polydor 1973). LP: Black Caesar (Polydor 1973).

The B-side, "Mama's Dead," sounds as though Brown was captured in the studio shedding real tears.

James Brown - "Sexy Sexy Sexy" (Billboard #50, entered 8/18/73; soul #6). Written and produced by James Brown. 45: "Sexy Sexy Sexy"/"Slaughter Theme" (Polydor 1973). LP: Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (Polydor 1973).

(Again, the appearance of this song on any DVD version of the film is no guarantee.)

Edwin Starr - "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem" (Billboard #110, entered 2/23/74). Written by Freddie Perren. Produced by Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell. 45: "Ain't It Hell Up in Harlem"/"Don't It Feel Good to Be Free" (Motown 1974). LP: Hell Up in Harlem (Motown 1974).

I wish "Big Pappa," the song that accompanies the film's sequence where Tommy Gibbs's old man goes gangster, was on side B. That would have made for a truly classic single.

James Brown - "The Payback, Pt. 1" (Billboard #26, entered 3/23/74; soul #1). Written by James Brown, Fred Wesley, and John Starks. Produced by James Brown. 45: "The Payback - Part I"/"The Payback - Part II" (Polydor 1973). LP: The Payback (Polydor 1973).