Friday, December 28, 2018

Chart Song Cinema: The Last American Hero (1973)

Songwriters Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, at the early stages of prolific careers, had no idea they were writing the epilogue for singer-songwriter Jim Croce, a man who generally manufactured his own music and lyrics. But his performance of their "I Got a Name" on record sounded like something he'd have come up with eventually, and it ended up being the last song he'd perform on this earth, at a concert in Natchitoches (NACK-itosh), Louisiana, after which his charter plane would crash during takeoff on September 20, 1973.

"I Got a Name" was scheduled for release as a single one week after that sad day and had already been assigned as the opening and closing title theme for a movie called The Last American Hero. In spite of its big title, this was a fairly easy-going film starring Jeff Bridges as a charismatic and resilient Junior Johnson-style moonshiner-turned-stock car racer, the type Croce sang about on his 1972 You Don't Mess Around with Jim album ("Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy)").

Although its down-home footage of dirt track racing will give gearheads from any era a nice cinematic buzz, nothing in the film packs enough of a dramatic wallop to call for the emotional gravitas in "I Got a Name," a recording that dresses up its rural lyrical and musical components in orchestral lace. Both the film title and theme song could have worked better in some other film with a more heart-wrenching premise. (But here's a line worth remembering, spoken by the Bridges character's repentant bootlegger dad: "The damn foolishness of one person is the breath of life to another.")

"I Got a Name" would be Croce's fifth charting single, with six more posthumous ones to come between 1973 and 1976, including the career/genre/era-apotheosis piece "Time in a Bottle." Quentin Tarrantino grabbed "I Got a Name" for one of his crazy-quilt soundtracks in 2012 (Django Unchained). Side B merged lyrics evoking the blue collar south to etude-like music that seemed suited for harpsichord.

"I Got a Name" (1973) - Jim Croce

Written by Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox * Produced by Terry Cashman and Tommy West * 45: "I Got a Name" / "Alabama Rain" * LP: I Got a Name * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#10), Easy Listening (#4) * Entered: 1973-10-06

Side A: "I Got a Name"

Side B: "Alabama Rain"

Monday, August 27, 2018

Della Reese: The Early '70s Chart Single

Della Reese (R.I.P. November 19, 2017) emerged from Detroit in the late '50s as a true glamour figure, delivering her distinctly enunciated vocals to opulent tracks evoking velvet gloves and crystal chandeliers. The pop production team of Hugo and Luigi handled her biggest hit, "Don't You Know" (built on a theme from Puccini's La Boheme), and although that song's momentum also pushed it to #1 on Billboard's R&B chart, Reese's name only ever appeared in the lower regions of the pop singles chart after 1960. Her absence from the R&B/soul charts is indeed a curious aspect of her musical history.

A ten-month run as a TV variety show host (The Della Reese Show, June 1969 to March 1970) helped promote her Black Is Beautiful album, which had reunited her with producers Hugo and Luigi and wound up being her final pop effort. The reason why nothing even on this album could register on Billboard's soul chart is a mystery. Future Reese albums would aim toward jazz or gospel audiences, while her TV presence would eventually supersede her musical reputation in later years. From 1993 to 2005, she appeared as the central cast member on Touched By an Angel during its entire nine-season run, several decades after her final charting single ("Compared to What" / "Games People Play") bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1970. (The ad above ran in Billboard on Dec. 13, 1969, p. 61.)

"Compared to What" (1969) - Della Reese

Written by Gene McDaniels * Produced by Hugo and Luigi * 45: "Compared to What" / "Games People Play" * LP: Black Is Beautiful * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#128) * Entered: 1970-01-03

"Games People Play" (1969) - Della Reese

Written by Joe South * Produced by Hugo and Luigi * 45: "Compared to What" / "Games People Play" * LP: Black Is Beautiful * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#121) * Entered: 1970-01-10

"Compared to What" helped the singer Gene McDaniels transition from an on-stage vocal career to an off-stage songwriting career. His three biggest records as a vocalist ("A Hundred Pounds of Clay," "Tower of Strength," and "Chip Chip")—each of them top ten hits—all happened in 1961. In 1966 he'd written "Compared to What" while thinking, according to an online interview, about the "right wing push toward globalization [and] privatization" that alienated "the normal people of the world."

He wrote the tune with jazz pianist Les McCann in mind, whose trio McDaniels sang with in nightclubs until label quirks in his emerging pop career complicated the two men's relationship. "Compared to What," then, not only mended fences between the two, but re-joined them at the hip when a 1969 live recording by McCann (who'd done a studio version in '66) became a #85 pop hit—a surprising development for a track on a jazz album. The song's message resonated and cover versions proliferated. Della Reese's version from her Black Is Beautiful album, paired with Joe South's "Games People Play" for a strong, socially-conscious single, did nothing more than bubble under the pop charts and made no R&B showing.

Reese returned to her gospel roots for her version of Joe South's "Games People Play" and gave it a definitive, show-stopping rendition. Those who give this record a listen will feel its message in their bones. Although it charted slightly higher than its intended A-side, one still wonders if anyone ever really heard it. Who played piano? The Black Is Beautiful album's musicians receive no credit despite the gatefold cover's ample real estate. Although a shorter, three-minute-plus version appeared on later compilations, the full five-minute-plus track appeared on both the original album and 45.

Side A: "Compared to What"

Side B: "Games People Play"