Victor Willis Wins

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how some things just stay in your head. And it’s not always the significant things. I’m sure there are pivotal moments in my life that I just don’t recall with that much clarity but some goofy, little things I remember clearly.

One such ‘goofy, little’ thing for me is a faded snapshot I have in my head of being about ten years old and being in a neighbour’s basement in the early 1980’s and looking at their vinyl copy of the Village People’s second album, “Macho Man” from 1978. I remember that I liked a couple of their songs but what I remember really striking me was the sound and look and cool name of their lead singer, Victor Willis. I thought he had a fantastic, virile voice and was a cool looking dude. I eventually owned their third album, 1978’s “Cruisin'”, on 8-track but as the years went by, I generally kept them at bay, owing to a public backlash and a general perception of them as a ridiculous and dated disco group that predominantly catered to homosexual males.

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Cowboy, construction worker, Victor, Native American, leatherman and…suspender man?

I also remember when I was older – in the early ’90’s – yammering on about how I was a true rock ‘n’ roller and how I hated all hip hop and acts like Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock. In the back of my mind, though, I’d be thinking how the beat of songs like “It Takes Two” was catchy and maybe not so bad. Eventually, I came to openly embrace all music – even that which I could not defend. The Village People and all of disco, really, fell into this category of music you knew was kind of lame but, dang, if you didn’t love it!

Which would bring me back to my man, Victor Willis. Victor was born in Dallas in 1951 and, like a lot of people of his generation, began singing in church. In Victor’s case, he started in his father’s Baptist church. He moved to New York as a young man and joined the Negro Ensemble Company, a theatre group that was dedicated to presenting works documenting the black experience that got it’s start in part with funding from Al Bell of Stax Records. The spotlight shone on this group significantly in 1981 when it presented “A Soldier’s Play”, the story of the murder of a black soldier at a US Army barracks in the south during World War 2. The play starred Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and James Pickens, Jr.. It was made into an Academy Award-nominated film. Other members of this venerable institution, which continues to thrive today, include: Debbie Allen, John Amos, Angela Bassett, Bill Duke, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Alan Grier, Sherman Hemsley, Delroy Lindo, Garrett Morris, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Richard Roundtree and, our man, Victor Willis.

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Jacques Morali

Victor was in the original Broadway production of “The Wiz” in 1976 and then decided to go into a studio to record a demo tape of songs he had written. The tape eventually made it into the hands of one Jacques Morali. Morali was a Frenchman born in Morocco who had an extensive music career in France starting in the late 1960’s. He eventually teamed up with Henri Belolo, who happened to also be a Frenchman born in Morocco. The two moved to New York City to try their hand in the North American market. The partners represented a common team seen often in music history; non-performers who wrote songs looking for singers. The two were ready to create acts they would package and present to the world.

In 1977, this team of Moroccan-born Frenchmen – they called themselves “Cant Stop Productions” – had songs prepared but no one to sing them when they received Victor’s demo tape. Morali and Belolo were excited by Victor’s dynamic voice and met with Willis. Morali told him that he had had a dream in which Victor sang his songs and they were hugely successful. An alliance was born. Now, they just needed an act – so Morali invented one. Morali was a gay man who frequented gay discos in Greenwich Village. As he was being exposed to the “macho male stereotypes” he saw in these clubs, the idea came to him to form a group that would feature different gay fantasy figures. Now that he had a singer, he surrounded Victor with a studio band and went in to make a record.

“Village People” was released on Casablanca Records in the summer of ’77 and was a success. The album – featuring only the four songs Morali had started with, clocking in at just over 20 minutes – reached #54 in the US, 36 on the US Top R&B /Hip-Hop Albums chart and 21 in Australia. As demands for personal appearances poured in, Morali saw the need to create a group of dancers and musicians to surround Victor for live appearances. Victor and Morali worked together recruiting and also sent out a legendary ad that started to appear in the trades. In terms of recruitment ads in music history, this one ranks up there with the one that built The Monkees: “Macho types wanted”, the ad said, “must dance and have a moustache”. True story.

Once the official line-up was in place, photos were taken for publicity and for the cover of the second album, which had already been recorded. “Macho Man”, released in early 1978, featured six songs, five co-written by Victor. The other song was the standard “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody”, if you can believe it. The single “Macho Man” was the group’s first hit, charting at #25 in the US and going Top Ten in Australia and New Zealand. Following “Macho Man” on the record was the track “I Am What I Am”, a song that became a touchstone for the gay community, a community that was just “coming out” in the late ’70’s. Victor’s lyrics were a statement of liberation and not just for the gay community. It was also aimed at those who simply dressed differently and wanted to be different so all could relate. It is very interesting to note that Victor – a heterosexual – was able to write lyrics that all people could relate to but also that the gay community, specifically, could call their own. Another song on the album was “Key West”, singing the praises of the southern most tip of the US; a city also welcoming to the gay community. And I have to mention the final song on the album: “Sodom and Gomorrah”.

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“Cruisin'”, with the Hot Cop, Victor Willis, front and center.

The third album, “Cruisin'”, was released 7 months after “Macho Man”. It cemented the Village People as leaders in the disco and the club scenes. First, there was the title of the album which was a double entendre. Yes, it referred to the age old tradition of driving around but, as of late, the term had come to refer to the act of “cruising”; gay men looking for liaisons with other gay men. There is a track on this album called “I’m a Cruiser”. “Cruisin'” was the first Village People album to contain songs written exclusively by Victor and Jacques Morali; or at least they were credited that way. Again, it’s interesting to note that Victor was able to write lyrics that were easily adopted by the gay community. Perhaps more than all this was the opening track on the album: “Y.M.C.A.”. The story goes that, during a conversation, Victor was recalling the fun he had had at the YMCA in his youth. He was talking about it in reference to it’s standing in the history of black urban youth as it was a place to meet and play sports; it kept them off the streets. Morali had never heard of the YMCA and when Victor explained that it was a place where young men met, Morali got excited and thought it would make a great song for the Village People. Victor wrote the lyrics up here, in Vancouver. Victor Willis is from Texas. His group was based in New York City and was emblematic of the scene in Greenwich Village. The group was ran by two Moroccan-born Frenchmen. And “Y.M.C.A.” was written in Canada!

The song was a massive hit. It’s hard to properly assess this song, actually, because of it’s place in the very fabric of society and culture. Suffice it to say that it has become synonymous with fun, good times and excitement, constantly heard at sporting events, weddings and parties. The song peaked at #2 in the US and was #1 on 16 charts around the world. Consider that is one of fewer than 40 singles that have sold in excess of 10 million physical copies worldwide. 10 million. Remember that: our man, Victor Willis from Dallas, writes a song that 10 million people have bought. It becomes one of the best-selling songs ever. “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. “We Are the World”. “My Heart Will Go On”. “White Christmas”….and “Y.M.C.A.”. The “Cruisin'” album went to #3 in the US and was #1 in parts of Europe. The album also contained “Hot Cop” which became Victor’s strutting anthem.

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Shame on you, Allan Carr.

“Go West” (March, 1979) was another successful album featuring songs co-written by Victor including the hits “Go West” and “In the Navy”. In ’79, the group found themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and touring North America. However, Victor Willis left the group at the end of the tour. Subsequently, he was able to avoid being a part of the disaster that was “Can’t Stop the Music”. This 1980 musical comedy film was the sole feature film directed by actress Nancy Walker. Yes, that Nancy Walker. The film was supposed to be a “‘Singin’ in the Rain’ for the disco crowd” and “starred” Bruce Jenner. The film is notable as being one of the worst ever and was the inspiration for the Razzie Awards – it won the first ever Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture. After Victor left, Village People never had another hit.

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Look at her eyes. I’d deny this, too.

Post-Village People, Victor refused offers to record and perform and distanced himself from the group. He unfortunately also battled drug addiction for many years. He was married to Phylicia Rashad for four years ending in 1982. Victor had written the lyrics for Phylicia’s 1978 album “Josephine Superstar”. Produced by Victor and Jacques Morali, the album was a disco concept album (?) that told the life story of Josephine Baker. You can’t make this stuff up. Interestingly, I have read that Rashad has denied the existence of this record. Wouldn’t you?

After Victor left at the end of 1979, Village People went in a disastrous direction. Without Victor to write the words of the songs – thereby helping to define their identity by creating exactly what it was the group sang about – the quality of the records plummeted. Village People came up with songs like “Ready for the 80’s”: “I’m ready for the eighties, glad to be alive. I’m waiting for those magic numbers to arrive”. Like, really? The horrors continued with 1981’s “Renaissance” album. The plan was to re-style the group into a new wave act. The results are such that I can’t even relate them properly here. I read a review that declared the record an “embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day”. I had to do some soul searching about whether or not to share the album cover here. I decided not to, out of respect to my readers. Victor was coaxed back by Morali for the 1982 album “Fox on the Box” but the album was a failure – it was not released in the US – and Victor left again for good.

Fast forward to 2012. Victor has emerged from the Betty Ford Clinic having conquered addictions that have lead to trouble with the law. He is ready to start his life anew with a new bride. Karen, bless her, is a lawyer and an entertainment executive. She mentions to Victor something about “Termination Rights”. What happens next is nothing short of historic.

It’s a common story in the music business, as old as the business itself. Young, talented individuals have stories to tell. But how to get their stories to the world? This is where the “business” part of “show business” rears it’s sometimes ugly head. Managers, agents and publishers get involved. In Victor’s case, he was approached by Jacques Morali with an offer that would make Victor a star. Victor was young and signed on the dotted line without knowing all the ramifications. He says himself that he signed one contract that he never even read. All through the years, he was looked after, yes, and enjoyed all the trappings of stardom. He was credited on all the songs he contributed lyrics to and paid; but minimally.

The Termination Rights clause was added to copyright law in 1978 and states that after a period of 35 years, a composer may recover control of their songs even if they had signed away the rights. In September of 2013, after a five year legal battle, Victor Willis became the first significant artist to emerge from court triumphant, his copyrights rightfully, accurately and fully restored. I say ‘significant’ artist because there is a hit song involved here. I mentioned earlier that “Y.M.C.A.” was a major hit, eventually selling in excess of 10 million copies. But more than that the song has gone on to become something more than a song. It means something. If you hear it in a film, it means joy or success. Exuberance. If you hear it in a commercial, the ad men are trying to tell you that happiness accompanies their product. If you hear it at a ballgame, it signifies the unifying celebration that supporting your team and this ageless pastime involves. Needless to say, “Y.MC.A.” has gone further; it’s iconic. And, now, Victor Willis has gained considerable control over how it is used.

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Victor victorious in downtown San Diego.

Additionally, in 2015, it was determined in court that Victor and Jacques Morali were the only two writers of many Village People hits. Morali’s business partner, Henri Belolo, also had his name attached as co-writer. This is something else common in the music business. People can be given a songwriting credit for many reasons other than having contributed to the creation of the song. Now, instead of a third, Victor rightfully receives a half share of royalties (note: Morali died of AIDS in 1991).

For their part, the publishing companies that previously controlled the Village People’s catalog countered that Victor – like all songwriters – worked on a “for hire” basis. They were employed by publishing companies so therefore any works they created belonged to ‘the firm’. This argument didn’t fly in court and Victor emerged victorious. It will no doubt set a precedent for others facing Victor’s predicament.

Today, Victor Willis is 67 years old. He currently makes appearances, performs live and continues to record. Which is all wonderful. But he will forever be known by what he has already given us. It’s more than just acceptable to enjoy the Village People today, it’s actually recommended. They are an exciting reminder of an interesting moment in time. It is made all that much more enjoyable with the knowledge that one of the creators of this iconic sound has been justly rewarded with a healthy retirement fund. Victor Willis wins.

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Soul Brother Number One: A Brief History of Don Cornelius and “Soul Train”

The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show “Soul Train”. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.

I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black ‘American Bandstand'” and came up with “Soul Train”. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.

He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.

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James Brown talking with the always impeccably dressed Cornelius.

The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.

Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s “American Bandstand” “Soul Train” was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with “Soul Unlimited” which in turn was a knock-off of “Soul Train”. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel “Soul Unlimited” – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.

One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on “Soul Train” include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on “What’s Happening!!”. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by “Soul Train” dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.

Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with it’s sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.

Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.

I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, “Soul Train” spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching “Soul Train”. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.

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Don Cornelius 1936 – 2012

The Warmth of the Sun: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys

Sirius XM has launched a Beach Boys channel for the summer! Listening to the music of Brian Wilson, et al. randomly has inspired me to highlight some of their lesser known songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

Brian Wilson and I go way back. My earliest recollection of hearing music is my mother’s Elvis Presley records. (And “Maneater” and “Stray Cat Strut”) I connected with Presley early and became not just a “lifelong fan” but a sort of student; of his music, his personality and his impact on society. However, I think I can safely say that the first music that I discovered for myself was the music of the Beach Boys. I was 12 years old and my Aunt Lori gave me some records, among them the Beach Boys’ iconic greatest hits package, 1974’s “Endless Summer”.

I listened to this record throughout the summer of 1985, the summer I was 12. At the end of that summer, my family was moving away from the city I had grown up in to a small town. Perhaps the impending separation from my friends and from the life I had known caused me to gravitate to the Beach Boys’ songs; songs of joy, songs of love, songs of longing. The music spoke to my imagination. It gave me a “place to go”.

I’m going to try very hard to be concise throughout this 3-part series. I intend it to be a set of articles for those only slightly familiar with this music that will highlight some of the lesser known gems in the Beach Boys canon – and not a dissertation on the career of the group and their cultural impact; although their story is so rife with fascinating episodes that I would like to tackle such a series one day. They are often misunderstood and underappreciated and a multi-part series on them would go a long way to clearing that up.

But – like I’ve done with Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Nat Cole (search for them on my blog to read the articles) – I’d like these articles to direct your attention to the music; which has also been somewhat misunderstood and underappreciated. I plan on going a little deeper than their more recognizable hits as most of us are more-than-familiar with iconic Beach Boys music. We could call this the best of the “2nd tier”. Of course, the Beach Boys catalogue is so deep that we could carry on to highlight a 3rd and 4th tier; the hidden gems.

One can’t talk about the music of the Beach Boys without talking about Brian Wilson. Brian was born the oldest of three boys to Murry and Audree in 1942 in Hawthorne, California. The late Rolling Stone writer Timothy White wrote a book of such staggeringly thorough research that I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is called “The Nearest Faraway Place” and it deals not only with Brian and the Beach Boys but it also gets in-depth about what White calls the “Southern California Experience”. White’s book begins with a long history of Brian’s forebears. The story White relates goes a long way towards explaining the person of Murry Wilson. The generational issues that plagued previous Wilson men landed heavily on Murry – and he in turn “landed heavily” on Brian.

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The most thoroughly researched book I’ve ever read. This fascinating read has become an essential book in my collection. Photo Credit: Henry Holt and Co.

Brian was a gentle child who was subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of his father. It’s so hard to abbreviate this aspect of Brian’s journey but suffice it to say that Brian turned to music not only as a companion and an outlet but also as a means to communicate with and satisfy the demands and expectations of Murry. Murry himself had been a songwriter; somehow restraining his demons long enough to compose pleasant little ditties in the hopes of having them published and perhaps even recorded and performed by a big name. He was successful once when Lawrence Welk performed Murry’s “Two-Step Side Step” on the radio.

Brian was intrigued by the intricate harmonies of the vocal group the Four Freshmen. He became obsessed with mastering these harmonies by breaking them down – separating them and teaching them to his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis. Carl was keen on Chuck Berry and rhythm and blues music and Brian absorbed that as well. Dennis was a rebel, for lack of a better word. He would go toe-to-toe with Murry and then take off into the streets and down to the beach. It was surfing, girls and beach life that Dennis was most interested in and it was these pursuits that he talked about around the house and in the music room that Murry had set up for the boys.

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An absolutely priceless picture of Carl, Dennis and Brian Wilson (foreground) horsing around on their front lawn in Hawthorne.

The Wilson boys had an older cousin named Mike Love. Mike was into doo-wop and when the two families would get together, Mike and the three Wilson boys would talk music and listen to the radio and sing songs themselves, Mike taking the bass parts. The four young men began to entertain the idea of forming a group. With the addition of high school friend Al Jardine, they did just that, filling the music room of the Wilson home with their fledgling sounds. This caught the attention of father Murry who quickly put himself in charge of the boys’ progress. He did, after all, have some connections in the music business and he was possessed of the belligerence needed to operate in that arena.

But first, Murry needed a holiday. He and Audree were going to Mexico. Brian, the oldest, was left in charge of the house and of the $500 ’emergency money’ Murry had left behind. No sooner had the Wilson parents left the driveway than the boys took the $500 and rented instruments so that they could work on a song. Dennis had come back from the beach raving about the scene there and suggesting that Brian write a song about surfing. It was this song the group worked on while Murry and Audree were away.

When Murry returned and saw all the instruments and learned to what use the emergency money had went, he blew his stack, focusing his physical rage on Brian. Once Murry had the situation explained to him, and their song, “Surfin'”, played for him, he calmed down and went into business mode. The song was eventually released on the tiny Candix label and became a minor hit for the newly christened “Beach Boys”. Capitol Records became interested and the boys soon found themselves in the studio recording their first album.

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Teenagers. Working out the harmonies while recording their debut LP, “Surfin’ Safari” (1961). Mike, Brian, Carl, Dennis and David Marks. Photo Credit: Capitol Records.

Whew! Seems wrong to compress this story like that! The main purpose here, though, is to talk about the music that the Beach Boys made in this first era of their legendary run as “America’s Band”. During the years 1961 to 1965, Brian Wilson and his group did no less than put their stamp on history; music history and cultural history. And Brian Wilson did it almost single-handedly. Although he would much rather have followed Phil Spector’s lead and been a producer with a stable of artists, Brian found himself “paying the bills” as the bassist of a surf band. The songs that went over with the public in this era dealt with surfing, cars and girls; what Mike Love would later infamously label “The Formula”. The songs come across as so simple that, to the general listener, they are just fun songs. But Brian began to create compositions that were vocally and harmonically intricate if you knew what to listen for. I’ll concede though that the classic songs from this era are still cherished today because they depict and celebrate the sheer joy of living; not necessarily because of Brian’s tonal shifts or chord changes. The great songs from this era are songs we all know and love so well that they have become embedded in the fabric of life itself; you want to depict fun, happiness and the release that warm weather provides, play a Beach Boys song: “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, “409”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, “Shut Down”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around”. Don’t let your familiarity with these songs rob you of your enjoyment of them. They represent a remarkably successful string of records that are sophisticated creations while at the same time being infinitely accessible. You may have heard “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a thousand times and you take it for granted. Try to listen to it again for the first time; there are few records from this era more exhilarating.

OK, so, you know all those songs but what else was going on? Glad you asked. Got a list right here.

10. “Catch a Wave” (1963 – from “Surfer Girl”) — Some of the songs I will present on these lists may seem to be pedestrian or common in the Beach Boys catalogue. Most times the reason for their inclusion is that they are perfect examples of what the group did so well. Some songs are simply great representations of their ‘sound’. “Catch a Wave” may be one of these songs. Written by Brian and Mike, it is a rare time when all the boys played on a recording with no session musicians. Even Al Jardine AND David Marks play on “Catch a Wave”; Marks would leave the group less than 6 months after this was recorded. Mike Love’s sister, Maureen, cameos on harp. Never released as a single, it’s appeal may come in part from it’s inclusion on “Endless Summer”. It appears early on that compilation – track 3 – and helps to create the mood of that album. It is an integral piece, one of many parts, but, taken on it’s own, it has a good, mid-tempo groove with some solid drumming from Dennis and a great solo from Brian on organ. Features some of Mike’s better wordplay. It’s one of many of their songs that sounds like a summer sunset, the end of a fun day spent outdoors. A year later, Jan & Dean gave this song new lyrics about skateboarding and took “Sidewalk Surfin'” to #25.

9. “In the Parkin’ Lot” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Maybe the most hidden gem on this list, Brian took this little ditty and sent it skyward by tacking on four bars of gorgeous vocals to the beginning and the end of this song from this very good album with the silly name. Earlier in the year, Capitol had released a compilation of instrumental hot rod songs and called it “Shut Down”. I suppose the Beach Boys could’ve called their album something else – but it was likely Capitol that named both. “In the Parkin’ Lot” is most notable for Brian’s arrangement of the boys’ sumptuous voices but it also shines due to it’s ‘slice-of-life’ vocal imagery, brought to you by Roger Christian. Christian was a disc jockey in Los Angeles in the ‘golden era’ and spent some time at the famous KFWB near Hollywood and Vine where he was introduced to Brian Wilson. The two would go for milkshakes and write songs. Christian – a disc jockey, mind you – was great with word imagery and he knew cars. If you look him up, you’ll see that he wrote the words to many great songs by the Beach Boys and – more impressively – he wrote the lyrics to the majority of the best songs of Jan and Dean. If you close your eyes and listen to “In the Parkin’ Lot”, you’ll hear a cute tale of a guy and a girl waiting until the last minute to get out of the car in the morning and get to class on time. But it’s the stunning display of  vocals that bookend this song that set it apart.

8. “All Summer Long” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) —  A lot of you may say that this enduring title track from ’64 is, indeed, one of the better known Beach Boys songs and not a “2nd tier” song. I won’t argue with that – I may even agree – but I will stand by the assertion that it may not be one of the first 10 or 15 songs a casual fan will mention. Again I will use this song as an example of what the Beach Boys did best in this era. The song is an absolute delight written by Brian and Mike. Brian has crafted another perfect pop song – both with his composition and his production – and Mike again nails the ethos of what the Beach Boys were about. Mike’s lyrics depict a perfect idyll of summer activities with personal touches we all can relate to. He takes the lead vocal here and sings of sitting in the car with a coke, miniature golf, Hondas, horseback rides and randomly hearing your favourite song on the radio. These images provide for us today delightful pangs of nostalgia for a bygone era. Again, all the boys were present in the studio and I was delightfully surprised to learn that it is Brian himself playing the distinctive marimba on this track. This song ascended to rarefied air in 1973 thanks to George Lucas’ seminal coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. Lucas’ film is a significant paean to the pivot point in the lives of young people but also paints a portrait of the major shifts experienced in American society in the early-to-mid ’60’s. Not only did Lucas give his stamp of approval to the 42 songs he used to exemplify the aura of the time but he was savvy enough to know that this Beach Boys song – in not only the lyrics but the tone of the song – speaks of the end of something; summer, yes, but Lucas also heard in it the “sundown” of the innocence of the era that ended with the death of JFK and the coming of the Beatles. He felt strongly enough to use it over the closing credits even though it was released 2 years after the year in which his film is set.

7. “Kiss Me, Baby” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — This album represented a major leap for the Beach Boys and a turning point in their career and in Brian Wilson’s life. Brian and the boys had been going non-stop for 4 years, releasing some of the most iconic music in American history. Consider that all this time Brian had been doing most of the heavy lifting: composing the music, arranging the songs, arranging the vocals, playing bass and various keyboards, singing and performing and touring. He was doing all this while battling psychological issues of immense proportions that I won’t get into. A week after recording the backing track for “Kiss Me, Baby” with the famed Wrecking Crew (plus Carl on guitar; himself on piano), Brian had a significant anxiety attack and nervous breakdown and announced he was retiring from touring and staying home to focus on making music. “The Beach Boys Today!” is significant as the album that indicated that things were pivoting. Gone were songs of surf and cars and goofy teenage love. This album was filled with serious statements on mature love and life. I single out “Kiss Me, Baby” because it is sublime. Written by Brian and Mike – who also take the leads – it begins with dreamy vocals and dramatic piano (Leon Russell is also credited on piano here). Mike’s lyrics tell of the aftermath of an argument – and there is a sense that what the couple is fighting over is no longer just ‘kid stuff’. Excellent percussion from the legend Hal Blaine leads us to one of those ‘cliffs’ I love in a song – the vocals seem to hang in midair for a second and then we drop into the chorus: “We both had a broken heart…oh, baby…kiss me, baby, love to hold you….” Beautiful vocals from all five Boys. A gorgeous song.

6. “Wendy” (1964 – from “All Summer Long”) — I’ve always thought that there was something significant about the second half of “Endless Summer”. The songs always seemed a bit more serious while still feeling like sunshine and warm air. Maybe the first half is the glow of midday; full bore fun in the sun. And the second half is late afternoon, approaching sunset; exhaling, afterglow, driving back home, tired but exhilarated. “Wendy” fits that ‘second half’ vibe for me perfectly. Another song written by Brian and Mike and featuring all five Beach Boys playing and singing. There’s just something about the sound of the guitars and the vocal arrangement. Brian lays down a nice organ solo and when the voices come back in – “Wendy, I wouldn’t hurt you like that…” – it is one of a thousand examples of how good their voices sounded together. This song may be looked at as one of those simple, little ditties but there is more going on here. There is certainly emotional content, yes, but if you look it up, you’ll find that there is a surprising amount going on with the composition, as well: “The song begins with a minor i chord in the key of D minor, moves to a major IV…then modulates to the key of F major (the relative major of D minor) through a substituted plagal cadence…” I don’t know what any of that means but I do know that it substantiates the claim that the genius of Brian Wilson was hiding in plain sight; you may not have understood it but it was there. As I say, “Wendy” has a unique quality to it and it made me a major fan of that feminine appellation.

5. “The Warmth of the Sun” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here is an earlier example of that “Wendy” vibe I just mentioned. “Shut Down Volume 2” is an interesting album. It contains what could be considered ‘filler’ like “Shut Down, Part II”, “Louie, Louie” and “Denny’s Drums” but it also contains the iconic up-tempo “Fun, Fun, Fun” and ballads like “Keep an Eye on Summer” and “The Warmth of the Sun”. A dramatic ballad, the song begins – as many of their songs do – with soaring harmonies featuring Brian’s lovely falsetto. Mike has written some fine lyrics here which immediately seem different from other sentiments from his pen. The words express a confusion about life, wondering what is the value in the things that I do? It is fitting that this conundrum is solved when Brian sings that it’s all good “for I have the warmth of the sun within me at night”. It’s a manifesto of sorts from the Beach Boys that says that while things may not always be great, things like sunshine and the freedom and joy it can afford will help – if not save – you in the end. There is an emotion inherent in this song owing to the day it was written; November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated was a turning point for American society and elicited feelings in the entire nation. Brian and Mike were not immune to this and both were inspired to create this beautiful statement from a tragic event. This song is often mentioned when discussing Brian’s inventive chord changes in his earlier compositions. Beach Boy dad, Murry Wilson, did an instrumental version of this song on his lone album, the surprisingly enjoyable “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson” on Capitol (1967).

4. “Car Crazy Cutie” (1963 – from “Little Deuce Coupe”) — “Run, a-run, a-do run run. Oh, oh, run…” Annnd, I’m done. But seriously: I love Capitol Records but…in the summer of ’63, the label put out an album of hot rod songs called “Shut Down” which featured the song of the same name and “409” by the Beach Boys. This was done without their participation or knowledge. So, Brian quickly finished up some songs he had been working on and hustled the boys back into the studio to record their own album of car songs. They released the “Little Deuce Coupe” album only one month after their previous album, “Surfer Girl”. The Boys flying through the recording of this album with the speed of a ’32 Ford can be seen in the fact that half the songs are under two minutes in length and the whole album runs about 20 minutes. Nevertheless, this is looked on as one of the earliest “concept” albums. The longest song on the album? The one that LEAST sounds like it was a rush job, “Car Crazy Cutie”, written by Brian and Roger Christian. Brian constructed a very cool vocal arrangement that puts one in mind of the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron”, which was recorded around the same time as this tune. Once again, the song begins with a distinctive vocal intro and the tune drops in to a great mid-tempo guitar-driven groove. Again, the band features Al Jardine and David Marks, who would not play on another Beach Boys record until 2012. Roger’s car-savvy lyrics tell of a gal who’s a real “rodder’s dream gal” who’s “hip to everything, man, from customs to rails” and when he “takes her to the drags, man, everyone flips”. I love this song and – like “In the Parkin’ Lot” – it’s the vocal bookends that make it stand out.

3. “Do You Wanna Dance?” (1965 – from “The Beach Boys Today!”) — Beautiful harmonies, strikingly complex arrangements. These are the things we often think of when thinking of the Beach Boys. But here is an example of them exhibiting sheer energy in a driving remake of Bobby Freeman’s classic song. This is the only song on this list that was a domestic A-side single. I wish I knew musical terminology to describe to you what Brian has done here with the arrangement. Utilizing Freeman’s pounding piano chords to build the song up with crescendos, Brian has maximized the dramatic import of the composition. Although he used the Wrecking Crew on this one, the instruments that stand out the most are the pounding piano played by Brian himself and the guitar (that doubles with the piano) played by Carl, who also takes the solo. Brian has replaced Freeman’s unique percussion sound in the breaks with Carl’s boss guitar. But again it’s the vocals that really stand out. The lead is taken by Dennis and this is significant. The highest charting Beach Boys song to feature Denny on lead, “Do You Wanna Dance?” benefits from his masculine voice. Indeed, the energy inherent here is due in large part to his reading of the lyric. I love how his voice starts things off here, popping out of the gates. The times when the group comes in to sing “oh, do ya, do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?” are exhilarating! Particularly heading for the outro; listen for Brian’s falsetto wail at the final crescendo. Add Hal Blaine’s drums and this thing rolls. Consider that this track features organ and two mandolins. Not easy to hear them but they contribute to the overall sound. Makes me think that actual video footage of Dennis Wilson, at this point in his life, recording this song would be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.

2. “Don’t Worry, Baby” (1964 – from “Shut Down Volume 2”) — Here’s where we can begin debating the definition of “2nd tier” Beach Boys songs. I’ll allow that the general public is aware of this beautiful song but it also fits the criteria presented here as in it is not immediately indicative of the Beach Boys’ sound in this era. The fact that this is on the same album as “Pom Pom Playgirl”, “Shut Down, Part 2” and “Louie, Louie” shows the strides Brian was making as a composer. Brian wrote “Don’t Worry, Baby” as an homage to Phil Spector and Brian’s favourite record, “Be My Baby”. Roger Christian provided the lyrics which depicted a young man’s apprehension regarding an upcoming drag race. Thing is, Brian had spoken at length with Roger about his frustrations with his father, Murry, and his own vulnerabilities where girls were concerned. Roger – to his credit – seems to have taken these talks with Brian and turned them into a lyric about a drag race – that’s not really about a drag race. Here, too, we can also begin to collectively shake our heads and struggle to accurately describe such a work of art. Dennis starts things off with a gentle snare and those glorious vocals come in followed by some nice piano from Brian. And, again, there is just that sound to this song. It has that dreamy sunset sound to it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so amazed that all the Boys play on this recording but I am. They all contribute to an amazingly smooth recording. I have read that Brian was unsure about singing a falsetto lead on a single – although this was technically not a single as it was released as the B side of “I Get Around”, the Beach Boys’ first #1 song. “Don’t Worry, Baby” charted in it’s own right and peaked at #24. It is one of the few Beach Boys songs to have been covered extensively, having been essayed by the likes of Bryan Ferry, the Bay City Rollers and Billy Joel. Keith Moon did a brutal version on his terrible solo album that reportedly made Brian break down crying. B.J. Thomas took it to #17 in 1977 and the Everly Brothers do a fine version – featuring the Beach Boys – on the soundtrack of “Tequila Sunrise”. The vocal arrangement is one of Brian’s finest and if someone asks you what is so good about the Beach Boys, play them this song.

1. “Let Him Run Wild” (1965 – from “Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!]”) —  I see now that I have given myself a ridiculously difficult task – trying to describe not only “Don’t Worry, Baby” but now also “Let Him Run Wild”. Appearing on a fun and somewhat underrated album, “Let Him Run Wild” was written by Brian and Mike. Brian’s composition is a nod to the song stylings of the great Burt Bacharach and is notable as being the first song that Brian wrote under the influence of marijuana. It was also the first song that made Carl and Dennis realize that Brian was starting to move into another realm and it is a significant signpost on the way to “Pet Sounds”. Vocally, this is another 6-Beach Boy performance with Bruce Johnston putting in some of his first shifts. Several star members of the famed Wrecking Crew are on hand and the track starts with Frank Capp’s vibraphone followed by Brian’s lead. Some dreamy guitar work by Carl (or Howard Roberts) and a nifty bass line from Carol Kaye carry the tune along gently. We drift into the chorus – “Let him run wild, he don’t care…” – and are neatly lead back to the verse: “I guess you know I waited for you…”. I dunno – I’m out of things to say about this gorgeous track. It was the b-side of “California Girls”.

Next Up… 1966 – 1973: Brian pivots and leaves everyone behind

 

 

 

Wool Hat: The Ballad of Mike Nesmith

So many great artists are buried by celebrity. I wrote recently about ‘paying the bills’; the idea that an artist can sometimes get stuck doing what he is popular for as opposed to what he likes to do or can do well. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Virtuoso guitarist Glen Campbell gets ‘stuck’ being a country singer. Michael Nesmith found himself in a similar situation at the start of 1967. An earnest songwriter and guitarist, Michael found himself on television playing a quiet country boy hanging out with three goofballs. He also found his name on a record that he said was the worst album in history.

Robert Michael Nesmith was born in Houston, Texas. When he was only four years old, his parents divorced. Bette Nesmith took Michael – an only child – to live near family in Dallas. Bette worked many clerical jobs to support her and her son before ending up at Texas Bank and Trust, eventually reaching the elevated position of executive secretary. Like many secretaries, she was constantly frustrated by the inability to properly correct mistakes made while typing on the typewriters of the day. Bette got an idea. She took some water-based paint with her to work one day and started using it to ‘paint over’ her mistakes. Some bosses gave her static about it but her co-workers used it and loved it and Bette carried on this way for five years. Eventually, she decided to market and sell her correction fluid as “Mistake Out” in 1956. She began a ‘factory’ of sorts in her kitchen and changed the name of her product to “Liquid Paper”. She was boss of her own revolutionary company until 1979 when she sold it to Gillette – for $47.5 million. Mike’s life was off to an interesting start.

Mike was an indifferent student and did not graduate high school before joining the Air Force. Once he got out, he began to focus on writing songs and performing in clubs. He moved to Los Angeles in 1965 and entered in to a publishing deal for the songs he was writing. One day, an associate brought in an ad asking for young men to audition for a television show centered around a fictitious rock band; “The Monkees”.

Wool Hat
Mike as ‘Mike’. And his green wool hat.

Now, I don’t know Michael Nesmith personally but, having been a fan of the Monkees for more than 30 years, I think I can make a few assumptions about his feelings about being involved in this fledgling television show. Maybe the same could be said for how Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Peter Tork – the other Monkees – felt as well. Mike was a songwriter. He was a singer and guitarist who had been operating in the music business for a while. I will assume that his desire was to be allowed to make records; get a record deal, take his songs into a studio with a band, record them and put out records. But anyone can understand that as you begin to feel your way at the dawn of your career, you will take any opportunity that comes your way.

Mike found himself playing a wool-hat wearing, quirky country boy – a variation on himself – on a weekly television show. The intention of the producers all along had been to put out records under the name “The Monkees”. The original ad for the auditions did stipulate that successful candidates would have musical abilities; songwriting, singing, instrument playing, etc. so obviously the four boys who would make up the group would be utilized somehow when it came to making the records. The Monkees get a bad rap and are referred to as the ‘Pre-fab Four’. They are not considered a real band because they didn’t play their own instruments. But here’s the thing – it was common practice in the music industry at the time for producers to ‘create’ bands and then utilize session musicians to make the records. If you’ve ever heard of the Wrecking Crew than you know that this crack group of L.A. session musicians played on the bulk of the hit records released in the mid-1960’s. Fully functioning bands like the Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Grass Roots, the Association, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and Paul Revere and the Raiders used these seasoned studio players to create music in the studio. Producers of the time wanted perfect recordings in the shortest amount of time possible – this meant bringing in the pros. It was not uncommon and it was not just the Monkees that employed session musicians. But because it was supposedly so obvious – I mean, it was a TV show, not a ‘real’ band – the Monkees had a stink on them from the get-go.

All this would have rankled a musician like Mike Nesmith. He was in the business to make records – NOT act on TV, playing air guitar to music performed by others. You can see from the outset, from the very first album, that Mike was doing his best to focus on his music as opposed to engaging in the hit-making combine that comprised songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart and producer Don Kirshner. This is borne out by taking a look at the first album, “The Monkees”, released in October of 1966.

Monkees
Their first album went to #1 and stayed there for 13 weeks.

Micky Dolenz does NOT get enough love. He had perhaps the perfect voice and vocal delivery for the pop/rock of the day and was called upon to sing lead on the majority of the group’s hit singles. Such was the case with the first 45RPM, the #1 hit “Last Train to Clarksville”, released shortly before the first album. Mike is represented on the first LP by two songs. “Papa Gene’s Blues” perfectly exhibits Mike’s country/rock leanings. “Twangy”, you might say, or “jangly”. “Sweet Young Thing” is more of a rocker with the added touch of fiddle. Mike had been promised by the powers-that-be that he could have a modicum of control over his songs in the studio. What’s interesting is that, although Mike could be considered a neophyte, he was producing sessions featuring the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians in the country. Also interesting; his two songs are VERY “Mike” and stand out from the rest of the tracks. In fact, Mike does not participate in any other song on the album. However, on his own compositions, that he produced, he utilizes Micky (vocals) and Peter Tork (guitars). Micky sings harmony with Mike on “Papa Gene” which started a pairing I love. Michael often would call on Micky either to sing lead on a song he had written or to sing some wonderful-sounding harmony with him. This tells me that, from the outset, Michael wanted to make his own music and to use the others in the group whenever possible.

The Monkees’ second album – “More of the Monkees” – was released January 9, 1967. It came as a complete surprise to the boys in the band. Svengali Don Kirshner had rushed the album out to capitalize on the Monkees’ massive success. The album being compiled and released without the band’s knowledge coupled with Kirshner’s liner notes, in which he praises his songwriters and producers before he mentions the Monkees themselves, confirmed Mike’s assertion that the boys were not in control of their own fate and sent a disturbing message to the other three guys. At a meeting in which the boys vented their spleen to the powers-that-be, Mike became so enraged that he punched a hole in a wall, exclaiming to the record company’s lawyer in attendance “that could’ve been your face!”. In the aftermath, Michael’s lobbying was successful and the boys were given artistic control of their next album. Don Kirshner was eventual fired. (He would go on to ‘create’ The Archies)

Mike was quoted in a magazine interview saying that “More of the Monkees” was “probably the worst album in the history of the world”. It’s apparent, though, that it was the state of affairs that made him feel this way about it. The album is better than their debut and fared even better on the charts. “More of the Monkees” displaced “The Monkees” in the #1 slot and the sophomore effort would spend 18 weeks on top. Mike’s contributions are again very “Mike” and very interesting. He sang lead and played steel guitar on “The Kind of Girl I Could Love”. He again produced the Wrecking Crew and the backing vocals feature all four Monkees. “Mary, Mary” is a great song and an example of one that Mike wrote but gave to Micky to sing. Peter plays guitar, joining the Crew in the studio. The song was eventually covered by Run-D.M.C. Again, Mike does not appear in any way on any other track on the album.

Their third album, “Headquarters”, was made by the boys operating as a proper band. Mike plays guitar throughout, bringing his soon-to-be-trademark 12-string electric sound to the fore. He also plays some great organ on “For Pete’s Sake” – co-written by Peter but, again, given to Micky to sing – which was used as the closing credits song during season 2 of the show. Mike wrote and sang the album opener, “You Told Me” and also “Sunny Girlfriend”. “You Just May Be the One” is quintessentially “Mike” and is one of his best songs. It’s another great example of how good Mike and Micky sound singing together, Micky again taking the harmony line. “Headquarters” peaked at #1 but was overtaken the very next week by the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. They would be 1 and 2 in the land for the next 11 weeks. “Headquarters” is often cited as the only one of the Monkees’ albums to be considered “essential”.

I would be remiss to not mention what is maybe – with “Sometime in the Morning” – my absolute favourite Monkees song, “The Girl I Knew Somewhere”. This song, released as the B side of “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” in March of ’67, is notable as being the first track that the Monkees took charge of themselves. They all played instruments and recorded the track alone in the studio with producer Chip Douglas, who also played bass. Michael wrote the song and took the lead on an early version. Another take was recorded with Micky singing lead and this became the master. It is perfect pop. Perfect pop. I tend to short shrift Peter Tork and his contributions to the band but he lays down some stellar harpsichord on this song. It is a gem.

Mike had a success outside the Monkees in the fall of 1967. A 2-year-old song of his, “Different Drum”, became the first hit of Linda Ronstadt’s career. Her group, the Stone Poneys, took Mike’s tune in to the Top 20. They had been rehearsing the song as a slow ballad but their producer, Nick Venet (credited as producer on the Beach Boys’ first two albums), re-envisioned it as baroque pop with prominent harpsichord. He wanted a specific sound and employed seasoned session musicians to play on the record. In the end, Linda was the only Stone Poney to perform on the recording. Sound familiar? It is interesting to note that this is what happened in the early days of the Monkees and supports the claim that it happened all the time to many different groups.

MOnkees2
The lads – in their “Monkee” shirts – between romps. Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike.

Their fourth album, I think, is just as good if not better than “Headquarters”. “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd.” was released at the end of 1967 and also reached #1. Mike’s lead vocal is featured prominently on this alum and it contains another gem from him although in this case it’s just a vocal and not a composition. Again, the opener goes to Mike although he did not write the song, “Salesman”. One of the best Monkees songs ever, “The Door Into Summer”, was not written by Michael but features his lead with Micky coming in to sing harmony. The two have never sounded better together. Mike and Micky give out with more of the same on the very next track, “Love is Only Sleeping”, written by the formidable team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Maybe the greatest “Mike” song in the Monkees catalog was not written by him but given to him to sing because of it’s country sound. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” is 3 minutes and 9 seconds of bliss taken at a rolling gait accentuated by banjo. Michael wrote the intriguing “Daily Nightly” but again turned the vocals over to Micky. Mike’s lyrics are a veiled commentary on the recent Sunset Strip riots and the song is one of the first rock songs to feature the Moog synthesizer. Micky was the third person to ever own one and he plays it on this track. By contrast, the next cut on the album is “Don’t Call on Me”, written and sang by Mike. It is a gentle track that starts off as a tongue-in-cheek lounge lizard number.

“The Birds, the Bees and the Monkees” was released in April of 1968. By this point, an odd thing had happened. After fighting to work together and alone and doing so on their last two successful albums, the boys decided they wanted to work separately from each other. Yes, they had proven the critics wrong and could do things well themselves – it’s just that they didn’t want to do them together anymore. Michael was still pioneering country/rock and also exploring psychedelia. His contributions to this album included the outstanding – if ridiculously titled – “Auntie’s Municipal Court”. A glorious guitar orchestra opens the track before Mike’s oft-chosen vocalist, Micky, comes in singing the lead. As a rarity, it’s Mike singing the harmony here to Micky’s lead. “Tapioca Tundra” was a far-out excursion on which Mike plays almost all the instruments including some typically stellar 12-string. “Writing Wrongs” is more of the same; only less so. “Magnolia Simms” was more experimentation from Mike, this time emulating a 1920’s sound. The album was very successful for the boys as it included the hits “Daydream Believer” and “Valleri” but Peter Tork left during the making of the album and the three remaining were working – as often happens with bands – as three solo artists. Staying together though was somewhat of a necessity. Neither of the three were big enough to make it on their own but they were more than able to ply their individual trades under the umbrella of “The Monkees”. Michael’s songs were beginning to show signs of an eccentricity that would mark his music throughout the rest of his career.

The soundtrack to the Monkees’ movie, “Head”, was released near the end of 1968. The film defies understanding but the soundtrack contains some fine moments (Rolling Stone ranked it the 25th best soundtrack). Mike’s lone contribution was the energetic rocker “Circle Sky” on which he plays some excellent guitar and delivers some of the best grunts in rock history. The “Instant Replay” album is the first output of what could be called the Monkees’ ‘second phase’; the show was now off the air and this was the first record to be made after Peter Tork had left the group. Michael’s songs include “Don’t Wait For Me” which is VERY country and includes prominent steel guitar and was recorded and co-produced in Nashville with Felton Jarvis, who had only recently started working with Elvis Presley. “While I Cry” is absolutely devastating. One of the saddest songs you’ll ever hear, it is another example of Mike’s specific brand of fine guitar playing. The swan song of Mike’s initial period with the Monkees came with the next album, “The Monkees Present”. Released in October of 1969 into a music scene that had long since left the boys behind, it was another patchwork of songs from three individuals. The twelve tracks were divided up evenly, 4 a piece. Mike brought one more great track to the Monkees’ fold with “Listen to the Band”. Here Michael is producing crack session men in Nashville, taking them through a trademark Nesmith country/rock number with steel guitar again prominent. “Listen to the Band” was the last song resembling a hit from the original run of the group, charting at #63. Shortly after the release of this record, Mike announced he was leaving the group to start his own outfit called The First National Band.

Michael had released records before joining the Monkees under the name Michael Blessing. Also, in 1968, he released the hard-to-explain orchestral album “The Wichita Train Whistle Sings”. The instrumental album was made over two sessions in Hollywood with the Wrecking Crew and featured versions of lesser-known Monkees songs. With the First National Band, however, Mike Nesmith was stepping out for the first time as a solo artist with the cache of having been a Monkee and with all the attendant expectations.

FNB
Red Rhodes, John London, John Ware and Mike: The First National Band. Photo courtesy of their Facebook page.

Finally out from under the umbrella of the Monkees – Michael paid out the remainder of his contract – Mike was now free to completely ply his trade as he saw fit. His trade was “country/rock”, a genre that he did not invent but you can certainly count him among it’s pioneers. Mike had built up a back log of songs during his time with the Monkees so much so that his new band was able to release three albums in an 18-month period. Mike teamed with steel guitar player Orville “Red” Rhodes who’s playing defined the sound of the First National Band. The group’s first album, “Magnetic South”, yielded the Top 40 hit “Joanne”, a surprise for the fledgling band. However, country/rock was not commercially viable and Mike was concerned not one bit with writing a “hit song” so after the First (and Second) National Band had petered out, Michael carried on, following his muse and releasing albums that virtually no one heard. Mike struggled to keep his career solvent and had difficulties with the IRS until a sad event helped him out. His mother, Bette, passed away in 1980 and Mike inherited half of her $50 million estate. This freed him up to pursue his next venture.

“The Monkees” television show had been directly inspired by the Beatles’ first film, 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night”. The idea of “The Monkees” was to have the manufactured band live together and get into adventures. But also there was records to be sold and the TV show could pump the music into living rooms every week. And while the record would play – as in “A Hard Day’s Night” – the Monkees would get up to a lot of zany antics: somersaulting through a park, running along the beach, chasing the bad guys around the house, etc. This all sounds like what would eventually become “music videos” and, indeed, Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles’ first two films, is considered a sort of ‘godfather’ of the music video. And rightfully so. But also the producers of “The Monkees” television show should also get recognition as pioneers as they presented these “clips” week in and week out for two years.

No doubt this experience was in Mike’s mind when he decided to make a “clip” to accompany his song “Rio” from his 1977 album “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing”. He began to explore the idea of “music videos” and of releasing his subsequent albums as “video albums”. Problem was that there was nowhere to show these “videos”, except for maybe on a late night talk show that Mike happened to be a guest on. Subsequently, Mike would find a home for his “music videos”. In 1981, he released an hour-long program called “Elephant Parts” which was made available on VHS and LaserDisc and was one of the first new programs made available for home viewing. “Elephant Parts” was a collection of comedy skits, commercial parodies and five full-length music videos for recent recordings of Mike’s. At the Grammys the following year Michael won the first ever award given out for a “music video” and the success of this innovation inspired Mike to take his music video idea further.

Many other artists began to make music videos and Michael came up with the idea for “PopClips”, a show that featured videos by some popular and emerging artists. Early videos shown on “PopClips” were for songs by George Harrison, the Rolling Stones and the Police – but also Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, Pearl Harbor and the Explosions and Tycoon. “PopClips” ran on Nickelodeon – owned by Time-Warner – for one season. Michael then sold the show to Time Warner, who subsequently redeveloped the show into the “MTV” network.

Through the rest of the ’80’s and the 1990’s, Mike continued to release albums. He also started a production company responsible for music videos by other artists and feature films. He also continued to avoid returning to the Monkees. Mike did not join the boys for the Monkees’ 20th anniversary reunion but the four Monkees did get together in 1996 to release “Justus”, an album that harkened back to “Headquarters” in that it was completely written and performed by the four of them alone. (The lead-off track was a re-recording of “Circle Sky”) Starting in 2012 and continuing after the untimely death of Davy Jones, Nesmith toured with Micky and Peter although he did not join the two other remaining Monkees for the band’s 50th anniversary tour in 2016. Also that year the band released “Good Times!”, a critically acclaimed album that featured one composition from Mike and three vocals.

In early 2018, Mike performed a handful of concerts with a revamped First National Band that included two of his sons and later in the year he hit the road with Micky for a series of shows billed as “The Monkees Present the Mike Nesmith & Micky Dolenz Show”. It seems that now, 52 years after the band’s formation, the death of Davy Jones and the apparent ‘retirement’ of Peter Tork, the Monkees has finally ceased to exist as an entity. Contrary to the perception that Mike Nesmith has ill feelings towards the Monkees and the ‘box’ the band put him in, Mike’s statement in 2012 about the experience wraps things up nicely: “I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.”

Mike Nesmith’s legacy is an interesting one. In some respects, he never truly has emerged from under the umbrella of the Monkees. But, really, that’s OK. Some artists, as I’ve said, get trapped by celebrity; typecast, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe in the end these artists never get to spread their wings as they may have liked but the one role they played or the one group they were in are cherished by many people. Many people love and adore the Monkees; the show and the group’s music truly ‘mean something’ to many people. That is no small thing.

I think to understand Mike as a solo artist, it helps to look at his perception of his time plying his trade as one of the original country rockers with his First National Band. I have read that Michael “was agonized” when he heard the first album from the Eagles, a band that was recording music in the same vein as the First National Band. He has said that he was “heartbroken”: how are the Eagles moving so many units when my albums are invisible? I understand his pain but I have to say that the Eagles’ first few albums contain a wonderfully accessible sound. “Tequila Sunrise” and “Take It Easy” are infinitely easy to like. The First National Band was much more “country” than the Eagles and the FNB lacked the ability to deliver the gorgeous harmonies that Glenn Frey, Don Henley, et al. could deliver.

In my opinion, Mike’s music in general always seemed to lack that one final ingredient. That elusive something that makes the masses embrace an artist or an album or a song. And his persona was never easy to grasp. His intelligence and dry humour made him a challenge to “get”. If you were browsing the record shops back in the day and came upon an album called “Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash” or “From a Radio Engine to the Photon Wing” or “Infinite Rider on the Big Dogma” you may have looked askance – it was especially hard to understand that the craziness of the titles was not reconciled to the music; the music on the records was not as crazy or avant-garde as the titles suggested. His was an eccentric talent, he was on his own path and the music he made and the persona he projected simply could not be easily processed by the average young person listening to his radio in his pick-up truck. That’s not to say that Mike was and is not possessed of innate talent and ability as a songwriter and musician. Mike Nesmith belongs in that rare group of artists that are greatly respected by the industry and those who “know” but that are misunderstood by the general, record-buying public: Lee Hazlewood, Warren Zevon, Tom Waits and others. These are artists that ‘travel to the beat of a different drum’.

Michael was the true artist of the Monkees. He had the talent to write and record music himself. He didn’t need to join the group but he took the opportunity for the advancement it could provide. He battled for his artistic individuality while with the Monkees and then, when he left, he had a hand in pioneering country/rock. Later, his vision lead him to not create the music video but to become an early proponent of the concept of presenting videos in a regularly recurring format; indeed, the iconic “MTV Network” was based on an idea of his. And before any of this happened, his mother invented a product that virtually everyone in the developed world has used either in school or business. And yet it seems he will always be remembered as “Monkee Mike”, “Wool Hat”. And that’s OK.

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Papa Nez. Monkee Mike. Wool Hat. All of those things. And more.

The Best of Mike Nesmith: The Monkees and Beyond

Honourable Mention: “Different Drum” – the Stone Poneys — lovely song with a sweet vocal from a young Linda Ronstadt.

5. “Joanne” – the First National Band — surprise hit for the fledgling country/rockers. Nice vocal from Nez.

4. “You Just May Be the One” – the Monkees — nice strumming. One of the highlights of the Nesmith/Dolenz vocal tandem.

3. “What Am I Doing Hangin’ ‘Round?” – the Monkees — not written by Mike but a very “Mike” sound. An exciting, banjo-laden trip south of the border.

2. “The Door Into Summer” – the Monkees — another one not written by Mike but a joyful jaunt. Micky shines again in his role as Mike’s vocal shadow.

1.  “The Girl I Knew Somewhere” – the Monkees — like I said: perfect pop. Mike was savvy enough to give the lead to Micky. They again sound great together. An absolutely delightful song.

Stayin’ Alive: Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert is 83 years old. You probably don’t know who he is. Or maybe you’ve heard of him but don’t know much abut him. My “Stayin’ Alive” series attempts to shine a light on legends who are still with us. It’s surprising how many major contributors to pop culture are still alive but, the way ‘celebrity’ works, they don’t get near as much love as they deserve. After they die, the tributes fly but I am hoping to point out the impact these people had before they go to meet Houdini.

First and foremost, Herb Alpert is a trumpeter. However, the list of other things he is goes on for quite some time: composer, arranger, producer, songwriter, singer, record executive, painter, sculptor, philanthropist, actor… I like to refer to him as a mogul. I’ve seen mogul described as “a great personage, an important or powerful person, especially in the motion picture or media industry”. “An influential person: big gun, big hitter, high level honcho, superior”. My favourite is “power derived from experience and skill, not popularity (most celebrities, while called moguls, are in fact not)”. An apparently low-key guy like Mr. Alpert would likely cringe at being described as such and I think in Herb’s case, I would tend to use the word “influential” more than “powerful”. Definitely, though, he was a major player in a major market at a major point in the history of the music business.

Herb was born near the start of spring in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles to Tillie and Louis, two Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine and Poland. When Herb was growing up, Boyle Heights was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Later, the area saw an influx of Latinos. While today Boyle Heights is made up of 95% Latinos, the neighbourhood has a history of Jews and Latinos working together, politically and civilly, to improve living conditions. As a musician, Herb embodies this combination of Jew and Latin; he was of Jewish heritage and immersed himself in a Latin sound that he sought to share with the world. Record producer Lou Adler also grew up in Boyle Heights and became an associate and good friend of Herb (Adler, once married to Shelley Fabares, is also ‘stayin’ alive’ at 84 years of age). Other notable one time residents of the area include: Verve’s Norman Granz, will.i.am, Mickey Cohen and Anthony Quinn.

Herb’s whole family was musical and Herb began to play trumpet at age 8 and he experimented at an early age recording himself. He went to Fairfax High School which, at the time, had a predominantly Jewish student body. The school boasts an impressive list of notable alumni, everybody from Carole Lombard and Darla Hood to Mickey Rooney and Ricardo Montalban and up to Phil Spector, Anthony Kiedis and Demi Moore. Herb graduated in 1952 and then joined the Army. After his hitch, he tried his hand at acting, appearing as an extra (“drummer on Mt. Sinai”) in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”.

In 1957, Herb took to songwriting and wrote hits for Jan & Dean (“Baby Talk” – #10) and Sam Cooke (“Wonderful World” – #12) before starting a recording career of his own. Herb took his son’s name, Dore, and released a handful of singles, none of them making much of an impression on the charts. It was at this point that he joined forces with his good friend, Jerry Moss. The two buddies decided to start their own label to release Herb’s recordings and also to record other artists they hoped to discover and develop. A&M Records was born.

The fledgling record company set up shop in Herb’s garage where Herb started working with a song a friend had written called “Twinkle Star”. On a break from working on this track, Herb went to Tijuana, Mexico to watch the bull fights. Alpert was taken with the atmosphere and the enthusiastic roars of the crowds. When he got back to his garage he took a different direction with “Twinkle Star”, adding crowd noises and double-tracking his mournful trumpet. He was happy with the sound which was decidedly “Mexican”. Alpert released the single as A&M’s first, renaming it “The Lonely Bull”. Still using their own money to fund operations, Alpert and Moss shopped the single around to various radio stations. The song began to receive airplay and eventually struck fire, reaching #6 on the pop charts in the fall of 1962. Oh, to be back in an era when a song like this could be Top Ten in the country. Now that they had a hit on their hands, Alpert needed an album. “The Lonely Bull” LP was released at the end of the year credited to “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass”; in reality this was Herb’s trumpet backed by the legendary session band, the Wrecking Crew.

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The simplicity of the early 1960’s. The bare-bones cover of the first album released on A&M Records.

For later releases and live performances, Herb would put together an actual band and released “Volume 2” in 1963 and “South of the Border” in 1964. “South of the Border” may be considered the first “essential” TJB album. The disc signaled a move away from predominantly Spanish flavoured songs to a more easy listening style which would become their trademark – the style is more easy listening. However, 8 of the twelve titles contain Spanish/Latin references. Their versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “All My Loving” pointed the way to a lighter, middle-of-the-road sound.

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A decidedly “Mexican” setting is actually the Patio del Moro apartment complex in West Hollywood. The model is Sandra Moss – wife of Jerry – and the boys are billed as “Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass”.

Their fourth album was a legendary release and remains their most popular record. “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” has been called the “Sgt. Pepper” of easy listening. It is the pinnacle of the early style of the genre and is firmly entrenched in pop consciousness. With this record, mass audiences became aware of Herb Alpert’s music. Songs from this album were used on “The Dating Game” which started a trend of hip, contemporary music being used incidentally on television. The cover alone is iconic and features model Dolores Erickson – three months pregnant at the time – covered in what is supposed to be whipped cream. The quality of the music and Alpert’s arranging both peaked with this album as best heard in the stunning and emotional “Lemon Tree”. The album reached number one and sold 6 million copies. It is the quintessential adult LP of the mid-1960’s. The sound and the cover spawned scores of imitators.

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If you scrounge through the second hand stores, as I do, you’ve seen this record a thousand times.

Other albums that deserve mention are “What Now My Love” and “Christmas Album”. The title track of the former won Herb two Grammy awards – one for arranging – and is the example I always use when I talk about what a great arranger Alpert is. This song – and you can hear it in many different forms from Sinatra to Presley – is just gorgeous in Herb’s hands, one of my favourites. “What Now My Love” was the #1 album in the country for 9 weeks – the longest stay at the top for any Brass album. The Christmas album may be an acquired taste. Most of the songs feature wordless vocals arranged by Shorty Rogers. This whispering chorus will gently introduce a song and then Herb and the boys come in with their jaunty TJB sound. This technique threw me at first but now all I can tell you is that it is one of the albums – not just Christmas albums – that I am most fond of. Herb has written some special arrangements of seasonal chestnuts that make for wonderful fireside listening. With many significant LP releases then, Herb and the TJB became among the first of the great “album artists” and they became known for their album releases – a full program of music as opposed to singles. In the days of the “hi-fi” and the bachelor pad, their records sold impressively and charted well. Seven of their first nine albums reached the Top Ten, five of these reaching #1. 1965 through 1967 was a particularly successful period for Herb and the Brass. In this era that is remembered for the cultural and musical contributions of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the hippie movement and the origin of hard rock, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass outsold them all, winning six Grammy Awards along the way. For 81 consecutive weeks during this time, the Brass had at least one album in the Top Ten. And the oft-quoted fact is true – in 1966, the TJB sold 13 million records, more than the Beatles did. Also in ’66, the Guinness Book of Records acknowledged that, at one point, Herb had 5 albums in the Top 20 at the same time, a feat that has never been repeated. Consider that, in April of 1966, four of the Top Ten albums in the land were Herb Alpert records. Even more ridiculously, Herb took a rare vocal on the Bacharach/David song “This Guy’s in Love With You” and it went to #1.

Herb’s original record-setting run with the Tijuana Brass came to an end in 1969. He disbanded the group, reforming the band for a few album releases over the next 15 years. Having conquered the pop charts with the Brass, Herb – and partner, Jerry – now turned their attention to expanding their label, A&M Records. Headquartered at the famous Charlie Chaplin Studios at 1416 North La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, A&M’s roster grew to include an impressive list of artists across different genres. Herb himself discovered Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, an act that enjoyed colossal success with their mod brand of jazzy Brazilian pop. Sergio and Herb began a lifelong friendship and business relationship and Herb married Lani Hall, one of the vocalists in the group. Herb and Lani – who has also released albums on A&M – are still married 45 years later.

The list of artists who recorded for A&M Records is as impressive as it is long. To be fully appreciated, though, you have to remember that most of the major record labels of the time were off-shoots of or owned by large movie studios or conglomerates. They had buckets of money to place at artists’ disposal. Herb and Jerry – remember, this label was started in a garage – were able to attract some very big names because of their reputations in the industry, because of their savvy and because of their ability to personally deal with artists and take care of their needs, both in the studio and out. The list of artists on the label includes: Burt Bacharach, Baja Marimba Band, the Sandpipers, We Five, the Carpenters, Captain and Tennille, Quincy Jones, Stealers Wheel, Liza Minelli, Gino Vanelli, Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond, Paul Williams, Joan Baez and Billy Preston. Later, A&M added to their roster Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, Humble Pie, Fairport Convention, Carole King, Cheech and Chong, Nazareth, Styx, Supertramp, Chris DeBurgh, Chuck Mangione and Peter Frampton. The 1980’s saw the label continue to sign notable acts including Janet Jackson, the Police and later Sting, the Go-Go’s, Bryan Adams, the Human League and Amy Grant. Next time you’re looking through some records at a garage sale, look for records with the A&M Records logo – the one with the trumpet.

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Started by two buddies in their garage. The trumpet is the perfect touch.

Throughout the 1970’s, Herb continued to record as a solo artist. His records from this era have a wonderfully smooth sound. Today’s listeners may dismiss them as lightweight but they all possess Herb’s particular brand of exquisite musicianship and are infinitely listenable. With the Brass in the mid-’60’s, Herb was tops among the artists that were purveyors of a “middle-of-the-road” sound that began to be favoured by a specific demographic. “Easy listening” can trace it’s roots back to the early ’50’s albums of Paul Weston and others but through the 1960’s, Herb and the TJB took this sound to the masses. Into the ’70’s, Herb was still practicing his brand of jazz-flavoured easy listening. Actually, his sound at this time helped give rise to what came to be known as “smooth jazz”. Significantly, smooth jazz can trace it’s roots to three albums that guitarist Wes Montgomery made with producer Creed Taylor. These three albums, from 1967 and 1968, featured Wes’ incomparable playing on renditions of pop hits of the day. What label were these three albums released on? A&M Records. Though the sound of today’s smooth jazz may have gone in an unfortunate direction, the origin of the genre is a further example of Herb Alpert being instrumental in yet another aspect of the industry.

My regular readers have heard me reference the “victory lap” that can occur in a performer’s career. After the initial blaze of popularity, often an artist’s career will wane. Then, sometimes circumstances will align and a singer will make a sort of comeback – release an album that cements his or her place in history and elevates them to “legend”. It allows their earlier work to be reassessed and appreciated all over again. Sinatra and Bennett both wrote the template for the “victory lap”. Think also of Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Herb Alpert’s victory lap – as a recording artist, at least – came quite out of the blue. After years of releasing quality albums of jazz/pop, Herb teamed with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela for a couple of interesting albums. Then, in 1979, Herb was given a song by his nephew, Randy Badazz Alpert. “Rise” was a departure of sorts for Herb. Randy Alpert and his production partner Andy Armer had written the tune as an up-tempo dance number. At the recording session, it was decided to slow it down – this decision has been credited to both Herb and the drummer on the session, Steve Schaefer. The slower tempo was key. A highlight of this slow funk groove is the bass line laid down by studio legend Abe Laboriel – it is my all-time favourite bass line. Clocking in at 7 minutes and 40 seconds, the tune is an aural delight combining a disco/early hip-hop mood with Herb’s flawless, ethereal playing.

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This is how much I love this record.

The single was released in the summer of ’79 and was immediately picked up by club DJs who would play it on two turntables at once, imaginatively staggering the records to make the song play longer and playing one off the other. As the song began it’s ascent up the charts, it received an unexpected boost in it’s promotion from it’s use as a back-drop for the relationship of “Luke and Laura” on the daytime soap opera, “General Hospital”. With the success of the single, Herb went into the studio to record an LP. The result – also titled “Rise” – is one of my favourite albums of all-time. It’s a fantastic record that manages to sound like the late ’70’s but still sound engaging and somehow relevant almost 40 years later. The album starts with the fanfare “1980”, which had originally been commissioned for use during the Summer Olympics but was instead used as the official theme of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. “Rotation” is another Badazz/Armer track that shimmers along at a nice easy pace. It also was released as a single and hit the top 30. I heard it used once on an episode of “Sex and the City”. “Rotation” has been called one of the first “chillout” tunes making Herb a pioneer in yet another sub-genre. The glowing gem of side two is undoubtedly “Angelina”. The gorgeous song features lyrical playing from Herb and steel guitar. Co-written by Gary Brooker, founder of Procol Harum, this song sounds like sunset looks. This song sounds like a young California guy in love with a Mexican girl. Her family doesn’t like him and her brothers want to kill him but the two lovers manage to steal away for walks down by the water, watching the boats come back in while the sun dips golden behind the horizon. *sigh* The album closes with Herb’s interpretation of “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo. The guitar piece, written in 1939, is considered the pinnacle of Spanish music. Miles Davis had done a version of it on his “Sketches of Spain” album and here Herb takes it to the night club. The piece is titled “Aranjuez (Mon Amour)” here and is an exhilarating piece that combines the drive and flair of Spanish music with the snapping hi-hat of disco and the R&B/funk of the late 1970’s. The album is, simply put, fantastic and the single release of the title track went to Number One. As if Alpert hadn’t achieved enough, this chart-topper makes him the only artist in history to have a number one song as a vocalist (“This Guy’s in Love With You”) and as an instrumentalist. “Rise” was notably sampled by Sean Combs for “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G.

Herb Alpert and his partner and friend Jerry Moss decided to sell A&M Records in 1989. There’s a really interesting interview with Jerry Moss that I can highly recommend. In this interview, Jerry explains that he and “Herbie” (as Jerry affectionately refers to Alpert), while they weren’t ‘shopping’ A&M, had a good relationship with PolyGram when that company offered to purchase A&M. Purchase price? $500 million. Jerry says the purpose of selling A&M was to expand it, to make it bigger. By the mid-’90’s, artists were getting huge advances from record companies and A&M simply couldn’t compete. And PolyGram liked Jerry and Herb and wanted them to stay on and run the label. It’s an interesting story and I’ll try to give it to you in a nutshell. Jerry had a good connection with a guy at PolyGram. This guy, though, soon retired and his replacement wasn’t into A&M and didn’t like Jerry personally. This type of breakdown was the opposite of what Herb and Jerry had been promised when they sold. Instead of working with Alpert and Moss, PolyGram bought them out of their agreement. For $200 million. So, in the end, PolyGram purchased the organically birthed and nurtured label, a label with humble beginnings, that started with two employees and a garage, a label that had built a reputation as one that treated their employees and the stars on their roster well, for $500 million. Add to that the $200 million buy-out money and the total is $700 million. Think about that. This is a part of Herb’s story that I love and it puts me in mind of Berry Gordy, Jr. who started Motown Records with an $800 loan and sold it 25 years later for $61 million. Regular Joes who thought they’d try their hands at making records. In the end, not surprisingly, considering today’s record industry, A&M was absorbed into it’s parent company and A&M Records, as an active entity, was no more. The lot on La Brea was shuttered. Jim Henson Productions took over the old Chaplin studios and Herb and Jerry’s adventure was over – and they were $700 million dollars richer.

Herb Alpert’s “retirement” years have been busy. He has indulged his love of creating abstract expressionist art and sculpture and has enjoyed exhibits of his work. He and Moss (at Jerry’s urging) started another record label – Almo Sounds – predominantly to release Alpert’s subsequent albums. But here again they ran a label that nurtured new acts, signing Garbage and Lazlo Bane. In 2000, Alpert regained the rights to his past albums and began lovingly remastering and re-releasing them. Alpert has been embraced by purveyors of electronic music and many of his tracks have been remixed by DJs. The “Whipped Cream” album was remixed in it’s entirety in 2006 with Herb offering up some new trumpet work. Yet another genre that has thrown a nod to Herb Alpert.

Herb has received several lifetime achievement awards and in 2012 the National Medal of Arts award from then President Obama. Sting inducted Alpert and Moss into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 as non-performer lifetime achievers. Today, Herb continues to maintain a social media presence and still releases what he calls “positive” music. In 2017, he released “The Christmas Wish” and “Music Vol. 1” with more volumes on the way.

Herb himself may be most satisfied with his work as a philanthropist. In the 1980’s, Herb founded the Herb Alpert Foundation, which supports youth and arts education as well as environmental issues. Herb and wife, Lani, have donated millions in scholarships to various arts schools in the US. This includes $30 million to UCLA, $24 million to the California Institute of the Arts, $10 million to Los Angeles City College and $5 million to the Harlem School for the Arts. All of these gifts are aimed at providing education to youths who otherwise may not have the opportunity to pursue these avenues of learning.

Herb Alpert’s career has checked all the boxes. He may not be regularly referred to or often heralded but the fact remains that he is a legend of serious weight, one that is still active in the fields he loves. Herb’s fingerprints are all over the record industry and through his foundation, he and Lani are doing what they can to ensure that the next generation has a chance to excel. For me, Herb’s greatest legacy is the music. Constantly seeing Tijuana Brass records in thrift stores fascinated me and got me into collecting vinyl. “Rise” means the world to me. And all this is capped off by the fact that Herb Alpert is ‘stayin’ alive’ – still with us, still making us feel good. Thanks, Herb.

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In a shady industry, the Alpert’s seem like good people.

Postscript: I’m a “ranker” so I can’t close out this tribute without running down Herb Alpert’s Top 5 Best Songs. OK, maybe not his best but here’s five tracks that can serve as a sampler of Herb’s work. Check out these tunes and see if you’re not hooked.

5. “Jerusalem” (1971 – from “Summertime”) — From the final stages of the initial run of the TJB, this dramatic track was written by Herb.

4. “Lemon Tree” (1965 – from “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”) — Trini Lopez’ jaunty version has nothing on Herb’s arrangement. This song – and #2 on this list – are the best examples of Alpert’s expertise and unique touch as an arranger. The TJB’s version of “Lemon Tree” is mournful yet beautiful with gentle playing from Herb and some great chord changes.

3. “Angelina” (1979 – from “Rise”) — I can’t say much more about this track than I already have. It is sublime and can evoke an extreme flutter in the chest. Emotional. Wonderful.

2. “What Now, My Love” (1966 – from “What Now My Love”) — This French song has been done many different ways by many different singers, from Sinatra to Presley to Andy Williams. All excellent. But again here Herb adds his special touch with a fine arrangement. The bouncy joy of this track does not totally avoid the wistfulness of the chord changes and the melancholy of the lyrics – omitted here, of course. Herb’s playing is clipped and precise while still exhibiting warmth. Delightful acoustic guitar from, I’ll assume, John Pisano. Probably the finest Tijuana Brass song.

1. “Rise” (1979 – from “Rise”) — Just perfect. A stone groove. Drama in the song structure while maintaining a relaxed playfulness. Exciting electric guitar punctuations and a thrilling bass line, my favourite ever. Very “’70’s” and timeless at the same time. This tune has heavy street cred as Herb expertly blends ’70’s dance music with the R&B origins of hip-hop.

Christmas Music: The Deep Cuts

I posted the other day about the greatest Christmas songs of all time. For the most part, it was a no-brainer (like me). I touched on the idea that there is no bad Christmas music. I find myself loving some Christmas music from the ’50’s that is maybe overly sentimental or just really cornball. I’m thinking “Twinkle Toes” by the Crew Cuts or “Merry Twist-mas” by the Marcels. I’m rolling my eyes and thinking ‘this is lame’ – but I’m loving it. Christmas is the time of year when this is OK. But then there’s the teeny-bopper types: Hanson, Jessica Simpson and Justin Bieber have all released Christmas albums. Here’s where I have a bit of a problem. From some artists it really seems disingenuous – phony. It sounds like cashing in – “this will play and sell every year so…”

Some artists, though, sound like they are really trying to make an effort. For some of them, it sounds like they really care about the season and the music that goes with it. As far back as Robert Goulet’s 1963 album “This Christmas I Spend With You”, songwriters have tried to add new songs to the canon. Goulet recorded “December Time” on that album, the liner notes hopefully predicting that it would appear annually. In the early ’90’s, when Christmas music stalwart Andy Williams was doing his annual Christmas shows in Branson, he introduced “Christmas Needs Love to Be Christmas”. While neither song is remembered today, you have to respect the effort – or you figure it’s pointless to try to add new songs, the songs we already have are perfect and we don’t need any new ones, up to you. Maybe the best example of an artist successfully adding something new is 1984’s “Once Upon a Christmas” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. I never knew this album myself growing up but my wife and her family have always loved it and in the last twenty years I’ve encountered many who count this as one of the better ‘non-classic’ Christmas records. The reason for this is surprisingly simple: Dolly Parton. This album is an odd case of the traditional songs on the album being unremarkable and the originals standing out. Parton wrote or co-wrote 5 of the six originals on the album and they are quite good. In a sexist world, you would think it was Rogers that was driving the bus here but this is Parton’s show – ‘guest vocals by Kenny Rogers’ type thing. Parton sounds like she cares about Christmas. The record is genuine. Here’s my take on why: Dolly hails from Tennessee and in the Southern states the birth of Christ is taken seriously and handled reverently. I’ll presume that Christmas is significant to Dolly Parton and it shows in this album.

I want to own all the Christmas music I can which has led me on a merry chase lo these last 20 years. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover and add many new albums to our collection, mostly in the non-traditional format of mP3. Like my ‘regular’ music, some I need on CD, some I need on vinyl and some are OK just on digital. I’d like to share with you some of my finds, some you may not be familiar with. Not to replace your Crosby’s or Cole’s but for something different to shake up your Christmas party. Not in order. A post like this should really contain links to all these songs but that would’ve clogged things up. Head to YouTube – they all should be there.

“‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”Family Force 5 (2009)/Art Carney (1954) — The same venerable Christmas poem set to music in two VASTLY different ways. Family Force 5 are purveyors of crunk rock or crunkcore. (Yeah. I know) But their version of “‘Twas…”, from their “Family Force 5’s Christmas Pageant” album, is outstandingly audacious. It is what they call a stone groove and the boys from Atlanta have created an incredibly catchy chorus. Art Carney’s version comes from a totally different realm. Television’s Ed Norton released this as a single and it is a full-on hepcat work out. It is available on the great jazz compilation “Jingle Bell Swing”. And, one word: “Crazy!”

“Home for the Holidays” – Anthony Hamilton (2014) — I stumbled on Anthony Hamilton when I was looking for a modern equivalent to Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. I was happy to find Hamilton and after I bought his latest album, “What I’m Feelin'”, I browsed through his discography and discovered his Christmas album, “Home for the Holidays”. Now, my problem with some of these new R&B singers is that they seem to play it so mellow. Everything is a slow jam. Anthony’s Christmas album starts off with some great, uptempo original songs. And then, halfway through the album, comes the title track. It’s simply the greatest new Christmas song I’ve heard in many a year. Incredibly gentle and heartfelt, it is performed by Hamilton with singer Gavin DeGraw. Wonderful singing and the chord changes caress your ears.

“Little Drummer Boy” – Audio Adrenaline (2002) — This one might be hard to find but you should search it out. Audio Adrenaline was a great band that unfortunately lost their excellent lead singer, Mark Stuart, when his voice gave out. This is an excellent, energetic version of this Christmas classic. It bowls you over with it’s might. It was available on a compilation called “WOW Christmas: Red”.

“We Three Kings” – Harry Connick, Jr. (2008) — I’ve loved Harry Connick since 1990 and one of the coolest things about him is that he knows Christmas. He’s released four Christmas albums and his first, “When My Heart Finds Christmas”, is his biggest selling album. His third, 2008’s “What a Night! A Christmas Album”, is his least satisfying Christmas vocal CD but it contains this instrumental gem. One of the challenging things about loving Harry Connick is that he is so intelligent and creative that he loves to flex his arrangement muscles. Sometimes his arrangement of a song you know well will render it indistinguishable. His chart for “We Three Kings”, though, is a straight-up powerhouse. His piano playing is stellar and the horns are off the chain. Careful listening to this driving, though. Cops don’t accept it as an excuse when they pull you over for speeding.

“My Little Drum” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — I recently put together a great Christmas playlist I call “The 12 Nights of Christmas”; songs perfect for quiet nights sitting by the tree, fireplace glowing, snow gently falling outside. Here’s a sneaky little tune from the man who gave us the music for all the classic Charlie Brown specials. This one is found on the “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack and you don’t realize it at first but then you notice your eyelids getting heavy as you drift off to the gentle sound of Vince’s piano. This trance-like beauty is a real hidden gem.

“O Come All Ye Faithful” – Abandon Kansas (2010) — An obscure band that put out a great album in 2011, Abandon Kansas are now on hiatus. They recorded an interesting arrangement of this carol for a compilation called “‘Tis the Season to Be Gotee” – an album of Christmas songs by bands that were a part of the Gotee Records stable. Such an intriguing version. Perfect if you are young-ish as, to me, it is a contemporary-sounding, pop arrangement. Infinitely listenable.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” – Engelbert Humperdinck (1980) — The glory of this recording is in it’s worshipful tone. It is an exceedingly reverent version of this timeless carol performed by a singer who’s pipes may have been at their peak at this point. I have to include this celebration of the birth of Christ here due to it’s ending. Some appropriate added lyrics and the soaring majesty of Humperdinck’s performance render the listener awed by not only the finale but by contemplation of the first Christmas and it’s ramifications. Appears on Hump’s second Christmas album, “A Merry Christmas With Engelbert Humperdinck”. It’s a personal favourite of mine.

“Happy Holiday” – Ray Noble and His Orchestra (1949) — Here is the hidden-est of all the gems on this list. I first heard it on an old cheap-o Christmas cassette I had. When I bailed on cassettes I knew I had to find it elsewhere and did so on iTunes. It is available there on only two compilations. I see it was first released on a 10″ album. It’s a gloriously vintage recording that features a husband and wife sharing Christmas and New Year’s Eve together. They reminisce about Christmases past and enjoy a quiet New Year’s Eve together. I always speculate as I listen that these are the last holidays they spend alone together before the kids arrive. For fans of mid-century culture, it is an absolute delight. It’s really hard to find and not on YouTube. You can listen here: https://soundcloud.com/raynoblehisorchestra

“Go Where I Send Thee” – Colin James and the Little Big Band (2007) — Canada’s own Colin James built himself an orchestra in the vein of the Brian Setzer Orchestra and put out a great Christmas album simply called “Christmas”, his forth with the orchestra. Filled with songs we all know, it wraps with this traditional tune. I come back to it every year. It’s fun to sing along to (if you can) and it’s just a great time. Colin’s echo-y vocal, the drummer’s snare work and the backing vocals make this sound like a fun Christmas Eve party out at some roadhouse off Route 90.

“Jingle Bells” – Jose Feliciano (1970)/Vinnie Zummo (2001)  — “Jingle Bells” has been recorded a million times, generally as a swinger. It lends itself so well to an energetic performance. When you hear it done differently, it can be really interesting. The Jackie Gleason Orchestra recorded a version that barely moves, it is so slow. These two instrumental versions are a delight. Jose’s shimmies with a Latin beat and the unknown Zummo’s is a smooth bossa nova groove.

“Silent Night” – Zach Gill (2008) — Another ‘stable’ album. “This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1” features artists signed to Jack Johnson’s record label. As you would expect from a surfer and surfer-type artists, the album is light and fun and focuses on secular delights of the season. That’s partly why it’s such a breath of fresh air to hear unknown Zach Gill close the album signing a restrained version of the world’s most beloved carol.

“Christmas Time With You” – David Ian (feat. Acacia and Andre Miguel Mayo) (2011) — David Ian is actually rock guitarist Dave Ghazarian. He’s obviously half-a-jazzbo, though, because he’s released three instrumental jazz albums featuring himself on piano. The first of these is called “Vintage Christmas” and contains great piano bar-type versions of Christmas classics and this original song which appears twice on the album, once in this charming vocal version. Ian’s got style and a light touch on the keys. The jazz trio sound hearkens back to Vince Guaraldi’s trio that produced some legendary Christmas tunes. Ian’s outfit offers a nice, fresh take.

If you’re looking for a few albums that are outside the norm, I can certainly suggest some. I think I’ve discovered this year that “Christmas Album” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass from 1968 is my favourite Christmas album. Easy listening, excellent arrangements, great for late night listening. I mentioned earlier “A Merry Christmas from Engelbert Humperdinck”. It sounds like 1980 but in a good way. Great vocals, pleasant versions of songs you know. Lounge music goes great at Christmas and Capitol’s fantastic “Ultra-Lounge” series offers up four volumes of “Christmas Cocktails”. The first two present a swingin’ Christmas party at a Vegas lounge in 1963. Andy Williams put out two well-known Christmas albums in the mid-’60’s but he released “Christmas Present” in 1974. Perfect singing and the arrangements are other-wordly. Brian Setzer knows Christmas. The former Stray Cats front man has put out three Christmas albums with his Brian Setzer Orchestra. The first two particularly are excellent and he presents all of our favourites. If you love your Christmas music in a good, old fashioned orchestral setting Henry Mancini, Percy Faith and David Rose have put out excellent Christmas albums. Other artists who have released great Christmas music you may never have heard include Marty Robbins, the Ames Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Aaron Neville, Oscar Peterson, Lori Mechem, Chris Isaak, the Hollyridge Strings and Frankie Avalon, just to name a few. Google them.

You can never have enough Christmas music. Hope this helped you out and made you want to seek out some new albums for your collection. Merry Christmas!

The Greatest Christmas Songs

Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: music is subjective. And Christmas music all the more so. Mainly because of the immense amount of sentiment attached to the Christmas season. Your heart and spirit can latch on to a song, maybe you heard it as a child or it relates to memories of the past, connections to family members, etc. Not only that but I’ve always felt that anything was OK at Christmas; meaning nothing was too cornball to listen to or watch. Even things overly sentimental that may even have made you cringe in your better instincts were not only acceptable at Christmas but welcomed. After all, it is the season of such things. So, those who love Christmas music love it. All of it. Well, most of it. Lists like the one I’m about to present are almost redundant because of the sentimental connection I’ve tried to explain. My list of the best Christmas songs will bring blank stares from a lot of you because your own Christmas memories usually are accompanied by your own Christmas soundtrack which may be very different from mine or anyone else’s. However, what I’ve tried to pinpoint are the songs that are generally accepted as favourites, songs that are significant historically and culturally. Yes, opinions will vary but this list, I think, contains songs that serve to enrich the Christmas experience. Chances are, if Christmas is your thing, if you truly love the season for Christ-related or Santa-related reasons or both, than you love most of these songs. Or at least you understand and accept them as priceless elements of the season. For each track I’ve tried to state a case for their inclusion on anyone’s Christmas playlist. And, yeah, ranking can be really sketchy but I went ahead and ranked them anyways. Lastly, there are no carols here as they deserve their own post.

10. “Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry (1947) — Sub-titled “Down (or Right Down) Santa Claus Lane”, this perennial favourite was written by “The Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry in 1947. Christmas of 1946, Autry was riding his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now the Hollywood Christmas Parade) and heard the spectators chanting “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus!”. This inspired Gene to write the lyrics to the song. (Gene relates this story on one of his Christmas albums) Autry recorded his song three times. The first came out on Columbia Records and was a Top Ten hit on the pop and country charts. It’s appreciation was increased by it’s use in the Rankin-Bass Christmas special from 1974, “A Year Without a Santa Claus”. It’s a pleasant, charming song that sings the praises of good, ol’ Saint Nick. And, again, people of a certain age no doubt grew up with Gene Autry’s Christmas music, specifically the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” LP. “Here Comes Santa Claus” was also recorded notably by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey and Billy Idol (!?).

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9. “Christmas Time is Here” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — Here’s a perfect example of the ‘connection’ thing I was talking about. People my age grew up with the Peanuts gang and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in particular. The special from ’65 is notable for it’s assertion that the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is the Nativity. Because we all grew up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, this special is near and dear to us, that includes the music that goes with it. Peanuts specials were unique in that they presented the adventures of these kids against a backdrop of jazz music. The man who created it all was Vince Guaraldi. His soundtrack to the Christmas special featured not only “Christmas Time is Here” but also the immortal theme, “Linus and Lucy”. The album featured an instrumental version of “Christmas Time” and a version featuring vocals from the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. The song reminds you of the special, which is all is has to do. But, on top of that, it is a quiet gem, driven by Guaraldi’s gentle piano and drummer Jerry Granelli’s brushes. The song has been covered countless times but it is rare among Christmas songs in that Guaraldi’s version is the only one that ‘counts’. Oddly, it wasn’t covered at all until 1982 – and then it was flood gates. Other artists recording versions include: Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots (!?), Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and LeAnn Rimes.

8. “Jingle Bells”/”Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – Bing Crosby (1943) — I’ve cheated a bit here with this tie but these are two similar recordings from the greatest of all the Christmas crooners. In 1935, Bing Crosby recorded the most beloved of all Christmas carols, “Silent Night”. As a religious man, Bing was hesitant to record the venerable song as he thought it was inappropriate for a singer of popular songs – and an owner of racehorses – to profit from so sacred a song. But record it he did and it began his 40-year run as the finest interpreter of seasonal warmth. By 1943, Bing Crosby was just about as big as you can get and the thing you need to understand about Bing is that, in Artie Shaw’s words, “he was the first hip white man born in the United States”. His jazz sensibilities and his sense of “swing” were highly tuned by this point. Never was this more apparent than in these two seminal recordings both recorded the same September day in 1943. Teaming with his regular singing partners, the Andrews Sisters, Bing swings like nobody’s business on these two numbers. “Jingle Bells” should have it’s own post. It may be one of the most recorded songs in history and lends itself well to a swinging treatment. “Santa Claus…” is taken at a more middling tempo but the rhythm inherent in Bing’s vocal and the spry accompaniment from the brass make for an excellent recording. Two definitive Christmas recordings from a man at the very height of his powers. “Jingle Bells” has been recorded countless times, most notably by: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Booker T. and the MG’s, Jose Feliciano, the Hollyridge Strings, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ben Rector and about a thousand others. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: the Crystals, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, Michael Buble and Dokken (!?).

7. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love (1963) — Where do I start? Bing Crosby was at the vanguard of the initial wave of popular singers recording Christmas music in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s. Then, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, few artists indulged in seasonal sounds, the Drifters and Presley notable exceptions. And then, in November of 1963, Phil Spector released “A Christmas Gift for You”, a Christmas record filled with songs by artists in his stable. It has been called the greatest Christmas album ever made and it started the second wave of prolific pop/rock Christmas recordings. The only new song on this album, “Christmas…” is absolutely heartbreaking. The lyrics speak of separation at Christmas but what is most gut-wrenching about it is the chord changes. The song itself – vocals aside – is filled with longing. It’s songs like this that Springsteen channeled for his most emotive work. Indeed, “Bobby Jean” from “Born in the U.S.A.” is almost a carbon copy. Add to this the power of the voice of Darlene Love and you have a potent package. Thing is, the potency of this track does not necessarily come from it’s “Christmas-ness” but it is a Christmas song, often called the greatest Christmas rock song ever. It is heavy. Unsuccessful when it first came out, it has since been covered by U2 (Love sang back-up), Michael Buble and Mariah Carey.

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6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – Vaughn Monroe (1945) — The hardest Christmas song title to type. There are a handful of staples in this genre and this is one of them. If you are going to put out a Christmas album, this is going to be on it, particularly if you operate in the traditional pop idiom. Big-voiced Vaughn Monroe introduced this tune with an RCA Victor release in 1945. It was written by legendary and prolific songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and is one of those tunes that make no specific reference to Christmas. It is a great swinger that rolls at the end of “Die Hard” and has been covered – and covered well – by virtually every jazz/traditional pop singer, including: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (twice), Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass slow it down for an outstanding mellow version.

5. “An Old Fashioned Christmas” – Frank Sinatra (1964) — What a shock for me to learn that the biggest swinger of them all did not really swing at Christmas time. When I first heard Sinatra’s Christmas albums (technically three), I could not immediately connect until I realized that what he was doing so well was being reverent. In 1964, Sinatra teamed up with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and put out the hard to find “12 Songs of Christmas”. Written by regular Sinatra writers (and pals) Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and sung solo on the album by Frank, “An Old Fashioned Christmas” is the perfect mid-century Christmas song. If you’re like me – and I sincerely hope you’re not – you love any depiction of the past, be it in novel, film or song. Whether it’s 2017 or 1964, the song is all about nostalgia. It’s about a swinger who’s domain is the happenin’ city. But it’s late in December and this cat is thinking of home: “Give me an old-fashioned Christmas…my heart remembers smoldering embers warmly aglow. I’d trade that whole Manhattan skyline, the shimmering steel and chrome, for one old-fashioned Christmas back home”.

4. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams (1963) — Everything needs an opener and this song is the perfect opening tune for the Christmas season. George Wyle was a songwriter who worked for “The Andy Williams Show”. George wrote this song for Andy’s second annual Christmas show and it was released on Andy’s first Christmas record that year. (George Wyle also wrote the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”) All this makes it one of the more recently introduced Christmas standards. It’s an exciting composition in triple time and the lyrics are chock full of Christmas imagery. It is one of the most regularly heard Christmas songs of them all, as it is a celebration of all that we love about the season. For such an iconic song of the season, it has not been covered often. Johnny Mathis did a carbon copy version while Harry Connick, Jr. – as he is wont to do – wrote a very unique arrangement for it and recorded it on his Christmas album of 2008.

3. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957) — The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll recorded two Christmas albums, one in 1957 and one in 1971. Only 20 Christmas songs and yet he has a sizable Christmas rep. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” of ’57 is the highest selling Christmas album of all-time (U.S. sales) and this was the first track on it. Presley went into the studio to make this album of Christmas and gospel classics and found himself one song short. His regular songwriters – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame-ers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – adjourned to a quiet room and emerged a short time later with this simple gem. The magic here is in Presley’s performance. King recorded many timeless rock ‘n’ roll classics between 1956 and 1958 – the years that cemented his legacy for all time – but few of them really display the sheer savage power of his voice. One example is “Jailhouse Rock”. And another is “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. How odd. Christmas songs are generally tender, warm, lovingly nostalgic and evocative of home and hearth. This tune is a beast. The Jordanaires chanting “Christmas”, J.D. Fontana punishing his drums and some stellar blues piano from Dudley Brooks all combine to make this a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll standard.

2. “The Christmas Song” – Nat ‘King’ Cole (1961) — For almost all of the songs on this list I’ve gone to ‘the source’. Actually, it’s better stated to say that most of the greatest Christmas recordings ever are cases where artists are introducing a song to the public. Another great example of this is “The Christmas Song”, first recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole – often subtitled either “Merry Christmas to You” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Like “Let It Snow!”, it’s a case of songwriters sweltering in mid-summer and imagining the cooler, cozier vibe of Christmas time. Legendary singer Mel Torme wrote the lyrics and Robert Wells composed the tune. Nat Cole and his trio debuted the song in the ’40’s. The definitive 1961 version was their third recording of it. There is a sublime gentleness in the opening two guitar notes and the sweeping strings that transport you to a dimly lit, warm, cozy room. The fireplace is aglow. The tree is lit. And Nat Cole’s smoky voice sings of the many charms of the season. The ’61 version is actually a perfect recording, Christmas or no. Mel’s lyrics add to the warmth and heartfelt sentiment.

1. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby (1947) — A no-brainer. An easy, even unimaginative choice for #1. Not even a choice, really. If you decide to write about Christmas music, you are going to talk about Papa Bing and his glorious 1947 version of “White Christmas”. It is the reason secular Christmas music exists. This song really deserves it’s own post so I’ll keep it simple. Written by Irving Berlin and first recorded by Bingo in 1942, it is the world’s best selling single. Crosby’s initial recording in 1942 was incredibly successful. In 1942, the song spent 11 weeks at #1. In 1945 and 1946, the song went to #1 again – no other single in history has reached the top of the charts in three separate years. Although the song has been recorded over 500 times, it has always been associated with Bing Crosby. Crosby always downplayed his role in making the song legendary: “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully”. Along with Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, this is one of the very few perfect recordings in history.

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So…what do you think? It may be hard to argue with these choices as they are, for the most part, universally loved. But did I miss any? Do any of these songs place too high? Aside from some really obscure stuff I could name, there really is no bad Christmas music. By definition, it is pleasant, warm, tenderly nostalgic and evokes memories of home. It truly is one of the joys of the season.

Stay Tuned for my next post when we’ll look at the lesser known Christmas classics

– the Deep Cuts…