Horror Movie Review: “The Maze”

“The Maze” (1953) Starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery and Michael Pate. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. From Allied Artists Pictures.

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“The Maze” from 1953. Brought to you in 3 Dimensions.

I stumbled on this film quite by accident. A random search for “classic horror films” of a certain length yielded “The Maze” so I checked it out. I was pleasantly surprised. And I wasn’t.

Gerald MacTeam, a Scotsman, is traveling through Europe with his fiancee, Kitty (Hurst) and her Aunt Edith (Emery) and some friends. He suddenly gets word that his uncle, a baronet, has died and Gerald has inherited his title and Craven Castle, the family estate in the Scottish highlands. Gerald leaves his party of traveling companions to deal with this family business promising Kitty he’ll be in touch soon. Weeks go by before Kitty hears from Gerald and the news is not good. Kitty is abruptly informed by telegram that Gerald cannot possibly marry her. She is to go on with her life and forget about him. Kitty, of course, is concerned by Gerald’s uncharacteristic tone and decides to go to Craven Castle, with Aunt Edith in tow, to investigate.

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Kitty and Aunt Edith decide to go to Craven Castle to see what’s troubling Gerald.

The two women are shocked at what they find at the castle. Gerald seems to have aged ten years and he is obviously tortured by something. Also at the castle they find two sullen servants who are devoted to Gerald and very stern and unwelcoming. Finally they find that the backyard of the castle is one giant hedge maze. Gerald insists the women leave at once but Kitty won’t hear of it. She and her aunt stay the night. They are informed that there are rules of the castle that stipulate they avoid the maze at all costs, refrain from wandering through the castle by day and that they be locked in their rooms overnight. The ladies retire to bed and hear their doors locked. Later, they hear an odd sound in the hallway outside their door. Through the crack underneath, they can see the shadow of something moving along the floor outside their room. This, of course, is unsettling.

Aunt Edith gets loose the next day and stumbles on a room in the back of the castle. Upon entering, she sees something hideous moving in the corner and promptly faints. With Aunt Edith confined to her bed with shock and sickness, the two women must linger at the castle, to the consternation of Gerald. When Kitty sees odd footprints on the carpet outside her door, she reconnoiters. She notices that the stairs leading up to the room where her aunt saw the hideous thing are oddly huge, like platforms, she says. She also finds Gerald reading a book on teratology and decides something must be done. Through a passing farmer, she gets word to her friends – one of whom is a doctor – to come to the castle. Her friends arrive and decide that Gerald has gone mad. Instead, what they find horrifies them beyond even their wildest imaginations.

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Kitty sees something moving in the maze.

William Cameron Menzies was the original “production designer”. He was working in silent film from before Paramount was called Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) as a special effects artist and a setting designer. He soon developed a reputation as the top man in Hollywood for the design of a production. His work on “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1938) drew the attention of David O. Selznick who hired him to work on “Gone With the Wind”. The term “Production Designer” was coined for Menzies and he directed the “burning Atlanta” segment of that legendary Civil War drama. In fact, Menzies was so integral to the look of “Gone With the Wind” that a memo had been circulated stating that Menzies had the final word on many visual aspects of the film and subsequently “Gone With the Wind” bears the credit “This Production Designed By William Cameron Menzies”. At this point, though, Menzies had already directed 1936’s “Things to Come”, “Chandu the Magician” with Bela Lugosi and he would go on to helm “The Maze” and “Invaders from Mars”, both in 1953.

“The Maze” was part of the “3-D Movie” craze of the 1950’s. In an effort to draw viewers away from their television sets and back to the theatres, filmmakers came up with this process that lent itself well to Menzies’ visual style. Many prints of this film have by this time jettisoned the 3-D process but you can spot certain shots and setups that no doubt exist because of the original 3-D presentation. The film was produced by Allied Artists and, in a “Six Degrees of Elvis” element, Allied was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1966 when it released the Presley picture “Tickle Me”, the financial success of which brought the studio back from the brink. “The Maze” is based on a short novel written by William Sandoz and featuring illustrations by Salvador Dali. In turn, this novel is based on the legend of Glamis Castle in Scotland that reportedly contained a mysterious resident that lived in a hidden part of the castle and that no one ever saw. Interestingly, Sandoz seems to have been involved with a pharmaceutical firm that supplied legal LSD to the medical profession in the 1960’s.

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Handsome, reliable B-movie actor Richard Carlson.

The film stars Richard Carlson, an actor I know best from “Beyond Tomorrow”, a fantasy film centered around Christmas. He also appeared in “Too Many Girls” with Desi Arnaz, “Hold That Ghost” with Abbott and Costello and later in “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. He also was given the chance to direct a handful of small pictures before wrapping up his career in films by appearing with Elvis Presley in 1969’s “Change of Habit”, which was also EP’s last acting role. Veronica Hurst is an English actress born in Malta. She is one of those actresses that acted in virtually nothing anybody has ever heard of on this side of the Atlantic but she is a delight as the fiancee of the tortured MacTeam. She looks and acts a little like Debbie Reynolds and she is pretty and bright and seems to be totally comfortable and confident in front of the camera. She plays Kitty as headstrong and determined and she actually carries this film and does it well. Miss Hurst is still with us, aged 86.

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Pretty and engaging Malta-born English actress Veronica Hurst as Kitty.

Australian Michael Pate plays Gerald’s butler. Pate was seen earlier in the decade in a couple of Boris Karloff horror vehicles. He was the first man to portray James Bond’s CIA buddy, Felix Leiter, and did so in the television production of “Casino Royale” in 1954. He went on to a middling career in films: “Hondo”, “Sergeant’s Three” and “McLintock!” and then worked extensively in his homeland and with his son, also an actor. Aunt Edith is played by Katherine Emery. I thought I had seen her in something before but I must be mistaken. She has a mere 12 acting credits to her name and “The Maze” is the last of them. She lived to age 76, dying in 1980.

The funny thing about “The Maze” is the maze itself. It serves as little more than a setting for a small aspect of the plot. The film is still remembered today only because of it’s 3-D presentation. It was one of the first 3-D films and it helped introduce the format to the masses. And then there’s the pay-off; the reveal at the end of the story. How do I describe it without spoilers? It is remarkable, actually, but it really matters little. The pacing and the build up to this reveal are handled surprisingly well. “The Maze” received mixed reviews at time of release. Notably, one reviewer praised Carlson’s “excellent” performance. One of my favourite reviews is most apt; “(“The Maze” is) moronic but entertaining”. Bang on.

 

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“Top 23” Review: “Dirty Dancing”

I’ve got 23 favourite films: 10 from when I was a teenager and young adult, 10 from my adult years with a wife and kids and 3 ‘life-changers’ that hover over them all. I know these films inside and out and have lots to say about them. Journey with me as I try to explain why I love these 23 films and why I think they’re so appealing.

“Dirty Dancing” (1987) from Vestron Pictures — Starring Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach and Jack Weston

We had a Jumbo Video where I lived. I had a membership. There was a time in my teenage years when I would rent movies from Jumbo; a lot of movies. For a time, I kept the receipts. I’ve always been a romantic. I think I can pinpoint part of the reason for this but its pretty heavy and pointless to get into. Suffice it to say that I have always been drawn to stories that depict a guy, a girl and love. I also love me a ‘shoot-em-up’, don’t get me wrong, but I have always been able to see the appeal in romantic films. Now, do I still seek them out? Absolutely not. As a happily married man, the goofy and heart-touching ups and downs of romance are far removed from where I’m at now so the ‘rom-coms’ and love stories of the last 20+ years appeal to me not one bit. But when I was young and single, I was fascinated by the stories about the many ways to fall in love.

I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw “Dirty Dancing”. If it came out in the theaters in 1987, then we can assume it was released on home video maybe 2-3 years later. Using this math, I must’ve rented it around, say, 1990, when I was 18. I immediately fell in love with it and, as soon as I was able, I added the VHS version to my growing movie collection. I’m sure you all know what it’s about 30+ years down the line but let’s run it down anyways.

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An iconic poster. Baby, Johnny and the “font”.

In the summer of 1963, sheltered Daddy’s Girl, “Baby” Houseman, vacations with her family in the Catskills at Kellerman’s resort. Her father, Dr. Jake Houseman, goes way back with resort owner Max Kellerman, who sets up his grandson, Neil, with Baby. While Baby is dancing with Neil on the first night, she spies ‘the dance people’; Penny and the handsome Johnny Castle. Baby befriends resort employee and Johnny’s cousin, Billy, who takes Baby to the off-limits-to-guests employees quarters where she observes the ‘dirty dancing’ of the title. Johnny expresses concern that a guest is among their number but playfully takes Baby in hand to teach her a few steps.

Meanwhile, Baby’s sister, Lisa, has caught the eye of Ivy League waiter and pre-med student, Robbie. Baby learns, however, that Penny – who is more like a sister to Johnny – is pregnant by Robbie. Penny wants to ‘deal with’ the situation but money is certainly an issue so Baby asks her dad for a loan, not telling him what it’s for. Billy explains that they can get a ‘doctor’ for Penny but the only appointment they can get conflicts with Johnny and Penny’s commitment to do their mambo number at neighbouring hotel, The Sheldrake. Baby, “Miss Fix-It”, suggests solutions, none that are acceptable. In the end, Baby is recruited to fill in and she and Johnny rigorously prepare to dance together and the number comes off OK.

Returning from The Sheldrake, Baby and Johnny begin to make eyes at each other but are interrupted by Billy, who says that the ‘doctor’ – more a butcher – has been and gone and Penny is in a bad way. Baby’s instinct kicks in and she runs to get her dad who attends to Penny but sees that Baby is somewhat involved with Johnny. Sizing up the situation, Dr. Houseman is disappointed in the apparent change in his girl and forbids her to associate with ‘those people’. Baby goes to see Johnny to apologize for the way Dr. Houseman treated him and she stays the night.

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Baby is cool. She is always in control. She takes the lead in Johnny’s cabin.

The next morning, a morose Jake tells his family he wants to leave but he is convinced to stay through the end of Labour Day to be involved in the end-of-season show. Jake engages with Lisa, much to her delight as she had been second to Baby in the past. Deceptively, Baby continues her relationship with Johnny, who reveals himself to be tenderhearted and tired of the divorcee guests using him for sex. Baby encourages him to change and to stand up for himself but Johnny gets upset when he and Baby have to hide from Dr. Houseman, who has been seen taking walks with Lisa and Robbie.

Baby overhears Johnny refusing one of his usual ‘customers’, Vivian Pressman, and is happy. Vivian, however, is not. She shacks up with Robbie and the two are discovered by Lisa. In the morning, Vivian sees Baby leaving Johnny’s cabin and frames Johnny for stealing her husband’s wallet. Baby defends Johnny to Max Kellerman in front of her family, saying Johnny could not have stolen the wallet at the assumed time because, at that time – the middle of the night – she was with Johnny in his cabin. Dr. Houseman is saddened by this news but Baby explains to him that she is sad, too, because her father has revealed his shortcomings in the form of a somewhat condescending attitude towards people who are not ‘like him’.

Johnny tells Baby that he has been cleared of the wallet theft but fired anyways for fraternizing with a guest. They share a tender goodbye and Baby is consoled by her sister. At the end-of-season show, Johnny returns. He interrupts the proceedings and tells the crowd that – as he has always done – he will end the season with a dance in a style favoured by him and his friends – his way. Jake realizes Robbie is a rat and Johnny is an OK guy and he fixes things with both young men. Baby and Johnny dance and the guests at Kellerman’s end the summer in thrilling fashion.

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In obvious symbolism, Baby succeeds at the end. She has navigated the waters and is now free to soar.

Some people have one movie in them, one story. Such is the case with Eleanor Bergstein. “Dirty Dancing” is mostly autobiographical. Bergstein grew up vacationing in the Catskills with her mother, her doctor father and her older sister. While her folks played golf, Bergstein was dancing, however in this respect she was more “Johnny” than “Baby”. She was a ‘mambo queen’ and entered ‘dirty dancing’ contests. Here’s where my eyebrows go up a bit. Being a mid-century guy, I have a familiarity with not only the films and music of the ’50’s and ’60’s but also cultural and societal things and, in my travels, I have never run across the mention of ‘dirty dancing’. I have no doubt that such dancing existed and was referred to as such it’s just that I haven’t heard of this from any other source.

During university, Bergstein was a dance instructor at Arthur Murray studios and then she married and turned to writing. A novel (“Advancing Paul Newman”) and a screenplay (“It’s My Turn”) were poorly received. During production of “It’s My Turn” – which starred Michael Douglas – producers cut a provocative dance number from her story which inspired her to document the dancing she remembered so fondly. She began to write her ‘personal story’, the story of her youth and she started with the music she loved as a teenager. Another of my “Top 23” films is George Lucas’ “American Graffiti”, which is also a personal story of youth. Bergstein wrote her screenplay the same way Lucas did – with a stack of 45’s at her side, the songs forming the skeleton of the scenes she was creating.

Like so many other legendary films, Bergstein’s script for “Dirty Dancing” was rejected by several studios until it landed at the tiny Vestron Pictures, who’s major interest was home video distribution. The project eventually got green-lighted and Bergstein and her producing partner, Linda Gottleib, began assembling their team. For a director they chose Emile Ardolino who had won an Academy Award for a documentary but had never directed a feature film. Another key piece was choreographer Kenny Ortega. Ortega got his start working with Gene Kelly on “Xanadu” (1980) and gained career momentum choreographing for films such as “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985) and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) and directing music videos. Ortega choreographed Billy Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite” (1984), a video that has been cited as one of the worst in history and one that is considered to have ended Squier’s career. Kenny also directed the video for Styx’s polarizing “Mr. Roboto”, a video that some fans claim “killed Styx”. These two blemishes aside, Ortega is a choreographer of note in Hollywood and has worked on multiple Michael Jackson tours, Super Bowls and Academy Awards telecasts. He also directed and choreographed the “High School Musical” trilogy.

Filming took place in two locations – neither of which was the Catskills. The “Borscht Belt”, the colloquial name given to the string of hotels in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York catering to Jews from New York City, is no more so stand-ins had to be found. Lake Lure, North Carolina has one of the most beautiful man-made lakes in the world and was used for scenes depicting the staff’s cabins, the “log” scene and the famous “water lift” scene. To this day, Lake Lure hosts an annual “Dirty Dancing Festival” which features dance lessons, watermelon carrying and a lake lift competition. Other scenes were shot in Virginia at Mountain Lake. Here we see the beach, the Houseman family’s cabin and the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort that stood in for Kellerman’s. Mountain Lake turns itself into “Kellerman’s” four weekends a year for “Dirty Dancing-themed Weekends”.

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One of the highlights of the “Dirty Dancing Festival” in Lake Lure, NC is the Friday night outdoor screening of the film.
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Travel to the Mountain Lake Hotel Resort in Virginia where you can see the hotel that stood in for Kellerman’s and the cabin where Baby and her family stayed.

Cast as 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman was 26-year-old Jennifer Grey. Grey is the daughter of Academy Award-winner Joel Grey who was initially chosen for a role in “Dirty Dancing”. Jennifer had previously appeared in “Red Dawn”, “The Cotton Club” for Francis Ford Coppola and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. Jennifer was a trained dancer who possessed a sweetness that was essential for portraying the innocent Baby. Grey was nominated for a Golden Globe award for her role and her career is defined by it. While Billy Zane had tested for the role of Johnny Castle, 34-year-old Patrick Swayze was ultimately chosen. In screen tests interacting with Grey, Bergstein was blown away by their amazing chemistry. Previously, Swayze had made notable turns in “The Outsiders” and “Red Dawn”, also featuring Grey. The role of Penny Johnson, Johnny’s dancing partner, went to Cynthia Rhodes. Rhodes was much more a dancer than actress who had previously danced in “Xanadu”, “Flashdance” and “Staying Alive”. After “Dirty Dancing”, Rhodes gave up acting to concentrate on her family, husband Richard Marx and their three boys.

Tony Award-winner Jerry Orbach portrayed Baby’s father, Dr. Jake Houseman. Orbach had been a Broadway actor and singer of some note. He was the first performer to sing the standard “Try to Remember” and had released an album in 1963. Orbach would go on to achieve international fame and admiration for portraying Det. Lennie Brisco for 12 years on television’s “Law & Order”. Jack Weston played hotelier Max Kellerman, an amalgam of the type of regal hotel owner prevalent in the Catskills at this time. Weston brought with him hundreds of credits and a Golden Globe nomination. He appeared in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”, “Palm Springs Weekend”, “The Cincinnati Kid”, “Wait Until Dark” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” among many other credits including a notable “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”. And watch for Wayne Knight who, in his first credited film appearance, has a few scenes as “Stan”. (Significantly for me, his only previous film appearance was playing an uncredited waiter in 1979’s “The Wanderers” – another film in my “Top 23”)

The coming together of the cast and crew to create this legendary film was truly serendipitous. The team that was assembled – behind the camera as well as in front of it – created magic this one time. Most of the principles were never able to recreate their success here. Patrick Swayze, as we all know, became a star of the highest magnitude. His star turns in “Road House”, “Ghost”, “Point Break” and other films endeared him to fans the world over. Perhaps more importantly, he was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy as well. Sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, aged 57. Jerry Orbach, as we’ve seen, went on to greater fame as Lennie Brisco. However, most of the principles involved with the film were not able to capitalize on the movie’s success.

Eleanor Bergstein had just the one story to tell; her own. The creator of “Dirty Dancing” has not worked again on an entity that isn’t related to this story based in part on her life. Director Emile Ardolino went on to direct only minor films like “Three Men and a Little Lady” and “Sister Act” and sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Everybody loves Jennifer Grey. We always will. Truth be told, though, she was not able to turn her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Baby into a productive Hollywood career. A few weeks before the release of “Dirty Dancing”, she was in a car accident. Her boyfriend, Matthew Broderick, was at the wheel and the mother and daughter in the other car were killed instantly. Grey has said that her physical injuries coupled with her ‘survivors guilt’ made it difficult for her to enjoy her success. She famously underwent two rhinoplasty procedures that rendered her unrecognizable and all but ended her career. Max Cantor played skunk Robbie Gould. He made one more film before turning to journalism. While researching addicts in New York City, Cantor freebased cocaine and became a heroin addict. He died of an overdose in 1991, aged 32. Cynthia Rhodes, Jane Brucker (“Lisa Houseman”) and Lonny Price (“Neil Kellerman”) never really acted again but research shows that as basically a choice of theirs; they went on to other things. Neal Jones, who I thought was cool as “Billy”, guested on random television shows and was invisible in a dozen movies – albeit 4 with Al Pacino (?!) – before dropping off the face. Jack Weston and Charles “Honi” Coles (“Tito Suarez”) both passed away, although aged 71 and 81, respectively.

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“I’m not sure who you are anymore”, Baby’s father once said to her. Imagine if he’d seen her after her rhinoplasty.

Music can account for a great deal of a movie’s charm and appeal. An effective score, yes, can be an asset to a picture but a period piece like “Dirty Dancing” relies heavily on carefully selected songs from the past. I mentioned earlier that Eleanor Bergstein wrote this film from her personal experiences and used her old 45s as a starting point. I mentioned that George Lucas wrote “American Graffiti” the same way and it bears repeating. Lucas invented the idea of loading a film with old songs, something that became commonplace and with his “memoir film” it is fitting. We all have memories of significant times in our lives. Oftentimes, these memories can be triggered when we hear a particular song. Certainly, music has the ability to transport us directly back to a certain time and place and if you’re writing a story about the past then music is invariably going to play a huge part. This is definitely the case with “Dirty Dancing”; after all, the essential elements for dancing are at least one human body – and music.

Bergstein has made a point of separating the songs of her youth into two categories; ‘dirty dancing’ songs and ‘clean teen’ songs. For example, the film starts with the iconic Phil Spector “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes. Bergstein states that, in her youth, this was the type of song that the kids would save to listen to when they were alone with people their own age. To this type of song, they could dance the way they wanted to. Next up as the film begins is “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by the Four Seasons. Here was ‘cleaner’ (‘whiter’?) music that you could listen to in the car with your parents. I suppose a third category would be the Latin mambo and merengue music that was danced to in the Catskills of the era and that is featured in the film.

The “Dirty Dancing” soundtrack – two volumes, actually – sold incredibly well. The initial album sold 32 million copies and spent an incredible 18 weeks at #1. It is one of the five best-selling soundtracks of all-time. Jimmy Ienner was placed in charge of selecting the music; he took on the role of “music supervisor”, the job that George Lucas had created – and did himself – with “American Graffiti”. The soundtrack helped spark a renewed interest in “oldies” but, in what was a brilliant part of it’s mass appeal, contained new music that became iconic. The main theme to come out of the film was “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, a song that went to #1 on many charts and in many countries. Upon initial release in the UK, the song went to #6. Four years later, when the film was played on television in that country, it re-entered the charts and went to #8! The song, sung by Bill Medley – one half of the Righteous Brothers – and Jennifer Warnes, won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.

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The fifth biggest-selling soundtrack of all-time. Only outsold by heavy hitters like “Purple Rain” and “The Bodyguard”.

The song has it’s origins in an obscure ’80’s band called Franke and the Knockouts. Lead singer and songwriter, Franke Previte, was approached by Jimmy Ienner to write music for “Dirty Dancing”. Previte was hesitant as he was still trying to make it as a performer. He finally acquiesced and wrote “Time of My Life” with two other writers. Bill Medley was approached repeatedly to record the song but Medley was awaiting the birth of a child and didn’t want to commit. Warnes was approached and said she would only do it with Bill. Medley and Warnes were able to get together after the birth of Medley’s child. It has become one of the best-loved motion picture songs and is one of the songs most often played on the radio. The song is the perfect companion to the emotional ending of the film.

Patrick Swayze really could do it all. Act, dance, fight, rip your throat out and not only write songs but sing them, too. He contributed a three-year-old song he had co-written called “She’s Like the Wind” which was recorded with singer Wendy Fraser and included on the soundtrack. Startlingly when you think about it, the song reached #3 on the charts, #1 Adult Contemporary. Patrick Swayze has charted a song as high as #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That is higher than any song charted by the likes of Van Morrison, Eddie Money, Alice Cooper or Chris De Burgh.

Eric Carmen was given “Hungry Eyes” to sing. Once again, here was a song that Franke Previte had written and recorded with his band in 1984. Ienner had worked with Carmen when Carmen was lead singer of the Raspberries and called on him to lend his vocal talents. Carmen was hesitant but eventually recorded the song. It became another popular song from the soundtrack and peaked at #4. Two other songs from the soundtrack are personal favourites of mine. “Overload” is a great late-’80’s pop/rock song from Alfie Zappacosta. How a song from an obscure Canadian singer ever ended up on this soundtrack I’ll never know. “Where Are You Tonight?” is a nice tune performed in the style of early ’60’s R&B. It took me awhile to confirm that it was actually Tom Johnston from the Doobie Brothers that sang it. It doesn’t sound like him to me and I was skeptical that it was the same Tom Johnston but it is.

The “oldies” on the soundtrack also add greatly to the charm of the film. And in turn a much deserved light was shone on this music and a lot of the songs re-entered the public consciousness. “Be My Baby” has long been heralded as one of the finest songs from the era and has become iconic. “Stay” by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs is what I call one of the “pillars” of this era. A number one song in it’s time, it is the shortest song to ever reach the top of the charts. “Hey! Baby” by Bruce Channel is the perfect lighthearted back drop to Baby and Johnny dancing on that log. It was this song that inspired John Lennon to learn the harmonica. “Love is Strange”, “Love Man” and “Cry to Me” had prominent positions in the film. “Do You Love Me” is an early Motown classic written by the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr. It was a Top 10 hit when originally released in 1962. Amazingly, owing to it’s use in “Dirty Dancing”, it re-entered the charts 25 years later and reached #11! It is one the few songs from the classic era to perform well on the charts again years after it’s release.

“Dirty Dancing” has something in common with other legendary films. When the film was finished shooting and was edited together, no one liked it. Because Vestron, the company that made the film, was primarily concerned with home video, it was initially thought that after a brief run in the theaters it would go straight to home video. One producer even suggested burning the negative and collecting the insurance (there were those who suggested burning the negative of “Citizen Kane”, as well). Promotion of the film floundered as well as a corporate sponsor that would put it’s money and it’s product to work promoting the film could not be found. The acne product Clearasil was on board for a time until they found out that abortion was a plot point and they pulled out. Bergstein’s partner, producer Gottleib, began to wonder if the film would be released as opposed to when. Of course, it was eventually released to theaters and gradually, through word-of-mouth and a few positive reviews, it gained momentum and became a huge success. It won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe but more than that it became a true fan favourite, adored by millions. Many ‘bit players’ were able to dine out on it for years as part of touring companies singing songs from the soundtrack and dancing to them. Stage shows, a ridiculous and pointless ‘prequel’ and a live television event followed. Catch phrases from the film entered the popular lexicon: “I carried a watermelon”, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”. Poor Vestron, though. They thought they could recreate this success but released flop after flop and went bankrupt only two years later. The film itself, though, has grossed well over $214 million and has the distinction of being the first film to sell a million copies on home video. I know I had it on VHS.

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You know you’re iconic when…

I think I’ve made a good point that there is a lot of “story” to “Dirty Dancing” and it is no accident that this story takes place in August of 1963. The opening narration even makes the point that this is a time of innocence; not just in Baby’s life but in all of American society. I have always insisted that ‘the fall’ began in September of ’63 when “Leave It to Beaver” was cancelled. That show was the epitome of (the ideal of) family life of the era. Then, it’s yanked off the air and two months later, JFK is shot and then three months after that, the Beatles land in America and nothing would ever be the same.

When you consider what happened to Frances Houseman – and to Johnny Castle – that summer it takes on mythic proportions. The story of ‘coming-of-age’ – transitioning from childhood to adulthood – is a dramatic story, one that is ripe with plot points. Baby comes of age before our eyes and it is tender and beautiful. And she has been in control of her pivot and has navigated it with her moral compass. Her entree into adulthood has been successful and this will inform the rest of her life. Comparatively, we see that Johnny has already had his pivot point and it was corrupt and has lead him down a destructive path.

Baby has been courageous. She has stayed true to herself. She has suffered, yes. She has fallen in her father’s eyes but his failings have been revealed to her, as well. But she accepts these revelations about her father and deals swiftly with any illusions she had about him. She has also brought about great change in Johnny’s life. Through Baby, Johnny has encountered fortitude, optimism and integrity. Meeting Baby has set him on a new path. But let’s face reality; there is no way that Baby and Johnny stay together. They are two different people going in different directions. Each will remember the other always. Each will look back on this summer and remember that this was the time that everything changed – and each will recall the other as a true catalyst of that change in their lives. Knowing that they do not stay together does not diminish your appreciation for the film. In fact, your appreciation grows once you accept and understand that this is not the ‘origin story’ of their relationship. This is their relationship in it’s entirety.

Scholars have found in “Dirty Dancing” comparisons to some of the world’s greatest literature. This film, they suggest, contains the same idea of ‘the journey’ that lies at the heart of “The Odyssey”, for example. Baby – and she does start out as a baby – goes on a journey, a journey we all take, that from childhood to adulthood. Her story contains a lot of the tropes of the epic journey; she starts in innocence but acknowledges the need to progress, she journeys to a mountain where she encounters a ‘castle’, she crosses a bridge to a forbidden place and she suffers which is, of course, the only way to gain wisdom.

But all this heaviness aside, I think the film’s biggest appeal lies in it’s glorious intangibles; those wonderful things that are hard to define but simply make you feel good. I’ve always felt it was significant that the lyric is “I’ve had the time of my life”. Colloquially, it is saying ‘this has been fun’. But philosophically; this has been the moment that will define who I am for the rest of my life.

 

 

 

 

Listen to My Heartbeat: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys Part 2

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 these timeless songs in a 3-part series. So, let’s go surfin’ now!

There are few bodies of work in the pop idiom more revered than that of Brian Wilson’s. And the music he made between July 12, 1965 and May 18, 1967 is his crowning achievement. Again, it is SO hard to encapsulate the story of the Beach Boys – particularly this period – in so small a space.

Throughout 1965, Brian had quit touring with the band and stayed home to write music and record it with the best musicians in the business in the best recording studios in Los Angeles. At the beginning of 1966, he began work on “Pet Sounds” – an album and the recording of which deserve it’s own post – an album that has become known as one of the two or three greatest albums ever conceived. The music on “Pet Sounds”, however, was a major move away from anything the Beach Boys had done previously. Earlier I mentioned that Brian Wilson was much better suited to being a producer with a stable of artists. Instead, he was the brains behind a band that the whole world thought of as a lightweight pop vocal group that sang songs about surfing and cars. In the 1960’s, being allowed to break out of the mold the industry had decreed for you was nearly impossible.

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Bruce Johnston, Terry Melcher and Tony Asher in the studio with Brian during the recording of “Pet Sounds” (1966).

It was these restrictions that inhibited Brian Wilson throughout this golden period of his career. The fact that he was still able to make the music that he did is nothing short of remarkable. Brian created the “Pet Sounds” album with the Wrecking Crew while his band toured Japan. When the boys came home, they all got together to listen to the tracks Brian had created. The simplification of the story is that the band was floored by what they heard. With the exception of Mike Love who felt that Brian had abandoned the “formula” in favour of a Brian Wilson solo record. This was damaging to Brian’s psyche and his confidence. It didn’t help that Capitol tended to agree with Mike – it was a vast departure from the sound that the public had come to expect from the Beach Boys. Brian finished the record after adding the guys’ sumptuous vocals. When the sales for “Pet Sounds” proved sluggish and when it stalled on the charts, peaking at “only” #10, Capitol Records turned it’s back on this landmark album and it’s visionary creator by ceasing promotion of the album and instead issuing “The Best of the Beach Boys”.

From February through September, 1966 – over seven months – Brian was busy constructing “Good Vibrations”. Keep in mind that the time and money spent on this one song was astronomical for the time and shows the respect and leeway Capitol was still granting Brian. The song was their 3rd #1 record and sold incredibly well. This further spurred Brian on to create what he thought would be the greatest record ever made.

The “SMiLE” album has been described as “an American gothic trip” and would have been a sprawling epic, telling the story of the American experience throughout history. Mounting pressure from the record company, his father, Murry, and – yes – from Mike Love was piling up on Brian’s fragile shoulders. His perceived eccentricity was also assumed to be a factor in making it difficult for him to complete his opus. Unfortunately, this “eccentricity” was, in reality, a sometimes crippling mental disorder that often took the form of horrific, threatening voices that Brian would hear in his head. Under the weight of all this, “SMiLE” was abandoned. With it crumbled the Beach Boys reputation. Brian Wilson retreated from the world.

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Brian Wilson at home in Bel Air during the “SMiLE” era.

Perhaps the most significant ramification of this retreat was Brian’s turning down an offer to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. The Beach Boys’ absence from this pivotal cultural event was seen as a requiem and the Boys were instantly labelled “un-hip”, which left the group to carry on in some sort of netherworld. The rest of the band knew full well that their cred was made up of about 95% Brian Wilson but they were still a band comprised of many talented pieces so they soldiered on. “Smile” became “Smiley Smile” (“a bunt instead of a grand slam” – Carl) and then “Wild Honey”. These two albums were down home affairs created by the band as a whole. But Brian as an entity had become perhaps even more important to the listening public then the band itself and the Beach Boys seemed out of touch with the rock scene of the late 1960’s. To make matters worse, the record industry began to look at the Beach Boys – without Brian in control – differently, too.

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The Beach Boys, 1968.

The first part of this era is filled with indelible songs that even the most unversed fan knows and loves: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Sloop John B”, “God Only Knows”, “Good Vibrations”, “Do It Again” and “Sail On, Sailor”. Also, the mini era post-“Pet Sounds” to pre-“Endless Summer” contains some excellent music. Music that is somehow made more enjoyable to us who ‘know’ because it is different, quieter Beach Boys music, unencumbered by greatness. Here’s the best of the hidden gems from this era.

10. “Little Pad” (1967 – from “Smiley Smile”) — This song was written by Brian Wilson only a short time after he wrote the revolutionary “Good Vibrations”. This in itself is indicative of the change he had gone through. It had just about killed him to follow his muse and strive for the heights, competing with the Beatles (who were basically 5 strong) and changing the face of pop music. After the demise of “SMiLE”, Brian decided to take the low road; no more shooting for the stars. Instead, he wanted to keep things simple. Songs don’t get much simpler than “Little Pad”. Indeed, the albums that were made in the wake of the aborted “SMiLE” album are today considered the origin of “lo-fi”. It is an unknown fact that, while the Beach Boys could rely less and less on Brian to continue charting new territory, they led the way to a more stripped down, casual sound in pop music. “Little Pad” is the “hiddenest” of gems and it is adored by those who know. The song starts with a shouted “Do it!” and a lot of giggling and then gives way to more angelic Beach Boys harmonizing. Carl plays the ukelele and dreams out loud, stating his desire for a little pad in Hawaii. The song is comforting and soothing with lyrics we all can relate to. A personal favourite, when I lived in a tiny bachelor apartment years ago, this was a cherished theme song.

9. “I Was Made to Love Her” (1967 – from “Wild Honey”) — I have a dear friend who’s a guitarist. Once, back in the day, he scoffed while I was playing the Beach Boys and said “don’t the Beach Boys ever use a guitar?!” So I played him “Student Demonstration Time” but I had to concede his point. A case has been made by Kent Crowley in his book on Carl that his guitar playing was influential and I’ll concede that, as well, but we all know that the Beach Boys – despite their garage beginnings as a ‘surf band’ – are not “guitar based”. That’s not to say they can’t rock out. This cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” is a case in point. Interesting to note that here it is Carl who shines but not as a guitarist. Carl Wilson was respected in his day and is revered today for his angelic voice. But the vocal he lays down here is “balls out”. Tapping in to his childhood spent digging rhythm and blues and early rock ‘n’ roll, Carl lays down a great blue-eyed soul vocal here. Right from the outset. Listen to the way he sings “I was born in Little Rock, had a childhood sweetheart…”. The second half of that line is amazing and the song could end then and it would still make this list. The “Wild Honey” album followed on the heels of “Smiley Smile” and is considered the second of a group of three consecutive “chill out” albums that the Beach Boys made themselves, as a self-contained band again. Carl referred to these albums as “music for Brian to cool out by”, referring to the break Brian was taking from his control of the band’s sound. “Wild Honey” is fascinating to listen to owing in part to the fact that it is a straight up soul album, owing greatly to the Stax/Motown sound of the time. “I Was Made to Love Her” features instrumentation that includes great piano and tambourine and it features another great group vocal. The song rolls along and is a stone groove.

8. “The Trader” (1973 – from “Holland”) — Carl Wilson is featured again on this track known only by those of us on the inside. “Holland” is a pretty cool album made at a pivotal point in the Beach Boys history. They had fallen out of favour with the critics and the record buying public so, to try to inject some new life into the proceedings, they made the costly move of transporting themselves and recording equipment to Holland. Also at this time, they had taken on a new manager, Jack Rieley. Jack and Bruce Johnston didn’t see eye to eye so Bruce had left the band. But the Boys had added two members of a South African group that Carl had discovered – The Flame – and Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar made contributions to this album. It’s an excellent record that features great work from all group members. You’d do well to check out all of side two, for example, featuring great writing and vocals from Carl, Ricky, Blondie, Dennis and Mike (not to mention Brian’s contribution, “Mount Vernon and Fairway [A Fairy Tale]”, added to the original album on a 7″ record). But I really dig Carl’s “The Trader”. The song was a statement of sorts from Carl. Jack Rieley was something of a lyricist and he wrote the words to “The Trader”, which tell a tale of colonization and slavery. This was heavy stuff from the Beach Boys but Carl offset this by having his young son, Justyn, greet the listener at the beginning of the song. “Holland” is an interesting album in the Beach Boys canon. It signalled the end of an era.

7. “Forever” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — “Sunflower” is another intriguing album. Historically, it has nothing obvious to recommend it. It even lacks the cache that the previously mentioned trilogy of “chill out” albums enjoy. But it’s sneaky good. Their first album of the 1970’s was also their first album for Reprise Records. The ’70’s were marked as a time when the Beach Boys had trouble maintaining a constant label on which to release material. The cover depicts an older group of fellas posing with their children in a picture taken by Ricci Martin, son of Dean. “Forever” looms large in “Beach Boys World”, the inhabitants of which cherish it’s existence. As stated in Part 1 of this series, Dennis Wilson was a rebel. Coerced to join the band, he ended up venting his pent up frustrations and virile energy behind the drum kit. But by 1970, Dennis was starting to show signs of his submerged musical vision; one of tenderness and quiet beauty. It seems almost cliche – handsome, rough-and-tumble, hard living guy suddenly sits at the piano, of all instruments, and pounds out solemn chords and whispers words of love. But Dennis was not a cliche; he was the prototype. “Forever” is his crowning achievement and the song for which he is best known. (But for my favourite Dennis/Beach Boys song, stay tuned for Part 3) 1968’s “Friends” album had contained Dennis’ initial offerings to the group and those two songs – “Little Bird” and “Be Still” – were surprising in their sensitivity. “20/20”, released the following year, had contained Dennis’ infamous “Never Learn Not to Love”; a song derived from an original composition by one Charles Manson. But with “Forever”, Dennis made his most significant contribution to the band’s catalogue. The strumming guitar, the boisterous vocals on the bridge and Dennis’ heartfelt lead all add up to a simply beautiful track. Brian himself said that “‘Forever’ has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard”. Heady praise from a man who knows. For me, it’s the simple purity of the lyric and Dennis’ reading: “If every word I said would make you laugh, I’d talk forever”. Only a song of rare beauty could survive what John Stamos and The Beach Boys* did to it in 1992.

6. “This Whole World” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — It’s funny; I’ve been talking about this era when Brian Wilson “checked out” but here he is again contributing a gorgeous song. Think of it this way: if another artist had made the type of music that Brian Wilson made when he was supposedly just chilling out, that artist would be revered today. Brian could make beautiful music in his sleep. It helped that the rest of the band – Carl, in particular – were beginning to perfect using the studio as Brian had in his heyday. Carl’s production work during this era is fantastic and he begins to emerge from his big brother’s shadow and takes over control of the band’s sound. Brian has said that “This Whole World” is “about love in general”, which sums up the positivity of his body of work. He wrote the song, taught the boys all their parts, sang on it himself and played piano. He basically produced the record – recorded in his home studio – although the credit reads “Produced by The Beach Boys”. All in all, not bad from a supposed recluse. Allmusic says that here Brian reestablishes his reputation as a “brilliant melody writer(s) and arranger(s)” and “wipes away three years of artistic cobwebs”. Carl’s guitar starts things off and the song features his great vocal. His voice in this era – he is 24 here – is a delight to hear. Brian created a chant background vocal – “Om dot dit it” – that is accompanied by chimes and gongs. Mike shines with his “I’m thinkin’ ’bout this whole world” after Carl sings “Here comes another day for your love” at about the minute mark. The ending is celestial. Two minutes of pop perfection.

5. “Time to Get Alone” (1969 – from “20/20”) — “20/20” – the Boys 20th album – was released early in 1969. Brian had checked himself into a psychiatric hospital and was absent for the recording. Carl and Dennis cobbled together parts of songs that Brian had been working on recently and finished them for inclusion on the album. It was the last album released during their classic era with Capitol Records. “20/20” went to #3 in the UK and #68 in the US – which is indicative of their reputation at the time. Huge in England, disowned at home. The hit single “Do It Again” starts the album but the second track is one of two almost perfect recordings that grace this record. “Time to Get Alone” was written by Brian – I may need to rethink my assertion that he had checked out at this time! Brian had wanted to give the song to a fledgling group he was working with called Redwood, who would later become Three Dog Night. But the band, at this point, was not about to give up any songs to outsiders; they needed all the help they could get themselves. “Time to Get Alone” is in waltz time and was recorded in Brian’s home studio. Video footage of the recording exists. The song has delightfully pleasant chord changes and typically idyllic vocals on the chorus. This era is by far the time when the Beach Boys’ group vocals were not only the best of their career but the finest sounds ever made by human voices in the pop genre. (“Baby, it’s time…”) Consider that the lyric talks of winter; snow, cold and tobogganing of all things. Times had certainly changed for the Beach Boys. And I’ve heard it said that the “deep and wide” at the 1:42 mark is the greatest single moment in the Beach Boys catalogue. I don’t know about that but “Time to Get Alone” has a staggeringly gentle beauty. Here’s the footage of the recording but you need to check out the master.

4. “Here Today” (1966 – from “Pet Sounds”) — “Pet Sounds” is not about singles. Some of the better known Beach Boys songs are from this landmark album but, almost more than any other pop album in history, that record is about the whole. Truth be told, “Pet Sounds” is a work of such singular artistry that it can seem inaccessible if you don’t approach it in the right frame of mind or with misguided expectations. It makes me almost – almost – sympathize with Mike Love and execs at Capitol. You can imagine their confusion when they first heard that record coming from the purveyors of fun in the sun ditties. I say all this to say that when I first heard “Pet Sounds” (I found it on cassette at A&A Records in Market Square in Kitchener, Ontario in 1992) I really didn’t know how to assess it. All these years later, I am still learning about it’s glorious nuances. But aside from the hits, “Here Today” is perhaps the only unknown song on the LP you can dig on first listen. Brian liked to work with lyricists and for “Pet Sounds” he teamed up with ad man Tony Asher who wrote the words to this uptempo number. Musicologists praise the “bass literature” of this song and Bruce hailed the break in the middle as “perfection” and owing to the work of Bach. If you listen closely to the break – as all Beach Boys fans know – you can hear some studio chatter (about cameras) that was left in the final mix. Listen for Brian’s “Top, please!”. Mike takes the lead and the Wrecking Crew is on hand with the addition of Terry Melcher on tambourine, which is actually pronounced in the mix and greatly adds to the feel of the song. Carol Kaye and Lyle Ritz make significant contributions on bass and Larry Knechtel shines on the organ. An interesting, driving song that sometimes sounds almost sinister with it descending sax honks on the chorus and the organ on the break.

3. “Disney Girls (1957)” (1971 – from “Surf’s Up”) — Bruce Johnston won a Grammy for “I Write the Songs” but this is his standard. Bruce had operated successfully in the music business before joining the Beach Boys and he did so again after he left the Beach Boys in the early 1970’s. This ability to function outside of the fold makes it all the more difficult to understand why it’s him that has stayed with Mike Love all this time. Before he left in 1972, though, he nailed it. When you discuss the most affecting Beach Boys songs with which Brian Wilson had little or nothing to do, “Disney Girls (1957)” is near the top of the list. Bruce has always seemed to me to be a softy so it’s no surprise that his most enduring composition is gentle and nostalgic. Bruce plays most of the instruments and the song is dominated by his gentle piano and a strummed guitar. He also employs a Moog synthesizer, creating a wah-wah sound that fits with the lyrics that speak of escaping reality. And the words are wonderfully pleasant and contain many key phrases that depict a happiness attained later in life that may actually be the manifestation of the dreams of youth. First he lets you know that he likes to check out: “reality, it’s not for me and it makes me laugh”. Then, as he reminisces about “Patti Page and summer days on old Cape Cod”, he realizes he may actually have found his “turned-back world with a local girl in a smaller town”. The payoff comes after a rather awkward bridge which has always been my only beef with the song. After the Beach Boys’ voices drift off into the ether, Bruce’s lead reappears to take us home: “All my life I’ve spent the nights with dreams of you…it’d be a peaceful life with a forever wife and a kid someday”. I mean, the song is gorgeous. It’s been covered many times by the likes of Cass Elliot, Art Garfunkel, Doris Day, Jack Jones, Captain and Tennille and Bruce himself on his 1977 solo album, “Going Public”. In 1975, Barry Manilow would take Bruce’s “I Write the Songs” to the top of the charts and earn Bruce a Grammy award but I will always love Bruce Johnston for “Disney Girls (1957)”.

2. “Our Sweet Love” (1970 – from “Sunflower”) — In researching this essay, I stumbled on an astounding fact: there is next to nothing to read on the internet or in my Beach Boy books about the song “Our Sweet Love”. Therefore, this may be the greatest Beach Boys song no one’s ever heard. We are talking “Sunflower” again here; a nondescript album in the canon with nothing remarkable to recommend it. The Beach Boys are on the outs with most everybody and Brian Wilson has virtually abandoned the creative process. Carl Wilson has stepped to the fore and displays great acumen in the recording studio. “Our Sweet Love” was buried on side 2 of the record and it was written by Carl with Brian and contributions from Al Jardine; it may be the only song recorded by the Beach Boys written by those three. The song begins with dreamy guitar and strings and Carl’s angelic voice. It is subdued and prayer-like: “honey, it’s heaven”. At the 1:08 mark, it floats off on Carl’s “sweet love, sweet love…”. It is optimistic and absolutely gorgeous. Listen closely for the sleigh bells at the very end.

1. “I Can Hear Music” (1969 – from “20/20”) — If there is a creation of Carl’s in this era more sublime than “Our Sweet Love”, it is only his “I Can Hear Music”. Written by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it was originally released by the Ronettes in 1966. When you consider that this song is thought to be Carl’s first attempt at taking over for his brother, Brian, and controlling a session, the result is remarkable. The song begins with a wash of divine vocal sound and strummed guitar. Sleigh bells are present throughout. Carl’s lead is on point; as we’ve said earlier this was probably the era in which he sounded best. And I think we’d all have to agree that Carl Wilson possessed the finest voice in this vocal group comprised of fine voices. Indeed, in any of the few times the Beach Boys were enlisted to provide back-ups on the songs of others it is Carl that is dominant. If Carl’s voice was the closest to perfection, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that he would be the one (after Brian, natch) to most ably arrange the Beach Boys’ voices in a way that would showcase them in their finest light and this is the case with “I Can Hear Music”. The a cappella break in this song is beyond description. It’s another example – one of the top two or three – of the segments you play for the uninitiated to back up your claim that they were the best vocal group ever. And Carl’s “ohhhhh…” that brings them back to the chorus is pristine. I like what Kent Crowley says of “I Can Hear Music” in his book on Carl: “Brian’s only involvement in the song was to be astonished when he heard it”. This production of Carl’s was a landmark in this era as it showed the others in the group and the record industry at large that Carl – at 22 years old – was able to take over the musical direction of the Beach Boys. This included not only producing wonderful records in the studio but also the ability to reproduce their sound in a live performance.

Next Up… 1974-1992: The Beach Boys break new ground again, ascend to the heights and embed themselves into the fabric of history…

 

 

 

 

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Winter Movie Review: “North to Alaska”

This may be news to you but “winter” is a genre of film and I’ve made a good case to support this (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/your-guide-to-winter-movies/). Here’s a review of another favourite winter movie.

“North to Alaska” (1960) 

Starring John Wayne, Stewart Granger, Capucine, Ernie Kovacs, Fabian and Mickey Shaughnessey. Directed by Henry Hathaway. From 20th-Century Fox

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Alaska had recently become the 50th state and that figured prominently in the advertising.

In Nome at the turn of the last century, Sam McCord and George Pratt are partners who have just struck it rich. Now George can send for his beloved Jenny. George sends Sam to Seattle to get her and Sam finds her but she has forgotten about George and has married someone else. Before Sam heads back to Alaska to give George the bad news, he runs into “Angel”, a working girl at the Hen House. Angel is pretty and French – just like Jenny – so Sam decides to bring her back for George. However Cupid, as he often does, has other ideas. Throw in a scheming sharpie casino owner, some claim-jumping varmints and a few outrageous brawls and you’ve got an entertaining and colourful yarn.

Right off the top I have to admit that there is no snow to be seen in “North to Alaska” so it has become a winter movie somewhat by default – it takes place in Alaska. Like other winter movies that do feature snow, though, it’s the charm of the places these people spend their time that give it a winter feeling. The cabins and the shacks, the fires and just the comfortable places that people can make for themselves amongst the uncomfortable terrain. Scenic locations Point Mugu and Mammoth Mountain in California stand in for Alaska and make for some pretty scenery. The muddy main street of town adds a lot to the realism and the film in general has a great ‘look’.

“North to Alaska” is a comedy. I still think it’s a little hard to believe that Wayne did full-on comedies but he did and he did them well. The comedy in this film is quite broad; maybe too broad. This can mostly be seen in the brawls – they are outlandish, over-the-top and played for laughs. I call this the “”McLintock!” Factor”; that film of Wayne’s also features an elaborate fight. Thing is, “North to Alaska” came out 3 years before both “McLintock!” and “Donovan’s Reef”, films that both feature comedic fights. So, I guess it’s the “Alaska Factor”.

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Fabian, Wayne and Granger engage in the original “muddy brawl” while Capucine looks on. Wayne’s face here displays his natural charismatic personality.

There are some things that are charming about this broad comedy, though. The acting, for one. It is really quite good. I was particularly impressed with Capucine as Michelle/Angel. She had most of the heavy lifting where character evolution is concerned and she pulls it off nicely. As I’ve said, Wayne is very watchable in a comedic role – “Timberrr!!” – and Fabian may overact a bit but he is playing a wide-eyed 17-year-old. Stewart Granger has much charisma but his accent seems too refined for the role.

The other thing that stands out is the plot point of “Angel” being transformed from prostitute back to “Michelle”; she is a woman who wants to make herself a new life. Sam is taken with her immediately and he helps to legitimize Michelle. It is a really endearing part of this screenplay. You’ll notice when Sam takes Michelle to meet his Swedish friends, they are right away disgusted that Sam has brought a ‘hussy’ to their picnic. When he stands up to them and says he is leaving, they come around and welcome Michelle into the festivities. Sam vouches for her and they accept her. Only a few minutes after this, a boat captain remarks that Michelle has been a pleasure to have aboard as she is very “ladylike”. Michelle is legit now. This change is important to her and she wants to make it stick.

The movie is very charming and brimming with zest and character. It’s loads of fun and I can highly recommend it.

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 5

I have a family friend, a lady who was a teenager during Elvis Presley’s ascendancy in the late ’50’s-early ’60’s. She knew I was an Elvis guy and would often talk about how much she loved him. She was one of those people of a certain age who claim Elvis as their own and say things like “I have all his records”. I always have a feeling with people like this that they love Elvis the Superstar, Elvis the Icon. They collect the cheesiest Elvis artifacts and souvenirs. In a way, it’s similar to the way Britons loved American blues and rhythm and blues in the 1960’s perhaps even more than Americans did. The thinking being that – in the UK – they were observing things from a distance and therefore could see the glory in the music that much better. People born in the same era as Elvis – people that grew up with him – definitely see him in a different way and love him for different reasons. Those of us born, say, in the early 1970’s perhaps look at him from a more historical standpoint. Our generation is maybe more apt to dig beneath the surface and to study a performer like Elvis Presley the same way we might research the Vietnam war – digging in and wanting to know the origins and the significance. Those of us who begin to grasp the importance of the King do the research, look into all his recordings from all the eras and collect it all because we want to know it all. Back to my family friend and her generation. When the 45s came out in the ’50’s, they bought them – they bought them all until they themselves got married and had kids and life took over. Therefore, they say “I have all his records” when really they’ve never even heard 80% of what he recorded. And they don’t look at Elvis or GRASP him in the same way. A perfect example is the time when this lady family friend brought me her Elvis cassette. She said I would appreciate it and I could have it. I looked at it and actually it was interesting. It was his “Gold Records Vol. 4” album. Cool, I’m thinking, that’s different. I open it and take the cassette out. Oddly, the songs listed on the tape are “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” and others from that era. This was not the same album the cover showed! I looked at the tape more closely: “As Sung By Ronnie McDowell”, it said. I was dumbfounded. I carried on with my thank you’s but I was floored. It got me thinking: this woman was there when it was happening. She should be a bigger fan than me. Yet one of her prized possessions was an album of songs sung NOT by Elvis but by the world’s premier Elvis sound-alike. But here’s the thing: she was happy. She loved Elvis. He made her feel good. He was a part of her fondest memories of life. I thought she was crazy but she got just as much out of Elvis as I – the ‘Elvis scholar’ – did. And that’s The Thing About the King. People LOVE him. The people that think Ronnie McDowell is Elvis and have never heard “Just Pretend” and wear the airbrushed jackets and t-shirts from the flea market with Elvis riding on the clouds or something, they love him. And the people that research his time spent at Crown Electric or dig into his relationship with his step-brothers or try to figure out if Toby Kwimper is really the predecessor of Forrest Gump, they love him, too. Us scholars may scoff at these older fans but, look at them, they’re happy. They love Elvis, too. The only thing I would say, though, is those people could be so much happier if they really dug in to Elvis World. They love the tip of the iceberg. I think the other 80% would be exciting for them to learn about, too.

And that goes for music fans in general. I don’t know if any iconic superstar suffers more from being not fully understood than Elvis Presley. The image, as the man himself once said, is one thing. The man is another. People that reject the suggestion that Elvis may be more significant than Bruce Springsteen don’t really know the whole story. It’s a shame to think that the coming generation sees Elvis only as the black and white rebel with the curled lip, or the Hollywood victim being neutered by endless ‘playful romp’ films or the bombastic jump-suited ’70’s prince from another planet. They may love “Don’t Be Cruel” and that’s great. But if you want a real treat, look into Elvis Presley. Dig a bit deeper. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did. His is essentially a sad story but it’s riveting.

Wow. Sorry. I don’t think I intended to get so deep. After all, we’re here to celebrate the 83rd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley by trying to figure out what his best songs are. We’ve been through the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s and also looked at the movie music. And don’t forget; he also recorded some stellar Christmas music and some truly stirring gospel, the music he maybe connected with most. I need to thank you all for reading these posts. It’s fun for me to write them but it’s always better when someone reads them. I hope I’ve made some sense – I don’t always! In the end, these posts were read by over 600 people in 23 countries; “Elvis World”, indeed! Once again, thank you. Thank you very much.

Finally, I’ve submitted for your approval The Ten Greatest Recordings of Elvis Presley. Let the debating – and the listening – begin!

10. “What a Wonderful Life” (1961) — Movie song from “Follow That Dream”. The lyrics reflect the freedom depicted in the movies.

9. “Separate Ways” (1972) — The saddest song I ever heard. An absolutely heartbreaking commentary on the break-up of Elvis and Priscilla written by Red West.

8. “I Got Lucky” (1961) — A sublime pop vocal. Like a personal family heirloom to me. A cherished gem.

7. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — The King struts through this balls-out rocker recorded back home in Memphis.

6. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — A stunning, savage vocal on the greatest Christmas rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded.

5. “Burning Love” (1972) — Polished sound. Ringing guitar. Full-throttle, crowd-pleasing iconic rocker.

4. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of his two or three best vocal performances ever. Fan favourite and the title track from one of his two or three best movies ever.

3. “Promised Land” (1973) — Maybe the single most energetic song I’ve ever heard. And probably the coolest. An absolute freight train.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — Probably my favourite Elvis song. A thrilling late-’60’s rock ‘n’ roll song from maybe his greatest soundtrack. Just a delight to listen to – and sing along to.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — And here we are. The King’s “masterpiece”. A shining moment from some unbelievable sessions and the second-most significant set of recording dates of his career. Of history, maybe. The most confident, assured and vibrant rock vocals you could ever ask to hear.

I can’t thank you enough for reading. I’ve had a blast sharing my thoughts with you. Happy Birthday, EP! And thanks.

Me and My Man

**the image used in this post I actually own!**