The other day, I was on YouTube watching a documentary on soul music. It ended and the auto play took me right into another documentary. This one was about the TV show “Soul Train”. Now, it was time for bed when this second doc started but I couldn’t turn it off and ended up staying up all hours and watching the whole thing. It was very educational.
I realized that I didn’t know much about the show and even less about the show’s creator and first host, Don Cornelius. A small time broadcaster who had once worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cornelius was working at a small television station in Chicago when he realized that there was virtually no programming geared towards black youths. He decided to create a “black ‘American Bandstand'” and came up with “Soul Train”. Interestingly, his bosses at the station were skeptical about this endeavour and – in a seemingly throwaway gesture – GAVE the show to Cornelius; they made him the owner of it as if to wash their hands of what they thought would be a failure.
He conceived of a show that would combine live music with a house party-type atmosphere. The program launched in 1971 and for the first episode, Don brought in Jerry Butler among others and filled the claustrophobic studio with kids and told them to dance. From this humble, makeshift beginning grew a cultural touchstone and a legendary program that lasted 35 years.
The show moved to Los Angeles – as all shows must – and eventually was picked up by numerous stations all over America making Don Cornelius the first black man to be in charge of his own nationally syndicated television show. He himself became famous as the deep-voiced and superbly dressed host. Over time, guests included every single notable black artist of the era: from Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Isaac Hayes to Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kirk Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, Anthony Hamilton and John Legend. Eventually, white artists began appearing. Some appropriately: Hall & Oates, Michael Bolton, Black Eyed Peas. Some inexplicably: Cheech and Chong, Duran Duran, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys.
Through the years, imitators arose. One interesting one came from Dick Clark, who’s “American Bandstand” “Soul Train” was a version of. In 1973, Dick Clark Productions came up with “Soul Unlimited” which in turn was a knock-off of “Soul Train”. Cornelius was outraged by what he considered Clark’s attempt to “undermine TV’s only black-owned show”. With the help of old friend Jesse Jackson, Cornelius was able to get ABC to agree to cancel “Soul Unlimited” – which apparently had racial overtones – after only a few episodes. Cornelius and Clark reconciled to the extent that years later they worked together on TV specials that featured R&B and soul music. Interestingly, Don Cornelius and Dick Clark share initials and their company logos are very similar.
One popular aspect of the show drew attention to the group of kids who danced on the program every week. The “Soul Train Line” was a variant of the ’50’s “The Stroll” whereby kids would group on either side of an open space – the “line” – and watch as couples danced their way to the end. The idea here was to stand out with sometimes athletic and sometimes outrageous dance moves and audacious attire. These anonymous dancers began to enjoy a certain fame of their own. Indeed, some parlayed this exposure into careers outside of the show. Those who were featured dancing on “Soul Train” include Rosie Perez, Carmen Electra, Nick Cannon, MC Hammer and Fred Berry who would go on to play “Rerun” on “What’s Happening!!”. Several of these “anonymous kids” are also credited with creating some legendary dance moves that they first performed on the show. “The Robot” and “The Moonwalk” were both created by “Soul Train” dancers and taken to a worldwide audience by Michael Jackson. Cornelius even branched out into artist management when he chose Jody Watley and two other kids among the dancers to become the R&B group Shalamar.
Don Cornelius was a conservative person and the main goal of his show was to showcase black youth in a positive light. So with the advent of hip-hop and rap in the early 1980’s, Don was faced with a conundrum. He was vocal about his concerns that this tough, urban music with it’s sometimes violent and certainly aggressive lyrics was depicting these young people negatively. He did not hide the fact that this was music that he could not contemplate. Don even said to Kurtis Blow – on the air – that he didn’t understand what Kurtis had just performed. Kurtis has said that he was crushed by this. Don also was concerned by the antics of acts like Public Enemy and all of this lead to him stepping down as the host of “Soul Train” in 1993 after 22 years. He was succeeded by Shemar Moore, among others. The departure of Don as host – he continued to run the show – coupled with Don’s unwillingness to embrace the burgeoning hip hop culture lead to the show ceasing production in March of 2006.
Cornelius had undergone a brain operation 1982. The 21-hour procedure was intended to correct a congenital deformity in his cerebral arteries. Don had said that after this operation he was never quite the same. For 15 years afterwards, unbeknownst to most, Don suffered seizures and extreme pain. Finally, in early 2012, Cornelius said to his son “I don’t know how much longer I can take this”. On the morning of February 1st of that year, Don Cornelius took his own life with a gunshot wound to the head. It was a sad end for this legendary figure in black entertainment.
I find it extremely difficult to accurately describe the enormous impact this show had on the music business. But more than that, “Soul Train” spoke to basically two generations of black America. Finally, here was a program that was made by blacks for blacks. Here was a show that African American youths were influenced by and inspired by. They saw the basic and obvious things like music acts they loved and their parents loved, singers who sang music they could relate to. And they saw the kids who danced on the show and in them recognized their own friends and themselves. Those dancers set fashion trends and kids became aware of what was hip to wear from watching “Soul Train”. And they saw the heavier and more profound things like artists who had risen from nothing to be stars. They saw that kids like themselves could dance on TV and have a moment in the spotlight that could spur them on to bigger things. And they saw Don Cornelius. A handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken, erudite, hip, classy, savvy black man who was in complete control of his own national television show. It must have been truly inspiring to see that it could be done.
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!
The Beach Boys broke new ground in 1974. They ventured into a new stratum that pleased the masses no end. But for the group itself, it must’ve felt like something of a denouement. By the early ’70’s, the Beach Boys had fallen out of favour with the record buying public. 1973’s “Holland” peaked Stateside at #36 with it’s highest charting single, “Sail On, Sailor”, reaching #79. Prior to that, “Carl and the Passions – So Tough” had confused the public and stalled at #50 with “Marcella” performing poorly as a single, peaking at #110. The Boys were under a new record deal with Warner Brothers who apparently had so little confidence in “So Tough” that it was initially released as a set with “Pet Sounds”. Their stock in the industry was at an all-time low. There are many factors that contributed to the state the Beach Boys found themselves in at this point.
Then in 1973 George Lucas released his seminal coming-of-age film, “American Graffiti”, which I touched on in Part One. Lucas’ ode to his teenage years contained wall-to-wall music – the first film to do so – as 1963 was depicted as not only the golden age of youth but also as an era when pop music was every kid’s friend and the radio was a constant companion. It is telling that Lucas chose Beach Boys songs as part of this tableau. It is even more significant that he chose the melancholy “All Summer Long” to play over the closing credits as a bittersweet coda to the pleasures and simplicity of youth. Lucas’ film was the original sleeper hit, the soundtrack was landmark in it’s conception and rock ‘n’ roll of this golden era was embraced again. That’s when Capitol Records stepped in.
When the venerable record company thought that Brian had misstepped with “Pet Sounds”, it’s reaction was to celebrate the past by releasing the first Beach Boys compilation, “The Best of the Beach Boys”. Then when Brian announced he was shelving “SMiLE”, Capitol looked back again and issued a “Volume 2”. When 1968’s “Friends” album sold poorly, Capitol again mined the vault and released “Volume 3”. And again in 1974, when perhaps Capitol figured that the Beach Boys’ best days were behind them and also wanting to capitalize on the spotlight George Lucas had just shone on them, they looked to the past again. They gathered up 20 Beach Boys favourites and issued a double LP in the summer of ’74. “Endless Summer” seemed to confirm Lucas’ assertion that the Beach Boys belonged in a past era. It seems that every time the band tried to step outside the box and take a contemporary direction with their music, if it didn’t catch like wildfire, Capitol dusted off the oldies.
“Endless Summer” became one of the most pivotal albums in the band’s career. It came at a low ebb for the band’s record sales, chart success and group unity. The compilation sold three million copies and performed incredibly well on the charts peaking at #1 (only their second US#1 album) and spending 155 weeks on the charts. That’s basically three years. And consider this: the next 3 “Beach Boys” albums released in the following 2 years were greatest hits packages. So, how did the group feel about this? Remember this is a band comprised of men who are only in their late 20’s and early 30’s. Men who still had new music in them, men who were still writing new songs and still had something to say.
Mike Love was over the moon. He was vindicated. Not being able to write by himself and not having Brian around to write with, Mike was more than happy to strut around the concert stage in one of his 10,000 hats singing “Fun, Fun, Fun” while the crowd cheered and sang along. But for Carl and Dennis, for example, they were just beginning to have their own music heard. They were just beginning to drag the band – and themselves – out from Brian’s shadow and cut a trail of their own. What? Were they just supposed to give all that up and become an “oldies act”?
I’ve mentioned Kent Crowley’s biography of Carl, “Long Promised Road”. I think the best thing I got from that book, the thing I hadn’t really considered in 30+ years of loving the Beach Boys, is that they were the very first “oldies act”. Because of the enormous success their back catalogue was experiencing, they became a hot concert draw again. And when the kids bought tickets for the show, do you think they were pumped to hear the tracks from the latest album? Or were they anticipating a wonderful trip back in time to the summer of ’63? You guessed it. The crowds that now flocked to their shows were maybe even unaware that the Beach Boys had even released “Holland”, a pretty good album. All they wanted was “I Get Around”. Funny when you think that the “oldies circuit” is such a huge thing nowadays and has been for awhile. So many bands that haven’t released new material in years can tour non-stop, hitting all the casinos and state fairs they can handle. And even if these bands have released a new album, nobody in the crowd wants to hear those new songs. Here again the Beach Boys were the innovators. Although this time it wasn’t exactly in a good way.
The Beach Boys were, though, for better or for worse, a much more visible act now. However, there was still one thing missing. Or one person. After issuing four albums of old material in two years, the band figured maybe it was time for some new music. Maybe Brian Wilson could be coaxed out of ‘retirement’. The “Brian’s Back” campaign included a song of the same name and a comedy sketch on “Saturday Night Live” which featured Brian getting dragged out of bed by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi dressed as cops and forced to go surfing. Something short of comedy, I don’t think I ever felt sorrier for Brian than I did when I first watched the sketch. The “Brian’s Back” campaign – which has been described as “arguably exploitative” – culminated in the first album of new material in three years, “15 Big Ones”. Brian had been coerced again, this time to the studio, where he created a very good album comprised mostly of oldies and featuring the hit single, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” (#5).
Brian was indeed back for the next album released a year after “15 Big Ones”. “The Beach Boys Love You” was originally supposed to be a Brian Wilson solo album but the rest of the band sent up a familiar cry: “what about us?”. Brian basically wrote and performed the entire album himself. So, here’s two consecutive, well made albums created by a man who’s mental and physical health is greatly deteriorated. As I’ve said before; Brian Wilson’s B-game was yards better than many other artists’ A-game.
The “comeback” was short-lived and record companies were looking at the Beach Boys askance now. Whenever the band needed a new contract, the label always specified that Brian must be involved. It always amazes me when I read that the guys would be in negotiations with a prospective label. The execs would sometimes specify an exact percentage of work that had to come from Brian. The guys would assure the label that Brian would be involved – even though they knew that Brian was flat on his back, 300 pounds and in another land. The group also began now to really fight with each other. Like, fist fight. The late 1970’s and early ’80’s saw them persevere and release albums, some OK, some terrible. Carl, Dennis and Mike Love all released solo albums, Dennis surprising many by releasing the extraordinary “Pacific Ocean Blue”. By the time Dennis passed away in 1983, the group had all but abandoned the idea of making new music. They would release only four more albums in the next 30 years; the ambitious “The Beach Boys” in 1985, the pointless “Still Cruisin'” in ’89, the horrific “Summer in Paradise” in 1992 and the polished “Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys” record “That’s Why God Made the Radio” in 2012, which was made only because it was to mark their 50th anniversary.
How to sum up the Beach Boys from a musical standpoint? I guess, maybe, it’s not as hard as I think. It comes down to Brian Wilson. It really does. As a young adult, he had music in him and it flowed out of him. Unfortunately, he suffered from an undiagnosed or an improperly diagnosed mental condition that eventually made it impossible for him to function, not just as a composer and producer but also as a human being. He made beautiful music – music that literally affected history – while the circumstances permitted. And then when circumstances changed, he couldn’t. The band that was left was loaded with talent but Brian’s departure combined with the changing musical landscape of the late 1960’s made them incapable of carrying on successfully. Add to this the fact that the industry and the public had a certain perception of the group – and their name was “The Beach Boys”, after all – and it was nearly impossible for them to produce anything other than what was expected of them.
The Beach Boys were the first band in history for which it became commercially and financially viable to live on what they had done in the past. After 1974, they continued to release new material sporadically but it simply didn’t matter. The fans wanted the oldies. They still made some good music and even had some hits. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Getcha Back” were moderate successes and 1988’s “Kokomo”, from the soundtrack to the film “Cocktail”, became the Beach Boys’ biggest selling single and their fourth #1 song. With it’s theme of fun in the sun, though, it further cemented the Beach Boys’ rep as purveyors of sunshine. I have not included any tunes from “That’s Why God Made the Radio” in this list of the best songs of this era, although the “second side” is excellent. Thing is, that record can almost be considered a “Brian Wilson” album. The album is good as a whole; the last couple of tracks are particularly striking and serve as a fitting coda for The Beach Boys. “Summer’s Gone”, indeed. Anyways, here’s some really hidden gems, some great songs they released that no one ever heard. Consider that 6 of these 10 songs are from 2 albums which illustrates the fact that good songs from the Beach Boys in this era were few and far between. And I’ve kind of abandoned the “hidden gems” idea for this era – they were all hidden at this time. The Beach Boys themselves were hidden at this time. Anyways…
10. “Strange Things Happen” (1992 – from “Summer in Paradise”) — The success of “Kokomo” was a vindication for Mike Love. See? All the public wants from us is ‘fun in the sun’. Don’t f#$% with the ‘formula’. This resurgence encouraged him to drag the Beach Boys back into the studio to record this atrocity. It is a soulless, plastic-sounding album that is the only one in the Beach Boys catalogue to feature zero contributions from Brian. The album is all Mike and producer Terry Melcher and is an adult travelogue of tropical episodes. Thing is, I like some of the record. See, I love a wide range of musical styles because I listen with my imagination. If I “get something” from a song or if it takes me to a certain time or place then it’s OK with me, even though I may realize it’s terrible. This is exactly how I feel about “Summer in Paradise”. There are several vomit-inducing moments but there are a few delightful ones. “Lahaina Aloha”, especially Carl’s voice on the chorus, “Island Fever” and “Strange Things Happen”. Written by Mike and Terry, “Strange Things Happen” stands out partly because the lyric actually does not specifically refer to ‘fun in the sun’. If it was recorded by anybody else on any other album and with organic instrumentation you’d be able to herald this track without the asterisk. It’s hard to highlight individual musician performances here because there really aren’t any – the album was basically made with a computer. Mike delivers an OK vocal with his suspiciously auto-tuned-sounding ’90’s voice but Al Jardine particularly shines when he comes in for the chorus: “Every time I touch my baby…”. The fact that the song is relevantly long seems to add to it’s quality. It’s pretty good and I thought I needed to include a track from this album as, like I say, I do ‘get something’ from it.
9. “Mona” (1977 – from “The Beach Boys Love You”) — “Love You” followed on the heels of the successful “15 Big Ones” the year previous. The whole “Brian’s Back” campaign – while perhaps premature – was still trending throughout the industry and with the record buying public. Brian really took the reins with “Love You”, basically making the record himself. I sound like a broken record but I can’t stress enough how amazing I think it is that, although his life was in tatters, his mind ravaged by mental illness, he still was able to make music better than most artists in the business. “Mona” is a fun song and a favourite of mine from the album. The track – written by Brian – jumps out of the gates with the Moog synthesizer sound that permeates the album. Dennis takes the lead and moves through descending chord changes singing the praises of Mona using the childhood lingo and playful banter Brian favoured all his life: “…won’t it, won’t it, won’t it be groovy…can’tcha can’tcha can’tch just hear it, rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll music…” Of course the payoff – especially for Beach Boys fans well aware of Brian’s feelings towards Phil Spector – comes at the end: “Come on, listen to “Da Doo Ron Ron” now. Listen to “Be My Baby”. I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector”. Perhaps he’s not using two dozen musicians, but Brian does employ a Spector-ish “wall of sound” production technique on this record and this track in particular. Perhaps 40 years later, the wall-to-wall Moog of this album gives it a bit of a synthetic feeling which may make it polarizing for fans; they either love it or hate it. But this is a fun track for all that is going on in it.
8. “Lady Lynda” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — Here’s an album I’d like to devote a post to. On the surface, it is strangely wrong, from the odd name of the album to the instrumentation to the “10-minute disco version”. I stumbled on this record fairly early in my exploration of the Beach Boys’ music on cassette at a second hand store. I was captivated from the start. The album could use some trimming; it would’ve made a great EP. There are tracks so embarrassing, ridiculous and pointless that the entire affair can be disregarded as a nadir. However, there are songs on this album that are truly transporting; they take you away to a wonderful place. It’s an adult place. A place of leisure but of longing. A gentle, dreamlike land. You like to sail but you don’t get out as much as you’d like. Mostly you sit on the boat as it gently bobs at it’s mooring in the harbour in south Florida (the album was recorded in Miami). You exchange pleasantries with the nieghbouring boats anchored close on either side of yours but mostly you keep to yourself. Your loved one is far enough away that you aren’t together as much or as often as you’d like to be. Things are in the works to bring you closer together but for now it’s mostly waiting, anticipating, yearning. Then there are the times when you are together and those times are pure bliss. It’s night. Dark, warm, quiet. This to me is what my edited version of “L.A. (Light Album)” is all about . “Lady Lynda” staggered me when I first heard it. Then I found out that Bach had a hand in it but I was still impressed. I feel it is the finest contribution Al Jardine made to the Beach Boys. Indeed, it is the only truly great contribution he made. It was released as a single and hit #6 in the UK and #39 on the adult contemporary chart Stateside. It features lovely harpsichord and Al and Dennis collaborated on the excellent string arrangement. The gorgeous background vocals are especially notable at the 2:30 mark when the song goes up a key. The payoff, though, is the last minute-and-change. Mike starts things off with “come along with me…” and then the group voices fly off into that celestial place where only the Beach Boys can go. It’s a transcendent final 60 seconds. “Darling, you know you make my heart sing…darling, your love is like the breath of spring”.
7. “Angel Come Home” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — When it was released, “L.A. (Light Album)” was cruelly described by noted rock critic Dave Marsh thusly: “(The album) is worse than awful. It is irrelevant”. I’ll concede that it is greatly inaccessible and hard to understand. But to dismiss it is to miss out on some great music from Carl and Dennis Wilson. Of the ten songs on the record, Carl and Dennis had a hand in writing and singing lead on all the tracks but two; Al and Mike contributed a song each. (Carl and Dennis are therefore responsible for 6 of the 7 good songs on the album) Both Wilson brothers wrote with American lyricist Geoffrey Cushing-Murray and Dennis contributed two songs from his second solo album that was never released. I say “contributed” but as I noted before if the band needed material – and they often did at this point – than your solo record or your side projects took a backseat. “Angel Come Home” was written by Carl and Cushing-Murray and given to Dennis to sing. The song inches out of the gates with keyboards and Carl’s “oooh” backgrounds. Dennis’ hoarse whisper appears accompanied by prominent snare. The interaction of Dennis’ lead and Carl’s back-ups; the juxtaposition of the harsh and the smooth. Their interplay particularly on the chorus is perfect. “Angel Come Home” contains that quiet, benign beauty that I described earlier and it is definitive of the character of this album.
6. “Love Surrounds Me” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — “Love Surrounds Me” is a companion piece to “Angel Come Home” and the former follows the latter on Side One. Here’s Dennis again singing a lyric by Geoffrey Cushing-Murray although this time it’s Dennis’ composition. The song was slated for release on Dennis’ unfinished “Bambu” album which fell apart due to financial shortcomings and the need for all Beach Boys hands to be at the pumps. “L.A. (Light Album)” (gosh, I hate typing that) is the prime example of the depths to which the Beach Boys had fallen in the late 1970’s. Record labels were insisting that Brian Wilson be apart of any Beach Boys product as a condition of the contracts and the band kept promising his participation. I can only assume that those around Brian at the time considered him simply eccentric and to be playing games to avoid making music. It was not generally known or even conjectured that Brian might actually have serious psychological issues. Carl and Dennis completed two of Brian’s older songs for inclusion; “Good Timin'” actually became a Top 40 single and “Shortenin’ Bread”…did not, let’s just say. The band also reached out to former member Bruce Johnston and to the producer of the band Chicago James William Guercio for help completing this record. “Love Surrounds Me” begins even more quietly than “Angel Come Home” and never builds to much more than a velvety stroll. Highlights include crisp instrumentation, strong drum work and Carl again who, at about the 1:50 mark, sings incredibly high for a 33-year-old man before the song drops back to earth with a two note synth lick. Again, this song displays well the mood of the entire record; modern yet somehow distant from anything else coming out at the time. And stealthy. Moving like dark, black molasses. It’s night, this song.
5. “Goin’ On” (1980 – from “Keepin’ the Summer Alive”) — For the follow-up to the admittedly bizarre “L.A. (Light Album)”, the Beach Boys returned to more familiar territory – right down to the title of the record. This album was produdced by Bruce Johnston although he had not officially returned to the band as a member yet. The album also features many appearances by Mike Love and not one appearance by Dennis Wilson. That speaks volumes. Indeed, this is the last Beach Boys album that was released during Dennis’ lifetime as he would drown in 1983. To me, “Keepin’ the Summer Alive” is a funny record (not ‘funny ha-ha’) that comes off as sort of an enigma. Along with 1978’s “MIU Album” (another ridiculous title), this Beach Boys 1980 offering just seems to exist. It was a bad era for the band; they were in disarray. Brian was not really focused on making commercial music, which label execs kept insisting on. Their label, CBS, was treating the band as suspect. Therefore, Bruce was back on hand helping out, the album title contained the word “summer” and there were several songs written by that old tandem of “B. Wilson/M. Love”. And yet it’s just sort of there. I know. Great review, eh? There are a couple of good tracks. Carl throws us all a curve by writing a couple with Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman. But the only song that really sparkles is “Goin’ On”. It’s 1980. The boys are in their mid-to-late 30’s. But on this track, their vocal artistry transcends all the vagaries of age and – in Brian’s case – the limitations inflicted by years of cigarette smoking. Right out of the gates, the wash of voices here are pitch perfect and a joy to hear. Mike, Carl and Brian share the lead and all sound great. Mike takes the verse with Brian contributing “do doo doo”‘s. Carl shines with his part: “I love you, I miss you…”. But the voices blending on the “Ooo ooo ooo ooo ooo goin’ on!” is spectacular. With a sax solo and a key change the song scales the heights. A lot of these hidden gems I can understand falling though the cracks. But with “Goin’ On” I have to say – this song should have been eaten up and it should be played now regularly for the public at large. It would go a long way to improving general morale.
4. “It’s OK” (1976 – from “15 Big Ones”) — Fun is in. It’s no sin. I found “15 Big Ones” on cassette on a trip I took to New York state when I was a kid. I was so pleased to find a really different album from the Beach Boys catalogue. I was familiar with the lead off track, the hit single “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”, but what really hit me was the second cut, “It’s OK”. “15 Big Ones” was the end result of the whole “Brian’s Back” campaign. I said earlier that, at this point, the band was in a hole so Brian was dragged out of bed to oversee these sessions. Brian envisioned an underproduced album of oldies. Silly Brian. Don’t you know you can’t do what you want with your band? The group resisted this and his proposed title: “Group Therapy”. In the end, though, the album is made up of mostly cover versions from the classic era. Indeed, Chuck Berry’s classic “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” got the Beach Boys stamp and went to #5 on the charts. But there was some originals and some leftovers used to flesh things out. “It’s OK” was written by Brian and Mike and features a good, old fashioned vocal from Mike. His lyrics here are also a good example of what he does best. The short choppy lines are fun and simple. Got to hand it to Mike; he does know how to verbalize the pursuit of ease and simplicity in life: “In the shade lemonade, in the sun ocean spray…good or bad, glad or sad it’s all gonna pass. So, it’s OK let’s all play and enjoy while it lasts”. So much yes. And the vocal arrangement for the ending is vintage Beach Boys. Dennis’ husky “find a ride” with Mike’s “in the sum-sum-summertime” in the back.
3. “Where I Belong” (1985 – from “The Beach Boys”) — You could say that there are two sides to the Beach Boys; the celebration of hedonism, as displayed in “It’s OK”, and the prayer-like beauty of celestial vocal sound. A perfect example of the latter – from any era – is “Where I Belong” from the self-titled album of 1985. This record is really the only properly polished release from the Beach Boys during this section of their career, perhaps aside from “That’s Why God Made the Radio”. But unlike that final CD, which you could say was simply a Brian-helmed ‘heritage’ album celebrating their 50th anniversary, “The Beach Boys” was an earnest attempt to make a contemporary, modern-sounding album that was specifically aimed at the charts and the masses. I shudder to say this but the boys brought in Englishman Steve Levine who had produced Culture Club. Now, I don’t know how you feel but I always say that there are three things that really creep me out: sunken ships, slivers and Culture Club. But, hey, in 1985 Culture Club was big. They were selling a lot of records and placing them on the charts. Levine came in and brought with him some state-of-the-art digital production techniques to help make the Beach Boys sound hip. Really, I’m OK with this. This was an attempt so showcase the band in the best possible light. They could still sing amazingly well, they were pioneers in many ways so it was legitimate to attempt to present their music this way. In good, ol’ Beach Boys fashion, though, here was a record that featured synthesizers, drum machines and a “synthaxe” (?) while at the same time they had also recorded a version of the classic “At the Hop” which didn’t make the final cut. One foot in the past, one in the present. It could easily have been a very popular record. But it wasn’t. A review of the time said that while it wasn’t artistically brilliant it did showcase what were still the finest vocals in all of pop. Carl contributed three songs, two of which – “It’s Gettin’ Late” and “Maybe I Don’t Know” – bear his blue-eyed soul/soft rock stamp. But “Where I Belong” is from another place altogether. Carl’s voice – he is almost 40 years old here – is just as angelic as it has always been. He wisely employed Al Jardine’s voice on this track and it is one of Al’s great contributions. The track is very synthy but it doesn’t matter. When Carl sings “don’t need to search no more exotic islands…” it is…well, there are no words. The Beach Boys have many great songs. They have many songs that are almost unbearably gentle, sweet and nearly perfect. The quiet beauty of “Forever”, the aural feast of the instrumental “Pet Sounds”. But I would say that none are more distinctly overwhelming than “Where I Belong”. I tell you this in all seriousness; you get yourself a pair of headphones and close your eyes. Particularly if you know something of the Beach Boys and the late Carl Wilson, listening to this song will prove to be truly astounding.
2. “Getcha Back” (1985 – from “The Beach Boys”) — Terry Melcher was an interesting guy. The son of Doris Day, he was a producer of note in the 1960’s and also the supposed target of Charles Manson. He appears at different times in the Beach Boys’ story. A lot of fans maybe are not too down with him because of his collusion with Mike Love on “Kokomo” and the “Summer in Paradise” album. He showed up in 1985 to co-write with Mike “Getcha Back”. This has been somewhat of a standout track for me. I first heard this song way back when I bought the compilation “Made in U.S.A.” on cassette. It was intriguing to me because at that point I was not very familiar with much Beach Boys post 1970’s. The song starts out with some “drumming” – machine-made drumming. One reviewer thought it was appropriate that the first Beach Boys album to be released after the death of drummer Dennis started with “drumming”. Except that Dennis played actual drums. Whatever. “Getcha Back” starts out great – it’s a great sound. Mike sounds good doing his patented “bow bow bow-ooo” while the other voices – notably the rehabilitated falsetto sound of Brian Wilson – come soaring in sounding as good as ever, really. Add to that some honking sax. Mike’s done well with the lyrics again. Indeed, the story he tells draws you into the song. It’s kinda sad. “Our song” comes on the radio and the reminiscing starts. Things have gone bad and now we’re apart. Could we ever get it back? Great vocal arrangements by Brian and just generally a classic Beach Boys feel without sounding like parody. “So, if I leave her and you leave him…”. The chord changes sound like longing. “Getcha Back” was accompanied by a music video (lame) and charted at #26 – #2 adult contemporary – and returned a measure of visibility to the Beach Boys. Great song, worthy to stand with the best of their latter-day recordings.
1. “Baby Blue” (1979 – from “L.A. [Light Album]”) — My three favourite movies are, in order, “Blue Hawaii”, “Diner” and “Swingers”. I often say that I make a point of not watching them too often as I never want them to become commonplace. There are a couple of Beach Boys songs about which I feel the same. “Surf’s Up” is one.”Forever” is another. “Baby Blue” is definitely on this short list. I never want to hear it just in passing. I never want it to be playing in the background. When I listen to this song I must have headphones, I must be alone. Part of the appeal of this song is Dennis. Like I said about “Where I Belong”, when you have a connection with the artist, the feeling you get when you listen to their finest work can be heightened. Dennis Wilson is a unique personage in rock history. Some would say that his artistry was never given full reign and that being a part of the Beach Boys – a group that has more or less been purveyors of their past since 1974 – is also a bittersweet part of his story. In this day and age, I figure a talent like his would have been allowed to grow and he wouldn’t have been pigeonholed. Like Brian did with “Pet Sounds” and “SMiLE”, Dennis had something to say with his music, something vastly different than his image. Although his solo album “Pacific Ocean Blue” was indeed well received by the critics and sold in fairly good numbers, he never really received the credit he was due. And instead of being allowed to complete his sophomore effort “Bambu” he had to surrender some songs to the family business. On top of all this you have his destructive lifestyle and his sad final years culminating with his untimely death in the ocean the Beach Boys had praised in song so often. Virile, weathered, handsome Dennis Wilson, substance abusing Dennis whose songs were never fully understood, Dennis who was never properly respected as an artist partly because of his band and partly because his quiet, reverent music didn’t gel with his public image, did indeed produce a song like “Baby Blue”. It is otherworldly. Quiet and gentle, it is dominated by dramatic piano and brother Carl’s subdued vocal. Dennis sings the bridge which transports you to that boat I spoke of earlier: “Late at night when the whole world’s sleeping, I dream of you…” I’ve always felt that Carl and Dennis had a strong respect for their family history of gorgeous vocals and vocal arrangements. It seems that on songs they’ve crafted themselves, they fully utilize the capabilities of the group voices. The vocals in the second half of “Baby Blue” testify to this. This song is night. This song is longing. This song is the sadness of being apart and the bliss of being together. I wrote a short story in my late teens and realized when I was done that every episode in the story was influenced by “Baby Blue”. Every scene took place with “Baby Blue” playing overhead, as a backdrop. Santa Monica State Beach in the middle of the night. Things aren’t working out the best with us but we’re trying and a resolution seems near. Until we get things settled, I wait for you…….”Baby Blue” plays. “Lie alone in bed at night / feel the pull of a lonely day / thoughts like music start to play / I wonder where you were today”. And the fact that it is brought to you by rugged Dennis Wilson who lived a tough life, suffered in his final years and died young, make it all the more exquisite.
Thank you so much for coming along with me, reading and commenting in the Facebook groups. Your participation made writing these all the more enjoyable for me.
I remember the day I bought the “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” boxed set. I was so happy thinking that now I had ALL of the songs Elvis Presley recorded in the 1970’s. Then I read the book that came with the boxed set. Seems that King recorded so many songs in the ’70’s that they wouldn’t fit on one boxed set. This was a real revelation to me and it also excited me. I was excited because now I knew that there was MUCH more Elvis music for me to discover. Even if you only own say, six or seven Elvis albums or compilations, he is the rare type of artist that can keep you interested even if you are only listening to the same 70-80 songs over and over. But learning that there was still some King songs that I could hear for the first time was thrilling.
In time, I collected all of his recordings from the 1970’s and discovered many gorgeous performances. There were times I wondered how a song had flown under the radar all these years: “Pieces of My Life”, “For Ol’ Times Sake”, “If You Talk in Your Sleep”, “It’s Midnight”, “I’m Leavin'” and, y’know what, the list literally goes on. So many fantastic tunes that were new to me. This Top Ten list, however, is made up of songs I grew up with. Maybe a stunning song like “Pieces of My Life” just hasn’t traveled with me as long as, say, “Separate Ways” has. This just proves my point that, while the following ten songs may indeed be his best of the ’70s, you could easily come up with an alternate list that I couldn’t argue with.
It became harder for Elvis to have successful and comfortable recording sessions as he got older and his health failed him but there are still many great recordings from later in his life: “Hurt”, “It’s Only Love”, “Way Down”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, etc. You really should look these songs up to add some variety to your Elvis listening experience. As I’ve said in the two previous posts in this series, I’m focusing on the popular material King recorded through the years. In the ’70’s, Elvis recorded his second Christmas album that features excellent original songs. “I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day” is no less than one of his very best recordings. “Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas” (1971) also features Red’s “Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees” and a stellar arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful”. 1972 saw Elvis release his last and best gospel album, “He Touched Me”. Our boy is in great voice here and the title track and “Reach Out to Jesus” are both moving and magnificent. “Bosom of Abraham” and “I, John” give us the kind of singing Elvis would do for hours ’round the piano with the fellas. Some of you sharp-eyed King fans will look through this list and realize that the bulk of the songs are from 1970’s “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is”, the soundtrack to his concert film of the same name. While this album may be lesser known to casual fans, I think it is his very best LP. His voice is the best it ever was and the material is contemporary, fresh and exciting. It was hard for me to leave any of the songs on this album off this list. Anyways, let’s run down The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs: the ’70’s.
10. “Always on My Mind” (1972) — A chart hit for King in the winter of 1972-73. Significant in Elvis World due to the fact that it was recorded only weeks after Elvis and Priscilla separated. Of course, the lyric speaks of regret, of losing something the value of which you only fully appreciate after the fact. It may or not have been intended to be biographical but the fact remains that this recording is heartbreaking. There is video from the recording session that is interesting to watch as it shows solemnity in the studio as opposed to the usual lighthearted atmosphere of an Elvis session. Sad, sad song co-written by the man who gave us “Suspicious Minds”, Mark James. Willie Nelson did a great version in 1982 that was a huge hit for him. ITV television network in England conducted a poll in 2013 and it resulted in this song being voted Elvis’ best. Interesting. See? SO MANY different songs could qualify as his best.
9. “An American Trilogy” (1973) — The version referred to here is from the “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” concert and album. I taped this concert of off TV when it was broadcast for the tenth anniversary of Elvis’ death in 1987. I don’t have the words, really, except to say that this concert is like an old friend. Or more like part of my family. Literally. This concert represents the last triumph for Elvis Presley. This was the last time he was operating at the peak of his powers and it ended a 4-year run of staggering artistic proportions. There are one or two other moments from this concert I could have picked. “Steamroller Blues”, “What Now, My Love”, “It’s Over”. “An American Trilogy” is notable because it is the perfect example of a ‘showpiece’. Maybe not the final song of a concert but definitely a show stopper midway through a performance. The song itself is stunning and perfectly suited for Elvis in the ’70’s. Written by Mickey Newbury, it is a medley of traditional 19th century songs: “Dixie”, an anthem of the South, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, the marching song of the Union Army during the Civil War and “All My Trials”, a spiritual that traces it’s roots to the West Indies. When you think about it, it is an ‘American’ trilogy: the North and the South are both represented as is the black cultural contribution. Sociology aside, this is a performance of staggering emotional intensity. If you know anything about Presley’s story, it is devastating to see this man sing “all my trials, Lord, will soon be over”. Presley tweaked the original version recorded by Newbury to heighten the intensity. You see him calling to the brass section. You see him looking back at the band as the timpanis begin to roll and you see him gesture to the Stamps to start singing. He comes in and rides the song out to an incredible climax. The note he hits at the end is magnificent.
8. “I Just Can’t Help Believin'” (1970) — The opening track of Elvis Presley’s greatest LP. The “That’s the Way It Is” concert film features this song being rehearsed ahead of a Vegas engagement. We get to see Elvis struggling to remember the words to this lovely song that was written by the legendary team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil that was a Top Ten hit for B.J. Thomas the same year. It’s just a gorgeous recording that showcases Presley in smooth voice.
7. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (1976) — A country and western song written in 1947 and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr. The song reached iconic status in 1975 when Willie Nelson recorded the song for his “Red-Headed Stranger” album. Both the song and the album played a big part in Willie’s ascendancy in the country music world. Elvis recorded it in the den (the ‘Jungle Room’) at Graceland in 1976 and it appeared on his “From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee” album. Here is another example of his melding country and R&B. The song itself is pure country but Elvis’ delivery is a slow groove. The band is tight and keyboardist David Briggs particularly shines. Listen for his left hand running ascending lines and for his sparkling Fender Rhodes fills. And the four notes David and bassist Jerry Scheff play in unison before Elvis sings the title. It is notable as the last song Elvis was ever known to have sung. The day he died, he sat at the piano in the lounge area of his racquetball court and played and sang it. Every time I go to Graceland, I take a long look at that piano.
6. “How the Web Was Woven” (1970) — This song feels like it’s all mine. How does this gorgeous song remain so hidden? Why was it recorded and released on “That’s the Way It Is” and then that’s it? This is a transcendent recording with a passionate delivery from our boy. The song originally came out of England and has an interesting, Beatles-related history. It is a love song with a dark, dramatic theme that Presley nevertheless renders with a delicate touch. It has been called “perfectly pleasant”. Here’s a brief but interesting clip of King rehearsing it. (You may have to turn up the volume)
5. “Separate Ways” (1972) — Red West wrote better songs than many of Elvis’ regular contributors. This song was released as a single in ’72 and was a sort of emotional companion to “Always on My Mind”, which was on the B side – making it one sad 45. Red’s lyrics directly comment on the break up of Elvis and Priscilla. The tune starts with some gentle piano leading to Elvis singing what are literally some of the saddest words ever sung. “All that’s left between us are the memories we shared and times we thought we cared for each other. There’s nothing left to do but go our separate ways and pick up all the pieces left behind us. And maybe someday, somewhere along the way, another love will find us”. It is an absolutely heartrending song that finishes with some piano work that sounds as sad as the lyrics, piano that sounds like a man broken, taking his first steps down the road alone. Piano that sounds like closing credits after a devastating final scene.
4. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (1970) — This is the premier example in Elvis’ canon of him making a song his own. The “That’s the Way It Is” album was one of the first two or three Elvis albums I ever owned. At the time, I was also heavily into “oldies radio” and was very familiar with all the big pop hits of the ’60’s, including Phil Spector’s sparkling Wall of Sound gem, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” by the Righteous Brothers. When I heard Elvis’ version, I was thrown. It didn’t sound anything like the original. But I soon learned that that is what he did – he could put his stamp on anybody’s song and make it unique. (He didn’t always make the song better. Not even the King could improve on Little Richard’s seminal 1950’s recordings) In concert in Las Vegas, he would start this song with his back to the crowd and just a spot on his head. The eruption of the “Baby!!”‘s in this song are thunderous. He bites off the words of the title – “You’ve lost – that – lovin’ – feelin’!” – and breaks down into a stone groove for the bridge – “Baby, baby, I’d get down on my knees for you – if this suit wasn’t too tight!” – and the Sweet Inspirations behind him – “that’s how much I love you, sweet baby”. This is his wheel house. He takes the Righteous Brothers polished gem down into the earth, the soil, and adds heaping helpings of soul and gospel and heart. There are several different live recordings of Elvis’ version of this song out there. He never did it in the studio.
3. “Burning Love” (1972) — This tune is in a very small group of Elvis songs. Along with “Hound Dog”, it may be his most iconic recording. Unfortunately, people often equate “a-hunk a-hunk a-burnin’ love” with the worst of the Elvis Impersonators – sorry: Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs). But, fact is – again, like “Hound Dog” – if you can possibly listen to this song again and try to forget all that you think you know about King, you’ll hear an excellent, high energy, early-’70’s-style rock song. It starts off with some ringing guitar that has become for me an actually spell-binding sound that runs throughout the song. This guitar was played by the author of the song, Dennis Linde. Some pumping piano comes in and we’re off. There seems to be an echo to EP’s vocal that makes for an interesting sound. The song went to #2 and was his last Top Ten hit. Another great song from the fertile year of 1972, reinforcing the idea that 1969-1972 was indeed a stellar period in King’s career.
2. “Stranger in the Crowd” (1970) — And the casual Elvis fans are scratching their heads. Again I say that it is amazing to me that a song like this is so undervalued even in Elvis World. The prime example of what makes the songs from “That’s the Way It Is” so good, this song is captivating mostly because of it’s contemporary, middle-of-the-road pop sound. Yes, King’s wheelhouse, as we’ve seen, is rock ‘n’ roll or more accurately his unique blend of gospel, R&B and country. But I feel like had he pursued this sound further in the early ’70’s it may have lead to another domination of the pop charts and even a run of Grammy Awards. Tune starts off with some great strumming from John Wilkinson and gets in to a nice groove with a really smooth vocal from our boy and a beauty guitar solo from James Burton. And check out Ronnie Tutt on the drums near the end. This tune is just delightful and so terribly unique among Elvis recordings. “Stranger” leaves me feeling good. Here’s a clip of Elvis rehearsing the song. You should listen to the master of the song as it was released, too, as it is, obviously, more polished.
1. “Promised Land” (1975) — “Aw, get on it!” And with that we are off on maybe the most thrilling ride Elvis Presley ever took us on. The song was written in 1964 by Chuck Berry while he was in prison. The lyric is pure Berry. It’s the story of “the poor boy” who starts off in the backwoods and slowly makes his way to ‘the promised land’: the big time, Los Angeles. You can imagine an incarcerated Berry dreaming of the day of his release when he could get back to his career. Once again, in the hands of Elvis Presley, a song goes to another level. Presley’s version is an aggressive, driving, sonic juggernaut. One of my favourite instruments is the clavinet. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” starts off with the very best playing you’ll ever hear of this funky, percussive-sounding keyboard. King employed this instrument throughout the ’70’s and it gets things off to a flying start on “Promised Land”. EP then exclaims “aww, get on it!” and his drummer – the most underrated rock drummer in history – Ronnie Tutt, fires up the Greyhound and propels things down the interstate. Tutt is definitely ‘driving the bus’ on this tune that also features guitarist James Burton putting on a clinic. “Los Angeles gimme Norfolk, Virginia Tidewater four-ten-oh-nine…” Presley’s obviously enjoying himself and it is infectious. Recorded at the famous Stax Studios in Memphis, the song went to #14 on the pop charts. This is one of the 3 or 4 songs you play when you are trying to convince someone that Elvis is “cool”. Gotta hand it to Barry Sonnenfeld, director of “Men in Black”. When the script of that film mentions Elvis and depicts a car going incredible speeds he puts “Promised Land” on the soundtrack. Natch.
Up next: sometimes you really have to dig but there are some great songs in Elvis Movies!
**the images and media used in this post are not mine**
Little Richard Penniman is 84 years old. Recently, I scored his first album, “Here’s Little Richard”, mainly because I had heard so much about this record by the man a lot of people would say was the most dynamic performer of the 1950’s. I looked up some info on the album, as I’ll often do when an artist/album/movie attracts my attention. Reaching #13 on the pop albums chart, it is Little Richard’s highest charting album and it contained two of his biggest hits: “Long Tall Sally” and “Jenny, Jenny”. The lead-off track, “Tutti Frutti”, is a legendary recording that has since landed on many lists of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll recordings of all-time. The album ranks #50 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums and “Tutti Frutti” comes in at #43 on their list of the top 500 songs of all-time. Impressive. So, all this made me want to read up on Little Richard. Or should I say re-read up.
I was 13 or 14 years old when I read the definitive Little Richard biography, “The Quasar of Rock” (30 years later I’m still not sure what the title means). At that time, it was the biggest book I’d ever read. So, all these years later I found myself going over his life story again and I was looking for anything that really stood out that I could maybe build a post around, something I thought you people should know. His is an interesting story, for sure. An admitted gay man, (I was shopping for Little Richard t-shirts and saw one that said “The Real King of Rock ‘n’ Roll is a Gay Black Man from Macon, Georgia”) he was an absolute wild man in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, scoring many hits with songs that are nothing less than definitive of the genre. After several years of hits, he – like Jerry Lee Lewis – became convinced that he had been called into the ministry and (unlike Jerry Lee) Little Richard quit rock ‘n’ roll to be a preacher and release albums of gospel music. After several years of this, he returned to secular music and excelled in live performances but was never again a factor on the charts. He had trouble maintaining record contracts and was embroiled in litigation over monies owed him by his original record label, Specialty Records. All this is pretty common stuff. Where his story gets truly remarkable is when you consider the impact he had on some of the greatest artists ever and on the evolution of many genres of popular music.
In general, his style was influential. He was loud, flamboyant and possessed of a raspy, shouting singing style that was soon to become a hallmark of rock. Two of soul music’s pioneers – Sam Cooke and Otis Redding – stated that Little Richard had contributed greatly to soul’s development. Redding had also spent time in Little Richard’s band. James Brown was quoted as saying that Little Richard and his band, the Upsetters, were the first to inject funk into their rhythm and a biographer added that their music provides a bridge between ’50’s rock and ’60’s funk. Ray Charles said in 1988 that Little Richard was “a man who started a type of music that set the pace for a lot of what’s happening today”. Bo Diddley called him “one of a kind” and said that he influenced so many in the music business. Many of his contemporaries covered his music including Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley. Notably, Presley once told Little Richard publicly that his music had influenced him and that he was “the greatest”. Pat Boone noted that “no one person has been more imitated than Little Richard”. Ike Turner once claimed that most of Tina Turner’s early vocal delivery had been based on Little Richard. In high school, Bob Dylan played Little Richard songs with his band and stated in his year book that his ambition was “to join Little Richard”. In 1966, Jimi Hendrix said “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice” (Jimi also took to emulating Little Richard’s pencil-thin mustache). Bob Seger and John Fogerty were influenced by him, Michael Jackson said that, prior to “Off the Wall”, Little Richard had been a major influence on him and it was often pointed out that Prince adopted a physical appearance that was almost identical to Little Richard’s – right down to the colour purple. It is well known that the Beatles were heavily influenced by him. Paul McCartney idolized him and channeled him when he wrote rockers such as “I’m Down”. Indeed, “Long Tall Sally” was the first song Paul performed in public. Perhaps most significantly, during the Beatles acceptance speech at their Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, George Harrison made it plain when he said “thank you all very much, especially the rock ‘n’ rollers. Little Richard there, if it wasn’t for him…it was all his fault, really”. And when John Lennon first heard “Long Tall Sally” he said he “couldn’t speak”. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were both profoundly influenced by him with Jagger adding that Little Richard was his first introduction to R&B and referring to him as “the originator and my first idol”. David Bowie went even a step further. He called Little Richard his “inspiration” and stated that when he first heard “Tutti Frutti” that he “heard God”. The band Bluesology once opened for Little Richard and the band’s piano player, Reginald Dwight, was inspired to become a rock ‘n’ roll piano player and changed his name to Elton John. As a teenager, Farrokh Bulsara performed covers of Little Richard songs and went on to find fame as Freddie Mercury. Little Richard inspired Lou Reed to “go to wherever that sound was and make a life”. John Bonham, drummer for Led Zeppelin, was fooling around one day emulating the pounding drum intro to Little Richard’s “Keep a-Knockin'”. Jimmy Page jumped in and the iconic “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was born. The late Bon Scott, original front man of AC/DC, idolized Little Richard and aspired to sing like him and guitarist Angus Young decided to take up the guitar after listening to Little Richard. It has also been said that recent performers including Andre 3000 and Bruno Mars have channeled Little Richard in many of their recordings and performances.
And here’s a couple of bonuses for you: in 2010, Time Magazine ranked “Here’s Little Richard” at #2 on it’s list of the most influential albums of all-time, the highest ranking rock album on the list. He was ranked 8th on a Rolling Stone Magazine list of the greatest artists of all-time. That’s huge. I mean, look back at the names listed above. I find it interesting that those who say they owe Little Richard a debt are the most influential and world-shaking artists ever. All the big hitters – Presley, Dylan, the Beatles, etc. – have pointed to Little Richard and have publicly stated their debt to him, that he inspired them, that he made them want to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s crazy that on that list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time everyone supposedly ranked ABOVE Little Richard says they were influenced by him. Every one (except Chuck Berry) have said ‘Little Richard is the man. He started me on the road to where I am now. He’s the greatest’. And yet they’re ranked HIGHER than him. Makes you wonder if Little Richard gets all the respect he obviously deserves. Maybe the real king of rock ‘n’ roll really is a gay black man from Macon, Georgia.
As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Chuck Berry has died at age 90. I was happy to see tributes to him all over the internet because here is a performer that has become a true legend with almost no peer in the history of rock music. As I’ve said before, to fully understand where you’re at at any given point in time, you need to understand and appreciate where things have come from. There may be some degrees of separation, yes, but Chuck Berry is at the heart – at the absolute core – of popular music as we know it today in the 21st century.
To track the origins of “rock ‘n’ roll”, you have to go back to the early 1950’s to records like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Rocket 88”. Then, in 1954, you had Bill Haley and His Comets recording the immortal “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s first record, “That’s All Right, Mama”. In these four instances you had 1) black rhythm and blues groups having success and getting noticed by white high school kids and 2) you had country boys channeling a “black sound” while still exhibiting a southern look (Haley) and/or a decidedly southern sound (Scotty Moore’s guitar). When you add in the gospel flavour of an artist like Ray Charles, you have all the ingredients for what would become known as “rock ‘n’ roll”, the first music that was made specifically for young people. So, here you have the foundation of the music. But let’s consider this: there’s a difference between blending R&B, gospel and country to make rock ‘n’ roll and actually making rock ‘n’ roll. In the spring of 1955, Chuck Berry took the results of the ‘experiment’ that Bill Haley and Elvis Presley had been conducting and added certain key things. The result of the additions he made emerged as nothing less than the blueprint of rock music. In fact, he was the first to combine all of the necessary elements that are essential to rock music. These elements include showmanship, for starters. Chuck played the guitar and the very fact that his instrument was strapped to him allowed him to move around while playing it and therefore engage in the type of showmanship rock ‘n’ roll is known for. Another main element is the guitar itself. Because the guitar was his instrument, he, of course, featured it in his songs, starting most of them off with an energetic ‘riff’ taking both the guitar and the riff to the forefront of this new music. He also established, two years before Buddy Holly, the singer performing songs he himself had written. And then there’s the subject matter of these songs. Something else he was the first to popularize was singing with humour about teen life, often telling a story in his songs. He wisely considered the audience for this new music consisted of kids so he wrote joyful, happy songs about cars, about school, about getting out of school, about getting in your car and going to the local hang out and pumping dimes into the jukebox. He sang about being a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, about taking this music with you as you grew up, got a job and got married. He was like a reporter, reporting on kids’ lives while they were happening. From 1955 into the early 1960’s, Chuck laid the foundation for what rock music would become.
The proof is in the covers. Chuck’s story is told, for the most part, by looking at who covered his music. Suffice it to say that any group of guys who got together and plugged in in the garage were following Chuck Berry’s lead but when you look at the artists that have covered a Chuck Berry song you understand the immensity of his contribution. It’s interesting to note that you cannot name me one significant cover of an Elvis Presley song. There are no other notable versions of “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock”. Those songs are so indelibly connected to EP that no one else dared to attempt them. The wonderful thing about Chuck is that his songs were really for everybody. Every important rock artist after Chuck had to try their hand at one of his songs. If for no other reason than to make it clear what their intentions were: if you cover “Johnny B. Goode”, it tells the world what kind of band you are.
The connection may not be readily apparent but we’ll start with the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson may be the most successful songwriter ever who was least influenced by black music but Brian, his brother, guitarist Carl and their cousin, lead vocalist Mike Love were all enamored of doo wop and – mostly Carl, natch – Chuck Berry. Brian Wilson enjoyed Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” so much that he took the melody and changed the lyrics to include popular surf spots across the country. Initially, the songwriting credit listed only Wilson. Then it was changed to credit Berry only. I remember, when I was 12, owning the popular Beach Boys compilation “Endless Summer” and noticing that it listed Chuck Berry as the writer of “Surfin’ U.S.A” which was a real head-scratcher for me. Nowadays, both Wilson and Berry are credited. It’s always been published by Chuck’s Arc Music publisher. Chuck was a major influence on Carl’s playing and the Beach Boys released an early tribute to Chuck and others called “Do You Remember?” in 1964: “Chuck Berry’s gotta be the greatest thing that came along. He made the guitar beat and wrote the all time greatest songs”. Then, in the 1970’s, the Beach Boys emerged from a creative valley with the album “15 Big Ones” that featured, as it’s lead-off single, Chuck’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. The single went to #5, which was their highest charting single since the landmark “Good Vibrations” in 1966.
Like every other beat group that emerged in England in the early 1960’s, the Beatles were heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. If you had seen them in pre-stardom days on stage in Hamburg or at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, you would have seen a gnarly bunch of greasers crunching their way through a set list loaded with covers of their favourite records. Chuck Berry loomed large. Their raucous cover of Chuck’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was featured on their second album, 1963’s “With the Beatles”. This track of Chuck’s was a favourite of the boys’ since even before they were called “the Beatles”. Just as exciting was their cover of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. This track appeared on “Beatles For Sale” in ’64 and features an excellent, frenetic vocal from John. Another litigation episode involves the Beatles. The Beatles’ 1969 song “Come Together” was targeted by the owner of the copyright to Chuck’s tune “You Can’t Catch Me”. The owner claimed the two tracks were similar musically (they aren’t) and that the first two lines of the Beatles song – “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” – was too close to a line of Chuck’s: “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”. They settled out of court with John promising to record three future songs that were controlled by the same copyright owner. The result was Lennon recording “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Ya Ya” for his excellent 1975 album of covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (his “Stand By Me” is spectacular).
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. I mean, that’s it, right? The two legends together are probably the most influential artists in rock history. EP covered Chuck in early 1964. Presley was experiencing his first dry spell on the charts and he had latched on to Chuck’s “Memphis, Tennessee” for his next single. Memphis, after all, was Elvis’ hometown and he worked hard on getting just the right sound for his recording, a recording Presley believed would restore his standing on the pop charts. At this time, Elvis and his buds were living in Elvis’ Los Angeles home and when they were not at the studio working on “Memphis”, they were kicking it around in the living room and talking excitedly about the track. Hanging around the house at the time was singer Johnny Rivers. Elvis biographers and many ‘Memphis Mafia’ books report that Elvis felt betrayed when, after sharing his hopes about the song with the boys with Rivers in attendance, Rivers himself released a version of “Memphis” of his own and watched it rise to #2. Elvis was deflated and felt that releasing his version now would just seem exploitative. Rivers and Chuck Berry himself have claimed that the move by Rivers was not malicious but simply orchestrated by Rivers’ record label. No matter. Johnny Rivers became persona non grata with Elvis and the boys and is a minor villain in ‘Elvis World’. Presley went to Chuck again for a track that easily ranks among the top ten Elvis Presley recordings of all time; 1973’s “Promised Land”. In terms of energy and flat-out, driving, pedal-to-the-metal power, it’s hard to find an EP recording that tops this. Adding to the coolness level of this recording is the fact that it was recorded at the famed Stax Studio in Memphis and features some stellar clavinet. It’s hard to do justice in words to Presley’s recording of this track; you have to listen to it. A lot. Interesting to note that Berry wrote this song while incarcerated in 1961-62 for violating the Mann Act. He has said that while writing the song he wanted to study an atlas to confirm some of the lyrics but one wouldn’t be provided. It may prove too helpful in planning an escape route.
There’s been many other fantastic covers of Chuck’s songs. They make for great listening because when you’ve got a well-written rock song and an artist who wants to pay homage and at the same time sink his teeth in and put his own stamp on a song, the results quite often are good. Cases in point include the Animals and their scintillating “Around and Around”, Electric Light Orchestra’s soaring version of “Roll Over Beethoven” and Rod Stewart (back when he was cool) tearing a strip off “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, with the help of a rabid dog. I’ve tried here to provide details on some of the earliest stand-out covers of Chuck Berry’s songs. The three artists we looked at here are as big as you get and it’s telling that they’ve all notably – NOTABLY – tackled Chuck Berry’s music with interesting and exciting results. But the list of other artists to cover Berry is extensive. And varied. Everyone from Wyclef Jean to Uriah Heap. From Tanya Tucker to Peter Tosh. I haven’t even touched on the Rolling Stones’ fantastic Chuck run-throughs in their early days and gritty bluesman George Thorogood’s devotion to Chuck’s songs. But if you check the lists of artists who have covered Chuck, you’ll see that his music has been visited most by three of the biggest artists in music history. What does that tell you?