music, the Beach Boys, Top Ten List

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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McDonalds, Memories, Personal Story

Memories of McDonald’s Part Three: A Legend in My Own Mind

OFFICIAL Final Edit

April 12th of this year will mark the 30th anniversary of the day I got my first job. During my 9 years at McDonald’s, I accumulated some great memories that I think are humourous and ridiculous enough to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy this series.

OK, a quick, serious disclaimer. I do not suffer from delusions of grandeur. Those who know me personally know this. Those who don’t may think I have a pretty high opinion of myself. When I say that I “ran” Highland Road McDonald’s in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, I don’t mean to say that I was actually in charge. And, sure, some people didn’t like me. But, generally speaking, I was a popular, well-liked person. Being extroverted – at this time and place – helped. I used to joke that I was “MC-ing this event” – meaning I liked to joke around and run my mouth. Hang out with the girl managers while they counted the money at the back, shoot the breeze with everybody and hang out in the drive thru area. It also helped my visibility that I invented stuff – funny riffs about customers or the food we served and generally joking about the work we did – the cool stuff you could have fun with and the lame stuff that you had to poke fun at. That made, I think, for a fun environment in the back area – even when the heat was on.

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For some reason, I grabbed this report from early 1990. A lot of names that bring back a lot of memories.

In the beginning, being chosen to work “grill’ was an honour. You were the one who had to keep the patties cooking which obviously was very important. It was particularly important to be fast during lunch or supper and all the more so when we would hear the dreaded call from up front: “Bus!” If a large group or a sports team, etc. pulled in in a school bus you knew you were about to get killed. It would be time for a “sear/lay”.  The way it worked back then was whoever had the job of calling for food would decide how much to tell you to make. We in the back area would lay the patties on the grill and press the timer. The first timer alarm would tell you when to sear the meat with a flat, heavy sear tool. The next alert told you when to turn the patty and the final buzzer told you when to remove the patty and place it on the bun – which had already been toasted (or ‘carmelized’) and dressed by another associate. Lower volume called for the guy working grill to lay another dozen patties down after the first set had been taken off. Higher volume called for a second set of patties to be laid after the first set was turned – a “turn/lay”. The most extreme of all ‘runs’ was the “sear/lay”. The communication between the back area and the person up front “calling bin” was always fun and good for a laugh. If you missed a call you would shout “Recall?!” Eventually, even out in the street, if I didn’t hear what someone had said, instead of “pardon?”, I would say “recall?” Later in life I was working in the auto industry. This habit didn’t go over too well. I was informed early on that we never used the word “recall” while making car parts.

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Highland Road was shy one sear tool when I added this baby to the archives. I’ve still got it.

It was a great feeling when everyone was working smoothly together to “thin the herd” over supper. Working ‘grill’ was the driver’s seat. If the guy there was good, he had a style all his own. I was one of the best and when I walked on the floor for my shift, anybody near the grill slowly backed away. Some of us had our own spatulas and learning to wield them in an efficient and stylish manner we referred to as ‘back area rodeo’: spinning the spatula and tossing it in the air, Tom Cruise in “Cocktail” style. Sometimes for a laugh we’d go overboard and see what else in the kitchen we could throw in the air. The guy dressing the buns also had a job perfect for artistic expression. We were constantly trying to devise ways to dress the buns faster which resulted in occasional messes. There was a flair to such things as changing the tube of Mac Sauce in the gun. And we would all grin any time an order came back for a sandwich with extra everything – it was a licence to load those buns so full it was almost disgusting.

I have so many great snapshots in my head of good times in the back area. Once in the early days I was working fries. The timer went off and a batch was done so I lifted the basket out of the hot oil. A manager was working on one of the fry timers and was kneeling between me and the place we dumped the fries. Using my ingenuity, I simply worked my way around him, lifting the basket of fries over his head. Of course, burning hot fry oil dripped down on him. I remember him stalking away silently despite the incredible pain he must’ve been in.

I burned myself badly a couple of times. Once, in front of the grill, I slipped on a pickle and to hold myself up put my hand down on the grill. The worst was when a toaster I was cleaning closed on me. From my palm right up my forearm began to bubble pretty quickly despite me slamming a bag of frozen french fries down on it. I had to go to the walk-in clinic for that. I’ve still got the scars. I was wrapped up from hand to elbow and got stuck working drive-thru for a while. One customer saw me and said “you break your arm and they don’t give you no time off?!” I replied “I know, eh? I tried to tell them I couldn’t work but they shove me in drive thru!” A manager standing nearby started tripping and said “No, no! That’s not true, sir, that’s not true…”

Sometimes a small group of us would work “Brower”. Martin-Brower was the name of the company that delivered our supplies once a week. Often, the truck would be scheduled to come early in the morning before the store opened. We would arrive in the dark, before school, and get ready for the truck to arrive. When it did, the rollers had to be set up that would begin at the door of the truck and end at the top of the stairs going to the basement. Along the stairs to the basement there was a heavy wooden ramp that would drop down from the wall where it was attached and would cover the stairs for the boxes to slide down on. We would get really amped up for this. The driver would start the boxes down the rollers and there would be someone working the top of the stairs, sending the boxes  down the ramp. Then there was someone at the foot of the stairs feeding the boxes into the guy working in the freezer. We would scream ridiculous things like “C’mon, Bennett!! Let’s party!!” (a Schwarzenegger line from “Commando”) to get ourselves pumped up. There was one driver who somehow got offended and apparently complained afterwards. I even made a playlist (mixed tape) to play while we did Brower, starting with Ram Jam’s “Black Betty”. Years later, many of us recalled this tune as a “Brower song”. Once, Saltarr was working in the freezer but had an asthma attack. We heckled him for breaking down. Because kids. Some generous managers would let us make ourselves some breakfast as the sun rose and the store opened.

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Some pin we got from Martin-Brower because we were the best Brower crew in history.

My buds and I got our kicks, for sure. We were irreverent and unorthodox. We would joke that when a district supervisor came in for a tour, our managers didn’t want us to be there in the back area laughing and shouting and throwing our spatulas in the air with the grease flying off of them. However, when two buses came in and the lobby was jammed with people ordering food, we were EXACTLY who they wanted there.

I’ll never forget the night pizza was launched at McDonald’s. Newspaper and radio ads spread the news that pizza was being introduced and it was FREE! Area supervisors were there to see things went smoothly. It was a big, prestigious event. Who would get the call to prepare the pizzas and work the ovens? Just about everybody got the call, actually – we would be VERY busy – free pizza, and all – so it was all hands on deck. Also needed were two shlubs to work in the back area, ready to make hamburgers should anyone be foolish enough to order and pay for a Big Mac when the pizza was free. Who were these two losers? Myself and Big Ta. The two of us had been at the store longer than any other part-timers and we were the best there was – but we were rebels who didn’t toe the line. We stood in the back area that night and didn’t make a single burger. We just watched the action by the pizza oven.

The pizza, though short-lived, was actually good. However, I guess it could be confusing. I was working drive thru once and a customer ordered a bacon double cheeseburger. As this was not something we had at that time, I was confused until I realized he was looking at the pizza portion of the menu. Bacon double cheeseburger is a pizza we offer, I informed him. Oh, no thanks, he replied. I’ll have the bacon double cheeseburger. This went on for a few more minutes until I finally yelled “It’s a pizza, man!!”. Often we would go in when we weren’t working and order a pizza, eat it and play Crazy Eights in the lobby for hours. We liked it, hanging out and shooting the breeze with our friends that were working. People that didn’t work there couldn’t understand us wanting to hang out there but we liked it. Of course, I do remember one Saturday night hanging out in the lobby when the frazzled closing manger suddenly appeared and asked me to help them close. So, I got up, put my uniform on and went to work. Actually, though, when I think about pizza I think about Becky. She was my buddy, Ruby’s, kid sister and she was a good worker; she got called to work the ovens the night pizza was introduced. Few girls got our respect in the back area but we all loved Becky. Shortly after I quit, she was tragically killed in a car accident.

Knowing how to work every station in the store was something you aimed for. For one thing, you could get more shifts if you could work the grill and the front counter. Plus, it made for good variety, us back area guys getting a drive-thru shift every now and then. Whenever I was asked if I knew how to work a certain station, I would always just say “yes” whether I did or not. I did this at my next job in an auto plant but soon thought better of it. I would say “yes, I know how to run this machine” but then when I realized that I didn’t know how to run it – and it could take my hand off – I quickly learned to say “No, I don’t. Show me”.

One shift in the back area was historic. I was at the grill, as usual, when a manager said that a counter worker had no-showed – could I take over up there? No sweat. I washed up and took some orders. This type of thing was nice especially in the summer when the kitchen was hot. Things slowed down that shift and I went out for a quick lobby run; wipe some tables and clean up. When I was done that I checked the drive thru screen and set up some of the orders of fries for the girls there. I joked with somebody that, technically, I had already worked four stations this shift: back area, counter, lobby and fries. I got an idea – as I often did at McDonald’s – how many stations can I work tonight? I worked ‘bin’ by ordering a set of six Macs from the guys in the back area. When they came up I packaged them and put them in the staging bin. I ran back to the walk-in fridge and rotated a couple of boxes of lettuce – first to expire out front. There, that was part of ‘Brower’. I ran back and threw together a salad for my ‘salad station’ and did the same with pizza. Ended up being 8 stations in one three-hour shift.

Back in this day, if you were under 18 years old and your shift ended after midnight, the closing manager was obligated to get you home. Once I closed on a week night. I got in the closing manager’s car with the other closer and we drove around – I dunno, somewhere – for hours. I got home in the early morning hours and didn’t get to sleep before it was time to get up and go to school. At this time, I was going to a driver’s ed course that took place at the school before classes started. I got on the bus thinking “I think I’ll be OK, actually” and promptly fell asleep as the bus rolled along. I got through driver’s ed and made it to my first class; drafting with Mr. Wignall. Doug Wignall was a great guy who once told this all-male class about the horror of his vasectomy – smoke and a blue flame. It was a story I never forgot. He and I used to talk Beach Boys. He was a cool guy. I guess he must’ve noticed me nodding off at my desk so he came over to see how I was. It was then that he told me some sad news – Roy Orbison had died. This made my morning even worse. Mr. Wignall suggested I go down to the cafeteria and get something to eat, so I did. Good guy. (Orbison died December 6, 1988)

I remember Big Swa and I working one day. We were really yukking it up when the shift manager snapped and told us not to utter another word for the rest of the shift. We began to work in silence which worked OK until I had my back turned to Swa and didn’t see the tray of food he was handing me to send up. I suddenly heard this pounding and turned to see him smashing the table with his fist. I sent the tray up and we burst out laughing.

Then came the big announcement that McDonald’s was going smoke-free. The night before this kicked in, Albert and I walked around the basement smoking cigars. I remember closing myself in the small men’s bathroom downstairs and puffing like mad on that thing, hoping that the place would still stink of smoke in the morning. Why did I do this? I dunno. I was an idiot, I guess.

Us kids worked evenings and weekends but there was a regular crew of older ladies who opened the store and worked during the day. In some situations, however, you could find yourself working with one of these nice ladies. Dolly was the resident veteran at our store. She loved me. She’d kill herself laughing when I was working with her and would sing a song from an old Elvis movie: “Another day older and nearer to my Lord. One more day…”. Once, poking around somewhere in some office, I found an old punch card of Dolly’s that had the date 1977 on it. This confirmed for us that she had been there forever and we would riff for hours about her origins: “When Dolly started, the training videos were on film!” “No. When she started they were still acting them out on stage!” “Haha! Yes! Shakespeare wrote the training videos!” “Yeah! Dolly was here to serve the Crusades when they came through!” “Let’s face it; Dolly was here before the store was here. She was just sitting in the grass and some guy came up and said ‘hey, we’re starting a restaurant here. Y’wanna help us out?'” Another nice lady was Basmattie or Bibi. When I was older and living on my own and still at McDonald’s, she would take pity on me when I was done my shift and she would whip me up a nice McRib. Done well; not like we served the customers. I noticed, though, that she had a habit of cleaning off her spatula during a shift – by scraping it off on the inside edge of the garbage can.

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Dolly was an original fixture of the place. This is an actual “punch” card; before the “swipe” cards.

All this tomfoolery did not sit well with our store manager, Diane Thomas. She hated me. I don’t want to dump on her unfairly but she was severe, to say the least. I mentioned in an earlier segment that I had a collection of name tags. In fact, I was always picking up discarded things to throw in my locker; equipment, utensils, etc. (In fact, the can opener I used today I ‘got’ from McDonald’s). I jokingly would say that I was starting a museum of McDonald’s artifacts: You’re quitting? Wanna donate your swipe card? People said I could start my own store with all this stuff. One little item I discovered abandoned sitting on the safe, I think, was a slightly bent freezer key. I threw it in a little bucket I kept in my locker and it became one of many museum pieces. I never used it to open the freezer once it was locked – but I did allow someone else to. Once. Eventually, Diane called me into her office. She told me that there had been losses lately and it was discovered that I had a freezer key in my locker. She said she couldn’t prove I had done anything wrong but that she could make things unpleasant for me. “I’ll only give you one shift a week. You might as well quit”. Afterwards, I liked to think I upset her when I replied that, no, I think I’ll stay. I had another part time job at the time so it wasn’t the end of the world. The other managers there seemed to take pity on me and the scheduling manager in particular helped by giving me the longest shift possible – Saturday night close – seeing as I could only have one shift a week and could not pick up any shifts.

Fourteen months later, Diane was off on maternity leave. The managers that were left in charge called me in one day and said that they were taking me off my one-shift-a-week restriction. Not because Diane is not here, they said, but because we just think it’s time. I always thought that was nice.

Next Up: “Nobody Died”…

 

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

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!**

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 3

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.

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He may never have looked cooler. In rehearsal, Las Vegas, 1970.

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.

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The cover art and album titles were bland. The music on the records was sublime.

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!

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The King laying it down during his historic “Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite” concert. January 14, 1973.

**the images and media used in this post are not mine**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 2

Our boy returned from the Army in early 1960 and the evil lord Colonel Parker put his plan into motion. Make no mistake, the Colonel’s plan to clean Elvis up in the studio and present him in family-friendly musical comedies was motivated by extreme avarice. However, his machinations and maneuvers when Elvis returned to the entertainment business resulted in EP being able to maintain his presence in the public eye with the movies while the music business changed around him. As I’ve stated in previous posts (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/elvis-week-2017-day-5-hollywood/) Elvis and the Colonel didn’t have the apparatus in place to compete in the changing landscape of rock music. Bands wrote and performed their own material – Colonel employed songwriters who’s sole attribute was their willingness to give up publishing rights to the Colonel’s business arm. Presley’s focus on films allowed him to bide his time until the landscape changed.

As early as 1965, Elvis began to bristle at his imprisonment in the Hollywood system and longed to find songs with more teeth to record. Some quality songs began to leak out and were placed on soundtracks when RCA were short on tracks to fill out the albums. Eventually, Elvis was able to maneuver himself back into a healthy studio environment when he ended up recording songs back in Memphis at Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio. The house band at this studio was a crack group of young Southern boys who had recently backed other singers on successful recordings and were at the top of their game. Elvis and this band all instinctively knew each other and the songs they recorded there in January and February 1969 are nothing short of sublime. They contained a contemporary, Southern soul sound that perfectly showcased Elvis at his best. On display with these tracks is the quintessential and prototypical ‘Elvis Presley sound’, that unique blend of country, gospel and R&B. If you listen to them alongside a lot of mainstream music that was on the charts at the time there is no denying how distinct the sound is. 1969 began a three year run that – along with 1956-57 – represents the absolute pinnacle of the power, artistry and enduring style and charismatic vocalizing of Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley’s recordings of the 1960’s were largely made up of movie soundtracks and they will be addressed in a later post. There were also two gospel albums; 1960’s “His Hand in Mine” and 1967’s Grammy-winning “How Great Thou Art”. The title track of the latter is legendary in “Elvis World” and the album also contains the stellar “In the Garden”, “Run On” and the incredibly moving and powerful “Without Him”. And recorded just after the sessions for “How Great Thou Art” was Red West’s stellar “If Every Day Was Like Christmas”. For this list, though, I’ve focused on the ‘pop’ music. Generally speaking, you can say that he recorded hit songs, great non-movie music, for a couple of years at the beginning of the ’60’s and then not again until the last few years of the decade. It’s from these years that I’ve built this list – The Top Ten Elvis Presley Songs: the ’60’s.

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Elvis poses with a Fender Bass in his living room at Graceland, mid 1960’s.

10. “If I’m a Fool (For Loving You)” (1969) — I see that six of these ten songs are from the sessions at American Sound. Truth be told, the songs from those dates are among his very best. This track is a bit of a sleeper. Never released as a single, it only ever appeared on the “Let’s Be Friends” LP from 1970. While I concede that it may only be a personal favourite, I will defend this song’s inclusion here. A lovely soft country arrangement and a delicate, personal and emotive vocal from the King.

9. “Power of My Love” (1969) — A true hidden gem. Another from American that may be the grittiest of all his recordings. This is a great tune to play to the uninitiated if you wanted to surprise them and show them how incredibly cool Elvis could sound. There really is no other song that he recorded that sounds like this one. It is fantastic. Ballsy.

8. “Gentle on My Mind” (1969) — In the wake of the death of Glen Campbell last year, we all became reacquainted with Jim Hartford’s wonderful composition. I love this song in all it’s versions: Glen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin. I’ve always said, though, that Presley was the only singer that plumbed the depths of the sentiment in the lyric. As he did throughout his career, he took this song that had been done many times and added another dimension, one of soul and emotion. This is a great example of what he did so well – blending the emotion of a country/rural lyric with a blue-eyed soul vocal delivery.

7. “Little Sister” (1961) — Great guitar on this track by Hank Garland who was a crack Nashville session guitarist that played on most of Elvis’ hits between ’58 and ’61. This is just a great-sounding rock track that sounds like it was recorded later in the decade – that big-sounding guitar stands out so much. EP revisited this track early in his Las Vegas appearances, quite often performing it in a medley with the Beatles’ “Get Back”.

6. “I’m Movin’ On” (1969) — Most everybody knows that at the core of the art of Elvis Presley is his ability to blend the best elements of country and western music with rhythm and blues. There is no greater or more obvious example of this than in his version of Canadian Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On”. Recorded during his fertile and much-heralded stay at American Sound in Memphis, this track begins with some good-ol’-boy chicken-pickin’ guitar playing as Elvis runs through the first verse. Then, as Elvis declares “move on, son”, the band breaks down into Wilson Pickett territory with down and dirty funky southern soul music. Add some bold and strong female voices and you’ve got what we call a ‘stone groove’.

5. “Big Boss Man” (1967) — Written by the legendary blues man Jimmy Reed, “Big Boss Man” is a spirited blues work-out from Elvis and the boys that was a Top 40 hit for the King in late 1967. It is a significant recording in that it signaled a change in the material that Elvis was now determined to record. This track was the first indication that a change was coming and was followed by gritty readings of “Guitar Man”, “Hi-Heeled Sneakers” and “U.S. Male”. It’s great to hear what is still really Elvis’ “mid-’60’s voice” wrassle his unreasonable employer to the ground. “…you won’t let Big El stop”.

4. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — Another gem from American Sound. Two minutes of full-throttle rock ‘n’ roll. Everything about this track is exciting from the dirt road lyrics to the excellent guitar, the honking horns, the vocal interplay between Elvis and the girls backing him up. And Elvis himself sings with all the virility his voice had at it’s most commanding moments. Definitely a high point of his recording career. EP ran through this on-screen in his last dramatic movie, “Change of Habit”. On an episode of “Miami Vice”, Elvis fan Det. Stan Switek catches this film on the late show, much to his delight. Paul Oakenfold’s 2003 remix of this song was a hit throughout Europe.

3. “Stuck On You” (1960) — Here is King at his most polished. Yes, his late ’60’s recordings are Southern blue-eyed soul gems but here, fresh back from the Army, he gives us a smooth, piano-driven pop gem. It hit #1 on the pop charts in late April, went to #6 on the R&B charts and #3 in the UK. A fan favourite, this is a fantastic song with a great vocal and it is one of the first Elvis songs I ever remember hearing.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — This is my favourite Elvis song. At least I can say that I don’t think there is any of his songs that I like more than this one. The song represents a shining moment in the career of legendary session drummer, Hal Blaine. His drum fill that starts off this track is one of the most satisfying things I have ever heard in my life. Presley’s vocals and the lyrics themselves are the very epitome of “cool”. Written by Mac Davis and Billy Strange, the song appeared in the excellent Elvis film “Live a Little, Love a Little”. An historic remake was done in 2002 by Junkie XL. This version – get this – went to #1 on 14 different charts in various countries worldwide. It was Top Ten on 22 different charts. King’s original version of this song is near and dear to my heart and goes back to my earliest days as a fan. On top of that, I just think it’s outstanding.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — Speaking of outstanding. Maybe the classiest, most polished, stylish and contemporary sound in all of Elvis Presley’s catalog is this excellent recording of a Mark James song that Elvis almost wasn’t “allowed” to sing. When the song was brought to Elvis, his music publishers did their usual “stick ’em up!” routine and informed James that he would have to give up half of the royalties on the song. James, of course, bristled and things came to a stand still. Cooler heads prevailed and Elvis laid down this gorgeous song that would be his first #1 song in 7 years and the last chart-topper of his lifetime. Listen particularly to the interesting time signatures and the silky smooth guitar of Reggie Young. Rolling Stone Magazine calls it Presley’s “masterpiece” and ranks it at #91 on it’s list of the greatest songs ever.

Next: King’s most prolific and unsung decade of recording, the 1970’s…

Elvis In Vegas

Elvis Presley on stage in Las Vegas. August, 1969.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 1

The holidays are over so depression automatically sets in? I don’t buy that. Gladys Love Presley saw fit to have her baby, Elvis Aaron Presley, on January 8th, 1935. That means that January’s Elvis Week begins on January the 2nd. New Year’s Day marks the official end of the Christmas season and the next morning you wake up and – bam! – it’s Elvis Week!

For this Elvis Week, I’ve decided to tackle the enormous task of ranking the best recordings of Elvis Presley. In a way, though, this is an easy task. He has SO MANY stellar records that a Top Ten list could include many different songs and still be valid. It would be pretty hard to debate any one person’s choices. And how do we define “best”? I’ve tried to be really clinical and highlight songs that are sung and played well – which is a ridiculous statement, they all are but what I mean is: songs that are universally held to be “great”, with maybe some personal faves thrown in. This “greatness” will also include intangibles like a wonderful turn of phrase, a stellar performance from a musician, a connection to an event in Elvis World, or historical and cultural significance. I’ve also broken his career down into decades: ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, all distinct eras of Presley recordings. Other categories could have included best movie songs, best Gospel songs, best live recordings, best Christmas tunes… I’ve decided to go with the three decades and movie music. As a fifth and final post, I’ll try to take the best from each list and arrive at “The Best Elvis Presley Song”. This will obviously not be definitive but instead will simply serve as a good starting point for debate and comparison. Although, again, I have to say that it will probably be hard to say that the song that emerges here as his ‘best’ is NOT his best – it just may not be your favourite or the one you think is the best representation of the King at the top of his form.

Anyways, blah, blah, blah. I think you know what I mean. Here’s my Top Ten Elvis Presley Song: the ’50’s:

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On the cusp. Publicity photo, early RCA days. January, 1956.

10. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)” (1957) — It could be argued that Elvis Presley was a gospel singer who got stuck singing rock ‘n’ roll just to pay the bills. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Indeed, in the early days, he auditioned to join legendary gospel quartet the Blackwood Brothers but was turned down. In 1956, Presley burst onto the scene and the powers that be denounced him as ‘evil’. The idea of him singing gospel or revered Christmas carols was repugnant to the establishment. But I have always maintained that, as the Lord had blessed him with his singing voice, that voice shined particularly bright when he sang certain gospel music. “Peace in the Valley” was written by Tommy Dorsey – not that Tommy Dorsey but gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey. It appeared on the biggest selling Christmas album of all time, “Elvis’ Christmas Album”. His recording, featuring the Jordanaires and some fine, mellow guitar playing, is stellar. In a particularly moving moment, EP performed it on his third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957. The screaming teenagers quieted down and Presley showed the frowning parents watching at home another side of his talent and personality. Watch how he backs up into the Jordanaires as he looks down and sings “there will be peace…”. It’s not showmanship – it’s the singing he had done in his church and in his homes all of his life. Sullivan had once sworn to never have Presley the reprobate on his show. After King sang “Peace in the Valley”, Sullivan came out and solemnly declared Elvis to be a “decent, fine boy”. It is actually an emotional moment and one of great cultural significance.

9. “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956) — In many respects, this song marks The Beginning. It’s writing was inspired by a newspaper report of a suicide and the note that was left behind (“I walk a lonely street”) and it was presented to Elvis in late 1955, before he had moved from Sun Records to RCA. Elvis loved it immediately and memorized the song vowing to record it at his next session. That came in January of ’56 and it was the second song Elvis recorded at his first session for RCA. The songwriters, upon hearing Presley’s echoy, bluesy recording, could not recognize their song. This started a trend that saw Presley take a song and make it his own. Although he almost NEVER received a credit as such, from the VERY BEGINNING Elvis was the arranger and producer at all of his recording sessions. In Sam Phillips words, the credited producer at Elvis’ sessions was “not a producer. (They were) just at every session”. “Heartbreak Hotel” became a hit of gargantuan proportions. Number 1 on the pop and country charts, top 5 on the R&B chart, 27 weeks in the Top 100, the biggest selling single of 1956 and EP’s first million-seller. It started a chart run lasting 21 years that is unrivaled in music history. Number 45 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Co-written by Mae Boren Axton. Her son, Hoyt, wrote “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain” in the ’70’s, the latter of which King recorded. See? This is what I’m talking about. This song could easily be called his best of the ’50’s and even his best EVER but here it’s 9th! Whatever. Onward.

8. “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” (1959) — I can see some of you have your eyebrows raised. This tune over “Heartbreak Hotel”?! Well, yeah. It’s the vocal. Maybe this tune, recorded by Elvis on a leave from the Army, serves as sort of a bridge between the animalistic singing of ’56-’57 and the pop vocalizing to come in the early ’60’s. It’s still sexy but it is delivered with such finesse, the lyrics are caressed. Simply, it’s the sounds he makes on this record that are so delightful. “I’m a fool but I’ll love you, dear…”. Written in 1952, it was recorded by Canadian Hank Snow, Tommy Edwards and Jo Stafford before Elvis released his version as the B side of “I Need Your Love Tonight”. “A Fool Such As I” went to #2 in the US and #1 in the UK. King’s version was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2nd annual Grammy Awards. It was later recorded by Bob Dylan.

7. “All Shook Up” (1957) — This song is notable in Elvis’ canon for being what I think is his most successful single ever in terms of chart activity. Number 1 on the US pop charts for 7 weeks, in the Top 40 for 21 weeks, #1 on the R&B charts for 4 weeks, #1 in the UK for 7 weeks and Billboard’s #1 song for 1957. Two million copies sold that year. Elvis biographer, Peter Guralnick, says – so it’s true – that Elvis suggested the title to songwriter Otis Blackwell which resulted in King getting one of his few writing credits. The song rolls along in mid-tempo with a vocal that is quintessential EP. #361 on Rolling Stone’s list. Listen to it again – for the first time. The Beatles recorded this during the “Get Back” sessions but it was never officially released and Billy Joel’s 1992 version for the “Honeymoon in Vegas” soundtrack cracked the Top 100. A re-release of Elvis’ version charted again in the weeks after King’s death.

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“All Shook Up” single art. March 22, 1957.

6. “That’s All Right” (1954) — It’s often said that it all started in the summer of 1954. “It” being everything. Recorded July 5 at Sun Studio in Memphis and released July 19th. Written and recorded by blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946, Elvis Presley’s recording is truly the stuff of legend and it is not far-fetched to suggest that “rock ‘n’ roll” was invented by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black that hot summer afternoon. Long story short: Sam Phillips had been trying to record King in a mellow, ballad setting and things hadn’t been working. On a break, the boys worked out their frustrations by kicking out the jams with a spirited version of Crudup’s old blues. It was literally what Phillips had been looking for; marketable white boys that played music like black guys – the way it should be played. With emotion, energy and grit. Balls. Phillips hit ‘record’, had the boys run through it again and the rest, as they say… To try to understand the significance of the recording, you have to try to understand American society at the time, especially in the South. Such was the climate that, when bassist Bill Black heard the playback – he and his white buddies “sounding black” – he remarked, only half-jokingly: “Damn. Put that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town”. Probably the most significant recording in history that didn’t chart at the time of it’s release, “That’s All Right” sold 20,000 copies and hit #4 on local Memphis charts. In 2004, exactly 50 years after it’s initial release, it was released as a single in England and went to #3! Rolling Stone has argued that it is the first rock ‘n’ roll record and placed it at #113 on it’s Best 500 list.

5. “Too Much” (1957) — This one may not be as well known but it is a personal fave. I also believe it to be a wonderful example of some of Presley’s finest rock ‘n’ roll singing. He is strutting and the way his voice intentionally cracks on the “take” in “take me back, baby, in your arms” is just perfect. This song is exactly what you want from the most staggering 24-month span in any performer’s career. It went to #2 on the pop charts and was top 3 on many lists at the time: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, Most Played in Jukeboxes, #3 on the Country chart and #3 on the R&B chart.

4. “Mystery Train” (1955) — “That’s All Right” is his most legendary Sun recording but this may be his best. Junior Parker released the song on Sun in ’53 and one of the mysteries about the track was where the title came from as it is mentioned nowhere in the lyrics. Released by Presley in the late summer of ’55, it’s enduring appeal stems from it’s ominous sound. The echo from Scotty Moore’s guitar sounds sinister in a way and the track brings to mind so many other blues songs from the past that feature lyrics depicting some dark and calamitous happenings in the singer’s life. In “Mystery Train”, the train is the villain and has taken the singer’s baby away. As a single, the song was released as the B side of the country tune “I Forgot to Remember” and made some noise on local country charts. Indeed, “Mystery Train” was the first song to make Presley known as a country singer. The fact that it is not really a country song is further testament to EP’s unique blend of country and R&B. Rolling Stone’s ranking it as high as #77 on it’s 500 list speaks to how highly it is regarded.

3. “Hound Dog” (1956) — There are fewer recordings more iconic than this one. There are fewer tracks that completely encapsulate everything that rock ‘n’ roll was meant to sound like. Like Elvis Presley himself, this song has catapulted into the stratosphere as something other than what it was originally. Like “Rock Around the Clock”, “Hound Dog” is understood historically and culturally but you need to work hard to hear it as a “song”; a song of vicious import, a feral moment in music history that has been taken for granted. Everything about this recording is the foundation of all rock music to come. A direct line can be traced starting with “Hound Dog” and running through Led Zeppelin and all the way to Jack White. Stories of the song’s history before it reached King are legendary and I suggest you read up on it. It was written by two 19-year-olds, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were soon to become legendary in their own right penning classic songs for Elvis and the Coasters. Presley’s version was not only immediately iconic and indicative of the whole rock ‘n’ roll movement but it was extremely successful for Elvis. It was simultaneously No. 1 on the US pop, country, and R&B charts in 1956, and it topped the pop chart for 11 weeks — a record that stood for 36 years. And with a preposterous 10 million copies sold it is one of the biggest-selling singles ever and is the 19th Greatest Song of All-Time according to Rolling Stone Magazine. Presley’s vocal is savage and Scotty Moore invents rock guitar with his work here.

2. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — So, somebody from Mars – or a teenager of today, same thing – says to you “Who is Elvis Presley? What was he? What did he do that was so great?”. You would show this person some television performances or some concert footage. You would also, surely, play this person some recordings. If you had to pick only, say, five records that would perfectly pinpoint for this stranger ‘what’ Elvis Presley was, you would (or could or should) play them “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. “He’s one of the best singers ever” you would say, “his voice….” you would add, shaking your head. In this seasonal chestnut you would have one of the finest examples of what he did so well with his voice. Not only that but you have that voice in a gritty, blues setting that allows the voice to growl and claw it’s way through the lyrics. The white, clean and neat sound of the Jordanaires does not detract from the raunchy proceedings. Dudley Brooks plays the piano as if he’s recalling days pounding the ivories in seedy juke joints all over the South. And DJ Fontana pounds his snare drum like he’s back in his living room and his parents have just gone out to the hardware store. On top of all this, it’s a Christmas song, a song from a season near and dear to Elvis in many ways. The song is so ridiculously “Elvis” and it’s a shame we can only listen to it during the last six weeks of the year. This is his second-best vocal performance of the 1950’s. Bettered only by…

1. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of the best-known Elvis Presley songs due to the production number version of the song contained in the film of the same name. That’s all I’m going to say about that number in the film as I feel it neuters this remarkable recording. The song is another written by Lieber and Stoller; the top three songs on this list are Leiber/Stoller numbers. It had a goofy lyric about life behind bars, the type of song they would have written for their act, the Coasters. But Presley plays it straight and handles it as pure rock ‘n’ roll. This is the prime example of ALL of Presley’s recordings of the relationship between rock singer and rock guitarist. Both Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore lay down performances for the ages on their respective instruments. Along with his work on “Hound Dog”, it is his playing on “Jailhouse Rock” that cements Scotty Moore’s rep as the man who invented rock guitar; no less is he than the man that gave birth to Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Slash. And Presley’s vocal? I dunno…what can I say? This is the pinnacle of what he was as a vocalist. He did well on many ballads throughout his career but this type of singing was his bread and butter and this is probably the best example there is of that type of singing.

Next: The 1960’s – Elvis returns from the Army – and the Colonel has a plan…

USA Los Angeles Elvis Presley

Press conference, private railway car, Los Angeles. 1960.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)

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Christmas, music, Top Ten List

The Greatest Christmas Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas LP

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

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

– the Deep Cuts…

 

 

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