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

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

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

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

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James Brown talking with the always impeccably dressed Cornelius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don Cornelius 1936 – 2012
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Listen to My Heartbeat: Your Guide to the Music of the Beach Boys Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Beach Boys, 1968.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Stayin’ Alive: Herb Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is how much I love this record.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

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

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

Chuck Berry: The Proof is in the Covers

 

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Chuck Berry has died at age 90. I was happy to see tributes to him all over the internet because here is a performer that has become a true legend with almost no peer in the history of rock music. As I’ve said before, to fully understand where you’re at at any given point in time, you need to understand and appreciate where things have come from. There may be some degrees of separation, yes, but Chuck Berry is at the heart – at the absolute core – of popular music as we know it today in the 21st century.

To track the origins of “rock ‘n’ roll”, you have to go back to the early 1950’s to records like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Rocket 88”. Then, in 1954, you had Bill Haley and His Comets recording the immortal “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s first record, “That’s All Right, Mama”. In these four instances you had 1) black rhythm and blues groups having success and getting noticed by white high school kids and 2) you had country boys channeling a “black sound” while still exhibiting a southern look (Haley) and/or a decidedly southern sound (Scotty Moore’s guitar). When you add in the gospel flavour of an artist like Ray Charles, you have all the ingredients for what would become known as “rock ‘n’ roll”, the first music that was made specifically for young people. So, here you have the foundation of the music. But let’s consider this: there’s a difference between blending R&B, gospel and country to make rock ‘n’ roll and actually making rock ‘n’ roll. In the spring of 1955, Chuck Berry took the results of the ‘experiment’ that Bill Haley and Elvis Presley had been conducting and added certain key things. The result of the additions he made emerged as nothing less than the blueprint of rock music. In fact, he was the first to combine all of the necessary elements that are essential to rock music. These elements include showmanship, for starters. Chuck played the guitar and the very fact that his instrument was strapped to him allowed him to move around while playing it and therefore engage in the type of showmanship rock ‘n’ roll is known for. Another main element is the guitar itself. Because the guitar was his instrument, he, of course, featured it in his songs, starting most of them off with an energetic ‘riff’ taking both the guitar and the riff to the forefront of this new music. He also established, two years before Buddy Holly, the singer performing songs he himself had written. And then there’s the subject matter of these songs. Something else he was the first to popularize was singing with humour about teen life, often telling a story in his songs.  He wisely considered the audience for this new music consisted of kids so he wrote joyful, happy songs about cars, about school, about getting out of school, about getting in your car and going to the local hang out and pumping dimes into the jukebox. He sang about being a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, about taking this music with you as you grew up, got a job and got married. He was like a reporter, reporting on kids’ lives while they were happening. From 1955 into the early 1960’s, Chuck laid the foundation for what rock music would become.

The proof is in the covers. Chuck’s story is told, for the most part, by looking at who covered his music. Suffice it to say that any group of guys who got together and plugged in in the garage were following Chuck Berry’s lead but when you look at the artists that have covered a Chuck Berry song you understand the immensity of his contribution. It’s interesting to note that you cannot name me one significant cover of an Elvis Presley song. There are no other notable versions of “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock”. Those songs are so indelibly connected to EP that no one else dared to attempt them. The wonderful thing about Chuck is that his songs were really for everybody. Every important rock artist after Chuck had to try their hand at one of his songs. If for no other reason than to make it clear what their intentions were: if you cover “Johnny B. Goode”, it tells the world what kind of band you are.

The connection may not be readily apparent but we’ll start with the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson may be the most successful songwriter ever who was least influenced by black music but Brian, his brother, guitarist Carl and their cousin, lead vocalist Mike Love were all enamored of doo wop and – mostly Carl, natch – Chuck Berry. Brian Wilson enjoyed Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” so much that he took the melody and changed the lyrics to include popular surf spots across the country. Initially, the songwriting credit listed only Wilson. Then it was changed to credit Berry only. I remember, when I was 12, owning the popular Beach Boys compilation “Endless Summer” and noticing that it listed Chuck Berry as the writer of “Surfin’ U.S.A” which was a real head-scratcher for me. Nowadays, both Wilson and Berry are credited. It’s always been published by Chuck’s Arc Music publisher. Chuck was a major influence on Carl’s playing and the Beach Boys released an early tribute to Chuck and others called “Do You Remember?” in 1964: “Chuck Berry’s gotta be the greatest thing that came along. He made the guitar beat and wrote the all time greatest songs”.  Then, in the 1970’s, the Beach Boys emerged from a creative valley with the album “15 Big Ones” that featured, as it’s lead-off single, Chuck’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. The single went to #5, which was their highest charting single since the landmark “Good Vibrations” in 1966.

Like every other beat group that emerged in England in the early 1960’s, the Beatles were heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. If you had seen them in pre-stardom days on stage in Hamburg or at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, you would have seen a gnarly bunch of greasers crunching their way through a set list loaded with covers of their favourite records. Chuck Berry loomed large. Their raucous cover of Chuck’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was featured on their second album, 1963’s “With the Beatles”. This track of Chuck’s was a favourite of the boys’ since even before they were called “the Beatles”. Just as exciting was their cover of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. This track appeared on “Beatles For Sale” in ’64 and features an excellent, frenetic vocal from John. Another litigation episode involves the Beatles. The Beatles’ 1969 song “Come Together” was targeted by the owner of the copyright to Chuck’s tune “You Can’t Catch Me”. The owner claimed the two tracks were similar musically (they aren’t) and that the first two lines of the Beatles song – “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” – was too close to a line of Chuck’s: “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”. They settled out of court with John promising to record three future songs that were controlled by the same copyright owner. The result was Lennon recording “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Ya Ya” for his excellent 1975 album of covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (his “Stand By Me” is spectacular).

Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. I mean, that’s it, right? The two legends together are probably the most influential artists in rock history. EP covered Chuck in early 1964. Presley was experiencing  his first dry spell on the charts and he had latched on to Chuck’s “Memphis, Tennessee” for his next single. Memphis, after all, was Elvis’ hometown and he worked hard on getting just the right sound for his recording, a recording Presley believed would restore his standing on the pop charts. At this time, Elvis and his buds were living in Elvis’ Los Angeles home and when they were not at the studio working on “Memphis”, they were kicking it around in the living room and talking excitedly about the track. Hanging around the house at the time was singer Johnny Rivers. Elvis biographers and many ‘Memphis Mafia’ books report that Elvis felt betrayed when, after sharing his hopes about the song with the boys with Rivers in attendance, Rivers himself released a version of “Memphis” of his own and watched it rise to #2. Elvis was deflated and felt that releasing his version now would just seem exploitative. Rivers and Chuck Berry himself have claimed that the move by Rivers was not malicious but simply orchestrated by Rivers’ record label. No matter. Johnny Rivers became persona non grata with Elvis and the boys and is a minor villain in ‘Elvis World’. Presley went to Chuck again for a track that easily ranks among the top ten Elvis Presley recordings of all time; 1973’s “Promised Land”. In terms of energy and flat-out, driving, pedal-to-the-metal power, it’s hard to find an EP recording that tops this. Adding to the coolness level of this recording is the fact that it was recorded at the famed Stax Studio in Memphis and features some stellar clavinet. It’s hard to do justice in words to Presley’s recording of this track; you have to listen to it. A lot. Interesting to note that Berry wrote this song while incarcerated in 1961-62 for violating the Mann Act. He has said that while writing the song he wanted to study an atlas to confirm some of the lyrics but one wouldn’t be provided. It may prove too helpful in planning an escape route.

There’s been many other fantastic covers of Chuck’s songs. They make for great listening because when you’ve got a well-written rock song and an artist who wants to pay homage and at the same time sink his teeth in and put his own stamp on a song, the results quite often are good. Cases in point include the Animals and their scintillating “Around and Around”, Electric Light Orchestra’s soaring version of “Roll Over Beethoven” and Rod Stewart (back when he was cool) tearing a strip off “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, with the help of a rabid dog. I’ve tried here to provide details on some of the earliest stand-out covers of Chuck Berry’s songs. The three artists we looked at here are as big as you get and it’s telling that they’ve all notably – NOTABLY – tackled Chuck Berry’s music with interesting and exciting results. But the list of other artists to cover Berry is extensive. And varied. Everyone from Wyclef Jean to Uriah Heap. From Tanya Tucker to Peter Tosh. I haven’t even touched on the Rolling Stones’ fantastic Chuck run-throughs in their early days and gritty bluesman George Thorogood’s devotion to Chuck’s songs. But if you check the lists of artists who have covered Chuck, you’ll see that his music has been visited most by three of the biggest artists in music history. What does that tell you?

Thanks, Chuck.

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Elvis Week 2017: Day 3 – 1956

Elvis Presley was born 82 years ago this coming Sunday. That makes this Elvis Week! We’re looking back on his life and career in seven all-too-brief segments.

Day 3: 1956 – Sam Phillips called it. History has venerated him as the man who first heard the potential in Elvis Presley. Not only that but he knew that this was the performer and this was the time and place for a new and energetic sound. The sound began sweeping the nation and Sam Phillips’ record label – Sun Records – released five records by EP that were successful in the south in late 1955. But then Sam started to quiver financially under the weight of promoting the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll star and when the opportunity arose to sell Presley’s contract to RCA Records for $35,000, he sealed the deal and spent the money building up the careers of other singers that got their starts at Sun: Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and others. So, at the dawn of 1956, Elvis Presley had a new record deal and a new manager. He began to go national. In January, he began appearing on variety shows of the day and he would literally tear those television studios apart. Any and all young people in the audience were beside themselves with glee watching this young man sing and play music that they were just beginning to appreciate. And then there was the effect that his inability to stand still while he sang had on the audience. Middle-aged people were sure it was some sort of a gimmick but the kids were drawn to everything about him. The music he played and the way he played it, the clothes he wore, the way he moved. In March, his eponymous debut album was released. It featured covers of some black R&B tunes but unlike some other white artists of the time, when Presley covered an R&B tune he didn’t water it down. Quite the opposite. The cover of this album featured Presley in wild abandon with a guitar strapped around his shoulders. This image played a crucial role in putting the guitar front and center of this new music. He recorded some his most recognizable songs early in the year among them “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog”; the latter of which he performed which such ‘vigor’ on the Milton Berle show that his performance touched off a powder keg of criticism regarding his singing style and ability and mostly his unbridled enthusiasm and gyrations when he sang. Steve Allen had Presley on his show and made a big deal of how he was presenting a “new Elvis”, dressing EP in a tuxedo and tails and having him restrain himself as he sang. That night Allen beat his biggest rival Ed Sullivan in the ratings. This forced Sullivan to have Presley appear, even though Sullivan had said he wouldn’t have Presley on because his was “a family show”. Elvis’ first appearance on the Sullivan show was viewed by 60 million people – a record 82.6% of the TV audience. It was this appearance that really put him over the top. His second album was released in October. It went to number one. In November, he appeared in his first film, “Love Me tender”. I have found in writing this that it is very difficult to fully appreciate the impact Elvis Presley had on the public during the year 1956. Literally everything began to change because of the exposure and the success he had during these twelve months. The year ended with a front page article in the Wall Street Journal that reported that $22 million worth of EP merchandise had been sold that year – on top of record sales. Also, at RCA – one of the biggest record labels in the business – Presley had accounted for over 50% of the label’s singles sales. We have to end with the words of historian Marty Jezer to put 1956 in perspective: “As Presley set the artistic pace, other artists followed. … Presley, more than anyone else, gave the young a belief in themselves as a distinct and somehow unified generation—the first in America ever to feel the power of an integrated youth culture.”

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