Song of the Week – The Wizard, Uriah Heep

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Uriah Heep, named after a character in Dickens’ David Copperfield, released over 20 studio albums.  Only a few rose in the charts in the US.  The highest chart position and reached in the Billboard 200 was the #23 attained by their 1972 album, Demons and Wizards.

The lead track on that album is “The Wizard” which was also released as a single.

“The Wizard” starts with an acoustic guitar intro then builds into a power ballad.  David Byron’s lead vocal is in a style similar to Styx’s Dennis DeYoung.  The lyrics are typical of ‘70s enchanted, mystical, progressive rock songs like “Stairway to Heaven.”

He was the wizard of a thousand kings
And I chanced to meet him one night wandering
He told me tales and he drank my wine
Me and my magic mankind of feeling fine

The Lord of the Rings or the Carlos Castaneda books come to mind.

The music and lyrics of Demons and Wizards were complemented by the album cover artwork by Roger Dean, most famous for his covers for Yes albums like Fragile and Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Closer to Fine, Indigo Girls

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This being graduation season caused me to think about songs that refer to education.  I thought of these lines from “It’s Too Late” by Jim Carroll:

But it ain’t no contribution
To rely on an institution
To validate your chosen art
And to sanction your boredom
And let you play out your part

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against obtaining a formal education.  But I’m also in favor of seeking truth, challenging the status quo, and critical thinking.  That led me to today’s SotW – “Closer to Fine” by Indigo Girls.

It is a perfectly crafted song.  It has a nice melody, a solid chorus, beautifully constructed harmony vocals, and excellent lyrics that are about searching for answers to philosophical questions and not accepting the ones that come from a single, “all-knowing” source.  (“There’s more than one answer to these questions, pointing me in a crooked line.”)

My favorite lyrics are where writer Emily Saliers takes a swipe her college education:

And I went to see a doctor of philosophy

With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee

He never did marry or see a B-grade movie

He graded my performance, he said he could see through me

I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind

Got my paper and I was free

The eponymously titled album that contained “Closer to Fine” won the 1989 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Recording.  That year Indigo Girls were also nominated for Best New Artist but lost to – Milli Vanilli.  That’s a lesson for why we need to practice critical thinking!

Congratulations, graduates!  Now go get ‘em!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Rock Music in Concert Films

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The Rock Music in Films series continues this week.  Today I explore concert films, but I don’t think there will be any surprises.

The first great rock show that was released as a concert film was the T.A.M.I. Show (1964).  It was filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium over two nights in October 1964.  The integrated cast of performers included The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Jan and Dean, The Rolling Stones, and The Supremes.  The Wrecking Crew served as the house band!

The Rolling Stones had to follow that!  Keith Richards has been known to admit that choosing to follow Brown on the bill was the worst career decision of his life.

The June 1967 “summer of love” led the San Francisco flower-power set to descend on Monterey for the first Monterey Pop Festival.  The festival launched the careers of Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Otis Redding.  And there is a concert film to document it!

While Redding was already popular with Black audiences, he had not yet crossed over to the pop (white) market.  But Monterey Pop changed that.  Just weeks after the festival, while still in the Bay area, he was staying in a houseboat in Sausalito and began to write his signature song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”  Just a few months later (December 1967) he died in a plane crash outside of Madison, Wisconsin.

But the granddaddy of all concert films at least in terms of box office success – is Woodstock.  The concert was in mid-August, 1969 and the film and soundtrack were released a year later.  The 3 disc album sold very well and super-charged the careers of several of the acts (Santana, Ten Years After).  Those that rejected offers to perform at Woodstock or refused to allow their performances to be in the film and on the soundtrack regretted that decision (Procol Harum, Sweetwater, Burt Sommer).

One of my favorite performances in the set was by Joe Cocker, covering The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.”

By the mid ‘70s, The Band was hanging it up and filmed their farewell performance on Thanksgiving Day 1976 at San Francisco’s Winterland theater.  The star-studded event was directed by Martin Scorcese who also had an editing role in Woodstock.  The Band called their concert and film The Last Waltz and also released a 3-disc soundtrack.

Many of the guest performances with The Band as their “house band” were stellar, but I’m going to stick with a song by The Band themselves.  “The Shape I’m In” was originally on Stage Fright and has always been a favorite.

I just spent sixty days in the jailhouse
For the crime of having no dough, no, no
Now, here I am, back out on the street
For the crime of having nowhere to go

Almost a decade later, Talking Heads released Stop Making Sense, the concert film and soundtrack, shot over four nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, from their Speaking In Tongues tour.

Let’s take a listen to “Slippery People.”

It is a wonderful blend of David Byrne’s art rock blended with Funkadelic style funk.  He even had Bernie Worrell on keys to amp up the P-Funk aspect.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Superstition, Beck, Bogert & Appice

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Stevie Wonder has amassed a huge number of hits over his esteemed career, beginning with “Fingertips, Pt. 2” when he was just 13 years old.  One of his biggest hits was “Superstition” from the superb Talking Book.  It reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973.

But did you know that Wonder stole “Superstition” from… himself?  Well, “stole” may be the wrong word but perhaps “Indian giver” is the more appropriate term.  You see, the song was meant to be a “gift” to guitarist Jeff Beck.

Here’s the story.  In 1972, Wonder was working on the recording of Talking Book.  By that time, Wonder was playing virtually all the instruments on his recordings but still preferred to use outside guitarists.  Wonder received word that Beck would like to work with him and a recording session was arranged.  The deal was that Wonder would write Beck a song in exchange for his guitar playing.

At one session Beck was playing drums.  The Annette Carson book Jeff Beck: Crazy Fingers, quotes Beck as saying:

One day I was sitting at the drum kit, which I love to play when nobody’s around, doing this beat.  Stevie came kinda boogieing into the studio: ‘Don’t stop.’ ‘Ah, c’mon, Stevie,’ I can’t play the drums.’  Then the lick came out: ‘Superstition.’  That was my song, in return for Talking Book.  I thought, ‘He’s given me the riff of the century.’

It is ironic that “Superstition” was conceived with Beck drumming when Wonder’s version has one of the most distinctive drum intros in all of popular music.

Back to the story…  When Motown’s Berry Gordy heard the song, he knew it was a hit.  Ever the businessman, he rushed out          Wonder’s version before the one Beck had recorded with his latest group – Beck, Bogert & Appice – that was intended to be their single.  The rest is history.

This caused some bad feelings between Beck and Wonder that lasted quite a few years, but they eventually mended their friendship.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – My Maria, B.W. Stevenson

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In the early ‘70s, B.W. (Buck Wheat) Stevenson recorded a song written by his friend Daniel Moore that he was sure would be a hit.  The song was called “Shambala.”  His recording had yet to gain any traction when, two weeks later, Three Dog Night released a version that rapidly ran up the charts – all the way to #3.  Stevenson’s version stalled at #66.

So Stevenson got together with Moore and rewrote the song.  With different lyrics and a few other twists, it became “My Maria.”

Actually, I like “My Maria” better.  It’s a nice cut that straddles the space between Rock and Country music.  The musicianship on it is excellent, employing frequent Steely Dan session guitarist Larry Carlton and drummer Jim Gordon (Pet Sounds, Layla, All Things Must Pass, Pretzel Logic, and more).  It reached #9 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

Unfortunately, Stevenson’s career was cut short with his untimely death in 1988 from complications after heart valve surgery.  He was only 38.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Love Alive, Heart

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Ann and Nancy Wilson’s Heart formed in 1967!  They had huge commercial success from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s.  At the time I never gave them much consideration.  Their brand of Rock seemed a little too corporate for my tastes – not edgy enough.

But over time my opinion has changed.  Ann’s powerful vocals were never in doubt.  I undervalued Nancy’s guitar playing.  One of the “ah-ha” moments for me was when I saw Heart perform at the Bridge School benefit concert on October 27, 2013.  They played a beautiful version of Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song.”  It wowed me and led me to connect how much their music was influenced by Zep.  That may be obvious to all of you, but I was late to the realization.

The signs were there earlier.  Who could forget their amazing performance of “Stairway to Heaven” at the Kennedy Center on December 2, 2012, complete with strings, horns, and a gospel choir?  Led Zeppelin was there to accept the honor and you can see the expressions of approval as they were as blown away as the rest of the audience.

Today’s SotW is a Heart original that captures the spirit of Led Zeppelin as well as any of their recordings.  It is “Love Alive” from Little Queen (1977).

It follows the same blueprint as “Stairway…”  It starts with an acoustic guitar and softly sung verses and grows into a full blown rock and roll rave.

Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 18, 2013.  Their fans thought it was long overdue.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Cruel Twist, The Immediate Family

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Back in the ‘60s, there was a group of LA session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.  That group played on so many hits that you know and love that it is almost incomprehensible.  But this post isn’t about the Wrecking Crew, so I’ll stop here and let you do your own research if you don’t already know who they were.

In the ‘70s there was a different group of LA session musicians that also played on many albums that you know and love.  But they were never given a nickname – until now.

Guitarists Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, and drummer Russ Kunkel have been joined by Steve Postell to record as The Immediate Family.  Their first release is a funky number called “Cruel Twist.”

Here is a shortlist of the classic albums these guys supported:

Sweet Baby James      James Taylor               (Kortchmar, Kunkel)

Blue                             Joni Mitchell                (Kunkel)

Tapestry                       Carole King                 (Kortchmar, Kunkel)

Yellow Brick Road       Elton John                   (Wachtel)

Heart Like a Wheel       Linda Ronstadt             (Kunkel)

Running on Empty       Jackson Browne          (Kortchmar, Sklar, Kunkel)

Excitable Boy              Warren Zevon              (Kortchmar, Wachtel, Sklar, Kunkel)

… and many, many more.

Discussing the band’s recording sessions, American Songwriter published the following quote from Kootch:

“Me, Waddy, Russ, and Leland have been playing together forever,” Kortchmar suggests. “So it came together very easily. We recorded 17 track in three days. Two or three takes and it was done. There’s a telepathy that happens when you’ve been playing with guys for a long time. You gotta know what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it, So you’re starting on a high level.”

“Cruel Twist” is a fine example of what these guys are capable of producing, and I like it!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Music in Blaxpliotation Films

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In the early ‘70s, a film genre called Blaxploitation emerged.  Wikipedia explains:

The films produced in the 1970s were generally considered a form of exploitation because non-black producers, writers, and directors sought to tell Black stories, and to sell these potentially inauthentic stories to Black audiences. The films, while popular, suffered backlash for disproportionate numbers of stereotypical film characters showing bad or questionable motives, including most roles as criminals resisting arrest.

That’s not the whole story.  There was indeed some backlash from those that objected to the criminal stereotypes of many African Americans in the films.  In fact, BANG (Blacks Against Narcotic Genocide) picketed theaters that were screening the film Superfly, even though it was the first Blaxploitation film to be fully financed by black producers.

But many moviegoers from the African American community welcomed seeing black actors in roles that portrayed strong, assertive (male and female) characters like Shaft (Richard Roundtree) and Foxy Brown (Pam Grier).

But one thing that most of the Blaxploitation films had was excellent soundtracks!

The most popular was the Isaac Hayes “Theme from Shaft.”

“Theme from Shaft” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 at the end of 1971.  The next year the song took home the Oscar for Best Original Score – making Hayes the first African American to win the award.

Listeners are immediately drawn in by the drum intro of sixteenth notes played on the hi-hat, followed by that funky wah-wah guitar.  And who could forget the line:

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother (Shut your mouth)

Curtis Mayfield, no stranger to political message songs, put together a masterpiece for the soundtrack to Superfly in 1972.  The best song on the album is “Pusherman.”

“Pusherman” is interesting because the lyrics could be construed as glorifying the role of inner-city drug dealers.  But knowing Mayfield and his politics, he was more likely attempting to show how being a pusher may often be the only way out of poverty for blacks, who wanted to provide for their families, when living in the ghetto in the ‘70s.

I’m your mama, I’m your daddy

I’m that ni**er, in the alley

I’m your doctor when in need

Want some coke? Have some weed

The “Godfather of Soul” wouldn’t miss out on a chance to take part in this trend.  He contributed a great work – the soundtrack to Black Caesar (1973).  My choice from this soundtrack is the melodramatic ballad “Mama”s Dead.”

In the movie, this song plays as lead character Tommy Gibbs mourns the death of his mother.  Brown’s heartfelt vocal nails the emotional heft of the scene.

Mama’s dead, never again would she hold my hand

Never again to hear her call my name

But now she’s gone, her troubles are over, the pain is gone
I wish, I had made her proud to call me son

All of these soundtracks (and many others) deserve to be heard all the way through.  Give them a try!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Dr. Love, Tom Jones

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I’m of the age that makes me part of The Beatles generation of music lovers.  I was brought up on the music of the 60s and 70s.  In my perception at the time, the beat groups that wrote their own songs were authentic and were speaking to me directly.

An artist like Tom Jones was too middle of the road for me.  He seemed to appeal to “older” women – you know, the ones so attracted to his sex appeal that they threw their panties onto his stage.  How corny!!!

But you know what – that guy could really sing!  And while much of his repertoire was geared toward the over-thirty, Las Vegas crowd, he could belt out rock and soul with credibility.  A great example is today’s SotW, “Dr. Love.”

It is a big production with horns and female backup singers.  Jones’ powerful pipes ensure he doesn’t get buried under the wall of sound.

“Dr. Love” is a deep cut from the 1966 album A-Tom-Ic Jones.  That’s the one with the cover that was banned in the US over concern that it might be offensive to his American audience.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – I Want You; Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Elvis Costello

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Over the many years I’ve been writing, I occasionally cover a topic I call the Evolution Series.  Those posts either follow a song that has been covered in many forms/styles or demonstrates how a rhythm has been used differently in songs.  Today I’m stretching the concept a little further.  Today’s evolution traces three songs with the same title, by three different outstanding artists, that are not related in any direct way, except that they all depict a lover’s obsession.  The song title is “I Want You.”

First up is the Dylan classic from Blonde on Blonde.

The verses contain the vivid imagery that we all came to expect and enjoy from Dylan and the chorus switches to a very heartfelt, direct plea.

The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries
The silver saxophones say I should refuse you
The cracked bells and washed-out horns
Blow into my face with scorn
But it’s not that way
I wasn’t born to lose you

I want you, I want you
I want you so bad
Honey, I want you

In 1970, John Lennon contributed a song to Abbey Road called “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

Everyone knows this one!  It has several cool surprises.  It opens with an arpeggiated guitar riff, quickly moves into the main theme, and switches into a Latin influenced reprise.  About 4:30 in John practices his primal scream vocal that reveals his excruciating pain — it makes Dylan’s “heartfelt, direct plea” seem charming – then returns to the arpeggio opening.  This continues for 3 minutes, getting heavier and heavier with each cycle – until it unexpectedly ends abruptly in a morass of static.  Brilliant!

Elvis Costello released one of his best albums, Blood & Chocolate, in 1986 and it too contained a song titled “I Want You.”

The truth can’t hurt you it’s just like the dark
It scares you witless
But in time you see things clear and stark
I want you
Go on and hurt me then we’ll let it drop
I want you
I’m afraid I won’t know where to stop
I want you
I’m not ashamed to say I cried for you
I want you
I want to know the things you did that we do too
I want you
I want to hear he pleases you more than I do
I want you
I might as well be useless for all it means to you
I want you

The slow, sparse arrangement emphasizes the darkness of the lyrics.  Wikipedia quotes Rolling Stone aptly calling the track “an epic testament to jealousy over a former lover’s new partner.”

I wonder if any of these artists were influenced by the song(s) that preceded theirs.  Perhaps there is a more direct connection than initially seems to be the case.

Enjoy… until next week.