Song of the Week – Nice Nice Very Nice, Ambrosia; Nice Very Nice, Dave Soldier & Kurt Vonnegut; High Society, Louis Armstrong

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Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor, Matthew Wells.  Matthew and I have been friends for over 40 years.  He was among the first guest contributors to the SotW, way back in 2009.

I came up with the idea of posting about a song inspired by a science fiction novel several years ago but didn’t feel qualified to write it.  I knew Matthew was my man!  In addition to being a successful playwright, he has a scifi novel in his top drawer that should be published.  Read on!

When you think about songs based on works of science-fiction books, there are obvious ones that come to mind, like “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine, which is based on the Ray Bradbury story of the same name, and “1984” by David Bowie (he wanted to do a stage musical based on the book, but couldn’t get the rights from the Orwell estate).

And then there’s “Fifty-Third Calypso,” from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle, otherwise known as “Nice, Nice, Very Nice:”

Oh, a sleeping drunkard

Up in Central Park,

And a lion-hunter

In the jungle dark,

And a Chinese dentist,

And a British queen—

All fit together

In the same machine.

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice;

Nice, nice, very nice—

So many different people

In the same device.

The Calypso is part of a religion, invented by a man called Bokonon and named after himself, whose believers accept that life is meaningless but still want some kind of hope to cling to, even if it’s a lie.

There are three musical versions of it that I could find.  The earliest is from the self-titled first album of the prog-rock group Ambrosia, in 1975.

In their version, the group added an additional stanza and a bridge:

Oh a whirling dervish
And a dancing bear
Or a Ginger Rogers and a Fred Astaire
Or a teenage rocker
Or the girls in France
Yes, we all are partners in this cosmic dance

Nice, nice, very nice
Nice, nice, very nice
So many people in the same device

I wanted all things to make sense
So we’d be happy instead of tense

The mix of organ, horns, and drums give this version a spacy, psychedelic feel, like the musical version of a trippy religious experience.  Kurt Vonnegut is credited as co-writer on the song, and from all accounts, he liked this version.  In a letter he wrote to the band in 1976, he says:

“I was at my daughter’s house last night, and the radio was on.  By God if the DJ didn’t play our song, and say it was number ten in New York, and say how good you guys are in general. You can imagine the pleasure that gave me.  Luck has played an enormous part in my life.  Those who know pop music keep telling me how lucky I am to be tied in with you.  And I myself am crazy about our song, of course, but what do I know and why wouldn’t I be?  This much I have always known, anyway: Music is the only art that’s really worth a damn.  I envy you guys.”

The song also shows up in “Ice-Nine Ballads,” a 1997 collaboration between Vonnegut and Dave Soldier in which Soldier’s arrangements for songs based on Cat’s Cradle are accompanied by Vonnegut’s voiceovers.

In this version, Vonnegut’s voiceover has the offhand cool of William S. Burroughs, and Soldier’s arrangement sounds like a Frank Zappa B-side. (Odd fact: Soldier is the musical persona of Columbia University neuroscientist David Sulzer.)

To me, these two versions of Vonnegut’s lyric are nice, nice, very nice enough, but neither of them meet the challenge of turning the song into an actual calypso, like something that could have been sung by Harry Belafonte.  Or Louis Armstrong.  Why Armstrong?  Because the tune in my head is pretty much the same as Cole Porter’s “High Society,” which Armstrong sings at the beginning of the 1956 movie.  To me, it has the right tempo, and the right tune:

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Soul Drippin’, The Mauds

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Mid-sixties Chicago was home to a healthy group of bands that were purveyors of “blue-eyed soul.”  Several of them — The Buckinghams, The Ides of March, The American Breed, and Shadows of the Night – had major Top 40 hits, many with daring horn arrangements, and solid careers in the music biz.  But others weren’t so lucky.

Case in point – The Mauds.  The band was able to secure a contract with Dunwich Records (distributed by Mercury) and released their first single – a cover of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On (I’m Comin’) – in 1967.  It was a regional hit in and around Chicago. 

Today’s SotW came from a later visit to a recording studio.  “Soul Drippin’” was released in 1968.

“Soul Drippin’” was enhanced by a group of horn players that included Bob Lamm, Walt Parazaider, James Pankow, and Lee Loughnane, most of whom would go on to join Chicago.  But the track was only able to attain the same level of success as prior releases – a pretty big hit locally (top 10 in Chicago), but barely breaking into the top 100 (#85) nationally.  It deserved better and I’m sure you will agree when you hear it!

The Mauds’ soul credentials were solid.  According to an article by Guy Arnston, re-published on the Forgotten Hits website, “Curtis Mayfield was so happy with the way they did his ‘You Must Believe Me,’ complete with Impressions-styled harmonies, that he promised to write several songs just for them.”

The band continued to perform well into the 2000s until lead singer Jimy Rogers’ untimely death from cancer in 2010.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Shameika, Fiona Apple; Shameika Said, Shameika Stepney (feat. Fiona Apple)

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Today’s SotW was written by a special guest contributor – my daughter Abby.  Abby has a very wide-ranging, eclectic interest in music.  She also has a steel-trap memory for lyrics.  She originally gave me an idea for a SotW topic, but I persuaded her to write it herself.  Here it is!

In April 2020 Fiona Apple released her fifth studio album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

The album garnered a lot of buzz, as the moody, experimental album dropped during peak shelter-in-place and mirrored the confusion and frustration many of us were feeling at the time. The album secured a spot on many ‘Best of the Year’ lists, including the track “Ladies” as one of Rolling Stones’ top 10 songs of 2020.  But the track that really caught my attention was “Shameika,” one of today’s SotW. 

In the song, Apple remembers a moment from her elementary school days where she was bullied.  In an interview with Vulture, Apple recalled, “I was probably 11 or so… I just remember being in the cafeteria, a bunch of girls at one end of the table.  I came over to sit with them, and they started laughing at me.  So I sat one seat away but still tried to be close to them.  Shameika came up, and she was like, “Why are you trying to sit with those girls?  You have potential.”  This quote from Shameika is the chorus of the song: 

Shameika said I had potential (x4) 

In the Vulture article Apple confesses, “when I first wrote the song, I was not entirely convinced she existed.  Because I have this one memory and it’s a very big memory for me.  But maybe I created this person.” 

Back then I didn’t know what potential meant 

And Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend but 

She got through to me and I’ll never see her again 

She got through to me and I’ll never see her again 

As it turns out, they would see each other again.  Over the years, Apple had kept in touch with a teacher from her elementary school.  This teacher remembered and kept in touch with Shameika Stepney as well, and reached out to both of them after the song was released, hoping to link the two. 

Stepney and Apple reconnected, and in an interview with Pitchfork, Stepney admits “I’ve always been a protector of anyone else who’s smaller, who can’t defend themselves.”  Stepney is also a musician, and in November released her own song “Shameika Said,” which features vocals from Fiona Apple. This is today’s second SotW. 

Pitchfork interviewed Shameika on her life and her music career – read the full story here.

These songs and the story behind them are a true testament to the fact that our actions, big or small, can impact others in a life-changing way.  We should all try to remember this when we interact with others!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Picking Up After You, Tom Waits & Crystal Gayle

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Happy Valentine’s weekend!  The holiday-inspired me to draft a SotW that fits the occasion… in a way.  It’s not a love song but it is a song about love.  Or maybe about how infatuation is whisked away by mundane, daily life.

This Tom Waits/Crystal Gayle duet is arranged in the conversational style that I explored last Valentine’s weekend.  This isn’t simply a duet, but a conversation between the singers.  They bicker:

Waits:

Looks like you spent the night in a trench
And tell me how long have you been combing your hair with a wrench
Gayle:

The roses are dead and the violets are too
And I’m sick and tired of picking up after you

In the end, the tune’s payoff line gives it a twist:

Waits:

Take all your relatives and all of your shoes
Believe me, I’ll really swing when you’re gone
I’ll be living on chicken and wine after we’re through
With someone I pick up after you

Gayle:

With someone I pick up after you

Both:

With someone I pick up after you

“Picking Up After You” was written for the Academy Award nominated soundtrack for the Frances Ford Coppola film One from the Heart that was released Valentine’s weekend, 1982.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week Revisited – Armando’s Rhumba, Chick Corea

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It was just announced that Chick Corea died of cancer last Tuesday at the age of 79. The following SotW post was written March 27, 2010.

The song of the week is “Armando’s Rhumba” by Chick Corea.  It is from his 1976 double album, My Spanish Heart

Corea is one of the most important keyboardists in modern jazz.  In the 60s he gained experience playing with a who’s who of the jazz world, including Herbie Mann, Stan Getz, and on landmark albums by Miles Davis (In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew).

In the early 70s he formed his own group, Return to Forever, with Stanley Clarke.  The band later added Al DiMeola and moved more in the direction of the rock fusion that most people associate him with.

With My Spanish Heart, Corea chose to explore the sounds of his Latin heritage.  The album and “Armando’s Rhumba” in particular capitalize on the superb playing of Steve Gadd (drums), Stanley Clarke (bass) and especially Jean Luc Ponty whose violin gives the song its bounce and charm.  The flamenco hand claps add spice to the rhythm and help propel the song.  The result is a gypsy sound reminiscent of the classic Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli recordings.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – When the Stars Go Blue, Ryan Adams and The Coors w/ Bono

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This week marks the 13th anniversary of the SotW.  Thanks to all for your faithful support and encouragement after all these years.

It’s happened again!  A coincidence that prompts me to write a SotW post.  This time for “When the Stars Go Blue.”

I recently read Elton John’s 2019 autobiography, Me.  In one of the final chapters, he mentions how much he likes and respects the music of Ryan Adams.  Comparing his album The Big Picture (which Bernie Taupin hated) to Adams’ Heartbreaker, John reported:

“I’d been listening to Ryan Adams’ album Heartbreaker a lot.  He was a classic country rock singer-songwriter, really – I could imagine him onstage at the Troubadour in the seventies.  But there was a toughness and a freshness about it that did make The Big Picture sound weirdly dated and staid.”

Around the same time, I read an article in Far Out titled “From Bob Dylan to The Beatles: 8 songs horror hero Stephen King couldn’t live without.”

Adams’ “When the Stars Go Blue” was on the list.  And it is a fabulous choice!

I think Adams’ recording is spectacular, but many of you may be more familiar with the version by the Irish family band, The Coors, that featured Bono as well.  That version is awesome as well.  You can’t beat a great song!

When the band I’m in, Rockridge Station, was formed over 10 years ago, “When the Stars Go Blue” was one of the first songs added to our repertoire.  And there’s a good reason.  You can’t beat a great song!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Space Girl, Frances Forever

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OK, so maybe I’ve lost my mind!!!  Today’s SotW is a track that went viral on TikTok, the short-form, social media app that targets guys like me as their key demographic.  Right!

As I put together my “best of 2020” playlist, one of my favorites was “Space Girl” by Frances Forever.

I’m a sap for a good power pop song and “Space Girl” checks all the boxes.  It has energy, charm, and a good hook.

Frances Forever is a young Massachusetts based singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.  She grabbed some attention after a 2019 appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series featured “Space Girl.”  From there it went viral on TikTok, then Spotify and Apple Music.

The lyrics remind me thematically of another power pop classic – “Another Girl Another Planet” by The Only Ones – the SotW on February 4th, 2012.

Let’s wait to see if this is a one-hit-wonder or if Frances Forever will show some lasting power.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Romeo’s Tune, Steve Forbert

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Meet me in the middle of the day
Let me hear you say everything’s okay
Bring me southern kisses from your room

Back in 1979, singer-songwriter Steve Forbert had a Top 20 hit with “Romeo’s Tune” from Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim

The sweet love song is driven by a lively piano riff played by Bobby Ogdin who was the pianist in Elvis Presley’s TCB band.

But the final arrangement of the song didn’t come easy.  It was originally slated to be on his debut album, but he wasn’t satisfied with the recordings from those sessions and decided to hold it back.  Over the next year, he tried various arrangements before he came up with the final with help from the album’s producer, John Simon.

Simon was responsible for producing several of my favorite records – The Band’s Music from Big PinkThe Child is Father to the Man by Blood Sweat & Tears, and Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel.  He also produced the hit “Red Rubber Ball” by The Cyrkle (written by Paul Simon).

Forbert dedicated the song to Florence Ballard, of the Supremes, on the Jackrabbit Slim album cover, though it isn’t about her.  He has often said that the track is about girl he knew when he was a teen but has never identified her by name.

On a side note, Forbert played Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend in the video for her song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Meet me in the middle of the night
Let me hear you say everything’s alright
Let me smell the moon in your perfume

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Get Off the Stage, Chuck Prophet

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Today’s SotW is “Get Off the Stage” from Chuck Prophet’s 2020 album, The Land That Time Forgot.

This may be the shortest SotW post I’ve ever written.  I’ll let the song, and this cartoon, do the talkin’.

Enjoy… until next week.