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.

Song of the Week – Cooler Returns, Kiwi Jr.

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I recently heard a song called “Cooler Returns” by the Toronto based band, Kiwi Jr.  At first I thought it might have been an obscure Kinks song, but discovered it was a current release.

The song starts with a cool guitar riff played on Rickenbacker.  The riffage expands with each verse and chorus and by the song’s end, the band has created a furious frenzy of noise – and I like it!

I’m not sure about the lyrics but my intuition is that it may have something to do with COVID PTSD (from a Canadian POV).

Superbowl Sunday

2020

I did not feel well

leaving the hotel

I am not American
But I feel the beat sometimes
When I run into the screen door
At the retreat trying to learn the new lines

And finally

I was never one for trying to win as a team

The Sub Pop press release for “Cooler Returns” describes singer/songwriter Jeremy Gaudet’s lyrics as “comedic surrealism.”

Cooler Returns is Kiiw Jr.’s sophomore effort.  I don’t know much about them but I plan to learn more.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Wild Trip, The Ventures

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The Ventures were a band out of Washington state that earned their fame with a slew of surf rock instrumentals.  Their biggest hit was “Walk Don’t Run” from 1960.  It reached #2 on the Billboard singles chart.  They entered the Top 10 again when their version of the theme song to the popular TV show Hawaii Five-O made it to #8 in 1969.

Along the way, somewhere around 1963, the band entered into a contract with the California guitar maker, Mosrite.  From that time, until the contract expired, the band used the “uniquely styled, futuristic-looking Mark 1 electric guitar model” exclusively.  It became their trademark.

Between 1960 and 1970 The Ventures released over 30 albums on the Dolton and Liberty labels.  (I must have about 25 of them!)  Most of them are listenable, but the one that I always go back to when I’m in the mood for that type of Rock is Wild Things!, from 1966.

Wild Things! is a theme album.  Its mix of originals and covers almost all have the word “wild” in their titles.  The best is one of the originals, “Wild Trip.”

“Wild Trip” rocks!  It’s so good that the Athens, Georgia punk/garage rock group, Flat Duo Jets, covered it in 1990 on their Go Go Harlem Baby album.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Rock Compilation Soundtracks

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I’m back! That is, I’m back with the next installment of my series on rock music in films.  You would be on solid ground if you assumed the series was completed since my last post on the subject was back in August.  That essay covered soundtracks written by Rock artists.  This one covers soundtracks that use a compilation of songs by Rock artists as the soundtrack.

The granddaddy of them all is the soundtrack to Easy Rider (1969).  It included cuts by a who’s who of counter-culture acts including Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and The Electric Prunes (yes, that was really the name of a band!).  The movie also used “The Weight” by The Band, but ABC/Dunhill couldn’t license their recording for the record, so a cover by Smith was used as a replacement.

I’m going with Hendrix – “If 6 Was 9.”

In 1973, George Lucas released the classic film, American Graffiti.  The movie starred Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, and a very young Harrison Ford.  Suzanne Somers also appears as “the blond in the T-Bird.”

The ‘50s nostalgia story had a soundtrack that was consistent with the era.  (It was also the inspiration for the TV sitcom “Happy Days”, also starring Howard.)  The “oldies” format used recordings mostly released between 1955 and 1962 and were heavy on the doo-wop.  It seems weird to me that this collection of songs was considered “oldies” when the oldest one was released only 18 years before the film’s debut.  (Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released almost 18 years ago, so I guess that’s an “oldie” now.)

One key difference of the American Graffiti soundtrack is that it was used as diegetic music – that’s music that the characters are presumed to be hearing themselves as part of the scenes.

One of my favorite songs in the movie is “Since I Don’t Have You” by The Skyliners (1959).

In his 1989 book The Heart of Rock and Soul – 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, music critic Dave Marsh slotted “SIDHY” at #36.  Guns N’ Roses brought the song into the ‘90s with an excellent cover version.

Two other important Rock soundtracks were released in 1983 — The Big Chill and Dazed and Confused.

The Big Chill takes place in the early ‘80s when a group of friends that attend the University of Michigan together reunites for the funeral of their friend.  Appropriately, the soundtrack skews towards ‘60s soul and Motown.  The song that I always enjoy hearing is the “deep cut” “Tell Him” by the Exciters (1963).

The soundtrack for Dazed and Confused is something entirely different.  This film about high school life is set in Texas, 1976.  The music leans toward the hard rock of the day, and every track is a winner.  I’m going with Edgar Winter’s “Free Ride.”

Another great Rock soundtrack was compiled for the movie Almost Famous (2000) and was rewarded with a Grammy award to prove it!  The Cameron Crowe film’s plot centers around a young (15-year-old) Rock journalist that goes on the road with a (fictional) band – Stillwater – to get a scoop for Rolling Stone.  One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when everyone on the tour bus spontaneously starts singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

Of course, there are many more great compilation soundtracks.  In the 2000s, soundtracks were often used to help launch the careers of obscure bands.  But that’s the subject for a later installment of Rock Music in Films.

Enjoy… until next week.