Thursday, October 30, 2014

Elektra Records: My Best Friend's Girl

Since I missed last night’s post, I promise that I’ll make it up with an extra Elektra release on Sunday. For tonight, we travel back to October 1978 when the second single by The Cars, “My Best Friend’s Girl,” was released by Elektra.

Elektra and Arista had been vying for the attention of The Cars and Elektra was the winner – and the band reaped the benefits, Arista was somewhat New Wave heavy at the time. The Cars would become Elektra’s primary New Wave act.

I was living in the Huntington (WV)/Ashland (KY)/Ironton (OH) market at the time, and while their first single, “Just What I Needed,” was shunned by the stations in the market, “My Best Friend’s Girl” got some airplay. I remember playing it on WAMX when I joined their staff later that year. Although I never heard their first single in the market, I got to know the band from visiting Columbus, Ohio that previous summer where “Just What I Needed” was a staple of the town’s AOR stations.

Unlike the first single that featured the vocals by Benjamin Orr, “My Best Friends Girl” features the voice that became part of the iconic sound of the band – Ric Ocasek. Interestingly enough, the band recorded the song in the key of “E,” but the master tape was sped up and this increased the pitch to the key of “F.”

“My Best Friend’s Girl” only charted at #35 – so it also fits our Thirty Something Thursday category as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Elektra Records: Down to Louisiana

Unknown today except to audiophiles, roots music aficionados, and the enlightened; Koerner, Ray, and Glover’s “Blues, Rags, and Hollers” was probably one of the most influential blues albums to be birthed during the folk revival of the 1960s. During the spring of 1963, three students of the University of Minnesota drove all night to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a date with destiny. The 300 mile jaunt on pre-Interstate highways was even more harrowing due to the foggy conditions that plagued the trio. Later that Sunday morning, ‘Spider” John Koerner, Dave “Snaker” Ray, and Tony “Little Sun” Glover embarked on an all day recording session that produced this monumental.

With only 300 copies pressed on the Audiophile label, the record caught the attention of Jac Holzman at Elektra and it was released by this up-and-coming independent label during the summer of 1963. Some differences exist between the two versions of the album as Koerner, Ray, and Glover overfilled both sides with music, as the album contained 20 songs.

Since the tracks went as close to the label as mechanically possible, many turntables in 1963 couldn’t play the final tracks from each side as the tone arm automatically lifted before the song finished. The album also contained nearly 51 minutes of music, and anything over 42 minutes tended to increase fidelity problems. To fix these issues, Elektra eliminated four of the cuts. In addition, Holzman didn’t like the original stereo mix and the reissue was released monaurally.

I took the photo of this place in Louisiana in 2012.
You might find a mojo hand there.

During The Beatles’ tour of America, the album caught the attention of John Lennon who considered it one of his favorites. Future Elektra recording artist Jim Morrison of The Doors believed it to be one of the best albums released during the period. Although all three musicians are credited as trio, that wasn’t the set-up for the album. Only one track of the reissue had the participation of all three. On today’s cut, “Down to Louisiana,” which was written by Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters, Dave Ray sings and plays guitar while accompanied by Tony “Little Sun” Glover on the harmonica.

It needs to be noted that many who learned to play harmonica in the late 1960s and ‘70s studied under the tutelage of Tony Glover. His Oak Publications manual Blues Harp is by far one of the best guides to play harmonica. I picked up my copy in 1974 and still have it as a prized possession. I owe this blues harp master a debt of gratitude.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Elektra Records: Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

The inspiration for using Elektra Records as this month’s feature was inspired by today’s song by They Might Be Giants. In early September I was making my weekly trek to my current position when I heard a National Public Radio’s Morning Edition story on a new crime novel set in old Byzantium. The author and the reporter briefly discussed the various names of what is now Istanbul. The story closed with They Might Be Giants’ rendition of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”

Although known as Constantinople (and Byzantium before that), the name Istanbul is not a recent fabrication. Istanbul has been used for centuries as it is a corruption of the Greek phrase “εις την πόλιν (eis ten polin)” meaning “into the city.” The song, however, commemorates Turkey’s 1930 request that global postal authorities only use the name “Istanbul” and cease using “Constantinople.”

Written 23 years after the fact in 1953 by Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon, the song was a hit for The Four Lads. The original charted at #10 and was certified gold. Keeping the swing arrangement, They Might Be Giants’ 1990 remake is a little more raucous than the original and its faster tempo makes it a perfect vehicle for They Might Be Giants’ unusual style. The fiddle also adds to the overall flavor of this version.

They Might Be Giants took their name from the title of a 1971 quixotic film starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. The title was a reference to Cervantes’ character Don Quixote’s belief that the windmills he was fighting were actually giants.

Unlike the original, the remake of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople) only charted at #61; however, it is better known as album cut from TMBG’s third LP, “Flood.” Of their 16 albums, “Flood” was the only one to be certified as platinum in the US.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Elektra Records: The Circle Game

Originally focusing on folk music, Elektra Records’ first issue was released in 1951. Started in the previous year by Jac Holzman and Paul Rickolt’s who were students at Maryland’s St. John’s College, they used an altered version of name of the Greek mythological character Electra.

In 1970, the label became part of Kinney’s holdings which at the time included Warner Brothers and Atlantic Records. In 1971, Kinney changed its name to Warner Communications, Inc. With the purchase of the independent Asylum Records in 1972, Ekektra and Asylum were joined into one division of Warner Communication; however, Asylum appeared to become a subsidiary to the Elektra imprint.

In 2004, Time-Warner merged Elektra into Atlantic and was decommissioned as an active label until resurrected in 2009. Much of the golden years of Elektra were during the years 1965 to 1985 and the bulk of this week’s feature of the label will come from those years.

Our first selection is the title cut from Tom Rush’s 1968 album “The Circle Game.” I bought my copy of this LP in a used record store in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1986,  Although not released as a single from the album as was Rush’s composition “No Regrets,” “The Circle Game” is fairly well known as one of his recordings. Written by Joni Mitchell for Rush, Mitchell did not record the song until her 1970 third album, “Ladies of the Canyon.”

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Slade: My Oh My

Known for their raucous songs, Slade’s performance of a ballad was an unlikely proposition, but “My Oh My” was the band’s first bona fide American hit. Although the power ballad charted at #2 in the UK, it only scratched the Top 40 surface in the US. “My Oh My” peaked in the US at #37 and I remember playing this tune on my morning show at WOAY-FM in Oak Hill, WV during 1984.

The tune was composed by lead singer Noddy Holder and multi-instrumentalist Jim Lea. Lea’s piano provides the only instrumentation at the beginning of the cut. Although the single was more successful in the UK, the video recorded to support the tune was only originally released in the US.

Swing Version

By 1985, the band was getting requests from night club acts that wanted to record the song but in a different style. It is rumored that Frank Sinatra suggested that the tune be done swing style. While the band wasn’t keen on recording it themselves, they enlisted a friend Monty Babson and his band to record the demo that could be sent to these artists.

After hearing Babson’s treatment, Noddy Holder decided to record the tune with the backing of Babson’s jazz band. The song was released as a “B” side to the 12-inch single of “Keep Your Hands off my Power Supply.”

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Castles Made of Sand

I was trying to find a final song with tenor guitar to finish out this week’s special and I stumbled upon Reggie Witty’s interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.” Not only does Witty sing and play rhythm tenor guitar, but he plays lead tenor and upright bass. The cut was recorded at Austin’s Sotogrande Sound Lab.

Witty plays a Martin O-18T tenor guitar for both the rhythm and the lead parts. I can’t tell what he has in his right hand while he is playing the lead, but it looks like an E-Bow. Unfortunately, I’m not sure, as I believe an E-Bow needs a magnetic pickup to add its violin bow effect to a guitar lead. Having never used one, I really couldn’t say for sure.

As for the tuning, it took me a while to figure it out and I nearly drove my oldest daughter crazy in my attempt. It appears that he has tuned his tenor a fifth lower than standard tuning as F-C-G-D and a step below Chicago tuning (G-D-A-E). I hadn’t heard this particular tuning before, but it really gives the guitar a different sound. Very nice.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Tenor Guitar: Behind the House

It was during the Thanksgiving break of 2005 that I decided that I’d restring my tenor guitar and fool with it some. I hadn’t had it out of the case in years and it was time to get interested once again in this four-stringed marvel. I had been tuning the guitar like a tenor ukulele (G-C-E-A), as I thought this was not only the popular but proper tuning of the instrument.

During some of my free time that weekend, I started searching the web for information regarding the instrument and found as well as the tenor guitar list. I joined it that weekend and am still a member. I also learned that since the tenor guitar was originally devised for tenor banjoists, that the original tuning (but certainly not the only tuning) was C-G-D-A).

Since I played mandolin, also tuned in fifths, the transition to this tuning was easy; however, I tend to think that I am playing the mandolin chords by name rather than the actual chord names. For instance, when I played what I knew as a G chord it really was fifth lower as a C on the tenor guitar.

This still messes with my mind and I suppose I could tune it like an octave mandolin and be done with it – but I have a bouzouki and an octave mandolin – so I need something with a slightly different sound – and I really like how the C-G-D-A tuning rings.

During that weekend, I immersed myself in tenor guitar logic, lore, and the legends of the instrument. One of those modern day TG legends is Neko Case. Unfortunately, I had never heard her music before that fateful weekend, and I really missed an opportunity to fully experience this redheaded Siren.

Her hypnotic voice would lure the most experienced mariners to her island of song. Although influenced by many genres of music, Neko’s penchant for folk and country shines brightly like a searchlight across the dark murky waters of oblivion.

Today’s feature, “Behind the House,” has Case playing her 1960s folk-era vintage Gibson TG-0 – which was her first tenor. She was drawn to the instrument because she has small hands and the tenor was easier for her to play than a standard six string guitar – but she plays it as well. As for tuning preference, it appears from this recording that Neko tunes it like a baritone ukulele/guitar as D-G-B-E.

Besides the TG-0, she has a plethora of tenor guitars that include a Martin, a Gretsch, Nationals, and several Gibson electrics in a variety of configurations. Back in 2005, there was a photo online with her tenor and vintage amp collection at that time. I wish I could find it, so I could post it here. “Behind the House” was performed live in Austin, Texas in 2006.