Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Steve Miller Band: Winter Time

Today has been a typical winter day – cold, and turning colder as I write this. I picked today’s song to celebrate/eschew [pick one] the season of winter and to remember the late Norton Buffalo. On Sunday, I featured a cut from the Norton Buffalo tribute show in November. Norton, who died on October 30, 2009, had spent 33 years as a member of the Steve Miller Band and “Winter Time” was one of the first two cuts on which he played harmonica with Miller. This was even prior to Norton's becoming a member of the band.

While Norton Buffalo’s performance on this particular cut is subdued by his normal standard of playing (although at one point he mimics Miller's voice), it adds quite a bit to this laid back tune that was an Album Oriented Rock radio favorite. The moral of the story is that, it is not how many notes you play, but often it is what you don’t play that adds to the performance. In other words, less is more.

Norton Buffalo Live

Another aspect of this song that I like is the sitar. While Steve Miller is credited as playing sitar, it really sounds like a Coral Electric Sitar. The electric sitar was a staple in pop and rock music in the late 60s and early 70s. This unique instrument appeared on classics like The Box Tops’ “Cry Like A Baby,” Joe South’s “Games People Play,” Steely Dan’s “Do it Again,” Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love,” and hundreds more. Played like a guitar, the Coral Electric Sitar was designed by Vincent Bell and was produced by Danelectro.

Tulloch also coauthored "Guitars from Neptune" in the 1990s.

For Christmas this year, I asked Santa and received Doug Tulloch’s “Neptune Bound – Ultimate Danelectro Guitar Guide.” It is a great collection of photos, facts, and inside stories concerning Nathan Daniel’s operation in Neptune, New Jersey that produced wonderful, but inexpensive guitars out of Masonite. I have currently three Dano products – a Bellzouki (model 7010 12-string electric), the Silvertone 1448 with the amp in the case, and a tube Version of Danelectro’s Silvertone amplifier that was used with a twin 12-cabinet.

Vincent Bell LP showing his Bellzouki Model 7020 
- one of the three Bellzouki models made by Danelectro

I once had the solid state version of the same amp with speaker cabinet. It was owned by my brother Chuck and I traded him for it by doing lead sheets for songs he was having published. Unfortunately, the amp head got dropped and the circuit board broke in two. I was able to get the amp to work for a while (by using paper clips, solder, and a plastic comb - honest, I was out of duct tape) – but after three or four years, it finally failed and I pitched it. The cabinet lasted somewhat longer, but I blew out the speakers when I adjusted a synthesizer and a high pitched squeal was just too much for the drivers. I sold the cabinet, blown speakers and all, for $30 bucks several years later.

I have always been a fan of Danelectro instruments and have wanted an electric sitar. Back home in Pittsburgh, Monroeville Mall Music had one in their store. This was in the mid 1970s and it was priced at $295 - the original selling price of the instrument. I visited the store often and salivated at the Bell - the Vincent Bell signature model sitar, that is (a little Pavlovian humor there – very little indeed). I've always wished I could have gotten that gem, but someone else got it for a steal. Mint condition Coral models (as there are several different copies out now) can go for up to $5,000 these days.

Vincent Bell, the inventor of the electric sitar, 
shown in this classic ad from the 1960s.

What an investment that would have been. Alas, maybe I’ll get a Jerry Jones or Rogue model in the future – but, I am not holding my breath. Most of the copies are constructed like the Coral and have an additional set of 13 sympathetic strings.  These are also playable. The factory recommendation was to tune these strings chromatically; however, some players tune the strings diatonically, to a chord, or even in a modal tuning. It is Steve Miller’s chromatic runs on the sympathetic strings in “Winter Time” that lead me to believe he is playing a Coral Electric Sitar and not the garden variety Indian instrument of the same name.

“Winter Time” appeared on two Steve Miller Band albums: 1977’s “Book of Dreams” and 1978’s “Greatest Hits 1974-1978.” I have the latter – in fact mine is a limited edition copy that was released in blue vinyl. I was a collector of colored vinyl and have numerous albums and singles in every shade including hot pink, clear, and luminous vinyl. Blue vinyl or not, the album is one of the top selling LPs of all time in the US. The Recording Industry Association of America currently ranks it at #37.

The Steve Miller Band's Best Selling LP

Having sold over 13 million copies, the RIAA has certified the LP at the diamond level for sales in excess of 10 million copies. Of all the records/CDs ever released, only 106 have diamond level certification. The RIAA introduced diamond certification in 1999. Previous to this, the higher selling albums were certified at multi-platinum status with each platinum level attained with every million copies sold. Multi-platinum status still exists for albums selling two million copies or more.

Don’t tell anyone, but my blue vinyl copy was purchased at a store that sold new promotional copies of albums for $2.00 and $3.00 each. Therefore, my purchase did not contribute to the diamond status of the LP (sorry about that, Steve). While the name of the store escapes me, it was located on Fourth Avenue in Huntington, WV. The warning, “PROMOTIONAL COPY – NOT FOR SALE,” was covered over with a sticker, as were all the promotional copies that were sold from this establishment. I didn’t mind the sticker, as the prices were one-third to one-half that National Record Mart, six blocks down the street, was charging for legitimate copies - and hey, I was a poor student at the time - that is I was a student who was poor, not a "poor student."

I probably bought fifty or sixty albums in the late 70s from this store. Suddenly, the store went out of business and I eventually moved out the area never knowing why it closed. On a visit to the Huntington Mall several years later, I ran into the former entrepreneur who owned the previously mentioned establishment. At this time, he was working at one of the mall’s record stores. I hadn’t seen him in over 4 years and we caught up on old times. During our conversation, he confided that he was busted by the FBI for selling the promo copies and had spent some time in prison as part of his punishment. The FBI takes all kinds of music piracy serious – a lesson for us all.

Norton Buffalo's First of Two Solo Albums

Come to think of it, I bought my copy of Norton Buffalo’s first solo album, “Lovin’ in the Valley of the Moon” as a promo copy at the same store. Had any of his material from this album been available, I would have featured it. Perhaps someday a kind soul will upload some of these cuts to YouTube. As for now, be content with the Steve Miller Band’s “Winter Time” and the following tunes that feature the Coral Electric Sitar.

The Box Tops – “Cry like a Baby”

Joe South – “Games People Play”

Steely Dan – “Do it Again”

Redbone – “Come and get your Love”

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