Saturday, December 28, 2013

Chess Records: Spoonful

Our final look at Chess Records takes us back to a cut by one of the premier bluesmen from the 20th century – Howlin’ Wolf – although sometimes he is identified on records as “Howling Wolf.” Born as Chester Burnett, the Wolf was larger than life – a big man with a big voice and a big personality to match. His six foot three, 300 pound frame was not to be reckoned with by anyone.

If you’ve seen “Cadillac Records,” you’ll recall Howlin’ Wolf (played by Eammon Walker) basically putting Leonard Chess in his place. Chess backed down. Whether the encounter was historically accurate or not, it certainly could be imagined as actually happening.

One of his non-charting singles – in fact most, if not all of his singles, failed to chart – was the blues classic “Spoonful.” Penned by bassist and Chess employee Willie Dixon, “Spoonful” is a Chicago blues standard and became better known to a wider audience when Cream recorded it for the UK version of their debut album “Fresh Cream.” It did not appear on the US version of “Fresh Cream” being replaced by the single “I Feel Free,” which was absent from the UK issue. It was, however, issued as a single by ATCO in the US. But, I digress.

Howlin’ Wolf recorded it first in 1960 and provides the inspiration for most rock interpretations of the song.

Howlin’ Wolf’s rendition wasn’t, however, the only version by a Chess artist. In 1961, Etta James and Harvey Fuqua did more of an R&B take on the song. Not as sparse as Howlin’ Wolf’s interpretation, Etta and Harvey’s duet features a full orchestra conducted by Riley Hampton who also wrote the arrangement.

Different than Howlin’ Wolf’s original, Etta and Harvey’s version includes a key change and an alteration of the lyrical content as well as the chordal structure of the tune. While Howlin’ Wolf’s version is centered on one chord, Etta and Harvey’s version includes a number of chord changes. At the chagrin of most blues aficionados, the second Chess release did better on the charts. It peaked at #78 on the Hot 100 and at #12 on the R&B charts.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Chess Records: To Love, To Love

One of the biggest hits for the Chess Records label was Billy Stewart’s unique take on George Gershwin’s “Summertime” in 1966. The Single peaked at #10 on the pop charts as well as at #7 on the R&B charts. In fitting with our typical Friday Flipside’s theme, we present the “B” side of that single “To Love, to Love.”

Although missing his scat technique used on the “A” side and other recordings, “To Love, to Love” is a typical example of a Stewart ballad. Although he had been performing since he was 12 years old, Bo Diddley is credited with discovering Stewart and helped the young singer get a contract with Chess Records.

“To Love, to Love” was a collaboration of three men named Billy: Stewart the artist, Nichols the writer, and Davis the producer. In addition to its release year of 1966, the single was sequentially numbered as 1966 as well.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Chess Records: Many Rivers To Cross

Although Jimmy Cliff wrote and recorded his magnum opus “Many Rivers to Cross” in 1969, his version failed to make a dent in the US and UK charts; however, today, his rendition is the one for which most people are familiar. Within a year of Cliff’s release, James Milton Campbell (AKA Little Milton) recorded probably one of the first covers of the tune.

Little Milton came to the stable of Chess recording artists first as an independent record label owner of Bobbin Records which was distributed by Chess subsidiary Checker Records. He later translated back as an artist for Checker where he released a number of singles including his version of “Many Rivers to Cross.”

This recording is perfect for a Thursday Repeats and Threepeats selection, as Little Milton’s version of this song was reissued as a single in 1976. The occasion was the release of All Platinum Records’ Chess Blues Master Series. Not only was this series a shot in the arm for the label, it brought back a number of Chess artists to public light in the mid 1970s.

Besides Little Milton, the series included Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lowell Fulson, J.B. Lenoir, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Jimmy Rogers. Each album had a unique cover by the same artist and they really make a nice collection. Unfortunately being a starving college student, I had to wait until the albums were cut out and I only got three of the series – one being Little Milton’s collection.

More of a soul and R&B artist rather than a strict bluesman, I found Little Milton’s inclusion in the series a refreshing alternative. I was not familiar with Milton’s recordings before this as he had limited Top 40 airplay. Only two other artists had greater success with the song than Little Milton and Jimmy Cliff: Nilsson recorded the tune in 1974 and his version peaked at #109 and Annie Lennox charted at #80 in 2008.

Although many others have recorded the “Many Rivers to Cross,” I prefer Little Milton’s soulful rendition of this classic. Incidentally neither issue of Milton's recording charted.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Chess Records: Love For Christmas

Because the soul group the Gems only produced regional hits for Chess Records, they are often overlooked in the history of the genre. One notable aspect of the Gems is that their lead singer was Minnie Riperton. Riperton later rose to fame in 1975 with the #1 hit single “Lovin’ You.” At the time she joined the all-girl group, Riperton served as the receptionist at Chess.

Written by producer Billy Davis, “Love for Christmas” was released for Christmas 1964, and like the band’s other singles, it failed to gain any national recognition. Arranger Phil Wright borrowed generously from the Motown sound for this single. I particularly like the tubular bells used throughout the song, but featured prominently during its intro.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Chess Records: Run Rudolph Run

Although Chess Records had a number of Christmas themed songs, the best known holiday classic on the label was by Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” Released in November 1958, the single peaked that Christmas season at #69.

The interesting aspect of this song was that the writing credits were listed as C. Berry Music and M. Brodie. In this case, C. Berry Music was a pseudonym for Johnny Marks, who along with Marvin Brodie, penned the tune.

Marks’ name was probably eliminated so that R&B radio would play the tune. Marks is known for writing a number of Christmas classics that included “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “I Hear the Bells on Christmas Day,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Holly Jolly Christmas,” and dozens of others.

In addition, the Chess releases listed the publisher of the song as its own in-house publishing concern: Arc Music, BMI; however, the song was actually administered by St. Nicholas Music, ASCAP – the company owned by Johnny Marks.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Chess Records: Going Home

Unlike Muddy Waters’ sparse recordings of the 40s and 50s, Chess Records teamed Mr. Morganfield with a full band that contained electric guitar, amplified harmonica, piano, bass, drums, organ, saxophone, and back-up vocalists. The instrumentation and arrangement makes this 1962 recording a real gem.

By just listening to Muddy Waters’ canon of recordings from this period, you get a sense of the recording genius of the Chess brothers. They were far ahead of the competition and it is no wonder that The Rolling Stones travelled all the way from the UK just to record at 2120 South Michigan Avenue.

“Going Home,” which was later titled “Goin’ Home” for his 2002 CD “Goin’ Home: Live in Paris 1970,” is the epitome of a great slow Chicago blues number that showcases one of the founding fathers of the genre. In addition, the harmonica accompaniment and tenor sax solos are absolutely wonderful.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Chess Records: Diggin' My Potatoes

It’s the fourth week of the month and this week we’ll feature selected cuts from Chicago’s Chess Records. As the successor to the Windy City’s Aristocrat Records, Chess was formed in 1950 by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. The label became America’s premier blues and rhythm and blues outlet and featured artists such as Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Gene Ammons, Memphis Slim, Etta James, and many more.

In 1969, the Chess brothers sold the label to the GRT Corporation and it eventually served as a subsidiary of Janus Records – our last month’s feature. In 1975, All Platinum Records purchased Chess and had some limited releases of old material that were issued with the help of Leonard Chess’ son Marshall; he had previously run the label as its president in 1969 after it was purchased by GRT.

When All Platinum ran into financial difficulties, the masters were sold to MCA in the mid 1980s. MCA, now Universal Music Corporation, continues to hold the masters and periodically reissues old Chess material.

Not only did Chess record numerous artists out of its location at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, they also produced recordings for Sam Phillips’ Memphis Recording Service. Phillips’ Sun Records would later become famous for recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins.

When Chicago’s Premier Records declared bankruptcy in 1953, Chess purchased the masters and released these songs on the Chess imprint. One of these recordings was by Washboard Sam who was backed by Big Bill Broonzy on guitar. Although not a Chess recording, “Diggin’ my Potatoes” was a 1953 Chess release.

Sam, whose real name was Robert Brown, has previously recorded for the Bluebird and Vocalion labels prior to moving to Premier which would be released on Chess. A later compilation of his material was issued by Folkways. Washboard Sam died of heart disease in 1966.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Piano Guys: Carol Of The Bells

One of my favorite Christmas tunes is “Carol of the Bells”; this week, I stumbled upon a unique version of the tune that also incorporates the English carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” Produced by The Piano Guys, here’s a rendition arranged and performed with 12 ‘cello tracks.

“Carol of the Bells” was based on a pre-Christian, traditional, winter folk chant from Ukraine. Originally intended to be an a cappella presentation for a four voiced choir, the “Carol of the Bells” did not reach western ears until 1921 when the Ukrainian National Chorus toured Europe and the Americas. Its first recording in its present sense as a Christmas song came with the Robert Shaw Choral’s rendition of the song in 1946.

The video shows the principal ‘cellist on this arrangement: Steven Sharp Nelson. The song appears on The Piano Guys’ 2013 release of “A Family Christmas.” The CD peaked this season on the Top 200 Albums chart at #20 and on the Classical Albums chart at #23.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Seymour Swine & The Squeelers: Blue Christmas

Back in 1985, I spied an unusual single at one of the local record stores in Beckley, WV. Without hearing it, I was intrigued and so I bought it. I am glad that I did, as it became a Christmas staple of my radio show for nine years. While I am not much on novelty records, this is my favorite holiday novelty tune – Seymour Swine and the Squeelers with their rendition of “Blue Christmas.”

Until recently, I thought this was a one man effort and it sounded as though it was recorded in someone’s living room with one other person “laughing all the way.” Seymour Swine was Denny Brownlee who was also armed with a kazoo. The Squeelers comprised only one person – Bill Lynn on acoustic guitar. Seymour Swine’s vocals are instantly reminiscent of Porky Pig.

There are no identifying marks on this record to tie it to a real artist or label – perchance to avoid litigation with Warner Brothers or Mel Blanc or both. But now you know the culprits. You can't miss this single - the label is piggy pink adorned with pigs dancing around a Christmas tree. A Christmas wreath surrounds the center hole.

When I played this version of “Blue Christmas” on the air, it always generated numerous requests for more plays. I have included it as our Friday Flipside, as both sides of the record are identical.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The O'Jays: Christmas Ain't Christmas

For our Thursday Repeats and Threepeats, we provide a song that was issued five separate times: The O’Jays’ “Christmas Ain’t Christmas New Years Ain’t New Years Without the One You Love.” Like many Christmas songs, it failed to chart during any its five releases. Written by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, this holiday classic by The O’Jays was issued on three separate labels owned by composition/production duo.

In 1969, the single appeared on Neptune Records #20 paired with “There's Someone (Waiting Back Home)” on N-20. During the following year, it appeared on Neptune N-33 backed with “Just Can't Get Enough.”

By 1973, the same configuration appeared on Philadelphia International Records #ZS7 3537. This was repeated on Philadelphia International #ZS8 3581 in 1975 and in 1980 on TSOP Records as #ZS8 3771.

In 1975, Philadelphia International was rebranded as TSOP. This was largely due to the success of the #1 instrumental hit TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) by MFSB in 1974. In addition, Philadelphia International was involved in a payola scheme in 1975, so rebranding also helped distance the label from its legal troubles.

Produced by Gamble and Huff, “Christmas Ain’t Christmas” was arranged by veteran Philadelphia musician Thom Bell. It is an example of the Philly Sound made popular by Gamble and Huff’s stable of artists.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Steve & Ruth Smith: I Wonder As I Wander

In 1933, musicologist John Jacob Niles was visiting Western North Carolina collecting American folk songs. Near Murphy, he came upon a group of Evangelicals who had been evicted from the local town. A young girl captured his attention by singing a fragment of a song. She repeated it seven times in order to earn a quarter. Her name was Annie Morgan, and although she was disheveled and her tattered clothes were filthy, Niles was mesmerized by her impromptu performance.

Niles took the fragment of lyrics and a rudimentary melody and wrote the Christmas song “I Wonder as I Wander.” While it has been sung thousands of times by numerous artists, I found this wonderful instrumental of the song by Steve and Ruth Smith from near Boone, NC.

As you will discover, the sparse instrumentation of guitar and hammered dulcimer is far more rewarding than a full orchestra. Ruth Smith shines on the dulcimer while Steve accompanies on the acoustic guitar. The duo has been performing for 35 years and has received numerous accolades. While this is a live performance of “I Wonder as I Wander,” the duo released it on their Christmas CD, “An Appalachian Winter,” in 2009.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Refab Four: You Can't Do That

Our final “Refab Four” song was released in August 1967 by Harry Nilsson and was a unique cover of a Beatles’ flipside – “You Can’t Do That.” While it appeared as the B-Side to The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the original also was featured in the motion picture “A Hard Day’s Night.” Nilsson’s take on the song incorporated the lyrics of over a dozen different Beatles’ tunes that weave through and around the lyrics of “You Can’t Do That.”

Although this single release from Nilsson’s second album, “Pandemonium Shadow Show,” was a #10 hit in Canada, it stalled on the American charts at #122. Upon hearing portions of the album in Canada, The Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor ordered a case of albums to give to others in the music business including the Fab Four.

The result caused John Lennon and Paul McCartney to announce that Nilsson was their favorite American artist. In addition, John Lennon developed a long lasting relationship with Harry Nilsson. Billy J. Kramer, another Liverpudlian managed by Brian Epstein, also recorded Nilsson’s “1941” that appeared on “Pandemonium Shadow Show.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

Refab Four: I Wanna Be Your Man

It’s pretty difficult to call today’s song a “Refab Four” number as The Rolling Stones recorded and released this Lennon and McCartney composition before the Fab Four. The story is told that the John Lennon and Paul McCartney finished writing “I Wanna Be Your Man” in the presence of The Rolling Stones while they were in the studio. Lennon and McCartney gave the tune to The Stones because they were seeking new material for a single release.

Upon hearing it, Mick and the boys decided to model their number after Elmore James’ style. Brian Jones played some rudimentary slide guitar parts as well as contributing background vocals. Issued in November 1963 as the band’s second UK single, “I Wanna Be Your Man” charted at #12 in Britain. In the US, it was issued as a flip side of their first American single “Not Fade Away.”

Within weeks of The Stones’ release, The Beatles’ issued their second UK LP “With the Beatles” that included “I Wanna Be Your Man.” The corresponding album in the US, “Meet the Beatles,” also included this tune that featured Ringo Starr on lead vocals and George Martin on Hammond organ.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Refab Four: Michelle

Most Americans are probably not familiar with The Overlanders; however, they had a very successful cover of The Beatles’ “Michelle” in 1966. Originally a folk group, The Overlanders crossed over to popular music. Although they issued a number of singles in the UK and the US, “Michelle” was their only hit.

Although “Michelle” failed to chart in the US, it was a number one hit in the UK. In addition, another competing cover by David and Jonathan was overtaken by The Overlanders. David and Jonathan’s version was also a hit at #11.

Although I was unaware of The Overlanders’ brief stab at fame in 1966, I purchased the UK single on the Pye label at a neighbor’s yard sale in the late 1960s. The US version, issued on Hickory, is fairly rare and is a difficult find for collectors. The lack of success in the US market can be attributed to radio playing the original Beatles’ recording as an album cut from “Rubber Soul.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Refab Four: Oh! Darling

Béla Fleck can get more out of a banjo than most musicians can get from, er, more nobler instruments. Just ask Gary Larsen of “The Far Side” fame, as the banjo and accordion were often fodder as maligned musical instruments of torture for his own brand of humor.

Today’s selection comes from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ 1996 release “Live Art.” The recordings were culled from the band’s performances over a five year period and often feature very special guest artists. The Flecktones’ treatment of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” is no exception.

On this number, Fleck plays an electric banjo and is joined by Flecktones: Victor Wooten on bass and Future Man on synth drumitar. Former Flecktone, Howard Levy, is on keyboards while special guest John Cowan honors us with his presence on vocals. Cowan and Fleck both were members of New Grass Revival.

This jazzed tinged version ranks up there as one of the better if not the best cover of this classic Beatles’ track from “Abbey Road.” While they all shine on this number, Cowan’s vocals are the proverbial icing on the cake.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Refab Four: Any Time At All

Day three of my “Refab Four” series and I look at a Lennon and McCartney composition that appeared originally on the US Beatles’ LP “Something New.” In the UK, “Any Time at All” was released on “A Hard Day’s Night.” The original was primarily composed by John Lennon and it is structurally very similar to a later composition of his – “It Won’t Be Long.” The instrumental bridge was composed by Paul McCartney. Lyrics were intended for this section of the song; however, they never materialized.

For today’s version, I turn to one of my favorite lesser known artists: Nils Lofgren. I had a chance to see this shorter acrobat of the electric guitar with Bruce Springsteen in 1986. I don’t know how he tumbled across stage while playing guitar without killing himself or breaking his instrument. His 5’3” frame allows him to perform stunts unmanageable to those of us with a different center of gravity.

Lofgren’s take on “Any Time At All” came from his 1981 album “Night Fades Away.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Refab Four: We Can Work It Out

This week’s second example of what I term as the “Refab Four” comes from Stevie Wonder’s 1970 “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” album. It was a little gutsy for Motown to release a cover of a number one Beatles’ hit just six years after the original. Gutsy, but smart, as Wonder’s version was a Top 15 hit on the pop charts – peaking at #13. It also was an R&B hit charting at #3.

Wonder’s version contains two characteristics of his hits of this era: a clavinet and a chromatic harmonica. The clavinet sounds as though it has a bit of overdrive on it, as it is distorted. Wonder’s version of this Beatles’ classic is different enough to be quite interesting.

Strangely enough, I don’t remember hearing this one when it debuted and only discovered it recently. Radio in 1971 was still more individualized and it was not unusual to hit and miss certain songs which were charting elsewhere and to hear songs that no one heard as they were local hits.

If you would like to know more about this song, see my post from last year at

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Refab Four: If I Needed Someone

Well, it’s the second week of December and today we begin a week-long series devoted to others doing Beatles’ songs – I term the subject matter as being “Refab Four.” I considered using the moniker Beatlesque, but that term is far more reaching of a topic than simply recording a Beatles’ tune. Beatlesque can be defined as other bands whose sound was based on the Fab Four’s musical style.

“If I Needed Someone” was one of my favorite George Harrison’s songs with The Beatles. Issued on the UK version of “Rubber Soul” in 1965, it did not hit the American shores until 1966 when the US LP “Yesterday . . . and Today” was released. The main guitar lick was influenced by The Byrds’ “The Bells of Rhymney.” Prior to the release of the album, Harrison sent Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn a copy of the song with an acknowledgement concerning McGuinn’s influence on the tune.

Turnabout is fair play and Roger McGuinn recorded his own version of “If I Needed Someone” in 2004. It was the opening track on his CD “Limited Edition.” Good stuff from the master of the electric 12-string guitar.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Viscounts: Harlem Nocturne

Back in May, I mentioned that only a handful of songs made the hair to stand up on the back of my neck. One of these was the haunting version of “Harlem Nocturne” by the instrumental rock ‘n roll band The Viscounts. It has particular significance in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s “Christine,” as it plays during the first time you see the ‘57 Plymouth named “Christine” supernaturally rebuild herself.

Written in 1939 by Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers, The Viscounts took the tune to the Hot 100 chart in 1959. Unfortunately, it only made it to the #52 slot when it was originally issued on the small private Madison Records label.

Seven years later, Amy Records re-released the single for a modicum of success. Barely scratching the surface of the Top 40 in 1966, “Harlem Nocturne” peaked at the #39 position.

Starting with Joe Spievak playing fifths on his bass guitar, the key to “Harlem Nocturne’s” eerie sound is actually the slow speed amp tremolo used on Bobby Spievak’s guitar. To add to the effect, Spievak strummed the guitar backwards at the beginning of the piece and occasionally during other parts of “Harlem Nocturne.”

Following a crescendo on Clark Smith’s crash cymbal, the song’s mystique is punctuated by Harry Haller’s gritty tenor sax. Listen closely and you might be able to hear Larry Vecchio on organ deep in the mix; however, I haven’t been able to confirm it is present as of yet. Good stuff from The Viscounts, but I must retire to comb the hair on the back of my neck.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

John Lennon: Crippled Inside

Ah, yes it’s another Wooden Music Wednesday and we travel back in time to 1971 with John Lennon’s magnum opus – the album “Imagine.” Even though the lyrics are a bit dismal, when I hear the album cut “Crippled Inside,” I just have to smile. It just has a happy jug band type sound. Although not issued as a single, it garnered some album rock airplay.

The song features Lennon on electric guitar and vocals and he is joined by a trio of acoustic guitars courtesy of Ted Turner (no, not that one), Rod Linton, and John Tout. Nicky Hopkins who has played with everybody, but most notably The Rolling Stones, provides the ragtime piano treatment.

Jim Keltner, who was in several super groups, is behind the drum kit.  In addition, the song is worthy of two stand-up bassists – Steve Brendell and Beatle friend Klaus Voorman. Not only was Voorman an accomplished bassist, he had previously designed the cover of The Beatles “Revolver” album. Finally, George Harrison plays a bell brass Dobro® on the song’s first solo. “One thing you can’t hide is when you’re crippled inside.”

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Doors: L.A. Woman

It’s an Atypical Tuesday and our unusually packaged album is The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” – the band’s last LP recorded with singer Jim Morrison before his untimely death in 1971. When released, the original version of the album had a die cut cover that had curved corners and a cut out window.

In the window, a monochromatic photo of the band appeared on a clear sheet of plastic. An inner sleeve gave the impression that the image was printed on the yellow insert. The design, however, had some flaws. When stored with other albums, the album next to front cover often got caught in the die cut window. This eventually took its toll on the cover by damaging the window’s outside frame.

Not only did the album sport a unique cover, it also took the Doors back to a blues influenced sound. The album charted at #9 and was lowest charting of The Doors’ six Top Ten albums; however, it was their second best selling album behind the band’s debut album. “L.A. Women” is certified as double platinum for the sale of two million copies.

With the exception of some keyboard overdubs, the album was recorded live in the studio – which necessitated the addition of two session players: Jerry Scheff on bass and Marc Benno on rhythm guitar. The album’s two best known cuts, “Riders on the Storm” and “Love Her Madly,” were both issued as singles and charted at #14 and #11 respectfully.

Many of “L.A. Woman’s” cuts also received additional album radio play and these included the title cut, “The WASP (Texas Radio and the Big Beat),” “Crawling King Snake,” and today’s featured song “Cars Hiss By My Window.”

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cracker: Happy Birthday To Me

This is my fifth birthday post (certainly not my fifth birthday) since starting this blog in 2009. I was running out of ideas for this year until I remembered Cracker’s recording from 1992: “Happy Birthday to Me.” The song was written by vocalist David Lowery who had previously been with Camper Van Beethoven. “Happy Birthday to Me” charted for two weeks at the #13 slot on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart.

The cut is found on Cracker’s self-titled debut album; however, at the time the album was recorded, the group consisted of only three members Lowery (who also played guitar), guitarist Johnny Hickman, and bassist Davey Faragher. For the album, session drummers were. Since I don’t have the CD, I cannot tell you who played the great accordion on this cut.

All I have to say is “Happy Birthday to Me.”