Saturday, May 31, 2014

Reprise Records: Sinner Man

Every once and a while, a visitor of this blog contributes to the content. Earlier this week, Dennis Harris asked if I would feature Trini Lopez in my look at Reprise Records. Dennis and I go back several decades, as he played guitar in my brother’s band “Memphis Leather.” I even had an opportunity of playing one gig with them at the McKeesport High School in 1980 or so.

To fit into my regular Saturday Bubbling Under, I chose a 1965 Lopez recording that only made it #54 on the charts – “Sinner Man.” One word of caution, this is not the same song as the African-American gospel song that was popularized by The Wailers, Nina Simone, and many, many others.

Lopez co wrote his song with Bobby Weinstein, Bobby Hart, Billy Barberis, and Teddy Randazzo. Lopez’s “Sinner Man” was featured in the motion picture “Marriage on the Rocks” starring Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, and Dean Martin. Lopez appears in the film as well. The song was featured on the movie soundtrack as well as Trini Lopez’s “Greatest Hits” album.

I hadn’t thought about playing any of Lopez’s music this week, but it was a good suggestion. I forgot about his important musical and cultural contribution in the sixties – plus, I loved the shape of his custom made Gibson thin line acoustic electric guitar.

Based on the popular ES335 and the Barney Kessel custom guitar, it had two diamond shaped f-holes, a very pointed double Florentine cutaway, and a Firebird headstock. It was quite a good looker. You can see one here:

The accompanying video takes a moment to get into the song as the videographer shows his jukebox selecting and playing the 45. The audio, however, is great and is in stereo as well.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Reprise Records: Midnight At The Oasis

Last week, we started a new feature: Feminine Fridays in honor of the female voice. As we spotlight Reprise Records this week, there were several notable female artists that recorded for the label; however, I have decided on Maria Muldaur as today’s pick.

Previous to her mainstream fame, Muldaur had recorded with the Even Dozen Jug Band, Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band, and with her former husband Geoff Muldaur. Maria was propelled into the limelight with her remarkable 1973 self-titled album and its hit single, “Midnight at the Oasis.”

Although the song written by film and TV composer David Nichtern is a classic, it took seven months to climb the charts. Reprise released the single in November 1973, but it did not peak at the #6 slot until June 1, 1974. The album, by the way, peaked at #3 and was certified gold during the same spring.

I remember the record well and I heard it for the first time the last time I lived in Eastern Kentucky. It was April 1974 and a friend and I were escorting two young college women to Greenbo Lake when the song came on the radio.

While some would be attracted to the song’s suggestive lyrics or Muldaur’s sultry vocals, I preferred the wonderful guitar work by Amos Garrett. I left Kentucky the last time on February 13, 1981 and it is fitting that I play a song from my original stay in the Commonwealth on this day as I leave a second time.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Reprise Records: Old Man

Day five of our tribute to Reprise Records provides a Thirty Something Thursday selection from Neil Young. Released in 1972 from his #1 album “Harvest,” “Old Man” was a comparison to an older man and was loosely based on Louis Avila, the caretaker of Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch. While the song only peaked at #31, it was an instant classic due to its popularity on album radio.

While Young plays the acoustic guitar and sings lead, “Old Man” features back-up vocals by James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Additionally, Taylor plays a six-string banjo (or guitar banjo) on the cut. The six string banjo is tuned like a guitar (E-A-D-G-B-E), which makes the transition to a banjo like instrument easier for guitarists. A 5-string banjo is tuned G-D-G-B-D, while a tenor banjo is typically tuned as C-G-D-A. Other musicians include Ben Keith on pedal steel, Kenny Buttery on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, and James McMahon on piano.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reprise Records: The Lonely Surfer

Day Four of our look at Reprise Records and last week we introduced a new category, “Wordless Wednesday.” I was wracking my brain about an instrumental on Reprise and had settled on featuring a Ry Cooder song; however, I wasn’t totally convinced of my choice. Not being able to sleep this morning, Jack Nitzsche’s name amazingly popped into my head as being an early Reprise artist. Now, how many times do you think of Jack Nitzsche?

Although Nitzsche had been involved in a number of top recordings as a songwriter, arranger, session musician, and producer, only one hit record bore his name as the artist – “The Lonely Surfer.” The production of this 1963 recording has a similar layering to Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of Sound”; that’s no coincidence, as Nitzsche was Spector’s understudy.

This instrumental is layered in the low end. The lead is a baritone guitar and key notes of the baritone’s runs are doubled on bass and piano. There are times when it is evident that two baritone guitar tracks are being used. Add strings and French horns and you come up with strange instrumentation for a record with a surfing connection. It doesn’t really quite make sense – but, I like it.

It really is like a combination of surf guitar, film score orchestration, and a spaghetti western arrangement meeting “The Lonely Bull.” Additionally, the French horn runs remind me of John Entwistle’s work on the “Overture from Tommy.” Perhaps Entwistle was inspired by this recording somewhat.

While “The Lonely Surfer” was not a colossal hit, it managed to squeeze into the Top 40 at #39 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and at #37 on Cashbox’s pop chart. From a historical perspective, it got Jack Nitzsche on the musical map and the rest is history. Just ask The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and others.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reprise Records: A Kinks' Twofer

It’s time for Twofer Tuesday and keeping in our theme with our Fourth Week Label Feature on Reprise Records, I had to narrow down which one of the multi-hit recording artists to feature. The Kinks won the toss and are today’s double header. Signed in the UK with Pye Records, Mo Ostin had arranged for several Pye artists, such as The Kinks, to be distributed in the US on Reprise.

Tired of Waiting for You

Recorded at Pye Studios in December 1964, “Tired of Waiting for You” was The Kinks’ third Top 10 hit in the US. In addition, this 1965 release from their album “Kinda Kinks” was tied with 1982’s “Come Dancing” as the band’s highest charting singles in America; both peaked at the #6 position.

In the UK, “Tired of Waiting for You” was the second of The Kinks’ three number one releases that included “You Really Got Me” and “Sunny Afternoon.” It is frequently heard even today on oldies radio.

A Well Respected Man

While The Kinks came from a working class background, these “Muswell Hillbillies” were adept at drawing from numerous musical traditions and Ray Davies became quite the songwriter as our second song exhibits. While The Kinks often resulted to low brow antics on and off stage, they were often shunned by those of a respectable echelon of society and were in fact banned by the American Federation of Musicians from performing in the US for four years.

Because of the snobbery that Ray Davies encountered at the hands of other guests at a resort hotel in 1965, he penned “A Well Respected Man.” The tune uncovered unconventional activities of fictional members of the upper crust. While the song appeared on the “Kwyet Kinks” EP in the UK, it never charted, as it was not issued as a single. Pye released it on the mainland as a single and Reprise did the same in the US.

Written in a music hall tradition that was uncommon to most Americans, “A Well Respected Man” did quite well on this side of the Atlantic and it may have been the message of hypocrisy that resonated with American audiences. It charted at #13 in late 1965.  It’s great writing like this that has earned Ray Davies a spot in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.  See

Monday, May 26, 2014

Reprise Records: Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town

It’s Memorial Day in America and a time when we honor those who gave all for the cause of freedom. By extension of thought, we also recognize all of those who have served in the military – “all gave some; some gave all.” One of the saddest things about our country is the lack of respect of those who have served with dignity. Our wounded warriors do not often get the admiration of our government, our citizenry, and sometimes their own family. Today, we look at a song where the latter occurred.

Day Two of our look at Reprise Records examines a classic recording by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition from 1969: “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” While it was not the first recording of this Mel Tillis composition about a paralyzed Vietnam veteran, it is the best known version. It was first recorded by Johnny Darrell in 1967 and was a Top 10 country hit.

While Rogers and The First Edition’s version two years later only made it to #39 on the country charts, it peaked at #6 on the US pop and adult contemporary charts. It also was a Top 5 hit in Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. The single was arranged and produced by two veteran musicians – respectfully Glen D. Hardin and Jimmy Bowen.

The song’s lack of country enthusiasm was probably due to two factors. First, it was a recent remake of a big country hit from two years earlier. Second, The First Edition had been labeled as a psychedelic band with their first big hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Country radio would have steered clear of anything that remotely resembled the counter culture. I bet today that Kenny Rogers’ version of the song and not Johnny Darrell’s earlier hit is the one heard on country radio.

Thanks to all of our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who have served our country with unquestioned loyalty. Happy Memorial Day.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Reprise Records: My Sunday Feeling

As I’ve featured a number of classic independent and smaller subsidiary labels in the past, I was in a quandary in trying to come up with a Fourth Week Label Feature for this month. After rejecting four labels for not having enough suitable material, I settled on Reprise Records – the younger and smaller of Warner Brothers’ top two labels. While Reprise also had its own subsidiaries, we won’t be looking at those as Reprise has produced enough material to feature several months’ worth of recordings.

Reprise was founded in 1960 by Frank Sinatra where he was the label’s “Chairman of the Board.” It was originally intended to be a vehicle for Sinatra, his Rat Pack cronies, and his daughter Nancy. When transferred to Warner Brothers in 1963, label president Mo Ostin took Reprise in new directions.

While the Sinatras and Dean Martin continued to record for Reprise for some time, rock artists were brought into the fold. Reprise also struck deals with UK labels that did not have North American counterparts and released their recordings in the US and Canada. Between 1976 to 1985, Warners technically discontinued the label and moved all of the artists except Frank Sinatra and Neil Young over to the Warner Brothers’ imprint. Since its 1985 revival, Warners has changed Reprise’s focus several times.

Jethro Tull was one of the bands that was signed in North America to Reprise. While the band was signed to Chrysalis in the UK, the company didn’t initially have its own label. For a period, Island Records released Chrysalis material in the UK and Reprise originally picked up the option on some of Chrysalis’ artists.

In 1968, Jethro Tull’s debut album was issued in the US on Reprise Records. Although the album did well in the UK, it only peaked on the US at #62. Still not bad from an unknown band; however, it was the band’s worst charting LP until 1984. This record was eclipsed when “Under Wraps” was released.

“This Was” is a bit different from later Tull material, as it has blues and jazz elements that are missing from later recordings. Tull’s musical direction largely changed when guitarist Mick Abrahams left the band following the recording. The title, I am sure which was intentional, truly became a fitting identity of the album, because “This Was” Jethro Tull and not “This Is” Jethro Tull.

While “This Was” produced no hit singles, I have decided to feature the lead track, “My Sunday Feeling,” simply because it is Sunday.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Santana: Hope You're Feeling Better

For our Saturday Bubbling Under special, we drift back to 1971 and the third single from Santana’s second album, “Abraxas.” While “Black Magic Woman” charted at #4 and “Oye Como Va” made it to #13, “Hope You’re Feeling Better” failed to make a dent. It didn’t even show on Billboard’s “Bubbling Under” chart; however, Billboard mentioned that some jukebox owners reported that the song was in heavy play in certain markets.

“Hope You’re Feeling Better” was the flip side of the first single “Black Magic Woman”; but apparently it was re-released as the third single. I’m not even certain that a commercial issue of the second version ever made it to the stores. Since it performed poorly, the second release was probably only distributed to radio and jukebox stockers.

Written by keyboardist/vocalist Greg Rollie, the song features his characteristic Hammond organ as well as his lead vocals. Carlos Santana’s guitar work is unmistakable. He even employs a wah-wah pedal in places. This song has some great kicks as well. Good stuff from this classic version of the legendary band, Santana.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Sade: Smooth Operator

Dare I change another daily feature? I think it’s about time, as I’ve been doing Friday Flipsides for over two years and I think I’ve played out that feature, so I have decided on a new showcase – Feminine Fridays. Until I move on to something else, we’ll be honoring female vocalists every Friday.

Last night while trying think of a new Friday feature, I stumbled on Sade’s classic hit from 1985: “Smooth Operator” and a new Friday element was born. This song was released during one of the more interesting years of my life. I was at the height of my radio career as the morning guy and program director at WOAY-FM (Y94) in Oak Hill, WV. We had excellent Aribitron ratings and were reporting for Radio & Records, Billboard, and Cashbox. Life was good professionally.

I was also transitioning from playing with The Second Story Band out of Mullens, WV to play with a new dance band, Street Heat, from Oak Hill. Street Heat may have been one of the more popular bands for which I played. The genesis of Street Heat occurred in February, but the final lineup did not materialize until late May. By August, we were playing our first gig. “Smooth Operator” was one of our signature tunes and our lead vocalist Cheryl Jackson belted out the vocals that were reminiscent of Sade Adu.

For a single guy in 1985, life was good. I dated more women (6, I think) that year than I have before or since. I was at the top of my game and perhaps I was living the life of the “Smooth Operator.” It didn’t last, but it was interesting to say the least.

Not only was Sade the lead vocalist, her name was also used for the band. “Smooth Operator’s” jazz stylings were also popular with the record buying public. Not only were the vocals mesmerizing, but the congas, electric piano, bass (and bass lead), and saxophone set the stage for a sophisticated recording from the band’s debut album, “Diamond Life.”

Both the single and album peaked at #5 on their respective charts. I am featuring the extra long 12 inch jazz version. Like the album version, it features Sade’s spoken intro that was edited out of the single. This is one of those great cuts I could listen to over and over. Viva 1985.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Billy Joel: The Entertainer

As I was contemplating the blog last night, I thought that it was time to change up my Thursday feature to something new. Today, I introduce to you a brand new spotlight – “Thirty Something Thursday.” Every song with this new feature will have only topped the Hot 100 charts between the 30th and 39th positions. I figure I can cover some new ground with this new showcase.

Today’s selection was the only single release from Billy Joel’s 1974 “Streetlife Serenade” album. While this LP is generally not considered one of Joel’s best, I really liked it and played it to death. “The Entertainer” was Joel’s cynical and autobiographical look at the music business.

Some believe that Joel took a jab at his record company’s decision to edit his previous hit “Piano Man.” He sings, “It was a beautiful song, but it ran too long. If you're gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit. So they cut it down to 3:05.” Although “Piano Man” was edited for the single release, it clocked in at 4:30 with the edit. “The Entertainer,” ironically, is exactly 3:05.

Charting at #34, “The Entertainer” is chock full of great features. It has a driving acoustic guitar, great lyrical content, and a few instrumental surprises. During the intro, Joel provides harmonica that is strategically mixed so that it adds texture.

Joel also plays some interesting runs on a Moog synthesizer – which is double tracked later in the song. Critical to the arrangement is Tom Whitehouse’s contributions on banjo and pedal steel guitar. Good stuff from “The Entertainer”: Billy Joel.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Leo Kottke: Buckaroo

Now that I’m back to blogging, I’ve been thinking about a new feature for instrumentals: Wordless Wednesday. Today’s cut finishes off our former Wooden Music Wednesday and serves to introduce the new feature. Last week, I was catching up on some music by Leo Kottke and was reminded of his cover of the Buck Owens and The Buckaroos’ number one country single from 1965.

When Kottke moved from Capitol Records to Chrysalis in 1976, he led off his new self-titled LP with “Buckaroo.” Playing both 12 and 6 string guitars, Kottke breathed new life in this classic that was authored by country musician Bob Morris. Kottke even plays a bit of slide on this version.

Kottke’s rendition is a little faster than Owens’ original and he slightly changed the arrangement – thus making the song truly his own. While all of the other cuts on the LP were composed by Kottke, “Buckaroo” was my favorite. Both the original and Leo Kottke’s version were played in C# - a highly unusual key for guitar. While watching a live video of Kottke playing “Buckaroo,” it appears that he tuned his 12-string a half step lower and is playing the song in D – but it sounds as C#. Neat stuff.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Richard & Linda Thompson Twofer

Do I need to apologize for my absence? Probably, as I have taken the largest hiatus from this blog in the five years that I been writing. I’ve been going through some changes in my life in the recent past and will be involved in more in the next several months – more on that later. Part of the problem is that I’ve not been too inspired to write, but I have been collecting songs to feature during my vacation of sorts.

Well, let’s get down to brass tacks and have a Twofer feature from Richard and Linda Thompson. Last week, I was listening to Pandora and was reminded of a tune from the then married couple of Richard and Linda Thompson from their final album together – “Shoot out the Lights” from 1982.

The title, perhaps prophetic of their marriage, is the antithesis of their first album together as husband and wife – “I Want to See the Bright Lights” from 1974. The former album’s moniker was full of hope, while the latter’s identity was “what’s the use.” Was this a history of their marriage? Perhaps, but I hesitate to say for sure. Interestingly enough, both albums achieved critical acclaim and are considered the best works by the duo and some of the best work featuring Richard Thompson. It’s hard to argue against this.

Wall of Death

For today’s Twofer, will go in reverse order and feature a 1982 cut and then round up with one from 1974. While R.E.M. recorded a version of “Wall of Death,” there’s no comparison with the original by Richard and Linda Thompson. The song champions the carnival attraction where a person would ride a motorcycle on the inside of a cylinder, which was often constructed as a pit. Centripetal force keeps the motorcycle from falling.

While Linda Thompson sings the harmony lead, “Wall of Death” is almost a Fairport Convention reunion. Richard sings lead and plays lead guitar, he is joined by Simon Nicol on rhythm guitar, Dave Pegg on bass, and Dave Mattacks on drums. Even Fairport’s producer, Joe Boyd, was brought in to produce this classic song and album. Although the subject matter is unusual, “Wall of Death” has all of the elements of hit record.

Down Where the Drunkards Roll

“I Want to See the Bright Lights” was not released initially in the US – which was unfortunate in 1974. I always loved the cover of this album. Much like Fairport’s “What We Did on our Holidays” unusual artwork that depicted a blackboard assaulted by the band, “I Want to See the Bright Lights’” cover photo included a back lit glass with the album’s title scrawled in the condensation. While both albums made it for American release, neither retained their original titles nor their artwork.

“I Want to See the Bright Lights” eventually made it these shores in 1978 as disc one of Richard Thompson’s double album “Live! (More or Less).” “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” is my favorite cut on the album and features lead vocals by Linda Thompson. Folksinger Royston Wood contributes the low vocals.

Richard plays guitar and electric piano. I am not sure there is any bass or drums on this cut – if so they are down in mix – otherwise the acoustic guitar is covering both the low end and the rhythm. The crowning addition to this tune is Simon Nicol’s Appalachian dulcimer. Good stuff from Linda and Richard Thompson.