Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mercury Records: Looking Out For #1

For our Saturday bubbling under selection, we turn to a Bachman-Turner Overdrive single that should have done better on the charts. Unfortunately, 1975’s “Looking out for #1” only charted at #65. I asked my wife if she remembered the song, as she was still in high school when the song was released; however, she didn’t recall this BTO classic.

I remember the song getting airplay in the Huntington, WV market, but she listened to Charleston, WV radio and it apparently wasn’t played much on WKAZ – the Kanawha Valley’s most popular Top 40 station in 1975. It is interesting how much difference 60 miles could make with radio playlists, but such was the case through the mid 1970s. By the 1980s, most US contemporary hit radio stations (as Top 40 would be rebranded) were quite homogeneous.

I really liked this cut because of the guitar work. It reminded me of another BTO recording that peaked in the 60 range – “Blue Collar.” Although “Looking out for #1” peaked at #65, it had a better run on the adult contemporary chart where it reached the #15 slot.

Mercury Records: It's Judy's Turn to Cry

Nearly two weeks ago, Mercury Records’ artist and hit maker from the early and mid 1960s, Lesley Gore passed away at the age of 68 from lung cancer. Born as Lesley Sue Goldstein, her family changed their surname to Gore at some point after her birth. When producer Quincy Jones was interviewed a number of years ago about Lesley Gore, he mentioned that he had misgivings about her surname Gore as being appropriate for a pop artist, but before he could suggest a pseudonym, Mercury had already released “It’s my Party” and it was climbing up the charts. Her family’s adopted name stuck.

With the success of “It’s My Party,” Jones had Gore returned to the studio and cut a concept album of “cry” songs and Mercury rush released the “I’ll Cry if I Want To” LP. One of the cuts was the follow-up to her initial 1963 hit – “It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Both songs did very well. “It’s My Party” resonated with teenage girls and the song climbed to the #1 spot on both the Hot 100 and the Rhythm & Blues charts. “It’s Judy’s Turn to Cry,” while not performing as well as her initial single, was no slouch. The follow-up charted at #5 on the Hot 100 and at #10 on the R&B chart.

Gore would have subsequent hits, but unknown to most of her fans – the majority of these hits were not penned by Gore and were mostly written by men – short of shattering the somewhat early feminist leanings of this artist. While she didn’t write the majority of her hits – she sang them nonetheless and became a voice for girls and women everywhere.

Here’s a rundown on her Top 40 hits:

11963It’s My PartyHerb Weiner, Wally Gould, & John Gluck
21964You Don’t Own MeJohn Medora & David White
51963It’s Judy’s Turn to CryBeverly Ross & Edna Lewis
51963She’s A FoolBen Raleigh & Mark Barkan
121964That’s the Way Boys AreMark Barkan & Ben Raleigh
131965Sunshine, Lollipops, and RainbowsMarvin Hamlisch & Howard Liebling
141964Maybe I KnowJeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich
161967California NightsMarvin Hamlisch & Howard Liebling
271964Look of LoveJeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich
271965My Town, My Guy, and MeLesley Gore, Paul Kaufman & Bob Elgin
371964I Don’t Wanna Be A LoserBen Raleigh & Mark Barkan

Out of her 11 highest charting hit records, only one was co-written by Lesley Gore (“My Town, My Guy, and Me”). Two others were co-authored by females – and both were written by husband and wife team Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. Only one of her bigger hits was completely composed by women: our feature, “Judy’s Turn to Cry.” Gore developed her songwriting craft and her largest contribution was aiding her brother Michael in composing the music for the motion picture “Fame.”

The world will miss this champion of women everywhere. Rest in Peace Lesley Gore.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mercury Records: You Wear It Well

A year after Rod Stewart’s colossal hit “Maggie May,” he employed a similar acoustic sound for his 1972 release of “You Wear it Well.” Like “Maggie May,” “You Wear it Well” was a collaboration between Rod and classical/folk guitarist Martin Quittenton. Unlike “Maggie May’s” use of a mandolin, the lead instrument was a fiddle at the hands and bow of Dick Powell. Ian McLagen’s organ work also shines on this particular release.

Like most of his solo recordings during his years with The Faces, the band appears as sidemen on this recording. From the album “Never a Dull Moment,” “You Wear it Well” was a number one record in the UK; however, it only made it to #13 on the US charts. Pity.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Mercury Records: Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Tears for Fears biggest record, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” almost didn’t happen – at least it almost didn’t happen when it did. It was the last cut to be recorded for the “Songs from the Big Chair” album and guitarist/leader Roland Orzabal was not convinced that it should even be on the album. It was a departure from the band’s typical sound, but producer Chris Hughes insisted that it be added to the disc. Orzabal, Hughes, and keyboardist Ian Stanley all share writing credits.

To prove that it was the right time in March 1985 to release it, the chart action speaks for itself. It was one of those rare occasions where a song made it to the top spot or near the top on four different chart genres in the US. It was a #1 record on the Hot 100 and dance charts and peaked at #2 on the rock and adult contemporary charts. In the UK it charted at #2 and won the BRIT Awards Best British Single in 1986. Additionally, it was a #1 release in Canada and New Zealand.

“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was the third of the four singles from “Songs from the Big Chair” and followed “Mother’s Talk” (#27) and “Shout” (#1) and preceded “Head over Heels” at #3. Needless to say, 1985 was Tears for Fears year.

Written in 12/8 time with a shuffle beat, the song is characterized by bassist Curt Smith’s lead vocals and the backup provided by Roland Orzabal. Their occasional jumping of notes in fifths in the chorus sets this song apart as really different. Add the keyboard treatment and guitar arpeggios and you have a proven winner. The public has spoken.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mercury Records: Things I'd Like To Say

Started as a garage band with an edge, Chicago based New Colony Six chose their name at the height of the British Invasion. It emphasized their American roots being from the new colony and that and they had six members. By 1968, the band shed their colonial based clothing and their edgy sound for pop arrangements. Although their previous fans were disappointed, they were able to garner national exposure with their new sound on Mercury Records.

While they consistently had charting records on WLS and WCFL in Chicago, nationally they were a two hit wonder with “I Always Think about You” and “Things I’d Like to Say.” The latter was their highest charting release with a peak position of #16 on Billboard’s Hot 100, #17 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and #13 on Cashbox.

Co-written lead vocalist and keyboardist Ronnie Rice and bassist Les Kummel, “Thinks I’d Like to Say” has a great string arrangement. In the stereo mix, you can hear Rice’s organ as a counter point to the strings in the opposite channel. His piano is in the center and is center stage at the song’s end. This is one you occasionally hear on oldies radio – what a classic.

Mercury Records: Mighty Quinn

Loosely based on Anthony Quinn’s performance as an Inuit named Inuk in the 1960 film “The Savage Innocents,” the official title of Bob Dylan’s composition was “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn).” Although Dylan recorded a demo the song with The Band in 1967, he did not release a recording of the song until 1970 when a live version appeared on the “Self Portrait” LP. The rendition that most folks remember, however, is the 1968 hit by Manfred Mann.

While Manfred Mann’s #1 UK release on Fontana Records was consistently named “Mighty Quinn,” this was not the case for the American version on Mercury Records. Not only did the US release have a plethora of label styles from variety of pressing plants, the song’s title varied as well. Mercury releases of the tune in 1968 are listed as “Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” and “Quinn the Eskimo.” The US version charted at #10.

Manfred Mann’s version featured Mike d’Abo on vocals, Manfred Mann on keyboards, Mike Hugg on drums, Tom McGuinnes (later of McGuinnes Flint) on guitar, and Beatles’ friend Klaus Voorman on bass and flutes. Mann and Hugg were the only two original members of the band that remained in 1968.

Despite the fact that the album did not include “By Request – Edwin Garvey,” the flip side of “Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn),” the UK album was titled “Mighty Garvey!” The US LP release was more appropriately named “The Mighty Quinn.”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mercury Records: In A Big Country

Well it’s the fourth week of the month and time for my monthly record label feature. Due to the recent passing of Lesley Gore last week, I’ve decided to highlight her label: Mercury Records. We’ll feature Lesley later this week in a special tribute.

Founded in Chicago in 1945, Mercury Records was able to crack most genres of record music. While its early successes came with jukebox play, it gave the big record companies a run for the money. Additionally, Mercury was the first company to produce pre-recorded cassette tapes.

Remaining an independent label until 1961, Mercury was purchased by Dutch parent company of Philips Records. By 1972, Philips and Deutsche Grammophon (owner of Polydor Records) merged and Mercury’s division was named as Phonogram after its British counterpart.

In 1988, Polygram was purchased by Seagram who also owned Universal Music Group. At this time, the label was discontinued and most Mercury acts were assigned to The Island Music Def Jam Group while Mercury Nashville Records became the imprint for its country artists. In 2007, the Mercury imprint was resurrected.

For today, I am traveling back to 1983 for a one-hit wonder for the Scottish band Big Country with their eponymous song “In a Big Country.” I particularly liked this record for the guitars that mimicked the sound of Highland pipes. This quartet from Dunfermline, Fife really shows their Celtic roots.

“In a Big Country” was the only one of band’s three charting singles to chart within the Top 40. If fact, “In a Big Country” peaked above 40 on three charts. On the Hot 100, it made it to #17. It was played in enough clubs to allow it to chart at #37 on the dance chart. However, its biggest success came with album radio where it went to #3 on the rock chart.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Many Shades of Leon Russell: Jumpin' Jack Flash/Youngblood

Although Leon Russell’s piano, songwriting, and arranging had been all over the music charts in the 1960s, I had never heard of him until I saw “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971. I was blown away by his energy, his prowess on the keyboard, and that gravelly voice. And what a voice it is – he has one of the most unmistakable vocal styles that has had the opportunity to hit the American airwaves.

While Leon is showcased on George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” on one verse, he is pure Leon on a medley of The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Doc Pomus classic “Youngblood.” I always loved that song – I had the original single by The Coasters on ATCO; it was flipside of their hit “Searchin’.” I didn’t think anyone else could do it or “Jumping Jack Flash” justice until I heard Mr. Russell perform this medley.

Some of Leon’s “Shelter People” appear on this recording. The additional lead vocals are provided by Don Preston who also plays guitar on this medley. Additionally, bassist Carl Radle is on this cut – his only performance on the album. Other “Shelter People” include Jesse Ed Davis on guitar, Jim Keltner on drums, and back-up vocalists Claudia Linnear and Don Nix. A large cast of other great musicians, such as Billy Preston on Hammond organ, supported Leon and his crew. I wish the live film footage was available on YouTube, but sadly it’s not.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Many Shades of Leon Russell: I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry

For the last week and a half, I’ve been wracking my brain concerning what to feature during the second week in February. I didn’t get to one last post during the final week of January when I featured Smash Records and had planned to feature a cut from Leon Russell’s and Marc Benno’s Asylum Choir. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to it and wondered if I should feature Leon Russell’s music at some point. In the past, I’ve spotlighted other artists, such as Iain Matthews and Jack Bruce, who had illustrious careers as part of the Second Week Special. So, I put the idea on the back burner as an idea to pursue in the future.

That moved to the front burner on Friday when I received a text from Greg Rector requesting that I play Leon Russell’s version of Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Russell recorded the song for his 1973 country album “Hank Wilson’s Back” and was one of the album’s single releases. Russell used the Hank Wilson personal for some of his country recordings.

To some it seemed like Russell, whose career had skyrocketed in 1972 with his Top 15 release of “Tightrope,” had switched horses midstream. Did the pseudonym help or hurt his career? I don’t know, but there are many shades of Leon Russell – along with his hair color – from dark to salt and pepper to gray to white.

My first realization of Russell came with George Harrison’s “The Concert for Bangladesh” in 1971. Ever since seeing the movie, I’ve been a fan of Russell’s music. Over the years, I’ve learned about his beginnings of his career in Tulsa with J.J. Cale; session work in Los Angeles with Liberty Records and the famed, but fluid, The Wrecking Crew; the two albums with Marc Benno as the Asylum Choir; his membership in Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishman; his solo career; and his collaborations with Mary Russell, Willie Nelson, New Grass Revival, Elton John, and others. Some of this will be chronicled during this week.

As for today, I am honored to begin my look at Leon Russell with a request. Hank Williams wrote and recorded “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1949 during which time he and his wife Audrey were having marital issues. While many artists have recorded this song and had greater chart success, Russell’s recording was important in that it secured his reputation as a country artist. However, it was far cry from Leon’s varied previous recordings.

While Russell’s persona Hank Wilson scored some crossover chart success with “B” side the album’s first single, “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” it had a lackluster performance at #78 on the Hot 100 and #57 on the Country chart. The “A” side, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” matched the “B” side’s pop chart position at #78, but failed to chart on the country side of things. The follow-up single, “A Six Pack to Go,” failed to chart completely.

Although a brilliant album, I guess the world was not ready in 1973 for Leon Russell singing country songs – although he did an excellent job in the country side of things. Hank Wilson was back and he wasn’t going away either. Three additional Hank Wilson albums were issued with each in the subsequent decades as well as a Hank Wilson compilation in 2009.

But honestly, “Hank Wilson’s Back” wasn't really a departure for Leon Russell, as this early TV appearance with Glen Campbell attests. Leon sings lead on “Jambalaya” on the “Shindig Community Sing” from the mid 1960s.  Check out Leon's dark hair on this video.