(Sunday, 8/7/2016) Song 315: The Letter by The Arbors, written by Wayne Carson Thompson. You can find a YouTube video of it here. A little over a year after last week's track had its run at the top of the charts, another version of the same song appeared on the airwaves and started climbing up the top 40. While the current Wickipedia listing characterizes this version as easy listening, it didn't strike me that way when I was hearing it back in early '69, particularly with its forceful dynamics and powerful stacked vocals, and I still don't hear it as easy listening, even though it made that chart as well as the others. I especially liked the way this group took such a well-known cut and rearranged it so that it sounded totally different and yet quite recognizable. During my HS days, I got most of my singles from my best friend's younger brother, who sold me his 45s for a quarter each when he got tired of hearing them, but for this one, I actually put out the 69 cents plus tax to get it new at Kmart, and had it spinning on the turntable that same evening. A few week earlier, I bought one other single new at Kmart, that being Hey Jude (Song 23), and while I had hoped to get through the line quickly without my parents noticing that I was buying one of those devilish rock and roll records, my father came up to me as I waited in line, asking me if I knew the whereabouts of my younger brother. I felt like I'd just gotten caught, and I expected to hear him say, "What are you buying?" Instead, he took off in search of his youngest son, and I breathed a sigh of relief. When I bought this single a few weeks later, I made it through the check-out without the parents noticing my purchase, and I kept it artfully hidden on the journey back to the house, so that time around, I added another 45 to the collection without my family knowing that I had done so.
(Sunday, 7/31/2016) Song 314: The Letter by The Box Tops, written by Wayne Carson Thompson. You can find a YouTube video of it here. In the summer before my junior year at HS, 49 years ago, I got up early one Saturday morning to go on a hiking trip with other members of my church youth group, and though our parents were still trying to convince us that the rock and roll we listened to was the devil's music, we always wanted to hear it whenever we could, so even though one of the parents was driving the car I rode in, we youngsters made sure the radio was tuned to the rock station. Somewhere along the road trip going through the Catskills, this song, which was then rising on the charts, came out of the speaker. As good as the single had already sounded to me, it sounded even better at that moment, moving along the two-lane blacktop through beautiful country on a perfect sunny summer day. I also liked the fact that, at a point where my own 16th birthday was only a few weeks away, the lead singer on this top hit record was 16 at the time, which encouraged the idea in my mind that my own band could likewise achieve the kind of fame that The Box Tops had, with young age not being an impediment to success. The Initials never did take off the way The Box Tops did, but then, we didn't start out by demanding a ticket for an aer-o-plane, and perhaps we should have.
(Sunday, 7/24/2016) Song 313: Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar, written by Eddie Schwartz. You can find a YouTube video of it here. This week's track provides a major contrast with last week's cut, going from a recording that broke new musical ground, opened up new musical possibilities and featured poetic lyrics with layers of meaning, to a 45 in the love category that's about a simple as a song can get. When this single hit the airwaves about 11 years after last week's track, it didn't create the kind of expectations for Pat Benatar that King Crimson's debut did for them, and no one expected her to do much more than make some fun records, but she certainly did do that, with this hit being the one that first got her some major recognition, though it was actually from her second LP. I'll admit that I didn't get too impressed when I started hearing it on the radio, but I did notice after a while that I didn't get tired of it the way I often did with other radio hits, and over time I got to liking it more. Don't look for any deep shades of meaning in the words, because you won't find any, but if you want a few short minutes of simple rock and roll fun, Pat's first top-tenner will hit you with her best shot, or at least one of them.
(Sunday, 7/17/2016) Song 312: The Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, written by Ian McDonald and Peter Sinfield. You can find a Vimeo video of it here. Not long after I arrived at Northwestern in the fall of 1969, King Crimson arrived on the radio with their first album, for which this was essentially the title track. The LP sounded totally different from anything that had come along before, incorporating elements of classical music and jazz in ways that no one had ever thought of, so it attracted a lot of attention, and justifiably so. The Who's Pete Townshend called the record "an uncanny masterpiece" and during the year that followed its release, plenty of listeners made it quite clear how significant they felt the album was. At that point in my career, feeling the need to transition away from the top-40 style that I had previously evolved from my HS listening choices, I searched for a more serious and original personal singer/songwriter approach, and King Crimson's debut came along at just the right time, showing me a way to blend in some of the classical influences that I had learned in my younger days, having played violin for the orchestra. Over the next couple of years, I would put that classical influence to good use in composing tracks such as Shake the Dust, Ghost of a Chance, Fly So Free and a few others. While In the Court of the Crimson King seemed to open up new possibilities, very few records in the progressive rock genre would come close to reaching the high bar King Crimson had set on their debut, with Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon being the one notable exception. If you'd like to get some idea of the direction I took after being inspired by this influence, you can hear Shake the Dust here.
(Sunday, 7/10/2016) Song 311: Drugs in the White House by Bob Nichols, who also wrote the song. There's no YouTube video for this recording, but you can hear the mp3 here. Seven weeks after posting a track by my friend Jeff Larson, this week's cut is by my late friend and former Berkeley housemate Bob Nichols, who died back in November of 2005. I was there at People's Park in Berkeley on the day in 1980 when Bob did this performance, accompanied by a few friends, although at this point I no longer remember who the other players were. Bob made no secret of his advocacy for a chemically-enhanced lifestyle, and in the opening (and title) line of this recording, he celebrates the story that then-current President Jimmie Carter had a top advisor who admitted to having indulged in marijuana, possibly in the company of Mr. Carter. Bob was also a strong advocate for the homeless, who he helped in his community in quite a few extraordinary ways (check out his obituary), plus he was a strong advocate for People's Park, so it's fitting that he made one of his best recordings by performing live there. I do sometimes miss my old friend and former housemate, and I continue to listen to his music quite a bit. Over the years, his line "We are filling our lives with too much jive" has often come to mind, particularly at moments when I feel myself getting overloaded with stuff. In his chorus, Bob vows to keep on rockin' no matter what happens, but while he obviously can't do that any more, some of us can keep on rockin' for him, while listening to his rockin' recordings.
(Sunday, 7/3/2016) Song 310: My Tennessee Mountain Home by Dolly Parton, who also wrote the song. You can find a YouTube video for it here. The first version I heard of this piece was from Maria Muldaur's debut solo album, which, by the summer of 1974, about a year after its release, had become one of my favorites, with lots of spins on the turntable. Coming from a country background, I had found the Chicago area oppressively urban, and I enjoyed hearing the colorful detailed descriptions of Dolly's mountain home. I had noticed her name on the songwriting credits for this title, and I think I knew a little bit about who she was, but then in that summer of '74, her career came into much sharper focus with a hit called Jolene and another called I Will Always Love You, which would soon appear on one of my favorite Linda Ronstadt LPs. Dolly had a few more hits in the next couple of years that I really liked, including The Bargain Store and her first million-seller, Here You Come Again. She continued doing well on the charts for the next couple of decades, even expanding her career to act in movies, and in this year of 2016, at the age of 70, she actively persists with touring and recording, having released her 42nd studio album in 2014. Dolly has covered quite a lot of ground since leaving her Tennessee mountain home, but she still seems to carry that inspiration that she picked up as a child, watching and listening as a songbird on a fence post sings a melody. On a side note, this track is a third sly reference to the second verse of my own song As Long as Merle is Still Haggard, which begins with the line Should Patty Loveless when Wynonna, she's Judd fine and Dolly, beg your Parton, puts up a good front (?) You can find the As Long as Merle is Still Haggard video here.
(Sunday, 6/26/2016) Song 309: Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out) by The Hombres, written by Jerry Masters, Gary McEwen, B. B. Cunningham and John Hunter (the four band members). You can find a YouTube video for it here. Again this week, last week's cut leads to another, this time due to the lyric. In After Midnight, J. J. Cale sings the line "After midnight, we're going to let it all hang out" a lot, so this track seemed like a good follow-up. I thought perhaps one lyric might have owed something to the other, since they both originated in roughly the same era, but I could find no clear indication of that. When this single showed up in the fall of my junior year at HS, a few of my friends used it as yet another occasion to make fun of me for how unhip I was, because I initially felt that the title phrase had sexual connotations. "Oh, you don't know what it means," they laughingly said to me, and, during that fundamentalist Christian phase of my life, I found it a bit reassuring to believe that the song wasn't a sly sexual reference, although I liked plenty of other records that did have such hints. Somehow I never managed to clearly hear the spoken intro during the 45's chart run, and I'm sure that if I had, that would have bothered me too, but a few years later, free of the fundamentalist constraints and able to collect old favorites, I added this one to the collection, and the first spin on the turntable, the intro really made me smile, at a moment in my life where I could freely appreciate the temptations of Eve rather than fear them. By then, I understood that my HS friends had been playing with me when they insisted that the phrase had no sexual overtones, but I also had grasped the other nuances of it as well, so I felt like I too could let it all hang out.