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136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

Posted by jeff on Dec 6, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – Wonderful World

What happens when three of the finest and most successful singers of our times get together to record a pop paean to pimply passion? Well, when it’s James Taylor hooking up with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to sing “Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all”, it’s pretty darn memorable.

Paul, Art, James

Paul and James had been friends since their teenage backpacking days circa 1966 as the two leading Americans in the nascent London folk scene. Fame snuck up on Paul while he was in London, when (unbeknownst to him) the acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ he had recorded with Art was overdubbed with electric guitars and drums, thereby inventing folk-rock. Meanwhile, James was hanging out with Peter Asher and becoming the first non-British artist signed by The Beatles’ Apple label.

If you don’t know what happened to James and Paul and Art in the late 1960s/early 1970s, you should probably be out mowing the lawn or watching Championship Bowling.

In late 1977, James got a call from his neighbor Paul, who was in a period of reconciliation with Art, who had provided backing vocals on James’ “In The Pocket” album the year before (the very fine ‘Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream’ and the sublime ‘A Junkie’s Lament’) the year before. Art had recorded an album of Jimmy Webb songs, “Watermark”, which was his best solo effort artistically but another commercial flop. It seems Paul was feeling sorry for his ex-, seeing how his own solo career was flourishing. So he called James, and the three of them convened in Paul’s apartment to record a song for belated addition to the already-released album.

In 1978, refashioning up-tempo rock songs into gentle ballads was nothing new—way back in the nascent years of rock and roll, Buddy Holly covered Little Richard’s raucous 1956 ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ twice, in a slow electric version and in an unreleased acoustic version.  (The Band and John Lennon also tried their respective hands at the song, albeit in the spirit of the original.)

Wonderful World

I’m assuming it was James who chose to record the Sam Cooke hit, ‘(What a) Wonderful World’. He had been reworking bouncy rock and roll standards in just the same acoustic, introspective, gentle mode to great success (his mega-hit ‘Handy Man’, a hit for Jimmy Jones in 1959; and his Carole King-penned ‘Up On The Roof’, a hit for The Drifters in 1962). In SoTW 112, we took a look at what James could do to Beatles songs such as ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, not to mention the already-ballad ‘Yesterday’.

But whoever picked the song, it’s James’ vocals that invest it with such magic. One of the most common planks in the SoTW soapbox is just how fine an artist James Taylor is, and no matter how much of an icon he has become today, his artistry is loved more than understood or seriously appreciated. One of his many insufficiently appreciated talents is as a harmony singer. In my not-so-humble opinion, James and David Crosby stand head and shoulders above the field as harmonizers supreme.

All the others, Art Garfunkel and Graham Nash and the Everlies included, go for the easy choices—adding a second voice a third or a fourth above the lead. James and Crosby have a penchant for adding subtle harmonies below the lead, where they unobtrusively add a depth and a resonance unique in the world of rock.

Take for example TS&G’s ‘Wonderful World’. In the second verse (‘Don’t know much about Geography’), S sings the lead with G singing a fourth above him. Just like in Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not a bad formula—they sold about three bazillion records that way. Contrast it with the introduction (TS&G) or the first verse (G singing lead, T harmonizing a minor third underneath him, then S adding a falsetto counterpart). Then listen to what happens in the second verse when JT joins in on ‘But I do know one and one is two’. Nothing more than the quantum shift from 2D to 3D.

The choice of the song is no little win in and of itself. It was originally a hit (#12 in the US) for Sam Cooke in 1960, and  placed 373rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was written by Lou Adler (producer of Cooke, The Mamas & the Papas, Barry McGuire, and Carole King, including her Tapestry album; former husband of Shelley Fabares; and Lakers’ courtside crony of Jack Nicholson), Herb Alpert (Mr. Tijuana Brass, producer of The Carpenters and  Sérgio Mendes, and the Broadway “Angels In America”, mogul and sculptor), with finishing touches by Sam Cooke himself. Lou Rawls sings backup on the original.

It is so irresistible that it’s been recycled more times than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill:

  • The 1965 #4 hit for Herman’s Hermits, recorded as a tribute to Sam Cooke after his horrific death
  • An obscure version by Blind Willie (“Magicfingers”) Feigenbaum, the main claim to fame of which is the fact that the soft, acoustic treatment preceded that of TS&G by several years.
  • The 1978 cult classic film “Animal House
  • The 1983 Richard Gere demeaning remake of Godard’s “Breathless
  • The 1985 Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis film “Witness
  • The 1985 Levi’s 501 commercial (which I don’t understand, but was voted the 19th greatest song ever to feature in a commercial)
  • The 2005 Will Smith film “Hitch

And here are the wonderful lyrics to this whimsical, witty paean to mindless teenage love. I taught high school for 25 years. Believe me, every word of it is true:

Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took.
But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

Don’t know much geography, don’t know much trigonometry.
Don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two, and if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Now I don’t claim to be an “A” student, but I’m trying to be.
I think that maybe by being an “A” student baby, I could win your love for me

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages, look at the pictures and I turn the pages.
Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all.
‘Cause it’s you that I’ve been thinking of, and if I could only win your love,
What a wonderful world this would be.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Sam Cooke Songs of The Week

James Taylor Songs of The Week

Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’

Posted by jeff on Nov 8, 2018 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers)

A while back I visited the Princeton Record Exchange, “one of the Leading Independent Record Stores since 1980”. I picked up my usual eclectic batch of weird and exotic obscurita, including one you might have heard of, “The Isley Brothers Story, Vol. 1.” (I figured at $1.99 I couldn’t go wrong).

Sit down here, Virginia, and I’ll tell you a story. It’s about how before the Jerk, the Pony, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, the Monkey and the Funky Chicken, there was the big mamma pelvic rotator of them all, The Twist. And all the kinetic energy emanating from all those gyrations powered more Twist songs than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill. And before there was The Beatles, Virginia, there were The Isley Brothers. But we’re putting the cart before the bandwagon.

The early 1960s were a very happy time in America (except for the threat of nuclear war with the Russkis), so people danced. Mostly young people, but also some fat and balding older suburbanites. And the really hip (culturally-aware) ones danced a jig called The Twist, which is performed by squaring the feet at shoulder width, extending the arms slightly and grinding the feet grind back and forth on the floor. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Here’s what it looks like in American cultural mind (excuse the oxymorons, they know not what they do).

Chubby Twists the Suburbs

The Twist was the invention of rock and roll luminary Dick Clark. He heard the potential of the original‘The Twist’ by R&B baaadman Hank Ballard, but realized it was too gritty and raunchy for white teen audiences, so he got a local Philly label to record wholesome (read: ‘very light-skinned Negro’) Chubby Checker. His ‘original’ version of ‘The Twist’ hit  #1 on the charts twice, in 1960 and 1962, and inspired a virtual musical epidemic, including gems such as Chubby’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’, ‘Peppermint Twist’ (good old Joey Dee), ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’ (the great Sam Cooke bringing home the bread), an entire album “Bo Diddley’s A Twister”,  ‘Oliver Twist’ by Rod McKuen (I jest not), and  the big mamma of them all, The Isley Brothers’ ‘Twist and Shout’.

They say The Twist came from an American plantation slave dance called “wringin’ and twistin,” and the pelvic and shuffling foot movements can be traced all the way back to West Africa. Sure sounds to me like all the Africa’s been bleached out.

Meanwhile, back in 1956, Ronald, Rudolph and O’Kelly Isley (15, 17 and 18 respectfully) boarded a Greyhound in Cincinnati (where they’d grown up in gospel) bound for New York (read: Sodom), where they were eventually signed by RCA. They built a local fan base due to their energetic live performances. James Brown once described the Isleys entering the stage flying through ramps “like Tarzan”.

Shout, Pts. 1-2 (Isley Brothers)

Opening for Jackie Wilson in Washington DC, they performed his ‘Lonely Teardrops’, during which they improvised the line “You know you make me want to shout” which developed into a gospel-charged call-and-response that drove the audience wild. RCA encouraged them to try it in the studio, and kept the bleach locked in the cleaning cabinet. The almost-spontaneous ‘Shout’ (1959, split into two parts for the 45 RPM), became a hit and an icon, covered by everyone from The Chipmunks to the movie “Animal House” to a laundry spray named after the song to a popular American wedding dance to the NFL Buffalo Bills to innumerable raucous Arak-sodden nights in my army reserve unit. The 4:39 of bedlam really is a wonder. It’s a shame Hamlet didn’t know the song – I’m sure it could have lifted his spirits. The organ and the guitar, by the way, are played by two guys brought especially for the session from the Isley’s church back home.

Here they are singing it live on Shindig circa 1965, the energy level hardly diminished by the years and the network lights.

Here are The Beatles singing ‘Shout’ live on TV in 1964 (they never recorded it). The sound and picture are out of synch, but they’re clearly enjoying themselves immensely. In fact, I don’t remember a clip where they look like they’re having so much fun making music. Note that all four lads share the lead vocals in turn.

Respectable (Isley Brothers)

The Isley’s follow-up single, ‘Respectable’ is regrettably little known — no less gospel energetic than its predecessor, and containing the lyric “Rubbedy-dub-dub-dub, she’s never been in love” (because she’s so Respectable).

Don’t get impatient, Virginia. We’re getting to the point now.

In 1961, Atlantic Records wanted a young group named The Top Notes to record ‘Twist and Shout’, written by staff newcomer Bert Berns and Phil Medley. Jerry Wexler decided he’d produce it with the help of another newcomer, Phil Spector, a 22-year old whose portfolio already included involvement in ‘Spanish Harlem’ and ‘On Broadway’. Berns watched from the recording booth while Wexler and Spector butchered his song. Wexler: “It was horrible…Phil changed the middle around, we had the wrong tempo, the wrong feel…Afterward, Bert said, ‘Man, you fucked it up.’”

Twist and Shout (Isley Brothers)

Berns wanted to give them the musical finger, so he took The Isley Brothers into the RCA studio himself. The “raucous, uninhibited, swaggering” result was released on June 16, 1962. It reached # 17 on the US pop top 40 charts, and #2 on the R&B chart.

A mere half-year later, on February 11, 1963, The Beatles went into the studio to record their first LP – 11 songs in 10 hours!  George Martin left ‘Twist and Shout’ for last. Engineer Norman Smith: “Someone suggested they do ‘Twist and Shout’ with John taking the lead vocal. But by this time all their throats were tired and sore; …John’s, in particular, was almost completely gone, so we really had to get it right the first time, The Beatles on the studio floor and us in the control room. John sucked a couple more Zubes, had a bit of a gargle with milk and away we went.” It would become The Beatles’ only million-selling cover. Here’s The Lads on the Ed Sullivan Show, and here’s the famous Royal Variety performance from 1963 before Queen Elizabeth, with John’s famous introduction: “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”

In 1964, O’Kelly Isley met a homeless young guitarist at a store, and brought him into the Isley family home. The young man, Jimi Hendrix, played on a couple of their flops, but then left to tour with Little Richard. The Isley Brothers signed with Motown and in 1966 regained the charts (#12) with the ebullient ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, written by Holland-Dozier-Holland, out-Topping the Four Tops, one of the finest cuts to come out of Berry Gordy’s factory. Did you ever catch that part of the song was recycled from The Supremes’ ‘Back in My Arms Again’? Ecologically responsible, that Berry Gordy.

You don’t need me to tell you about Rod Stewart’s cover of ‘This Old Heart of Mine’, but you might have missed his duet with Ronald Isley.

In the 1960s and early 1970s the Isley Brothers drafted three young family members into the group and reincarnated themselves in the funk mode. They continued their career into the early 2000s in a number of formats and styles. But you’ll pardon me if I get off the train in 1966.I prefer to wallow in my nostalgia; and I only bought Volume 1 of “The Isley Brothers Story.”

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTW 28: Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, ‘The Tracks of My Tears’

042: Leiber & Stoller, ‘Yakety Yak’ (The Coasters)

062: Martha and The Vandellas, ‘Heat Wave’

103: Little Stevie Wonder, ‘Fingertips (Pt 2)’

 

 

 

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122: George Harrison (The Beatles), ‘You Know What to Do’ b/w Buddy Holly, ‘You’re the One’

Posted by jeff on Oct 25, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Acoustic George

We had such a good time last week with George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (the acoustic demo), why should we leave well enough alone? This week’s double-sided SoTW is going to visit a pair of songs that have always been indivisibly associated in my mind – both short (under two minutes), slight demos by artists whose oeuvre I’d assumed I knew completely, only to discover these gems decades after I thought the book had been closed. And as if that’s not enough, the later artist was profoundly influenced by the earlier one.

Acoustic Buddy

And if that’s still not enough, the songs sound so much alike it’s spooky, a single acoustic guitar strummed at an insistent rock tempo, with just a little percussive  ornamentation by his buddies in the studio.

We’re talking about the discarded Beatles George-song from 1964, ‘You Know What to Do’, and the even more obscure undubbed version of a Buddy Holly demo from 1958, ‘You’re The One’. Buddy Holly (1936-1959) is one of the greatest talents to arise from the world of rock music. He recorded professionally for 18 months before he died in a plane crash (“the day the music died”). I listen to his very small output regularly, as do Paul McCartney and Keith Richards and Bruce Springsteen and everyone who understands anything about fine rock music. He wrote much of his own material, thus inventing the singer-songwriter format and serving as an acknowledged role-model for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The first recording of the Quarrymen was a cover of ‘That’ll Be the Day’, one of Holly’s biggest hits.

Electric Buddy

Much of his music improves from year to year, none more so than The Apartment Tapes, half a dozen recordings he made in his home in January, 1959, which I reverently described in SoTW 002. Could be I invented Song of The Week just to have a platform to sing Buddy Holly’s praises. I thought I knew all his recordings, even the bootlegs of him and The Crickets as high-schoolers playing on Saturday afternoons in the Lubbock, Texas Ford dealer’s parking lot. But here’s one that hid under my radar for many years.

Electric George

Buddy came home to Lubbock for Christmas 1958, a month and a half before he died. Two days after the holiday he went to the local radio station KLLL to visit his DJ buddies Waylon Jennings and Slim Corbin.  Waylon challenged Buddy to write a song on the spot, which he did (in minutes), and proceeded to record it right then and there, Buddy playing acoustic guitar, Waylon and Slim clapping their hands together and on their knees (a la ‘Everyday’). Buddy had just turned 22, but in five weeks he would be dead.

Even the better-known version of the song is obscure, the horror Norman Petty created by overdubbing a band, just as he ruined the better-known versions of the Apartment Tapes. But naked, it’s as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus.

On June 3, 1964, The Beatles were in the Abbey Road studios preparing some demos for what would be “Beatles for Sale”, including ‘It’s For You’ (Paul-penned for Cilla Black) and John’s ‘No Reply’. George brought ‘You Know What to Do’, his first composition

She’s the one. She knows what to do.

since ‘Don’t Bother Me’ from the year before. The song was dismissed as being too lightweight, and was subsequently misfiled, to be rediscovered only in 1993. George said that he had forgotten about it. But he was also so discouraged by the experience that he didn’t write another song for a year (‘I Need You’). It’s George on acoustic guitar, John on tambourine, and Paul on bass. George had just turned 22, and would have an illustrious career spanning the next 37 years.

Rolling Stone magazine: Buddy Holly turned a generation of future heroes – George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck – onto the guitar, with an elemental style: an antsy mix of country and blues that merged rhythm and lead… Playing his Stratocaster and fronting a double-guitar-bass-and-drum quartet, Holly essentially invented the rock band. “Listen to the songs on the first three Beatles albums,” says John Mellencamp. “Take their voices off and it’s Buddy Holly.”

The Beatles recorded Holly’s ‘Words of Love’ for that “Beatles for Sale” album. But they didn’t give it their unique Beatles’ stamp as they did to all the covers they did before or after (check out for example The Beatles’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in contrast to the version they were adapting from

Waylon Jennings (l), Buddy Holly (r)

the Isley Brothers.  But for ‘Words of Love’ they reverently recreated the original, virtually note-for-note – John and Paul emulating Buddy’s double-tracked vocal (one of the first such recordings by a major artist!), and George copying the lead guitar part on the same Fender Stratocaster guitar.

Here’s Buddy Holly’s version of ‘Words of Love’.

And here’s The Beatles’ copy.

More similar than different? And how about these two unknown gems? Are the similarities not greater than the differences?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

121: George Harrison, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (Acoustic Demo)

 

 

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160: Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

Posted by jeff on Aug 16, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Smokey Robinson & Aretha Franklin, ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ (Live)

Last week I talked about Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ from a very personal angle. But the song just wouldn’t leave me alone (yes, it’s infectious as the bubonic plague), so I did some snooping, and discovered a few things.

One is that Smokey really does have an uncommonly beautiful voice. I knew that was true, but somehow I always wind up absorbed by the gestalt of his recordings, not him as a vocalist per se.

Another is that he’s abused ‘Ooh Baby, Baby’ horribly in a slew of embarrassing glam celeb duets that I very strongly recommend you not listen to: with Lucy Lawless (lawless indeed, there really should be a law against such demeaning appearances); with Ashanti (her plastic singing oudone by her affected hand gestures and ludicrous slinky walk); with Darryl Hall (all forced joviality, carrot-up-the-ass smiles); and even with Linda Ronstadt (whose schlocky 1978 cover of the song made us swoon for years. But neither she nor her treatment have worn well – here her floozy appearance is rivaled in bad judgment only by the stage set, with both Smokey and Linda concentrating more on avoiding tripping and stepping on each other’s toes than on singing the song).

But the discovery that’s been haunting me for days is this one, a spontaneous, honest homeboy and girl moment.  Aretha Franklin (b. 1942) Smokey (b. 1940) grew up in the same Detroit ‘hood, knew each other since forever. Here she’s the featured guest on a TV show called Soul Train, and Smokey’s a guest of the guest. Watch the banter, the comfort and immense mutual admiration. Watch the emcee challenge Aretha live on camera to come up with a Smokey song. Look at the total focus with which she engages the task, bestowing on it both gravitas and the most serious of fun.

Listen to these two remarkable voices, velvet and steel. A magical meeting in a magical song.  It’s not chemistry, it’s alchemy. Their emotion is palpable. As has been mine for these several days now. So will yours.

No matter that they botch the harmony at the end of the second verse. No matter that they omit the third verse entirely. At the beginning of the second verse (3’00” in the clip), Smokey takes the solo in the most transcendent, celestial voice produced by an earthbound human; then Aretha graces it with her blue note ‘mmm-hmm’, and it’s as miraculous as the rising of the sun.

Unrehearsed, glitzless. Watch it and say a little prayer of thanks for being present at the creation.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

152: Sam Cooke, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’
116: Van Morrison, ‘Tupelo Honey’
088: Lizz Wright, ‘Old Man’

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