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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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131: Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Posted by jeff on Nov 22, 2018 in New Acoustic, Rock, Song Of the week

Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

Children should be seen, not heard. By children, I mean anyone significantly younger by myself, which is most people. To be more specific, you can’t trust anyone under thirty. Could you just give me a hand for a moment, help me climb up on this soapbox?

You know how there’s a minimum legal age for all the important stuff? Consensual sex, driving, marriage, enlistment, voting, drinking (that list is in order—in itself, food for thought). I believe there should also be a minimum legal age for creating really excellent music. In classical performing, it should be 40. In classical composition, 72. Jazz musicians shouldn’t be allowed to excel till they’re in their thirties. Rock stars are allowed to be 28, or even 27 in some exceptional cases. Rock artists have to be seven years older than me, as John Lennon and Bob Dylan were.  James Taylor is three months younger than me, but he was crazy and an addict, which gain him lots of age points. I don’t care how old Justin Beiber is, as long as he’s in some other hemisphere.

L to R: Watkins, Watkins, Thile

That’s the way the good old world used to (and is supposed to) operate. And then these kids come along and mess it up. I’m talking about brats like Chris Thile (mandolin,b. 1981) and siblings Sean (guitar, b. 1977) and Sara (fiddle, b. 1981) Watkins, aka Nickel Creek. They all grew up in suburban San Diego, where their mothers had spiked their nursing bottles with a brew of blue grass. They played their first gig at a pizza parlor in 1989. Do the math—Sean was 12, Chris and Sara 8. Combined, that’s still under thirty! They were backed by Chris’s dad on bass. The three kids together couldn’t even lift the bass, let alone play it. Read more…

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130: Thelonious Monk, ‘Let’s Call This’ (Monk’s Advice to Lacy)

Posted by jeff on Nov 15, 2018 in Jazz, Song Of the week

©David Redfern

Thelonious Monk, ‘Let’s Call This’

Once upon a time, the word ‘cool’ meant ‘of moderately low temperature’. This week ‘cool’ has been reduced to meaning ‘good’, as in “I’ll meet you at the peanut butter factory at 5.” “Cool.” But in between, especially in the 1950s, it referred to a restrained demeanor, especially pertaining to black males.

In his fine book “Birth of the Cool”, poet Lewis MacAdams quotes emotionologist  Peter Stearns saying that cool symbolizes “our culture’s increased striving for restraint” to better blend into the social fabric, an attitude that “has become an emotional mantle, sheltering the whole personality from embarrassing excess.” Emotionologist, huh? Maybe that’s what I’ll be when I grow up.


‘Cool’ expressed itself in all sorts of unexpected arts in the 1950s–poetry, stand-up comedy, Broadway–but none more prominently than in jazz. ‘Cool jazz’ was actually born from the meeting of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Miles (b. 1926) was the product of a bourgeois black family; a refined European musical sensibility; and the hot, drug-laden band of the father of modern jazz, Charlie Parker. Gil (b. 1912) was his hip, white mentor, deeply grounded in avant garde theory. Together they made the landmark “Birth of the Cool” recordings in 1948, which we talked about way back in SoTW 35.

But of course it wasn’t so simple. Cool was in the air before, and one of the most remarkable creative artists to inform that spirit was the singular pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982). ‘Individualist’ doesn’t even begin to describe Monk. He had pretty much formed his own style in the early 1940s. At the beginning it was only ‘quirky’, but it quickly evolved into ‘weird’. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie tried to bring him into the bebop orbit, but Monk didn’t adhere to the pull of anyone else’s gravity. He played very few notes, and those unpredictable. Metronomes were witnessed imploding in his presence. He pounded the keyboard with extended, flat fingers. He got up in the middle of a song to dance. He wore funny hats. Sometimes he just refused to talk.

Steve Lacy

You talk about a different drummer? This cat inhabited a not-so-parallel universe.

Monk had lots of ups and downs in his career, including years spent in seclusion, forgotten and ignored, as well as periods of incredible productivity. Along the way he left a library of distinctive, inimitable music. He inspired no schools, because no one could figure out his footsteps. But musicians continue to play his hilarious, wacky, totally human music.

He composed and performed some of the best-known standards in the modern jazz songbook: bop classics ‘Straight, No Chaser’ and ‘Blue Monk’ (here from the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”), the riveting, elusive ‘Around Midnight’, the heartrending ‘Ruby, My Dear’ (here with Coltrane), and a whole giant oeuvre of fun, funny-whee and funny-huh? gems, such as our SoTW, ‘Let’s Call This’.

First of all, you gotta love the guy’s song titles: Crepuscle with Nellie, Epistrophy, Humph, Pannonica, Trinkle Tinkle.

Secondly, and foremostly, you gotta love the music. It swings, it grins. It completely lacks coherent melody, and you walk around all day humming it. It makes no sense to such an extent that it makes the most perfect of sense.

Thirdly, you gotta dig his aesthetic. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

Waldron, Lacy, Monk (in picture)

Steve Lacy (b. Steven Norman Lackritz, 1934-2004) was obscure enough for nary a non-jazz aficionado to have heard of him, but a fine enough musician to have won a MacArthur genius grant. He was The Man of the soprano saxophone and a committed Monk devotee. He recorded the first album of all-Monk compositions, “Reflections”, in 1958. Then in 1960 he played in Monk’s band for four months. He continued to explore Monk’s music for the next forty years, often in quartet and duo settings with the dynamite pianist Mal Waldron, a collaboration I discussed even wayer back in SoTW 21.

Let’s take a look at the joyous Monk song ‘Well, You Needn’t’ in his own hands (from “Live at the Blackhawk”, San Francisco, 1960).

And then Lacy’s straightforward 1958 treatment from “Reflections” (with a tame Waldron on piano):

And then the song wrenched and wrangled and strangled and dissected and whopped and whoopeed by Lacy and Mal Waldron from that 4-CD I love so much “Live at Dreher, Paris 1981″:

That just shows you what Monk can do to people when they listen to him too much.

Meanwhile, back at the Thelonious. There’s this remarkable document we’d like to share with you. It is purportedly in Monk’s hand, addressed to Lacy, but that is disputed. Perhaps Monk dictated it to Lacy. It may even have been Lacy’s recollection of the Monktalk. Who knows? In any case, the document speaks for itself. You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig? It’s the essence of cool. It’s the most serious of spoofs and/or the most spoofish of sérieux. Feel free to write in and tell us which one is your favorite. I’ll tell you right now which one is my favorite: all of them.

“A genius is the one most like himself,” Monk says. Clearly, Monk was exactly like Monk.

Monk’s Advice (1960)

Just because you’re not a drummer, doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.

Pat your foot and sing the melody in your head, when you play.

Stop playing all those weird notes (that bullshit), play the melody!

Make the drummer sound good.

Discrimination is important.

You’ve got to dig it to dig it, you dig?

ALL REET!

Always know….(MONK)

It must be always night, otherwise they wouldn’t need the lights.

Let’s lift the band stand!!

I want to avoid the hecklers.

Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that. Don’t listen to me. I’m supposed to be accompanying you!

The inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.

Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by. Some music just imagined. What you don’t play can be more important that what you do.

A note can be small as a pin or as big as the world, it depends on your imagination.

Stay in shape! Sometimes a musician waits for a gig, and when it comes, he’s out of shape and can’t make it.

When you’re swinging, swing some more.

(What should we wear tonight? Sharp as possible!)

Always leave them wanting more.

Don’t sound anybody for a gig, just be on the scene. These pieces were written so as to have something to play and get cats interested enough to come to rehearsal.

You’ve got it! If you don’t want to play, tell a joke or dance, but in any case, you got it! (To a drummer who didn’t want to solo)

Whatever you think can’t be done, somebody will come along and do it. A genius is the one most like himself.

They tried to get me to hate white people, but someone would always come along and spoil it.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

010: Charles Mingus, ‘Remember Rockefeller at Attica’

032: Duke Ellington, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn)

041: Miles Davis, ‘It Never Entered My Mind’

 

 

 

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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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