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237: Wilbert Harrison, ‘Kansas City’

Posted by jeff on Apr 28, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

coolWhat’s the coolest song you know?

I’m talking profoundly cool, street-smart, zoot suit, cigarette hanging out of the mouth, fedora rakishly tipped over the brow, dark shades keeping that ol’ world outside outside.

I’m talking so cool that there ain’t a need in the world gonna get you to work up a sweat. Not a wad of bills, not a plate of ribs, not even a loveseat full of your sweetie.

I got one for you.

In 1952, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two 19-year old Jewish boys trying to write black songs for the black audience in LA. Their first song to hit the charts was Charles Brown’s ‘Hard Times’, which hit #8 on the R&B charts (there were segregated hit charts in those days, Virginia). Not bad, but not enough to put kosher grits on the table.

They set out to write a geographically specific but musically traditional blues for Little Willie Littlefield. Believe it or not, for LA circa 1952, Kansas City, with its bars and bordellos (not to mention Count Basie and Charlie Parker) was the epicenter of cool.

Little Willie Littlefield

Little Willie Littlefield

Little Willie (b. 1931) was a teenage wonder in LA, bridging boogie-woogie and R&B and even rock and roll, with his 1949 his ‘It’s Midnight’ popularizing the right-hand triplets which would inspire pianists such as Fats Domino. For 50 years he toured the chitlin circuit and played clubs in the San Francisco area. In 2000 he took a 5-year break to fish in Holland (“I know every herring in Holland by name”), but then went back to the ivories.

Lyricist Leiber played a standard 12-bar blues for melodist Stoller:

Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.
Going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come.
They got a crazy way of loving there and I’m gonna get me some.

Gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine
Gonna be standing on the corner of 12th Street and Vine
With my Kansas City baby and my bottle of Kansas City wine.

I’m gonna pack my troubles, leave at the crack of dawn.
I’m gonna pack my troubles, leave at the crack of dawn.
My old lady will be sleeping and she won’t know where I’ve gone.

Well, I might take a plane, I might take a train,
But if I have to walk, I’m going just the same.

Mike-Stoller-Elvis-Presle-007The third verse was quickly dropped, and ‘crazy way of loving’ became ‘some crazy little women’. Oh, yeah!

Mike Stoller: I wanted a melody that you could recognize if it were played instrumentally. “No”, said Jerry, “It’s inauthentic.”
“The feeling is still authentic,” I argued. “And that’s all that counts.”

The hip melody stayed, the title got jazzed up to “K.C. Lovin’”. They taught the song to Little Willie, and it went nowhere.

They were a bit more successful with ‘Hound Dog’ for Big Mama Thornton (1953), ‘Love Me’ for Willy & Ruth (1954), and ‘Ruby Baby’ for the unknown young Drifters (1956), but only in ‘the race market’. The big money was of course in the suburbs, where the white kids were just starting to dabble in that black music. These early flops soon became a gold mine: Elvis’ ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Love Me’ (1956), and Dion’s ‘Ruby Baby’ (1963).

It wouldn’t be long before they began their string of hits made directly for the pop chart without the detour into authenticity: ‘Searchin’ and ‘Young Blood’ for the Coasters and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ for Elvis (1956-7). We had the pleasure of walking through Leiber and Stoller’s brilliant career of songwriting and producing back in SoTW 042, with The Coasters’ great ‘Yakety Yak’.

Wilbert Harrison

Wilbert Harrison

And then in 1959, at the height of their creative powers and commercial success (4 songs in the Top 10), what should resurface but a remake of Little Willie’s song by Wilbert Harrison (b. 1929)?

A Harlem entrepreneur named Bobby Robinson spent $40 on a recording session for the obscure sometimes-bluesman, sometimes calypsomon pianist-vocalist Wilbert, with Wild Jimmy Spruill backing him on guitar.

Wilbert pretty much copied Little Willie’s reading of the tune, and it went to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts.

Wilbert had a minor hit in 1969 with his own ‘Let’s Work Together’, which was later a hit for Canned Heat, and later as ‘Let’s Stick Together’ for Bryan Ferry. So I guess we could call Wilbert a ‘One-and-a-half Hit Wonder’, and there the story ends.

Beatles, Little Richard

Beatles, Little Richard

Except it don’t.

In November, 1955, Little Richard recorded ‘Kansas City’ twice. Take 1 (released only in 1970) rather followed Little Willie’s reading of the song, albeit speeded up and Little Richardized to a restrained degree. Take 2 was all Mr Penniman, complete with hey-hey-hey’s and call-and-response backing vocals. It reached only #95 in the US, but a respectable #26 in the UK. This version just might ring a few familiar bells for many of you. Then in 1956, the right Reverend Penniman recorded ‘Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey’, basically an amplification of his (second) treatment of ‘Kansas City’.

4 Cool Cats

4 Cool Cats

Young John and Paul picked up the Little Richard version, married it with his ‘Hey-Hey’, and gave The Beatles one of their most highly-charged early covers (here’s their version from 1962, Hamburg). Check out this video from the very height of Beatlemania (Shindig, 1964) singing ‘Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey!’ live, with Beatle Paul at his very cutest. But if it’s bombast and wrinkles you need, here’s Sir Paul employing ‘Kansas City / Hey-Hey-Hey!’ as an encore in 1997 with a little help from his friends Phil Collins, Carl Perkins, Mark Knopfler, Sting, Elton John, and Eric Clapton.

dexter-p1139-750pxThe song’s been covered literally hundreds of times, by everyone from Jimmie Witherspoon and Little Milton to Ann-Margret and Pat Boone.

We were talking about cool. About not needin’ nuttin’. Well, Wilbert’s treatment is about as self-sufficient as anything I can think of. Oh, yeah, there’s this big, burning need to get back to his KC lover. He might take a train or a plane, but if he has to, he’ll walk all the way to Kansas City.

The only problem is that that Wibert’s song’s really a very cool shuffle; and at that rate, it’s going to take him a very long time to get there. Well, no hurry. Wilbert’s not running anywhere. Heck, Leiber and Stoller never made it there till 34 years after they wrote the song.

So if anyone says, “C’mon, Wilbert, pick up them feet, you shiftless shuffler you! The lady’s a-waiting!”, you just answer, “Hey, I ain’t sweating or fretting or agitating for no woman.”

Not even one from Kansas City.

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235: The Singing Nun, ‘Dominique’ (#1 Hits of 1963)

Posted by jeff on Apr 14, 2016 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10mMDtpfcQM

As soon as someone says “the music of the Sixties”, I tune out. They’ve already proven they don’t know what they’re talking about. No matter how you slice it, there’s pre-The Singing Nun and there’s post-.

It’s tempting to nostalgize the last year in the reign of rock & roll, as the fertile manure from which the British Invasion sprouted.

Bullhuckey.

This is the music I suckled. There were 8760 hours in 1963. Figure I spent half of them sleeping, another 10% eating chocolate bars – that still leaves over 4000 hours I spent listening to AM radio that year. I figure any song that hit #1 was on the charts for at least 8 weeks? Do the math: that means I’ve listened to every one of these songs at least 3.57 bezillion times.

Soueur Souirire - The Singing Nun

Soueur Souirire – The Singing Nun

We like to remember the good times – UC coming within a tip of three straight NCAA championships, Shelley Fabares’ sweater on the Donna Reed Show. We conveniently forget the acne and the agony.

That musically pre-pubescent decade from ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ (May, 1954) to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ (February, 1964) was about as fluctuous as the lights on the jukebox playing the 45s, or the moods of the gum-chewing bobby-soxers that were buying the 45s. Let’s don our white lab coats and take an unflinching, rigorous view of the corpus in its entirety, the top of the Top 40 heap, the 21 #1 Billboard Hits for the calendar year of 1963. What was AM radio feeding us? In chronological order:

114742739Telstar’, The Tornados – The former backing band of Billy Fury, the only British group to hit #1 in the US before Les Beatles. Producer/writer Joe Meek capitalized on imaginary Sputnikish sounds (remember the Space Race, Virginia?). Four years later, on the anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, Meek shot himself in his studio. Just goes to show you.

Go Away Little Girl’, Steve Lawrence (Sidney Liebowitz) – Gerry Goffin/Carole King’s fourth #1. We love to remember ‘Will You Still Love Me’ and ‘Up on the Roof’, romanticize ‘The Loco-Motion’ and ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’. But this one we hide in the closet of our memories. Blame it on the bossa nova. That same week, ‘Pepino the Italian Mouse’ was #5 on the charts.

Walk Right In’, The Rooftop Singers – Riding on the coattails of the folk music fad, Erik Darling  (Pete Seeger’s replacement in The Weavers) formed a group, remade a 1930 song by Gus Cannon, who was living in a shed, having hocked his banjo for coal. Gus got the royalties, we got the shlock. Do yourselves a favor, go run to watch Chrisopher Guest’s “A Mighty Wind”.

Paul & Paula

Paul & Paula

‘Hey Paula’, Paul and Paula (Ray Hildebrand and Jill Jackson) – Ray was on basketball scholarship at Payne College in Brownwood, Texas, but he dabbled in songwriting. He dabbled this one, inspired by Annette Funicello, recorded by the producer of Bruce Chanel’s ‘Hey, Baby’ in two takes. Then Ray found God. I hardly know what to say. I must have heard this song 3 million times. I’m still asking God why.

Walk Like a Man’, The 4 Seasons – Their third consecutive #1 hit, following ‘Sherry’ and ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’. Frankie Valli and his Jersey Boys were so popular that The Beatles were called “Britains’ Answer to The 4 Seasons”. Can you imagine?

Ruby and the Romantics

Ruby and the Romantics

Our Day Will Come’, Ruby and the Romantics – Somehow this unknown black group (formerly known as The Supremes, not to be confused with either the judges or the Diana Ross gang) finagled the song out of the hands of Jack Jones. How it got from there to Amy Winehouse is anyone’s guess.

He’s So Fine’, The Chiffons – George Harrison was found by a judge to have subconsciously copied the song in ‘My Sweet Lord’. “I still don’t understand how the courts aren’t filled with similar cases –as 99% of the popular music that can be heard is reminiscent of something or other.” He tried to give away the rights to the song, just to get past the aggravation, but never succeeded. Perhaps he should have given it to Ray Hildebrand. Doo lang doo lang doo lang. They later recorded Goffin-King’s ‘One Fine Day’.

Little Peggy March

Little Peggy March

I Will Follow Him’, Little Peggy March – Margaret Battavio of Lansdale, Pennsylvania was 15 years, one month and 13 days old when this hit #1, youngest chick ever. At 4’10” she may have also been the shortest. The song was originally an instrumental written by Paul Mauriat, then a hit in France for Petula (‘Downtown’) Clark, under the name Chariot.

‘If You Wanna Be Happy’, Jimmy Soul – Harlem-born, Trinidad-inspired, one-hit wonder. “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life/Never make a pretty woman your wife/So for my personal point of view/Get an ugly girl to marry you.” Oh, Bella Abzug.

Lesley Gore

Lesley Gore

It’s My Party’, Lesley Gore – Lesley Sue Goldstein’s father owned Peter Pan, a children’s swimwear and underwear firm. Lesley Sue was 17 when Quincy Jones produced and Phil Ramone recorded the demo, which was rushed to release before The Crystals could get their hands on it. She had a string of hits, including the protofeminist ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and became a leading LGBT figure. It was always her party. (Amy also covered this—produced by the selfsame Quincy Jones!)

SukiyakiCoverSukiyaki’, Kyu Sakamoto – ‘Ue O Muite Aruko’ means “I look up when I walk” in Japanese. Sukiyaki means a kind of beef stew. It sold 13 million copies (including one to me). What were you thinking, Jeff?

Easier Said Than Done’, The Essex – Written and recorded by three Marines, inspired by the beat of a room full of teletype machines. The original take was done in the last few minutes of a session, and was so short parts had to be spliced together. A great song, infamously covered by The Beauty and The Beast.

Jan and Dean

Jan and Dean

Surf City’, Jan and Dean – They had had several novelty hits – ‘Baby Talk’, standards ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘Linda’ (written in 1944 for infant Linda Eastman) retooled into white doo-wop – when they met The Beach Boys. Jan finished Brian Wilson’s half-written ‘Surf City’, and continued with faux-surfing hits such as ‘The Little Old Lady from Pasadena’. They were so popular that they were invited to host the famous “The T.A.M.I. Show” (a must, if you don’t know it.) Their teen macabre tale ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ turned out not so funny when Jan totaled his car on Sunset Strip and suffered brain damage, with years of rehab.

The Tymes

The Tymes

So Much in Love’, The Thymes – Many a feel was copped in the back seat of 1956 Ford convertibles to the sound of this Philly quintet, who presaged black soul versions of MOR standards.

Fingertips (Pt II)’, Little Stevie Wonder – A miracle of a song by a 12-year old genius. Read all about it in its very own SoTW. Thanks Steveland, for ensuring that our youth wasn’t a total embarrassment.

My Boyfriend’s Back’, The Angels – The first white girl group to achieve #1. Preceded by the kvetching ‘Til’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’ (not The Beatles’). Producer/writers Feldman/Goldstein/Gottehrer hit the top again with the McCoys’ ‘Hang On, Sloopy’.  Bet you didn’t know that.

Bobby Vinton

Bobby Vinton

Blue Velvet’, Bobby Vinton – With #1 ‘Roses are Red’ and #3 ‘Blue on Blue’ (one of Bacharach/David’s first hits) under his belt, pop crooner Bobby took the surprising step of  traveling to Nashville to record an album of all ‘blue’ songs. During the session (with Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Grady Martin and Charlie McCoy!), someone mentioned this 1951 Tony Bennet hit. A secretary (that’s what they used to call personal assistants) was sent down the street with a dollar (that’s what they used to call money) to buy the sheet music for what was intended to be album filler.

Sugar Shack’, Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs – I loved this song. Why, God, why? JG&tF’s claim to shame? As members of his stable, Norman Petty employed them to defile some of the recently deceased Buddy Holly’s most divine, pure acoustic demos by overdubbing electric guitars and drums. Think of drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. The originalThe souped-up version.

Nino Tempo and April Stevens

Nino Tempo and April Stevens

Deep Purple’, Nino Tempo and April Stevens – a 1933 hit recorded here by Ahmet Ertegun, two takes in 14 minutes. Nino sang with Benny Goodman at the age of 7. His sister April was a serious singer with a serious figure, but it was her jokey ‘Teach Me Tiger’ that the astronauts aboard the Challenger shuttle requested as a wake-up tune.

‘I’m Leaving It Up to You’, Dale and Grace – just good friends, from Cajun country Louisiana. How this song got so popular is anybody’s guess. I’m as clueless today as I was 53 years ago. Dale and Grace were touring with Dick Clark’s Caravan of stars in Dallas the week their song topped the charts. Together with Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Clanton and Brian Hyland (that’s one heck of a lot of Brilliantine) they cheered the president’s motorcade as it drove by. Three blocks later, everything changed.

Poetic justice strikes. If you’re looking for a song to remind you just how embarrassing 1963 could be, there’s none better than the last #1 hit of the year, our proud Song of The Week:

The Singing Nun, v. 1

The Singing Nun, v. 1

Dominique’, The Singing Nun – the girls studying at the Fichermont Monastery in Brussels liked Sister Luc-Gabrielle’s singing and guitaring so much that the convent went to Philips Records to print a couple of hundred copies as Christmas presents. The single and the album hit #1 simultaneously, first time ever. Sweet, huh? Well, Virginia, there was another “Sixties” after that.

Soon after the Debby Reynolds’ 1966 bio-flick, The Singing Nun rebecame Jeanine Deckers, recording songs like ‘Glory Be to God for the Golden Pill’, a paean to Le Pill itself. She co-habited with a special, close friend of the female persuasion, got hit with a bill for $80k in back taxes on the song by the Belgian government (although she’d donated the proceeds to the convent), tried a revival (here’s the 1982 disco version of ‘Dominique’, surprisingly a flop). Fed up with both government and Church, Jeanine and her friend committed suicide together in 1985.

The Sinning Nun, v. 2

The Sinning Nun, v. 2

I was telling a friend a story from this period, and I confessed to him that I’d been telling it for 53 years now, and I really wasn’t sure where fact ended and where embellishment began. That’s okay. You gotta embrace your memory as a work in progress. We may not always find the car keys so fast, but we can also choose to delete from our collective memories  Allan Sherman’s ‘Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh’, Al (‘Johnny Fontane’ from “The Godfather”) Martino’s ‘I Love You Because’, Trini Lopez’ ‘If I Had a Hammer’ (sorry, I will not provide a link to that, even I have principles), Edie Gorme’s ‘Blame It On the Bossa Nova’ (saved from hell by the memorable West Wing scene), Herb Alpert’s ‘The Lonely Bull’ (the video helps illustrate just how imbecilic this music was), and Paul Peterson’s ‘My Dad’.

Photo Harry Benson

Photo Harry Benson

The moral of this story, Virginia? If you can make it through January, 1964 (4 straight weeks of another Bobby Vinton croonery, ‘There, I’ve Said It Again’), you reach February, and The Beatles. And nothing, thank goodness, would ever be the same.

 

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063: Pust, ‘En Reell Halling’

Posted by jeff on Apr 3, 2016 in A Cappella, Nordic, Song Of the week

I like to think I’m neither completely stupid nor wholly detached from reality. So if our Song of The Week is by a Norwegian a cappella sextet that prides itself on a synthesis of folk, jazz and ethnic music, I do understand that we’re not pushing mainstream fare here. Or that if the song itself is billed as ‘a melodic battle’ between Irish and Norwegian folkdance music styles, even I get that this isn’t the most commercially appealing middle-of-the-road music you may encounter this week.

But it is among the finest and most exciting music I’ve heard in a long time.

Just so you realize I’m not alone in enthusing over this music, let me quote some other critics: “Something that has never been heard before.” “Musicality is superb, blend amazing.” “Everything an a cappella fan could want: beauty, emotion, and wonderfully sung music. Even to the English listener, it is a treat. Now if only the a cappella scene would gain as much traction in the US as it has in Northern Europe.” “Spellbinding. Groups wishing to push the boundaries of a modern cappella would do well to listen.” “Their creative folk music is sure to drop more jaws than just mine.” “Be prepared for a very unique experience. Kudos to Pust for boldy pushing the envelope for a cappella music.”

Read more…

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072: Stephen Stills, ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (“Just Roll Tape”)

Posted by jeff on Mar 15, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

The people and things closest to you eventually become invisible to you. That which you see every day for decades becomes so imbedded in your processor that the nerve endings are dulled to them. Strangers are in clearer focus than your parent, your child, your spouse. Familiarity breeds transparency.

So it is with music. Take The Beatles, for example. I listened to every cut of theirs several bejillion times, from the day they were released. They’ve been inaudible to me for decades. I used to try tricks like listening to only one channel with the bass cranked up while hanging upside down. It worked a little, but I got dizzy. The newly remastered set? The same. If I really, really focus, while lying on a bed of nails, with two prison guards dashing me with a bucket of freezing water after each cut, I can summon enough concentration to probe the music just a bit. But usually, if I want to experience a Beatles song, I just close my ears and play it in my brain. Ye olde portable neuro-jukebox.

Judy Collins & Stephen Stills (Photo: Graham Nash)

So you can imagine my pleasure when by some fluke of nature or warp in history I’m able to hear a piece of near and dear, great music from 1968-9. Remember Act III of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, when (now-deceased) Emily ignores the Stage Manager’s advice and returns to ‘regular life’ for just one day? Well, I did.

One of my most epiphanous moments in music, I remember it clearly, was reading the then-new and revolutionary rock music tabloid Rolling Stone, sometime in the late summer or fall of 1968. There was a small, modest item in the lower left corner of the front page: ‘Graham Nash (of The Hollies), Dave Crosby (recently fired from The Byrds) and Stephen Stills (of the recently disbanded Buffalo Springfield) have been hanging out together. There are rumors that they might form a new group together.’

I sensed then and there that that trio would create a new aesthetic in popular music– elegant, intelligent, and beautiful music with a level of vocal harmonies unknown since the Ink Spots. I had more than an inkling of the impact Crosby, Stills & Nash would make on popular music, way before I heard them. If only they had been selling stock, I’d be a rich man today.

In 1968, The Byrds were the premier American rock group. Their albums “Younger Than Yesterday” and “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” were among the best of the era. Jim/Roger McGuinn was the leader, bassist Chris Hillman was a serious contributor, but madman David Crosby contributed the magic, especially in vocals (‘Eight Miles High‘, ‘Renaissance Fair’, ‘Tribal Gathering’. The Hollies were a pretty darn fine British invasion group, their best songs based on tight harmony (‘Bus Stop’, ‘Pay You Back with Interest‘).

Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield was an LA-based rock group led by army brat/southerner Stills, Winnepegian Neil Young, and NYer Richie Furay. All three evolved through the folk music scene into rock. They were immensely talented, sharing the songwriting and guitaring and lead singing, and unfortunately spent most of their energies fighting rather than creating music. When they did shut up and sing, it was occasionally divine.

I’m not going to go off on my anti-Neil Young Big Chief Wah-Wah tirade here. Let it suffice to say that I view him as a talent far inferior to Stills, pretty much an obstacle and an annoyance.

As a live band, Springfield debuted on April 11, 1966 and gave their last concert May 5, 1968. They made three albums. The first, containing Stills’ immortal ‘For What It’s Worth’, has very little else that’s listenable. (Here’s Buffalo Springfield singing it live on the Smothers Brothers TV show, including Tommy in a cowboy outfit, Stephen doing a Chuck Berry duckwalk, and the guitars painfully untuned.) The second has some of the best music to come out of early rock, especially ‘Bluebird’, the immortal ‘Rock and Roll Woman’ (here’s a live version!) [See also SoTW 198]. The third album had some stunning Stills songs (‘Questions’, ‘Pretty Girl Why‘), but no coherence, as the band was already in its death throes.

Last month, Buffalo Springfield announced a reunion gig, which was supposed to have taken place last week, in support of the special-needs school backed by Neil Young, where his two sons learn. Well, I hope it makes them happy, and that they make a lot of money for this worthy cause. But in the twoscore years since CS&N and CSN&Y’s breakups, they’ve periodically risen from the grave to haunt gullible, desperate fans with bloated and pathetic echoes of their former demideific selves. I’m not even going to give you any links to that non-music. It’s just painful. Let’s just stick with the Good Old Days.

Judy Collins & Stephen Stills (Photo: Robert Altman)

As far as I can unravel the chronology, around the time of Buffalo Springfield’s breakup, in the spring of 1968, Stills (b. 1945) was hanging out with the very popular and very modestly talented Judy Collins (b. 1939). On April 26th, he accompanied her to a recording session in NY for what was to become her hit album “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. He was there as boyfriend and studio musician. Stills was a very fine multi-instrumentalist, and has provided the musical backing on acoustic guitar and bass for albums as fine as Joni Mitchell’s “Blue“.

Collins’ album includes Ian Tyson’s song, ‘Someday Soon’, which would become a signature song for her. In this clip, Graham Nash interviews her about the origins of ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ (written by Stills for her); then Stills joins them on stage to perform ‘Someday Soon’.

At the end of the session, he bribed the engineer to stay and allow him to record some songs he’d been working on. Judy went home, admonishing him “not to stay here all night.” Stills relates: “I peeled off a couple of hundreds and told the engineer, ‘I’ve got to record these demos or I’ll forget everything.'”

He took a cassette of the songs with him (which he soon lost) and forgot about the session. In 1978, the studio was about to close, and the owner told one musician named Joe Colasurdo to ‘take whatever tapes you want, they’ll just end up in the trash bin’. He took home a box of reel-to-reel tapes, intending to record over them. But one had the name Stephen Stills on it. He heard it, realized that it was a lost treasure. For years he tried to contact Stills to give him the tapes. (If you’re a mortal who has ever tried contacting a celebrity, even for wholly legitimate reasons, you know how utterly frustrating that can be). Eventually he met a friend of a friend of Graham Nash, and got the tape to him. At a recording session with Stills, without saying a word, Nash put on the tape. Stills, and everyone else, was floored. Nash told him he should release it untouched.

And, thank goodness, he did. Because it’s so vivid, so vibrant, that it’s enabled me to hear this music afresh. In an NPR interview, Stills calls the music here innocent, much higher than he can sing it today. He said that rediscovering this tape is “like being on a dive and finding a gold sovereign.”

Neil Young, Richie Furay, Stephen Stills

Just Roll Tape: April 26th, 1968” (that’s what he said to the engineer at the start of the recording) contains 13 songs, none of which he’d recorded previously. This wasn’t a nostalgia trip; it was an initial take on material which would serve him for years to come (he would later record nine of them on subsequent albums). The best known include a cover of Lennon’s ‘In My Life’, and Stills’ ‘Change Partners’, ‘Wooden Ships’, ‘Helplessly Hoping‘, and our Song of The Week, the iconic ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes‘.

I find it particularly remarkable that these recordings are so well-cooked. There’s no fumbling, inventing words for unwritten verses, or trailing off when he doesn’t know exactly how to finish the song. He’s a consummate, serious artist, this Stephen Stills.

His guitar playing is stunning–intense, commanding. He uses mostly open tunings; in ‘Suite’, it’s a tuning attributed to Springfield bassist Bruce Palmer, EEEEBE (see the Wikipedia article). His vocals are jaw-dropping technically, and affectively wrenching. This is really fine music, folks.

Crosby, Stills, Nash

Stills is a pretty strange character. There’s one video of him at a very laid-back concert “Celebration at Big Sur”, everyone very mellow and stoned and acoustic, until he gets into a fistfight with a fan that rubs him the wrong way. This three-part interview (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) from 1972 shows a variety of his facets–on the one hand, mispronouncing the word ‘eclectic’ and inventing stories about dodging machine-gun fire as a boy during a junta, on the other hand (in the first part), showing us his open tuning and playing Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ for us solo, and then in part 3 playing ‘For What It’s Worth’ on the piano.

Just Roll Tape” carries more than a modicum of historical interest. After all, Stephen Stills of April, 1968 wasn’t just ex-Buffalo Springfield, he was of course also pre-Crosby, Stills and Nash. Three months after our SoTW recording, at a party at Mamma Cass Elliot’s house, Nash asked Stills and Crosby to repeat a new Stills song they had sung, “You Don’t Have To Cry.” He improvised a second harmony part; they immediately realized that something unique had occurred. They soon went into the studio, and in 1969 released their eponymous first album, making them an instant supergroup.

Together with ‘John Wesley Harding‘, ‘Music from Big Pink’, and ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, ‘CS&N’ was a harbinger – and catalyst – of the new direction the music and the mind of the generation would take. Prior to this music, the world was electric, frenetic and violent –Jumping Jack Flash, speed and Vietnam. On the horizon was the fallout from Dylan’s motorcycle accident, a distinct turn inwards to the organic, the acoustic, the earth-bound. A wholly new reality.

‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ was a theme song of this change. It was also a hit, ranked 426 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and a symbol of the generation. CS&N would perform it at Woodstock, the signature moment of the festival. “This is the second time we have played in front of people, man. We are scared shitless.” Here’s a lovely montage of the three of them talking, arguing, and singing, including Stills singing ‘4+20’ in the famous appearance on the Dick Cavett show the day after Woodstock, still wearing their mud-caked clothes.

The ‘Just Roll Tape’ version of the song is virtually identical to the record version, with two verses inverted and without the ‘Doo-doo’ ending. “That was an afterthought in the studio.” (I got a particularly perverse pleasure from Stills’ story in the NPR interview about how the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, who were “heroes of ours”, sang this section for him. Why is it that when I sing the praises of this group (see SoTW 030), people look at me strangely, whereas when Stephen Stills does it, the girls all swoon?

He also says there that he prefers ‘the middle part’ (‘Friday evening’) of “Just Roll”‘s ‘Suite:Judy Blue Eyes’ to the recorded version. For my money, it’s all very fine. I love how he tunes, and without taking a breath, flies into the song, as if he’s afraid he’ll be tossed out of the studio at any moment and wants to get it all down before that happens. He’s on. Or ‘It’s my heart…’ where he goes into a high, high falsetto, and his aim is oh-so-true. Stevie Winwood would be impressed.

In the interview, the song is referred to as a breakup song. For all the myriad times I’ve listened to the song, I suppose I couldn’t rattle off the lyrics. I just read through them (printed below, with a transcription and translation of the Spanish at the end). The lyric is far more coherent, unified, and communicative than I’d thought. This isn’t a random assembly of musical parts. It is indeed a suite in the fullest sense, a telling story of the end of a relationship.

At the end of the NPR interview, Stills thanks Joe Colasurdo for giving him the tapes. “The guy is my friend for life.” Well, let me join you in that, Stephen. Thanks for the very precious gift, Joe. And thanks, Stephen.

It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore,
I am sorry.
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud
I am lonely.
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are
And you make it hard.

Remember what we’ve said and done and felt about each other,
Oh babe, have mercy.
Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now,
I am not dreaming.
I am yours…

Tearing yourself away from me now
You are free and I am crying
This does not mean I don’t love you
I do, that’s forever,
Yes and for always.
I am yours…

Something inside is telling me that I’ve got your secret.
Are you still listening?
Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart,
And I love you.
I am yours…

Friday evening, Sunday in the afternoon
What have you got to lose?
Tuesday morning, please be gone I’m tired of you.
What have you got to lose?
Can I tell it like it is? (Help me I’m suffering)
Listen to me baby.
It’s my heart that’s a-suffering (Help me I’m dying)
It’s a-dying, that’s what I have to lose.
I’ve got an answer:
I’m going to fly away.
What have I got to lose?
Will you come see me Thursdays and Saturdays?
What have you got to lose?

Chestnut brown canary, ruby-throated sparrow
Sing the song, don’t be long, thrill me to the marrow.

Voices of the angels, ring around the moonlight,
Asking me, said ‘she’s so free, how can you catch the sparrow?’

Lacy, lilting, lyric, losing love, lamenting
Change my life, make it right, be my lady.

Que linda me la traiga Cuba,
La reina de la Mar Caribe.
Cielo sol no tiene sangre allí,
y que triste que no puedo vaya,
Oh va, oh va, va.

Translation:
(Oh, what beauty Cuba brings me,
The queen of the Caribbean Sea,
Sunny sky has no blood over there,
And how sad that I cannot go,
Oh go, oh go, go.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

061: The Doobie Brothers, “What a Fool Believes”

038: Van Morrison, ‘Astral Weeks’

026: Andy Bey, ‘River Man’

Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
We enjoy your comments and will try to respond to all of them.
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as eMusic or Amazon

Feel free to recommend Song of The Week to friends.
We enjoy your comments and will try to respond to all of them.
SoTW is a non-commercial, non-profit venture, intended solely to promote the appreciation of good music. Readers are strongly encouraged to purchase the music discussed here at sites such as eMusic or Amazon.

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