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031: The Beach Boys, ‘Little Saint Nick’

Posted by jeff on Dec 20, 2014 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Yes, we’re early, but Song of The Week just couldn’t wait.

I live in the only non-Christian country in the Western world, so things are pretty normal out on the streets (well, ‘normal’ by local standards). It’s quite a shock for people who come from abroad to spend Yuletide here, how conspicuous it is in its absence. And take into account that I live about 85 kilometers (52 miles) from the original manger. That’s easily traversed on camel-back in two days.

As close as it is, it’s a rather foreign event here. But I grew up in a wholly Christian world, so I feel pretty comfortable about the whole thing, just a bit distanced from it. There have been years when I haven’t even noticed its passing beyond a mention or two on the local news. But this year I’ve been more attuned to the holiday season for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the great majority of SoTW readers abide in The Big World Out There. So I figured it would only be proper to dedicate this week’s posting to the good old red-and-green.

The world would be a poorer place without Christmas music. So much of our Western tradition revolves around it, from Liturgy’s Greatest Hits to Bob Dylan’s recent (some would say ‘bizarre’, others ‘unfortunate’ “Christmas in the Heart”). What is Christmas music for me? Well, of course, it’s Nat King Cole, and Bing Crosby. But there’s a lot of my high school Ensemble in there, too. We had a whole repertoire of holiday songs, many of which I can still sing through without blinking, and we’d perform every night in December, it seems.

So with such a wealth of riches, I had no easy task picking our SoTW. I had a harder job than good old King Solomon. He just had to pick between two mothers. I had to pick between three songs.

Just yesterday I received a link from my old friend A.B. I’m not going to discuss theology with him, but I sure do like his taste in music. He sent me “O Magnum Mysterium” by Morten Lauridsen, as performed by the Nordic Chamber Choir. I had never heard of any of the three. It’s a beautiful, spiritual, sacred motet, a cappella. Morten is a USC professor and 3-time Grammy nominee. And it turns out that he is currently “the most frequently performed American choral composer”. Well, how about that? Well, I’ve been away for a long time. Give a listen to that Nordic Choir. Just about perfect, I’d say.

But I said, heck, I just heard that today. I’m not going to go running around promoting a piece I just met today.

So then I asked myself, ‘Jeff, what’s the best song you know that talks about Christmas?’ No contest. Joni Mitchell’s ‘River‘. Song of The Week? No way. I’m not going to shoot my wad on Joni with the clock ticking, and I’m not going to choose one of her best-known songs when I do. But mostly, the song’s just so damn depressing, and I didn’t want to be in the position of disseminating non-holiday spirit.

So I ran a quick search through the musty catacombs of my brain, and one old buddy was just sitting there, polished all candy-apple red, grinning, waiting to be retrieved — The Beach Boys “Little Saint Nick“.

I’ve written before about The Beach Boys (SoTW 4, ‘Kiss Me Baby’, SoTW 118, ‘Surf’s Up’, SoTW 158, Paul Simon singing ‘Surfer Girl‘), and I was hesitant to repeat myself, especially with a song of theirs that speaks for itself (as opposed to the ones that I so quixotically champion in the face of universal indifference). But what the heck? Who can resist this ebullient hot-rod carol?

Just a little bobsled, we call it old Saint Nick
But she’ll walk a toboggan with a four speed stick
She’s candy apple red with a ski for a wheel
And when Santa hits the gas, man, just watch her peel.

Now that’s holiday spirit.

So to our readers all over the world, from the whole staff of Song of The Week, y’all have a good holiday — everyone, everywhere.

 

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106: Joni Mitchell, ‘Cactus Tree’

012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

092: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Zakir Hussain, ‘Babar’ (“The Melody of Rhythm”)

 

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048 Sam Cooke ‘Bring It On Home To Me’,

Posted by jeff on May 31, 2013 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

Sam Cooke, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, Live at the Harlem Square Club

I learned something new this week. Or more precisely, I had a long-held misunderstanding corrected. C’mon, Jeff, just say it—you were wrong, you just found out.

I always believed that Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ was a derivative cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me’. And I’m here today to make a public confession that I was wrong, that Sam Cooke’s version came first, and thus to try to right that heinous injustice.

‘BIOHTM’ was released on May 8, 1962 as the B-side of ‘Having a Party’ on the RCA label.
‘YRGAHOM’ was released on November 9, 1962 on the Tamla label, a subsidiary of Motown.

So there. I’m sorry, Sam. But I guess I don’t really need to worry about it too much, since the half century since Cooke’s death at 33 in 1964 (shot by a lady motel manager whose room he had broken into and was allegedly trying to assault) has been very kind to his reputation. He commands the greatest respect imaginable, especially as a vocal stylist. Van Morrison readily admits that his whole approach to singing is modeled after Cooke. Rod Stewart often sounds like a bleached version of Cooke. You can’t imagine Otis Redding or Marvin Gaye without Cooke’s precedent. And that’s only the start of a very long list.

But that’s not his only achievement. He’s considered one of the finest gospel singers of the 1950s. In 1958 he crossed the line from the sacred world of hoot-and-shout gospel to the profane world of string-backed, hormone-soaked teenage carnal love with one of the biggest hits of the decade, ‘You Send Me’. Over the next few years until his death he had a string of memorable pop hits (‘Cupid‘, ‘Wonderful World’ later covered by James Taylor/Paul Simon/Art Garfunkel, among many others) as well as hits that in retrospect were trailblazing steps into what would become soul music (‘Shake‘, ‘Ain’t That Good News’, and the immortal ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’). He was a political rebel, promoting black consciousness and pride, founding his own record company to fight the repressive, commercialized (white) music distribution business.

In a previous SoTW, I expressed some of my admiration for Smokey Robinson’s stunning ‘The Tracks of My Tears’. And I’m glossing right over Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ here, because it is too divine to be discussed other than on its own. This week we’re going to confine ourselves to these two companion pieces, ‘BIOHTM’ and ‘YRGAHOM’.

They’re both written by the very first black singer-songwriter auteurs in the pop idiom. They both reach back into the artist’s gospel roots, using the black Baptist church’s call-and-response format in a secular R&B song. And then looking around to write this, I discovered another very striking similarity–both were clearly toned down, sweetened up and bowdlerized for the Top 40 (white teenage) market, but both have a well-known raw, soulful version that puts the more popular version in a much clearer light.

Here’s Smokey Robinson & The Miracles hit record of ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me’. And here’s a live version of the song, typical slick Motown, very much reflecting the spirit of the recorded version. It’s from the (Wonder Bread-white) TV show Shindig; Smokey and the guys are wearing tuxedos, and the dancing is typical 1964-vintage Motown. And here’s a pretty remarkable clip from 1963 in front of a black audience, from the “Motortown” revue at the Apollo Theater, with the legendary James Jamerson on bass, Smokey’s wife Claudette as a member of the original group. Apparently Motown didn’t have choreographers yet to polish the dancing, and Smokey’s tie is undone. His performance here is more James Brown than David Ruffin.

And here’s our SoTW, Sam Cooke’s inadvertently maligned ‘Bring It On Home To Me’. Here’s the hit record version of the song. The second voice here is the uncredited, then-unknown Lou Rawls! Ernie Freeman plays piano. And here it is live in front of a black audience at the Harlem Square Club in Miami, 1963. I’ve heard this song many times, by many artists. But I certainly never experienced it as I did when I heard this very, very raw and real version.

Among the countless artists who have covered the song are Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Paul McCartney (twice), John Lennon, Van Morrison, Rod Stewart, and Aretha Franklin. So I’m not sure that Sam Cooke really needs rehabilitation from me. Still, it’s my privilege and pleasure to join the choir. So I guess I learned two things this week. First of all, that Sam Cooke takes a back seat to no one, not even to Smokey Robinson. Secondly, and much more important as a practical lesson for the future–the sweetest fruits are often those closest to the roots.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

 

152: Sam Cooke, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
120: Sam Cooke, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’

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

Posted by jeff on Mar 12, 2010 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

 

lieber & stroller 01I recently had the distinct pleasure of reading “Hound Dog,” the autobiography of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They were the first great record makers of rock and roll, although they themselves said all they ever wanted to do was make good rhythm and blues. So our Song of The Week is naturally going to be one of my favorites of their many, many, many hits. I hope you’ll bear with me if a take a somewhat circuitous route in getting to it. Know what a shaggy dog story is? “An extremely long-winded tale featuring extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents, usually resulting in a pointless or absurd punchline.” Well, that’s me to a T. But maybe you’ll find some of those incidents surrounding Leiber and Stoller as interesting as I do. If not, I won’t be hurt. Just click on the links and enjoy their very fine music.

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were both born in 1933.

Stoller grew up in a wealthy Jewish home in NY. His first exposure to black music was at an integrated sleep-away camp in 1941(!), where Paul Robeson was a guest artist singing spirituals and Hebrew folksongs. Stoller heard a black kid playing boogie-woogie in barn, which he says changed his life. Back home, he took piano lessons with James P. Johnson (1894-1955), king of the stride piano, composer of “The Charleston”, mentor of Fats Waller, compadre of Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith and Bessie Smith. In his early teens, Stoller fell under the spell of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the luminaries of bebop.

Leiber grew up in poor Baltimore, fought in street gangs, blacks and black music an integral part of the social landscape. He says that his musical revelation was as a kid washing dishes in an all-night diner, he watched the short-order cook leaning back with a joint hanging out of his mouth, listening to Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Ain’t Nobody’s Business“.

Leiber and Stoller met up in 1950 in LA, two 17-year old Jewish boys bubbling with enthusiasm for R&B. In 1951 they managed to get a few songs recorded for some ‘minor labels with major talents’, including even the young Ray Charles. In 1952 they wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield, which became a hit for Wilbert Harrison in 1959, and was eventually recorded by some 300 artists including The Beatles.

One morning they got a call from guitarist/producer Johnny Otis. He was in his garage rehearsing with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. He needed a song for her. Our boys wrote it in minutes, and drove over to Otis’s garage. There they met Ms. Thornton attired in her combat boots and oversized overalls. Mike played the song on the piano, and she began to croon it.

“Big Mama,” Jerry suggested gently, “maybe if you’d attack it with a little more–”

“Come here, boy,” she said, motioning me to stand even closer to her. “I’ll tell you what you can attack. Attack this…” she added, pointing to her crotch.

Johnny Otis came to the rescue, saying “You sing it Jerry, you show Big Mama how it goes.” This is the result.

Leiber and Stoller were paid $1200 for the song, but the check bounced. Released in 1953, it did fairly well by R&B’s modest commercial standards, but within one month 5 more versions had been recorded.

In the mid-50s, white kids were beginning to become attracted to the dangerous sexuality of black rhythm and blues – but it was a bit too raw and threatening, so they greatly preferred to buy white versions of black music. The first commercially successful rock and roll songs were Bill Haley’s 1954 sanitized cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll”, and “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955.

There were lots of clones and imitators of Bill Haley, including a long-forgotten Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. They were having a successful run in Las Vegas, and one of their popular numbers was a jokey, novelty version of Big Mama’s “Hound Dog”. Elvis Presley and his band were having an unsuccessful run in Vegas at the same time. They watched Freddy Bell nightly. Elvis liked the song, decided to try it himself. He appeared with it on Milton Berle’s TV show. Over 40,000,000 people saw the performance, and the network received thousands of letters of complaint about how ‘Elvis the Pelvis’ was promoting juvenile delinquency.

I guess that’s when life as we’ve known it in the second half of the twentieth century really started.

In 1956, Stoller was honeymooning in Paris. He and his bride were returning to New York on the luxury liner the S.S. Andrea Doria. It collided with another ship and 46 passengers died. Stoller and his wife made it into lifeboats.

Jerry ran up to me on the pier saying, “Mike, you’re okay!” before adding, “We have a smash hit.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Hound Dog.”

“Big Mama Thornton?”

“No, some white kid named Elvis Presley.”

Although Leiber and Stoller had great respect for Elvis as a performer, they never really liked what he did to the song. They eventually became the main source of music for his movies, writing dozens of songs which Elvis recorded, including “Love Me,” “Loving You,” “Don’t,” and “Jailhouse Rock.” For a while they were becoming quite friendly with Elvis, but Colonel Parker didn’t like those Jewish boys hanging around his golden rooster and kept them away.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Leiber and Stoller had met up with Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertugun, sons of the Turkish ambassador to the US, great jazz and R&B fans, owners of Atlantic Records.  Leiber and Stoller started grinding out major hits for Atlantic for a group called The Robins, which soon morphed into The Coasters.

They used The Coasters to paint aural pictures, their own very wonderful version of comic-book blues.

These hits left an indelible mark on popular music for two reasons. First, because as L&S said, “We didn’t write songs; we wrote records.” They wrote not just the song, but also the arrangement, the style, the sound, the nuances of the vocal performances, the entire production. And in that, they were the first real creative artists in the popular idiom. In that, they predated the Brill Building songwriters, not to mention The Beatles and Dylan and the generations of music makers they inspired.

Oh, yeah, and secondly—well, just listen to how great these hits are: “Riot in Cell Block #9”, “Smokey Joe’s Café”, “Down in Mexico”, “Young Blood”, “Searchin'”, “Yakety Yak”, “Charlie Brown”, “Along Came Jones”, “Poison Ivy”, “Little Egypt”.

Impossible a task it is, but house rules say I have to pick just one for our SoTW. Should it be the first, “Riot in Cell Block #9“, the manic genius anarchical jailhouse opera production? The paean to STD “Poison Ivy” (sorry for the visuals, the only original I could find) with the greatest couplet in rock annals, “You’re gonna need an ocean/of calamine lotion”? No, let’s just go with the greatest of the great, the anthem of all the sullen, acned, lethargic adolescents we all were–”Yakety Yak“. Written just for me and ‘all my hoodlum friends outside’.

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Just finish cleanin’ up your room
Let’s see that dust fly with that broom
Get all that garbage out of sight
Or you don’t go out Friday night
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

You just put on your coat and hat

And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin’ that

Bring in the dog and put out the cat
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Don’t you give me no dirty looks
Your father’s hip; he knows what cooks
Just tell your hoodlum friend outside
You ain’t got time to take a ride
Yakety yak (don’t talk back)

Leiber and Stoller’s career didn’t end there. They hundreds and hundreds of memorable hits (‘On Broadway’, ‘Under the Boardwalk’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Chapel of Love’, ‘Leader of the Pack’, ‘Ruby Baby’, ‘She Cried’, ‘Only in America’, ‘Is That All There Is?’, 20 songs by Elvis, many if not most of The Beatles first recordings), and still write on occasion.

One reader told me that I was focusing too much on singers with morbid, sensationalist, Yellow Journalism sob story bios – Blind Willie Johnson, Eva Cassidy, Radke Toneff. Well, no one’s going to make an afternoon TV movie about Leiber and Stoller. But someone did make a very successful Broadway show.

In 1995, Smokey Joe’s Cafe: The Songs of Leiber & Stoller opened on Broadway – forty songs by L&S, running for over five years, the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history.

So there.

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