Song of the Week – Rock Music in Early ’60s Films

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This is the second installment of my series on Rock music in movies.  The first covered Rock music in 50s films.  Today’s post explores the movies of the early 60s.

At the close of the 50s, the great explosion of creative talent in Rock ‘n Roll was against the ropes.  Elvis was in the Army and out of the recording (and film) studio; Chuck Berry was in trouble with the law for a violation of the Mann Act for transporting a 14-year old girl across state lines; Jerry Lee Lewis was fending off a PR nightmare for marrying his 13-year old cousin (once removed) before the divorce from his second wife was final; controversy swirled around Little Richard’s ambiguous sexuality: a plane crash took the life of Buddy Holly.

What filled the void?  On the radio, it was bland covers of R&B songs by the likes of Pat Boone.  On-screen we were treated to a slew of beach movies (Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Muscle Beach Party, Surf Party) and “twist” dance movies (Don’t Knock the Twist, Hey, Let’s Twist).

There were a few highlights though, both involving my first crush – Ann-Margret.

In 1963 she starred in the film version of Bye Bye BirdieBirdie told the story of a rock star (Conrad Birdie) that was being drafted into the Army.  The gold lamé wearing Birdie was loosely inspired by Elvis Presley.  High school Birdie fan Kim MacAfee (Margret) wins a contest that will have her meet and be kissed by the star on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The theme song “Bye Bye Birdie” is sung by Margret at the beginning of the movie and is reprised at the end. In the first version, Margret plays up her youthful, girlish charm.  By the end of the show, Kim is a mature woman, and her performance vamps it up!  Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean!

A year later, Margret was starring with Presley himself in Viva Las Vegas – one of a handful of Presley movies that holds up.

The terrific title song – written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman – rocks.  It has been covered by artists as diverse as Dead Kennedys, Nina Hagen, Stray Cats, and ZZ Top.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Suavecito, Malo

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“Suavecito.”  It was a top 20 hit on Billboard in 1972 and was off the debut album by the San Francisco based Malo.  The band was made up of Abel Zarate, Pablo Tellez, Arcelio Garcia, Richard Spremich, Richard Kermode, Luis Gasca, Roy Murray, and Jorge Santana, the brother of guitarist Carlos Santana, Richard Bean guested on the lead vocal for “Suavecito.”

Wikipedia claims “Suavecito” (Spanish for “smooth”) has been adopted as “The Chicano National Anthem.”

The song was written by Bean, Zarate and Tellez.  Bean wrote the lyrics in the form of a poem.  He has told the story that the song is about “this girl in algebra class I had a crush on.  I was in love.  Maybe puppy love.  I hated algebra.”

He claims his former classmate, at San Francisco’s Mission High School, still has no idea he wrote the lyrics for her.

Fun fact:  Bean’s great grandfather was Judge Roy Bean, who, according to legend, earned the reputation as a “hanging judge” in Texas jurisdiction.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Rock Music in ’50s Films

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For a very long time, I’ve been ruminating on the idea to write a series of posts that address the subject of Rock music in films.  It has taken me a long time to deal with the subject because it is better suited to long-form journalism, or even a book, than a 500-word blog post essay.  So, I’ve decided to attack it with a series of articles, perhaps by decade.  This is the first in the series, covering the ‘50s.  This has become timelier since the passing of Little Richard last week.

Any discussion of Rock music in film must start with Blackboard Jungle (1955).  The movie’s plot centers around a high school teacher that tries to educate at an inner-city, all boy’s school, many of whose students are juvenile delinquents.  The only rock ‘n roll recording used in the movie was Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock.”  But it was used to great effect over the opening credits and into the first scene.

It is often credited for starting the rebellious teenage revolution of the ‘50s and kickstarted the popularity of rock ‘n roll itself.

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) was a comedy starring the sexy Jayne Mansfield.  But it also provided a showcase for some of the best early rock ‘n rollers, such as Fats Domino, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, the Platters, and Gene Vincent.

Here’s the title song, by Little Richard.

A week after The Girl Can’t Help It was released, another youth-oriented film ended the year with a bang!  Rock! Rock! Rock! (1956) came out just before the holidays.  Wikipedia describes the flick “as an early jukebox musical featuring performances by established rock and roll singers of the era, including Chuck Berry, LaVern Baker, Teddy Randazzo, the Moonglows, the Flamingos, and The Teenagers with Frankie Lymon as lead singer.”  The movie didn’t have much of a plot, but it did feature 21 performances of songs by those artists, and others (The Johnny Burnette Trio, Connie Francis).

Chuck Berry killed it with “You Can’t Catch Me.”

How can we address rock ‘n roll in ‘50s films without mentioning The King’s best flick – Jailhouse Rock (1957).  This movie, starring Elvis Presley, is a vehicle for his songs but also has a strong storyline (unlike most of his ‘60s films that have very weak screenplays).  The title song is a classic!  But the movie also includes the great Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller penned “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.”

This song is so good that it has been covered by countless artists, not the least of which include The Beatles, Buddy Holly, Joni Mitchell, Queen, Bryan Ferry, and Hüsker Dü.

Other films from the ‘50s with notable rock ‘n roll soundtracks include Shake Rattle and Rock, Jamboree, The Big Beat, Hot Rod Gang, and Go, Johnny, Go!  Check ‘em out.

Stay tuned for the next installment of Rock Music in Films.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Rainbow Lady, Mike McGear

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Did you know that there is a secret Paul McCartney and Wings album that you probably never heard?  Well, not exactly, but close!

Wings finished recording Band on the Run in October 1973.  (It was released in December ’73.)  Their next project was to help Paul’s little brother Mike — stage name Mike McGear – to record his second solo album.  McGear was recorded in early ’74 and released the following September.

The lead vocals were sung by Mike (his voice has a timbre that is like Paul’s), Wings performed all of the backing tracks.  Paul chose not to be credited on the album, but he contributed bass, guitars, keyboards, piano, synthesizer, and backing vocals (“What Do We Really Know?”).  Paul also produced and co-wrote all the songs (except opener “Sea Breezes” by Bryan Ferry), mostly with his wife Linda and Mike.

The McGear disc produced one moderate hit.  The saxophone driven “Leave It” made it to #36 on the British charts.  But that’s not my favorite track.  I prefer the quaint, Beatlesque “Rainbow Lady.”

Just another silly love song!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Green Eyed Lady, Sugarloaf

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The first time I ever heard “Green Eyed Lady”, by Sugarloaf, was on AM radio in the summer of 1970.  The song reached #3 on Billboard Hot 100, taking me, and the country by storm with its jazzy, prog rock.

There were three different single versions.  The first had almost no edits but an early fade out to keep it below 6 minutes.  That was deemed too long for ‘70s AM radio airplay.  The next version cut out all the solos, and also cut out the track’s soul.  The final single version is the one most of us know.  It runs about 3.5 minutes and contains an abridged solo section.  It attempted to get a slice of the extended solo section from the nearly 7 minute album version into a length that would be deemed “suitable” for radio.

But if you really want to enjoy this hit, you should immerse in the album cut with the Jimmy Smith inspired, Hammond B3 organ solo by Jimmy Corbetta.

How can you ignore the funky groove that the band establishes from the very first notes?  And the keyboard and guitar solos kill it!

Many people put Sugarloaf’s “Green Eyed Lady” into the “one-hit wonder” category.  But that’s not really the case.  Sugarloaf had another Top 10 hit with “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” in late ‘74/early ’75 – a track that was covered by Van Halen in concert, but never officially released.

“Green Eyed Lady” is a popular chestnut, and still brings enjoyment to me every time I hear it.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Locked Down, Dr. John

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I’m still pissed off that I wasn’t able to go back to New Orleans last week to enjoy another French Quarter Festival.  My wife and friends had so much fun last year that we couldn’t wait to go back.  But it was postponed until October because this damned COVID-19 has us locked down!

Locked down?  Yeah, locked down.

 “Locked Down” is from Dr. John’s 2012 album of the same title.  The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced the set and added his own brew of dirty guitar riffs, vocals, and percussion.  This was the next to last album the good Dr. released before his passing last June.

So, thank you, Dr. John, for giving me a little of that swampy Nola funk to help me get through this coronavirus shut down. 

I’ll be back, New Orleans!

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – American Lovers, Thomas Jefferson Kaye

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Have you ever heard of Thomas Jefferson Kaye?

I didn’t think so.  But you should know about him because he had a very successful career in the music biz.

First of all, he was the producer on Gene Clark’s best solo album (IMHO), No Other.  If that was his only accomplishment, he would be noteworthy.  But there is so much more!

In the late 50s, while still a teenager, he hooked up with Scepter/Wand records.  Through the early 60s there, he wrote and produced material for The Shirelles and several notable soul artists.  He also produced ? and the Mysterians; possibly even on their big hit “96 Tears”, though that has been a subject of debate.

In the 70s he worked with Clark, produced “Dead Skunk” for Loudon Wainwright III, co-wrote the Three Dog night hit “One Man Band”, and produced the Dr. John, Mike Bloomfield, John Hammond Jr. super session called Triumvirate.

Of special interest to me is his association with all of the cats at ABC/Dunhill records that were producing (Gary Katz) and playing on Steely Dan records – including Donald Fagen and Walter Becker.

This led Kaye to release two solo albums in the early 70s that allowed him full access to those great artists.  The first eponymous disc is almost a Steely Dan backed record.  Becker, Fagen, David Palmer, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and, Victor Feldman all make contributions, with Katz producing.

His second solo release, First Grade, even included two Becker/Fagen penned obscurities that they never recorded for Steely Dan.  “American Lovers” is today’s SotW.

“American Lovers” was recorded around the time that Steely Dan was working on Pretzel Logic.  While I wouldn’t claim that Becker and Fagen gave away their best song, it has the chord structure and lyrical intelligence we’ve come to expect from the boys.

Becker plays bass on this number and Jim Gordon pounds the traps.  Backing vocals are provided by Dusty Springfield, Clydie King and Shirley Matthews!

Kaye died in 1994 in Warwick, NY, just a few miles from my hometown of Newburgh.

So the next time someone asks if you’ve ever heard of Thomas Jefferson Kaye you’ll say – “Hell yes!”

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Out of Left Field, Percy Sledge

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Today’s SotW is another guest spot by Michael Paquette, who made his first contribution on February 1st.  His passion for music is evident in this salute to a soul obscurity by Percy Sledge.

Percy Sledge had a massive hit with the first song he ever recorded in the southern soul studio, Muscle Shoals in 1966.  “When A Man Loves A Woman” was a huge hit both here in America and internationally and received even more recognition in the movies The Big Chill (1983), Platoon (1987) and The Crying Game (1992).  It originally reached #4 on the British charts and upon re-release in 1988 hit #2.

He never had another US top 10 chart hit but he did manage to have years of success with lesser known songs on the R&B charts such as “Take Time to Know Her,” “Warm and Tender Love” and “It Tears Me Up.”

But “Out of Left Field” may have been his finest work.  It was released in the spring of 1967 about a year after “When A Man Loves A Woman.”  It is a tender love song about that first moment of suddenly found love.  “Out of Left Field” is a great representation of Percy Sledge’s range and the strength of his voice to move listeners.  It is a soulful song that could almost come off as a country tune.

The lyrics, written by Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn who did so much work for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, The Box Tops and Bobby Purify, leave an indelible mark on the Muscle Shoals sound through their simplicity and genuineness.

Sugar and peaches in a paradise land,

Good love and sweetness have taken their stand

She made a mountain of love

From a little grain of sand.

Suddenly, out of left field

Came a lover and a friend

These are definitely lines that anyone can relate to and words that could fit into nearly any genre of music.  This song remains a favorite of mine and it is another masterpiece from a seriously underappreciated artist.

“Out of Left Field” was covered by Gregg Allman, Al Kooper and John Fred & His Playboy Band (of “Judy In Disguise” fame)! 

Although many of Sledge’s songs weren’t nearly as famous as his first hit, he was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 and was fittingly inducted by another soulful artist with a famous voice — Rod Stewart.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week – Famous Blue Raincoat, Leonard Cohen

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Perhaps my all-time favorite Leonard Cohen song, among so many worthy possibilities, is “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

The lyric is written in the form of a letter; where the letter writer confronts another guy (a friend?) about his affair with the writer’s wife.

It’s four in the morning, the end of December
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better
New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening

And you treated my woman to a flake of your life
And when she came back she was nobody’s wife

What can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way

To make the lyrics all the more interesting, Cohen sings many of the lines using the rhythmic pattern called amphibrach.  Amphibrach is where one long syllable is placed between two shorts syllables.  Listen closely and you will pick up on it very quickly.

“Famous Blue Raincoat” is another wonderful song on which string arranger Paul Buckmaster – most well-known for his work with Elton John — lent his talents.

Enjoy… until next week.

Song of the Week Revisited – Hope She’ll Be Happier, Bill Withers

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Today I learned that the great Bill Withers died at the age of 81. His family released a statement that said it was due to heart complications. At least it wasn’t Coronavirus related! In his honor I’d like to repost a SotW that I wrote about him on December 22, 2012.

I’ve always loved the Bill Withers’ song “Hope She’ll Be Happier” that was on his first album Just as I Am.  So without a lot of fanfare, here it is:

This album is the one with “Ain’t No Sunshine” on it.  It’s really a very good record with some great musical accompaniment from the Memphis boys down at Stax records and other top notch players like Stephen Stills, Jim Keltner and Chris Ethridge.

The song is very simple – a nice guitar figure is repeated over a passionate vocal delivered in the style of a black spiritual.  The lyric is about a man who is in great pain over losing his woman.  He can’t quite come to grips with the reason she left but hopes she will ultimately be happier with the new guy.

This song leaves me in the same emotional state I find myself in after hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah” – especially the wonderful Jeff Buckley version.

Now there’s one more thing I need to share and that’s the version Withers’ recorded in Africa when he visited with the James Brown headlined 3 day festival that came to be known as “The Rumble In the Jungle.”  The 1974 concert is available on DVD under the title Soul Power.  Withers’ performance of “Hope She’ll Be Happier” at this concert will take your breath away.

In this version it’s just him, his guitar and his voice.  But it’s powerful.

Enjoy… until next week.