All posts in this series tell the stories behind songs submitted by readers of this blog. As always, I welcome your suggestions for future posts. Any song from any era in any genre by any artist is welcome. I will do my best to honour the songs that matter most to you.
“All I Have To Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers is one of those songs that is exactly what most listeners believe it to be. It is a love song about falling in love at first sight and was written as an autobiographical tale by the authors of the song. “All I Have To Do Is Dream” became a #1 hit for Don and Phil Everly in the 1950s and, in fact, became the very first song to ever occupy the top spot on all of the major music charts at the same time (Country, Pop, R&B). Not only that but this song helped launch The Everly Brothers as a pair of teenage crooners whose singing style would end up inspiring the wonderful harmonizing of future stars The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. However, like many music stars of the 1950s and 60s, The Everly Brothers may have been the singing stars and the face of the music they were releasing under their name, but they did not write their own songs. Back then, they were being fed songs by a songwriting team named Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The Bryants also penned the Everly Brothers hits “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love”, as well as that 1970s rock classic “Love Hurts” by Nazareth. The Bryants wrote songs for Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Ricky Van Shelton, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ray Price and many more. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant were inducted into the Songwriting Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. So, as much as “All I Have To Do Is Dream” comes across as an Everly Brothers tune, they were really only the singers of the song. The real story of this song belongs to two young lovers who found each other during WWII. This is the true story of how Felice and Boudleaux Bryant met and fell in love.
Felice Bryant was born in 1925 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was born into a Sicilian family and grew up surrounded by music and singing. As she matured, Felice began writing her own versions of songs to go along with the instrumental tunes played in her family home. She was only a teenager when WWII broke out. Because of her musical inclinations, she wound up working at her local USO. In those days, USOs were places where soldiers on leave or in training could go at night to see live music or a comedy show. The USOs were designed to act as morale boosters for the brave soldiers who were heading off to war. In many cases, young women from the local area would show up to dance with the handsome uniformed men. Billy Joel referenced this in his song “Allentown”:
“Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers at the USO
Asked them to dance, danced with them slow”
It was in this atmosphere of music and high emotions that Felice evolved into one of the main organizers of the shows put on at the Milwaukee USO. She was all of nineteen years old when a new band came into town to perform. One of the members of the band was a man named Boudleaux Bryant. Bryant played the fiddle in a Country band called Hank Penny and his Radio Cowboys. Because of her role at the USO, it was Felice who welcomed the band to the hall. When she first saw Boudleaux and he saw her, they instantly fell in love. In fact, they fell so far so fast that they actually eloped before the Hank Penny Band could leave town for their next gig. They were married five days after they first met.
The lyrics to “All I Have To Do Is Dream” paint a picture of a lovesick man who desires to be with his true love but can only do so in his dreams. This was, in fact, the very situation that Boudleaux and Felice found themselves in. Both knew immediately that they had found their soulmate, but both also knew that unless they took drastic action, they were destined to be lovers in their dreams only. If Boudleaux continued on with his band, the chances of them having a relationship would be greatly diminished. So, Boudleaux thanked Hank Penny for having given him the chance to play in his band, to travel across America and, finally, to come to Milwaukee where he met his true love. Boudleaux and Felice became husband and wife. They also agreed to become songwriting partners.
Initially, they had little luck selling any of their songs. Times were tough for the young couple. But then, as fortune would have it, they managed to sell a song called “Country Boy” to a singer named Little Jimmy Dickens. His version of the song made it into the Top Ten on the Country charts and gave the Bryants some credibility in the music business. This success brought them to the attention of a man named Fred Rose who, along with Country star Roy Acuff, owned Acuff-Rose Music, which was a publishing company located in Nashville. The Bryants moved to Nashville and in the decade that followed wrote songs for many of Country music’s established and rising stars. One of those they began working with was Chet Atkins. Atkins, in turn, was working to promote a family of singers known as The Everly Family Singers. In particular, Atkins felt that the two teenage sons, Don and Phil Everly, had a bright future ahead of them, so he went looking for songs for them to sing as a duo. Consequently, it was Chet Atkins who introduced The Bryants to The Everly Brothers. Once Felice and Boudleaux heard the boys sing, they knew that they had the musical stories to go along with those golden voices. “Bye Bye Love”, “Wake Up, Little Susie!” and “All I Have To Do Is Dream” were written in quick succession by The Bryants and given to The Everly Brothers, who recorded and released these songs to much acclaim. The rest, as they say, is musical history.
It is a privilege for me to share the stories of great songs such as “All I Have To Do Is Dream” with all of you. This particular song has a great story behind it. As it turned out, The Bryants remained united in their personal and professional lives until 1987, when Boudleaux passed away. Felice continued her songwriting work on her own and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Nashville Arts Foundation in 1991. Felice passed away in 2003. In interviews, both Felice and Boudleaux had spoken about how happy they were to have had their story sung to the world in such a wonderful manner by two singers as talented as Don and Phil Everly. The Everly Brothers, in turn, had a brilliant career with several other #1 hits that they wrote themselves, such as “Cathy’s Clown”, and were among the very first group of artists elected to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame when it opened in 1986. For more on the back story of The Everly Brothers, please read a previous post written about the song “Wake Up, Little Susie!”. You can find that post here.
It is nice to write a post with such a happy ending for all involved. If you have any songs that you would like to see featured in a future post, feel free to drop me a line in the comments below. Thanks again for reading my words. Have a wonderful rest of your day.
The link to the video for the song “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Everly Brothers can be found here.
The link to the official website for Felice and Boudleaux Bryant can be found here.
Today we are going to spend some time together discussing one of the most grand and glorious songs ever recorded in modern music history, ”A Day in the Life” by The Beatles. At the time it was recorded in 1967, it clocked in at well over four minutes long, which at the time made it the longest song The Beatles had ever created. “A Day in the Life” is the final song on Side #2 of The Beatles’ biggest selling album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For me, Sgt. Pepper marks the end of The Beatles as we knew them. Sure, they still had The White Album,Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be to come, but by then the members of the band had begun pursuing more individualized agendas within the group. Whenever I listen to “A Day in the Life”, I hear it as one of the most audacious and original compositions ever. I also feel and hear quite clearly all of the collaboration, co-operation, creativity, innovation and problem-solving that took place during the recording of that song. I adore creative environments, and there was no greater alchemist’s kitchen anywhere in the world at the time than where The Beatles were during the creation of this song. If you remember your Beatles history, you will know that The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 and became a studio-only band from that point on. This transition allowed them to dabble into drug use, eastern mysticism, as well as exploring new technological innovations that allowed them to play around with the sounds they were making. The extent to which The Beatles were growing in creative confidence first manifested itself in the album Revolver. While that album was a quantum leap forward for the band in terms of their mastery over the music they were making and the creativity of their ideas, it was really the next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, that cemented their reputation as geniuses on a level that no one else had yet attained. The final word on that most ambitious album was “A Day in the Life”. It was the last great Lennon-McCartney collaboration before they began the process of growing apart. It was also one of the band’s most integrated efforts with almost fifty people in total being involved in the process of bringing this masterpiece to fruition. In order to give a song of this magnitude its due, I am going to offer up some general background information and then I will proceed to break the song down into its component parts to show the unified vision behind what some consider to be a cacophony of sound. Thanks to my pal Allister Matheson for nominating this one of a kind, world class piece of music. It doesn’t get much better than this! Here we go!
“A Day in the Life” was written collaboratively by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The inspiration for the song arose from several newspaper articles that John had read in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. The song’s fantastic opening line draws upon this fact.
I read the news today, oh boy!
There are four verses that touch upon three bits of news from the paper that particular day. One was the death of a young man named Tara Browne who was the heir to the Guinness Brewery fortune. A second story was about a movie John was in. The final story was an odd one about potholes in the town of Blackburn, Lancashire that struck John as being absurd in a way that delighted him. While he brought the opening line to the group, it was he and Paul who fleshed out the lyrics. Paul contributed a middle eight verse about getting ready for school which ended with a reference to smoking that was assumed to be about drug use and caused the BBC to ban the song for over five years. But the most imaginative parts of “A Day in the Life” have nothing to do with the lyrics at all. Instead, the genius and musical confidence that the band now possessed showed itself most in how they made use of empty space and how they filled that space with sound. It was actually their use of instrumental music in a completely original manner that stunned so many of their peers in the music business. One of the first to hear the completed track was musician David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) who happened to be in London at the time. His recollection of first hearing “A Day in the Life” was that after the final note sounded, his brain had melted onto the floor. The manager of the band, The Hollies was said to have put his head into his hands and lamented aloud, “What are the rest of us supposed to do now?!” In order to show you how this all came to be, let me walk you through the various parts of the song. All in all, this is an amazing accomplishment by a group of people at the height of their creative powers.
The first two verses of the song concern the news story John had read about the death of Tara Browne. Browne was only twenty-one years of age when he drove through a stop light and smashed his car into a parked truck. Being around the same age as the band members, Browne had actually been an acquaintance, so when John opened with the exclamation of “Oh boy!”, the sentiment of loss and regret was sincere. In real life, Browne had been set to inherit his family’s fortune when he turned 25, so his death, mere years prior to this happening, added to the tragedy of it all. The news story dealt with a custody battle of who would care for his children. In writing the opening two verses, Lennon and McCartney wanted to acknowledge the loss of Browne, but out of respect for the family they opted to create a fictionalized account of the accident. The only thing that was lifted from the pages of the Daily Telegraph was the line about a crowd gathering to stand and stare.
A crowd of people stood and stared
They’d seen his face before
Nobody was really sure if he was from The House of Lords.
Such is the nature of a celebrity death.
The third verse concerned an account of a film that John Lennon had acted in called How I Won the War. This film was directed by a man named Richard Lester, who had directed Hard Day’s Night and Help! This film was the first time any of the Beatles had involved themselves in a solo project. The significance of that move by John Lennon would become apparent in the very near future, as it seemed to spark a wave of individuality that overtook the band following the completion of “A Day in the Life”. However, with regards to the song itself, the most significant part of the third verse was its closing line.
I saw a film today, oh boy!
The English Army had just won the war.
A crowd of people turned away
But I just had to look
Having read the book.
I’d love to turn you on
The line, “I’d love to turn you on”, was the nail in the coffin, as it were, for this song when it came to drug-related inferences. At the time of the writing of “A Day in the Life”, LSD advocate Timothy Leary was making headlines by advising the youth of the world to “Turn on, tune in and drop out”. Needless to say, the powers that be did not take kindly to the methods that Leary was advocating. So, when such a high-profile band as The Beatles appeared to endorse Leary via this line in the song, it only further confirmed for the authorities that “A Day in the Life” was a drug song and, as such, had no business being on the BBC.
Connecting Lennon’s verses with Paul’s middle eight to come was a 24-bar instrumental segment that acts as a prelude to the orchestral finale that arrives at the conclusion of the lyrical verses. It began as a repetitive piano chord accompanied by studio manager Mal Evans counting off the bars and was augmented in future recording sessions with additional instrumentation. This bridge section, as it became known, ended with the tempered ringing of an alarm clock which led directly to the beginning of Paul’s verse about getting up for school.
After the third verse comes Paul McCartney’s middle eight verse. You will recall from my recent post about Paul Simon and his song “Still Crazy After All These Years” (which you can read here), that a middle eight verse is one in which the flow of the song is taken sideways on tangent-like journey, only to be brought back to the original song after eight bars have gone by. In the case of this song, McCartney drew upon the same sense of childhood nostalgia that informed “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Both of those songs were written for inclusion on the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album but, instead, were released as double A-side singles. But the longing to reminisce about fond childhood memories allowed Paul to create a middle eight verse about getting ready for school as a teenager. If the intent of the whole song was to touch upon some of the ordinary events happening on an ordinary day in their lives, then the inclusion of a memory about a normal day for a band member helped portray the band members as each being the same type of person as everyone else was, too. It helped unify the connection the Beatles members had with their fans. Of course, as already mentioned, Paul’s middle eight ended with his reference to having a smoke and lapsing into a dream which was the other supposed drug reference that earned “A Day in the Life” its ban by the BBC.
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.
The fact that Paul’s closing line is followed by a series of voices singing, “Aaaah!”only fuelled the drug reference conspiracy theories. It also compounded the aural gambit that showed how The Beatles had made the deliberate decision to create open bits of space within the song that would be filled with various soundscapes. The soundscapes began here with the “Aaah” segments but would grow in volume and scope very soon into something completely unheard of and totally unforgettable.
Coming out of Paul’s middle eight verse, the song concludes the lyrics section with John’s take on the article about there being 4000 potholes in need of filling in Blackburn, Lancashire. In the newspaper, the article was a very straight-forward retelling of a municipal council report about the state of Blackburn’s roads. The notion of there being 4000 holes struck John as being whimsical. This caused him to create the verse that equated the 4000 potholes with being the exact number needed to fill all of the seats in Albert Hall. While John denied that there was anything more to the verse that the nonsense it appears to be at first blush, some have taken his reference to be a swipe at the state of music in London at the time by calling those who attended concerts at Albert Hall as being nothing more than empty space (like “holes”).
I read the news today, oh boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all.
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
I’d love to turn you on.
Note how John doubles down on the Timothy Leary, “Turn you on” line. If anyone thought it was an accident the first time, this verse leaves no doubt where The Beatles stood on the topic of mind-altering substances.
This verse concludes the spoken word portion of the song. Up until this point, there are arguments to be made about how clever this song is and about how well it managed to achieve its goal of documenting a day in the life of English citizens, as well as The Beatles. But it is what happens next that separates “A Day in the Life” from all songs that came before it. The boys in the band decided to weaponize empty space by dedicating another whooping 28 consecutive bars of it to follow John’s final verse. This decision was influenced, not only by LSD and eastern mysticism, but also by the fact that the members of The Beatles were becoming fans of avant garde musicians. Part of the reason for this attraction was their growing realization that sounds could be expressed in an almost infinite variety of ways and still hold their credibility as a source of music. Without veering off on too much of a tangent, one of the reasons that John Lennnon left his wife, Cynthia, was that he found her conventional way of thinking to be frustrating and limiting to him. Part of his attraction to Yoko Ono was her wide open mindset as to what could be considered music and Art.
So it was that The Beatles decided to create an aural soundscape that would act in the same way as a lyrical verse would. It would hold the same basic physical space within the structure of the song. Specifically, it would last for 28 bars. In order to fill this space with an avant garde-type of sound, The Beatles brought in a full forty-piece orchestra. Producer George Martin instructed the orchestra members to start at the lowest notes possible for their instruments and then, in a coordinated fashion, they would all move up through the scales together until they reached the highest notes possible. The task was simplified, in a way, by having to do this all within the 28 bar limit. The orchestra members had never played in this fashion before. In order to help them adapt to the revolutionary nature of the task at hand, they were each given props to wear such as red clown noses, wigs, feather boas, etc. The Beatles treated this session as if it was a Hollywood movie premiere. They invited all sorts of celebrity friends to attend the recording session. A film was made of the event which, as it turns out, was transformed into the music video you will see at the end of this post.
To critics of this song, this 28-bar segment is nothing but calamitous noise and, in fact ruins whatever musical qualities the initial part of the song may have contained. But to those in the band and to their peers (like David Crosby), this 28-bar segment was the musical equivalent of releasing the Kraken. It was a declarative statement by The Beatles that any organized collection of sounds could be and should be considered as music. It was a challenge to the orthodoxy of traditionalists who stressed that the only good music was music that contained harmonies and melodies. With their 28-bar segment, The Beatles gave permission to all other musicians and bands around the world to use sounds as they saw fit. It really changed the creative process for everyone who followed in their wake. In this way, the Sgt. Pepper album, in general, and “A Day in the Life”, specifically, were groundbreaking in their influence and importance.
But, the final note of the 28-bar segment did not end the song. Instead, in case anyone missed the message that The Beatles were attempting to make, they formally ended the song with a bang! George Martin, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and studio head Mal Evans used four pianos to simultaneously play one note as hard and with as much vigor as they could manage. Each take was recorded at the highest possible level the recording equipment could muster in an attempt to track the reverberations of this single note for as long as was possible. On the ninth take, the recording equipment detected the sound of that note for 53 seconds. The microphones were at such a sensitive point that they managed to pick up the sound of breathing, the movement of a single sheet of paper and the shuffling of someone’s foot. That authoritative final note ended the song and the album. The world of music was forever changed because of it.
While I like the music that The Beatles created after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, songs like “Let It Be” and “Here Comes the Sun” always seem more like solo projects released on band albums. If there is a musical hill for me to die on, it is my view that “A Day in the Life” was the last true piece of music that The Beatles produced as a band. I so admire the ingenuity, the courage, the confidence with which each member of the band approached this final song. The completion of “A Day in the Life” was truly a team effort. I feel that our world is better as a result.
The link to the video for the song “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles can be found here. ***This video was composed using film from the night of the orchestral recording session. Many celebrities can be seen throughout the course of the film. Lyrics are provided on screen.
The link to the official website for The Beatles can be found here.
The link to the video trailer for the movie How I Won The War can be found here.
***If you have any song requests that you would like to see me cover for you, feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Any song in any genre from any era is welcome.
“Still Crazy After All These Years” was the title track and the third single released from Paul Simon’s fourth solo album. It hit the airwaves in 1975 and went on to help Simon win a Grammy Award for Song of the Year, as well as for Album of the Year. It was at this particular edition of the Grammy Awards that Simon famously thanked Stevie Wonder for not having an album out that year (Wonder had won the previous two years in a row and would win the next year as well). Paul Simon also used the song to open the second show ever in the history of Saturday Night Live. A few years later, he hosted a second time (on US Thanksgiving Day) and reprised the song while dressed in a turkey costume, stopping halfway through to mockingly complain to producer Lorne Michaels that his “serious image” was taking a beating because of the turkey suit. In all, Paul Simon has released fifteen solo albums and has continued to win Grammy awards for many years. He is in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice because of his work as part of Simon and Garfunkel and because of his stellar solo career.
There is much to admire and like about Paul Simon, but the one aspect of his career that the majority of people point to as being the most important is his songwriting ability. The man knows how to tell a story. This brings us back to “Still Crazy After All These Years”. This song is a tune that has been studied by experts and held up in English Lit./Creative Writing classes as an excellent example of story structure, word usage and the cadence of storytelling. To further mythologize the writing aspect of “Still Crazy After All These Years”, a few months before it was finished, Paul Simon appeared on the Dick Cavett Show (which was a television interview-style show for those who may be unaware). During his segment with Cavett, Simon was asked about his songwriting process. Paul Simon then proceeded to use an unfinished song as an example of a work-in-progress. That song was “Still Crazy After All These Years”. In the interview, Simon broke down the musical, as well as the linguistic structure of this song and explained his creative thought processes. Many songwriters point to that interview as being a masterclass in how to write a song. So, let’s take a bit of a closer look at this terrific song. Here is the story of “Still Crazy After All These Years”.
To this day, Paul Simon has never stated what the song was supposed to be about. The only hint he has given was when he said that the idea for the song came to him in the shower, with the warm water flowing over him as he stood there contemplating the state of his life. At the time, Paul Simon was entering his thirties; he had recently divorced his first wife and was attempting to build a career for himself after leaving one of the most successful musical partnerships of all time. He had much to contemplate. Consequently, many who have analyzed “Still Crazy After All These Years” believe that when Paul Simon wrote about meeting “an old lover on the street last night. She seemed so glad to see me. I just smiled” to mean that while he enjoyed his old relationships (with his ex-wife and/or with Art Garfunkel), he was satisfied with his choice to move on without them. Only Paul Simon knows the truth of the matter. But, as someone who has experienced that transitory process of leaving your youthful twenties and entering the real adult phase of life in your thirties, there is a lot to reflect upon and evaluate when it comes to life choices. One can only hope that you can be at peace with the path you are on, moving forward. In the hands of a less talented songwriter, “Still Crazy After All These Years” would go on to answer the questions as to the emotional state of Paul Simon’s mind. But Paul Simon is not a “less talented” songwriter. He knows that life is complex, so he muddies the waters by introducing a lyrical concept known as “the middle eight”.
Most Pop songs possess a song structure that goes “verse-chorus-verse-chorus” or else, “verse-verse-chorus, verse-verse-chorus”. It is a song structure that helps audiences know how to anticipate what almost any given song is going to sound and feel like. It is said that there is a formula used in the crafting of Pop songs. Part of that formula lies with its structure of verse-chorus or verse-verse-chorus. However, in many of the most memorable songs of all time, the songwriters have changed the flow of their song by introducing a verse known as “the middle eight”. In simple terms, a middle eight is an eight-bar verse that interrupts the flow of a song, taking it in an entirely different direction before returning the listener to the original song. It is almost like when a television show is paused for a public service announcement or a commercial. There have been many examples of this technique being used. For instance, in the David Bowie hit song, “Changes”, we have the sudden change in pacing with the introduction of the lines, “Strange fascination, fascinating me”. “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles has the middle eight verse that begins, “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend”. “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, with all of its wonderful harmonies about good vibrations and excitations, changes dramatically after the second chorus. In most cases, a middle eight verse is inserted after the second chorus or verse. By this point in the song, the listener has begun to form an opinion or idea of what the message of the song is all about. But the addition of a middle eight verse is intentional by the songwriter and is meant to draw attention to a particular aspect of the song’s message. When it happens, this process usually causes the song to take on a deeper, more complex meaning.
In “Still Crazy After All These Years”, the first two verses of the song tend to lead one to believe that Paul Simon is telling a story about reflecting on his life choices to date and being OK with how things have turned out. Then, out of the blue, he changes the narrative by throwing in a middle eight verse about waking up at “Four in the morning, crapped out, yawning…longing my life away”. The middle eight verse ends with the introduction of beautiful saxophone work which fills up enough time within the framework of the song as to constitute another whole verse or two on its own. Simon comes out of the orchestral segment by declaring that he feels that he still has some good years ahead of him and that he will be judged accordingly as having chosen the correct path, “Now I sit by my window and I watch the cars, I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day. But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers, still crazy after all these years”.
What adds to the debate about what this song is about has to do with an additional wrinkle that Paul Simon has incorporated into the structure of the song. A song has words. We have seen how he uses words in a different way by introducing a verse called the middle eight. But a song has a musical structure, too. I am no expert in song keys and chord changes, but I do know enough to know that composers use minor keys and major keys to help them create certain moods in the listener. Major keys are more upbeat while minor keys are more sombre. In “Still Crazy After All These Years”, Paul Simon not only makes very careful and considered language choices when telling his story, but he also plays around with chord structures all throughout the song so that a variety of emotional manipulations are at work beneath the story his words are attempting to tell. Is his message a determined one? Is he sad and contemplative? Is he resigned to his fate or making a strong declarative statement of belief in himself? His words say one thing while the emotional sea changes embedded within the chord variations suggest something else. As stated earlier in this post, Paul Simon has never actually stated what the true nature of this song is all about.
Is that an appropriate thing for a songwriter to do? After all, life is busy, our minds are often full to overflowing with thoughts we would rather not entertain. Is it too much to ask that the music we listen to be clear and easy to understand?! In some cases I believe that the answer is that music should be fun and easy to understand and enjoy. That’s why Pop music is the genre that it is. It is music that, by definition, is popular (which is where the “Pop” in Pop music comes from). There is a comfort in being able to predict how the melody of a song will play out so you can bop and groove while letting your mind shut down and your daily woes melt away. But I also believe that this shouldn’t be the way it is all of the time. When I used to be a teacher, there were always times within a school year that I would be attempting to introduce a new academic concept (particularly in Math) only to have the kids grow frustrated because it was new and different and was hard to understand in the beginning. Somewhere along the way someone was sure to cry out, “Why don’t you just tell us the answer!?” (instead of making them figure it out). The correct response to that question is always that to tell someone the answer each and every time would rob them of the opportunity to figure it out for themselves and would not help their mind to grow as a result. Not everyone appreciated hearing that. However, the easy way is not always the most beneficial to us in our development as human beings. Thus, when someone like Paul Simon comes along and creates a song that makes the listener think deeper thoughts than they may wish to, it isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, it may be a necessary tonic.
If you are a fan of Saturday Night Live, then you will have heard part of this song played during every episode throughout the whole forty-plus years the show has been on the air. The instrumental saxophone segment plays at some point in every show. The link between Paul Simon and the comedy of Saturday Night Live is strong and has obviously stood the test of time. It is not just a matter of producer Lorne Michaels’ personal musical taste, either. Both the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” and the comedy of Saturday Night Live are meant to offer food for thought, as it were. Many people underestimate comedy as a vehicle to expand our understanding of complex topics in the same way that Pop music can be misunderstood as a literary art form. Storytelling can appear in many guises. Perhaps that’s the real message of “Still Crazy After All These Years”? Only Paul Simon can really say for sure. And I am OK with that.
The link to the video for the song “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon can be found here.
The link to the video of Paul Simon appearing on The Dick Cavett Show can be found here.
The link to the official website for Paul Simon can be found here.
The link to the official website for Saturday Night Live can be found here.
***If there are any songs that you wish I would cover, then by all means, drop me a line in the comment box below. I will do my best to do right by your song choice.
“Puff the Magic Dragon” was a #1 hit song for the 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. It is a children’s song about a dragon and a small boy who maintain a strong friendship until one day when the boy leaves (by death or simply by going on with his life). It is a song about memories and sadness and loss, but, as well, it is about the happiness and joy of knowing someone whose heart you hold dear. I could end the post at this point. Perhaps I should because throughout the history of their career as a singing group, the members of Peter, Paul and Mary have been asked a lot about this song. The questions asked have always implied that there must be more to the story of this song than simply being about a rascally dragon named Puff. But, no matter who was doing the asking, the answers were always the same…”Puff The Magic Dragon” is an innocent children’s song. And thus, it must be so.
The origins of this song date back to a poem written by Ogden Nash entitled “The Tale of the Custard Dragon”. The story goes that one evening a friend of Peter Yarrow’s named Leonard Lipton was heading over to attend a dinner party. Arriving too early, Lipton stepped into a public library to kill some time. While there, he decided to browse some books of poetry. In doing so, he came across the poem by Nash (which you can read here). Lipton found the poem amusing. The storyline of the poem caused Lipton to begin thinking of his own dragon verse. When he finally arrived at the home of Peter Yarrow, he told his host about the idea for a poem. Yarrow invited Lipton to use his typewriter so as to “get the poem out of him”. So Lipton typed away and felt better for having done so. He left the paper in the typewriter and proceeded to have a smashing time at dinner with his friends. By the time the dinner party was over, Lipton left for home, leaving behind his hurriedly cobbled poem in Yarrow’s typewriter. The entire incident would have merely been fodder for a future dinner party anecdote if not for the fact that Peter Yarrow was a singer/songwriter. When he saw Lipton’s poem in his typewriter, the cadence of it struck him as possessing musical possibilities. So Yarrow tucked the poem away but always kept it in the back of his mind. Then one day, when Peter and his friends Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were writing songs for their second album, Yarrow pulled the poem back out, added some lyrics and created the song that we have all come to know as “Puff the Magic Dragon”. When the group actually recorded the song and placed it on the album, Yarrow was sure to add Lipton’s name for a songwriting credit. To this day, Lipton has earned royalties from his nearly forgotten poem. In addition to “Puff the Magic Dragon”, Peter, Paul and Mary had numerous hits as the Folk era exploded across America. They had Top Ten hits with songs such as “If I Had a Hammer”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. The trio was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award in 2006 from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
But to this day, there are many who insist that their most famous song, “Puff the Magic Dragon”, has to be a song about marijuana. The strength of this myth is so powerful that it was even mined for comedic gold in the movie Meet the Fockers (you can watch the scene here). But really, truthfully…the boy being named Jackie Paper has nothing to do with rolling papers. The character of a dragon named Puff has nothing to do with taking a “drag” or a “puff” on a joint. The fact that the dragon lives on the island of Honahlee and that there is an actual Honalua in Hawaii where marijuana has been known to be grown, has nothing at all to do with making this a song about drug use. It is just a children’s song about a boy and a dragon who are friends. That’s it. That’s the story according to Peter, Paul and Mary.
Today’s song was nominated by my friend, JoAnn Kropf-Hedley. She is a grandmother and no doubt, believes this to be a wonderful children’s song, too. I am fairly confident that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a song that she shared with her daughter back in the day and again with her grandchildren today. It really is a lovely song and I am happy that it has been shared in such a way. I have always been an advocate for introducing children to poetry and music as early as possible when they are growing up. Teaching children to read doesn’t always have to be about books. There are many wonderful poems that have been written with children in mind. The imaginative language used in poems such as “The Tale of the Custard Dragon” by Odgen Nash is but one example. Reading is reading, no matter what form the words take. Beautiful, lyrical language is something to be treasured and shared. I thank JoAnn for sharing this song choice with me so that I can share it with all of you. If you happen to have a poem or song that made an impression on you as a child or as a parent, please feel free to let me know all about it in the comment box below. Until then, thanks for reading this post. Have a wonderful rest of your day.
The link to the video for the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
The link to the official website for Peter, Paul and Mary can be found here.
Today’s song choice was nominated by my pal, rawgod, and is a very inspired choice. “Shape of Things” is not just another song, and The Yardbirds are not just another band, and lead guitarist, Jeff Beck, is definitely not just another guitarist. With the recent passing of Jeff Beck, it seems like an appropriate time to take a closer look at a moment in musical history where Beck almost single-handedly transformed the course of rock n’ roll music with his virtuosic style of playing. But, in order to appreciate the depth of Jeff Beck’s talent and the impact he had on modern music, we must first take a step back in time and place into context the music world as it was when “Shape of Things” debuted. It was a world separated by geography, economical class and by race, but a world that Jeff Beck and others sought to bring together through their music. This is the story of Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, the world of British Rock royalty in the 1960s and a song that exploded into the middle of it all and helped change everything. So get ready, this post is going to blow your mind!
Our story begins with a statement of fact. As creative and talented as the musicians who lived in the UK were in the 1960s, they were not the ones who invented rock n’ roll. The true origins of the birth of Rock happened across the Atlantic Ocean in places such as Chicago and Memphis and New Orleans, which were all home to a style of music known as The Blues. We can trace the evolution of Rock n’ Roll from those thumping notes that emanated from guitars of the originators such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others of their ilk. The lived experiences of black musicians gave birth to a form of music that the powers that be found dangerous and primal. It was a sound of heat and sweat and sex and it came from the very souls of those who performed those first great Blues songs in America. White American singers such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash were quick to recognize where the future of music was headed and swiftly acted to co-opt these Blues classics and make them their own.
Fortunately for those who lived in the UK, the original Blues masters toured there, too. They brought that brand of primal energy and searing heat to audiences who had never seen anything like it before and who were completely captivated by it. Future stars such as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and Jeff Beck all have stated that they were inspired to become musicians because of what they saw Little Richard or Big Mama Thornton or Muddy Waters perform on their own hometown stages. As a result of exposure to authentic Blues, a localized Blues scene began to establish itself in England. At the time, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, much of the music scene was organized through a series of pubs. This music from this scene became known as Pub Rock and usually consisted of young upstarts like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performing in house bands at a specific pub, or else, a band would form and would tour a circuit of pubs. In this way, young musicians got experience that enabled them to hone their skills, while at the same time, a formal Blues scene became established all across England and the UK. If a cinematic reference would help you, the Irish movie, The Commitments shows how the pub rock circuit worked in Ireland, as does the Elton John biopic, Rocketman. In fact, Rocketman showed how a young Reginald Dwight began to hone his musical chops under the mentorship of Long John Baldry and bands such as John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which were foundational members of Pub Rock Wave #1. Elton John’s experiences were part of the second wave of Pub Rock stars that included Dave Mason, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and many others. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today’s story is found in the first wave of British rock stars, so let’s go back a decade in time and start there.
Not long after the original American Blues acts had come to England, young English musicians began to emulate them. Like-minded singers, drummers, guitarists and piano players all began to play as solo acts or in groups. Lennon found McCartney. Jagger found Richard. The Davies brothers already had found each other and so it went. Two friends who decided to pursue their musical dreams were a singer named Keith Relf and drummer JIm McCarty. They formed a local band called the Metropolitan Blues Quartet. They were soon joined by rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and lead guitarist Top Topham. They renamed their band The Yardbirds after Jazz legend Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. In this initial form, The Yardbirds gained attention for playing Blues classics by “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and others. As often happens to young bands, real life intruded and Top Topham had to bow out. His replacement was a young guitarist that you may have heard of called Eric Clapton. In 1963, Clapton was a strict devotee of The Blues as played by the masters. So when the band started writing original tunes, and The Yardbirds had a surprise hit with a Pop-Rock song called “For Your Love”, Clapton was not pleased. He wanted no part of what he termed “the watering down” of authentic Blues, and so, after just one album, Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds. He immediately joined a band that he believed played real Blues, and that was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. After a year or so there, he left to form Cream, and then Derrick and the Dominos after that (from which “Layla” would come). Finally, in the 1970s, Clapton became the solo artist that we know him to be to this day.
In 1964, after Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, his spot in the band was filled by guitarist Jeff Beck. While Beck was joining The Yardbirds, The Beatles were releasing their first singles, The Rolling Stones were to follow shortly thereafter, along with The Kinks, The Who and a young singer from Scotland named Rod Stewart, who joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. It was a wonderful time in the age of British music, for sure, and the most amazing thing was that as the 1960s reached their midway point, that music scene was just getting started.
As each of these great bands were beginning their careers, they often opted to do so by relying on Blues classics to hone their skills and help them to get a feel for this type of music when played live. After a period of exposure and exploration, all of these great bands began to create their own material and experiment with what was musically possible. Many of these great artists arrived at this period of exploration and experimentation around the same time. In 1966, The Beatles stopped touring after their disastrous American tour and became a studio band. This gave birth to a period of explosive growth and creativity that yielded innovative albums such as Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album and more. For The Rolling Stones, it was the time that innovative member Brian Jones brought sitars and mandolins into the studio and opened The Stones up to the world of eastern mysticism. For The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck was also experimenting with his music. For him, his guitar seemed like an untapped resource, so, in 1966, he spent time playing around with things like distortion, open tuning and fuzz boxes. His technical innovations in this area are not so important because they focussed on feedback per se, but more because Beck discovered new ways in which guitars could make and manipulate sounds. His work in this area opened up a world of sonic possibilities for others to follow. The first evidence of where this brave new world could lead was found in The Yardbirds song, “Shape of Things”.
As 1966 began, The Yardbirds went on tour. Paul Samwell-Smith quit during the tour and was replaced by a popular London session guitarist named Jimmy Page. It was during this American tour that the song “Shape of Things” was written by Reif, McCarty and Samwell-Smith before he quit. The song was meant as an anti-war commentary against the ramping up of the Vietnam War and as a pro-environmental song. The lyrics were kept relatively simple and helped serve as a backdrop to a guitar solo employed by Jeff Beck that was the first time he really showcased all that he had learned about stretching the limits of his guitar’s capabilities. Many critics point to “Shape of Things” as ushering in the era of Psychedelic Rock. This form of music embraced the use of a variety of instruments such as the sitar and brought eastern style music to the forefront of the modern British scene. It also helped inspire the likes of Jimi Hendrix to know that audiences were ready to hear guitarists who played more than four basic chords. The era of the guitar virtuoso was dawning, and it all started with Jeff Beck and “Shape of Things”.
Not long after this, The Yardbirds broke up. The members of the band went in three different directions. Lead singer Reif and drummer McCarty stayed together and formed a new band called Renaissance, which became popular in Britain and remains so to this day. Jimmy Page formed a new band by hiring a relatively unknown singer named Robert Plant. Plant recommended his friend John Bonham as drummer. Page knew of a fellow session performer who played the bass guitar named John Paul Jones. Together, these four guys initially toured as The New Yardbirds. But with threats of litigation hanging over their heads because of the use of The Yardbirds trademark, they decided to change the name of their band to Led Zeppelin. I think that turned out OK for the lads. Jeck Beck went on to form a band named The Jeff Beck Group. His lead singer was a man named Rod Stewart. His rhythm guitarist was Ronnie Woods. Woods and Stewart would subsequently leave The Jeff Beck Groupto help form a band called The Small Faces, which arose out of the ashes of the original band, The Faces. From The Small Faces, Rod Stewart would embark on a successful solo career that still has legs to this day. Ronnie Woods would be asked to join The Rolling Stones, replacing Mick Taylor who, in turn, had replaced Brian Jones after his death by drowning. Ronnie Woods remains with The Rolling Stones to this very day as well.
Every generation enjoys the luxury of viewing their own lives through the rose-coloured lens of nostalgia. The Boomer Generation certainly claims that the music of the 1960s was “the Golden Age of Rock n’ Roll”. It is hard to argue against the ingenuity, the creativity and the musical success of those who found fame during those years. However, there is a temptation to view the 1960s in a hierarchical, pecking-order fashion starting with The Beatles and then The Rolling Stones and going on from there. But in actual fact, as this post clearly shows, there was a fully-integrated, highly organized music scene in which The Blues were venerated as a genre. There was also a system of stages made available through the pub circuit which allowed young musicians to gain the experience they would need to become stars later on. Just as importantly, there was a group of young, talented musicians who all shared a common vision of what music could be and then supported each other as they set about changing music forever. To think that the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Ron Woods, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Keith Moon, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Roger Daltry and others all knew each other and grew up in the same British music scene and played separately and together in the same decade, well, it is almost mind boggling! But that is exactly what happened during the 1960s in the UK. What a golden age, indeed!
I will close by thanking my friend rawgod for nominating such a stellar song. The importance of “Shape of Things” as a song in terms of the technical innovations employed by Jeff Beck cannot be understated. I am not saying that The Beatles would not still have come up with “Revolver” without hearing “Shape of Things”, but Beck gave all other musicians license to expand the range of what was musically possible with guitars, while, at the same time, still honouring the essential music of The Blues. As this post has also clearly shown, The Yardbirds were an essential band in the evolution of the British music scene. They proved to be the launching pad for many other bands and artists, as well as being a grand band in their own right while they existed as a unit. So, thanks again rawgod. I think this was one trip down Memory Lane that was well worth taking.
The link to the video for the song “Shape of Things” by The Yardbirds can be found here. ***Lyric version is here.
The link to the official website for The Yardbirds can be found here.
Athens, Georgia sits about one hour to the northeast of Atlanta. The city boasts a population of approximately 125,000 citizens. It is home to the University of Georgia and is noted for the abundance of antebellum style architecture found there. But one of the things that Athens, Georgia is most noted for is music. Specifically, it is the birthplace of an extraordinarily large number of major bands over the years including the likes of The B52s, The Indigo Girls, Matthew Sweet, Drive-By Truckers, Of Montreal, Vic Chesnutt and the biggest band of them all, R.E.M. In fact, most members of R.E.M. still maintain homes in Athens. If you ever find yourself in Athens, Georgia, you will notice that the North Oconee River flows through the city. If you follow that river far enough through the town you will find that it passes by an intersection alongside which sits a bright, lime green building known as Weaver D’s Delicious Fine Foods. (You can check out their menu here). Weaver D’s is a soul food restaurant. But it is equally famous for having played an important part in the world of music. That all came about as a result of the catch-phrase that is used whenever a customer places an order. That catch-phrase, which also sits upon the sign atop the front of the building, is simply, “Automatic For The People”. It was this sign that inspired local musical heroes, R.E.M. to name their 8th album Automatic For The People as well. From that album came six singles including some of their biggest hits, such as “Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon”. But as this album has aged, many critics and fans are warming to another song on the album called “Nightswimming” as being the best the band had to offer that year. In fact, many claim that it is R.E.M.’s second best written song after “Losing My Religion”. High praise, indeed! Let’s see what all the fuss is about. Here is the story of “Nightswimming” by R.E.M. Hmmm! I wonder if Weaver D’s deliver to Canada?
R.E.M. is definitely a band that grew and matured as their career went along. By the time “Losing My Religion” was released (You can read a post about that song here), most members of the band were nearing thirty years of age. Several had married and had become fathers. Such is the evolutionary trajectory of our lives. The carefree days of our youth give way to the onset of the responsibilities of adulthood. Growing older changes most people. We start to understand that real life is more nuanced and multi-hued than we believed it to be while in our teens. We often begin to question our chosen path and wonder if there isn’t more out there for us. For some, the answer to that question can be depressingly negative. Consequently, many of us become more reflective and introspective as we age. This was as true for the members of R.E.M. as it is for the rest of us. As the band set out to accumulate a list of potential new songs for their 8th album, the idea was to find songs that were more uptempo and less slow and dramatic. The band knew they were becoming deeper in their emotions and worried about wallowing in it to the point that their music stopped being fun and filled with energy. So, they worked and worked for weeks at a time to write songs that rocked a little harder. But, when all was said and done, the songs that spoke to them the loudest were the ones they played the softest. They all recognized that “Everybody Hurts” was a hit right off the bat (You can read a post about that song here). “Man On The Moon” was slightly more uptempo (You can read a post about that song here). But then came “Nightswimming”.
“Nightswimming” is a beautifully-written song that has an incredible origin story to it. Whenever R.E.M. set about to record new material they always created the musical score for each song first and then let that inspire the lyrics that would follow. The story is that Mike Mills (on the piano) and Peter Buck (on the guitar) were taking turns playing pieces of instrumental music for Stipe to listen to for the first time. For “Nightswimming”, Mills played a piece of music on the piano that he had been fooling around with. It was soft and measured and constructed in a circular pattern that repeated lazily like a slow flowing brook. Michael Stipe listened to the piano piece once and then asked to hear it a second time. After that second playing, the legend states that Michael Stipe sang the entire finished lyrics to “Nightswimming” in an improvised fashion off of the top of his head all in one take! The rest of his bandmates swear that what he sang aloud that night was exactly what appeared on Automatic For The People a short while later.
“Nightswimming” is a song that best captures the emotional state of the band as they were about to turn thirty. It is a song about memories of the past. Specifically, it is about being young and free enough to go skinny dipping with friends who may remain as friends or who may become something more than that. However, the crux of the song is about looking back upon those times and coming to understand how distant those experiences have become. While the band has never stated what the true intent of the lyrics to “Nightswimming” are, there is a school of thought that says the song is about Michael Stipe trying to live his life as a gay man in the southern U.S. in the 1980s when doing so was still not widely understood nor accepted by society at large. Regardless of where the real truth lies, “Nightswimming” remains a beautiful, poetic song about lives in transition and the emotions that tend to accompany those times.
I wish to thank my friend Paul Coombs for nominating this song. I first met Paul way back in our high school days. Since that time, I have come to learn what a good man Paul is, and almost as importantly, what excellent taste in music he happens to possess. If you ever find yourself in my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, feel free to look Paul up. I am sure he would be more than happy to meet up in any of the many fine Cape Breton restaurants or pubs that abound back home. As R.E.M. discovered in Athens and as Paul and I know to be true in Cape Breton, there is just something about the combination of food and drink and music that works.
Thanks to those who continue to send in the titles of songs that you wish to see on Reader’s Choice. Your nominations are the lifeblood of this series so keep sending them in. No era or genre of music is off limits. Whatever songs speak to your heart will find a home here. It is my honour to tell your story. So, until we meet again, take care everyone. Bye for now.
The link to the video for the song “Nightswimming” by R.E.M. can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the official website for R.E.M. can be found here.
The link to the official website for the city of Athens, Georgia can be found here.
Hank Williams Sr. is definitely one of the most iconic figures in all of American music history. He was a prolific songwriter and a talented singer who became the face of Country music just as WWII was ending and the post-war boom was beginning. Williams was also a raging alcoholic who suffered from chronic back pain his whole life. (I wrote a previous post about Hank Williams Sr. and his song “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in which his life story is chronicled in detail. You can read that post here). For the sake of this post, the most important thing to know about Hank Williams Sr. has to do with the state of his marriage. For many years, Williams was married to a woman named Audrey. Their union was tumultuous to say the least. There are many stories about both parties being unfaithful to the other and about how mean a drunk Williams could be at times. The story of the song “Cold, Cold Heart” revolves around a time when Hank Williams Sr. returned from performing on the road, only to find Audrey in the hospital. Apparently, Audrey had become pregnant and was certain that the father of the baby was not her husband, so she attempted to abort the baby in their family home. Complications arose from such an attempt (as they often do in situations such as that), and Audrey ended up in the hospital with a severe infection. When Hank WIlliams Sr. came to visit his wife and give her a kiss, she brushed him off and called him names. To those in attendance, there was no doubt as to the icy nature of their marriage. Like many songwriters, Williams used the emotions of the moment to fuel his songwriting, and as a result, he came up with the lyrics to one of his biggest hits, “Cold, Cold Heart”. The song went all the way to #1 on the charts and was one of the biggest selling songs of his career. However, in addition to this song being such a huge hit, it was important for a reason that no one, including Hank Williams Sr., saw coming.
Starting in the 1920s with the crossover success in George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” that integrated the worlds of Jazz and Classical music (You can read more about that here), music executives were always on the lookout for fresh ways to expand music markets. However, Gershwin’s success proved to be relatively rare and didn’t really apply to other genres of music. Back in 1951 when “Cold, Cold Heart” was released, Blues songs had their own chart. Pop songs had their own chart. Country and Western songs had their own charts as well. Most genres of music were still restricted to their own niche marketplaces. That changed with the release of “Cold, Cold Heart”. As that song was climbing the Country and Western charts, the lyrics of the song left an impression on Marvin Miller, the manager of crooner Tony Bennett. Miller felt as though the story that Williams Sr. was telling in this song was one that had universal appeal and that it could be told in other genres by other performers such as his client, Tony Bennett. Initially, Bennett was reluctant to record the song because Pop crooners didn’t sing Country “tears in my beer” style songs. It just wasn’t done. But eventually the music for the song was re-arranged by Percy Faith. Once Bennett sang the lyrics to Percy Faith’s arrangement, he knew the song could work for him, too. So, Tony Bennett recorded and released “Cold, Cold Heart” in 1952. It went all the way to #1 on the Pop charts. Thus, “Cold, Cold Heart” became the very first crossover hit between the genres of Country and Pop. This helped introduce Hank Williams Sr. to an entirely new audience. As music executives had hoped, sales of Williams records increased, and when he released his final big hit before his death, “Hey, Good Lookin’”, both Pop and Country audiences lapped it up and sales went through the roof. In the time since that first crossover hit, there are now numerous examples of singers such as Taylor Swift, Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, etc…, who are equally as comfortable and successful in either genre.
To further broaden the appeal of “Cold, Cold Heart”, forty years later, singer Norah Jones covered the song but did so from a Jazz perspective. Her torch-style take on this classic tune was so dramatically different as to make the original Hank Williams version almost unrecognizable. It was this Norah Jones version of the song that was nominated for today’s Reader’s Choice tune. Thank you, Jan Fluke, for having such great taste in music. Norah Jones is a wonderfully talented singer. If breathy, silky smooth Jazz singing is your style, then Norah Jones is someone who comes highly recommended.
I completely understand the appeal of crossover artists and songs for music executives. The broader an artist’s audience reach, the greater the potential that exists for sales of music and merchandise. I get that. Music is a business. Having music that agrees with the musical sensibilities of multiple types of audiences is a good thing for everyone’s bottom line. But, for me, I also like the idea of being able to re-imagine material in ways that honour the original version but, at the same time, create something new and vibrant out of something that previously existed in another form. That a twangy Country classic torn from the lives of Hank Williams Sr. and his wife can exist as a Pop song and as a Jazz standard speaks to the craftsmanship of the writing that Williams Sr. employed way back in 1951. That man lived hard while he was alive and died way too soon. But, in his wake, he left a legacy of songwriting that continues to inspire new musicians to this very day. Hank Williams Sr. is one of the most revered Country singer/songwriters of all time for a reason. I believe the actual term is legend.
The link to the video for the song “Cold, Cold Heart” by Hank Wiliams Sr. can be found here. This video is introduced by Country superstar Roy Acuff and is one of the few recordings of Williams singing live on TV. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the song “Cold, Cold Heart” as sung by Tony Bennett can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The link to the video for the song “Cold, Cold Heart” as sung by Norah Jones can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.
The links to the official websites for Hank Williams Sr., Tony Bennett and Norah Jones are here, here and here.
Way back in the day when I first put out a call for submissions for my Reader’s Choice series, one of the entries I got back was today’s song, “The Bliss” by Volbeat. The nomination came from a former student of mine. Among the best things about being a teacher are the personal connections that you are fortunate enough to be able to make with students and their families. In the case of Livy Lu (as she is known on social media), I not only got a chance to meet a terrific student and person, but I also got to work alongside her aunt (who was a fellow staff member). As well, Livy’s father, Jay, came along as a parent volunteer on class trips and her grandmother was often the one who picked her up after school, so I got to know most of Livy Lu’s family fairly well. Once I retired from teaching, I came across Livy Lu’s aunt and dad on social media and was encouraged by them to stay in touch. Eventually, Livy Lu, herself, grew old enough to make contact with. I have thoroughly enjoyed being connected to Livy Lu and her family because they are all nice people, but more than that, I like them because they are all into music. Over the course of the past few years, I have had a front row seat to the birth of a new local band. Jay, his brother, his brother-in-law and one other friend named Rocky joined together in Jay’s basement to form a band called Nitetime Drive. In the time since they first started posting their jam sessions, the band has released a CD of original rock n’ roll music, they have played their first paid gigs in small local music venues and now have reached the point where they recently found themselves opening on a bill at the famous El Mocambo nightclub in Toronto. Through it all, Livy Lu has posted her own favourite songs on social media, has learned to play several instruments and has produced several excellent videos that showcase her father’s band. It has been an absolute pleasure to watch Livy Lu and her family grow and develop their love of music, turning it into something tangible like a real live band. And speaking of real live bands, let’s talk about Livy Lu’s nominated band, Volbeat.
Volbeat is a Danish band. They have been together for over a decade now. Initially, the core members of Volbeat were in a Danish death metal band called Dominus. Eventually, the death metal scene grew tiresome so lead singer Michael Poulsen left to form a new band that could play a wider range of music. His new band became Volbeat. Volbeat got its name from the title of Dominus’ final album called Vol. Beat. As Volbeat started out, they played a combination of heavy metal, hard rock, regular rock and some rockabilly, too. Because the members of Volbeat were already familiar to music lovers in the Danish music scene, Volbeat got a boost right off the bat when they released their debut album. Sales were solid for this band who ended the year being named Best New Metal Band in Denmark. Like many new bands, Volbeat paid their musical dues by opening for other like-minded but more established acts such as Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax and others as they toured Europe. The connections Volbeat made as a result of these touring opportunities allowed them to grow their own base, and subsequently, it gave them the freedom to experiment with musical styles and broaden the range of music they were writing and playing for audiences. This resulted in a song that was released in two versions. First, it was released in Danish and was called “For Evigt” (which means “forever”). Then, the same song was released in English and was called “The Bliss”.
“The Bliss” is a pure rock song. It has lots of guitars and a strong vocal presence by Poulsen. The song was written by Poulsen about his feelings surrounding his new girlfriend. “The Bliss” speaks to those mysterious powers of attraction that seem to exist between two people that cannot be logically explained. There is a power to the intensity of the connection being made that, at times, can be exhilarating and frightening at the same time. But, one thing for sure, that feeling is always memorable and remains with you forever, which is what “The Bliss” is all about. Volbeat are much loved in their homeland (even a cursory glance at the comments that accompany this song will bear this out). “The Bliss” has become a song that is played for lovers, but, as well, it is played for those for whom a loving relationship exists such as between parents and their family, thus it is not uncommon for “The Bliss” to be played at funerals, too.
All in all, Volbeat stands as yet another example of a local band creating music from their hearts and, as a result, they are building strong bonds with their audience. I am grateful to Livy Lu for allowing me to be a fly on the wall of her life and, as part of this, to be able to watch as she and her own family enjoy their own musical journey with their band, Nitetime Drive. 2023 began with an appearance at the El Mocambo. Who knows where it may end up? But, one thing is for sure, as long as they continue to create music from the heart and play with passion on stage every night, Nitetime Drive will discover that their audience will follow them wherever they go, too, just like Volbeat has done in Denmark. A second thing I can confidently predict is that my pal, Livy Lu, will be there to witness it all. I look forward to seeing how it all turns out. Livy Lu, I wish you and your family all the best in the year to come. May all of your musical dreams come true.
The link to the video for the song “The Bliss” by Volbeat can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
The link to the official website for Volbeat can be found here.
The link to the official website for Nitetime Drive can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Dirty Little Angel” by Nitetime Drive (their first ever music video!!!) can be found here.
During the recent Christmas holidays, my eldest daughter Leah began pestering my wife and I to watch a television series running on Netflix called Derry Girls. Leah claimed that it was the perfect combination of comedy, music, history and storytelling and that we would love it if we gave it a chance. So, we gave it a try and boy, am I ever glad we did! Derry Girls is a fantastic series. It is set in the town of Derry, Ireland, and in much the same way that the Vietnam War permeated every aspect of the landmark comedy, M*A*S*H*, “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland make their presence felt all through this show, too. What connects Derry Girls to today’s post is something that happened in passing in the final episode of the series. All throughout the series, real historical references were liberally added to the storyline. In the closing episode, two of the female characters were having dueling 18th birthday parties and were competing to have Derry-born singer Bronagh Gallagher sing at their party. Gallagher is someone who helped make Derry proud because of her important role in the Irish movie, The Commitments, in which she plays a singer in an Irish band that is seeking to emulate the 1960s Soul and R & B sound of the American South. Gallagher ends up making a cameo appearance in the finale and helps to wrap the series up on a very satisfying and appropriate note. The soundtrack to the series Derry Girls is absolutely fantastic and comes highly, highly recommended.
This brings me back to The Commitments. The music was excellent all throughout that movie as well. The two soundtrack CDs that came out of that project both featured some of the most iconic Soul and R & B recordings ever made. In fact, for a movie known for its music, The Commitments is one of the only movies of its type ever made that features no original songs. All of the music came from pre-released classic tracks from some of music’s most famous names, all performed as covers by the actors who played the roles of band members in the movie. For those who have never watched The Commitments, it, too, comes highly recommended. It was based upon a book by Irish writer Roddy Doyle and ended up being nominated for an Academy Award, as well as winning the British Film Award for Best Picture of the Year. The storyline is simply about a dream that one young Irish man has about forming a Soul band because he believes that music is the most “real” of all musical genres. In the film, it comes out that one of the characters knows singer Wilson Pickett and boasts of being able to have him appear on stage with them during one of their shows. The connection with Wilson Pickett is a very important one because of Pickett’s musical background. In real life, “Wicked” Wilson Pickett shot to fame on the basis of several songs, the most famous being “In The Midnight Hour”. *(I wrote a previous post about this song that you can read by clicking here). A majority of Pickett’s hits were recorded at the F.A.M.E. music studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That is an important connection because almost all of the songs found on the original The Commitments soundtrack CD had their origins in Muscle Shoals, including two songs, “Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man” that were co-written by today’s singer/songwriter, Dan Penn. So, even though The Commitments is an Irish movie about an Irish band, it is really a historical nod to the legacy of excellence that emanated from the F.A.M.E. music studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and is a tip of the hat to those like Dan Penn who did such groundbreaking work there. The story of Soul music in America is not just about Motown in Detroit. It is just as much about Muscle Shoals, too, as you shall soon see.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a relatively small town of approximately 12,000 people that sits in the upper northwest corner of Alabama, along the Tennessee River. Muscle Shoals came into existence as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s economic stimulus initiative known as the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. Among the many things that this Act did was to bring industry to those communities situated along the Tennessee River. It accomplished this by laying down power lines and modernizing the infrastructure of formerly rural, under-developed places like Muscle Shoals. One of the first industries to come to Muscle Shoals was the Ford Motor Company. It built an automobile assembly line factory there that brought with it a workforce that swelled the ranks of Muscle Shoals citizenry. During the 1950s, an entrepreneur named Rick Hall saw an opportunity to take advantage of Muscle Shoals’ improved economic situation by opening a recording studio just as Rock n’ Roll was set to become the next big thing in America. However, more than just being a business owner, Hall was a white man who believed that laws that separated the races in America were wrong. Hall loved music, and, in particular, he had a fondness for Soul music. So, at great danger to himself, he opened a music studio called F.A.M.E. (which stood for Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises) with the intention of making it a fully-integrated recording facility. As you may know, integration was a very loaded word in the American South at that time and there were many who thought that Hall’s idea that “music should be colourblind” was outrageous and naive. But Hall thought otherwise and set out to prove the naysayers wrong. One of the first acts to record in Muscle Shoals was Wilson Pickett. One of the next to come through the F.A.M.E. studio doors was a young black female singer named Aretha Franklin. Aretha was no Queen of Soul in those days. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, she was just starting out in her career. As such, Franklin was in need of good songs to sing. One of the songwriting teams assigned to work with her was the team of Dan Penn and Chips Moman. From their creative minds came the song “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man”, which ended up becoming one of the songs that launched Aretha Franklin’s career. The team of Penn and Moman also wrote a song called “Dark End of the Street”, which they gave to a singer named James Carr. Carr’s version of this song is considered by most fans and critics as being the definitive version of this classic Soul track.
The Ford Motor Company left Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1971. However, instead of drying up as many one-industry towns do when that one industry up and leaves, Muscle Shoals doubled down on music. Since then, this small community has become the epi-centre of music production in the American South and has seen artists as varied as Duane Allman, Joe Cocker, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Cher, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and many more all record there. Regardless of which artist was recording at any one time, the F.A.M.E. music studio has always been fully integrated with engineers, mixers, session players, back-up singers and so on all being the best available people regardless of gender or race. One of those who has worked there for over six decades now is Dan Penn. Although Penn is most known as a songwriter for hire, he has produced several albums of his own material and is well-regarded as an authentic voice of a sub-genre of music known as “Blue-eyed Soul”. It is, therefore, not surprising that Dan Penn’s name should appear not once but twice on the soundtrack for the movie The Commitments for his songs “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man”. After all, when writer Roddy Doyle wrote about an Irish band singing “blue-eyed soul” it is only right that he should go directly to the wellspring of its source, Mr. Dan Penn, for material.
Dan Penn was nominated as a Reader’s Choice selection by my friend Andrea Storm. Andrea is a retired teacher who used to work with my wife, Keri, which is how I first came to know her. Since then, Andrea and I have teamed up to create this very post that you are reading (and all of the others that I create). Andrea has volunteered to act as my copy editor and in that role is responsible for reducing my use of commas by over fifty percent at least for each post. Andrea is also a music lover and regularly attends more concerts in one year than I have seen in my lifetime. So, thank you Andrea for your help with these music posts and for nominating such an interesting and important figure from the world of music in the form of Dan Penn. To anyone else reading this post, I happily take requests for artists, bands and songs from any era and from any genre of music. If you have a good suggestion for one of these Reader’s Choice profiles, then by all means send it along and I will be happy to oblige at some future date. Until then, thank you all for being part of this music blog experience. I hope to see you all again in a week with the next installment of Reader’s Choice. Bye for now.
The link to the video for the trailer to the Netflix series Derry Girls can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie The Commitments can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Do Right Woman/Do Right Man” written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and sung by Aretha Franklin can be found here. ***For the lyrics version I can only find the Jennifer Hudson cover version which is here.
The link to the video for the song “Dark End of the Street” written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman and sung by James Carr can be found here. ***Once again, I could only find cover versions for the lyrics version. So, from the movie The Commitments, here you go. Their version is here.
The link to the video for the trailer of a documentary called “Muscle Shoals” about the history of Muscle Shoals and the F.A.M.E. studios can be found here.
The link to the official website for the F.A.M.E. music studio can be found here.
The link to the official website for Muscle Shoals, Alabama can be found here.
For the information of anyone reading these words who is new or relatively new to my blog, not too long ago I completed the blogging marathon known as the Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History series. *(You can find a link to all 500 posts here). In that series, I proudly wrote about the music of some of the greatest bands and artists of all time, such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Depeche Mode and many more. The series was well received by those who followed along, and as a result, I got the chance to make many new connections with like-minded folks who all have a love for music and those who make it. There was one exception to this statement: a voice of resistance and dissent that belonged to my two teenage daughters. To them, even posts dedicated to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the White Stripes, P.J. Harvey and Radiohead seemed hopelessly dated and irrelevant. The infamous line that was uttered by them when I suggested that, instead of complaining about the music in those posts, that they should try and read along and listen to the songs instead, was that these songs were old music for old people. Ouch! At the time, writing posts about bands such as MGMT or Kid Cudi seemed to be fairly cutting edge to this guy, but, as my girls pointed out repeatedly, almost every single one of those 500 songs was recorded and released prior to the girls even having been born. So, I challenged them to give me a list of ten modern songs…from the past decade when they were alive…that they felt the rest of the world should know more about. They carried the banner for the most modern songs they could think of and gave me their lists. My eldest daughter’s list had a wide variety of songs ranging from the soundtrack to the musical Hamiliton, all the way back to Abba. My youngest daughter was different (as siblings tend to be), because she clearly had one favourite singer. That person was Ariana Grande. And so when it comes to the subject of Christmas songs. Even then, my daughter Sophie leans heavily toward her girl, “Ari”. So, today we return to a familiar artist when it comes to Reader’s Choice nominations. This is the story of the modern Christmas song, “Santa Tell Me”, by Ariana Grande. Enjoy.
In 2014, Ariana Grande released her first album of Holiday music called Christmas Kisses. The album sold very well and reached Top Ten status on the charts in many countries around the world. It also reached the top of the charts in our house. One of the songs that most resonated with my daughter was a tune called “Santa Tell Me”. Like many of Ariana Grande’s songs,”Santa Tell Me” has a light, airy Pop feel about it. It is about Ariana speaking with Santa Claus about her Christmas wish for true love. The wrinkle in this song is that Grande makes the clear point to Santa that if he was to leave someone under her tree that offered a chance at “real love”, then it better not be the type of disposable gift that you throw away after a few weeks or months. Instead, it needs to be a gift to last a lifetime, or else don’t bother leaving anything at all. Needless to say, like many holiday-themed songs of this era, “Santa Tell Me” tries very hard to recreate the hit-making magic of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. *(A post about this song can be found here). Grande has succeeded in producing a song that has that Pop-friendly sound that Mariah Carey managed to bottle, and, as such, it is quite common to hear this tune playing in stores and in restaurants during the Christmas season. “Santa Tell Me” has sold well for Ariana Grande (with sales of eight million and streaming views approaching 260 million) but she has a long way to go to touch the queen, Mariah Carey, who has sales of over sixteen million with her one Christmas hit alone.
But, none of this matters to Sophie. Like many teenagers today, Sophie has the technology at her fingertips which allows her to curate personalized playlists with much greater ease than I ever had as a teen who was forced to make mixtapes on a cassette. Sophie rarely has to endure listening to classic, religious type carols such as “O, Come All Ye Faithful” or “The Holly and the Ivy” or even “The Carol of the Bells” *(which was the subject of a previous post that you can read here). Instead, Sophie creates her own playlists from streaming services such as Spotify and listens to them on her iPhone from the comfort of her bedroom. In a related note, we have a Spotify account that we share as a family. At the end of each calendar year, Spotify issues a report called Spotify Wrapped that summarizes our listening habits over the course of the whole year and presents those findings in the form of a Top 5 list. To absolutely no one’s surprise in our house, the number one most listened to artist for 2022 was Ariana Grande. Taylor Swift was #4, with three other young female singers (with whom I am unfamiliar) rounding out the Top 5.
Christmas listening habits have changed a lot since I was a boy who built his world around the yearly visit by a jolly fat man and eight flying reindeer. The Christmas songs of my youth hold no sway for most teens today. That is not a tragic thing so much as it is simply a matter of fact. I always enjoyed the classic carols because I relate the singing of them with warm family memories from my childhood. But it is important for us, as adults, to keep reminding ourselves that our children have memories all of their own, independent of ours. My girls are growing up without the tradition-fuelled memories of going to church on Christmas Eve, delivering our own gifts to the homes of our relatives and friends after church was over, writing and delivering Christmas cards (we only have gotten three so far this year as of the writing of this post), having a huge family gathering on Christmas day and so much more. Maybe my present day family traditions are different than yours, but, like many things in life, we seem to be shrinking into ourselves as we stare into our phones in search of Christmas magic. We are more apt to stay in than to go out. We order more presents online than we do from stores and businesses in our town. Consequently, my girls are growing up with Netflix fires on TV and songs like “Santa Tell me” by Ariana Grande on repeat…on a phone…listened to with ear buds so that no one is disturbed by the noise.
So, this is Christmas.
The link to the video for the song “Santa Tell Me” by Ariana Grande can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.
The link to the official website for Ariana Grande can be found here.