October 19, 2009
Dion DiMucci, with and without the Belmonts, placed 28 songs on the American top 100 pop charts between 1958 and 1964. Such hits as “A Teenager In Love,” “Where Or When,” “The Wanderer,” “Lovers Who Wander,” “Ruby Baby,” “Donna The Prima Donna,” and the number one “Runaround Sue” were all catchy, memorable and helped to make him one of the stars of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll era.
1968 found Dion reinventing himself as a quasi folk/pop singer. His quiet version of “Abraham, Martin and John” was a huge top five hit. It was a tribute song to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, plus Robert Kennedy and resonated with the Vietnam protest generation. It would be the last major hit of his career.
Dion was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989 and remains active today both as a Christian artist and a pop singer. As the fifties generation ages “Abraham, Martin, and John” has emerged as one of his most memorable performances.
October 17, 2009
Petula Clark was a star long before her first American hit at the age of 32. She performed on British radio at age nine and had her on show at eleven. She appeared in over twenty English movies between 1944-1957.
Her first song to reach the American charts made her a star as “Downtown” would spend two weeks at number one during December of 1964. It was a catchy, mid-tempo pop tune that feautured her ringing voice on the chorus.
Petula Clark was a different type of British artist. She was a grown up woman and her pop sound served as a counterpoint to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, and a host of others who were domininating the American charts at the time.
She would go on to issue a series of memorable hits during the next few years and would ultimately place 22 songs on the charts during her career. “Downtown” was her first and would prove the most memorable.
October 17, 2009
There are any number of Frank Sinatra Christmas albums in circulation, but Christmas with Sinatra and Friends ranks among the best. The album culls eight Sinatra tracks from his days with the Reprise label and then adds songs by Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Charles & Betty Carter, and Tony Bennett with Bill Evans to make an even dozen holiday treats.
This is a Christmas album from a different era. It is simple and has no gimmicks. The focus is always on the vocals and songs.
I tend to immerse myself in rock ‘n’ roll most of the time and forget what a smooth vocalist Frank Sinatra was during his long and storied career. These Christmas tracks, while only the tip of the iceberg in so far as his vast catalog is concerned, is representative of his style and talent.
Sinatra was probably the best interpreter of pop songs in music history and he made it all seem so effortless. He keeps it simple with “An Old Fashioned Christmas” with the emphasis upon the beauty of the lyrics. “Christmas Memories” is reflective in nature while the old classic “The Little Drummer Boy” is about as reverent as he has ever sounded. He even manages to make the over recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” sound fresh. If you want the smooth Sinatra, there is the standard “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.”
So what do his friends add to the album? The best track is “A Child Is Born” by Tony Bennett with jazz pianist Bill Evans. They are a good combination and Bennett’s vocal style fits well with that of Sinatra. Mel Torme wrote “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” when he was twenty years old and it became a big hit for Nat King Cole. Since that time it has become one of the most recorded Christmas songs and it’s nice to hear Torme singing his own creation.
I can take or leave Rosemary Clooney’s version of “White Christmas” as it has been done so often and many times better. If you want a different type of holiday song then “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” by Ray Charles and Betty Carter, is the one for you. Their vocal interplay handles the clever lyrics just right and is sure to spice up any holiday season.
Christmas with Sinatra and Friends takes me back to the days of my parents and even grandparents and at Christmas time that is not a bad place to be.
October 17, 2009
Who knew that the May 13, 1990 performance by the Kentucky Headhunters at Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom would emerge as one of the best live albums of the year — nearly two decades later.
Their roots extend back to 1968 and the rock band Itchy Brother. By 1986 they had evolved into the Kentucky Headhunters. Over the years they have released seven studio albums and twenty singles plus received three Country Music Association Awards and a 1990 Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by A Duo or Group.
The Kentucky Headhunters have always been characterized as a country band but Authorized Bootleg – Live / Agora Ballroom – Cleveland, Ohio May 13, 1990 finds them very close to the southern rock style of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. On a few songs they cross the line completely and — let me say that when they rock — they really rock.
The concert begins with Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonk Blues” which sets the tone for what is to follow. The lyrics and vocals may be country but the music is pure southern-boogie rock. Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” follows this same style and their fusion of these two types of music is some of the best I have heard.
By the time they get to Doug Sahm’s “She’s About A Mover” they are in full-rock mode. Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” follows with a hard rocking version. The old blues classic, “Crossroads,” is similar to Cream’s rendition, proving that lead guitarist Greg Martin and drummer Fred Young are two of the best musicians you have probably never heard of.
The Kentucky Headhunters have always been a somewhat eclectic band. I remember watching them perform “The Ballad Of Davy Crockett” on a major television awards show. On this live album, they close the show with “Spirit In The Sky,” which is as unusual as it is inspired.
If you are partial to good southern-style rock ‘n’ roll then this is an album for you. The Kentucky Headhunters are still on the road performing and if this old concert is any indication they are well worth seeing.
October 14, 2009
Roy Orbison had hit after hit when he recorded for the Monument Label. In 1965 he signed with MGM and it was like someone had turned off the spicket. He released countless albums and singles but would never reach the top twenty with any MGM release.
The quality of the material was not present plus he wrote a number of songs for movie soundtracks which took him out of his element.
The pictured 45 was from the movie ZABRISKIE POINT. “So Young” was a poorly constructed songs and not even Orbison’s voice could save it. It did not even crack the Billboard top 100. His career would not recover until the mid-eighties, long after he had left the label.
This promo copy of “So Young” remains a collector’s item and not much else.
October 14, 2009
Eric Clapton issued Backless twelve months after the release of his classic, Slowhand, and while it may not have had the consistent excellence of that album, it was still very good.
The cover photo says a lot about this release. It pictures a relaxed and laid back Clapton strumming his guitar. The music would likewise be a mostly mellow collection of various styles and traditions as the best songs run the gamut from rock to blues, even to country.
“Tulsa Time” is an old country tune that receives a rocking adaptation by Clapton and may be the album’s best track. It was released as a single in the United States and deserved better than just cracking the top thirty. “Watch Out For Lucy” is another straight rock time and has a primitive bar sound as Clapton cranks up his old guitar for some of his classic playing.
“Promises” — which did become a U.S. top ten single — is a subtle song with subdued vocals and some understated slide guitar. It almost has a country flavor as the vocals explore relationships.
Clapton returns to the blues with the traditional “Early In The Morning.” He is always at home with a slow blues song and at eight minutes he has room for a couple of guitar solos and tempo changes. A contribution by Bob Dylan, “Walk Out In The Rain” is another bluesy, mid-tempo track, this one yielding an excellent Clapton vocal.
One surprising failure was the J.J. Cale penned “I’ll Make Love To You Anytime.” After the brilliance of “Cocaine” and “After Midnight” this one is just a little too laid back.
Backless is overall just a step below Clapton’s best work. It has stood the test of time well and remains a good listen three-plus decades after its release.
October 14, 2009
After two mellow, laid back, and in some ways lackluster efforts, Eric Clapton returned in May of 1977 with one of the strongest releases of his solo career. If I had to pick the ten best solo songs of his career the first three tracks of this album would all make the list. Slowhand was embraced by old and new fans alike and Rolling Stone Magazine ranked it among the 500 best albums of all time.
Clapton’s guitar playing virtuosity is very evident here as it dominates the sound. The choice of master producer Glyn Johns was a wise one as the album has production values and a balance that were missing on his past solo efforts.
The J.J. Cale song, “Cocaine,” begins the album on a ringing note. Great chords and riffs propel this anti-drug song. Rock ‘n’ roll does not get much better than this and it would become an eternal part of his live shows.
“Wonderful Tonight” takes the listener in a different direction. This gentle ballad, written for Patti Boyd (Harrison), features one of his better vocals and the lyrics demonstrate how he had evolved as a songwriter. “Lay Down Sally” was a huge top three hit single in the United States. Its shuffle or staccato guitar sound was unique and Clapton’s vocal fits in well. Marcy Levy, who co-wrote the track with Clapton, provides some memorable vocals.
Another outstanding track was also co-written by Levy. “The Core,” at close to nine minutes, gives Clapton some room to stretch plus contains a nice Clapton/Levy duet. The old Arthur Crudup tune, “Mean Old Frisco,” returns him to his blues roots as he demonstrates some tasty slide guitar technique. “We’re All The Way,” written by Don Williams, is an early Clapton foray into a country sound.
Slowhand was a masterpiece then, and remains one now. For anyone interested in the solo career of Eric Clapton, it all flows through this album.
October 12, 2009
This was the song that convinced me I would never play the guitar or at least play it well.
“Classical Gas” by Mason Williams was a catchy instrumental tune that featured some of the best guitar playing ever released as a single. It would be a huge hit in June of 1968 reaching number two on the national charts. In 1969 it won three Grammy Awards for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Contemporary-Pop Performance, Instrumental, and Best Instrumental Arrangement.
Williams would go on to have an interesting career. He would win an Emmy as a writer for The Smothers Brothers Show and even spend a season, (1980), as a writer on Saturday Night Live. He has also published several books and is an accomplished photographer.
He has continued to perform and release music for over forty years since “Classical Gas” was recorded but it remains his most memorable creation.
October 12, 2009
The musical career of Maria Grazia Rosa Domenica D’Amato — more commonly known as Maria Muldaur — has come full circle. She started out as a member of a jug band and to jug band music she has now returned.
Maria Muldaur is best remembered for her huge 1974 hit, “Midnight At The Oasis,” but earlier on she was a member of two classic jug bands. The Even Dozen Jug Band and Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band both had a great deal of success during the 1960’s.
Jug Band Music can be defined as a cross between folk and bluegrass. Its roots extend back into the early twentieth century as hundreds of groups combined guitars, violins and mandolins with washboards, spoons, kazoos, combs, and (of course) jugs. By the ’60’s the sound was much more refined but the roots of the performances were still present.
For this release, she issued a call to some former jug band mates and John Sebastian and David Grisman responded. Also on board is Dan Hicks who is a walking jug band at least in spirit.
The highlight of the album comes in a pair of new songs written by Hicks. “The Diplomat” and “Let It Simmer” both feature the clever lyrics for which he is noted. Muldaur’s vocal on the first is far from her pop days as it has a twenties flapper feel while on “Let It Simmer” she gives a sultry bluesy presentation. Hicks shares vocal duties on the medley, “Life’s Two Short/When Elephants Roost In Bamboo Trees.” The interplay between him and Muldaur is indeed both clever and amusing.
Many of the tracks come from the Depression era. Songs such as “Bank Failure Blues” and “The Panic Is On” are resurrected for joyful performances. Another outstanding track is “The Ghost Of The St. Louis Blues,” which has a Dixieland feel and more tongue-in-cheek lyrics.
Garden Of Joy is a wonderful journey into the past, both for Muldaur and her fans. It is a zany album that will lift your spirits and make you smile, proving that, at times, you can go home.
October 12, 2009
Thirty-three years after its release, No Reason To Cry is one of those early Clapton solo albums that just slides by under the radar. It isn’t offensive in any way but overall it’s more interesting than good. In hindsight, the album also suffers from the fact that it precedes one of the better releases of Clapton’s career, 1977’s Slowhand, which would become an instant and lasting classic.
During the course of his long career Clapton has always enjoyed working with other artists, having been a guest on innumerable albums and taken part in many side projects. Here he partners with several members of The Band plus Bob Dylan and while the results aren’t brilliant at least they retain your attention.
The two Band tracks push Clapton away from his British blues roots. “Beautiful Thing,” written by Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, is Americana music at its best and features some nice vocal work by Marcy Levy. “All Our Past Times” finds Clapton duetting with Danko and, though the track is enjoyable, a live performance would appear later on that is superior to this studio version.
Bob Dylan’s “Sign Language” was unreleased when this album was issued. And while it may be an average Dylan composition their vocals remain interesting.
Clapton is on much more solid ground when he is in his own. “Country Jail Blues” has some nice slide guitar which is straight out of the Delta and leaves you wanting more. “Double Trouble” is another return to his blues roots. “Hello Old Friend” may be the best track here and is a fusion of rock and blues that he proved so successful at creating.
If you want to explore the music of Eric Clapton, No Reason To Cry is not the place to star. It remains one of the more eclectic efforts in his vast catalogue. It is a quick and quiet listen and then just disappears.