Saturday, January 8, 2011

From Carol Brady to Judas Priest

A young boy named, Gary Wright began his career in 1954 as a child actor on Broadway. He did 888 performances in the musical, "Fanny," along with the star, Florence "Carol Brady" Henderson. The two even performed together on the Ed Sullivan Show.

But as Gary got older, he moved away from acting and started a song-writing career in the band Spooky Tooth. Wright wrote Spooky Tooth's biggest hit "Better by You, Better than Me," which I bet you think you know nothing about… Hold that thought.

But things were looking up when in 1971, Gary Wright played piano on his friend, George Harrison's, first solo album, "All Things Must Pass."

That same year, Wright notably performed on the Dick Cavett Show with George Harrison returning the favor by playing slide guitar in his band, Wonder Wheel. Although Gary and George remained steadfast friends until Harrison's death, I don't believe the band ever lived outside of the realm of that one tv show, but I did actually find the video! Notice how sublime Harrison tries to be:

It wasn't until 5 years later that the Gary Wright most of us know hit it big with his anthemic, "Dream Weaver." In 1976, it went to #2 for three weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, but continues to live on to this day. It's been featured in several movies we've all seen: Wayne's World, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Toy Story 3.

Personally, I prefer his follow-up hit, "Love is Alive" (which also peaked at #2).

[side note: For you drummer freaks out there, you might like to know that Jim Keltner was the drummer on both of those hit singles.]

Okay, let's go back a little bit. Remember Gary Wright's "big hit" for Spooky Tooth, "Better by You, Better than Me?" Well, that song was covered by Judas Priest.

"So what?" you say? In 1990, Judas Priest was the subject of media attention for being accused of putting subliminal messages in a song that resulted in a teenage suicide. Judas Priest was found innocent.

The song at the center of the firestorm was "Better by You, Better than Me" by Gary Wright.


Tainted Love and Two Guys Named "Marc"

In 1981, a synth-duo in England had a record contract that was on the ropes. The band, Soft Cell, had an unsuccessful single ("Memorabilia"), and was given an ultimatum by Phonogram Records to record a hit single—or be dropped from the label.

As a touring act, Soft Cell was in search of a good cover song to close their set. They decided to work-up a synth version of a popular soul song, Tainted Love, that had swept the England charts over 15 years earlier. According to singer Marc Almond (hey, he spells "Marc" with a "c"), it was "either Tainted Love or a Franki Valli song."

Wait... so "Tainted Love" is a cover?

Yes, it is. It was made popular by singer Gloria Jones in 1964. Gloria's version of "Tainted Love" was a hugely successful "northern soul" song ("northern soul" was a dance/music, British mod scene in northern England at the end of the '60s). Gloria was so popular, her followers considered her the "Northern Queen of Soul."

In reality, Gloria Jones is an American, and had comparatively moderate success over here. But this is what I find interesting about Gloria Jones: in 1969, while in the musical, Hair (the LA cast), she met a young singer named, Marc Bolan (hey, *he* spells "Marc" with a "c" too!).

Marc Bolan liked her voice, and quickly added her to his band, T. Rex ("Bang a Gong (Get it On)"). As it happened, he liked more than her singing. They soon became romantically involved, lived together for many years, and had a son (to whom they did no favors by naming him "Rolan Bolan").

Unfortunately, this love story has a tragic ending. Most of you know that Marc Bolan was killed as a passenger in a car crash in 1977. He never learned to drive, fearing "premature death."

What's really sad about the accident was that the driver of the little purple sports car was... Gloria Jones: the original singer of "Tainted Love."

Friday, January 7, 2011

You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Rhinestone Lebowski

Fans of the Coen Brothers movie, The Big Lebowski remember a very colorful sequence that featured a psychedelic, salute-to-LSD song "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."

It's a very trippy song with crazy "oh yeah" harmonies, back-masked tracks, and a raunchy guitar solo. The band that released the song, The First Edition, was not so well known. The lead singer of the group, however, probably rings a bell...

A young man by the name of Kenny Rogers.

Obviously, Kenny (or "Kenneth" as he was billed then), hadn't quite found his undeniably successful "country niche." Hell, his beard wasn't even grey yet (was he born with that thing?). Here is Kenny Rogers and the First Edition performing their hit on the Smothers Brothers show in 1968:

Pretty crazy stuff, eh? Note that Hendrix-induced, over-compressed guitar solo in the middle section. Guess who played that? Yeah. Surprise! It was Glen Campbell (not a member of the band, but a session musician at the time).

I could write a whole entry about Glen Campbell (and probably will, someday), but today's send-up is directed at The Gambler.

Did you know that Kenny Rogers didn't leave The First Edition to embark upon his solo career until he was 38? Actually, he almost didn't get signed due to his age. But good fortune struck for both Kenny and the record label, United Artists when Rogers unleashed a boat load of crossover Country/Pop hits.

In 1977, at the age of 39, "Lucille" hit the number-one spot in 12 countries, selling over five million copies. And the same album (Kenny) produced "Coward of the County" — another multi-national number-one hit.

So. Not a bad outing, but I'm not sharing anything you don't already know. Kenny Rogers was wildly successful. His follow-up album, The Gambler achieved equal, or even, greater acclaim.

Most of you hard-core nuts already knew about Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, but here are some tidbits you might not have known about Kenny: 

  • In 1982, his starring role in the movie, Six Pack actually made $20M. 
  • Apparently, "Lucille" picked a "fine time to leave him" quite often. Kenny is currently married to his fifth wife.
  • In 1991, he teamed up with KFC CEO to start his own line of Kenny Rogers Roasters. But did you know that in 1997, on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Rogers was unable to identify his franchised chicken in a taste test?
  • Kenny Rogers played himself in a famous episode of Reno 911, wherein he is shot by an obsessed fan played by Patton Oswalt.
  • One of my favorite nicknames from the TV series, LOST, is when Sawyer refers to Frank (the bearded helicopter pilot) as "Kenny Rogers."

"We had an affair, and all I got was this lousy Badge"

Eric Clapton's second solo release, "461 Ocean Boulevard" is a deeply personal, and seminal album. He had just spent two years wooing George Harrison's wife, getting addicted to—and recovering from—heroin, and collaborating with the man whose wife he was about to "steal" (more on that momentarily).

I'm going to start this entry with a bit of music trivia about "461 Ocean Boulevard" that is wrong.

I was also guilty of carrying around this misinformation for years. It goes (falsely) like this: "Did you know that '461 Ocean Boulevard' is actually the house that George Harrison and wife Pattie Boyd lived in before Eric Clapton  married Pattie—and moved in—asking George to move out?"

Like I said, completely untrue. '461 Ocean Boulevard' was, in fact, the address of a house in Miami that Clapton was renting while recording that album... but enough about the address. The real bit of trivia on this album comes from a track called, "Badge" (which was a song originally released by Cream, and later included on the remastered version of "...Ocean Blvd").

I'm pretty sure you've heard it before:
Okay... So now we know how the *album* got its name, but how did the track "Badge" get it's name?

First off, it was a collaboration between Clapton and Harrison. Clapton started the process by writing what eventually became the verses and the chorus, but when he had a block, he sent what he had to Harrison to finish.

Harrison added a new musical part to the song, as well as some words. The rhythm and chord changes that George contributed varied slightly from what Clapton had, so in the notebook above the lyrics, Harrison had scribbled the word, "bridge." Then he sent his ideas back to Eric.

Eric loved the new section. And he thought that George had even named the song when he misread "bridge" as "badge."

"Badge" has nothing to do with the lyrical story of the song.

Real quick, before I sign off, for those of you unfamiliar with the George Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton love triangle, this is how it went down: George and Pattie had been married for six years. Their marriage was falling to shit as George got more involved in eastern religion and meditation. Clapton started 'wooing' Pattie. For nearly 3 years, Pattie ignored his advances. Over those three years, George had affairs with other women, including Ronnie Wood's wife (of the Rolling Stones) and even Ringo's then wife, Maureen.
Here's a great article straight from Pattie:

I had always assumed that Clapton was the "dick" in the equation for stealing George's girl, although, he wasn't completely innocent... For instance, when Pattie first denied his advances, he told her he was going to start taking heroin (and did, and got hooked, making her feel guilty). And, he ended up sleeping with Pattie's little sister for years (and getting her hooked on heroin, too).

Okay... Maybe Clapton was a dick about it. Both he and Harrison seemed like they had some growing up to do... but then again, both of them weren't even 30 when this was going down.

Oh well. It's only rock and roll.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

We Never *Were* in Kansas, You Idiot

Of the many musicians I get to play with, three of us seem to stick together from project to project. Bob, Anders, and myself are the "Blame" part of "Rob Stroup and the Blame." But the three of us have also backed many other acts such as Nick Peets, Naomi Hooley, and countless session gigs as well.

That's why I like the story of this next session band (which was on a WAY, WAY larger scale than little old us in Portland).

This obscure session band from Hartford, Connecticut, played together on Steely Dan albums, Seals and Crofts, Sonny and Cher, and toured extensively (and played the studio sessions) for 70s legend Boz Skaggs.

You would think that would be *plenty* of fame for some unknowns from Connecticut, but instead, they decided to form their *own* band.

That's when Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro, David Paich, Bobby Kimball, and David Huntgate set off to form the band, "Toto."

Many people think that the name "Toto" was named after the dog from "Wizard of Oz." Some thought that the name derived from Bobby Kimball's "real" last name, "Toteaux" ("Kimball" is his real last name). The actual origin comes from the latin word, "toto" which means "all-encompassing." The band thought that since they had played on so many albums and played so many genres, that "Toto" would be a fitting moniker.

If you ask someone to name a Toto song, they'll probably be able to rattle off, "Rosanna," and "Africa" pretty quickly. Those of us that were paying attention will also recall hits, "Hold the Line," "I'll Supply the Love" and "Georgy Porgy." They also had a hit with, "I Won't Hold Back" (the third of three top-10 Billboard 100 hits from "Toto IV.")
Toto IV had 3 top-ten hits

After drummer Jeff Porcaro died in 1992 (from an accidental heart attack, caused from inhaling pesticide he was applying in his garden). Toto, as a band, started to disintegrate.

You have to remember that Jeff Porcaro was a giant among men. His loss was devastating to the Toto "sound." Porcaro was such an influential drummer. You can hear his work on literally thousands of albums for artists like Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Madonna, Frampton, Bee Gees, Clapton, Springsteen, Elton John… and well… You get it. I could fill up the internet listing his session work.

Anyway, after years of slugging away in the 90s and 00s with little or no success, Toto has gotten most of the original lineup back together and is planning a tour in 2011.


[on a personal side note, "Africa" is the ringtone I've had assigned to my wife for years]

We Could Be Heroes

David Bowie's brilliant piece, "Heroes" may have been the song that really got me to sit down and listen to an entire album (and then subsequently buy his entire catalog!). 

There isn't a whole lot of earth-shattering trivia about this song. Although since I'm a huge King Crimson fan, I feel compelled to point out that "Heroes" was co-written by Brian Eno. Eno played synth on the track, and fellow King Crimson-er, Robert Fripp, played the guitar track.

Aside from that nominal bit of trivia, I did find an extremely touching memory that Bowie shared in a Performing Songwriter interview. He had played at the Berlin Wall in '87, and was speaking about his performance of "Heroes" specifically:
"I'll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done. I was in tears. They'd backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop.
We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn't realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side.
God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I'd never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.
When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it's almost like 'walking through' it compared to that night, because it meant so much more. That's the town (Berlin) where it was written, and that's the particular situation that it was written about. It was just extraordinary.
We did it in Berlin last year as well – 'Heroes' – and there's no other city I can do that song in now that comes close to how it's received. This time, what was so fantastic is that the audience – it was the Max Schmeling Hall, which holds about 10-15,000 – half the audience had been in East Berlin that time way before. So now I was face-to-face with the people I had been singing it to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together.
Again, it was powerful. Things like that really give you a sense of what performance can do. They happen so rarely at that kind of magnitude. Most nights I find very enjoyable. These days, I really enjoy performing. But something like that doesn't come along very often, and when it does, you kind of think, 'Well, if I never do anything again, it won't matter.'"

From Cannibalism to Fancy Island Drinks

Many people haven't had the pleasure to hear the next song I'm going to mention. This could be for several reasons: a) you're too young; b) your name isn't "Timothy" (which is probably the first real reason it stuck with me); or c) it was banned on your local radio station, so it never got played.

The song, "Timothy" was by a not-known-at-all band from Pennsylvania called, "The Buoys."

Here's a refresher of the song:

It's a really great "feel-good" number from 1971 about 3 trapped miners who panicked, got hungry and, well... ate "Timothy."

What I really like about this song is its backstory: "The Buoys" had just secured their first record deal with Scepter Records, but with the caveat that the label would pay only for the studio, but not to promote the song. The band was on their own getting it out there.

So, along comes a 23-year old struggling musician who worked at the studio and agrees to help The Buoys with their first real label song. Since there was no promotion, this young musician talked the band into letting him write their song with a topic so radical it would get banned -- intentionally. "Any press is good press."

It worked like a charm. In 1971, "Timothy" climbed the Billboard Charts to number 17. Radio stations were banning it all across the country, and this only made people clamor for their own copies. 

This was an unexpected hit for "The Buoys" and Scepter Records gave them a subsequent record (album) deal (which failed miserably).

However, the young musician who wrote the controversial song in the first place went on to more success when instead of writing about eating people, he wrote about drinking Pina Coladas. You know him as 70s super-phenom, Rupert Holmes.

Check out these super-fly dance moves:

Actually, his success goes much deeper than "Timothy" and "The Pina Colada Song" (don't forget his follow-up song, "Him!"). Rupert was a talented songwriter who wrote songs for The Platters, The Drifters, Wayne Newton, Dolly Parton, Barry Manilow and even The Partridge Family.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Who the hell is Russ Ballard?

Russ Ballard. You might recognize his name. You might not. You might only know him as the singer fo the 80s hit "Voices," but you might be surprised at how much stuff he's done that all of us are familiar with.

It started when I was listening to a Head East album "Flat as a Pancake." I've always loved that album, ever since it first came out. My dad had it, and it got heavy rotation in our house. I remember recently telling my friend Mike that even now, I still spin it at least once a year.

 I got curious about what happened to Head East, and started looking for articles about the band. First, I discovered that the lead singer, John Schlitt, was fired due to drug dependency. Bummer, because he had a great voice.

It worked out all right for him though, he cleaned himself up and went on to front Contemporary Christian's Music most successful all-time bands, "Petra."

Okay... that's pretty interesting, but then I found out that Russ Ballard became a member of Head East after John Schlitt left. I never knew that about Russ. I knew that he started with "Hold Your Head Up" rockers, Argent (along with Rod Argent, who was a founding member of "The Zombies").

What really shocked me was that Russ Ballard penned a song called, "God Gave Rock and Roll to You" which was covered by KISS as well as -- you guessed it -- Petra!

Some other songs that Ballard wrote that you have heard are Three Dog Night's "Liar," and my favorite Rainbow song, "Since You've Been Gone." But there's more! The America song, "You Can Do Magic;" Ace Frehley's solo hit, "Back in the New York Groove;" and Frida's (aka "Anni-Frid" formerly of ABBA) one-hit wonder, "I Know There's Something Going On" (featuring a drummer named, "Phil Collins!").

I hope you're paying attention. There WILL be a test on this stuff.

Some Girls...

I played with a fabulous band on New Year's Eve last weekend, and one of the songs we performed was "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones. With that song still fresh in my head, it occurred to me that I haven't spun the album "Some Girls" in quite a while.

I love the artwork on vinyl records. The palette -- nearly a square foot -- is so large, and nearly every band put as much time, thought, and effort into the artwork as they did the music they recorded on it.

One thing I found out today is that there is more than one version of the artwork for "Some Girls." The original artwork had, of course, the Stones in make-up, peeking through an elaborate (and expensive) die-cut sleeve.

But aside from the boys, there were images of Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Farrah Fawcett, and Raquel Welch... Apparently, this did not go over well with these woman and they all got together (Liza Minelli for Garland, and Monroe's estate) and threatened legal action against the band.

Not wanting to cause a fuss, the band re-released the album with new artwork with generic women and the words, "PARDON OUR APPEARANCE - COVER UNDER RE-CONSTRUCTION" (the original "404 page?").

Well... lucky me. I happen to own the original version of the artwork.

Musically, it's one of my favorite releases ("Exile on Main Street" and "Sticky Fingers" complete my Stones tri-fecta favs).

I mean, look at the track listing on this gem:

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "Miss You"   4:48
2. "When the Whip Comes Down"   4:20
3. "Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)" (Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong) 4:38
4. "Some Girls"   4:36
5. "Lies"   3:11
Side two
No. Title Length
6. "Far Away Eyes"   4:24
7. "Respectable"   3:06
8. "Before They Make Me Run"   3:25
9. "Beast of Burden"   4:25
10. "Shattered"   3:48

Why is Barry Gibb a stud?

Barry Gibb, one of the brothers for the super-group "The Bee Gees," is quite a prolific -- and immensely successful -- song writer.

Did you know that in 1978, Barry Gibb became the only person in history to pen 4 consecutive number-one hits? To this day, no one has matched that achievement. The songs were "Stayin' Alive," "Love Is Thicker Than Water," "Night Fever," and "If I Can't Have You" (which hit the top with a version sung by Yvonne Elliman).

Actually 1978 was a pretty damn good year for Barry Gibb. Of the top 100 songs, the Bee Gees wrote and performed 9 of them. 13 of them were written by Barry Gibb, and 12 of those were in the top 40.

Additionally, over 2,500 artists have covered his songs, including some pretty heavy-hitters in their own right: Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Al Creen, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Tom Jones (and about 2,994 others!).

So here's to you, Barry Gibb. Love him or leave him -- you can't deny that he has a unique talent for penning extremely popular music.