Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A man's gotta know his limitations

I was never much of a Corvette man. Not that I don't appreciate the classic American sports cars, especially the earlier Sting Ray models from the Sixties. They were sleek, fast machines, and the guys who were driving them didn't have any problem getting somebody in that other bucket seat. (Getting them out of it? I'm not sure.)

I mention this because today marks the anniversary of the Corvette. Yep, the first one rolled off the assembly line on June 30, 1953. I've never owned one, and probably never will. A damn shame, I suppose.

My "status symbols'' have included a Buick LeSabre, Volkswagen Beetle, Datsun B-210, Datsun 200SX, Datsun Lil' Hustler, Ford Ranger, Volkswagen Golf, Chevrolet S10 and, finally, the Nissan Frontier I've had for almost nine years. I guess you could say the trucks won out.

(I did have one toy: a 1968 Chevelle Malibu that was a great looker, but lacked the brute power these muscle cars are known for. It spent most of its time in the garage.)

George Jones is never going to sing about any of the vehicles in my junk heap. You can't that about the Corvette, which Jones had some fun with in his 1985 hit "The One I Loved Back Then'':

Oh, she was hotter than a two dollar pistol
She was the fastest thing around
Long and lean every young man's dream
She turned every head in town
She was built and fun to handle
Son, I'm glad that you walked in
She reminds me of the one I loved back then

She, of course, was a Corvette. And just like the girl, she was out of my league.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Why I Love AirTran

I love AirTran Airways not because they got me on a standby flight Monday, because they didn't. But they tried, and they tried with courtesy and a smile. And while the Customer Service agent was making sure my bag got routed on the earlier flight -- just in case -- I saw her safely return a missing purse to a frantic traveler. At Hartsfield International. Thank you, Dorian, from travelers everywhere.

I love AirTrain because they offer $59 one-way online fares if you book in advance. And they don't penalize you for not buying a round-trip ticket. And they don't charge you extra for choosing multiple destinations. You can get the lowest possible fare for every leg on your itinerary.

I love AirTran because they offer XM Satellite Radio on every flight. You don't have to bother digging for your iPod; just have your earphones ready.

I love AirTran because they fly into SRQ, which may be a goofy designation for Sarasota-Bradention International Airport but you won't care once you've flown through there. It's clean, convenient and hassle-free.

I love AirTran because this summer they're going to have web access on every flight, meaning I can write this and post it while I'm in the air -- while munching on free pretzels.

I love AirTran because my baggage never gets lost, and I don't have to wait 30 minutes for it to come out of the chute. And because they only charge $15 for checking your first bag, you don't feel like you have to try schlepping it on the plane with you.

I love AirTran because they fly into the Twin Cities' Hubert H. Humphrey terminal, another hub that's easy to get through. Meaning you might have a chance to visit Fletcher's Wharf and meet Jacquelyn, the affable bar maid, who will fix you a fabulous bloody Mary with a beer chaser. And wish you a good day, a good life and a good eternity.

It's hard to do better than that.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Saved by a one-hit wonder

WHITEHALL, Wis. -- My sisters were gassed. So were other family members who had stuck it out overnight at the Relay For Life and were now gathered at a sheltered picnic table beside the Whitehall High School track field. Muscles ached. Feet hurt. A general state of exhaustion had overtaken our spirited but weary and sleep-deprived team, Gene's Brew Crew.

Less than an hour to go.

Time to reach for three more miles -- just 12 trips around the paved oval track. You could sleepwalk that distance, something Brew Crew members had proven repeatedly while racking up mile after mile overnight. But this was early morning, and early mornings have never been good to me.

A damp chill hung in the air and rain clouds threatened to soak the encampment as Peg completed her final lap, leaving little brother to finish the deed. Surely, after taking a guilty nap, I had three more miles in me and my canvas Converse All-Stars.

Where was the D.J. from Neon Fever who had kept us so loose and focused over the first few hundred laps with his lively mix of music? Or the polka band that had spurred us to our best performances? Give me a fiddle, an accordian and a bluegrass guitar and I could run to daylight.

I was out of sync the first three laps as a struggled to keep my coffee cup from spilling onto the track. It didn't help that the music coming from the stadium P.A. system sounded like noise. Where was the song that would provide the needed surge?

A light but steady rain began to fall during the second mile. I traded my coffee cup for an oversized Packers umbrella and trudged on. With three laps to go the rain stopped, so I dropped off the umbrella as I passed the Brew Crew "dugout'' and kept on chugging. Please, just one song to put a bounce back in my step and make the blisters under my feet temporarily disappear.

And then it came:

I used to think maybe you loved me
Now baby I'm sure
And I just can't wait 'til the day
When you knock on the door...

Everything was a blur as I completed the final lap to Katrina & the Waves' bouncy "Walking on Sunshine.''

Final tallies for Gene's Brew Crew: 314 miles walked, $1,093 raised. And a Whitehall relay total of more than $25,000 generated to fight cancer.

... and don't it feel good!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The last moonwalk

Somewhere behind Whitehall High School, not far from the Norsemen football field, a time capsule is buried. Nobody seems to remember exactly where. It will probably remain undisturbed until a bulldozer one day unearths it and the contents come spilling out.

And out of the capsule will tumble my niece's contribution to a science project some 10 years ago: her Michael Jackson doll.

I'm young enough to remember The Jackson Five as a cute, precocious and immensely gifted family of boys who set Motown -- and American music -- on its collective ear. And I'm old enough to shake my head at the bizarre person Michael Jackson had seemed to become by the time he died unexpectedly Thursday at age 50. But how do you calculate Jackson's age in tabloid years? It's difficult to believe he was born in the same decade as me. It's difficult to believe a lot of things.

While my niece reminisced about the doll and glove she also once wore, my 13-year-old nephew sang along to "Thriller'', no doubt the influence of my little sister. They were neither sad nor making fun. They were simply reacting to the shocking news by sharing what they remember about him. "Thriller'' and another of Jackson's biggest hits, "Beat It'', blared over the P.A. system last night at Melby Park, where the Norse baseball team was vanquishing Eleva-Strum (really) 11-1.

Michael Jackson touched a lot of people. And -- proven or not -- that was the biggest problem we had with him. But it's not my place, or my space, to go there today.

Even as a college student discovering much louder and crazier music, I thought "I'll Be There'' -- The Jackson Five's fourth No. 1 song -- was a great tune. It gave them the distinction of being the only group to have its first four charted songs reach No. 1. And it was accomplished in less than ninth months.

They were something. And Michael Jackson -- do you think anybody could dance like that? -- was something to behold.

I'm just not altogether sure right now what that something was.

Another axe to grind

I was traveling yesterday and missed Jeff Beck's birthday. Happy seis-cinco, dude.

And my main man Charles is dead right about "best'' lists, but it's simply not possible to have a discussion about guitarists without referencing Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. So before we continue, here are the mad mag's Top 10 axemen:

1. Jimi Hendrix
2. Duane Allman
3. B.B. King
4. Eric Clapton
5. Robert Johnson
6. Chuck Berry
7. Stevie Ray Vaughan
8. Ry Cooder
9. Jimmy Page
10. Keith Richards

The first obvious point: if this were a "living'' list, half of that group -- including the top 2 -- would be eliminated. Second obvious point: Eric "God'' Clapton does not top the list. Despite widespread fan worship for Clapton, there are other amazing practitioners of the guitar who deserve to be ranked above him.

And then there's this: No Jeff Beck in the first group. He's at No. 14. That may not sound unfair until you notice that two other deceased players that couldn't hold a thumbpick to Beck's virtuoso jazz-rock alchemy are ranked above him: Kurt Cobain (No. 12) and Jerry Garcia (No. 13). Meanwhile, Mark Knopfler is No.27. John Fogerty is No. 40.

As Charles might comment: These lists are idiotic.

Nevertheless. The 14th best guitarist is still alive and kicking some serious Stratocaster at 65. His spring tour played to gushing reviews, and he is now a two-time inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (for his solo work, and earlier with the Yardbirds).

Beck doesn't waste time in front of a microphone. It's all about the guitar, and what he gets out of it can be spellbinding. But that must have made Rod Stewart feel like a second banana, and no doubt hampered Beck's commercial success. Listen to what I'm saying. Not even I'm going to spend much time with an album that doesn't offer at least supporting vocals.

But wasn't this supposed to be a ranking of the best guitarists?

In describing Hendrix's No. 1 position, Pete Townshend (who could only windmill his way to No. 50) wrote: "With Jimi, I didn't have any envy. I never had any sense that I could ever come close.''

Same goes for Beck, if you ask me. I'll never play like him, and neither will you. But from time to time I'll listen. And be amazed.

And, truthfully, I'm more disappointed that Dickey Betts was only No. 58. And Alvin Lee was nowhere to be found.

Stupid list.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shuttle diplomacy

You meet some interesting people on the airport shuttle bus from the Twin Cities to Eau Claire, Wis. The perky young woman in the shotgun seat was sporting some spectacular tattoos and punkish accent jewelry. Her hair was a brilliant red.

She was happy, so very happy to be coming home. It has been five years. She lives in Wyoming, where the snowboarding must be fabulous. But this is Wisconsin in June, not a bad place either. She'll remember soon enough. Her old friends will help her. So will cold beers and refreshing lake water. And the music on her iPod.

I was curious what she was playing, but you don't want to interrupt someone who is so thoroughly engaged in her music. She's a rocker, that's for sure.

She was talking on her cellphone as we got off the bus, so I handed her an SSS card and told her to check this out. I don't know if she ever will. Call it one of life's small mysteries.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Every dog has his day

There he was, just a runnin' down the track...

The greyhound Do Wah Diddy won the sixth race at Derby Lane in St. Pete last night, paying $17 to win. Nice work, puppy!

And speaking of longshots by that name, I can't help but recall in wonderment the deep imprint Manfred Mann made on pop music back in the spectacular Sixties. Here was the Billboard Top 5 in October 1964, a very good time to be a teenager -- in love, or just lapping up the music of the day:

1. Da Wah Diddy Diddy, Manfred Mann
2. Dancing in the Street, Martha & the Vandellas
3. Oh, Pretty Woman, Roy Orbison
4. We'll Sing in the Sunshine, Gale Garnett
5. Last Kiss, J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers

Did you know that Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, who wrote "Do Wah Diddy Diddy'', also are responsible for the Crystals' 1963 classic "Da Doo Ron Ron''?

It's something to think about when you're writing that next song. Meanwhile, here's a memorable look back at Manfred Mann and the song that catapulted the group to fame.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The thirty-eighth best living songwriter

To compile any kind of "best'' list is to invite an argument. Which is why you might want to lace up some boxing gloves before joining a conversation as flammable as the "100 Best Living Songwriters.''

At least you can't kick dirt on the graves of dead artists. I suppose it should be considered an honor -- and a relief -- just to make that list. That said...

Just suppose a guy like Kris Kristofferson sits down with the old Paste magazine in which the list was originally published. And, out of curiosity, he starts looking for his name. (Kristofferson, after all, fufills the necessary requirements. He not only is a songwriter; he is still alive. In fact, he turns 72 today.)

Kristofferson scans the list, reading name after name, and finally (thank God!) he finds himself at No. 38, sandwiched between Smokey Robinson and Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, John Bonham.) We'll overlook the fact that Bonham, the Zeppelin drummer, had been dead 22 years before Paste was born and 26 years before the list appeared.

To get to his name, Kristofferson had to go past Jeff Tweedy (No. 24), Radiohead (No. 27), Beck Hansen (No. 36) and 34 other songwriters whose credits do not include "Sunday Morning Coming Down'', "Me and Bobby McGee'' and "Help Make It Through the Night.''

I guess you know where I stand on this one.

For the curious, or others who may have forgotten, here was Paste's Top 10:

1. Bob Dylan
2. Neil Young
3. Bruce Springsteen
4. Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
5. Paul McCartney
6. Leonard Cohen
7. Brian Wilson
8. Elvis Costello
9. Joni Mitchell
10. Prince

There isn't a lot worth picking at near the top, unless you think maybe Paul Simon deserves to be in that group (I do; he's at No. 13.)

Some may consider this a "dead'' argument. After all, today's top Paste's lists include "The 17 Best Romantic Comedies of the Decade'', "10 Writers to Follow on Twitter'' and "10 Funniest Twitterers.'' The target is forever moving; there's new stuff to sift through every day.

I just thought, it being Kristofferson's birthday and all, we should go back and clear up this obvious slight. Now let's have a beer for breakfast.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

First cut is the deepest

The blade is still razor-sharp, the same kind of sharp that cut into the meat of my left hand and left a scar still visible between my index finger and thumb. It hurt back then, and bled profusely, but I didn't say anything at the time.

I might have been 8 years old.

The punishment for sneaking Dad's Navy knife and cutting myself with it would have been far more severe than the injury itself. I suffered in silence. The wound healed. The scar has been a lifelong reminder of my foolish efforts to cut the cover off a golf ball and get to the wound rubber string and mysterious liquid center filling. We did this all the time, me and my neighborhood buddies, but only once did I muster the nerve to attempt it with a dangerous military weapon. I learned my lesson.

We found the knife recently when my mother, sister and I were going through Dad's belongings. It never had gone missing -- most years it was stored safely in a bedroom drawer -- but nobody had thought of its whereabouts in the chaotic aftermath of my father's death. He died last fall, barely 10 days after being diagnosed with cancer. This is our first Father's Day without him.

There it was, in a box with other keepsakes. I removed it from its protective sheath and ran my thumb -- oh, so carefully -- over the old steel blade. The memories came rushing back.

I'm sure Dad had his own memories of the knife, but I don't remember him talking much about it. The MK1 had been issued to him when he joined the Navy in 1942, not long after our country entered World War II in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

Although the knife is considered a dangerous weapon, to my knowledge Dad never used it to kill anything. He was a shipfitter who repaired damaged vessels; he was never close to the deadly action of the war. But I have no doubt he knew how to use it. And he kept it, to use a Navy term, in ship-shape. (If you click on the picture you should be able to see the initials "E.L.S.'' carved in the sheath. That was my Dad, Eugene Lawrence Smith.)

Songwriter Guy Clark must have been speaking from memory -- and his heart -- when he wrote the intimate ballad "Randall Knife'' about a special blade his father owned, and the son coveted growing up.

My hand burned for the Randall knife
There in the bottom drawer
And I found a tear for my father's life
And all that it stood for

I took Dad's knife back home with me to spend some time with it, but only for a while. My son Zach began basic training this week at Naval Station Great Lakes -- he's in the Navy, just like his Grandpa -- and it seemed fitting that the knife should pass into his possession.

So I sent it to him last week, just before he reported, with this cautionary advice: Keep it safe, and don't cut yourself.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Queuing up for Dad's Day

I love radio. I'm talking FM, non-profit, commercial-free, community-supported, music-driven radio. I'm talking WMNF, 88.5 on your dial in Tampa Bay and now streaming live everywhere at wmnf.org.

Nobody assembles a better playlist than WMNF music director Randy Wynne. Here are Wynne's picks from the last half of his Wednesday three-hour Morning Show, which he dedicated to Father's Day:

Best of Times, Glen Tilbrook, Pandemonium Ensues
Father & Daughter, Paul Simon, Surprise
Winter, Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes
Baby's Coming Home, Jim Henry, Jacksonville
My Dad's Yard, Catie Curtis, Truth from Lies
My Dad's Face, 5 Chinese Brothers, Beggarman Thief
The Randall Knife, Guy Clark, Dublin Blues
Color Him Father, The Winstons, Call Him Father
Father/Daughter Dialogue, Loudon Wainwright III, Grown Man
A Boy Named Sue, Johnny Cash, Essential
My Father's Shoes, Cliff Eberhardt, The Long Road
Father And Son, Cat Stevens, Gold
My Old Man, Steve Goodman, Say It in Private
The Suit, Jerry Douglas, Lookout For Hope
Money Isn't Time, Tom Pirozzolis, Travels
Dad Was A Minister, Tanya Savory, Town To Town
My Dad, Paul Peterson, Donna Reed Show

If you had three hours to spare I'd suggest you go back and listen to the entire show (and drop something in the online tip jar when you do.) If you have even a few minutes, click here, go to the Listen Again buttons and take it as far as you can. This was a great show.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Drive-by soul

Good morning, I'm "on assignment'' today. Where it takes me I'm not sure. But with a new album by Booker T. blasting through the speakers it won't be all bad.

Nothing like a Hammond B3 to get you out of a hole. In fact, the CD is called "Potato Hole'' and includes some snappy guitar work by Neil Young and the backing of the Drive-By Truckers. The third cut, which I just heard, is a killer version of Outkast's "Hey Ya.'' What else do you need?

Well, how about some liner notes? What the hell. I can't read while I'm driving. I'll have more after I've given this a few spins. Until then ... Hey ya!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Just too good for words

One great thing about The Ventures' music was you didn't have to learn the words to their songs. That meant you could spend all your effort concentrating on their twangy guitar licks, which seemed daunting enough for a kid picking up an electric guitar for the first time.

The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, an honor that was long overdue but at least in time for founding member Bob Bogle, who had been ailing with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Bogle died this week at age 75.

The most popular instrumental band of all time strung together an amazing collection of guitar-driven hits in the Sixties, starting with the ground-breaking "Walk Don't Run'' in 1960. Bogle played lead on that one, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart (stopped only by "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini'') as well as on other early classics such as "Perfidia'' and "Blue Moon'' before the band shuffled players and he moved to bass.

The Ventures became known as "the band that launched 1,000 other bands,'' because once you heard that signature sound, with its whammy bar vibrato, you too wanted to play guitar like them. The list of guitarists and bands who were inspired and influenced by them includes their Hall of Fame presenter, John Fogerty, along with Jimmy Page, the Ramones, George Harrison, Steve Miller, Stanley Clarke, Keith Moon, Joe Walsh, Gene Simmons, and well, you get the idea.

In 1964 they became the first group to crack the Top 10 with two different versions of the same song when "Walk Don't Run '64'' reached No. 8. But the song everyone will remember is the theme from "Hawaii Five-O'', which was a perfect fit for a band that pioneered the surf guitar sound.

Here they are performing "Walk Don't Run.'' You should have heard what this sounded like on a Sears Roebuck Silvertone.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I really do give a tweet

How do you like my new business card? The old Cotton Queen sure does come in handy for photo shoots. I did some social networking over the weekend and brought a stack of these with me.

I attended Homemade, a symposium in Tampa on the "art, business and culture of making music.'' The free two-day event serves as an incubator for industry professionals hoping to stretch their knowledge and understanding on topics like self-promotion, marketing and working with the press. I was particularly interested in "Alternative Media Promotion: Making the Most of Twitter, Facebook and the Blog Network.''

Some of us "seasoned'' media types admitedly have been slow to embrace the latest networking and media promotion concepts, which seem to change every month. But if you want to succeed today you need to assemble a strong electronic media toolkit -- and know how to use it.

At the same time, it's not wise to overlook the value of more personal one-on-one conversations. The exchange of business cards over lunch or a cocktail, and follow-ups with phone calls and emails can still lead to productive and meaningful business relationships. I'm here to tell you it worked effectively for me after the symposium at the Green Iguana.

You may not reach millions of potential customers while sipping drinks in Ybor City, but it sure can relieve the pressures of trying to succeed in these weird, challenging, mind-numbing times. It still helps to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Just don't forget to tweet the twitter.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What goes around comes around

Did you know that the 45 rpm record, that durable but archaic 20th century recording and storage medium, turns 60 years old this year? A visit to the record store suggests they're becoming very popular again among current artists.

The trusty 45s didn't become a staple in my family until 1963. It had to be then, because I still remember the first three records -- including the labels and flip sides -- that started the Smith family collection. (The numbers below reflect Billboard's year-end Hot 100 ranking and strongly support the theory that we bought what everybody else was listening to:)

3. End of the World/Somebody Loves You, Skeeter Davis, RCA
4. Rhythm of the Rain/Let Me Be, The Cascades, Valiant
24. Walk Like a Man/Lucky Lady Bug, The Four Seasons, Vee Jay

We probably played each of these records, conservatively, a thousand times before we flipped them over and began to wear out the grooves on the B sides. No song, no matter how bad it might have been, went unplayed. Hey, it's all we had. The collection would grow as allowance money permitted (I recall "I Will Follow Him'' by Little Peggy March joining the stable fairly early), but those were the original records.

And there would be plenty of borrowing and swapping of 45s among our friends. I don't know where he found them, but my buddy John was playing Little Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips (Part 2)'' and Del Shannon's "Little Town Flirt'', which weren't receiving airplay in our small Midwestern town but would strongly influence our ever-broadening musical tastes.

Many artists today are recording and releasing music in the 45 rpm format, which is cool but problematic, since you need a turntable to play them. And that's just way too old-fashion for me.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A welcome warble to greet the day

I never knew the perfect time for Freddy Fender until this morning. It was barely 6 o'clock, about the time Baldemar Garza Huerta might have been heading into the migrant fields in his youth.

It was still surprisingly dark as Lewie and I cruised Cortez Road with a steaming coffee in the cupholder and a yellow moon still visible in the June sky. I popped a disc into the player as we drove toward Anna Maria Island, looking for who-knows-what. Maybe a rack with a newspaper in it.

If he brings you happiness
Then i wish you all the best
It's your happiness that matters most of all
But if he ever breaks your heart
If the teardrops ever start
I'll be there before the next teardrop falls

I had made a great buy the previous day at Vinyl Fever in Tampa. There were a few others, but a "previously loved'' CD like The Freddy Fender Collection is almost as easy on the pocketbook as it is on the ears.

The soulful Tex-Mex voice brought me back to 1975, my first year living in Florida. Fender came that year like a bullet out of nowhere, which is to say the Texas town of San Bernito, debuting on the Billboard charts with three consecutive No. 1 songs. "Before the Next Teardrop Falls'' was the CMA Single of the Year, and "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights'' gave him back-to-back gold records.

El Bebop Kid was as hot as a branding iron. He could have recorded a Doris Day song at that point and people would have bought it. In fact he did, and they did. His third No. 1 was "Secret Love'', a pop hit for Day in 1954.

Fender had several other top 10 songs, and would later rejuvenate his career with the Texas Tornados in 1990, but there was no way to sustain such a torrid start. And nothing he did ever topped "Before the Next Teardrop Falls'' in my book. But don't take my word for it.

We lost Fender in 2006 to lung cancer, but his music legacy lives on. He was singing to us as we drove into the sleepy fishing village of Cortez, finally shaking the cobwebs as we heard that Spanish warble.

Si te quire de verdad
Y te da felicidad
Te deseo lo mas bueno pa'los dos
Pero si te hace llorar
A mime puedes hablar
Y estare contigo cuando treste estas

Saturday, June 13, 2009

He made you wanna dance

Imagine being 17 years old, singing and dancing like there's no tomorrow and signing your name to a record contract -- in 1958.

That was Bobby Freeman. San Francisco might not have been a rhythm and blues hotbed, but Freeman helped change that. His self-penned song "Do You Want to Dance'' made it to No. 2 on the R&B chart that year and topped out at No. 5 on the pop chart -- a huge crossover success at the time.

The rollicking hit, and what followed, made Freeman one of the early practitioners of what became known as rock 'n' roll. There was also Big Joe Turner, who set things ablaze with "Shake, Rattle and Roll'' in 1954, and Hank Ballard, who followed Freeman in 1959 with "The Twist'' -- another song steeped in the 12 bar blues and taken to No. 1 a year later by Chubby Checker.

And what was Ike Turner doing masquerading as Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats with the release of "Delta 88'' way back in 1951? Some say that was the start of it all.

These were all black performers playing music that shook your body and soul. But it was Bill Haley and His Comets who are generally credited for bringing rock 'n' roll to the masses. Their smoking "Rock Around the Clock'' in 1955 created the line of demarcation between whatever-that-was and whatever-that-is in American music. And it was grand.

You can't finish the discussion without throwing Elvis into the blender. He didn't write the rockabilly music, but he sure knew what to do with the material, starting with his spin on Delta bluesman Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right Mama'' in 1954.

But no one can deny the impact Freeman and other black musicians and performers had on the revolution. Everybody from the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, to Bette Midler and the Ramones, covered "Do You Wanna Dance.'' Freeman followed with lesser charters like "Betty Lou Got a New Pair of Shoes'' (which Neil Young covered in his Shocking Pinks phase) and "Need Your Love.'' His last hit was "C'mon and Swim'', another top 5 song in 1964 produced by Sly Stone.

That was pretty much it from Freeman. But that was plenty. More than enough to earn a special SSS greeting today, on his 69th birthday.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The saddest side of lonesome

Hawkshaw Hawkins was so sure "Lonesome 7-7203'' could be a hit that he attached this note when sending off a copy to Ralph Emery.

"Play the hell out of this hoss.''

Emery, who at the time was the popular and influential late-nite disc jockey on Nashville's WSM, no doubt agreed. As did the faithful legion of country and western radio listeners back in 1963.

Hawkins would have himself a coveted No. 1 song. "Lonesome 7-7203'', written by Justin Tubb, had been recorded previously by Hawkins' wife, Jean Shepard. But when Shepard's version was shelved by her label, Hawkins -- who knew a winner when he heard one -- asked to record it.

Tubb always maintained the song was written for a female voice, but he couldn't argue with the results Hawkins got recording it for King Records. "Lonesome'' would spend half the year on Billboard's country chart, including four weeks at the summit. The only problem was, Hawkins wouldn't be around to enjoy his fame.

Just three days after "Lonesome'' first charted, Hawkins was killed in the plane crash that also took the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas and Cline's road manager and pilot, Randy Hughes, just 90 miles from touching down in Nashville.

Ironically, the four were returning from a benefit show for the disc jockey Cactus Jack Call, who had been killed the previous year in an automobile accident.

With a nickname like Hawkshaw (he was born Harold Franklin Hawkins on Dec. 22, 1921), he seemed destined for some measure of fame. Toss in the story about him trading five rabbits for his first guitar and you have a legend in waiting.

But fate is known to play cruel tricks, and this one was devastating to the country music fraternity. Cline, who had already logged hits like "Walkin' After Midnight'', "I Fall to Pieces'' and "Crazy'', was only 30 years old. Copas, who had a No. 1 with "Alabam'' in 1960, was 49. And Hawkins, whose wife Jean was pregnant at the time with Harold Franklin Jr., was 42.

"Lonesome 7-7203'' is one of those sad songs made sadder by an awful tragedy. Hear it now.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Save the Squid

Stuff gets in the way, you know? We can't all be overnight sensations. It's the dream, that's what you've got to keep going -- no matter where you are, what you're doing or whom you're with.

I mention this today because a former colleague has a nephew who just graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in Computer Science. Now we all know that Athens is a hotbed for alternative music, a home to REM and spawning grounds for dozens of other great bands. Some of which never quite gurgle to the top.

Well, my friend's nephew, besides studying hard enough to earn a degree, has been in a local band called Doctor Squid. Now do I have your attention?

Doctor Squid's music is described on their MySpace page as "the sound of how wonderful you'd feel if a giant squid successfully performed life-saving surgery on your organs. And then kissed you on the cheek. With his beak.'' Click hear for a taste.

Now obviously the nephew should be pounding the pavement, scouring the web postings and newspaper employment ads (oops -- they don't have those anymore), and earnestly tracking down leads to secure an important and fulfilling job that will set himself and a family up for life.

The other option would be to continue practicing very hard in Doctor Squid, grow the band's fan base and try to get lucky. It would be possible to do this while staying in Athens to earn another degree (something the kid apparently is considering.) Which leads me to my first proposal to President Obama:

A way to help solve the national unemployment crisis would be to provide incentives to graduating seniors to continue their studies, including special stipends for playing in bands. They get more schooling while continuing to chase their dream, and the precious workforce jobs are left to be filled by out-of-work former newspaper journalists. It's a win-win situation.

I have a lot of time to think about stuff like this.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The girl still wants to have fun

How could 1984 NOT have been an Orwellian year?

Let's see: The Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Summer Olympics ... the AIDS virus was discovered ... the term "cyberspace'' was coined ... Apple unveiled the Macintosh PC ... rap (RUN-D.M.C.) had its first gold album ... Michael Jackson's hair caught on fire during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial ...

... and Cyndi Lauper just wanted to have fun.

Twenty-five years after her breakout year, which netted the Grammy for Best New Artist, Lauper found herself performing "Time After Time'' on American Idol's recent finale show.

I'm still not sure exactly what to think of her. But I agree with what she said after appearing on Idol with fourth-place finisher Allison Iraheta (soon to become a household name, according to most reports).

"I probably would never been anybody if I had to come through Idol. I don't think Bob Dylan would've either! It's really hard what they're doing, so I give them all props,'' she told Entertainment Weekly.

(It is very easy to imagine Dylan as an early casualty in that competition.)

We must give Lauper her props. Nobody voted her No. 1 in a television talent competition. She made it to the top the old-fashioned way. It took years and effort. One summer she was hitch-hiking across Canada with her dog Sparkle, trying to find herself, 14 years later she was collecting a Grammy. There was a lot of grinding in between.

Lauper was approaching her 31st birthday when "Time After Time'' became America's No. 1 song on this day in 1984. "Girls Just Want to Have Fun'' had previously hit No. 2, and her debut album generated an unprecedented four top 10 singles.

And, apparently, she's still having fun. Friday night she'll appear at Majer Festival Park in Milwaukee -- always a good time -- and in July she has a six-concert tour in Germany.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Celebrating the birth of a legend

Happy birthday, Lester William Polfuss.

Rock 'n' roll thanks you. Some of the best guitarists to come down the pike thank you. Players like Duane Allman, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, whose signature licks were perfected on the legendary guitar that bears your name.

The Gibson Polfuss.

Well, not really. Thanks, also, for changing your name to Les Paul, which has a nice ring to it -- just like the solid-body electrics you helped develop.

We are so past the simple age when Paul was recording jazzy folk classics like "Tennessee Waltz'', "Mockingbird Hill'' and "Vaya Con Dios'' with Mary Ford that it's sometimes hard to see him as a ground-breaking inventor and engineer of the electric guitar. But he was one of the true masters of guitar technology and its emerging electric sound.

They called Paul's original solid-body design, which he had been tinkering with since the late Thirties, "The Log'' because it was basically a slab of solid wood with pickups attached to it and a broomstick for a neck. You can view it today in the Smithsonian. Gibson didn't buy into Paul's idea until Fender beat them to the switch with the manufacture of Broadasters in 1948. After which, reportedly, a Gibson executive said "Go get that kid with the broomstick and sign him up.''

Any electric player worth his chops has experimented with techniques that Paul helped develop. He was a pioneer of multi-track recording and of techniques such as delay, phasing and overdubbing. And the guitars that Gibson began building with the name "Les Paul'' stamped on them became legendary. One of Neil Young's most beloved electrics is "Old Black'', a repainted '53 Les Paul Goldtop. Bob Marley took his Les Paul Special with him.

Here's a photo of Paul from a Milwaukee Brewers game last summer, celebrating his 93rd birthday. (He was born in nearby Waukesha.) Today he turns 94, and he's still the Man.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mr. Brown you've got a lovely daughter

Some things have changed I think
Fashions, names, the latest drink
Some things have changed for sure
Divorce and pills are commonplace
Computers are running the human race
And walking is just a waste of time
In my mind I was talkin' to Loretta...

I had been preparing for some time to give Pieta Brown's 2002 self-titled debut album a PSSST! and then, in my mind, I started talking to Loretta. Spending time with her 2007 release "Remember the Sun'' on One Little Indian Records, well, created a quandary of sorts.

(This in no way is dismissive of the two albums she released in between, which are reliable guideposts in tracking her growth and evolution as a singer and songwriter.)

Pick up any CD -- whether you have one or need to track one down -- and start listening. "Remember the Sun'' might be the easiest to get your hands on. Although Brown can kick it up a notch with rockin'-down-the-highway numbers like "Sonic Boom,'' it is her honey-dew delivery on gentler songs like "Innocent Blue'' and "In My Mind I Was Talkin' to Loretta'' that allows you to wrap yourself around the thoughtful lyrics.

I first heard her on Redhouse Records' "Going Driftless: A Tribute to Greg Brown'', singing with sisters Zoe and Consti. Then, not long after hearing her debut album, I had the chance to see her perform at another one of those memorable 400 Bar engagements in Minneapolis (man, I miss that place.) I was hooked, but good.

Her daddy, of course, is Midwestern songwriter and balladeer Greg Brown. Although Pieta didn't start following in those considerable footprints until she was a young adult, she is catching up quickly. Comparisons to Lucinda Williams and early Rickie Lee Jones are as complimentary as they are inevitable, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have Bo Ramsey playing guitar and producing for you.

But give full credit to the girl from "Middle of nowhere, Iowa'', as it reads on her MySpace page. She has a gorgeous voice and a poetic vision that keeps revealing itself in rich lyrical ways. As good as she is, you can't help but believe the best is yet to come. But we aren't going to wait a minute longer to make her a Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout.

According to Brown's web page she has assembled a new band, Dream #9, that will begin playing this week at the Redstone Room in Davenport. (Ramsey is still on lead guitar). Click here for her tour schedule, and catch her if you can.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A stroll down novelty lane

Somebody has ranked the Greatest Novelty Songs, saving me from the arduous task of sifting through and choosing between timeless classics like "Disco Duck'' and "Ahab the Arab.''

You must remember some of these songs. You heard them playing endlessly on the radio. You learned the words even though you didn't want to. You couldn't get them out of your head.

Fifty-one years is a long time, but not long enough to forget "Purple People Eater'', which topped the Billboard charts for six weeks in 1958 and ranks No. 4 among the Greatest Novelty Songs on nutsie.com.

Written and recorded by Sheb Wooley (who played cattle drive scout Pete Nolan on "Rawhide'') "Purple People Eater'' soared to No. 1 in just three weeks of airplay in June 1958. Amazingly, only three weeks earlier another Novelty nugget had been at the top, David Seville's "Witch Doctor.'' Ooo eee, ooo ah ah...

The only thing that kept those songs from being back-to-back No. 1s was "All I Have to do is Dream'', which was not a shabby interlude by the Everly Brothers.

Here are your Top 10 Novelty Songs, whose criteria includes "originality, wit, humor, and lasting popularity'':

1. They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha, Napoleon XIV
2. Monster Mash, Bobby "Boris'' Pickett
3. Charlie Brown, The Coasters
4. The Purple People Eater, Sheb Wooley
5. Alley Oop, The Hollywood Argyles
6. Witch Doctor, David Seville
7. Open the Door, Richard, Dusty Fletcher
8. Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, Allen Sherman
9. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, Elmo & Patsy
10. Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor, Lonnie Donegan

If I were to rank these myself, "Hello Muddah'' would definitely be closer to the top. But I'm not going to do that because, thankfully, somebody already has. Here's the complete list.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Anybody here seen Angelo, Fred and Carlo?

They're saddling up at Belmont Park this afternoon to decide the final leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. What better time to ask: Whatever happened to the guys who used to back up Dion?
OK, the racetrack and the group don't have much in common beyond the name and their proud New York heritage. But it's Saturday, a painfully slow day in the blogosphere. And who's gonna ask if I don't?

I'm wondering about first tenor Angelo D'Aleo, second tenor Fred Milano and baritone Carlo Mastrangelo. The Belmonts. They grew up with Dion in the Bronx, named the group after a street in their Italian neighborhood, and hit it big together. But they lasted about as long as it'll take to run today's race.

After riding high with "Teenager in Love'' which made it to No. 5 on the Billboard chart in 1959, Dion split to do his thing. This included scoring hits like "Runaround Sue'', "Ruby Baby'' and "The Wanderer,'' as well as a lengthy battle with heroin addiction. You may remember his big comeback story after the release of the ballad "Abraham, Martin and John'' which hit No. 4 in 1968.

But what about the Belmonts? They enjoyed some post-Dion success themselves. They even had their own record label, Sabina. And, of course, there was the group's big reunion concert at Madison Square Garden in 1972 that's available on CD. Do you think maybe they're doo-wopping on the oldies circuit?

It's something to think about as the late-charging chestnut Summer Bird rounds the final turn in the Belmont today with Kent Desormeaux in the stirrups. You did place an exotic bet with Summer Bird, didn't you?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Let me take you to Funkytown

We are approaching the 30th anniversary of Disco Demolition Night, a zany promotion that was intended to hasten the demise of a fading musical genre but instead nearly destroyed Comiskey Park in Chicago.

What could be more scary in a Major League ballpark than LP records being flung like Frisbees by an unruly mob? Disco records being flung like Frisbees. Nobody wants to be offed by a Village People trajectile.

What Disco Demolition Night couldn't kill was the spirit and perseverance of Minneapolis songwriter/producer Steven Greenberg, who spent years honing his musical skills and self-promoting music that would lead to a No. 1 song the following summer. On this date in 1980, 10 months after the mayhem at Comiskey, "Funkytown'' put disco back on top of the charts for a spirited four-week run.

The Billboard Top 5:
1. Funkytown, Lipps Inc.
2. Call Me, Blondie
3. Coming Up, Paul McCartney
4. Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer, Kenny Rogers
5. Sexy Eyes, Dr. Hook

With "Funkytown'' disco received another jolt that forestalled its death, and the White Sox -- with no disco promotion to spike attendance -- averaged only 14,819 fans a game and finished with a 70-90 record in genius Tony LaRussa's first full season as skipper.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The party crasher

Worst songs of all time? The discussion had centered on which version of "MacArthur Park'' deserved the title of the baddest record ever: the 1968 release by Richard Harris, or the 1978 disco hit by Donna Summer.

Both songs are worthy of consideration, and prove that even a Hall of Fame songwriter like Jimmy Webb can have a bad outing. Or was the infamous line "Someone left the cake out in the rain'' simply misunderstood?

Wait, I started this discussion off-point. The proposed list of worst records also included the song that topped the Billboard pop chart on this day in 1963. And as the editor with the final say, I wasn't buying it. Sorry, but "It's My Party'' is not a bad song, not when there are hundreds and hundreds of other clearly inferior choices available.

Granted, if you play the song 50,000 times it might start sounding like "I'm Henry the Eighth'', and you probably won't be able to get it out of your head. And deejays back then tended to play the grooves off a hot record. But it was not a terrible song.

I had to defend Leslie Gore, who was a big-haired high school senior when she cut the record for Quincy Jones. It was the first No. 1 for both of them, as well as for the engineer -- Phil Ramone. The writer was not happy but, hey, you would cry too if it happened to you.

The Billboard Top 5 on this day in 1963:
1. It's My Party, Leslie Gore
2. If You Wanna Be Happy, Jimmy Reed
3. I Love You Because, Al Martino
4. Surfin' U.S.A., Beach Boys
5. Da Doo Ron Ron, Crystals

Now, about Richard Harris vs. Donna Summer: At least the disco queen brought some life to her version. Harris' headache-inducing cut, droning for more than 7 minutes, is dreadful and tops many of the worst-ever lists. And his near-falsetto at the end, well, I can't say more.

Did you know that Sammy Davis Jr. recorded this song TWICE? Maybe he was trying to clean up his first mess...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The girl I left behind

I had left my baby behind at Christmas. What a welcome sight to pull her out of the zippered case, re-tune the strings and give her a voice again.

And what a suprising voice she has for a little spinner.

The Tacoma Papoose was a going-away gift I received in 1999, before packing up for the move to Florida. It's the only new guitar that was purchased by/for me at Willie's American Guitars in St. Paul. Used guitars? That's a different story. As they say at Willie's, "cool used guitars is almost all we do.''

Driving through the Twin Cities without visiting the vintage guitar shop on Cleveland Avenue is like skipping town without visiting Grandma. You feel guilty for not stopping in to say "Hi'', and you wonder what yummy dessert you might have missed out on.

The Tacoma, 10 years old this week, has acquired a few nice "character scars'' over time. She is, after all, a traveling guitar. At least she was until I gave her a well-deserved vacation. She's a little rambunctious now -- cabin fever, I suspect --so I promised to take her with me on my next road trip.

It's so hard to keep them all happy, you know?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Yowser, this will be some list, Pt. 2

I just found a concert and a band to build a summer music tour around (see my blog in May), and it's in my neighborhood.

Blue Mountain is headlining the 4th annual AmericanaFest at Skipper's Smokehouse July 11 in Tampa. Sweet. I thought they were gone for good until they suddenly reappeared on tour in late 2007 after a hiatus of several years. This is rootsy, plugged-into-your-soul, jar swillin' music from a band that could've been the poster boys for alt-country -- if anybody had heard of them at the time.

I'm sure their name -- and fame -- has spread well beyond the boundaries of their Oxford, Miss., home base since the last time I saw them, on a snowy night at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis. It seems like 10 years ago, and it might have been. The small gathering of fans packed around the stage that night saw the raw-boned fusion of Skynrd-Neil Young-Dylan-Allman Brothers. Hell, let's throw in R.L. Burnside and Django Reinhardt while we're at it.

Former Uncle Tupelo mates and now-rivals Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy get most of the attention for pioneering the alt-country sound, but Blue Mountain's Cary Hudson is on par with both of them as a songwriter, guitarist, harp player and bandleader. Check him out at


Blue Mountain is the only out-of-state band appearing at WMNF's AmericanaFest, which promotes the best in Florida roots-rock music. Bradenton's Have Gun Will Travel will be among the 10 homegrown acts on the bill.

(If you're especially mobile, spontaneous and just can't wait, catch Blue Mountain this week at the Wakarusa Fest in Ozark, Ark. And let me know how it goes.)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Please help me I'm falling (off the charts)

How does a country song stay on the charts for 36 weeks?

It goes without saying that it has to be good to have staying power like that. But that's not always enough. When Garth Brooks was tearing it up in the early Nineties he never had a song that charted for more than 20 weeks. In fact, his greatest back-to-back No. 1 hits -- "The Dance'' and "Friends In Low Places'' -- only charted for a combined 37 weeks.

In 1956 Johnny Cash was on the Billboard chart for 43 weeks with "I Walk the Line'', but his next longest stay was 28 weeks for a song that isn't remembered as one of his best, "There You Go.''

The era and the competition obviously figure into the equation. Steady Eddie Arnold didn't have a lot of competition when he was dominating radio airplay in the Forties, which may help explain these unreal numbers: "Bouquet of Roses'' charted for 54 weeks in 1948-49, and "I'll Hold You in My Heart'' for 46 weeks a year earlier. "Bouquet'' is unquestionably one of country's great songs, but it's unfathomable to think that it -- or any other song -- could chart today for that length of time.

Yesterday, though, is what classic country is all about. Which brings us to a Florida Panhandle boy by the name of Lawrence Hankins Locklin, one of country music's legendary songwriters and troubadours. Locklin, who died earlier this year, was on the charts for 36 weeks in 1960 -- 14 of them at No. 1 -- with "Please Help Me, I'm Falling,'' written by Hal Blair and Don Robertson.

Three other Locklin hits charted for eight months or longer: "Let Me Be the One'' (32 weeks in '53-'54), "Geisha Girl'' (39 weeks in '57-'58) and "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On'' (35 weeks in '58). "Pillow'', the song for which Locklin is best remembered, never made it No. 1, peaking at No. 5. It has been covered by dozens of artists, including Dean Martin, Dolly Parton and Dwight Yoakam.

For my money I'll take "Please Help Me, I'm Falling'', which was sitting pretty at No. 1 on this day in 1960.

Please help me I'm falling in love with you
Close the door to temptation don't let me walk through
Turn away from me darling I'm begging you to
Please help me I'm falling in love with you