Saturday, January 29, 2011

Crystal blues pursuasion

Sometimes I live in the country
Sometimes I live in the town
Sometimes I have a great notion
To jump in the river and drown

It has been a week, and you must be wondering: When are they going to get the lead out?

So we will -- and what better day than the birthday of Huddie William Ledbetter, the legendary bluesman better known as Leadbelly.

The origins of some of our greatest American blues got channeled through the crisp and righteous guitar playing of Leadbelly. Many of the songs were brought to our virgin ears by bands like the Animals ("House of the Rising Sun"), Creedence Clearwater Revival ("Midnight Special" and "Cotton Fields") and even Johnny Cash "(Rock Island Line.") But Leadbetter had 'em first.

Born on this day in 1885 (although that date is a matter of dispute), Leadbelly twice during his troubled life earned paroles or pardons helped by his pursuasive musical talent.  He died in 1949 a poor and largely underappreciated artist, but not before helping bring down the Third Reich with his memorable recording "Hitler Blues" in 1942. Sieg Heil!

In 1950 three different recordings of "Goodnight Irene" --which Leadbelly first recorded in 1932 -- reached No. 1 on the music charts. No doubt it would have brought him some well-deserved attention, but he wasn't around to see The Weavers, Frank Sinatra and the country duo of Ernest Tubb and Red Foley take Irene to the top.  He had died a year earlier.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Scottish on the rocks, with a twist

Now this is good -- thanks for sharing, Mike!

Someday you will find a heaven
Full of the good and freedom
Of somewhere younger than America
Bordering what we could hope to have

And from a first edition
Of 'East of Eden'
You found a version of America
Bordering what we could hope to have

Idlewild had scheduled its first U.S. tour since 2005 but according to the band's website it was canceled after guitarist Rod Jones (who coincidentally released a solo album in 2009) suffered a broken collarbone.  But that posting is from November and we haven't seen any updates.  We'll just have to listen and watch what we can find on the internet.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Knocking on Havens' door

Richie Havens turns 70 today. Talk about aging gracefully.

We have always been big fans, at least since he opened Woodstock in what seems like a generation ago. It has been a generation!  It was a crazy, troubled time when a balladeer with a thumping acoustic guitar and a message could reach the masses. And did he ever reach us -- in ways that continue to resound today.

You can see from the 2009 video shot during Woodstock's 40th anniversary festivities that Havens hasn't missed a beat. We are now in search of Steve Davidowitz's book They Can't Hide Us Anymore recounting the musician's rise from the Greenwich Village scene of the Sixties. Somehow we missed that.

But we didn't miss out on that double pickguard Guild we spotted on Ebay a few years ago. It's coming out of the case tonight for a new set of strings and a celebration of Haven's beautiful music, spirit and life.  Join us if you can!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

He took us up, up and away

This is nowhere near the best clip we could find of the 5th Dimension, but it is the only one we could locate that highlights Ron Townson, the portly member of the group who was born on this day in 1941. Townson was often overshadowed by Marilyn McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr., ("I love you Bill and I always will") but they couldn't have been the 5th Dimension without the big fella.

Townson died in 2001 at age 68 of liver failure, but his voice lives on in videos like this.  Raise a toast to him and other members of today's Birthday Band:

Ron Townson (1941-2001): Singer, 5th Dimension
Up Up and Away, Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In, One Less Bell to Answer

Eric Stewart (1945): Guitarist, Mindbenders/10cc
Game of Love, Groovy Kind of Love, The Things We Do for Love

George Grantham (1947): Drummer, Poco
Pickin' Up the Pieces, Heart of the Night, Crazy Love

Paul Stanley (1952): Singer, Kiss
singer: formed group: Kiss [the clown]: Rock and Roll All Nite

John Michael Montgomery (1965): Country singer
I Swear, I Love The Way You Love Me

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Let there be Heathens

These Gibson acoustic guitars are sooooooo sweet we had to share this video with you.  (The dobro is pretty hot, too.)  If you're familiar with the Band of Heathens you know what we're talking about.  If this is your introduction, enjoy...

"Somebody Tell Me the Truth" is a song from 2009's One Foot in the Ether, the Heathens' second straight album to hit No. 1 on the Americana chart.  Now here's a taste of the songwriting from the opening track "L.A. County Blues:"

They got me on accessory
Thirty days in jail
One headlight in a Louisville night
Without a chance at bail
But I’ll be home by derby time
So please save me a seat
Mint Juleps on the outfield grass
The old south tastes so sweet 

We love it.  Listen to the music and learn more about the band, including info on their new album due out March 29, by clicking here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Where are the hardcore troubadors?

We use the occasion of Steve Earle's 56th birthday to ask this question:  Whatever became of protest songs?

We have no "Blowin' in the Wind," "Masters of War" or "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" to rally around.  Bob Dylan, as brilliant as he was in the early Sixties, was out of the protest business almost as soon as he got into it.  Not that anybody was going to fill those enormous shoes, but it has been going on 50 years.  And the last time we checked things were not going so well in the good ol' U.S.A.

Earle,  a pragmatic left-leaning hellraiser of the highest order, has been known to stir things up.  His 2002 album Jerusalem includes "John Walker's Blues," a sympathetic take on John Walker Lindh that earned a backlash of negative publicity, including this headline in the New York Post: "Twisted ballad honors Tali-Rat." Some believed Earle was taking sides with the Taliban; he was basically saying that what happened to Lindh could happen to anyone growing up in America these days.

Then came the election year 2004 album The Revolution Starts Now.  With gems like "Rich Man's War," "Home to Houston" and the title track -- which receives two different treatments -- it is never difficult to tell which side of war Earle is on. Except for the grating spoken rant "The Warrior" the album is great, even occasionally brilliant.

Jimmy joined the army 'cause he had no place to go
There ain’t nobody hiring 'round here since all the jobs went down to Mexico
Reckoned that he’d learn himself a trade maybe see the world
Move to the city some day and marry a black haired girl
Somebody somewhere had another plan
Now he’s got a rifle in his hand
Rollin’ into Baghdad wonderin’ how he got this far
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

"Condi, Condi," a reggae-like romp on Condoleezza Rice, is more playful than protesting and we're still dying to know what the former Secretary of State thought of the song.  The clip above is from the 2005 Montreux Jazz Festival.

The Revolution Starts Now also includes the F-filled rant "F the CC" in which Earle takes on the FBI, the CIA and the SEC, declaring "I can say anything I wanna say."

And he pretty much does.  But where is everybody else?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Sunday platter

We love this old Wurlitzer so much we had to share the video.  And there's a hook.  It's the birthday of Ventures co-founder Bob Bogle, who passed away two summers ago at age 75.  The group was profiled here at the time.

One of our favorite Ventures songs was "Perfidia"  If you want to know the truth we were smitten by the tune long before our favorite garage band from the Sixties turned it into a hit.  Click on the link below to hear the Glenn Miller Orchestra tackle the classic, which was written by Mexican composer Alberto Dominquez and first recorded by Xavier Cugat in 1940:

It's a fine way to waltz through this Sunday.  Cheers to the members of today's Birthday Band.

Bob Bogle (1934-2009): Guitar, Ventures
Walk, Don’t Run, Perfidia, Theme from Hawaii Five-O

Bill Francis (1942-2010): Keyboards, Dr. Hook
When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman, Sharing the Night Together, Sexy Eyes

Jim Stafford (1944): Singer
Spiders and Snakes, Wildwood Weed, You Can’t Get the Hell out of Texas

Ronnie Milsap (1946): Singer
Stand By My Woman Man, Only One Love in My Life, (There's) No Gettin’ Over Me

Sade (1959): Singer
Smooth Operator, Jezebel, The Sweetest Taboo

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Have a little faith

We're not sure how long the list below has been around, probably quite awhile.  We're sharing it today because we ... got ... nothin'!

We think "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," which has been around more than 100 years and covered by thousands of artists, is far and away the best song on this list. Some our favorite treatments have been offered up by The Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson and The Staples, but our favorite of all comes from Gregg Allman, who recorded it for his first solo album Laid Back in 1973.

An amazing live gospel version appears on the import The Gregg Allman Tour from 1974.  Here's a link to that cut:

CMT's Greatest Songs of Faith

20. Blessed, Martina McBride
19. I'm Working on a Building, Bill Monroe
18. Unanswered Prayers, Garth Brooks
17. Wings of a Dove, Ferlin Husky
16. Love Without End Amen, George Strait
15. Uncloudy Day, Willie Nelson
14. Angel Band, Flatt & Scruggs
13. I Believe, Diamond Rio
12. Farther Along, Emmylou Harris
11. Keep on the Sunny Side, The Carter Family
10. Long Black Train, Josh Turner
9. Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Roy Acuff
8. Love Can Build a Bridge, The Judds
7. Daddy Sang Bass, Johnny Cash
6. I'll Fly Away, Soundtrack
5. Three Wooden Crosses, Randy Travis
4. How Great Thou Art, Elvis Presley
3. Go Rest High on That Mountain, Vince Gill
2. Why Me, Kris Kristofferson
1. I Saw the Light, Hank Williams

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dance to the music

How could Sly and the Family Stone's Greatest Hits be available on only through third-party sellers?  That sucks. We could get the 2-disc set Essential Sly, but everything we need is right there on the Greatest Hits: "I Want to Take You Higher," "Dance to the Music," "Everyday People," "Hot Fun in the Summertime," and "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)."

Has there ever been a better fusion of funk, soul and R&B?  And was there a more perfect time -- the late Sixties -- to put it all in a psychedelic blender and turn it on "pulse"?

Today's clip is really just a teaser for an Ed Sullivan DVD.  We're sharing it with you because on this particular video you can catch a glimpse of trumpeter/vocalist Cynthia Robinson, who provided a key component to the Family Stone.  With the charismatic Sly,  talented guitarist brother Freddie and bass player/baritone Larry Graham, one of the best thumb thumpers to ever come down the pike, it was easy to be a second fiddle in this outfit. But Cynthia more than held her own. Just listen -- and dance -- to the music.

Cynthia hits the big six-five today, so raise a glass to her and the rest of today's Birthday Band.  And track down some Sly if you don't already have it in your collection.

Tex Ritter (1905-74): Country singer
High Noon, Blood on the Saddle

Ray Price (1926): Country singer
Crazy Arms, Make the World Go Away, For the Good Times

Glenn Yarbrough (1930): Singer
Baby the Rain Must Fall

William Lee Golden (1939): Singer, Oak Ridge Boys
Elvira, American Made, Bobbie Sue

Cynthia Robinson (1946): Trumpet/vocals, Sly and the Family Stone
Dance to the Music, Everyday People, Hot Fun in the Summertime

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Just about to lose our minds

The year 1978 was not a crummy one for country music.  Johnny Paycheck began the year on top of the Billboard chart with "Take This Job and Shove It" and Kenny Rogers closed it with "The Gambler."  In between there were other memorable gems, including "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" by Waylon and Willie, "Two More Bottles of Wine" by Emmylou Harris and "Sleeping Single in a Double Bed" by Barbara Mandrell.

Now those were the days for country.

Don Williams, the 1978 CMA male vocalist of the year, entered the charts in November with a song that would ultimately rise to No. 1 on this week in 1979.  Written by his guitarist Danny Flowers, "Tulsa Time" would also provide a spark for Eric Clapton, who recorded it for his Backless album and had the single reach No. 30 on the pop charts. 

We're not sure what gives the song such incredible staying power, but we still enjoy playing both versions.  BTW, it requires just two guitar chords (G, D) to play.  It couldn't be the lyrics -- unless you used to tool around the country in a blue Pontiac with a Tri-Power 389...

Well I left Oklahoma
Driving in my Pontiac
Just about to lose my mind
I was going to Arizona
Maybe on to California
Where people all look so fine

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Kaempfert zone

Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight" spent six weeks atop the Billboard pop chart before being replaced on this day in 1961 by Bert Kaempfert's "Wonderland by Night," an unlikely chart-topper if ever there was one.

It's not that the song wasn't deserving -- it's a beautiful instrumental by the German songwriter and orchestra leader whose credits include "Strangers in the Night" and "Spanish Eyes."  It's just that, well, Elvis had taken the country by storm -- "Are You Lonesome Tonight" was his 14th No. 1 hit -- and his arrival had helped usher in a new era of voices and music that dominated radio play. 

Who cared about trumpets? "Wonderland by Night" might help you win the Goldene Stimmbabel in Germany (which it did), but there was so much going on with American music. The Everly Brothers had just scored a No. 1 with "Cathy's Clown," Chubby Checker was creating a new dance sensation with "The Twist" and Ray Charles was putting jazz, soul, country and blues into the blender and coming up with "Georgia on My Mind." 

It would get stranger yet in a few weeks.  Here was the Billboard Top 5 on January 30:

1. Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Shirelles
2. Calcutta, Lawrence Welk
3. Exodus, Ferrante & Teicher
4. Wonderland by Night, Bert Kaempfert
5. Shop Around, Miracles

Lawrence Welk?  Ferrante & Teicher?  And Kaempfert was still hanging tough with "Wunderland bei Nacht" as it was known before he found an American publisher for his song. 

It would be three years before the Beatles changed everything, and guess who deserves credit for helping make it happen? Kaempfert, who produced their first recorded songs in Frankfurt: "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."  The sound wasn't nearly as good as "Wonderland by Night," but it was a start...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

When the rubber meets the soul

It's the King of Rock 'n' Roll's birthday and you could do yourself no bigger favor than to read Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick's excellent 1995 biography on Elvis.  If you are capable of multitasking you might also slip the Beatles' Rubber Soul into your player and read on.

Rubber Soul was Billboard's top album on this day in 1966.  It would spend nine of its 42 chart weeks in the No. 1 position.  We rue the ranking of music (you may have noticed) but here's a list that could pass as Exhibit A in the continuing argument Yes We Boomers Had It Pretty Damn Good When it Came to Music.

Below is the cream of the crop from Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Now our personal Top 5 wouldn't look anything like this, but it's still remarkable to consider that all these albums were released  in two-year span between 1965-67.

1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beatles, 1967
2. Pet Sounds, Beach Boys, 1966
3. Revolver, Beatles, 1966
4. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan, 1965
5. Rubber Soul, Beatles, 1965

Some Boomers would undoubtedly find room on their short lists for everything from Zeppelin, Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones to Springsteen, the Allman Brothers and even U2.  And today at least we need to ask: Elvis, anybody? The rest of you, well, you'll have to tell us. But these five are nevertheless incredible albums, produced in that tight little time span, each standing the test of time. 

Rubber Soul, in fact, has returned to the charts on three other occasions. It reached No. 10 in September of 1998 after the release of the Beatles in Stereo Remasters -- 33 years after we first heard it on the Everson boys' record player above the Walgert Hotel and Tap Room in Whitehall.

Today it is 46 years and counting, and we still think an album that includes "Norwegian Wood" -- the most clever 2 minute, 1 second song ever written -- "Drive My Car," "Nowhere Man," "Girl," "I'm Looking Through You," "In My Life," "Run For Your Life" and "Michelle" -- the Grammy-winning song of the year in 1966 -- is a pretty special disc to have in your collection.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A Dear John letter

Long ago, it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They're all that's left you
-- Paul Simon

Keep a camera nearby in your travels, and don't be afraid to use it.  That's the only reason this photo exists.  It was one of those gorgeous sun-splashed March afternoons at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida, and after a few innings watching their beloved Pittsburgh Pirates our good friends the Foormans had worked up a thirst.

John and Betty lived in Ludington, Michigan, but wintered in a trailer court off bustling U.S. 41 in Bradenton, just a short drive to the ballpark. John was a retired auto worker, and a cranky one at that. He had some health issues, but he was tougher than a lug nut. What a beautiful piece of work he was.  And, doctor's orders or not, Betty would allow him one beer a game, so it was a delight to head down the steps between innings to share a draft with him in the picnic area. Wise cracks and crazy stories would spill out. 

We were hoping to track down the Foormans yesterday to find out if they were back in Bradenton gearing up for another spring training season, but we didn't have a phone number.  Instead, during a Google search, we discovered that John had passed away in Michigan last fall at age 80.

We are crestfallen and moved to tears.  But we have this photograph, and so many memories of good times shared with the Foormans at McKechnie Field, Section 1, Row 10, behind home plate, where John called 'em the way he saw 'em. And everybody within earshot knew the real score.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Play it for the poet

If you own a guitar you need to pick it up today and play it.

Play it in honor of the poet Carl Sandburg, who could master a guitar phrasing as well as he could turn a phrase.  He is of course best known as a writer who won international fame and respect for his poetry, children's books and clever, plain-spoken views of the world. A sampling:

Life is like an onion; you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.

Writing and folk music were Sandburg's passions, and he made no bones about it. "I am a loafer and a writer," he once wrote, "and would much rather loaf and write, and pick a guitar with the proper vags, than to deliver spoken exhortations before any honorables bodies wheresoever."

You won't get an argument within the walls of the Sanctuary.

Read this contribution to the Guitar Review written by Sandburg and published in 1951, and you will know his relationship with the guitar was both caring and intimate.

The Guitar: Some Definitions

by Carl Sandburg

A chattel with a soul, often in part owning its owner and tantalizing him with his lack of perfection.

An instrument of quaint design and quiet demeanor, dedicated to the dulcet rather than the diapason.

A box of chosen woods having intimate accessories wherefrom sound is measured and commanded to the interest of ears not lost to hammer crash or wind whisper.

A portable companion, distinguished from the piano in that you can take it with you, neither horses nor motor truck being involved.

A small friend weighing less than a newborn infant, ever responsive to all sincere efforts aimed at mutual respect, depth of affection or love gone off the deep end.

A device in the realm of harmonic creation whose six silent strings have the sound potential of profound contemplation or happy-go-lucky whim.

A highly evolved contrivance whereby delicate melodic moments mingle with punctuation of silence bringing the creative hush.

A vibratory implement under incessant practice and skilled cajolery giving out with serene maroon meditations, flame dancers with scarlet sashes, snow-white acrobats plunging into black midnight pools, odd numbers in evening green waltzing with even numbers in dawn pink.

Happy birthday Mr. Sandburg, born on this day in 1878.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A double shot of blues

They never felt more like singing the blues than at this time in 1957.  Not one, but two versions of the Melvin Endsley song "Singing the Blues" were ruling the respective pop and country charts on this date.

Although Marty Robbins was first to record the song on Nov. 3, 1955, his recording wasn't released until the following August.  By then Guy Mitchell had laid down a track that would become the first song of the rock era to spend nine weeks at No. 1 on the pop chart.  Here was the Billboard Top 5 on Dec. 8, 1956:

1. Singing the Blues, Guy Mitchell
2. Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley
3. Green Door, Jim Lowe
4. Blueberry Hill, Fats Domino
5. Just Walking in the Rain, Johnnie Ray

Robbins' song, a favorite among the hundreds of versions that have been recorded, was No. 1 for 13 of the 30 weeks it spent on the country chart. It was his second chart-topper after "I'll Go On Alone" in 1952, and would be followed a few months later by one of his biggest hits, "A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)".