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I Won’t Grow Up

I Won’t Grow Up

I didn’t get married until I was almost thirty. I had put it off for years, knowing I wasn’t ready to be a mature adult family man. I felt that, approaching thirty, it was past time for me to shake off the childish things, but the fact is, I still wasn’t ready. I was a musician, playing in bars, drinking too much, hoping for fame and acclaim as a singer-songwriter.

I was 31 when my first daughter was born, and still I was unsuited for parenting. I got a straight job but continued to play music in bars. My daughter made it through and is now thriving, but that first marriage didn’t survive. I’m trying to make up for that now, by being a late-blooming good grandpa. Still playing music, though.

Jonathan plays Dallas

Jonathan plays Dallas

“Leprechaun Rock and Roll” Jonathan Richman, right out of the box with his group The Modern Lovers, was a pre-punk sensation, an influence to the punk movement that grew up just after the debut album’s release. But by the time the punkers were seizing the Zeitgeist, Jonathan had moved on. His 1977 album Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers was a big step away from the punk ethos and sound. The songs were still simple and guitar-based, but the guitar was acoustic and the vocals, rather than raw and menacing, were naïve and playful. In addition to warbling his own songs, like “Ice Cream Man,” “Leprechaun Rock and Roll,” and “Dodge Veg-O-Matic,” Jonathan even covered “The Wheels on the Bus.” He is the quintessential arrested adolescent, has only become more so over time, and has maintained a loyal following of those who prize the naïve sense of wonder and the carefree spirit that come across in his songs.

One of the best shows I ever saw was Jonathan Richman’s performance, backed by his long-suffering sidekick, drummer Tommy Larkins, at a small Dallas club. The main reason this show stands out is undoubtedly that I attended with my oldest daughter, who was thirty years old at the time. See, I had played the Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers album for her and my youngest daughter when they were little, and the three of us sang and danced along with it. We had our moves and backup parts down, and still occasionally put on Jonathan and regress together.

So there was that history, even though Jonathan only played one song from the album at the show. But there was also this fascinating display of naivety as Richman strummed his nylon-string guitar, sang his fanciful lyrics, and riffed as things popped into his head. Tommy dutifully followed his bandleader’s fits and starts, slowdowns and speedups, and transitions into different keys or even completely different songs. Jonathan Richman really does seem free of any of the boundaries his performer peers operate inside. Is it all an act? I really don’t know. I don’t want to know. Let my daughter and me believe Jonathan Richman’s just a perpetual kid finding his way, musically, through the dangerous world.

 pop pop

“I Won’t Grow Up” This song was a standout from the 1954 musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It was written by Carolyn Leigh and Mark “Moose” Charlap (now there’s a nickname that he probably wanted to outgrow). Of course, it was a grown woman, Mary Martin—age 40, who played Peter and sang about refusing to become a man with a moustache. (Safe bet for Ms. Martin.)

A favorite version of the song is also by a grown woman, Rickie Lee Jones, on her charming covers album Pop Pop, which seems to be themed around a return to innocence, with its cover taken from a kiddie novelty.

Cannonball Adderley

Cannonball Adderley

“Dat Dere” Another playful song on RLJ’s Pop Pop is her take on the 1960 jazz tune by Bobby Timmons. Oscar Brown, Jr., wrote the baby-talk lyrics that Rickie Lee slides into so naturally. Timmons also wrote “Dis Here,” and both songs were a big part of Cannonball Adderley’s rise as a soul-jazz pioneer.

I marvel at the fluidity of “Dat Dere”: Its instrumental versions, especially Cannonball’s, are swaggery and hip. Add in Brown’s child’s-point-of-view lyrics (“And mommy, can I have dat big elep’ant ober dere?”), and the character of the song changes completely. And yet, I love it equally with and without the words.

beach b

“When I Grow Up” The mere fact that The Beach Boys have been saddled with their youthful moniker well into their dotage is noteworthy. They ditched the surfer shirts when they went through their hippie phase and never went back, but every audience member at their shows regresses several decades—a roomful of boys and girls who are on the AARP subscription list.

Brian Wilson was already twenty-two when he wrote this song of angst about entering adulthood. “Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?” And now, in his seventies, he’s still like a child, a spacey child who gets lost in daydreams, who needs to be handled by a grownup.

tmbg

“Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” They Might Be Giants: even the name is defiantly juvenile. TMBG is two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, who met in high school. They recorded cassettes in the early-to-mid-eighties, along with songs for their popular “Dial-a-Song” service (call the number, get an original song).

These guys are like class clowns, recording their wacky songs like a cutup throws his jokes out there, hoping for a reaction. Some TMBG songs fall flat, just like some of the class clown’s gags always do, but like the jokes, the songs are short; if one doesn’t grab you, you move on to the next track. They pull off some jejunity: “We Want a Rock” is an obvious pun, but works; “The Mesopotamians” is a “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees”-style band song for a band of, yes, Mesopotamians; “James K. Polk” is a cute history lesson with a theremin ride. A bonus track on the reissue of their first and second albums features a recording of a group of schoolkids singing “Particle Man.”

Great Song Titles: In addition to “Hope That I Get Old Before I Die,” their song titles include “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” “Rabid Child,” and “Hide Away, Folk Family.”

Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds

It is certainly true that as one gets older, one tends to notice things like birds more; however, I’m still unable to identify more than a couple or three by sight or sound. I do plan to work on that. I’m much better at identifying the sounds of the many groups of the fifties that were named after birds: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Crows.

But this post is not about bird groups. It’s about songs of birds—birds of different colors.

“Bye-Bye, Blackbird” Dorothy Field and Jimmy McHugh wrote “Bye-Bye, Blackbird” in 1928, for Earl Carroll’s Vanities. It’s been recorded many times over the years, but the Mills Brothers’ version flies the highest.

The song’s a staple of my senior-center gigs. There’s a line those of us who perform at senior centers say about playing the Alzheimer’s facilities: “You only really have to know one song.” The Alzheimer’s residents often can’t remember what they’d done for a living day after day for years. But a few always know all of the song lyrics, and sing along, word for word. I’ve even had lyrics corrected by them a few times: “It’s ‘quiet place’ before ‘fireplace,’ not ‘fireplace’ then ‘quiet place.’” I had wondered whether one of them even belonged in the place, until I saw her with her son and his wife. She nodded and smiled as they introduced themselves.

The residents always like to hear “Bye-Bye, Blackbird,” and are lively, relatively speaking, when I play it. Once, I did it as my big finish: “Blackbird, blackbird, blackbird, bye-bye!” I hit a final chord, and was about to say bye-bye when a resident leaned back in his chair as I passed and asked, “Say, fella, do you know “Bye-Bye, Blackbird”?

mills bros

The Brothers Mills

“Yellow Bird” The Mills Brothers recorded another classic colorful-bird song, “Yellow Bird.” It is smooth and soothing–and sometimes smooth and soothing is just what one needs.

“Blackbird” Paul McCartney’s song is one of his greatest: a lyric dedicated to the Civil Rights movement accompanied by beautiful picked-guitar lines that young, budding guitarists like me all learned to play back in the day. (And, according to my guitar-teacher son-in-law, it’s still on his young students’ radar.)

Paul (and wife Linda) also had a pretty “Bluebird,” which ended up on Wings’ Band on the Run album.

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

“Bluebird” Buffalo Springfield packed a lot of fine work into their three albums. There was just too much creativity under one roof to keep it together. It’s hard to pick favorites, but two top candidates could both fall into the bird song category.

Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird” is, I think, his best contribution to Buffalo Springfield. It’s bright and accessible. There are several verses in a rock beat, peppered with Stills’ lead guitar, and then a super-compressed major seventh chord that rings. Then there’s a pause, after which a banjo enters, and the song is recommenced in a gentler, more rural setting. At the other end of the Springfield’s range was Neil Young’s gorgeous duet with strings, “Expecting to Fly.”

Also, on After the Goldrush, his third solo album, another lovely song, “Birds,” talks of flight and feathers. “Danger Bird,” from Neil’s Zuma, is more ominous, a Crazy Horse electrified ballad.

The Wolf in the henhouse

“The Red Rooster” The great Howlin’ Wolf bellowed this blues number in 1961. Wolf never had any trouble with authenticity—he was the rill thang, y’all. But I think he throws himself into this song because he’s not just singing about the red rooster—he is the red rooster, baby. One of many Howlin’ Wolf delights I have to hear every so often.

The Brothers Louvin

The Brothers Louvin

“Red Hen Hop” Charlie and Ira Louvin’s stock-in-trade were sweet ‘n’ sentimental waltzes, melodramatic (but still sweet) gospel songs, and “tragic songs of life” (those were sweet, too), which was the title of one of their albums. So how did this boogie-woogiein’ number make it onto a Louvin Brothers album? No telling, but it’s quite enjoyable to hear the Brothers rock out a little bit about the red hen that Wolf’s red rooster’s makin’ hop.

“When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” Louis Armstrong did the definitive version of this cheerful song. When I was playing at a hospital, an aide asked if I’d sing a happy song for a cancer patient, a grizzled Vietnam vet. I chose this one, and we both ended up teary-eyed by the end of it. I hope he made it through.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Honorable Mentions: There are some great songs of birds, like “Expecting to Fly,” that do not mention the color of the bird. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is one. Often, when record nerds are playing “favorite albums of all time,” they forbid greatest hits anthologies. I can understand that—it’s a different type of album, since the artist didn’t conceive of its songs as part of a single work. But some collections, like the Legends anthology of Bob Marley masterpieces, are just too good to omit. One could say that a Bob Marley best-of isn’t necessary, because so many of his albums are listenable from beginning to end. That’s true of the great Exodus album, fully half of which, including “Three Little Birds,” is duplicated on Legends. Exodus was, in fact, named by Time magazine Best Album of the 20th Century. So, for the record nerds who make greatest hits albums ineligible for top-album lists, I’ll readily substitute Exodus for Legends.

Dennis Wilson’s song “Little Bird,” from the Beach Boys album Friends, doesn’t sound like a Dennis song—it sounds like a Brian song. I figure big bro Bri had a big hand in it, at least in the vocal harmony arrangement and key modulations. It’s short and sweet and remains a favorite from this favorite album.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: We have mentioned nice songs of black, blue, red, and yellow birds. But It’s a Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” seemed stuffy and drippy to me even back when I was a young and impressionable hippie wannabe. I can’t imagine I’d like it any better now that I’m an old and impressionable hippie wannabe. And that name is a precursor to later bad band names that are statements: Gene Loves Jezebel, Jimmy Hates Jazz, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah…

Goin’ to California

Goin’ to California

A couple of recent events had me finally getting around to a post about California, and then, on top of that, movie blogger Jay mentioned a road-trip to California that could result in a Cal-themed movie post.

The two events happened within about a week. First, my wife Sweets and I had a rare opportunity to go out on a date—and we took it. We wanted to see a movie, and the only one I really wanted to see was the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. As a Brian Wilson fan, I knew I’d love it and had read in reviews that the Pet Sounds-session scenes were recreated with a fine eye and ear for how it happened. But I was concerned that Sweets, only a casual Beach Boy fan, wouldn’t get much out of it. Turns out that I loved the movie, as I expected I would, but my wife may have loved it even more. She really got into the story of this odd savant musician and the way it was told on screen.

Beach Boy Books

Beach Boy Books

And then, my daughter surprised me on Father’s Day with tickets for Sweets and me to see Brian Wilson in concert. I had already seen The Beach Boys live twice (three times if you count Mike Love’s version) and had seen both Pet Sounds and Smile thrillingly recreated live by Brian and his newer friends. I really wasn’t expecting much this time around, but was happy my daughter had come up with such a nice gift. It couldn’t have been better timing for my wife, now voraciously listening to all of my Beach Boys LPs and reading my Beach Boys books. The concert was wonderful (and, indeed, they performed “Wonderful”), with lots of deep cuts and treasures I’d not heard them do live. We are both still listening to a lot of Beach Boys lately, and I’m reading two books I hadn’t gotten around to, Heroes and Villains and The Beach Boys FAQ. We’ll be “havin’ fun all summer long,” looks like, with Beach Boys music and tales.

holland

“California Saga: California” One of the numbers I hadn’t heard live was this one, one of the few songs written for The Boys by Al Jardine. It appeared on their Holland album in 1973 and was released as a single (but didn’t climb very high). Al was part of this tour and sang lead on the song. (Al’s son Matt has taken over Jeff Foskett’s duties covering the Brian Wilson falsetto leads in concert; Mr. Foskett, for some reason, left after many years in the role to join the Mike Love aggregate).

It’s a pleasant song, with bass line and structure reminiscent of “California Girls,” but in a Sons of the Pioneers style

“California Girls” Not much I need to say about this one. Brian performed it in his show, it sounded great, the crowd loved it. It’s a classic. All of the Beach Boys sang on the recording, but only Carl played on it. The rest of the instruments were handled by the Wrecking Crew. It’s the first song Brian wrote after his initial acid trip. Doesn’t sound very trippy, but it is pretty glorious.

poses

“California” This song is not my favorite on Rufus Wainwright’s Poses album, from 2000, but that’s because it’s keeping such wonderful company. Poses, to me, is an improvement over Wainwright’s debut, which had several mind-blowing high spots, but several songs that seemed overproduced and overblown.

“California” provides a nice and poppy counterpoint to the gorgeous title song, “Shadows,” “Greek Song,” and the sublime “The Tower of Learning.”

blue

“California” “Won’t you take me as I am, strung out on another man?” Joni Mitchell sings, “California, I’m comin’ home.” Joni Mitchell’s Blue album was a downer masterpiece, and this ode to her adopted home is perfectly done. This song, along with “All I Want,” “Carey,” and several others from the album were part of the set lists of countless female vocalists of the mid-to-late seventies. If you walked into a happy hour at a restaurant/bar and there was a woman with a guitar, you knew it would only be a short while before a song from Joni’s Blue would be heard. Blue songs at happy hour. What a concept.

I have noted before that Sweets has an unnaturally hostile attitude about the music of Joni Mitchell. We used to fight about it; now it’s one of our running gags. When Mitchell recently wound up in the hospital after an aneurysm, my wife did express some sympathy—but moved no further toward giving her music another spin. It’s all Brian Wilson for her now, anyway.

Brian on Video

Brian on Video

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Goin’ to California” is one of the songs John Lee Hooker fumbles through on his Travelin’ Man album. I’m sorry, but I have long tried to appreciate Mr. Hooker and his music. I love raw, “feel” music, and am addicted to the music of quite a few of the Delta blues players, from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. John Lee Hooker sometimes does a good job of delivering his music vocally, but the man just can’t play guitar. He hammers away at one chord, his timing a mystery to any who try to follow. On his solo stuff, it’s not so noticeable, but on this record, you can tell the band is desperately trying to keep some semblance of order to the proceedings. Alas, they do not succeed.

There Is a Mountain

There Is a Mountain

“River Deep, Mountain High” I felt so bad about leaving this landmark song off my river songs list that I decided to do a mountain songs post just so I could include it. It is truly one of the great singles of all time. Nutball record producer Phil Spector had bought Ike Turner off, paying him to stay away from the sessions but leaving Ike’s name as the artist, along with Tina.

Ike & Tina and Ike & Tina

Ike & Tina and Ike & Tina

It is a case of overkill that works magnificently, but it bombed in the U.S. upon release. Ike said that its failure was due to the fact that Tina sang black and soulful, while the production was very white and poppy. But that’s exactly why it works so well. Tina’s raw-power vocal cuts right through Phil’s wall of sound, giving the whole thing balance.

I hate to give Spector props, but the several other non-Spector recordings of this song made by Tina Turner pale in comparison (ironically). I think it’s Phil’s best work, and Tina’s best, too.

Hippie-Dippie Mountain Man

Hippie-Dippie Mountain Man

“There Is a Mountain” Most of my “dream jukebox” selections are masterpieces of soul: Sly’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” War’s “Low Rider,” The Staples’ “I’ll Take You There” (and, yes, “River Deep, Mountain High”). A beatnik-hippie bongo love-fest by Donovan wouldn’t seem to make good company for those records, but “There Is a Mountain” is among my top five all-time singles. It just works for me, and I can’t explain it, aside from the fact that I’ve always wanted to be a part of a beatnik-hippie bongo love-fest.

“Solsbury Hill” My pal Johnny got me interested in the solo work of Peter Gabriel by playing this song at top volume on the empty fourth floor of the downtown Dallas warehouse he lived in for a while. He actually lived at the top of an elevator shaft, his bed suspended over the iron grate that offered protection against a fall, but also offered a disconcerting view of the distant bottom of the shaft. The perk of this unusual “efficiency” was that the top of the elevator shaft opened out onto the warehouse roof, which afforded a nice view of downtown during a time nobody lived downtown. Johnny had lawn chairs and beer—and music.

“Solsbury Hill” fit nicely in the urban environs but continued to sound pretty wonderful in more mundane settings in years to come.

stanley bros

Ralph & Carter

“How Mountain Girls Can Love” “Good Old Mountain Dew,” the bluegrass standard about home-brewed liquor, was written during Depression days by a North Carolina lawyer, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a defender of busted moonshiners. A friend of Lunsford’s, Scotty Wiseman, added some music and extra lyrics to the song, whereupon it became a hit, and then a standard. In an unusual development, Wiseman, who’d bought the song from Lunsford for $25, ensured that Lunsford got 50% of the royalties. A songwriter getting royalties properly assigned to a lawyer—now that’s a switch!

The Stanley Brothers were among the many country and bluegrass artists who covered “Good Old Mountain Dew.” I prefer another Stanley Brothers mountain song, “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” which moves along as fast as “Mountain Dew.” It’s got a firm, clear message: “Get down, boys, go back home / Back to the girl you love / Treat her right, never wrong / How mountain girls can love.”

Fats

Fats

“Blueberry Hill” I’ve heard this song (and sung it) hundreds of times, but I still like it. When I play the senior centers, I usually trot this one out, and the residents delightedly sing along with the somewhat salacious lyrics. There are several other Fats Domino songs I prefer, including “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday,” “I’m Walkin’,” and “Ain’t That a Shame,” but this standard was truly made immortal with the Fats treatment. It was originally written in 1940 by Al Lewis, Larry Stock, and Vincent Rose. It was introduced in the film The Singing Hill by none other than Gene Autry. Another great Fats remake from the golden era is Walter Donaldson’s “My Blue Heaven.”

Bruce & Al & Carl & Mike & Dennis (no Brian)

Bruce & Al & Carl & Mike & Dennis (no Brian)

“Bluebirds Over the Mountain” Ersel Hickey’s “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” was nicely covered by The Beach Boys on their 20/20 album. The song doesn’t figure in to the fabulous Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy in any way, but it was recorded during the post-Pet Sounds/Smiley Smile era.

Quota Songs: Numerous perfectly fine bluegrass and folk songs long ago reached their quotas because of their ubiquity at sing-along and play-along gatherings. These would include “Rocky Mountain High,” “Rocky Top,” and the banjo cliché “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Honorable Mentions: Johnny Rivers’ “Mountain of Love” is another Rivers and mountain song. Among Frank Zappa’s many nutty concepts for The Mothers to wrangle with was “Billy the Mountain.”

On behalf of my granddaughter, who loves The Sound of Music, I must add “Climb Every Mountain.” On behalf of my inner child, I should also add “On Top of Old Smoky,” and on behalf of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s inner child, I should include his “Smoky Mountain Boogie” follow-up to “On Top of Old Smoky.”

What’s Your Name? (part 4)

What’s Your Name? (part 4)

Time to wrap up the girl-name song alphabet. Got  A through E and F-J back in March and just posted K through R. I now present S, T, V, W, and Y. (If you have a U, X, or Z you’d like to submit, feel free. I could come up with no favorites.)

Susie James Burton played guitar for Rick Nelson and later for Elvis Presley, but his high mark, for me, was his slinky solo on Dale Hawkins’ “Susie Q” in 1957. It’s a nice, straightforward song and Dale delivers it well, but James Burton makes it a timeless classic. I’m thinking Burton must surely have been channeling Pete Lewis, who wailed on a similar guitar solo for Big Mama Thornton’s 1953 recording of “Hound Dog.” And, of course, as Elvis’s guitar player in the late ‘60s, James Burton got to play that song himself.

Another notable musical Susie is the problematically sleepy late date in The Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up, Little Susie.”

chaplin

Terry Terry was the main character, a dancer played by Claire Bloom, in Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight, from 1952. The movie’s okay, kind of slow, and didn’t get much of a chance at commercial success when it was released, due to Chaplin being accused at the time of being a Commie.

Chaplin was one of those filmmakers who did it all: He wrote and directed movies he starred in, plus he often composed the music for the soundtrack. The song he wrote as “Terry’s Theme” is among the most beautiful songs to come from a motion picture. Geoff Parsons and John Turner put lyrics to it, and it became a hit as “Eternally,” as sung by Vic Damone. I prefer the instrumental “Terry’s Theme.”

Vic Chesnutt

Vic Chesnutt

Virginia Vic Chesnutt’s “Virginia” is “free with her body, voluptuous, too” but will “crush the life out of you” if you screw up. The song appears on the 2005 album Ghetto Bells.

Chesnutt, a paraplegic sage and Southern Gothic poet, recorded a lot of music in the nineteen years before his death on Christmas Day in 2009. His lyrics were adventurous, and could be biting and self-lacerating but at other times playful, or even delicate.

My friend Johnny has for 45 years passed along many musical discoveries to me, from Daniel Lanois to Bjork. But I was the one who hepped my friend to Mr. Chesnutt and gave him a couple of his albums, About to Choke and The Salesman and Bernadette. I’d been struck by the raw force of the music, and the vocal style that at first sounded affected (Vic sounds a lot like Ernest T. Bass, Barney Fife’s rival on The Andy Griffith Show) but was revealed over time to be truly authentic. Johnny ended up liking Vic Chesnutt so much that we even planned a trek to Georgia to find him. (I don’t think we really planned what we’d do if we did locate him.) We never made the trip, but I did make it to a Vic Chesnutt small-club performance for about sixty people. Ghetto Bells had just been released, and Vic and band performed “Virginia.” A highlight was “Sultan So Mighty,” from his previous album, Silver Lake, which all of the band members, including Chesnutt, performed on Casio keyboards held in their laps.

beach boyz

Al, Bruce, Dennis, & Carl

Wendy This one is not major Beach Boys material, a #44 single, but it’s got a catchy chorus, a couple of Brian Wilson’s signature unexpected chord changes, and a bright and sunny sound. Which is strange, because it’s all about Wendy leaving this poor sap, making him cry, and going off with some other dude.

hnk wms

Yvonne She’s the “sweetest one on the bayou.” “Jambalaya,” Hank Williams’ Louisiana tale of Joe and Yvonne and the dozens of kinfolk, was a favorite of my mom’s, and we used to sing it together when I was a mere lad. I went on to sing it at choir parties, family reunions, senior centers, and bars. It’s an all-purpose up-tempo country tune—none better.

Much has been said and written about the influential singer/songwriter Hiram “Hank” Williams, but my favorite description is this one from Minnie Pearl that appears in Robert Shelton’s The Country Music Story: “Hank was just as authentic as rain. A rough sack of bones who could tackle a buzz saw.”

Honorable Mentions:
suzanne

Suzanne In 1966 Judy Collins did a slow and smooth version of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne.” Three years later, Nina Simone got hold of it, and the rhythmic, off-center arrangement that appeared on her To Love Somebody album was a revelation. The song sparkles for the first time.

meshell

Then, in 2012, singer/songwriter/ bassist Mechell Ndegeocello included it on her outstanding tribute to Nina Simone, Pour une Ame Souveraine. She uses Nina’s arrangement, and gives “Suzanne” even a little more sparkle. Not sure Leonard approves, but I prefer it immensely to the slow, moody versions.

Tina A party-time name song was The B-52s’ “52 Girls,” a delirious song we cranked up and danced to, singing it at the top of our lungs along with B-52s front girls Kate and Cindy, who are name-checked in the song. The lyrics are mostly girls’ names, including Tina, Louise (sung in order—get it?), and many others, the “principal girls of the USA.” My favorite name mentioned is actually Mavis, because they pronounce it Mah-vis.

Valleri When I saw The Monkees do their song “Valleri” on their TV show, I was thrilled. I ran and got my cheapo electric guitar and worked out the “Day Tripper”-style riff Mike Nesmith played throughout it. For a month or so, that riff was the coolest thing I’d ever heard and played. It was the group’s last top-ten hit, hitting #3 in March of ’68.

Windy “Everyone knows it’s Windy.” It’s got swingin’ flute, men’s chorus “bah-ba-ba-bah” parts, and some nice major sevenths in the bridge. You go, Association!

Yoko “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is a Beatles song with only half of The Beatles. John sang the saga of himself and Yoko Ono and their very public trials. He also played the guitars. Paul played bass and drums, and added harmonies. The song was issued as a Beatles single in 1969 and made it all the way to #8 on Billboard’s pop chart.

What’s Your Name?

What’s Your Name?

Women have inspired most of the popular songs we listen to. Many popular songs have female names in their titles. So many that I have chosen to go alphabetically.

Amelia My two favorite songs on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira album have women’s names in their titles. Both “Song for Sharon” and “Amelia” are long, mesmerizing songs. The hypnotic music groove supplied by Joni’s guitar provides the perfect bed for the provocative lyrics. (Joni Mitchell is not only one of the best lyricists, but is also among the best guitarists in pop-rock music history.)

Joni's Hejira

Joni’s Hejira

“Amelia” is Amelia Earhart. Joni Mitchell has said that the song uses the aviator and her driven quest to represent her own overriding need to travel and perform music, to the disruption of family and relationships and a normal life. It’s a repetitive song that I never tire of. And we get to hear Ms. Mitchell’s Canadian r at the end of every verse as she sings “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.”

Bernadette The Four Tops had a string of powerful hits featuring lead vocalist Levi Stubbs. My favorites have always been their number ones, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” and “I Can’t Help Myself.” But just a notch below is their wonderful “Bernadette.” It’s a hard-driving number, like “Reach Out,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” and others that made these Motown stars second only to The Beach Boys as American hit-makers of the era.

I should also mention the Looking Glass hit “Brandy”—not because it’s a favorite, but because it’s the song my Sweetie asserts is her least favorite song of all time (with the exception of anything by Joni Mitchell, including “Amelia”). I had always loved imitating the lead vocal, with its quasi-lounge delivery, but especially liked doing so once I learned of my Sweetie’s annoyance by it. (Alas, I’m not able to do a convincing Join Mitchell impersonation.)

taraf

Carolina I recently made a discovery, upon listening again to the Romanian band Taraf de Haidouk’s 2001 album Band of Gypsies, that one song, “Carolina,” is a remake of a song from across the globe. The song is credited on the album to Gabi Voicila, but it’s actually a revved-up version of a song recorded in Jamaica in 1964 by The Folkes Brothers as “Oh Carolina,” one of the first ska/reggae songs. The original has a nice folky-Caribbean feel, which Shaggy, in 1993, turned into a delightful groove for his first hit. The woman is Caro-lie-na in the Jamaican versions, and Caro-lee-na in the Romanian, but it’s the same song.

Taraf de Haidouks are the quintessential “band of gypsies,” known for their frenetic, exultant workouts that feature violin, flute, impassioned vocals, and, underpinning it all (and occasionally taking a tasty ride) is the cimbalom, the happiest of musical instruments. It’s an Eastern European relative of the hammer dulcimer. It’s kind of like the back-end of an open grand piano, on which the cimbalom player strikes the strings with a mallet. The result is spidery and shimmery and enchanting. With a cimbalom aboard, a song’s lyrics may be sung in a language I don’t understand, and may be about failed crops or the death of a loved one, but the music sounds gleeful, and makes me want to tap, clap, and dance.

A happy cimbalom player

A happy cimbalom player

At any rate, I love Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina.” When subjected to Shaggy’s hits from the early ‘00s (while driving my daughter to school), I’d thought of him as a boring rapper whose verses worsened those mediocre songs that his guest artists sang. But Shaggy’s in control on “Oh Carolina.” I’ve reassessed Shaggy, due to that one song, which tops my running playlist. Groovy!

Fats

Fats

Dinah The great composer, pianist, singer, and raconteur Thomas “Fats” Waller did my favorite version of the 1925 song “Dinah.” It was written by Sam Lewis, Joe Young, and Harry Akst for Ethel Waters to sing in Plantation Revue. Many of my favorite singers recorded it, including The Boswell Sisters, The Mills Brothers, and Cliff Edwards. But Fats is the one I always hear. It’s got the sprightliness that he put across so well, and it seems timeless to me (although you’d be unlikely to hear anyone singing like that now—or singing that song any old way, for that matter).

p floyd

Emily One of Syd Barrett’s psychedelic-pop contributions to Pink Floyd’s repertoire was the loopy and beaty “See Emily Play.” It’s my favorite Pink Floyd song, which may mean I’m not a true Pink Floyd fan.

Honorable Mentions: Amity Great name. “Amity” is probably my favorite Elliott Smith song, though it isn’t really characteristic of his music.

Belle The great Al Green recorded one of his best albums a few years after his incredible string of hits. Belle featured a nice, acoustic guitar-driven title song, a laid-back but still vocally inventive Al entertains.

Caroline “Caroline, No” is the haunting closer of The Beach Boys’ much-praised Pet Sounds album. The album was mostly Brian and his toys, the session musicians he used to get all of those interesting colorations in the songs. The Boys were almost an afterthought. “Caroline, No” is all Brian, and was issued as a Brian Wilson single. The lyrics were by Tony Asher, but it comes from Brian’s heart and soul.

Delia Georgia bluesman Blind Wille McTell sings the sad story of “Little Delia,” accompanied by his twelve-string guitar. Delia gets herself mixed up with some bad “rounders,” especially one Kenny, who shoots her dead and winds up in jail. Sordid stuff, but a nice, bright tune!

Eleanor/ Elenore I must mention Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” which blew me away when I first heard it. And then there’s The Turtles’ “Elenore,” with its groovily square lyrics: “Elenore, gee, I think you’re swell.” “You’re my pride and joy, et cetera.” Wonderfully nerdy stuff from the Fluorescent Leech and Eddie.

Dream Jukebox: Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” is frequently on my iPod playlists of music to run to. When I get my Dream Jukebox, I’ll find the record.

With a Little Help from My Friends

With a Little Help from My Friends

Thanksgiving, for me, is a time to think of family; Christmas is a time for kids and grandkids. But around the end of the year, I think a lot about friends, particularly those I didn’t see enough during the year and those who are no longer with us.

“With a Little Help from My Friends” is a song I associate with my musical friends over the years, many of whom I sang the song with, always thinking as we sang of our reliance on each other’s support, as musicians and as friends.

My favorite live performance captured on video is Joe Cocker’s performance of the song at Woodstock. Joe’s recent passing reminded me of it, and I realized I hadn’t watched it in many years. I never get tired of it: his electric delivery that must surely have jarred even the most stoned-out, mudcaked reveler into rapt attention; the falsetto backup singing of his bandmates; the audacious reworking of the Beatles classic, ramped up from the arrangement on his debut album. Joe Cocker is justifiably honored for the all-out vocal performances of his early career, but I think he also could be regarded as the top song interpreter of his era, a worthy successor in that regard to Ray Charles. Since the Beatle era, musical artists were pretty much expected to sing songs they wrote, maybe inserting a few covers here and there into their recordings and live shows. The old eras of the big band warbler, the lounge crooner, the blues belter, and the torch singer were gone.

Joe and friends

Joe and friends

Ray Charles took songs from a wide variety of sources and made them his own. Nina Simone did the same, during the same time period. Joe Cocker followed in their footsteps, selecting Beatles songs, thirties standards, Leonard Cohen ballads, and other pieces to completely reimagine. Like so many songs became Ray Charles songs, the songs Cocker covered became his songs.

“With a Little Help from My Friends” is also a good theme to represent Joe Cocker’s approach. Although, with his mighty voice, he was central to every song he did, he gave a lot of space to his friends in the band. Some of the backup singers featured in the excellent documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom recalled how Joe Cocker gave them free rein, urging them to put themselves into the arrangement, and how he would then feed off of their input. Magic! On his second album, Joe recorded a sweet song called “Hello Little Friend.”

b boys friends

The Beach Boys’ “Friends” is a song that always makes me think of my childhood and adolescent buddies on the block. I didn’t realize until much later that our close-knit group of neighborhood friends wasn’t something everyone grew up with. I now feel very blessed to have had that constant bunch of pals to explore the world with.

Timothy White, in The Nearest Faraway Place, writes that, after Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s personal favorite of his own albums is Friends, from 1968, which happens also to be among the all-time worst-selling Beach Boys albums. It’s one of my favorites, too, despite its unevenness, with highlights that include “Be Here in the Morning,” Dennis Wilson’s “Little Bird,” and the title song. “Friends” was issued as a single, credited to Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson and Al Jardine, but only made it to #47. It’s such a cheery and bright song with a positive message, it’s a wonder that it’s never been snapped up to promote some kind of snack food or beer or other product associated with camaraderie. Even if it belies the Boys’ true relationships at that time and afterward (and was recorded during the period of time that Dennis Wilson became acquainted with Charlie Manson), it sounds like the music of friendship and brotherly love.

Two features of The Beach Boys’ “Friends” that remind me of my own friends are the ascending “ah” lines with the prominent 7th—the type of vocal harmony my street corner-singing pals and I loved, and the line “I talked your folks out of making you cut off your hair.” Although that particular thing never happened in my circle, many equivalent interactions did.

my buddy

“My Buddy” is the song that surrounds me when I’m thinking about friends who are no longer part of the world. It always makes me sad, but also makes me appreciative of the time we had together.

It was written in 1922 by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn and has been covered by countless artists over the decades since. It was introduced by Henry Burr, in the stilted fashion of the era, but has loosened up over the years, allowing singers to express sorrow over friends who are missed. The usual suspects have done it: Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne. But Bob Wills and even Barry White have evidently covered it. The song has stood the test of time because it is genuine, the lyrics heartfelt and matched to the beautiful, non-saccharine melody.

A fine song of friendship that’s almost as old is the 1927 hit “Side by Side,” about pals who “travel along, singing a song, side by side.”

cisco

Dream Jukebox: War released a couple of singles about friendship. I could probably be fine never hearing “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” again, but never tire of “Cisco Kid,” who “was a friend of mine.”

Likewise, Simon and Garfunkel had the ubiquitous ballad “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a great song I’m weary of, but included a nice piece on Bookends, “Old Friends,” that is still pleasant to hear.

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