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Your Mother Should Know

Your Mother Should Know

I miss my mom. She died five years ago, and I’m still working through it. I have a lot of guilt about all the things I could’ve said and done before she was gone. But she had a very good life and seemed to be happy with the way things turned out for her, and I have to believe she understood and forgave my failings as a son

Let’s look at a few sons’ musical tributes to moms.

bb king

“Nobody Loves Me But My Mother” This little minute-and-a-half-long ditty opens Riley “B.B.” King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds album of 1970. It’s just B.B. on piano and vocals, and features the great one-liner “Nobody loves me but my mother and she might be jivin’ too.”

After that opener, B.B. is joined by a band that includes another King, a most unlikely one—Carole—on piano on several tracks. Leon Russell does the keyboarding on the ones Ms. King sits out on. It’s a nice album, B.B. King’s favorite of his works, and capitalizes on the bluesman’s newfound popularity following the surprise hit “The Thrill is Gone.” The album is named for King’s official hometown (his birth certificate is reproduced on the inside jacket), but King says in the recent documentary The Life of Riley that he was actually born on a plantation outside of Itta Bena.

B.B.’s mother may have been jivin’ after all, since she left young Riley to be raised by her mother.

Mr. Mingus

Mr. Mingus

“Exactly Like You” This Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHugh song comes from the same 1930 musical, Lew Leslie’s International Review, that featured “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The singer proclaims of his mama that she “meant me for someone exactly like you.” Now, that’s an ideal: mom’s choice.

It’s been recorded by many artists, including Frank Sinatra, but, again, my favorite is an instrumental: Charles Mingus interpolates “Exactly Like You” with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” to perfection.

Dorothy Fields’ father Lew was an actor and theatrical producer, but her mother Rose was not enthusiastic about Dorothy going into show business, telling her and her siblings, “You children must be extra polite to strangers because your father’s an actor.”

“Your Mother Should Know” Paul McCartney’s light ‘n’ airy number that was included on the Magical Mystery Tour album is in the line of dance-hall nostalgia numbers that includes “When I’m 64” and “Honey Pie.”

Paul’s mother Mary died in 1956, when he was fourteen. It was a connection Paul had early on with John, whose mother died when he was seventeen.

magical

“Mother ” John Lennon’s opener for John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band, his “primal album” from 1970, is anything but light ‘n’ airy. He’s mad at his mother, and wants to let it out. “Mother,” he wails, “you had me, but I never had you.” John and Yoko had spent some time in therapy with Mr. Primal Scream, Arthur Janov. The album is raw and emotional, a world away from The Beatles’ slick productions. The band comprised Ringo Starr on drums and one of the many “fifth Beatles,” Klaus Voorman, on bass.

Many of the song titles are single words: “Remember,” “Isolation,” “God,” “Love.” They’re loose but not lax, and it remains among my all-time favorite albums. It was Village Voice critic Robert Christgau’s choice in 1970 as Album of the Year.

My wife Sweets grew up with parents who spent several years wallowing in Arthur Janov and his primal scream theories. There was a lot of confrontation and yelling in the household, and Sweets and her two sisters couldn’t wait to flee the coop. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is not one of my wife’s favorites.

n young

“New Mama” “New Mama’s got a son in her eyes.”

Neil Young’s equivalent to Lennon’s primal album is Tonight’s the Night,” the anti-Harvest. Neil, in this tribute to fallen junkie music associates, is rough, occasionally out-of-tune, tequila-soaked, and fearless. Even the most low-fi of these songs is darkly beautiful, from bleary, drug-saturated “Tired Eyes” to the acoustic trippiness of “Albuquerque” and “New Mama,” which both sound like late-night-long-after-the-show CSNY sing-alongs, hoarse and coarse and lovely. Tonight’s the Night is another all-time favorite album.

Neil lived with his mother after his father left her.

duke

“Reminiscing in Tempo” For years, I sang Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” thinking it was a song Duke, who was very close to his mother, had written for her in his grief following her death. I later learned that wasn’t true—he wrote “Solitude” shortly before she died. Ellington biographer Terry Teachout says that the song Duke wrote while grief-stricken over his mother was actually the extended form “Reminiscing in Tempo.” It has no lyrics, but its music was inspired by mother Daisy. In his memoir Music Is My Mistress, Duke wrote of “Reminiscing in Tempo” that “every page of that particular manuscript was dotted with smears and unshapely marks caused by tears that had fallen.” This is a man who missed his mother.

Honorable Mention: Sonny Bono had the cheekiness to write a song for Cher to sing about their divorce. “Now how should I put this? I’ve got something to say / Your mother is staying, but I’m going away.” It worked! “You Better Sit Down, Kids” was a hit, and it’s the last Cher song I ever liked.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: On the other hand, there’s Helen Reddy’s song of mother-daughter solidarity, “You and Me Against the World.” I guess it’s not really too horrible a song, but Helen Reddy on the vocals pretty much automatically consigns it to the “no” pile.

Spotlight: Boogie Stop Shuffle

Spotlight: Boogie Stop Shuffle

Another trip down memory lane, an excerpt about Charles Mingus, from my post Time Loves a Hero. A video of “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” then the excerpt.

Another superhero theme/jazz composer connection involves Spiderman. I never watched the show, and only reluctantly saw the first movie, dragged to the theater by a kid. But the show’s theme song is familiar to me and everyone else. It certainly must’ve sounded familiar to Charles Mingus, whose 1959 song “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” bears much more than a passing resemblance to the later TV theme. I don’t know of any plagiarism lawsuit, but it would’ve been a slam-dunk for Mingus. “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is just one gem among the flawless line-up that is the 1959 album Mingus, Ah-Um. Mingus was at his peak here, and two of the selections, “Good-bye, Porkpie Hat” and “Better Get It in Your Soul,” are bona fide jazz classics.

Do You Wanna Dance?

Do You Wanna Dance?

Michael Jackson was in some cases a great songwriter and in most cases a great singer, but he was absolutely the greatest dancer/performer in pop music. He is the one artist beloved by all three generations of my family: by my wife and me, by all of our kids (aged 24 to 32), and by our grandkids. The first thing my stepdaughter ever said to my daughter, back in 1990, was, “I’m gonna marry Michael Jackson!” My daughter replied, “Me, too!” The three generations recently went to a sing-along event, Michael Jackson videos on the big screen, and it was the most fun any of us had had all year. My six-year-old granddaughter, bedecked in Thriller-MJ jacket, pants, and glove, was the hit of the show.

I love music, but I’m a singer, not a dancer. I used to dance when I got a little tipsy, but I just don’t drink enough now to get me out on the dance floor. (I did dance at the MJ event.) That is quite frustrating to my wife, who loves to dance. Her favorite two types of music to listen to are ‘70s-‘80s funk/disco and Bach. I’ve never seen her dance to Bach, but she does start moving whenever the Dazz Band is played.

rick jas

I asked Sweets to come up with a list of her top-twelve dance songs. I got a four-page, single-spaced list. With a bit of coercion, she was able to narrow her list down, and I now present it to you, in alphabetical order by artist, along with the year of release and the top position on the Billboard R&B chart:

  1. Bar-Kays—“Shake Your Rump to the Funk” (1976, #5)
  2. Brainstorm—“Lovin’ Is Really My Game” (1977, #14)
  3. Commodores—“Slippery When Wet” (1975, #1)
  4. Fatback—“Backstrokin’” (1980, #3)
  5. Graham Central Station—“Feel the Need” (1975, #18)
  6. Heatwave—“Groove Line” (1978, #3)
  7. Rick James—“High on Your Love Suite” (1979, #12)
  8. Shalamar—“Amnesia” (1984, #49)
  9. Donna Summer—“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983, #1)
  10. The Time—“The Bird” (1985, #33)
  11. Tower of Power—“You Got to Funkifize” (1972, album cut)
  12. Twennynine, featuring Lenny White—“Peanut Butter” (1980, #3)

shalamar

I had actually heard a few of these—the Bar-Kays song, the Graham Central Station, the Rick James. I loved Donna Summer’s huge hit, and The Time’s bit in Purple Rain, and I bought the Tower of Power album Bump City on cassette when it came out (because of “You’re Still a Young Man”—slow dance material).

licking stick

So I didn’t get with the ‘80s funk enough, since at the time I was trying to play live music in clubs that were going disco. But I was and I remain a big fan of Mr. Nickname, James Brown, the man who made all of the songs listed above possible. When “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” came out in ’65, it had as many heads spinning as it had rumps shakin’. It was revolutionary. What followed was a years-long parade of the greatest dance songs ever—some specifically about dancing (“I Got Ants in My Pants and I Want to Dance,” “Mother Popcorn,” “Shout and Shimmy”), and others that mention dancing in passing, like “Licking Stick” (“Sister out in the backyard, doin’ the outside dance”—I would love to know just what her outside dance looked like). Of course, every one of his songs was great for dancing.

the one

Mr. Brown is getting quite a bit of posthumous attention. I devoured the bio The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, by RJ Smith, which came out a couple of years back. Now there’s a biopic about him, which I have not yet seen, and the new documentary, Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, which I hear doesn’t sugar-coat the great entertainer’s many extreme flaws.

Of course, our original song & dance man (with apologies to Bob Dylan) was Fred Astaire. I rarely watch his movies and never listen to his recordings, but I certainly admire his smooth moves—and his smooth voice, too. “Shall We Dance” is quintessential Astaire.

Raymond Scott 10-inch, featuring "Powerhouse"

Raymond Scott 10-inch, featuring “Powerhouse”

My youngest daughter is a dancer, and by that I mean a schooled-‘n’-trained dancer. (One of the first dance schools my daughter attended had an alumna who went on to fame and fortune, Miss Erica Wright, known to you as Erykah Badu. Ms. Badu’s songs are both brainy and butt-motivatin’ at the same time.) For a choreography assignment, my kid tackled Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse.” It might sound familiar to you if you watched a lot of cartoons decades ago. It’s a whirlwind of a song, wildly inventive, as many Raymond Scott compositions are. She had a big time with it; it was a creative high point for her. I will now, as I listen to “Powerhouse,” always picture the choreography my daughter attached to it.

Her mom and I spent many years going to dance programs our daughter was in. Occasionally the choreographers got away from pop schlock and New Age and found music that was unusual and worthy of putting movement to. But I rarely heard any jazz. Charles Mingus is one I would’ve loved hearing behind dancers. It seems that anything he composed and recorded would be delightful for a choreographer to create to, for dancers to perform, and for an audience to watch/listen to. Mingus even recorded an album in 1963 specifically intended to accompany dance, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Its tracks are entitled “Solo Dancer,” “Trio and Group Dancers,” and so on. Surely this has been performed as a ballet! Where can I see it? (I did find a clip online of an abridged version done in Italy by the Lydian Sound Orchestra (live on stage!) and Compagnia di Danza Abbondanza/ Bertoni.)

 

Black Saint & the Sinner Lady

Black Saint & the Sinner Lady

Honorable Mention: One of the first 45s I owned was Dee Dee Sharp’s 1962 #2 hit “Mashed Potato Time.” My slightly older neighbor and a couple of her friends came by one evening and asked me to give the song a spin on my little record player. These girls then began to dance the mashed potato and I was delirious! (Yes, from the mashed potato. They were older women, mysterious and provocative—even while doing a goofy dance named after a Luby’s specialty.) The only Dee Dee Sharp song I remember is this one, but she had no fewer than five top-ten pop hits [including “Gravy (for My Mashed Potatoes)”] in less than a year!

masoch)

Great Song Title: Tom Lehrer gave us “The Masochism Tango.” “I ache for the touch of your lips, dear / But much more for the touch of your whips, dear / You can raise welts like nobody else when we dance to the masochism tango.” Ole!

The Ramones gave us “Cretin Hop.” “There’s no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’!” Hey, ho, let’s go!

Dream Jukebox: Any great dance song makes a great jukebox song, but James Brown would get lots of slots.

I Love Music

I Love Music

The O’Jays sing “I love music / Any kind of music.” (Although The O’Jays go on to sing “I love music / Just as long as it’s groovin’.” So I do the O’jays one better, because a lot of the music I love—Tiny Tim, The Four Freshmen, Nino Rota—ain’t groovin’.)

I’m right there with ‘em. I love so many kinds of music that I’m sure many would think I’m not critical enough, not discriminating enough to make good musical judgments. After all, how can I explain loving Bukka White’s primal “Shake ‘em on Down” just as much as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians?

reich

Or The Ramones’ “Teenage Lobotomy” equally as much as The Pajama Game? But I do love all of those pieces of music, and so many more. I figure, with so many types of music out there, why limit the palette? A typical iPod Shuffle mix I take for running is the one I have now, which features this line-up of artists: Bob Wills, Afro-Bop Alliance, Girl Talk, James Brown, Charles Mingus, Rosemary Clooney, Led Zeppelin, Cannonball Adderley, and Bob Marley.

There are great songs about music in every musical genre. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “All Day Music” by War—The title song of War’s first album post-Eric Burdon is an ultra-smooth combo of soul, pop, and Latin grooves, with some sweet-‘n’-funky harmonies.

allday

  • “I Can Hear Music,” by The Beach Boys—The Beach Boys covered this song, written in 1966 by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Berry for the Ronettes, on their 1969 album 20/20. Brother Carl got the lead-vocal duty, and The Boys chime in with their waves of harmonies, their own Wall of Sound. “Sounds of the city, baby, seem to disappear.”
  • “Guitars, Cadillacs” by Dwight Yoakam—Yoakam had a big hit with this country & western throwback in 1986. “Yeah, my guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music / Is the only thing that keeps me hangin’ on.”
  • Let My Children Hear Music by Charles Mingus—Mingus called this album the best he’d ever made at the time (1972). I’d have to disagree, but it, like most other Mingus, is rich and strange. His compositions are full of references to the music of his predecessors, including Duke Ellington(“Open Letter to Duke”), Thelonious Monk (“Jump Monk”), Jelly Roll Morton (“My Jelly Roll Soul”), Charlie Parker (“Gunslinging Bird”), and Lester Young (“Good-bye, Porkpie Hat”).

mingus

  • “Where It’s At”—Beck’s 1995 album Odelay was a wild mishmash of hip-and-square samples, music styles, and interrupted grooves. It’s a celebration of the range of pop music, and this song of the guy with “two turntables and a microphone” is iconic.
  • “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”—This Duke Ellington song, like “The Song Is You,” equates true love with music. “I won’t know sweet music until you return some day.” It was a five-time top-ten hit in 1938, for Duke, as well as for Benny Goodman, Connee Boswell, Mildred Bailey, and Hot Lips Page.

mildred

  • “Talkin’ All That Jazz”—In 1988, Stetsasonic put out this early rap/hip-hop song that defended sampling, and rap in general, from its many critics.

Boswell Sisters Connee, Vet, and Martha, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Lullaby of Broadway” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Vet, Martha, & Connee

Vet, Martha, & Connee

Visitors to this blog may be put off by the eclecticism of my music choices. But I was fortunate to grow up during a period of musical experimentation, when Golden-Era crooners battled rockers and R&B-ers for space on the charts—and they were all on the same pop charts: Tony Bennett alongside Chuck Berry, right there with Merle Haggard and Jimi Hendrix. Why limit that wealth of musical creativity? Thankfully, though I’ve always been a music lover, I never became educated enough in any one area of music to look down on any other. I grew up a Beatlemaniac (after being an Elvis fan) and at the same time loved musicals.

christgau

My favorite music reference books are inclusive, as well. Rock critic Robert Christgau’s excellent Music Guides review jazz, soul, and C&W right along with pop and rock. The magazine he writes for, The Village Voice, conducts an annual “Pazz & Jop Poll” of best albums. Will Friedwald is not too keen on most rock ‘n’ roll, but his excellent Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers does something else I appreciate. It includes singers across the spectrum of pop music and jazz, without snubbing those on the easy listening end of the spectrum. Andy Williams, Dinah Shore, and Dean Martin are mixed right in with Billie Holiday, Mark Murphy, and Sarah Vaughan.

surprise

Now, a word or two about jazz, which I really didn’t get into until my late twenties. I find jazz to be as open as any type of music. It’s The Sound of Surprise—that’s the title of a book of jazz reviews by music critic Whitney Balliett. It’s as good a definition of jazz as any. The sound of surprise: the surprise of unexpected chords, and unexpected notes in those chords; the surprise of improvisation, a hallmark of much jazz performance; the surprise of rhythm changes, pushes, drags, hits, sizzles, silences; and the surprise of musical influences from Cuba, Japan, Mali, the Mississippi Delta.

I know some folks avoid jazz. That’s fine, but, in a way, saying “I don’t like jazz” is like saying “I don’t like sandwiches.” There are so many kinds of sandwiches—you have to like some kind of sandwich.  Is it the idea of sandwiches? Is it the idea of jazz?

I really do feel that my love of jazz is very much akin to my open-minded way of looking at things. Jazz is very spiritual and at the same time very human, very much a mixture of cultures—a beautiful music derived from isolation, struggle and pain.

Quota Songs: Their sentiments are nice, but I’ve heard plenty of “I Believe in Music,” “Listen to the Music,” and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

I never got tired, though, of Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Do You Believe in Magic?” “Then you’ll see how the magic’s in the music and the music’s in me.”

Eight Days a Week

Eight Days a Week

My buddy Bob over at The Vanity Mirror blog recently suggested a nifty topic: the days of the week. I liked the idea and decided to call the post “Eight Days a Week.” And then, last night, McCartney opened his concert with “Eight Days a Week.”

Thanks to the magnanimity of my pal Toby, my daughter and I got to see Sir Paul in concert last night. (Great seats, but still a crappy photo, above.) Amazing that a guy in his seventies still performs non-stop for three hours! The show was gear fab, and he did several favorites my daughter and I figured he wouldn’t do, including another day song, “Another Day.”

We’ll take the topic (like another song says) one day at a time.

fats d

Let’s start our week with Monday, and my favorite day-of-the-week song of all, “Blue Monday.” The Fats Domino classic hit the R&B charts at the tail-end of 1956, rising to #1, and got to #5 on the pop charts in ’57. It’s among Fats’ best, and is a great kickoff song for the theme because it not only mentions Monday but every other day of the week as well. (Paul McCartney’s Fats Domino tribute “Lady Madonna” names all but Saturday; Macca did that one last night, too.) It celebrates the weekend that makes Monday blue: “Sunday mornin’ my head is bad / But it’s worth it for the good times I’ve had / And I’ve got to get my rest ‘cause Monday’s a mess.”

My favorite Tuesday song is The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday.” For a while in ’67, this #1 hit edged The Beatles out of my top spot. (The Stones did that several times over the years.) The verses were kind of precious and sedate, and then they exploded into the sing-along chorus that dropped out at the end of the song for a soft flute coda. A nice song, and a terrific production. Stones fans may think I’m being blasphemous, though, when I say that I also very much enjoy Melanie’s cover of the song. I know, I know—her voice can sound a bit affected, a tad melodramatic, but I felt that suited the song. Oh well, her 1970 release only made it to #52.

chas m

I knew that there were many more songs about Friday, Saturday, and Sunday than there were about other days, but, once I embarked on this topic, I was surprised at just how few Wednesday and Thursday songs there are. All of the days of the week make for great song titles and lyrics, not only in the meter they allow but the mood they set, so why are there not more Wednesday and Thursday songs? Despite the paucity of Wednesday choices, there is one bona fide treasure, the lead-off song on Charles Mingus’s 1960 album Blues & Roots, “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.” The entire album is Mingus exploring the gospel and blues traditions and mixing them up. This song was the perfect way to get that going. The late ‘50s and early ‘60s were a fertile period for the great jazz composer, and this album is one of his best.

eartha thursday

My Thursday song is not very well-known, but it was recorded by several chanteuses in the ‘50s and ‘60s. “Thursday’s Child,” written by Elisse Boyd and Murray Grand, is based on (and begins with) the old poem that starts “Monday’s child is fair of face.” You’ll remember that “Thursday’s child has far to go.” I’ve heard some optimists interpret this with a Zig Ziglar spin, as a prediction of success. But the song doesn’t follow that tack: “The world could be a wonderful place / But not when you wear Thursday’s face.” Eartha Kitt identified with the song, which was the title song of her 1957 album. Eartha saw herself as a Thursday’s child, who has had to struggle through adversity to get her due. She even gave the first of her several memoirs that title, way back in 1956. And it was that book that inspired David Bowie to write his own “Thursday’s Child” four decades later.

I was tempted to let my top song god Thelonious Monk have the Friday slot, but I’m going to have to pass over his fine-but-not-top-shelf “Friday the 13th” for the 1967 rock classic “Friday on My Mind.” The Easybeats were darn near one-hit wonders in the U.S., barely edging onto the pop charts at #100 with follow-up “St. Louis” in ’69. (I don’t remember it either.) But The Easybeats are pop kings for their Friday song, which is jam-packed with vocal and guitar hooks. It’s clean and relentless. The group was Australian, and apparently did better there and in the UK. Another claim to fame: According to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, guitarists Harry Vanda and George Young “oversaw the career of Young’s brothers Angus and Malcolm’s band AC/DC.”

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke

Of the many Saturday songs, a lot of the best ones are Saturday night songs: Louis Jordan’s hoppin’ “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” The Eagles’ tender, wistful “Saturday Night,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.” My top pick, though, is the Sam Cooke hit “Another Saturday Night,” which was #10 pop and #1 R&B in ’63. It’s a buoyant sing-along song, despite its message of being SOL on party night. Amazing to me that Cat Stevens’ cover made it higher on the pop charts than Cooke’s original—to #7!

My Sunday choice, with many also-rans, is the Kris Kristofferson classic, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It’s the song that exposed him to the world, a song that perfectly captures the desolate aftermath of a routine Saturday night of dissolution. It also is a quintessential song of its time, the late ‘60s. Although Ray Stevens recorded it first, in 1969, his delivery’s too clean and neat. It is Johnny Cash’s song; his version rings the truest and bluest.

Cash LP cover

Honorable Mentions:

  • There are other Monday songs I enjoy, including the R&B bar room standard “Stormy Monday,” the shimmering Mamas and Papas hit “Monday, Monday,” and Fleetwood Mac’s peppy “Monday Morning.”
  • Another Tuesday tune of note is The Moody Blues’ early hit “Tuesday Afternoon” (sometimes called “Forever Afternoon”). It’s my favorite of theirs. I always thought Justin Hayward sounded like Ringo on the up-tempo middle eight. I also like Stevie Wonder’s “Tuesday Heartbreak,” from Talking Book, which I listened to incessantly one college semester.
  • “Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.” is minor Simon and Garfunkel, but it’s notable as the title song of their debut album.
  • I have no other Thursday songs, but another version of “Thursday’s Child,” recorded in 1959 by Abbey Lincoln for her Abbey is Blue album, is worth a listen.
  • Monk’s “Friday the 13th,” though it only is a repeated four-bar pattern, is Monk all the way, and he’s done a big band version that holds attention for eleven minutes. Bill Holman’s big band cover does the same for eight minutes.
  • Those Saturday night songs noted above? All great. Also, from Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s, there’s “Saturday Afternoon” and, for Sunday, “Young Girl Sunday Blues.” Tuneful psychedelia.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: Saturday night is Lynyrd Skynyrd territory, but the Bay City Rollers? More like Wednesday Brunch. And The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” sounds more like “Torpid Tuesday.”

Sheb Wooley, as his alter-ego Ben Colder, made a live-recording spoof of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in 1971. It is lame and off-base, like a Hee-Haw outtake. He should’ve stopped at “The Purple People Eater.”

Time Loves a Hero

Time Loves a Hero

I’ve never been much of a superhero kind of guy. And by that, I’m not referring to my lack of super-powers. I just never read comics and never watched the superhero shows growing up—except for Batman, which I appreciated as kitsch even as a child. The stars, terse Adam West as Batman and excitable Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin, struck just the right tone of self-parody, and the theme, by Neal Hefti, was always a favorite TV theme. I have owned, for almost 50 years now, The Ventures Play the Batman Theme, from 1966. “Batman Theme” composer Neal Hefti could be in my Hall of Honor for his TV themes alone—he also composed The Odd Couple’s theme—but he did a stint as a composer and arranger for the great Count Basie, most notably of the song “Cute,” which is about as perfect a musical representation of the word as I can imagine. (And without itself being too cute.)

ventures

hefti

Another superhero theme/jazz composer connection involves Spiderman. I never watched the show, and only reluctantly saw the first movie, dragged to the theater by a kid. But the show’s theme song was familiar to me and everyone else. It certainly must’ve sounded familiar to Charles Mingus, whose 1959 song “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” bears much more than a passing resemblance to the later TV theme. I don’t know of any plagiarism lawsuit, but it would’ve been a slam-dunk for Mingus. “Boogie Stop Shuffle” is just one gem among the flawless line-up that is the 1959 album Mingus, Ah-Um. Mingus was at his peak here, and two of the selections, “Good-bye, Porkpie Hat” and “Better Get It in Your Soul,” are bona fide jazz classics.

ah um

Everybody loves the superhero Mighty Mouse. Not everybody loves Andy Kaufman, but one of his best bits capitalized on the appeal of the little mouse that could. His Mighty Mouse sketch is firmly in the Andy Kaufman camp camp, but is fun for all ages. When he opens his portable record player, starts up the Mighty Mouse theme, and exuberantly lip-syncs “Here I come to save the day!”, it’s like Our Gang’s Alfalfa serenading cute little Darla with all he’s got. And then you wait for it to come around again, as impatient as Andy. Simple and brilliant.

Cannonball's Big Man

Cannonball’s Big Man

Hero of American folklore John Henry may have been a real guy, a guy who drilled a railroad tunnel with his bare hands, whuppin’ a steam-powered machine—and then up ‘n’ died. John and son Alan Lomax collected 23 verses of the song “John Henry,” and also published a modest five-verse variant, in their American Ballads and Folk Songs compilation of 1934. A hundred years after the legendary event, jazz artist Cannonball Adderley revisited the John Henry story in an ambitious, hour-long musical work called Big Man. Cannonball’s four-year effort to create Big Man may have hastened his death, a couple of years after its completion, much like John Henry’s efforts killed him. Alas, Big Man was not a success and not the crowning achievement in his career that Adderley may have hoped it would be.

My favorite movie soundtracks are mostly by Bernard Herrmann (Fahrenheit 451, Taxi Driver, and those of Hitchcock’s fifties classics) and Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks. One exception, from 1972, is the soundtrack for Super Fly. Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack for the popular movie that featured a black antihero, a ghetto icon, netted him two top-ten hits, both jewels: “Freddie’s Dead” and the title track. The whole album is fantastic, a delight to listen to forty years after the last time I saw the movie.

super fly

The funhouse-carnival conglomeration that is “Heroes and Villains” now fits comfortably in the Smile assemblage and in the Beach Boys canon, but it baffled some pop-music lovers when it came out. Ron Chapman, a powerful Dallas radio and TV host who channeled hit radio to the area for decades, pronounced it one of the worst singles he’d ever heard. Beach Boy Mike Love scorned it as another example of Brian Wilson’s lyricist partner Van Dyke Parks’ “acid alliteration.” It could’ve been a mess, mixing tempos and rhythms, barbershop harmonies and rock chords, and inserting “dum-da-dooby-doo-wah” parts, accompanied by a slide whistle. But it’s an aural adventure that makes perfect sense in its proper context.

Honorable Mention: I also must mention David Bowie’s song “Heroes,” from the 1977 album of the same name. “We could be heroes / Just for one day.”

Quota Song: I tended to prefer Jim Croce’s ballads to his jivey up-tempo songs about badasses. Plus, they were definitely overplayed back in the day. But that first one had a nice chorus: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape / You don’t spit into the wind / You don’t pull the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger / And you don’t mess around with Jim.” Yep, he’s a badass.

tiny tim

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: I sometimes go out on a limb to stand up for Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury. Like the TV Batman, his shtick was kitsch, and I found it to be pretty dang entertaining. I pulled out Tiny Tim’s Second Album (1968) recently, because it has a nutty cover of “Great Balls of Fire,” and I’ve just finished reading Rick Bragg’s terrific new bio Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. “My Hero,” the penultimate song on the album, tries too hard, though, and is over the top even for Mr. Tim. He sings a duet with himself, as a male and female pair, with overkill strings all around.

Nonmusical Note: And now, my own closest encounter with a hero. In the mid- and late-seventies, I played in a band that toured a circuit of clubs, performing Tuesday through Saturday night in one city for a month and then moving on to the next one. The clubs were usually located in suburbs and the motels we stayed in were usually suburban chains, like Motel 6 or, if we were lucky, La Quinta. In Phoenix, for a reason I can’t recall or explain, we were booked to stay in a huge old hotel downtown, despite the fact that, as usual, the club was nowhere near downtown. The Westward Ho was a 16-story landmark, the tallest building in Phoenix until 1960. It was converted into senior housing in 1980.

Most days of our month there, guitar player Wildcat and I headed up the street to run and work out at the Downtown Phoenix YMCA. One day after a run, I sat in the sauna with three older men. The extremely hairy guy next to me, who identified himself as a priest, tapped my shoulder and gestured to a fit black man on the opposite bench. “Do you know who that is?” the priest asked. “That’s Jesse Owens!” He didn’t have to elaborate. I knew all about the great runner who showed Adolph Hitler up at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I had devoured a Jesse Owens biography (the orange hardback bios that every library used to stock) as a kid.

“Jesse Owens?” I spluttered. I rose, clutching my towel around me, to shake his hand. “You’re one of my heroes!” He was gracious, and we all sat together in the sauna for a few more minutes. I could not believe I was sweating alongside one of the truly great Americans, forty years after his Olympic accomplishments. My greatest brush with greatness.

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