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You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover

I’m as big a reader as I am a music-listener. I have worked for a book company for thirty years, and for years before that in libraries, at the same time performing music as often as I could. Downtime has almost always involved reading or listening to music. Quite often, I’m reading about music, despite Martin Mull’s awkward but oft-quoted assertion that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Sure, it helps to have heard the music being referred to in an essay or review or blog post, but it’s nice to think that a reader may be encouraged to explore unfamiliar music further. And sharing thoughts on music with others who’ve reacted to the same music in their own way is one of the best ways I know of to waste time.

But what, then, of songs about books? That would seem to be an even worse idea than books about songs, but there have been some great songs about books, and I would like to do a little architectural dancing about a few of my favorites.

ella 2

“I Could Write a Book” This is one of the many gems in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart catalogue. The song was written for the 1940 show Pal Joey, and was notably covered by Ella Fitzgerald on her Rodgers & Hart “songbook album.”

Richard Rodgers wrote numerous gorgeous melodies, working under deadlines with a partner who was a drunk, sidestepping the demands of imperious producers and temperamental stars. Beauty produced—voila!—on demand and under pressure, time after time. It truly is incredible that Rodgers (and, yes, his brilliant, besotted lyricist Lorenz Hart) created so many songs that have endured.

The music man and the librarian

The music man and the librarian

“Marian the Librarian”   It took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and his mentor, Guys and Dolls creator Frank Loesser, urged him on.

Robert Preston, as Music Man (and con man) Harold Hill, falls for the town librarian, played on Broadway in 1957 by Barbara Cook (who won a Tony for her performance) and in the hit ’62 movie by Shirley Jones, later the matriarch of The Partridge Family. Hill pitches woo by singing “Ma-a-a-arian, Madame Libra-a-a-arian,” proving once again that book people have an irresistible allure.

My 45 has a misprinted title

My 45 has a misprinted title

“You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” I remember hearing this almost overpowering song on the radio when it came out in 1962. It blew my little nine-year-old mind. I imagine I’d heard other Bo Diddley hits—“”Hey Bo Diddley,” “Who Do You Love?”—by that time, but this one hit me so hard it rattled me. All these decades later, when I spin the 45, I still get a little rattled.

It’s one of the few Bo did that he didn’t write, and one of the few without the trademark Bo Diddley beat, but it sits right up there with his best.

“Don’t Stand So Close to Me”   Sting was reflecting on his pre-rockstar days as a teacher when he wrote “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which became a #10 US hit in 1980. He was inspired by Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, referring specifically to “that book by Nabokov” in the song’s lyrics. Sting insists that, although he was attracted to some of his young students back in the day, this song of a teacher’s affair with a pupil was not autobiographical.

The single’s B-side, “Friends,” written by Police guitarist Andy Summers, was reportedly inspired by another book, Robert H. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

“Wuthering Heights” Another English pop singer wrote a song based on Emily Bronte’s only novel. “Wuthering Heights” was Kate Bush’s debut single and went all the way to #1 in England—although it didn’t do so well in the US. I prefer the version by The Puppini Sisters, a three-part close-harmony group. They’re from England, too, but they modeled themselves on The Andrews Sisters and my own favorites, The Boswell Sisters. They give Catherine and Heathcliff’s story a little swingy bounce, which, I think, is what it’s always needed.

1984

“1984” George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has inspired many songwriters. David Bowie’s “1984” came out a decade before the year in question, while Spirit’s got in fifteen years ahead. Bowie wrote “1984” and other songs, including “Big Brother,” for a never-produced musical based on the book. Stevie Wonder had written and recorded his own “Big Brother” in 1972. Many other pop songs of that era, of course, covered themes of government surveillance and power over the masses. And the hits just keep on comin’.

“Book of Love” Last but not least is this doo-wop ditty by The Monotones. I missed it when it came out in 1957, but it became a favorite when it was included in the movie American Graffiti. Great group name, but The Monotones were not monotonous at all.

love

Honorable Mentions: Love’s “My Little Red Book” (written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David) and Duke Ellington’s “My Little Brown Book” (written by Billy Strayhorn); “Every Day I Write the Book” by Elvis Costello; Dylan’s original or The Byrds’ cover of “My Back Pages”

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: There are a couple of diary songs that I got enough of quick. Bread’s “Diary,” with its twist ending, was clever, but in a Hallmark Hall of Fame way. The Moody Blues’ “Dear Diary” is one I skipped back when I was playing the album it’s on. Ray Thomas’s vocals were never up to the standard of Hayward or Lodge, and the Leslie effects are annoying.

Spotlight: The Things I Love

Spotlight: The Things I Love

This “Songs on a Theme” post doesn’t follow my usual M.O. I’ve been at this blog about a year now—seventy posts, all of them little meandering essays that incorporate interesting or favorite songs that fit the theme of that post. There’ve been some readers, a few commenters and likers here and there. Thanks to you all! I’ve kept at it because I enjoy it, and I hope to continue posting songs on a theme as long as that remains so.

I have no doubt frustrated some readers by including songs I’m truly fond of but that they are not familiar with. And then, on top of that, I have refused to post videos so that the reader can hear the music I’m writing about. A few readers have asked why that is. I do have reasons. Maybe not very good reasons, but they influenced my decision to go video-less.

Those reasons are:

  • Video selections may not be the recording I refer to.
  • Videos are occasionally removed from the site. I can’t control that.
  • Videos often include irritating, irrelevant ads.
  • I write these essays intending that they be read straight through. I know that’s not the way most people read these days, but I like books. When I read music essays and criticism about music I’m not familiar with, I grab my iTunes or YouTube after I read to hear the music I read about.
  • I refer to a number of songs in each post. I would not want to post a video of every song, even if I could find good representative videos. They make for slower loading, more interruptions to the text.

But that last point brings me to this diversionary post, which will be the first in a series. I’ve decided to pick out a few of the songs I’ve had something to say about in my blog posts, songs that mean something to me but that may not be known to most readers. Each of these diversionary posts will feature one song video, accompanied by what I originally wrote about it. A little video trip through my past year of Songs on a Theme.

My first choice is “The Things I Love” by the Fidelity’s. Here’s the video, followed by what I said about the song in the post Nature Boy:

This sentimental big-band favorite, written by Harold Barlow and Lewis Harris and introduced by Jimmy Dorsey in 1941, qualifies as a nature song, I think. It’s really a love song couched in observations of the natural things the singer loves: sunset’s glow, fireflies at play, nodding tulips—and, of course, a lady’s “sweet voice” and “lovely eyes.” A version by The Fidelity’s (their apostrophe, not mine) was released in 1958. It is a soaring, gorgeous melody. The repetitive nature of most songs of the doo-wop era made songs revived from earlier eras, with their less predictable chord patterns, stand out. (Although, at a peak of only #60 on the Billboard pop chart, you couldn’t really say that this one stood out very much.)

 

I Shot the Sheriff

I Shot the Sheriff

At the Sunday acoustic jam circle I used to frequent, a fellow named Dollar Bill specialized in old folk and bluegrass numbers with novel lyrics. Many of the songs involved death, often murder—so many, in fact, that another jammer used to keep a body count as Dollar Bill sang. He introduced one song to the jam as a song about Greek hillbillies. It was a Mark Graham tune called “Oedipus Rex,” and it had a little down-home spin on the Greek tragedy: “Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Rex / Another sad story of death and sex / You killed your pa and you married your ma / They don’t even do that in Arkansas!” I’ve long been familiar with another popular-song riff on the story, Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex,” which notes that “he loved his mother like no other / His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.”

tom lehrer

“Miss Otis Regrets” is a Cole Porter classic, a smooth and sedate ballad that gradually unfolds the tale of a high-society woman who won’t be making a lunch date. Over three verses, the woman’s servant delivers the message that Miss Otis shot her lover dead, was sent to jail, and lynched by a mob. Each verse ends with the line “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” Brilliant! Porter evidently wrote it as a challenge, a parlor game—but it has become a classic. Many have sung it. Miss Fitzgerald sang it best.

ellacole

The Bobbettes were a doo-wop group who wrote their own songs, which was pretty uncommon. Even more incredibly, they were a quintet of schoolgirls of the ages of eleven to thirteen when they came up with their biggest hit, “Mr. Lee.” They sound like brats as they sing about a man based on a teacher they didn’t like. But they sound like cute and playful brats. It paid off, going to #6 pop and #1 R&B. After a few other tries at hits, they decided to revisit Mr. Lee and sing about how they really felt, with the song “I Shot Mr. Lee.” Rough stuff for some teeny-bopper doo-woppers! “One, two, three / I shot Mr. Lee.” It was their second-biggest hit, but only made it to #52.

On the haunting side of murder songs (because, really, songs about murder should be haunting), the Skip James song “Crow Jane” is timeless and disturbing. Skip’s eerie falsetto tells the story of a man who shot his woman, Crow Jane, and now regrets it. Her crime? She “holds her head too high.” He had enough and killed her, then wails as they lay her in her grave. A masterpiece in the “Frankie and Johnny,” “Little Delia” mold—but much moodier.

skip

Nehemiah “Skip” James did some recording and performing in the twenties and thirties, and then became a preacher, working mostly outside the music trade. In the early ‘60s, James was one of those blues artists who were rediscovered, introduced to the wider world at a Newport Folk Festival (in his case, in 1964), and made several great late-career recordings. The album Today! is an excellent way to get to know Skip James, and includes the beautiful and unsettling “Crow Jane.”

Blues great Bessie Smith, in 1927, pleads with a judge to “Send Me to the Electric Chair.” She doesn’t want bail or jail. She caught him messin’ around, but she sings that she doesn’t “want no sympathy, ‘cause I done cut my good man’s throat.” It’s a story repeated often in blues, from poor Frankie to the present.

Now, about Frankie. I’ve heard many, many versions of “Frankie and Johnny,” no two just alike. But in 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and his son Alan collected it, in American Ballads and Folk Songs, as “Frankie and Albert.” A footnote states that there were over 300 variants of the song in the collection of Robert A. Gordon at that time, and that “no one has ever heard precisely the same song sung by two individuals, unless they happen to be roommates.” And that was eighty years ago! The footnote adds, “Frankie, the heroine of this tragedy, yet lives, according to report, somewhat aloof to the curious only, in Seattle, Washington.”

lomax

The song’s story is always the same. Frankie gets tired of putting up with Albert—or Johnny—and plugs him. “He was her man, but he done her wrong.”

I can only recall two times that I have heard a song on the radio that made me pull the car over and listen, enraptured. One was a selection sung by The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. (Don’t let the name fool you; the a cappella sound these ladies make is ethereal. It ran me off the road. The choir appears on the two volumes of Le Mystere du Voix Bulgares.) The other instance involved my first exposure to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The harmonized Freddie Mercury sections just blew me away. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” The music was so astounding that it was only much later that I realized that the song was a killer’s confession. Brian May’s guitar solos are pretty dang nice, too. Still a monument of pop music, the best harmonies outside of The Beach Boys.

bob marley

Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” brought Bob Marley to the attention of the United States. Marley’s song wasn’t changed very much by Clapton in his cover version. But Bob’s vocal quality suits his song, and all of his songs, to such an extent that the original Marley-sung versions are always the best. The song represents injustice of the powers that be, here played by Sheriff John Brown, over those who are not in power.

Honorable Mention: I just watched for the second time a documentary about Jimi Hendrix. It shows parts of several bravura performances of his breakout song, “Hey Joe.” Jimi completely reimagined the Billy Roberts folk song that was a hit for The Leaves in ’66. The Jimi Hendrix Experience hit version is the definitive one.

Dream Jukebox: Although I’d prefer The Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee,” I would settle for “I Shot Mr. Lee.”

 

Although many of these murder songs are love songs, this post was not meant to be a Valentine’s Day-themed post. But, now that we’re here, what are your favorite songs of love and murder?

Oh What a Nite

Oh What a Nite

Of the myriad songs of night, I do have a favorite. Dr. John’s “Such a Night” is a timeless, magical song I never get tired of. Maybe that’s because, aside from home, New Orleans is the place I’d most like to spend an evening.

It appeared on the 1973 album In the Right Place, which was produced by the great New Orleans music impresario Allen Toussaint. Toussaint also played keyboards, guitars, and percussion; sang and arranged vocals; and arranged and conducted the band. The song is deep, deep New Orleans, with the Bonnaroo Horns lazily answering Dr. John’s vocals, and Toussaint’s piano and The Meters rhythm section reinforcing the whole thing.

dr john

Dr. John’s previous album, Gumbo, is a New Orleans extravaganza I slightly prefer to this album, but “Right Place Wrong Time,” “Life,” and “Such a Night” are gems in the Dr. John (and Allen Toussaint) canon.

One night song is associated, by me and many others, with certain kinds of nights—those spent in the bars. Many a bar band has used the 1952 song “Night Train” as a break song. It’s a nice R&B workout to end a set and a good cue for the audience to do a little mingling, drink-ordering, and relief work. Most people know it as a James Brown song, but his version, with his recitation of cities on his tours, wasn’t issued until 1961.

James "Night Train" Brown

James “Night Train” Brown

It was Jimmy Forrest who first recorded “Night Train,” in ’52. He’s credited as the writer, but it goes back a decade. The Duke Ellington composition “Happy Go Lucky Local” was written in 1946 as part of Duke’s Deep South Suite. “Happy Go Lucky Local” was funked up and expanded upon by Forrest, who had been an Ellington sax player, but it’s recognizably the same song.

duke

But the song goes back even farther than that, and involves another Duke sideman. In 1940, Saxophonist Johnny Hodges had recorded a song called “That’s the Blues, Old Man” with his offshoot band. Mentor Duke, as he was often wont to do, lifted the main riff of the Hodges tune for his own song. Jimmy Forrest, I guess, was saxophonist karma for Duke. Forrest himself got horned-in on by two lyric writers, who wound up with songwriter royalties. A complicated history for such a basic little song!

“Nights When I Am Lonely” is pretty straight and tame for a Boswell Sisters harmony number. It’s an A part repeated four times, and, although the girls go into some Boswellese vocal hijinks on verse three, it’s really just a cute ditty, not a great indicator of the sisterly genius to come. But it is a song of great importance, as one side of the very first Boswell Sisters record, cut in 1925 for the Victor Talking Machine Company. It was backed with “I’m Gonna Cry.” The sisters, all still in their teens, recorded five songs during their first session, all written by oldest sister Martha, but the other three were never issued.

bos legacy

As Vet’s granddaughter Kyla Titus notes in her book The Boswell Legacy, “I’m Gonna Cry” isn’t a typical Boswell Sisters record. They’re all three on it, but kept to special roles. Martha played piano, and evidently didn’t sing a note. Thirteen-year-old Vet did a horn break, using her voice, in the middle, and sister Connie sang the lead in her best Bessie Smith voice. Not typical Boswells, but pretty entertaining, with Connie, at seventeen, already showing strong pipes.

Connie, of course, later emerged as a solo recording artist (as Connee Boswell), thanks to her husband/ manager Harry Leedy, who never was as fond of the trio as the rest of the world was. Once Connie’s sisters got married, Connie and Harry took the opportunity to write them out of the picture, telling the world that Martha and Vet preferred domestic harmony to musical harmony. Martha and Vet privately said otherwise. Of course, it’s the Sisters who are music legends, as a group, all these years later, while solo Connee isn’t heard much at all.

Among my favorite doo-wop numbers is The Dells’ 1956 Vee-Jay recording of “Oh What a Nite.” It was an R&B hit, and Vee-Jay released it again three years later, but it took a re-recording of the song, as “Oh What a Night,” in 1969 to finally make the pop charts, at #10. It’s kind of a freak. It’s been embellished, with a spoken intro and more instrumentation, but it seems like a transplant from the previous decade. I prefer the simple, straight original, but I am impressed by the group’s persistence with this song, and I’m glad they finally had some success with it.

In addition to their unusual record three-peat, The Dells had another distinction. According to Jay Warner’s Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, they sang as a backup group on more than sixty records by other artists. On Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger,” Warner says, they could’ve received co-billing. “Shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby”—yep, that’s The Dells.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Another “Oh What a Night”—actually “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”—is on my least-favorite list. The Four Seasons had a late #1 pop hit with this disco stew that doesn’t evoke 1963, or the great Four Seasons of that year. Even people who like disco can’t think this is a good song. They should’ve at least gotten The Dells to sing the “doo-da-doo-doo-t-doo-doot-doo” part.

Dream Jukebox: A great candidate would be the Dells’ 1956 “Oh What a Nite.” And Dr. John’s “Such a Night” would have to be on hand for just such a night that calls for it.

Best Song Intro: When Lenny and Squiggy perform “Night After Night” on Happy Days, Squiggy introduces the song this way: “This song is called ‘Night After Night,’ and it’s about two nights in a row.”

Which songs of night are your favorites?

Twilight Time

Twilight Time

Sunset is the time during which the sun disappears behind the horizon. Twilight is the period of time during which you can’t see the sun but can see its fading light and begin to make out bright stars. Dusk is the period of time during which sunlight goes away and faint stars begin to appear. Collectively, I define sunset/ twilight/dusk as the period of time during which I most like to sit on a lawn chair in the backyard and drink a beer.

There are many fine songs of sunset, several of twilight, and nearly none of dusk, that I’m aware of.

platters 2

Some may characterize the recordings of The Platters as schmaltzy, melodramatic, cornball. So be it; to those people, I will say that The Platters (and The Ink Spots—see below) are a guilty pleasure. I love the ringing tenor voice of Tony Williams, and I’d put “Only You,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “Twilight Time” on my all-time favorite singles list. Jay Warner, in his Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, writes that a 1958 promotional film of The Platters performing “Twilight Time” just might be “the first precursor of music videos.” The song made it to #1 pop and R&B in the US, #1 in Australia, and #3 in the UK.

doowop

No, that’s not The Impacts–but their song is on this collection

 

Of the same era is the exuberant revved-up version of “Canadian Sunset” recorded by The Impacts in 1959. It is among the most entertaining of all doo-wop productions, with a downright nutty bass vocal line, splashy four-part upward stair-step harmonies, and a wailing falsetto part. It pulls this sedate standard into the pop rock world, after a smooth instrumental version by composer Eddie Heywood, with Hugo Winterhalter, and a smooth crooner version by Andy Williams. It was quite an improvement, in my opinion. But Eddie and Andy both scored top-ten hits, and the Impacts, whose version was a miss, faded into obscurity, paid, according to Billy Vera in his liner notes to the Doo-Wop Box II collection, union-scale $22.50 per man for their effort. A great effort it was, but, alas, The Impacts made no impact.

Not a cover Monk was proud of

Not a cover Monk was proud of

If you can name a song with the word crepuscule in its title, you are most likely a Thelonious Monk fan. He used the word to name his exquisite and majestic ballad “Crepuscule with Nellie.” Crepuscule is a synonym for twilight. Nellie was Monk’s devoted wife. It’s a nice tableau, a loving couple enjoying the twilight time, but I doubt that it ever happened. They lived in the heart of New York City, and Monk didn’t get out much, at least not to sit and savor the fading sunlight. But the song perfectly captures the mood of impending darkness, in all its mystery and rich, changing color. Monk recorded the song quite a few times, solo and with bands.

Monk only recorded “North of the Sunset” once, for the album Solo Monk, which was released in 1965. It’s a pretty basic 12-bar blues number—lesser Monk, which means it’s still worth listening to. It’s one of only four Monk originals on the album; the others are the minor “Monk’s Point” and the beautiful classics “Ruby, My Dear” and “Ask Me Now.” The covers are outstandingly Monkified, with highlights being “Sweet and Lovely,” “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You),” and “Everything Happens to Me” (which Monk also had included on his Alone in San Francisco album in 1959).

k kron

Music critic Robert Christgau has called The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” the “most beautiful song in the English language.” It’s sung by a shut-in, who seems to long for the world outside but can’t join it. He watches Terry and Julie, who “don’t need no friends. As long as they gaze on Waterloo Sunset, they are in paradise.” It really is gorgeous, in a simple, scaled-down way. It’s a small masterpiece. Ray Davies has said in interviews that he wrote it while recovering in a hospital from an illness, looking wistfully out the window at people passing by.

I have always been more prone to admiration of the tenor vocalists of pop—the higher, the better—over the baritones and basses. Roy Orbison, Brian and Carl Wilson, Al Green, Steve Perry. The tenors were brighter and flashier and tended to be the most lauded, and the rock solid baritones soldiered on, overshadowed (or had their circumscribed role, like The Impacts’ bass-man’s counterpoint lines). One singer with a fine, rich baritone that I long overlooked was Lou Rawls. Of course, his biggest hit, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” was just too cheesy for me. The song, a disco staple, didn’t appeal, so the singer also did not appeal. It was only when I heard the earthier, meatier Rawls sound of his debut album Stormy Monday that I really began to appreciate the guy’s chops.

lou rawls

A highlight of the album is the up-tempo blues song “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down).” Lou gets a nice blues feel on this number and sounds like he’s having a good time, closer to his beginnings as a gospel singer in the fifties with The Pilgrim Travelers. Big Bill Broonzy had had his own popular version of “In the Evening,” a blues classic written by Leroy Carr. If Lou had stayed in the vein of his first album, which featured this number, the title track, and other blues-jazz cuts backed by Les McCann and his trio, he may not have ever hit the big time, but his legacy might have been more interesting.

Leroy Carr’s song has been recorded by many artists, not only as “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down),” but as “In the Evening” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Pete Seeger, Joe Williams, Big Joe Turner—all have recorded it with their own stylings. Other than the Lou Rawls version, my favorite is The Ink Spots version (recorded as “When the Sun Goes Down” in 1938), which finds them at their bluesiest, harmonious best.

Dream Jukebox: I’d be happy to have “Twilight Time” and The Impacts’ “Canadian Sunset” on the box, and “Waterloo Sunset,” which was issued as a single in 1967. And the 78 of The Ink Spots’ “When the Sun Goes Down” would be nice, too, if it could be accommodated.

However, the song I would find most ideal for watching a Texas sunset in the backyard, beer in hand, is Monk’s “Crepuscule with Nellie.”

I Just Wanna Make Love To You

I Just Wanna Make Love To You

If you figure that 90% of all pop songs are about love, you can figure that at least 80% of those are really about sex. Even a teen angst song like “Puppy Love” is dripping with pent-up urges. And “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” is downright saturated.

Cole Porter was always pushing the boundaries. Listeners knew that many of his songs of love were songs of sex. “Let’s Do It” is a sexy title, but after talking about how birds and bees and “even educated fleas” do it, the punch line is “Let’s do it—let’s fall in love.” In 1940, Lee Wiley did one of the better versions of the song. She has a good time with it, and is well-supported by a good band.

lee

I read back in the early ‘80s about a study of what the researchers conducting the study called ANR—for acute nipple response. (I can hear the “scientists” saying, “Yes, ma’am, this is a scientific study. Now come over and sit in this chair, please, and put these clamps on.”)

This groundbreaking study—which took place in my hometown, Richardson, Texas, as it happens—measured the ANR of its subjects to various songs that they listened to on headphones. The winner? The Rufus song “Tell Me Something Good” won hands-down (so to speak), and particularly the heavy-breathing sections that precede each chorus. Off the charts! Now, I would’ve been rooting for Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” but, y’know, they probably didn’t even give that one a try.

“Tell Me Something Good” was not the first AM hit to include heavy breathing, but it was probably the first in which the breathing sounded sweaty and provocative, not fake and namby-pamby. It didn’t hurt that singer Chaka Khan, on this first exposure to the masses, revealed a very earthy and sensuous vocal quality. She couldn’t help but exude sex when she sang anything—“Sweet Thing,” “Once You Get Started.” If she had come out with a version of “Copacabana,” it may have also pegged out the ANR scale.

Frank as Ruben

Frank as Ruben

A side project of love for Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention was the 1968 album Ruben and the Jets. Zappa became Ruben Sano, leading his band through some slightly warped odes to the doo-wop era. The songs are all originals [Frank and fellow Mother (fellow Mother—I like that!) Ray Collins actually wrote some doo-wop numbers in the early sixties during the waning days of the style], and almost could pass as a ten-years-older work recorded by a real doo-wop group, but the Zappa production and lyric touches keep pushing through the facade. A favorite is the album opener “Cheap Thrills,” which, after the slow, ice-cream-changes intro, is a driving, one-track-mind song of lust, harmonized over two chords. It says what the Crests, the Cadillacs, the Falcons, and every 16-year-old boy wanted to say in 1958 but couldn’t: “Cheap thrills in the back of my car” would feel so fine.

mae

On the queasier side of things, Mae West returned in her seventies, after a long hiatus, to the entertainment world, a more tongue-in-cheek sexbomb than she had been in her ‘30s heyday—although her sex shtick was always over-the-top self-parody. She recorded an album, Way Out West in 1966, with a group of young pups who look on the LP jacket like they could use a little birds ‘n’ bees schoolin’ from the old pro. (Lecture only, of course—no demonstrations.) The album hit the middle reaches of Billboard, and until 2011, Mae held the record for oldest female solo artist to chart. (Wanda Jackson broke it.) It is a real piece of work, like its artist, with a line-up of covers of rockin’ hanky-panky hits, like “You Turn Me On” and “Twist and Shout.” She even covers John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” The only track I’ve listened to more than once is the delirious “Shakin’ All Over.” Her warbly delivery of the line “Quivers down mah backbone” sounds like a macho Tiny Tim, and gives me a whole different kind of backbone quiver. Not sure just what it is, but she’s still got it!

My Baby Just Cares

“Makin’ whoopee” is such an antiquated term these days that it has come back around as an innocent way to refer to sex. (Hasn’t it? Or is it just me?) There were three hit versions of the song “Makin’ Whoopee” in 1929, most notably the version by Eddie Cantor, who sang it on Broadway in the show Whoopee. I imagine it was pretty titillating for audiences to hear back then, even if sung by a funny-looking, bug-eyed comedian. I do, however, think it could make a comeback with a verse updated for the younger set. (And just using the phrase “younger set,” I know, puts me way out of it.) It’d go something like this: “He sits alone and oversexed / He grabs the phone, sends her a text / She puts her book up / She wants a hookup / They’re makin’ whoopee.”

Possibly the least sexy sex song ever is “Afternoon Delight.” I think of it every time I watch primetime network news, whose viewing audience now includes almost no one under 50, if you go by the target demographic of their incessant ads for heart pills, joint-pain pills, and other remedies for the aging. Most ubiquitous are the ads for help-you-get-it-up-and-keep-it-up pills.

These commercials feature fit and relatively unmarred senior couples sharing in an activity—a round of golf, a checkers game—that puts a twinkle in his eye and a bashful grin on her face, and, next thing you know, they’re out of control, heading toward the bedroom, with a brief stop on the way to pop a Cialis. So, whenever you’re angling for a little afternoon delight, just get out the checkerboard.

Honorable Mention: The gorgeous Duke Ellington composition “Warm Valley” takes on a whole new feel once you know that the title refers to a particular aspect of the female form. They had to be a lot more creative with their titles back then. Although “Ain’t Gonna Give You None of This Jelly Roll” leaves little to the imagination.

Randy: Maybe he's doing it wrong.

Randy: Maybe he’s doing it wrong.

Great Song Titles: Randy Newman came up with my two favorite song titles related to sex. Both are like headlines in The Onion: You don’t need to hear the songs, really, like you don’t really need to read the Onion articles (but the songs are very enjoyable, as are most Onion articles). Oh, the song titles? “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and “Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong.”

Conway Twitty had a #1 C&W single with “I Can See the Want To in Your Eyes.” I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard the song, but that title is nutty genius. The song was written by Wayne Carson and the aptly named Mischa Scorer.

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Billie Holiday is the appropriate artist to represent the moon. Her second hit, in 1935, was “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” She also had hits with “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” “It’s Like Reaching for the Moon,” and “I Wished on the Moon.” A nice bio of Lady Day by Donald Clarke is called Wishing on the Moon.

billie bio

The moon has inspired songwriters of all eras and genres to create some of their best work. My own favorite song list includes more moon songs than those of any other subject. So here are the moon songs I moon over.

Sheet music for "Moonglow / Theme from Picnic"

Sheet music for “Moonglow / Theme from Picnic”

The full moon at the top of my list is “Moon Glow.” It was written in 1934, and was a top hit that year for Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. (As Ellington sideman Rex Stewart noted in his memoir Boy Meets Horn, “Moon Glow” owes a big debt to [meaning ripped off] Duke’s 1932 composition “Lazy Rhapsody,” which wasn’t a hit—so I guess Duke got a little payback from the steal.) Billie Holiday recorded it, too. It became a hit again more than twenty years later when Morris Stoloff combined it with the theme from the movie Picnic. My sheet music for the movie tie-in shows an almost shirtless William Holden and a pleading Kim Novak in some sort of romantic entanglement. Somehow, I have never managed to see the movie, but I imagine it’s the theme song I’d still appreciate the most. “We seemed to float right through the air.” Magic! My current favorite version is a vocal-group rendition by The Ravens, which features the sonorous bass vocals of Ricky Ricks.

Back cover, Nilsson Schmilsson

Back cover, Nilsson Schmilsson

Waning only a wee bit from “Moon Glow” is Harry Nilsson’s “The Moonbeam Song,” from the 1971 masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson. It is one of Harry’s finest songs, right up there with “Remember,” “Turn on Your Radio,” and “Without Her.” The song sounds like it could’ve come right out of a ‘30s movie—except for a line that places it in the ‘70s: “Or on a fence with bits of crap around its bottom…” You wouldn’t have heard Fred Astaire or Der Bingle singing that one. A little schmilsson to add texture to the charming Nilsson. Harry Nilsson also recorded “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” on his 1973 album of standards A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” did come from a thirties movie. The songwriters who went on to create “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” and other gems for The Wizard of Oz came up with “It’s Only a Paper Moon” in 1933. The lyrics by Yip Harburg (with Billy Rose) perfectly complement Harold Arlen’s music. It’s all about the depth and meaning a loved one brings to the singer’s life. “Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” This song was in the movie Take a Chance in 1933, and made it into Paper Moon in 1973 and Funny Lady in 1975.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” is ominous, but the cascading guitar chords of John Fogerty’s guitar cut the gloom and make the song quite peppy. I’ve sung it at parties, and the drunks always sing along gaily: “Hope you are quite prepared to die!” The same thing happened at a military salute hosted at the White House by the President: John Fogerty incongruously sang this song for the occasion, and the service-people whooped it up, ecstatic. Dave Marsh rated it #198 in his The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. Marsh says the song was written about Richard M. Nixon. I sure wasn’t aware of that when I was hearing it back in ‘69 on KLIF, climbing to #2 on the pop charts.

Among my all-time favorite doo-wop songs is “There’s a Moon Out Tonight.” It was a hit that almost wasn’t. When The Capris released it in 1958 on a small label, it made no impact at all. Then record collector Jerry Greene heard it in 1960 and re-released it himself. Demand grew, outpacing Greene’s capacity, and it was issued yet again on Old Town Records. That’s when it became a nationwide hit, in 1961, the one song The Capris are remembered for. It’s got quirky elements, like all the great doo-wop numbers do: the lead vocal inexplicably leaps up an octave after the first two words of each line; the tag features a downward cascade of each part singing a rushed-up “moon out tonight.”

Jay Warner, in his book The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, turned up several interesting encounters the Capris had with other artists:

  • The group’s leader learned of another group called the Capris, who’d had hits in the mid-fifties, when his mother brought home one of the other Capris’ records, which she’d bought thinking it was her son’s group.
  • The Capris got their recording contract by going on an audition at which one contender they beat out was Tiny Tim.
  • When they were looking for a follow-up to “There’s a Moon Out Tonight,” The Capris were pitched some songs by rookie songwriter Paul Simon. They didn’t bite. (Maybe they should have.)

“Moon River” is a song I only came to appreciate late in life. I’d long associated it with Andy Williams, and whenever I’d hear it I’d get a mental picture of Andy in an Apache scarf and tinted aviator glasses, surrounded by gauzy curtains. It was mom-and-pop music when I was young, and when I finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn’s version still didn’t shake Andy from my brain. It was only recently, when I was given the song to sing in a show, that it grew on me. The Henry Mancini melody is beautiful, and the simple lyrics are Johnny Mercer at his best.

c berry

“Havana Moon” is unlike any other song Chuck Berry wrote. It’s got a bit of the Caribbean in it, rather than a rock beat, and doesn’t have the Chuck Berry lead guitar. But it tells a captivating story, and is charming in its rough groove. Santana did a version for his 1983 album, also called Havana Moon. It’s a bit too slick—I prefer Chuck’s unsmoothed-out original—but it heightens the Latin rhythms and features a fine Santana guitar solo.

Honorable Mention: Yes, I was one of the millions of record buyers who helped put Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon near the top of the all-time album sales ranks. It really is a great record, but I probably haven’t listened to it in twenty years.

“Moonlight in Vermont,” from 1945, is one of the very few popular hits to be written in free verse. Songwriter John Blackburn not only didn’t rhyme the lyrics, but he made the verses haiku! Karl Suessdorf provided the beautiful music.

van

Quota Song: “Moondance,” from Van Morrison’s album of the same name, has lost its glow over the years—probably because I’ve not only heard it so many times but played it so many times. Three other songs from that album, though, are tracks I never tire of: “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” and “And It Stoned Me.”

I’d have to say that I’ve also had my fill of Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow,” which, at over forty years’ remove, is just a little too twee for me.

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