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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.

Guilty

Guilty

I’m not Catholic, and I don’t believe I experience more bouts of guilt than the average imperfect being, but there are a few things I’ve done, or things I haven’t done, that will make me feel “guilty for the rest of my life,” as Randy Newman says.

My guilt tends to be over sins of omission rather than sins of commission. Oh yes, I have indulged in activities that hurt others and I have gone through subsequent periods of remorse and regret. The guilt that really lingers most, though, is over the things I didn’t do when I had the chance. As I’ve gotten older and lost my mom and dad, other relatives, and friends, a recurring feeling, along with the sorrow, is “Why didn’t I do more before they left?” I’m receiving this lesson more and more often, but, alas, I haven’t gotten much better at taking opportunities to be with those I love. The curse of introversion.

“Marie” Randy Newman’s masterpiece, Good Ol’ Boys, contains two of the best songs featuring guilt-ridden ne’er-do-wells ever written, “Guilty” and “Marie,” both delivered as only Randy Newman can (although Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, and several others have done splendid jobs on “Guilty”).

The poor sap who sings to Marie apologizes for being crazy, weak, lazy, and drunk, and allows “I’ve hurt you so.” But he’s trying to make things right, express his love, and be forgiven so that he may mend his ways.

"I'm weak and I'm lazy, and I've hurt you so"

“I’m weak and I’m lazy, and I’ve hurt you so”

“Guilty” The loser who sings “Guilty” is a bit farther down on the “forgivable” scale. He gets drunk, coked up, and stays out all hours getting into trouble. He doesn’t expect to improve: “Yes, I’m guilty, and I’ll be guilty the rest of my life.” Time to move on, sister. Charli, who runs the longtime jam circle I sing with occasionally, does this one even better than Joe, Bonnie, and Randy.

“I Just Want You to Hurt Like I Do” Randy Newman does a neat twist on guilt in this beautiful song. Haven’t we all felt that way before? We want our lost lover to feel guilty for leaving, and then we wind up wracked with guilt about feeling that way.

“Pretend It Never Happened” A cover band I played in during the seventies focused primarily on sixties pop rock stuff, with a lot of off-the-wall humor, thanks to our frustrated-standup drummer Loz. When we took on a fellow named Showbiz Bob, he added a bit of folkie flavor to the mix. His idol was John Stewart, who’d been a member of The Kingston Trio and in the eighties had a bit of the spotlight in a duet with Stevie Nicks on the song “Gold.”

The song “Pretend It Never Happened” was evidently something John Stewart performed live that Showbiz, who’d seen him many times, picked up. Despite its being a slow-tempo ballad, it was the only song Showbiz ever suggested we add that drummer Loz wholeheartedly endorsed. A sample verse: “I’m sorry I hit you with the car / I didn’t really mean for things to go that far / Pretend it never happened, go out on the town / You can’t let the little things get you down.”

neil y

“Down by the River” When I asked my wife if any songs that suited the topic of guilt came to mind, the first song she thought of was the Neil Young/Crazy Horse epic “Down by the River,” long a favorite of mine. I ran through the lyrics in my head for a few moments and then asked, “Is he feeling guilty?” She replied, “Well, he ought to be—he shot his baby.” That’s for sure—but instead, ol’ Neil seems to be talking someone else into fleeing the scene of the crime with him, while his old baby’s lying dead, down by the river.

monk lps

Monk on LP

“Don’t Blame Me” Thelonious Monk’s solo versions of this standard have crowded out any other versions of it for me—the vocal renditions as well as all other instrumental versions. It’s a perfect example, particularly for those who are familiar with the standard, of how the pianist Monkifies the work of others. His trademark dissonances add to the song’s beauty, and, sans accompaniment, he can indulge in rhythmic playfulness, inserting vaudevillian trills, cascading arpeggios, and pregnant pauses. Criss Cross has an excellent “Don’t Blame Me,” nestled between Monk’s compositions “Rhythm-a-ning” and “Think of One.”

If you want to hear the lyrics, which are actually a declaration of love—not a guilty apology, Frank Sinatra is among many vocalists who’ve interpreted it well.

“Honey, I’ve Been a Bad Boy” Friend and music cohort Toby wrote the lyrics for this nice number for our four-part harmony group. “I’ve been out hanky-pankin’, now I’m fit for a spankin’ / Honey, I’ve been a bad boy—I’ve been an oh-so-naughty boy.”

Honorable Mentions: John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” is a nice guilt-ridden apology from Imagine. The Dan Penn-Chips Moman country-soul ballad “At the Dark End of the Street” is one of the most evocative guilt songs ever written. Two cheating lovers remain in the shadows, knowing they’re doing wrong but unable to stop.

g greene

I’ve long been captivated by stories of guilt in literature. Writer Graham Greene masterfully explores good old Catholic guilt in much of his best work. Many of his protagonists are bedeviled by their consciences, some to the point of being overcome and even destroyed. Favorite Greene books of guilt include The Power and the Glory (featuring the Mexican “whiskey priest” who feels he never does enough to lift people up), The Heart of the Matter (whose Scobie is trapped in an unhappy marriage and dallies, never to get over it), and The End of the Affair (which involves guilty jealousy of God).

Come Rain or Come Shine

Come Rain or Come Shine

Texas has been the setting for quite a few unusual weather events this year, currently the never-ending rains that have caused flooding. The Trinity River, which we in Dallas jokingly call “The Mighty Trinity,” has lived up to that nickname, overflowing its banks and submerging the running paths I usually use several times a week. It’s supposed to be hot and sunny ‘long about now, but there doesn’t seem to be any end to the storms. So, some rain songs and, optimistically, some shine songs.

st louis

“Come Rain or Come Shine” Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen wrote this song for the 1946 musical St. Louis Woman, and it is the perfect Dallas love song. One could sing it most any spring, autumn, or winter morning to impressive effect: “I’m gonna love you like nobody’s loved you, come rain or come shine.”

It’s among the many songs Ray Charles has magically made all his own—the best version, rain or shine.

lennon

“Rain” and “Good Day Sunshine” Two of the best Beatles songs, both recorded in 1966, fit the category. Lennon’s “Rain” is trippy, and at the same time pounding. Paul’s bass is right up front, and Ringo’s drums are inventive. He’s quoted in Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why: “My favorite piece of me is what I did on ‘Rain.’” Paul’s “Good Day Sunshine” is musical sunshine. Ian MacDonald, in Revolution in the Head, notes that it was recorded the week our next selection, “Sunny Afternoon,” hit the charts.

“Sunny Afternoon” The Kinks were a “Beatles’ coattails group” because they made their splash in the wake of The Beatles, not because they sounded like the Fab Four. Ray Davies’ fab four had a hybrid rock/folk/dance hall style of their own, due to the songwriting flair of their leader. “Sunny Afternoon” is a great example: it has a strong, rhythmic descending bass/guitar line, over which Ray sings as a character, a decadent one-percenter who thinks he’s been soaked by the government (and a “big fat mama”). He’s lost his yacht and his girlfriend, who ran off to relate “tales of drunkenness and cruelty.” And now he’s left “lazing on a sunny afternoon.” Poor sot.

kink k

Another nice Kinks song is “Love Me Till the Sun Shines,” from Something Else.

“Singin’ in the Rain” Four generations of my family have been fans of the 1952 movie Singin’ in the Rain. Gene Kelly’s exuberant, splashy song-and-dance in the street is a treat for very young and very old, and for the most jaded in-betweens. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Kelly’s performance of the song without seeing it, but there’s an older version I’m also awfully fond of. The song was actually written, by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, back in 1929, and it was a top hit that year for Cliff Edwards. (You know him as the voice of Jiminy Cricket.)

uke ike

Edwards, who on ballads like “When You Wish Upon a Star” sounds sweet and vulnerable, gives it his all on an up-tempo number like this one. He even throws in one of his famous wild, stratospheric vocalized horn solos, which is very entertaining but doesn’t sound much like a horn. (Unlike the impersonations of the Mills Brothers. According to Bobby Scott, as quoted in the book Reading Jazz, Lester Young once commented that the best saxophone section he ever heard was The Mills Brothers.)

“On the Sunny Side of the Street” This 1930 song of positivity was written by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. This one has long been in my repertoire, and I’d always figured it was a Depression-era song meant to lift folks’ spirits. But after I had performed it at an assisted living center, a resident approached me. She said, “You know what that song’s about, don’t you?” I waited. “It’s about black people who pass for white.” What a provocative idea! It’s a subject I’ve read a lot about, and since the woman told me that I have seen the theory in print. It does fit the lyrics about a rover who “stepped over” to the “sunny side.”

“Let the Sun Shine” This Hair song made ubiquitous by The Fifth Dimension was a quota song for me for decades, and then I got to perform it in a show, in groovy hippie get-up with choreography and a good band, and I loved it all over again. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung “When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars” wearing a green dashiki, purple fringed vest, and headband, and doing hippie love-fest gyrations.

“Rainy Night in Georgia” Brook Benton’s sonorous baritone cast a spell on me back in 1970 when it was on the radio. I hadn’t thought much about it since, until I heard Boz Scaggs’ version of it on his 2013 album Memphis. It was only recently that I found a place for Boz in my musical world, when I heard his 2008 album of “American Songbook” standards, Speak Low. His voice suited those standards surprisingly well, and is my favorite of the many standards tributes done by fellow rock-era pop stars like Rod, Linda, and Willie. I’d never cottoned much to Scaggs back in his hit-making days, but he’s doing some interesting things now. Memphis and his latest, A Fool to Care, feature R&B and soul numbers, and not in a glossy way—more rootsy and rough.

“You Are My Sunshine” This standard, written by Louisiana Governor Jimmy Davis, is the most popular song at every gathering of seniors I play for. It is the oddest of songs, with verses whose sentiments clash with the mood set by the music and the song’s chorus. But I always do the verses, too, because residents know them and expect them, and the joyous expressions on their faces as they sing the chorus don’t change for the incongruous lyrics of the verses, about lost love and threats of revenge: “If you leave me for another, you will always regret that day / Oh, you are my sunshine, my only sunshine!”

akiyoshi

“Rain Check”: Billy Strayhorn’s “Rain Check” proves, along with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” that he could write up-tempo almost as well as he could ballads. I just ran across a Strayhorn tribute album by a trio led by Toshiko Akiyoshi, whom I’d only heard before with her big band (with husband Lew Tabackin). She does a nice workout on “Rain Check” and several other Strayhorn tunes, familiar and obscure.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Candidate: The opposite of “Crying in the Rain,” in every way, is “Laughter in the Rain.” The former is a work of pop art; the latter is a work of pop schlock. Neil Sedaka’s hit sounds like a rain shower’s aftermath: soggy, moldy, and dank. Alas, it went to #1, while the Everlys’ hit only made it to #6.

Honorable Mentions: The great Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” produced by the great Willie Mitchell; Jesse Colin Young’s glowing “Sunlight”; Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rousing “Didn’t It Rain”; and, to end on a sunshiny note: The Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side”

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.

In the Neighborhood

In the Neighborhood

The term ghetto fabulous seems perfectly apt to describe the house my Sweetie and I live in. The fabulous parts are the thousands of books and records that line every wall (and, my Sweetie would say, her collection of Knickerbocker Sleepyheads). The ghetto is pretty much everything else. I’d have to say that its exterior Aquafresh toothpaste color is both ghetto and utterly fabulous. We love our casa aguafresca in the ghetto, and we’ve been in our little neighborhood for more than a quarter of a century.

donny live

Donny Hathaway’s song “The Ghetto,” written in 1971 with Impressions singer Leroy Hutson, captures the feel and rhythm of a bustling urban neighborhood of the seventies. It has little in the way of lyrics: Singers chant “the ghetto” over a driving Afro-Cuban beat, with Donny interjecting commentary here and there. The six-plus-minute version on Hathaway’s debut album Everything is Everything is powerful, but the version that was recorded at the Troubadour for his Live album in ’72, is ecstatic. It’s twice the length of the studio version, and the audience is right there with him the whole way. It sounds like it’s happening in a small room, with audience and performers almost on top of each other. It is one of the most remarkable live recordings I’ve ever heard.

rev in the head

Two of the best neighborhood songs were on the front and back sides of a single record, The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” b/w “Penny Lane.” John Lennon had written his contribution, about the Strawberry Field children’s home he remembered from his early days, while off on his own shooting How I Won the War. Within a week of recording the song, Paul McCartney came back with his own neighborhood reminiscence, the bright and bubbly “Penny Lane.” A tit for tat 45 that is among the very best creations of the Beatles. Joshua Wolf Shenk, in an Atlantic Monthly article, uses the yin and yang competitiveness of John and Paul to argue that it was the tension between them that made their output as great as it was—that they were “so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals.

tell me why

Song-by-song analyses like Revolution in the Head and Tell Me Why are fascinating to Beatles fans, but in parsing out each song’s elements they can tend to overemphasize John and Paul’s apartness. Shenk makes a good case that without Paul’s organized diplomacy, John would’ve become untethered and unproductive; without John’s anger and lack of boundaries, Paul may have been too button-down.

At any rate, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is among my favorite Beatle songs, and Paul’s answer to it is up there pretty high, too.

Fred Rogers is a hero of mine not only because he became the hero of my oldest daughter when she was two (she has always referred to him simply as “Fred”) and remains her hero decades later, but also because he is a TV personality who remained absolutely true to himself, which is a good thing (unlike, say, Donald Trump being true to his obnoxious self) because he is a kind, thoughtful, and generous person, and as a TV entity never did any endorsements or sold ancillary products. He, of course, created one of the great neighborhoods and television programs, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. (And, of course, Eddie Murphy created one of the best parodies in his series of Saturday Night Live sketches featuring “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.”)

fred hood

He’s also written some wonderfully unique music. The songs he wrote to frame his show, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “It’s Such a Good Feeling,” are classics that transcend the sappy kid songs of their time as well as the too-hip kid songs since. “It’s You I Like” and “Thank You for Being You” are others that carry a laid-back but empowering message to kids. My daughter and I still seek out recordings of the broadcasts of Fred’s “mini-operas”—shows on a theme, entirely sung by the cast. “A Star for Kitty” and “Potato Bug” just never get old for her and me, and now her daughter’s joining the Cult of Fred.

swordfish

Swordfishtrombones, from 1983, was the starting point for Tom Waits’ move toward experimentation and instrumental variety. It has some discordance and some vocal shenanigans, but is fairly sedate compared to his albums that followed. I don’t hear any swordfish on the stately “In the Neighborhood,” but the trombones give it the mood of New Orleans. The song’s lyrics could describe a slightly rundown neighborhood anywhere. My favorite Tom Waits album is Rain Dogs, but Swordfishtrombones is close behind, and it is this number that represents the album for me.

Two songs called “Our House” made an impression on me. CSNY did the comfy-cozy Graham Nash number on the Déjà vu album. It quickly became, with Nash’s other big contribution to the album, “Teach Your Children,” a big sing-along song at our parties, after CSN’s debut album had given harmonizers several great Steve Stills-penned classics. Madness’s “Our House” is one of the most memorable songs from the first year of MTV.

Honorable Mention: The Kinks’ 1971 Muswell Hillbillies album is a tribute to Ray and Dave’s early stomping grounds, the Muswell Hills neighborhood, and its struggle with modernization.

I should also include The Monkees’ “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday,” even though I haven’t listened to The Monkees since I was a mere lad. You remember the riff that opens the song and links the choruses to the verses. I learned to play it on my crappy electric guitar when the song came out, and just like riding a bicycle (in “status-symbol land”), I’m sure I could play it all these decades later.

Dream Jukebox: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” b/w “Penny Lane”—The Beatles’ best one-two punch.

Good Morning, Good Morning

Good Morning, Good Morning

Ray Charles was a melting pot of music—blues, jazz, country, soul, R&B, show tunes, standards—and a television piece on him back in the eighties used the song “Oh, What Beautiful Morning” to illustrate the multitude of genres Bro Ray could mix into one number like nobody else. It was sung by Gordon McRae in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! back in 1943. It’s a fine, sturdy song from a groundbreaking stage work, but I can hear it that way no longer after Ray Charles had his way with it. He added gospel-blues-jazz piano and rhythms, put some soul/R&B here and some C&W there, in the inflections and phrasing, and made it his own, like he did every song he got ahold of. It was an unlikely choice that worked, like his “Georgia on My Mind,” “Ruby,” and so many others. He just almost couldn’t go wrong. (A recording of his version of “America the Beautiful” should replace every live rendering of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at every event across the country forevermore. Is that too much to hope for?)

ray chas

On a family trip to New Orleans shortly after Sgt. Pepper came out, John Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” went from being one of my least favorite songs on the album to my favorite. I was a 14-year-old hippie wanna-be, and from our hotel room one morning I heard the song. I looked down to the street and saw a group of real-live hippies—the first I’d ever seen in person—carrying a giant peace-symbol banner and singing, over and over, “Good morning, good morning, good!” I’m not sure why they chose that particular song, other than the fact that it was morning, but it suddenly took on a counterculture cachet. I wanted to join those hippie freaks and help them carry that banner wherever they were headed. Instead, I headed with the family to Big Boy for breakfast buffet.

Sgt Peppeb's Loney Hearps Club Band (overseas bootleg)

Sgt Peppeb’s Loney Hearps Club Band (overseas bootleg)

Harry Nilsson, as we know, went through a few years of debauchery and drink with Mr. Lennon. On the cover of his classic Nilsson Schmilsson album, he stands in his bathrobe, looking pretty hungover. It looks like morning—and not a welcome morning.

schmilsson

I’m just wild about Harry, and this breakout record is more consistently great than any of his that followed (and about as good as any that preceded it). Side two starts off with two songs, “Without You” and “The Coconut Song,” that I believe I got my lifetime quota of decades ago.  But side one I’ve always thought of as a sort-of “wee hours” suite, from “Gotta Get Up” and “Driving Along” through “Early in the Morning” and the ethereal “The Moonbeam Song.”  “Down” caps it off with a sense of the other end of the wee hours—reckless late-night barroom despair. It joins side two of Abbey Road as one of the all-time great album sides—and it’s pretty great to wake up to.

“Good Day Sunshine” (by another associate of Lennon’s) is not an LSD song. That’s the persistent rumor, but the boring fact is that it’s about the positive effects of experiencing a little shiny, acid-free morning sun. I’ve always enjoyed the song, particularly the quickly-faded coda. Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie (more conveniently known as Lulu) recorded the song in 1970 with help from The Dixie Flyers, and it’s pleasant, but it’s another Lulu song with morning connections, “Morning Dew” (1968), that is my favorite Lulu recording. I have no idea what it’s actually about, but she sounds great on it, and the insistent marimbas (great band name) add to its mystery.

lulu

I quit buying Chicago records around Chicago III or Chicago IV (what are they up to now—LXXXVIII ? LXXXIX?) It’s a song from their second album that is my enduring favorite: “Wake Up, Sunshine.” It’s so bright and cheerful: The horn section glides over the pulsing piano, the singers happily trade vocal lines. It has always seemed to me to be the perfect morning song. And I’m a morning person, so I should know.

I rise and sometimes even shine at an ever earlier hour as I age. I quit using an alarm clock years ago. I was always awake before it went off at 6:30. Now I’m usually up in the five-o’clock hour. (I’ve always had a tendency to wake up early, even in the seventies, when I was playing clubs five nights a week until 2:00 a.m. I would catch up, when I got the chance, with a four-o’clock nap.) My wife, who sleeps through most of the morning, is wide awake at 10:30 at night, when I am in shutdown mode. I will be asleep by eleven, leaving her to her late-night productivity.

 

The Eagles were so often played on seventies radio and have been so ubiquitous on oldies radio ever since that I just can hardly listen to them anymore. One exception I make is for the lovely “Tequila Sunrise,” the first single from the album Desperado. (OK, I’ll make an exception for this whole album—“Twenty-One,” “Saturday Night,” and, yes, “Desperado” are songs that break away from the Sound of the Seventies and seem like they’d fit better in the eighteen-seventies.) “Tequila Sunrise” is a very nice song. I experienced many a tequila sunrise around that time, but was more likely to have been listening to The Doors’ Morrison Hotel on 8-track.

Honorable Mentions: Composer Igor Stravinsky said that “too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” Neil Young’s “Till the Morning Comes” consists of only fourteen words, and over half of those are repeats, but it is just right, and it’s such a nice touch on the 1970 After the Goldrush album. The album would have been poorer if its minute-seventeen were left off. Also, I tend to think of Goldrush as a weekend morning album.

Neil: Goldrush

Neil: Goldrush

The Grateful Dead put their own “Till the Morning Comes” on American Beauty three months after Goldrush. It is longer and wordier than Neil’s, but isn’t over-long like so many songs of the Dead.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: I’m sure there was a period back in the early ‘70s when I happily sang along with Oliver: “Song song song sing, sing sing sing song,” but I can’t hear it now without cringing a little. Hair gave the world some really great songs, but I don’t think this was one of them.

In Dreams

In Dreams

There are so many great dream songs and so many great interpretations of them. Jimmy Scott was among the dreamiest of “dream song” singers (but not dreamiest in the way Fabian’s teeny-bopper fans meant it). Scott’s affliction with Kallman’s Syndrome not only made him Little Jimmy Scott but also possessed of an otherworldly, androgynous singing voice. It is the voice of dreams, and his tempos were usually taken achingly slow—enough for Jimmy to wring every drop of emotion out of the songs he sang. He did several dream songs, including “Street of Dreams” (Sam Lewis/Victor Young), “It Shouldn’t Happen to a Dream” (Duke Ellington/Johnny Hodges/Don George), and just plain “Dream” (Johnny Mercer), which was also the name of a 1994 Little Jimmy Scott album. Author David Ritz writes, in his Scott bio Faith in Time, “Dream is an apt title. The dreamy packaging is the finest of any Scott album, an atmospheric photo essay of a snowbound city at night, Jimmy walking through the lonely landscape…”

Insert, Little Jimmy Scott's Dream

Insert, Little Jimmy Scott’s Dream

Poor Jimmy Scott, who died in June, never got the acclaim he deserved, but he did have respect among musicians, and that spread to a larger cult following during the last decade of his life, after a comeback album, All the Way, was released in 1992.

little jimmy

One of my favorite things to do is to sit around in a group and sing harmony. I’ve always loved it, and for many years it was my idea of the perfect party: a few beers and friends to harmonize with. In the Dallas area there’s an acoustic jam group of thirty-plus years run by a woman who is a wonderfully earthy singer and force of nature, and for several years of Sundays, I didn’t miss it. It was in this jam group that I met another force of nature, the late J.L. Poor, bedeviled J.L. had a powerful voice, which he was able to masterfully control in order to convey intense longing on a ballad, and then follow it with hilarious irreverence.

J.L. brought a song to the jam circle once and requested that I harmonize with him on it. It was the Louvin Brothers’ song “When I Stop Dreaming,” a sweet and soaring ¾-time ballad that I’d heard but only vaguely remembered. We enjoyed our first, fumbling try so much that we did the song every time we met thereafter, and it was a greater thrill every time. A well-wrought song and a strong, sure voice laying the foundation. Yes, J.L. sang happy-go-lucky brother Charlie Louvin’s lower melody part, and I sang the high harmony that crazy, drinkin’, wild-man brother Ira Louvin did originally.   We all found out later how much more J.L. was like Ira than Charlie when he went to jail for murdering a business partner, and died there of cancer, well before his time. I miss J.L., and I’m sorry we’ll never again get to sing “When I Stop Dreaming.”

louvin dreamingstop dreaming

I recently came across a couple of 45 rpm versions of “When I Stop Dreaming.” In a version recorded in 1971, Charlie Louvin sings with perennial dueter Melba Montgomery (in addition to Louvin, her recording partners included George Jones and Gene Pitney). With only one Louvin Brother, it just ain’t the same. It’s a little too saccharine without Ira on hand, and with the added string section. But it’s a beautiful song that’s hard to tarnish. Thirty-six years later, Charlie dueted on the song with Elvis Costello.

I also found Brother Ray’s version of the song, recorded for his Tangerine label in 1969. It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original (the Louvins were just too perfectly suited to interpret the song, which they wrote), but it is enjoyable in the Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music kinda way. Ray also recorded “I Had a Dream” and “Dream (When You’re Feeling Blue).” Others who’ve covered “When I Stop Dreaming” include Roy (“In Dreams” and “Dream Baby”) Orbison and Phil and Don (“All I Have to Do is Dream”) Everly.

Notorious Louvin Brothers LP Cover

Notorious Louvin Brothers LP Cover

Of the many fine dream songs from the pop-rock world,“#9 Dream,” from John Lennon’s 1974 Walls and Bridges album, is memorable for its dreamlike production sound and, especially, for the lyrics “Ah, bowakawa, pousse, pousse,” which is a gibberish phrase Lennon actually did hear in a dream. And, in a dreamish coincidence, the song reached #9 on the Billboard charts.

My favorite dream song may be “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” a song written in 1935 by Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg. A couple of years ago, when I came across the 1959 album ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do by Helen Humes, I gained a whole new appreciation for the song. I don’t know how I’d made it through all these years of music voraciousness without “discovering” Helen Humes. She recorded music for more than fifty years, from Bessie Smith-style blues in the ‘20s, through big band numbers with Count Basie in the ‘30s, R&B in the ‘40s and ‘50s (like “Jet-Propelled Papa” and “Loud Talkin’ Woman”), and jazz in the fifties and up through her last album, recorded in 1980. Her voice is infectious, at the same time earthy and girlish, no matter the genre and no matter her age. She recorded a couple of other dream songs, both with Harry James’ band, at the urging of Machiavellian music producer John Hammond: “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “It’s the Dreamer in Me.”

Helen Humes

Helen Humes

Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness if I Do is quite possibly my favorite female-vocal album as of now. I seek more Helen Humes, early and late.

Another wonderful and oft-covered dream song that goes even further back is “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” It was a number one song in 1924, written by Gus Kahn and Isham Jones. My favorite version is by Cliff Edwards (aka Ukulele Ike, and the voice of Jiminy Cricket). It’s sweet and sentimental, and if any song was ever made for a uke, this one is it. The Pied Pipers’ harmonies in a 1948 version take the sweetness too far, and also take the tempo down too much. Django Reinhardt’s version is quintessential Reinhardt.

Just before my oldest daughter was born, I wrote a lullaby called “Dream Time” to honor her birth and I sang it to her often as she lay in the crib. She has grown up to be quite a singer, and after her own daughter was born, we sang harmonies on the song to her. I hope to record the song some day with all three generations singing it. What an experience that would be!

Honorable Mention: Sure, I got saturated with it in The Year of Fleetwood Mac (The Decade of Fleetwood Mac?), but Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams” is one of the great two-chord songs in pop music. If it came on a restaurant’s Muzak system, I’d probably tap along or even sing along with it. My only problem with it is Stevie’s emphasis on the wrong syllable in the line “When the rain wa-shes you clean, you’ll know.” I’m funny about those kinds of things. They bug me. Still, it’s a nice song.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Kenny Nolan’s 1977 ballad “I Like Dreamin’” is about as Creampuff Casper Milquetoast as you can get.

Dream Jukebox Candidates: Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is one of his best creations, and would be right at the top of the list. The “dream songs” on my Dream Jukebox would also include “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming.”

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