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Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds

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

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

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

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

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

mills bros

The Brothers Mills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wolf in the henhouse

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

The Brothers Louvin

The Brothers Louvin

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

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

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

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

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

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

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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