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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.

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…

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”

Fool, Fool, Fool

Fool, Fool, Fool

Bob Dylan: Now Appearing in Nursing Homes Across the Nation! When I saw Bob’s face on the cover of AARP Magazine, it somehow seemed natural, fitting. He’s awarded them his one and only interview since the release of his album of Sinatra-covered standards, Shadows in the Night. The interviewer is actually a veteran of Rolling Stone.

Cover Boy

Cover Boy

I can’t say that I’m as thrilled about that album as all the critics (and many Dylan fans) seem to be. Oh, I’m a big fan of Dylan, including—almost especially—his late-career string of back-to-roots originals, from Time Out of Mind in 1997 through Tempest in 2012. But here comes Shadows in the Night. I applaud his making it, but I just don’t personally like his voice on these songs. I never listen to Self-Portrait either. I enjoy Bob doing his own songs, most of the time. I enjoy many others’ versions of Bob’s songs. But I don’t often enjoy Bob singing other people’s songs. Maybe it’s just me.

frank sinatra

Dylan kicks off Shadows in the Night with a Frank song that Frank co-wrote, the beautiful and sad “I’m a Fool to Want You,” from 1951. Frank did it well, like he did everything else, but this one was truly from the heart, written as he pined for Hollywood goddess Ava Gardner. Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, and others have done a good job of it as well. Elvis Costello sang a fine version with trumpeter Chet Baker accompanying.

Ahmet Ertegun is the best Turkish hit-maker I’m aware of. He founded Atlantic Records and hunted for blues and R&B talent to produce on the label. Early on, a business associate recommended to him that he take on the vocal group The Clovers, but they didn’t initially see eye-to-eye. In Charlie Gillett’s history of Atlantic Records, Making Tracks, Ertegun’s quoted as saying, “The Clovers were against all the things I wanted to do. They liked The Ink Spots, who I didn’t like at all.”

tracks

Ertegun, however, decided to become an R&B songwriter, and made The Clovers famous when he wrote “Don’t You Know I Love You,” which went to #1 R&B. It was credited to “Nugetre”—Ertegun backwards—probably because Ahmet, whose father was a diplomat, was embarrassed to be a kingpin of Rhythm & Blues. His second original for The Clovers, “Fool, Fool, Fool,” also went to #1. He went on to write quite a few more, all bluesy, gutsy hits. No more Ink Spots! The Clovers became a highly-successful, very influential group.

clovers

“Fool, Fool, Fool,” like “I’m a Fool to Want You,” was a hit in 1951. The Clovers had a second fool hit the following year, “I Played the Fool.” Their last big song, “Love Potion #9,” wasn’t such a big hit for them, but The Searchers’ cover of it made it to #3 pop.

Carl Sigman’s English lyrics turned Luiz Bonfa’s “Manha de Carnival” into “A Day in the Life of a Fool.” Bonfa had written the song for the 1959 Portuguese-language film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). It was set in Brazil during Carnival and was directed by Frenchman Marcel Carne.

Frank Sinatra sang it with the English lyrics, as did Harry Belafonte. My favorite version of “A Day in the Life of a Fool” is by Cassandra Wilson, from her 2010 album Silver Pony. Like all of Wilson’s albums, this one is a well-sung, well-played, and well-produced potpourri of pop, folk, jazz, blues, and R&B. Wonderful.

guaraldi

My favorite instrumental version, recorded as “Manha de Carnival,” is by Vince Guaraldi, from his excellent 1962 album Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. The album also features a catchy Latin Guaraldi original, the 1963 hit “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

Mr. T’s catchphrase “I pity the fool” came to him by way of Bobby “Blue” Bland. “I Pity the Fool” was a Bland hit in 1961, one in a long string that topped the R&B charts. The song was credited to Duke Records owner Don Robey (under a pseudonym), but was evidently one of many Robey commandeered from Joe Medwick and other songwriters who got caught in his web. We can all pity the fools who bought Robey’s line and lost song copyrights.

Bland, who had learned to play guitar at the age of five, spent the forties in gospel groups. He was in a group, The Beale Streeters, with B.B. King and Johnny Ace in the late forties, and went on to be B.B.’s chauffeur for a while in the fifties. Bobby did get his break eventually, from the infamous Don Robey and his record label, and had a long and successful R&B career.

Can’t fail to mention one of my favorite Paul McCartney songs, “Fool on the Hill.” From the 6th chords to the recorder solo to Paul’s wistful vocal, it’s a standout.

Best Line: Zappa does it again, with this non-sequitur line from “Dancin’ Fool”: “I may be totally wrong but I’m a fool.”

Dream Jukebox: Ike & Tina Turner’s first hit, “A Fool in Love,” is one of my favorite songs of the era. It’s a little hard, knowing what we learned long after the song came out in 1960, to listen to Tina sing Ike’s lyrics: “You know you love him, you can’t understand / Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man.” But the song moves, and Tina’s already got a strong, gutsy voice, balanced nicely by the backup singers, and you just know she’s gonna come out all right.

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.

Hello Goodbye

Hello Goodbye

“You say goodbye…” Mary Hopkin is pretty much remembered today only for her 1969 #1 hit, “Those Were the Days.” Maybe I’m worn out on that song or maybe I’m just being difficult when I say that I prefer her follow-up, “Goodbye.” It was written expressly for her by Paul McCartney, whose song “Get Back” beat it out of the #1 spot on the UK charts. (Paul also, of course, wrote the song that gives this post its title.) Ms. Hopkins’ lovely voice gave both of her hit songs a kind of Old Country folk quality, but that verges on pastiche with “Those Were the Days,” I think. “Goodbye” makes me think of mead and moors and sheep dung. In a good way.

“…and I say hello.” “Hello Hello” was San Fran band Sopwith Camel’s only hit. It made it to #26 pop in The Summer of Love. It’s a retro-sounding trifle, but it’s memorable to me for a couple of reasons. First, it was one of the songs of the rock ‘n’ roll generation that Steve Allen lampooned on his variety show by reading the lyrics as profound poetry. He especially milked the delivery of the lines “Would you like some of my tangerines? You know I’ll never treat you mean.” And then there was Sopwith Camel’s appearance on my local music-scene show, Sump’n Else. Show host Ron Chapman kept getting distracted, while interviewing the Camel’s singer, by a plastic fly affixed to his glasses lens. Crazy hippies in Dallas, Texas!

My pick for the most gorgeous recording in jazz will probably always be the John Coltrane and Duke Ellington pairing on Duke’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” But right behind it is the magnificent and melancholy saxophone tour de force of Cannonball Adderley on his version of Gordon Jenkins’ ballad “Goodbye.” Adderley is justifiably remembered for his soul-jazz hits, but his way with a ballad is outstanding. People forget that Cannonball was alongside Coltrane and Miles on Kind of Blue. His “Goodbye” is a fine song made stellar. I’ve also heard a nice vocal arrangement of the song performed by the latest generation of Four Freshmen.

hya

“Hy’a Sue” is minor Duke Ellington, but any song by The Duke (and any song that uses the expression “hy’a”) is worthy of a few words. It was first recorded in 1947, a version I have on a 78 rpm record. In his book Duke’s Bones: Ellington’s Great Trombonists, Kurt Dietrich mentions this recording as a nice vehicle for one of Duke’s lesser ‘bones, Tyree Glenn. On the song, writes Dietrich, Glenn showcases his “outstanding ability with the plunger” and his solos “establish him as (Tricky Sam) Nanton’s worthy successor.”

dukes bones

Tricky Sam Nanton on the cover of Duke’s ‘Bones

“Bye Bye Love,” written by the Bryant couple, Felice and Boudleaux, was the Everly Brothers’ debut in 1957—a nice one, at that, going all the way to #2 pop. Webb Pierce made the top ten of the country charts with it the same year, but I don’t think I’ve ever even heard that recording. Versions of the pop/rock/country standard I own include Ray Charles’ swingy thing on his Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music album (1962), Simon and Garfunkel’s live version from Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), and the Ditty Bops’ 2006 version on Moon Over the Freeway. (I also own the completely different “Bye Bye Love” the Cars recorded on their own debut in 1978.)

everlys again

The Everlys

Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” is a high-point song from a high-point album—my favorite of his—Blood on the Tracks (1975). I’ve listened to the record countless times since it came out, and I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten tired of it; however, I can say that the songs I’ve gotten least tired of are “Tangled Up in Blue” and this one. Why haven’t more singers covered it?

Original Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks album cover

Original Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks album cover

What do The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” have in common? Well, they both got to number one. But The Beatle song is divine, while the Steam song is a throwaway, a goof. But both songs had catchy sing-along codas that were standbys at parties of my high school choir gang. Steam’s ending was the “lite” variant of “Hey Jude”’s. On a bus trip across the desert, someone started singing the Steam song, and by the second time around we were all singing. We drove our bus driver mad as we continued, mile after mile, giddy and unable to stop. I don’t recall exactly how it came to an end, but I think it put us all to sleep (except the irritated driver, thank God). It is my most vivid memory of high school choir, all these years later.

prine

One music faux pas I committed involved the John Prine gem “Hello in There.” I’d performed the song many times and decided to do it when my turn came around in a jam circle I was new to. I played it on that occasion in a slightly faster tempo than the original version, and in a reggae beat. I saw another jammer’s jaw drop and a look of horror come across his face. I later found out that he was a John Prine fanatic and felt I’d committed blasphemy with my irreverent rendition. Oh well. I think the emotional depth of the song’s tragic story can survive a treatment that is not funereal. I still engage in John Prine heresy now and then.

The best song to close this post is one that says hello but means goodbye. It’s actually a song within a song, “Hooray for Captain Spaulding,” written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby for the 1930 Marx Brothers movie Animal Crackers. “Hello, I Must Be Going” is quintessential Groucho absurdity. He sings “I’ll stay a week or two / I’ll stay the summer through / But now I’m telling you, I must be going.” “Hello, I must be going” is such a great line that it’s been used for album titles, movie titles, weekly column titles, and Groucho’s autobiography.

And now, to close a blog post: Hello, I must be going.

Eight Days a Week

Eight Days a Week

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

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

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

fats d

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

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

chas m

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

eartha thursday

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

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

Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke

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

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

Cash LP cover

Honorable Mentions:

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

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

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

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