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Dancing in the Street

Dancing in the Street

There have been many lively, colorful streets lauded in popular song. I’ve walked a few of them, including Beale Street and Basin Street, mentioned below; New York’s Broadway; and San Francisco’s Haight & Ashbury.

“Kansas City” Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Kansas City” for Little Willie Littlefield in 1952, but it was in 1959 that Wilbert Harrison made it a huge hit. It’s his version that has lasted, although many have recorded it since (and every bar band in America has had it in their repertoire for more than fifty years).

Alas, Kansas City’s landmark 12th Street and Vine is only marked by a lonely street sign. It has been subsumed by a housing development. The music hub was actually 18th and Vine, a recognized jazz destination for years. It is now mostly museums.

beale

“Beale Street Blues” W.C. Handy was not so much a songwriter as a translator of black culture, a synthesizer of others’ music and words into hit songs like “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” that resonated with Americans, black and white, in St. Louis and Memphis or in New York or Phoenix. His world was the black community entered around Memphis’s Beale Street, a place Preston Lauterbach, in his book Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, and the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis, describes as “a nexus of black culture and power…unlike anyplace else in the world.”

Handy extracted the music for “Beale Street Blues” from the sounds he overheard, walking on Beale Street, of a saloon’s pianist playing away on his twelve-hour shift. He crafted the lyrics by pulling from the language he heard on Beale Street corners, and in its bars, boarding houses, and shops.

He extols this landmark Memphis street above all others: “I’ve seen the lights of gay Broadway / Old Market Street down by the Frisco Bay / I’ve strolled the Prado, gambled on the Bourse / But take my advice, friends, and see Beale Street first.”

handy satch

Louis Armstrong recorded a W.C. Handy tribute album shortly before Handy’s death, and it’s this album’s version of “Beale Street Blues,” played and sung with affection by a New Orleanian, that I love best.

“Basin Street Blues” Armstrong also covered, many times, this song of a notable street in his hometown. Written in 1926 by Spencer Williams, it was recorded two years later by Satch, and has been recorded thousands of times since, by Dixieland bands, pop vocalists, and mainstream jazzers.

jelly

Basin Street was the nexus of New Orleans’ red light district, Storyville. I look at the photographs of Storyville whores taken in the early 20th century by E.J. Bellocq and try to imagine what daily (or nightly) life was like there and then. Reading about Jelly Roll Morton in Mister Jelly Roll, I imagine myself leaning over the piano as he entertains the habitués of the brothel, the working girls and the rough and tough characters who provided them with a living.

On visits to New Orleans over the years, I’ve walked around the area that Storyville occupied. It is long gone, but nearly everywhere in the heart of that city there had still been some traces of the past in the brightly painted shotgun houses and the corner package stores. But I’m afraid that may not continue to be the case. In all of the ten-years-after-Katrina stories I’ve read, the prevailing observation is that the neighborhoods of New Orleans, from Treme to Bywater, are being gentrified. The “City that Care Forgot” is now a magnet for tech dot-com developers and hipster chic boutiquers. It’s giving me the Basin Street blues.

beat

“Dancing in the Street” A whole book about one pop song? It’s happened before, with the delightful book Louie, Louie. Mark Kurlansky devoted a volume called Ready for a Brand New Beat to the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street.” It is as worthy of being the subject of a book as any pop song. It’s got a relentless “brand new beat,” it features Martha’s glistening vocals, and it signifies a time of change. It has a strong but unmenacing message that the younger generation is movin’ in.

My original, well-worn copy

My original, well-worn copy

“Street Fighting Man” The Stones take up the message where Martha and the Vandellas left off. No more dancing—it’s time for fighting in the streets. This is one song that blew my young mind when I first heard it. I was a Rolling Stones fan, but leaned toward The Beatles. And then I bought the Beggar’s Banquet album and my mind was opened up to the rough stuff. Keith Richards’ ringing guitar and Mick Jagger’s stinging vocals cut right through me. And it was a protest song I could belt along with, kidding myself that I was in some way a part of this big societal change taking place. I was just a kid in the suburbs. I wasn’t fighting or dancing in my street. I was playing tag and singing four-part harmony in my street. And in the house early on school nights.

bruce

Honorable Mentions: The Lonely Street of “Heartbreak Hotel”; the slinky harpsichorded mystery of Jim Morrison and The Doors’ “Love Street”; the many Bruce Springsteen song-stories of New Jersey streets, most notably “Born to Run”; the cowboy classic “Streets of Laredo,” with the parody verse: “You can see by my outfit that I am a cowboy / If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.”

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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