Friday, October 28, 2011

Halloween Spooktacular

Although Halloween is generally too creepy for me, here's a fun-filled (and I mean full!) post of some innocent, 1960s spookiness.
We're kicking this post off with a Halloween pop favorite, the novelty song "Monster Mash." During the early 1960s, Bobby "Boris" Pickett was an aspiring actor who first gained attention with his Boris Karloff impressions while singing with a band called The Cordials. Composed together with guitarist Leonard Capizzi, Pickett recorded the "Monster Mash" with session musicians credited as "The Crypt-Kickers," and this monster-themed tune reached #1 on the charts in October of 1962, just in time for Halloween. Seeing Pickett's crazy facial expressions are crackup, though you're almost kind of relieved when you finally see him smile at the end (reminds me of the "first Darrin Stephens" from Bewitched in the mid-1960s).

This next creepy tune is brought to you by The Turtles before they scored their best-known hit ("Happy Together") in 1967. Released as a single in May of 1966, "Grim Reaper of Love" barely made the Billboard charts since it was clearly too dark for record-buying public. Written by Turtles lead guitarist Al Nichol and bassist Chuck Portz, it's actually a pretty cool and haunting song with the verses metered in a 5/8 feel (some nerdy musician language for ya).

And who can forget one of the strangest families on 1960s television? Based on Charles Addams' New Yorker cartoons, The Addams Family TV series ran for two seasons from 1964 to 1966 on ABC, and were often compared to their working-class rivals, The Munsters (that TV theme featured during Surf Rock Week). Composed by American TV and film composer Vic Mizzy (who also wrote the theme to Green Acres), this finger-snappin' tune is still remembered generations later.

Next up is a "spooky little" cover by "The White Queen of Soul," British singer Dusty Springfield. Originally an instrumental song played a saxophonist, the best-known version of "Spooky" was actually by The Classics IV, whose jazz fusion/pop rendition reached #3 on the charts in 1968. Unfortunately no decent videos of The Classics IV's "Spooky" are currently available, so here's the next best cover by the beautiful and sultry Dusty, probably in the early 1970s since her signature beehive hairdo of the '60s is not included.

One of the most recognizable films in cinema history is Hitchcock's 1960 horror film Psycho, with Bernard Herrmann's musical score adding greatly to the tension and drama. Hitchcock himself stated that "33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music." The Shower Scene is probably the most famous cue in film music, with the shrill screeching of string instruments. However (no Shower Scene today), this sound clip below is the main title of the soundtrack, an intense yet truly fantastic piece of musical art.

And of course a Halloween post deserves a typical and crazy Monkees romp (a music video precursor), featuring the foursome with classic Hollywood monsters in the episode titled "The Monstrous Monkee Mash." Although the episode first aired in January of 1968, the filming actually started on Halloween of '67. Written together by all four of The Monkees with Diane Hilderbrand, "Goin' Down" shows off Micky Dolenz's impressive (and quick) vocal skills, and was the B-side to "Daydream Believer." Sock it to me! (The individual music video has been removed from YouTube, so here's the whole episode! "Goin' Down" begins around the 20-minute mark).

First opening in August of 1969 at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, the Haunted Mansion is a beloved dark ride with a classically creepy theme song heard in many different variations throughout "the tour." Composed by Buddy Baker with lyrics written by Disney legend "X" Atencio, "Grim Grinning Ghosts" featured a pickup group of vocalists including Thurl Ravencroft (in the clip, the "singing bust" on its side) who is also known for singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," as well as the voice of Tony the Tiger ("they're ggggreat!"). This particular sound clip comes from the "Graveyard Jamboree" variation where the theme is played the loudest in the ride, with ghosts singing over a background loop including the 1960s-style bass line and rhythm section. In college, I actually based a music composition homework assignment on these chords because I liked the progression so much. ("Graveyard Jamboree" begins around the 10:39 mark).

To end this Spooktacular post, here's my favorite creepy song of the 1960s: "People Are Strange" by The Doors. Written by bandmates Robby Krieger and Jim Morrison, this psychedelic rock song was released as a single in September of 1967, and peaked at #12 on the Billboard charts and #10 on the Cashbox. As a teenager, I heard a cover version of this used for the opening credits of the 1980s vampire film The Lost Boys (with a teenage Keifer Sutherland!), which I think forever etched into my mind the eeriness of this tune. Showcasing The Doors' interest in the theatrical music of European cabaret, this song isn't at all Halloween-related but about alienation and being an outsider, and seems to expose Morrison's vulnerability. On that depressing note, enjoy!

Other 1960s songs that you can include in your Halloween playlist are "Paint It Black" by The Rolling Stones (already featured here) and The Zombies' very interesting "Butcher's Tale (Western Front 1914)" from their Odessey and Oracle LP here.
Happy Fall, everyone!

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Soul Music: Part 2
Today, we'll begin with one of the greatest singers of all time, Aretha Franklin, "The Queen of Soul," and the one female with the most million-selling singles ever. Beginning her music career in the late 1950s, it wasn't until the release of her single "Respect" in August 1967 when she reached international stardom. Written and originally released by Otis Redding, Franklin's cover version is considered to be one of the best songs of the R&B era, earning her two Grammy Awards in 1968 for "Best Rhythm & Blues Recording" and "Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance: Female." Also featuring Aretha's sisters, Carolyn and Erma, as backup singers, this song became a crossover hit when it reached #1 on both pop and R&B charts. It was also a landmark song for the feminist movement, and is included among the Songs of the Century. The last line of the song "Take care...TCB" was often misunderstood, however, it was an abbreviation for "taking care of business" which was widely used in the African-American culture are the time. Here's a classic performance of a song that helped shape music history.

First featured during the "Songs for Each Day of the Week" Week, Sam Cooke was the first "King of Soul" and founding father of soul music, who paved the way for all soul singers that followed. With his distinctive vocal abilities and influence on the modern world of music, he was also an entrepreneur, forming a record label and publishing company in addition to his singing-songwriting career. Among his 29 Top-40s, one of his most popular was "Wonderful World," written by Cooke with his producer Lou Adler and Herb Alpert (yeah, the trumpet guy). Hitting #12 on the pop charts and #2 on the black charts in the spring of 1960, this bouncy love song was also thought to possibly have a political message, asking white listeners to forget about African-American history (slavery) and of course biology. With so many major hits in a short amount of time, one can only imagine what else Cooke could have accomplished if he hadn't been shot to his death in 1964.

Another extremely influential artist of his generation was American singer Jackie Wilson, also known as "Mr. Excitement." One of the most dynamic performers in R&B and rock history, Wilson was important in the transition from rhythm and blues into soul. Beginning his career in the mid-1950s, he recorded over 50 hit singles, and his electrifying live performances inspired many other artists including James Brown, Elvis Presley (who dubbed him "The Black Elvis"), and Michael Jackson. However, during a 1975 benefit concert, he collapsed onstage from heart attack and fell into a coma for nine years until his death in 1984. Released in August of 1967, one of his final pop hits was the Chicago soul song "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," which reached #1 on the R&B charts and #6 on the pop charts. Here's one (#68) of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time performing one (#246) of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Active from 1966 to 1983, the San Francisco-based band Sly & the Family Stone was crucial in the development of soul, funk, and psychedelic music. Led by singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Sly Stone, and including his family members and friends, this band was the first major American rock band to have an "integrated, multi-gender" lineup. Released in February 1968, the psychedelic soul single "Dance to the Music" was a widespread, groundbreaking hit for the group, reaching #8 on the charts, and in late 1968, "Everyday People" became their first #1 hit single on both R&B and pop charts. The latter was a plea for peace and equality between different races and social groups (a major focus for the band), and popularized the catchphrase "different strokes for different people." Both written and produced by Sly Stone, as well as both included on the list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, this performance by Sly & the Family Stone features "Dance to the Music" and "Everyday People."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Soul Men

Soul Music: Part 1
We're back and ready to talk about Soul music! Arising out of the black experience in America in the late '50s and early '60s, 'soul' music was deeply rooted in gospel music (using secular lyrics), as well as in rhythm and blues (R&B). Important features of soul included catchy rhythms (accented by hand claps and improvised body moves), call and responses between soloist and chorus, and a tense vocal sound.
From 1961 through 1981, probably the most successful soul duo was Sam & Dave, featuring the tenor vocals of Sam Moore and baritone/lower tenor vocals of Dave Prater. During the mid-1960s, they were not only one of the greatest live acts, but they were one of the most consistent in their R&B charts successes that included 10 consecutive Top 20 singles and 3 consecutive Top 10 albums. Not only did their crossover chart-appeal aid in the acceptance of soul music by white pop audiences, but their song "Soul Man" helped define the genre, being one of the first songs by a black group to top the charts using the word 'soul.' Released in August of 1967, "Soul Man" is Sam & Dave's biggest and most remembered hit, reaching #1 on the R&B charts, #1 on the Cashbox charts, and #2 on the Billboard chart. Written and produced by Issac Hayes and David Porter, and inspired by the turmoil of the Africa-American Civil Rights Movement, here's the song that earned Sam & Dave the 1968 Grammy Award for Best Rhythm & Blues Group Performance.

One popular soul song of 1966 was "When a Man Loves a Woman," recorded by American R&B/soul performer Percy Sledge. A soulful ballad that is still heard at weddings today, this classic made it to #1 on both Billboard and R&B charts, and has been listed among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Actually written by Sledge himself, he gave the songwriting credit to Calvin Lewis and Andrew Wright, who played bass and keyboards on the recording. During the recording session, the song had no title or lyrics, and Sledge improvised the lyrics with minimal pre-planning. His performance was so convincing that the studio musicians assumed that he had the words written down. This soulful anthem has been re-recorded by dozens of the other artists, yet remains Sledge's signature song today.

American soul singer-songwriter/record producer Otis Redding was a major figure in soul/R&B during the 1960s. His open-throated vocals and powerful style of rhythm and blues created the foundation of the Stax Sound (a renowned record label for its Southern soul and Memphis soul music styles; included Sam & Dave), and has been given the honorific name "King of Soul." One of his last big concerts was at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, where he performed before a primarily white audience. Following the festival, Redding wrote and produced "(Sittin' On) the Dock of the Bay" just three days before his death in a plane crash in December '67. That single was released in January 1968 and became the #1 record on both the pop and R&B charts, as well as the first posthumous #1 single in U.S. chart history. He was only 26 but he is still considered one of the greatest singers of all time. From earlier in '67 while on the Stax Tour in Europe, here's Redding giving a live performance of the classic "Try a Little Tenderness," another considered among the greatest songs of all time.

We'll conclude today's post with the "Godfather of Soul," American singer, songwriter, musician, and recording artist James Brown, also known as "The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business." With an extensive career from the late 1950s until his death in 2006, Brown was the originator of the musical style funk, and was a major figure in 20th century pop music for both his vocal and dancing styles. In 1965, he released two signature hits, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," both of which became his first Top 10 hits, as well as major #1 R&B hits. The following year, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" won the Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues recording. Here's a high-energy performance with fancy footwork by James Brown, live on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Song of the Day: One

How about the occasional "Song of the Day" post? I think we're overdue.
The phase "one is the loneliest number" is quite common today but few know who actually coined it. Being the opening line to the classic song called "One," most people recall Three Dog Night singing it, however, it was actually written and first released by American singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson (featured a few months ago here). Released on his third album in 1968, Nilsson composed "One" after calling someone and getting the 'busy' signal on the other end. He stayed on the line, listening to the 'beep beep beep' tone, which became the opening notes of the song. Reminiscent of a George Martin arrangement (The Beatles' orchestrator) with its subtle woodwind and string accompaniment, this baroque pop song is beautiful, and perfectly evokes the feeling of loneliness and the desperation it brings. If you're unfamiliar with Nilsson's original, this haunting song may come as a surprise (only audio, no video footage).

On that note, we'll conclude with the extremely popular cover version of "One" made famous by Three Dog Night (just featured last month here). Eventually included on the band's self-titled debut album (not in the initial copies) and released as a single in April 1969, this rockin' version reached #5 on the Billboard charts, becoming the group's first big hit. Using a completely different arrangement, you may find it hard to not join in with co-lead vocalist Chuck Negron, singing about that loneliest number.