Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Country Crossovers

Country Crossovers: Part 1
Alright, folks, time for something completely different! Finally, we're going to talk about that purely American music called Country. And more specifically, those country songs that crossed-over from the US Billboard country charts into the pop charts. Even if you're more of a pop/rock person yourself, you still might enjoy hearing these classics that your parents (or maybe even your grandparents) likely listened to.

Of course we must begin with American singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, one of the most influential musicians in the 20th century. With songs and sound spanning many genres including country, rockabilly, rock n roll, blues, folk, and gospel, "The Man In Black" obviously had great crossover appeal, and is known for his distinctive bass-baritone voice. Originating from Arkansas, his music represented his life, echoing themes of sorrow, moral tribulation, and redemption. Released in April of 1963, one of his many signature songs is "Ring of Fire," co-written by June Carter (Cash's future wife) and Merle Kilgore (although Cash's first wife at the time claims that Cash himself co-wrote the song and gave Carter the song-writing credit because "she needed the money"). With its mariachi-style trumpet accompaniment, this tune became the biggest hit of his career, staying at #1 on the country charts for 7 weeks and reached #17 on the pop chart. Nice to see the often somber yet humble Johnny enjoying this live performance.

Also from Arkansas, the songs of country music singer and guitarist Glen Campbell have been in the country chart over 74 times, with 27 of those singles reaching the Top-10. First establishing his career as an in-demand session guitarist in the '60s, playing on numerous hits with "the Wrecking Crew" (you know, that elite group of session musicians that played on recordings for The Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Mamas & The Papas, The 5th Dimension, Nat King Cole, etc!), Campbell became a solo artist in the late '60s and made history by winning four Grammy Awards in both country and pop categories in 1967. In the same year when he received Country Music Awards' top honor as 1968 Entertainer of the Year, he released one of his biggest hits, "Wichita Lineman," written by Jimmy Webb (who also wrote "Up, Up and Away" and "MacArthur Park"). Referred to as "the first existential country song," it topped the country chart and reached #3 on the US pop chart, becoming certified Gold by January '69, and is now among those 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Due to his current Alzheimer's diagnosis, there was a nice tribute to Campbell at the 2012 Grammy Awards last month, and I thought he sounded great singing his "farewell" (it was quite touching seeing the whole audience singing "Rhinestone Cowboy" along with him). Anyway, here's that beauty of a song, "Wichita Lineman," performed by all-American Glen Campbell in December 1968.

As an American country music singer who was successful in pop music crossovers during the early '60s era of the Nashville Sound, Patsy Cline is one of the most influential and acclaimed female vocalists of the 20th century. Known for her bold contralto voice, she was a pioneer in the country music industry, and is viewed by some as an icon similar to legends Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, often voted as one of the greatest singers of all time. A follow-up to her hit "I Fall to Pieces," her 1961 single "Crazy" reached #2 on the country chart and #9 on the pop charts by early '62, becoming one of her signature tunes. Written by then-unknown Willie Nelson, this beautiful ballad with its complex melody suited Cline's vocal talent perfectly, and is also listed among the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In this clip, she is wearing a headband to cover up the scars on her forehead from a life-threatening car accident she had been involved in earlier that year. Sadly, while at the height of career, she died in a private plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30. Another beauty taken too soon.

We'll conclude this post with American singer-songwriter and actor Roger Miller, best known for his honky tonk-influenced novelty songs during the mid-1960s Nashville Sound era. After serving in the US Army, he began his music career as a popular songwriter in the late 1950s, and reached peak success as a recording artist in the late '60s. Released in January 1965, "King of the Road" was a chart-topping country hit for Miller and became a highly popular crossover record, reaching #4 on the Billboard pop chart. Selling a million copies by that May, it won him numerous awards and earned him a royalty check worth $160,000 that summer. The humorous lyrics tell a story of a hobo who enjoys his freedom as a "king of the road." (For the younger kiddos like me, you may recognize Miller's voice from Walt Disney's 1973 animated film Robin Hood as the "whistling" Rooster character). Here's fun footage of Miller playing with Johnny Cash on the latter's TV show.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Those Were The Days

Random Hits: Part 4
Well, it's been a few weeks, but we're finally finishing up last month's Random Series (for now) with more artists that have yet to be featured on this blog. Up next, it's the Memphis-based, blue-eyed soul group The Box Tops. Active from 1967-1970 (with brief reunions later), this group combined elements of soul music and light pop, and was lead by the distinct, gruff voice of teen singer Alex Clinton (17 in this clip). In August of '67, The Box Tops released their first single, "The Letter" (a cover version already featured here), which became an international hit, reaching #1 for four weeks in the US. Selling over four million copies and nominated for two Grammy Awards, it was ranked the #1 song of 1967. Under two minutes in length, this classic tune includes a string and horn arrangement, an "I'm a Believer"-like organ riff, and the sound effect of an "aer-o-plane" take-off (and yes, the group appears to be making fun of this mimed performance towards the end).

This next group was considered a one-hit wonder twice (once in the UK and once in the US) with two different songs under two different names (huh?). Okay, first named Pinkerton's Assorted Colours, this British pop band scored one Top-10 hit in the UK in the mid-60s. Failing to chart again, the group renamed themselves The Flying Machine in 1969, and this time, had a major hit in the US. Released in late '69, "Smile a Little Smile for Me" peaked at #5 on the US Billboard chart and sold over a million copies by that December. Despite its British origins, the song did not even appear on the UK Singles chart. Although the group followed up with two more singles, The Flying Machine became frustrated with their pop-oriented image and disbanded by 1971. Although this video quality is quite poor, it doesn't take away from this timeless piece of beauty, featuring Tony Newman on lead vocals.

Our next artist is the sweet Mary Hopkin, a talented folk singer from Wales and one of the first musicians to be signed to The Beatles' Apple label (founded in 1968). After winning a British talent show on TV, Opportunity Knocks, she was recommended to Paul McCartney, who went on to produce her debut single (and signature song) "Those Were the Days." Released in August of 1968, this song became a #1 hit in the UK and #2 in the US (even topping the US Easy Listening chart for six weeks), with global sales topping the eight million mark. Accentuating the melody's Russian origins, the klezmer-sounding arrangement was unusual for a Top-10 pop song, including a clarinet, hammer dulcimer, and children's choir. She also recorded the song in four other languages for release in Italy, (West) Germany, France, and Spain. Performed by many other artists, Mary Hopkin's excellent recording will always be the best-remembered version. (This song will always remind me of my little sister, who, I remember, picked up the words quite quickly that first time we heard this as kids, and I thought "wow, when did she learn that?").

And last on the docket for today, it's the teenage doo-wop group, The Tokens, originating from Brooklyn, New York. First formed in 1955 (originally including Neil Sedaka for the first two years), The Tokens established their most famous name and crew in 1960 with Jay Siegel on lead vocals and their youngest member, 13-year-old multi-instrumental Mitch Margo. In 1961, the group had their biggest success with the #1 single "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," an adaptation of a song first recorded by South African singer Solomon Linda in 1939. The Tokens' version went on to earn $15 million in royalties for covers and film licensing, however, the group has yet to receive publishing credit for their specific, original composition portions of the song. In 1963, the doo-wop group also created their own company, Bright Tunes Productions, and began serving as record producers for other groups like The Chiffons, Randy & the Rainbows, and The Happenings. Filmed much later in 1969, here are The Tokens (all grown up with late '60s scruffiness!) on a show called "Upbeat."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Another Farewell

Well, I apologize for the slow posting around here, but I've been spending most of my free time practicing for a bunch of gigs this month. Actually, while I was playing the harp at a wedding in Disneyland this past weekend, it occurred to me that I needed to include a farewell post for this Disney legend.
Last week on March 5th, American songwriter Robert Sherman passed away peacefully at the age of 86 (pictured in the foreground on the right). He was known for his collaboration with his brother, Richard, specializing in musical films, including Mary Poppins, The Parent Trap, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and The Aristocats. As Staff Songwriters for Walt Disney Studios, the Sherman Brothers actually wrote more musical movie songs than anyone other songwriting team in history. In addition to many other Disney and non-Disney top box office films scores, they also composed music for stage musicals and even theme park attractions including the music for Disneyland's "It's a Small World (After All)" (originally an attraction at the 1964 New York World's Fair) and the Enchanted Tiki Room. However, before his musical career, Robert was a WWII hero at 19 years old, who led a squad of soldiers into the Dachau concentration camp, being the first Allied troops to enter the camp (I greatly appreciate his service to our country).
This first song featured by the Sherman Brothers comes from the 1964 musical motion picture Mary Poppins, which earned them a Grammy Award for "Best Original Score." Sung by Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews, "Chim Chim Cher-ee" also won "Best Original Song" at the Academy Awards the following year.

I wasn't planning on featuring two songs from Mary Poppins, but I realized I couldn't leave out this beauty by the Sherman Brothers. "Feed the Birds" is a haunting yet sentimental ballad that became Walt Disney's favorite song (pictured to the right of Robert and Richard). In fact, during Disney's final year of his life when his health was deteriorating, he would call the Sherman Brothers into his office and ask them to sing this song to him, often causing him to cry. After Disney's death two years later in 1966, the brothers would dedicate this song to Disney's memory every time they performed it.

The Sherman Brothers almost wrote numerous top-selling songs that reached the Billboard Top-10 including "Let's Get Together," featuring The Parent Trap's Hayley Mills singing a duet with herself (not the best vocals but definitely a memorable performance!). Another hit song was "You're Sixteen," sung by rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette, and it reached #8 in the US in December of 1960. In 1974, Ringo Starr of The Beatles had a #1 hit with a cover version of this song, featuring Paul McCartney on kazoo and Harry Nilsson on backing vocals (how's that for random?). Here's footage of the original version by Burnette in the early '60s.

Farewell, Robert Sherman. Your legendary music will live on forever.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Daydream Believer's Farewell

Well, sorry it took so long to get this post up; it's difficult to write when the topic is an unexpected, sad one. As I'm sure you've all heard by now, last week on February 29th, Davy Jones of The Monkees passed away at the age of 66, after suffering a massive heart attack. Like several generations of Monkees' fans, I am shocked and sadden to lose a wonderful '60s music icon. At 14 years old, The Monkees were the soundtrack of my life, and the cute, little British Davy was my first favorite, just adorable and full of life. There was something special about The Monkees, as we fell in love with these guys and their music through their innovative TV series. I think I speak for many fans that The Monkees' music and show remind us of the fun, innocent days of our childhood/teen years, so it's sad to see the death of someone that represented those sweet memories. Since I don't think I can add anything new that hasn't been mentioned already in the numerous, great articles from this past week (including a nice one here by NPR about how the group is long-overdue for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), so here's a few of those hit songs sung by one of the world's favorite teen-idols.
Released in October 1967, "Daydream Believer" became The Monkees' third #1 hit single, topping the US charts for four weeks, and peaked at #5 in the UK. Written by John Stewart of The Kingston Trio, the original lyrics in the second stanza were "now you know how funky I can be," however, The Monkees changed "funky" to "happy." Unsure of the song's potential at first, Davy later admitted to having a hint of annoyance in his vocals while recording ongoing takes, which kind of slips through during the humorous opening (not usually played on the radio): "...don't get excited, man. It's 'cause I'm short, I know." This video is not meant to be taken too seriously as the guys are clearly goofing around with the instruments, you know, like Mike strumming the guitar through his tie and Micky passing his hand right through the middle of the tambourine. Gotta love Davy's groovy dance moves, just like he's ice staking!

Written by Boyce & Hart for The Monkees, "Valleri" reached #3 on the US Billboard chart, #1 on Cash Box, and #12 in the UK. After being asked by Don Kirshner (The Monkees' music supervisor) to write a "girl's name song" to be used in the TV series, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart pretended over the phone that the song was already finished, however, they came up with the song on their way to Kirshner's office! In this video, this version of "Valleri" is actually the first version of the song and was only intended to be used in the TV show, not released as a single. However, after radio DJs made bootleg recordings of this tune (recording it directly of the TV), it began receiving quite a bit of radio airplay. By the end of 1967 when The Monkees won the right for complete creative control over their music production, they re-recorded "Valleri" to be included on their fifth album, adding a popping brass arrangement. As Davy "floats" above the band in this clip, pay no attention to the fact his tambourine part does not actually match the recording. :)

And how about one more? Here's the Neil Diamond-penned "Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow" from the 1967 album More of the Monkees.

Farewell, sweet Davy Jones. You'll always be one of our faves.