Saturday, April 28, 2012

Song of the Day: Goodbye

In a completely, unrelated transition to our next fabulous series (hopefully beginning later next week), here's a pretty little gem of a song, featured as our Song of the Day. Although we just talked about this cute little Welsh folk singer last month, this Mary Hopkin tune has been in my head lately. As we know Hopkin was one of the first artists signed to The Beatles' Apple record label and Paul McCartney was her producer, there's no mistaking which mop-top wrote this beauty. Credited to Lennon-McCartney (but of course written solely by McCartney) Hopkin's single reached #2 on the UK chart in March of 1969, and was only prevented from reaching the top position by The Beatles' single "Get Back." The song also reached #13 on the US singles chart. Here's a lovely live performance by the beautiful Ms. Hopkin (and another cute video here with footage of Paul coaching Mary in the recording studio).   

Although never officially released by either The Beatles or Paul McCartney, there are bootleg recordings of McCartney's original demo version recorded for Hopkin. Here's one posted on YouTube with a nice photo montage of this beloved Beatle. 

And how cool is this: McCartney's original manuscript on Apple stationary! (Courtesy of Life of the Beatles Blog)
Well, until next time, goodbye!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Act Naturally

Country Crossover Hits: Part 4

For our final Country Music Crossover post, we're featuring American singer-songwriter and actor Ricky Nelson, who first began his entertainment career in 1949 playing himself in his family's radio sitcom series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (followed by a successful TV sitcom of the same name in the late '50s). In 1957, after recording his first single and debuting as a singer on the TV series, Nelson's music career took off and he was the first teen idol to utilize TV to promote hit records. From 1957 to 1962, he had 30 Top-40 hits (more than any other artist except Elvis Presley and Pat Boone), including "Poor Little Fool," which was the first #1 song on then newly-created Billboard Hot-100 chart. When his career came to a halt in the wake of the British Invasion in the mid-'60s, he moved more towards country music, becoming a pioneer in the country-rock genre and had one last hit with "Garden Party" in 1972. Unfortunately, like quite a few iconic singers, he was killed in plane crash in 1985. Released in 1961, this rockabilly tune seems to make the lists of crossovers, hitting #9 on the US pop chart and #2 in the UK. Written by singer Gene Pitney with Cayet Mangiaracina, here's 21-year-old Ricky Nelson performing "Hello Mary Lou" on that All-American TV series.  

At 4 foot 9 inches tall, next is Little Miss Dynamite, country pop singer Brenda Lee, who was a young girl with a mature voice when she was discovered. Although she sang rockabilly and country music from a very young age, her record label she signed with in the mid-50s decided to market her exclusively as a pop artist, thus none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s were ever released to country radio (despite her country sound). In 1960 at 15-years-old, Lee recorded her signature song "I'm Sorry," which hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart and was nominated for a Grammy. Even though it was not released as a country song, it was among the first big hits to use what was to become the Nashville Sound, which emphasized stringed-instrumental sound with smooth vocal harmonies. In time, this country pop tune has become accepted by country fans as a standard of the genre, and is a fixture on many "country oldies" programs. Even peaking at #4 on the R&B chart and #13 in the UK, this song is considered as one of the "finest teen pop songs of the era" (Allmusic). In this (unfortunately poor quality) video, the adorable Brenda Lee sure makes singing like this look so easy.    
Next up, it's American singer/guitarist Buck Owens who had 21 #1 hits on the country music charts with his band, the Buckaroos. Originally from Texas, he moved to Bakersfield, CA where he drew up his inspiration for his purely American music, and pioneered the Bakersfield Sound (a reaction against the over-produced  honky-tonk Nashville Sound in the 1950s). Owens was also known for co-hosting the hilarious TV variety series Hee Haw from 1969 to 1986. This next country tune became a crossover hit in a roundabout way. Released in March of 1963, "Act Naturally" was his first chart-topping hit on the country chart, staying at #1 for four weeks and making Owens a country superstar. In 1965, The Beatles brought more attention to this song with their (still country) cover version of this tune, featuring Ringo Starr on the lead vocals. Released in the US as the B-side of "Yesterday," it actually peaked at #47 on the singles chart (their adorable performance on Ed Sullivan here). Later in 1989, Owens and Starr teamed up for a brand-new version, also creating a lighthearted music video for it (here), and this duet peaked at #27 on the country chart. Now for a performance by the original, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos on the Ranch Show in 1966.      

We'll finish this series with the American country music singer-songwriter and musician Merle Haggard who, like Buck Owens, helped create that Bakersfield Sound with his band The Strangers. Unrelated to his troubles with the law in his younger days, Haggard aligned himself with the growing outlaw country movement in the late '60s (a subgenre of country music whose artists had a raw sound and scruffier look in contrast to those clean cut singers of the Nashville Sound, wearing those rhinestone-covered Nudie suits ). In many of his songs, his guitar playing and voice gave country a hard-edged, blues-like style, and even into the '90s and 2000s, he has continued to release successful albums. Of his 38 #1 country hits, one of his most popular songs is "Okie from Muskogee," which also became a minor pop hit, reaching #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart after its release in September 1969. Written by Haggard with his drummer Roy Edwards Burris during the height of the Vietnam War, this tune was first intended as a patriotic statement in support of the troops, but now has become more of a spoof than redneck anthem, as hippies (who are derided in the lyrics) seem to enjoy the humor in it; even counterculture acts like the Grateful Dead and Phil Ochs have cover versions of their own. From 1969, here's Merle Haggard performing "Okie from Muskogee" with The Strangers.    

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Farewell to America's Oldest Teenager

Well, I'm sad to report that we lost another exceptional figure of the entertainment world today, American radio/TV personality, game-show host, and businessman Dick Clark. At the age of 82, Clark died from a massive heart attack after undergoing a medical procedure this morning. Originally from Mount Vernon, New York, he was best know for hosting long-running TV shows like American Bandstand (for 31 years) and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve (for nearly 40 years). He is always well-remembered for his departing catchphrase, "For now, Dick long," while delivering a military salute, and for his youthful appearance, which earned him the nickname "America's Oldest Teenager." With a career spanning well over 60 years, he loved music and he really was a "chaperone to generations of music-loving teens" (from the LA Times).

From the American TV documentary series This Is Your Life, here's a portion of the 1959 episode that featured Dick Clark. From 1952 to 1961, this show would surprise a guest and proceed to take them through their life in front of an audience including family and friends. Interestingly, Clark was only 29 years old at the time, which showcases just how popular and accomplished he was early on in his career. Oh and he was definitely a good-looking guy.

And of course, we must include a little music in every post. Here's the full clip of The Beach Boys' 1964 appearance on American Bandstand (performing "Don't Worry Baby"), and includes Dick Clark's introduction and follow-up interview with the group. The Boys look at a little uncomfortable without their instruments, but cute clip nonetheless.
Clip is broken up into two videos.

Part 2

Farewell to a legendary figure and radio pioneer. We will miss you, Dick Clark!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The End of the World

Country Crossovers: Part 3
Our next group of Country music artists begins with the hugely successful singer-songwriter, record producer, and actor Kenny Rogers. Although he is mainly considered a country artist, this Texan has charted more than 120 singles across different music genres and has topped the country and pop album charts for more 200 individual weeks in the US alone. Starting off with some rock hits in the late '60s with The First Edition (like "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In"), Rogers decided to take his group into more of a country direction, and recorded (in one take) their first country pop single, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." Released in 1969, this major hit reached #6 on the US pop chart, and was even a bigger success in the UK reaching #2 on their singles chart, eventually selling more than 7 million records. Rogers continued with this band until 1976 when they split and he launched a successful solo career. Live on The Mike Douglas Show, here's Kenny Rogers & The First Edition.

Next, it's one of country music's best-known artists and biggest-selling female artists Tammy Wynette. Known as the First Lady of Country Music, she dominated the country charts in the late '60s and early '70s, scoring 17 #1 hits, and helped define the role of the female country singer in the 1970s. In 1968, she co-wrote (with her producer Billy Sherrill) and released the most successful record of her career, "Stand By Your Man," which reached #1 on the US country chart and crossed over to the pop chart at #19. Elevating Wynette to superstar status, this song also hit #1 in the UK after it was finally released there in 1975. Placed at #1 on CMT's list of Top 100 Country Music Songs, this country tune is one of the biggest selling hit singles by a woman in the history of country music (despite its lyrics being derided by the Feminist Movement of late '60s and early '70s). In 2011, the original recording was selected by the US Library of Congress to be preserved, chosen for its cultural significance. Here's one of the most influential country singers performing her Grammy Award-winning signature song, live on The Johnny Cash Show.

An acknowledged influence on Tammy Wynette, Skeeter Davis was one of the first women to achieve major stardom as a solo vocalist in the country music field. Starting out as a part of The Davis Sisters as a teenager in the late '40s, followed by becoming a solo star in the late '50s, she scored her biggest hit in 1963 with "The End of the World." With this single peaking at #2 on the Billboard pop chart, #2 on the country chart, #1 on the Easy Listening chart, and even #4 on the R&B chart, Davis' four-chart Top-10 accomplishment has never been duplicated by any other artist in Billboard chart history. With its smooth vocals and sophisticated production (appealing to audiences beyond traditional country music listeners), this song is considered one of the foremost examples of the Nashville Sound. Davis did go on to release other country music and crossover pop hits, but as this was her signature song, she sang it at every concert appearance she made after its success. From 1965, here's Skeeter Davis' live performance on The Bobby Lord Show.

Last but not least, it's American country music singer Leroy Van Dyke who, in his 50 years-plus career, has recorded over 500 songs with dozens of them making it into the charts. In August of 1961, he released his most successful single "Walk on By," which spent a ground-breaking 19 weeks at #1 on the country chart. Also crossing over to the pop charts peaking at #5 in the US and in the UK, this classic country tune was later named by Billboard magazine as the biggest country music record in history (based on sales, plays, and weeks in the charts). Currently at the age of 82, Van Dyke still continues a full performance schedule and sounds great, singing his signature tune here, as well as his 1956 hit "The Auctioneer." As my parents listened to a wide variety of music, I grew up being very familiar with the 1988 cover version of "Walk On By" by Asleep At The Wheel. Here's a live performance by Leroy Van Dyke at the height of this song's success.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Double the Chart-Toppin'

Country Crossover: Part 2
Today's post features four, crossover country music songs that scored both #1 on the country chart and the pop chart.

First, it's American country and gospel singer Jeannie C. Riley from Texas. Her debut single in 1968, "Harper Valley PTA," was an international smash-hit and made her the first woman to top both the Billboard Hot 100 chart and the US Country chart (a feat unrepeated until 1981 by Dolly Parton). The song is about a widowed woman named Mrs. Johnson who confronts members of the PTA after her daughter brings home a note from school that's critical of Mrs. Johnson inappropriate behavior and dress. Just four weeks after the song's release, it sold over five and a half million copies, and earned Riley the Grammy Award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, as well as nominations in major pop categories. Apparently, the phrase "sock it to me" used in the final, memorable line of the song was ad libbed at the recording studio at the suggestion of someone at the session. Written by Tom T. Hall and covered by dozens of other artists since, here's the original classic sung by the Texan beauty .

Next up, it's another fellow Texan, the country music singer, TV host, actor, and businessman known as Jimmy Dean. Although he's mostly remembered today as the creator of the Jimmy Dean sausage brand, he first rose to fame in 1961 with his country crossover hit "Big Bad John," followed by his TV series The Jimmy Dean Show (which gave puppeteer Jim Henson his first national exposure). Written by Dean and Roy Acuff, "Big Bad John" tells a story of American folklore (similar to Paul Bunyan or John Henry), and earned Dean the 1962 Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording. In addition to reaching the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the country chart, and easy listening chart, this million-selling single was also a big hit in the UK at #2 on their singles chart. No live performances available, but here's a nice photo montage (and by the way, I don't know if you noticed the resemblance but Jimmy Dean actually was a distant cousin of actor James Dean!).

Next, we have American country and pop singer-songwriter Bobby Goldsboro, who first began his music career in 1962 as a guitarist for Roy Orbison. Going on to have a string of pop and country hits in the '60s and '70s, he scored his biggest hit in 1968 with "Honey," a tear-jerking single about the death of a young man's wife. Written by Bobby Russell and recorded by Goldsboro in one take, this song hit #1 the week Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Scoring the highest position on three different US Billboard charts (pop, country, and easy listening), this tune also reached #1 in Australia and #2 in the UK, selling millions of copies. As his first country hit, it marked a transition in his career, and he continued to remain a fixture in the country Top-40 into the 1980s. In the mid-'70s, he hosted a TV variety series called The Bobby Goldsboro Show, but eventually retired from full-time performing in the '80s. With lovely orchestration and tragic lyrics, here's a performance of Goldsboro's "Honey."

Finally, we'll concluded with one of the most successful country and Western singers of his era, American singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Marty Robbins. While joining the US Navy at 17 and stationed in the Solomon Islands (South Pacific) during WWII, he learned to play the guitar and became writing songs to pass the time during the war. In October of 1959, he released his best-known song "El Paso," featured in the album Gunfighter Ballads and Trails Songs (my mom had this album and I've never forgotten it; my sister really loved it as kids). Written by Robbins, this country & western ballad was huge hit for both the country and pop charts, being the first #1 song of 1960, and earned him the Grammy Award for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961. Later, Robbins was named Artist of the Decade (1960-69) by the Academy of Country Music. In addition to his love for music, Robbins was also an avid race car driver and he competed in over 35 NASCAR races with six top 10 finishes (I just thought that was great random fact!). Anyway, with its first-person narrative (told by a cowboy in El Paso, Texas), haunting vocal harmonies, and eloquent Spanish guitar accompaniment, I think you'll enjoy the distinctive Tex-Mex feel of this genre classic.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Farewell, Banjo Man

Wow, these last few months have been rough for the music world. Last Wednesday on March 28th, American musician Earl Scruggs passed away from natural causes at the age of 88. As an amazing banjo player with about a 67-year career, he perfected and popularized a three-finger banjo-picking style (now even called "Scruggs style") that is a defining element of bluegrass music.
These next few tunes actually tie in with the Country Crossover Series that we'll be continuing this month. In the fall of 1962, with singer Jerry Scoggins, Lester Flatt and Scruggs recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" for the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies. The theme song became an immediate country music hit reaching #1 on the country chart and #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 later in '62.

Played by Flatts & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, this next bluegrass instrumental was written by Scruggs and first recorded in 1949. Now a standard in bluegrass repertoire, a re-recorded version of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was used in the 1967 motion picture Bonnie & Clyde (check out a classic car chase scene here), and even peaked at #55. This Grammy-award winning tune is one of the fastest and most rhythmically challenging pieces for the banjo, and only very skilled 5-string banjo players can play it at the same speed and beat that Scruggs could. Here's a great live performance from 1965, featuring Scruggs doing what he did best.

Thanks for the fun music, Mr. Scruggs!