Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Song A Day: Roy Ayers, "Love Will Bring Us Back Together"

JUNE 23, 2017




As disco began to eclipse both soul music and jazz in the mid-1970s, artists from those fields tried to keep up. One who easily could and did was Roy Ayers.

Ayers, a bebop-trained vibraphone player, also does a mean job on keyboards. He began his recording career in 1962. While he always had technique, a big palate, and a good ear, some called Ayers a “sell-out” because he played upbeat music that people liked rather than participate in the often joyless avant-garde/free-jazz experimentalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

He recorded popular songs, wrote for soundtracks, and otherwise pulled himself out of any orthodoxy, embracing all sorts of new sounds and ideas—which included funk, disco, and what would later be called “world music.”

Ayers recorded proficiently and did well on the jazz charts. While he wasn’t necessarily always a featured soloist, he ran a band efficiently. The opening track of his 1979 album Fever was a jazz-funk composition, “Love Will Bring Us Back Together,” that Polydor issued as a single late that spring.

“Love Will Bring Us Back Together” had a hell of a chassis, riding legendary drummer Bernard Purdie’s strong midtempo beat and the funky bass of William Allen, formerly of Mongo Santamaria’s group. Ayers provided sweet Fender Rhodes piano and supremely chewy clavinet as well as an appealing double-tracked lead vocal. The song itself featured innovative but supple key changes that flowed rather than jarred, and in hooks, beat, and production was quite radio-friendly.

This record was a ton of fun, and a huge hit in Chicago during summer 1979. It was big enough that even I remember hearing it out in the world although it got little to no play on any of the white Top 40 stations.

“Love Will Bring us Back Together” also got heavy rotation in Houston, Louisville, Indianapolis, Dayton, Milwaukee, Detroit, San Francisco/Oakland, Atlanta, and Denver, but never broke out of the soul/R&B box. Stations began adding the record in late spring; on June 30, it debuted on Billboard’s top 100 soul singles chart. In the next month, it flowed upward to 41, where it stopped.

Ayers and co. certainly had the goods to compete in the disco/dance market, but at a time when Patrick Hernandez’ limp “Born to Be Alive” was the #1 song in the nation, Roy Ayers’ music may have just been too sophisticated.

His next album, No Stranger to Love, included his biggest chart hit, “Don’t Stop the Feeling,” another strong hook-filled disc. Ayers has spent the last 30 years further expanding his palate with collaborations, explorations of house music, touring, and producing.

While “Love Will Bring Us Back Together” was issued in a truncated 45 RPM mix, I’m presenting the original LP mix despite a fairly obvious edit in the last half-minute of the track. This is the version that would have been played in the dance clubs, and possibly on a lot of the radio stations that spun the record in the first place.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Song A Day: Circus, "Stop, Wait and Listen"

JULY 22, 2017




“Stop, Wait, Listen,” a small national hit in early 1973, is a little bit of a lot of things that add up to one hot record. Even without the Oxford comma.

Circus, a five-piece from Cleveland, cut this record for the Metromedia label, best known for its teen idol hitmaker Bobby Sherman. While it also issued discs by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick, Metromedia was also home to more progressive bands like Gypsy, Elephant’s Memory, and the Holy Modal Rounders and R&B from the Winstons and the Three Degrees.

While it wasn’t R&B, teenybop, or album rock, Circus had elements of each. The combo was a huge live draw in its hometown, drawing ecstatic crowds, and had some teen appeal. Everyone in the group was a solid musician capable of creating tight arrangements, and four of them, including guitarist Dan Hrdlicka and organist Phil Alexander, could sing.

Strong harmonies were a big part of their sound, putting them in the good company of contemporary hard-rockin’ American popsters like Todd Rundgren, Big Star, Crabby Appleton, and two other fine bands from Ohio, the Raspberries and Blue Ash.

“Stop, Wait and Listen” was a fine representation of their chunky guitar/organ blend, along with a strong rhythm section and good singers. Filled with hooks, it was among the real surprise singles of the time period, good enough to have been a huge hit had it only been heard.

The band’s rabid fan base helped make “Stop, Wait and Listen” a top ten record in both Cleveland and Columbus, but unfortunately Circus could not break out nationwide, possibly because the Metromedia label was having tough times. Bobby Sherman, its biggest artist, was no longer a hit machine, and the other Metromedia acts did not pick up the slack.

“Stop, Wait and Listen” did register on all three music weekly magazines’ charts, getting to #91 in Billboard, #74 in Record World, and #81 in Cashbox before falling short.

Circus recorded a well-regarded album for Metromedia, but unfortunately it was among the label’s last releases before being merged into RCA. The album, and follow-up single, “Feel So Right,” were lost in the shuffle.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Songs A Day: A Motley Bunch of Herman's Hermits Cash-in Records

JULY 21, 2017


RELEASED 1965 ON 7” 45

I’ve written previously about Herman’s Hermits. Today I want to share some evidence of just how popular they were.

When the British invasion began in early 1964, several Beatles songs were on the music magazine charts at the same time. This is mostly because the rights to their first few singles, which were not issued by Capitol—their right-of-first-refusal company in the US—were picked up by other labels…

...and when the Fabs hit it big in this country January 1964, therefore these other labels (Swan, MGM, Vee-Jay and its sub-label Tollie) issued these older Beatles records, just hoping to catch a trend; therefore the group’s new releases on Capitol were competing with their own previous hits from 1963.

So this has to do with Herman's Hermits how?

Herman’s Hermits, fronted by the barely 17-year-old Peter Noone, really took off in the US in early 1965. Their second chart hit, “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat,” went to #2 in the late winter. “Silhouettes,” their cover of the late 1950s doo-wop classic, was issued in late March.

But their record label, MGM, had a problem. It was “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” a song on the band’s first album, Herman’s Hermits.

The sentimental, very British “Mrs. Brown” had been introduced two years earlier by an actor named Tom Courtenay in a British TV play. The original was a bit more folk-flavored, with banjo and acoustic guitar, and found immediate acceptance.

During 1964, Herman’s Hermits recorded it, in just two takes, as album-filler material. With the song already known in the UK, the group did not want it issued as a single, feeling that it would peg them as a wimpy novelty act. But the following year, public reaction to the song in the states forced it onto the airwaves.

By mid-March, with "Can't You Hear My Heartbeat" still in the top five, and “Silhouettes” being pressed and readied for release, radio DJs began to play “Mrs. Brown” in earnest. Listeners in Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee, et al., fell hard for the song even though it was unavailable as a single. Teenage girls simply loved it, and some of their mothers must have too.

Within two weeks, it was #1 in Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston despite being only an album track, meaning that listener requests for the song must have gone absolutely through the roof. Even Beatles album tracks hadn’t seen this kind of listener reaction.

And why not? It's a sweet little recording, with a sincere one-off quality that even includes some muffed notes. Lead guitarist Derek Leckenby's muted string work provided an immediate hook; many thought he was playing a banjo. Peter Noone and Keith Hopwood's vocals were just the right side of innocent.

Faced with a strange dilemma—Do we risk cannibalizing the sales of “Silhouettes,” or do we miss out on a huge opportunity?—MGM chose to issue “Mrs. Brown” as a single, putting it out a mere two weeks after releasing “Silhouettes,” which hit the Billboard chart on April 3 and within three weeks was the #19 song in the country.

But the week that “Silhouettes” jumped from #44 to #19, “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at #12, making that huge leap solely on advance sales from record distributors all over America. This was, at the time, the highest debut in the history of the Billboard chart. It gave the Hermits three songs in the top 20, all on the MGM label.

Two weeks later, on the May 1 survey, it was the #1 song in America, remaining at the top of the charts for three weeks. “Silhouettes,” on the other hand, peaked “only” at #5.

(In 1968, the group made its second film, Mrs. Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter, in which the "daughter" is a racing greyhound.)

In the grand, bandwagon-hopping tradition of pop music then and now, the overnight success of “Mrs. Brown” sparked several imitators, all of which must have been recorded—very quickly—shortly after the announcement that the song would be issued on a single.

The first single “inspired” by “Mrs. Brown” was cut by The Detergents, a New York studio trio including Ron Dante, who several years later was the lead singer on the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar.” It was released just as “Mrs. Brown” began making its climb up the charts.

The Detergents had enjoyed a 1964 hit with “Leader of the Laundromat,” a pretty successful parody of the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack.” But their attempt this time around, “Mrs. Jones (How About It),” sounded slapdash.

Though it contained elements of “Mrs. Brown," the Detergents' attempt at a cash-in was successful neither on the turntable nor on the charts. Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, who’d “written” “Leader of the Laundromat,” took the credit on this one too.

Issued at the same time was an “answer” record to “Mrs. Brown,” purportedly by ‘Mrs. Brown’s Lovely Daughter Carol,’ entitled “(Mother, It’s a) Frightful Situation.” Recorded and released in southern California, it too used a singer with a fake British accent to little positive effect. The singer, apparently a Carol Crane, sounds more like someone imitating the overtly posh tone of Julie Andrews in “Mary Poppins.”

“Frightful Situation” got some airplay in San Diego, but apparently little attention anywhere else. Interestingly, the new lyrics were written by Nancy Mantz, who’d later collaborate with Annette Tucker on the Electric Prunes’ hits “I Had too Much to Dream (Last Night)” and “Get Me to the World on Time.”


A little-known label called RIC (Recording Industries Corp.) also put out, a week or so later, its attempt at a cash-in. The credited aggregation was known as ‘Lynn and the Mersey Maids’ (not that Herman’s Hermits were from Liverpool, but no matter).

This song had a slightly different conceit—it was called “Mrs. Jones, Your Son Gives up too Easy.” RIC was largely an R&B label, and these singers may well be African American. The “songwriter,” a Bob Montgomery, also produced this.

Finally, going right for the jugular were Marty & the Monks, whose “Mrs. Schwartz You’ve Got an Ugly Daughter” at least credited Trevor Peacock, the writer of the original, although on this record, the action has been relocated from London to New York City.

Amazingly enough, I have not exhausted the well of “Mrs. Brown” cash-ins. But you’ve probably had enough for today, and I know I have! That none of these records made it much beyond the factory before being forgotten certainly puts some faith in the judgment of the American radio listener.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Song A Day: Lyle Lovett, "Friend of the Devil"

JULY 20, 2017




Not being much of a Grateful Dead fan, I have no emotional encumbrances with anyone covering or reinterpreting their material. Therefore, when I heard Lyle Lovett’s version of “Friend of the Devil,” originally issued on the Dead’s late 1970 American Beauty LP, it not only struck me as a perfect cover, but the savior of the song.

I personally was always bothered by the jaunty, upbeat tone of the original version. The song is about as downer of a lyric as one can imagine—a deep, dark existential crisis in which one can’t even be sure that selling your soul will get you what’s been promised. And yet the arrangement made it sound like it was supposed to be a barrel of fun. Maybe that’s the irony, but I don’t get it.

Lyle Lovett, who’d been cutting records since the late 1980s, is a sort of outsider country artist who writes often funny, often poignant songs. He was a good choice to for inclusion on the 1991 benefit-slash-tribute album Deadicated, conceived of by producer Ralph Sell.

The album featured some apropos guests, like Bruce Hornsby, Lovett, and Dwight Yoakam, but also some unexpected acolytes including Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, and Los Lobos, faithfully cutting Dead songs in their own styles.

Backed by Little Feat’s Bill Payne on piano and some top L.A. session men (Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel, Dean Parks), Lovett slows “Friend of the Devil” down, affording Robert Hunter’s lyric the ghostly, eerie, feel of a damned soul that it warrants.