Monday, July 31, 2017

A Song A Day: "Mississippi Charles" Bevel, "Don't Lie to Me"

JULY 31, 2017




Charles Bevel certainly didn’t start out intending to be a recording artist, and he didn’t end up as one. But his fairly short stint on record produced some fine music.

He had done a lot of things by age 30, in 1969, including on-the-ground civil rights work, four years of college, a stint in the Navy, time in a steel mill, and travels all over the world. He’d also lived for more than three years in Liberia with his African-born wife.

Eventually he drifted toward music, by chance meeting someone who got one of his songs to the Staples Singers, who eventually cut it. In 1972, Bevel met Jerry Butler, who put him in touch with Calvin Carter, longtime Chicago R&B and soul producer. Carter found Bevel’s material good enough that he recommended that A&M Records sign him.

When A&M began issuing records in the mid-60s, much of its product was Latin jazz and West Coast folk-rock. But by the early 1970s, African American artists Quincy Jones and Billy Preston had enjoyed hits for the label. Bevel had some musical and attitudinal similarities to another contemporary R&B star, Bill Withers; both were slightly older working-class men who eschewed pieties but also refused to play “street” when it wasn’t in them.

Bevel’s album, Meet “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, was issued in 1973. A blend of folk, funk, soul, and ballads, it included two songs he’d written in Africa, along with the searing “Sally B. White,” a rip on a social-climbing young black woman. Perhaps the top track was “Don’t Lie to Me,” which to me sounds like a single but was only issued on the b-side of a promo-only 45 in 1974.

Meet “Mississippi Charles” Bevel, cut in Chicago, was generally strong and sounded terrific; the musicians included the top class of Windy City session men, including Phil Upchurch, Richard Evans, and Morris Jennings. The story—outsider finds his gift and does great album—was compelling, but the album somehow didn’t sell. After this one record, Bevel chose to leave the recording industry.

Bevel continued to perform, write, create visual art, and lecture, and when he eventually found his way into theater work, he seemed to be more fulfilled and was certainly more appreciated. A show he co-wrote, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, went to Broadway and in 1999 received several Tony nominations.

The only other recorded release under Bevel’s name was the 2000 album Not of Seasons. On this album he wrote, sang, and produced. It didn’t make him a star in pop music either, but was probably a more satisfying experience.

Here is “Don’t Lie to Me,” which may only be half of a conversation but tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on. It’s funky, down-home, pleading, wary, layered, but spare. Thank you, Mr. Bevel!


Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Song A Day: Madness, "House of Fun"

JULY 30, 2017



RELEASED 1982 ON 7”45

The British band Madness, which emerged from the late 1970s ska revival in Britain, soon proved itself an unstoppable hit machine, cranking out catchy single after catchy single and even cracking the U.S. charts on occasion.

Their overwhelming success made the likeable, funny seven-piece almost a national institution, the U.K.’s most popular singles act in years. Using the fairly new medium of rock video to its greatest advantage, the band enjoyed 19 straight top 20 singles in the British charts at one point. But “House of Fun,” issued in 1982, was the band’s only #1.

The band had progressed quickly from its ska origins and, with five songwriters and several singers, proved itself a worthy emulator of such utterly British writers as Ray Davies, Noel Coward, and David Bowie. 

Madness refused to call its music ska, pop, or rock, instead referring to it simply as “nutty” for its bouncy mix of horns, keyboards, rollicking rhythms, and a wide palette of sound.

Written by the band’s keyboardist, Mike Barson, and its sax player, Lee “Kix” Thompson, “House of Fun” is probably the nuttiest Madness single of all.

An odder subject for a smash hit might be harder to find. The lyrics concern a boy, who has just turned 16, attempting to buy condoms in a drugstore. Not only is his slang for condoms misunderstood by the salesperson, he is also consistently interrupted in his quest by people he knows walking into the shop. Oh, the embarrassment! The salesperson thinks the kid is just messing around and advises him to visit a novelty shop.

These goofy lyrics are backed by a singular, whirling, rollicking sound that feels a bit like being at five carnivals at the same time. The sax and trumpet provide disorienting discord, Barson’s keyboards evoke funhouse mirrors and rickety rides, and the rhythm section bounces along, about to go off the rails at any moment. The chorus is teetering, catchy, and utterly mad. It’s a truly capital 45, one of the most enjoyable three minutes I can imagine.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Song A Day: Paul Revere and the Raiders, "The Great Airplane Strike"

JULY 29, 2017




Paul Revere and the Raiders were the real deal: a rockin’ garage band from the sticks that came to L.A., became stars, and enjoyed a long string of quality hit singles, most of them self-written.

And when I say the sticks, I mean Boise, Idaho, in the early 1960s. That’s where Paul Revere (real name) and Mark Lindsay (real name) got together with some friends to play what later would be called “frat rock”—a white take on rhythm and blues. They soon relocated to Portland.

Like the other northwest bands of the era (Wailers, Sonics, Kingsmen) they made loud noise in order to facilitate dancing at parties. In the early 1960s, before Bob Dylan, the Beatles, or hallucinogens, that was enough.

The band kitted itself out in Revolutionary War uniforms to cement its onstage identity. After eight singles on the local Gardena label, one of which (“Like Long Hair”) was a minor national hit, the quintet (Revere, Lindsay, Drake Levin, Phil Volk, and Mike Smith) recorded a Richard Berry R&B joint in early 1963 called “Louie Louie,” issued on local DJ Roger Hart’s Sande label.

The rip-roaring “Louie Louie” was a big local hit, and the group’s visual image, good looks, and energetic live shows brought them to the attention of Columbia Records. The label quickly made Paul Revere and the Raiders its first-ever rock and roll act.

“Louie Louie” was issued around the same time as the Kingsmen’s iconic version. It was pretty spare, featuring just Lindsay’s sax, Smith’s drums, and Levin’s guitar. But it kicked up a lot of dust and was a huge hit in California, going to the top five in San Jose, San Francisco, and San Bernadino in the early fall before, reportedly, Columbia A&R director Mitch Miller halted any further promotion on the song.

Into the breach stepped the Kingsmen, whose version had failed on first release but had spread, in an almost underground fashion, due to rumors that the lyrics were obscene. It was first a huge hit in the northeast then in the rest of the country. Unlike the Raiders’ version, the Kingsmen’s version was so unintelligible that “dirty lyrics” could easily be attributed to it.

Revere and Co. struggled to find the right formula. Cover versions of R&B hits were great in the clubs, but didn’t do much on record. It wasn’t until mid-1965 that the group relocated to L.A. and, assisted by producers Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnson, found its formula: catchy original songs with powerful production, aggressive rhythm, loud guitars, and gobs of attitude.

The first record with the new Secret Sauce was “Steppin’ Out,” released just in time for the new school year in 1965. Next came “Just Like Me,” their first top twenty hit, in December, and their career as superstars had begun. Melcher was highly involved with these records, often co-writing them. Johnson’s role ended when he joined the Beach Boys in 1966.

A fortunate alliance with Dick Clark meant that PR&TRs were often on television in the mid-1960s. The band played up a goofy persona for the tube, and its singles got instant promotion. Lindsay was teen-magazine fodder with his rugged good looks, ponytailed hair, and tight pants (sometimes the band even wore leotards under their military-type tunics). And the top 20 smashes continued from 1966 through the summer of 1967: “Hungry,” “Good Thing,” “Kicks,” “Him or Me,” “I Had a Dream.”

During all this, the band lost and replaced several members. Levin, Volk, and Smith left, frustrated that most of the band’s backing tracks were played by session musicians. Other talented musicians came and left based on their ability to tolerate playing concerts and smiling while having little actual musical input.

By mid-1967, things had begun to change. “Commercial” was out, and “underground” was in. No longer were the Raiders hip; their whole “plastic LA” scene was under attack from the new rock mecca, San Francisco, whose underground bands were just as calculated in their moves but scruffier, and therefore to some people more authentic. The Raiders symbolized studio wizardry, catering to teenage girls, and tight pants. The new music eschewed such things, though in reality it just exchanged those “clich├ęs” for new ones of its own.

As Paul Revere and the Raiders continued to make some good singles, they also became more beholden to trends—a “soul” LP here, a bubblegum LP there, an underground-type LP there—and their 45s were no longer guaranteed to get radio play or make the little girls swoon.

Even during their string of big hits, two of the Raiders’ singles were relative failures: their very odd, Phil Spector-like “Ups and Downs” and the ripping, garage-y “The Great Airplane Strike.” It’s the latter that concerns me here.

Issued late in August 1966, “The Great Airplane Strike” was a goofy “narrative” of life on the road, but with a twist—the singer throws his sax in his suitcase, runs for the airport, but can’t get out of town. The planes are grounded and there are no taxis. It’s a nightmare situation, with the Dylanesque lyrics and bluesy melody augmented by a symphony of six and twelve-string guitars—fuzzy, tremeloed, and chunky—and insistent bass and drums.

But it wasn’t it as big of a hit as the ones that preceded and followed it. Maybe it was too complicated, too involved of a lyric, not sexy like “Hungry” or “Good Thing” or message-y like “Kicks.” Maybe it was too rough—this was, no matter the band’s profile as teeny heroes, some of the hardest, most uncompromising rock on the radio at the time.

Or maybe it’s because of the intro. While the song’s stereo mix begins with an explosion, the mono mix—which is what was played on the radio in 1966—started instead with screeching sound of airplanes. Or maybe it was the avant-garde ending, which I won’t give away.

“The Great Airplane Strike” barely scraped into the top ten in big markets like Chicago, Boston, and Miami, and was bigger in Seattle, but did surprisingly poorly in Los Angeles and bombed completely in New York. 

Here it is in its glorious mono mix. Listen.

Friday, July 28, 2017

A Song A Day: The Five Man Electrical Band, "Absolutely Right"

JULY 28, 2017




The Five Man Electrical Band, from Ottawa, Ontario, started its career as The Staccatos in 1963. After modest success in Canada, the band changed its name just before signing with the Capitol label in 1969. Despite getting airplay for some of their singles in Toronto, Edmonton, Vancouver, and San Francisco, U.S. success was not forthcoming.

A move to MGM Records didn’t seem to change that, as two singles in 1969 and 1970 failed. The second, “Hello Melinda Goodbye,” was backed with “Signs.” Neither side caught on. Late in 1970, the band had its second U.S. album, Goodbyes and Butterflies, released on Lionel, an MGM-distributed label helmed by famed songwriter Jimmy Webb.

Early in 1971, MGM bought Lionel and several other small labels outright. In March, at least one station, in Grand Rapids, began to play “Signs” as an album cut—it was the first song on Goodbyes and Butterflies—to strong listener reaction.

In mid-March, Lionel re-released “Signs,” this time as an A-side, and radio stations began to spin it. “Signs” caught on in Detroit, Seattle, Columbus, and Pittsburgh, then in other cities, and this archetypal anti-establishment anthem became a top ten national hit during the summer.

Of course, the band set out to follow up on this unexpected success, and soon another album, Coming of Age, was issued. From it sprung the single “Absolutely Right,” written and sung by lead guitarist Les Emmerson. Radio stations got the single in mid-September '71.

Where “Signs” had been slow, anthemic, and somewhat preachy, “Absolutely Right” was catchy and can’t-catch-a-breath quick. The frantic pace of the music contrasts interestingly with the lyrics—a contrite apology from a lover begging for another chance to get his woman’s “key.” (To her apartment, no doubt.) The mix of electric piano, ripping guitar, and driving percussion is perfect airwaves candy.

This one, however, only reached #26 on the Billboard chart, #20 in Cashbox, and #19 in Record World, ending the group’s career as hitmakers with an unexpected thud.

Its biggest success came, oddly, in Chicago, where “Absolutely Right” was top five on both top 40 stations (WCFL and WLS). It was also top ten in St. Louis, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Honolulu, and made top 20 in other medium and large markets, but could not overcome mediocre sales and radio play in Los Angeles and the Bay Area and a complete inability to hit any chart in New York City.

“Signs” was revived by pop-metal band Tesla in the 1990s. But “Absolutely Right”—forgotten though it may be—is to these ears the better record.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Song A Day: Roy Drusky & Priscilla Mitchell, "Yes, Mr. Peters"

JULY 27, 2017




Here’s a classic country “cheating song” with a brand new twist.

"Yes, Mr. Peters” is witty, and a bit gimmicky, but also racked with guilt and foreboding and eroticism.

Roy Drusky was a singer, songwriter, and DJ who, in 1960, began a successful sojourn on the country charts with producer Owen Bradley, who also helmed Patsy Cline’s big “countrypolitan” smashes. Drusky also was active in copyright administration for songwriters.

Over the next few years, Drusky enjoyed eight top ten country hits. At some point early in 1965, Mercury Records chose to team him with Priscilla Mitchell, wife of singer/guitarist Jerry Reed, on a passel of songs.

Steve Karliski and Larry Kolber, songwriters active in pop and country, penned “Yes, Mr. Peters.” Diverse artists including as Bobby Goldsboro, Patti Page, Faron Young, Mel Carter, and Gene Pitney had recorded Karliski’s songs prior to 1965, but “Yes, Mr. Peters” would be his biggest success. Kolber had co-written “I Love How You Love Me” and “Patches” with Barry Mann.

While Priscilla Mitchell had never been a successful lead singer, she'd sung backup in Nashville, written songs with Reed, and also recorded pop under the name Sadina. Her “I Want that Boy,” issued early in 1965, wasn’t a hit despite being a spot-on southern take on the Shangri-La’s girl-group “my guy's 'good bad' but not evil” trip.

So Drusky and Mitchell recorded an album’s worth of songs and Mercury prepared one of them, “Yes, Mr. Peters,” for release as a 45.

In spring 1965, Roy Drusky’s “(From Now on all My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers” was a country hit, but its chart impact was dented by Merle Haggard’s competing version. In mid-May, as that song slipped down the country charts, Mercury Records released the Drusky/Mitchell duet, “Yes, Mr. Peters,” to radio and to the record shops.

The innovation on “Yes, Mr. Peters” certainly doesn’t come from the sound—it’s utterly conventional 1965 country pop. The experienced Shelby Singleton and Jerry Kennedy produced it, and it’s clearly meant to be a hit. If Floyd Cramer isn’t playing the piano here, someone is imitating his signature style pretty good. The echoed electric guitar chording and electric bass are very much in vogue, and the backing vocalists come in just when you expect.

No, it’s the lyrics and the delivery that make this record stand out. The song begins with a ringing phone, and the listener is plunged into a conversation between two people well aware of what they’re doing and the danger they’re facing. It’s pretty smoky, and especially in the last verse, one can get the feeling that the couple may even enjoy their erotic little game of insinuation.

Listen to “Yes, Mr. Peters.”

The song climbed the charts fairly slowly, picking up steam in July and eventually reaching #1 on the Record World, Cashbox, and Billboard country charts. Mercury featured its new star duet in an album, Love’s Eternal Triangle, and over the next couple of years released two more Drusky/Mitchell “cheating” singles that were somewhat lesser country hits.

On his own, Drusky had five more country top 10 hits through 1974 then essentially became a legacy performer often featured at the Grand Ole Opry. Mitchell, whose career was less of a focus to her, had no more big hits. Roy Drusky passed away in 2004, Priscilla Mitchell ten years after that.

Interestingly, Steve Karlinski recorded his own version of “Yes, Mr. Peters” in New York, duetting with Mimi Roman, a 1950s country star who by this time was singing jingles. In September, after Drusky and Mitchell's version's chart run, Columbia Records issued it. It’s not clear whether this is a demo of the song that made its way to Mercury, whether it was recorded pre-Drusky and shelved, or whether it was recorded specifically for release in the wake of Drusky and Mitchell’s success.

The success of “Yes, Mr. Peters” also inspired an extremely witty “answer record” from Justin Tubb (Ernest’s son) and Lorene Mann. “Hurry, Mr. Peters” reached #23 on Billboard‘s country singles chart, closing the circle quite nicely on four characters in a weird situation.

Listen to “Hurry, Mr. Peters.”