The Drifters–Save the Last Dance For Me (1960)

I started working on this blog on Monday the 20th. On Tuesday evening my uncle, Joseph Vernon Edwards passed away at the age of 89. He leaves behind his sweetheart Marcella shortly after celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary. While putting the finishing touches on it this afternoon, it just seemed fitting to remember him and the love they had together knowing that when it’s time for her dance on this earth to be over that her last and eternal dance will be with the one she spent such a rich life with.

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Most of the time these blogs are about performers, but today I want to focus on a songwriter.

Doc Pomus was born Jerome Solon Felder in Brooklyn in 1925. Having been crippled by polio at the age of 6, he gravitated to music first playing the saxophone, then as a singer like his idol, Big Joe Turner. Being Jewish and disabled, Felder felt a kinship with African Americans in the role of an underdog. Likewise, many in the clubs were impressed with his courage and his musical ability.  By the mid-50’s he had fallen in love with a beautiful actress and singer named Willi Burke. As they made plans to marry, and tiring of the day to day life of a blues singer, he began to turn to songwriting, and it’s the relationship between the two of them that leads to this song.

The song was written by Pomus and Mort Sherman about a year after Pomus’ marriage. Looking back at many of his songs, coupled with journals that he kept much of his life, we find that like many songwriters, Doc wrote about things that were personal. Stories about others mixed with his reflections on life. On his and Willi’s wedding day, Doc was sitting at the table watching his talented and attractive wife dance with his brother, he was taken by how lucky of man he felt he was, but at the same time unable to be on the dance floor with the one he loved. He wrote about how after the music was over, and the dance partners left, there was one dance left. That dance of devotion, and love that comes with a bond that goes beyond the physical, but to the heart.

“Save the Last Dance for Me” was rejected more than a few time until The Coasters picked it up as an album cut in 1960. Atlantic at the time chose it as the “B” side, but when Dick Clark heard it for the first time for potential broadcast, he suggested to Ahmet Ertegun that the “B” side was the actual hit. It was flipped, and soon soared up the charts, reaching #2 in December of 1960.

 

 

 

Linda Ronstadt–You’re No Good (1975)

One of the things I enjoy doing is tracing a song back to it’s roots. In the over 60 years since rock has become a viable musical force, there has been countless covers by many artists, and today we look at one of my favorites from the 70’s.

The song’s writer, Clint Ballard Jr. began his songwriting career after leaving the army in the mid-50’s and had early successes with “Gingerbread” by Frankie Avalon and “Ev’ry Hour, Ev’ry Day of My Life” by Malcolm Vaughn. In the very early 60’s he attempted to record as well with no real success. He struck gold again in 1963 with, “You’re No Good” for Dee Dee Warwick.

Warwick was in a gospel trio with her sister Dionne and Cissy Houston called The Gospelaires and was wanting to try a solo career. Produced by Leiber and Stoller, it bubbled under the top 100, but was as far as it went. Listening to it years later, it stylistically was the closest of Linda’s version, which might have been why it didn’t chart, it was a bold arrangement for 1963.

Two more versions of note were released shortly afterward. Betty Everett (“The Shoop Shoop Song) reached No. 51 with her version which was more bluesy feel to it, Betty’s voice is more polished which gives it a smoother edge.

The UK band, The Swinging Blue Jeans, who had several top 40 hits (“Hippy, Hippy Shake” was their biggest in 1964) to their credit, took the song on and put more rhythm and less blues into the mix. Although barely scraping into the US charts, it reached No. 3 in the UK. It was this version which was a favorite of Peter Asher’s, who was recording with friend Gordon Waller and making hit records himself.

As Gordon and Asher began to fade and finally disbanded in 1968, friend and almost brother-in-law Paul McCartney, tapped him to be the A&R man at the fledgling Apple Records. It was there that Peter signed an unknown artist from North Carolina, James Taylor and agreed to produce his first album.

While the album went nowhere, Asher was convinced enough of Taylor’s talent to quit his job at Apple, move to the US and become his manager. As JT’s star began to rise, Asher’s did as well not only as a manager, but as a producer, not only producing “Sweet Baby James” but also producing for the Bee Gees and Taylor’s sister Kate for a short time.

Kate Taylor released her debut album in 1971 which went nowhere, and soon afterwards chose to leave the business, but before doing so, asked Asher to assist her and Linda Ronstadt on a couple of songs on Linda’s album, “Don’t Cry Now”.  Ronstadt was impressed enough to ask Peter to not only become her manager, but to be her main producer, a job which he did until the late 1980’s.

While on tour in 1973, one of the member’s of Linda’s band suggested she work up the song and shortly thereafter began including it in her setlist. Asher, who remembered the song as one of his favorites during the mid-60’s suggested that she record it for their upcoming album. The album, “Heart Like a Wheel” became the breakthrough for her as a solo artist reaching #1 and was the first of three top 5’s that year (the others being, “When Will I Be Loved”, and “Heat Wave”). The following is a video from 1976…a fine version of the song live.

 

Michael McDonald–I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time Your Near) (1982)

Sunday was Michael McDonald’s 65th birthday, and wanted to take a moment to recall a few things that we have in common.

No…I’ve never met the man, but he hails from Ferguson, Missouri which is in the northern part of the St. Louis metro area.  I was raised in High Ridge, Missouri which is in the south part of the metro area, so I suppose this doesn’t count.

I did have an encounter with one of his pianos however….

My wife and I were spending some time in Leiper’s Fork TN, which although small, has a quaint main street area with shops, a general store, which doubles as a venue for some great live performers on weekends, and a black and white police car with a cherry top straight out of the Andy Griffith show. Over the years the town has become home to some of Nashville’s and Hollywood’s elite, but has remained, at it’s core, a quiet spot along a country road.

There were several antique stores on main street, and we hit each one of them, with the last having a beautiful Fender-Rhodes electric piano. For someone like me, seeing that is like waving red meat in front of a dog. Without hesitation, I stealthily slid near the piano (kinda like he does in this video). She was a beauty, with some wear, but obviously been well taken care of. I had not had my hands on one since my high school years, and without thinking sat on the stool in front of it.

For a moment, I just looked it over. Guitarists have these moments whenever they have their hands on that special guitar of their dreams…moments that words can hardly express one’s joy. I get ready to turn it on and take her for a test spin, when this voice interrupts my fantasy. “Sir, you cannot play this, it’s only reserved for Mr. McDonald”. Look up to meet the eyes of the proprietor who is looking me over like Clint Eastwood in the movie, “Gran Torino”. I look up to my right and see a picture with Michael sitting at this very piano surrounded by other musicians.

It’s a bit of a rule among musicians, that you don’t play with someone’s instrument unless you ask, or are offered the opportunity. However, this was a bit odd to me that an electric piano would be sitting in an antique store, but no one was allowed to play it. As it turned out, Michael and others would have impromptu jam sessions on any odd night that a group could be found, and despite my abilities to play it myself, I was also reminded that even in a wonderful, laid back place like Nashville, pedigree still counts for something.

 

Roberta Flack–The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (1972)

      Roberta Flack turns 80 today….

      She had graduated from Howard University in late 50’s as one of the youngest to ever graduate from that establishment (she was 19 at the time) and had planned to continue on to graduate studies in classical piano and voice. However, the death of her father put her in a position to help with the family finances, so she went into teaching in Farmville, North Carolina then to Washington and spent much of the 1960’s teaching there.

     While teaching, she began to shape her career by performing in clubs on weekends in the area. At first Roberta accompanied other singers and singing on her own during intermissions, then began to perform on her on. At one of those clubs, she was heard by jazz pianist Les McCann, who arranged an audition for her with Atlantic Records. She recorded her first album, “First Take” in late 1968 and was released the next year. At first, not many heard the album, but one person who did was Clint Eastwood.

     The actor was in the process of making plans for his directorial debut on a film called, “Play Misty For Me” and was taken by one of the songs off of Flack’s first album. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was written by folk singer Ewan MacColl back in 1957 and had been covered dozens of times. Flack had taken the song and slowed it down considerably for her recording, and Eastwood thought it would be a perfect fit in his new movie.

     During 1971, she had begun to make some headway on the charts, mostly on the strength of two duets with Donny Hathaway, but when the movie and the song became hits, it propelled her to stardom. The song was nominated for a Grammy and was the first of four top five hits for Roberta during the 70’s.

 

10cc–Art for Art’s Sake (1975)

Off of the album “How Dare You” which was the last album with the original band…

Eric Stewart– lead guitar, lead vocal, backing vocals, electric and acoustic piano, six string and fuzz bass

Graham Gouldman– electric guitars, backing vocals, cow bell, tambourine

Lol Creme — electric guitars, second lead and backing vocals, maracas, Moog synthesizer, Recorder

Kevin Godley–drums, backing vocals, temple blocks

The Beatles–I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1964)

    It was today in 1964 that The Beatles landed in New York City unaware that this was to be the beginning of the British Invasion.  The common thinking today is that the boys landed at the airport, played on the Ed Sullivan show, charmed everyone around them and it all started from that point. Although all of those things sent them into an orbit that only their own demise as a group would quell, there was a bit more to it than that.

    This was by far not the first time The Beatles could be found on record here in the states. In April of 1962, Decca artist Tony Sherdian recorded, My Bonnie/The Saints with our boys as a backing group called The Beat Brothers. What is even more interesting was that Decca turned them down in an audition just a few months before. It didn’t chart, and was sold to several different labels and re-released after making it big in the US.  Their first official stateside release was Please Please Me/Tell Me Why in February of 1963. Although the band had a huge hit in the UK with the song, they couldn’t get anyone in the states to distribute the single until a deal was made with Vee-Jay a small label out of Chicago. The single didn’t make the charts which wasn’t surprising since they had no way to promote adequately or distribute except to a limited area.

     From Me To You/Thank You Girl was released in May of 1963 and began suffering the same fate as Please, Please Me, however, singer Del Shannon picked up the song and released it in August of that year. His version peaked at #77, and while not great, it spurred Vee-Jay to push The Beatles’ version again. It limped in at #116, but it did at least allow for the first Lennon/McCartney single to reach the top 100 on the US charts.

     She Loves You/I’ll Get You was picked up by Swan records after the distribution deal with Vee-Jay fell through. Again, nary a peep could be found from potential fans, but the absolute hysteria that was going on in the UK over the band convinced Capitol Records to give them a shot. Understanding how the other singles died on the vine with no publicity or support, Brian demanded they spend $40,000 on the group. In 1964, where even the best artists got perhaps a $5,000 promotion budget, this was unheard of. Whatever the suits at Capitol was thinking, they gave in to what Epstein was asking. I Wanna Hold Your Hand/I Saw Her Standing There was released on December 26th, 1963, and with the push from Capitol records and DJ’s from all over the country (especially New York City) playing it, the single sold a quarter of a million records in the first three days and a million after two weeks. This was BEFORE their arrival on New York City.

     So the idea that it took Ed Sullivan to break open the floodgates is a bit of revisionist history. In fact, the REAL result from the appearance on the show reverberated in the halls  of Rock and Roll for literally decades. First were those groups in Britain, who were the direct beneficiaries; the Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits and many more who were scarfed up by record companies (who were never much for originality) desperately looking for the next Beatles. Secondly were the folk and pop artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and began a metamorphosis to a different sound. There were more than a few who resisted, but most of them were caught in the musical undertow, never to be heard from on the charts again. The third and perhaps the most important benefit were to the children watching on TV that Sunday evening. Over the next 50 years, kids watching that night influenced ALL of rock music. From Ozzy Osbourne to Billy Joel, The Carpenters to Aerosmith, a myriad of artists in one way or another were nudged forward by the Fab Four.

     While Elvis was the one who busted the door down in the first place, The Beatles blew the roof off the house and left it all in a flattened heap. The American music scene never knew what hit it, and is still feeling the effect some 53 years later.

 

David Bowie–The Width of a Circle (1970)

Often I will feature songs that are of interest, but don’t really have a lot to say about it. Tonight we get things going with “The Width of a Circle” which was the lead track from the 1970 album, “The Man Who Sold the World”. The lineup on this song include:

Bowie: lead vocals, acoustic guitar

Miek Ronson: electric guitar, backing vocals

Tony Visconti: bass guitar, backing vocals

Woody Woodmansey: drums

 

 

Carole King–Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (1971)

A few weeks ago, I began thinking about the subject of this, the first blog in this new incarnation of “The Rock and Roll Omnibus. As you will see over time, the decision to write about one song or another will depend on many factors. Sometimes however, it’s just something that gets stuck in my head and wont’ get out until it’s put to put to paper….

Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote this in 1960 as they were given the opportunity by their boss Don Kirshner, to write the follow up to The Shirelles’ hit, “Tonight’s the Night”. For the struggling young couple, it was the chance of a lifetime. After marring in 1958 after King became pregnant, the couple continued to write while she took care of the baby, and he worked as a chemist.

For such an amazingly sensitive lyric, it’s surprising to many that Goffin was the writer. King had taped the song on the tape recorder then took the baby and went off to visit a friend. Gerry came home to a note on the recorder that said, “Please Write”

Wanting to carry the theme of, “Tonight’s the Night”, he tried to put himself in the place of the woman in the narrative. The words, like many Goffin/King compositions, were economic, but filled with meaning. None of us who grew up from 1970 on, could fully grasp the matter of fact, but powerful words. “Is this a lasting treasure/Or just a moment’s pleasure”. In 1960/61 it was still scandalous enough to have been banned on a few radio stations, but despite that, it became a number one hit for the Shirelles.

The version you are hearing today however is the one which Carole recorded in 1971 for the album “Tapestry”. Stripped of the strings and chorus with King on the piano with light accompaniment and Joni Mitchell and James Taylor singing background. King sang as a wiser woman, who seemed older than her 30 years having gone through a marriage and a divorce, and sang the words, “So tell me now, and I won’t ask again/Will you still love me tomorrow” with the heart knowledge, as only a woman could know, that she has probably asked that question before.

This is one of the best examples of a song which became a hit for two different artists and become symbolic of the eras in which they spoke. The same age group, just older and wiser, if not fully fulfilled. A masterpiece of a song on an album that (in my mind) is a masterpiece of a genre, because no matter how sensitive (see James Taylor) or obtusely introspective (see Joni Mitchell), no one so easily could speak the heart of a young woman circa 1971.