Kris Kristofferson…Country’s Bob Dylan

Some artists are more important than their record sales.  Kris Kristofferson was never a big-selling artist, but his songs from the late ’60’s and early ’70’s are the gold standard for songwriting in Country music.

Some of Kristofferson’s songs from his early career include: “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (for Johnny Cash), “Me & Bobby McGee” (for Janis Joplin), “For The Good Times” (for Ray Price), “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (for Sammi Smith), “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”, and “Why Me”.

With the exception of “Why Me” (his biggest single, #1 Country, #16 Pop) and “Loving Her Was Easier” (#4 AC, #26 Pop), Kris Kristofferson’s songs were hits for other artists, as indicated above.  Plus, many more artists covered his songs.

Not only do the songs have memorable melodies, but they include some of the best lyrics ever written for Country music.  Kristofferson provided for Country what Bob Dylan did for Rock…deeper meanings, more complex topics, and clever phrasing.

These days, we simply type the word “lyrics” and a song title into Google, and we can read the lyrics of almost any song.  If that’s done with Kristofferson’s songs, people can see how well written they are, and how they go beyond what is considered typical Country songs.

In one year, 1970, Kristofferson’s songwriting won “Song Of The Year” from The Academy Of Country Music, and “Song Of The Year” from The Country Music Association.  But the thing is…the awards were for two different songs, “For The Good Times” (Ray Price) and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Johnny Cash).  That feat has not been done before or since.

So why was Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting so different?  Maybe because his background is anything but typical.  Growing up mostly in California, Kristofferson was an athlete…football, rugby, and boxing.  He was a scholar…Bachelor’s Degree in Literature (summa cum laude), was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.  It was there that he began writing songs.

Under pressure from his military family, Kris Kristofferson joined the U.S. Army.  He became a helicopter pilot, an army Ranger, and attained the rank of Captain.  By 1965, Kristofferson left it all behind to move to Nashville to become a professional songwriter…and ended up sweeping floors at the Columbia Records studio.  He was probably the only Rhodes Scholar janitor in history.

Eventually, he was able to get his songs into the hands of Johnny Cash, and other Country artists.  Rocker Janis Joplin recorded “Me & Bobby McGee”, partly because Kristofferson & Joplin were a couple shortly before her death.

Kris Kristofferson’s first two albums, in 1970 and 1971, contain his most famous songs.  The albums are Kristofferson (later the title was changed to Me & Bobby McGee) and The Silver Tongued Devil & I.

Those two albums make up half of the songs on his career retrospective double-album The Essential Kris Kristofferson .  The other half of the collection covers 14 years…so, you can see how front-loaded his career was.

Another part of his career was acting.  He had quite a few movie roles, and the peak of his acting was winning a Golden Globe for “A Star Is Born” co-starring Barbra Streisand.

Although my wife and I were aware of many of the songs Kristofferson wrote, we almost missed his great versions.  It was in 1976 during my first radio job as a news reporter at KLEM AM & FM in LeMars, Iowa, that we were first introduced to his records.  One of the DJ’s, George Norman, knew we liked James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and other singer-songwriters, so he recommended Kris Kristofferson.

We bought those first two albums that George recommended, and Kristofferson became one of our favorite artists.  He has a deep, somewhat gravelly voice that not everyone likes, but we think his versions of his songs are definitive.  The arrangements compliment the songs perfectly, and his voice captures all the nuances of the lyrics.

We bought some more of his albums, but the truth is, the recordings we love are all from 1970-1973.

Kris Kristofferson went on to a lot more success, including working with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings in The Highwaymen.  Fairly recently, I saw a video of one of their old concerts, and The Highwaymen featured more Kristofferson songs than songs by any one of those other major stars.

Kris Kristofferson songs are so good, everyone wants to perform them.

Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

It was 20 years ago today…that we visited the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

(Four postcards we bought at the museum, click to enlarge)

It’s hard to believe it’s been that long.  Back then, they didn’t allow photos to be taken inside the museum, so I made a journal of what we saw in order to help us remember.

The large main displays were “on loan” from artists or their families.  In this case, we saw excellent displays from John Lennon and Neil Young…two of our favorite artists.

The Lennon display was particularly impressive.  It had John’s Sgt. Pepper uniform, his collarless Beatles’ Jacket, and his black leather jacket from Hamburg, Germany.

(John’s is the green jacket in this 50th anniversary Sgt. Pepper display)

There were four of John’s guitars, including the black Rickenbacker he used during the Shea Stadium concert, and the acoustic guitar he used for “Give Peace A Chance”.   John’s hand-written lyrics for “In My Life” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” were on display, along with a gold record for Sgt. Pepper, and a pair of John’s famous wire-rim glasses.  Plus, there were many more personal items, and promotional Beatles posters.

(Neil Young’s gigantic stage props from Rust Never Sleeps)

The museum had Neil Young’s oversized props from his Rust Never Sleeps tour.  That included large Fender and Marshall amps and the huge microphone as shown above.  There were Neil’s hand-written lyrics to “Rockin’ In The Free World”, and a black leather jacket with fringe on it that he wore when he was in Buffalo Springfield.  There was also a telegram from 4/28/82 complementing Neil on his Live Rust album, and saying “We’ve listened to it over and over and love it”…signed Paul & Linda McCartney.

(20-years ago we were there…actually, April 22nd, 1998.)

There are permanent displays for artists who have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.  We saw the new display for the Eagles (class of 1998).  It included Glenn Frey’s first guitar, and Don Felder’s white double-neck guitar from “Hotel California”.

The Allman Brothers display had a Duane Allman Guitar, a Dicky Betts guitar, a Gregg Allman B-3 Organ, and a Butch Trucks drum set.  There was also a bass case (possibly Berry Oakley’s) that was covered with stickers.

Other displays included:

Led Zeppelin guitars and costumes, including those worn by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (black dragon outfit).

Paul Simon’s guitars from Simon & Garfunkel albums & Graceland.

Huge concert props used by Pink Floyd.

The Mamas & The Papas stage costumes.

Roy Orbison’s black guitar and horn-rimmed glasses.

Ricky Nelson’s guitar and hand-written “Garden Party” lyrics.

Elvis Presley’s costumes and old 78 rpm records.

A unique mic-stand that held 4 microphones for The Temptations.

The actual tape recorder used by Bob Dylan & The Band to record The Basement Tapes.

And those are just a sampling of what was there.

(Our 1998 pamphlet for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Museum)

Should you go see it?  If you’re into music, I’d say…”A splendid time is guaranteed for all”.  There’s something special about being right next to the actual guitars and items used by great musicians to create their art.

When we saw it, the newest inductees were from the early 1970’s, because artists aren’t eligible until 25 years after they became successful.  Right now, the newest inductees would have to be from anytime before 1993.

No doubt the museum displays have undergone many changes over the past 20 years…but so has Rock & Roll.

The Rolling Stones…Singles

Rolling Stones fans bought a lot of their albums, but for the band to become well known and popular, it took hit singles.  So, let’s look at their classic singles from the 1960’s and 1970’s.

(Bill Wyman, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, & Keith Richards)

The Stones were mostly a blues cover band in London in 1963.  Their first major hit in England was Lennon & McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man”.  The Stones had asked John Lennon & Paul McCartney for a song, and they gave it to them, because The Beatles were not planning to release it as a single.

The Rolling Stones were not really part of the initial wave of the British Invasion, which started in late 1963, and had The Beatles’ explosion in early 1964.    It wasn’t until November of 1964 that The Rolling Stones had their first Top 10 hit in the U.S….”Time Is On My Side” (#6).   In fact, the Stones tried to tour the United States in June of 1964, before they had any U.S. hits at all, and bassist Bill Wyman called it “a disaster”.

I have a memory of seeing a large newspaper ad for a concert in the Omaha World Herald.  It claimed The Rolling Stones were “Bigger than The Beatles”.  Bashing The Beatles in 1964, was amazingly wrong headed.  It would have been better to say “Good friends of The Beatles” (which was actually the truth).  The Omaha concert was infamous for almost no one showing up, and the band being threatened by someone who had a gun.

The Rolling Stones started out wearing matching suits…like Brian Epstein had provided for The Beatles…but The Stones, along with agent & producer Andrew Loog Oldham, realized they needed a change.  It was decided The Stones would not emulate The Beatles, but instead foster an image as the bad boys of Rock & Roll.  Oldham let them dress individually, and told them not to smile for publicity photos.

More importantly, he urged Keith Richards and Mick Jagger to become songwriters.  They soon became an excellent writing team.

By 1965, The Rolling Stones (originally called The Rollin’ Stones after a Muddy Water’s song) were having hits…”Heart Of Stone” (#19), “The Last Time” (#9), and one of the best singles of all time:

Keith Richards says he patterned the beat and feel of the single after Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”, a #1 hit in  1964.  “Satisfaction” has a killer guitar hook, the lyrics went a long way in helping them with their “bad boy” image, and it was simply the biggest hit of 1965.  It took The Stones to a whole new level of popularity.

One minor mystery about the recording of “Satisfaction” is why there has never been an official release of a really good stereo version.  Even their 2002 re-release of the Hot Rocks collection has a quasi-stereo mix.  A great stereo mix exists, because it was available on a radio station promo CD in the 1980’s.  I have a copy of it, and it sounds so much better.  You can even hear that there’s an acoustic guitar in the mix.

The big hits continued in 1965 & 1966, including “Get Off Of My Cloud” (#1), “As Tears Go By” (#6), “19th Nervous Breakdown” (#2), and “Paint It Black” (#1).

In the latter part of the ’60’s, The Rolling Stones’ biggest hits were “Ruby Tuesday” (#1), “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (#3), and “Honky Tonk Women” (#1)…great singles!

Unlike The Beatles, who stopped recording together in 1969, The Stones kept rolling in the ’70’s with “Brown Sugar” (#1), “Tumbling Dice” (#7), “Angie” (#1), “It’s Only Rock & Roll” (#16), “Fool To Cry” (#10), 1978 disco hit “Miss You” (#1, their last chart topper), and “Beast Of Burden” (#8).

With The Beatles gone, The Rolling Stones began promoting themselves as “The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World”.  Why not?  They had eight #1 hits, and forty-one Top 40 hits.  They’ve been a concert draw for over 50 years!    No one thought any Rock Band would still be playing when they were senior citizens.  They give “70’s Band” a whole new meaning.

(Charlie Watts,  Keith Richards,  Mick Jagger,  and  Ronnie Wood.)

Sure…now they smile!

John Fogerty…The Old Man Down The Road

If ever there was a one-man-band…it’s John Fogerty.

He pissed off the other members of Creedence Clearwater Revival by wanting to not only write, sing lead, and play lead guitar…he also wanted to play all the other instruments.  The thing is, the recordings came out better that way.

By 1973, Creedence Clearwater Revival had broken up, and this new group…The Blue Ridge Rangers…released their first album.  Only it wasn’t a group, it was John Fogerty playing all the instruments and singing all the vocal parts on old country standards.  The album contained no mention of Fogerty, until it was re-released with a new cover years later.

The album went to #11 on the Billboard Country chart, and the single “Jambalya” was a hit at #16 on the Top 40 chart.

Two years later, 1975, John Fogerty released his first album of original material.

The self-titled album was not a big hit, but included two songs that would have been at home on Creedence albums….”Rockin’ All Over The World” and “Almost Saturday Night”.  One of my memories of owning this album is that it was pressed off center.  To play it without a lot of wow-and-flutter, I had to enlarge the hole in the middle of the record, which gave me room to center the album so it would track without the needle swinging back & forth.

Legal battles with his old CCR label, Fantasy Records, kept Fogerty from recording for nearly 10 years.  Then, in 1985 he released his best solo album, Centerfield.

The album went to #1, and featured the hits “The Old Man Down The Road”, “Rock & Roll Girls” and “Centerfield”, which to this day is played at baseball games.  Again, John Fogerty played all the instruments himself.  Other excellent songs on the album include “Big Train From Memphis” and “I Saw It On TV”.  This last one is a clever look at history as it appeared on our TV screens from the 1950’s through the Vietnam War and Watergate.  Here are the lyrics:

They sent us home to watch the show comin’ on the little screen.
A man named Ike was in the White House, big black limousine.
There were many shows to follow, from ‘Hooter’ to ‘Doodyville’,
Though I saw them all, I can’t recall which cartoon was real.

The coon-skin caps, Yankee bats, the “Hound Dog” man’s big start,
The A-bomb fears, Annette had ears, I lusted in my heart.
A young man from Boston set sail the new frontier,
And we watched the dream dead-end in Dallas,
They buried innocence that year.

I know it’s true, oh so true, ’cause I saw it on TV.

We gathered round to hear the sound comin’ on the little screen.
The grief had passed, the old men laughed, and all the girls screamed,
’cause four guys from England took us all by the hand,
It was time to laugh, time to sing, time to join the band.

But all too soon, we hit the moon, and covered up the sky;
They built their bombs, and aimed their guns, and still I don’t know why.
The dominoes tumbled and big business roared.
Every night at six, they showed the pictures and counted up the score.

I know it’s true, oh so true, ’cause I saw it on TV.

The old man rocks among his dreams, a prisoner of the porch;
“the light,” he says “at the end of the tunnel,
Was nothin’ but a burglar’s torch. “
And them that was caught in the cover are all rich and free,
But they chained my mind to an endless tomb
When they took my only son from me.

I know it’s true, oh so true, ’cause I saw it on TV.
I know it’s true, oh so true, ’cause I saw it on TV.

The song was a precursor to the 1989 Billy Joel hit “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, which was also a clever encapsulation of history.

A weird thing happened after Centerfield was released.  His old label, Fantasy Records, sued John Fogerty.  They said “Old Man Down The Road” sounded too much like Fogerty’s own Creedence song “Run Through The Jungle”.  The label had the rights to that song, and so they sued for copyright infringement.  In court, John Fogerty used his guitar to demonstrate how the two songs came about, and how they differed.   Fogerty won the lawsuit.  The label even had to pay his legal fees.

Maybe a year between albums was not enough time, because Fogerty’s 1986 album Eye Of The Zombie, was a weak follow up.

There was still a lot of animosity among John Fogerty, Fantasy Records, and his former band mates…who came up with the name “Creedence Clearwater Revisited” to try to cash in on touring.  John Fogerty refused to play his own Creedence Clearwater Revival songs in concert, because he didn’t want to make money for Fantasy Records.

Fifteen years after the 1972 breakup of Creedence Clearwater Revival,  John Fogerty finally played a Creedence song at a Vietnam Veterans concert on July 4th, 1987.  After that, he began adding the group’s songs to his concerts.

It was ten years before we got another John Fogerty solo album, 1997’s Blue Moon Swamp.

It was a solid effort and won The Grammy Award for Best Rock Album.  Songs included “Joy Of My Life” and “Hot Rod Heart”.

In 2004, Fogerty released his next solo album.  It wasn’t great, except for the title track “Deja Vu All Over Again”.  The song was about how the Iraq War was like the Vietnam War…all over again.

Just three years later, 2007, Revival was released.  It’s a good album…#14 on Billboard’s top 200 Album chart, and #4 on their Rock chart.  The standout track is “Creedence Song”, which really is a great Creedence song about the music of CCR.  He also saluted CCR songs with his 2013 album Wrote A Song For Everyone, which featured Fogerty playing Creedence songs with many other well-known artists, including Country stars Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban.  My favorite is his duet with Bob Seger on “Who’ll Stop The Rain”.

John Fogerty, who turns 73 in May, is still a popular touring act.   He often does shows with other artists, including ZZ Top this year.  It’s amazing how he came up with what is really his own genre of music, “Swamp Rock”.

He certainly wears “The Old Man Down The Road” title well, and the cool thing is how popular his Creedence and best solo songs remain today.

(Please check out the earlier article on Creedence Clearwater Revival.)

The Grass Roots…First a hit, then a band.

Normally a rock band forms, and then has a hit…but with The Grass Roots, the hit came first.

It was the mid 1960’s, and Folk Rock was the hot thing.   P.F.  Sloan (the P stood for his real name, Philip, and the F for his nickname, “Flip”) was writing hits (usually with co-writers like Steve Barri)…such as “Eve Of Destruction” for Barry McGuire, “You Baby” and “Let Me Be” for The Turtles, “She’s A Must To Avoid” for Herman’s Hermits, and “Secret Agent Man” for Johnny Rivers.

       (A young P.F. Sloan in the 1960’s.  Folk Rock is serious stuff!)

Sloan also worked as a studio musician with L.A.’s famous Wrecking Crew.  He came up with the cool guitar intro for “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & The Papas.

In 1966, P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri wrote “Where Were You When I Needed You”.  They recorded the song with studio musicians, had P.F. Sloan on lead vocals, and it became a hit.  The band name on the record was The Grassroots, but they didn’t exist!  So, they had to find a band that could tour and record albums.  After a failed attempt with a working local band, they finally found the musicians they needed.

Rob Grill was the lead vocalist and bass player, Warren Entner sang some of the lead vocals and played guitar,  Creed Bratton also played guitar, and Rick Coonce was the drummer.  The lineup later changed, but this was the group that had most of the hits.

Rob Grill re-recorded the lead vocal on “Where Were You When I Needed You”, and by mid 1967 they had a #8 hit with “Let’s Live For Today”…which fit right in with the “Summer Of Love”.

Then in 1968, “Midnight Confessions” went to #5, sold over a million copies, and was their biggest hit.

The Grass Roots were the first national act I ever saw in concert.  They were in Lincoln, Nebraska at Pershing Auditorium in 1969.  The concert was good, but I was a little disappointed the band didn’t tour with any brass players.  Their hits like “Midnight Confessions”, “The River Is Wide”, “Lovin’ Things”,  and “I’d Wait A Million Years” featured horns prominently.

Interestingly, there was a choice of another show in Lincoln that night.  A popular Midwest touring band (with horns) was at the Student Union…The Fabulous Flippers.  They were what was called a “show band”, and had the regional hit “Harlem Shuffle”.   Many years later the song was covered by The Rolling Stones.  If you knew The Flipper’s version, the Stone’s version lacked excitement.

         (The presentation of their name became The Grass Roots.)

Creed Bratton was ousted from The Grass Roots, partly because he resented the fact their label, Dunhill Records, limited most of the songwriting to outside professionals instead of band members.  Keyboardist Dennis Provisor was added to the group.  Hits with that lineup included “Temptation Eyes” (#15) and “Sooner Or Later” (#9).  In all, they had fourteen Top 40 hits from 1966 through 1972.

You could find variations of The Grass Roots out on tour in later years, but the main lineup was never together again.  There are good collections of their hits available, but you have to watch out for re-recorded versions.  Almost all of the collections on iTunes are re-recorded.  The only good one I could find on iTunes is the 20th Century Masters-The Millennium Collection: The Best Of The Grass Roots.

Even though The Grass Roots were started as a group of studio musicians, they became one of my favorite bands in the 60’s.  They had some excellent songs with great arrangements, and I particularly like the lead vocals of Rob Grill and Warren Entner.  Their hits are fun to sing along with, although now some of those high notes…

Apple HomePod…HomeTest

Here’s my experience giving the Apple HomePod a home test.

When the HomePod was announced in June of 2017, I was immediately interested.  It was to be released in November, so I told my wife it was my Christmas wish.  Instead, Apple delayed the release until February 2018, and my Christmas gift was just this photo:

On the first day it was available to order, I did.  On February 9th, the UPS man handed me the box.  It was much heavier than I expected.  I took out the nicely packed white HomePod and plugged it in.

With my iPad next to it, the setup was just a few taps on the screen, and the HomePod was activated.  From that point, no Apple device is needed.  The HomePod gets the music directly from iCloud through our wi-fi.  I asked Siri to play a particular song, and it sounded great.  There is amazing clarity throughout the frequency range.  The bass is extremely impressive, especially for the HomePod’s size, which is only about 7-inches high and 5 1/2-inches wide.

Now the reason I wanted the HomePod was for playing songs using my iTunes playlists.  Playlists are the way I’ve organized my music over the last 14 years or so.  Most of each playlist’s songs are placed in chronological order by years, and programmed with tempos, styles and meanings in mind.  Anyway, I didn’t want to just use Apple Music’s streaming service after spending so much time getting songs in order.  Plus, I have quite a few rare versions of songs that aren’t readily available.  Here’s how the HomePod looks in our home:

And then there was a problem.  When I’d ask Siri to play certain playlists, it often couldn’t access the ones I requested.  I knew Siri was seeing the playlists, because when I asked for “Beatles 3”, she read the entire title, which is “Beatles 3 Rubber/Revolver”.  And although Siri said it was now playing, it wasn’t.  I estimated that only about a third of my playlists were actually working through the HomePod.  Big sigh of disappointment.

So, on Monday I called Apple Service, but the woman who answered said the HomePod only worked with Apple Music.  I knew better, so she passed me on to an “expert”.  Antonio was very helpful, and confirmed that my HomePod should be working, because all of my playlists were in iCloud through my Apple iTunes Match account.

We tried a few things.  The one that helped was simply starting all over with the setup.  When we were done, the HomePod was handling most of the playlists, but still having some trouble.  Antonio gave me the information for directly contacting him at Apple Service, and said he would report the situation to the Apple tech department.

On Tuesday, after unplugging the HomePod for a while, and plugging it back in again, everything worked.  It would play any playlist.  Since the HomePod automatically updates software, there may have been an improvement that had loaded.

(When Siri is voice-activated, the top has modulating colored lights.)

Before:  To play music on our large stereo system, it took:  1. Turning on the Mac in the office.  2. Going to the family room and using a remote to turn on the TV.  3. Using another remote to turn on the Apple TV.  4. Using yet another remote to turn on the Stereo Amplifier.  5. Choosing the Apple TV computer/music function, and then scrolling to the playlist I wanted.

Now:  I just walk into the living room and ask Siri to play whatever list or song I want.

Siri is also good at giving weather information, or the store hours for local businesses.  We haven’t tried many other questions.  If the HomePod only worked for music, it would be all we need.  By the way, my wife can use the system the same way, it isn’t set for just one voice.  The six internal microphones will pick up commands when spoken at a normal tone of voice, even when the music is fairly loud.  Until you activate the unit by saying “Hey Siri”, the HomePod is not monitoring what is said in your home, and then does so for just the command.  The audio is encrypted, not recorded, and never used to give advertising information to businesses.

The sound of the HomePod is very impressive.  Even though the audio is coming from a single source (with 8 internal speakers, as shown above), the instruments and voices seem separate and clear.  The bass is surprisingly full, and yet never muddy.  The volume goes higher than we’ll ever need, and it doesn’t distort at any setting.  Volume is adjusted by asking Siri, or by tapping the + and – lights on the top of the unit when it’s playing.   Basically, all stopping, pausing, resuming, and other needs can be accomplished by telling Siri.

The HomePod uses “beaming technology” to automatically adjust its audio pattern to fit any room in which it’s placed.  The circular array of the internal speakers is much better than any front-facing speaker at giving you good sound no matter where you sit in the room.  The circular array might become a common speaker design in the future, so there isn’t just one “sweet spot” for listening.

Now that we’ve had the HomePod for almost a week, we feel very good about it, even though Siri has missed a couple playlists when we’ve asked for them.  I’m guessing a software update or two will take care of any small problems.  I haven’t heard of any troubles for those simply using Apple Music streaming…which I may add later.

The HomePod is so enjoyable to listen to, we may even decide to add another one when the stereo option becomes available.  (“Hey Siri, my birthday is at the end of April.”)  If we add another HomePod, it would probably replace our large, much more expensive stereo system.  The sound of the HomePod is that good.

Chicago…& Horn Rock

Sure horns were a part of Rock & Roll in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but those horns were mostly played by session musicians and backing bands, not by actual members of rock bands…at least not by bands that were making it on the national stage.  That would change in the late ’60’s.

Chicago, Illinois was the home of some bands that featured horns on their recordings.  According to Billboard Magazine, the most listened to American band of 1967 was The Buckinghams.  This Chicago group had five major hits that year…”Kind Of A Drag” (#1), “Don’t You Care” (#6), “Mercy Mercy Mercy” (#5), “Hey Baby, They’re Playing Our Song” (#12), and “Susan” (#11).  Although their popular songs and albums heavily featured horns, there weren’t any brass players in The Buckinghams.  But, one of the producers on “Kind Of A Drag” was a big-band leader and ballroom owner.

After “Kind Of A Drag”, The Buckinghams signed with Columbia Records and a major figure in the future of “Horn Rock”, James William Guercio.

Guercio was a session bassist in the 1960’s, toured with Chad & Jeremy, and wrote their single “Distant Shores”.  When he became the Producer/Arranger for The Buckinghams he used innovative brass arrangements on the last four of the above hits, and on their two most popular albums…Time & Charges and Portraits.  The Buckinghams split with Guercio…and had no more Top 40 hits.

James William Guercio took on two bands that did have excellent horn players as members…Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago Transit Authority.  Both were on the Columbia label, and they both had important releases in 1969.

The self titled BS&T album was huge, with the hits “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”, “Spinning Wheel”, and “And When I Die”…all three of which made it to #2 on the Billboard singles chart.  All of a sudden, the term “Jazz Rock” was  born.  Blood, Sweat & Tears won the Grammy for Album Of The Year.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Transit Authority album was fairly successful in 1969, reaching #17, but there were no hit singles at that time.  Even though the two groups were often lumped into the Jazz Rock category, the CTA album arrangements were much more Rock than Jazz.   Plus, the album featured some fierce rock guitar played by Terry Kath.

Here’s the original line-up for Chicago:

Terry Kath-guitar, lead & backing vocals, Robert Lamm-keyboards, lead & background vocals, Peter Cetera-bass, lead & backing vocals, Lee Loughnane-trumpet, James Pankow-trombone, Walter Parazaider-saxophone, and Danny Seraphine-drums/percussion.

Chicago’s second album, in early 1970, was the big breakthrough.  It was simply called Chicago, because the real Chicago Transit Authority mass-transit company didn’t want their name used.

The Chicago album, which would later be designated Chicago II, had the hits “Make Me Smile” (#9) and “25 or 6 to 4” (#4), plus popular album cut “Colour My World”.  It also featured what I believe is their defining moment, the 13-minute seven-song medley “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon”:

  1.  “Make Me Smile” (3:32) [vocal Terry Kath]
  2. “”So Much to Say, So Much to Give” (1:04) [vocal Robert Lamm]
  3. “Anxiety’s Moment” (1:00) [instrumental]
  4. “West Virginia Fantasies” (1:34) [instrumental]
  5. “Colour My World” (2:58) [vocal Terry Kath)
  6. “To Be Free” (1:21) [instrumental]
  7. “Now More Than Ever” (1:27) [vocal Terry Kath]

Most of Chicago’s early hits were written by Robert Lamm, but this medley was written by trombonist James Pankow.  My original memory of the medley was hearing it played in it’s entirety on an FM station in Memphis, Tennessee in early 1970.  We were outside on a break from electronics school, and someone had a transistor radio.  The medley played for nearly the whole break.  I love those horn instrumentals as much as the two hits in the medley.

Once Chicago became a smash, the singles from the Chicago Transit Authority album were re-released as hits…”Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” (#7), “Beginnings” (#7) and “Questions 67 & 68” (#24).

Chicago III came out in 1971.  It included modest hits “Free” (#25) and “Lowdown” (#35).  Easily my favorite cut is the one that sounds like CSN&Y doing “Teach Your Children”…”Flight 602”.  No horns in this one, but lots of vocal harmony, and even a steel guitar.  James William Guercio had used the same style with the little known group Illinois Speed Press for the song “Bad Weather”.  The singer and songwriter, Paul Cotton, went on to success with Poco.

Unlike Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago continued their success in the the 1970’s and through the 1980’s with hit albums and thirty-five Top 40 hits.  The hits included “Saturday In The Park” (#3), “Just You ‘N’ Me” (#4), (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long” (#9), “Call On Me” (#6), “Old Days” (#5), “If You Leave Me Now” (#1), “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” (#1),  “Hard Habit To Break (#3), “You’re The Inspiration” (#3), and many more.

In the middle of their recording success, in 1978, two important events happened that greatly affected Chicago.  Lead guitarist and sometimes lead vocalist Terry Kath died from an accidental gunshot from a gun he thought wasn’t loaded.  The band also parted ways with producer James William Guercio, who they felt was taking too large a percentage of their earnings.

The loss of an excellent rock guitarist & vocalist, along with the change in production made a huge difference in the sound of the band.  Peter Cetera also became a more prominent songwriter, and he had an affection for ballads.  Throw in Pop producer David Foster, and Chicago became more of an Adult Contemporary band, rather than a Rock band.  The public didn’t seem to mind, because some of those big 1980’s ballads were very popular.  But, their softer sound was probably why it took Chicago until 2016 to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Despite the success of Chicago, “Horn Rock” never developed into a major category of Rock & Roll.  We have to enjoy what they gave us, and be happy when we get a saxophone now and then, or maybe the rare horn section for a live concert.  I guess “rock trumpet” doesn’t have the same ring as “rock guitar”.

That Thing You Do!

Remember that band?  The one that had one hit in 1964?

Their lead singer wrote a song, and it was recorded onto a reel-to-reel recorder by the drummer’s uncle.  A local promoter got the song played on the radio.  Then, a major label released it nationally…and the song made it to number 2 on the charts!

                      (Our 1996 CD of the That Thing You Do! album)

The Wonders were a band from the mind of Tom Hanks.  He wrote the script and directed the 1996 movie, “That Thing You Do!”, about a one-hit-wonder band in 1964.  Hanks loves the music of that era, and it shows.  The movie includes the joy of first hearing your song on the radio, and attaining minor stardom.

Besides being a fun movie…it was Tom Hanks’ first script and directing experience…the movie captures that time in the ’60’s perfectly.  “That Thing You Do!” is the only movie set in that era that has original music that sounds like it actually came from the 1960’s.

The title track is a slice of infectious pop-rock similar to what The Beatles and other groups were putting out in 1964.  The Wonders also do some other good songs “Dance With Me Tonight”, “All My Only Dreams” and “Little Wild One” in their concert scenes…such as being on the “Galaxy Of Stars” tour on the state fair circuit, like Dick Clark’s “Caravan of Stars” in the ’60’s.

         (The Wonders on tour…T.B. Player, Lenny, Jimmy, and Guy)

One of the cool parts of the movie was the whole music history that went with this tour.  It included other acts with their own hits.  The character Diane Dane is a singer who probably is already toward the end of her career, but her song “My World Is Over” sounds like a Dusty Springfield hit, right down to the horn part similar to “Wishin’ and Hopin'”.  The Chantrellines sing “Hold My Hand, Hold My Heart” and sound like the Crystals or Ronettes.  These are so accurate to the time, that they can be dropped into the appropriate sixties playlists, and they sound right at home.  The same is true for two instrumentals.   “Voyage Around The Moon” sounds like it came from The Ventures album Ventures In Space, and “Shrimp Shack” could be by Junior Walker & The All Stars.

“That Thing You Do” was the first movie for Tom Everett Scott (Guy “Shades” Patterson, the drummer), and one of the first movies for Liv Tyler (Faye, the lead female character), and Charlize Theron (Tina, Guy’s girlfriend).

The other band members included Steve Zahn (Lenny the lead guitarist), Jonathan Schaech (Jimmy the lead singer), and Ethan Embry (T.B. Player,  the bass player).  And of course Tom Hanks played Mr. (Andy) White who managed the band for Play Tone Records.  Hanks obviously patterned the character after Beatles Manager Brian Epstein.  There were some nice little touches from Beatlemania throughout the movie.

(As we entered the theater to see the movie in 1996, we were handed the above 3-inch pin as a souvenir.)

Although the actors were taught to play their instruments and perform the songs for the movie, the actual recordings were written and played by professionals.  Adam Schlesinger, the bassist for Fountains of Wayne wrote “That Thing You Do”, and  Mike Viola of Candy Butchers provided the lead vocals for the songs by The Wonders.  Tom Hanks also co-wrote some of the songs for the movie, and obviously made sure the songs accurately represented the era.

The That Thing You Do! soundtrack made it to #21 on the Billboard album chart, and the single hit #18 on the Adult Top 40 chart.  The song also got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.  Critics give the film a very positive 93% on Rotten Tomatoes.

If you like this type of 1960’s music…”That Thing You Do!”, is a make-you-smile look into that era.  Enjoy!

Cat Stevens…Best Albums

“Oh baby baby it’s a wild world.  It’s hard to get by just upon a smile.”

Most of us first heard of Cat Stevens with his break-through single “Wild World”.  It was the first hit from his album Tea For The Tillerman.

The album was released in November of 1970, and “Wild World” hit #11 in 1971.  Cat Stevens (who was born Steven Georgiou in London in 1948) actually started his career in 1967.  His debut album Matthew and Son did well in England, and the title track hit #2 there.  He also wrote the hit by The Tremeloes, “Here Comes My Baby”, and “The First Cut Is The Deepest”, which many artists have recorded.  He didn’t think his Greek name Georgiou would be very memorable, so he chose the stage name Cat Stevens…partly because a girlfriend said he had cat-like eyes.

In 1969, prior to his success in America, Stevens contracted Tuberculosis.  This was a life-changing event.  Not only did he nearly die, but the months of recovery in a hospital made him reflect on his life, and what type of music he wanted to write and perform.  By the time he recorded Tea for the Tillerman in mid 1970, he had a less-produced, more acoustic style that fit in well with the singer-songwriter movement that had just emerged.

Tea for the Tillerman went on to sell over 3-million copies in the United States.  Many of its songs have become well-known over the years.

His 1971 follow-up album Teaser and the Firecat was another high quality album, and gave him a back-to-back albums that few careers could match.  It also sold over 3-million copies in the U.S.

Teaser and the Firecat (with another album cover featuring a drawing by Cat Stevens) gave us “Moonshadow”, “Morning Has Broken”, “The Wind” and “Peace Train”.   I also bought most of his other albums in the 1970’s, but these two albums represent the best of his career.

Cat Stevens developed a unique style, sometimes punctuating his songs with staccato singing, and dramatic dynamics.  But the main aspect of his songs is that they were well written, and hold up after all these years.  In fact, 47 years later, his songs have been used in dozens of television shows like “This Is Us” and in dozens of movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”.  “This Is Us” featured “Where Do The Children Play”, “The Wind” and “Moonshadow”.  “Galaxy” featured “Father And Son”.

Cat Stevens sings “Father and Son” using a low calm voice for the father, and a higher more excited voice for the son.  The father is trying to convince his son to live by the dreams of the father’s generation, and the son knows he must live life in his own way.

Father: Take your time, think a lot, why, think of everything you’ve got…
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.

The son sees thing differently than his father’s generation.

Son:  If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them they know not me.
Now there’s a way, and I know that I have to go away, I know I have to go.

Since we were young at that time, it was easy to identify with the son, and now we know that the father wasn’t all wrong.

In 1977 Cat Stevens converted from his Catholic faith to the Islamic faith, and changed his name to Yusuf Islam.  Then in 1978 he quit music completely, and for approximately 30-years simply lived life with his wife and son, rarely singing and playing music.

Slowly, about 10 years ago, Yusuf began recording and performing again, sometimes using the name Yusuf Stevens.  In 2014 he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.  The songs he selected to perform at the ceremony were…”Father and Son”, “Wild World” and “Peace Train”.  He still sounded great.  It was good to hear him sing again.

Local ’60’s Band…The Rock & Soul Society

After The Beatles arrived in 1964, everyone who was musically inclined wanted to start a band.  What was it like for those who did?

I was 15 at the time, and involved in vocal & band (trumpet) music in my small high school in Leigh, Nebraska.  It was in college in 1967 that I was fortunate to meet other budding musicians…and we formed a band.   The name we came up with was “The New Faction”.

We learned enough songs to start playing at fraternity parties and other small venues.  The first songs for any band starting at the time were easy ones like “Twist And Shout”, “Louie Louie”, or the early songs by The Kinks.  We weren’t very good at first, but I distinctly remember a change when we came back to school after the summer break in 1967.   We played for free in “The Pub” at the dorms, and were playing the latest songs, like “Light My Fire”.  My roommate, Eric Pierson, heard us, and said (in a surprised voice) “You got good!”.  Now, this same young man became a brain surgeon, so you can trust him!

There were a couple of personnel changes, and we wanted a fresh start, so we changed our name to The Rock & Soul Society.

(The two sides of our business card.)

The name reflected the type of music we played…mostly the top hits of the day, plus some rock and soul favorites.  About 75% of what we covered were Rock/Pop artists like The Beatles, The Grass Roots, The Buckinghams, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.  The rest were Soul songs from artists like The Temptations, Sam & Dave, and Wilson Pickett.  Unfortunately, none of us were songwriters, so it was all cover songs, like almost all local bands.

(Tom Rappl (bass), Steve Vannoy (lead guitar), Greg Nicklas (drums), Dale Murdoch (guitar & trumpet), Flip Bausch (lead vocals & trumpet), and Bob Roose (organ & lead vocals on most of the soul songs).  The photo was taken at “The Columns” near the University of Nebraska football stadium.)

Like other local bands, we had to load our amplifiers and other gear (in my case, the P.A. system) into our cars to get to wherever we were playing.  Then we’d drive in a line to a ballroom, prom dance, or other venue within about 100 miles of Lincoln, Nebraska.  We’d unload it all, set it up, play a dance doing three sets of music…then…tear it down, pack it up, and do it all over again.  That was on weekends.  During weekdays, we’d practice and learn new songs.

We were paid decently for the time (typically $250…that would be $1,780 today), but it obviously wasn’t enough to make a living…it was really just because we loved performing the music.

(Singing to my girlfriend…as she posed for a photo.)

(Bob, Greg & me) (Photos are from old slides.)

(Bob, Greg, Dale & Steve)

(“Magical Mystery Tour” or another song with horn parts.)

(Bassist Dean Everitt joined the band, and did a great job.)

It always felt good when people responded enthusiastically to our playing.  I remember when The Beatles White Album came out in 1968.  The single released at that time was “Hey Jude”, and we got great feedback on that one.  But, the album itself had no singles on it, so local bands had to just choose songs we thought would be popular with audiences.  One of the cuts we chose was “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”.  When it was brand new, we got applause for just announcing we were going to play it.  I also remember getting positive comments about our Grass Roots songs.  They were favorites of mine, because I could sing the lead, and then Dale & I could play trumpets during the instrumental portions, like the original recordings.  It was the same thing with some of the songs by The Buckinghams.

Bands like ours came and went.  We had a pretty good run of three years (’67-’69), but then I left, got married (to that pretty girl I was singing to 48 years ago), and did a stint as an Aviation Electronics Technician in the Navy.  However, I’ll never live down the fact that The Rock & Soul Society was playing at a prom in Iowa on the night I should have taken Jeannette to her senior prom in Plainview, Nebraska.

After I left, the band went on for a while longer, but Lincoln, Nebraska isn’t considered a stepping stone to musical fame.  The exception was one of the biggest one-hit-wonders of all time…Zager & Evans.  Their original song “In The Year 2525” was number one for six weeks in 1969.  It was their only recording to make the Hot 100.  One night we were playing in Lincoln before “2525” was released.  A guy came up to me during a break and told me he had just seen Zager & Evans.  He said “You guys should get yourselves a special song like they have”.  If only it were that easy!

I’m happy to report that all these years later, Bob Roose still performs with a band, “Blues Agent”, in Omaha.  Steve Vannoy still plays guitar, and his wife Barb plays keyboards.  When Steve & Barb visited Oregon recently, Steve picked up his guitar and played absolutely great.  He told me Dale Murdoch plays guitar with him from time to time.  Me, I still sing along with my music collection.

(Steve Vannoy, September 2017, on the Oregon coast.)

The story of The Rock & Soul Society is typical.  Few local bands get very far beyond the point we did.  It’s partly because we all had to earn a “real” living, and lead lives that included spouses and families.  It points to the fact that those who do “make it” are probably truly gifted songwriters, singers, and instrumentalists.  Also, they very likely made personal sacrifices to follow their musical dreams.