American Idol…Did It Find Enough Talent?

We pause from Classic Rock to look back on recent pop music history.

It was just a summer replacement show based on an old-fashioned talent show format.  I remember Sly & The Family Stone winning a summer TV talent show in the 1960’s, now Fox TV was trying it again with an American version of Britain’s “Pop Idol”.  “American Idol” turned out to be a juggernaut for about a decade, starting in the summer of 2002, and then slowly faded out through 2015…although the ratings were still better than many hit shows.

The luckiest thing to ever happen to American Idol was that Kelly Clarkson tried out the first season, and eventually won.  She could sing any style of music Idol threw at the contestants, and viewers loved her.  Finding a real talent validated the show’s very existence.

So let’s look back at the entire run of Idol, and determine how good the show was at finding talent, and which contestants were ultimately the most successful.

There are various ways of measuring success, so let’s start with the most practical way…who is now worth the most money?  It’s a surprising stat, because of the Top Ten contestants on the list, only 4 of them actually won the show.

  1. Carrie Underwood…$70-Million.  Singing, Endorsing, Acting, Hosting.
  2. Kelly Clarkson…$28-Million.  Singing, Endorsing, Writing.
  3. Jennifer Hudson…$20-Million.  Acting (won Oscar), Singing, Endorsing.
  4. Adam Lambert…$12-Million.  Singing solo & with rock group Queen.
  5. Jordon Sparks…$10-Million.  Singing, own Clothing & Fragrance lines.
  6. Chris Daughtry…$8.5-Million.  Rock group Daughtry.
  7. Clay Aiken…$6-Million.  Singing, Broadway.
  8. Katharine McPhee…$6-Million.  Acting (on TV’s “Scorpion”), Singing.
  9. David Cook…$5-Million.  Singing, Endorsing.
  10. Daivd Archuleta…$5-Million. Singing.

Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jordon Sparks, and David Cook are the four who won the show.  The money figures are from “Business Insider”, 2016.

Carrie Underwood was the next big find, in season four.  The shy girl from Oklahoma had never even been on a plane before Idol, and now she’s had 24 #1 singles on the Billboard country chart, and has been the most successful female country star for over a decade.  Friend Miranda Lambert is close, and you might remember she got started on the “Nashville Star” talent show.

Another way we’re checking success is sales of recordings.  These are the official sales of albums in the United States as of 2016:

  1. Carrie Underwood, season 4 winner…16-million.
  2. Kelly Clarkson, season 1 winner…14-million
  3. Chris Daughtry, season 5, #4…7.3-million
  4. Clay Aiken, season 2, #2…5-million
  5. Fantasia Barrino, season 3 winner…3-million
  6. Ruben Studdard, season 2 winner…2.6-million
  7. Scotty McCreary, season 10 winner…2.2-million
  8. Kellie Pickler, season 5, #6…1.5-million
  9. David Cook, season 7 winner…1.5-million
  10. Phillip Phillips, season 11 winner…1.5-million

Worldwide, Kelly Clarkson has sold the most.

Others who have sold over a million albums, and their season ranking are…Jennifer Hudson (#7), Jordon Sparks (#1), Adam Lambert (#2), and David Archuleta (#2).

By comparison, winners and other contestants of The Voice have generally had much less success.  The Voice concentrates on the judges instead of the contestants, and is a ratings winner, but has been mostly a talent finding bust.

By concentrating on the contestants more than the judges, especially in the early half of their run, American Idol discovered talented people.  It also gave the contestants enough exposure that the show served as a springboard to start their careers.

On the acting front…Katharine McPhee has had supporting roles in movies, starred for two years on the TV show “Smash”, and is now starring in her 4th season of TV’s “Scorpion” series.  Another Katherine, Katie Stevens, was a top 10 finisher in 2010, and now has a starring role in new TV series “The Bold Type”.  Contestants who have appeared on Broadway include Diana DeGarmo, Constantine Maroulis, Clay Aiken, Katie Webber, Fantasia Barrino, Jordon Sparks, and of course Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson.   Do you remember “American Junior”?  It was a teens & younger spinoff of American Idol for one season.  One of the winners was Lucy Hale.  She became a very popular actress in the successful “Pretty Little Liars” series.

One last thing.  The most versatile performer after Kelly Clarkson was Haley Reinhart who finished third in 2011.  She and Casey Abrams (shown above) brought Jazz to American Idol.  Haley also sang Country, Pop, Rock, and anything else they asked her to sing.

Haley and Casey have had modest success, together and solo.  Haley had a #16 hit on the Adult Contemporary chart with “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, and an album, Listen Up!, that charted at #17.  They sang and played with the Jazz group “Postmodern Jukebox” and there are extremely popular videos of those performances.  A few years after her time on Idol, she still had eight of the top 10 “American Idol Performances” purchased on iTunes.

Obviously, American Idol was a huge success at finding talent, and despite all their talent, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and others could not have had their impressive careers without exposure on Idol.

American Idol returned in 2018, and is now on ABC.

CSN “The Reunion” 1977

Crosby Stills & Nash hadn’t put out a studio album since CSN&Y’s Deja Vu in 1970.  Finally, the album CSN was released in 1977.

CSN is a solid album, and is a multi-platinum seller, approximately tied in sales with the original Crosby, Stills & Nash album from 1969.  The biggest hit was written by Graham Nash.  In the group’s authorized biography (from 1984) Nash tells the story that he and a friend were on Maui and waiting for the rain to stop so they could go somewhere.  A guy flippantly said to him…”You’ve got half an hour, why don’t you just write a song before you go?”  Nash took that as a challenge, and in about 20-minutes he wrote “Just A Song Before I Go”…a #7 hit single.

Other standouts from the album include “See The Changes” (Stills), “Shadow Captain” (Crosby), “Anything At All” (Crosby), “Dark Star” (Stills), “Cold Rain” (Nash), “In My Dreams” (Crosby), and “Cathedral” (Nash).

Here’s the album cover using an alternate photo from the session.  According to their biography, this album was a happy time for a band sometimes in conflict.

We were living in LeMars, Iowa, and heard CSN would be in Lincoln, Nebraska for a concert in October of 1977.  Going to that concert gave me a new job opportunity.

We had lived in Lincoln from 1973 to 1976 while I got my BA in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Nebraska.  We didn’t want to miss the concert, and while we were back in Lincoln for the show, I visited with my former professors.  The head of the department, Dr. Larry Walklin, told me about a News Director position in Beatrice, about 45 miles south of Lincoln.  It was a change from being a reporter to being the director of a three-man news team.  Many opportunities in radio sprang from that move.  Thank you Dr. Walklin, and thank you CSN.

Framed concert poster “The Reunion” at an angle to reduce glare.

Hanging in a hallway of the Journalism building was the poster you see above.  I might have appropriated it off the wall a short time before the concert that night.  Rationalization: Everyone knew about the concert by then, and it was sold out anyway.  If you can read the printing at the bottom of the poster (click to enlarge), you’ll see ticket prices were $8, $9, & $10.

It was a great concert.  Crosby, Stills & Nash, along with some of L.A.’s top studio musicians, played a mix of CSN’s group and solo songs from 1969 to 1977.  They went from a beautiful acoustic set into an electric set that rocked the arena!  Below are photos I took at that concert.

We were pretty far away in the arena that night, but fans could make their way forward to take photos.  They aren’t very good quality, but they certainly bring back memories.

We also got to see them in 1991 during their acoustic tour.  That one was in the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha, and we were in the first row, right in front of Stephen Stills.  And finally, they came to Eugene, Oregon (where we now live) for an excellent outdoor concert in 2009.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are second only to The Beatles in the number of songs & playlists in our music collection.  There’s so much music I love that they did together and as solo artists.  So glad we got to see them in concert.

Lovin’ Spoonful/John Sebastian (updated)

The Lovin’ Spoonful’s first 7 singles all hit the top 10!  They were part of the Folk Rock and Country Rock era that started in the mid 1960s.

Zal Yanovsky (guitar), Joe Butler (drums), John Sebastian (guitar) Steve Boone (bass)

This is how we were introduced to The Lovin’ Spoonful.  Their 1965 single, “Do You Believe In Magic” (#9), made you feel good.  They sang:  “Believe in the magic of a young girl’s soul, believe in the magic of rock & roll, believe in the magic that can set you free”.

The band called it “good time music”.  There was nothing else quite like it on the radio.  The songs were written by lead singer John Sebastian.  The band’s musical influences were Folk, Jug Band, Country, and Blues.  It came out as a unique mixture of Rock & Roll.  Their name came from a song by Mississippi John Hurt called “Coffee Blues”, and referred to a “Lovin’ Spoonful” of Coffee (which is different than many guesses about the origin).

The string of Top 10 hits that followed were…”You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice” (#10), “Daydream” (#2), “Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind” (#2), “Summer In The City” (#1), “Rain On The Roof” (#10), and “Nashville Cats” (#8).  The last five of these six were all from 1966.

I remember that in 1966 The Beatles were asked if they had any favorite American Bands, and they said “The Lovin’ Spoonful”.  Since they were a favorite of mine, it stuck with me, and I’ve always suspected that Paul McCartney wrote “Good Day Sunshine” because he liked “Daydream”.

“Nashville Cats” is a straight-forward salute to country music and the “thirteen-hundred-and-fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville”.  The Lovin’ Spoonful caught some grief for the line “yellow Sun records from Nashville”, because Sun Records was a Memphis studio.  I’m guessing it was simply too hard to make “yellow Sun records from Memphis by way of Nashville” fit.

The Lovin’ Spoonful had more country flavored songs on their albums, including “Lovin’ You” and “Darlin’ Companion” which were recorded by Johnny Cash.

The influence of The Spoonful has far outlasted their career.  They only had three more hits…”Darling Be Home Soon” (#15), “Six O’Clock” (#18), and “She Is Still A Mystery” (#27), all in 1967.  Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian left the band, and it disbanded in 1968.

Here’s their best Greatest Hits collection…well worth it!  (Click or zoom to enlarge the song list.)

John Sebastian plays guitar, auto-harp, piano, and harmonica (his dad was a classical harmonica player).  John was friends with a lot of other musicians, so he and his harmonica made guest appearances on “Deja Vu” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and on “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors…among many others.

After he left The Lovin’ Spoonful, we lost track of John Sebastian.  Then in 1970 at a record store in Memphis, we spotted this album:

After previewing a whole bunch of recent albums at a listening station, we thought the best one was John B. Sebastian.  Information wasn’t readily available like today, and we didn’t know he had an impromptu performance at Woodstock prior to this release.  If you liked The Lovin’ Spoonful, this album was a good follow up.  We still enjoy many songs off this one, like “She’s A Lady”, “Red Eye Express”, “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”, “Magical Connection” and more.  The album did fairly well, peaking at number 20.

John’s solo career never really caught fire, but he continued to write songs and perform.  One tune he wrote was the theme song for a popular TV show, “Welcome Back Kotter”.  It was the show that introduced John Travolta.  “Welcome Back” became a #1 hit for John Sebastian.

There’s a song of his that deserves special mention.  He wrote and performed “Stories We Could Tell”.  It’s about musicians being on the road.  Why do they put up with all the hassles?  They do it so they can “sit back on a bed in some motel, and listen to the stories we could tell.”  It’s a great song that’s been covered by Jimmy Buffett and Tom Petty.

Here’s the cover of the best collection of his solo recordings.  It includes most of his John B. Sebastian album, and a good selection of the rest of his solo work.

The most recent recordings we’ve purchased by him are from a 2007 album he recorded with David Grisman, Satisfied.  We selected two instrumentals, “Walk Right Back” (the Everly Brothers song) and “EMD”.  They’re beautiful guitar and mandolin duets.


Update:  The music of The Lovin Spoonful was saluted at an autism charity event in Los Angeles on February 29th, 2020.  It was the first time John Sebastian, Joe Butler, and Steve Boone had played together since being inducted in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twenty years ago.  Among other songs, they played their #1 hit “Summer In The City”.  There were a total of 30 Spoonful songs played by all the musicians who joined in on the tribute.

A long list could be made of 1960s bands that had Top-40 hits for just a short time. Only a few of them were as influential as The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Okay, had to attempt the list:  Gary Lewis & The Playboys (the only other group to start with 7 top 10 hits), The Zombies, The Box Tops, The Association, The Yardbirds, The Searchers, The Dave Clark Five, The Byrds, The Classics IV, The Beau Brummels, The McCoys, The Turtles, The Mamas & The Papas, The Happenings, The Cyrkle, The Buckinghams, Buffalo Springfield, The Rascals, The Monkees, Steppenwolf, Spanky & Our Gang, The Animals, Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy, Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Mindbenders, The Troggs, Herman’s Hermits, and more.  I tried not to include one-hit and two-hit wonders, or bands that had Top-40 hits into the 1970s.

Many of these groups had great songs and were popular and influential, such as The Byrds.   The truth is, the average life-span of a 60s rock/pop band was short.  I believe all of these groups had hits for a span of one to four years.  Despite the short careers, many of them, like The Lovin’ Spoonful, are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Picture Sleeves / Singles Quiz

Doing the previous article on The Beatles’ picture sleeves encouraged me to take a photo of some more sleeves.  Then I had an idea for a quiz.

This display includes singles covers from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s (in no specific order, zoom or click to enlarge).

Here’s a quiz, based on these sleeves.  I’ll post the answers below.  It’s just for your enjoyment, and you’ll have to keep score at home.  Most answers you can get just by looking or figuring out.  Others you can guess.  And some you might just need to know.  You can zoom or click to enlarge the display.

1. Which artist has a whole row?

2. Which song was written by Paul McCartney?

3. What song is from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High”?

4. Which row is all records that belonged to my father?

5. What record is the oldest?

6. What record is the newest?

7. What song is shown by two different artists?

8. What group had vocalist Robert Plant?

9. Which record was banned by some stations as a “drug” song?

10. Which sleeve shows only 1 member of a 2-person act?

Okay, times up.  Raise your pencils and turn over your quiz.

Answers:

1. Billy Joel.

2. “Goodbye” by Mary Hopkin.

3. “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne.

4. Row 3…obviously the oldest row.

5. “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley, 1956.

6. “The One I Love” by R.E.M. from 1987.

7. “Needles and Pins” by The Searchers and by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with Stevie Nicks. Not easy to spot!

8. The Honeydrippers.  “Sea of Love” & “Rockin’ At Midnight”.

9. “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds.

10.  “The Boxer” has Art Garfunkel on the front and Paul Simon on the back.  Maybe by splitting them up the record company was giving us a hint of the future.

Sorry, no prizes, but hopefully, you had fun testing your vision and your musical knowledge.

Some additional thoughts on singles, and where we are today. 

Singles have been around since Gramophones were invented.  One song on a cylinder.  Singles used to be 10-inch 78 rpm records.  But, it was the 7-inch 45 rpm record which started in 1949 that became the really popular form.  The 33 1/3 rpm album started at about the same time.  You could buy the hit you loved on a 45, or if you thought an album might have enough good songs, you could pay a higher price for the collection of songs.

In the 1970’s, there was a  shift to albums being huge sellers.  By the 1980’s, 45 rpm singles began to disappear.  CD albums took over, and it seemed wrong to only have a single (usually two songs) on a whole disc.

Streaming singles are important these days, and help break artists.  Vinyl albums are selling again, but are still dwarfed by streaming.

Beatles…Picture Sleeves

 My Beatles “45” covers.  (click to make clearer & enlarge)

I never really “collected” record sleeves, but  just got them when I purchased the records as they were released.  Not all 45’s came with picture sleeves.  Record companies only shipped some that way, and at times those were limited to the first run.  Most of the Beatles sleeves are from Capitol Records.  When Beatles 45’s started coming out on the Apple label (with “Hey Jude” in 1968), they simply had black sleeves that allowed the Apple logo to show through.  That changed, as you can see by “Let It Be”.

Here’s a British EP (extended play 45 rpm record) with 4 songs “Nowhere Man”, “Drive My Car”, “Michelle”, and “You Won’t See Me”, all from the British version of Rubber Soul.  Another thing about those British EP’s…check out the center of this record from 1965.  It’s made so you can use it with a small hole like an album, or it could be punched out to be the normal larger size 45 rpm hole.

Although it looks like the Revolver album, this one is actually another EP.  It has four songs…”Eleanor Rigby”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Got To Get You Into My Life” and “Here There & Everywhere”.

Back when eBay was starting, I sold a mint Four By The Beatles EP.  Since this record was unusual, I thought it might become a collector’s item.  It had a fairly heavy cardboard cover which I stored in plastic, and the record itself was never played (I had the songs on other records).  The songs were “Roll Over Beethoven”, “This Boy”, “All My Loving” and “Please Mister Postman”.   I was pleased with the high bid, but maybe I was foolish to sell it.  I can’t find a photo of mine (no digital camera back then), but above is a photo of a somewhat worn version.

Update:  Finally found the original old photo:

One more British EP.  This one has “All My Loving”, “Ask Me Why”, “Money”, and “P.S. I Love You”.  Perhaps the most interesting part is the 1964 write-up on the back of the record sleeve by publicist Tony Barrow.  He may have been a little over-the-top with the hype:

It seems from the beginning, the order of the names was John, Paul, George, and Ringo.  Maybe it was because that’s the order in which the group formed.  EP’s were popular in England, but never caught on here.

Above is a limited edition flex disc used to mark the CD release of The Beatles 1962-1966 “Red Album”.  It was a giveaway by Musicland., and has the songs “All My Loving” and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.  Those songs were never officially released as U.S. singles.

This one looks like the normal “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sleeve, but is a second printing.  You can see they air-brushed out the cigarette that Paul McCartney was holding in the original photo.

This well-worn sleeve represents how layout artists don’t really care much about musical accuracy.  I can understand why they’d flip around John Lennon’s photo so he’d face inward like Paul, but not why they also flipped George Harrison’s photo.  Anyway, they’re now both left handed.

And finally…some of my sleeves from solo Beatles.

The Yardbirds to Led Zeppelin

When asked to name the most important rock bands, most people wouldn’t mention The Yardbirds.  If you asked them what band had three of the top five guitarists in the world (according to Rolling Stone), they still probably wouldn’t think of The Yardbirds.

America was introduced to the music of The Yardbirds in 1965 with the single “For Your Love”.  The group members were Keith Relf (vocals), Chris Dreja (guitar), Paul Samwell-Smith (Bass), Jim McCarty (drums), and Eric Clapton (lead guitar).  The single was a hit (#6), but Eric Clapton immediately left the band, because he wanted to play Blues.  So he joined John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers.  “For Your Love” is an excellent piece of rock/pop that includes a harpsichord, rather than Blues guitar.

Digression:  The only way we heard the new hits in the mid-60’s was through our transistor radios and car radios.  In small town Nebraska, the biggest influence in music came from the 50,000 Watt AM stations…like KOMA in Oklahoma City.

KOMA in 1965, with my sister Chris, 1 of 4 sisters. 

My family was traveling through Oklahoma in 1965, and we convinced Dad to stop at radio station KOMA.  We got a nice tour of the station (looked smaller than we’d imagined), some bumper stickers, and a copy of their own Top 40 survey.  Guess what was at #1?  “For Your Love”.

The Yardbirds had a hit, but who would replace Eric Clapton on guitar?  Jimmy Page, a young session musician, almost took the job, but instead he recommended his friend, Jeff Beck.  Good idea.

In July of 1965, The Yardbirds’ released the single “Heart Full Of Soul”.

Here’s my 1965 single cover.  You might notice that the record company didn’t bother to have a photo of the new line-up, as Eric Clapton (second from left) is still there, and Jeff Beck isn’t.  “Heart Full Of Soul” is one of the great singles of the 1960’s.  (The second-best version of the song is by Chris Isaak.)  The follow up album was Having A Rave Up With The Yardbirds.

Besides “Heart Full Of Soul”, the album includes Yardbirds fan favorites like “The Train Kept A Rollin'”, “Smokestack Lightning”, “Still I’m Sad”, and most importantly, “I’m A Man”.  This is the Bo Diddley Blues song, but the group and Jeff Beck give it a very Rock interpretation.  The guitar and harmonica break goes into double time.  Beck is using a distorted guitar played with metal on the strings to give it an early hard rock and psychedelic effect.  Remember, this was late 1965.  The psychedelic movement was still months away, and there was no hard rock.  “I’m A Man” was The Yardbirds’ third hit of the year.

The Yardbirds would also have three hits in 1966…”Shapes Of Things”, “Over Under Sideways Down”, and “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”…all with psychedelic arrangements, and great guitar work.  When Jeff Beck fell ill and was hospitalized during a tour in 1966, Jimmy Page filled in for him.

When Beck was healthy, they decided to keep the two lead guitar lineup.  Above is a shot of The Yardbirds with both Beck (left) and Page (right).  They’re together on “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”, along with friend John Paul Jones on bass.

Maybe the group just got too experimental or just didn’t have the songs, because they had no more hits.  Epic did gather their best recordings into The Yardbirds’ Greatest Hits album in 1967.  I believe it’s still the only single disc that includes all their hits, and for some reason (probably who owns the music rights), it’s no longer available.

The day this album came out, March 27th, 1967, I bought it.  It was always nice to get fresh copies of the songs on an album, instead of playing the individual singles.  At some point, I sold all my vinyl albums, but I do have the songs on my computer.

Jeff Beck officially left The Yardbirds in November of 1967, and the band called it quits in mid 1968.

But wait.  There had been appearances scheduled for later in 1968.  Jimmy Page thought it would be an opportunity to rebuild the band.  Through a recommendation, unknown vocalist Robert Plant was asked to join.  He in turn recommended his drummer friend, John Bonham.  Page had already worked with bassist/arranger John Paul Jones.  So the band was ready.  They did the dates under the name The Yardbirds, or sometimes The New Yardbirds.  But then, they decided on a new name.

The name came from a joke between members of The Who, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, during an earlier recording session with Beck and Page.  When it was suggested they all form a new super group, Entwistle said it would probably go over like a “lead balloon”, Moon joked it’d be more like a “lead Zeppelin”.   Memories of the exact details of that moment vary, but Jimmy Page remembered the joke, and simply changed the spelling, so the name would be pronounced properly as:

Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck did alright for themselves too.

Update:  Guitar great Jeff Beck passed away 1/10/23 after contracting bacterial meningitis.  He was 78.  He was such an innovator.

Billy Joel…For The Longest Time

What Billy Joel was doin’ was playing in a piano bar,  just like those lyrics.  His career was stuck in idle.  He may have been embarrassed to be there, because he was using the name Bill Martin.  At least he got a great song out of it.

Billy Joel had been having trouble getting his career moving.  His first solo album was Cold Spring Harbor in 1971.  The crazy thing is, the label mastered the album at the wrong speed!  Joel came off a bit like The Chipmunks.  Billy moved to Columbia Records (and to L.A. from New York) in 1972, and that’s when he was playing in a piano bar.

Billy Joel’s first hit, “Piano Man”, was in 1973.  It seems like a #1 hit, but “Piano Man” only made it to #25.  The popularity of the song grew with Billy Joel’s career.  His Piano Man album did fairly well (#27), and the follow up, Streetlife Seranade (1974), did okay (#35).

His fourth album Turnstiles (1976) tanked at #122.  But here’s the thing…Turnstiles is actually one of Billy Joel’s best albums.  It includes “Say Goodbye To Hollywood”, “New York State Of Mind”, “Prelude/Angry Young Man”, “I’ve Loved These Days”, and “Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway”).  Those all made regular appearances in his concerts, and eventually got airplay when Joel became more popular.

I wore out my first copy, bought a second, and then bought it again when it came out on CD.  I like every song.  Lest you think I’m crazy (you may be right), here’s what happened in the late ‘90’s when five of us (Joe Skare, Tim “Timmo” Cawley, Bill Barker, Jim Steel & I) were talking at our Classic Rock radio station, KTGL “The Eagle”.  We were discussing what albums we might choose if we were marooned on an island (with stereo equipment & electricity obviously), and three of us mentioned Turnstiles as a possibility.  We figured it’s because all of the songs are good, and they weren’t burned out by too much radio play.

Billy Joel finally broke big time with The Stranger, released in 1977.  It had four hit singles…”Just The Way You Are”, “Movin’ Out”, “Only The Good Die Young”, and “She’s Always A Woman”.  Plus, “The Stranger” and “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” were regulars on FM stations.  At the time, it became Columbia Record’s all time best selling album, even passing Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Billy Joel followed that up with a string of hit albums…52nd Street, Glass Houses, The Nylon Curtain, and An Innocent Man.  During that run, he also had another 17 hit singles.  Hits that made the Top 10 included “My Life”, “You May Be Right”, “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me” (#1), “Tell Her About It” (#1), “Uptown Girl” and “An Innocent Man”.

(My Billy Joel picture sleeves, click to enlarge.)

That’s when we were lucky to catch him in concert.  It was his “Innocent Man” tour in April of 1984.  Billy Joel was still young, energetic, and was running around a stage that had ramps and multiple keyboards at various locations.

When he introduced “The Longest Time” (love that song, what a rhyme scheme), he explained that he sang all the many vocal parts on the recording, then had to teach them to the band before they headed out on tour.  It sounded great!  Also, it was absolutely amazing to see him playing the frenetic piano part on “Prelude/Angry Young Man”.

Billy Joel continued to have hit albums into the ’90’s, The Bridge, Storm Front, and River of Dreams.  Another ten hit singles included “A Matter Of Trust”, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (#1), and his final big hit “The River of Dreams” (#3) in 1993.

In the late ’90’s, after charting hits during three decades, Billy Joel announced he had retired from writing Pop music.  He did release an album of original classical music in 2011.

Billy Joel has been a concert draw for the longest time (though he no longer runs around the stage).  Joel had over six years of monthly sold out shows at Madison Square Garden, before a 20 month break because of the COVID pandemic.  He returned to the Garden in November of 2021, and is doing some concerts with Stevie Nicks in 2023.  Billy Joel announced that he’s ending his Madison Square Garden concerts with number 150 in July of 2024.

I looked up the list of best selling artists in the U.S.   Billy Joel outsold Michael Jackson and Elton John.  The only pop/rock solo artist to outsell Joel in the U.S. was Elvis Presley.  Billy Joel came a long way from getting tips in a piano bar.

Neil Diamond…Rock & Roll? (updated)

In the summer of 1970, we were living in Escondido, California, just north of San Diego.  I was attending a Navy electronics school at Miramar Naval Air Station…the one where they filmed “Top Gun”.  My wife of less than 6-months, Jeannette, and I saw there was a Neil Diamond concert in San Diego.  We bought tickets about a day before the concert, and we got 5th row center.  That sort of thing used to happen.  If seats reserved for the artist’s friends & family weren’t going to be used, they were put on sale late.  It was our first concert together.

Singer and songwriter Neil Diamond’s success started in 1966.  “Solitary Man” and “Cherry Cherry” were his first singles, and he wrote “I’m A Believer” and “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”  for the Monkees.  “I’m A Believer” was the biggest hit of 1966.

By the time we saw him, Neil Diamond’s hits also included “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”, “Kentucky Woman”, “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, “Sweet Caroline” and “Holly Holy”.  The venue was music hall size, maybe seating about 2,500 people.  We completely enjoyed his performance.

Trivia: The opening act was “Smith” who did a remake of “Baby It’s You”.

Fast forward a year.  We’re now on the east coast, at Virginia Beach, Virginia.  Guess who’s coming for a concert?   Only now, Neil Diamond is playing an arena…The Hampton Roads Coliseum.  He had the #1 hit “Cracklin’ Rosie”, Top 20 hit “He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother”, and his most critically acclaimed album Tap Root Manuscript.  The album includes a concept on side two, “The African Trilogy”, which has the song “Soolaimon”.  The trilogy includes African lyrics, sounds, and rhythms…pretty unusual for a Jewish guy from New York.  Also, this was a decade-and-a-half before another Jewish guy from New York, Paul Simon, did “Graceland”.

Obviously, Neil Diamond’s popularity had grown, and now we had seats up on the side of the arena, with our friends, Don & Linda MacLeod.  The show was a bigger presentation, but the most memorable part was when Neil did his then current hit “I Am, I Said”.  Instead of playing it like the single, Neil Diamond, by himself on acoustic guitar, sang it intimately.  That’s my favorite version.

My photos didn’t turn out, but I kind of like this “impressionistic” one.

Neil Diamond went on to become one of the biggest selling artists of all time.  Other highlights include “Song Sung Blue”, and the hits from his movie “The Jazz Singer”…”Love On The Rocks”, “Hello Again” and “America”.  The sales of the album easily out performed the movie.

More than sales of his recordings, his career moved into the touring stage.  At the age of 76, he still draws crowds*.

So, would he be considered a Rock & Roll artist?  When he started in the 1960’s he fit right in with the rock/pop of the day, but Rock & Roll turned harder as the years went by.  He seemed like the singer-songwriters of the early 1970’s, but he moved in a decidedly more Pop direction.  Maybe his early work was enough, or maybe it’s because he’s been such a concert force for so long, but in 2011, Neil Diamond was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

(Photo by Ari Michelson)

*Update:  On January 22nd, 2018, Neil Diamond announced he is retiring from touring because he was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  He says he plans to remain active in writing and recording.

Update 2:  (4/7/2023) There is a Neil Diamond musical, “Beautiful Noise” that was performed for the first time in June of 2022 at a theater in Boston.  They certainly have a huge selection of great songs to choose from.  The show moved to Broadway like Carole King’s “Beautiful”.

Dire Straits…Best Albums

There are moments of clarity in music.

Like when I first dropped the needle on a new album…Dire Straits.

It was a time in the late 1970’s when disco was dominating everything.  I mean, even The Rolling Stones (“Miss You”), and The Eagles (“One Of These Nights”) dabbled in Disco.  There were some good Disco songs, but mostly Disco was annoying, and some songs had way too much falsetto screaming.  Everyone thought they could have a hit if they just put a continuous disco drum beat under their song.

In early 1978, “Saturday Night Fever” dominated.

In September 1978, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” was #1 for three weeks.

In October 1978, Dire Straits released their first album.

As their songs came out of the speakers, it was like music could breathe again.

        The modern art simplicity & clean lines of the Dire Straits cover.

This is what had been missing.  Rock had returned.  No, not raucous distorted-guitar rock & roll.  Rather, it was bass, drums, and electric guitars with a pure lead, and a vocal that wasn’t buried in the mix.  I remember thinking how different it was from everything else, and how thankful I was.

Mark Knopfler was the songwriter, lead guitarist, and lead singer for this British band.   “Sultans Of Swing” is the song that introduced Dire Straits to the world.  That first album is all good.  Other standout tracks include “Down To The Waterline”, “Setting Me Up”, “Water Of Love”, and “Southbound Again”.  It’s not that the album is full of hits, it’s that it has a lot of really good songs that hold up well.  It reached #2 on the Billboard album chart.

The next three Dire Straits albums didn’t match the quality or the sales of their first.  Their second album Communique was their poorest.  Making Movies was much better, with “Tunnel Of Love”, “Skateaway”, “Romeo And Juliet”, and “Hand In Hand”.  Their fourth album, Love Over Gold was a step backwards, and sold half as many copies as Making Movies.  So what happened next was a big surprise.

Somehow, someway, Dire Straits then released one of the best albums of the 1980’s, and one of the all time best sellers.

Who knew they had this in them?  In May of 1985, Brothers In Arms was released, and I doubt even Mark Knopfler could have expected the reception.  Fueled with radio and MTV hits “Money For Nothing” (#1), “So Far Away” (#19), and “Walk Of Life” (#7), the album spent 9 weeks at the top of the American charts, and was #1 in nearly every country.  Brothers In Arms won Grammys for Best Rock Performance (by a duo or group), and for Best Engineered Album.  It was the first major album to be recorded digitally.

1985 was a time when vinyl albums were still the norm.  I bought the record album, and then the CD when it became available.  I put the CD on, and as it started playing “Your Latest Trick”, I was shocked.  There was a whole beautiful trumpet introduction that wasn’t on the record album!  It turns out there were several cuts that had been edited down to fit the time restrictions of vinyl.  Brothers In Arms became the first album with the CD outselling the record.  It was the first CD to sell a million copies, and for quite a while was the best selling CD period.  The album has sold over 30-Million copies.

For the two years after Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits toured with 247 shows in over a hundred cities.  They burned out.  In 1988, Mark Knopfler announced the dissolution of the band.

There was one reunion album in 1991, On Every Street, which has some good tracks, but didn’t live up to expectations.  Mark Knopfler has gone on to do many solo projects, and works with other top artists.

Dire Straits may not be the long-term success story of some of the best classic bands, but Dire Straits and Brothers In Arms are two of Rock’s shining moments.

(Update:  Dire Straits was inducted with the 2018 class of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  Great choice.)

(Update:  5/31/2018.  Last night the excellent TV series “The Americans” used the song “Brothers In Arms” to help convey an extremely important idea during the series finale of the Cold War drama.  Interestingly, “The West Wing” also used the song for a key scene in it’s series finale.)

The Beach Boys…Pet Sounds

 

  Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, & Mike Love

Surf!  Cars!  Girls!

The Beach Boys (The name was assigned to them by their record label…they had been The Pendletones) were just teenagers wanting to make records, and they did.  In the early ’60’s, The Beach Boys made me believe:   “I Get Around” in my “Little Deuce Coupe” with my “Surfer Girl” having “Fun Fun Fun”, even though I was “In My Room” stuck in the Midwest.

Once in a while, primary songwriter and group leader Brian Wilson would throw in more serious lyrics and topics, but mostly it was good feelings as their “Surf Music” came out of our radio speakers.  High quality harmony vocals and melodies meant their songs would be enjoyed for decades.

Brian Wilson knew they couldn’t just keep writing surf and car songs.  The music around him was evolving.  He was aware that Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and many other artists were raising the bar.

In 1965, Brian began using more complex musical arrangements with a wider variety of instruments.  There’s a new sophistication to the sound of “California Girls” even though the topic wasn’t new.

Then in late 1965 came Rubber Soul by The Beatles.

Brian said he was blown away by it.  He said he wanted to make a Beach Boys album like that…good all the way through.  Being a Beach Boys fan, I know their albums had some great songs, but also songs that would be considered filler.

Brian was no longer on the road with the rest of The Beach Boys.  Instead, he focused on songwriting with lyricist Tony Asher starting in December of 1965.  He also was producing instrumental tracks with L.A.’s super session musicians “The Wrecking Crew”.

Above are shots from the sessions for Pet Sounds in 1966.  That’s Carol Kaye on bass, some of the other Wrecking Crew players, and additional musicians. The Beach Boys were replaced in the studio, except for their vocals.

When The Beach Boys returned from touring, they heard the tracks for the new album, and with the exception of Carl Wilson, they weren’t enthusiastic.  In particular, Mike Love thought Brian was straying too far from the formula that had made the group popular.

Pet Sounds’ complex musical arrangements are almost classical.  The instruments are often layered in the “Wall of Sound” style, and were unusual for Rock, like a bass harmonica, harpsichord, and Electro-Theramin.  The lyrics are mostly introspective.  No one was having any “Fun Fun Fun”.

Despite reservations, the group members worked on the challenging vocal parts.  Brian Wilson has a great ear for harmonies, and he pushed for perfection.

Pet Sounds was released in May of 1966.  Reviews of the album were mixed.  It didn’t perform as well as previous Beach Boys albums, reaching #10 in Billboard, and selling under 500,000 copies.  The Beach Boys mainly blamed Capitol for not doing enough promotion.  Brian was devastated, and felt his new direction was being rejected.

In 1966 a friend and I were in a record store, and we picked out one album together…Pet Sounds.  He paid for half of the album, saying that he listens to all my records, and wanted to pitch in.  He was being a nice guy, though I feel like I still owe him half an album (maybe side two?).  It’s hard to believe Pet Sounds was in any way a failure.  It includes the now classic songs, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”, “Sloop John B”, and “Caroline No”.  Plus it has the beautiful recordings “You Still Believe In Me” and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”.  I’ve always thought it was easily their best album.

Years passed.  Somewhere along the line,  positive opinions of the album began to grow.  Other musicians praised it, especially Paul McCartney.  He often has said the “clever” arrangements and use of unusual instruments influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Paul also says “God Only Knows” is one of the best songs ever written, and that he gave Pet Sounds to each of his children.

For three decades, the album was only available in mono.  I finally got to hear the stereo mix in 1996 when I obtained a promotional CD that Capitol sent to radio stations.  Pet Sounds was supposed to be released in stereo that year on it’s 30th anniversary, but for some reason, it was delayed until 1997.  Meanwhile, I’m listening to this pristine copy of the album and am amazed by how it sounds.  For the first time, I could hear the intricacies of Brian Wilson’s arrangements and the individual instruments themselves, rather than everything being mashed together through one channel.

The  instrumental accompaniments are genius.  Brian Wilson arranged all of the parts himself.  He carried around the arrangements in his head for strings, horns, keyboards, everything.  He made notes and relayed what he had in mind.  It was then translated into actual scores.  Interviews with the musicians who worked the sessions had nothing but high praise for Brian Wilson’s musical vision.

                                         My Beach Boys box sets.

Capitol Records may have dropped the ball on the initial release, but they’ve excelled since.  They’ve released box sets and special editions that include the separated instrumental backing tracks, so people could hear those genius arrangements.  I believe that’s had an effect on the perception of Pet Sounds as one of the all time best albums.

            My 1966 sleeve from Good Vibrations.

There could have been one addition that would have made Pet Sounds an instant hit.  “Good Vibrations” was started during the album sessions, but wasn’t completed.  With a few more months of work, and costing more than any previous single, “Good Vibrations” came out in October of 1966.

It was a #1 smash!  “Good Vibrations” was described by publicist Derek Taylor as a “pocket symphony”.  It has six musical sections edited together, and combines the innovation of Brian Wilson with the old “feel good” style of The Beach Boys.

The year 1966 was the musical peak of The Beach Boys’ career.  They put out an album and a single that are among the best ever recorded.

Update 2023:  Giles Martin has remixed Pet Sounds in Dolby Atmos, a form of multi-channel immersive sound, so with the right equipment, you can have a new listening experience from the 1966 album.

Bonus:  What was supposed to be the follow-up album to Pet Sounds wasn’t released for several decades.  Here’s the original cover art.

Smile wasn’t officially released until the 2000’s.  Here’s a 29-minute presentation of the album with selected stereo tracks segued together:

The list of songs used for Smile.  1. Our Prayer, 2. Gee/Trombone, 3. Heroes And Villains, 4. Roll Plymouth Rock, 5. Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine, 6. Cabin Essence, 7. Wonderful, 8. Child Is Father Of The Man, 9. Surf’s Up Intro/Surf’s Up, 10. Wind Chimes, 11. Cool Cool Water, 12. Good Vibrations, 13. Piano Instrumental (Heroes And Villains).