Archive for the ‘1969’ Category

First time ever I heard her sing, I heard an angel plucking a piano string by string. Her vibrato shimmered and the passion palpable in each note simmered. She was killing me softly with her song, though it was actually a duet with Donny Hathaway, “The Closer I Get to You.” I was a few months shy of 13 and – spurred by “With a Little Luck” by Wings – just discovering Top 40 radio. The sweet groove of “Closer I Get to You” stopped time for me, just about, and made me wish I could leap through my teen years and instantly become an adult.

But, of course, if wishes were horses we’d all own ranches. My $2-a-week allowance (upgraded to $5 once I hit 13) only went so far; it wouldn’t be until late 1981 or early ‘82 that one of her LPs – The Best of Roberta Flack – entered my collection. The way her voice soared into the sky one moment before gliding to Earth the next mesmerized me. All these years later, it still does.

The 10 tracks on The Best of herald love in its many splendors. While it’s an excellent encapsulation of her career to date, it doesn’t accurately reflect her debut, First Take, which I first heard decades later (as explained here). The first time I listened to it, I was taken aback – and pleasantly surprised – that its eight tracks didn’t exclusively chart the inner workings of the human heart. Recorded in early 1969, it instead navigates the nuances of life during a tumultuous time. Revolution was in the air, but so was love – and, for some, despair. The LP mixes jazz, soul and gospel in arrangements that never feel forced or sound cluttered.

I’d be remiss in not providing a quick-hit summary of her life up until this point. A musical prodigy, she earned a full scholarship to Howard University at age 15, studying piano before switching to voice. She graduated at age 19 and became a student teacher in a Maryland suburb of D.C. while pursuing graduate studies in music. The passing of her father, however, caused her to curtail her education and pursue teaching full time.

That changed, of course. By the late ‘60s, she was wowing crowds three nights a week at a Capitol Hill restaurant. As jazz great Les McCann tells it, whenever he visited D.C. someone would encourage him to check her out. She bowled him over when he finally did in 1968; he quickly arranged an audition for her at Atlantic Records. That audition led to a three days of recording demos and then, a few months later, a full-fledged session for her debut LP. 

The taut rumble of “Compared to What,” which opens First Take, remains restrained throughout, though its lyrics (“The President, he’s got his war/Folks don’t know just what it’s for/No one gives us rhyme or reason/Have one doubt, they call it treason”) do not. “Angelitos Negros” is both pleading and reaching, a song one need not know Spanish to understand (though it helps to read a translation). “Our Ages or Our Hearts,” one of two Donny Hathaway-penned songs (this one co-written with Robert Ayers), places a heart’s desire ahead of society’s whims. “I Told Jesus,” the final song on the first side, is an old spiritual. 

The Leonard Cohen tune “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” opens the second side and then the slice of hypnotic love that is “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” blooms like a flower captured by time-lapse photography. 

“Tryin’ Times,” the other Hathaway song (written with Leroy Hutson), speaks to tumult then and now: “But maybe folks wouldn’t have to suffer/If there was more love for your brother/But these are tryin’ times…”

“The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” written by lyricist Fran Landesman and composer Tommy Wolf for the 1959 Broadway musical The Nervous Set, is an evocative slice of beat poetry set to song, conjuring the angst of a generation adrift in the bleating boredom and conformity of post-WWII America.

These aren’t teenager laments, in other words, but adult concerns and observations poignantly expressed in song. Roberta may not have written the words, but she feels them; her soul reverberates in each and every syllable.

The 50th anniversary edition edition, limited to 3000 copies (at least for now) and only available from SoulMusic.com, is well worth the $50. The CD bonus tracks include the single edits for “Compared to What” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the “First Time” b-side “Trade Winds,” as well as a live track McCann recorded in 1968 that was released in 1991 on the Les Is More compilation of his private recordings. The remaining 12 tracks are culled from the demos she recorded and sound as finished as the songs on First Take. Here are two examples:

As most music fans know, the album didn’t sell all that well upon its release, but sold enough for second and third efforts, Chapter Two (1970) and Quiet Storm (1971), to be released. Then Roberta received a phone call from none other than Clint Eastwood, who asked if he could use “First Time” in his movie Play Misty for Me. The rest, as they say, is history. The eight-track original album is a five-star affair; with the added bonus cuts, it’s beyond that.

It’s odd the way the mind’s turntable works. 

Earlier this week, singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews posted to her Instagram account that she “can’t wait to sing with humans in a room, that’s what I miss most.” For reasons only a mystic may know, that simple admission caused my inner turntable to queue up the “Someday We’ll Be Together” 45 by Diana Ross & the Supremes.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua in 1961, and was first recorded and released that same year by Bristol and Beavers (as Johnny and Jackey) on the Tri-Phi label. That version, however, features little of the magic heard in Diana’s rendition…

… which, though billed as a “Diana Ross & the Supremes” song, was recorded with Merry Clayton, Patrice Holloway, Maxine Waters and Julia Waters on backing vocals, not Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Johnny Bristol, who joined the Motown fold in the mid-1960s, had worked up the track for Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, but Berry Gordy decided it was better suited for Diana; at that stage, he earmarked it as her solo debut. He changed his mind after it was completed, however, and issued it instead as the final single from Diana Ross & the Supremes in order to help promote Diana’s departure from the group. Bristol’s vocal contributions, by the way, came about by accident: In an early take, the engineer accidentally recorded him while he was positioned off-mic singing along and offering words of encouragement to Diana. They liked the result, so kept it.

Released on October 14, 1969, it peaked at No. 1 on the pop charts for the week of December 27th, so is technically both the final No. 1 of the 1960s and first No. 1 of the 1970s. 

What’s wild about the song: Although written 59 years ago about love and regret (“Long time ago my, my sweet thing, I made a big mistake, honey/I say, I said goodbye”), it remains as relevant as ever – no more so than today, given that the pandemic is keeping loved ones apart: “I wanna say, I wanna say, I wanna say some day we’ll be together/Yes we will, yes we will say some day we’ll be together/Some day, some sweet day, we will be together…” 

The first song released under the Diana Ross & the Supremes moniker, “Reflections,” is a Holland-Dozier-Holland gem that, though about love, is also applicable to these times: “Through the mirror of my mind/Time after time/I see reflections of you and me/Reflections of/The way life used to be…”

Released on July 24th, 1967 (aka the Summer of Love), it rose to No. 2 on the charts by September 9th – and sports a soft (and somewhat dated) psychedelic sound due to the use of a test oscillator as part of its sonic makeup. Yet, it remains a great song – one of my favorites by Diana & Company.

(Both have been added to my list of songs Courtney Marie should cover – though I doubt she ever will.)

A year later, Diana and the Supremes released the Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a sales misstep – it peaked at No. 150 – that, yet, is eminently enjoyable. One highlight – and another song that could have been written about life during the COVID-19 pandemic – is “People.”

If you listened, you heard Diana’s heartfelt plea, which could well be spoken today: “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love/All the people have a dream/for peace, for security/let the world fall in love again/please, please, let our lives not be in vain…”

Another H-D-H classic, “My World Is Empty Without You,” released by the Supremes at the tail end of 1965, echoes modern life, as well:

Incidentally, its album home – I Hear a Symphony, which was released in early 1966 – is well worth many spins. The title cut is a classic, of course…

…and there’s also a touching cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Another highlight is their rendition of “Unchained Melody,” which had been a hit for the Righteous Brothers the year before:

Too often, songs of yesteryear are dismissed as relics from a bygone age – as if love, heartache and regret are modern conceits. Yeah, sure, the albums by the Supremes often include covers of then-popular hits, as well as Broadway favorites, but – to me, at least – that’s part of their charm. At their best, which is often, Diana Ross and the Supremes (both pre- and post-ampersand) simultaneously reflect and transcend their times, and remain as relevant and wonderful as ever.

As far as summer days go, July 20th, 1969, was a pleasant (Delaware) valley Sunday in the Philadelphia area: After a string of hot-and-humid days caused the Philadelphia Electric Co. to issue a power emergency due to the increased use of air conditioning and a generator failure, the temperature wasn’t predicted to push past 85 degrees Fahrenheit (and, as the day played out, never made it past the upper 70s). The only downside: It was cloudy, and thunderstorms were possible at just about any moment.

The biggest news of the day, as evidenced by the front page of “the oldest daily newspaper in the United States,” the Philadelphia Inquirer, was the Apollo 11 mission. The culmination of President John F. Kennedy’s push to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, it was and remains a breathtaking human achievement.

The other headline is for a story that likely changed the course of history: Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off a Chappaquiddick Island bridge. He escaped the wreck, of course, but Mary Jo Kopechne – one of the “Boiler Room Girls” of Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign – died. Kennedy claimed he made repeated attempts to save Kopechne before leaving the scene of the accident, which he didn’t report to the police until the next morning.

Prior to the accident, he was considered the frontrunner for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. After? The questions of what happened haunted him for the rest of his days, and shifted his national appeal into the “what if” territory. 

On the entertainment front, here’s a list of movies playing the theaters.

As I’ve noted before, movie distribution was very different back then: There were no large-scale openings. All films started in select markets, and gradually made their way across the country. (That would change in the early-mid ’70s.) And, too, they hung around longer, as there was no actual after-market. The Graduate, for example, dates to 1967, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Love Bug to late 1968. Goodbye, Columbus and Popi, as well as True Grit, were more recent flicks.

Then, as now, Philly was a hot bed for concert-goers. Interestingly, however, one of the ads is for a three-day music festival happening in upstate New York…

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Now, as astute readers may remember, I covered this same date last year, so am delving deeper into the same Weekly Top 40 chart (for the week ending July 19th) for today’s Top 5: July 20, 1969 (Part Deux).

1) Stevie Wonder – “My Cherie Amour.” The No. 9 single in the land is this classic song from Stevie Wonder, who was 18 when he released it and possibly 19 in this vintage clip…

2) Henry Mancini & His Orchestra – “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.” Yes, there was a time when the singles chart consisted of more than songs targeted at the young. One example: Mancini’s rendition of the theme to Franco Zeffirelli’s classic adaptation of the Shakespeare play, which dropped to No. 10 this week during a slow drop from the top of the charts. The film, as evidenced by the above movie listings, was still in some theaters nine months after its premiere, and quickly became a mandatory class outing for middle-school students.

3) The Dells – “I Can Sing a Rainbow/Love Is Blue.” Written by Arthur Hamilton, “Sing a Rainbow” – which became the theme song to the Philly children’s TV show Captain Noah and His Magical Ark TV, which aired from 1967 to 1994 – was first recorded by Peggy Lee for the 1954 movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, covered by Andy Williams in 1964 and Cilia Black in 1966, and then as part of a medley by the Dells in 1969, whose version peaked this week at No. 22 on the pop charts.

4) Neil Diamond – “Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good).” On its way up the charts is this now beloved-detested song, which sits at No. 24 while on its way to its peak, No. 4, which it would hit the following month.

5) The Rolling Stones – “Honky Tonky Women.” Debuting on the charts, at No. 79, is this classic tune from Mick, Keef and the boys. 

Sunday July 20th, 1969, marked a momentous moment in the history of humankind: Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module Eagle and descended a ladder to the surface of the moon. After touching ground at 10:56pm ET, he paused to say, “that’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” (The “a” is in brackets because it wasn’t audible on the transmission beamed to the 600 million people watching on Earth.)

The U.S. president – the 37th in the country’s history – was Richard M. Nixon, who took the oath of office six months earlier. His time in office was accented by chicanery, cynicism and brilliance, though much of that was yet to come. At this point in time, though he was viewed with disdain by some, his approval ratings were routinely in the 60s.

On the economic front, the unemployment rate began the year at 3.4 percent and ended at 3.9 percent. Everyone who wanted one had a job, just about. Inflation, on the other hand, was a source of concern: When Nixon took office, it was already high at 4.4 percent, and it continued to inch higher each month. 

When it came to foreign affairs – specifically, the Vietnam War – this very month marked two significant events: the first U.S. troop withdrawals from Vietnam occurred on the 8th; and, on July 25th, the “Nixon Doctrine” – aka the Vietnamization of the war – was announced. The plan was for the U.S. to turn over the defense of South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese.

In the Philly region, it was an atypical summer’s day, topping out at a mere 78 degrees (Fahrenheit). The Phillies didn’t take advantage of the cool weather, however, as starting pitcher Bill Champion failed to live up to his surname in a 6-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs at Connie Mack Stadium.

Among the movies playing in the theaters: Hook, Line & Sinker, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider, which was released on July 14th. As I’ve noted before, however, this was the era when it could take a movie six or more months to make it to your local cinema.

Aside from the moon transmission, TV was basically in yesteryear’s DVR mode – rerun season. It’s when folks caught up on episodes they had missed.

In the world of music, June and July 1969 saw the release of a few notable – and not-so-notable – albums, including Roberta Flack’s First Take, Elvis Presley’s From Elvis in Memphis, Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking, Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad, The Doors’ Soft Parade, and Yes’ eponymous debut. 

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: July 20, 1969 (via Weekly Top 40; the chart is for the 19th).

1) Zager and Evans – “In the Year 2525.” The next time a baby boomer laments the state of today’s music, point them to this song. And laugh. Because on July 20th, 1969 – less than a month before Woodstock – this “prophetic” song was the No. 1 song in the land.

And for you Gen-Xers feeling smug right now, here’s R.E.M. covering it:

2) Blood, Sweat & Tears – “Spinning Wheel.” Holding steady at No. 2 for a second week is this jaunty philosophical ode, which was penned by BS&T singer David Clayton-Thomas. 

To again leave the pop charts for a moment, earlier in the year Peggy Lee released an effervescent rendition of the song that reached No. 24 on the Easy Listening charts…

3) Three Dog Night – “One.” Dropping from No. 5 to No. 6 is this song, which I first heard in the mid-1970s on a commercial for a mail-order compilation. The song was written and originally recorded by Harry Nilsson, who released it in 1968.

And – yes, this is a trend – Aimee Mann recorded “One” for the For the Love of Nilsson tribute album in 1995. It also appeared on the soundtrack for Magnolia.

4) Elvis Presley – “In the Ghetto.” Elvis continued his comeback with this classic song written by Mac Davis that tackles poverty. (Sad to say, 50 years later, it remains as relevant as it was then.)

A few decades years later, on the 1998 Lilith Fair tour, Natalie Merchant – accompanied by Tracy Chapman – sang the song.

5) Jackie DeShannon – “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.” One of the week’s “power plays” is this catchy plea for love, which jumps from No. 55 to 48. FYI: Jackie co-wrote it.

And, finally, Dolly Parton recorded a wonderful version of the song for her 1993 album Slow Dancing With the Moon. Here she is singing it a few months earlier on the CMA Awards…