Archive for the ‘1970s’ Category

Most music fans know (or should know) the story of Gladys Knight and the Pips. For those few who don’t: in 1952, at age 7, she appeared on (and won) Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour

…aka the American Idol of its day. Not long thereafter, she joined her brother Merald (aka “Bubba”), sister Brenda and cousins William and Eleanor Guest in a music group dubbed the Pips after a cousin whose nickname was “Pip.” As the years pushed toward 1960, Brenda and Eleanor were replaced by Edward Patten and Langston George; and the group toured with, and opened for, such acts as Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson. They also released their first single in 1958, “Whistle My Love,” which went nowhere fast; and, as Gladys Knight and the Pips, released the Johnny Otis-penned “Every Beat of My Heart,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 6 on the pop charts. 

There were actually two versions of “Every Beat” – the one for Atlanta Huntom/Vee Jay that hit the top 10 and a re-recorded version for the Fury label that reached No. 45; Fury also released the group’s first full-length platter, Letter Full of Tears, in 1962. A string of near-hits followed and, in 1966, Gladys, Merald, William and Edward signed with Motown, where they’d remain until 1972. 

There’s far more to unpack, including a tumultuous personal life, but for the purposes of this piece I’ll skip everything save this: Gladys and the Pips were not seen as a top-tier act by Motown, which was home to such established hitmakers as the Supremes, Temptations, Miracles and Marvin Gaye. Add to that this: She was allegedly viewed as a threat by Diana Ross, who supposedly had Gladys and the guys dumped from their opening slot on a 1968 Supremes tour because they were too good (i.e. better than Diana and gals).

There were a slew of songs in that spell that could and should have been hits, but weren’t; and others that they would have done wonders with if given a chance. Yet, their version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which was recorded after the Miracles and Marvin Gaye renditions but released first, reached No. 2 on the pop charts in 1967; they also scored top 10 pop singles with “If I Were Your Woman” (No. 9 in 1970) and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)” (No. 2 in 1972); in the same timeframe, however, they scored 11 R&B top 10 hits, including three No. 1s. I.e., with a better marketing push, a song like the funky “Friendship Train” could have topped the pop charts.

As a result, with their contract up, Gladys and the Pips went shopping for a new home – and found one in Buddah Records, a small label that was home to an odd mix of bubblegum acts and soul music. As Ron Weisner, who was with Buddah at the time (and later served as Gladys’ manager) recounts in his memoir Listen Out Loud, they didn’t have as much to offer as other labels except for one thing: enthusiasm. So, for a lower advance than she might have gotten elsewhere, Gladys and the Pips signed the dotted line…

… and Imagination, one of the greatest albums of the early ‘70s, resulted. Because Buddah didn’t have in-house writers or producers, there was a freedom about the endeavor – and it’s heard in the album’s grooves. It merges soul, gospel and country, as evidenced by “Midnight Train to Georgia” (which began life as “Midnight Plane to Houston”) and “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – songs that circulate and percolate through the soul like few others.

There’s more to the album than those two tracks, however. “Storms of Troubled Times” – which, like “Midnight Train” and “Best Thing” was written by country singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly – is another highlight. Gladys’ vocals are cushioned by the Pips’ perfect harmonies.

When the world, when the world
Falls down around your shoulders
And you need a hand that’s strong and kind
Reach out for mine, reach out for mine
And I will lead you through the storms of troubled times

“Where Peaceful Waters Flow” is thematically similar to “Storms” and is no less stirring. Although she didn’t write the lyrics, it doesn’t much matter. When she sings, the words flow from her soul into ours.  

One surprising track is “I Can See Clearly Now,” an evocative cover of the Johnny Nash tune that features the Pips upfront. In fact, the only weak cut on the nine-song album is the last one, “Window Raisin’ Granny”; to my ears, it’s a so-so rewrite (by Gladys and the three Pips) of Bill Withers’ “Granny’s Hands.” Yet, even it has something to offer – a sterling vocal.

In the charts, Imagination did well – No. 9 on Billboard’s pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts – but could (and should) have done even better. 

My favorite song from the set may well be “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” – and though I love the studio version, this rendition from a 1974 TV appearance (which I’ve spotlighted before) remains my favorite despite the lousy video quality…

… for a few reasons, but primarily because it reminds me of when Diane and I saw Gladys at the Valley Forge Music Fair in Devon, Pa., in the early 1990s. Though much of the specifics of the concert have long been lost to time, the passion she invested in each song lingers still. She was a dynamic stage presence.

Incidentally, at that point, I only knew Gladys (with and without the Pips) from various greatest-hits collections and anthologies. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that I began to explore her specific albums, including this one, which quickly became my favorite. That said, there are other LPs that folks who only know the hits should check out, including If I Were Your Woman (which, aside from the classic title track, includes a great version of the Beatles’ “Let It Be”) and Standing Ovation. I’ll be spotlighting a few of them in the weeks and months ahead.

Released in June 1979, Back to the Egg was lambasted by rock critics the world over. In Rolling Stone, for instance, well-respected scribe Timothy White called it “[a] veritable slide show of dead-end flights of fancy and yesterday’s dross” and claimed it “doesn’t contain one cut that’s the least bit fleshed out or brought to any logical conclusion.” Sales-wise, it was something of a disappointment, too. Although it did go platinum in the U.S. and gold in the U.K., it didn’t sell anywhere near as well as anticipated.

Yet it remains a favorite of many Wings connoisseurs, myself included, due to the spiky sound Paul McCartney often found with the latest (and last) iteration of his band, which now included guitarist Laurence Juber and drummer Steve Holley. Co-produced with Chris Thomas, whose credits included records by Chris Spedding, the Sex Pistols, Roxy Music and Badfinger, Back to the Egg features a mix of new wave, power pop and old-fashioned rock, with lots of Macca’s patented whimsy sprinkled throughout.

But, first, let me set the stage: I joined the Wings Fun Club at some point in early 1979, and not long thereafter received the first all-color edition of its Club Sandwich newsletter, which alerted me that Paul and Wings were recording a new album. After learning that, I stopped in the Hatboro Music Shop just about every day to see if it was out…until the proprietor (and future Hatboro mayor) Joe Celano finally explained to me that new releases only came out on Tuesdays. By the time of its release, June 8th, I was bouncing off the walls as only 13-year-old me could.

The Club Sandwich trumpeting Back to the Egg, which is pictured up top, arrived a week or two before the album itself was released, though I could be wrong. It went in-depth into the recording, with Laurence delving into the guitar side of the songs and this article expanding upon the overall process:

I immediately heard it as an approximation of the radio experience – and still do, though that wasn’t McCartney’s intent. Listening to it is akin to twisting the radio dial in search of that sound, whatever that sound may be, and coming across an array of infectious tunes. There was rock, pop, new wave, disco-light and even some psychedelia, plus a true Beatles-like “happening”: a who’s who of rock’s (primarily) old guard in an orchestral-like setting for the “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad to See You Here.”

Replicating the radio experience wasn’t the concept, however. It was meant to convey the experiences of a band on the road, but that concept cracks shortly after Back to the Egg begins. The “Reception” is said to be the band listening to the radio on the way to a venue; “Getting Closer” signals, uh, getting closer to the venue; and “We’re Open Tonight” – the working title for the album – is the arrival.

“Spin It On,” thus, is the concert’s start.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a stretch. The only thing that connects the songs to the concept are the titles, as – aside from “We’re Open Tonight” – the lyrics are about matters of the heart; and the concept further deflates by the time the LP is flipped from Side A to Side B, which includes not one, but two medleys. In a metaphoric sense, then, the band’s van got stuck in a ditch before it reached the venue. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fine album. A good album. I loved it as a kid and still like it, now, though I think it would have worked better if they’d ironed out the kinks and embraced an “Around the Dial” theme instead of a band on the run from town to town.

The guitar-driven “Getting Closer” features a catchy chorus, but is lyrically slight. The concise “Spin It On,” on the other hand, is one of McCartney’s top rockers – as are the Grammy Award-winning “Rockestra Theme” and “So Glad to See You Here.” And “Old Siam Sir” is a psychedelic delight with some tasty guitar licks. One can almost smell the smoke and see the black light swirling from the speakers.

“To You” is another tasty little rocker. And one of the medleys, “Winter Rose/Love Awake,” tugs at the heart in its first half and then flowers into bloom in the second in an easy, engaging manner. (In retrospect, they should have been separate tracks.)

Denny Laine’s “Again and Again and Again” is another highlight. 

In some respects, at least to my ears, Back to the Egg uses the same basic template Linda Ronstadt used for her 1980 Mad Love album – an old-guard artist embracing the new wave…though not really. At the end of the day, it’s McCartney and cohorts cranking out some good tunes. Is it his or their best? No. But it’s a fun set, nonetheless, and features one of the coolest LP covers of all time.

I should add that it will be a no-brainer purchase if or when it’s released in deluxe form. (It was said to be slated for the end of 2019, but put on hold for reasons unknown.) The band filmed umpteen promotional videos, some of which are on YouTube, which would make for a cool bonus DVD, especially if the TV special that arose from the “Rockestra” sessions is included. Also, soon after the album’s release, the band hit the road for a U.K. tour that culminated with their appearance at the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea on December 29th, 1979. Although this version of Wings didn’t quite reach the heights of the Wings Over the World-era band, the shows were solid. (Various bootlegs and the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea LP are proof of that.) A concert could be included, in other words.

The Back to the Egg track listing:

Released on March 31st, 1978, Wings’ London Town album wasn’t well received by the rock press at the time. Rolling Stone’s Janet Maslin described it as “so lighthearted that the album’s feeling of familial strength and affection is virtually the only thing that binds it to earth” in her review, for example, and – if my memory’s correct – Dave Marsh slammed it in the (blue) Rolling Stone Record Guide a few years later.

Don’t believe the disses.

While not a five-star album from Paul McCartney and pals, the 14-song set features an enjoyable mix of soft rock, pop and light psychedelia. The keyboard-driven title track, which opens the album, is a good example, with its whimsical lyrics painting a colorful scene: “Walking down the sidewalk on a purple afternoon/I was accosted by a barker playing a simple tune upon his flute/Toot, toot, toot, toot/Silver rain was falling down upon the dirty ground of London town…” 

Musically, it eschews the new strains of rock bubbling up from the streets (aka punk and new wave), with the brief guitar break at 3:25 instead conjuring the old-school vibe of Abbey Road instead of, say, “Anarchy in the U.K.” It’s an airy delight. The second track, “Cafe on the Left Bank,” continues the timeless sound; in some respects, it echoes Paul’s work on Rubber Soul and Revolver.

Just as McCartney sidesteps punk and new wave, the disco beats then heating up the pop charts are nowhere to be heard on the album. Instead, we’re treated to “I’m Carrying,” one of McCartney’s most unheralded love songs: 

I should back up for a second here to explain the album’s background: It began life in early 1977 when Wings regrouped in the studio after their mega-successful 1975-76 world tour. Reportedly, the plan was to record a new album and return to the road – but Linda’s unexpected pregnancy (with son James) caused the McCartneys to change their mind about touring again anytime soon. Instead, in the spring, they headed to the Virgin Islands, where they rented a few yachts, one of which they turned into a recording studio, and enjoyed a working holiday. (In a sense, you could say it’s actual “yacht rock.”) As Paul explained to Melody Maker that same year, “There was a nice free feeling. We’d swim in the day and record at night.”

It’s understandable, then, that the laidback recording sessions led to a laidback sound; and, as if he needed it, the notion of being a dad again likely buoyed Paul’s natural optimism, which is on full display in the album’s lead single, “With a Little Luck.”

The single fades out a minute-and-a-half earlier than the album version, however, and the coda on the album version is quite cool. (As I wrote long ago, this song is what led 12-year-old me to become a McCartney fan. First I bought the single, then the album. And when I heard the longer version, it blew my little mind.) How anyone can hear it and not be swept away by its unbridled hope is beyond me.

“I’ve Had Enough,” which closes Side 1, is an old-school rocker that could well have been written at any point in the preceding 15 years. Written and recorded during the yacht sessions, it protests everything from backseat drivers to the taxman: “I earn the money and you take it away/When I don’t know where you’re from/I should be worried but they say/It’ll pay for a bomb…”

Another of my favorites is “Deliver Your Children,” a driving folk-flavored number and one of five tracks written by Paul McCartney and Denny Laine. In this instance, it was a song that Denny had been working on since the Venus & Mars sessions; Paul helped finish it.

“Girlfriend,” which McCartney wrote for Michael Jackson to record, is another highlight. (McCartney recorded it first, obviously, with MJ getting to it in 1979 on his Off the Wall album.)

Another track I enjoy, though some might not, is the closing “Morse Moose and the Grey Goose,” a sprawling, eccentric rocker in the mode of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; it’s also a broad hint of what’s to come on McCartney II. 

The bulk of the songs feature the classic Wings Mach II lineup: Paul, Linda, Denny, Jimmy McCulloch and Joe English, although guitarist McCulloch and drummer English flew the coop midway through the sessions – McCulloch to the reformed Small Faces and the American-born English back to the States, as he’d grown homesick.

On the charts, the album didn’t do as well as expected (No. 2 in the U.S., though it did go platinum, and No. 4 in the U.K.), which set the stage for the following year’s Back to the Egg. But make no mistake: Despite a few stumbles (“Children Children” and “Famous Groupies”), it’s a solid set that’s sure to please all but the most hard-hearted. 

R&B/soul singer Merry Clayton’s name may not be well known, but her vocal prowess is – as documented in the 20 Feet From Stardom film, that’s her singing with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” She was 20 years old at the time of the recording, seven months pregnant and working on little sleep, as she was called into the recording studio in the middle of the night by an apologetic Jack Nitzsche, who was helping Mick and Keith Richards mix the song in L.A.; the Glimmer Twins realized it was lacking that something extra. Enter Merry, so named because she born on Christmas day. She arrived with her hair in curlers, did her thing and then left after three takes. (Sadly, she suffered a miscarriage upon returning home.)

She was far from a neophyte in the music business, as she explains in this 1986 L.A. Times article. Her first turn in a studio came in 1962, at age 14, when she sang with Bobby Darin on his swinging “Who Can I Count On? (When I Can’t Count on You),” which surfaced on his 1963 You’re the Reason I’m Living LP. She later joined the Raelettes, Ray Charles’ backup singers, and also provided backup vocals for everyone from Pearl Bailey to Neil Young.

It was “Gimme Shelter,” though, that opened the door to a recording contract with Lou Adler’s Ode label, and in 1970 her rendition of the song served as the title track for her solo debut, which also featured – among other highlights – tremendous renditions of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Van Morrison’s “Glad Tidings.” With a crack session band that included Billy Preston, Paul Humphrey, Joe Sample and David T. Walker, it’s a soulful delight, the kind of disc that demands repeated listens.

That the album failed to chart is one of the mysteries of life. It’s a great set. The history of popular music is littered with lost treasures, of course. But that’s the way the music business has worked since the dawn of time, with some albums and artists seemingly destined to be discovered by succeeding generations.

Released a year later, Clayton’s eponymous sophomore set equals the brilliance of Gimme Shelter and even, I think, surpasses it in spots. A soulful spin on Neil Young’s “Southern Man” opens the album to great effect. The lyrics take on an added poignancy and weight when sung by her.

Three songs penned by Ode labelmate Carole King, who also plays keyboards on the tracks, are additional highlights:

Her take on James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues,” titled “Steamroller,” is simply scintillating. 

And her rendition of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” may well be the best out there: 

There’s more. Far more. (As Diane just said of “Love Me or Let Me Be Lonely,” which was a hit for the Friends of Distinction a year earlier, “this is a great version.”) From top to bottom, this self-titled set from Merry Clayton is just a phenomenal, soulful set. Chart-wise, it did a little better than her debut, making it to No. 180 on the album charts and No. 36 on the R&B charts; and the 45 of “After All This Time” topped out at No. 71 on the pop charts and No. 36 on the R&B charts.

If you’re unfamiliar with Merry Clayton beyond “Gimme Shelter” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (another song she sings backup on), give this set – and her debut – a go.