Archive for the ‘1973’ 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.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

By now, every fan should know the story behind Tonight’s the Night, but since some may not, here it is: Following the tragic deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, who both overdosed on heroin, Neil gathered a group of like-minded souls (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers at Studio Instrument Rentals in Santa Monica, and set out to eulogize his late friends.

As Neil explained in a recent post to the Neil Young Archives, “We played starting at midnight, through the night, and drove home just before dawn to our hotel every night for a month. Visitors came by late at night. One of these nights we practically nailed the whole album, and that is what we wanted to do…keep it real. We drank tequila and smoked weed. Teenagers, don’t do what we did. We didn’t fix the mistakes. The whole album and why we made it and I wrote those songs was all a mistake. It won’t be repeated again. Some say it’s the best thing we ever did.”

In my estimation, Neil and band tapped into and channeled the collective unconscious, crafting a set that is guaranteed, no matter how often one hears it, to send shivers up the spine. Decades ago, for my old website, I wrote: Neil’s eulogy to fallen comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, this album is his most intense—and one of his best, too. In addition to the harrowing title song, it includes the equally haunting “Borrowed Tune,” a song with a stolen melody that best sums Neil’s strengths even as it wallows in admitted “weaknesses” [i.e., drugs and booze]. (A+)

This is how much I treasure it: Through the years, I’ve purchased it on vinyl, cassette, CD, high-resolution FLAC, and the 2016 vinyl reissue. (Truth be told, however, nowadays I usually stream it – and all other Neil stuff – via his Archives site.) 

Here are a few highlights:

Although recorded in 1973, the album was held back until 1975. Reprise apparently didn’t think it would make a great followup to Time Fades Away. As I’ve noted in other posts, great art doesn’t necessarily equate with great sales, and this would be a good example of just that – although a critically acclaimed album, it never rose higher than No. 25 on the Billboard charts.

A purported acetate of the original Tonight’s the Night did surface years ago, but – honestly – this is the version to crank up. Play it if you got it. (And if you don’t have it, get it!)

Side I:

Side II:

 

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Following the success of the Harvest album and “Heart of Gold” single in 1972, Neil seemed sure to ascend to superstardom then and there. But, for reasons I partially covered on ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live, it wasn’t to be – just yet. The self-mythologizing Journey Through the Past movie and soundtrack in late ‘72, and the ramshackle arena tour that followed in early ’73, left the MOR fans he’d just won over scratching their heads. And after those same fans plopped the rough-around-the-edges Time Fades Away LP, released on October 15, 1973, on their turntables? They probably didn’t buy another Neil album until he released the polished Harvest Moon some 20 years later, if at all.

Their loss.

Time Fades Away features eight “new” songs, and is relatively short at 35 minutes. (I put new in quotes because, although seven songs are drawn from the ’73 tour, “Love in Mind” dates to early ’71.) While the album lacks the polished sheen, and practiced precision, of Harvest, it packs a punch that, in some respects, is more powerful. It’s his primal-scream moment. It’s raw, ragged, and emotive. What else can be said about “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and the apocalyptic-themed “L.A.”?

Or the potent “Don’t Be Denied?”

Another high point: the nostalgic “Journey Through the Past.”

Both rate among his greatest songs – and among his most unknown. One reason: Most of the million-plus folks who bought the LP, cassette or 8-track tape in the early ‘70s likely listened to it once, maybe twice, and then moved on. It was too raw, too ragged. Another: His memories of the tour colored his opinion of the music. He didn’t include any TFA material on the Decade anthology, for example. And, after the music industry transitioned to shiny platters in the 1980s, he refused to reissue it on CD until 2017, when compact discs were all but anachronisms – and then only as part of a box set with Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma.

No matter. It’s a great set. Shaky? Yes. If you go back to ’73, the odds seemed stacked against him – unknown songs performed in front of large audiences that would rather hear the known, and a backing band that’s not hitting on all cylinders. He pushes himself to the edge, time and again, and never falls into the abyss. It’s powerful stuff.

Anyway, I bought it on cassette about a decade after its release, on November 14, 1983, when I was a freshman in college. I played it to death that winter, and for the next few years. I even played “Journey Through the Past” on my old radio show, as the station had the LP in its massive library. Life being what it is, and like many other music fans, I eventually moved from analog to the aforementioned shiny platters. (It helped that I worked in a CD store for a time, and got an employee discount. My collection grew, and grew, and grew.) Fast forward a few decades and, perhaps as a Christmas gift to devoted fans, in late 2014 Neil released the album as a high-resolution FLAC download on his Pono store. While I haven’t played it to death in the years since – as my blog shows, I have a myriad of music interests – I’ve played it a lot.

It’s an essential. (And it’s also available to be streamed over at the Neil Young Archives.)

Side 1: 

  1. Time Fades Away
  2. Journey Through the Past
  3. Yonder Stands the Sinner
  4. L.A.
  5. Love in Mind

Side 2:

  1. Don’t Be Denied
  2. The Bridge
  3. Last Dance

In November 1972, Neil Young was gearing to go on the road for what should have been a celebratory tour – Harvest, his studio set from February, had topped the album charts earlier in the year and “Heart of Gold,” its first single, had hit No. 1, as well. And it wasn’t just any tour, but his first non-CSNY headlining arena tour.

The band he built to support him included Ben Keith, Jack Nitzche, Tim Drummond and Kenny Buttrey, and was to have also included Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who’d provided incendiary backing on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and the tours that preceded and followed that essential LP. “Backing” is a bit of a misnomer, however. At their zenith, their guitars intertwined to the point that they seemed and sounded almost as if they were one; and Whitten’s vocals provided a warm bed for Neil’s oft-reedy lead.

Danny was a junkie, however, and it quickly became apparent during rehearsals that he couldn’t keep up with the rest of the band. Neil sent him packing, reportedly giving him $50 and a plane ticket home. As Neil told Cameron Crowe in 1975, “He was too out of it. Too far gone. I had to tell him to go back to L.A. ‘It’s not happening, man. You’re not together enough.’ He just said, ‘I’ve got nowhere else to go, man. How am I gonna tell my friends?’ And he split. That night the coroner called me from L.A. and told me he’d ODed. That blew my mind. Fucking blew my mind. I loved Danny. I felt responsible.”

As documented by the Time Fades Away album, and a myriad of unofficial recordings, the tour that followed wasn’t Neil’s best. Some performances were good if not great, of course, but by and large most shows were perfunctory, if not pallid, affairs. It wasn’t just that he was grieving a friend. He blamed himself for what happened: if he hadn’t fired him, maybe Whitten would’ve lived. That guilt – misplaced though it was – weighed on him. (The reality is that the only person responsible for Danny’s death was Danny.) Fast-forward to June 1973, when another cohort – CSNY roadie Bruce Berry – died from a heroin overdose.

A few months later, Neil gathered a group of like-minded souls, aka the Santa Monica Flyers (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina), at Studio Instrument Rentals, aka SIR, which was owned by Bruce’s brother Ken, and set out to eulogize his late friends while simultaneously exorcising his grief and guilt. Neil recalled in the Times-Contrarian, “We had nine songs and played them twice a night for a long time until we thought we had them.” Those tracks formed the heart of what became Neil’s most intense album, Tonight’s the Night, which was released in 1975. As he also told Crowe, “If you’re gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don’t put on Tonight’s the Night. Put on the Doobie Brothers.”

Which leads to ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live. Neil explains in the liner notes that “We had finished recording and decided to celebrate with a gig at a new club opening on the Sunset Strip, the ROXY. We went there and recorded for a few nights, opening the ROXY. We really knew the Tonight’s the Night songs after playing them for a month, so we just played them again, the album, top to bottom, two sets a night for a few days. We had a great time.” 

ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live isn’t as intense as the harrowing Tonight’s the Night album that many fans, including me, know like the back of our hands. It’s still a wake of sorts, still celebratory and sad, and still loose – but not quite as loose. (The tequila likely wasn’t flowing as freely.) “The faster you drink, the better we play,” quips someone – Nils Lofgren, maybe? – just prior to the band introductions, but it’s a misdirection. The band reaches for and hits every note and chord it’s supposed to, and does so with practiced precision.

One example: The opening “Tonight’s the Night.”

Another: “Speakin’ Out,” which features a great guitar solo from Nils Logren. The song is about seeking solace in the arms of another, and in a new life: “I’ve been a searcher/I’ve been a fool/But I’ve been a long time coming to you/I’m hoping for your love to carry me through/You’re holding my baby and I’m holding you/and it’s alright.”

“Albuquerque” is another highlight. The performance is less woozy and more meticulous than the TTN rendition, but no less powerful. Neil explains in the intro that he wrote it while on the Time Fades Away tour: “I’ve been flyin’/down the road/and I’ve been starvin’ to be alone/and independent from the scene/I’ve known.”

If you listened to any of those (official) YouTube clips, you’ll have heard the stellar audio of the recording. As someone who whiled away more time than I care to recall listening to umpteenth-generation tapes and audience recordings of shows from the Tonight’s the Night tour (including some that this set is drawn from) – wow. It’s astonishing how crystal clear everything is.

The set’s power also comes from Neil and the Santa Monica Flyers performing for an audience. At SIR, in a sense, they turned some songs into seances. But at the ROXY, they’re no longer trying to contact the dead. Instead, they’re doing what Neil sings about in “Speakin’ Out” – connecting with others. Sharing one’s grief helps to lessen one’s grief, oddly.

Anyway, if you’re a hardcore Neil fan, ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live is a no-brainer. If you’re a casual fan who maybe found the boozy atmospherics of the Tonight’s the Night album a tad off-putting…give this one a go on Apple Music or Spotify, or even YouTube. It’s not as woozy. It’s less a wake, now that I think about it, and more an acceptance of life in all its many facets – the good, the bad, and the in-betweens.