Archive for the ‘1980s’ Category

Not long after graduating high school, Tony Joe White (1943-2018) moved from rural Louisiana, where he’d been raised on a cotton farm, to Marietta, Ga., where a sister lived, in pursuit of a better life. He played guitar and, from what I gather, had been in and out of bands back home, but it didn’t pay the bills – as it often doesn’t. He found employment as a dump-truck driver with the highway department, and it featured an odd perk: work was always called on account of rain.

Fast-forward a few years, by which point he’s kicking around the music circuit in Texas: He hears Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio, and it seems lifted from his own life, just about, inspiring him to try his hand at writing songs. Among the first out of the gate: “Polk Salad Annie,” which harkens back to his childhood, and “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which conjures the rainy nights he experienced in Marietta.

If he’d never written anything else, he would have contributed more to this world than most. “Polk Salad Annie” was covered by Elvis Presley. And “Rainy Night in Georgia”… it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. But no version – not even White’s, which sounds tentative to my ears – equals that of Brook Benton’s masterful single, which went to No. 4 on the pop charts and No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1970. The texture of the veteran R&B singer’s voice was made for White’s melancholic lyrics. 

That said, Shelby Lynne included a spellbinding rendition of it (as “Track 12”) on her 2005 Suit Yourself album. The grain of her voice echoes the rain, and I’d place it almost on a par with Benton’s rendition. (White plays on the track with her; they were neighbors for a spell, and friends – he appears in her recent film, Here I Am.)

The great Chuck Jackson released a version not long after Benton on what would be his final Motown album, Teardrops Keep Fallin’ on My Heart: 

B.J. Thomas also released a version of it in late 1970 on his Most of All album:

Johnny Rivers also recorded it that year:

Ray Charles covered it on his 1972 album The Genius Hits the Road:

Two years after Ray, Van McCoy (yes, of the “Hustle” fame) and his Soul City Symphony recorded an instrumental version of it for the Love Is the Answer LP. (It’s far more kitsch than cool.)

Otis Rush released his rendition of it in 1976, on his Right Place, Wrong Time album.

In 1981, Randy Crawford included a nice version of it on her Secret Combination album. Although released  as a single, it didn’t chart in the U.S.; it did make it to No. 18 in the U.K., however. 

Conway Twitty and Sam Moore recorded the classic tune for the 1993 Rhythm, Country and Blues compilation CD. 

In 2004, David Ruffin’s rendition – which was recorded in 1970 – was released on the David CD. 

And, finally, Aaron Neville – with an ample assist from Chris Botti – covered the song on his Bring It On Home collection of soul classics.

Those are but some of the many versions of the classic tune, of course, and I’m sure I missed some that others think of as must-listens. (About the only person who never recorded it, but should have: Gladys Knight.)

(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.)

Released on April 1st, 1987, Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, is a near-perfect gem that time has yet to – and will likely never – tarnish. Its poetic power is matched by mesmerizing melodies with perfect arrangements. 

The opener, “Tom’s Diner,” is one highlight.

The first time I heard the song wasn’t on the album, however, but via a Fast Folk LP a year or two earlier while deejaying the Folk Show on WPSU. It’s a different recording, but still a cappella, and still a richly detailed portrait of an everyday occurrence – catching coffee inside a diner before heading to work. “There’s a woman/on the outside/looking inside/does she see me?/No she does not/really see me/cause she sees her own refection.” It captures humanity at its essence.

The song became an unlikely hit a few years later after two British deejays added a Soul II Soul beat to an unauthorized remix that Vega’s record company then embraced and officially released.

The remix isn’t on the original album, however. Instead, the LP continues in the vein of the original “Tom’s Diner,” featuring a succession of vivid pictures of life internal and external. One of the most memorable is “Luka,” which reached No. 3 on the pop charts – a true surprise given its subject matter. She based it, she’s said, on a real little boy she knew, though she doubts he was abused. (And here’s some trivia: Shawn Colvin provides backing vocals on the song.)

The title tune is another brilliant turn, with Vega’s poetic lyrics equaled by the deft backing of her band, who – as with many of the album’s other songs – are credited as co-writers. (Side note: I never knew there was a video for the song until this morning. It’s quite cool.)

Along with offerings by Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, the album helped spur the folk-rock/urban folk/singer-songwriter resurgence of the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“Night Vision” is another favorite:

The track listing:

 

Thirty-eight years ago tomorrow, as I write, the No. 1 song on the Billboard pop charts was “Coming Up” – but not the catchy tune by one-man-band Paul McCartney from his madcap McCartney II endeavor, but the slightly less catchy live version by Paul McCartney & Wings (Mach III), taken from a December 1979 concert in Glasgow on what turned out to be the final Wings flight. 

Columbia Records, his label home, apparently didn’t think the American public would appreciate his sped-up vocals, so – although the live version is clearly the B-side on the 45, where it’s paired with the eccentric “Lunchbox/Odd Sox” – they promoted the Wings rendition as the A.

And lest fans who bought McCartney II be upset that the song they heard on the radio wasn’t on the LP, Columbia included a special one-sided single of the live version. It even came with a helpful “play other side” instruction on the flip side.

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Let me back up, albeit for a moment: I was 14 on this day, soon to be 15; and having a good time – it was summer, after all. No school. That meant late nights and late mornings, hanging with friends, and – yep, you guessed it – listening to plenty of music. In my neck of the woods, that meant tuning in WIFI-92, WMMR, WYSP and WIOQ.

In the wider world, Ronald Reagan was gearing up to accept the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit in a mere 11 days. President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was in the midst of stamping out an insurgency within his Democratic Party, as he was being challenged by Ted Kennedy, and wouldn’t secure his second shot at the Oval Office until the following month, at the Democratic National Convention in New York.

The reason for the tepid enthusiasm for Carter: the economy. Unemployment was rising – it crested at 7.8 percent this month, its highest mark since he took office in 1977, and inflation was at obscene levels – 13-plus percent for the month, and 13-plus for the year. There was also the matter of the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis.

The big movies of the day included Fame, The Empire Strikes Back, Urban Cowboy, Bronco Billy, The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, and, released on this very day in 1980, The Blue Lagoon. I don’t remember seeing any of them in the theaters, though I did eventually see all of them on PRISM, the local premium cable channel that also carried the home games of the Philadelphia Flyers.

As far as TV – it was summer, and summer meant reruns.

And when it comes to music – well, that’s what today’s Top 5: July 5, 1980 (via Billboard, which I occasionally bought), is about. Here are a few selected highlights…

1) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet – “Against the Wind.” Dropping out of the Top 5 to No. 6 is this classic Seger song, which I rate not just with his best, but with the best of all time. It’s the title track to one of my “essential” albums.

2) Olivia Newton-John – “Magic.” In its seventh week, the Xanadu single inches up two spots to No. 14. Here she is lip-syncing to the song on The Midnight Special

3) Carole King – “One Fine Day.” “One Fine Day” is a song with a rich history – written by King and Gerry Goffin, it was first a hit for the Chiffons in 1963, when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts. Seventeen years later, King recorded it for her Pearls: Songs of Goffin & King album, and released it as a single. It reaches No. 16 this week (on its way to No. 12).

4) The Blues Brothers – “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd turned a love for the blues into a side project with legs. They released a hit album in 1978, and a hit movie and hit soundtrack in 1980. This week, the lead single from that soundtrack bounces (like a rubber biscuit) up seven spots to No. 22.

5) Pete Townshend – “Let My Love Open the Door.” Townshend had an unlikely Top 10 hit with this uptempo ditty, the lead single from his classic Empty Glass LP. This week, it’s No. 35 (on its way to No. 9).

And two bonuses…

6) Irene Cara – “Fame.” Cara sounds so much like Donna Summer on this, the joyous title track to the hit movie, that it almost seems unfair to say so. That said, I love the song and performance. 

7) Linda Ronstadt – “Hurt So Bad.” Falling from No. 26 to 80 in its 13th week on the charts is Linda’s spine-tingling rendition of the Little Anthony & the Imperials hit from 1965. (It hails from her 1980 Mad Love album, of course.) 

Who doesn’t want to review records?

Growing up, I certainly did. I devoured Rolling Stone, Record, Creem, Musician and other music periodicals less for the articles and more for the reviews, which I usually read first. Due to the lag between a record’s release and the review, on occasion I already owned an LP (or cassette) before I read the critic’s take. One thing that fascinated me: Why I sometimes liked something the reviewer didn’t. Another thing that fascinated me: the reverse. 

The former irked me, the latter made me feel smug. But neither changed my opinion on the necessity of reviews. I was always on the lookout for something new (or new-to-me), and the magazines covered things that never made the playlists of my local radio stations, MTV or VH1. As a result, I often bought things based on a review, with new releases discovered via the magazines and catalog items from the Dave Marsh-edited Rolling Stone Record Guide. Few were four- or five-star reviews.

Over time, I came to recognize the names of said reviewers. Some found folk sanctimonious and others thought prog-rock priggish, and even more treated pop like a dirty word. (I generally subscribe to the second myself.) But the only bad reviews were those that didn’t delve beyond the rudimentary yea or nay to explain or defend the assessment, and also didn’t detail the artist’s journey. Everyone has their own criteria for what is and isn’t good music, after all, and it’s easy to be dismissive of what one dislikes. (I’ve been that in the past, though not often in these pages.) Some fans want technical precision. Others seek emotional resonance, a melody they can hum along to, and/or lyrics that shed light on the human condition. And yet others are happy with just about anything that has a good beat that they can dance to…

As I’ve matured, I’ve come to the realization that there is no right or wrong. Not really. There’s preference and personal peccadilloes – aka so-called “guilty pleasures.” That’s about it.

Anyway, I still lean on reviews – both online and in print. Whenever my wife and I visit a B&N, I pick up the British music magazines Uncut and Mojo, buy a high-octane coffee drink in the cafe, and read the reviews of the new releases and archival reissues. What I look for is tailor-made to my tastes: Is it dreamy, upbeat, reflective, melody-centric, reminiscent of the Beatles, Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers or the Velvet Underground? Joni, Linda or Neil?

Unlike yesteryear, of course, it doesn’t cost me more than my Apple Music subscription to check out whatever I’ve just read about. (Though, since I rarely use headphones, I have to wait ’til we’re in the car going home.) That happened last week with Melody’s Echo Chamber’s latest release, Bon Voyage. It’s the brainchild of Melody Prochet, who’s akin to a French Hope Sandoval with an airier vibe.

(Sometimes, of course, I stumble upon cool artists through other means – Erin O’Dowd, who I discovered on Kickstarter, springs to mind. Nichole Wagner, who I found via a Nanci Griffith fan group on Facebook, is another. Both are worth checking out.)

All of which leads to this, one of my first reviews to make it to print – on September 18, 1984, in the Ogontz Campus News, the newspaper for what’s now known as Penn State Abington. I doubt if anyone beyond the newspaper staff and contributors read it. (And I was just a contributor; I’d pop into the office, find the editor of the entertainment section, and turn something in. On spec. Sometimes it made it into the paper; sometimes not.) Reading it now makes me laugh and cringe at the same time – but it was the first step in the journey to me launching the original Old Grey Cat website and, then, this blog. (I post-corrected a few glaring errors that slipped through the newspaper’s crack proofreading squad…)