Saturday, May 7, 2011

This Week's Review -- May 1, 1971

This week's pop chart has 13 singles, a large number but not too large for the early 1970s. Five of the songs eventually broke into the Top 40, three reached the Top 10 and one went all the way to #1. In fact, that chart-topper is the very first Rolling Stones song that has appeared on this blog in the nearly two years since I began reviewing 1970s hit singles. In addition to the Stones, a former member of The Beatles notches a solo hit, while the most famous former Supremes member does the same. Another 1960s name is Solomon Burke, who also gets a hit this week. As for the acts that are more associated with the 1970s, John Denver gets his first major hit as an artist, Grand Funk Railroad try to get chart momentum and Bobby Sherman reaches the Top 40 for the last time. An act usually known for humorous songs checks in with a serious number, another known for his collaborative efforts heads out on his own and a renowned blues-rock guitarist delivers a live version of a hit made famous by The Rolling Stones.

Interesting that after nearly two years before getting to them, this week features two Jagger/Richards compositions. I promise I'll get them in here more often.

Among the archive of past Billboard issues over at Google Books, the May 1, 1971 edition is available to read online for free. The full Hot 100 list can be found on page 56. Two interesting (and related) stories appear in this issue. Page 1 has an article explaining what artists felt about FCC mandates regarding lyrics of hit songs. Nearly every artist quoted mentioned that they were opposed to censorship, even if the threats were veiled. On page 3, radio stations are affected by similar FCC rulings. According to the article, the Feds were concerned about drug lingo being broadcast over the air. That said, even the people at the FCC realized the fact that they weren't likely to catch much, as many songs could be interpreted several ways.

The Rolling Stones - "Brown Sugar" Brown Sugar - Sticky Fingers (Remastered)

(Debuted #40, Peaked #1, 12 Weeks on chart)

Closing in on two years, and...This is the first Rolling Stones song reviewed on this blog. I'm not sure why the Stones haven't popped up so far, but if there's one song to get the ball rolling on their 1970s material, this is the one. It may well be the band's finest hit single of the decade.

"Brown Sugar" is one of those songs that gives fans an example to show how great The Rolling Stones are, as well as critics to comment on their debauchery. While its lyrics have been said to espouse miscegenation (interracial relations, for those who don't have a dictionary handy), oral pleasure, S&M and drug use (since "brown sugar" was a slang word for heroin), the raw nature of the music is enough to make a listener get into a groove before the words ever register.

One of the neat aspects of "Brown Sugar" is the way horns are used to complement the guitar parts. There aren't a lot of songs that can pull off having both play together that well; in most cases, they play separately.

Ringo Starr - "It Don't Come Easy" It Don't Come Easy - Ringo

(Debuted #49, Peaked #4, 12 Weeks on chart)

When the Beatles were together, Ringo Starr was usually the last member its fans considered. While that's true for many drummers, he was in a band that featured three unique songwriters that had shown tremendous growth during their time together. Ringo -- to be fair -- wrote "Don't Pass Me By" and "Octopus's Garden" for late-period LPs, but few considered him much more than a very good drummer. However, after the group splintered, Ringo was the one who seemed to be getting the most records out. In 1970, he released two very different albums and followed them up with a non-LP single called "It Don't Come Easy."

Though Ringo is given full credit for writing the song, he admitted later that George Harrison did most of the "heavy lifting" to get it set up. Harrison adds his distinctive guitar to the recording, while fellow Apple mates Tom Evans and Pete Ham of Badfinger perform backing vocals (as well as the intro before Ringo begins his first verse). Stephen Stills was also on the session, sitting at the piano.

Diana Ross - "Reach Out I'll Be There" Reach Out I'll Be There - Surrender

(Debuted #66, Peaked #29, 8 Weeks on chart)

It wasn't unusual for Motown artists to cover songs from the company's catalog. When it came to hits by the label's galaxy of stars, there was a good chance it was already done by another first. I've never really looked deeply into the reasoning, but I assume that Berry Gordy wanted to keep as much money "in house" as possible that he recycled the songs his own writers put down on paper as a way of extending royalties. Therefore, you get a song like "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" that was recorded by several acts before Marvin Gaye sent it to the top of the chart.

Written by the team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, "Reach Out I'll Be There" was a trans-Atlantic #1 pop hit for The Four Tops in 1966. Though the original was memorable for its optimism and spirit, Diana Ross's version shows it down and makes it more dramatic. In a way, it sounds like she (or more likely, producers Ashford & Simpson) was trying to give it a similar treatment she did for "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

When it comes to her material of the 1970s, Miss Ross was truly a "hot or cold" artist. Her hits were #1 smashes, while everything else missed the Top 10 entirely. "Reach Out I'll Be There" was no #1 hit for her.

Grand Funk Railroad - "Feelin' Alright" Feelin' Alright - Survival

(Debuted #78, Peaked #54, 6 Weeks on chart)

"Feelin' Alright" is best known as a Joe Cocker hit from 1972. However, Cocker's best material was already recorded before he ever laid them down, and this was no exception. That said, it wasn't a Grand Funk Railroad original, either. It was written by Dave Mason and first recorded by the original incarnation of Traffic in 1968.

Taken from the group's first official studio LP Survival, it has a very different vibe than the one that Cocker would later give it. It's slower, for one, which makes it seem to drag along. While it might be better to compare this version with the Traffic original than to Cocker's take, it's still slower than the tempo of the original. It makes me wish they'd have given it the same type of treatment they did for "Footstompin' Music" later in 1971. That would have given it a kick.

The Brotherhood of Man - "Reach Out Your Hand" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #80, Peaked #77, 3 Weeks on chart)

The Brotherhood of Man is best known for their 1970 single "United We Stand," which was recorded by the group as a studio creation. After that record's success, the band was converted into a touring unit with more permanent members. As a result, Tony Burrows, who sang that early hit, was replaced with an American singer named Hal Atkinson, who sang "Reach Out Your Hand."

Opening with hand claps and a horn flourish, Atkinson sounds like a cross between Tom Jones and Levi Stubbs (whose Four Tops hit "Reach Out" was already mentioned in this blog entry). This lineup of the band didn't do well chart-wise -- "Reach Out Your Hand" charted in the U.S. but nowhere else --  so yet another version of the band was put together in 1972 and eventually returned to the charts.

Dave Edmunds - "I'm Comin' Home" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #87, Peaked #75, 4 Weeks on chart)

Edmunds is listed as the arranger, but it's a reworking of a song whose origins stretch far back into history. What was once a Stephen Foster tune called "Old Black Joe" was given a rockabilly twist before Edmunds had his chance to record it.

"I'm Coming Home" was likely a way to capitalize on the surprise hit that was "I Hear You Knocking" (reviewed here in January). That probably explains the muddy production, unless it was recorded in a rush. However, it was issued as a non-album single, which never saw its way onto an LP until well into the CD era.

Ray Stevens - "A Mama And A Papa" A Mama and a Papa - Turn Your Radio On

(Debuted #88, Peaked #82, 3 Weeks on chart)

Click Here to Listen

While he's best known as a performer of novelty songs, it's easy to forget that Ray Stevens was also skilled at handling more serious topics in his songs. Despite hits like "The Streak," "Ahab the Arab" and "Guitarzan," fans may be surprised to realize that his first #1 single was "Everything is Beautiful" or that his bluegrass take on "Misty" is pure country without the corn.

"A Mama and a Papa" was another sentimental song, which gave credit to his parents for his upbringing. As expected, songs that espoused such a "square" idea didn't always get radio airplay ("Watching Scotty Grow" notwithstanding) and slid off the charts rather quickly.

Johnny Winter - "Jumpin' Jack Flash" Jumpin' Jack Flash (Live) - Live Johnny Winter And

(Debuted #89, Peaked #89, 2 Weeks on chart)

Ironically, the same week "Brown Sugar" finally brings a Rolling Stones song to this blog, another artist also debuts with his version of one of their songs.

"Jumpin' Jack Flash" is recorded live and was part of the LP Live: Johnny Winter and. That's it, nothing else after the "and." I've always liked that title. As Winter was a blues-influenced guitarist, he stays fairly true to the Richards/Jagger template for the performance. He does break loose on a short solo during the song, though.

One last trivial note: one of the rock-formatted radio stations near me while I was growing up played a weekly syndicated show called Rock & Roll Never Forgets. If memory serves me correctly, it was a Westwood One production, but every show opened with the same "Rock & Roll!" yell that Johnny Winter uses to begin this song. Funny, I can't remember the difference between sine and cosine...but I remember that.

Bobby Sherman - "The Drum"  The Drum - Portrait of Bobby

(Debuted #90, Peaked #29, 8 Weeks on chart)

Bobby Sherman's final appearance inside the pop Top 40 was also the first for a young songwriter named Alan O'Day. It sounds a lot like his earlier hits, which is likely the influence of Jackie Mills, who also called the shots for his other million-selling singles. At a running time of just over two minutes, it goes down quite like a sweet treat: a short burst of energy, and then quickly dissipates.

Although Bobby Sherman's time as a Top 40 pop idol was coming to a close, he was still showing up on TV sets across the country. A TV special was in the works for the summer, as was a new show starring Sherman as a songwriter. Although Getting Together lasted only 14 episodes before its '72 cancellation, it was based loosely on the Boyce/Hart partnership and allowed the people behind The Partridge Family an excuse to toss out more "adult" songs than what a "family" act would be able to do.

John Denver with Fat City - "Take Me Home, Country Roads" Take Me Home, Country Roads - Poems, Prayers and Promises

(Debuted #91, Peaked #2, 22 Weeks on chart)

After a failed effort that slid off the Hot 100 after a single week, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" would make good on its second chance by reaching #2 and establishing John Denver as a star in his own right. It's still one of his best-known songs.

Though some listeners could take Denver or leave him even in the 1970s, others have argued about certain "irregularities" about the song and its geography. Most of the tune was written by husband/wife duo Bill and Taffy Danoff -- who made up Fat City -- and Denver helped them put the finishing touches on it. What began during a trip through Maryland was fleshed out with postcard images. When it was finalized, none of the three people who wrote the song had ever been to the state of West Virginia. Despite that, the people of West Virginia have been proud to call it their own.

Bill and Taffy Danoff (seen in the video above) later became half of The Starland Vocal Band. Speaking of which, I am unable to watch this video now without immediately thinking of this great line that JB made over at The Hits Just Keep on Comin' blog: "Bill Danoff really outkicked his coverage."

David Crosby - "Music Is Love" Music Is Love - If I Could Only Remember My Name

(Debuted #95, Peaked #95, 1 Week on chart)

David Crosby has had a long history of successful recordings, from his days as a member of the Byrds, to his various collaborations with Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young. He also was a much-used session musician and showed up on many more songs than most would realize.

However, for all the magic he had helping his friends, there wasn't much "love" for the song "Music is Love." It spent only one week on the chart. While the song itself may sound like it was a Jefferson Airplane outtake, there's a really good reason for that, as many of the backing musicians on Crosby's If I Could Only Remember My Name LP were members of that legendary Bay Area band. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and members of The Grateful Dead were also on hand for the recordings.

In a way, it sounds like somebody lit up and they recorded the results. And with Crosby's well-known history regarding substance abuse, few would be inclined to argue with that.

Solomon Burke - "The Electronic Magnetism (That's Heavy, Baby)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #96, Peaked #96, 2 Weeks on chart)

Solomon Burke passed away last year, which led to several retrospectives of his life and career, as happens with many deaths. Though Burke wasn't ever a big name (as far as pop audiences were aware of, in any case), he certainly had a long resume. In the final tally, however, he was seen as a bigger influence than most gave him credit for when he was still alive. He was a major figure in the transition of R&B to soul during the 1960s as well as a major contributor to the gospel-based sound that took root when Jesus was embraced by many acts in the early 1970s.

By that time, Burke was starting again on MGM. His long association with Atlantic Records had ended in 1969, Burke had moved to Los Angeles and was back to being a preacher at his own church. "The Electronic Magnetism" pointed the way that Barry White and Al Green would blaze shortly thereafter, but his hand in the sound was once again overlooked.

Luther Ingram - "Be Good To Me Baby" Be Good to Me Baby - The Best of Luther Ingram

(Debuted #100, Peaked #97, 2 Weeks on chart)

Luther Ingram recorded for the Koko record label, which was loosely affiliated with Stax. Through that relationship, Ingram became a regular opening act for Isaac Hayes and used Hayes' backup band and female singers on many of his recordings. As a result, "Be Good to Me Baby" sounds like it could have had Hayes putting his own distinctive voice on the track.

While Ingram is best known for one hit recorded ("If Loving You is Wrong") and another he co-wrote ("Respect Yourself"), "Be Good to Me Baby" shows he has more material worth more than a cursory listen.