(Pictured: Elton John and bandmate Davey Johnstone in a hotel elevator at some point in the 70s.)
Here’s another rebooted post from the earliest days of this blog—in this case, April 22, 2005.
Piped-in music isn’t what it used to be. Very few stores will trust anything so random as a local radio station to provide a background for customers anymore. Many stores have their own music services, delivered by satellite, and no doubt carefully researched to facilitate the separation of people from their money. Some companies will actually sell you CDs of the music they play in their stores.
My local convenience store plays oldies mostly from the 60s to the early 80s. Nevertheless, I was a bit surprised to hear James Brown’s “Sex Machine” as I dropped in for my morning constitutional today. To hear JB stripped down and hitting on the one while I was filling a giant mug full of Diet Pepsi was a bit like slipping into an alternate universe where decaffeinated light-FM hip-hop and the steroidal boot of rap are both curiosities, and true funk is the chosen music of millions.
(Digression: The Mrs. and I have some old friends whose daughter we have watched grow up. One morning when the girl was three or four, her father heard her singing something while everyone was getting dressed in the morning. As he listened closely, he determined that she was singing “Sex Machine.” He also determined it was probably time to cut back on the James Brown records for a while.)
Then again, maybe my little suburb is an under-the-radar funk zone. One fine Sunday morning, I made a quick run to our neighborhood grocery store. While I was maneuvering my cart past the suburban dads loaded with beer and chips and various grandmothers with cat food and paper plates, I noticed that the store’s music, at a barely audible level, was playing “Saturday Night” by Earth, Wind and Fire. So there I was, in the cereal aisle, getting my schwerve on. But the store topped itself in the next few minutes by playing Honey Cone’s great 1971 hit “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” Somebody must have dialed up the wrong channel by mistake.
The rise of specially programmed in-store music channels (often containing commercials) has accompanied the near-demise of elevator music: those light-and-lovely instrumental versions of pop and rock hits made to be ignored, or more precisely, made to seep into your brain at a subconscious level to relax you, make you feel more alert, or go Communist. As a radio format, elevator music, known officially as “beautiful music,” is largely dead, too—because its target audience is largely dead. But in its heyday, elevator music plundered all genres of popular music for familiar tunes. Some of my all-time favorite elevator-music remakes include Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Synchronicity II” by the Police, and—I swear it’s true—“Rock and Roll All Nite” by KISS.
I worked at an elevator-music radio station for a while, back in the late 80. It wasn’t quite as tomblike a place as you might expect—I got hired precisely because I was a jock with a personality, and that was what the station wanted. Alas, none of those delightfully bizarre remakes were on our station. Our library was pretty pedestrian, really. There were no KISS or Police remakes, although I seem to recall a version of Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” and a remake of Tiffany’s cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which had recently been a hit. The instrumentals weren’t all bad. You’d get the occasional classic jazz tune, Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado.” However, there’s no denying it was mostly the Swelling Strings Orchestra doing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”
No wonder you’d get sleepy on the night shift.
Some years after I wrote this, I heard “I Ain’t Superstitious” by the Jeff Beck Group and “Little Sister” by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the same convenience store, and “Dixie Chicken” by Little Feat at a different grocery store. At first I feared the latter might be some kind of a promotion for the meat department, but I was grateful to determine it was not.
(Pictured: a silvery moon, sailing along.)
From the earliest days of recording, instrumental music was always popular. During the 30s and early 40s, jazz was America’s favorite form of popular music. But as the big-band era faded and jazz evolved in ways that some fans couldn’t follow, the instrumental acts that were left standing, by 1950 or so, were largely pop acts.
While these acts still released singles, the 10-inch and later the 12-inch long-playing album were an even-better format for them. The coming of consumer stereo in 1958 created a market for them that hadn’t existed before. Early adopters wanted to buy records that would sound good on their new systems. They weren’t the kids buying 78s or 45s by Elvis, Pat Boone, and the Everly Brothers; they were their adult siblings, or their uncles and fathers. For those older consumers, the content of the records was secondary to the sonic experience they created, but if the tunes were familiar, so much the better. Thus the market for instrumental music exploded. (What’s known as “space-age pop,” a genre with several offshoots, developed during this period.)
There are any number of bandleaders one might write about in this period: some had been sidemen in big bands, others had been arrangers or composers. One of the most prolific was involved with a lot of other people’s hits and released dozens of albums and singles under his own name: Billy Vaughn.
During the first half of the 50s, Vaughn had been a singer. He later became an A&R man, arranger, and conductor at Dot Records, where he was responsible for a boatload of cover recordings, often the white versions of R&B hits, including many of the most famous by Pat Boone. (If it was on Dot in the 50s and it wasn’t by Lawrence Welk, chances are Vaughn was involved.) At the same time, he was releasing records under his own name. He charted a remarkable 36 albums on the Billboard album chart between 1958 and 1970. He also charted 28 singles between 1954 and 1966.
Here is your Billy Vaughn Top Five:
5. “A Swingin’ Safari” (1962). I have written quite a bit in recent months about songs I heard before I knew it, songs that played on my parents’ radio and lodged in my head, so that when I heard them years later, they came with a set of pre-loaded associations. “A Swingin’ Safari” likely came to me from both the radio and the TV: it was the theme song for the original Match Game, which ran from 1962 to 1969.
4. “Raunchy” (1957). The cover versions Vaughn arranged and produced at Dot sanded the edges off the originals, and his “Raunchy” is no exception. It tones down both the guitar twang of the Bill Justis original and the rock beat of the Ernie Freeman version. But there was room on the radio for all three to make the Top 10, all in December 1957.
3. “The Shifting, Whispering Sands” (1956). The most unusual record in Vaughn’s catalog is “The Shifting, Whispering Sands,” a two-part, six-minute tale of Western adventure and existential philosophy narrated by voice artist Ken Nordine. Nordine would later be famed for the creation of what he called “word jazz.” In the 70s he narrated a series of iconic commercials for Levis, and he died this past February at age 98.
2. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” (1958). If you didn’t recognize “A Swingin’ Safari,” maybe you know “Sail Along, Silvery Moon,” an alto-saxophone duet performed to a medium-tempo rock ‘n’ roll beat. The “duet” is actually one guy, Los Angeles studio musician Justin Gordon, overdubbing himself. “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” was the original B-side of “Raunchy” and followed it up the Billboard chart in early 1958.
1. “Melody of Love” (1955). This old-fashioned, sentimental tune was first heard in 1903. Vaughn’s recording of “Melody of Love” was the biggest of five versions that hit simultaneously in early 1955; the Four Aces and Frank Sinatra cut vocal versions.
Bonus Track: “Wheels” (1961). Although other Vaughn singles charted higher than “Wheels,” I suspect it’s better known today (to the extent that Vaughn is remembered at all) than all but “Sail Along, Silvery Moon” and “A Swingin’ Safari.”
In any period of music history, there are always records that escape the generalizations we make when narrating that history. The pop instrumentals of the 50s and 60s—by the Billy Vaughns of the world—are among the most frequent escapees.
(Note to patrons: If you subscribe to this site via e-mail, you got at least some of the following post yesterday afternoon, when WordPress decided to publish it before I finished writing it. I suppose it’s futile to fight back against our encroaching robot overlords, but I continue to try.)
In the spring of 1969, I heard a song on my parents’ radio station that I liked. There was something about the way the notes came together, or maybe its organ sound, or something in the rhythm. I remember being a little frustrated because the song didn’t have any words, and so I couldn’t tell what it was called. At least not until the day I heard the announcer say, “That’s Booker T. and the MGs with ‘Time Is Tight.'” I liked the sound of both the name “Booker T. and the MGs” and the phrase “Time Is Tight.”
I’d hear Booker T. and the MGs from time to time in years to come. WLS played their last hit single, “Melting Pot,” for a while in the spring of 1971. At the end of the 70s, I knew that Booker T. produced Willie Nelson’s brilliant Stardust and Pretty Paper albums. When Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn became sidemen for the Blues Brothers, I knew where they’d come from. In the 90s, I bought In the Christmas Spirit, the incredible holiday album by the band, but for a long time it was the only Booker T. and the MGs music in my collection. In the early 00s, I picked up the three-CD compilation Time Is Tight, which covered the group’s glory days, from 1962 to 1971. I read Rob Bowman’s Soulsville USA, the history of Stax Records, and it was most likely not until then that I realized that Booker T. and the MGs were the house band on all the great Stax hits. The depth of Booker T.’s musical knowledge and the breadth of his band’s experience was astounding. After that, I got every Booker T. and the MGs album I could lay my hands on.
Last winter, it was announced that Booker T. would headline Metro Jam, a daylong free music festival in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a town on Lake Michigan between Green Bay and Milwaukee about 2 1/2 hours from Madison. And so, we block out Saturday, June 15, and when the day comes, we make the trip to the show.
On a chilly, gray night, the band comes out on a little outdoor bandshell and hits up a low, rumbly opening that turns into a simmering groove, then Booker T. walks out, moving like the 74-year-old man he is. He smiles broadly, accepting the cheers from the crowd, sits down at the organ, and plays the opening lines of “Hang ’em High.”
It sounds so good that the night immediately becomes more than just another concert.
He plays “Green Onions,” “Hip-Hug Her,” “Soul Dressing,” and other familiar songs. He mentions the MGs’ Beatles tribute album McLemore Avenue and once having had lunch with George Harrison before he plays “Something.” He picks up a guitar for a lovely and surprising version of “Purple Rain,” which has been part of his shows for several years. He plays some blues and his son, lead guitarist in the band, sings.
During the first set, I go up toward the stage and join the people standing there, not so much because we can’t see all that well from where we’re sitting (although we can’t), but because I want to be close to where this magnificent stuff is coming from. I eventually return to our seats, but I’m not there very long. During the second set, I’m drawn back up to the front, and I am there when the band plays “Time Is Tight.”
As the song washes over me, I feel a sense of awe at the 50-year journey from first hearing “Time Is Tight” on the radio as a boy to hearing it live on this night. And it occurs to me that what I am feeling must be what it’s like when a religious person is overwhelmed in the presence of the power and the glory.
Or to put it another way, “This is fking awesome, and I am so glad to be here.”
I have been fortunate to see some legendary stars doing their greatest songs live, including Paul McCartney doing “Yesterday,” Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind,” Steve Winwood doing “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and Mavis Staples singing “I’ll Take You There,” but Booker T. Jones playing “Time Is Tight” just might beat them all.
(Pictured: Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955.)
(It is my usual practice to do date-centric posts like these on or close to their anniversaries. This one I’m not saving til next March.)
Before the rock era, the song was often more important than the performer. During the pre-1920 Pioneer Era, major labels frequently advertised records by title only. Well into the 1950s, it was common for labels to release competing versions of songs at the same time. One hit would spawn several other recordings of the same song, and all of them would duke it out in the marketplace. And on the Billboard Top 100 of March 14, 1956, there was a whole lot of duking going on.
There are a lot of rock ‘n’ roll classics on that chart: “The Great Pretender,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” Bill Haley’s “See You Later Alligator,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Heartbreak Hotel” among them. But we’re not interested in those here.
The Billboard Top 100 was one of four influential charts the magazine published at the time. And on 3/14/56, Les Baxter was #1 with “Poor People of Paris.” If Baxter wasn’t your style, there were versions of the same song by big-band star Russ Morgan (#41), by Lawrence Welk (#53), and by country guitarist Chet Atkins (#92). At #2 was the Nelson Riddle Orchestra with “Lisbon Antigua,” which also charted at #31 in a version by Mitch Miller. Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” (#9) was also available in a version by Gale Storm (#89). Record buyers could also choose among three charted versions of “Mr. Wonderful,” by Peggy Lee, Teddi King, and Sarah Vaughan. Two versions of “It’s Almost Tomorrow,” by the Dream Weavers and Jo Stafford, were on the chart in this week; two more would soon chart. Two versions of “Innamorata” charted, by Jerry Vale and Martin.
The practice of white acts covering black R&B hits also added to number of contestants in the ring. Frankie Lyman’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” was at #7; white cover versions by Gale Storm, the Diamonds, and Gloria Mann were at #15, #23, and #86 respectively. The white folks were having the better of some other songs, however. Teresa Brewer’s cover of “Bo Weevil” sat at #23 while Fats Domino’s was down at #48. R&B duo the Teen Queens had “Eddie My Love” at #26 behind versions by the Fontane Sisters (#20) and the Chordettes (#21).
“Poor People of Paris” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” were not the only songs with four versions during that week in 1956. Main title music from The Man With the Golden Arm appeared on the chart in versions by bandleaders Richard Maltby, Dick Jacobs, Elmer Bernstein, and Billy May. Three more versions of the Golden Arm theme would chart by summer: by Les Elgart, Buddy Morrow, and the McGuire Sisters. The latter, called “Delilah Jones,” was a vocal that set lyrics unrelated to the movie to the Golden Arm theme. The Man With the Golden Arm starred Frank Sinatra as a drug addict fighting to stay clean, and was up for three Oscars to be awarded in the spring of 56.
But neither “Poor People of Paris,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” nor “The Man With the Golden Arm” was the chart champion for the week of March 14, 1956. That was “Moritat (Theme From The Threepenny Opera).” Using various titles, six different versions were on the March 14 chart, by the Dick Hyman Trio (#9), Richard Hayman and Jan August (#16), Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars (#22), Lawrence Welk and His Sparkling Septet (#31), Les Paul (#57) and Billy Vaughn (#63). The Threepenny Opera, which had been written in 1931 and first performed in Germany, had been a hot ticket in New York since 1954 as an off-Broadway production. It would win two Tonys in April.
When the battle was over, Hyman’s version of “Moritat” ended up the biggest chart hit, but the song had even greater popularity ahead. In 1959, “Moritat” would become one of the longest-running #1 hits of the pre-Soundscan era under the title “Mack the Knife,” recorded by Bobby Darin. It would spend nine weeks atop the Hot 100 and win Record of the Year at the Grammys.
There were other weeks like this in the late 50s, and simultaneously charting movie themes would be a thing well into the 70s. But I’ve been down this rabbit hole long enough for now.
(Billboard‘s online archive doesn’t include pre-Hot 100 charts, so if you want to see the whole 3/14/56 chart, find a .doc file here. Many chart positions are shown as ties, which is how Dean Martin and Dick Hyman can both be at #9, and the Diamonds and Teresa Brewer can both be at #23. Don’t @ me.)
(Pictured: the cast of Welcome Back Kotter.)
It won’t be long before I have written about all of the American Top 40 shows from the summer of 1976, but that time is not yet. Here’s what was notable about the show from June 12, 1976.
38. “Making Our Dreams Come True”/Cyndi Grecco
36. “Let Her In”/John Travolta
20. “Baretta’s Theme”/Rhythm Heritage
12. “Welcome Back”/John Sebastian
5. “Happy Days”/Pratt and McClain
That’s four TV themes and one song by a popular TV star. For the entire 1975-76 season, Laverne and Shirley ranked as the #3 show in television, Happy Days was #11, Welcome Back Kotter #18, and Baretta #22, and all would rank higher the next season. (Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley would be 1-2.) It couldn’t have hurt the viewership of any of them to have their theme songs on the radio every couple of hours during the summer rerun season.
32. “You’re My Best Friend”/Queen. The highest of seven debut songs on the show this week. Because my work ethic is pretty shoddy, I can’t tell you if seven is the most ever in the AT40 era—I kinda doubt it—but it seems like a lot.
Extra: “I Shot the Sheriff”/Eric Clapton. This long segment was snipped out of the show’s first hour, where it originally appeared, and it was offered as an extra with the recent nationwide repeat. Casey spends a couple of minutes discussing the history of reggae music, in which he says that “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash was the first major reggae hit in the States, forgetting “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker and the Aces, a Top-10 hit in 1969. He mentions Bob Marley’s then-current American tour and plays a snippet of his version of “I Shot the Sheriff.” America was at peak Bob Marley this summer: the album Rastaman Vibration was #12 on the album chart during the week of June 12, and “Roots Rock Reggae” would make #51 on the Hot 100 in July.
28. “Rock and Roll Love Letter”/Bay City Rollers
27. “Right Back Where We Started From”/Maxine Nightingale
I quite enjoy the degree to which the Rollers commit to their performance of “Rock and Roll Love Letter,” and that shortly after they pledge to “Keep on rock-n-rollin’ til my jeans explode,” their jeans do exactly that. Similarly committed is whoever did the handclaps on “Right Back Where We Started From,” one on every beat from start to finish.
26. “The Boys Are Back in Town”/Thin Lizzy
25. “Afternoon Delight”/Starland Vocal Band
24. “Moonlight Feels Right”/Starbuck
This stretch is 1976 as it gets. With only a couple of exceptions, “The Boys Are Back in Town” was the hardest-rockin’ thing on the Top 40 during the whole summer of ’76. “Afternoon Delight” and “Moonlight Feels Right” are pretty much the opposite.
17. “Movin'”/Brass Construction. “Movin'” is the highest-ranking record on this countdown you probably can’t place. Brass Construction was in the mold of the Ohio Players, Con Funk Shun, KC and the Sunshine Band, and other R&B outfits with a large number of members, many of them horn players. “Movin'” was a couple of weeks away from its chart peak of #14. The band’s self-titled album was huge: it hit #1 on the Soul LPs chart and #10 on the Billboard 200.
13. “I’ll Be Good to You”/Brothers Johnson. This was #1 on the soul chart for the week of June 12, the biggest mover within the Top 40 (up 10 spots), and the favorite song of the moment for 16-year-old me.
10. “Fool to Cry”/Rolling Stones. Casey mentions that with their current #1 album Black and Blue, their sixth to top the chart, the Stones have moved into sole possession of second place on the list of acts with the most #1 albums, behind only the Beatles.
1. “Silly Love Songs”/Paul McCartney and Wings. This record spent the week of May 22 at #1, then gave way to “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross for two weeks before reclaiming the top spot, which it would hold for another four weeks, through the week of July 3. It was in the Top 10 for 11 weeks in all and didn’t depart the Hot 100 until the middle of August. At year’s end, Billboard would rank it the #1 single of 1976.
I gotta say that this show was not the full glorious faceplant into memories of my favorite summer that I hoped it might be. Maybe I’ve been listening to this stuff too hard for too long. Maybe 2019 is sufficiently horrific to color even the memories of 43 years before. I have no idea, and it doesn’t matter. Memory is funny that way. It doesn’t always play back the tapes we order.