Top 5: Solitary Man

(Edited to add and link to tasty new knowledge.)

I’m especially fond of the late summer music surveys from 1970. As I have repeated repeatedly over the years, I first discovered music and radio on the school bus in the fall of 1970, and those twin obsessions have never left me. But in late August 1970, a week or so before I would go off to Mrs. Barribeau’s fifth-grade class at Northside School, all that was in the future. So looking at this week’s survey (from KADI in St. Louis, dated August 19, 1970) is like looking at my life in the test tube, all mixed up but not yet poured out: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “I Know I’m Losing You” and “Groovy Situation” still have their time-traveling mojo, and I could write volumes about them, but I’ll try to focus instead on some of the other interesting tunes on the radio at the same time.

1. “25 or 6 to 4″/Chicago. (up from 4) As thorough an ass-kicking as anybody administered to Top 40 listeners in 1970, or in any other year of the ’70s, actually. Makes Van Halen sound like pussies.

8. “Solitary Man”/Neil Diamond. (up from 11) This song was Diamond’s first single, and hit Number 55 in 1966. The version that was a hit in 1970 is a different recording, however—but as for the provenance of each one, who the hell knows. Here’s what I think I think: Diamond came up on the Bang label; his 1966 hit single version of “Solitary Man” was Bang 519 and appeared on the album Just for You. By 1970, Diamond had left Bang for Uni Records, but Bang was still releasing Diamond product from its vaults. The single version of “Solitary Man” that reached Number 21 in 1970 was Bang 578, taken from a Bang compilation album called Shilo, which featured remixed and even partially re-recorded versions of songs, many of which overlap with Diamond’s very first album, a compilation of Bang singles called The Feel of Neil Diamond, released in 1966. I am tempted to say that the version of “Solitary Man” that was a hit in 1970 is actually the first recording of it, and the 1966 hit version is the second. I believe the instrumental track is the same on both, but mixed differently on each; the vocal is clearly different on each recording. However, listening to them side-by-side (as you can do below), the 1966 hit version sounds like the work of a callow young singer just learning how to perform, while the 1970 hit version sounds like the work of a more mature singer—an impression shared by The Mrs., who’s a serious singer herself.

(After all this, I half-expect to find out that the version I remember from 1970 is the 1966 version and the 1966 version is the one that was released in 1970. If that happens, I may go back to blogging politics instead of music.)

(Be sure to read the comment on this post from reader Yah Shure, who sorts things out considerably.)

20. “Rubber Duckie”/Ernie. (up from 23) From Sesame Street, and the moment the show broke into the national consciousness, this was an actual Number 16 hit in Billboard. It would be even bigger in St. Louis (and in Dallas and Denver, too). If, somehow, you have missed hearing it in the last 38 years, here ya go. I have played some annoying shit on the radio in my time, but even I can scarcely imagine the horror of having to play this two or three times a shift for weeks on end.

37. “Fire and Rain”/Georgie Fame. (first week on) Which may be same song that James Taylor would take into the Top 40 a month later, or it may not be. I can’t find information to confirm or deny. Help a brother out if you can. (It’s James Taylor’s song all right. Now I’d like to know how Fame got it on the radio before Taylor did.)

40. “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”/Johnny Cash. (first week on) I’ve heard this dozens of times since 1970, maybe hundreds, and every time it comes on, I listen closely, both to the lyrics and to the way Cash sings them, trying to figure out everything it could possibly mean. And I don’t know yet. Here’s a video, in which Cash precedes Kris Kristofferson’s song with a brief monologue offering some of his own insights into its meaning, before going into a lip-sync performance. It’s intercut with some footage of a lonely drifter that adds to the song’s already-powerful emotional wallop.

No arguments allowed: “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” sung with so much dignity in the face of such great pain, is a masterpiece.

“Solitary Man”/Neil Diamond (allegedly the 1970 version)
“Solitary Man”/Neil Diamond (allegedly the 1966 version)

You can buy “Solitary Man” at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com, but beyond that, you’re on your own. My 1970 version of the song comes from an out-of-print compilation, and I have no idea which version is contained on which in-print Diamond compilation—so good luck to ya.

7 responses

  1. I have three Bang versions of “Solitary Man” on vinyl, and, yeah, it’s a mess to keep them all straight.

    There are two different vocal takes involved. Your alleged 1970 sample is the 1966 *and* 1970 Bang 45 version. Bang 519 and 578 both contain the identical version of the song, and only in mono. The easiest way to spot this version is on the first line, “Melinda was mine ’til the time that I found her…” Listen to how Neil sings the word “time.” On the Bang 45s, “time” is sung as one note in a straightforward manner.

    On the other vocal take, which was used on two different stereo mixes, Neil sings the word “time” in a two-note, high-to-low, slurred fashion, like “ti-i-ime.” I have two Bang vinyl LPs, ‘Shilo’ and ‘Neil Diamond’s Greatest Hits’ that feature this mix in stereo. The backing track here is essentially the same one used on the mono 45s, except that it is in stereo. Neither of your audio clips includes this variation.

    A second variation of the stereo LP mix first appeared (as far as I can determine) on the 1978 vinyl LP ‘Neil Diamond/Early Classics’ (Frog King 1) after Neil acquired the rights to his Bang catalog. The version of “Solitary Man” on this LP takes the stereo LP mix, and adds guitar and vocal overdubs. The choruses on this version also feature Neil singing double-tracked harmony, unlike either of the first two versions mentioned above. It is this version that your second, allegedly 1966 clip comes from. This is also the version that seems to be heard most often on FM oldies radio.

    The Frog King vinyl LP was also the first to feature “Kentucky Woman” in true stereo, although the mix differs slightly from the common mono version. I was also surprised to find that the “single version” of “Shilo” on Neil’s ‘In My Lifetime’ boxed set was not the same take as the version on my Bang 45 copies.

    Yes, a mess, indeed.

  2. I forgot to mention that an excellent source for getting to the bottom of various versions, mixes, edits and whatnots of hit songs is Pat Downey’s excellent database and chat board at http://www.top40musiconcd.com

    And thanks a ton for the great work on Vinyl Record Day! It was a highly-rewarding way to spend a day off.

  3. After having made my first comment, I’ve listened more carefully to the middle variation mentioned above (from the ‘Shilo’ and ‘Greatest Hits’ Bang vinyl LPs.) I had first said that the backing track was “essentially” the same as the one on the 45s. It *is* a bit different, with some guitar overdubs beginning in the second verse, along with a little extra keyboard work through the remainder of the tune. In addition, the background harmonies on the choruses are more prominent here, whereas they’re very nearly inaudible on the 45s.

    Neil’s vocal is double-tracked on this version, but *only* on the final chorus . On the Frog King ‘Early Classics’ LP, *all* choruses feature Neil double-tracked.)

  4. jb, get out of my head. You’ll see what I mean tomorrow. First, I’m glad to see that you immerse yourself in 1970 the way I do. I don’t feel silly about loving that year now. And as for “Solitary Man,” Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich produced it. There are two different vocal takes. Neil’s phrasing is distinctive, but what I notice most is that the single mix doesn’t have Jeff and Ellie singing aahs on the chorus. The stereo LP mix also has the extra keyboard doodles by Jeff that Yah Shure mentioned. I should have some source comments on the mixes, but I’ll have to sift through some long recorded conversations to find them. As for Bang, by the time the label reissued the early songs to compete with the Uni material, Bert Berns had passed, and Jeff and Ellie were off doing other things. So the competition is not their fault, but I am frankly glad more of ND’s early stuff finally got enough exposure to catch my ear.

  5. “Rubber Duckie” was a hit single? That just blows my mind.

  6. […] many of Chicago’s early singles. (Take a look at what JB the DJ at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ had to say about “25 or 6 to 4” recently.) Unhappily, the band didn’t keep up this level of quality. […]

  7. […] that hit in 1970 was the same one that hit in 1966. I tried figuring it out 10 years ago, and even with the help of the inestimable Yah Shure, I can’t say. As Yah Shure noted, three different versions of “Solitary Man” were […]

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