Mozart and Michaelangelo

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(Pictured: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, stoned.)

What was the last instrumental to become a big hit? Has there been one since “Harlem Shake” in 2013? “Harlem Shake” was a streaming success as opposed to a radio hit, as I recall. Kenny G made the Top 10 around the turn of the millennium, but again, his “Auld Lang Syne (The Millennium Mix)” was a streaming hit. You have probably forgotten entirely about the Adam Clayton/Larry Mullen version of the “Mission Impossible” theme in 1996. (I know I have.) You have to go back into the 80s before you find actual radio hits, Kenny G’s “Songbird” and the Miami Vice theme and “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop and so on.

Instrumentals are another geeky niche interest of mine, but I’m not alone. A couple of years back I wrote a post about instrumentals that I didn’t think anybody would care about, only to see it generate a bunch of interesting comments and a reader-compiled Spotify list. So maybe you’ll indulge me if I dig into a couple more instrumentals I found down a rabbit hole one recent afternoon.

The group Michaelangelo (their spelling, different from that of the Renaissance sculptor) would likely not have been much different from a lot of other mildly psychedelic folk-rock outfits at the turn of the 1970s were it not for founding member and principal songwriter Angel Peterson’s preferred instrument: the autoharp. In 1971, Michaelangelo made an album, One Voice Many, produced by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind of Switched-on Bach fame. The whole One Voice Many album is up at YouTube, and it starts better than it finishes; the last couple of tracks fall into a hippy-dippy vibe that gets a little tiresome. Peterson (billed on the record as “Angel Autoharp”) sometimes takes a lead on her instrument that other bands might have given to a lead guitarist, which is a unique sound. She isn’t the strongest of singers, however; the best vocals on the album are sung by one of the two other male vocalists, Steve Bohn and Robert Gorman. I don’t know which one is which, but the better one sounds a little like Neil Diamond. He’s on the tightly rockin’ “Son (We’ve Kept the Room Just the Way You Left It)”.

For Michaelangelo, it was one album and done. One Voice Many didn’t go anywhere, allegedly due to friction between the producers and Columbia Records chief Clive Davis, who held back on promotion of it. As a result, within months of the album’s release, Michaelangelo disappeared from the pages of history. Unless you’re looking at the pages of Billboard or other music trade papers publishing record charts in the spring of 1971. The instrumental “300 Watt Music Box” rose to #18 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April.

At the same time Michaelangelo was leaving its very light mark on history, another instrumental left a somewhat deeper footprint. Spanish composer/conductor Waldo de los Rios went to #5 in Britain in the spring of 1971 with a record officially titled “Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 First Movement.” It would eventually cross the ocean and make #67 on the American Hot 100, but it was not the first version to hit over here. A group called Sovereign Collection, which I am guessing was made up of UK studio musicians, shortened the cumbersome title to “Mozart 40” and scratched onto Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart in April, at about the same time Michaelangelo did. The Waldo de los Rios record didn’t peak in the States until July 1971.

You will probably recognize the main theme of “Mozart 40.” It’s been frequently heard on TV and in the movies, and it was one of a handful of classical pieces that were often used as mobile phone ringtones in the 90s and early 00s.

If you need more and bigger instrumentals, friend of the blog Tom Nawrocki ran down 50 of the biggest instrumental hits at Cuepoint back in 2015, so go read.

Say the Things You Used to Say

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(Pictured: Eddy Arnold with Johnny Cash, circa 1970.)

Certain opinions I hold are self-evidently right and should be recognized as such by all thinking persons. One of them is the following: inclusion in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry is an honor of greater cultural import than winning a Grammy or being inducted into any genre-specific hall of fame. The registry reflects the myriad roles not just music but all recorded sound plays in American life and culture. This year’s induction list spans a spectrum from Paul Whiteman’s “Whispering,” considered the first million seller, to Cheap Trick at Budokan, to the remarkable recording made on November 22, 1963, of the Kennedy assassination being announced to the audience during a live radio performance by the Boston Symphony.

All of that is a windy introduction to what I really want to write about today.

Eddy Arnold was a Bing Crosby-inspired radio singer from Tennessee. He began recording shortly after World War II and hit #1 on the country singles chart 20 times between 1946 and 1955. (In 1947 and 1948, “I’ll Hold You in My Heart” was #1 for 21 non-consecutive weeks; “Bouquet of Roses” did 19 weeks at the top.) You know some of his songs, if not his recordings of them: “You Don’t Know Me” (which he co-wrote), “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” and maybe “Tennessee Stud” or “Trouble in Mind.” But Eddy Arnold didn’t become a pop star until the middle of the 1960s, and the record that did it was added to the National Recording Registry in March of this year.

Arnold was not the first to record “Make the World Go Away.” Ray Price and Timi Yuro had hit with country and pop versions in 1963. But Arnold’s version was a dual-format smash practically from the beginning. It hit the Billboard country chart at the end of September 1965. In October, KNUZ in Houston became one of the first Top 40 stations to add it. By the end of October, WJET in Erie, Pennsylvania, had it in the Top 10, on a chart topped by the Rolling Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud,” right between the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn” and “Boys” by the Beatles. At the end of November, WCPO in Cincinnati ranked it #1, in a Top 10 that also included “Turn Turn Turn,” “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass, and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown. It would hit #1 in Hartford, Connecticut, Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Waupaca, Wisconsin, before the end of the year. It made #6 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart. It spent three weeks atop Billboard‘s country chart in December 1965.

When you listen to “Make the World Go Away” today, it doesn’t seem very country. Maybe Floyd Cramer’s tinkling piano, but that’s about it. It is as tasteful a pop song as you can imagine, the epitome of the so-called Nashville Sound of the 60s—whispering backup singers, strings instead of steel guitars, sophisticated smoothness replacing honky tonk grit. Arnold would repeat the formula over the next year on “I Want to Go With You,” (which sounds almost exactly like “Make the World Go Away,” both written by the great Hank Cochran) “The Tip of My Fingers,” “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me,” and “Somebody Like Me,” all of which did significant easy-listening business in addition to crushing the country chart.

(“Somebody Like Me” is another example of something I’ve written about here several times before—a song I knew before I knew that I knew it. In the fall of 1966, first-grade me heard it a few times on our hometown radio station on the way to school, and while it didn’t register at the time, it took up residence in my head so that when I heard it again decades later, I remembered where—and who—I had been.)

Eddy Arnold found hit singles harder to come by after 1968, but he remained a strong presence on TV, in live performances, and on the country album charts. He continued to record steadily into the early 80s, but released only two albums in the last 25 years of his life, in 1991 and 2005. He died in 2008, one week short of his 90th birthday. Only George Jones charted more singles on Billboard‘s country chart.

Music history is distorted by the way we tell it, by necessity. Books, compilation albums, and radio formats don’t have the scope to cover it all, as it actually happened. Awards shows and halls of fame are especially ill-suited to telling the full story of everything that mattered. The National Recording Registry gets the closest. What else has room for Allan Sherman, Mister Rogers, Dr. Dre, and Eddy Arnold?

Home to You, San Francisco

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(Pictured: San Francisco’s Tony Bennett statue.)

Last weekend, people in San Francisco and around the world were invited to join in a mass singing of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It’s one of those songs everybody seems to know; it’s another of those songs I knew before I knew that I knew it, although I may not have played it on the radio until I got to the elevator-music station in the late 80s.

The song was written in 1953 by George Cory and Douglass Cross. The story goes (according to Wikipedia, so who the hell knows) that it was first performed by California-born opera singer Claramae Turner, and was offered to and turned down by Tennessee Ernie Ford. It eventually found its way to Bennett’s accompanist and musical director, Ralph Sharon. Bennett first sang it at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in December 1961. He recorded it in January 1962, and Columbia Records released it in February as the B-side of “Once Upon a Time.”

Imagine that single arriving at a radio station in San Francisco. Columbia may be plugging “Once Upon a Time,” but if you’re programming one of those stations, there’s no way you’re not at least listening to that B-side. San Francisco stations KYA and KEWB were the first stations to chart it, according to ARSA; they were on it by the end of March. The next two were CJAD in Montreal and KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, who were on it by the end of April.

“(I Left My Heart) In San Francisco,” as the title was punctuated on the 1962 Columbia single, didn’t make #1 in its namesake town, at least not on KYA or KEWB. It reached #3 as April turned to May, ranking behind “Stranger on the Shore” by Mr. Acker Bilk and “Twistin’ Matilda” by Jimmy Soul at both stations. At about the same time, the song bubbled under the Hot 100 for four weeks, reaching #108 in May.

KYA and KEWB dropped “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” from their surveys in June, even as it was picking up adds in small-but-steady numbers across the country. Those steady numbers enabled the song to crack the Hot 100 during the week of August 11, 1962, at #87. It broke into the Top 40 at #32 on September 29 and reached its chart peak, #19, during the week of October 20. In that same week, other legendary records above it on the chart included “Monster Mash,” “Sherry” by the Four Seasons and “Do You Love Me” by the Contours, “He’s a Rebel” and “Green Onions” and “Surfin’ Safari.”

After hitting #19, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” spent the next several weeks going down and then up and then down again: 27-24-22-27-38-25-50-46-57-63 and out, appearing for the final time on December 29, 1962. Its highest rank on a local chart was #2, at WOKY in Milwaukee, for the week of November 2, behind Gene Pitney’s “Only Love Can Break a Heart.” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” spent 21 weeks on the Hot 100 in all, 10 of those in the Top 40, plus those four on Bubbling Under. It was Bennett’s first entry on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart, which was created in 1961 and changed its name to Middle Road Singles during the song’s summer-to-fall chart run, which topped out at #7.

In May 1963, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” won Record of the Year and Best Solo Male Performance at the Grammys, beating out records by Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr., and Mel Tormé, among others. It became a mid-chart hit in the UK in 1965. San Francisco named it the city’s official song in 1969. It made the RIAA’s “Songs of the Century” list in 2001, and was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2018. Although Cory and Cross never wrote another hit, they didn’t need to; “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” made them rich. They won the Towering Song Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003; by that time, however, they were both long dead, tragically, Cory by suicide and Cross by alcoholism.

Tony Bennett is 93 years old now, and still singing. (He had to cancel a show here in Madison last summer for which The Mrs. and I had tickets, which remains a great disappointment.) On Saturday, he led the singalong of his signature song at the Fairmont Hotel, where he’s honored with a statue outside.

Next week, you’ll read about another famous song that made the National Recording Registry earlier this year.

Fragments of a Bygone Afternoon

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(Pictured: Lionel Richie in the early 90s.)

I cleaned off the desk in my home office the other day. It wasn’t exactly the Augean Stables, but I found a lot of buried stuff. One was a handwritten list of songs on a few sheets of legal pad headed “Top 10 AC/not on Hot 100.” If I’m recalling correctly, it’s the product of an afternoon killed shortly after I got a copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Adult Contemporary 1961-1993. What follows is not the whole list, but some notable entries.

I wrote a few years ago that I could find only one song that went all the way to #1 on Billboard‘s AC chart without hitting the Hot 100: “Cold,” by crooner John Gary, which spent two weeks at #1 starting on December 23, 1967. Three other songs from 1967 went to #2 without cracking the big chart: “Step to the Rear” by Marilyn Maye, “Timeless Love” by Ed Ames, and “You Made It That Way” by Perry Como. This doesn’t seem to have happened again until 1990, when Rod Stewart’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” and Smokey Robinson’s “Everything You Touch” went #2 AC without making the Hot 100. Those six records reflect a broader reality about the AC chart versus the Hot 100: throughout the 70s and 80s, the biggest AC hits tended to make the Hot 100 too, but in the late 60s and again by the early 90s, records could do big AC business without making the Hot 100 at all.

(Stewart put a version of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” from his album Atlantic Crossing into the Hot 100 in 1977; the 1990 version was recut for the Storyteller box set.)

I labored in the vineyards of elevator music and adult contemporary radio between 1987 and 1993, so a lot of records on this list give me flashbacks, and not always in a good way: “Better Not Tell Her” by Carly Simon, “Between Like and Love” by Billy Vera, Dan Hill’s “I Fall All Over Again,” “Set the Night to Music” by Jefferson Starship, “The Real Thing” by Kenny Loggins, and Michael Bolton’s “Steel Bars” are either songs I disliked or they remind me of radio days I did not enjoy. But some of them I liked a lot: Fleetwood Mac’s “Skies the Limit,” “My Destiny” by Lionel Richie, “It’s Alright” by Huey Lewis and the News (an acapella cover of the Impressions’ original not to be confused with Huey’s later cover of J. J. Jackson’s “But It’s Alright”), and Hall and Oates’ superlative “Starting All Over Again.”

Several artists are on this list more than once: Neil Diamond, Kenny Loggins, Henry Mancini, Marilyn Maye, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers, James Taylor, the Baja Marimba Band, Perry Como, and Barry Manilow among them. (One of Manilow’s songs is “When October Goes,” from 1984, which is pretty great.)

The most interesting stuff on this list is (wait for it) from the mid 70s.

“I Don’t Know What He Told You” – “Weave Me the Sunshine”/Perry Como (1974)
“Hot Sauce”/Jan Davis Guitar (1975)
“Ice Cream Sodas and Lollipops and a Red-Hot Spinning Top”/Paul Delicato (1975)
“The Last Picasso”/Neil Diamond (1975)
“Star Trek”/Charles Randolph Greane Sound (1975)
“Beautiful Noise”/Neil Diamond (1976)
“Gladiola”/Helen Reddy (1976)
“Every Time I Sing a Love Song”/John Davidson (1976)
“Goodbye Old Buddies”/Seals and Crofts (1977)
“Circles”/Captain and Tennille (1977)
“One Life to Live”/Lou Rawls (1978)

Paul Delicato and John Davidson are on the list of artists who made the AC chart the most without ever hitting the Hot 100. Greane’s Star Trek theme is a disco version, in case that’s something you think you need. I think I’ve said that “Circles” is one of my favorite things by the Captain and Tennille. “One Life to Live” is on Rawls’ album When You’ve Heard Lou, You’ve Heard It All. It’s not the theme to the TV soap; it’s a breezy bit of encouragement that may not be the greatest Lou Rawls song you’ve ever heard, but it’s Lou Rawls so shut up.

I don’t know if my list is complete or not. That would require me to reconstruct a bygone afternoon from years ago. But it serves as a reminder that what gets on the Hot 100 is only a fraction of the music that’s out there, and of the music that leaves impressions on the sands of time.

All There Is

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(Pictured: Peggy Lee. That’s showbiz glamour right there.)

The other day Peggy Lee’s “Fever” came up on shuffle while I was avoiding work I should have been doing, and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, “Hot damn, this is one fabulous record.” That’s something I have believed for years, but on that day, the imperative of avoiding work led me down a Peggy Lee rabbit hole.

Little Willie John recorded “Fever” in 1956. A number of singers recorded it thereafter, so it was a reasonably well-known song by 1957. One night, Lee’s bass player, Max Bennett, was playing in a club when a member of the audience requested it—and ended up teaching them the two chords the band needed to play it. Bennett liked it well enough, but he didn’t know the Little Willie John version, and the only recording he could find was by pop crooner Ray Peterson. Neither he nor Lee cared much for that version, but she thought that it could be reshaped into a torch song for her nightclub act. Bennett said it was Lee’s idea to strip it down to bass and drums.

Lee opened at the Copacabana in February 1958, a major engagement after four or five years away from the New York nightclub scene, and “Fever” was part of her act. She had no plans to record it, but audience response indicated that she was on to something. She sang it on TV in April, and when a disc jockey in Canada played the TV recording on his show, people loved it. When Lee went to Los Angeles for a recording session in May, “Fever” was one of the tracks laid down. It became a hit, reaching #8 in Billboard and #6 in Cash Box late in August of 1958. It even made Billboard‘s R&B charts. The song also got two Grammy nominations for the inaugural awards, including Record of the Year.

It would be 11 years before Lee returned to the charts in a major way, with a performance even more unusual than “Fever.”

In 1968, Jerry Leiber, inspired by a German short story, wrote a set of lyrics titled “Is That All There Is?” He and Mike Stoller worked them into a song for a British TV special. Its first version on wax was by Leslie Uggams, but Lieber and Stoller were shooting higher. “We wanted a record of the song interpreted by someone who understood this genre,” they wrote. At one point, they thought the song’s German roots might make it a good fit for Marlene Dietrich, but she declined. They sent it to Barbra Streisand’s manager, but he didn’t even bother to forward it to Barbra (who would eventually want to know why it hadn’t been offered to her). Finally, they thought, “How about Peggy Lee?”

Leiber and Stoller gave Lee a demo after she performed at the Copa one night in 1968; she would later say that the song read like the story of her life. She cut it in January 1969. Leiber said a single take of the song, take 36, was one of the two greatest performances he’d ever heard in a studio—but the engineer had failed to start the tape. (Take 37 became the master, although bits were spliced in from earlier takes.)

Capitol Records didn’t want to release “Is That All There Is?” as a single, thinking it was very much out-of-style for 1969. But the label had several artists it wanted to place on The Joey Bishop Show (a late-night competitor with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin). Bishop agreed to take them on if he could get Peggy Lee too; she agreed to go if Capitol would release “Is That All There Is?” Thanks to exposure on the Bishop show, the song became a hit, charting in September and rising to #11 on the Hot 100 50 years ago this week. (In the Top 10 that week: “Suspicious Minds,” “Come Together,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Sugar Sugar,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “And When I Die,” and “Something.”)

Hitting when it did makes “Is That All There Is?” an oddly appropriate epitaph for the 1960s. Lee did not read it as fatalistically as it is possible to do—as existentially bleak as Leiber intended. After each disappointing experience, she resolves to “just keep dancing.” Maybe there will be more . . . next time. As so we went on into the 1970s, thinking exactly the same thing.

Peggy Lee died in 2002 at the age of 81. There’s a fabulous website devoted to her career, and I strongly recommend to you its essays on “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” 

Continue reading “All There Is”

Bubbles in the Wine

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(Pictured: a late-period shot of Lawrence Welk. Dig that wild background, man.)

Me, 2011: “History is written by the winners. So when the history of pop music on television is written, that history focuses on the shows that featured rock music.” Which is why, I went on to say, Lawrence Welk doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for what is now, in 2019, nearly 70 years on television.

Neither is he remembered for hit records, although had a few.

You might be surprised to learn that Welk scored his first hit songs as far back as 1938. In those days, his band was known as a “sweet” band, a term that distinguished bands playing pop music from “hot” bands that played jazz. At some point in the 30s, Welk nicknamed his style “champagne music,” light and bubbly with a steady beat for dancing. (His theme song to the end of his career was “Bubbles in the Wine,” which became a modest hit in 1939.) During the 40s, his band was especially popular in the Midwest, and they played regular, extended engagements at big-city hotels, including a 10-year residency at a ballroom in Chicago. Welk also recorded a number of “soundies”—early music videos—during the 1940s. Welk’s biggest hits in this period came in 1944 and 1945: “Don’t Sweetheart Me,” which was not in the “champagne” style at all, spent 20 weeks on the Billboard chart in 1944 and got as high as #2; in 1945, the country song “Shame on You,” recorded with Red Foley, went to #1 on what Billboard then called the “Juke Box Folk” chart. (The song had been a bigger hit earlier in the year for singer Spade Cooley, thus establishing Welk’s rep as a cover act.)

After Welk relocated to Los Angeles, he started appearing on local TV in 1951, going national in 1955. At about this time, he began visiting the pop charts again. His best year was 1956, when he hit the Top 20 three times, all with covers: “Moritat,” “Poor People of Paris,” and “Tonight You Belong to Me.” His biggest hit was yet to come, however: “Calcutta” hit #1 in a couple of cities before the end of 1960, racked up more local #1s in January 1961, and finally reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in February.

I can’t describe the appeal of “Calcutta” any better than I did in 2011: “The song features a harpsichord, a unique sound that gets a listener’s attention. ‘Calcutta’ clocks in at a compact 2:13, with a melodic and rhythmic drive that would not alienate parents even as it attracted their kids. And speaking of attracting the kids: What’s that there, leading into the final reprise of the main theme, about 1:40 into the record? Is that a backbeat?”

After “Calcutta,” 10 more Welk singles would scratch into the Hot 100 by 1965. One might be familiar to you today: his version of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” which did decent business on Easy Listening in 1962. On the Billboard album chart, Welk charted 42 times between 1955 and 1973. Calcutta! was #1 for 11 weeks in 1961; later that year, Yellow Bird made #2. As late as 1967, his album Winchester Cathedral went to #12; it was one of the albums in my parents’ collection.

One of the more significant shifts in American cultural history took place around the turn of the 70s, when television shows that appealed to older and/or rural audiences were systematically dumped in favor of those intended to appeal to younger, urban viewers. Pat Buttram of Green Acres famously cracked that CBS “canceled everything with a tree,” although the “rural purge” also claimed shows on other networks, and several variety shows. One of them was The Lawrence Welk Show, which still drew decent numbers, although not the “right” ones, and it aired for the last time on ABC in September 1971. The show went immediately into first-run syndication for 11 more seasons. After that, the shows were repackaged, sometimes with new introductions by Welk and other members of the show’s cast. They continue to run down unto this very day, even though Welk himself has been dead since 1992.

If you want to know why Lawrence Welk had such a powerful appeal to his target demographic, listen to this version of “Bubbles in the Wine,” recorded in 1956. Welk (and/or his longtime featured player and assistant conductor Myron Floren) fills with accordion lines like a lead guitarist on a rock record, and it’s a perfect distillation of the classic Welk sound. “Bubbles in the Wine” makes it easy to understand why, whenever you were at your grandmother’s house on a Saturday night, she made you tune the TV over to the Lawrence Welk channel.