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Tight Indeed

Booker T. Jones (in the hat) and his son Ted (on guitar), lit fortuitously while playing “Green Onions.”

(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.

Behind the Final Curtain

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Certain records are so iconic, so much a part of popular culture, that it’s like they’ve always existed. But as I frequently note, there was a time when they were current radio hits competing for airplay like everything else. One of them is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which was all over the radio 50 years ago this month.

(Did I need to link to that?)

The story goes that after a dinner with Sinatra at which Frank expressed a desire to retire, lyricist Paul Anka started imagining what Sinatra might say at the close of his remarkable career. He channeled Frank’s tough-guy patois into a lyric of defiance and triumph and married it to a melody he’d purchased from a couple of French songwriters. Sinatra recorded it on December 30, 1968.

“My Way” hit the Billboard Easy Listening chart on March 28, 1969, at #12, went to #4 the next week, and to #2 on the chart dated April 12, 1969, tucked in behind Glen Campbell’s “Galveston.” It spent the next three weeks at #2, behind “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension for two weeks and Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” for one. After that, it stayed at #3 for three weeks before falling to #6, then #7, and finally out of the Easy Listening Top 10 during the week of June 7, 1969.

“My Way” wasn’t as big at Top 40 stations. It first appears on surveys at ARSA early in March, and it first cracks the Top 10 at WRKO in Boston on March 27. It took a while to catch on, with some Top 40 stations charting it high at the same time others were just debuting it. Over the course of its chart run, it was a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Denver. On the Hot 100, it debuted on March 29 and topped out at #27 during the week of May 10, 1969.

Sinatra may have been contemplating retirement at the end of the 1960s, but at that moment, he was not far removed from one of his most successful periods, commercially and artistically. He hit #1 on the Easy Listening chart six times in 1966 and 1967, and two of those went to #1 on the Hot 100 as well: “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid.” Another three of those six would rank near the top of any respectable list of Greatest Sinatra Performances: his voice may never have sounded better than on “It Was a Very Good Year”, and on “Summer Wind,” he’s equally good, backed by a slinky orchestra arrangement that’s almost unbelievably cool. On “That’s Life,” like “My Way” a backward-looking tale of how he got over, Sinatra seems truly amused by it all.

On “My Way,” Sinatra sings of his victories and defeats, “I find it all so amusing,” but he doesn’t sound amused at all. And compared to those songs of a couple of years before, “My Way” is a little off the peak. His glorious tone and phrasing isn’t quite up to those earlier examples. Maybe he rushed it a little: the 12/30/68 session was held in the afternoon before he took off for New Year’s in Las Vegas. Maybe he didn’t really believe what he was singing. Although Anka once said, “I knew he liked it,” one of his daughters said he found its lyric self-serving and egotistical, and in the late 70s he told an audience, “I hate this song,” even as he continued to perform it.

At least two other versions of “My Way” have charted. Brook Benton’s soulful uptempo version made #72 in 1970, and the 1977 live recording by Elvis Presley, which hit after his death, out-performed Frank’s original on the Hot 100. Over five decades, the song has developed a cult of haters, and their reasons for dislike are legitimate enough. It was played for the first dance at Trump’s inaugural ball, and it’s likely that nobody in the world believes the central conceit of “My Way” pertains directly to him more than Donald J. Trump.

But to Mr. and Mrs. America, turning on their radios in the blooming spring of 1969, knowing what they knew about Frank Sinatra during his 30-plus years as a central figure of American popular culture, knowing the story of the kid from Hoboken who became an idol to millions of women, a role model for the mid-century man, and the confidante of both presidents and mobsters, the story he told in “My Way” resonated. It became an anthem for anybody who ever got punched and got back up again.

Lost Art

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It’s time for another edition of Short Attention Span Theater, when I dust off fragments of posts that have been sitting in my drafts file waiting to see the light. First up, some outtakes from a post I wrote late last year about listening to music on AM radio. 

33. “For the Good Times”/Ray Price. At what age do we realize what love songs are actually about? In this beautiful Kris Kristofferson song, lovers who are breaking up decide to spend one last night together. Ten-year-old me understood that men and women fall in love (and fifth-grade me had already fallen hard for somebody), but to what actual extent I understood what Price was singing about, I can’t say.

28.  “One Less Bell to Answer”/Fifth Dimension. How deeply I understood the “one less bell to answer / one less egg to fry” metaphor back then I don’t know either, but the writer in me today likes it, even if it makes the singer sound not so much like a jilted lover but like fired domestic help.

25. “Yellow River”/Christie. Sometime in 1970, my parents bought an enormous console stereo, a giant piece of furniture that took up an entire wall of the living room. It had a turntable, and also the first FM stereo radio they’d ever owned. Because they liked country music, they found an FM stereo country station and would frequently fill the house with it. One of the songs the station played that fall was “Yellow River.” I am pretty sure I didn’t hear it again until Rhino put it on a volume of the Super Hits of the 70s: Have a Nice Day series at the end of the 80s, and the first time I played that disc, it was quite the “holy shit I remember that song” moment. (WABC-processed version here.)

There was a time when a radio jock manually played every element you hear on the air—started every record, punched every commercial, fired every jingle. Many of us prided ourselves on what was known as “board work.” I still take pride in mine, to the extent that I am required to do it nowadays. The stitching-together of programming elements can be done creatively, when one cares enough to think about it that way. The following paragraph is one example of a topic I should probably expand upon someday.

Some programmers would tell you to put a jingle between Billy Squier’s “Rock Me Tonite” and Julian Lennon’s “Valotte,” since “Valotte” is a far different tempo and starts with a cold vocal open. But you could also crank the cold vocal open so it starts really hot and take out the fade of “Rock Me Tonite” the instant the vocal starts without mixing the two. Trust me, it’ll be awesome. In this age of digital automation, creative radio board work is a lost art, but it doesn’t have to be.

This bit was, believe it or not, the introduction to a post about an edition of American Top 40 that I later changed to something else because I came to my senses.

We can’t really know how anything in life truly looks and feels to other people. One can describe the taste of chocolate or the sight of the color red, but what happens physically when one eats or looks—not to mention the constellation of mental images one experiences at the same time—would be different for each of us. And I am guessing my perceptions, if you could compare them to your own, would astound you, and vice versa. When we try to describe feelings, we’re on similarly shifting terrain. When I talk about love or trust or despair, you know the concept, but you almost certainly don’t feel those things the way I do.

We know this is true. We’ve experienced it when reading a review or a column or a blog post in which an author writes about a song, an album, a movie, or a book that affected him or her deeply—a work we’re familiar with, but one that does little or nothing for us personally. By whatever alchemy it happens, what that person experiences is vastly different from what we experience.

So when I write about how a single radio show feels to me like an organic whole that brings an entire season of my life into vivid detail, I need to remember that it probably doesn’t do the same thing for you.

Please plan to join us for a future edition of this feature, after my creative process fails a few more times.

The Stakeout (Part II)

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This is the second part of a middle-school fiction piece I wrote a few years ago. In part 1, it was Friday, February 7, 1964. Our young hero and his uncle, both huge Beatles fans, tried to get into the Plaza Hotel in New York City where the Beatles were staying on their first American visit. When they failed, Uncle Aaron guessed that the Beatles would have to rehearse on Saturday before playing The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, and he suggested they stake out the theater. 

When we got there at 7:00 on Saturday morning, the police had already put up barricades to keep the street clear for the Beatles whenever they got there. So we waited, and so did a few hundred of our closest friends, some of the same crazy crowd from the day before at the Plaza. This time, we were at the front, so if there was anything to see, we’d see it.

It seemed like we’d been there forever when a couple of limousines rolled up behind the barricades, and people started cheering and screaming and waving their signs. We saw four shadows jump quickly from the first limo and hustle through the stage door.

A bunch of official-looking people trailed along behind the second limo on foot. Suddenly Aaron yelled, “Rube! Hey, Rube!” One of the official-looking people turned to look . . . and then walked over to where we were standing. “Rube!” Aaron cried. “What’s going on?”

“Aaron!” he said. “How long has it been, anyhow?”

“Not since we graduated from college in ’59! What are you doing here?”

Rube gestured at the cameras around his neck. “Photographer. The Beatles are doing a photo shoot in Central Park this afternoon, but I get to tag along this morning.”

“Are they going to rehearse now?” Aaron asked.

“Yeah, they are.” And then, even though we were in the middle of a crowd of kids cheering, chanting, and screaming, Rube’s next words seemed to echo forth from a silent place in the center of the universe. He said to us: “Do you want to come inside and watch?”

I have never passed out in my life, but at that moment, I almost did.

We went toward a gap in the barricade, only to be met by the same man-mountain of a guard who had stopped us the previous day. “No admittance,” he growled. We’re going to jail, I thought. Then Rube stepped in and said, “Reuben Jefferson, New York Journal photographer. These two are with me.” Unbelievably, the guard let us through—and he winked at me as we passed. There were shouts of disappointment from the crowd: “Hey, why do they get in? Come back! No fair!” But we were in.

Ten minutes later, we stood with a knot of people on the side of the stage, staying as close to Rube as we could, fearing that if got separated, we’d get thrown out of the theater, or worse. The Beatles came out and took their places, Paul, George, and John from left to right, and Ringo above and behind them on drums. One of them, either Paul or John, counted off the first song, and they began to play.

If you want to know what happened next, I can’t really tell you. I know that they practiced five songs altogether, and “She Loves You” was the third one, but just like you, I have to rely on the history books for the rest of it. All I remember of that half-hour with the Beatles is a mixture of shock and joy.

The next night, 70 million people watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the first time most Americans had ever seen them play. Most, but not all. A handful of us had seen them already.

The Stakeout

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In 2009, a client contracted me to write several historical fiction pieces for middle school readers. Even though I do not consider myself a good writer of fiction, I wrote ’em, submitted ’em, and cashed the checks. I never learned precisely how they were used (which is not all that unusual in my line of work), and I have no idea whether they’re still in print somewhere. Technically, they don’t belong to me anymore. But I’ve posted a couple such pieces in the past, and what follows is another one. If the client wants to cease-and-desist me, that’s fine. The piece was written for middle school students, so it requires some exposition, and it uses a couple of tropes that are a little shopworn. Despite all that, it ain’t bad, and I hope you like it. 

You know the Beatles, right? The rock band from the 1960s? You can ask your mother and father, or maybe your grandparents, to tell you about them. Most people think they were the greatest group in music history. I’ll tell you this: On February 9, 1964, when they were on TV, on The Ed Sullivan Show, over 80 percent of the country watched them play. It was the first time most people had seen them.

Most people, but not everybody. Not me.

My pen pal in London, England, had sent me one of their records, “She Loves You,” for Christmas in 1963. I’d since heard other some Beatles songs on the radio, and I loved them. By luck, I had Friday, February 7, off from school. That was the day the Beatles were to land in New York, so my Uncle Aaron and I drove into the city to stake out the hotel where they were going to stay.

Uncle Aaron was more like an older brother than an uncle to me. He wasn’t about rules; he was just about fun. When I played my Beatles record for him, he liked it as much as I did. The stakeout was actually his idea.

When we arrived at the Plaza Hotel, a squadron of policemen was trying to hold back the hundreds of kids hoping to catch a look at John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There were people holding signs that said, “We love you” and “Beatles 4-Ever.” I thought that maybe we’d be able to sneak into the hotel through the crush of people, but there was no sneaking with those cops around.

Then Uncle Aaron said, “I’ve got an idea. Let’s tell them we’re guests at the hotel and we’re trying to get back into our room.”

“Do you think that’s going to work?”

“It might, if we do it right. When we get to the front, you tell the guard that we’re guests, and we just want to get back to our room. If you could manage to cry a little, that would be even better.” I hadn’t cried since I was eight, but I was willing to take my best shot.

We spent the next 20 minutes inching to the hotel door, but when we got there, a mountain of a security guard blocked our passage. He looked like six kinds of mean in a big, ugly bag. When I imagined him taking us to jail for trespassing, it was easy to squeeze out some tears. “Sir . . . we’re guests at the hotel, and we’ve been gone all day.” I sniffed loudly. “We just want to get back inside so my uncle can lie down and rest.” Sniff. “He hasn’t been well.”

I thought the bit about Uncle Aaron being sick would clinch the deal until the guard said, “Can I see your hotel key, kid?”

Thinking quickly, I said, “We lost it.”

The guard’s face creased with a sour, sarcastic grin. “Kid, do you know how many people have told me that today? Back off.”

Inching back into the crowd, I said, “At least we got an A for effort. Ringo’s mother wouldn’t have been able to get past that guy.”

“You aren’t giving up, are you?” I guess I probably was, but Aaron wasn’t. “They’re playing on the Sullivan Show Sunday night. Now, it’s just a guess, but I bet they’ll have to practice tomorrow sometime. Why don’t we stake out the theater?”

To learn what happens next, read the next installment, coming Friday. 

Multifarious Serendipity

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(Pictured: Blue Oyster Cult onstage, 1978.)

A few years ago I made a CD for the car called “Multifarious Serendipity.” It’s a mix of college radio faves, minor hits from the AM Top 40 era, and miscellaneous tunes from here and there. I play it on shuffle so I never know what’s coming. The other night, the gods of shuffle were busy creating themes for me.

“L.A. Goodbye”/Ides of March
“Soul Drippin’/Mauds
“Lake Shore Drive”/Aliotta Haynes and Jeremiah
This is some grade-A good stuff right here. “L. A. Goodbye” peaked in the 70s on the Hot 100, IIRC, but went to #5 on WLS in the spring of 1971. The Mauds came out of the same Chicago scene that produced the Ides, the Shadows of Knight, the New Colony Six, and other bands. The crazy-good “Soul Drippin'” was recorded in 1968. Musicians on it include James Pankow, Lee Loughnane, Walter Parazaider, and Robert Lamm. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), their experience making “Soul Drippin'” inspired them to form a band of their own. “Lake Shore Drive” is a miracle, a perfect diamond fallible human beings could not have created. It must have come from some higher intelligence than ours.

The Longer You Do It the Better It Feels:
“Suspicious Minds”/Elvis Presley
“Hot Love”/T. Rex
“Let It Shine”/Santana
Each of these has a long, repetitive section that lasts until the fadeout but could easily go on for another 20 minutes and I’d keep listening. I bought “Hot Love” on a 45 in 1971 and it’s still around here somewhere. “Let It Shine” was a minor Hot-100 hit in 1976, and it’s pretty damn cool. It starts with some purely 70s wakka-wakka guitar before the conga player starts getting it on, then an electronic bassline comes thumping in. The drummer gets to working on the groove, a synth sizzles in with the instrumental hook, and you’re like hot damn this is fantastic.

And Elvis is, of course, Elvis.

A Really Terrible Segue:
“Charity Ball”/Fanny
“My Hang-Up Is You”/Freddie Hart
“Charity Ball” is a banger we’ve loved around here since always. It went to #3 on WLS as it was squeaking only to #40 on the Hot 100, and I would wonder if oldies and classic hits stations in Chicago play it (and “L. A. Goodbye,” and “Soul Drippin’,” and other monster local hits) today, if I were still a naive young radio boy. Freddie Hart came up at this blog just last Friday, and whatever I said then still applies.

“In Thee”/Blue Oyster Cult
“Killer Cut”/Charlie
When Blue Oyster Cult’s Mirrors album arrived at the college radio station in the summer of 1979, it wasn’t what we were expecting, not after Agents of Fortune, Spectres, and the live album Some Enchanted Evening, and the hits “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla.” Anybody who thought BOC sounded little like the Byrds on “Don’t Fear the Reaper” had that opinion confirmed by “In Thee,” which is actually pretty great. Charlie, meanwhile, was one of those bands that opened for everybody during their heyday, including the Doobie Brothers, Styx, Foreigner, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. They made seven albums in seven years from their first one in 1976. “Killer Cut,” in which the band gives advice on how to make a hit record, peaked at #60. (Vintage video here. Drummer Steve Gadd is not the Steve Gadd of session fame; it’s another guy with the same name, which must be both inconvenient for him and not.)

“Love and Loneliness”/The Motors
“Trapped Again”/Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
“Lady of the Lake”/Starcastle
All of these are college favorites. “Love and Loneliness” is a Great Big Statement, portentous lyrics in a gigantic, inflated production that makes “Born to Run” sound understated. “Trapped Again” somehow avoided charting anywhere, according to the database at ARSA, despite the presence of Bruce Springsteen and the fact that it kicks ass all day. “Lady of the Lake” I’ve mentioned here many times, ridiculous Illinois prog-rock that somehow ends up awesome just the same.

Multifarious Serendipity is a great companion on a long trip, and I have lots more miles in my future over the next couple of months, so maybe there will be another post like this at some point. Or maybe not. It’s a gamble.

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