Friday, April 15, 2011

Not Today

Originally posted April 21, 2009

I’m a little subpar this morning, so there won’t be a post today, folks. I will be back tomorrow, when I think we’ll dip into the unplayed LP stacks and see what treasures (or dross) linger there. (In doing so, we’ll satisfy our curiosity and the request of the Kiddie Corner Kid for some music by the Willmar Boys’ Chorus.)

Until then, here’s another tune I like from a CD I recently featured. And no, the title is not prophetic, one hopes.

“Tomorrow Never Comes” by Big Head Todd & the Monsters from Sister Sweetly (1993)
7.32 MB mp3 at 192 kbps

About Heartsfield
I got a pleasant note the other day from Heartsfield, the country-rock band whose 1970s music I featured a while back. The band is still going strong and all of its early CDs are in print and available, as are newer albums and some other treasures. You can stop by the band’s website or go see the group’s MySpace page.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Plumbers Are Here!

Originally posted April 22, 2009

The best laid plans and all that . . .

As I mentioned yesterday, I had planned to pull tracks from six of the records in the unplayed stacks for today’s post. But yesterday afternoon, our landlord called: He’d scheduled the long-awaited work on our water pipes.

So this morning, the cats are sequestered upstairs and the plumbers are pulling down pipes in the basement. We have plenty of bottled water in the fridge. I have my thermos of coffee in the study, and I am – as is my tendency – pretty well distracted.

The morning’s events, did, however, remind me of my one attempt to work with plumbing and similar fixtures. Sometime during the late 1970s, the float and attached mechanism in our toilet tank quit working. Even a relative novice like me could see that it needed to be replaced. Assuming that my ability to diagnose conferred upon me an equal ability to repair, I stopped by the local plumbing store and told the clerk what I’d seen.

He agreed with my diagnosis and showed me some options for replacement of the worn-out parts. I bought the package of stuff that fell into the midrange, and on Saturday morning, carried my minimally stocked toolbox into the bathroom, turned off the water and proceeded to take the offending pieces of equipment out.

And I then realized that to install their replacements, I needed a wrench larger than anything I had in my possession. The lady of the house was watching my progress from out in the corridor, and I could tell from the look on her face that she’d come to the same realization I had: I needed help. “What are we gonna do?” she asked.

I told her what I planned, and she nodded. Then I did what every I’d guess nearly every young homeowner does the first time one of his handyman projects exceeds his grasp: I called Dad. I’m not sure what he was doing on that long-ago Saturday, but without hesitation, he gathered his tools – including the large adjustable wrench – and drove the thirty miles from St. Cloud to Monticello. About twenty minutes after his arrival, the toilet was reassembled and working.

George the Plumber tells me that he and his assistant will finish the work sometime late this afternoon. Water will flow once more. So here’s a selection of songs that fit today’s events:

A Six-Pack of Water and Plumbers
“Wade In The Water” by Ramsey Lewis, Cadet 5541, 1966
“Hot Water” by the Ides of March from Midnight Oil, 1973
“No Water In The Well” by Wishbone Ash from Locked In, 1976
“You Don’t Miss Your Water” by William Bell, Stax 116, 1962
“You Left The Water Running” by Maurice & Mac, Checker 1197, 1968
“The Plumber” by the Ovations from Sweet Thing, 1973

I have two versions of the Ramsey Lewis track. In these days of reissues and bonus tracks, I’m not sure that either of the two – one runs 3:36 and the other about 3:46 – is the original Cadet single. I’m posting the track that runs 3:36. (Yah Shure? You got this one covered?) Either way, it’s a delightful track that went to No. 19 in the summer of 1966.

As I clicked from track to track with the word “water” in their titles, I didn’t expect much from either the Ides of March or Wishbone Ash. Both surprised me pleasantly. “Hot Water” turned out to be a mid-tempo rocker that owes maybe a little bit to Bachman-Turner Overdrive; it doesn’t sound a bit like a track from the same band that did the horn-heavy “Vehicle” three years earlier. “No Water In The Well” is much more melodic and atmospheric than the usual work by Wishbone Ash (although that’s true of about half the tracks on Locked In), and the group pulls the song off with more delicacy than I would have anticipated.

The William Bell and Maurice & Mac tracks have been anointed classic soul singles long after the fact and in spite of chart performance. Bell’s single was hardly noticed when it came out: It went only to No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100. But that was a better fate than the one that fell to “You Left The Water Running.” The Checker single didn’t even enter either the Billboard Hot 100 or the magazine’s R&B chart. Writer Dave Marsh notes in The Heart of Rock & Soul that the single did spend three weeks in the lower portions of the Cash Box R&B chart. (Thanks for Caesar Tjalbo for the Maurice & Mac track.)

I know nothing about the Ovations. All-Music Guide says:

“Despite having only one Top Ten R&B hit, the Ovations were a superb Southern soul trio. The original group featured Louis Williams and made some great ballads that were sung so vividly and produced in such raw fashion that they never reached the wider soul market. Though they reached the R&B charts twice during the late ’60s (with ‘It’s Wonderful to Be in Love’ and ‘Me and My Imagination’), the group eventually disbanded. By 1971, a new trio had resurfaced, with former Nightingales Rochester Neal, Bill Davis, and Quincy Billops, Jr. A remake of Sam Cooke’s ‘Having a Party’ in 1973 gave them their lone Top Ten R&B hit.”

Sweet Thing, from which “The Plumber” comes, was recorded in the late 1970s, according to a note at AMG, but I’ve got three tracks from the album (without having any idea where I found them), and I’ve seen a 1973 date for them. Anyone know anything?

William, Friends of Distinction & Hugh

Originally posted April 23, 2009

I thought it might be slim pickings at YouTube for this week’s posts, quite likely because the posts have been slender as well. But I found a few interesting things.

Here’s what looks to be a relatively recent performance by William Bell of “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” Seeing the “Soulsville” emblazoned on the drum makes me wonder if the performance didn’t come from a Stax tribute or something like that in Memphis.

I couldn’t find any video of Hugh Masekela performing “Grazing in the Grass,” but here’s the Friends of Distinction during a 1970 television performance. In the spring of 1969, eight months after Masekela’s instrumental version of the song went to No. 1. The Friends’ vocal version got as high as No. 3.

Here’s a nice find: Hugh Masekela and his band performing “Coal Train (Stimela)” at the Artists Against Apartheid’s June 28, 1986, Freedom Beat festival at London’s Clapham Common.

Tomorrow – and I promise! – we’ll do an unplayed records grab bag. I’ll have the Texas Gal pull some LPs at random from the unplayed stacks and we’ll pull a selection from five of those and take a listen to a track from the Willmar Boys’ Chorus. And we’ll see what we can learn.

About “Wade In The Water”
My thanks to Yah Shure for taking time to dig into the differing versions of Ramsey Lewis’ “Wade in the Water.” He left his conclusions in the comments to yesterday’s post. He first said:

“I timed my 45 of ‘Wade In The Water.’ The time listed on the label is 3:05, but the actual run time is 3:16. I don't believe that it's simply an early fade of the album version, but I'll have to dive again to compare the two.”

After investigation, Yah Shure reported:

“Upon further review, the single version of ‘Wade In The Water’ is not an early fade. It contains four seconds’ worth of material that is not on the album/CD version!

“Aside from minor speed variations, both versions are identical up until 2:58 into the recording. At that point, each version utilizes different takes from the recording session. There’s a little piano trill on the 45 that is not on the LP, along with other differences in the piano and brass. This difference lasts only four seconds. Then, at 3:02, both versions once again become identical. The 45 begins its fade at 3:03, and is out completely at 3:16. The LP/CD track finally fades out completely at about 3:47.

“Mix differences such as these are not all that rare between single and album versions. Although they may seem quite minor, they demonstrate the lengths record producers went to in order to get a hit on the radio.”

(That means that one of the two versions I have is evidently the CD/LP track, with the other of them an edit that was given a fade ten seconds earlier. I never know what to do when I come across this stuff. Do I delete the one that’s the anomaly? If it pops up again, will I recall the information Yah Shure sent along? Good questions for which I have no answers.)

Into The Valley Of The Unplayed

Originally posted April 24, 2009

We are in the valley of the unplayed (and to some degree, unloved as well) today.

Last evening, before we sat down to dinner, I asked the Texas Gal to survey three of the four crates on top of the bookcases and pull out six LPs. She did so, handing them to me without looking at them. She had a plan, at least after the first LP: The first one had a gray spine, but all the other jackets after that had an orange spine. So this is music with orange backbones.

(There was one change from the Texas Gal’s selections: The LP of Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor was too hacked for me to be happy sharing anything from it. So I called the Texas Gal at work and asked her which orange-spined LP I should select to replace it. The sixteenth, she said. Since there were only six or so LPs left with even partly orange spines, I counted around and around until I came to sixteen. And I pulled the LP out and slid it into Bernstein’s spot. I think Lenny would have liked the song that replaced the fourth movement of the Brahms.)

A reminder: These are records that have been travelling with me for years, gained in bulk buys, odd gifts, garage sale pickings. In any case, these are records that generally haven’t interested me for one reason or another. Often, I’ll poke my way through one of the crates and see a particular record and think, “I need to listen to that soon.” And then I forget about it. Will I listen to the remainder of these records now that I’ve gotten at least one track down? Maybe.

First out of the crates is an LP that’s actually a replacement for a very poor copy I had earlier. I picked up the first copy in 1990 and replaced it in 1999, when I was bringing home albums at a rate of two a day, according to my LP log. And U2’s War got shuffled into the crates until today.

I’m of several minds about U2. I like most of the early stuff, up to and including Rattle and Hum. The group’s experiments in the 1990s were interesting but not very likeable; their work since then is likeable but not very interesting. Well, the song the group recently performed at the Grammy awards, “Get On Your Boots,” was interesting in a train-wreck sort of way.

For a number of years, U2 was called the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world, and for some of that time, that label might actually have been accurate. But accolades like that generally bring along unfortunate consequences: Back in the 1960s, when faced with that label, the Beatles became self-conscious. A few years later, the Rolling Stones became (even more) self-indulgent.

And U2 – especially Bono – became self-important. (My blogging colleague Any Major Dude examined Bono and the band last month and found U2 – and Bono especially – wanting. It’s a good read.)

Anyway, the first LP out of the crates was War, and here – using the selection system offered by Casey at The College Crowd Digs Me in honor of his dad’s long-ago system – is Track Four:

“Like A Song…” by U2 from War, 1983

I like several recordings by Seals and Crofts. The soft-rock duo had an intriguing sound from the time “Summer Breeze” hit the charts in 1972 until sometime in, maybe, 1974. And, along with “Summer Breeze,” there are two Seals and Crofts songs that pull me away to another time: “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” remain among my favorite records from my college days.

But by 1978, when the duo released Takin’ It Easy (talk about truth in titling!), there was little to separate Seals and Crofts from any other band making softish pop rock, from Pablo Cruise through Firefall to the Little River Band. Their music had turned into audio wallpaper. Track Four on Takin’ It Easy, “You’re The Love,” still spent seven weeks in the Top 40 during the spring and summer of 1978, peaking at No. 18.

“You’re The Love” by Seals and Crofts from Takin’ It Easy, 1978 (Warner Bros. 8551)

The first time I saw Devo was on Saturday Night Live in 1978 or so. The woman of the house and I stared at the television set in amazed bafflement as the band performed “Jocko Homo,” with its chorus that echoed the title of the group’s debut album: “Are we not men? We are Devo.” Not sure if the whole thing was a put-on, we laughed, shaking our heads. And then forgot about it.

Of course, I’ve heard more Devo over the years, though I’ve never dug deeply into the group’s discography. But then New Wave – and Devo was, I think, a milepost for that genre – was never a style I looked into too deeply. (I think there is a copy of Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! somewhere around here, but I’m not at all sure.) The third LP the Texas Gal pulled out of the crates last evening was Freedom of Choice, Devo’s third album, from 1980. And coming right after “Whip It” is Track Four, “Snowball.”

“Snowball” by Devo from Freedom of Choice, 1980

This is where the Bernstein should go, with the finale of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor. But, as I noted above, the record looked too battered to provide a clean rip. (A few pops and crackles are not unexpected, but this record was gouged; I may discard it.) And the LP I pulled from the crates to replace it one of those that I know I should have listened to long ago: Heartbeat City by the Cars.

The Cars were called a New Wave band, and maybe that’s accurate, but from where I listen now, the group’s work had a depth in songwriting and musicianship that wasn’t always found in the work of other bands in the genre. Maybe the other leading New Wave bands had those things and I just didn’t hear them. All I know is that I enjoyed what I heard from the Cars over the years enough that I bought the group’s greatest hits album long ago. (And along with my copy of Heartbeat City, I think there’s a copy of Candy-O in the unplayed stacks that I should pull out.) So when I cued up Track Four of Heartbeat City this morning, I was pleased to hear the beautiful and shimmering “Drive.” Sung by the late Benjamin Orr, the single went to No. 3 in the late summer of 1984.

“Drive” by the Cars from Heartbeat City, 1984 (Elektra 69706)

My LP collection long ago ceased to be a reflection of my likes and dislikes. Somewhere in the 1990s, it became something more like an archive. It’s certainly not comprehensive; there are entire genres that are represented barely if at all. But among the nearly 3,000 LPs there are some, that I don’t care for very much, both on the shelves and in the crates where the unplayed LPs wait.

Whitney Houston can sing better than the vast majority of people who have ever tried. The lady has great pipes. She has a shining family legacy of gospel, soul and R&B. And she has sold an incredible number of records. From where I listen, however, she’s spent her career wasting her voice on soulless piffle. (I might exempt “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” from that, but I’ll have to think about it.) Here’s Track Four of her self-titled debut. The single went to No. 1 in 1984.

“Saving All My Love For You” by Whitney Houston from Whitney Houston, 1985 (Arista 9381)

The last of the six orange-spined LPs was a 1980 reissue of a 1963 double-record set collecting the greatest performances of the late Patsy Cline. Released shortly after her death in a plane crash in March 1963, the twenty-four song package probably does a good a job of summing up her career for the casual fan. That pretty well describes me: I know a bit about Cline, and I understand her place in the popularization of country music in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

That popularization, which included the smoothing of the rough edges on country music of the time – the development of the so-called “countrypolitan” sound – put into motion trends in country music that have continued unabated to this day. The result is that, to note one egregious example, the music of Taylor Swift is marketed as country, when it seems to have no real connection at all to that historic genre.

Well, that wasn’t Patsy Cline’s fault. (It’s probably not Taylor Swift’s fault, for that matter.) No matter what the arrangement behind her was, when Patsy Cline began to sing, you knew she was a country artist. Here’s Track Four from The Patsy Cline Story.

“Strange” by Patsy Cline, recorded August 25, 1961 (Decca ED 2719)

I promised the Kiddie Corner Kid that I’d post something from the Willmar Boys’ Chorus album, a self-titled collection of the group’s work that I got in a box of records at a garage sale. (Willmar, as I’ve noted a couple of times, is a city of about 18,000 [according to Wikipedia] that sits about sixty miles southwest of St. Cloud.) Looking at the record jacket and at the photos of the two accompanists and the director, using clothing and hair styles to gauge the year, I’m going to guess it’s from the period from 1965 to 1968.

And there was a little bit of a shock when I was looking at those three photos. You see, I knew the woman who was the group’s director. She and her husband – who worked at St. Cloud State – went to our church when I was in high school and college and I think she sang in the choir at the time, as I did. As I glanced over the photos the first time, I thought, “Gee, that looks like Mrs. O-------!” My eyes dropped to the identification beneath the photo, and that’s exactly who it was, identified – as was the custom of the time – as “Mrs. Robert O-------.”

I didn’t know her well: She was an adult and I was not. I don’t recall her first name, though I’m sure I’d recognize it if saw it or heard it. But I recognized her immediately. And I think it’s odd how little bits of our past fly up to touch us, sometimes from the strangest places.

Anyway, the Willmar Boys’ Chorus put together a two-record set sometime during the 1960s, most likely as a souvenir for the kids and their families. (I have a few similar records sitting on the shelves recorded by groups I played.) And here’s Track Four:

“Doctor Foster” (after Handel) from Willmar Boys’ Chorus, about 1965.

Saturday Single No. 149

Originally posted April 25, 2009

I spent a couple evenings this week watching – on DVD – the first three episodes of Mad Men, the drama about a top-tier advertising agency in New York in the late 1950s. The show began its run on cable network AMC two years ago; I’ve always intended to watch it, but never managed to even remember to program the DVR to record the show.

In some ways, though, I think that being able to watch episodes in clusters, rather than a week at a time, is better. The experience, the drama, the focus on the character’s lives is more concentrated. Anyway, I found the first three episodes fascinating and can hardly wait until the second disc of the show arrives in the mail.

Part of that enjoyment and anticipation is for the drama itself. The main characters are interesting, from the somewhat mysterious ad exec Dan Draper, who seems to be the hub of the show, through his various co-workers, some of whom are seemingly destined to be very bad news, to Draper’s family and neighbors on their tree-lined suburban street. One anticipates all sorts of possible story lines. And the writing is generally sharp and sometimes witty. I haven’t yet heard a line that makes me gape at the screen in admiration for the writer, but the quality of the scripts pretty much promises me that I will.

But what makes Mad Men so interesting to me is the details, the peripheral things that become so crucial in producing a period piece: the scene-setting, costuming, art decoration and set decoration: From the clothing to the cars, from the martini-lubricated dinners in the best restaurants to the cigarettes that fill the air everywhere, from the hi-fi cabinet at the end of Draper’s couch to the jarring sight of a polio-crippled boy lurching through a living room with his crutches and braces, Mad Men gets it right and shows a world of urban gloss and suburban certainty.

And I find it fascinating, on three levels. First, the writer and viewer in me anticipate that neither that gloss nor that certainty will run very deep: I expect shiny surfaces to crack and unexamined beliefs to wither as the first season runs on.

Then, the historian that I am nods at references to events and pop culture, to mentions of new products and long-gone institutions. (I wonder how many viewers knew what an Automat was?) The show’s website says the show begins in 1960, and the entry for the show at Wikipedia says the first episode is set in March of that year. There is talk around the ad agency – but so far no action – of working for Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential campaign. Right Guard show up as the first aerosol spray deodorant, and in the very first episode, Draper is struggling to advertise cigarettes in light of a federal ruling that advertising can no longer say cigarettes have health benefits.

And finally, inside me, the boy who once was stares at the world he once lived in: The mix of stylish tail-finned late model cars and the boxy post-war models that had once seemed so stylish themselves. The snippets of television sound – familiar voices, both dramatic and commercial – one hears occasionally in the background. The casual and unthinking sexism, racism and other types of discrimination. And seemingly a thousand small details, like using an opener on a can of beer. All of it added up to make those three hours this week a visit to that other world, a world that was already beginning to change, mostly in ways that we here – nearly fifty years later – will approve.

As I watched, there came both a sense of foreboding and an odd, almost yearning, sense of grief. The foreboding was for the characters on the screen, for the writing had done its job: I care about them and wonder what lies in store. The grief was, I think, because that world on the screen, the world of tailfins and television shows, of braces and bottle openers, was the world around me when I became self-aware. We all live in different worlds as we age, sequential but different as the years pass. And much of the world of Mad Men is the first world I lived in, and I recall it only a little. Seeing it onscreen this week in its full and foolish glory was like opening a long-lost scrapbook in which I keep those memories.

That scrapbook is not entirely benign: Some of those memories I’d just as soon not have. Others are more pleasant to recall, gentle dispatches from a world that went away long ago.

I’ve been listening to a lot of late 1950s Sinatra this week, and I thought I might find something there, perhaps “Willow, Weep For Me.” But I looked a bit deeper into the digital files and found a Dinah Washington recording from 1959 for today's Saturday Single.

This Bitter Earth

This bitter earth:
What fruit it bears.
What good is love
That no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose,
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.

This bitter Earth:
Can it be so cold?
Today you're young,
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries,
I'm sure someone
May answer my call,
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all.

“This Bitter Earth” by Dinah Washington, New York City, 1959 (Mercury 71635)
2.78 MB mp3 at 160 kbps

Waiting By The Whirlpool

Originally posted April 27, 2009

Come the spring of 1969, I was in demand as an athletic manager at St. Cloud Tech. The baseball coach asked if I was interested in helping out his team, and the track manager wondered if I wanted to work with his distance runners.

I was years away from becoming truly interested in baseball, and my sister’s high school boyfriend had run track. I’d enjoyed watching the meets, so I went with track as a manager for the distance runners.

It was a choice I regretted almost immediately. The coaches decided my role as manager that spring was to wait in the training room – tucked to the side of the varsity locker room – and maintain the primitive whirlpool tub for those runners who thought they needed it after finishing their distance runs. Every afternoon during what I remember as a beautiful spring, I sat in the training room and – most of the time – waited.

As the runners came back in, some would settle themselves in the whirlpool tub and others would gather in the training room, and they’d share jest and japes and ribald jokes. Sometimes they included me; sometimes not. I was, after all, only a sophomore.

I didn’t even get to go the meets, as there were always distance runners who were not varsity-level, and they did their practice runs around town as the meets went on. And I was required to have the whirlpool available for them when they finished their practice runs.

As I waited, I read. But sometimes, I’d tire of even that, and I’d sit there in the otherwise empty locker room and training room, wishing I were sitting in a dugout on a ball field somewhere. And I didn’t even have a radio.

A Six-Pack From The Charts (Billboard Hot 100, April 26, 1969)
“Do Your Thing” by the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Warner Bros. 7250 (No. 11)
“Hot Smoke and Sassafras” by the Bubble Puppy, Int’l. Artists 128 (No. 28)
“Grazing in the Grass” by the Friends of Distinction, RCA Victor 0107 (No. 36)
“Wishful, Sinful” by the Doors, Elektra 45656 (No. 44)
“The River Is Wide” by the Grass Roots, Dunhill/ABC 4187 (No. 66)
“You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” by the Ronettes, A&M 1040 (No. 108)

The only one of these I recall hearing at the time is the Friends of Distinction record. Having posted Hugh Masekela’s instrumental version of “Grazing In The Grass” a little more than a week ago, I couldn’t pass up the chance to offer the Friends’ vocal cover of the tune, which flies off into a much more rapid tempo. I still love the “I can dig it, he can dig it, she can dig it, we can dig it, they can dig it, you can dig it” bridge. I wonder how many takes it took to nail that? The record was on its way up the chart on April 26, having jumped to No. 36 from No. 65 the week before. It would peak at No. 3.

“Do Your Thing,” which hit its peak in the April 26 chart, is about as funky as Top 40 ever got, I think. Well, maybe Parliament/Funkadelic and James Brown, but “Do Your Thing” is certainly in the conversation. The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band was an eight-man group from the Watts section of Los Angeles brought together by Charles Wright, who hailed from Clarksdale, Mississippi. This was the first of three Top 40 singles for the group; the others – “Love Land” and “Express Yourself,” which went to No. 16 and No. 12, respectively, in 1970 – were credited to Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.

Bubble Puppy was a quartet from Houston, Texas, whose psychedelic garage-rocker “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” had peaked at No. 14 in March and was sliding its way back down the chart. Latter-day explorers into the music of 1969 might expect to find the record to be a slice of sunshine pop based on the group’s cutesy name. Nah. “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” rocks pretty well.

The Doors’ “Wishful, Sinful” is an intriguing listen from this distance, maybe better today than I recall it being. The follow-up to “Touch Me,” which had reached No. 3 in February 1969, “Wishful, Sinful” just missed the Top 40, sitting at No. 44 for two weeks. The next week it was at No. 45 and then it tumbled out of sight. I don’t know that I heard it during the spring of 1969; I recall it more clearly from my first year of college, when one of my friends played the Doors’ The Soft Parade at least daily in his dorm room.

Every once in a while, as the Grass Roots’ songs came out of the radio speakers, I’d wonder: Who are those guys? Even if I’d had the resources – and the inclination – to dig, it would have been hard to know, says All-Music Guide, “because there were at least three different groups involved in the making of the songs identified as being by ‘the Grass Roots.’” You can read at AMG the tangled history of P.F. Sloan, Steve Barri, the Bedouins, the 13th Floor and other musicians that fell in and out of the tale of the Grass Roots. What’s left behind is some of the best pop-rock of the Top 40 era, fourteen Top 40 hits from “Where Were You When I Needed You” (No. 28 in 1966) to “The Runaway” (No. 39 in 1972). The highest charting Grass Roots’ single was “Midnight Confession,” which went to No. 5 in 1968. “The River Is Wide,” which is one of my favorites, was one of the less-successful singles, only reaching No. 31.

I don’t know a lot about “You Came, You Saw, You Conquered” by the Ronettes. In the notes to Back to Mono, the 1991 Phil Spector box set, the single is listed as being recorded in February 1969. That’s the last mention of the Ronettes and the last month covered by the box set. (Two singles come after “You Came . . .” in the set: “Black Pearl” and “Love Is All I Have To Give” by Sonny Charles & the Checkmates, but they, too, are listed only as being recorded in February.) The April 26 chart was the fourth and final time that the record was listed in the “Bubbling Under the Hot 100,” and I’m wondering two things: Were the sessions that created the record the last time that Spector worked with the Ronettes? And was this the last appearance of the Ronettes on a Billboard chart? (I would guess caithiseach has the answers, if he’ll be kind enough to share.)

'We're All Alone'

Originally posted April 28, 2009

Well, I just spent an hour combing through ten different versions of Boz Scaggs’ “We’re All Alone,” the gorgeous song that’s the closer to Scaggs’ 1976 album Silk Degrees.

Feeling a bit like Andy Rooney this morning, I’ll just note that Silk Degrees – though I’ve certainly become accustomed to it – is an odd name for an album. What does it mean? How many degrees are there in silk? I wonder if sometime, somewhere, Boz Scaggs told the story.

Anyway, looking for a cover version to share, I just listened to the original version of “We’re All Alone” and nine covers. And none of them really blew me away. One of the things that I did find interesting when I began to look for covers through All-Music Guide was the evident popularity of the song in the Pacific Rim. I found versions by Japanese singers, by singers from the Philippines and by a Hawaii-based duo named Cecilio & Kapono, and I saw listings at AMG for more versions of the tune from that area of the world.

Unhappily, none of those versions seemed to add anything to the song, and that’s too bad. The song is one of those that can get inside my head and whirl around for an hour or so, one of the most tolerable of earworms. I almost certainly heard the song for the first time not long after Silk Degrees was released in 1976, when I was living in the cold house on the North Side of St. Cloud, about two blocks from both the rail yards and a neighborhood beer joint called the Black Door Club.

(The owner of the bar said the name didn’t signify anything: “When I bought the place,” he told a few of us over a pitcher of Grain Belt one Saturday afternoon, “the door was painted black. I thought that was strange, but I wasn’t gonna repaint it. And then I was tryin’ to come up with a name for the place, and the best I could do was the Black Door Club.”)

Anyway, one of my three roommates in the autumn of 1976 brought home Silk Degrees and began playing it – a lot. At least daily for three weeks, he dropped it on the stereo in the living room or the stereo in his room. It didn’t take long before I knew the record very, very well. Kevin moved out at the end of fall quarter and headed off into adult life, taking the record with him. At that time, I didn’t have a list of music I wanted to collect. When I felt like getting something new, I headed to Musicland or Shopko and rifled through the bins, or else I headed to Axis downtown and looked through the used records, and I bought whatever I found. I imagine if I’d run across a copy of Silk Degrees, I would have bought it.

But my album log says that I didn’t bring Silk Degrees home until December 1, 1977. I remember buying the record as a celebration. That day had seen the publication of the first edition of the Monticello Times with my byline in it. And when I played the record in my small apartment that evening, I realized how much I had missed hearing it. Oh, I’d heard the singles, of course: “Lowdown” had spent fifteen weeks in the Top 40 in the late summer and fall of 1976, reaching No. 3, and “Lido Shuffle” had peaked at No. 11 during a nine-week stay in the Top 40 during the spring of 1977, and both continued to get some airplay. (The first chart single from the album, “It’s Over,” had gone to No. 38 in the spring before I moved to the north side; a fourth single, “What Can I Say,” failed to reach the Top 40.)

It was sweet that evening to hear my own copy of the album. And over the years, it’s an album I go back to time and again. In fact, in a post here in June 2007, I put Silk Degrees on a list of my thirteen favorite albums. Lists like that are often fluid, and if I did a similar list now without referring to the earlier list, there would likely be some changes. But Silk Degrees would stay there, I’m sure.

Is “We’re All Alone” the best track on the record? Maybe. Beyond the singles, which are almost too familiar to assess, I like “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” and “Harbor Lights.” But I keep coming back to “We’re All Alone” as my favorite on the record.

Scaggs’ version of “We’re All Alone,”, even though it’s the original, likely isn’t the best known: Rita Coolidge’s cover of the song went to No. 7 in the latter months of 1977, but I’ve never cared much for Coolidge’s version. Others who have covered the song – according to All-Music Guide – include Joe Augustine, Acker Bilk, the Matt Catingub Orchestra of Hawaii, Linda Eder, Lesley Gore, Engelbert Humperdinck, Bob James, Steve Lawrence, Johnny Mathis, Reba McIntire, Natalia, Newton, the Romantic Strings, Lars Roos, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Frankie Valli, the Ventures, the Walker Brothers and the West Coast All-Stars.

As I mentioned above, I’ve heard eight covers of the song, and none of them blew me away. But two of them, I thought, were pretty good. The Three Degrees, the Philadelphia R&B trio that showed up on MFSB’s “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia” (No. 1 in 1974) and had a good career on its own (“When Will I See You Again” went to No. 2 in 1974), covered the song for its 1977 album Standing Up For Love. And Pieces Of A Dream, a long-lived Philadelphia jazz/R&B group, covered “We’re All Alone” on its 1994 album Goodbye Manhattan.

“We’re All Alone” by Boz Scaggs from Silk Degrees (1976)

“We’re All Alone” by the Three Degrees from Standing Up For Love (1977)

“We’re All Alone” by Pieces Of A Dream from Goodbye Manhattan (1994)