Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Go Ahead and Hate Your Neighbor

"One Tin Soldier" - Written by Dennis Lambert & Brian Potter.

"Listen children to a story that was written long ago..."

You know the song.  Maybe you learned it at summer camp.  Maybe you remember it from the movie "Billy Jack." Or maybe you've heard it on the radio repeatedly.  But you know it.  "One Tin Soldier" is a song that endures. After 45 years, it's seemingly as popular as ever.

What makes a great song? A memorable melody, a message that resonates, and the ability to be interpreted in any number of versions.  As you will see and hear in the videos linked in this post, OTS works as a pop song, a bluegrass number, as comic fodder, and in genres from country to alternative rock.  And that's barely scratching the surface of what one can find on YouTube.

OTS was written in 1969 by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who produced it as a single for the Canadian band The Original Caste.  

That version was a Top 40 hit, but the song became even better known when the band Coven recorded it for the soundtrack of the cult classic film, "Billy Jack."  Coven's version of OTS was named the Number One Most Requested Song in 1971 and 1973 by American Radio Broadcasters.

Skeeter Davis recorded OTS in 1972, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal.

  This animated version comes from The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. 

I got in touch with Dennis Lambert, who kindly agreed to answer my questions about the writing of OTS.  It would take a full post just to cover the highlights of his composing and producing career, so let me share just a few highlights: 12 Grammy nominations, 80 Top 100 hits, writing or co-writing songs such as "Ain't No Woman Like the One I've Got" (Four Tops), "We Built This City" (Starship), "Nightshift" (Commodores), producing "Rhinestone Cowboy" (Glen Campbell), "Baby Come Back" (Player), "Rock and Roll Heaven" (Righteous Brothers) and so on.  Click the link beneath his picture for a full bio.

Dennis Lambert @lambertsongs
Dennis is also the subject of an award-winning 2009 feature documentary titled "Of All The Things."  
"It’s the most unlikely comeback of the year.  Dennis Lambert was one of the most successful and diverse songwriter/producers of the 70’s and 80’s.  Today, he’s a 60-year-old family man selling real estate in Florida.  But it turns out his obscure 1972 solo album Bags and Things is huge – in the Philippines.  A Filipino concert promoter has been begging Dennis to tour for decades, and in 2007 he finally agreed.  Of All the Things is a hilarious, touching and winning pop/rock/country/R&B documentary that follows Dennis on his whirlwind tour as he rediscovers his passion for music – a two-week adventure that takes him from the comforts of Boca Raton to a sold-out show at Manila’s famous Araneta Coliseum for thousands of fans he never knew he had.  Some lives deserve and encore, indeed." -- collider.com
I've yet to see this film, but after reading that synopsis, it's at the top of my list.

Without Further ado, here's my Q&A with Dennis:

1 - Did you know what the treasure was going to be when you started writing or was it something that evolved?

Dennis Lambert:  I had a general idea that we would attempt to tell a story about the futility of war and use a fable-like device for its style.  The specific “treasure” was a revelation somewhere in the process.

2 - Wikipedia claims that the chord progression of OTS's verses is based on Pachelbel's Canon. True? If so, intentional?

DL:  It is not an uncommon chord progression and I would think there are many songs that have a similar feeling using parts of Pachelbel’s Canon.  It was not intentional on my part to use that piece.

3 - Did you write OTS specifically for the band The Original Caste or was it something you had in your back pocket when you started working with them?

DL:  We wrote it for them specifically having signed them to our label, TA Records.  Since they were a folk-rock based band, it was a good fit, assuming they would like the song.  Needless to say, they did.

4 - Many famous songwriting teams consist of a lyricist and a composer. But you and Brian Potter both did words and music. What was the process like when you wrote OTS?

DL:  A lot of songwriting teams from the '60s era forward consisted of people who would sit in a room together and hammer out a song.  While generally speaking, someone did more of one thing than the other (I play piano, Brian Potter does not), there were contributions from both of us across the musical and lyrical spectrum.

5 - I really like your own version of OTS, performed at Joe's Pub in 2008. Why did you choose to do the song in a slower, more soulful and understated manner than in the versions by The Original Caste, Coven, Cher, etc?

DL:  I feel like the song deserves to be heard in a more plaintive and intimate way.  The story is important if you can pick up on the nuances. Doing it more slowly and “naked” is a way for that to really come across.

6 - I won't ask you to pick a favorite version of OTS, but what was the most interesting/surprising version you've heard - or maybe one that's under appreciated?

DL:  Roseanne Barr’s ridiculous version made me roar with laughter.  The Original Caste’s version is still my favorite.

7 - A number of anti-war songs songs got radio play during the Vietnam War, many of which have faded into obscurity. Why do you think OTS has endured?

DL:  Because it’s fabulous???  Ha Ha…just kidding.  I think it has a lot to do with the fact that most of the fans were between 6-16 in 1970 (they are now 50-66) when they saw Billy Jack and heard the song for the first time.  It became and remains a major campfire song, spiritual hymn albeit a lite one, and a favorite of that generation of young people, particularly girls.