Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Everything I've done was wrong

FEEL LIKE GOING HOME (Charlie Rich) - Peter Guralnick

What's the greatest record you've never heard?

Well, that's obviously an unanswerable question. If you're like me, however, every few years or so you'll hear something that blows you away and you wonder how the record could have existed without your knowledge. It's always a thrill when this happens.

A couple of weeks ago I came across "Feel Like Going Home" by Charlie Rich and had the experience mentioned above. Rich is someone whose pop hits I knew and liked, and I also love what I've heard from his early days at the legendary Sun Records.  "You Can Have Her" for Smash Records is a favorite. But FLGH was new to me.

No, one can't know all songs by all artists, but FLGH was too damn good for me never to have stumbled into it, to never had recommended to me.

What I heard was this demo version:

Rich's first commercial release of FLGH was as the B-Side to his monster hit, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."

A couple of decades later he included another version on what turned out to be his final album, "Pictures and Paintings."

Digging into the story behind the song, I found a good one.  

Renowned rock writer Peter Guralnick met Charlie Rich while working on a book that profiled various blues and rock musicians, including Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis. Charlie, one of his subjects, had yet to hit the big time with "Behind Closed Doors."

The book, published in 1971, took its name from a song by Waters, "Feel Like Going Home." Charlie, inspired by the feeling he got from reading the book, wrote a song with the same title.

And, to come full circle, Peter executive produced "Pictures and Paintings," including Charlie's final recording of FLGH.

You can watch Peter recounting this experience here.  

He kindly shared the following insights and opinions with me:

1 - I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Charlie is playing the evocative piano part himself on the demo version. What can you tell us about Charlie's piano playing, given that he's best known as a singer?

Peter Guralnick: I think you can pick up on Charlie’s playing from what you hear on the demo – it’s kind of jagged, hesitant, with lots of blue notes played in between the cracks, but with a swelling, gospel-inflected orchestral sound, too. I’m not sure who exactly you could compare him to. Ray Charles and Miles Davis were among his great musical heroes, Stan Kenton, Thelonious Monk, and the hard boppers, too. In many ways he believed that less is more, and much of his playing is spare. More than anything, though, he was inclined to sing and play behind the beat – but he always caught up.

2 - FLGH was initially a b-side and didn't make it onto an album until many years later. Do you know if Charlie ever sang it in concert?  Not that YouTube has everything, but I found no live version there. 

PG:  He didn't play it often. I know he dedicated it once to President Nixon – not sure what exactly he meant by that (kind of like his song, “Peace On You”), a couple of times he dedicated it to me, though never with the impact of that first time he played it at Max’s Kansas City. But it was such a personal song, it was a quiet song, and conveyed such a sense of intimate, non-anthemic emotion that it wasn’t all that suitable for arena or stadium performances.

3 - You produced what turned out to be Charlie's last album, "Pictures and Paintings." What was his motivation to record another version of FLGH? 

PG:  He wanted to record it again, because he felt the B-side version was more Billy Sherrill than him. Charlie was the one who re-conceived of it as a gospel song, with a black choir and in his original conception (I’m not sure how this would have worked out) with Arthur Fiedler leading the Boston Pops section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra behind him. He had trouble singing it in the original key, and it was Scott Billington, the producer, who suggested the key change, which created a change in mood, too, that substituted a kind of upbeat sense of salvation for the original, haunting feel. If I had to choose, I’d choose the demo (I think most people would), but Charlie absolutely loved the new version, too, he loved the voices and the new, more hopeful mood.

4 - If you believe in Rock and Roll Heaven, who up there is singing this song with Elvis Presley and Ray Charles and Sam Cooke as Charlie smiles and sways along?

PG:  Billie Holiday? Louis Armstrong? Miles on trumpet? A still earth-bound Willie Nelson. Bobby Charles. But not together.

5 - One of my favorite records is Johnny Cash's "Spiritual," which has a lot in common with FLGH. Breathtaking vocal by an iconic singer who started at Sun Records, a song that pulls off the feat of sounding like its an old traditional tune without sounding derivative, lyrical pleading for relief from life's pain.  Maybe I'm a sucker for these types of records.  Can you recommend a few hidden gems along these lines?

PG:  She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” and “Over the Rainbow” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Nick Lowe and Geraint Watkins – “Only a Rose.”  “It Tears Me Up” – Dan Penn.

6 - A perhaps unfair question I tend to ask people is what's their favorite cover version of a song. I don't think any measure up to Charlie's recordings, but some very talented folks have sung it - Tom Jones with Mark Knopfler; J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr.; Rita Coolidge; the Notting Hillbillies (Knopfler again); Walkabouts; and others. Which do you like best and why? 

PG:  If we’re going to talk covers I’m going to go with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s version of Charlie’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be,” which I think equals the original in an entirely different and individual way, and Jerry Lee Lewis’ version of the same song, which ends with Jerry Lee whistling the outro, and then spontaneously declaring, “Can you imagine a cat in khaki pants walking down the street, whistling?” as the song fades. Not to mention Dennis Brennan’s beautiful version of “Feel Like Going Home,” with Duke Levine backing him up.

7 - You've been called a "national resource" for your writing about music. What I don't know is if you can play guitar or piano. Do you? And, if so, do you ever sit down and belt out "Feel Like Going Home"?

PG:  Don’t play – my brother and sister do. So does my son, Jake. We all belted out “Down By the Old Mill Stream” last Saturday for my father’s 100th birthday, with accompaniment by two mandolins (one of them my father’s) and a ukulele, played by Jake, Mike, and Josh (Budo).

Monday, October 3, 2016

Who Can Turn The World On With Her Smile?

"LOVE IS ALL AROUND" (The Mary Tyler Moore Show Theme Song) -- Sonny Curtis

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Sonny Curtis played with Buddy Holly, wrote the rock anthem "I Fought The Law" and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Oh, and he also wrote one of the most iconic and beloved television theme songs ever. Yes, I am biased because I was a kid growing up in Minneapolis (where the sitcom was set) when the series originally aired; watching the opening credits now is as familiar and comforting as viewing a home movie... but I dare you to play this video and not sing along:

Sonny was kind enough to answer my questions about "Love is All Around" via email:

1 - I've read about how you got word one day that a sitcom needed a theme song, so you came up with one quickly and then went over and played it for the producers, who bought it immediately.  When they recorded the version used for the series, did you just record your voice and guitar or were you also involved in the arrangement with the strings and brass, etc?

Sonny Curtis: My friend Doug Gilmore worked for the Williams/Price Agency, who managed Mary Tyler Moore. He called one day about 11 AM and told me about the plan for a sitcom with Mary. During his lunch break, he dropped off a small synopsis that described Mary's character and what the show was about. I wrote the song in about two hours, called him and said, "who do I sing this to?" He sent me to James L. Brooks, the show's executive producer. I sang him the song and he liked it.

I was not involved in the arrangement. Pat Williams arranged the song and I sang on it at the session.

2 - Why did they tweak the song after the first season?

SC: The lyrics for the first season started with "How Will You Make It On Your Own," etc. After the first season, James L. Brooks called and said, "She's obviously made it, so we need to up date the lyrics." I did a complete rewrite and we recorded it again with a different arrangement, also by Pat Williams. I played the acoustic guitar lick on that version and overdubbed my lead vocal.

3 - Did your success with "Love is All Around" land you any more theme song work?

SC: I wrote two other TV themes: Szysznyk and Evening Shade. Whether the MTM theme had anything to do with it, I don't know. Although, because I sang the MTM theme, I got a lot of work singing jingles.

    Another classic song Sonny wrote, made famous by the Everly Brothers

4 - If the producers hadn't been interested in the song, what do you think you would have done with it?

SC: I don't know. I guess I would have tried to pitch it to some artist. Without it's exposure on the show, though, I wonder if it would have had commercial value. I guess we'll never know.

5 - "LIAA" has been covered by everyone from Joan Jett to Sammy Davis, Jr. to Minneapolis' own Husker Du.  Do you have a favorite cover version?

SC: I like them all. One thing, it provided me with the opportunity to meet and hang out with Sammy Davis, Jr. for a while, which I'm proud of. He called and invited me to his palatial hotel suite to go over the song and the music with him. It was a real pleasant experience.

I guess if you pinned me down, I'd have to say Joan Jett's is my favorite.

I actually like the version we did for the show. Not because I sang it, but I think the arrangement is perfect.

6 - Do you have a theory about why this particular song struck such a chord with viewers and listeners and has endured for all these years?

SC: I think the timing was great. It was sort of at the beginning of Gloria Steinem's feminism movement and I think the show was a touchstone for that period. Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, Lou, Ted and the rest of the cast were fantastic. It had terrific writers and outstanding production. I think great synergy was created by doing it in front of a live audience.

The show has enormous staying power, thus the song has great staying power. Whatever the reason, I'm very proud that I was fortunate (and lucky) enough to be associated with such a wonderful part of television history.

7 - What is your favorite television theme song or one you wish you had written?

SC: I'm a great fan of music and I probably shouldn't go down this road. There are so many good ones written by magnificent composers. I'm sure I'll leave out quite a few, but I'll give you an example of some of my favorites. I love the themes from M*A*S*H, Cheers, and the first Bob Newhart Show. And way high on my list is Welcome Back, Kotter , written and performed by one of my all time favorites, John Sebastian of The Lovin’ Spoonful.

Many thanks to the talented and humble Sonny Curtis for the interview. Check out his official website here.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Pluck a Heartstring, Duck for Cover

IT HURTS - Bad Bad Hats

I don't think anyone can deny that it's a challenge to keep up with the amount of new music being produced. The democratization of production and distribution that the digital revolution created means there is more music than ever, which is a good thing. But separating the wheat from the chaff has never been harder.

I first heard of Bad Bad Hats last fall, when I read about them in Minneapolis' City Pages, which named the band the "2015 Pick to Click."  Old fashioned press sometimes still pays dividends in this day of social media.

Being a good Minnesotan, I liked Bad Bad Hats before I'd heard the first note of "It Hurts" because I could see that it was shot on a hockey rink. Then, once the drums, bass and guitar laid down a simple but catchy jangle, I was intrigued. And, upon hearing Kerry Alexander's voice (and background vocals), I was hooked.

That's Chris Hoge on drums and Noah Boswell on bass.

You can learn more about the band and their music (as well as find all their social media links at Afternoon Records or at  And here's something from their Bandcamp page: 

"It Hurts" is the title track of a 2013 EP; last year BBH released an album, "Psychic Reader." 

Ian Anderson of Afternoon Records kindly took my questions to the band.  Here's what they had to say...

1 - IH is available as a free download (thank you). What is the thinking behind giving away your music?

BBH:  Our friend and label guy, Ian, convinced us that free was the way to go. I was skeptical, because I think music as an art form is painfully undervalued and we put a lot of time and energy and creativity into our work. But ultimately, it's about being heard. We hope to remove any obstacles between the listener and our music.  And we've found the people who really connect with us end up purchasing a CD or vinyl at the shows anyway. 

2 - What was the hardest part about shooting the video for IH? I was impressed that you three are directly on the ice, with no carpet or other material beneath your feet. No broomball shoes, though Kerry and Noah seem to have matching footwear.

BBH:  It was definitely a chilly experience. And I remember being somewhat concerned about slipping and breaking something. Occasionally, I'd have to take myself and my guitar to a warm place to defrost. But the shoot didn't take very long. And it was very fun to be in that space. And we got cheeseburgers after.

3 - Kerry is the band's primary songwriter.  Was that the case for "It Hurts" and what inspired it?

BBH:  I wrote "It Hurts" when I was studying abroad in Paris. One night, I was up really late working on a paper for one of my classes. I texted my friend to see if she was still up and working on our stupid paper. She was as behind on it as me, so I texted her "well, the night is young." And she responded "it's so young, it hurts." I don't know why that resonated with me so much, but I jotted it down immediately and wrote the song the next day. Haha!
4 - What was the most amusing/wonderful/rage-inducing thing a reviewer or fan said about IH?

BBH:  Huh! Specific comments aren't really coming to mind. I guess I'll just say that one of the most rewarding things has been seeing young people cover "It Hurts." I'm happy that it's a song that people want to sing along to. 

5 - What inspired the kazoo solo?

BBH:  When I was working on songs in Paris, I only had my guitar and kazoo. It was just something portable that I could be creative with. I'm not sure that I expected it to be on the final version, but I think it fits.
6 - Listening to IH now, is there anything you would change (and/or do so when playing it live)?

BBH:  If I did it all again today, I'm sure there are things I would do differently. Different vocal inflections. Maybe electric guitar. But I'm happy with how it sounds and I think it speaks to that era of our band. 

7 - Bob Mould started Husker Du at Macalester College when I was a student there.  Information Society, who had a #3 hit in 1988 with "Pure Energy," formed in Dupre hall.  Will Sheff of Okkervil River is another alum.  You guys met at Macalester.  Randomness or is there something magical in the dining hall water?

BBH:  Haha! There might be something in the chocolate milk. It is a very cool place that attracts very cool people. When I was growing up in the South, I didn't know that many people who were making music or in bands. But when I got to Macalester, I instantly met all kinds of creative people. And when a few bands started to see glimmers of success (a spot on The Current's Local Show or a cool opening slot at 7th Street Entry), it inspired the rest of us. I knew it was possible to break into the greater scene if I just kept writing and playing and working hard.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When I Call Out Your Name

LOVE HAS NO PRIDE (Linda Ronstadt) - John Boylan, Producer

Very few singers have come close to the commercial and artistic success in as many genres as Linda Ronstadt has achieved.  The combination of amazing voice and excellent taste in songwriters served her well from 1967's "Different Drum" until her forced retirement due to the effects of Parkinson's disease a few years ago.

Country, pop, folk, rock, new wave, operetta, Mexican canciones, standards, duets, trios, and so on - there seems to be nothing that Linda Ronstadt can't sing well.

"Love Has No Pride" was only a minor hit from her first gold album, coming just a year before her rise to superstardom with 1974's "Heart Like a Wheel" LP.  But the song's popularity has endured and even grown in the years since.

Ronstadt's voice breaks my heart every time I hear "Love Has No Pride."  To get an idea of just how powerful her performance is, I urge you to go on Spotify and listen to a bunch of other versions of this song.  There are many very nice versions from superb singers like Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Billy Bragg, Lynn Anderson, Paul Young and others.  But none of them hold a candle to Ronstadt's.

Another thing that stands out while listening to all of these versions is just how perfect the arrangement is on Ronstadt's.  The other records are either fairly simple (and effective) or somewhat generic.  Ronstadt's version starts with electric piano and an unusual sounding pedal steel guitar, then the drums roll in and then... The Voice.  The accompaniment and the vocal are able to build from quiet and tender passages to a powerful climax, without ever going over the top.

The man responsible for producing this masterpiece is John Boylan.  John also managed Ronstadt and put together a backing band that later made musical history as The Eagles.

He also co-produced Boston's self-titled debut LP, which remains the best selling first album in history.  Among others, he produced hits for the Charlie Daniels Band, the Little River Band, the Muppets, the Simpsons, various soundtracks, and is a Grammy winner.

John continues to produce, still does some work with Ronstadt, and teaches college courses in music production in southern California.  He was kind enough to respond to my questions about "Love Has No Pride."

1 - You, JD Souther and Peter Asher were all producers on the album "Love Has No Pride comes from, 1973's "Don't Cry Now." How did you end up producing this track?

John Boylan: I started the album in late ’72, but we had to stop to go on a very long tour with Neil Young. My contract with Linda ended with that tour, so I wasn’t involved with finishing the album. “Love Has No Pride,” was one of the early tracks we recorded before the tour. The song came from two friends of mine – Libby Titus, who was my classmate at Bard College in the '60s, and Eric Kaz, whose band I produced in the '60s.

2 - Bonnie Raitt had released the original version of LHNP a year earlier. What did you feel Linda could bring to the song to make it her own?

JB: I loved Bonnie’s version because she’s such an amazing singer, but her version was somewhat stripped-down and not Top 40 Radio-friendly. I thought Linda could bring her own style to the song in a more radio-friendly arrangement.

3 - You played electric piano on LHNP.  Did you lay that down separately or were at least some of the parts recorded "live" as a band?

JB: The arrangement is based around that piano part, which I worked out the night before the session. We cut it live minus the strings and background vocals. All the instruments played at the same time, and Linda sang as well, although we did touch up her vocal by overdubbing a few lines later. The string section, arranged by Jimmie Haskell, was also added later.

4 - Are there any alternate takes, or did you have a clear idea of what arrangement you were going for?

JB: No alternate takes.

5 - LHNP was only a minor hit at the time, topping out at #51, but has endured as one of the most popular songs in Linda's extensive catalog.  Why do you think this is?

JB: Two reasons – it’s a great song and Linda sang the hell out of it.

6 - Legendary pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow contributes a lot to the sound of LHNP.  What was it like working with him?

JB: Pete was a wonderful musician, with the most original sound on steel I ever heard. Even Buddy Emmons, arguably the best steel player ever, said that Pete was a unique player. I worked with him a lot and enjoyed every session.

7 - It's fairly well known that you and Linda were a couple at one point, and I'm not sure what the status of your relationship was when you recorded LHNP.  How did that inform or influence such a heartbreaking performance?

JB: Not relevant at all. We had not been a couple for over two years when we made that record.

To read more about John, check out his music company's site here.