Friday, July 29, 2011


Like Major Bowes' Amateur Hour and Star Search before it, American Idol appeals to the idea that there's a lot of talent out there just waiting for the opportunity, and every year some people seize the opportunity more than others.

I had never heard "Black Horse and a Cherry Tree" before Katharine McPhee sang it in a memorable Season 5 finale against Taylor Hicks – you know, the year Chris Daughtry really won. I had been rooting for Hicks all along and believed he was a shoo-in with Daughtry out, but this performance by Ms. McPhee rattled my smug cage.

I heard the "real" version in a store the other day and thought, "Hey, that's the Katharine McPhee song." Still one of the show's most memorable moments.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Artie Shaw's pocket symphony

Brian Wilson has famously used the phrase "pocket symphony" to describe the Beach Boys classic recording "Good Vibrations." If what he means is that a lot of interesting themes are colliding in the space of three minutes as opposed to the more luxurious time span of a symphony, then here's a pocket symphony that was a big hit in 1940: "Frenesi" by Artie Shaw and his orchestra.

One of the premier band leaders and jazz clarinetists of the swing era, Shaw packed a little ballroom dancing, some classical elements and international flair and of course big band jazz into three perfect and infectious minutes. Like "Good Vibrations," when you dissect the song in your mind it's hard to believe so many music delights can occur in such a short time span. Shaw was an innovative musician and this, to me, is his masterpiece.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Made for these times

"I keep looking for a place to fit where I can speak my mind..."

The mark of a great artist is that she puts words or images to a thought or feeling that is inside many people but hasn't been expressed in a way that most of us will understand. Brian Wilson is a great artist.

In the song "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times," Wilson puts words and music to the awkward feeling that each and every one of us feels when we recognize there is no one else in the world quite like "me."

"I've been trying hard to find the people That I won't leave behind ..."

The search for friendship, the search for meaning, the search for "fitting in." Ultimately we won't find complete fulfillment from other people. John Maxwell writes about being in the audience when someone asked his wife if "John makes you happy" and getting surprised when she responded, "No." Then she explained that true happiness is something you find inside yourself and not the responsibility of other people - and he realized she was right.

"They say I got brains, but they ain't doing me no good; I wish they would ..."

As a result of that realization, Wilson sings, "Sometimes I feel very sad," and he gets frustrated when his hopes and expectations don't quite come true ...

"Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good goin' for myself, but what goes wrong ..."

The sadness makes Wilson wonder if "I guess I just wasn't made for these times," but in giving voice to the sadness, he touches something in every heart, the sense of uniqueness that is both the joy and curse of our existence. He sings about the loneliness of being unlike any other living soul on Earth.

"Every time I get the inspiration to go change things around, no one wants to help me look for places where new things might be found - Where can I turn when my fair weather friends cop out? What's it all about?"

But there is also the joy in realization - If Brian Wilson can give voice to my loneliness, I'm not alone.

And if each of us is a unique being, how precious that is: How important it is that we treat each other with the respect and care that something precious and unique deserves.

None of us will ever quite fit in precisely, because we were designed to be different. That can make us sad and lonely, but it can also give us strength and inspiration, voiced in such motivational clich├ęs as "If it's going to be, it's up to me."

Looking for a place to fit where you can speak your mind? So is everyone else - so gain power from that fact and speak your mind anyway.

Do the thing you fear, and you will find, like Brian Wilson did, that you have something to say that people need to hear.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sing Sing Sing/Christopher Columbus

Long before Iron Butterfly, there was Gene Krupa. Long before "McArthur Park" and "Hey Jude," there was this nine-minute top 40 hit. Oh, you had to flip the record halfway through to hear the whole thing, but there it was.

And the live version from Carnegie Hall, from the live album that is still in print decades later, is still one of the greatest performances ever recorded in person.

This is the original record from the mid 1930s, still packing all the punch it had from the start. I can imagine folks hearing it for the first time and wondering "What is THAT?!" And buying it and playing it over and over again, like my dad when he was a teenager, and his son who wore it out the rest of the way ...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Still crazee for Slade after all theeze yeerz

I have always loved sharing music, and time has been kind to many of the obscure artists I foisted on friends many years ago. I remember telling people they had to listen to this album by Judee Sill, John Kongos, Linda Perhacs, Emmitt Rhodes, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Tufano & Giammarese. In many cases it took years, but my faith in those artists was rewarded, often with a remastered re-release replete with essays about overlooked genius and the like.

But I'm still waiting on Slade. Oh, Slade is a legendary band in most of the world, but in the U.S. of A. they're kind of an afterthought. They're the band that made the original version of Quiet Riot's big hit "Cum On Feel the Noize" and had a couple minor hits in the 1980s - "Run Run Away" and that other one ...

I remember listening to Slade in my college radio station and reading about how they had seven or eight No. 1 songs in a row in their home country of Britain. I remember telling my friends they really should check these guys out, because they're the next big British invasion. Every song they performed had so much energy it would be another band's big concert finale: "Mama Weer All Crazee Now," "Gudbuy T'Jane," "Coz I Love You," "Skweeze Me Pleeze Me" and, of course, "Cum On Feel the Noize." Which, I guess, is what Quiet Riot finally figured out.

But they never really caught on in America the way I figured they would. Don't know why. I remember playing Slade's version of "Noize" for the teenager in my life at the time, and she said it's OK but not as good as the note-for-note copy that was Quiet Riot's rendition. It drove me, um, crazee. I listen to their album "Sladest," the greatest-hits collection, and wonder how none of those songs sparked America's imagination. I listen to "How Does It Feel," one of the loveliest and most melodic rock anthems ever recorded, and am frustrated not to hear it mentioned in the same breath as many less worthy songs.

It's fun to have a little band that only you appreciate suddenly find its way to mainstream acceptance.  That's never really happened with Slade, and that amazes me. This is one incredibly great band.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

In the cool of the evening light

When the temperatures start to rise every year, and the girls start wearing their summer clothes again, the world just seems a more pleasant place, even though I've reached the age where they just pass me by. The best song Bruce Springsteen has released in the last 20 years.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Did you ever take a ride take a ride on a roller coaster ...

Four years before the Ides of March had their one big hit, "Vehicle" (you know, "I'm your vehicle, baby, I'll take you anywhere you wanna go ..."), the Chicago-area band put out a little single called "Roller Coaster" on Parrot Records.

I thought it was great, bought the record new in 1966 and have played it over and over over the years. Alas, the world was not ready for the Ides of March, and I had to wait four more years to see them on the charts.

By then, my first reaction to "Vehicle" was, "The Ides of March? Can't be the same band, can it?" The horns, nowhere to be heard on "Roller Coaster," and the clearly different vocal style made me suspicious. But there was the name "Peterik" on the label - writer Jim Peterik to be precise. Yep, same band.

The record (pun intended) will show that "Vehicle" was a much more commercially successful song than "Roller Coaster." But me, I like this one better. A girl in love is the greatest thrill the world has ever known ...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Our troubles were torn in half

Aunt Fritzi salutes The Coasters.

"Play Those Oldies Mr. Dee Jay"

The odd thing about "Play Those Oldies Mr. Dee Jay" is that the songs it salutes weren't especially old when Anthony and the Sophomores released it. I am almost certain I owned this record before The Beatles invaded America, which makes it an early-1960s tune. The person who posted this YouTube video suggests it came out in 1963.

I purchased my copy in a cutout bin, on Mercury Records, probably for a dime. I had never heard the song on the radio, I think I confused the band with Little Anthony and the Imperials, and when I played it at home I asked myself, "Why wasn't this song a hit?" It reminds me very much of the Barry Mann tune, "Mister Bass Man," and perhaps it was written and released to grab a little of the reflected glory of that big hit.

It's almost 50 years since this song came out and failed to chart, and I remain convinced that "Play Those Oldies Mr. Dee Jay" deserved (and deserves) to be recognized. It's pretty much the perfect Doo Wop music anthem. And that note Anthony belts out on "Til Theeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnn" – Whew!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Yellow Balloon weather

Hot, sunny days like we've had this weekend inevitably bring my mind back to the summer of 1967, when Dad and Mom took us to Disneyland for the second time. (Unlike six years earlier, when Dad drove the whole way from New Jersey to Anaheim, Calif., including a wretched journey across the Mojave Desert, this time we stopped in Salt Lake City and flew the rest of the way.)

Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska (I want to say Kearney), we started hearing a wonderful little tune on the radio - "Yellow Balloon" by The Yellow Balloon. These 41 years later, it still give me an inner smile. I learned years later that The Yellow Balloon was formed by Don Grady, who played one of My Three Sons on television. It's an interesting factoid, but the main reason I like "Yellow Balloon" is because it sounds so much like the sixties.

I was deep into the Top 40 charts at the time, and I'd listen with pencil and paper poised for the weekly countdowns on WABC and WMCA in New York. When we returned to the East, I told my friends to listen for a song called "Yellow Balloon," because it was going to be a huge summer hit. But it never migrated to New York radio. Wait, maybe it was a "Long Shot" on WMCA, but the rest of the dour East Coast did not delight in the song the way I did.

Maybe that's another reason I moved to the Midwest when I turned 18 and never looked back.