In 1970, Led Zeppelin band members Robert Plant and Jimmy Page wanted a new song to use as the centerpiece of their concerts. so they retreated to a cottage in Wales, as you do in these situations. And when they emerged, they had the genesis of the song that’s made so many “Best of…” lists, it’s actually created some backlash over the years, including from Robert Plant himself.
The song proved so popular when the Album-Oriented Rock stations played it that people immediately asked, “Where can I buy this single?” And the answer was, You can’t. Go buy the album.
The album was Led Zeppelin IV (or, just “the fourth album”, or Zoso if you like reading too deeply into things), and the song was “Stairway to Heaven” (because, duh). And while “Stairway” was never released to the public as a 45 single, the album sold like hotcakes, becoming one of the top ten selling albums of all time.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a 45RPM record, however: a promotional copy was sent to radio stations (see below–note the small spindle hole), and a jukebox copy was created for play in those machines.
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Back in the 1950s, cover songs weren’t a big deal at all, especially if you were in a doo-wop group. Most of those groups started out in churches and in schools, and performed on street corners or Amateur Hour shows, and they weren’t writing their own material so much as they were adapting the songs that they’d heard and already knew. So it was with The Flamingos and their biggest hit, “I Only Have Eyes For You,” which dates back to the 1934 film Dames, featuring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Check out this mostly-instrumental “dance” number!
For a song that’s so well-known among Oldies fans, it didn’t do that well on the charts in 1959, peaking at #11 on the pop chart and #3 on the R&B chart. And I have a theory about that, but you’ll have to listen in.
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So for those of you who listen via iTunes, or some other podcatcher: I owe you a huge apology.
I’d uploaded this week’s episode into Podomatic, which hosts my RSS feed, but somehow I managed to miss hitting the “Publish” button. It’s a mistake I didn’t catch until today. At any rate, the problem has been rectified, and I’m a dope.
Also, I had one thing in mind for this week’s show, but I’m going to do another thing instead, because the first idea gave me writer’s block.
Stevie Wonder was a pre-teen genius but Motown didn’t know what to do with him. Then he scored the label’s second #1 hit. Afterward…they still didn’t know what to do with him.
Apologies for the late delivery; I uploaded this file but somehow managed not to publish it!
Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips Part 2” was only the second Number One hit for Motown Records. The first was 1962’s “Please Mister Postman” by the Marvelettes. (Fun Fact: the drummer on both these songs was Marvin Gaye! He was still an up-and-coming artist, so he played as a session musician on a lot of the early tracks for the label.)
But Motown had a bit of a tough time getting audiences to appreciate The 12-Year-Old Genius, and even this song wasn’t the catalyst for his career. It took a little perseverance and the onset of puberty to turn him into one of Motown’s biggest performers, with a career that’s still going strong fifty-five years later, and counting.
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In the 1960s there was a doo-wop girl group called the Blue Belles (sometimes known as The Bluebelles, or Patti and the Bluebelles). After Cindy Birdsong left the group in 1967 to become a Supreme, the group reinvented themselves and became Labelle. In the early 1970s they were a funk-rock group, recording covers of The Rolling Stones, Carole King and all kinds of other stuff that no other similarly-composed group would even consider. But another couple of years went by and they reinvented themselves again, embracing the the Glam Rock look and sound, and it was during that era that they scored their biggest hit, a proto-disco-funk track called “Lady Marmalade”, which went to Number One on the Billboard Chart in March of 1975.
Over the years since then, Labelle’s influence can still be heard in the sounds of groups like En Vogue, the Pussycat Dolls, and Destiny’s Child. Their fearlessness has inspired at least a couple of generations of pop musicians, and even their non-hit tracks are regularly covered. “Lady Marmalade” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2003, and I’ll bet you didn’t even know that “Grammy Hall of Fame” was even a thing.
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