Laura Nigro was a sixteen-year-old musical prodigy who was trying on several last names, as creative types sometimes do. She happened to be “Nyro” when she finally started to catch on in the music industry, so Laura Nyro she became.
Nyro was never a huge star in her own right. But she left behind a musical legacy in a bunch of songs that became big hits for other artists. That’s a roster that would include Three Dog Night, the Fifth Dimension, Barbra Streisand and Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Nyro wrote “And When I Die.” Peter, Paul & Mary made it kinda-sorta famous. But it was Blood, Sweat and Tears that really brought it to the fore. David Clayton Thomas’ voice, combined with Dick Halligan’s arrangements made for a relatively light-hearted romp through the graveyard. And while BST’s version is musically different from Nyro’s, they never lost sight of that gospel feel that it had, even as they gave it the cowboy instrumental section.
In doing the research for this show, I went down a little bit of a rabbit hole of listening to Laura Nyro’s music. I may have to do a whole bunch of shows dedicated to her sometime soon. Nyro is definitely an under-appreciated talent.
I actually had a different show in mind but I got to listening to some old radio airchecks (not my own) and I was inspired to do something different from the usual show.
The first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a half-hour long. That’s because I’m playing songs in their entirety and not really talking very much. (If any episode is going to net me a C&D letter, this’ll be the one.)
In this year’s Christmas episode, I’m playing eight songs that don’t get airplay anymore for some reason. A few of them are kinda goofy, a couple are kind of derivative, and I daresay a few of them are seminal to their genre. And while I share a little history with you here and there, the intent this time is to just sit back and wonder why the All Christmas All The Time station in your area is sticking with the same twenty songs, and not playing any of these guys.
All of these songs can be found without too much hassle on Amazon Music or YouTube. If you want to revisit them, here’s the playlist:
Merry Christmas, Mary—Tommy Dee and Carol Kay
Merry, Merry Christmas, Baby—Dodie Stevens
Santa’s Song—The Oak Ridge Boys
Yulesville—Edd “Kookie” Byrnes
Santa Claus Meets the Purple People Eater—Sheb Wooley
Please Come Home For Christmas—Charles Brown
White Christmas—The Ravens
Silent Night—The Ravens (flip side of White Christmas)
And just for the giggles, here’s one more song that didn’t make it into the show itself. It’s Bobby Helms’ other shot at a Christmas tune, from 1965. He wasn’t the original artist (I think he was the fourth) to release this song. I think the most popular version came from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass in 1968, though Bobby Vinton’s version is kind of well-known, too. At any rate, here’s Bobby Helms:
Sorry, no transcript of this episode, since it’s mostly music.
First off, I have to note that I do have fun doing the artwork for these episodes.
Where were we? Oh yeah. Somewhere in the late 50s, early 60s. And Hank Ballard has a new song that’s picking up traction in Baltimore thanks to the Buddy Deane Show, when suddenly it gets yoinked out from under him by a newcomer from Philadelphia.
That newcomer is named Chubby Checker, and the song is (surprise!) “The Twist,” which rockets to the top of the charts just a few weeks after Dick Clark features Checker on his Saturday night show. Suddenly the floodgates open up and the nation is awash in Twist records for two years. I’m talking about a couple of dozen songs at least, and those are just the ones that made the charts.
No wonder The Beatles just walked in and took over. I kid! They’d have done that anyway.
This didn’t make it into the show for some reason (though it’s in the transcript), but Ballard wasn’t even mad about Chubby Checker (and Dick Clark) hijacking his record. You see, Ballard’s label didn’t have a lot of confidence in it—hence its placement on a B side—and as one of the writers, Ballard made a pile of money on it anyway. Plus, his version peaked at Number 28 the same week Checker’s version reached Number 1 the first time around. And Dick Clark made it up to Ballard by promoting his other single, “Finger Poppin’ Time,” which was at Number 7 that same week. So, all’s well that ends well.
I don’t know why it fascinated me so much recently to poke around with songs that had foreign lyrics in them. But, here we are. This week’s show (and I promise I’m done with the premise for awhile) looks at four songs between 1969 and 1984 which have non-English phrases in them. Some of them have been hilariously misunderstood for a long time. One of them is pretty obvious but I decided to throw it in anyway. And one may come as a surprise to you, especially if you don’t speak Spanish.
As promised, here’s an episode of the European game show Jeux Sans Frontières from 1975. This episode comes from Engelburg, Switzerland:
And here’s another, airing from Vilamoura, Portugal in 1980:
Tommy James and the Shondells started out as Tom and the Tornadoes in 1959, when Tom was 12 years old. A few years later they changed their name in honor of guitarist Troy Shondell, and they cut their second record in a local radio station after under-age Tom saw a band playing the song “Hanky Panky” in a club and noted the huge reaction it got from the crowd.
The record did well in the Midwest for a bit, and that was about it because it didn’t have national distribution. Suddenly a Pennsylvania station picked it up, and that was the start of Tommy James becoming an employee of an organized crime family.
I considered putting this song in one of my Songs You Didn’t Know Were Covers collections, but there’s more backstory to “Wild Thing” than most of those songs get, so I committed it to its own episode. And now you’re spoiled in that respect: yes, The Troggs’ version of “Wild Thing” wasn’t the first version of the song to be recorded.
It was, however, more faithful to the rather sparsely-recorded demo recorded by Chip Taylor, and it became the template upon which the many, MANY future covers of the song are based. And this week we’re going to look at a bunch of them, in brief. Most of them are very good. Some of them…not so much, but your mileage may vary in that respect.
So I’m sitting here in my home office-slash-podcast studio, researching and writing this week’s episode, and setting up the audio clips, and my dog is sitting at my feet pretty much the entire time. And as soon as I cracked the microphone open, he decided he needed to leave the room. Did he need to go outside? No. He just wanted to be in the next room. How’s that for a criticism?
Ah, well. At least I have you. Right? RIGHT??
John Lennon’s first non-Beatles single for which he gets sole writing credit was misunderstood and probably alienated Beatles fans, but you can’t deny the power of Eric Clapton’s guitar riffs and the claustrophobia of the mix provided by Klaus Voormann’s bass and Ringo Starr’s drumming. And it should be noted that the moaning and screaming at the end actually pre-dates Arthur Janov’s book The Primal Scream, so once again Lennon was a little bit ahead of his time. (Albert Goldman’s book about Lennon suggests that he and Mick Jagger got advance copies of the book, and that John Lennon actually underwent primal scream therapy for awhile. However, Goldman’s book appears to have only a casual relationship with the truth.
It’s allergy season and I’m sounding great, my friend. Have a listen.
In 1964 the Shangri-Las got on a sudden hot streak with their sultry recording of “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, written by George “Shadow” Morton.
Morton had bluffed his way into the Brill Building by telling Lieber and Stoller that he was a songwriter (he wasn’t), and when he was asked what kind of songs he wrote, he said “hit songs” (also a lie). But Lieber and Stoller took his word for it and asked him to write a song. A week later, Morton came back not only with a song, but with a quartet of teenage girls from Long Island City called The Shangri-Las. Lieber and Stoller liked both the song and the girls, and signed them to a contract (well, their parents signed the contract; they were still minors at the time). I saw somewhere that there might have been some controversy about the Shangri-Las already being signed to another label, but I couldn’t substantiate that claim.
And that’s just one of several nebulous stories that surround the Shangri-Las and their first couple of hits. We look at a few of the ones that are connected to their second, much larger hit. Have fun with it.
Holy Moley, kids. It’s another overstuffed episode of the show for you. But, I guess that’s what happens when you’re dealing with a song that goes clear back to 1933.
“Blue Moon” was written by Rodgers and Hart, and it was going to be used in a movie, then it wasn’t. Then it was going to be used in another movie, then it wasn’t. Then it was again, and the publisher at MGM thought the melody would make a pretty nice popular song, so he convinced Lorenz Hart to change the lyrics. And it did take some convincing, for reasons you’ll get to hear about during the show.
While you’re here, let me give extra thanks to Bill Tyres for his permission to use the audio from one of his YouTube videos. You can find his over at his main webpage, or through his YouTube channel. Tell him I sent you.
And finally, as a little bonus, here’s Elvy Yost, singing the first incarnation of the song. She appeared on an episode of The Catch singing a later version of it (and it looked like a YouTube video in the show), but it doesn’t appear that she actually made a video for YT consumption.
Last week’s show was short, time-wise, and I promised I’d make up for it. And make up, I did, because this is one of my longer non-interview shows, clocking in at 20:30. If you listen to this show during your morning commute, you may have to circle the block a few times before going in to work.
But it’s so packed with stuff that I don’t think you’ll mind. This week we’re looking at songs that were inspired by books, a topic that’s turned out to be HUGE, and we’ll be visiting again in the future if you’re digging it.