Shel Silverstein was a humorist, a poet, a cartoonist, and a musician who had a strong, if not especially obvious, influence on pop music through the late 1960s, up into the 1980s. Most people know him for his poetry books largely aimed at a children’s audience, but he also provided cartoons for Playboy Magazine, usually inserting a caricature of himself into the image:
And he’s also responsible for the dark, subversively comic Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, an alphabet book you do NOT want your kids to read (but you should, because it’s hilarious):
But Silverstein was a songwriter who had an especially strong relationship with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and that led to a couple of their bigger hits, including a song that was essentially a parody of the rock star life, but it led to the sort of fame that only he could imagine:
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The Isley Brothers were an act that seemed to do well on stage, but they were having difficulty getting traction as far as record sales or radio airplay were concerned. While performing in Philadelphia, Ronald Isley recognized that their cover of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops” was getting a terrific response from the audience, so he started ad-libbing a call-and-response section to keep the song going. It worked out so well that they kept doing the bit, and when they’d finished the series of performances, their producers suggested that they turn the bit into a single of its own. And a gigantic hit was born!
Ha, Ha! Just kidding. The song only went to #47 on the Billboard charts. But it became a popular party tune, and was covered repeatedly by numerous artists, including Lulu, who was only 13 years old and still performing as Lulu and the Luvvers. Here’s her 1965 appearance on Ready Steady Go. I like the full ending she puts on the record, and the way she gives up lip-synching before she’s quite done:
Finally, 1978 rolled around and the song was used in the film National Lampoon’s Animal House, performed by a fictional band called Otis Day and the Knights, which re-activated the song’s popularity (and contributed heavily to the Isleys getting Gold certification for their version), and allowed the singer of the band (not the guy you see on stage, that’s a lip-synching actor) to put a real Otis Day band together and go on tour. Over ten years later they recorded an album with a new recording of “Shout”.
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Lou Reed had been out of the Velvet Underground for about two years, and his first solo album had tanked, but people like David Bowie still believed in him, and brought him to London to record his second album. One of the songs he recorded during the ten days they spent on Transformer was a song he’d been noodling with for about a year. It started out as part of the score for a show that never materialized, but over time it morphed into a tribute to several of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars” at his studio-cum-crash pad, The Factory.
The song got a remarkable amount of airplay despite its subject matter (and because of how well it was coded), and propelled Transformer into the Billboard Top 30, cementing its place as a touchstone of the Glam Rock genre of music.
Incidentally, the album’s cover was photographed by Mick Rock, who’d accidentally over-exposed the image in the darkroom, but he liked the way it came out and submitted it as a possible cover anyway.
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The Billboard Hot 100 chart has been around for about 60 years. In all that time, only seven songs which weren’t recorded in English have made it to the Number One position. And there are several other foreign-language songs which enjoyed plenty of popularity without making it to the top spot, but the fact is, in United States it’s tough to score a hit if your song isn’t in English.
So this week I tried to come up with a comprehensive list of non-English songs that made it to the Top 20. This definitely became a case of “the more you find, the more there is to find” so I’m not at all sure I caught everything, but it’s a pretty good list, and at over 18 minutes, it’s an overstuffed episode besides.
I think that some of the songs that didn’t make Number One are going to be a surprise to you, but a couple of the ones that did, may also be surprising. And there’s one artist who actually hit the Top Five twice, with songs that aren’t in English. And no, it’s not Dean Martin. I shan’t spoil it here, but I will say that this one really knocked me out.
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Alice Cooper (the band, not the guy) had released two albums without much success, so they turned their backs on Los Angeles and went to Detroit (as you do, I guess), where the people were already listening to stuff similar to their own. It was during that time that Alice Cooper (the guy, not the band) found himself watching an old Bowery Boys movie and he liked something that one of the characters had said.
From that he came up with the song that made Alice Cooper (the band, not the guy) the kings of summertime, and gave Alice Cooper (the guy, not the band) a good reason to declare himself “the Francis Scott Key of summer.
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First off: let me both thank, and apologize to, Jerry Bainbridge for his efforts this week. He voice-tracked the show for me this week in an effort to keep it from dropping too late, but a technical issue prevented me from using the material he’d given me. I do plan to ask him again in the near future, and I hope he’ll be kind enough to step up again then.
I’ve been spending time the past couple of weeks running up and down the coast between Baltimore and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, preparing a condo for rental, and believe it or not this show is the most relaxing thing I’ve done the whole time. And it was a nightmare to assemble. I’m going back to late-night recording!
This week, we’re looking at songs that did well on the charts, perhaps well enough that people have forgotten that there’s an earlier version. And I think at least one of them will come as a surprise to you. Maybe two of them. Hey, maybe all of them!
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My wife and I bought a condominium in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina this past week. The closing was supposed to be on Monday but there was a snafu, so we wound up wandering up and down a 30-mile stretch of coast from North Myrtle Beach down to Pawley’s Island, in a rented high-top cargo van full of stuff we’d intended to move into the condo after the closing. We still had a couple of pieces of furniture that we needed, so we popped into pretty much every consignment shop we could find, looking for a sleeper sofa that matched Wife’s design concept that wouldn’t break the bank. After a few minutes in any given store, I’d get restless and start looking through some of the other stuff, including the used records that were for sale.
The closing, and the recording of the documentation, didn’t take place until Thursday, which is the day that Aretha Franklin died. By sheer coincidence, we were in a consignment shop called Good Times, down in the Pawley’s Island area. And while we’d actually located the sleeper sofa we were looking for, I of course was looking at other stuff. This store, however, didn’t have any records to unload, except for a very small pile on a high shelf. I’m talking maybe fifteen albums, and that was the entire store’s inventory of vinyl.
As it happened, one of the records was a copy of Aretha’s first album for Atlantic Records, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You. What’s more, it was in good shape and it still had its original inner sleeve. It was worth nearly three times what they were asking for it, and I jumped at the opportunity. I hadn’t even heard the news yet.
Aretha Franklin, her music and her performance style left an impact on the music world that is immeasurable, and the reaction of her fellow music stars, in addition to performers of all stripes, bears witness to this.
This week, we take a crack at remembering the Queen of Soul, who coincidentally died on the same date as the King of Rock, Elvis Presley. (August 16 is also the anniversary of the death of blues pioneer Robert Johnson. This is not a good date if you’re a musical groundbreaker.)
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As promised, here’s her 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors show, during the segment honoring Carole King. Watch for the standing ovation mid-song.
Also, just for fun, here’s a clip from a 1991 episode of Murphy Brown. In the episode, Murphy gets an opportunity to interview Aretha Franklin, whom she has worshipped, live on television. She convinces the producer to give her the entire hour. Unfortunately, Aretha is delayed and the entire cast of the show has to vamp and otherwise fill time until her arrival, which unfortunately doesn’t happen at any point in the hour. As the clip starts, everyone has departed the studio except Murphy.
It was December of 1971 and Deep Purple was in Deep Trouble. They were all set to record their newest album, when the location they’d chosen for recording was accidentally set ablaze and burned completely to the ground.
It took a little scrambling, but they managed to locate a hotel that had closed for the season and were able to use it for recording. The only problem was, the mobile recording studio couldn’t be placed close to the recording space, so they had to run cables along walls, through a window, under a door, down a corridor, across a balcony, and who-knows-wherever else. This also meant that the band members had to traverse this route every time they wanted to hear their work played back. Ultimately they got tired of climbing all over the hotel and decided on-the-fly whether a particular take was any good.
The last song they recorded was one that they wrote pretty quickly, combined with an abandoned riff that Ritchie Blackmore had recorded without any particular project attached to it. It told the story of the fire, and the band’s travails in locating another place to record.
Deep Purple didn’t think the song had a lot of potential, but when they finally released it, it became one of rock and roll’s great iconic tunes, and a touchstone for novice guitar players everywhere. And the town of Montreux, where everything took place, commemorated the event with a memorial marker.
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Gerry Rafferty was pretty much a known element to music fans as the voice behind Stealers Wheel and the song “Stuck In The Middle With You,” but by the time that song came out, Rafferty had quit the band, which had to shoot the promotional film (they weren’t quite called “videos” yet) without him. The guy lip-synching the vocals is Rafferty’s partner Joe Egan. Shortly afterward, Egan talked Rafferty into coming back into the band, and they managed to put together their contractually-required third album.
Rafferty and Egan split up again, and the legal battles prevented both of them from recording for three years. But that didn’t prevent Rafferty from writing songs in the interim. And it’s pretty clear that “Baker Street” was a reflection of his mood through all the legal craziness that went on.
But while the song was a huge hit internationally, there are two pockets of controversy surrounding it. One stems from that haunting saxophone solo, and the other comes from the fact that, at the time, no other song had spent as much time in the Number 2 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart without ever reaching Number 1. (The “Most weeks at #2” record has been surpassed many times since then, but the six weeks that “Baker Street” spent there was the record in 1978.)
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Let me give an extra shout-out to Co.Ag Music, a YouTube channel that provided some of the moody music near the end of this week’s show. They’ve got some cool stuff going on over there, especially if you like music with a science fiction bent to it.
No show next week! I’ll see you on July 21 with something really special (no hints)!
Murray Head is one of those guys whose name you may or may not know, but you’re certainly familiar with some of his work.
In 1970 he worked on a concept album with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The first single from that album was written and recorded before the entire rest of the album, and it was released by the record company to gauge interest in the idea of an entire album built around that idea. The song did poorly in the US, at least at first, but international sales were enough that MCA Records gave the go-ahead to the rest of the album. And that’s how the original double album Jesus Christ Superstar came to be.
Fast-forward several years and Tim Rice again taps Murray Head to help him with a concept album, one that uses the chess rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union (no, literally: which country had the best chess players was a big deal in the 1970s and 80s) as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the Cold War. And once again, the success of the album leads to the production of a stage musical, called Chess.
And these two successes put Murray Head in an interesting place in the record books.
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