Episode 23–Lady Marmalade

Clockwise from top: Sarah Dash, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, Cindy Birdsong

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.

If your podcast catcher hasn’t figured it out yet, you can always just click on the player below to listen right here (or download it, if that’s your thing) while you admire those feathery outfits.

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Episode 21–Edwin Hawkins

Sad news from the world of music this week as we learn that Edwin Hawkins has died at the age of 74. I have to confess that this came as a surprise because I started doing the math and realized that Hawkins was in his mid-20s when “Oh Happy Day” became a hit. For whatever reason I thought he was at least twenty years older THEN.

Hawkins was the founder of the Northern California State Youth Choir, and the choir recorded some songs to make a fundraiser album, which unfortunately didn’t get pressed until after the event for which they needed the money. That event was a choral competition, and the NCSYC came in second, perhaps because “Oh Happy Day” wasn’t one of the songs they sang. As it turns out, that wasn’t one of their favorite songs!

The unexpected success of “Oh Happy Day” led to the group being asked to provide the backup singing for Melanie’s tribute to her experience at Woodstock, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers experienced some more success on the Gospel charts over the years, and lead singer Dorothy Morrison gained acclaim as a backup singer for several rock artists.

And I’m sure you know the drill by now, but if your RSS feed is failing you somehow, there’s always the player below for listening or downloading:

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Episode 20–Mercedes Benz

Neil Young sang “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away,” but Damn, Janis, couldn’t you have burned with us just a little bit longer?

Janis Joplin was a ball of raw talent who took a rough childhood and let it inform her musical style. And that almost certainly carried through to the listener. When she sounded sad, so did you. When she was feeling silly, it immediately conveyed. And when she sang in an anguished style, you were right there with her.

What’s more, her band members, whether it was Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, or the Full Tilt Boogie Band, really knocked themselves out to support her sound. Listen especially hard to the Pearl album, where a lot of the instrumentals were recorded over a ten-day span shortly after Joplin died.

But Joplin’s last recorded album track wasn’t even necessarily meant to be on the album. It was a piece that started out as an a capella goof during a technical breakdown while recording, and the producer decided that it needed to be on the album. What’s more, it needed to remain as-is, without any instrumentation.

I don’t know if her friends drove Porsches, but Janis certainly did. She bought the 1964 vehicle in 1968 for $3500 and used it as her day-to-day vehicle. The car now resides in Gull Lake, MI.

“Mercedes Benz” was based on a piece by Beat poet Michael McClure, and it was a comment on the futility of social climbing by gathering material goods. It was an interesting time for rock musicians, because they were starting to get recognition AND the money that comes with fame, and in a lot of cases they purchased expensive stuff such as cars and big houses even as they decried them in their songs. Despite this somewhat mixed message, the car company took the tone-deaf step of using it in one of their ads.

Next week: more surprise cover songs! I keep finding these things. And one in particular was a huge surprise for me.

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Episode 18–Fame

Happy New Year, HGII fans!

It was 1975 and David Bowie’s professional life was in some turmoil. He was in the middle of breaking a contract with his manager, and he was still trying to deal with the way his life had changed since “Space Oddity” became a hit a few years earlier. With the help of his new friend John Lennon (who advised him to get rid of the manager), he took a riff that his guitarist was noodling around with for another song, and turned it into his first #1 hit in the US.

Lennon and Bowie backstage at the Grammy Awards, 1975.

In a BBC interview recorded only a couple of days before he died, Lennon said that David Bowie had a vast repertoire of talent, and it was interesting to see him do most of his song composition right there in the studio. “He goes in with, like four words and a few guys, and starts laying down this stuff, and he has virtually nothing, he’s making it up in the studio.”

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Oh, and as promised, here’s the clip of Bowie on Soul Train:

 

Episode 14: Six Feet From Stardom

Mick Jagger, as it turns out, became Carly Simon’s backup singer on “You’re So Vain” because he just happened to pop into the studio the day of recording. The bad news is, that put him on the list of candidates that people think Simon’s singing about.

Before they were famous, lots of artists sang backup for other artists. But once in awhile, they’ll lend their talent to someone else because it’s fun, or because they owe someone a favor or maybe just because they were asked to.

This week, we’re going to listen in on a bunch of songs that have famous people singing backups. Some of them are pretty well known; others may come as a surprise to you.

Per our Standard Operating Procedure, if you’ve got a favorite podcatcher, you should be able to hear this week’s show already, or you can just click the player below to listen/download it right here:

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Episode 11: Failing Upward

EDITED to fix the link. Which makes the first sentence of this post just a little more poignant, no? 

Hey, everybody makes a mistake now and then. That’s why they put erasers on pencils, am I right?

But once in awhile, someone will make a mistake that manages to enhance rather than detract (“Eminence Front,” I’m looking at you.). And that’s where we’re going this week: we’ll look at four songs that had mistakes in them where the artists made a conscious decision to keep the error in place because it actually makes the song a little bit better.

 

And, as usual, you can listen to the show via your favorite podcatcher, or you can just play/download it from right here:

 

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Episode 10: Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd

This was the newspaper headline from the Enterprise-Journal of the nearby town of McComb.

It was on this day in 1977 that a plane went down in southwest Mississippi, in a small town called Gillsburg. Even today, forty years later, Gillsburg looks like little more than a wide spot in the road, but its main claim to fame is that plane crash, which took the lives of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, along with Gaines’ sister Cassie, all members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. Also killed in the crash were assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. Other band members and passengers on the plane suffered serious injuries.

The original cover, which didn’t return to the album until 2005, when the Deluxe CD was released.

The band’s album, Street Survivors, had been released only a few days earlier and had already gone gold. The publicity from the crash helped push the album to multi-platinum status and a spot in the Top Five on the Billboard Album Chart. The unfortunate cover of the album was swiftly replaced until just a few years ago.

But this week we’re looking at a song from their first album, titled (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) that became the band’s signature tune, and the punchline to pretty much any concert-related joke. “Free Bird” was a song that was over two years in the making, and it was assembled through a combination of necessity, serendipity and a flash of Ah-HA! inspiration. And I’ve managed to make this particular podcast longer than any recorded version of the song.

Here’s the clip of the band playing during the Vicious Cycle Tour in 2003. Check out the piano introduction and how sweet the strings make it:

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Playing the Palace

For the record: non-episode-based posts are going to have dopey titles. I’ve been doing it over at Baltimore Diary forever, and I’m going to do it here, because it amuses me and the sooner you accept it, the better off everyone will be. Mmkay?

This week’s episode was inspired by an old high school friend by the name of Kevin, who actually asked me to do a podcast about the song Crackerbox Palace, which also appears on George Harrison’s album Thirty-Three and 1/3. I did the due diligence as far as researching it, and while there is a little bit of a story behind it, it wasn’t really enough for an entire podcast, so I figured I’d save it for here.

Image result for lord buckleyIn 1975, George was at the Midem Music Festival, which is a trade show that’s been held in Cannes, France, every year since 1967. At the festival, he met up with a man named George Greif. Harrison remarked that Greif reminded him of the late comedian Lord Buckley (seen here at left). Coincidentally, Greif had been Buckley’s manager back in the day, and he invited George to come visit him at Buckley’s home in Los Angeles, which he referred to as “Crackerbox Palace”.

George was intrigued by the phrase and wrote it down, later turning it into a song that contained a little shout-out to both Greif and Lord Buckley:

Some times are good, some times are bad
That’s all a part of life
And standing in between them all

I met a Mr. Grief, and he said:

I welcome you to Crackerbox Palace
Was not expecting you
Let’s rap and tap at Crackerbox Palace
Know that the Lord is well and inside of you

Also of note is that, in addition to the “This Song” promotional film, George made one out of “Crackerbox Palace” as well, which also aired during the November 20, 1976 episode of Saturday Night Live. If you catch the re-run that’s been cut to an hour, though, this one usually gets cut based on the time considerations. It’s also pretty whimsical, though not as obviously comedic as “This Song”. Directed by Eric Idle, it features future Rutle Neil Innes as the nanny (above, right) and agai his future wife Olivia appears briefly in the bedroom shot (on the left). And while it wasn’t shot at Buckley’s house, it was shot at Friar Park, George’s home from 1970 until his death in 2001. Some have said that he occasionally referred to Friar Park as “Crackerbox Palace,” but I haven’t been able to nail that one down for sure.

Here’s the video. And if you’re curious, the answer is Yes: George did lift that “It’s twoo, it’s twoo” from Blazing Saddles.

Back it Up A Little

Image result for harrison my sweet lordThis week the podcast visited a chunk of George Harrison’s life, specifically the aftermath of the copyright infringement lawsuit surrounding “My Sweet Lord” and the tune inspired by the suit, titled “This Song”.

With regard to “My Sweet Lord,” someone commented, “I always did like the black gospel singers singing “Hare Krishna”. Most of them probably had no idea what they were saying.” And he’s at least partially right. If listeners weren’t listening too closely, they may not have realized that the backup singers were singing “Hare Krishna”, in part because for the first couple of verses, they sing “Hallelujah”. It’s certainly possible that they stopped listening too closely after that point.

After the song’s bridge, the backups stop singing “Hallelujah” as a response to each line, instead moving on to the first part of the Hare Krishna mantra:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama

According to his autobiography I Me Mine, it was always George’s intention to have the voices singing “Hare Krishna” in alternation with “Hallelujah,” largely to demonstrate that they mean more or less the same thing. They do, in fact, return to “Hallelujah” a couple of times before switching to a Vedic prayer (I’ve replaced a few letters containing diacritical marks with typical Roman letters, to make it a little easier to read here):

Gurur Brahmā, gurur Visnur,
gurur devo Maheśvarah,
gurus sāksāt, param Brahma
tasmai śrī gurave namah.

Which, according to Joshua Greene, translates as:

I offer homage to my guru, who is as great as the creator Brahma, the maintainer Vishnu, the destroyer Shiva, and who is the very energy of God.

It’s one of fourteen verses of a hymn praising Hindu teachers.

But there’s another element to the backup singers that you may find surprising: it’s not a Gospel group singing. Now, on the Billy Preston version, it’s absolutely a Gospel group. As I noted on the podcast, those are the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who had a hit of their own with “Oh Happy Day”, and had also just been noted for singing backup for Melanie on her breakout hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” So who’s providing the backup voices for “My Sweet Lord”?

They’re all George Harrison, hence the credit on the album sleeve to “the George O’Hara-Smith Singers”!

Episode 6: This Song by George Harrison

This is the original sleeve that the record came in. I still have mine, though not quite in this condition.

In the mid 1970s, George Harrison was having a rough time of it. He was still embroiled in the lawsuit over “My Sweet Lord”, he was tangled up in other legal issues caused by his breakup with his business manager, his album Extra Texture had taken a beating by the critics, and to top it all off, while recording Thirty Three and 1/3 he was struck with hepatitis and couldn’t work for most of the summer of 1976.

A still from the promotional film (they weren’t calling them “videos” yet) for This Song, from near the end. If you look closely you can see that George’s playing hand is cuffed to the cop, played by Harry Nilsson.

But he managed to turn it around with the release of this, the first single off the album. It didn’t exactly tear up the charts (it peaked at #25 on the Hot 100), but it did remind us all that George was still around and could still bring it when he wanted to.

This episode was inspired by a suggestion by a friend of mine, who originally asked me to write about a different song that appears on the same album. It turns out that the story behind that song is quite short, not long enough for a full podcast, so I’m saving it for a post you’ll see in a couple of days.

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As promised, here’s the video. So tell me: who can you identify? And is that vampiric-looking prosecutor really Michael Richards?

And just for the giggles, here’s Billy Preston’s version, which was recorded first. You can still hear the “He’s So Fine” echoes in it, but I think that, compared to Harrison, Preston might have gotten away with it: