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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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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In 1971, Don McLean was a known artist but hadn’t yet hit it big with “American Pie.” Lori Lieberman was a 19-year-old singer-songwriter who’d recently scored a contract. Lieberman attended one of McLean’s shows and she was so struck by his performance
of the song “Empty Chairs” that she wrote a poem about it, more or less on the spot. She took the notes to her collaborators and they put together a song for her album. It became her first single, but it was quickly overshadowed when Roberta Flack covered it.
While the song was covered numerous times, including versions by artists as diverse as Perry Como and Michael Jackson, it wasn’t until The Fugees put together a hip-hop cover that the song gained new life. Lauryn Hill’s singing gives the song an extra emotional ache, perhaps because their original idea was to turn the song into a cautionary tale about substance abuse, an idea that the original writers didn’t support.
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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.
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Related to this week’s episode, a couple of extras. One of them I had to cut from the podcast because it was getting so long, the other I’d forgotten about until a listener mentioned it to me.
Let me do mine first, because it’s a quicker bit. In addition to the covers done of “MacArthur Park”, Weird Al Yankovic did a parody song that’s quite faithful to the original, including the fact that there are different movements with different moods, and he plays it a little straighter than usual, with a lot of little shout-outs to different elements from the film. Plus, the video is done in claymation, which was still about as complicated as it got in 1993 (remember that Jurassic Park-level CGI was crazy expensive at that time):
Here’s a weird coincidence. This is the third time that 1993 has come up in connection with this song:
During the podcast I mentioned that Suzy Horton got married to Robert Ronstadt in 1993.
I also noted that Maynard Ferguson did a jazz cover of the song that year.
And now we have this Weird Al video, which was also released in 1993. COINCIDENCE? Sure, of course it is.
The other extra I have goes back to when I was a Senior in high school. I was a big fan of the show Second City Television (SCTV), which was a comedy skit series that had a fictional Canadian television station as the central conceit of the show. Everything you saw was a show on the station, or a movie they were presenting, or a “commercial” or promo for an upcoming program (which the viewer rarely saw). Later on they branched into the behind-the-scenes activity at the station. One of the shows on the SCTV Network was a satirical sendup of American Bandstand, with a host who was so incredibly uncool that he was uncomfortable to watch in this disco setting. The show was called “Mel’s Rock Pile”, hosted by “Rockin'” Mel Stirrup (played by Eugene Levy), and there was an episode of “Rock Pile”that featured a performance from Richard Harris (as portrayed by Dave Thomas). This originally aired on February 20, 1981:
I actually remember when this first aired, and it’s funny on its face just because it’s so absurd, but I recently learned that, like so many great parodies, it has a strong basis in reality. In 1972, Harris performed the song on a BBC special called “A Gala Evening of Music and Wit”. During the instrumental break, Harris sat on the stage for awhile, but then did an awkward roll with a spring to his feet, and some rather directionless dancing around. What’s also interesting is that he’s definitely singing it differently from the way he sings it on the record: a little more fully-throated, with some more actual singing involved.
Try as I might, I couldn’t find the entire performance on the Interwebs anywhere, but there are a few clips from it in this piece: