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.
Roberta Flack was one of those artists that the label couldn’t quite pigeonhole, which meant that they couldn’t find a way to make her accessible to listeners. As a result, her first two albums got some positive press, but the sales weren’t especially great.
It wasn’t until after her second album came out that a track on the first album caught the attention of a first-time movie director by the name of Clint Eastwood. He called Flack at home and asked if he could use the song in his film, a psychological horror film about a disc jockey called Play Misty For Me. It took a little bit of convincing (about two thousand dollars’ worth), and the song made it into the film.
When Play Misty For Me turned into a hit, Atlantic Records finally saw the light and released a slightly shorter version of the song on a single, and it became the first of several big hits for Flack over the next few years.
What most people don’t realize is that Flack’s recording was a cover of a song written and recorded in 1957, and covered rather faithfully several times after that. But once it hit for her, the covers began to sound more like Flack’s version. And while the song finally becoming a hit made its writer a ton of money, the truth is, he’s never really liked anyone else’s recording other than the one his then-girlfriend made.
Apologies for the delay; once again I’ve been at a podcasting conference and I got in from Boston a little later than I expected to. This one was geared entirely toward educational podcasts (and yes, I do consider this show educational, though it’s probably more in the “edutainment” corner), and I picked up a lot of information I’m hoping to take to my school and see what we can do about getting something launched with my students.
Aaaaanyway, I don’t have a lot of backstory to add to this one, other than that two separate requests for this came in through the Listener Survey (it’s still open; scroll down if you’re still interested in playing along), and because the surveys are anonymous, I have no idea who put the requests in. But thank you so much for your input!
No, wait, I lied. I do have another thing to add. When I was doing the research for this song, I discovered that most people don’t know that it’s performed by King Harvest, which makes sense since they broke up before the song was a big hit. But when you do the Google searches, some of the wrong guesses will pop up in your results. Some people think it’s Van Morrison, which is a pretty good guess actually, but he never covered the song. Neither did Elvis Costello, which is also a popular guess but not an especially good one. But the best guesses are the ones who kinda-sorta remember King Harvest but haven’t quite nailed it. That would be the nonexistent artist Kink Harris. It’s gotten to the point where you can do a search for “Kink Harris Dancing in the Moonlight” and get accurate hits to the song.
What do you think? You like that picture? I PAID for that stock photo, like some kind of honest guy.
Despite this being perhaps The Hollies’ biggest hit in the US, it still managed not to make it to the Number One position on the Billboard Hot 100. It was kept out of that position by Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” for both of the weeks that it spent at #2 with a bullet. And for all that time on the charts (11 weeks altogether), that’s a pretty popular song, considering that nobody understands the words. At least, not until you’ve seen them. Then they totally make sense. Plus, I’d be willing to bet that it’s not about what you think it’s about.
Below is the link for this week’s show for your downloading and/or listening pleasure.
PROGRAMMING NOTE:There won’t be a show for the next couple of weeks, because of some technical issues I’ll spell out later this week. Don’t worry, I will return!
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: