NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I have the house to myself this weekend, so of course I’m with you.
Remember to check out the website, How Good It Is Dot Com, and the Twitter, and the Instagram, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, (ow) How Good It Is Pod.
I’ve got a quick trivia question for ye today, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s going to be easy. Only two white solo male performers have hit the Top Five on the Billboard Hot 100 as artists in the Motown stable. Name them!
Want a hint? Okay. One of them was in 1970 and was on the Rare Earth label, and the other was in 1987, and he did appear on the Motown label.
Did that help? No? Gee, that’s a shame.
However, I willl have that answer to this question near the end of the show.
If “Proud Mary” is one of those songs that feels like about a dozen different versions came out all at once, you’re not quite wrong. In a very short period of time, three different versions of the song were released, and all of them charted, and then another one came out a little bit later on. So if you’re searching back through your memories, and you’re thinking, “Yow, there was a whole lot of Proud Mary going on then,” you’d be correct. And we’ll talk a little bit about all of them.
But first, let’s turn back the clock a bit.
John Fogerty, the heart of Creedence Clearwater Revival, was drafted in 1966, and so to avoid being conscripted somewhere, he and drummer Doug Clifford, who’d also received a draft notice, instead joined the Reserves. Clifford went into the Coast Guard Reserve, while Fogerty joined the Army Reserve, serving at various US bases, including Fort Bragg, Fort Knox and Fort Lee—the one in Virginia, not New Jersey. Now, Creedence was already a band, though they were still known as the Golliwogs, so Fogerty says that he was mostly known as “that hippie with a record on the radio.”
In the book Bad Moon Rising, which is an unofficial history of the band, Fogerty is quoted as saying that when he got his discharge notice in 1967, (quote) “I was so happy, I ran out onto my little patch of lawn and turn cartwheels. Then I went into my house, picked up my guitar and started strumming.” In short, Fogerty says that a lot of the song came out of him immediately. Now, according to the liner notes from the 2008 reissue of the Bayou Country album, music critic Joel Selvin reported that Fogerty already had some of the riffs down for several of the songs while he was in the Reserves, and there’s no reason to believe that that’s not the case. He sensed right away that the song was going to be a radio-friendly hit, and said he felt like Cole Porter while they were doing rehearsals.
Now, Thomas Kitts, in his book about John Fogerty, notes that the narrator in the song leaves what he considers a good job despite the working conditions and follows his dream by jumping on a riverboat. And on this journey he learns about the overall goodness of the people who live near the river. Kitts gives the river a near-Biblical significance in that it gives the singer both escape and rebirth. Indeed, there’s a flavor of Mark Twain in the overall feeling, with its sense of rambling along the Mississippi River and finding some sense of community among the folks he encounters.
Musically, Fogerty himself has noted that one of the song’s influences was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He says he wanted to open a song with a similar intro, specifically descending by a third. And sure enough, if you listen to the openings to both, you’ll definitely hear the parallel shifts. The only real difference is in the emphasized note. Beethoven puts it on the fourth note, whereas Fogerty puts it on the first. But otherwise, sure, have a listen. Here’s Beethoven:
And here’s Proud Mary:
[CREEDENCE, fade down]
Fogerty has also suggested that he was trying to evoke male gospel harmonies, especially with that chorus line. So the basic tracks were laid down by the band at the RCA studios in Hollywood, with John Fogerty on lead guitar, his brother Tom on rhythm guitar, Stu Cook playing Bass and, of course, Doug Clifford on drums. And then Fogerty did overdubs and the vocals later on, which may have caused a little friction, because he basically took out the other group members’ harmonies to replace them with his own.
Now, while there is a source that says the song was released just before Christmas 1968, most sources agree that “Proud Mary” came out in January of 1969. Either way, it became a pretty big hit, making it to the Number Two slot on the Billboard Hot 100, the first of five non-consecutive singles to reach that point but never crack the top slot. However, “Proud Mary” has the distinction of being held out of the Number One position by two different songs: First it was blocked out by “Everyday People” by Sly and the Family Stone, and then Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy” jumped over it and took the Number One. At five, Creedence Clearwater Revival has the largest number of #2 hits without ever scoring a #1. “Proud Mary did make it to Number One in Austria, South Africa and Yugoslavia, plus it was Number 8 in the UK, Number 5 in Australia and was a Top 15 hit elsewhere in Europe.
Finally, before I move on from Creedence, I should point out one extra detail. Specifically, the line about “pumped a lot of pane down in New Orleans,” because I’m almost positive you’re making the same mistake I did: he’s not saying “pain” as in “ouch, that hurts,” he’s singing “pane,” P-A-N-E, as in propane. The singer is pumping gas. And all of this, plus the whole Swamp Rock sound, plus naming the album Bayou Country, plus Fogerty’s funky pronunciation of “turnin’” and “burnin,” which was a conscious imitation of Howlin’ Wolf, had people thinking that this California-based band was from the deep south.
OK, let’s talk about the covers.
Not long after Creedence’s version became a hit, R&B artist Solomon Burke took to the studios at Muscle Shoals, which his new label, Bell Records, didn’t appreciate at all, since it was already a hit and still on the charts. His explanation to them was that it was a pretty big record, but it was also a white record, whereas his cover could get the airplay on the R&B stations and charts. And indeed, with very little promotion, Burke’s version went to Number 15 on the R&B charts, and Number 45 on the pop charts. For his part, John Fogerty was impressed by Burke’s rendition, thinking that the spoken intro really took the song to a different level:
…it was also Burke who suggested to Ike Turner that he and Tina should get a hold of the song, but I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself, because you have to hear something else first.
This next track was also recorded in 1969, by a group called The Checkmates, Limited Featuring Sonny Charles. In November of 1969 the record made it to Number 69 on the Billboard Hot 100, and to Number 42 in France. But I want you to listen to the musical arrangement, because I think you’ll see how it becomes important.
You hear it yet? OK. Let’s jump back just a bit. Remember how I said Solomon Burke told Ike Turner that he should get on this record? Well. Ike wasn’t so hot on the original version, but he did like the version by the Checkmates, with the horns and the energy it put forth. So he and Soko Richardson did some major rearranging, with the slow, soulful beginning and then the horn-dominated funk-rock party, with the gospel-like call-and-response vocals.
[IKE & TINA edit]
Ike and Tina Turner performed it a few times on TV during 1970 and they released the single in January 1971. This version went to Number Four on the Billboard Hot 100 and was Top 20 in a few European countries plus Canada. Tina Turner also did a solo version in the mid 1990s which wound up on her 2004 greatest hits album, titled All the Best. And, as it happened, in 2010 a contestant on the UK show The X Factor performed the song, causing Tina’s solo version to enter the UK singles chart at Number 62, but it dropped to Number 121 the following week, though it also mde it to Number 40 on the Scottish singles chart.
Let’s see, what else? Ooh, yeah: Elvis Presley started performing the song in his concerts in 1970, and it made it on his live albums On Stage that same year, and the Madison Square Garden concert album in 1972.
And I would be SO remiss if I didn’t mention this version…
This is actor Leonard Nimoy, from his 1970 album The New World of Leonard Nimoy. And while it’s not really terrible—OK, I might be behaving generously because I’m a Star Trek fan—I think it gets most of its grief because of Nimoy imitating John Fogerty imitating Howlin’ Wolf, although he doesn’t do it the first time he sings the chorus.
Had enough yet?
And now, it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the two solo white male artists who recorded songs for Motown and made it to the Top Five on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with those songs.
The first one was R. Dean Taylor, whose name you may not recognize, but I can practically guarantee you know the song. And pardon me, because I hate it myself when this happens,
[INDIANA WANTS ME]
but if you’re listening in your car, no: there isn’t a police cruiser or ambulance nearby.
“Indiana Wants Me” was a Number Two hit for Taylor in 1970, recording on Motown’s Rare Earth label, which Motown spun off specifically for white rock artists. And for the curious, Rare Earth the label was named after Rare Earth the band, not the other way around. For what it’s worth, “Indiana Wants Me” made it to Number One on the Cash Box chart in the US, and it was also Number Two in Canada, Ireland and the UK. Hit-wise, Taylor didn’t do much else in the US, though he did have a couple of modest hits in the UK and in Canada, where he is a citizen and qualifies for the Canadian content requirements they have there.
As far as the other artist?
Well, to be honest this one is a little more forgettable to modern-day listeners, unless you’re a deep oldies fan. But in 1987 an up-and-coming actor by the name of Bruce Willis hadn’t yet hit it big with the Die Hard franchise, but he was very popular as one of the stars of the TV show Moonlighting along with his co-star Cybill Shepherd. And one of his character’s schticks was singing old R&B songs to himself, or lacing his dialogue with song lyrics. So it kind of made sense when he released the album The Return of Bruno, which was in fact a companion to a kind of rockumentary parody—think along the lines of a cross between Forrest Gump and Spinal Tap—of the same name, that aired on HBO and featured Willis as Bruno Radolini, who had an influence on a number of famous musicians, who appeared as themselves in the film. And so the songs on the album are all covers of old R&B tunes, including “Respect Yourself,” which had the Pointer Sisters themselves singing backup. That recording made it to Number Five on the Billboard Hot 100, and Number Two in the UK. The album also yielded a cover of “Under the Boardwalk”, which did quite well in the UK, but didn’t crack the Top 40 in the US.
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we say Domo Arigato to Mister Roboto.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.