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, in the Southern Studio this week, and I’m pretty pale for a guy who spends so much time in a resort town.
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I love it when The Sound of Vinyl publishes these lists, because they’re so cool and surprising. Also because I don’t have to do so much research for the trivia question. So: According to the folks over there, what ABBA song has been covered more than any other? I’m willing to bet that the winner won’t surprise you, but the rest of the list might.
I’ll have that answer for ye, at the end of the show.
Our story today starts with a young man with the unwieldy name of Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis. This son of a Greek father and a Puerto Rican mother began life in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. After a few years the family moved across the Hudson to Bergen County in New Jersey. In 1959, when he was 15, he formed a doo-wop group called the Five Gents and they recorded a few demos, which caught the attention of producer Don Kirshner, who hired him to write songs. Kirshner also had him singing songwriter demos as a solo performer, and the following year this actually turned into a couple of songs reaching the charts. Perhaps the most notable of these would be “Halfway to Paradise,” which charted in both the US and the UK. Now, I should note that the song did much better in the UK when it was recorded by Billy Fury, and US music fans probably remember Bobby Vinton’s 1968 recording better, but regardless this was the beginning of Tony Orlando’s performing career. Now, what I wasn’t quite able to nail down is when Michael Anthony Orlando Cassavitis became Tony Orlando, but “Tony Orlando” is what appears on those early singles, so it happened pretty early on.
Orlando continued writing songs and having a little bit of success with them, and in the meantime, he was working his way up the ladder at Columbia Records, specifically he was a vice-president at the CBS Music Publishing Company. Because he was doing so well, Columbia Records president Clive Davis basically looked the other way when Orlando took a $3000 advance to sing lead on a song for two producer friends who were on another label. If the song failed, Orlando didn’t want it to affect his reputation, so he recorded it under a different name.
That song was “Candida,” and to sing backups with him, Orlando recruited backup singers Linda November and Toni Wine, who was one of the co-writers of the song. Now, if you’ve been a long-time listener of this show, you may remember we talked about Toni Wine back in Episode 33. She served as one of the backup singers for Ron Dante on the first few Archies singles, including “Sugar Sugar.” Now, in addition to worrying about his reputation, Orlando was a little worried about the appearance of conflicts of interest, so they recorded under the name “Dawn”. Got that? “Dawn” was the name of the entire group on that first album. Where did they get that name from? Well, it’s not especially clear. By all accounts it came from somebody’s daughter, but there are lots of conflicting stories about exactly whose daughter it was. As a name, it was in the top 30 for girls during the early and mid-1960s, so I guess some confusion is possible. I should point out, however, that Orlando wasn’t in the room with Wine or November when they recorded their vocals. He sang to a prerecorded track, and then the other two came in to do the backups later on.
Well, “Candida” turned out to be a pretty huge hit, making it to the Number One position in five different countries around the world and Top Ten in a bunch of others, including the United States, where it peaked at Number Three on the Billboard chart, and Number Nine in the UK.
Now, let’s turn our attention to a couple of composers, L. Russell Brown and Irwin Levine. They were big fans of the song “Up on the Roof” and wanted to write a song with a similar flavor, in the sense that they wanted to come up with a song about living in a tenement-style apartment. Now, Brown and Levine weren’t songwriting partners, but they knew each other pretty well because they commuted to work together. According to Brown, Irwin Levine took him to meet with producer Hank Metters, and he asked the two of them to come up with a follow-up to “Candida”, if they think that song is a hit. At that point, the song was at Number 70 on the chart but Brown was pretty convinced that the song was, indeed, a hit. Levine didn’t really know anything about tenement life, but Brown did have some familiarity.
I think I need to stop for a moment and talk about tenements. Tenements were the precursor to the modern apartment building. They were inexpensively built and the people who designed them didn’t give a lot of consideration to the soundproofing or the aesthetics of the apartments in these buildings. And that meant that oftentimes windows would look out into ventilation shafts, or water pipes, including the ones intended for heating, would be exposed as they passed from the bottom of the building to the top. And so when Levine asked Russell about growing up in a tenement, one of the things he mentioned was that the entire building only had one phone. So if a phone call came for you, someone would bang on the radiator pipe in code to let everyone know there was a phone call for them. Two bangs meant that the call was for the family on the second floor.
Levine liked that idea and they put together a song about a person who lives in a cheap apartment, and he’s been listening to the music come through his floor, and after just picturing what’s going on downstairs in his head, he decides he’s in love with a girl he’s never met. So he finally writes her a note with a plan for her to connect with him: if she’s interested in a relationship, she knocks on the ceiling—that is, his floor. If she’s not interested, she bangs on the pipe. And, of course, the song contains sound effects related to this elaborate system. I dunno, maybe he could have just walked downstairs and asked her, but OK. Let’s just call him shy.
Anyway. Levine and Brown took the song back in to Hank Metters, and to Brown’s surprise he really liked it. Brown was more of a fan of music like The Doors, or the Rolling Stones, and he thought “Knock Three Times” was kind of teenybopper-ish, a little cutesy. But he did his best to keep the energy up while they played it for Metters. Brown also noted that it’s the first song he composed using a piano rather than a guitar, which is why it’s rather limited in its chord structure. Frankly, he didn’t know a lot of piano chords.
Orlando, Wine and November went back into the studio and they cut “Knock Three Times”, and a bunch of other tracks including, incidentally, “Up On The Roof”, and they put the Candida album together. The record was released in November 1970 and once again, Dawn was a huge hit. This time it did make it to Number One in the US, plus the UK, Australia, New Zealand and a few other nations, and it was Top Five in several others. According to J. Russell Brown, there was a ten-day stretch during which the song sold 100,000 copies a day in the New York area alone.
All of this success meant that there needed to be a tour, and a real group to promote these songs. So Orlando turned to a pair of singers he’d worked with when he was producing Barry Manilow’s first couple of records in the late 1960s. Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, who’d previously worked with Motown and Stax Records as backup singers, to become the Dawn to his Tony Orlando. They toured with him through Europe and then the three of them went back into the studio to record a second album. The act then became known as “Dawn Featuring Tony Orlando” and then finally, around 1973, they were known as “Tony Orlando and Dawn.”
Covers? Oh yeah, there are definitely covers. In fact, in the year after the song was released, there were something like eleven different covers, including this one by Billy “Crash” Craddock from January 1971, which went to Number Three on the Country Chart…
…This one is also from 1971. Lynn Anderson doesn’t just bend the gender, she makes a bunch of little changes in each verse…
…And how can I not share this one. It’s also from 1971, Filipino actor Manny de Leon who, I’m told, completely sold out in the market there when he did his version, and as far as I know, this is the approximate quality of the recording…
[MANNY DE LEON to DEBORAH GIBSON]
…in 2001 Deborah Gibson released this techno version of the song on her album M.Y.O.B, with her and Tony Orlando trading off on the main vocals…
And in 2009, country artist Clay Cooper did an album of duets, and on that album was a track he did with Tony Orlando, and for my money Tony’s just a little too happy to be there…
There are literally about twenty other covers of the song floating around, so have fun looking for those.
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what the most-covered song by ABBA is, according to the folks at The Sound of Vinyl. Based on their tabulations, we have:
In the number 10 position, it’s Chiquitita, which has been covered 27 times.
At Number Nine we have Knowing Me, Knowing You, with 28 covers.
Number Seven, with 32 covers, is Waterloo.
Number Six was a surprise to me. It’s Gimme Gimme Gimme, with 34 covers.
And speaking of repeated titles, Money Money Money takes the Number Five position with 35 covers.
Fernando has been covered 36 times, making it Number Four.
At Number three is Mamma Mia, which has been covered 37 times.
Tied for Number Two, with 50 covers each are The Winner Takes It All and S.O.S.
And the song by ABBA that’s been covered more times than any other is Dancing Queen, which is way out front, having been covered 73 times. I gotta admit, I didn’t really think any of these songs had been covered so many times. What did you think?
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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when All You Want To Do, is Have Some Fun.
Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.