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’m thankful to be anywhere these days.
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I’ve got some chart-busting trivia for ye today:
Lots of artists release songs that become a hit in other countries, and that’s certainly true for Connie Francis and her big 1961 hit “Where the Boys Are.” It was released a month after the film of the same name came out and the song reached the Number One position in 15 different countries. But there’s something special about this song which almost certainly had a boosting effect for its sales and airplay outside the United States. What’s different about “Where the Boys Are”?
I’ll have that answer at the end of the show.
Sheryl Crow is an interesting case, musically, because her debut album was actually the second album she made. But let’s back up just a little bit before we talk about that.
Before she began her life as a professional musician, Crow was a music teacher at an elementary school in the town of Fenton, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis. Being a teacher gave her the opportunity to sing with bands on the weekends. This gave her an opportunity to meet with a producer named Jay Oliver. He gave her some opportunities by using her to sing advertising jingles. Her first jingle was for a department store called Famous-Barr, and don’t think I didn’t look for THAT one. She also did jingles for Toyota and McDonald’s. According to Crow, she made over $40,000 for singing the line “It’s a good time for the great taste of McDonald’s.”
And it was from singing the jingles that Crow got a gig as a backup singer for Michael Jackson during his tour supporting the Bad album between 1987 and 1989. Crow herself said in an interview with InStyle Magazine that she crashed the audition to get the gig, and it certainly paid off, since she would often duet with him on “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” She also sang backup vocals for Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Buffett, Don Henley and a few others.
Now, in 1992 Crow paired up with producer Hugh Padham to put together an album of her own. The album, titled Sheryl Crow, was going to be released in September of that year, but she found it to be over-produced and “too slick” for her taste, and she convinced the people at A&M Records to let her start over. However, a few pre-release copies did manage to get out on cassette tape, so superfans have heard that first album. And you can, too, if you do a search for “Sheryl Crow Unreleased Album.”
Around this time, Crow joined a songwriting collective that already consisted of David Baerwald, David Ricketts, Bill Bottrell, Dan Schwartz, Brian MacLeod and Kevin Gilbert, whom she was dating at the time. The group met weekly on Tuesday nights, and they’d have a few beers and help each other along with songs they were working on. Before long, they began to concentrate specifically on putting together songs for Crow’s second debut album.
[ALL I WANNA DO]
The musical side of “All I Wanna Do” came first. Dan Schwartz said in an article he’d written for PS Audio that one evening when he arrived, the group was already working on something, and David Baerwald shouted out to him: “Dan! Country Disco!” Schwartz recognized immediately that that’s what they were doing, a kind of
country-ish riff with a disco-like beat behind it. At that time Crow was singing something about an ex-boyfriend, which gave the song its working title of “I’ll Still Love You.” The group laid down a musical track, and Schwartz dubbed in a bass line later that evening.
Now, as work on the album moved forward, Bill Bottrell had himself a little change of heart and started doing some additional work on the song all by himself, occasionally bringing people in to play little bits here and there.
These group sessions took place in a studio of Bottrell’s that he called Toad Hall. Toad Hall was located in this run-down area of Pasadena, in a section of town that they now call the Playhouse District. He’d acquired two adjacent spaces, one of which had previously been a bank. Also in the area were a florist, a local bookstore chain called Vroman’s, a carpet store, and a used bookstore around the corner. Bottrell bought something like a half-dozen area rugs to hang on the cinderblock walls in the studio area to keep the echoes down, and then outfitted the rest of the studio with the usual equipment. Bottrell had been in the used bookstore and picked up some poetry books, and one of the books was a volume called The Country of Here Below, which was self-published for a run of 500 copies,by a poet named Wyn Cooper.
And once again I get to say, Here’s where the story gets a little bit hazy. What’s generally agreed upon is that the original words for the song weren’t really working out, and they were in search of something else. Crow’s story is that she picked up the book and spotted a poem in it called “Fun”, and the opening line, “All I want to do is have a little fun before I die,” stood out for her, plus the general theme of day-drinking beer conveyed a general feeling of the whole laid-back California attitude, and it was from there that she was inspired to adapt the poem into the song. But according to Dan Schwartz, Bottrell had had that poem in mind for the song and basically handed her the book opened to that page.
So maybe Bottrell fed her the poem and maybe she found it on her own. But they took their Country Disco song and overlaid the poem on it, nearly word-for-word. Now, Bottrell came up with a chorus that further underlined the song’s location in Los Angeles, and cut short one of the verses. It originally read as:
A happy couple enters the bar, dangerously close to one another, like this is a motel, But they clean up their act when we give them A look. One quick beer and they’re out, Down the road and in the next state For all I care smiling like idiots. We cover sports and politics and once, When Billy burns his thumb and lets out a yelp, The bartender looks up from his want ads.
So let’s talk about the poem “Fun” a little bit. Wyn Cooper was a teacher at Middlebury College in Vermont, so he didn’t really know anything about life in Los Angeles, and in fact if you read the original poem you’ll see that it’s not really fixed in any one place. Cooper was inspired to write the poem by a conversation he’d had with a friend of his named Bill Ripley, who’d literally said the first line of the poem. After the song became a hit, Cooper said that it’s not specifically about him and Ripley, but rather just any couple of guys who are considering what they could have been, or what they would have become if they just sat there and continued to drink their lives away. But Crow’s line at the opening, “This is L. A.” and the reference to Sunset Boulevard in the chorus carry the story to the West Coast. And Crow herself has said that it’s kind of a dark song disguised as a light pop ditty, because the fact is, the two characters are down and out, and feeling apathetic and defeated, and watching their lives go by.
So when they began to assemble the album that was named after their little group, the Tuesday Night Music Club, “All I Wanna Do” wasn’t even going to be on it at first; they all considered it a bit of a throwaway. But it did make it onto the album, and the next step was releasing it as a single. Again, nobody thought it was going to do anything and the first single off the album, released in July 1993, was “Run Baby Run”. That song didn’t chart at all in the US and barely made the charts anywhere else. The second single, “What Can I Do For You,” barely cracked the Hot 100 in America. But in the meantime, Crow was touring a lot of small theaters to promote the album, and she was taken on as the opening act for the Eagles reunion tour in 1994. The song got a good response at these shows, and that was enough to convince A&M Records to release it as the third single from the album, whereupon it became her big breakout hit. “All I Wanna Do” got tons of radio airplay and it made it to Number 2 on the Hot 100 Chart. It also topped the Adult Contemporary and the Mainstream charts, and it was a number one song in Canada and Australia, plus it landed in the Top 15 in most European countries, including Number Four in the UK, landing it at Number 13 on the Eurochart Hot 100.
In 2003 British singer/songwriter Amy Studt was asked by Sheryl Crow to cut a cover of the song, and she released it in January of 2004 as her fourth single. Unfortunately it only peaked at 21 in the UK, and charted similarly elsewhere. The relatively poor showing caused Polydor Records to drop her from the label, but she managed to make a comeback a few years later.
As for Wyn Cooper, well, he did OK in the long run. The book saw some reprint action, and of course he gets a writing credit on the record along with David Baerwald, Bill Bottrell, Kevin Gilbert and of course Sheryl Crow. Overall he gets 40% of the publishing on the song—that’s, of course, before the publishing company gets its cut, but still. He did, however, lose his friend Bill Ripley twice, first when Ripley sued him unsuccessfully for a portion of the royalties, and then again when he died in 2006.
[WHERE THE BOYS ARE]
And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what was so special about Connie Francis and her song “Where the Boys Are” that propelled it to the top of the charts in fifteen different countries. The answer is that she recorded the song in seven different languages. In addition to English, she recorded the song in German,
and Neapolitan. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the Neapolitan recording for you, and I think it’s because Neapolitan is so close to Italian that the search engines are confusing the two. I guess you’re just going to have to take my word for it on that one. Curiously enough, it only made it to Number Five in the UK and Australia, and Number Four in the United States. Get it together, English-speaking countries!
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Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.