NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! 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 this week, we’ve got Blood, Sweat and Tears on the turntable. Can somebody clean that up?
Before we get rolling I’m going to ask you to please consider supporting the show as a patron. My current cadre of patrons helped pay for the new theme music you just heard and I thank you so very much for that! For just five bucks a month there’s a newsletter every week, whether a new show drops or not, that catches you up on music news of the present and the past. Click the link on the website or point your browser to patreon dot com slash (ow) how good it is.
A couple of people asked me about Jeremiah Coughlin, the guy I mentioned at the end of the show. Jeremiah is a stand-up comic out on the west coast who has two podcasts. One is dedicated to a minor league baseball team out there, and of course that show’s been on hiatus for awhile. So he started another one, which is its own brand of fun. Check out what he has to say about it, and I’ll see you again in THIRTY EIGHT SECONDS.
[FEAR & LOATHING PROMO :38]
I have some musical trivia for ye this time around. I want you to listen to this piece and tell me what it is.
Got that? Just tell me the significance of this bit of music. Easy one, right? Well, they can’t all be crazy hard. I’ll tell you a little more about it at the end of the show.
Today we’re looking at “And When I Die,” one of three singles off of Blood Sweat and Tears’ second album. But if you know anything about this show, you know we’re going to dial back the clock just a little more than you expect.
The song was written by the criminally-underrated Laura Nyro in 1966. That puts her at the tender age of sixteen when she composed this song about death and life. And while it’s kind of somber in thinking about death, it’s also got the positive message that life in some manner will continue on. Alan Merrill, who later played for The Arrows and wrote the song “I Love Rock and Roll,” was a distant relative of Nyro’s and told her to trash it, thinking it was kind of morbid. But Merrill also noted that he was fifteen at the time, and death was very distant and scary for him, so what did he know?
In 1989 Scott Simon from NPR asked Laura Nyro how such a somber subject came to her for a song. Nyro’s response was [quote] “I think that teenagers are in touch with a very primal truth in life. that there is a folk wisdom in the song that a lot of teenagers have.” [unquote]
Although she was young and new on the music scene, Nyro was getting some attention, and the song caught the eye of Peter, Paul and Mary, who bought it for five thousand dollars and recorded it on their 1966 album, cleverly titled The Peter, Paul and Mary Album…
As far as I can tell, it was Nyro’s first big sale, although she herself recorded a few songs just a few weeks earlier that turned out to be big hits for other artists.
Now, during that same year of 1966, Nyro recorded the song herself among a few others, and it was released in 1967 as part of her first album, originally titled More Than a New Discovery. That album was reissued in 1969 as The First Songs, with the same tracklist in a different order. So unless you’re a collector, it’s not worth your while buying one if you already have the other. “And When I Die” was in the middle of Side One on More than a New Discovery, but it closed out Side Two on The First Songs. So while Nyro recorded it first, Peter, Paul & Mary released it first.
So with all that in mind, let’s move on to Blood, Sweat and Tears. The band formed in 1967 and were definitely a new thing, with their combination of jazz and rock instrumentation, combined with their willingness to perform folk and blues using that combination, with just a soupcon of psychedelia. Blood, Sweat and Tears essentially laid down the foundation for jazz fusion without actually being part of that genre. But after the first album, The Child is Father to the Man, was released, the various members began to manifest some artistic differences that resulted in several of them leaving. Founding members Bobby Columby and Steve Katz began to put together another band with the same name, and considered several people to replace original lead singer Al Kooper. Among the people they considered were Alex Chilton, who’d recently left the Box Tops, Stephen Stills and—surprise! Laura Nyro. Why was Nyro even considered? Well, it turns out she was dating the Jimmy Fielder, the bass player and hung out with the band a lot during rehearsals. But the story goes that Judy Collins, who knew that Katz and Columby were looking for a vocalist, heard David Clayton-Thomas performing at a club in New York City and nudged them into seeing him play. Their second album, released in December of 1968 and titled simply Blood, Sweat and Tears, had more of a pop sensibility to it and fewer compositions by the band members, and it was an unqualified success. It was so successful, in fact, that the band was invited to play at Woodstock, a fact which most people forget because there’s almost nothing recorded from their performance. Blood, Sweat and Tears went on at 1:30 on Sunday night, between Johnny Winter and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. But the band’s manager, Bennett Glotzer, demanded that they get paid for the appearance immediately and when the request was denied, Glotzer insisted that the recording equipment be stopped. As a result there’s only a short segment of their first song that made it onto the tapes.
“And When I Die” was the third single off that album, and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s a sonic departure from Nyro’s version. It’s much longer, including two instrumental breaks, and the slow portion at the start of the song was moved to the end. Instead, we open with a soulful harmonica from Steve Katz.
There are two versions of the song in the sense that there’s an album version and a single version. The album version has, as I mentioned, two instrumental breaks. One features an electric piano and the other is more horn-prominent, along with the use of temple blocks, giving that segment the sound of a cowboy song. Where did that come from? You may ask, and I’m glad you did. Remember I said that the band’s lineup changed dramatically after the first album. Dick Halligan played trombone on the first album but he moved into the keyboard position afterward. However, he arranged the horns section on several songs on the album, including “And When I Die.” Halligan has said that he was reaching for a bit of a light comedy version of the song, but with an Aaron Copeland kind of feel.
On the single, the horns-and-blocks version is cut out, but the other thing they’ve done for the single is that the pauses between the chorus and the verses is actually shorter on the single version.
The single was released long after the album, in September of 1969 and just like the two that preceded it, “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” and “Spinning Wheel,” it spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped out at Number Two, blocked from the top spot by the Beatles’ double-A single “Come Together” and “Something.” It did, however, reach Number One in Canada. It’s worth noting, however, that the week “And When I Die” reached Number Two, there were two other Laura Nyro compositions in the Top Ten: “Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension was at Number Three, and Three Dog Night’s version of “Eli’s Coming” was in the Number Ten position.
[KRAUS, et al]
Covers? There are plenty of them, especially in the year or two after Blood, Sweat and Tears’ version first broke, and in a number of genres. What you’re hearing now is the version from Billy Childs, featuring Alison Kraus and Jerry Douglas, released in 2014. This appears on a Nyro tribute album from that year. But perhaps the better-known of the more recent covers would be this one:
This is a band called The Heavy, which recorded the song in 2011. This recording was commissioned by the producers of the HBO show True Blood, and used in the fourth season finale that year. So far as I know, the only place you can find it is on the show’s third soundtrack album.
And let me share one more with you, just because it’s kind of cool. This next sample is the Student Society in Trondheim, Norway, singing the song acapella in 2011. They’re working from the Blood Sweat and Tears version, even to the point of imitating David Clayton Thomas’ pronunciation in some spots.
And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you to give me the significance of this musical clip:
You might recognize the melody as being the bridge to the Beatles’ song “In My Life,” but what you may not realize is that what you’re listening to IS the bridge to “In My Life.” The Beatles recorded the song on October 18, 1965, but the only thing they didn’t have was something for the bridge. John Lennon knew only that he wanted something Baroque-sounding there, and that’s pretty much what he asked George Martin to do. Martin wrote a piece inspired by Bach, but realized that, as good as he was, he couldn’t play it at the song’s tempo. So he recorded the solo with the tape running at half-speed, which when played back at normal speed bumped it up to double speed and an octave higher, which made it sound like a harpsichord.
Which means that when the record was released, a lot of people mistook it for a harpsichord and in turn the real thing was used more often in recordings.
And that, my friend, is a full lid on another edition of How Good It Is. If you’re enjoying the show, please take the time to share it with someone, and maybe even leave a rating somewhere, and now you can support the show over at Patreon dot com, slash How Good It Is.
If you want to get in touch with the show, you can email me at HowGoodPodcast@gmail.com,
Or you can follow the show on Twitter or Instagram at How Good It Is.
You can also visit, like and follow the show’s Facebook page, at facebook dot com, slash How Good It Is Pod.
Or, you can check out the show’s website, How Good It Is Dot Com, where you may find a few extra bits.
Thanks, as usual, to Podcast Republic for featuring the show.
Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we go riding in Cars.
Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.