Saturday, January 24, 2009

10 Great Songs from One Great Year


The Vietnam War was raging, the civil rights movement was progressing and the Beatles were changing the sound of music in 1966. It was not yet the Summer of Love and we were still a couple of years away from the end of innocence in 1968.

But the skies were darkening in some areas and brightening in others. Over 250,000 American troops were now in Southeast Asia and Rhodesia becomes the new international crisis. Locally, Richard Speck is convicted of murdering 8 student nurses in a dormitory in Chicago. A few years later, Charles Bronson stars in the movie “10 to Midnight” about these attacks. On August 1st, Sniper Charles Whitman kills 13 people and wounds 31 from atop the University of Texas at Austin Main Building tower, after earlier killing his wife and mother.

In sports, the NFL and AFL finally put their differences behind them and announce a merger between the two leagues beginning in 1970. In the meantime, they also agree to play a championship game between the winners of both leagues at the conclusion of each season. Two years later, this game will become known as the Super Bowl.

Also in August, the Beatles played their final live concert in Candlestick Park, in San Francisco .

Five O'clock World – The Vogues

Originally, the group was called The Val-Airs. Their first and only record under this moniker was "Launie, My Love". Soon after its release, they adopted the name The Vogues, derived from Vogue Terrace, a popular teenage dance hall in North Versailles, near the group's hometown of Turtle Creek, PA (near Pittsburgh). They soon signed a recording contract with the small Pittsburgh based Co & Ce Records label, run by Herb Cohen and Nick Cenci. The song, "You're The One", rose to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was followed by "Five O'clock World," which reached the same #4 level. Two more hits, " Magic Town " and "The Land of Milk and Honey," did not reach the same heights, but still made Billboard's Top 40 in 1966. This song was written by Allen Reynolds, who went on to great success as Garth Brooks' record producer. Also, this was used as the opening of The Drew Carey Show for the first few seasons.

Sweet Pea – Tommy Roe

Perhaps best-remembered for his 1962 hit single "Sheila," critic Bill Dahl writes that Roe was "widely perceived as one of the archetypal bubblegum artists of the late 1960s, but Roe cut some pretty decent rockers along the way, especially early in his career. After a string of hits in the early 60's, Roe joined the Army and following that, “Sweet Pea” turned out to be a comeback hit for him, reaching #8 in the US and #1 in Canada . Roe returned to the top of the charts 3 years later with the hit “Dizzy.” But by 1973, his chart-making days were done. In 1986, Roe was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Although his style of music declined in popularity with the 1970s mass market, Roe maintained a following and continued to perform at a variety of concert venues, sometimes with 1960s nostalgia rock and rollers such as Freddy Cannon and Bobby Vee.

Guantanamera – The Sandpipers

This started out as a poem written in 1899 by Cuban writer Jose Marti. The poem is about a girl from Guantanamo and was written from the point of view of a Cuban revolutionary. In the early 1960s Pete Seeger heard Hector Angulo singing a Cuban folk song using Marti's words based on a traditional melody adapted by bandleader Joseito Fernandez. This was the time of the Cuban missile crisis and the peace activist Seeger decided to adapt it in honor of Marti. He combined Marti's original Spanish with spoken English and made it into a song for the peace movement. In 1966, Tommy LiPuma, the producer of the Sandpipers – a relatively unknown band who played the Lake Tahoe circuit – recommended this song to the band and it became their best known hit. After a few less-than-successful follow-ups, the Sandpipers broke up in 1975.

Walk Away Renee – The Left Banke

This was written by band member Michael Brown, who was 16 at the time, with help from his friends Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone. Brown wrote it after meeting Renee Fladen, the girlfriend of the band's bass player. Renee was in the control room when Michael Brown tried to record his harpsichord part. He later said in an interview that he was so nervous trying to play with the beautiful Renee present that his hands were shaking. In the end he gave up and returned later when he recorded it without any problem. The line "Just walk away Renee" is often misinterpreted as "Don't walk away Renee." The singer has decided that Renee will never return his affections and is better off with her out of his life. This was the first hit for The Left Banke. They had another a year later with "Pretty Ballerina," which was also inspired by Renee.

Bus Stop – The Hollies

This was written by Graham Gouldman, who went on to form the band 10cc, best known for their hit "I'm Not In Love." Gouldman also wrote the song "Heartful of Soul," which was recorded by the Yardbirds. In a Manchester newspaper, Gouldman said he wrote this whilst riding on the No. 95 bus. It ran from East Didsbury - the route went through Manchester city centre, to Sedgeley Park , Cheetham Hill, Prestwich, and on to Whitefield near Bury. Graham was living with his family on this route in Broughton Park Salford at the time. Graham Nash looked back at the recording of this song in Rolling Stone magazine. He recalled: "I think 'Bus Stop' has got to be my favorite because we recorded it in an hour and 15 minutes and it was a huge hit. We had a manager named Michael Cohen and he says 'You know, I got this little Jewish kid who lives down the street; he said he's a song writer. Would you come and see him?' His name was Graham Gouldman, and later became a very famous man in his own act, but at this time he was only a 16 year old kid. So we go in and we go 'Ok, so what do you got?' He goes, 'Well, I got this one…' and we went 'Okay, we'll definitely take that one. What else do you got?' It was a truly and astounding thing to see this 16 year old kid who was a fabulous songwriter.

Sunny – Bobby Hebb

Hebb's parents, William and Ovalla Hebb, were both blind musicians. Hebb and his older brother Harold performed as a song-and-dance team in Nashville , beginning when Bobby was three and Harold was nine. Hebb performed on a TV show hosted by country music record producer Owen Bradley, which earned him a place with Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff. Hebb played spoons and other instruments in Acuff's band. Harold later became a member of Johnny Bragg and the Marigolds. Bobby Hebb sang backup on Bo Diddley's "Diddley Daddy". Hebb played "West-coast-style" trumpet in a US Navy jazz band, and replaced Mickey Baker in Mickey and Sylvia. On November 23, 1963 , the day after John F. Kennedy's assassination, Harold Hebb was killed in a knife fight outside a Nashville nightclub. Hebb was devastated by both events and sought comfort in songwriting. Though many claim that the song he wrote after both tragedies was the optimistic "Sunny", Hebb himself says otherwise. He immersed himself in the Gerald Wilson album, "Would You Believe", for comfort. "All my intentions were just to think of happier times – basically looking for a brighter day – because times were at a low tide. After I wrote it, I thought "Sunny" just might be a different approach to what Johnny Bragg was talking about in "Just Walkin' in the Rain".

Solitary Man – Neil Diamond

"Solitary Man" was Neil Diamond's first charting single as a recording artist. In a 2005 Times Online interview, Diamond said: "After 4 years of Freudian analysis I realized I had written 'Solitary Man' about myself." According to David Wild, who interviewed Diamond for Rolling Stone and wrote He Is...I Say: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Neil Diamond, this was a turning point in Diamonds songwriting. When we asked David if Diamond's songs were personal or character-driven, he told us: "I think they're all personal for Neil - that may be part of the secret of his success. He's a deeply personal performer - a groundbreaking introspective singer songwriter since "Solitary Man" - who transforms himself into an exhibitionist onstage. In a 2005 feature called "Neil Diamond's Jewels," Rolling Stone magazine picked this as Neil Diamond's best song.

Cherish – The Association

Despite the title, you don't want to play this song at your wedding. While the singer does cherish the girl, he knows that he can't possibly have her, and comes off a little desperate and obsessive. This was the followup to The Association's first hit "Along Comes Mary." The Association was popular in the Los Angeles area, but gained national fame when this was released. The Association's keyboard player Terry Kirkman, wrote this in a half hour and incorporated it into their live act. Mike Whelan, who was in an earlier band with members of The Association, liked the song so much that he persuaded his new group, The New Christy Minstrels, to perform it as well. The Minstrels almost released it as a single before The Association. This song is #22 on BMI's list of the most played 100 songs on television and radio of the 20th century. On a personal note, I always remember this song to be my very first favorite song. I was all of four years old at the time.

God Only Knows - Beach Boys

"God Only Knows" is the eighth track on the Pet Sounds album and one of the most widely recognized songs performed by The Beach Boys. It was composed and produced by Brian Wilson, with lyrics by Tony Asher, and the lead vocal was sung by Carl Wilson. The song broke new ground in many ways. It was one of the first pop songs to use the word 'God' in its title. The song was also far more technically sophisticated than anything the Beach Boys, or arguably any pop group, had ever attempted before - particularly the complicated melodic structure and vocal harmonies. As producer, Brian Wilson also used many unusual instruments, including the harpsichord and French horns that are heard in the song's famous introduction. Tony Asher has noted the irony that this, one of the all-time great love songs, opens with the line 'I may not always love you' (although the line is turned on its head by the subsequent lines). Mojo Magazine ranked God Only Knows 13th greatest song of all time. Pitchfork Media named it the best song of the 1960s. The song is 25th on Rolling Stone' s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. This was featured at the end of the 2003 romantic comedy Love Actually and the 1997 film Boogie Nights. Paul McCartney called this "The greatest song ever written."

Monday Monday - Mamas and the Papas

While awaiting the release of "California Dreamin'," band member Denny Doherty was prodding songwriter John Phillips to come up with some new material. Phillips said he would come back in the morning with "A song with universal appeal." Ignoring the sarcastic comments from the group members, Phillips came up with this. It's about the lousy feeling that comes with the end of the weekend and beginning of another workweek. After it was discovered that Michelle Phillips and Doherty were having an affair, tension in the band erupted. Consulting their attorney, Abe Somer, as well as their label Dunhill Records, the band drafted a formal statement kicking Michelle out of the group in June 1966. After a majority of their next album was completed, Michelle was asked to rejoin the group and recorded vocals on two songs. The band then recorded its third album, Deliver . During this time Doherty was drinking heavily, trying to get over Michelle Phillips. As the closing act of the first Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967, the band performed dismally. John and Michelle Phillips and Lou Adler organized the festival, and according to interviews with the members of the group, they were all so caught up in the festival they never got around to rehearsing. That, combined with Doherty's last minute arrival from Canada, resulted in the mediocre performance. Soon after, the band finally split. Mama Cass Elliott died in 1974 of a heart attack, at the age of 32. After surviving a liver transplant in the 1980's, John Phillips passed away in 2001, at the age of 66. Denny Doherty died on January 19, 2007, at his home in Mississauga , Ontario , from kidney failure following surgery on an abdominal aneurysm. Only Michelle Phillips is still alive. After the unsuccessful release of an album in 1977, Victim of Romance, she went on to a successful acting career, appearing in the 1973 movie Dillinger and in the 1980 Sam Spade tribute/spoof, The Man With Bogart's Face. She also had a successful run in television drama, including Knots Landing and Beverly Hills, 90210.


It Was a Very Good Year - Frank Sinatra

This was written by Ervin Drake in 1961 for The Kingston Trio, who recorded it on their album Goin' Places in a Folk style with a whistling interlude. Frank Sinatra's version with lush instrumentation and more dramatic vocals became a hit, winning Grammys in 1966 for Best Male Vocal Performance and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). The phrase "It was a very good year" is often applied to wine, as the vintages differ in quality. Here, Sinatra sings about the years he remembers fondly in his romantic life and the girls that were part of it. As he's now older, he looks back fondly on these memories, bringing up the wine analogy as the memories have aged well with time.

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