Saturday, November 20, 2010

Other People's Songs: A World Without Love

peter & gordon

Peter & Gordon: A World Without Love


You know you're a top-drawer songwriter when even your rejects make #1 hits for someone else. This someone else was lucky enough to be the brother of the songwriter's girlfriend. The songwriter was Paul McCartney, who deemed this song not quite good enough for the Beatles. Lucky Peter. He also got "Nobody I Know" from Paul as well.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Other People’s Songs: Mercy Mercy Mercy

Cannonball Adderley: Mercy Mercy Mercy


Joe Zawinul started his recording career as a bandleader in 1959, but he was soon working as a sideman. By 1966, Zawinul had been with Cannonball Adderley for five years. That was when he wrote Mercy Mercy Mercy. This was the rare jazz song to hit the pop charts, peaking at #11. Zawinul was a pioneer in the use of electronic keyboards in jazz; in this case, it is the electric piano.

The song became a jazz standard. But something else happened as well. The song acquired words somewhere, and was recorded by such artists as The Buckinghams and, later, Phillip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire. Queen Latifah recorded a version with a different set of lyrics. And finally, Joe Zawinul, coming off a highly successful tenure in Weather Report, recorded a version as a leader, also with vocals. But, for me and many others, the original recording of Mercy Mercy Mercy will always be the real one.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Other People's Songs: Superstar - Delta Lady

Leon Russell

Rita Coolidge: Superstar


Joe Cocker: Delta Lady


This explanation will read more like Six Degrees of Separation than a normal musical post. Let's see if I can get us through the maze.

Leon Russell began his career as a 60's session musician and songwriter. Sometime around 1969, he was an integral member of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, a transient group made up of Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett plus or minus George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Dave Mason, Booker T. Jones, Isaac Hayes, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Keltner, Rita Coolidge, and a boatload of other musicians. Together Russell and Bonnie wrote "Superstar," an unnoticed B-side single for Delaney and Bonnie in 1969.

In early 1970, Russell went on to produce Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and he's featured soloing on several tunes on the very successful live album. As was Rita Coolidge, who does a bust-up job on "Superstar". Even so, you are probably most familiar with The Carpenters' 1971 version. Richard Carpenter, though, had heard neither Bonnie's or Rita's version, but instead caught it on a TV show performance by a then-new vocalist, Bette Midler.

Meanwhile, in this fertile period of cross-collaboration, Leon Russell also wrote a song about the aforementioned Coolidge, at the time nicknamed "Delta Lady". Cocker picked up that song and made it a hit in 1969. Leon recorded his own version a year later.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Other People's Songs: You Don't Know Like I Know

Sam & Dave: You Don't Know Like I Know


Before Chef, before Shaft, and before his 18-minute version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", Isaac Hayes was half of a potent Stax songwriting/producing duo with David Porter. Soul singers Sam & Dave were the prime beneficiary of their talents, having been gifted with classics like "Hold On, I'm Comin'", "When Something is Wrong with My Baby", and most notably "Soul Man". The first hit the duo had with Hayes & Porter was "You Don't Know Like I Know", which went to #7 on the black singles charts in March of 1966. It started a string of ten consecutive Top Twenty R&B hits for them.

In 1968 Hayes recorded his first album, which bombed. But his second album, Hot Buttered Soul (the one with the 18-minute version of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix") was the first in a series of hit albums that made him a star in his own right.

Incidentally, Porter also became a recording artist, but never achieved anything approaching Hayes' success.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Other People’s Songs: Spoonful

Howlin‘ Wolf: Spoonful


Here is my audacious statement of the week: Willie Dixon was as important to the classic sound of Chicago blues as Muddy Waters. That’s because you can’t look at the best work of any of the Chicago greats without finding a song that Willie Dixon wrote, and possibly produced. We heard Wang Dang Doodle here during nonsense week; that’s a Dixon tune. Willie Dixon became a house songwriter, producer, and studio musician, at Chess Records in the 1950s and early 60s. So just about anyone who went through Chess played some of his tunes. Some, like Spoonful, became signature tunes for the first artist who recorded them, in this case Howlin’ Wolf.

I’m stretching the definition of our theme a bit with this one. Yes, Howlin’ Wolf was the original artist, and yes, the song’s author, Willie Dixon, would later record the song under his own name. But Willie Dixon also plays bass on Howlin’ Wolf’s original version. So, even though Dixon’s later recording has him singing the song for the first time, he was more than just a bystander here. But I wanted to pay tribute to Dixon this week, and I don’t have a complete discography for all of the songs he wrote for others. So this is my solution. I hope nobody minds.

Other People's Songs: All The Young Dudes

Mott The Hoople: All The Young Dudes


David Bowie wrote All The Young Dudes for Mott The Hoople when Mott was struggling to place something on the charts. It was to the point of them throwing in the towel but Bowie and Hoople bassist Peter Watts got to talking and Bowie offered them Suffragette City. Mott rejected that so Bowie came up with All The Young Dudes. The song became a signature glam rock tune but Bowie later said the song was intended to speak to the coming apocalypse, much in the same way as Bowie's song Five Years. Rolling Stone rated the song as one of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and it is also one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

Other People's Songs: It's A Shame


The Spinners: It's a Shame


Some week's theme's are pretty binary, and a song pretty clearly falls in or out of the box – songs from 1991, songs beginning with "you", songs with handclaps. This week is a little more challenging and the box has very fuzzy boundaries, so I'm playing it safe. Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright and Lee Garrett, all three artists in their own right, co-wrote and produced this song for label-mates the Spinners. After seven years plugging away for Berry Gordy's Motown label, the Spinners finally had their biggest hit to date. Two years later, they switched to Atlantic records, and producer/songwriter Thom Bell (remember him from the Delfonics post?) helped them achieve a string of 70's R&B/soul hits.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Other People’s Songs: Crazy

Patsy Cline: Crazy


In 1961, Willie Nelson was hardly a household name. He was one of any number of Nashville songwriters who labored anonymously behind the scenes, hoping for a hit. Writing a hit single could often be the only way to get the chance to record an album of your own. Early 1961 found Nelson working on a song called Stupid. Nelson had the song in mind for a male singer. As he got close to finishing the song, Nelson changed the name to Crazy. One more thing had to fall into place. The singer Nelson had in mind turned the song down, and someone got it to Patsy Cline. Not only a hit, but a classic song was born, and Nelson was one his way to having his own recording career. But it would still be many years before Nelson would record his own version of Crazy, and Cline’s version has never been matched, not even by the song’s author.

Mononymic Artists -> Other People's Songs: Nico's These Days

Nico: These Days


Though I have it listed in my archives as a Jackson Browne cover, this 1967 song is actually the original recording, written by a sixteen-year-old Browne for the mononymic Nico to record, with Browne on acoustic guitar and Velvet Underground chums Cale and Reed on everything else...and only later taken back by the songwriter, as his stature as a performer began to truly take off. As such, as I noted over at Cover Lay Down back in May of 2008,

cover versions of These Days tend to fall into two camps: those that cover Nico, and those that cover Jackson Browne. The former seem more popular among a certain indiefolk crowd, especially after her version lent hipster cred to the soundtrack for The Royal Tannenbaums, calling us back to its fragile, anxious, somewhat spacey sound; you can hear the secondhand influence of Nico in more recent covers from fringefolkers Kathryn Williams, St. Vincent, and Mates of State. Meanwhile, fellow seventies icons Gregg Allman and Kate Wolf clearly have Browne’s slow, simple poetics and clear, open-hearted delivery in mind; so, a generation later, do relative newcomers Denison Witmer, Fountains of Wayne, and Tyler Ramsey.

But as others have pointed out long before me, the bifurcated trunk of the musical tree that is These Days versions is relevant to an evolution of song not only because of the curious history, but because the choices made in each version affect the meaning of the song. And here we are not just talking musical interpretation, either: Nico’s version is lyrically different as well as musicially distinct, and the lost second-person subject of the penultimate line, the focus on belief (I don’t think I’ll risk another) over feeling (It’s so hard to risk another), changes the narrator into someone more narcissistic, less historied, and — some believe — less believable overall.

Our new theme this week is a bit tricky to define precisely - we're not looking for cover songs; we're looking for songs written by recognizable songwriters, artists known as performers in their own right, but which were originally recorded by others - but more common than you might imagine, given the tendency of many artists to start their careers as songwriters and small-scale performers, famous within the music community before they record their first record, not to mention the wont of some famous artists to pen songs for other voices as a sort of side-project. Not all thematic entries will have as rich a history of coverage as These Days, of course - some songs that fall into this theme are never recovered by the original artist; others are, but don't end up standing on their own as well in the hands of others. But it can be a delightful surprise to uncover authorship in these cases. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what the Star Maker community comes up with.