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Friday, September 27, 2013

Edwin Hawkins Singers--Oh Happy Day (1969)

      The advent of You Tube has brought an entirely different avenue for people to become music stars. In the early days of rock music especially in the US, artists would become popular in their local area, put a record out, and hope that a national chain would buy the contract so that the artist would get national exposure. This was the way that the Edwin Hawkins Singers would do it as well, the story behind this great song is even more interesting.
     Edwin Hawkins was a prodigy, having taken over as the keyboard player in his family's gospel group in 1950 (at the age of 7!) spending that decade performing and making their first recording in 1957. He continued working as a music minister and artist throughout the 60's when he came up with an idea for a city wide youth choir.
     Based in San Francisco, Edwin and Betty Watson recruited the best soloists in the city to form what was first known as the Northern California State Youth Choir. They recorded an album called "Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord" in 1968 as a fund raiser for the area churches. There were only 500 copies of it made at the time. It's blend of gospel and R&B was a new sound and several outside of gospel took notice. 
      A few of those people were FM disc jockey's in the bay area. Back in that day very few stations used the FM frequency as many radios only had AM available. So it became a bastion for the new modern rock sound in many cities, with San Francisco being the hub.  Before long, others in San Francisco began to take notice and the song, which had not actually been released as a single yet was becoming a radio hit. It was released as a single for local, then national coverage and it became a world wide hit selling over 7 million copies and winning a Grammy.
      The song, spurred on by the powerhouse vocals of Dorothy Morrison, put the group, now called the Edwin Hawkins Singers in the spotlight and in great demand. A couple of years later they were featured on a hit by folk singer Melanie called, "Lay Down (Candles In the Rain)". Although they never achieved notoriety on that scale, they proceeded to win four more Grammys in the course off the next 15 years. For his part, Hawkins scaled down the touring and recording in the early 80's while organizing, "The Edwin Hawkins Music and Arts Festival" which was conceived in order to promote, encourage, and educate young artists which continues to this day.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Chesney Hawkes--The One and Only (1991)

     I have always liked Michael J. Fox. "Family Ties" was one of the only sitcoms I bothered to watch in the 80's (heck, it's one of the few I've bothered to watch period), mainly because of his talents, and his movies have been consistently good, even though many of his best known roles were variations on his Alex P. Keaton persona. Although many point to the "Back to the Future" movies as his best, my favorites were, "Secret of my Success" and "Doc Hollywood". It's the latter movie which leads me to today's blog.
     British singer, Chesney Hawkes was only 19 when this song became a hit in 1991. His father is singer Len Hawkes formerly of the group, "The Tremeloes" ('Silence is Golden', 'There Goes My Baby' both in 1967) and his mom was TV personality  Carol Dilworth. He wrote this song for the movie Buddy's Song in which he also starred in with Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey in 1991. It was from this movie that the song was chosen at the opening of "Doc Hollywood" in that same year. The song became a number one hit in the UK and also reached the top ten in the states as well.
      It was the only big hit for Hawkes in either side of the Atlantic. He has done well enough in his home country to stay visible, but never had the success that his early promise had forecast. In 2012 he released his first album in six years with, "Real Life Love". His website can be found here: .

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dale Hawkins--Suzie Q (1957)

     In the late 60's, Creedence Clearwater Revival became well known for a late 60's version of a rock and roll style known as swamp rock. A blend of rockabilly and southern blues, one of it's early stars was a guitarist from Louisiana named Dale Hawkins.
     Dale, like many others grew up in that area were influenced by country, blues, and gospel. His father, who left the family before Dale started school, was a traveling musician, and although Dale never remembered his Dad, he began to take up the guitar as well. He left home at the age of 16 he enlisted in the military and served a year and a half. Upon his release, he began a number of different jobs, one of which was at a record shop in Shreveport. It was here that the young musician met Leonard Chess who would become a huge influence in his latter career. Hawkins became one of the few white men to play on the Checker label (Chess' sister label) and soon after being signed wrote Suzie Q with James Burton. The song reached #27 on the charts, but it's influence far surpassed it's initial success as later in the 60's the song was covered by the Rolling Stones, and of course, CCR. It has been listed by Rolling Stone magazine as on of the 500 most influential songs of all time.
     Hawkins continued to record for Chess/Checker for quite a few years after this and had three more hits in the top 100. By 1959 the hits stopped coming, but Dale had a fervent following to those who were into Rockabilly and continued recording and touring until the mid-60's when he had an opportunity to produce others which led him into his next career as a record executive. He was influential in the careers of artists like The Five Americans, Bruce Channel, Harry Nilsson and Michael Nesmith.
     After being treated for prescription drug addiction in the late 70s, he moved to Arkansas where he spent the rest of his life. He passed away from colon cancer in 2010, but not before releasing a series of acclaimed albums, most notably, "Back Down to Louisiana" in 2007.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway--Where Is The Love (1972)

     We see examples in music of duos who do much better together than separately. Although Roberta Flack maintained a strong career on the charts through the 70's and part of the 80's, Donny Hathaway's success always seemed to be linked to his female duet partner.
     Hathaway received an scholarship to Howard University and went there three years before quitting to pursue his professional avenues. He first worked behind the scenes as a songwriter, producer and session pianist for a number of stars such as Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, and Jerry Butler. He also sang in "The Mayfield Singers" who would back The Impressions. Soon, he became the house producer for Mayfield's Custom record label.
     Atco Records was interested in Hathaway as a solo performer and signed him to their label in 1969, but the first few efforts didn't go far. However, his first album in 1970, "Everything is Everything" has become somewhat of a soul classic.
     I've read in some materials on the internet that it was during their time at Howard University that Flack and Hathaway were friends and this led to them working on music together. It sounds good, but that's not true since Flack was offered a scholarship at the age of 15 (one of the youngest to ever enter the university) in 1952 and graduated at the age of 19 when Hathaway was 11.
     The real story is that Flack included one of Donny's compositions on her "First Take" album in 1969 ("Our Ages or Our Hearts"). The next album not only included "Gone Away" written by Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield, but he was the arranger on the disc as well. It was Jerry Wexler who suggested an album of duets.
     The result was the album, "Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway" in 1971 which gave them a minor hit with the James Taylor song, "You've Got A Friend". In fact, both the duo's and Taylor's version came out on the same day, and while JT's version went to number one, it certainly gave both much needed exposure.
     This was especially true of Flack who just a short time later hit number one with, "The First Time Every I Saw Your Face",  a song from the Clint Eastwood movie, "Play Misty For Me". In the summer of 1972, Atlantic chose to take the song, "Where Is The Love" off of the duet album which became a top five hit, and won the pair a Grammy as well. The next solo outing for Roberta was, "Killing Me Softly With His Song" which became another number one hit and propelled her into superstardom.
     Hathaway however continued having problem making it big as a solo artist. His problems with mental illness also became a problem, not only in his personal life, but in his relationship with Flack. He had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and as long has he was taking his medication he was fine. His wife later admitted that he was not always diligent in this respect and it eventually effected all of his relationships.
     Although Donny had a few top 20 hits on the R&B charts, he was never able to translate this into overall success. He did some television work, including recording the theme song to "Maude" and produced some as well, but much of the mid-70's was spent working in small clubs and having several bouts in the hospital for his emotional issues. Later in the decade he reconciled with Flack and the two went back into the studio to record what would be another huge hit, "The Closer I Get To You" in 1978. The pair were making plans to release another duet album when Hathaway was found dead in January of 1979 after falling from his 15th story apartment. There were no signs of struggle and the sliding door was neatly moved, which led investigators to rule it a suicide. He was 33. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

George Harrison--All Those Years Ago (1981)

     Over the years there has been many songs written either referencing or directly dealing with John Lennon. After his shocking death in December of 1980, the musical world attempted to come to grips with his legacy. There are several song that stand out, the first (and in my mind the best) was Elton John's "Empty Garden" off of the 1982 album, "Jump Up". Paul McCartney came in with "Here Today" from his album, "Tug of War", and this song by George Harrison.
     Of the three songs mentioned, this was the first one released ("Here Today" was never released as a single). George had written a song for Ringo, but Starr never cared much for it because it was a bit high in pitch for the drummer. Harrison took the song back and in the meantime, when Lennon died, he put new lyrics to song. He took Ringo's voice off of the song, but kept his drumming track, then invited Paul and Linda McCartney with former Wings member Denny Lane to come and provide backing vocals.
     At the time the single was released, some critics found it a bit trite because of the bouncy music, but lyrically it spoke of George's loss. With it's release in May of 1981 it was the first of many tributes to the fallen Beatle. It was the third of four top five hits for Harrison who would not be heard from on the American charts again until 1987's, "Got My Mind Set On You"

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dan Hartman--I Can Dream About You (1984)

     One of the fun things about the history of modern music is that not everything is always as it seems. Take Dan Hartman for instance. In the late 70s and early 80's he had several top 40 pop hits including this one. However, he got his first break as a bass player for one of the more popular rock acts of the early 1970's.
     Dan and his brother Dave had a high school band called The Legends in their home town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. At the time Dan played keyboards and wrote much of the material. They actually recorded several songs, but success was not to be found. His first big break professionally was playing for the Johnny Winter Band for a period of time. Johnny's brother Edgar was looking for a bass player and hired Dan to fill that role in 1972. Hartman's first major contribution was on the album, "They Only Come Out At Night". "Free Ride" was the follow up to the monster hit,  "Frankenstein" and came in at #14.
     Hartman went solo in 1976 and had his first success with a dance number called, "Instant Replay". .Although not all of his songs were considered dance numbers, he always seemed to have had good luck on the dance charts. The biggest his of his career was this one, reaching number 5 in 1984. It was first offered to Hall & Oates, but they turned it down since at the time, they normally didn't do covered. They later recorded the song for their 2004 album, "Our Kind of Soul" as a tribute to it's writer who died earlier that year of brain cancer.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Freddie Hart--Easy Loving (1971)

      Every time I post a country song on here, the same type of emails come in, "This ain't rock and roll". Well no kidding. At the same time, no matter what era that it had been recorded, if it makes it on to the top 20 on the pop charts, then it has something going for it. In 1971 Freddie Hart had a huge hit with "Easy Loving" which just goes to show that a good song is a good song no matter what genre it comes from.
     Hart was born in rural Alabama and had just a minimal education. He had quit school before he was a teenager to go work, and a few years later lied about his age at the outset of World War II to get into the military. He saw action in Iwo Jima and Guam. On his release, he settled in California where he taught self defense courses at the LA Police Academy. He also began to perform and write which led to a recording contract in 1953 with Capitol Records. This never led to much, but ended up getting his first big break when Carl Smith covered his song, "Loose Talk" in 1955. He continued to write for artists such as Patsy Cline and George Jones. His switch to Columbia Records in the late 50's began to bear some fruit with the song, "The Walk" in 1959.
     The 60's found him having middling success, especially in the latter part of that decade. It was his return to Capitol in 1969 that marked the beginning of his most fruitful period. He had become a part of what was known as the "Bakersville Sound" which had been made so popular with Buck Owens. "Easy Loving" in 1971 not only became his first number one his on the country charts, but did well enough to climb to number 17 on the pop charts as well. It began a streak of five number 1's in a row (he had six total) from 1971 to 1973. He became a country star for the entirety of the decade.
     He has continued to record traditional country and gospel over the years since 1980 and in his 80's continues to remain active in music and his love for painting.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Corey Hart--Sunglasses at Night (1984)

     Am sure it's just me, but I have always had a problem remembering Corey's, especially ones of 1980's vintage. For the life of me, twenty five years on, I still get Corey Hart, Corey Feldman, and Corey Haim confused. You don't have to tell me they are not only different, but Hart is the one who was a successful recording artist (but I had to check to make sure). He also had one of the more distinctive hits of the mid-80's.
     Hart was born in Montreal, but traveled with his parents around the world, living in Spain, Mexico City, and Florida. His parents divorced when Corey was ten, and moved back to Canada with his mother, although would still travel a great deal which led to him singing to Tom Jones in Florida at the age of 11 and also for Paul Anka in Los Vegas shortly thereafter. He continued to sing throughout his teenaged years even representing his home country in Japan in 1980 at the World Popular Song Festival. By 1982, he had signed a contract with Aquarius Records.
     Success came relatively quickly for the young singer although upon it's release, his first album, "First Offense" didn't do well in Canada. It was only after it begin to catch fire in the US, on the strength of, "Sunglasses At Night" that he became a North American superstar. The song eventually reached number seven on the US charts.  Although having eight more top 40 hits through the rest of the decade (including, "Never Surrender" which sold even better than "Sunglasses"), he would always be linked to this song.
     A couple of interesting "what if" notes. He was given consideration to play the role of Marty McFly in the "Back to the Future" movie. Director Steven Spielberg sent him a script and an invitation to do a screen test, but Hart declined wanting to focus more on his music career. He also rejected the idea of recording, "Danger Zone" since he was only interested in singing his own material. He continued to chart regularly in Canada throughout the 90's. Although he has done some recording since 2000, he has spent much of his time in the Bahamas with his wife and family.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Wilbert Harrison--Kansas City (1959)

     "Kansas City" was one of earliest songs written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Written in 1952, the song was inspired by Big Joe Turner and his songs about the mid western city, and was written specifically for Little Willie Littlefield.   As a pair of 19 year olds, neither one had been to Kansas City before (neither claim to have visited there until 1986!). In fact, the "12th Street and Vine" that was referred to in the song didn't exist at the time, it has since been concocted as a marketing tool by city fathers. The song, which was released as "KC Lovin'", had some success on the west coast, but none on the national charts.
     Wilbert Harrison, born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1929, had bounced around as a singer of several types of music including calypso. He had heard Littlefield's version several times over the years and wanted to do a version of his own, which he did in 1959 on the Fury label. The song not only became a big hit for Harrison, but it proved to be so popular with other artists that at one point in the spring of 1959 there were FIVE versions of the song on the charts. (Harrison's, Hank Ballard, Rocky Olson, Rockin' Robert and the Rebels, and a re-release of Littlefield's original)
      The song not only became a rock and roll standard at that time, it continued to be a staple for a number of acts including The Beatles, and James Brown. Harrison hit the charts again in 1969 with the song, "Let's Work Together" which cracked the top 40, and continued to tour for much of the rest of his life. He died in 1994 at a nursing home in Spencer, North Carolina at the age of 65. Below we have the original by Littlefield, and the hit by Harrison.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thurston Harris--Little Bitty Pretty One (1957)

     For many, doo-wop was a form of music which was mainly linked to the areas around New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. One of it's early and important hubs however was in Los Angeles. Most of those groups never had the exposure of their east coast counterparts, but nevertheless was important in the development of the genre.
     Thurston Harris, who was born in Indianapolis, started out like most R&B singers in gospel, but the lure of the secular stylings took him to LA where he helped form what would become The Lamplighters in 1953. He would record with them for three more years with some great records, but nothing which would reach the charts. The Lamplighters would morph into The Tenderfoots, The Sharps, and finally The Rivingtons who would finally score with 1962's, "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow".
      In the meantime, Harris would sign with Aladdin in 1957 and have the only hit in his career. "Little Bitty Pretty One" was written by Bobby Day that same year. Just a few days after recording it for himself, Aladdin owner chose Harris to record it for his label. Day's version never reached the top 40, but Thurston's made it to number 6 on the pop charts and number 2 on the R&B charts.
     Harris never had another hit, and after recording his last side for Aladdin in 1961 drifted from one label to another until the mid-60's when his hot temper, partying ways, and eventually drug addiction put him in an almost 20 year exile from music while he was essentially homeless, living from one friends house to another. In the early 80's he cleaned up from the drugs (but not the alcohol which would eventually lead to his death in 1990) and became a blues singer.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rolf Harris--Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport (1963)

     For decades now, Rolf Harris has been involved in the arts as a painter, television personality, and music in England. However, his connection to the American music charts had to do with a song he wrote while he was still a struggling artist.
     Harris was born at Perth, Australia in 1930 and first made his mark as a champion swimmer from 1946 to 1952, but from his teenaged years, he had hopes of being an artist. In 1946, at the age of 16 his self portrait in oil was one of 80 chosen to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Over the next few years he won several other awards for his paintings. He made the decision to devote his time in full to art after a viral infection in 1952 left him partially paralyzed giving him time to think of his future. He recovered fully, but chose to move to London which he considered to be one of the hubs of the artistic world.
     He spent the next few years learning his craft while at the same time working for BBC on different shows which highlighted he drawing talents. On his off-days he would find himself playing piano accordion at a pub which catered to homesick Australian and New Zealanders called "The Down Under". He worked on his entertainment skills while here, and in 1957 he wrote the song, "Tie Me Down Kangaroo, Sport". In 1960, he was incited into moving back to his homeland when television broadcasting was developed. It was while here he recorded the song which became a hit in Australia and the UK. In 1962 he returned to England when George Martin re-recorded all of the songs he had done in the previous two years. It was this version of "Tie me Down"...that became a hit in the US reaching number 3. Although never having another hit in the states, Harris remains a major figure through his work on the BBC and through his paintings

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Richard Harris--MacArthur Park (1968)

     Richard Harris was a true artistic renaissance man. In the 1960's, Harris became one of the leading actors from the UK due to roles like, "The Guns of Navarone", "Mutiny on the Bounty", and "A Sporting Life" which netted him a nomination for a Golden Globe in 1963. In the 70's he was not only known for his hard partying ways, but for his role in the movie, "A Man Called Horse" and it's sequels. After spending much of the 80's cleaning his life up after too much alcohol and cocaine, he returned with several memorable role including, "The Field", "Unforgiven" and one of his last roles, playing the headmaster Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. It was one movie in particular that would lead us to our feature song today.
     In 1967, Harris played the role of King Arthur in the movie adaptation of the Lerner and Lowe play, "Camelot". Despite winning five Academy Awards, was quite dull (at least to these eyes) except when the King was on the screen. His stage presence wasn't a surprise, but what came as a shock to many was how well he sang. Harris didn't actually "sing", but he had a way of talking through songs which came across as singing (much like another UK actor of the time, Rex Harrison), which was quite effective.
      Harris had met Jimmy Webb late in 1967 at a event in California. Out of the blue, the actor mentioned that he was interested in doing a musical project. Jimmy of course was aware of the movie "Camelot", but didn't take him seriously until receiving a telegram from London wanting to secure a time for him to come and begin recording. Harris had listened to Webb's material and had chosen "MacArthur Park", a song written about the songwriter's relationship with an old girlfriend (that relationship was also the impetus for, "By the time I get to Phoenix" as well) as the first song to record. It became a sprawling, four movement single clocking in over seven minutes. If you notice, the actor actually sings, "MacArthur's Park", this was despite Webb's attempts to get him to sing it correctly. After a few missed takes, he just allows him to sing it the way that we hear it today.
     It was one of the songs which made up the album, "A Tramp Shining", which is arguably the best album of Webb's material ever recorded. The single itself reached number 2 in the states during the summer of 1968, and was covered by Donna Summer in a disco version ten years later which reached the top of the charts.   


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Major Harris--Love Won't Let Me Wait (1975)

      Major Harris was born in Virginia and spent his early years singing in various groups in and around his Richmond home, most notably, The Jarmels. He was called upon to replace Randy Cain in the group The Delfonics in 1971, but they were on a downward trajectory following the departure of producer Thom Bell and after less than two years left to begin a solo career.
     His first single, "Each Morning I Wake Up" did well on the dance charts, but it was the second single, "Love Won't Let Me Wait", written by Vinnie Barrett and Bobby Eli which stormed up the charts. It was the only top ten hit for Harris on the pop charts, and was also number 1 on the R&B list. He had a couple more minor hits, but it had all but dried up by the end of 1976. With his run as a solo artist complete, he rejoined The Delfonics and toured with them up until his death in November of 2012 at the age of 65.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Emmylou Harris--Boulder to Birmingham (1975)

     Emmylou Harris has one of the purest voices in any genre, and much like Neil Young, she has followed her muse at all times, encouraging her fans to follow along. This has made her impossible to pigeon-hole, but has won her fans from all genres, picking up a dozen Grammys along the way. She has recorded many memorable songs, but this one is one of my favorites.
      Harris was admitted to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro on a drama scholarship when she began to take music more seriously. Beginning heavily into folk music she dropped out and moved to New York where she produced her first album in 1969, married, had a child, and soon divorced. She moved moved back to Maryland with her parents to start the new decade.
     She soon returned to singing and in 1971 was heard by Chris Hillman, then of the Flying Burrito Brothers. After briefly considering asking her to become a member of the group, referred her to Gram Parsons who had just left to pursue a solo career. Personally they hit it off immediately. Parsons introduced her to his brand of country rock, and she brought a crystalline voice that was made for his. Although never romantic, she was totally devastated by his death in 1973.   (Harris has some interesting comments on this in an article from The Independent:
      Thanks to Linda Ronstadt, she got a record deal with Warner and released the 1975 album, "Pieces of the Sky" which contained, "Boulder to Birmingham" which was the first of many attempts to sort out Gram's life, death, and their relationship to one another. It has remained a fan favorite, and laid out the template for her future in music as the torch bearer of his country rock vision.