Friday, February 22, 2019

Bobbie Gentry – "Fancy" (1969)

Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy
They'll be nice to you

I’m a doting grandparent.  So I totally get why Bobbie Gentry’s grandmother – who lived on a Mississippi farm that didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing – traded the family milk cow for a piano for her seven-year-old granddaughter.

Bobbie used that piano to compose her first song, which was titled “My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog.”  (I bet he was a good dog, too.)

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Bobbie Gentry – who was born Roberta Lee Streeter in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1942 – was raised on her grandparents’ farm because her parents got divorced shortly after she was born and her mother moved to California.

Gentry took her stage name from a 1952 movie, Ruby Gentry, which starred Jennifer Jones as a poor-white-trash Southern girl who dreamed of becoming rich: 

Bobbie’s life resembled the movie heroine’s up to a point, but she left Mississippi and moved to the Palm Springs, California area to join her mother when she was 13.

Bobbie attended a private high school in posh Rancho Mirage, which may have the most golf courses per capita of any burg in the whole damn U. S. of A.  (Many famous entertainers – including Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra – and powerful political figures – including Gerald Ford, Spiro Agnew, Barbara Boxer, and Barack Obama – have either owned homes there or visited frequently.)  

Gentry then moved to Los Angeles, where she attended UCLA and then the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. 

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The heroine of Ruby Gentry didn’t get rich by moving to California and becoming a world-famous singer-songwriter.  She pulled herself out of poverty the old-fashioned way – by marrying a rich older man.

Bobbie Gentry followed her namesake’s example by marrying casino magnate Bill Harrah (who owned properties in Las Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe, and once possessed the finest collection of rare and exotic cars in the world) when she was 27 and he was 58.  

Bill Harrah and Bobbie Gentry
Five months later, they were divorced.  (Gentry wasn’t a success when it came to being a wife.  Her second marriage lasted not quite two years.  Her third marriage – to singer-comedian Jim Stafford of “Spiders & Snakes” fame – also lasted less than two years.  She’s remained single since divorcing Stafford in 1980.)

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Gentry never came close to replicating the success she had with her 1967 mega-hit, “Ode to Billie Joe.”  

Like that song, her second-biggest single – “Fancy” – tells a Southern Gothic-style story.  It made it to the top forty on both the pop and country charts in 1969.  

Reba McEntire’s remake of “Fancy” was a #8 country-western hit in 1991.  

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Between 1967 and 1981, Bobbie Gentry was a very busy woman.

She recorded seven studio albums, produced and choreographed a popular Las Vegas revue, and frequently appeared on American, Canadian, and British television.

Bobbie Gentry in a recording studio
But that all came to a sudden end in 1981.  Bobbie Gentry hasn’t recorded, performed, or given interviews since then.

A couple of years ago, a Washington Post reporter tracked her down – she lives in a very nice gated community near Memphis – and called her on the phone, hoping that Gentry would grant her an interview.

But Gentry – who is currently 76 years old – hung up on her.

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Click here to listen to “Fancy,” which Bobbie Gentry called “my strongest statement for women’s lib.”

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Del Shannon – "Runaway" (1961)

As I walk along
I wonder what went wrong

The late Dennis Farina spent 18 years with the Chicago Police Department’s burglary division before becoming an actor.

In 1981, director Michael Mann hired Farina as a police consultant for his heist film, Thief.  Mann also gave him a small role in that movie.

For the next several years, Farina kept his day job but moonlighted as an actor.  He left the police force after Mann gave him a prominent role in his 1986 movie, Manhunter

Michael Mann and Dennis Farina in 2012
Manhunter was the first Hannibal Lector movie, but in that film Dr. Lector was portrayed by Brian Cox, not Anthony Hopkins. 

Hopkins played “Hannibal the Cannibal” in Silence of the Lambs, which is a great movie, but isn’t as good as Manhunter.  (If you don’t believe me, turn the sound on your computer all the way up and then click here to watch the climactic scene of Manhunter.)

I saw Manhunter on October 15, 1986.  I know that because my twin daughters were born the next day.

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For me, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice was must-see television.  But Crime Story, another series produced by Mann, may have been even better.  

Crime Story, which starred Dennis Farina, originally aired immediately after Miami Vice on Friday nights.  But NBC execs decided to move it to Tuesday nights opposite the very popular Cybill Shepherd-Bruce Willis show, Moonlighting, and its ratings plummeted.  

Dennis Farina in “Crime Story”
The network ended up cancelling Crime Story after only two seasons, but the show made its mark as the first non-episodic TV crime series.  Other shows with season-long story arcs (like The Sopranos) owe a debt to Crime Story

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Crime Story had an amazing number of first-rate guest stars given that the show aired for only two seasons.  Julia Roberts’ first TV role was on Crime Story.  Other notables who appeared on the show included Kevin Spacey, Christian Slater, Pam Grier, Stanley Tucci, David Caruso, Deborah Harry (who didn’t sing), Gary Sinise, Ving Rhames, Michael J. Pollard, Eric Bogosian, Michael Madsen, Lorraine Bracco, and jazz legends Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon.  

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The opening credit sequence for Crime Story featured Del Shannon’s 1961 hit, “Runaway.”

Del Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1934.  After getting out of the army, he returned to Michigan and became the rhythm guitarist in a Battle Creek-based group called The Moonlight Ramblers.

Westover became the band’s singer when the original vocalist was fired for drunkenness.  He started calling himself Charlie Johnson and changed the band’s name to the Big Little Show Band – which may be the worst band name ever.  Charlie Johnson became Del Shannon in 1960 after signing a record deal. 

“Runaway” was Shannon’s first single, and it went all the way to #1.  His follow-up release (“Hats Off to Larry”) was a top ten hit, as was “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun).”

In 1963, Shannon became the first American to record a Beatles song.  His cover of “From Me to You” charted in the U.S. before the Beatles’ version did.

Shannon’s post-British Invasion records didn’t sell, so he became a producer.  In 1969, he discovered the band Smith and arranged their #5 hit “Baby, It's You,” a cover of a Burt Bacharach song that had previously been recorded by the Shirelles and the Beatles.  

Smith’s version of that song PONES the other versions, thanks mainly to the stunning vocals by the group’s lead singer, Gayle McCormick, who died in 2016 after a long battle with cancer.  

Shannon overcame a substance abuse problem but suffered from depression.  He killed himself with a .22 rifle in 1990 – just a few days after performing at a memorial concert for Buddy Holly.  

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The two most notable elements of “Runaway” are Shannon’s voice and Max Crook’s keyboard solo – which was played on a modified clavioline of Crook’s own invention, which he called a Musitron.

Click here to learn more about the clavioline, which preceded the Moog synthesizer.

Click here to view the opening credit sequence of Crime Story, which features a truncated version of “Runaway.”

Click here to listen to “Runaway” in its entirety.

And click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

James Darren – "Goodbye Cruel World" (1961)

I’m off to join the circus
Mr. Barnum, save a place for me

The late Gloria Shayne Baker was born Gloria Shain in 1923, in Brookline, Massachusetts.  She grew up next door to Joseph and Rose Kennedy and their children.  (She was a few years younger than John Kennedy and a little older than Robert Kennedy.)

Gloria got a degree in music from Boston University and then moved to New York City, where she changed the spelling of her last name to Shayne.  In 1951, she met Noël Regney, a French-born musician whose birth name was Léon Schlienger.  They were married the following year.

Sheet music for “Do You
 Hear What I Hear?”
The couple wrote songs that were recorded by Bobby Vinton, Perry Como, Jo Stafford, and other artists.  Shayne usually wrote the lyrics, while Regney composed the music.  But they switched roles on the Christmas song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – a plea for peace that was inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.  

Shayne wrote a number of songs without Regney’s help, including today’s featured song, which was a #3 hit for James Darren in 1961.

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James Darren was born James William Ercolani in Philadelphia in 1936.  

Shortly after his 20th birthday, he signed a long-term movie deal with Columbia Pictures, which gave him the role of “Moondoggie” in the 1959 teen surf film, Gidget.

“Gidget” starred James Darren,
Sandra Dee, and Cliff Robertson
The producers planned to have Darren lip sync the movie’s theme song for the soundtrack, but he told them that he could do it.  The kids loved the theme song as much as they loved the movie, and Darren ended up recording a number of pop singles.

“Goodbye Cruel World,” which made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in 1961, was hit biggest hit.

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Click here to listen to James Darren’s recording of “Goodbye Cruel World.”

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Dusty Springfield – "The Windmills of Your Mind" (1969)

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning

“The Windmills of Your Mind” was written for the 1968 movie, The Thomas Crown Affair, which starred Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.  Noel Harrison sang it on the movie soundtrack.

When Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler heard the song, he thought it was perfect for Dusty Springfield, who had just signed a contract with his label.  (Dusty didn’t want to record it – according to her manager, “Dusty always said she hated it because she couldn't identify with the words.”)  

The original plan was to use it as a B-side, but that plan was thrown out the window when “The Windmills of Your Mind” won the Oscar for Best Song in April 1969.  The next morning, Atlantic Records mailed out 2500 promotional copies of the record to radio stations around the country.  

“The Windmills of Your Mind” was released
on the 1969 album, Dusty in Memphis
A couple of weeks later, “The Windmills of Your Mind” entered the Billboard “Hot 100” at #99.  It peaked at #31 a few weeks later.

A #31 record isn’t exactly a sharp stick in the eye, but it’s nothing to write home about – especially if you’re a recording artists with three top ten singles (“Wishin’ and Hopin’,” “You Don’t have to Say You Love Me,” and “Son of a Preacher Man”) to your credit.

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The music for “The Windmills of Your Mind” was written by the prolific French film composer, Michel Legrand, who later won Academy Awards for Best Original Score for Summer of ’42 and Yentl.

The song’s English lyrics were written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the husband-and-wife songwriting team best known for “The Way We Were.”

The music and words of “The Windmills of Your Mind” complement each other perfectly.  The lyrics present one image after another of things that go in circles – a carousel, a revolving door, the hands of a clock, an orbiting planet – and eventually end up right back where they started, while the music swirls and spins and chases its own tail.

Marilyn and Alan Bergman
flank Michel Legrand
The song’s arrangement is a tour de force – it starts off slowly, intensifies, recedes, and intensifies again.  (I think Legrand was the arranger as well as the composer.)

Dusty’s voice is warm and full of mystery and a little schizophrenic – at times, it sounds as if she recorded the vocal track having no idea what the orchestral accompaniment was going to sound like.  

“The Windmills of Your Mind” is somewhat disorienting – listening to it may make you feel a bit uneasy.  One writer said the song “occupies a singular place in the pop canon where psychedelia and easy listening meet,” and I’m not sure the world was a ready for a record that mixed and matched those two very dissimilar genres.  It doesn’t surprise me that it wasn’t a bigger hit.  

“The Windmills of Your Mind” may not be your cup of tea, but I think it’s quite extraordinary. 

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Dusty Springfield was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien in the West Hampstead area of London in 1939.

She was given the nickname “Dusty” when she was a child.  In 1960, she and her older brother Tom formed a pop-folk group called the Springfields.  (They picked the name while rehearsing in a field during springtime.)  

The Springfields broke up in 1963.  Tom became a producer and songwriter – he co-wrote “Georgy Girl” for the Seekers – while Dusty became one of the most successful female recording artists of the sixties.

But she wasn’t as successful as she was deserved to be.  

Jason Ankeny of Allmusic described her as:

[T]he finest white soul singer of her era, a performer of remarkable emotional resonance whose body of work spans the decades and their attendant musical transformations with a consistency and purity unmatched by any of her contemporaries . . . . [T]he sultry intimacy and heartbreaking urgency of [her] voice transcended image and fashion, embracing everything from lushly orchestrated pop to gritty R&B to disco with unparalleled sophistication and depth.

Elton John called her “the greatest white singer there ever has been. . . . [E]very song she sang, she claimed as her own.”

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Click here to listen to Dusty Springfield’s recording of “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Monday, February 18, 2019

Leon Russell – "Shoot Out on the Plantation" (1970)

But the drummer is drumming
A Rolling Stones number
On Junior’s head and on his knees

“Shoot Out on the Plantation” was released in 1970 on Leon Russell’s eponymous debut solo album.

According to that album’s liner notes, the song is a thinly-veiled account of an altercation among several of Russell’s friends at a group house called “The Plantation,” which was located in a Los Angeles suburb.

The character in the song identified as “Junior” doesn’t do well in the fight.  It’s bad enough that he suffers a beating at the hands of the drummer, but the worst thing is that he’s made the mistake of bringing a knife to a gunfight: 

Yeah, the drummer’s got the drum
The Colonel’s got the gun
And Junior’s only got a knife
He’d better run!

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Leon Russell was a musician’s musician who played with everyone who was anyone in the sixties and seventies.

That probably explains why a heapin’ helpin’ of Hall of Fame-caliber musicians backed him up on the Leon Russell album.

Some of those musicians weren’t household names.  For example, there was drummer Buddy Harman, a Nashville-based studio musician who played on records by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and dozens of other country stars.

The young Leon Russell
And there was Jim Gordon, a session drummer who was to classic rock what Harman was to country and western.  (Gordon performed on records by the Byrds, Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills & Nash, Donovan, John Lennon, the Monkees, Tom Petty, Steely Dan, and Traffic, just to name a few.)

But a number of those who backed up Leon on his debut album were very much household names.  

Eric Clapton contributed to the album, as did Steve Winwood.  George Harrison and Ringo Starr played on three tracks.  And Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, the bass player and drummer of the Rolling Stones, served as the rhythm section on one of the album’s best songs, “Roll Away the Stone.”

I’m presuming that Charlie Watts was not the drummer who played a Rolling Stones number on poor Junior’s head during the “Shoot Out on the Plantation.”  (Ringo Starr – not Watts – played drums on that track.) 

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Leon Russell was born Claude Russell Bridges in 1942.  He started playing the piano when he was three, and was performing in Tulsa nightclubs when he was 14.

He was touring with Jerry Lee Lewis before he was old enough to drive, and moved to Los Angeles to become a studio musician when he was 17.  That’s when he started calling himself Leon Russell.  (He never changed his name legally.)

Leon Russell with Elton John
and Elvis Costello in 2010
Russell became one of my favorites when I was still in college, although I didn’t see him perform live until 2010 – when he was physically just a shadow of his former self.  (Earlier that year, Russell had undergone surgery for a brain fluid leak and also been treated for pneumonia and a heart problem.)

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Click here to listen to “Shoot Out on the Plantation.”

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Freddy Fender – "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" (1975)

But if he ever breaks your heart
If the teardrops ever start
I’ll be there before the next teardrop falls

“Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” which was written in 1967, was recorded by several different artists (including Jerry Lee Lewis) before legendary producer Huey P. “The Crazy Cajun” Meaux talked Freddy Fender into recording a half-English, half-Spanish cover of it in 1975.  

It was one of several songs released in 1975 that made it to #1 on both the Billboard “Hot 100” and Billboard “Hot Country Singles” charts.  The others included Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy, “ B. J. Thomas’s “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” and C. W. McCall’s “Convoy.”

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Freddy Fender was born Baldemar Garza Huerta in San Benito, Texas – just north of the Rio Grande – in 1937.  

He dropped out of high school to join the Marines, but had a drinking problem that resulted in his spending considerable time in the brig.  After being court-martialed in 1956, he returned to Texas and started performing in Latino nightclubs and honky-tonks as “El Bebop Kid:”

Huerta/Fender as “El Bebop Kid”
In 1958, Baldemar Huerta legally changed his name to Freddy Fender.  He took the name Fender from the famous electric guitar brand, and chose Freddy to go with it because he thought the alliteration sounded good.

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Click here to listen to “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Bob Dylan – "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" (1966)

Your debutante just knows what you need
But I know what you want

What’s more important?  Having your needs fulfilled?  Or having your wants satisfied?

In today’s featured song, Bob Dylan seems to be saying that needs are less important than wants.

That’s true if you think of “needs” as including the bare necessities of life (e.g., food, water, shelter) but not the things that make life truly satisfying (e.g., love, sex, intellectual stimulation).

But there’s another way to think about wants and needs.  What if you use “wants” to describe those things that you consciously desire, while “needs” represent what your subconscious mind more deeply craves – and without which you will never be happy?

In that case, needs would be more important than wants.

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The “I” in the lines from “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” that are quoted above refers to a certain Ruthie, a seductress who has invited the singer of the song to visit her in the “honky-tonk lagoon” where she lives – and where she spends her nights waltzing in the moonlight and no doubt casting a spell on any man watching. 

The singer definitely wants to hook up with Ruthie, but he’s involved with this debutante – a girlfriend or fiancée who is probably from a socially prominent and wealthy family.

Ruthie acknowledges that the debutante can satisfy the singer’s needs – she presumably is equipped with all the basic female equipment. 

But what about all those naughty things that the singer really wants?  He may be too embarrassed to ask his debutante for them, but that’s not a problem with Ruthie.  

You see, Ruthie’s been around the block a time or two – she knows what he wants without him having to ask.

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What happens if we transpose “want” and “need” in Dylan’s lyrics?

Your debutante just knows what you want
But I know what you need

The debutante may be able to supply the things that the singer thinks he wants – youth and beauty and wealth – and she may be happy to offer all those things to the singer.  

But the more experienced and empathic Ruthie understands things about the singer’s most fundamental desires – desires that he may not be aware of, or be able to articulate.  She can look into his eyes and read his mind – he’s an open book to her.

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Bob Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1941.

When he was a student at the University of Minnesota, he started performing on occasion at a nearby coffeehouse.  He was thinking about calling himself Bob Dillon when he discovered Dylan Thomas’s poetry.  So “Dillon” became “Dylan.”

Bob Dylan in 1966
Why the name change?  According to Dylan,

You're born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents.  I mean, that happens.  You call yourself what you want to call yourself.  This is the land of the free.

Amen to that.

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“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was released in 1966 on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde double album.

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon: