Monthly Archives: May 2010

That ’70s song, Vol. 21

Memorial Day weekend 1970 marked the high point for this week’s tune. Peaking at No. 22 on WLS in Chicago was a song that sounded quite unlike any other in the charts, a song certainly ahead of its time.

Sixteen years before Paul Simon released the African-flavored “Graceland” to wide acclaim, Neil Diamond released “Soolaimon,” powered by African rhythms and backed with gospel vocals.

“Soolaimon” sat at the heart of what Diamond called “The African Trilogy (A Folk Ballet).” That piece made up the entire Side 2 of the “Tap Root Manuscript” album when it was released six months later. Here’s how Diamond described his inspiration in the liner notes:

“Tap Root Manuscript” was one of the first albums I ever bought, but I bought it for all the hits — “Cracklin’ Rosie” and “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” are on it, too — rather than for “The African Trilogy.”

Regardless, that second side was quite an introduction to world music, especially in 1970. I played it as much as the first side full of Diamond’s more conventional pop-rock tunes.

“Soolaimon,” Neil Diamond, from “Tap Root Manuscript,” 1970. (This is a rip from my LP, from the middle of “The African Trilogy,” so the intro and outro may not be all that smooth.)

This was the first single from “Tap Root Manuscript,” released in early May. “Cracklin’ Rosie” followed in late August, then “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” in early November. The album wasn’t released until late November. They’d never do that today.

The “Tap Root Manuscript” liner notes credit dozens of singers and musicians, but none to a specific song or instrument. So you see that and wonder whether that’s Merry Clayton — billed as “Mary Clayton” — singing the backup vocals on “Soolaimon.” No way of knowing that I can find. Another little mystery.

Something extra over at The Midnight Tracker: Please check out a shamelessly recycled post over at our companion blog if you’d like to hear more of “The African Trilogy.”


Filed under May 2010, Sounds

Distant replays

While Commander Cody was pounding away on the electric piano in the banquet hall the other night, Jerry Kramer sat at a table at the other end of the hall, quietly going about his work.

Some of you know exactly who that is. For the rest of you, Jerry Kramer was the right guard on the Green Bay Packers’ championship teams of the 1960s. He also is the co-author of “Instant Replay,” one of the first tell-it-like-it-is sports books of the time.

I got my copy of “Instant Replay” in 1968 or 1969. It was hugely influential for a kid who loved the Packers and wanted to write. Years later, I enjoyed “Distant Replay,” the where-are-they-now follow-up also written by Kramer and the late Dick Schaap.

So, yeah, Jerry Kramer was sitting over there, taking care of business, signing Packers memorabilia to be sold. Sitting there in Green Bay, a long block from Lambeau Field, yet all but unnoticed by the 200 or so people there to see Commander Cody.

When the show was over, Kramer was still there, wrapping up the night’s work. He was with a couple of other guys, perhaps his partners in this bit of memorabilia business. A couple of people walked over to say hello. I’d never met Jerry Kramer, so I did, too.

We shook hands. I thanked him for writing his books. “Instant Replay” was a big deal when it came out, and he told me about the culture shock of being an NFL player running with the literary giants of the late ’60s. I assured him that he mattered more — at least to a kid from Sheboygan, Wisconsin — than Gore Vidal or Norman Mailer.

That was it. That was plenty. That it was completely unexpected, completely informal, made it that much better.

I’ve been thinking about famous people, and how we relate to them, since a friend posted a remarkable set of photos on his Facebook page. My friend has had a long career with the FM rock station in our hometown. There he is with Richie Sambora, Rick Allen, Donnie Van Zant, Rick Nielsen, Sarah McLachlan, Kevin Cronin, the Thompson Twins … you get the idea.

Both of us have long been in the media, enjoying the occasional access that comes with it. Meeting people, famous or not, is what we do.

I won’t say the thrill is gone, but the list of famous people I’d like to meet — is that a bucket list? — is pretty short. That’s for next time.

Until then, enjoy a chance meeting with …

“The Lineman,” Sam Spence, from “The Power and the Glory: The Original Music and Voices of NFL Films,” 1998. Don’t know when this was recorded, but from the sound of it, I’d say late ’60s.

Listen to the horns. They foreshadow someone on my short list.


Filed under May 2010, Sounds

That ’70s song, Vols. 19 and 20

As spring started to give way to summer in 1970, as basketball gave way to baseball, my Panasonic AM-FM radio stayed locked on the AM dial.

Mine was not a big world at the time. I didn’t travel far on that AM dial. Up to 620 for Brewers games, and back down to 920 for music.

(There might have been an occasional stop at 890 if I wanted to listen to the Top 40 from Chicago instead of Milwaukee, but never a stop at the local station, WHBL, 1330 on your dial out of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I couldn’t begin to tell you its format.)

Nor did I listen to FM radio. The older kids and the hippies listened to FM radio. My time was still to come.

Had I done so, I might have heard WZMF, 98.3 out of Milwaukee. It aired “progressive rock” in “stereo 24 hours a day.” LPs topped its chart for this week in 1970, followed by “little ones with the big holes.”

That I never listened to FM radio in 1970 is clear. Of the 15 LPs on that chart, I’ve owned two: “Led Zeppelin II” and Melanie’s “Candles in the Rain.” Among the LPs never on my radar: “Traveler’s Tale” by SRC, a hard-rocking group out of Detroit; “Cricklewood Green” by Ten Years After; and “On the Boards” by Taste, a group fronted by Rory Gallagher.

Intimidated, chastened, what have you, we slink back to the more familiar confines of the AM Top 40 charts, where we find …

… Melanie’s “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” arriving on the scene.

Melanie, the pop-folk singer once known as Melanie Safka of Astoria, Queens, New York, came to prominence at Woodstock in 1969. That experience inspired this smash single, a folk-rock-blues-gospel mashup at home on both mainstream and progressive playlists of the day.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers did the backup vocals on “Lay Down.” Their gale-force delivery helped propel Melanie to stardom, and the 23-year-old thanked them in the liner notes:

“Dear Edwin Hawkins and Singers: I was so afraid I would always have to sing alone … thanks to all of you I got my chance to sing with the whole world. Love, Melanie.”

Listen, then.

“Candles in the Rain” and “Lay Down” and “Look What They Done To My Song Ma,” Melanie, from “Candles in the Rain,” 1970. It’s out of print, but is available digitally.

The first two songs are the B side and the A side of the single, respectively, but were laid out in this order on the LP. The version of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” we’ve come to know is an edit. When it was released in the UK, it ran almost 8 minutes.

The New Seekers covered the third tune, renamed it and released it a month after “Lay Down” hit the charts. Buddah released Melanie’s version in 1971, but the New Seekers had the bigger hit with it.

I came across “Candles in the Rain” in the dollar bins in my friend Jim’s back yard last year. It’s an interesting record, and it’s held up nicely. Also on it is a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” which was a Top 10 hit for Melanie in the UK later in 1970.

These days, Melanie is living in Nashville. On her website, she’s written about the recent flooding and has decided that less is more when it comes to folks who meddle when others are in need.


Filed under May 2010, Sounds

The party crasher

Vietnam veterans are in town this weekend for an event called LZ Lambeau. It’s being billed as a long-overdue welcome home. There are four days of events, with the biggie tonight at Lambeau Field.

One of the bars within walking distance of the stadium booked the Commander Cody Band for Friday night.

They once were called Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. They’ve long been a guilty pleasure, and I’ve never seen them, so I went.

The group is just a quartet these days, not the eight-piece big band of old. It’s still fronted by the fine piano player George Frayne and it still cranks out a crowd-pleasing mix of rock, boogie, country and swing.

Good show, but an interesting vibe, one I’d not experienced in quite some time.

As you’d expect, most folks at the show wore something, most often black, proudly proclaiming themselves as Vietnam vets. That also made it clear who was not. Even though it was a friendly, mellow crowd of about 200 that turned out for Commander Cody, it still left me feeling a little like a party crasher.

I’m in my early 50s, and I’m too young for this group. Always will be. I didn’t graduate from high school until five weeks after the fall of Saigon.

So there’s that, and there’s this.

The band was set up in a banquet hall with a couple of cash bars along the side. Seeing all the slightly older folks at the bar and on the dance floor, it felt like I was crashing another wedding at the Colonial Ballroom, a big old rural dance hall not far from where I grew up.

If anyone was on to me one way or the other, they were cool about it. We were all digging Commander Cody, anyway. Here’s a little of what we heard. All are live tracks. The Commander is best heard in the wild.

“Down To Seeds and Stems Again Blues,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, from “Lost in the Ozone,” 1971. Recorded live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in April 1971.

Frayne proclaimed it the only slow song they play, and it was.

“Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar),” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, from “Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas,” 1974. Recorded live at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, in November 1973.

This is what they play to pick up the pace after playing that slow song.

“Lost in the Ozone,” Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, from “We’ve Got a Live One Here!” 1976. Recorded live in England in January or February 1976.

This closed those long-ago shows, and it closed Friday night’s show.


Filed under May 2010, Sounds

Another day in the life

Thanks for sticking with AM, Then FM as real life, of late, has kept me from listening to tunes, writing about them and sharing them as much as any of us would like.

You go through life, and it takes on certain rhythms. But not this year.

This year. for example, will be the first time in 12 years that we won’t be in Duluth, Minnesota, on an early September weekend. The NorthShore Inline Marathon and my high school class reunion fall on the same weekend. I’ll always choose the latter over the former. Yet the marathon has, for a dozen years, defined my spring and summer workouts and been our favorite fall vacation. Not quite sure what will replace it.

For 30 years, May has been the time to start playing softball. I’m back out there at first base. But even though I worked out during the winter to prepare for it, I increasingly have a sense that I’m closer to the end of that than I would like. Just not feeling it.

If you’re a regular visitor, you know my dad, who turns 85 in a month, is no longer driving. We go out most mornings, stopping most often at the convenience store for lottery tickets and then the grocery store. Still haven’t settled into a rhythm on that, either.

So today, when my brother calls to say he’s quit his job of 20 years and is looking for a new gig, his news becomes just another wave to ride. A wave created by a boulder tossed into the pond instead of a pebble.

The point of all this is not woe is me, woe are we. Please, no. This is nothing compared to what some other families face every day.

Rather, it’s simply that at a time when the only certainty seems to be uncertainty, the music is still there. As it was today, after I’d heard my brother’s news, after I’d driven Dad on his rounds.

There, on the soul station on the satellite radio in the car, completely and delightfully at random, was a song that absolutely made my day. Perhaps it will make yours.

Sock it to me!

“I Turned You On,” the Isley Brothers, from “The Brothers: Isley,” 1969. It’s out of print. This tune is available on “The Essential Isley Brothers,” a 2004 greatest-hits compilation.

Turns out, in 1969, the Isleys were another family going through a year when the only certainty was uncertainty. After a decade on four different labels, they’d charted a new course,  going from Tamla (part of the Motown empire) to their own T-Neck label.

“The Brothers: Isley” was the second of two albums released that year by the Isleys. The first, “It’s Our Thing,” had the hit single “It’s Your Thing” on it, and both did pretty well in the charts. This LP was less successful, but “I Turned You On” also did well in the charts.


Filed under May 2010, Sounds