Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Do You Know The First Thing About Music? Part One
Now that I've put all of you on the defensive by asking a somewhat patronizing question, rest assured that the title of today's post is more of a play on words than a presumption that most of you don't know your asses from your elbows as it pertains to music history. In fact, I tend to think of my readers as knowledgeable, intelligent and resourceful...and if you're not...well...I suppose my stupidity would trump all for talking to a bunch of idiots in the first place...
Since that isn't the case, what I'm really making reference to is a flip on the concept of the Cover My Ass/On Second Thought series. The songs in today's post are the first versions of some commonly recognizable tunes, at least in popular American culture. Apologies to my readers in Bangladesh or elsewhere who may have never heard the more well-known or definitive versions of these songs. I always think that this blog must be hilarious when translated into other languages, not that it isn't sometimes a bunch of gibberish even if English is your native tongue.
Anyway, there are tons of songs that have met with greater success when rendered by cover artists, often causing the original versions to be marginalized into the realm of the forgotten. I'm certainly not promoting the idea that the first offerings are necessarily the best. In some cases, it makes perfect sense that other artists took a stab at trying to improve upon a mediocre or God-awful original. In others, you may sincerely regret only being familiar with the version that you heard playing on the radio 50 times a day. I'll let you be the judge of that. My purpose is only to press the rewind button on these tracks and do my part to share a bit of music history with the masses.
A'ight then, soul kids. This begins the first part of an...ummm...errr...at least two part series. Commitments make me nervous...can you tell?
Back soon with the next episode. One.
"I (Who Have Nothing)"---Ben E. King (zShare)
"I (Who Have Nothing)"---Ben E. King (savefile)
*Although King recorded the first version of this beloved tune in English, the track's origins can actually be traced back to an Italian song called "Uno Dei Tanti" ("One Of Many"), written by Carlo Donida Labati and Giulio "Mogol" Rapetti, and originally recorded by vocalist Joe Sentieri in 1961. The popular songwriting duo Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller translated the song's lyrics, and Ben E. King was the first to release the Americanized version in 1963.
*King's take on the song was relatively popular at the time, reaching #29 on the popular charts. However, Tom Jones catapulted the tune to an even higher position (lucky #14) when he released it in 1970.
Shirley Bassey recorded a widely known rendition of the song that became a number one hit for her in the UK. Her take was later sampled by the underground hip-hop group Jedi Mind Tricks.
Terry Knight & The Pack released a version of the song that only climbed to #46, but it's worthy of mention because the relative popularity of their cover earned them an appearance on Dick Clark's show Where The Action Is. Two members of Terry Knight & The Pack later formed the foundation of the enormously popular Grand Funk Railroad.
More recently, the song was heard in millions of homes when Jordin Sparks, last year's brutally unexceptional American Idol winner, performed a rendition of the song on the show.
Other artists who've covered the tune include Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Sylvester, Hodges, James, & Smith, Petula Clark, Luther Vandross & Martha Wash, Neil Diamond, Manfred Mann, and Joe Cocker.
*If something about the song's melody reminds you of "Nights In White Satin" by The Moody Blues, you're not alone. Music listeners/critics have been pondering the similarities for years.
*King's version resurfaced in recent history on The Sopranos, and appears on Peppers & Eggs: Music From The Original HBO Series.
"Spoonful"---Howlin' Wolf (zShare)
"Spoonful"---Howlin' Wolf (savefile)
*"Spoonful" is a classic tune that was written by the poet laureate of the blues, Willie Dixon. Lyrically, the song is based on "Spoonful Blues" by the Father of Delta Blues, Charley Patton.
Dixon and Howlin' Wolf frequently collaborated with one another, and Wolf would be the first to put the song on wax in 1960 as a single on the Chess label. The track was also released in 1962 on his self-titled LP, sometimes known as "The Rockin' Chair Album" in reference to its cover illustration.
To give you some idea how truly essential this record is, The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame named Wolf's version of "Spoonful" as one of the 500 songs that shaped rock and roll.
*This tune has been covered by artists such as Etta James, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Ten Years After, and The Who.
It was Cream, however, who released what is presumably the most well-known version of the song. Their cover appeared on their debut album (Fresh Cream) in 1966, but there's a bit of a story behind that as well. There were actually two different versions of Fresh Cream. The UK version (also released in Canada) included "Spoonful", but did not include their single, "I Feel Free". The U.S. version included "I Feel Free", but omitted "Spoonful". Polydor also released an album entitled Full Cream, which was the same as the U.S. version of Fresh Cream, but it featured a shortened version of "Spoonful". On subsequent CD releases, both songs appear in the originally intended order. Damn...ya got that?
A live version of "Spoonful" also appeared on Cream's third LP, Wheels Of Fire, released in 1968. This sixteen-minute rendition of the tune was recorded at the Winterland Ballroom, and was later divided into 2 parts that were released as the A and B sides of a 7".
"Piece Of My Heart"---Erma Franklin (zShare)
"Piece Of My Heart"---Erma Franklin (savefile)
*"Piece Of My Heart" was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns, and was first recorded by Erma Franklin in 1967 as 7" single on Shout Records. Although the song made it into the top ten on the U.S. R&B charts, it only reached #62 on the pop singles charts. Franklin's version was never released as a single in the UK until 1992, when it peaked at #9.
*In 1968, Big Brother and The Holding Company recorded the song with lead singer Janis Joplin, and the track took mainstream culture by storm. Their version climbed all the way to #12, and is undoubtedly one of the signature songs of Joplin's short-lived, yet highly celebrated career. It was released as a 7" and appeared on the band's Cheap Thrills LP.
So what did Erma think of Joplin's take on the track? She said that she didn't recognize it when she first heard it on the radio, because the vocal arrangement was quite different. However, she's also reported watching documentaries about Joplin's life, and has concluded that she was a very talented and soulful singer.
*Other renditions of the tune have been offered by Faith Hill, Melissa Etheridge, Betty LaVette, Dusty Springfield, Bryan Ferry, Phoebe Snow, Beverley Knight, Etta James, and many others. We're not even going to think about the Sammy Hagar version, alright?
"Time Is On My Side"---Kai Winding (zShare)
"Time Is On My Side"---Kai Winding (savefile)
"Time Is On My Side"---Irma Thomas (zShare)
"Time Is On My Side"---Irma Thomas (savefile)
*Researching the history of this song is a somewhat confounding experience as there is quite a bit of conflicting information about the track's origins. One thing is clear, however...many people erroneously attribute the first recording of this song to The Soul Queen Of New Orleans, Irma Thomas. Trombonist Kai Winding recorded his version on October 3, 1963 for Verve Records (10307). Irma Thomas and The Rolling Stones both released a cover the following year, but Thomas' version did precede the rendition by The Stones.
*The original credits indicate that Jerry Ragovoy wrote the song, although this created some confusion as he used Norman Meade as a pseudonym. If you listen to Winding's original take, you'll notice that lyrics were added to the renditions by Thomas and The Stones. As legend has it, Jimmy Norman added these additional lyrics just moments before Thomas went into the studio to record her version for Imperial Records. As another point of interest, Thomas' cover was produced by one of the most influential figures in New Orleans soul and R&B, Allen Toussaint.
Thomas' version failed to score significantly on the popular charts, whereas the cover by The Rolling Stones became their first top ten hit in the U.S., peaking at #6.
*Kai Winding's original recording was produced by Creed Taylor and engineered by Phil Ramone. The other details get utterly mind-boggling, so I'm definitely open to further information from readers who possess some actual factual knowledge about who the backing vocalists were on this tune. By all means, feel free to school me on this one...
Meanwhile, here's what I've gathered from researching numerous resources. Many writers attribute the background vocals on the tune to The Enchanters, a group that Garnet Mimms was in with Sam Bell, Charles Boyer, and Zola Pearnell. Perhaps this notion is related to the fact that Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters also worked with Jerry Ragovoy, who co-wrote their song "Cry Baby" (more about that tune in a moment). However, the vocals on "Cry Baby" were actually provided by The Gospelaires, who sang on hundreds of New York recording sessions in the early and mid-1960s. Their line-up was fluid and subsequently evolved into the Sweet Inspirations. At one time or another Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Carol Slade, Doris Troy, Judy Clay, Sylvia Shemwell, Estelle Brown (and possibly some others) were involved in this collective of vocalists in some way, shape, or form.
Many articles suggest that on Winding's recording, it was actually a few of The Gospelaires who sang on the track (often proclaimed more specifically to be Cissy, Dee Dee, and Dionne). I tend to believe that it was some combination of these aforementioned soul sisters who appear on this song (not necessarily those three in particular), but the whole matter is a bit confusing, to say the very least.
I'm kinda pissed at Verve for putting an unnamed vocal group on the Winding record in the first place. If Dionne is truly psychic, maybe she'll figure out that I really need to know if she sang on this joint or not. Don't think I should hold my breath...
"Mercy, Mercy"---Don Covay and The Goodtimers (zShare)
"Mercy, Mercy"---Don Covay and The Goodtimers (savefile)
*"Mercy, Mercy" was Covay's debut single with the Rosemart label, a subsidiary of Atlantic records. This self-penned tune became an R&B Top 40 hit, and would lead to Atlantic deciding to release a full LP (Mercy!) with Covay's Rosemart singles and some other material he had cut in their studios.
It's well-established that Jimi Hendrix played the guitar on some of the songs on the album, but there is much debate over whether or not he played on "Mercy, Mercy" in particular. Covay himself was an accomplished guitar player, and preferred to write his songs on the six-stringed instrument as opposed to tinkering around with ideas on the piano.
*In popular culture, the more recognizable rendition of the tune was released by The Rolling Stones on their Out Of Our Heads LP (1965). As I've mentioned previously, Mick Jagger was rather preoccupied with Covay's work, and ended up taking quite a few cues from the soul artist's distinctive style.
"Cry Baby"---Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters (zShare)
"Cry Baby"---Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters (savefile)
*"Cry Baby" was written by Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns; Sam Bell is also sometimes mentioned in the songwriting credits for this tune.
*After Mimms ended a relatively lengthy stint in the military in the late '50s, he went back to Philadelphia (where he spent his childhood years) and formed a doo-wop quintet called The Gainors. The Gainors were Sam Bell, John Jefferson, Willie Combo, and Howard Tate (who later sang another song Janis Joplin covered, "Get It While You Can").
After releasing singles together for a few years, The Gainors evolved into Garnet Mimms and The Enchanters. Just in case you weren't paying attention earlier in the post, The Enchanters were Sam Bell, Zola Pearnell, and Charles Boyer. The group's pathway to success began when they moved to New York and joined forces with producer/songwriter Bert Berns. Berns introduced them to Jerry Ragovoy in 1963, who took an immediate interest in the group. Shortly thereafter, they recorded "Cry Baby", which became a hit for them in the U.S., alongside "For Your Precious Love" and "Baby Don't You Weep". Although these early recordings were billed as Garnet Mimms & The Enchanters, Ragovoy actually used The Gospelaires (later known as the Sweet Inspirations) as the background singers. "Cry Baby" debuted on the Billboard 100 on August 17, 1963. By October, the track was dominating the R&B charts and climbed to #4 on the popular charts, a rare achievement for an uncompromising soul record.
By 1964, the group had decided to part ways. Mimms decided to pursue a solo career, while The Enchanters made Sam Bell their new lead vocalist and continued to record. Perhaps not surprisingly, they failed to match the career high point they had achieved with their former frontman.
*Despite the fact that Mimms' version was a chart-busting success, most people in contemporary culture undoubtedly associate the tune with Janis Joplin & The Full Tilt Boogie Band. Her cover of the song was released on her Pearl LP in 1971, the album she was recording at the time of her death from a heroin overdose. In 2003, Pearl was ranked at #122 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
*The song has also been covered by the likes of Natalie Cole, The Mad Lads, and Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings.
The truly amazin' Howlin' Wolf performing "Meet Me At The Bottom",
"Dust My Broom",
...and "Smokestack Lightning":
Bonus mp3s and an elementary lesson in hip hop:
Generally speaking (although there are exceptions), hip hop artists don't tend to cover someone else's material, at least not in the traditional sense. They sample, interpolate, spit new bars over recycled tracks and even borrow the occasional lyric, but rarely do they attempt to duplicate another artist's work in its entirety. That said, it's still sometimes possible to compare and contrast their material simply by slightly modifying the guidelines.
For example, ponder this. Oh No (Madlib's younger brother) made a great deal of noise in the underground sector when his oustanding Exodus Into Unheard Rhythms LP dropped in 2006. Pairing fresh beats with classic samples of material by genius composer Galt MacDermot, Oh No created an album that was sonically and conceptually tight as a drum.
One of the standout joints on the LP was undoubtedly "T. Biggums", but as much as I still love that track, it does somewhat negate the "unheard rhythms" concept. It instantly reminded me of something else, which I couldn't put my finger on for about a week or so. Then one day, I was like...woo hah!...that shit sounds a lot like an older Busta Rhymes joint.
"You Won't Tell, I Won't Tell" was on the flipside of the "Dangerous" vinyl single, released in 1997. The track's producer, Armando Colon, had also looked to MacDermot's "World Today" to craft his beat, and as a result, the two tracks bear some distinct elements of similarity.
Oh No fans shouldn't despair, however. It's certainly not uncommon for more than one producer to mine the same sample for a beat. My thought was that a lot of the soul babies may not remember this particular Busta joint, and it seemed a good example to illustrate the point that an engaging comparative analysis can be every bit as applicable to hip hop as it is to any other art form.
My opinion? Oh No's joint reigns supreme overall, but Armando Colon/Busta undoubtedly deserve more than an honorable mention.
"You Won't Tell, I Won't Tell"---Busta Rhymes w/ Greg Nice
"T. Biggums"---Oh No ft. Dudley Perkins, Georgia Anne Muldrow
The relatively memorable "T. Biggums" video:
Besides borrowing from the same sample sources, producers are also occasionally known to give more than one artist the same beat (Lil' Jon, anyone?). Looking to Busta Rhymes again for an example, the late great J Dilla produced some tracks on the MC's Anarchy LP (Flipmode/Elektra, 2000), one of which was "Show Me What You Got".
Later, this same Dilla beat would be paired with Madlib's vocals on the first Jaylib track that was put on wax, "The Message". The song was not included on the duo's debut LP (Champion Sound), but has since been reissued on Stones Throw Records.
In this case, I prefer the Jaylib joint hands down, but this has always been one of my favorite Dilla beats, regardless. Quite truthfully, I would have spun the shit if he'd have let Vanilla Ice spit some rhymes on it, but at the same time...ugh...thank God he didn't.
"Show Me What You Got"---Busta Rhymes
In the second post of the series, I'll take a brief look at MCs uttering new lines over familiar beats, and fire some friendly shots at one lyricist who spat the same "freestyle" on three separate occasions. Tune in, snitches.
Word From Your Moms:
"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."---Socrates