Monday, June 25, 2012

Gladys Knight & The Pips

There was no hint of adolescence about Gladys Knight & The Pips. All the stuff of infatuation, falling in love, seduction, breaking up, life’s ups and downs, broken dreams, when Gladys sings we don't have to suspend belief, she is in our hearts, reading our mail, living our lives, even as the details differ (I sure hope so), the emotional life behind it all is so real it’s scary. It is adult stuff.

Some things get better as we get older, and the Pips’ records are one of those things.

This comes from three separate collections: one of their Fury / Maxx recordings, the Motown Anthology, and a Buddah collection called The Best Of Gladys Knight & The Pips.

Gladys Knight & The Pips

Letter Full Of Tears – The post is the source of so much pop music anguish, what happens now that it barely exists?. From the winter of 1962.
Either Way I Lose – No good options here: stay and be second fiddle, go and be alone. We want to give her advice, only one way forward. But it’s a song, not therapy…
If I Should Ever Fall In Love – Poor man’s version of When I Fall In Love…
Daybreak – The song fools you. You keep waiting for the punch line. Surprise. No punch line. Everything’s good…
Every Beat Of My Heart – And here is where it all started. As good a slow dance as any, the Pips shine and Gladys doesn’t do too badly either. There were two versions of this (not counting the Motown recording from 1970), one on Vee-Jay which was a top 10 hit in the summer of 1961, and one on Fury, released the same time, which reached number 45. I don’t know which one I have, but I’m betting it’s the Fury version. Apparently they are almost indistinguishable, and the Vee-Jay record is credited to The Pips.
Maybe, Maybe Baby – Can’t beat the rhyme, anyway…
Giving Up – Here is really the first glimpse of the Gladys that took centre stage later on. How we try to hang on to what’s not there, even as reality stares us in the face. From the summer of 1964.
Stop And Get A Hold Of Myself
Lovers Always Forgive – Not true, but maybe saying makes doing it easier. From the fall of 1964.
Tell Her You’re Mine – Gladys looks on jealously, as her guy dances with some foxy chick…
Trust In Me – In which Gladys shows us how loud she can sing.
Operator – In which our heroine has a fairly long interaction with a telephone operator, whom she seems to use as a mediator. I don’t know why she has to get the operator to dial the guy’s number for her, even in (the spring of) 1962, when this was a hit, such a concept was obsolete. Do they even have operators anymore? Cue Jim Croce…
Just Walk In My Shoes – Here is where the Motown machine takes over. They give it all they’ve got, but it would be at least one more record before it all clicked.
Take Me In Your Arms And Love Me – This is what musical seduction is supposed to sound like. As frank as it gets, and as beautiful. Must be that celesta. From the spring of 1967, this song spent exactly 2 weeks in the top 100, and reached a grand plateau of 98, proving that the pop charts are no indication of quality. 
Everybody Needs Love – He does, doesn’t he. From the summer of 1967.
I Heard It Through The Grapevine – Their big Motown breakthrough, this song has lived in the shadow of Marvin Gaye’s version since the latter was a hit a year post this. This version is faster, and harder, and judged on its own merits it doesn’t have to be in anyone’s shadow. From the winter of ’67 / 68.
The End Of Our Road – Another song they share with Marvin Gaye. But they beat Marvin by 2 years and plenty of chart points. From the winter of 1968.
It Should Have Been Me – There’s no point in being gracious, right? Give it all you got, scream it, stamp your foot. Get it out there. From the summer of 1968.
I Wish It Would Rain – Gladys takes on The Temptations. From the fall of 1968.
Didn’t You Know (You’d Have To Cry Sometime) – Well what did you expect, she says, and she says it with so much power and conviction that there is no arguing. From the spring of 1969.
The Nitty Gritty – Originally by Shirley Ellis, The Pips’ grittier version was a hit in the fall of 1969.
Friendship Train – The Utopian dream, complete with psychedelic guitar intro. Here’s where they got funky. From the tail end of 1969, this predated The O’Jays’ Love Train by 2 years.
The Tracks Of My Tears – Covering The Miracles.
You Need Love Like I Do (Don’t You?) – “I can tell by the way you’re looking at me” she sings, and one feels that this isn’t a song about long term commitment. Smoky. From the spring of 1970.
Every Little Bit Hurts – And the endless recycling of Motown hits continues, this one originally a hit for Brenda Holloway in 1964. Both The Spencer Davis Group and The Small Faces covered this as well.
If I Were Your Woman – Everything is always so perfect when it’s not real. Doesn’t matter, we still believe every word she sings. Envy never sounded this good. From the winter of 1971. 
I Don’t Want To Do Wrong – The affair before it happens. From the summer of 1971.
Make Me The Woman That You Go Home To – “and not the one you leave behind,” sings Gladys here, in what may be the most unapologetic song of adultery ever heard. Kitty Wells sang shamefacedly about that Back Street Affair, and in the early 70s the radio seemed to be ablaze with cheating songs – Kiss And Say Goodbye, Me And Mrs. Jones, If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right) – but where this song differed was in the complete non-existence of any moral rectitude; Gladys sings like there’s no tomorrow, the band follows her heartbeat by heartbeat, and the Pips do her proud, pleading her case as if their very harmony could sway the heavens. The end result is a powerhouse of emotional persuasion, one of the truly great unrecognized performances. It only reached #27 on the pop charts, and that was early in 1972. 
Help Me Make It Through The Night – This Kristofferson song was originally a hit for Sammi Smith. The Pips are silent here as Gladys turns her talents to music from the folk / country world. From the spring of 1972.
For Once In My Life – Another solo record (though the record label still said “Gladys Knight & The Pips”), and she does it, as does everyone but Stevie Wonder himself, as a ballad.
Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye) – Another scary one in how it gets to the heart of the truth. “It’s sad to think we’re not gonna make it” she sings, and it’s unlikely that any song ever started with sadder words. From the spring of 1973. 
Daddy Could Swear, I Declare – Back into a bit of a funky groove here, and given the subject one can’t help thinking that they were jumping on The Temptations’ Papa Was A Rolling Stone bandwagon, just a bit. This was a hit about half a year after the Tempts’ powerhouse, that is the summer of 1973.
Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me – It’s an old truism that it’s harder to sing (or write) happy songs, and just because it’s a truism that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Here’s the proof. This isn’t bad, but Gladys’ voice has so much sorrow in it that there’s something just a little off centre about this. We’re into her Buddah period here, from the spring of 1974.
I Feel A Song (In My Heart) – More happy stuff. From the winter of ‘74/75.
The Going Ups And The Coming Downs – A song about life. Not everything this group did was stellar.
Midnight Train To Georgia – Bob Babbit is the name of the guy who played bass on this record. He is the one, in other words, who propelled it into the musical stratosphere. The drummer was Andrew Smith, and I don’t know whether the drum intro was his idea, but the idea was pure genius. Let’s give someone credit. This song is, hands down, one of the best slow dances ever written or performed or recorded, and it’s not obvious, because it’s not as slow as the others that are currently on my top 3 (When A Man Loves A Woman, If I Fell), and there is enough rhythm to make you want to let go of your partner for a half a minute just to move your feet around, maybe just before the inimitable Pips give off their immortal “woo woo,” at which time you want to be as close to her ear as possible, and it’s not a love song in the same way that, say, Unchained Melody or Without You are love songs, because it’s got a story line about lost dreams and heartbreak and defeat, but how can “I’d rather live in his world than live without him in mine” be anything but a love song. There is magic here, and although the story is indescribably sad, the record is uplifting in the way that all great art is uplifting (and make no mistake, this is great art). From the fall the fall of 1973, and yes, it made #1. The charts aren’t always wrong. 
On And On - … and on and on and on… From the summer of 1974.
Where Peaceful Waters Flow – This follows the same theme as I Feel A Song and You’re The Best Thing, which isn’t necessarily the way Gladys ought to have gone. From the summer of 1973.
Every Beat Of My Heart – The Motown remake of their first hit.
I’ve Got To Use My Imagination – A stomper about a broken romance. She sounds a lot more defiant than the bare lyrics would have us believe. From the winter of 1974.
I Can See Clearly Now – If Gladys could sing without the Pips, then The Pips could sing without Gladys, and they do that very thing on this record. It is a cover of the immensely sunny hit by Johnny Nash, and while Johnny’s record was a Big Hit, this wasn’t. It wasn’t very good, either.
Try To Remember / The Way We Were – Taking on The Barbra was brave indeed, but to my ears it’s apples and oranges. The two singers don’t even occupy the same universe. I’ve never been a Streisand fan, so to me there is no contest here, but the real question is whether this works at all. The fit isn’t so perfect. This Pipless record was a hit in the summer of 1975.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Johnny Crawford

Back in the day there used to be these TV shows called “westerns.” They were all about stuff that allegedly went on in the American old west, and they were full of sheriffs and cowboys and “Indians” and girls with skirts. There were horses and wagons and old towns with names like Virginia City and Dodgewood and Sagebrush Central. The shows had names like Gunsmoke and Bat Masterson and Have Gun Will Travel. You had to be pretty rugged to be a character in a western.

The Whitburn entry for Johnny Crawford says that he played Michael McCain in The Rifleman, and no matter how hard I try to imagine what kind of character this guy might have played in a western, I come up blank. Maybe he played a water pump or something.

On record he was one of those teen idol types, but without the occasional redeeming feature of a Bobby Vee or Bobby Rydell or Frankie Avalon. He was better than Fabian though, so we haven’t hit rock bottom here.

This is a really old album, an old scratched up copy of  His Greatest Hits that I probably picked up at Comic World. He didn’t have enough hits at the time of its release to fill up an album, so it’s filled up with OPH’s (other people’s hits), as was the custom of the day. Though it’s not here, his last chart record hit right at the start of 1964; his chart career ended just as The Beatles’ started…

Johnny Crawford:

Proud – A confessional. If what he’s saying is true, he’s not just proud – he is seriously messed up. I’d say the sooner he gets into therapy the better. A bit of a sadistic streak going on, followed by not-quite-convincing breast beating afterward. A hit in the winter of 1963. 
Rumors – What we in the great white north call “rumours.” Our Johnny protesteth his innocence, with no real indication of why anyone would want to get him in deep six with his flame. Don’t believe them, he tells her, they have it in for me. Sure. I can sell her a bridge if she falls for it. From the winter of 1962 / 1963. 
Your Nose Is Gonna Grow – That whole Pinocchio thing is kind of unsettling. I mean seriously, what kind of subtext do we infer from body parts that occasionally change size. And if she’s really two-timing the guy, shouldn’t he be more serious that “the boogie man will get you?” I suppose each manages his own relationship. From the fall of 1962.
Cindy’s Birthday – I went to school with someone called Cindy. She was the only member of my graduating class who I never saw again. I don’t know when her birthday is. Johnny, though, is quite excited about this Cindy’s birthday, whoever she is, and he is pressed for time because he must write her (first verse) a symphony which is pared down to (second verse) a song. He ought to have started earlier. This was Johnny’s highest placing single and only top 10, from the summer of 1962. 
Debbie – Debbie was the name of the only girl I ever dated who asked me to take her home in the middle of the evening. She had, I later learned, a reputation for “weirdness,” though the details remain vague to this day. In other words, it wasn’t me. Johnny blew it with his Debbie too, though he is desperately trying to salvage the situation. It’s hopeless man, give it up.
Patti Ann – A marriage proposal on record. It’s been done better. From the spring of 1962.
Mr. Blue – The Fleetwoods’ original was wimpy and this is wimpy. But what the original had that this doesn’t is charm, and that makes All the difference…
Sittin’ And Watchin’ – Watching the hands of the clock because they (Johnny and his belle, not the clock hands) are “too young.” Maybe her parents have other concerns about him…
Moon River – The song can’t lose, the arrangement is fine, and Johnny’s voice isn’t terrible, but you’re not gonna forget Andy Williams any time soon…
We Belong Together – Robert & Johnny did the original. Johnny does a cover. ‘Nuff said.
Donna – This did not make Ritchie Valens happy, up there on the other side where he can’t even earn royalties…
Daydreams – His first hit, lighter on the arrangement, more emphasis on vocal double tracking. The song is one big sigh, and not a particularly inspiring one. From the summer of 1961.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gene And Wendell

This is what happens when you pick things up everywhere, including soundtracks. The music is authentic; the context is not.

No matter, it’s the music that I preserve, from one of the more obscure duos in my prodigious collection. They never had a hit, not on the pop charts anyway. I don’t know about the others.

The soundtrack, by the way, was Hairspray.

Gene And Wendell:

The Roach – One of the more bizarre dance concepts of its era, one apparently danced the roach, at least in part, by squishing phantom bugs on the floor. No stranger than YMCA I suppose…

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Roy Drusky

The internet has made the world better for everyone, me included.

I am thinking of all those oldies stations. The ones in your home town play “only the best oldies;” on the web you can find stations that play the second best, even the third best. This is true not just about pop music; country music has its fair share of proponents.

So I listen to Nashville Classics, Roots of Country, Classic Country etc. And I have yet to hear Roy Drusky.

This guy had a bucketful of hits on the country charts, one almost-hit on the pop charts. He obviously had fans, there are obviously people out there who remember him (ok I admit it, I don’t). But like so many others, he has fallen through the cracks of collective memory.

Maybe I’ll start my own station…

Roy Drusky:

White Lightning Express – Pure honky tonk. George Jones (care of composer The Big Bopper) was drinking the stuff; Roy was running it across the state line.
Pick Of The Week – About the transience of romance.
(From Now On All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers – Done more famously by Merle Haggard.
All For The Love Of A Girl – This tale of romantic sacrifice bears more than a passing resemblance to Peace In The Valley.
Lonely Thing Called Me - :-(
Yesterday – Not The Beatles song. But same idea, more or less…
So Much Got Lost
Room Across The Hall
Three Hearts In A Tangle – This tale of infidelity was Drusky’s only stab at the pop charts, during the summer of 1961.
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