Monday, August 27, 2007

Sam Cooke, You Send Me

The 20th century music world is, unfortunately, sated with performers who died way before their time. I count among my favorite musicians who were not allowed to grow old Glenn Miller, Bobby Darin, and John Lennon. Now I have a fourth one to add to the list: Sam Cooke. I was introduced to Cooke earlier this year on the Fourth of July via my brother’s CD collection and realized that I already knew a lot of his songs. As oldies radio stations increasingly veer away from late 50s and early 60s music, it’s a rare treat today to hear a Cooke song on the radio, even though he scored 29 Top 40 hits in the U.S. including You Send Me, Wonderful World, Chain Gang, and Twisting the Night Away – mostly irresistible, feel good compositions written by Cooke himself. Good looking with strong vocals and a magnetic stage presence, he was a favorite of many fellow musicians including the Beatles (who wanted to tour with him), Aretha Franklin (who knew him from his early beginnings) and just about anyone who belongs in the Who's Who Motown and soul categories. Cooke was also among one of the first African-American singers and composers to take an active hand in the music business, launching his own record label and publishing company. All of which makes his tragic and mysterious death at the age of only 33 all the more haunting.

Cooke’s musical beginnings were founded in gospel. He was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of seven children of Annie Mae and the Reverend Charles Cook, a Baptist minister (Sam later added the “e” to his last name because he felt it gave it a touch of class.) The family moved to Chicago in 1933, and Cooke began his musical career as a member of a quartet with his siblings, The Singing Children, and as a teenager was a member of the Highway QCs, a gospel group.

But Cooke was to find his repertoire in mainstream music. In 1957, he signed with Keen Records. His first release was "You Send Me", which spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and three weeks at #1 on the mainstream Billboard pop chart. In the early 60s, Cooke founded his own label, SAR Records. He then created a publishing imprint and management firm, and left Keen to sign with RCA Victor. One of his first RCA singles was the hit "Chain Gang” which reached number 2 on the Billboard charts. He followed it up with more hits, including "Sad Mood", "Bring it on Home to Me", "We're Having a Party", "Another Saturday Night" and "Twistin' the Night Away". Cooke scored popularity not only in the States but in the UK as well, where he wowed the British youth with his live performances. Aretha Franklin has said that he took women’s breaths away with his handsome looks and charismatic charm.
Cooke was a great admirer of Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind, and felt that it spoke to the African American community in the midst of troubled racial times. Inspired, he penned the “A Change is Gonna Come” which became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement.

Despite being married at the time, in late 1964 Cooke made the mistake (depending on who you believe) of getting mixed up with the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. The official police record states that Cooke was shot to death by Bertha Franklin, the manager of the Hacienda Motel, where Cooke had checked in. Cooke had gone to the motel with a woman named Elisa Boyer whom he met earlier in the evening. It seems that Boyer tried to rob Cooke and he believed that Franklin was involved in the scam. Franklin claimed that Cooke had broken into the manager's office/apartment in a rage, wearing nothing but a shoe and an overcoat, demanding to know the whereabouts of the woman who had accompanied him to the motel. Franklin said that the woman was not in the office, but claims Cooke became enraged and violently grabbed her demanding again to know the Boyer's whereabouts. According to Franklin, she grappled with Cooke, the two of them fell to the floor, and she then got up and ran to retrieve her gun. She said that she then fired at Cooke in self-defense because she feared for her life. According to Franklin, Cooke’s last words were, "Lady, you shot me."

It's a suspicious tale to be sure, and Cooke’s family has never believed Boyer’s and Franklin’s accounts of the story. His sister, Agnes Cooke-Hoskins, has insisted: "My brother was first class all the way. He would not check into a $3 a night motel; that wasn't his style." The singer Etta James suggests that something far more sinister was involved in Cooke's demise. In her autobiography, Rage To Survive, she claimed to have viewed Cooke's body in the funeral home and saw injuries that were well beyond what was explained by Franklin's official account. James described Cooke as having been so badly beaten that his head was nearly decapitated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and crushed and his nose was mangled. No one has ever been charged for his death, and it's perplexing as to why some modern day cold case gumshoe hasn't explored the facts of Cooke's death further.

Fortunately, fifty years after You Send Me soared up the charts, it seems that Cooke’s accomplishments are getting some overdue attention again. One of his love songs is being used in a car commercial, and some PBS stations have been running a documentary of his life called Sam Cooke: Legend. Cooke was honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999, and in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him #16 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Young musicians who die young can never truly be gone - as long as there are still people who love and play their music. Thanks, Mr. Cooke, for making a "wonderful world" with your songs.

Note: Check out the totally groovy offical site for Sam Cooke for more about his life and music, or do a search for him on YouTube to see some vintage performances and interviews.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How Does it Feel to Be One of the Beautiful People?

I’ve failed to mention a very notable anniversary, but it wasn’t on purpose. I haven’t posted about the 40th anniversary of the Summer of Love yet simply because I wasn’t around yet to experience it for myself. No colorful tales about drinking acid-spiked punch and freaking out naked in the neighbor’s yard, running away to San Francisco with the hippie boy of my dreams, or sneaking backstage at a Who concert. But I do have something residing in my bedroom that can help even the youngest (or oldest) of souls bring back that loving feeling. It’s an old article reprinted in a Beatles book that instructs you on how to be a beautiful person. It was originally printed in 1967 or 1968 in a UK publication called Disc and Music Echo alongside a picture of Paul McCartney and then-girlfriend Jane Asher. Now pay attention. It’s very profound:

This is how it feels to be a beautiful person
by Penny Valentine

Beautiful people have existed for years. It’s nothing to do with what you look like or the clothes you wear. It’s what goes on in your mind and your approach to life.

Beautiful people, as a phrase, has come into the foreground today because of the flower movement, the emergence of the hippies, Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles and Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.”

But even the hippiest hippy, surely, has harboured some pretty evil thoughts and some pretty anti-feelings. Has been unkind, insensitive, thoughtless. Not noticed things around him.

It’s been borrowed by the hippies. But even if you don’t wear kaftans, beads, bells and granny glasses take heart, you can STILL be a beautiful person. Read on and find out how.

You are beautiful if you:

• Like dancing on cool grass in your bare feet (even if there are no pipes of Pan and the grass is in your own back garden);
• Read Professor Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” or “Lord of the Rings” and love Bilbo Baggins;
• Have watched the dawn come up and actually realized what was happening;
• Dream;
• Love your dog, the postman, the blind man who sells matches on the corner, your neighbors (even when they bang on the wall when you put Sgt. Pepper on full volume);
• Dislike war, the Government, anti-people;
• Think the countryside is a gas and ought to stay wild;
• Enjoy splashing through the rain, laughing, children, colours, poetry, people;
• Refuse to tread on ants, spiders and beetles;
• Know where “Granny Takes A Trip” is;
• Give a daisy to the policeman who tells you your party is too noisy, drags you away from Wanstead Flats when you are merely admiring the view or pulls you feet first up a dirty road to a waiting van during a sit-down protest
• Harbour a burning desire to visit Mexico or India

I must admit I’m lacking in a lot of these areas. I kill spiders, I hate (bratty) kids, and Mexico and India are two countries I have absolutely no desire to visit. Not a Hobbit fan, either. But I’m totally down with loving animals, the outdoors, and hating the war. Hope that at least makes me...a passable person.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Herbal Therapy

Note: I originally submitted this article to a few online pop culture magazines. No one ever got back to me. Maybe you'll appreciate it?

When one thinks of successful pop groups of the sixties, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass probably isn’t one that instantaneously comes to mind. To many of the pubescent British Invasion worshipping coterie, they were often regarded as a joke: a mimic mariachi band whose claim to fame was providing background music for television commercials and game shows, a last ditch effort by their necktie wearing, middle-aged parents to keep elevator music on the charts. No doubt many a teenager rolled their eyes as their square mom and pop dropped a record needle onto an Alpert album, while proclaiming it groovy, in a half-hearted attempt to be perceived as cool by a generation that was falling deeper into flailing rock and roll.

Yet Alpert’s music was delightfully groovy. On the dreariest of winter days, download an Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass album onto the I-Pod, and you can’t help but be instantly transported to an enchanting world south of the border – a giddy destination synonymous with sunshine, Volkswagen Beetles, and margaritas. Too peppy for the easy listening stations and too ethnic to be classified as jazz, Alpert's effervescent, Mexican-inspired style emerged during a decade dominated by the long haired music genres to make him one of the most unlikely and beloved recording artists of the decade. This was the sixties, after all: the last time in history when such a diversity of what constituted popular music at the time – Motown, folk, psychedelic rock, swing, and even novelty acts such as Tiny Tim - happily shared real estate on the charts. Herb Alpert and the TJB scored huge hits with jaunty instrumentals such as Mexican Shuffle, Tijuana Taxi, Whipped Cream, Lollipops and Roses, and A Taste of Honey. If the tracks sound too much like television theme music, they should, as several of their hits served as the incidental music of The Dating Game while bachelors and bachelorettes alike strutted their stuff. Yet it would be all too easy for cynics to dismiss their sound as expired novelty kitsch if it weren't for the fact that Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (the "Brass" portion of the group were actually all American studio musicians, none Latino) won six Grammy awards, and racked up fifteen gold and fourteen platinum disks. It’s a little known fact that during the 1960s, only three artists outsold Alpert: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. In fact, in 1966, Alpert's albums outsold The Beatles by two to one. No other purely instrumental group in pop music history has achieved that kind of success since.

Herb Alpert, the mastermind behind this merry brass band, has enjoyed a prolific music career his whole life. He was born in 1935 in Los Angeles and learned to play the trumpet at the age of eight, perhaps drawing inspiration from Louie Armstrong and the big band sound that was so prevalent during World War II. After high school he joined the U.S. Army, which allowed him to practice his expertise of horned instruments during military ceremonies. By 1957 he had ventured into the songwriting business after partnering with Lou Adler, another aspiring musician, for Keen Records. During this period he co-wrote a number of well-known songs that became hits, most notably Baby Talk by Jan and Dean, Wonderful World by Sam Cooke, and Alley-Oop by Dante and The Evergreens. He also teamed with Jerry Moss shortly thereafter to form A&M Records. But it was a trip to Tijuana, Mexico in the early 60s that sealed Alpert’s fate. While witnessing the theatrics during a bullfight he became enamored with the mariachi sound, which inspired him to put together a crack team of studio musicians and rework a song called Twinkle Star. He released the finished version as an A&M single, The Lonely Bull, under the name Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (or the TJB as they were referred to) even though Alpert himself and none of his band mates were Mexican. The handsome Alpert, who is of Jewish decent, looks deceivingly darker on the album cover then in other photos, as if makeup was utilized to play up the effect. By his side is a bottle of tequila. A bit gimmicky, perhaps, but one that worked well: The Lonely Bull became a Top Ten Hit in 1963. Complete with fanfare, audio of an audience cheering (a precursor to Sgt. Pepper, perhaps?) and a female vocalist providing a soaring background operatic voice, one can easily imagine the song surfacing today on Dancing With the Stars during the paso doble round. Alpert later said in a 1979 interview with radio announcer Richard Warner that the sound effects were the imperative opening hook needed to deter picky radio program directors from tossing aside the record. The single introduced the nation to the Latino sound, and Alpert soon secured a permanent Brass band consisting of six musicians, releasing an album by the same name. Alpert knew he had a hit new sound on his hands. As he explains in the liner notes of his Definitive Hits CD, “Since receiving letters about the record from people from all over the world thanking me for taking them on a vicarious trip to Tijuana, I recognized the power of making visual instrumental music.”

Despite the success of The Lonely Bull, the TJB’s next album flopped, perhaps partly due to its rather lackadaisical title Volume 2. Just as it seemed the group was about to fade into one hit wonder obscurity, intervention arrived in the form of the Clark Teaberry Gum Company. They wanted to use the band’s Mexican Shuffle in a national television commercial. It’s a typical contrived early 60s advertisement that shows everyone from policemen to business people doing a juvenile hopscotch maneuver (called The Teaberry Shuffle) to Alpert’s music while chewing gum, but the song reintroduced the group to listeners who were all too delighted to learn that it was available on vinyl.

Buoyed by their newfound popularity, the TJB released a new album each year or two throughout the 60s. Even music listeners who weren’t Tijuana Brass fans might recognize one of their most infamous albums, Whipped Cream and Other Delights, thanks to its controversial cover of the time featuring a Natalie Wood look-alike wearing nothing but a white blanket and shaving cream (real whipped cream can’t survive hot studio lights.) The same teenage boys who initially scoffed at their parents’ record collection admit to swiping this album and sneaking it into school; it was the closest thing to porn that a hormone infested sixteen year-old could lay his filthy mitts on. There’s a naughtiness to this record that goes beyond the frothy packaging as well, as many of the cuts revolve around a mouthwatering food theme: Lemon Tree, Tangerine, Butterball, and A Taste of Honey. The TJB’s popularity soared and the group held the No. 1 spot on Billboard's pop album chart for 18 weeks during 1966, more than any other act that year. For four weeks, the Brass held both the No. 1 and No. 2 albums in the country, preventing the Beatles from reaching number one for that period. By April 1966, Alpert and his band had four albums in the Top 10 simultaneously, which still remains the greatest domination since the mono and stereo album charts were combined in 1963.

Alpert’s rearrangement of core Brass tracks, not to mention show tunes and covers of other hit pop songs, is often overlooked. He took the obscure The Work Song (a song I’ve only ever previously heard performed by Bobby Darin, who sang it in a very sexy style, akin to Peggy Lee’s Fever) and frantically sped it up to use as background music for one of the group’s TV specials that showed instruments being manufactured in a factory. Leave it to Alpert and the TJB to transform a song about a prison chain gang breaking rocks with a hammer into a jovial jingle you might hear during an educational segment on Mister Rogers Neighborhood. His reworking of A Taste of Honey, a tune that had been previously covered by several artists including the Beatles, is an instantly recognizable classic. Where other performers had recorded the old Scott/Marlow composition as a ponderous waltz, Alpert sped it up to a 4/4 beat and gave his drummer creative rein to experiment, resulting in the famous thumping background solo. Conversely, Alpert transformed The Searchers’ hit Love Portion #9 into a sultry kissing cousin of The Stripper.

Although early members initially came and went, the established TJB band by the mid 60s consisted of Alpert and Tonni Kalash on trumpets, Bob Edmondson on trombone, John Pisano on guitar, drummer Nick Ceroli, pianist Lou Pagani, and 
Pat Senatore on bass. Despite the absence of Mexican blood in their ethnic backgrounds (Alpert used to tell his audiences that his group consisted of "Three pastramis, two bagels, and an American cheese,”) they seemed to playfully stretch the illusion, sometimes to the point of coming across as borderline politically incorrect. For example, on their rendition of Hello, Dolly, the guys put on a fake Mexican accent by singing the lyrics as, “Well, hallo Dolly, hallo Dolly, it’s so nice to have yoo back where yoo belong…” Matching bolero jackets became the official performing garb, and on their Hollywood Palace appearance, corny background dancers sporting matador-inspired costumes flip around fake Rapunzel-like braids in tune with Tijuana Taxi. Audiences at a live TJB performance were also treated to comic routines written by comedian Bill Dana, best known for his José Jiménez character on The Steve Allen Show. But the cheese factor didn’t stop the TJB from selling out concerts nearly everywhere they went, or from making appearances on the top variety shows of the time. They were already a household name by the time they made it to The Ed Sullivan Show, even though Sullivan, during one of his moments of arrogance, tried to tell Alpert he would now make it big because he appeared on his program. They even starred in several of their own television specials, one of which won several Emmys.

In 1967, the TJB recorded the title track to the original version of the James Bond movie Casino Royale. Late in the Brass’ career, Alpert enjoyed a number one solo hit with a cover of This Guy's in Love with You, the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic, one of the rare times he laid down his limited vocal skills on vinyl. Alpert had originally sung the song to his first wife in a 1968 CBS Television special titled Beat of the Brass. After the program aired, CBS was inundated with thousands of telephone calls inquiring about it, which convinced Alpert to record and release it as a single. He also had the chance to record a follow-up Bacharach composition, Close to You, but wisely passed it onto The Carpenters, who turned it into a huge hit.

But much like the Beatles, by the late 60s Alpert had become disenchanted by a demanding work schedule filled with constant television appearances and touring, even though his popularity was at its all-time high. During a vacation in 1969, he decided it was time to call it quits. “It got a little boring,” he recalls in a 1979 interview. “I needed a change…a chance to get away from it all.” He disbanded the Tijuana Brass only to bring them back for a while with a few new musicians in 1971 and again in 1984. Each reincarnation didn’t achieve the initial popularity that the 60s provided to them, but Alpert – who would go on to score a few solo instrumental hits in the 70s including the disco inspired Rise - continues to enjoy an active career as a music producer and is also a sculptor and painter.

Years after their demise, the Brass’ legacy is still inherent in a lot of music if you listen closely enough. Remnants of their sound surfaced in brass-based groups such as Chicago and Earth, Wind, and Fire, which made it big in the 70s and 80s. Latin music is now widely embraced, and there are shades of the TJB in The Buena Vista Social Club, which recently put their own brassy stamp on a cover version of the Coldplay hit Clocks. Canadian crooner Michael Buble also gave the The Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me a tropical, TJBesque makeover on his 2005 album It’s Time.

There’s still a soft spot among fans of the TJB, especially on the Internet. Viewers on YouTube leave many adoring comments on Tijuana Brass video clips, and admit they were inspired to learn the trumpet as children after watching the Brass on TV. Drew Carey paid homage to Alpert and the TJB by performing A Taste of Honey on his 90s sitcom.

Alpert hasn’t completely forgotten about the TJB’s popularity, but he took a chance recently by messing with the original formula. Last year he released a modern remix version of the TJB’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights (called Rewhipped), which even features a new cover model taking on the whipped cream garb. Reviewers on either widely embraced the remixed versions (which sound like background techno music for a Victoria’s Secret store) or are vehemently against it. States one disappointed listener on “It's like trading in the Mona Lisa for a coloring book version.”

Curiously, there hasn’t been a single biography written about Alpert or the TJB phenomenon, perhaps because his life has been admirably void of any sort of scandal or devious behavior that is so common in the music industry (if you don’t believe that, ask Phil Spector.) Which is why Alpert and the Tijuana Brass deserve some long overdue respect and a toast - with margaritas, of course.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Olive These Magnets by Olive Sandwiches

If you've been in a novelty gift shop during the past couple of years, chances are you've seen magnets and other items by the company - snarky messages for femme fatales, delivered with a vintage twist. Among my favorites are "Friends are Forever, Men are Whatever" and "Want a Stable Relationship? Get a Horse." If you can't find them in person, you can order all products directly through the site.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Elvis Has Still Not Left the Building

None of the thirty-three movies that Elvis Presley made are exactly the stuff that Academy Award winning dreams are made of, but that doesn't mean someone, somewhere loves them tender and loves them true. A new DVD set called Elvis - the Hollywood Collection was released today, and contains the films Charro, Girl Happy, Kissin' Cousins, Live a Little, Love a Little, Stay Away, Joe, and Tickle Me, all made during the 60s. It retails for $34.89 on Amazon.

Monday, August 06, 2007

OK Computer...Me Love Classic Jim Henson

Cookie Monster's cousin goes to town on a talking computer in this adorable vintage Jim Henson sketch, which is probably from a 1970s Ed Sullivan or Mike Douglas Show episode, proving once again that Henson's creations weren't just for kids.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Strike Up the Bandstand

When Dick Clark suffered a stroke a few years ago, it was a blessing in disguise. That may seem like a cruel statement, but Clark was planning an unthinkable move: to bring back American Bandstand. Why anyone who witnessed the greatest century in musical history would think that what passes as entertainment today deserves promotion is beyond me. Wasn’t the common phrase heard on the program “It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it”? Anyways, American Bandstand made its debut 50 years ago today, on August 5, 1957. Up until 1989, it served as the show that kept many a teenybopper happy and entertained after a long school day, since it not only featured lip-synching entertainers, but kids just like them grooving on the set and in the audience. The latest dances were demonstrated, and kids were asked to rate new artists.

Some interesting trivia about the show (as found on Wikipedia): only two artists (BB King and Jerry Lee Lewis) performed their songs by actually singing; they refused to lip-sync. Clark's worst interview with a singer was Prince, who gave hand gestures or one word answers to questions. And Tony Orlando performed his first hit on the program with an open fly! I've always had a love/hate thing for Dick Clark though for two reasons: he's never seemed (to me, anyway) to be a Beatles fan, and he unwisely told Bobby Darin NOT to record Mack the Knife, which became one of the biggest selling records of 1959. But what does he know? This is a man who wanted to bring back his show for the sole purpose of putting Jessica Simpson in front of a camera.

Don't bother looking for any episodes on DVD, however: a search on Amazon curiously turned up nothing, which means that for now, memories of the show can only live on in viewers' minds.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Something in the Way She Muses

You would think that after being married to two of rock's biggest icons that Pattie Boyd might have lived the life that most women dream of. But I already know from being a Beatles fan that Boyd didn't always have an easy life - despite being wooed by George Harrison and later, his best friend Eric Clapton (what's I Me Mine is yours) in what has become rock and roll history's most famous love triangle of the late 60s/early 70s. That's why I'm so looking forward to reading Boyd's upcoming autobiography, due to be released August 28, called Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me.

Here's what the book's description on Amazon has to say:

An iconic figure of the 1960s and ’70s, Pattie Boyd breaks a forty-year silence in Wonderful Tonight, and tells the story of how she found herself bound to two of the most addictive, promiscuous musical geniuses of the twentieth century and became the most famous muse in the history of rock and roll.

She met the Beatles in 1964 when she was cast as a schoolgirl in A Hard Day’s Night. Ten days later a smitten George Harrison proposed. For twenty-year-old Pattie Boyd, it was the beginning of an unimaginably rich and complex life as she was welcomed into the Beatles inner circle—a circle that included Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Jeff Beck, and a veritable who’s who of rock musicians. She describes the dynamics of the group, the friendships, the tensions, the musicmaking, and the weird and wonderful memories she has of Paul and Linda, Cynthia and John, Ringo and Maureen, and especially the years with her husband, George.

It was a sweet, turbulent life, but one that would take an unexpected turn, starting with a simple note that began "dearest l."

I read it quickly and assumed that it was from some weirdo; I did get fan mail from time to time.... I thought no more about it until that evening when the phone rang. It was Eric [Clapton]. "Did you get my letter?"... And then the penny dropped. "Was that from you?" I said....It was the most passionate letter anyone had ever written me.

For the first time Pattie Boyd, former wife of both George Harrison and Eric Clapton, a high-profile model whose face epitomized the swinging London scene of the 1960s, a woman who inspired Harrison’s song "Something" and Clapton’s anthem "Layla," has decided to write a book that is rich and raw, funny and heartbreaking—and totally honest and open and breathtaking. Here is the truth, here is what happened, here is the story you’ve been waiting for.

It should be interesting. Of all of the Beatles wives, I think Pattie was the most beautiful and the one we've heard the least from. I'm mostly looking forward to hearing her opinion of why, after initially showing such uncontrollable emotions, these two men ended up treating her like dirt.

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