Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A Song A Day: The Windbreakers, "Off & On"

JULY 26, 2017




The Windbreakers, from Jackson, Mississippi, were a spoke on the wheel of 1980s American indie pop.

The success of R.E.M., from Athens, Georgia, led record companies to sign other pop bands from the South. The best such bands—Pylon and Love Tractor (also from Athens), Zeitgeist from Austin, Let’s Active from Winston-Salem, and the Windbreakers—created the best pop-rock of the time.

Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff were the Windbreakers. Both played guitar, bass, and keyboards and 
were able to share creative space despite different approaches. Sutliff has been accused of being more traditional in his pop/rock obsessions (Beatles, Byrds, etc.), while Lee rocked a bit harder and a bit fuzzier. They wrote individually and collaborated as well, and both brought a lot to each other’s songs.

“Off & On” is the first song from their first, and best, LP, Terminal, recorded in the summer of 1984 and issued the following year. Bobby Sutliff wrote it and sings it with a characteristic yearning, slightly nasal delivery. Like the rest of the album, “Off & On” is rich power pop full of great hooks: guitar hooks, melodic vocal hooks, keyboard hooks. I really like the odd chord changes in the verse, and the gut-string guitar solo is an unusual touch.

As good as it is, though, Terminal feels a little dizzying. Sutliff and Lee’s approaches veer back and forth between soft and hard, acoustic and electric, and the sound—usually hewing to guitar rock—features touches like electric sitar, synthesizer, and harp guitar. Some of the songs feature disorientingly crude electronic drums. The ones with real drums were produced by Mitch Easter of Let’s Active at his Drive-In Studio. Easter probably drummed on those tracks.

The bright sounds on much of Terminal are balanced out by the lyrics. Most of the lyrics are pretty dark, touching on ennui, desperation, anger, religious confusion, and disconnection. As Sutliff sings here,

                Out of all the girls that I had to meet
                All of my mistakes I had to repeat
                I had to fall at your feet.

The group’s next album, Run, featured several terrific songs, but after that, Sutliff chose to go solo. Both have issued plenty of their own material, and the Windbreakers have reunited on and off over the years.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Song A Day: Lloyd Price, "Bad Conditions"

JUNE 25, 2017




From his first hit, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” in 1952, Lloyd Price was among the best known, and most successful, New Orleans musicians. He mixed big, brassy arrangements with loose, funky rhythm and blues on such smashes as “Stagger Lee,” “Personality,” and “I’m Gonna Get Married.”

But for the most part, the market for Price had dried up by the early 1960s, and the former star foundered as styles changed. He did, however, stay afloat as co-owner of the Double-L record label, which issued not only his discs but also the early successes of Wilson Pickett. Price’s cohort in label management was his arranger, Harold Logan.

In 1968, however, he stopped working with Logan, who the next year was murdered; the crime remains unsolved.

Price hooked up in Jamaica with veteran singer Johnny Nash and his producer Arthur Jenkins, who were starting JAD, a new record label. JAD’s initial release was Nash’s “Hold Me Tight,” which surprisingly became the first international reggae hit in summer 1968. The next couple of records were Price’s, but were not successful. He also did some production work for the label.

For his next step Price went all DIY. He bought a New York City nightclub, Birdland, converted it to a discotheque, and renamed it Turntable. He also started up the Lloyd Price’s Turntable record label.

Its fifth release was “Bad Conditions.” Like all of Turntable’s other early releases, it was recorded in Jamaica, as part of the sessions that produced the Lloyd Price Now album. Price produced “Bad Conditions” himself but handed the arranging and conducting to Jenkins.

Price’s record, though, took nothing from ska, or from rock steady or the emerging reggae movement. Instead, he amped up the funk, invoking James Brown over a tough on-the-one beat. Jenkins worked some poppy elements, like frenetic percussion, a beeping organ, brass, and vocal group interjections, into the arrangement. The melody’s not so great, but everything else is: the playing, the lyrics, the build of instruments, the sense of urgency.

And somehow, over a two-month period, it became a hit on the R&B charts. The record was apparently released in the late summer; by mid-September listeners in Chicago had picked up on its funky intensity.

On October 4, “Bad Conditions” entered the Cashbox R&B singles chart at #37 then leapt to #23 over two weeks. By this time, it was on the radio not only in Chicago but also in New York, St. Louis, and Oakland.

Eventually “Bad Conditions” peaked at #16 on the Cashbox R&B chart and #21 on the Billboard R&B rolls. In late November, bolstered by heavy airplay in New York and Philadelphia, “Bad Conditions” hit the Cashbox overall singles charts at #136 and reached #118 two weeks later before dropping off.

This was Price’s last big hit, although he also enjoyed some chart action with singles in 1973 and 1976.

Monday, July 24, 2017

A Song A Day: Linda Hall, "Hugo"

JULY 24, 2017



RELEASED 1964 ON 7” 45

“Hugo,” masterminded by three men and sung by a young woman, was released in late June 1964, but the world still might not be quite ready for it.

Mat Mathews was a Dutch-born accordionist who specialized in jazz. Warren Vincent arranged and wrote a good deal of material for the Cricket record label, which did children’s music. He also arranged strings and horns for various Columbia Records artists.

Larry Kusik wrote lyrics for pop songs, most of which are long forgotten; probably his best is Lou Courtney’s “The Man with the Cigar.” He was perhaps best known for the “love themes” he wrote for the films Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather.

These three gentlemen created the charming sonic atmosphere of “Hugo.” Mathews is responsible for the music and arrangement; his deft accordion doubles with flutes to carry the melody, lending a continental feel to what is essentially a tea-room cha-cha. Vincent produced the record. Meanwhile, Kusik surely penned the teenage-themed spoken word piece that Linda Hall intoned over the instrumental track.

As for what Ms. Hall spoke…it was fairly controversial for 1964 and may well have met some resistance on radio. But some stations began to pick the record up in July. It went Top 20 in St. Louis and Top 10 in Honolulu and received considerable airplay on stations in Denver, Richmond, Houston, Atlanta Indianapolis, and Dallas/Fort Worth.

Columbia Records used a full-page ad in some of the trade papers to respond to those concerned about “Hugo’s” spoken word track, reminding radio programmers that they could flip the record over and play a version of the nice, light European-styled tune without lyrics.

While “Hugo” was listed as a “regional breakout” in Atlanta and Houston in the August 15 issue of Billboard magazine, the record spread slowly and never gained enough momentum in any one place or at any one time to break into the national charts, though it did reach the “looking ahead” 100–150 lists in both Cashbox and Record World. The tender sensibilities of listeners in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, therefore, were spared the moral dilemma that is “Hugo.”

Despite her good work on this song, not much is known of Linda Hall. The following year, she did another record, “Beach Boy,” which also fell short. After that, the trail goes cold; it’s not clear whether she is the Linda Hall who recorded “You Don’t Have a Wooden Heart,” a cheap cash-in attempt on Joe Dowell’s massive 1961 hit “Wooden Heart.”

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Song A Day: Roy Ayers, "Love Will Bring Us Back Together"

JUNE 23, 2017




As disco began to eclipse both soul music and jazz in the mid-1970s, artists from those fields tried to keep up. One who easily could and did was Roy Ayers.

Ayers, a bebop-trained vibraphone player, also does a mean job on keyboards. He began his recording career in 1962. While he always had technique, a big palate, and a good ear, some called Ayers a “sell-out” because he played upbeat music that people liked rather than participate in the often joyless avant-garde/free-jazz experimentalism of the late 1960s and 1970s.

He recorded popular songs, wrote for soundtracks, and otherwise pulled himself out of any orthodoxy, embracing all sorts of new sounds and ideas—which included funk, disco, and what would later be called “world music.”

Ayers recorded proficiently and did well on the jazz charts. While he wasn’t necessarily always a featured soloist, he ran a band efficiently. The opening track of his 1979 album Fever was a jazz-funk composition, “Love Will Bring Us Back Together,” that Polydor issued as a single late that spring.

“Love Will Bring Us Back Together” had a hell of a chassis, riding legendary drummer Bernard Purdie’s strong midtempo beat and the funky bass of William Allen, formerly of Mongo Santamaria’s group. Ayers provided sweet Fender Rhodes piano and supremely chewy clavinet as well as an appealing double-tracked lead vocal. The song itself featured innovative but supple key changes that flowed rather than jarred, and in hooks, beat, and production was quite radio-friendly.

This record was a ton of fun, and a huge hit in Chicago during summer 1979. It was big enough that even I remember hearing it out in the world although it got little to no play on any of the white Top 40 stations.

“Love Will Bring us Back Together” also got heavy rotation in Houston, Louisville, Indianapolis, Dayton, Milwaukee, Detroit, San Francisco/Oakland, Atlanta, and Denver, but never broke out of the soul/R&B box. Stations began adding the record in late spring; on June 30, it debuted on Billboard’s top 100 soul singles chart. In the next month, it flowed upward to 41, where it stopped.

Ayers and co. certainly had the goods to compete in the disco/dance market, but at a time when Patrick Hernandez’ limp “Born to Be Alive” was the #1 song in the nation, Roy Ayers’ music may have just been too sophisticated.

His next album, No Stranger to Love, included his biggest chart hit, “Don’t Stop the Feeling,” another strong hook-filled disc. Ayers has spent the last 30 years further expanding his palate with collaborations, explorations of house music, touring, and producing.

While “Love Will Bring Us Back Together” was issued in a truncated 45 RPM mix, I’m presenting the original LP mix despite a fairly obvious edit in the last half-minute of the track. This is the version that would have been played in the dance clubs, and possibly on a lot of the radio stations that spun the record in the first place.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

A Song A Day: Circus, "Stop, Wait and Listen"

JULY 22, 2017




“Stop, Wait, Listen,” a small national hit in early 1973, is a little bit of a lot of things that add up to one hot record. Even without the Oxford comma.

Circus, a five-piece from Cleveland, cut this record for the Metromedia label, best known for its teen idol hitmaker Bobby Sherman. While it also issued discs by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and Butch “Eddie Munster” Patrick, Metromedia was also home to more progressive bands like Gypsy, Elephant’s Memory, and the Holy Modal Rounders and R&B from the Winstons and the Three Degrees.

While it wasn’t R&B, teenybop, or album rock, Circus had elements of each. The combo was a huge live draw in its hometown, drawing ecstatic crowds, and had some teen appeal. Everyone in the group was a solid musician capable of creating tight arrangements, and four of them, including guitarist Dan Hrdlicka and organist Phil Alexander, could sing.

Strong harmonies were a big part of their sound, putting them in the good company of contemporary hard-rockin’ American popsters like Todd Rundgren, Big Star, Crabby Appleton, and two other fine bands from Ohio, the Raspberries and Blue Ash.

“Stop, Wait and Listen” was a fine representation of their chunky guitar/organ blend, along with a strong rhythm section and good singers. Filled with hooks, it was among the real surprise singles of the time period, good enough to have been a huge hit had it only been heard.

The band’s rabid fan base helped make “Stop, Wait and Listen” a top ten record in both Cleveland and Columbus, but unfortunately Circus could not break out nationwide, possibly because the Metromedia label was having tough times. Bobby Sherman, its biggest artist, was no longer a hit machine, and the other Metromedia acts did not pick up the slack.

“Stop, Wait and Listen” did register on all three music weekly magazines’ charts, getting to #91 in Billboard, #74 in Record World, and #81 in Cashbox before falling short.

Circus recorded a well-regarded album for Metromedia, but unfortunately it was among the label’s last releases before being merged into RCA. The album, and follow-up single, “Feel So Right,” were lost in the shuffle.