Only the good die young

One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was called “Only the good die young.” It actually was controversial in the Catholic Church, when he sang “you Catholic girls start much too late.” But, taking the title a little differently, there is a long list of very talented performers who left us way to early. The following is by no means a complete list, but illustrates the loss of music never written or sung.

Ritchie Valens died at the age of 17 after the start of a bright future. He had three huge hits under his belt, including a rock-n-roll version of the Mexican song “La Bamba.” Valens’ real name was Ricky Valenueza.

Buddy Holly died at the age of 22 on the same plane crash with Valens and the Big Bopper. This spawned the song “American Pie” by Don McLean when he sang of the “day the music died.” Holly was a meteoric talent and some say would have been bigger than Elvis, primarily because he wrote his own music. Before he died, he had a solid dozen big hits.

The class of age 27 deaths is profound. Jim Morrison of The Doors died at that age. He was the enigmatic leader that wowed the female audience. The Doors had a significant number of hits with very interesting lyrics. Morrison, though, did his health no service with his excessive alcohol and drug use which led to some rocky stage performances.

Jimi Hendrix died at age 27 as well. Hendrix was regarded by many as the greatest rock-n-roll guitarist ever. He matched his unique abilities playing a right handed guitar upside down as a lefty, with lyrics that matched the psychedelic age. He also does the best cover of a Bob Dylan song called “All along the watchtower.”

Janis Joplin was another talent that died at age 27. Her voice was spectacular and she put every pound and inch of her body into belting out her songs. I remember Dick Cavett interviewing her after one of her songs and she was still catching her breath. She was influenced by Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin.

Kurt Cobain also died at age 27. He led a grunge rock movement from the Northwest that was gaining huge footing. It would have been interesting to see where his music went in the future.

Hank Williams died mysteriously at age 29. He was one of the more prolific country song writers, with many of his songs crossing over into more national appeal. If you ever have a couple of hours, watch “The Hank Williams Story,” with George Hamilton playing Williams.

Patsy Cline died in a plane crash at the age of 30. Her voice and style took country music more mainstream. While there is a movie on her career, I love how Beverly D’Angelo played her in “Coal Miners Daugher” about her good friend Loretta Lynn. Her version of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” is legendary.

Jim Croce also died in a plan crash at age 30. Croce was a prolific song writer and talent who wrote every day music for the every day person. His wordsmithing and guitar driven music was a classic match. It should be noted the great guitar work was played by Croce and Maury Meuhleisen, who also died in the crash. If you ever get a CD of Croce’s greatest hits, you need to get a package set, as it will need two.

Cass Elliott of The Mamas and the Papas died at age 32. She was the lead voice on most of their biggest hits and her vocal talents could blend with a variety of music. I saw her and legendary crooner Andy Williams sing two different songs in harmony on his show.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, the great blues guitarist, died at the age of 35. The story goes he and Eric Clapton switched places on a helicopter ride from a guitar festival. We would have lost a talent either way. Vaughan still does not get the notoriety he deserves as he could match Hendrix and other blues legends. It should be noted, he gave homage to these legends when he played with them.

Harry Chapin died in a car accident at age 38. He was on his way to a benefit concert. If you are not familiar with his work, he was one of the best storytellers in song. Plus, he would talk with the audience between songs making them live more. People know “Cats in the Cradle,” but do check out “Mr. Tanner” and “A Better Place to Be.”

The final three need no introduction and deserve their own post – John Lennon was killed at the age 40, Elvis Presley died at the age of 42 and Marvin Gaye died at age 44. Three of the most legendary talents could have offered so much more.

If I left off someone, please add them in a comment. If you are not familiar with any of these performers, please check them out. You will not be sorry. If you are familiar, please revisit your past. Only the good die young.

Mr. Tanner – a Harry Chapin short story

One of my favorite performers who passed away much too early is Harry Chapin. Some may remember his biggest hits like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or “Taxi.”  Each of these songs is exemplary of his work as his songs told short stories. I have written before about my favorite one called “A Better Place to Be” where he tells two stories, one being recounted by a midnight watchman to a rotund waitress with the second one when she responds to his sadness.

But, a close second is called “Mr. Tanner” about a man who would sing while he worked. The lyrics follow, but listen to the song at the link below:

Mister Tanner was a cleaner from a town in the Midwest.
And of all the cleaning shops around he’d made his the best.
But he also was a baritone who sang while hanging clothes.
He practiced scales while pressing tails and sang at local shows.
His friends and neighbors praised the voice that poured out from his throat.
They said that he should use his gift instead of cleaning coats.

Chorus: But music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
He did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole.

His friends kept working on him to try music out full time.
A big debut and rave reviews, a great career to climb.
Finally they got to him, he would take the fling.
A concert agent in New York agreed to have him sing.
And there were plane tickets, phone calls, money spent to rent the hall.
It took most of his savings but he gladly used them all.

Chorus

The evening came, he took the stage, his face set in a smile.
And in the half filled hall the critics sat watching on the aisle.
But the concert was a blur to him, spatters of applause.
He did not know how well he sang, he only heard the flaws.
But the critics were concise, it only took four lines.
But no one could accuse them of being over kind.

(spoken) Mr. Martin Tanner, Baritone, of Dayton, Ohio made his
Town Hall debut last night. He came well prepared, but unfortunately
his presentation was not up to contemporary professional standards.
His voice lacks the range of tonal color necessary to make it
consistently interesting.
(sung) Full time consideration of another endeavor might be in order.

He came home to Dayton and was questioned by his friends.
Then he smiled and just said nothing and he never sang again,
excepting very late at night when the shop was dark and closed.
He sang softly to himself as he sorted through the clothes.

Music was his life, it was not his livelihood,
and it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good.
And he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul.
(And) he did not know how well he sang; It just made him whole. 

His songs are reflective and poignant. Often, they leave you with melancholy. “Mr. Tanner” is no different. Yet, he also balanced these with some fun songs like the one where a truck load of bananas crashed in the middle of a small town. When he performed, he told you about the songs and then sang his stories.

Please do listen to this song and catch a few others while you are at it. He made you feel at home as he regaled you.

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=mr.+tanner&qpvt=mr.+tanner&FORM=VDRE

A memory from when the kids were small

My blogging friend Erika prompted a great memory with her Song of the Day post. This morning’s entry is “You are so Beautiful” sung wonderfully by Joe Cocker. A link is provided below. While this song was likely intended for romantic love, it works quite well for all kinds of love, in particularly the love of a parent for a child.

Although my kids are in college or just graduated now, I have the memory today of singing to them softly while I rocked them to sleep as babies. This was one of the songs that I sang. Definitely not being known as a singer, I sang a repertoire of songs that I knew the words to as well as could be sung softly. So, the ACDC and Deep Purple songs did not qualify, although Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” works well until the final verse.

My wife and I bought one of those glider chairs that we put in the nursery. That was one comfortable chair. In that chair, I sang a number of songs, based on how quickly the kids would nod off and were certain to stay that way. My list varied for my own sanity, but would include songs from artists like Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, John Denver, Loggins and Messina, The Beatles, Bread, Harry Chapin and others that popped into my head or that I may have heard on the radio.

Invariably, I would include Joe Cocker’s song, as it had great meaning. But, Jim Croce’s “Time in Bottle” and “Photographs and Memories” were frequently sung. David Gates of Bread would appear with “If” or “Diary,” and Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” served as a reminder to not forget what is important. The Beatles would often be included as their own evening of song drawing from “Yesterday,” “Something,” “Norwegian Wood,” and many others.

John Denver would sing through my voice “Follow Me” or “Take me Home, Country Roads,” while Gordon Lightfoot might pop in with “If you could read my Mind” or “Carefree Highway.” Loggins and Messina might be there to with Anne Murray’s “Danny Song” or “House on Pooh Corner.” And, Peter, Paul and Mary would show up with Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” or Pete Seeger’s “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”

I am evidence that you need to not sing well to entertain a sleepy child. The key is some semblance of a soft tune and words that soothe. These are moments I cherish. When we are driving with one of the kids to school and one of these songs would come on the radio, if I was melancholy, I would tell the rider that I sang this to them when they were little. They are the best of memories and I cannot wait to rock a future grandchild to sleep.

https://erikakind.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/tidbit-song-of-the-day-7/

Harry Chapin made it “A Better Place to Be”

Like Jim Croce, another favorite story-telling songwriter of mine, Harry Chapin also left our world much too soon. Chapin died on July 16, 1981 of cardiac arrest that occurred either before or after a car accident on his way to perform a free concert at Eisenhower Park. He was only 38 years old. He never had the huge popular success that many performers crave, yet I don’t think that was his motivation. He wrote very meaningful songs which usually told stories or had lessons for us all. And, he was one of us – a guy we wanted to hang out with and let him regale us with his stories.

If your ever saw or heard him in concert, he was equally known for his story-telling between the songs. He would very often share how this weird story came to be, many that actually came from true events. One of my favorite songs of his – “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” is actually based on the true story of how he met his wife, Sandy, when she hired Chapin as her music teacher. Their family consisted of five children (two together and her three children from a previous marriage).  In fact, his most popular song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” was based on a poem Sandy had written about her childhood, but a lesson for her husband and all of us fathers – “when you comin home Dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Son, you know will have a good time then.” As we all know, the Dad/ Son are switched at the end  “as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, he’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”

His first big hit was “Taxi” about a man who wanted to be a pilot and is now driving a taxi. He picks up a fare that turns out to be his ex-girlfriend who wanted to be an actress. It is a very melancholy song to which we all can relate. Other favorites include “W.O.L.D” about an old disk jockey who has seen better days and “Thirty Pounds of Bananas” about a funny trucking disaster that spilled boxed bananas everywhere. Yet, my two favorites are vintage Harry Chapin. I will save the best for last, as it appears in this title.

One of my two favorites is called “Mr. Tanner” which is a song about a man who loved to sing while he worked. And, all the shopkeepers nearby loved to hear him sing. Yet, when they encouraged him to perform, the critics were not as kind. As Chapin points out…

“But, music was his life, it was not his livelihood. And, it made him feel so happy and it made him feel so good. And, he sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang; it just made him whole.”

You find yourself pulling for this man and are so heartbroken that his joy of singing was shattered. At the end, he only sang softly, so no one could hear him.

My favorite, though, is “A Better Place to Be.” It is a story about loneliness, a midnight watchman and a rotund waitress. The watchman tells the waitress his story as she says “I know I’m not no beauty queen, but I sure can listen good.” He tells how he met this beautiful lonely girl who, surprising to him, agrees to come home with him because “I’m goin nowhere and anywhere is a better place to be.”  After the most memorable night of is life, he leaves to get breakfast and when he returns, finds she has left, shattering his dreams.

The waitress dries tears from her eyes and eventually says “I wish that I was beautiful, or that you were halfway blind. And, I wish I weren’t so Goddamn fat, I wish that you were mine. And, I wish you’d come with me, when I leave for home; for we both know all about emptiness, and livin all alone.” After he finishes his last sip, he says “And, I know we both have been so lonely. And, if you want me to come with you, then that’s alright with me. Cause I know I’m goin nowhere, and anywhere is a better place to be.”

This is one of the most true to life, heartfelt songs you will ever hear. The song has many nuances and flavors. I hope I have given you taste of the genius of Harry Chapin. But, let me not stop there. On top of all of his storytelling songs and performances, Chapin was also a humanitarian. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his work on ending hunger in the US and abroad. He started an organization called “Long Island Cares” to combat hunger there and in 1977, Jimmy Carter asked him to be on a Presidential Commission on World Hunger.

So, through his songs and through his actions, Chapin told us how to make this world “a better place to be.” His epitaph is taken from his song “I Wonder What Would Happen to the World” and reads: “Oh, if man tried, to take time on Earth. And, prove before he died. What one man’s life could be worth. I wonder what would happen to the world.”  Harry, you live well beyond your 38 years. You keep on teaching us. You made the Earth “a better place to be.” Thank you.