I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand – great first lyrics

Great songs do not have to open with intriguing first lyrics. Some great songs do not have lyrics at all – Booker T and the MGs (“Green Onions”), Eric Johnson (“Cliffs of Dover”)and The Ventures (“Walk don’t run”) all had instrumental hits. But, a catchy first lyric can grab your attention.

Warren Zevon did so with these lyrics, “I saw a werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand, walking on the streets of Soho in the rain.” This song is obviously “Werewolves of London.” What I learned yesterday is Zevon was talked into switching the first two stanzas for this purpose by Phil Everly one of the famous Everly Brothers.

Procol Harum (a great name) sang these lyrics to begin a “Whiter shade of pale,” a great song title. “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels cross the floor.” You just have to listen as “the crowd called out for more.”

Known for interesting lyrics, Freddie Mercury of Queen sang, “She keeps her Moet et Chandon in her pretty cabinet, let them eat cake she says just like Marie Antoinette.” “Killer Queen” is packed with lyrics like this, as are many Queen songs.

Jimmy Webb wrote these lyrics sang so well by Glenn Campbell in “Wichita Lineman.” “I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road, searching in the sun for another overload.” It is the daily life of man who does his job as he greatly worries about his wife who is in need of a break.

The Kinks introduced us to the enigmatic “Lola” with these lyrics. “I met her in a club down in old Soho. Where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca Cola. C-O-L-A Cola…” Soho is an interesting place, as it found its way into two songs herein, so it serves as a great backdrop to Lola and this young man’s encounter

Yet, the words need not be complex. Paul McCartney grabbed our attention with a simple plaintive lyric “Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away.” The lyric makes you want to know what happened “Yesterday.”

Not to be outdone, John Lennon wrote “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” His lyric was so provocative, you had to listen to his point to “Imagine” a kinder world.

I treasure great lyrics, so I admire great song writers who coin them. Yet, the song need not start out that way. Motown coined many great lyrics, but the Motown sound started with “rhythm upfront.” That was the hook.

But, it was later when Marvin Gaye penned these heartfelt, and still needed words under the Motown label. “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” This powerful song “What’s going on?” is a needed anthem.

Songs like Gaye’s are the reason lyrics move me. Let’s celebrate the music, but hear the words. I know I left out many favorites of mine. What are some of your favorites I missed?

Great song lines from R&B

Rhythm and Blues (or R&B) has made a huge contribution to our musical richness, here in America and around the world. The sounds came out of Motown in Detroit, Staxx Records out of Memphis and Chess Records out of Chicago. The music was different, even though all classified as R&B.

The Motown sound had rhythm up front right out of the gate. Memphis was more soulful, driven by very evocative singers and a tremendous house band that would even release later instrumentals (think the band behind the Blues Brothers). Chess had bona fide stars like Etta James and Muddy Waters that led the way.

They built off of great jazz and blues out of places like New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago and New York, to name only a few. It should not be lost that The Rolling Stones recorded a terrific album in Memphis and knew the folks at Chess.

What is discounted is the terrific song lyrics. These songs are remembered for more than terrific music. Some lyrics were merely catchy, but many had a resonance that left a indeliable foot print. The following are all from memory, so it is very likely I misstated a few.

“You make me feel brand new,” sang The Stylistics.
“When a man loves a woman…can’t keep his mind on nothing else,” sang Percy Sledge.
“Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home. And, when he died, all he left us was alone,” sang The Temptations.
“Neither one of us…neither one of us…wants to be the first to say goodbye,” sang Gladys Knight and the Pips.
“At last….,” sang Etta James, which lingers in the air.
“Baby, baby…where did I love go?” sang Diana Ross and The Supremes.
“War…what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing. Say it again,” sang Edwin Starr.
“Mother, mother…why are so many of you dying?” sang Marvin Gaye.
“Sugarpie, honeybunch. You know that I love you. I can’t help myself, I love you and nobody else,” sang The Four Tops.
“Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away. Sitting on the dock of the bay… wasting time,” sang Otis Redding.
“Don’t be fooled by my glad expression, if it’s giving you the wrong impression,” sang Smokey Robinson.
“I heard it through the grapevine, that no longer would you be mine,” sang Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye in separate versions of the same song.

These songs are like little time capsules. Please add to the list with some of your favorites. I just stuck my toe in the water above. I would love to hear from you.

Competition and love

“Competition and love.” This was noted as a key set of ingredients in the success portrayed in the Showtime documentary “Hitsville: The Making of Motown.” The story is largely told by the people who made up Motown, but the two most prominent narrators and contributors are best friends Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.

The story is fascinating and a must-see documentary which will provide a memory lane for those old enough and fans of the music of any age. The story is told by several behind the scenes players, along with the talent we heard and those who created the words and music. A few admiring stars like John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey, Neil Young, Little Richard and others add context.

Motown was birthed the same year I was in 1958. Robinson told Gordy that if they were going to be taken advantage by the music industry (after an insulting $3.19 royalty on a popular song), Gordy needed to start his own company. With an $800 loan from his aunt and other money he pooled, he bought a house that would serve as the studio, headquarters and Gordy’s living quarters.

So, blend in ingredients like a business model that borrowed from Ford’s assembly line, that was fed by a city that had public, faith-based, and street music pool of talent, that mixed talented songwriters, that drafted local jazz musicians to form a talented in-house session band called “The Funk Brothers,” that groomed people to present themselves so the music could be heard, that mentored talent allowing them to grow and you end up with an organization built to create sustainable great music.

But, “competition and love,” made it sing. The songwriting trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Eddie, Lamont and Brian) competed with the duo of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy himself. Plus, the artists like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder  et al were writing songs. The singers like Robinson, Gaye, Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells and some young group called the Jackson Five, all competed for songs and studio space. But, it was the mutual love for the music, what they built, and each other allowed them to compete without damaging each other’s psyches.

This was evident in the weekly quality control meetings to confirm what was ready for release or where some improvements might be needed. Gordy was only one voice in the meeting and he told of stories where his idea was outvoted. That is telling.

A few takeaways worth noting:

– Motown had a blend of genders, ethnicities and races in its leadership and ranks. Gordy took some flak, but he spoke of this being a natural blend and supportive of what they wanted – a universal following of their music.

– The Motown sound is influenced by Gordy who wanted the song to catch your attention in the first ten seconds or “two bars” as Robinson noted.

– The Supremes were initially called “The No-hit Supremes” after a slow start. But, they became the stars of Motown, once the first hit landed. “Baby, baby, where did I love go….”

– At age 11, little Stevie Wonder wrote a song on stage called “Fingertips” as he was listening to the applause.“Clap your hands just a little bit louder,” he sang. It is incredible to watch, especially as the band behind him realized what was happening.

– It is shown how Marvin Gaye wrote and recorded “What’s going on?” adding the building blocks of conga drums, his second lead vocals, his first lead vocals, a bass by James Jamerson (one of The Funk Brothers), his own chorus, another chorus and so on. It is fascinating.

– We see how Robinson penned “My girl” for The Temptations where he wanted to feature David Ruffin’s voice rather than Eddie Kendricks as there was so much talent in the band and Kendricks should not be the only lead.

– Finally, to see a young Michael Jackson with his four brothers was stunning. As their Motown manager said, there is varying degrees of talent and then there is “genius.” The remaining four Jacksons noted how much pressure they felt to play artists’ songs in front of the artists who made them famous.

Please take a look at this documentary. It is worth the effort as fans of the music and performers. I would add that business people need to see this as well. Building a sustainable, successful organization takes nurturing and equal parts competition and love. These ingredients allow another motto of Gordy’s to flourish – innovate or stagnate. Well said.

 

 

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.