The Songwriters – Graham Lyle

Graham Lyle (left) with Benny Gallagher

No, I’m no forgetting Benny Gallagher, his long-time partner from the early days, but Graham Lyle’s career extended beyond the Gallagher and Lyle brand and into heady chart territory in the US.

But first, the first bit. He’s Scottish, Graham Lyle. Part of a general group of musicians and singers who, it seemed almost reluctantly, insinuated themselves into the British music scene in the 60s and 70s – Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly et al. Gallagher and Lyle had gone the usual route of local bands before getting down to London in the mid-late Sixties, being spotted by The Beatles’ Apple Corps and doing some writing for Mary Hopkin.

Then they found themselves part of McGuinness Flint, named after bass player Tom McGuinness (Manfred Mann) and drummer Hughie Flint (John Mayall). The Scots songsmiths provided the hit singles When I’m Dead and Gone and Malt And Barley Blues.

In the mid Seventies Gallagher and Lyle went duo and sold plenty of copies of I Wanna Stay With You and Heart On My Sleeve. They were mining a seam on the very border where rock and folk met middle of the road, so leftover neo-hippies (such as myself) found their stuff acceptably cool while Radio Two and your Mum thought they were quite pleasant too.

The album that contained those hits was Breakaway, the title track of which became a hit for Art Garfunkel, while Bryan Ferry enjoyed success with Heart On My Sleeve.

Just as the world seemed to be opening up for the duo as writers, while Lyle embraced the US music scene, Gallagher faded from the scene and was missing in action during the 80s, before reemerging with The Manfreds in the 90s. When his tenure with them came to an end he became a fixture on the Scottish  folk club circuit as a singer-songwriter, and there he has remained, also playing at festivals, teaching songwriting and being instrumental in a charitable organization aimed at helping songwriters to gain their due share of royalties.

Lyle, though, took a very different path. Often writing with fellow Brit Terry Britten, he became one of the most sought-after writers in the US. What’s Love Got To Do With It was a major factor in Tina Turner’s 80s rebirth, and he also co-wrote I Don’t Wanna Lose You and We Don’t Need Another Hero for her. He had a song on a Michael Jackson album and has been recorded by Ray Charles (Rock’n’roll Shoes), Diana Ross (Change of Heart), Etta James (Hold Me Just A Little Longer Tonight), Patti Labelle, Anita Baker and Joe Cocker. It’s not all hit singles and famous songs, but ask a vintage musician in L.A. who Graham Lyle is and chances are they will know.

And that is success. Hits are the icing on the cake.

Country music number ones also appear on his CV, with Don Williams, The Judds and Crystal Gayle among the beneficiaries, and in the UK he found late success with Conner Reeves (My Father’s Son and Earthbound, both 1997).

In recent years Lyle has teamed up again with Gallagher, revisiting the material that shaped both of their lives.

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The Songwriters – Smokey Robinson

With his high voice, slight build and innocent smile, Smokey Robinson couldn’t be further from the macho image cultivated by many of his contemporaries in the late 60s and early 70s. No Shaft-style bushy moustache and threatening manner for him. He was a vegetarian before it was fashionable (he gave up meat in 1972) and practices transcendental meditation.

The Smokey persona comes through in his songs, too: light, relatively sophisticated  and they suit female singers  as much as men. He often co-wrote songs, sometimes with other members of the Miracles, but there is never any doubt who is at the helm.

Shop Around was a Motown hit in 1960 and although as the title suggests it is about playing the field rather than settling for the first girl who comes along, we are invited to believe the advice came from the singer’s mother.

Of course, you can’t get a perfect picture of a man through the songs he writes, and Smokey was  no angel – he married fellow Miracle Claudette Rogers and they had two children together, but he had extramarital affairs and a son by another woman. But fidelity in the entertainment industry is a difficult thing to achieve. How many men could go through decades of girls throwing themselves at them without weakening? I would suggest it’s more a case of who gets caught and who remains undetected.

Mary Wells was an early recipient of Robinson songs. One of Motown’s first stars, Wells soon left the label, making the mistake of thinking she could do it on her own after a while. But before she went, she found success with Robinson’s You Beat Me To The Punch and the timeless My Guy, smooth and seductive as a milkshake, even when the seduction was already booked by the object of her affections.

My Girl, a major success for The Temptations, did for men what My Guy had done for women and instantly Smokey was a genuine songwriting star.

For his own group, The Miracles, he came up with Ooh Baby Baby, the divine nature of which probably owes as much to his singing as to the song itself. It wouldn’t have amounted to much in the hands of, say, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, but with Robinson’s vocals weaving patterns like little white clouds in a blue sky, it was a smash in the US in 1964, although for some reason not in the UK. Not to worry: the digital download age makes it available to us now. And what an addition to a Motown collection it is: he’s treated his girl badly and lost her, but he’s not giving up; he’s not exactly begging, but making it clear that it will never happen again, and for once in pop it sounds genuine. Ella Fitzgerald, Todd Rundgren and Linda Ronstadt are among those who have covered it, and British lovers rock pioneer Janet Kay did a typically cute, bouncy version, but the composer’s original is untouchable. Since I discovered Ooh Baby Baby there have been whole weeks when I couldn’t get it out of my head.

The Miracles, now with Smokey’s name upfront, cemented their place in pop history in 1965 with Tracks of My Tears, and the following year The Temptations grasped with both hands the opportunity to record Get Ready.

Then there was The Hunter Gets Captured By the Game, a sublime recording by The Marvelettes and reworked in 1990 by Grace Jones, with some success but losing the wistful charm of the original. The Marvelettes track is one of Robinson’s masterpieces, that evocative title giving a new twist to the age-old question of who-captures-whom when prospective lovers get together.

Shortly afterwards, Robinson was back on classic territory with I Second That Emotion, The Temptations getting first crack at it and unerringly hitting the spot. The Miracles did it too, it almost goes without saying, and probably the most unlikely cover version was by arty rock group Japan in 1980. Their choosing to do it is testament to the enduring power of the Motown catalogue to inject some magic into an album of almost any genre.

In 1970 Tears Of A Clown emerged like a most welcome throwback to the mid 60s, and again it was adapted by a very different act later on: The Beat gave it the hyperactive TwoTone treatment in 1979/80.

In the early 70s The Supremes were in need of a lift, with Diana Ross well established as a solo performer and Holland Dozier Holland no longer available to supply the raw material. Robinson came to the rescue with Floy Joy and Automatically Sunshine, before the bubble burst.

Smokey himself flew back into the charts in 1981 with Being With You, but, as with the rest of the Motown crew, it’s the immortal 60s stuff we remember.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part II

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
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Freddie meets his match: big girl, big voice, big subject (the Olympics). Barcelona!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The vast majority of duets are man-woman, but Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson showed that a single-sex pairing could work too with 1982’s Ebony and Ivory, the latter also taking the duet into new territory as regards subject matter. A plea for racial harmony sung by one white megastar and one black legend, and a solid gold McCartney tune into the bargain.

McCartney repeated the trick a year or so later with Michael Jackson and Say Say Say, but without the racial message, and it worked a treat once again.

There followed another golden age of the duet with the  film-related likes of Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes) and  Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin’s Separate Lives. And there was Olivia Newton John and John Travolta with You’re The One That I Want and Summer Nights.

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“Up” being at the top of the charts

The astonishing vein of form hit by the Bee Gees in the 1970s meant they had hit songs to spare, and Barry Gibb put some to good use with Barbra Streisand, notably Guilty. Streisand apparently liked the duo format so much that she teamed up with several more people, including Neil Diamond on You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, and Donna Summer for Enough is Enough.

Meanwhile, away from the pop charts, The Band’s farewell performance had been made into a film, The Last Waltz, by Martin Scorsese, and tacked onto the end  is a song seemingly recorded at the same venue in private a day or two later. By definition a duet involves two singers, but The Band had three lead vocalists who took turns, and in this case Rick Danko and Levon Helm did a verse each, with Emmylou Harris joining in. If being well rehearsed is key to a good performance, this is a minor miracle, because guitarist Robbie Robertson had only written the song the night before.  To further confuse matters, it sounds like a Cajun folk song.

Back in the top 40, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross hit big with Endless Love, which also sold by the bucketload a few years later in the hands of Luther Vandross and Mariah Carey.

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Yes, you get to sing a duet with me. Oh, you want your name on it?

Stevie Nicks enjoyed the genre, it seems, doing Leather and Lace with Don Henley and Stop Dragging My Heart Around with Tom Petty.

George Michael, too, took advantage of his fame to partner with Aretha Franklin on I Knew You Were Waiting and Mary J Blige on Stevie Wonder’s  sublime Always. Both brave moves: it was like a decent amateur boxer getting into the ring with Mike Tyson, but perhaps Michael had more confidence in himself than some us had in him.

From around  that point the duet goes into decline. In the past 20 years or so there have been plenty of songs featuring a guest singer, but often this takes the form of an already-recorded performance being dropped into a new one, sometimes even with no pretence at the two vocalists having been in the same studio at the same time. Rap songs can often benefit from a drop of melody, as Eminem’s adaptation of Dido’s Thank You for his own Stan amply demonstrates. And it resulted in exposure for both of them to the other’s audience, which means more sales and more profit. But it’s not a duet.

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Senza una donna. The only trouble with this was that the key was too high for Zucchero. Or maybe he wasn’t well. It’s clearly a struggle, anyway

Jay Z and Alicia Keys may have issued a joint version of Empire State of Mind, but the piano diva’s solo version sounds like the real deal, while Nelly Furtado and Timbaland’s Promiscuous also doesn’t feel like a true partnership.

The same could be said, admittedly, for Natalie Cole’s reworking of her long-dead father Nat’s old hit Unforgettable. But it works, and although some uncharitable souls have seen it as disrespectful and perhaps commercially-motivated, to these ears it’s just beautiful and if she felt she had to make that connection with her Dad through what technology had made possible, then good for her.

Finally, if I may be permitted a personal favourite that is a bit of a rarity, I was  browsing through YouTube one day when I came across Burt Bacharach doing a live version of A House is not a Home. Alone at the piano, he laboured through a minute or so until I wished Dionne Warwick was there, when suddenly the audience buzzed as Dusty Springfield appeared and took over. Shivers down the spine. Burt croaked some harmonies, but only showed why he is principally a composer rather than a singer – and as much as I love Dionne Warwick, in the right mood Dusty could make her sound like Miss Piggy.

Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmS473ToPW8