The Songwriters – Leiber and Stoller

So far in this series we’ve seen some pretty impressive catalogues in terms of numbers, but Leiber and Stoller make everyone else look like slackers. To mention every hit they have written would amount to a list, rather than an article, so you will find some notable ones missing and the ones I mention might be included because I like them, not because they’re more important.

They got their big break through Elvis Presley with Hound Dog, followed by Jailhouse Rock, Treat Me Nice, King Creole, Trouble and more.

For other people there was Poison Ivy (The Paramounts, including future Procol Harum members), Yakety Yak, Kansas City, Along Came Jones, Love Potion No. 9 and Charlie Brown – and that was all before the end of the 1950s. At that point many of us might have  pushed off to the Bahamas to live off the royalties for the rest of our lives, but whatever was driving Leiber and Stoller just kept them turning up at the coalface every day. And so to the 60s and Stand By Me (Ben E. King and everyone from Cassius Clay in 1964 to John Lennon in 1975). On Broadway by The Drifters, Some Other Guy (Beatles album track) and I Who Have Nothing (Ben E. King again, and in the UK Shirley Bassey).

The sheer coverability of these songs was illustrated to me in 2013 in a bar on the Caribbean island of Tobago, when a 20-something local guy did a karaoke reggae version of I Who Have Nothing. We were the only two singers – the only two customers – and I was trying to choose material that didn’t age me too much, but he blithely came up with that wizened old thing.

In 1968 a Leiber and Stoller song called Is That All There Is was a US hit for Leslie Uggams, a one-hit wonder whose  existence has eluded me until now. The song was also recorded by singing sex bomb Peggy Lee and crooner Tony Bennett, and it is interesting lyrically, being the bored, seen-it-all reminiscences of someone too cool for school. In the light of that, it’s hard to understand what Bennett saw in it, but there was a much more satisfying take on it in 1980 by a sneering American rich kid called Cristina, who added a masochistic verse about being beaten up by a man. Leiber and Stoller were not amused, sued her and had her version banned for several years. I like it.

On a completely different note there is Pearl’s a Singer, a 1977 hit for Elkie Brooks (Dino and Sembello in the US) and then the divine I Keep Forgetting, sung by the exceedingly earnest-sounding Michael McDonald.

The tune cropped up again in 1994 when rappers Warren G and Nate Dogg used it to tell a sordid tale of gangs and sex. For those who maintain that in rap the c is silent, it’s melodic refrains such as this that make the motherf***ing things bearable, and indeed Regulate is quite nice as long as you don’t listen too closely.

Now, what Leiber and Stoller gems have we missed? They wrote Spanish Harlem, a fabulous tune that makes the setting sound more romantic than it perhaps is, and Jackson, the stomping, riotously funny argument between a frustrated man and his cynically realistic wife. Johnny Cash and June Carter did it, but in my opinion Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood did it better.

And Leiber had a hand in Past Present and Future, a heartbreakingly wistful song based on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. The singer seems to be carrying some terrible secret, possibly more than the emotional distress of a broken relationship and even having been sexually assaulted. It’s hardly conventional pop  material, and the lyrics don’t make it clear, but it’s haunting and thought-provoking.

The song was originally recorded by the Shangri-Las and there was a version in the late 80s but I’m damned if I can find it. It was  just about note-for-note like the original, but sung less theatrically, I seem to recall. Not Agnetha Faltskog of Abba – that was 2004. If you happen to know it, please let me know. In the meantime, here’s the Shangri-las.

The English Pedant – Mispronunciation? Blame it on Elvis

Aaron

If your name is James Brown and you are routinely referred to as James Ground, does that bother you? If enough people do it, do you accept that that’s what the world wants to call you, and get it changed officially?

This issue has followed me throughout my adult life. My surname is Morvan, which is pronounced like Morgan. (Actually, it’s a French name and should really be pronounced in the French way, whereby the an at the end sounds roughly like oh, with no trace of the n. But that’s another story.)

Everybody can pronounce Morgan, so what is so difficult about putting a v in there instead of the g and retaining the overall sound?

But no, for some reason, people feel the ending should be stressed as much as the beginning, and that the name should sound like more than.

Being as I am, I have spent much more than half my life correcting people. After all, it’s my name.

The next generation, though, is not united in this. I have a nephew, now in his thirties, who not only accepts the mispronunciation, but apparently uses it himself.

There are other examples of this among famous people. The American statesman and general,  Colin Powell, must be the only Colin in the world whose name is rendered as coe-lin.

Of course, there is a difference between the American pronunciation, (kah-lin) and the British one (where the o is pronounced with a narrower mouth, somewhere between ah and oe).

In fact, Powell’s own story is that he was christened Colin with the traditional American pronunciation, but during World War Two there was a US air force pilot who became famous, and he pronounced his name Coe-lin, which apparently was an Irish influence. So, as Powell said in an interview on Fox News Talk Radio, “My family call me Colin and my friends call me Coe-lin”.

In the case of the legendary cricketer Sir Ian Botham, (boe-tham) the change in pronunciation from the obvious one, sounding almost like bottom, was probably sanctioned by the family at some point because, in the UK, bottom is a word that makes people titter. And botham sounds close enough to cause teasing in the playground.

It’s a relatively common occurrence, given our predilection for toilet humour. The famous house of Cockburn, producers of port wine, is pronounced Coburn, like James, the actor. The capital of Grand Turk, an island where I once lived, is Cockburn Town, and the pronunciation was explained to me by a grown woman as “Spelled c-k, pronounced coe,” thereby avoiding the dangerous word cock.

One name that has changed wholesale in recent years is Aaron, which, in the UK, used to be said as Airon. Suddenly, it isn’t like that anymore. Now it’s like arran. And the confusion is all Elvis Presley’s fault.

The path of this one is very complex, because it seems there was originally a Hebrew name Aharon, plus the English, Scottish and Irish Aron, Arun and Aran.

All of them were pronounced Arran, and so it remained until Presley was born. Elvis had a stillborn brother, Garon, which was supposed to be said as Gairon, and the boys’ parents pronounced The King’s middle name, Aron, to match that of his late brother.

Presley himself added the extra a officially.

To confuse matters, a typical American pronunciation of the ar sound does come across like air, so even if they were saying Aaron like barren, it comes out as bairren.

How it came back to the original in the UK is unclear, but that’s what happened.

So, if your name is Aaron and you have a definite idea of how it should be pronounced, you should be on the side of tradition – depending on when you consider tradition to start.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Doing time

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts

It is probably true to say that nobody wants to go to prison. One can’t say for sure, because there is always somebody ready to shoot down such an assertion, but let’s say the vast majority of us shiver at the very thought of being banged up.

Prison plays a significant role in popular culture, though, from films – The Birdman of Alcatraz to The Shawshank Redemption – to music.

Prison 5
And that message would be “Bake a cake and put my file in it. It’s in my tool box. In the shed. Chocolate, please.”

Sam Cooke’s heavenly voice gave a sweetness to Chain Gang that perhaps it didn’t merit, although if you want to analyse it (never a good idea with a pop song), perhaps he represents the good but misguided or unfortunate souls who end up behind bars.

That is certainly how Joan Baez saw it with There But For Fortune. She didn’t write it – Phil Ochs did – but (as far as we can tell from her recordings) she’s an earnest character who will automatically side with the underdog: witness We Shall Overcome and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.

While an early Bee Gees song such as Gotta Get A Message to You, supposedly delivered by someone about to be executed, could give a young, impressionable person sleepless nights, not all prison songs are harrowing.

Never one to take anything too seriously, Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock, which of course he didn’t write, because he didn’t write any of his hits, turns incarceration into a party, thrown by the warden.

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Yeah, we had plenty of time to rehearse, lazengennelmen. Not a whole lot else to do in here as a matter of fact.

The Everly Brothers served up a helping of unadulterated schmaltz in their 1958 rehash of a 1934 song Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail, which tells of an old lady showing up at the facility where her son languishes, armed only with her elderly status and pathos and attempting to persuade the warden to let him out. And guess what – it works, but as soon as the gates are opened and she hugs him, she drops dead. Well, it’s only a song.

Johnny Cash made a bit of capital out of the subject by not only writing prison songs but playing gigs in Folsom and San Quentin, which no doubt did his record sales no harm at all, given the bravado of the material. The oft-quoted line “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” might be taken out of context by many (in the song he’s regretting it), but it’s the sort of macho posturing that gives jailbirds a bad name, if they didn’t have one already.

It is easy to act tough about such things if it’s not too serious, as in Humble Pie’s 30 Days In The Hole, singer Steve Marriott’s boastful  account of doing a short sentence for drug possession.

Similarly, Thin Lizzy’s mid-70s anthem Jailbreak was just a comic book tale designed to appeal to young men who liked to talk tough.

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“Tonight there’s gonna be a jailbreak Somewhere in this town.” Err, would that be at the prison, Phil?

Bob Dylan’s album Desire featured two fact-based songs of incarceration, the more famous being the story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whom the singer believed had been framed for murder. Carter was eventually freed. On the other side of the album was Joey, co-written by Jacques Levy, which tells the tale of a New York Italian mobster, Joey Gallo. By many accounts, Gallo was a nasty piece of work, but Dylan (or, more likely, Levy) portrayed him as a victim trying to rebuild his life, only to have it blown away by the police.

Many a rock’n’roller did prison time in real life, from Chuck Berry (transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purposes) to Sex Pistols bass-playing buffoon Sid Vicious, who stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon to death and did some time on Riker’s Island before being transferred to a secure hospital and eventually died of a heroin overdose.

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Yellow ribbons on trees mean someone’s just got out.

Wall of Sound producer Phil Spector is still inside for murdering his girl, while top session drummer Jim Gordon’s schizophrenia eventually led him to kill his mother. He’s still in prison too. Gordon was a member of Derek and the Dominoes and played the piano on Layla part 2.

Among those whose lifestyle was asking for it and eventually got it is David Crosby, peace-loving dope smoker and political activist of Crosby Stills and Nash, who in 1982 did nine months for possession of heroin and cocaine, only to end up in trouble again in 2004, when he was caught in possession of an ounce of marijuana plus knives and a gun. He did a mere 12 hours in jail and skilful lawyers  managed to spring him with little more than bail and the threat of serious time if he didn’t clean up his act.

Heroin had been the downfall of troubled singer Billie Holiday many years earlier, when the frail woman with the voice of a tiny angel had been sentenced to several months in a low-security institution for possession.

Ike Turner, band leader and husband of Tina, fell foul of a catalogue of charges in the 1980s, from possession of weapons including a grenade to the usual drugs and, just for a change, failing to pay his taxes.

Prison 4
Cash in the slammer: Okay, nobody leaves till I’ve finished. Hear?

When he got out, Turner revived his career to an extent, but acheved nothing like Tina’s international stardom. He eventually succumbed to a cocaine overdose complicated by other medications for bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

The murky world of 1990s rap meant trouble for the likes of Tupac Shakur, who served  a sentence for sexual assault and had a number one album while he was in there. In that dark period that gave us the term “drive-by shooting”  and the gallows-humour name Death Row Records, Tupac died in hospital as a result of “respiratory failure and cardiopulmonary arrest in connection with multiple gunshot wounds”.

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And their Christmas album? Why, Christmas on Death Row, of course.

Meanwhile over in the UK, Gary Glitter (Leader of the Gang, Do You Wanna Touch me?) would come to grief for his paedophile tendency, as would singer, songwriter and producer Jonathan King.

So, anybody out there still want to be a rock star? If it’s songwriting you’re interested in, it’s a lifestyle that will generate plenty of material.

 

 

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Start with the title

buzz 1
Hey, I got a great title. Anybody got a tune?

Any time someone writes a song, they hope it’s going to be a hit. Even if it’s you or me, with precious little hope of that ever happening, we  daydream. And we try to make it attractive to people.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula, but that doesn’t stop people  throwing in every trick they can think of.

Songs have to have ‘hooks’, but what is one of those when it’s at home? It’s a catchy little bit that goes on repeat in the listener’s brain.

However, you either think of one or you don’t. The blessed few, such as Paul McCartney, have been supplied with catchy bits way beyond their fair share over the years. From Yellow Submarine to The Frog Chorus and beyond he has come up with tunes you can’t get out of your head.

Another potential tool at the writer’s disposal – and one which any mere mortal can use – is the catchy title, particularly a popular expression, saying etc, whether classic or fashionable.

buzz 3
The Essex. They had the image, they had the title…

As an example, take drop dead gorgeous. It’s an expression that emerged some time in the 1990s and spread throughout the English-speaking world. It was only a matter of time before someone used it for a song title, and lo and behold, in 1997 a band called Republica did just that and had a hit. This was followed a couple of years later by a film of the same name and there are probably beauticians’ shops and boutiques all over the world trading under those three words too.

The English singer and producer Nick Lowe took advantage of the expression “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind” and duly reaped a number 12 spot on both sides of the Atlantic in 1979, while three years later Kylie Minogue benefited from Stock Aitken and Waterman’s eye for a commercial idea with Better The Devil You Know.

Scottish songwriter/singer B. A. Robertson enlisted the posthumous help of William Shakespeare for his To Be Or Not To Be, a title which has also been used by other artistes, including the actress Courtney Welbon, whose  more recent song owes nothing whatever to Robertson’s.

buzz 2
Well, it was the old boy’s deathday this week

Elvis Presley was a pioneer of the buzz-phrase title with It’s Now or Never in 1960, and the years following that used the trick relentlessly.

Early Motown legend Mary Wells had a big hit with Smokey Robinson’s Beat Me To The Punch, well before her classic My Guy.

Around the same time a group of US Marines, three men and a girl singer,  had a degree of success with Easier Said Than Done, which did well in the US and just scraped into the UK charts, boosted by its popularity on the Northern Soul scene.

The world’s leading exponent of the art of making a song out of a title must be Jim Steinman, creator of hits for Meatloaf and others, who came blasting out of nowhere  in the 1970s with Bat Out of Hell. He kept his corpulent, overacting friend in the hits with other such gimmicky numbers as Dead Ringer and perhaps the most despicable abuse of words in the history of music, (I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you. But don’t feel sad, cos) Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad. Along the way he provided Bonnie Tyler with Total Eclipse of the Heart and Celine Dion with It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

The late Irish blues-rock guitarist Rory Gallagher seemed incapable of naming a song or an album without resorting to snappy familiarity: Big Guns, Photo Finish, Stage Struck, Fresh Evidence.

buzz 4
What rhymes with this, guys? Oh yeah, I’m doing fine… on cloud nine

And people are still doing it. R. Kelly’s Thank God It’s Friday took advantage of a phrase coined by a restaurant chain, while Aerosmith gratefully accepted a few million bucks via Diane Warren’s I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing.

In the 21st century if there is one saying that was asking for this treatment it is that ubiquitous piece of dumb wisdom What Goes Around Comes Around, and Justin Timberlake did the honours in 2006.

Or perhaps the top candidate was (What doesn’t kill you makes you) Stronger, which provided inspiration for both Kelly Clarkson (or her writers, anyway) and Kanye West.

buzz 5
What doesn’t kill you makes you… richer

Honourable mentions: Queen for Another One Bites the Dust, Helen Reddy for That Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady and The Eagles for New Kid in Town

The wisdom of pop songs – War

when johnny
Yessir. Fun to sing. My ass!

People have always written songs about war. It’s an important subject, it’s emotive and when one country is at war with another, everyone is affected.

What has changed over the years is the way the songs are angled.

It used to be songs of support for the brave lads going off to be slaughtered. There was whistling and optimism and hope.

The American Civil War inspired some of the most notable and enduringly popular, such as Patrick Gilmore’s rousing When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

When Johnny comes marching home again
Hurrah! Hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then
Hurrah! Hurrah!

In the First World War the troops and the folks back home kept their spirits up with such ditties as It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag. Okay, you’re heading for the trenches and if the Boche don’t get you, disease will, but smile, smile, smile anyway.

When Europe succumbed to strife again little more than 20 years later, Britain had a “forces’ sweetheart”, Vera Lynn, reminding the boys of what delights awaited them when they got back, in lyrics such as The White Cliffs of Dover and We’ll Meet Again.

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English rose: what could Jerry throw at you that would stop you coming home to Vera?

As the century rolled on, protest songs came to prominence in the 1950s. Even as the world was dusting itself down after 1939-45, folk singers and country artists were doing the talking while the rock’n’rollers just got on with enjoying their freedom. When the Korean conflict raged, Wilf Carter issued Goodbye Maria I’m off to Korea, while Jimmie Osborne gave the nation God Please Protect America, followed by Thank God For Victory in Korea.

Thank you very much, said Elvis and Bill and Gene and Eddie. Now Honey, will you turn off the radio and help me undo the studs on my Levi’s?

There, in the middle of the 20th century, the common man had access to recording contracts and the right to express his opinion, and the tone of the songs started to change.

oleta
Adopted: Oleta Adams’ big hit became a Gulf War anthem

Going to war was no longer seen as an honourable thing to do, and as hippies urged us to love one another, they began to point out what was wrong.

At Woodstock in 1969, Country Joe and the Fish gave us the anti-Vietnam war tirade I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag, with lines such as

Be the first one one your block
To have your boy come home in a box
And there was it’s ironically jaunty chorus, ending with:

There ain’t no need to wonder why
Whoopee, we’re all going to die

donovan
60s British troubadour Donovan falls victim to the art department’s creative ideas

Kenny Rogers got in on the act with Ruby Don’t take Your Love to Town, about a paralysed veteran trying to hang onto his red-blooded woman.

Years later, in the late 80s, Paul Hardcastle would compose a strikingly catchy dance song with lyrics about Vietnam. 19 took its name from the average age of combat soldiers in the conflict.

The 70s gave us Pink Floyd’s Us and Them, written by Roger Waters, whose father had died in the Second World War. This was no jolly, do-your-duty number, but a heavy indictment of the way young soldiers were used as cannon fodder by senior officers.

“Forward he cried, from the rear
And the front rank died”

Waters returned to the subject with a song, When The Tigers Broke Free, regarded by his bandmates as too personal for their album The Wall. But this tale of the loss of British lives caused by German Tiger tanks did make it into the soundtrack of the film.

“And that’s how the High Command
Took my daddy from me”

Other writers have taken very different standpoints. In the mid 60s, when everything was rosy and world wars were just the bad old days, a sizeable pop hit made fun of WWI air combat as imagined by a cartoon character with Snoopy vs the Red Baron.

The MASH film and TV series popularised a theme song apparently by a suicidal GI filtered through a haze of marijuana smoke.

“Suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it
If I please”

19
N-n-n-n-nineteen must have made Paul Hardcastle a f-f-f-f-fortune

And then there are the songs that are not about war at all but just adopted by servicemen and women and their loved ones.

Oleta Adams had a massive international hit with Get Here, the listeners seeing a desperate side to it concerning soldiers somehow returning from the danger zone, this case the Gulf War. As affecting as the song is when taken in that way, it was actually written by writer and singer Brenda Russell after she saw hot air balloons in Stockholm and thought what a novel means of transport it was.