The Songwriters – Gerry Goffin and Carole King

When Carole King emerged as a solo star in 1971 and the album Tapestry made itself such a fixture in a generation’s record collections, many people didn’t make the connection between the curly-haired queen of hippie-lite and a run of hits 10 years earlier in which she had starred as both writer and performer.

Even the presence on Tapestry of the Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow  failed to convince us that this woman had a past in the very different world of top twentyism.

Despite the hit singles such as It’s Too Late, Carole King was a serious  artist and we were too cool and albumy to acknowledge that she was an oak tree that had grown from a pretty substantial acorn. Or too ignorant, in my case.

But back in the days just before the Beatles, Carole King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin had written not just that Shirelles number one but a cluster of other indelible songs including Take Good Care of My Baby (Bobby Vee) and Halfway to Paradise, a hit in the UK for Billy Fury and in the USA for Tony Orlando, who wasn’t to become a household name across the water until the mid Sixties.

Then there was Chains, a US hit for The Cookies but better known on Planet Brit as a Beatles album track.

The following year brought The Loco-motion, sung by Little Eva, who may or may not have been Goffin and King’s babysitter, and revived many years later by Kylie Minogue. Kylie wasn’t much respected at that stage, but I remember thinking she sang the song better than the original, so she couldn’t be that bad.

There was also, from the Goffin and King factory, Go Away Little Girl, and as was common at the time there were two versions vying for our  5/4d (five shillings and fourpence, youngsters – about 26p), one by the American Steve Lawrence and a UK version by Mark Wynter.

The Drifters did the honours on Up On The Roof, an undulating melody overlaid with Goffin’s image of city dwellers escaping the noise of reality by fleeing to the top of the building to enjoy some fresh air and look at the stars.

The production line also found room for King to have a hit of her own in 1962 with It Might As Well Rain Until September. I can still hear it coming out of the Sunday teatime family radio on Pick of the Pops as we made our way through the ham salad and on to the pineapple chunks and custard.

Carole King was not destined to be an early 60s pop star. Her real celebrity lay further down the road in a cooler time, but her loss was other artists’ gain, as is the case with The Chiffons and One Fine Day, an oddly uplifting tale of rejection and optimism.

British minor stars The Rockin’ Berries wrapped their high-pitched tonsils around the rather disturbing He’s In Town before the Beat Boom bands got their teeth into the G&K catalogue. Manfred Mann’s Oh No Not My Baby demonstrated that you could have a hit without a Lennon/McCartney composition, while The Animals gave Don’t Bring Me Down a rough edge that the composers perhaps didn’t envisage.

That’s exactly what this series on songwriters is all about: the musicians, singers and producers do the wiring, plumbing and decorating, but it’s mainly down to the house the writers built.

Dusty Springfield, searching in vain for a cache of material that would propel her out of mere stardom and into the stratosphere, had a hit with Goin’ Back, which has been covered countless times, including, improbably, by The Byrds, who were more often to be found in possession of Bob Dylan songs.

And here’s an unusually jazzy take on it by Nils Lofgren.

Talking of covers, Will You Love Me Tomorrow has also been tackled by Helen Shapiro, Dusty Springfield, Linda Ronstadt, Melanie, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Bryan Ferry and Amy Winehouse – among many others including versions in Cantonese and Mandarin. Now that’s a song that fits the Ian Dury definition of great as being doable by other people.

The importance of Gerry Goffin in the partnership is demonstrated by his successes without King, from The Hollies’ Yes I Will (with Russ Titelman) to  a stream of hits much later with music by Michael Masser, such as Miss You Like Crazy (Natalie Cole), Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You (Glenn Medeiros)and Saving All My Love For You (Whitney Houston).

King on her own didn’t exactly supply songs for others. Her songs just attracted people’s attention, to the extent that James Taylor had greater success than she did with You’ve Got A Friend, and the supreme talent that is Aretha Franklin ensured that in some quarters Natural Woman is regarded as one of hers.

 

Advertisements

The Songwriters – Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder has had plenty of hits in his own right, but he has also provided dozens of songs for other artists. Not all of them were successful, and even of those that were, they are not necessarily  known as being written by him.

Sometimes, though, you hear a song and feel it has a touch of genius that you can’t pin down, but then you look at the credits and think, “Of course…”

A prime example of that is Tell Me Something Good by Rufus, the funk group fronted by a young Chaka Khan. It’s a strange song when you analyse it (not that analyzing pop songs is a very rewarding business). Take away the funky instrumentation and it positively plods. A recording that seems full of life and energy is based on a melody too full of holes to work on its own.

No doubt when he was writing it, Stevie was hearing the backing and he was able to pass on his ideas  and deliver what was in his head because  he produced the record.

Another early 70s Wonder composition that propelled a different act up the charts is The Spinners’ It’s A Shame, which is simply catchy from start to finish. Known in the UK as the Detroit Spinners, to distinguish them from the folk group of that name, The Spinners had been around since the 1950s with fluctuating degrees of success, but it took a Wonder song to get their name inscribed on the honours board of pop immortality.

One of Wonder’s co-writers on It’s  A Shame was soon to benefit from his patronage with a stellar career of her own. Syreeta Wright had started at Motown as a receptionist. Many hopefuls blagged their way into the company  in minor jobs simply trying to wheedle their way in and get noticed, and Wright certainly accomplished that, singing her way around the building until people noticed and gave her little assignments singing backup and demos for established artists. She also attracted the attention of Stevie Wonder in her capacity as woman, and they were married in 1970.

Initially writing together for other people, they eventually managed to get Syreeta  a record deal for herself and a trio of hits made her a serious name in the Motown roster. The mesmerizing Spinnin’ and Spinnin’ was followed by the cod-reggae of Your Kiss Is Sweet (dismissed as corny by early purists but a fine tune all the same). Harmour Love made an impression on the charts too, and the Wonder/Wright partnership was established for posterity.

In 1974 the faltering career of soul goddess Aretha Franklin was revived by a Stevie Wonder song. Even the woman widely regarded as having the ultimate female voice relied on finding great material, and when Wonder presented her with Until You Come Back To Me, she breezed through it with the insouciance of an expert interpreting a genius.

Roberta Flack was in a  similar situation in 1980, with a sensational track record built on great songs apparently running out of steam before Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long got her back in the UK charts. It wasn’t a smash in the great pop-buying consciousness, but it was a minor masterpiece in my humble opinion. Fellow music lovers  will know the warm feeling you get when someone else shares your feelings about an unrecognized gem.

I was working in a wine shop in south west London when this song came out, and spent long periods sitting by the till, listening to the radio and watching the world go by until the traffic was stopped by red lights at the junction of Putney High Street and the South Circular.

One morning Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long was on as the lights asserted their authority and a van with the driver’s sliding door retracted pulled up alongside a saloon, whose occupants watched, bemused, as the driver of the van performed to them the middle section of the song, a half-spoken sort of rap, complete with hand gestures and pleading arms spread wide. He loved it, he was listening to the same station and a magical piece of unscripted theatre made my day.

 

The wisdom of pop songs – Duets part 1

The human condition explained in three-minute bursts
duet 1
She was a fruit, he was a flavouring and together they made a beautiful taste

Why do people do duets? For the sheer joy of combining our talents with someone else’s. It’s why team games are so popular: it’s not all about the individual, but the pleasure of seeing someone else adding to what we do.

That is how duets are supposed to work, anyway, and in the early part of the pop era there were some gems. We’ve got to start somewhere, so how about Deep Purple, the song that started life in 1933 as a piano instrumental by Peter DeRose before Mitchell Parish added lyrics five years later. Various people recorded it in the coming years, but the version we’re concerned with here is the 1963 incarnation by Nino Tempo and April Stevens, a brother and sister act whose casual enjoyment of their craft gave the dreamy melody a poignant tone somewhere between happy and wistful.

Around the same time, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, a married couple who had been singing duets since the mid 50s, released I Want to Stay Here, an outwardly innocent piece of love talk which contained the urge for privacy and intimacy that young lovers feel. They don’t want to go to the party, they want to stay home and have a party for two.

These two songs reflected the gradual change from young adulthood to teenage self-assertion that was going on at the time. Lawrence and Gorme and Tempo and Stevens came across as fine, upstanding, clean-cut people destined to become responsible adults almost before their youthful flower had blossomed.

duet 6
A duet of groups. The Supremes only had one lead singer, but The Temptations used to pass it around

Then came Sonny and Cher, a long-haired man and a heavily made up young woman, with I Got You Babe, in which they complained that they weren’t being taken seriously as people. While Cher would go on to be a huge star, it was Sonny Bono who was the senior partner at the time, with his links with Phil Spector and a burgeoning career as a songwriter (Needles and Pins, among others).

Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan took the reins back for the old-style crooners with Passing Strangers, a minor hit in the US on its original release in 1957 and a bigger success when reissued in the UK in 1968. The kids who bought it then didn’t know Vaughan and Eckstine were respected jazz singers from another generation, the big band era; we just knew it was a great tune and had something classy about it. It was a bit showbiz, and that wasn’t a cool thing at the time, but what’s good is good.

duet 7
Hey buddy! Take the G off the end. And on the B side. I don’t like Gs on the end of words

Everybody knew who Frank Sinatra was, though, and he wasn’t giving up his hard-earned stardom just because the world was full of rock bands. Somethin’ Stupid, his duet with daughter Nancy,  hit the same spot on the target as Passing Strangers. On a technical note it is interesting that they didn’t sing alternate lines, but harmonized throughout, with Frank’s part carrying the melody and Nancy’s adding light and shade, although what she was given required more discipline to sing. You can hear she wasn’t making it up as she went along; she was singing the notes the arranger wanted her to sing.

All the songs we’ve looked at so far have been fairly serious and romantic, but in 1967 Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood added a bit of fun with their recording of Jackson. Also recorded by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Jackson features a frustrated womanizer threatening to give up his stable relationship and go to the sinful city of Jackson to sow some belated wild oats. His partner just thinks he’s pathetic and would make a fool of himself (which, if this weren’t just a pop song, might be seen as the root of the problem rather than just the reaction to it).

duet
When Mr Hathaway passed on, one UK music paper ran the headline “Wrong Donny dies”

We’re back in romantic territory for Elton John and Kiki Dee’s 1976 hit Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which some sources take as an affectionate pastiche of Motown duets by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston or Tammi Terrell (It Takes Two, The Onion Song, Ain’t Nothin Like The Real Thing etc). Whether that is true or not, it was a huge hit that is still popular today.

The brother/sister combination was an obvious choice for the Osmonds, and Donny and Marie duly raked in the cash with Morning Side of the Mountain and Leaving It All Up To You.

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway had a string of hits including Where Is the Love and The Closer I Get To You, while after Hathaway’s premature death Flack enjoyed great solo success and also slotted in a duet with Peabo Bryson, Tonight I Celebrate My Love.

Then there was Too Much Too Little Too Late by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams… and the list goes on.

Next week: second golden age and the emergence of the fake duet