May 23 – Granddaddy Of ’80s Music

A music fan who shaped a good deal of modern music. A music fan, scientist, engineer…but poor businessman that is. We remember Robert Moog today, inventor of the modern synthesizer, who was born this day in 1934.

Moog grew up in New York City, and loved music. But he had little real inclination to play it, despite his parents putting him in harp lessons. Instead he was fascinated by the instruments, and by his dad’s career. His father was an electrical engineer for ConEd. At age 14, he built a theremin (a strange sound-shifting instrument used on the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations” for instance) from blueprints. By 1953 – while still a teen – he began manufacturing them in small numbers and selling them by mail order, for about $50 (about $550 in today’s funds). “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he’d later say, “I was doing this to have a good time.”

He carried on to university, eventually getting two engineering degrees including a PhD.Somewhere along the way, a customer of his hooked a keyboard up to one of his theremins and that got him thinking about the possibilities. He began thinking about the idea of having the range of sounds made by a theremin controlled by a number of dials and combined with the sounds and simplicity of a simple electric piano keyboard. Thus by a 1964 New York engineering conference was born the Moog Synthesizer, the first commercially available musical synth. There had been a few synthesizers before that, but they were of little practical use for musicians, costing over $100 000, being large enough to fill a whole room and being run by punchcards. Moog’s synth was portable, albeit huge by current standards, and cost under $10 000, and of course utilized keyboards. In 1970 he refined it into the smaller, cheaper Mini Moog, which was the first really popular synthesizer in pop music, quickly being adopted by Rick Wakeman of Yes and Frank Zappa’s band among others. By then he’d already gained some credibility in the industry when the classic-lite album Switched on Bach, playing upbeat Bach music largely on a Moog, won a Grammy.

For all that, Moog was not great at business. He started Moog Music in the ’60s, sold it at one point but then bought it back but he lacked the acumen for running a large company and it didn’t do well financially. Among his “problems” was that he only filed for one patent. If he had patented all the groundbreaking innovations he’d introduced in his instruments, he doubtless would have made far more money…but perhaps stalled the progress of his instrument breaking through. As Sound On Sound wrote, if he patented all he could have “it’s likely the synthesizer industry as we know it would never have happened.” By the second half of the ’70s, Moog was losing ground to a number of competitors including Roland, who were able to refine the instrument a bit more and mass produce them at lower costs.

By the 1980s, he’d moved to North Carolina and had become a university music professor, although he still ran a music instrument company. He passed away from cancer in 2005, leaving behind his second wife and five children, and was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously..

So put on some ’80s clothes and crank up the Depeche Mode or Soft Cell and remember the “archetypal American maverick inventor”, who as the Guardian put it “changed the complexion of pop and classical musical worlds.”

April 18 – The Eyes Of Pink Floyd

His art took the music world by “storm.” Today we look at a “behind the scenes” type personality who passed away last decade after quietly shaping the music world of our lives. Storm Thorgerson passed away from cancer on this day in 2013. He was 69 years old.

Thorgerson wasn’t exactly a household name. But he had a hand in some of the best-known music of the ’70s through ’90s and was even sometimes referred to as the “fifth member of Pink Floyd.” Not bad for a guy who said he didn’t know one end of a guitar from the other.

Thorgerson was a graphic artist who has made a number of rock’s best known album covers and some of the videos that brought the music to our ears through the TV screen. He grew up in Middlesex, England and went to a school I imagine a lot of our readers would have liked to have gone to. While he was there, Syd Barrett and Roger Waters both attended as well; his family and Waters knew each other and he and Roger played rugby together. Meanwhile, David Gilmour hung around as well and became friends with the others. Thorgerson remembers them as being a little unusual (Barrett especially) but “They’re not as weird as hell,” he told Guitar World, speaking in the present tense about their youth some fifty years earlier. “They have the usual set of passions, but they also have a drive and talent obviously.” And while he first was friends with Waters, he left little doubt as to whom he figured was the epicenter of Pink Floyd’s greatness later on. “I think Dave (Gilmour) lent them a sense of musicianship that helped them to be very successful,” he pointed out.

While the others took off to college and formed Pink Floyd, Storm went off to get a master’s degree in visual arts from the Royal College of Art. Once he completed that, he helped form a graphic arts firm called Hipgnosis, which did visuals for any number of clients. None more famously though than his friends in Pink Floyd. Not only did he create the majority of their album covers and associated art, including Meddle, Animals and most famously the iconic pyramid-and-prism for Dark Side of the Moon, he hung out with them so much the trio of Waters, Gilmour and Nick Wright included him in discussions when figuring out what to do with Syd Barrett when his behavior became detrimental to the band.

Gilmour and Storm became particularly close, with Thorgerson being the best man at the guitarist’s wedding. Gilmour says of Storm’s artwork, “his ideas are not linked to anyone’s idea of marketing… they are atmospherically linked to the music.” And upon his passing away, Gilmour spoke of Storm, the man: “(he was) a constant force in my life, both at work and in private, a shoulder to cry on and a great friend.”

As much as he was in with Pink Floyd and made our image of the “look” of that band, he didn’t limit himself to working on their LP covers. Through the years he did the covers for instantly-recognizable albums like AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds…, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat, no less than 10 different albums for Alan Parsons including Eye in the Sky and Pyramid, as well as albums by 10CC, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin and later on, the Cranberries and Blinker the Star just to name a few. Although many were drawn or painted images, he said “I like photography, because it’s a reality medium” but adding “I like to mess with reality… to bend reality” with his designs.

Little surprise that such a visually-oriented guy would shift gears in the ’80s, when music videos came to the forefront. When Hipgnosis folded in ’83, he turned his attention to producing videos for most of the rest of the decade and came up with ones including Paul Young’s “Wherever I Lay My Hat”, Nik Kershaw’s hits “The Riddle” and “Wouldn’t It Be Good?”, Glass Tiger’s “Thin Red Line” and of course, Pink Floyd’s “Learning to Fly.”

Prog magazine now has an award given to the best packaging for a musical product. They call it the Storm Thorgerson Grand Design Award. Fittingly, Storm himself won the award in 2012, the last year before he passed away.

April 16 – The ‘RS’ In RSO

Remembering one of music’s big behind-the-scenes movers and shakers today. Robert Stigwood was born in southern Australia this day in 1934. Don’t know his name? Well, that’s why we refer to him as “behind-the-scenes”. But if you danced to Saturday Night Fever, saw Jesus Christ Superstar or even perhaps were bummed out by the breakup of the Beatles, Robert was a part of the story.

Stigwood went to college in Australia and got a job when young as a writer for an ad agency, but that wasn’t his thing. So he went to Asia and traveled, eventually winding up in London around the mid-’50s. He loved theatre, and started a small theatre agency there, representing actors. One was John Leyton, a stage actor with aspirations of becoming a singer. He helped his career along, and to help out, learned record production. Leyton had one decent-sized hit in Britain, and Stigwood was hooked on music. As Broadway mogul Tim Rice put it, “Robert never thought big. He thought massive!” Soon Stigwood was promoting tours in the UK for artists like Chuck Berry and The Who, and had started his own record company, Reaction. Their prime signee, Cream. Although they didn’t last long, his association with Eric Clapton did, and Stigwood helped “Slowhand’s” formation of Blind Faith and then his solo career in the ’70s. He was a socialite and he was said to have been the one who introduced Clapton to George Harrison at a party.

That wasn’t his only tie to the Beatles. In 1966 he became friends with Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager. He merged their two’s companies, but Epstein’s death cut short that relationship. Technically, he could have stayed on to manage the Beatles… but the Fab Four hated him. Paul McCartney apparently told Epstein not long before his death “if you do this (bring Stigwood in to help run their career) we can promise you one thing – we will from now on record ‘God Save the Queen’ for every single record we make…and we’ll sing out of tune!” Stigwood read the writing on the wall and gave the business back to the Beatles… for a nice profit. The end results of that are debatable. The void of management upon Epstein’s death led to in-house disputes between the four Beatles and eventually to John Lennon bringing in the seemingly corrupt Allen Klein to run the business end of the band.

Stigwood did make friends with some fellow, displaced-Aussies – the Bee Gees. He signed them and promoted them to stardom…then super-stardom. Along the way he was busy in theatre, producing London plays of shows like Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, and running a publishing company that had British TV shows in its nest including Til Death Do Us Part...which quickly was adapted in the U.S. to All in The Family. All the while, the Bee Gees were taking off on the RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) label with hits like “Massachusetts” and “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” . Their career stumbled a bit in the early-’70s, until Robert’s other major musician client, Clapton, moved to Florida and made the hit 461 Ocean Blvd. record, which was a smash. Clapton suggested the Bee Gees follow his lead and move to the land of palms, white-sand beaches and white-sand cocaine. They did, and made Main Course, which kicked off the second part of their career, with their first smash dance tune, “Jive Talkin’”. Around the same time, Stigwood was moving to New York City and taking in that city’s liberal ways and party scene. It was a barely-concealed secret that he was gay, and the Big Apple was no doubt more conducive to a happy life for him then than ‘Swingin’ London”.

One fortuitous day in New York, Stigwood read an article entitled “tribal rites of a new Saturday night” in a local publication. An inspiration hit him, and he bought rights from the writer … and turned it into Saturday Night Fever. The movie was a hit, and the record soundtrack – on his label and mostly created by his act the Bee Gees – set records… for record sales back then. He got the Bee Gees kid brother Andy Gibb on his roster and, after turning Grease into a smash movie and record was as the Guardian would later say, “the entertainment industry’s most powerful tycoon.” Although his big idea of a film version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band didn’t help his bottom line nor the careers of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton or others involved, it didn’t sink his company and he went on to stage several more successful theatre productions including Evita, although his role in music began to take a backseat.

Stigwood passed away in 2016 at age 81 in London; sadly despite being lauded as one of the biggest “moguls” in the business, little appeared to be known about his personal life or who he left behind.

March 10 – Litt Lit Up Charts In ’90s

Today we wish a happy birthday to one of the important “behind the scenes” people of great ’80s and ’90s music. Scott Litt turns 68 today. Scott’s a producer extraordinaire…and a bit of a mystery man! Unlike say, Mutt Lange, let alone George Martin, there’s not much info about Scott out there. We presume he likes to let the music do the talking for him!

Litt says “I was a math guy in school, but once I got to the college level (in Colorado), I knew I could be a math teacher if I was lucky.” Around that time, he’d really gotten into pop and rock music and “the idea of making it seemed like a great career thing and a lot of fun.” So, in 1976 he made his way to New York, and landed an entry level job at the famous Power Station. He learned how to work tape machines and engineer the studio, by 1980 being the head engineer for Carly Simon’s Come Upstairs album. By 1982, he’d worked his way up to record producing, starting with an album by underground band The dBs. Chris Stamey of that band said “he was clearly a cut above anyone we’d been involved with.”

His reputation and skill grew. In 1985, he was called on to do some remixing and after-production for mainly British band Katrina and the Waves (a local hit in Canada, oddly enough but then virtually unknown elsewhere), including producing their re-recorded version of “Walking On Sunshine”… the record that made them international stars. Good fortune shone on him, and rising alt rock group R.E.M. then. He met up with them and produced their breakthrough album Document, and stayed with them for the next five albums… the ones which would happen to be the most successful, award-winning, multi-platinum ones of their career including Automatic for the People and Monster. He recently remixed and re-mastered the latter for the 25th Anniversary re-release, something he’d told the band “if there was ever a chance to take another shot at”, he wanted. He “decided to clear away the woolen guitar overdubs that clotted over (Michael) Stipe’s voice,” in the words of Pitchfork, something they weren’t convinced was an improvement but does show his willingness to always try to be better.

It’s well-known that R.E.M. and Nirvana were fans of one another in the early-’90s, so it’s perhaps no surprise he’d also work with Seattle’s top dogs, co-producing their In Utero album, remixing “Pennyroyal Tea” for a rather limited edition single and then co-producing their MTV Unplugged album as well. From there he worked a little with Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love and her band Hole. Add in a bit of work for the Indigo Girls, Liz Phair and the Replacements and later Incubus (producing their two biggest albums, Make Yourself and Morning View) Litt was one busy guy in the early-’90s! However, thinking big, he still started his own label, Outpost Records, in a joint venture with Geffen.

Outpost signed Canadian folk-roots rocker Hayden and put out his first two commercially-praised but small selling albums. More successful was Days of the New, another act he signed and produced. Unfortunately, the early 2000s decline in the type of alt rock Litt favored, coupled with a large signing bonus given Hayden pushed the company to bankruptcy by 2002. Since that time, Litt’s kept a low-profile although we know he has his own studio in metro L.A. and started a Recording Educational Facility for youth in Venice, California.

Litt’s own website appears to have been taken down, but we hope whatever he’s doing he’ll be doing a bit of “Walking on Sunshine” today.

March 7 – Burden Made The Look For The L.A. Sounds

Today we remember a man Neil Young calls a “friend for life” and “collaborator,” a Grammy Award winner whose name surely appeared in the rolodexes of California’s musical elite in the ’60’s and ’70s…but whose name is all but unknown to most fans. Designer Gary Burden passed away this day in 2018, at age 84.

Album covers are an integral…often overlooked part of our musical listening experiences,” the CBC reminded us in a tribute to him. And Gary was among North America’s best at creating memorable ones. He was born in Cleveland to “a very conservative family and I didn’t fit in.” Curiously, his way of getting away from that was one of the most conservative-seeming routes… he joined the Marines! After leaving them, he spent a bit of time leading a “beatnik” lifestyle in California before settling down enough to go back to school. He studied design at the University of California, eventually graduating and working in architectural design. His lucky break though was having Cass Elliott hire him to remodel her house.

She liked what he did, and got along with him so she told him “you should design our new record cover – you know how to design things!”. And he did, designing the first Mamas and the Papas album cover…and getting to hang out with the group, and other Laurel Canyon musical friends of theirs all the while. “I blew off my three-piece suit and never looked back,” he says. “I was born – the real me.”

Soon he was the “go to” guy for the L.A. Music crowd when it came to making album covers. “How to visualize the music, that’s been my mission.” Conor Oberst, one of the last musicians he worked with says “Gary always wanted the album packaging to reflect the spirit of music (and thus) he was often at odds with the record labels when they sought to cut costs at the expense of what he and the artist had envisioned.” Happily he usually got his way!

After the Mamas and the Papas, he soon was doing covers like Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut, the Doors Morrison Hotel (taken looking in to a real hotel named that, which Ray Manzarek had discovered driving around L.A.) and Crazy Horse’s self-titled one. That was a memorable one on two counts. One, because Burden typically envisioned and designed the cover, he more often than not got a photographer like his friend Henry Diltz to take the actual photo. “I was intimidated by the camera,” he said, but for this “I took that picture of the horse.” Which leads to the second reason it was memorable – “it was trying to bite me!”

He did Joni Mitchell’s famous Blue (“this was such an honor for me. That’s the only cover of hers that she didn’t make herself.”) , the Eagles Desperado and Jackson Browne’s The Pretender. But his most enduring artistic partner was Neil Young. Young liked Burden and his art, and told Rolling Stone they made at least 40 album covers together and “I still have covers for unreleased albums that he made for me” which he says will see the light of day eventually. It was with Young that Burden won a Grammy, for packaging of a Young box set in 2010. Burden picks Young’s On the Beach as his all-time favorite. The one with Young, facing away from the camera, staring at the sea in a bright yellow shirt beside a tacky yellow lawn dining set and with a fin from an old Cadillac sticking out of the sand “was about America in the ’70s where everything was cheaper than it looked.”

Burden was survived by his wife Jenice Heo, an artist herself. She worked with him on some covers and was for a time Art Director at Warner Brothers records. It’s hard not to think that his passing mirrors a passing of an era in music… because say what you will about Spotify or downloading mp3s, there is just no comparison to seeing a little 200X200 pixel picture on a phone screen to holding a 12” X 12” piece of art in your hands while listening.

February 15 – Who Made The Sound Of The 80s? Hugh, That’s Who.

Flip on any classic rock or “oldies” pop station today and there’s a very good chance by the time you’ve gone to bed, you will have heard “Every Breath You Take” by The Police and “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. It is actually difficult to think of two songs more ubiquitous and representative of the ’80s than those two. Besides being smash hits from the first half of that decade, what do the two have in common? Well, primarily, the fact both were produced by Hugh Padgham, who turns 67 today. Happy birthday to the man Mix magazine ranks as “one of the ten most influential producers” in the world.

Hugh was set on a career in music after hearing Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection as a teen. Before long he was able to get an entry-level job at a London studio, helping set up the country’s first solid state recording console, and by the late-’70s assisting another influential producer, Steve Lillywhite in making records for the likes of XTC, and Peter Gabriel. Through him, he met Phil Collins who called Hugh up about a year later. It was Collins first solo record, Face Value, and Padgham’s first album produced…and it changed the sound of music in the ’80s. Padgham used the now-famous “gated reverb” sound on Collins drums to give that big, bold, eerily echo-y sound that made “In the Air Tonight” so distinctive. It’s an effect that can be done digitally, but back then was achieved through physically working with the tapes, something that seemed to suit Hugh fine; he’s described himself as “an analog old-timer.” He says that “it was challenging to make records then. No one really remembers making records on so few tracks. In the world of digital recording, you have as many tracks as you have memory space.”

Shortly after, he and Collins were both working on a record for ex-Abba gal Frida, and the connections just kept on growing along with his reputation. From there, the list read’s like a who’s-who of big-time British (and less frequently American or Aussie) stars of the ’80s and ’90s. Ghost in the Machine and Synchronicity by the Police, then Nothing Like The Sun, Soul Cages, Ten Summoner’s Tales and Mercury Falling by Sting after the Police broke up; David Bowie’s Tonight, Time and Tide by Split Enz, No Jacket Required and Hello I Must Be Going by Phil Collins plus Genesis and Invisible Touch with Collins in Genesis; Between Two Fires by Paul Young, Yes I Am and Your Little Secret by Melissa Etheridge. Oh, and if recording in Quebec for a change, why not stick around a few more days and run one off for the most popular band there, the Tragically Hip? Add In Violet Light to his list…and that’s only a partial list of the ones he’s produced which have gone platinum. There’ve been smaller-selling but highly respected ones he’s worked on for artists from Paul McCartney to Adam Ant to The Waitresses. The only surprising thing about his four Grammys related to his production is that it’s only four.

What’s the key to that success? Probably what he told Music Tech a couple of years back : “producing hit records is half and half diplomacy,” he said, the other half presumably being knowing how to get the best sound possible for the record. “It’s how well you get on with your client, how you manage egos.” Case in point The Police, while making their massive best-seller Synchronicity. “It was very hard to make with all their fighting,” he recalled, noting they often told him to “f*** off” when he suggested something to them, and would go up to a week without talking to each other. Still, “Every Breath You Take” was not only a #1 hit, it is now the most-played song on North American radio – ever. “To have been involved with producing that song in such difficult circumstances – that’s a real career high,” he says. And did he manage to manage Sting’s ego? Well, considering the number of times they worked together after, it would seem so. “We worked very sociable hours, we ate good food, the work never got bogged down,” he recalled about working with the ex-Police man by the ’90s. Sometimes they’d stop to play some snooker. Proving once again, Hugh Padgham knows how to play the entire game.

December 13 – Dixon, Fan Of Jangle Rock, Jazz And Lava Lamps

Wishing a happy birthday to one of the names you see a lot if you’re an alternative rock fan, but probably don’t know much about – Don Dixon. The South Carolinian musician/producer is 71 today… and might be getting birthday cards from the likes of R.E.M. and Hootie & the Blowfish.

Dixon was born near Charleston and grew up listening to artists like Peggy Lee and, of course, the Beatles. He cites Rubber Soul and Revolver as two early faves which he still looks to as examples. “One of the great things about the Beatles records is how simple, yet sophisticated musically they are,” he told Huffington Post a few years back.

He learned guitar by age 13, but really excelled at the bass, putting out a jazz record with it by age 15. He went to UNC and met similarly-musically inclined people, putting together the band Arrogance there at the tail-end of the ’60s. The band persevered for six albums and over a decade, gaining a bit of a following in North Carolina, but almost nowhere else, something allmusic decry. They labeled the band “one of the architects of the alternative rock trend of the ’80s… an unjustly forgotten regional band.” Dixon played bass and was one of the their main vocalists, and perhaps more importantly, learned the art of record production in his time with them.

Just after they finally broke up, another southern producer, Mitch Easter, called him and invited him to help produce a record by a new, underground jingle-rock band. R.E.M. The pair produced the soon-to-be-superstars first full album, Murmur, then went back to work on its follow-up, Reckoning. Among the things he took from his time with Easter was… lava lamps! Easter loved them and always had one in his studio, so apparently Dixon followed suit. “There’s something soothing about the movement…most light sources are distracting, but a lava light is like sunlight filtering through a tree.”

He doubtless helped R.E.M. find their sound, as he would go on to do with others later. “Often (new artists) have existed in a vacuum…they have trouble with perspective. It’s difficult to step outside oneself to see the big picture. I try to lend perspective” he says. He’ll do that by helping them find their own sound and not worry so much about sales. “Even if 10 million people buy your album, that means that in this country alone, there’s 250 million who (didn’t)”.

Dixon put out several solo albums through the ’80s and ’90s, often with titles indicating he has just a bit of wit and whimsy in him: Most of the Girls Like To Dance, But Only Some Of The Boys Like To for instance. They generally didn’t sell ten million copies, or anywhere close, but got decent reviews. He did better working as a producer, notably producing three Smithereens albums (including the great Green Thoughts, one which he added bass and piano to some tracks on, and his wife, singer Marti Jones also did backing vocals for) as well as a trio for Guadalcanal Diary, Canadian flash-in-the-pan Andrew Cash’s sole hit, Boomtown, an album by Matthew Sweet and in 2000, working with Hootie & the Blowfish. They recorded one song of his, “Renaissance Eyes” while he worked away at producing their cover version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me.”

Of late, he and Marti occasionally record, but he has slowed down his work pace. He says when he listens to music “it’s often jazz or other types of instrumental music.”

November 28 – Ford Put Motor City On Map; Gordy Put Motown There

1929 gave us something other than just the Great Depression. Happy 92nd birthday to the timeless Berry Gordy Jr., born this day in Detroit. Oddly he was born Berry Gordy III, but went by “Junior.” But in terms of his contribution to entertainment, he was second to none. If Henry Ford put Detroit on the map industrially, Berry Gordy did the same for it in the show biz world.

His father had moved there from Georgia to find work in the car plants but Junior always loved music and opened a record store, 3D Record Mart, in the mid-’50s when he was writing songs. Meeting Jackie Wilson was fortuitous for the pair; Wilson scored several hits with Gordy songs and Gordy not only built up his reputation but his bank account. By 1959 he had started his own record label, Tamla with Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on it. The name of the company changed in 1960 to Motown – although some releases still came out as “Tamla” – and the rest as they say, is history.

Gordy wrote a number of the hit songs on that label (including “Shop Around”, “ABC”, “Do You Love Me?” and “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy”) and by 1971, Motown acts like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Temptations and the Four Tops had racked up 110 top 10 hits! In time they became as important as any American record label, and more so than most. No surprise that he was among the first non-performers inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1988. The Hall said of him, “he is responsible for discovering some of the greatest talent in pop music history…which still reverberates through pop music” and added the obvious societal comment pertaining to the times he worked in. “As a Black American, Berry Gordy accomplished these things despite persistent and formidable barriers of race and class.” In 2019, there was a 60th anniversary (Of Motown Records) tribute concert to him, with greats from his label like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, as well as newcomers to the music world like John Legend who told Berry “Your music set the standard for all of us.”

Gordy says his success came about partly because he looked forward and “there aren’t enough people who care about the future. they’re too busy worrying about today and what they can grab now.” Well, what we can grab now is some of the best music of the ’60s that still sounds fresh today courtesy of Berry and his vision.

The talent didn’t stop with Berry, by the way. He has eight kids, including a daughter with Diana Ross, Rhonda Ross, who’s a jazz singer and Emmy-nominated actress, and son Kennedy Gordy, who scored a top 10 single worldwide in the ’80s (“Somebody’s Watching Me”) under the nickname “Rockwell.”

August 17 – The Song Not Used In Windy City Travel Ads

Next to Bernie Taupin/Elton John, the hottest songwriting partnership of the day back in 1974 was Mitch Murray and Peter Callender. The Brits had written an international #1 hit in the American Civil War-themed  “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” (a hit for Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods in North America and Paper Lace in Britain) and only two months later on this day, they once again had the #1 single in the U.S: “The Night Chicago Died.”

This melodramatic ditty was a hit for British band Paper Lace on both sides of the Atlantic. The song about a big shootout between Al Capone’s men and the Chicago police was loosely – very loosely – based on the Valentine’s Day massacre which involved Capone but no police. As Murray remembers, “we’d never been to Chicago at the time. Being brought up on a tasty diet of American gangster movies,” gave him and Callender great subject matter even if it was fictionalized and as he admits, “the East Side is more a reference to New York than Chicago.” (The real east-side of Chicago would be Lake Michigan one presumes!) Nonetheless the song was a piece of musical pulp fiction that people loved – except for the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley. He hated the song and allegedly urged the band to jump in the Chicago River and not resurface!

 

August 15 – From Sinatra To Summer, Webb’s Songs Have Star Fans

If you can write songs that are loved by singers ranging from the Sinatras to Waylon Jennings to R.E.M., you probably have a gift! Happy 75th birthday to a very gifted songwriter, Jimmy Webb, who was born this day in 1946. Webb put Galveston, Phoenix and Wichita on the musical map…and a lot more!

Webb’s upbringing was far from the spotlight. He grew up in rural western Oklahoma, the son of a minister. Jimmy played piano at church by age 12, and with his parents beliefs listened to mainly Gospel music as a child, with perhaps a little country mixed in now and again. That started to change though when he became a teen and began being exposed to the likes of Elvis, whom he adored. And a very young Glen Campbell.

When I was 14 years old, I got down on my knees beside the bed, because I’d heard a Glen Campbell record called ‘Turn Around, Look At Me.’ I found out very quickly that there was hardly anyone who could stand on the same level as he could as a guitarist,” he has said. He decided music was his future, and soon left for California to go to college – and write songs.

Surprisingly, given his race, background and location around L.A., his first step towards making his dream come true came by signing to a branch of Motown as a writer. The first song he had published and recorded was a Christmas tune done by The Supremes (who would later score a hit with his song “Didn’t We”). Not long after he met Johnny Rivers who was working producing a record for the then-new 5th Dimension. He got them to sing Webb’s “Up, Up and Away” which described his career after that. The song was a huge hit, won Webb a Grammy for Song of the Year and opened a number of doors for him. One of which was his idol’s, Glen Campbell.

Campbell complained about Webb’s long hair but didn’t let it stop him recording a number of his songs, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and the signature song for both writer and artist, “Wichita Lineman.” That one, Webb recalls, like many of his songs, came from a mix of real life and imagination. He says in the ’60s, telephone lines were often maintained by the county, not the phone company and driving through a deserted stretch of Oklahoma, he saw “a sillohuette of a solitary lineman atop a pole…it was a splendidly vivid, cinematic image that I lifted” to create the tune the BBC’s Stuart Maconie called “the greatest pop song ever composed.”

Possibly not inspired by his real life was another of his major hits, “MacArthur Park” made into a surprise hit by actor Richard Harris and later, Donna Summer. Before long he’d also written hits like Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know”, Campbell’s “Galveston” and the 5th Dimension’s “The Worst That Could Happen.” In time, his songs would be recorded by artists including Dionne Warwick, B.J. Thomas, Nilsson, Dusty Springfield, America and R.E.M. to name a few. On the latter, Michael Stipe has listed Webb as one of his all-time favorite songwriters and often performed “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” in their concerts.

Although he has put his hand at recording his own songs, with a number of albums since 1970, his success at that’s been limited. In fact, he’s arguably had more success as an author, penning best-selling books about writing (Tunesmith) and a memoir (The Cake and the Rain.) Little matter that though. As songwriters go, Webb is clearly one of the elite. He’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and been given an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award.