September 25 – Lifehouse Sprang To Life

Your childhood church probably didn’t sound like this! Out of the California pews and onto worldwide radio, Lifehouse put out their first – and biggest – single on this day in 2000, “Hanging By A Moment”.

Lifehouse were put together in 1995 under the name Blyss by guitarist/vocalist Jason Wade who was just 15 at the time. He and two friends, drummer Jon Palmer and bassist Sergio Andrade formed the band which was largely spiritual in nature and played churches as well as some colleges. They put out an EP under the name Blyss in 1999, which got them noticed by DreamWorks who signed them. After a name change, Lifehouse went to work on their first album No Name Face with up-and-coming producer Ron Aniello. He seemed to be the perfect man for the job (and would later go on to produce records for the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Jars of Clay and one Bruce Springsteen) seeing as how he seemed to have a Christian background similar to the band’s, and he was multi-talented, filling in their sound with additional guitars, keyboards and percussion! Plus he knew Brendan O’Brien, famous for producing Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam, who he got to do the final mix of the record.

The first song on the CD was the first one they put out as a single, rather wisely. “It was the most up-tempo, radio-friendly song,” Wade explains.

Radio-friendly it was, and probably in Wade’s mind, a true gift from God. And who’s to say he’s wrong? He says it was the easiest song he ever wrote. “I heard the melody in my head before it was written,” he recalls but he noted “I couldn’t tell if it was a song on the radio.” When convinced it wasn’t “I picked up a guitar and it was kind of creepy because the song was almost written by itself. Within five minutes the lyrics and everything were finished.”

That was a very productive five minutes! Although being an unknown band it didn’t instantly jump up charts, it didn’t take long to find a receptive home on several types of radio formats with its catchy rock melody, grungey singing and vague message of love. Before long it would end up going to #2 on Billboard and spend three weeks at #1 on the Alternative Rock chart. It hit #1 in Australia and even got noticed in the UK, where it reached #25. In Canada it didn’t chart due to not being put out as a physical single, but it was the most-played song on radio for 2001; at home in the U.S. it was the #1 song of ’01. Curiously it was only the third song to be the biggest of a year without topping a weekly chart, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham in 1965 and Faith Hill’s “Breathe” in 2000 being the others. “Hanging By A Moment” accomplished that by staying on the charts for 54 weeks and being dominant on alternative rock, mainstream rock, pop and other types of radio. Wikipedia point out that it was “one of the biggest rock hits ever by a contemporary Christian band crossing over to the mainstream.” And it helped the album, No Name Face, rise into the top 10 at home, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Denmark, selling better than four million copies.

Lifehouse have put out six albums since, scoring another top 10 hit in 2005 with “You and Me” but it’s hard to tell if Lifehouse is still “live.” They haven’t put out a new album since 2015 and recently were scrapped from a Goo Goo Dolls tour for unknown reasons and Wade has been busy with a spin-off band, Ozwald.

September 25 – Bobby Wonders Why This Was His One Hit

September 25 is designated “National One Hit Wonder Day” so in honor of that we look at one of the best examples of that from the 1980s. Don’t worry, this day shows your dreams can come true – but maybe also become your nightmare! Bobby McFerrin was at #1 on Billboard this day in 1988 with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The bumper-sticker philosophy knocked Guns’N’Roses out of the top spot and also went to the top in Canada. Quite a shift in gears there – from one of the few heavy metal #1s to a wacky, acapella one driven by whistling! He got the idea from a philosophy espoused by Indian spiritualist Meher Baba, who counted Pete Townshend among his followers. “It’s pretty neat philosophy in four words,” McFerrin says. One which won McFerrin Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Male. One would think this would be a wonderful thing, but McFerrin might have had regrets. He’s a pretty well-respected jazz pianist and singer, who’d won three-straight Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammys before (by now he’s collected 10 Grammys in total) and had worked on records for the likes of Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock and Chick Correa. But after this song, he has largely been written off as a novelty act – a rich one though, given the revenue from this gold single and its use in commercials and the Cocktail movie.

It wasn’t that movie’s only cheery contribution to the top of the charts. A few weeks later the Beach Boys had a remarkable comeback with their first #1 since the ’60s with “Kokomo” off the same soundtrack.

September 24 – Did Renee Turn Around When She Heard Song?

Most lovelorn teenagers listen to sad pop music. Michael Brown decided to make sad pop music instead! His New York band The Left Banke hit the American top 40 this day in 1966 with their biggie, “Walk Away Renee.” The song would make it up to #5, and #3 in Canada…not bad for a debut by essentially a high school band.

The Left Banke had formed the year before, with Brown on keyboards and their main writer, and four others including singer Steve Martin – no, not the “wild and crazy guy” – who later added his real last name, Caro to avoid confusion. Bassist Tom Finn had a girlfriend, Renee, whom 16 year-old Brown had the fortune or misfortune of being infatuated with. He wrote the song for her, as well as their two latter, less successful hits, “Pretty Ballerina” and “She May Call You Tonight.” Brown said besides the lovely but unavailable Renee, he was also inspired by the Mamas and the Papas sound-wise on the song.

Luckily for the Left Banke, Michael’s dad, Harry Lookofsky (don’t ask me…Lookofsky’s son Brown?) was a talented violinist and he took control of the band, managing them and producing their record. He played the violin on the string-heavy selection and got his classical music friends to add other strings and flutes, creating one of the better examples of classical-tinged pop or “baroque rock.” Surprisingly, some of their other racks came closer to the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield in sound, but “Walk Away Renee” was the one people fixed on.

Not surprisingly, given the kids’ age and their small record label, it wasn’t an instant runaway hit. In fact by the time it hit the charts, Brown had replaced the others (his thing for Renee may have hastened the bassist’s departure one might think) with new musicians including Michael McKean, who years later we’d come to know as an actor. When the song started zooming up Billboard though, he got the original quintet back together to tour a little and put out one more album, which didn’t generate much interest or follow-up hit singles. They packed it in briefly, but reconvened, put out one more album in the ’80s and have worked together more years than not since. Steve Martin Caro passed away recently at age 71. Renee, meanwhile is apparently Renee Fladen-Kamm, who went to the West Coast to teach singing and arts. Perhaps one of the song’s she teaches her students is the one Rolling Stone list among their 300 greatest songs of all-time, the one written about her.

September 23 – That’d Be That Day 65 Years Ago

Rock groups are senior citizens today…in a way of speaking. Because the first smash hit by a rock & roll band got to #1 this day 65 years ago – the 1957 hit “That’ll Be The Day” by Buddy Holly & the Crickets. Rock was still new back then, something that hadn’t hit the mainstream vernacular or even consciousness perhaps. Elvis was already huge mind you, having spent 18 weeks at #1 already that year. But the idea of a rock group – guitarists, bass, drums – instead of an orchestra or anonymous session musicians behind one singer, was quite fresh. And so far back was it that it pre-dates the “Hot 100” era on Billboard. They compiled lists of top-selling singles as well as plays on jukeboxes, but had yet to start the comprehensive list of top songs that became the industry standard by the 1960s.

Holly was of course, seemingly a major star in the making. A nerdy looking kid of 21– almost the anti-Elvis – with thick glasses, from west Texas who also had a knack for writing a catchy tune and an awkward but real on-stage charisma. He’d signed to Decca Records in 1956 and actually recorded “That’ll Be The Day” there first. It was a song he’d written with his drummer, Jerry Allison, the idea coming to him after they watched a Western in which John Wayne uttered the phrase defiantly.

However, as journalist James Harrison points out, the Decca version was “slower…not rock’n’roll.” Decca couldn’t be bothered releasing it, and cut Holly loose. However, they wouldn’t let him use the demos he’d recorded with them, nor release records under his own name for a certain period of time. So he found producer Norman Petty in New Mexico and recorded some tunes there with him…including a redo on this one. Petty helped himself to a writing co-credit on it but also seemed to get the feeling of the song right and make it marketable. Although his efforts to do so were just that – an effort. Columbia, Atlantic and RCA all turned it down flat. Finally Brunswick Records took a chance with it and released it under the name “The Crickets” owing to the old contract restrictions at Decca.

It took off, rising to #1 at home and in the UK, and as Harrison called it “here was the modern era.” Rock groups had arrived. Not surprisingly then, the Quarrymen (who morphed into a band known as The Beatles) recorded a demo of the song.

Rolling Stone rank it as the 39th greatest song of all-time, and it certainly is one that made a star and pointed the way for so many rock songs to follow, from its catchy, defiant chorus to a bit of a guitar solo and its featuring an entire band instead of just one singer.

Those of a certain age might not be that familiar with Holly’s original however. Gen X listeners perhaps got introduced to the song in 1976, when Linda Ronstadt had a top 20 hit in North America with her version of it which was actually sitting at #21 on this day that year.

As for Holly, his star shone brightly but went out too quickly. He died less than two years later in the plane crash referred to as “the day the music died.”

September 22 – Forgotten Gems : Gordon Lightfoot

Seeing as how autumn officially arrives later today, it seemed fitting to note the changing of the seasons with this month’s Forgotten Gem. There aren’t that many songs written about the fall, but there are plenty about summer, some of them from the perspective of days like today looking back over the lazy, hazy days past. Gordon Lightfoot may not be forgotten – particularly if you happen to be Canadian – but his early hit “Summer Side of Life” seems to often fall by the wayside when recounting his career. Which is a shame, as it’s a fine song, and it happened to be at its peak position of #21 in Canada this day in 1971.

It was the title track off his sixth album, but perhaps more notably his second Reprise record. By then he’d become well-known and loved in his homeland, scoring five top 20 hits before this album came out, but he’d only just relocated to L.A. From southern Ontario and gotten major American distribution and notice with his first hit there, “If You Could Read My Mind” the year before.

For this record, he traveled to Nashville to record, using a lot of that city’s best session players including the Jordanaires (famous for their work behind Elvis Presley) on backing vocals as well as Chip Young on electric guitars and seemingly Hargus Robbins on organ, although the players on individual tracks isn’t noted in the liner notes. Hargus was famous for playing on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde…and being nicknamed “Pig.” In all, the album was a bit more lively and fuller-sounding than his previous one, which appealed to some but not all. Allmusic figured the album “prove(d) that Lightfoot was going to be around for quite awhile” and figured “his approachable, confiding sound is best heard within the title track.” Rolling Stone noted that the song is “bouncy” but only “overly elaborate producing justifies what would otherwise be over-energetic drumming.” They also felt “his voice sounds so much like a guitar that syllables frequently heard just as notes.”

They possibly had a point there; although his voice is strong and has his distinctive timbre, we get more a pastel, impressionistic view of his lyrics than hearing every word. The song may actually be an anti-war message from the Vietnam era, but the overall theme seems to be a nostalgic looking back on days of youth with lads enjoying the “young girls everywhere” in “fields of green” before things changed and they had to “go off to fight.”.

Either way, despite getting to only #21 in Canada and barely making the top 100 Stateside, it’s one of the great but forgotten bits of “Gord’s Gold”. And no matter where he was when making the record, there’s probably a reason Gord would feel melancholy about summer ending. Another song on the record probably illustrated why most Canucks might feel melancholy with the summer’s demise – “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” is what they’d soon have to look forward to!

September 21 – Riley Taught The PTA A Thing Or Two

A country song, a “novel”, influenced and inspired by a novel made into a TV show… one of the more interesting songs of the ’60s hit #1 fifty years ago. And from then on, “Harper Valley PTA” would be a codeword for conservative hypocrites.

Not quite 23 years old, aspiring Nashville singer Jeannie C. Riley became the first female to have a song top the regular Billboard charts and the country ones at the same time … and it did the same in Canada and Australia too, for good measure.

The 1968 song was written by Tom T. Hall, an aspiring novelist who never quite made it as that, but had plenty of success writing country music tunes (including his own 1973 hit “I Love” and the theme for so many of us, “I Like Beer”!) but he says of “Harper Valley PTA” “this is my novel.” A novel, no, but it packs a lot of story into less than 4 mnutes. The song deals with a small town single mom who’s chastised for being a bad influence by the uptight school PTA… and her turning the tables on them.

Mrs. Johnson, you’re wearing your dresses way too high/ it’s been reported you’ve been drinking and runnin’ around with men…” the second verse begins, a letter to the mother from the school board. She in turn went to the school meeting and pointed out the hypocrisy of the members like Bobby Taylor who’d asked her out seven times and Shirley Thompson with the gin on her breath…before calling them out on it and calling it a “Peyton Place”. The latter was no coincidence as the song and the theme seem to borrow heavily from the massively-popular 1950s novel (which also deals with a single mother in a staunchly conservative town) which had been made into a TV show around the time Riley recorded this one. Surprisingly enough – or maybe not- “Harper Valley PTA” itself was later made into a film and an NBC sitcom which ran for three years with Barbara Eden starring as Mrs. Johnson. Among the cast was Fannie Flagg, who’d go on to write the book and screenplay, Fried Green Tomatoes.

As for the humble 7” single that hit #1 in 1968, it at the time set a record by jumping 74 spaces on Billboard in one week and went on to sell an incredible six million copies . Riley won a Grammy for best female country performance for it and was nominated for Record of the Year. Although she’d go on to have five more significant country hits in the ’70s, none of them had the appeal or crossed over onto pop/rock radio. In the late-’70s she became a Born Again Christian and has since kept singing but limited herself primarily to the Christian music market.

By the way, if you listen to it and say to yourself, “wait, it’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe”... but it’s not,” you’re not alone. Many figure that Hall pretty much fit his lyrics into the Bobby Gentry hit (which also eventually was made into a movie) the year before, but despite the similarities, Hall never credited her in the writing credits nor, from all reports was ever confronted by her over it.

September 20 – Maybe Bubblegummy Song Wasn’t Crazy

Maybe it’s appropriate that it came out on the same day that one of the most bubblegummy of all pop hits reached the top 42 years earlier. On this day in 1969, “Sugar Sugar” by the Archies hit #1. And on this day in 2011, one of the century’s biggest – and most bubblegum-sounding – singles came out : “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen. Love it or hate it, soon there was no escaping the song that was everywhere. The Village Voice put it best by calling it “utterly earwormy.”

Jepsen was by then a 25 year old former barista and Canadian College of Performing Arts student from the Vancouver area. She’d risen to minor fame in Canada being a contestant on Canadian Idol in 2007 (she finished third) and putting out a moderately well-received slightly folkish album, Tug of War.

Fast forward to 2011 and she began working on a new record for the small local 604 Records label. “Call Me Maybe” was one of the first things she’d come up with, writing it with her friend Tavish Crowe. She said the song was “basically a pickup (line). What person hasn’t wanted to approach somebody before and stopped, because it’s scary.” They wrote it as a relatively folk-countryish tune originally but brought in multi-instrumentalist Josh Ramsay, of underground alt rock band Mariana’s Trench, who “helped us pop-ify it.” That he did, as well as between him and Crowe, playing guitars, bass, drums and synthesizers on the now upbeat ditty.

It was the lead single on the Canadian EP Curiosity, which was soon added to and made into a full album, Kiss, which was put out in the States, first on the small Schoolboy label, then when the single took off, being picked up by Interscope. And take off it did.

First it began to get airplay in Canada, which drew the attention of fellow Canuck teen-sensation Justin Bieber, and his then girlfriend Selena Gomez. Both raved about the song on social media and it really took off, no “maybe” about it. Soon it got to #1 at home…and in the U.S., where it spent nine weeks on top, and in the UK, Australia, France…18 countries in all. In an age of diminishing sales of music, it went through the roof (largely through downloads on sites like I-tunes), going diamond in both Canada and the U.S., and 15X platinum Down Under where it was the biggest-seller of 2012. When all it was said and done it had sold “maybe” 18-20 million copies. So far, it’s been streamed 895 million times on Spotify. It was the first #1 song by a Canadian female since Avril Lavigne had scored one in 2007 and is presently the biggest-selling single by any female so far in the 21st Century.

Of course, a song as popular as that would find other sources of fame. “Call Me Maybe” was popular for lip-synching videos, which included American Air Force personnel in Afghanistan. Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster put his own spin on it, singing “Share It Maybe.” It seemed it was everyone’s “guilty pop pleasure,” as VH1 termed it.

Although she’s kept busy singing and at times acting, and has had a couple of chart hits since, she’s never come close to the level of mega-success she had from this single. But she has a new album due next month. She could be back on top soon…”maybe.”

September 18 – The Court Case That Went Gold

A famous Supreme Court case of the 1950s made it onto rock radio in 1972. Fifty years ago today, Three Dog Night had the #1 song in the U.S. with “Black and White.” It was their third chart-topper in two years, but also ended up being their final one.

Three Dog Night were briefly an immensely popular California band which stood out because of its having three different lead singers – Danny Hutton, Cory Wells and Chuck Negron. Hutton sang lead on this one, coincidentally Negron had sung lead on one of the other #1s (“Joy to the World”) and Wells on the other (“Mama Told Me Not To Come”) although they tended to frequently harmonize on choruses on most of their records. And like the other two big hits and in fact, almost all their material, they didn’t write it. This particular song had gone back nearly two decades.

Black and White” was written in 1954 by David Arkin – actor Allan’s dad – shortly after the famous “Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka” court case. That one ruled it was illegal for schools to be segregated. Arkin actually made a children’s book out of the words. Folk singer Earl Robinson soon put music to it, and Pete Seeger recorded a folksie version of it in the mid-’50s. Three Dog Night though heard a reggae-style cover of it done by the band Greyhound, and modeled their take on it after that one. They also decided to drop one verse from the song : “Their robes were black, their heads were white; the schoolhouse doors closed so tight; nine judges all set down their names; to end years and years of shame.”

With that part excised, it was a fairly universal and timeless message of racial unity and tolerance and of appreciating children. To heighten that, they got a childrens choir to add their voices to the final verse and chorus. It was likely a message they believed in personally as they were among the first racially-integrated bands to become successful in the States.

The song came from Seven Separate Fools, their sixth album put out in four years. It was also the sixth-straight to go gold at home for them. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys picked it as one of his ten favorite albums not long back, noting “Danny Hutton’s vocals are truly on point.”

Black and White” also went to #1 in Canada and New Zealand but failed to chart in Britain where they had very limited success overall.

September 18 – The Complaint That Went Gold

Seldom has anyone turned a jeer into gold for them better than Rob Parissi. Parissi was the singer and leader of Ohio band Wild Cherry, a rock band which developed a strong following in the Pittsburgh, PA area in the early-’70s. By the mid-’70s, disco was ruling the airwaves and at a live show, a table of Black men were yelling for dance music and apparently said something to the effect of “are you White boys gonna play some funky music?” They didn’t, but the phrase stuck with him and he turned it into a song (borrowing heavily from a funky Ohio Players bassline) which got them signed to a record deal almost instantly. “Play That Funky Music (White Boy)” hit #1 in the U.S. this day in 1976, and was a top 5 hit in Canada and Australia as well.

So successful was the platinum-selling single that Billboard ranked it as the 73rd biggest single of all-time in 2008 and it remains one of the most played songs on “oldies” stations to this day. Lightning didn’t strike twice though; none of the subsequent singles from the band’s remaining three albums did much on any chart. Parissi went on to produce Gary US Bonds comeback album, Dedication and then work in radio. An incorrect assumption about the record is that it’s Donnie Iris (“Ah Leah”) singing…it isn’t. Iris was a member of the band briefly, but joined Wild Cherry after this song was recorded.

September 17 – The Curious Case Of ?

File under “Q”? One of the more enigmatic and difficult to file One Hit Wonders made the U.S. top 40 for the first time this day in 1966 with a song that’s become a rock staple. The song, “96 Tears”, the band, ? & the Mysterians.

? and the Mysterians were a band from Michigan, comprising mainly of Hispanic sons of migrant farmers. There was Robert Martinez on drums, Bobby Balderrama and Larry Borjos on guitars, Frank Rodriguez on the Vox organ that made the song so distinctive and most prominently, a guy who was probably Robert’s brother, Rudy Martinez. Although he claimed to be called ? and be from Mars, where he’d been born about 10000 years ago. Rudy/? was the sunglasses-wearing lead singer who wrote the tune. He said he chose “96” because it has “deep philosophical meaning” to him, though he apparently hasn’t chosen to elaborate on what that is.

The band had started in 1962, and eventually got signed to a small indie label, Pa-Go-Go. This song was one of the first they recorded, and Pa-Go-Go put it out as a single in some markets – largely their homestate of Michigan. Initially it was the B-side to “Midnight Hour”, but as often happened back then, DJs there and across the border in Windsor, Ontario flipped it over and began playing “96 Tears” instead. Soon it went to #1 in those markets. That caught the attention of Philadelphia label Cameo Parkway, who bought the rights to it and distributed it more widely.

That was a mixed blessing for the band. On the one hand, it made them stars, briefly at least, with the song being a smash. On the other hand, although they got a couple of albums recorded with Cameo, by 1968 the Feds had shut the company down for “stock manipulation.” The Mysterians lost a lot of money due them, their contract and momentum that they never regained.

But a smash it was. It’s appeal stretched well beyond Detroit-Bay City, with it hitting #1 nationwide, and in Canada. It made it to #7 in France and barely scratched into the top 40 in the UK. At home, it was the fifth biggest song of ’66. As Peter Watts of The Times put it, people loved the organ-driven rock and “ignored the slightly sinister revenge fantasy of the lyrics”. It’s largely credited with being one of the seminal songs that influenced numerous garage rock acts years later. Bruce Springsteen played it in concert once in 2009 on a dare from an audience member and in Britain, garage-rock loving The Stranglers had a top 20 hit with it in 1990 with a slightly muscled-up version of it.

96 Tears” was clearly ? & the Mysterians moment in the sun, but it wasn’t strictly their only hit. The follow-up, “I Need Someone” did make it to #22 in the U.S., and although it wasn’t a major hit for them, their song “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” was made into a 1997 hit for Smash Mouth. Meanwhile, ? & the Mysterians are still around. Maybe that singer really is a 10 000 year-old Martian.