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 22 – Brits Found Numan Quite Pleasure-able

Beggar’s Banquet Records were probably begging Gary Numan to record more stuff! His album the Pleasure Principle hit #1 in the UK this day in 1979. It was only the second chart-topper ever for that indie label which took its name from a Rolling Stones album. And the first #1 for it was Replicas, by Tubeway Army- a band Gary fronted. More impressively, that album (with its hit, “Are Friends Electric”) preceded The Pleasure Principle by only five months !

The Pleasure Principle took off with the popularity of “Cars” there and in Canada. In Britain, the follow-up single, “Complex” was also a top 10 hit. The album eschewed all regular guitars and was heavy on synthesizer making it one of the first real “new wave” albums. It won Numan his only gold record outside of his homeland, the UK (that was in Canada) and was surprisingly well-received by some critics who don’t always appreciate new wave. Robert Christgau for instance approved, and later on Q magazine rated it 4-stars, while allmusic gave it 4.5 and said “there’s not a weak moment” on it and “if you had to own just one Gary Numan album, (this) would be it.” Unfortunately for him and Beggar’s Banquet, that seemed to be something many took to heart. While his 1980 follow-up Telekon also was a #1 hit at home, such success has been elusive for him since.

Numan’s kept working with a devoted following to his generally more goth or industrial sounding latter work, but has never made it onto North American charts since nor topped the British ones even though he’s still recording and has 22 studio albums to his name.

September 19 – Diana’s Supreme Challenge, Going It Alone

This seems like a day Diana Ross would like to celebrate. Fifty-two years ago today, she got to #1 in the U.S. for the first time with her second solo single, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Of course, having a #1 single wasn’t unique or unusual for Diana by then; she’d sang on 12 of them in the ’60s with the Supremes. But the 1970 hit was the first just labeled under her name alone.

The song was the second single off her self-titled “debut” after a much-publicized falling out with her girl group bandmates, largely spurred on by Motown’s Berry Gordy. Gordy sensed, perhaps correctly, that Ross was the real star of the Supremes and could be a household name on her own. To get her on her way he brought in Ashford & Simpson, at the time a pair that were among Motown’s elite writers and producers. In later years, they’d also record on their own and score a major mid-’80s hit with “Solid.

Not only did they produce the Ross album, they also wrote many of the tracks including this one. It wasn’t penned for her though; it was first recorded three years earlier by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who took it up to #19. They had to do something a little different with it for Ross (who was trying to signify something of a new direction with her album cover, featuring a sexy looking Diana with short hair and in cutoff jeans instead of the elegant gowns and coiffed hair the Supremes had been known for) so they brought in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to add some strings, made it a bit funkier and featured spoken word bits too. As the BBC’s Matthew Horton put it, it became “a sexy anthem, whipping up the tension with two minutes of psychedelic soul before the delayed release of the chorus.” The song ran over six minutes … and neither Diana nor Berry Gordy liked the initial result.

Gordy thought the song much too long and weird, and didn’t like the spoken word bits. Eventually they all compromised and the song was shortened to about half its album length for the 7” single which radio typically played then.

No matter who’s toes might have been stepped on a bit (there was no word on what Marvin thought of “his” song being redone to greater effect) it paid off. It ended up being among the top 10 hits of ’70 and set Diana off to a pretty solid solo career through the decade. And into the next.

Another reason for Diana to like Sep. 19th, was ten years after “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” she was back on top of the American singles charts this day in 1980, with “Upside Down.” It was her fifth solo chart-topper (she’d go on to score one more with “Endless Love”, the duet with Lionel Richie) and it spent a full four weeks at #1, earning her a gold single and a platinum one in Canada, where it topped out at #5 (but sold for more weeks in a row, apparently.) It was from her Diana album, which went platinum in the States. That record was produced by the Chic duo of Nile Rodgers – who’s enjoying his 70th birthday today, by the way – and Bernard Edwards. Rodgers says “Diana was the first big star we ever worked with, so we took it very seriously.” Ross however, didn’t like their job of mixing this song, thinking it too funky and bass-heavy and had it remixed herself, bringing her voice more front and center and cutting the funk a bit. Rodgers was furious, but it seemed to pay off. Ross had a #1 song and Rodgers would soon be working with another “serious” big star – David Bowie, putting together his Let’s Dance album and helping on the Serious Moonlight tour.

September 19 – The Band Of Gold Was 7″ In Diameter & 45RPM

Happy birthday to a fine One Hit Wonder of over 50 years back. One whose done a lot more since than many realize. Freda Payne is 80 today.

Freda grew up in Motown – Detroit – and was musical at a young age, attending the Detroit Institute of Musical Arts. At the time she mostly liked jazz and some torch singers, with Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday being favorites. She broke into the recording business doing commercial jingles in the early-’60s and spent a good deal of the decade doing stage musicals. She put out her first album, jazz-influenced After the Lights Go Down And Much More, in 1964 to little notice.

People who did notice her musical abilities and voice were the trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the primary songwriters at Motown for much of the decade. They’d left the company after one too many dispute with Berry Gordy Jr. and started their own record company, Invictus. She was one of their first signings and her first single, “The Unhooked Generation” was only their third release. After the fourth Invictus record, the Chairmen of the Board hit “Give Me Just A Little Bit More Time,” came Freda’s next one…the one which would make her career and help keep Invictus afloat for awhile.

But she hadn’t wanted to sing “Band of Gold.” She apparently felt it was immature and suited to a teenager, not a woman in her late-20s with serious musical aspirations. They won out, getting her to record the song they’d written in their finest Motown-sounding tradition. It turned out to be a perfect match. The song sounded a lot like the Supremes, whom would have probably done it had Holland and Co. stayed on at Motown. (Coincidentally, her sister Scherrie joined the Supremes in 1973.) “Band of Gold” had some future star-power on it besides Freda. Joyce Wilson and Telma Hopkins, who soon joined Tony Orlando as Dawn sang backing vocals and Ray Parker Jr. was on the guitar. It earned Invictus their first gold record at home, where the song got to #3, but was particularly huge in the UK, where it spent six weeks at #1 in 1970.

After that, she quickly seemed to disappear. She had one more minor hit, the follow-up to “Band of Gold,” the anti-war “Bring The Boys Home”, which made it into the top 30 in the U.S. However, as far as hit records would go that was about all for her, and she left Invictus in ’73 to go to ABC Records. There she refashioned herself more in the image of a disco singer, doing a duet with another popular ABC act, Tavares, among other things but nothing really clicked there for her. This was likely discouraging for her and she actually went 15 years, from ’79 to ’94 without recording.

Although she did help out Belinda Carlisle on her cover of “Band of Gold” in ’86, she spent most of the decade concentrating on acting after a brief run hosting a TV talk show in ’81.

She seems to have been making up for lost time lately. Since adding her voice to a 25th anniversary edition of “We Are The World” in 2010 (that one for assisting Haitian earthquake victims) she’s written a memoir, released albums, including one last year which had a duet with Johnny Mathis on it, and acted on stages. One imagines, remembering her childhood, the highlight of that was this past summer when she got to portray Ella Fitzgerald on Broadway in Ella, First Lady of Song. A pretty good resume for a “one hit wonder”!

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 15 – And The Golden Fiddle Goes To…

Four days back we looked at his rollicking, patriotic hit from 1980. Today we go back a year prior, to 1979 and an even bigger and more unusual hit. North Carolinian bluegrass fiddler/guitarist Charlie Daniels and his self-named band hit #3 on Billboard this week with “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”

Daniels had been a fairly popular Nashville session musician through the decade being used by the likes of Bob Dylan and the Marshall Tucker Band. He’d even had some success on country radio but this romping tale about the brash young Johnny who beats the devil in a fiddling contest, was the crossover he needed to make him a household name, not to mention the holder of a 3X platinum record in his Million Mile Reflections. The song won the Grammy for Best Country Performance by a band, garnered him a top 5 in Canada as well.

Which shows always expect the unexpected in music. Otherwise in 1979, disco was still king, Donna Summer was the biggest individual artist and Rod Stewart had perhaps the biggest hit of his career by putting a disco beat to his sexy lyrics. Daniels credits the 1925 poem The Mountain Whip-poor-will for inspiration and tells people who argue the devil actually fiddled better in the record “if you listen, there’s just noise. There’s no melody to it.”

September 14 – One Band, Two Guitars, One Birthday

Talk about strange coincidences. Ed King was born on this day in 1949, a guitarist/songwriter who’d worked with the wildly differing Strawberry Alarm Clock and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He grew tired of the latter’s in-fighting and seemingly aggressive nature so he quit in the latter part of 1975, just as the band’s star was really on the rise. Skynyrd needed a replacement guitarist and multi-talented replacement. The guy they found was Steve Gaines…who also happened to be born on this day in 1949. Sadly neither is around today to mark what would have been their 73rd birthday.

Gaines was one of many rock stars whose path was set in motion by the Beatles. For Steve, it was actually getting to see them in 1964 in Kansas City. He “pestered his father to buy him his first guitar” all the way back to their home in Oklahoma, and apparently dad gave in.

Gaines played in several bands in the Midwest in the early-’70s including with Rusty Day of the Detroit Wheels and an act called Ilmo Smokehouse (in some sources listed as Rio Smokehouse.). In 1975, he formed a band called Crawdad, which went to the legendary Capricorn Studios in Macon to record their first record. The album didn’t amount to much commercially – in fact it took over a decade for it to ever be released – but working in the studio that was the home to the Allman Bros. and used by the likes of Elvin Bishop and Marshall Tucker Band no doubt helped him make some important contacts in the world of Southern Rock. But his most important contact was probably closer to home – his sister, Cassie.

Cassie had just become a backing singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd. When she heard they needed a replacement for King, she suggested her brother. She apparently used that Gaines family pestering until Ronnie Van Zant of the band gave in, letting her brother play one song with them. Their soundman was amazed by his talent and convinced the band this was their guy.

The soundman was probably right. Gaines joined them for the tour which resulted in the live album One More From The Road. He then went to work with them on the Street Survivors album, which went double-platinum in the States. He co-wrote several songs on it with leader Ronnie Van Zant and actually did two all by himself, “You Got That Right” and “Ain’t No Good Life”, a song he sang lead on – a rarity for anyone but Van Zant back then. Apparently Van Zant was so impressed he once said the rest of the band “would all be in his shadow one day.”

Alas, that didn’t get to happen as three days after the album came out, the mid-sized CV240 plane they’d chartered for the tour crashed in Mississippi while they were en route to Baton Rouge from South Carolina. Both Gaines and his sister, as well as Van Zant died in the crash, as did their manager and the pilot and co-pilot. The rest of the band and entourage survived, albeit with some severe injuries.

He apparently had a fan in the Drive-by Truckers also; their song “Cassie’s Brother” was about him.

September 13 – It Would Have Been A ‘Crime’ If This One Didn’t Get Noticed

Third time was the charm for Supertramp. After a couple of difficult-to-digest albums that flopped commercially, they got it right with their third album, Crime of the Century, which came out this day in 1974.

Needless to say, they’d had time to work out the kinks in their musical vision between albums. This came over three years after their almost-forgotten second one, Indelibly Stamped, and in the meantime, they’d added a new bassist (Dougie Thompson), drummer (Bob Seibenberg) and perhaps most importantly a horn player, John Helliwell, who helped shape their sound and add color to their stage show from thereonin. That said, as always, the band was a shared concept of Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies, who collectively wrote dozens of songs in their downtime. The band ended up recording 42 tracks for the record, only eight of which made the final cut, although a few were later reworked and added to later albums. Although they tended to each write songs by themselves, the credit was shared equally just as the Beatles had done with the Lennon/McCartney partnership. Lead vocals were shared as well, with four songs each on Crime… being done by Hodgson and Davies.

With only eight used out of 42, there’s little wonder it was quite a strong collection. True to their prog rock labeling, the album still ran over 44 minutes, with three of the songs running well past six minutes.

Although they technically only issued one single from it, and it was only a modest seller, many of the tracks found a home on FM rock stations and remain “classic rock” staples to this day, among them “Bloody Well Right”, “School”, “Dreamer” and the “Hide In Your Shell.” They were fan faves too; no coincidence six of the eight songs made their way onto the band’s live album, Paris.

Although it wasn’t a concept album, it did look a lot at the loneliness of growing up and school life frequently. For instance, both “Bloody Well Right” (a Davies song) and “School” (by Hodgson) were rebukes of what they felt was a failing British educational system. It was probably still fresh in their memories; Roger’s at least. Hodgson was 24 at the time; Davies was already just turned 30. Hodgson said about “Hide in Your Shell”, “I wrote that when I was 23, confused about life…I’ve always been able to express my innermost feelings more openly in song.”

Rolling Stone graded it 3-stars while the Village Voice gave it a middling review, calling them “Queen without (the) preening, Yes without pianistics and meter shifts.” Later on, allmusic gave it 4-stars, calling it when they “came into their own” despite calling them “snarky collegiate elitists, an art rock variation of Steely Dan”.

They issued a two-sided single, so to speak, off it, “Dreamer” and “Bloody Well Right.” In the U.S., the latter was the A-side and gave them their first top 40 hit, in Europe, “Dreamer” got the radio love and made it to #13 at home and #6 in Germany. Overall, the album made it into the top 5 in Britain, Canada and Germany, going gold in the UK and U.S., platinum in New Zealand …but diamond status in Canada! They always had a curious special appeal in Canada, and although it took til after Breakfast In America also went diamond in 1979, it was one of the first records ever to hit that plateau in the Great White North. It also was a rarity in being an album, by a foreign act, that sold far more physical copies in Canada than the much larger U.S.

The album was of high sound quality too, needless to say, being co-produced by Ken Scott, an engineer for several Beatles albums under George Martin. Fittingly, A&M issued it as an enhanced “Audio Master Plus” version of CD in 1984.

September 9 – Dr. Music Had Rx For Summery Jazz-Pop Mix

On the same day 50 years ago that the sun was slowly setting on Elvis Presley’s career – he placed the final platinum-selling single of his lifetime, “Burning Love”, onto the American top 40 – a Canadian band seemed to be having their time in the sun…singing about the sun! Dr. Music hit #23 in Canada this day in 1972 with the breezy, jazzy “Sun Goes By.”

The beginning of the ’70s was a great time for jazz-rock fusion acts, with Chicago still in their prominent horn period, Blood, Sweat & Tears popular and a sort of Canadian equivalent in Lighthouse making waves on both sides of the border. So the time was right for Dr. Music.

Dr. Music was the nickname of Doug Riley, who created the jazz-based band in Toronto in 1970…to be a backing band for Ray Stevens, who briefly had his own TV show and wanted a “house band.” The show didn’t last long, but Riley kept his 16-piece (give or take, the membership changed periodically) act around for much of the decade, recording four jazz-based albums. On this one, his bi-racial, dual gender band had three different sax players plus flugelhorn and trumpet in addition to more conventional rock instruments. Among the others on the record were Terry Black and Brenda Russell, who seemed to be the lead vocalists. Russell would go on to fame in the ’80s writing and singing “Piano in the Dark,” a Grammy-nominated pop song. Two other members would leave to go to Lighthouse later.

Sun Goes By” was a fast-paced summery-sounding single which was an anti-war statement. Maybe. It’s hard to really gauge the lyrics but lines like “mindless eyes, chariots of death will be disguised” and “blood is red, must it all be shed?” would suggest it although the tune is wrapped in appropriately early-’70s new age-isms like “time will mean only as it seems.”

The song was one of the year’s biggies in their homeland, even though it only peaked at #23 (#17 in Toronto itself), but it spent the entire summer lethargically moving up the chart. It was their second and final hit, coming a year after the similarly-selling “One More Mountain to Climb.

Riley recorded the record with the help of Terry Brown, with whom he started a recording studio. Brown would later go on to be a producer for Toronto acts like Klaatu, Blue Rodeo and most famously, Rush.

Riley himself later had a jazz quartet but ventured towards the stage and became a director of the Famous People Players group after Dr. Music. They’re a troupe, largely consisting of physically or mentally disabled people, who perform stage shows under black light. He passed away in 2007.