August 7 – Bee Gees Were Big Even Without Dance Beat

Though they’re remembered as the undisputed Kings of Disco, the Bee Gees started out as a soft rock, harmony-laden outfit and purveyors of Blue-eyed soul. They scored their first #1 hit in the U.S. on this day in 1971 with such a tune, “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?”.

It might seem surprising to younger listeners that back then, this was a pretty typical song for them . they’d had soft rock hits with “Massachusetts” and “”Gotta Get a Message To You”; “Jive Talkin’” seemed like the outlier when it presented an upbeat dance band about four years later. “How Can You Mend…” was apparently written about a rift between the brothers and once the basic melody was in place, “it took about an hour to complete” the recording, according to Robin Gibb. An hour well-spent! It also hit #1 in Canada, where it was their fourth, and Australia although curiously it didn’t hit the UK charts despite being recorded there and coming off the patriotically-themed Trafalgar album. Al Green recorded a popular cover version of it which has since been used in movies including Good Will Hunting and Notting Hill. While it was their first #1 single in the States, it wouldn’t be their last. The Bee Gees scored nine #1’s in the decade.

June 23 – Life Gives Duffy Lots Of Material To Give Blue-eyed Soul Treatment

Happy 38th birthday to one of the great new voices of this century, Duffy. Amie Ann Duffy was born into an unhappy household in Wales, at times having to be put into protective custody because of fights and death threats between family members and exes. She quickly set out on her own to work in stores and grocers before entering the Welsh TV competition Wawlfactor. Although she didn’t win, she got a record contract out of that and put out a decent-selling EP in 2004; in time she’d sign to A&M Records in Europe and Mercury in the U.S. Although she’d listened to artists as varied as Marvin Gaye to Arcade Fire before, A&M wanted to expand her range nonetheless. They put her in touch with Bernard Butler of Suede; he in turn heard her and gave her an I-pod full of old soul and R&B music to listen to and helped her write and produce her debut album Rockferry.

The result was startling. Reviews were great, even if almost all of them compared her to Amy Winehouse and both as following in the footsteps of Dusty Springfield. Spin did so but noted the record was a winner and she “a big-voiced, small town girl who expresses herself with rare dignity.” As journalist Jim Harrington put it, Rockferry “evoked a long-gone era when artists like Aretha, Dusty and the Supremes ruled the world.” Duffy went a ways toward doing so too; Rockferry sold close to 10 million copies and went 9X platinum in the UK where it was a #1 hit and won awards aplenty including the Brit Award in 2009 for Best British album and the Grammy for Best Pop album. Over here, it was a top 5 hit in North America and the single “Mercy” (a chart-topper through most of Europe and Australia) got significant airplay; in Britain it took home the Ivor Novello Award for Most Performed Song that year. There it went platinum as did the next single, “Warwick Avenue.” A less successful follow-up album, Endlessly, followed in 2010 but failed to have any singles crack the top 40 even in her homeland. Since then she’s been on “hiatus” from recording.

She tried her hand at acting, appearing in two films, but generally is content to keep a low profile lately it would seem. Little wonder because she feels uncomfortable as a star, saying it’s “scary” to have strangers recognize her. And she seems a magnet for bad luck. Her apartment in London burned down in 2012, taking 60 firefighters to contain the blaze (she and her pets got out alright). She was briefly the European “face” of Diet Coke but that led her to be slammed by critics who didn’t like her promoting an unhealthy drink, nor her appearing in one commercial riding a bike without a helmet. And most famously, and disturbingly, she recently said that she had been drugged, abducted, flown somewhere and raped while held captive, although giving no elaboration on whom was responsible. That, she says led her to spend “almost ten years completely alone.” We hope she recovers and gets back to the recording studio, but even if she goes down in the books as a One Hit Wonder, the one hit was quite a wonder!

January 30 – Fans Could Go For Hall & Oates After All

Greatest duo of all-time? Well, that one certainly is open for debate, but by at least one measure Daryl Hall & John Oates claimed that title 40 years ago. That was with “I Can’t Go For That” hitting #1 this day in 1982. It was their fourth #1 single (and third in a year) , surpassing both the Everly Brothers in, yes, even Simon & Garfunkel on that yardstick.

Hall & Oates had met and formed back in 1970 in Philadelphia, and were among the first talented purveyors of “blue-eyed soul.” Although they had modest success and good critical acclaim during the ’70s, they didn’t really take off until they incorporated a bit more pop and timely synthesizers into their sound in the 1980s. Their 1980 album Voices was a major comeback from them, going platinum and giving them a #1 hit in “Kiss on My List.” They quickly followed up with another new wave-crossed-with-soulful pop effort, Private Eyes. The title track quickly got to the top of the charts in late-’81 and “I Can’t Go For That” was the second single off it.

I Can’t Go For That” was written by Hall, Oates…and Sara Allen. Does that name sound curiously familiar? It should to fans, because that was the very Sara Daryl Hall had written the minor hit “Sara Smile” for years before. The pair were a longtime couple and she often helped them write. In this case, apparently Hall had the basic melody worked out on keyboards and all three collaborated on the lyrics. Lyrics which didn’t mean the same to them as to most listeners, as it turns out.

While most assumed it was about a put-upon partner complaining about his amour’s demands, John Oates says they had other ideas in mind. RCA Records were pushing them to quickly follow up the success of Voices, and the song was “about not being pushed around by big labels, managers and agents, and being true to yourself creatively.”

No matter what their mindset, no doubt RCA approved of the results. They brought back the same producer as they’d had on their last record, Neil Kernon (who’d had success before with artists as varied as Neil Diamond and Bow Wow Wor) and their usual assortment of New York studio musicians including G.E. Smith on guitars on most tracks (not this one however); Smith soon would go on TV as the leader of the Saturday Night Live band. This track featured Hall on most of the assorted keyboards, Oates adding some guitar and Charles Pechant on sax.

The song ended up being released four slightly different versions, from the five-minute album cut to a 3:45” single, to a longer video and a six-minute plus 12” dance single. The public certainly could go for it. It became their first dance chart-topper and also went to #1 on the R&B chart (a real rarity for an all-White act) and spent a week on top of the singles chart, between Olivia Newton John’s smash “Physical” and the J.Geils Band smash “Centerfold.” The song was a top 10 in Britain and New Zealand and got to #2 in Canada, their best showing there. It helped the Private Eyes album go platinum and rise to #5 in the U.S.

their next two albums would do even better, and land them two more #1 hits, “Maneater” and “Out of Touch.” Hall & Oates broke up for quite a long stretch late in the 20th Century but lately have regrouped periodically and were attempting a tour before the pandemic essentially sidelined it. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

January 14 – Canada Colored It Number 1

Canadian ears have always had a soft spot for British tunes and, during the late-’70s  and ’80s, for new wave or post-punk music. For instance, the Human League had hit #1 with Dare there, while it rose to #3 in the U.S. And the envelope-pushing Culture Club’s debut, Kissing to Be Clever topped out at #2 in Canada compared to #14 to the south in the States. Of course, that album spawned four top 10 hits in Canada, including “Do you Really Want To Hurt Me?” which hit #1.

No surprise then that on this day in 1984 Culture Club hit the #1 spot on the album charts in the Great White North with Colour By Numbers, knocking the Rolling Stones off the top. Boy George and Co. would stick there for 12 weeks, selling enough copies in the Great White North to be certified “diamond” (10X platinum) within four months. It was the first “new wave” album to achieve that level of success there. Previously the short list of diamond albums in Canada was heavy on the ’70s classic rock releases like the Eagles Greatest Hits and Led Zeppelin IV. By doing so, it meant that it was selling more than twice as much, per capita, in Canada than anywhere else, their homeland included

Like their first album, Colour by Numbers would generate a #1 hit (“Karma Chameleon”) as well as three more top 10s – “Church of the Poisoned Mind”, “Miss Me Blind” and “It’s a Miracle.” As such, it was the first “new wave” type album to achieve that level of success there. Mind you it was a worldwide phenomenon, being a #1 hit in Britain and Japan as well and coming ever-so-close in the States, where it spent six weeks at #2 behind only Michael Jackson. In the more conservative U.S., it sold 4X platinum. Boy George’s envelope-pushing looks and persona helped garner attention, but the fact is, they were a pretty solid, ground-breaking pop band. Drummer Jon Moss had been with The Damned and tried out for the Clash and as usually dour reviewer Robert Christgau (of the Village Voice) puts it, Boy George is a “blue-eyed soul balladeer of the first rank.” And the song “Karma Chameleon” was irresistibly toe-tappingly catchy and a major worldwide hit single. All four members of the band would pick Colour By Numbers as their best work in later years.

October 11 – Picture Book? I Guess That Is Simply Red

What could be more simply read than a picture book? A clever introduction for kids into the world of books, and Picture Book was a clever introduction of Simply Red to the world. The Manchester band’s debut album came out this day in 1985.

The name of the band of course makes reference to the carroty-colored mane of lead singer, and heart of the band, Mick Hucknall. If there hadn’t been a term “blue-eyed soul” before Simply Red, someone would have coined it just for him. As allmusic would years later note about their initial album, it was a “steady R&B groove reminiscent of ’60s Stax, all in the service of a big-voiced soul singer.” Of course, this was nothing entirely new for Britain, Dusty Springfield surprised many people when they found she was from over there, not Memphis!

They had signed to WEA Records, a branch of Warner Bros. but were not quite ready with a real sound by ’85. Luckily for both, producer/sax man Stewart Levine saw them in London around that time. Levine had already produced records for the likes of Van Morrison, BB King and Sly Stone. “The lead singer was magical,” Levine recalls, “but the music sounded like a retro American soul revue.” He had interest in working with them but told Hucknall “we needed to come up with something fresh.”

That they did. In a year of synthesizer-heavy new wave bands and emerging hair metal acts competing for attention, they created a retro-’60s soul sound that seemed authentic. The six man band recorded Picture Book partly in the Netherlands, partly at home in England, and released it to…initial indifference. It took awhile to catch on, but when it did, Simply Red had arrived. Warner obviously believed in them as they not only ponied up for a decent American producer for the unknown act, but then released the album in different formats including CDG – one that didn’t last, but at the time seemed the next big thing, offering compact disc music plus videos and lyrics playable on appropriately-fitted TVs or monitors.

The album was largely written by Hucknall, save for two cover songs – the Talking Heads’ “Heaven”, and an obscure American R&B tune called “Money’s Too Tight To Mention.” It had been done by a group called the Valentine Brothers three years earlier but little-noticed (the American origin explains the reference to Ronald Reagan and American political policies in it.) That was the first single off it, and it did OK in Europe, being a top 20 hit at home for them as well as France, Ireland and overseas, New Zealand as well. But it wasn’t until about a year later they really landed with the single, “Holding Back the Years.”

The song was actually Hucknall covering himself. He’d written the song some eight years earlier about his unhappy childhood… his mother had left them when he was three and he and his dad didn’t get along well. He wrote it for his first band, a punk-ish outfit called Frantic Elevators, formed after he went to the famous Sex Pistols show in Manchester in ’76. That show also inspired Morrissey, Peter Hook and others to form bands! A flop the first time out, perseverance paid off and upon re-release in spring ’86, the single became a worldwide hit, being a #1 hit in the U.S. and #2 in the UK. Curiously, they wouldn’t have a #1 single at home until the mid-’90s; in Britain their star rose considerably in the ’90s (they won the Brit Award for Best Group back to back years, for example) while in North America they fell into relative obscurity at the time.

The end result was Picture Book going to #1 in the Netherlands, surprisingly, while it got to #2 in the UK and #16 in the States, where it still earned a platinum record. At home, it went 5X platinum. the few reviews of it were generally good; Q called it the “most accomplished debut of the year” and Stateside, curmudgeonly Robert opined that the only two real good songs on it were the covers, but it was a good album “carried off” on “mood and groove alone.”

Simply Red are still rolling, and put out their 12th studio album, Blue-eyed Soul, in 2019. Although it charted, it was the first one of theirs not to at least reach gold status in the UK.

September 26 – MTV Crowd Found Palmer Simply Irresistible

On this day on the calendar, we recognize the birth of one stylish singer(Bryan Ferry), we recall the death of another. Robert Palmer died at age 54 from a heart attack on this day in 2003. It was an unexpected shock to all, though heavy smoking may have hastened his passing.

A bit like Olivia Newton John (also born this day), Palmer was a Brit with an asterisk, spending much of his childhood in Malta, moving to the U.S. in the ’70s when he began his solo recording career, and from there lived in the Caribbean and Switzerland before passing away. The stylish crooner put out 14 studio albums, plus a couple with Power Station. That, of course was a Duran Duran spinoff featuring Palmer singing with musicians John and Andy Taylor of DD as well as Chic’s drummer Tony Thompson.

Allmusic considered him one of the finest blue-eyed soul singers, and lauded his earlier work which was “a skillful assimilation of rock, R&B and reggae” while panning his more successful latter work which it felt owed less to the music than the racy videos. The Guardian newspaper said of him “a gifted soul singer whose hedonistic image belies his musical integrity” and speculated that “he was often just far enough of pop music’s curve ( songs like “Johnny and Mary” in 1980 come to mind) to have missed the big payoff.”  For all the flash and controversy, The Guardian summed it up well – Palmer “was first and foremost…a music-lover who loved the opportunity to work with great musicians.” Not a terrible epitaph for any singer. Somewhat true that, but he didn’t entirely miss out. He did take home Grammys for Best Male Rock Performance in both ’87 and ’89 and he notched nine top 20 hit singles in the U.S., including the #1 hit “Addicted to Love.”

The Guardian summed it up well – Palmer “was first and foremost…a music-lover who loved the opportunity to work with great musicians.” Not a terrible epitaph for any singer.

July 23 – Amy Added To The Unfortunate Ranks Of The 27 Club A Decade Back

The Righteous Brothers sang “If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, well you know they have a hell of a band.” And if such a thing exists, the show headliner might well be a band called The Twenty-sevens. That band would have gained another singer this day in 2011, when Amy Winehouse joined the likes of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain as stars who died needlessly at age 27. The singer the BBC termed the “pre-eminent vocal talent of her generation” proved you don’t have to specifically be a rock and roller to live – and, alas, die – a rock and roll lifestyle.

Winehouse was a musical throwback, preferring retro-stylings of the jazz, big band and early Motown eras to the Britpop, grunge and pop that dominated the airwaves when she was growing up. This no doubt came from being in a family that included several uncles who were professional jazz musicians, a grandmother who was a professional singer and a dad who was a big fan of Sinatra. As a teen in England, Amy was a featured singer in a national jazz orchestra; the jazz stylings showed through on her 2003 debut, Frank which established her as a major star at home (the album was a top 10 hit and garnered her considerable media attention) but it wasn’t until her second (and last, as it turns out) album, Back to Black in 2006, that the rest of the world sat up and paid attention. That album was a chart-topper in the UK, Germany and New Zealand and made it to #2 in the U.S., on the strength of the title track and the sadly ironic “Rehab” (which of course deals with her being told to go to rehab to get her drinking under control, to which she says “No No No!”) The album won no less than five Grammy Awards, including the Record of the Year for her and in the opinion of journalist Jim Harrington “paved the route (for) Duffy and Adele” by going old-school. She “tapped into the girl group vibe of the early-’60s and inspired a revival of old school soul/R&B” he writes.

She was said to be working on some new material not long before her death and had just recorded a song, “Body and Soul” with Tony Bennett which came out after her death and garnered Tony his first hit single since the 1960s.

For all the musical love, there were signs aplenty that Amy’s life was spiraling out of control for years. A tour for Back to Black in her homeland had a number of dates canceled and others with her walking off stage mid-show or swearing at the crowd. She wasn’t allowed into the U.S. to appear at the 2008 Grammys due to arrests for drugs, assault and a failed drug test; a European tour just before her death saw more of the same – canceled shows, her stumbling around forgetting where she was and the lyrics to her songs when she did appear. She said she was bipolar and her brother suggests she was bulimic as well, causing severe weight loss in the weeks leading up to her death. She was found dead in her London home by a bodyguard. The autopsy revealed a potentially-lethal blood alcohol level and ruled it death by misadventure.

May 14 – Another Hit Single? One More For The Road, Said Boz

Smooth as silk – Boz Scaggs hit #11 on Billboard this day in 1977 with his second hit off Silk Degrees, the catchy “Lido Shuffle.” It got to #2 in Australia and #3 in Canada, and even made the British top 20.

Lido followed “Lowdown”, his biggest hit (getting to #3) and helped the album, his seventh, go 5X platinum and pull off the rare feat of being among the 20 best-sellers of the year in both 1976 and ’77. The piano-playing singer started out as young as 15 as the singer for Steve Miller Band and won critical acclaim with his own brand of blue-eyed soul in the ’70s. The B-side for the single was another 70s classic: “We’re all Alone”, a Scaggs song made a top 10 hit later in the year by Rita Coolidge.

The smooth-sounding record was inspired by a Fats Domino “shuffle” on a song called “The Fat Man” which sounded vaguely like a riff Scaggs played on piano. Scaggs says it’s a ditty about a “drifter looking for a big score.” He got help completing it from David Paitch, who co-wrote it and played synthesizers. Paitch, the drummer on the single, Jeff Porcaro and the bassist David Hungate would soon go on to form the band Toto.

Scaggs currently operates a winery in Napa Valley with his wife.

November 12 – Poor Side Moved Johnny On To The Rich Side

Many times in music, an artist is too close to his or her work and can’t tell the best of their own material. Stories abound of hit songs the artist themselves didn’t want released as singles, or sometimes at all. But at times they’re not the only ones guilty of not having a very good crystal ball. Case in point, Johnny Rivers. He scored his only American #1 song this day in 1966 with a song he liked…but his record company hated! Good thing they acquiesced to the singer or else he might be living on “The Poor Side of Town.”

Rivers was at the time a fairly popular singer/guitarist, having scored a handful of hits over the past three years, most notably “Memphis” (which had gotten to #2 and had topped the Canadian charts) and the lower-charting but more famous “Secret Agent Man”. But when he presented this one to Imperial Records they hated it! They told him “man, don’t start coming out with ballads! You’re gonna kill your career.”

The twangy song of love-lost, redemption and hope took Rivers about six months to write, with some help from his producer Lou Adler (who later went on to greater fame working with Carole King on her massive Tapestry album). It didn’t take that long to get it done when it was written though; they assembled members of the famed Wrecking Crew in the studio, with Hal Blaine drumming, Larry Knetchel on piano and Joe Osborn on bass helping out Johnny and his guitar. A trio of female backing singers included Darlene Love and Rivers says they did it live in the studio with no overdubs, although it’s not clear if the string section Adler found was there at the time or added in later.

A little more bluesy and a tad slower than some of his earlier hits, the song was catchy and doubtless rang true to a lot of people, and seemed to almost create a blueprint for a number of Bruce Springsteen songs to come a decade later, with the optimistic guy working to get out of the “poor side of town” with his girl by his side. It knocked the Monkees out of the top spot on the singles chart, before in turn being replaced by The Supremes. North of the border, it became his second #1 single.

Although it’s something of a trademark tune for Johnny, he let the 5th Dimension do a cover version of it the following year… no surprise since they were on the record label Rivers had started and owned. Later on Nick Lowe and Lynn Anderson went on to give the song their own unique take.

October 12 – Hucknall’s ‘Stars’ Continued To Rise

Yesterday we looked at their debut album, today the one which made them superstars. In their homeland at least. Simply Red‘s fourth album, Stars hit #1 this day in 1991 in the UK, only days after its release. It would stay hot there for months, spending a total of 12 weeks at #1 through May of the next year and end up being not only the best-selling album of 1991, but ’92 as well! It made for the first time in over two decades that had happened – Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters was the last album to be #1 of the year two years running there, in 1970-71. It was also a major reason Simply Red spent more total weeks on top of the Brit album charts than any other act in the 1990s. The rest of the world however, while not ignoring the album, seemed far less enamored by it.

The band recorded Stars in Italy, which they found relaxing, with Stewart Levine producing again. He’d also done their debut and the previous album to this one, A New Flame. However, singer-songwriter Mick Hucknall had added in a seventh member to the band, drummer Gota Yashiki, formerly of Soul II Soul. He wanted a more soulful sound than the previous record, but conversely a somewhat smoother or more refined sound. Judging by the public’s reaction in Britain, it would seem he found it.

There were 10 original songs on Stars, written by Hucknall (a couple with help from keyboardist Fritz McIntyre), the first album by them with no cover versions. Highlights included the hits “Something Got Me Started” , the title track with Mick’s characteristic soaring vocals and the slightly World Music-influenced dance number “Thrill Me.”

Critics weren’t over the moon with Stars, although most received it reasonably well. Q and Uncut both gave it 4-stars, but the NME also gave it a “4”…but they were scoring out of 10, not five. The latter called it “an exercise in no style over no content.” Other British publications were somewhat kinder, like Melody Maker, which called it “sleek, airbrushed music best described as ‘soulette’” while the Independant figured it was “several notches above the rest of the smooth soul genre.” On our side of the Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly gave it a “B+” thinking it “classy” and while it doesn’t “break any new ground” it has “an understated groove that’s tasteful and disarming.”

The title track, “Stars” got to #9 in the UK and was a top 20 hit in Canada, France and Germany, while “Something Got Me Started” hit #11 both in their homeland and Canada. Other singles didn’t fare as well but the difference was why. While it sold acceptably elsewhere (it made gold status in North America and platinum in Australia), in Britain it seemed people were too busy buying the album to worry about individual singles. It finished up as 14X platinum, second only to Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory in the decade, and is still among the top 20 sellers ever there.