May 18 – Sailors Weren’t The Only Ones Who Loved Brandy

If you’re a One Hit Wonder that is still widely remembered after five decades, that one hit must’ve done something right. Which it surely did in the case of Looking Glass. Their smash “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl)” came out as a single – * – 50 years ago today in 1972. We’ll get to that asterisk in a bit.

Looking Glass was a four man rock band (and yes, by and large they were rock & roll even though this hit had them dubbed “New Jersey’s Beach Boys” by some) formed at the tail end of the ’60s at Rutgers University. It was largely led by Elliot Lurie, the lead guitarist and singer, with him and bassist Piet Sweval more or less splitting the songwriting duties. Lurie got the gold star for writing “Brandy.”

The song is of course, a sprightly and elegant early example of what would go on to be considered “yacht rock”, marked as much by Larry Gonsky’s keyboards and horns brought in by Larry Fallon (who says he was the producer of the record although he wasn’t credited as such) as they do to the guitars and bass. It tells of that fine waitress Brandy, whose name was very close to Lurie’s high school girlfriend’s, Randi. Brandy worked at a bar in a port, making all the sailors swoon, but she rejected all their advances because her heart went with a mysterious one who loved her but loved sailing the seas more, leaving her with nothing more than a locket to remember him by.

It was one of the eight tracks on their self-titled debut. They were signed to Epic Records by Clive Davis who saw them playing in a club, and they recorded it near Columbia/Epic’s offices in New York after a session with Steve Cropper (of Otis Redding records fame) in Memphis didn’t pan out well. They put out the first single from it at the beginning of ’72…technically that was “Don’t It Make You Feel Good”, a song written by Sweval. Apparently it didn’t make people feel good; it was widely ignored all over. Here’s where that earlier asterisk comes in. “Don’t It…” didn’t pan out. However, some clever DJ/manager at Washington DC’s most popular station at the time, WPGC, flipped the single over and gave a listen to the b-side : “Brandy.”

He liked it and decided to play it regularly for a few days. “The switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree” each time the station spun it, he recalls. Soon a few other northeastern stations got word of it and played it too. By the time Epic Records took note and started rushing out copies of the single with the “A” and “B” sides reversed, “Brandy” had already hit #1 in D.C. based solely on requests to the pop stations. In late summer, it hit the #1 spot nationally, displacing Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally” for a week (it was sandwiched between runs on top for that song.) As allmusic note, it was “one of those timeless and very special #1s that come from out of the blue”. Sadly for Looking Glass, they also point out “nothing (else by the band) comes close to the heights of ‘Brandy.’”

Indeed that was true. “Brandy” hit #1 in Canada as well as the U.S., got them a gold single and was the 12th biggest hit of a year chockfull of smash singles. But they’d only squeak into the top 40 once more, with the largely forgettable and forgotten “Jimmy Loves Mary Ann” before breaking up in 1974. Since then, Lurie’s gotten together a new version of Looking Glass to play some oldies festivals and Yacht Rock shows and has a decent career as an entertainment manager in Hollywood. Sweval, sadly died of AIDS in 1992 after being a moderately-popular session musician through the disco era.

As for “Brandy”, it’s retained its popularity every bit as much as the whisky Brandy used to serve the sailors. That’s in no small part due to being used in a plethora of movies and TV shows including A Night at the Roxbury, Charlie’s Angels (each member or their estates, received $30 000 for its use in that), Blackkklansman, the Wire and King of Queens. The Red Hot Chili Peppers at times play it in their shows and Kiss apparently were inspired to write “Hard Luck Woman” by it, with their hard luck woman apparently being that fine barmaid Brandy. Conversely, it inspired Barry Manilow to change a song name. His smash “Mandy” was written and first recorded by Scott English as “Brandy”, but he changed the name because he was worried people would automatically assume it was the Looking Glass song if he kept that name.

One final measure of its popularity : in 1971, Brandy was the 353rd most popular name given to baby girls in the U.S. By 1973, just after the single was a hit, Brandy was the 82nd most popular. Probably more than Billie Jean can say!

February 15 – Making Music For ‘Everyday People’? Pretty Sly!

The good feelings of the “Summer of Love” were fading away with the ’60s in the U.S., and being replaced to a large degree with anger about the Vietnam War and social justice issues. Music too was changing, and one of the better examples of it, and society changing hit #1 on this day in 1969. “Everyday People” was the first massive hit for the hard-to-pigeonhole Sly & the Family Stone. That was, of course, a San Francisco band built around multi-talented Sly Stone(who wrote and produced the Stand! album from which the single came) and included his sister Rose, brother Freddie and several other talented musicians who blended rock, soul and psychedelia.

As Clive Davis recalled, “Sly was leaping over boundaries on so many fronts. The band was inter-racial (the first major American pop act to be integrated), and included both men and women.” Davis admired Stone, who was on the Epic label he ran at the time, saying “Sly was so vibrant and alive… the hardest working artist I’d ever seen.”

Although they’d scored a decent hit at the start of their career in 1967, with “Dance to the Music”, it took this song and Stand! , their fourth album, to let them really break through and become household names and platinum-selling artists. “Everyday People” echoed the positive attitude Sly exuded at the time, suggesting that we need peace and equality and could use music towards that end. It was noteworthy for introducing the phrase “different strokes for different folks” into our lexicon and for the bass-playing of Larry Graham, who considers it the first example of “slap” bass.

The song spent four weeks at #1 and was the 5th biggest hit of the year in the States. In Canada, it got to #2 while over in the UK it just scratched into the top 40. Rolling Stone would recently rank it as their 146th greatest song of all-time, and let Sly explain why his sound was so popular and different. “”I was into everyone’s records…I’d play Dylan, Hendrix, James Brown back to back so I didn’t get stuck in any one groove.”

Sly & the band had two more #1s in less than two years, “Thank You” and “Family Affair” but their day in the sun was fairly brief. Conflicts within the group as well as outside forces (such as the Black Panthers) urging him to use his celebrity to be more militant, as well as Sly’s spiraling drug use effectively killed the act by the early-’70s.

However, through their brief creative heyday, Sly and the Family Stone opened the eyes and ears of many as to the futility of breaking music – or people- into various different, separate categories never to be mixed.

January 17 – Write The Songs, Sing The Songs, Potato, Po-tah-to…

Sometimes it’s good to take advice from the boss. Barry Manilow found that to be true on this day in 1976, when his single “I Write The Songs” hit #1 in the U.S. …even though he hated the song!

Manilow was at the time nearly 33 years old but was still a relative newcomer to the recording industry. He went to the Julliard School for Performing Arts and spent a good chunk of the ’60s writing commercial jingles. His first album had come out in 1973, on Bell Records, which didn’t seem to see his full potential. He’d moved over to new label Arista Records, and this song was from his first album recorded for them, Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again. Although he got to write four of the albums 11 songs and be a minor co-writer on four more, conflicts arose with Arista boss Clive Davis. Davis felt Manilow had the voice of a star, good talent on the piano…but didn’t have “it” as a songwriter. Manilow felt otherwise. thus he was already a bit perturbed at not getting to do all his own songs when Davis suggested this song to him.

To say the absolute least,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, “his response was not positive…the suggestion truly offended him.” Manilow felt it would make him look like he was on a “monumental ego trip”, besides which, there was something quirky about singing he wrote the songs when he didn’t actually write the one he was singing!

I Write the Songs” was written by a pretty talented writer, Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. He states that the “I” in it was supposed to be “God”, who imbues people with the “spirit of creativity.” The track was first recorded a year earlier by the Captain and Tennille, but remained a fairly unnoticed album track with them.

Not only did Manilow relent and record it, Davis put it out as the lead single of the album. The song became Manilow’s second #1 hit, two years after “Mandy”, (he’d have one more with “Looks Like We Made It” the following year) and is to date among the 200 biggest-selling singles in the rock era, according to Billboard. It helped the album go double platinum. It got Johnston the Grammy for Song of the Year.

So, Barry didn’t write it, but he made it his own, and made fans from it. Not long after that, Frank Sinatra simply declared “he’s next!”… the next great American singer/crooner.

January 2 – Carlos Made ‘Smooth’ Transition To New Century

We had gotten through the Y2K scare unscathed, so by this day in 2000, we could all relax a little and take a deep breath…and enjoy some tunes. And the tune many of us were enjoying that day was from an icon of the Hippie era. Topping the Billboard charts to both end the 1900s and kick off the 2000s was Santana, and the tune was indeed “Smooth.”

Of course, he had a little help on this astounding career revival. The voice you heard, or couldn’t avoid in fact for months on end, was Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 who sang the tune with Santana’s distinctive guitar stylings behind him.

The smash single, from the smash Supernatural album (which would become the biggest of Carlos Santana’s career, selling 15X platinum in the U.S. and topping an incredible 30 million worldwide) came about from a meeting almost three years earlier. Clive Davis had been the head of Columbia back in Santana’s heyday in the Woodstock era. Over the years, Davis had left and done various things, by the late-’90s running the Arista Records label. Santana, meanwhile, had fallen out of fashion, with (as Davis describes it) music that “swung unpredictably” from spiritual new age stuff to “less than successful attempts” to sound modern and relevant. He invited Davis to a show he was playing, and chatted with him afterwards. Davis said “he had lost none of his energy and passion” and he “still had his magical touch” on the 6-string. And he wanted to be relevant again. “He had three children and it was hurtful to him they had never heard him on the radio.” He asked Davis for a contract, and a comeback.

Davis, and Arista were willing…with reservations. While they knew Carlos’ remarkable capabilities playing guitar and improvising, they questioned his ability to write material that sounded radio-friendly. Davis asked him if he would take advice and work with current, pop radio hit-making artists. Santana said yes.

Smooth” was actually one of the last tracks to be done for Supernatural. It began with writer/producer Itaal Shur. He visited the studio and heard several of the recorded tracks, including ones with Dave Matthews and Wyclef Jean. He said “there wasn’t one with a standard Santana groove like ‘Black Magic Woman’, ‘Oye Como Va’ … I went home and wrote this track on guitar.” He also penned lyrics about a couple getting back together after years for a tryst in a motel, and called it “Room One Seven,” and presented it. Arista loved the tune, but not the lyrics. They felt they were too overtly sexual for Carlos or for radio, and brought in Rob Thomas to fix it. Thomas was at the time a hot commodity, being the singer for Matchbox 20, whose debut album was only just starting to drop down the charts after being a #1 for them with radio smashes like “Push” and “3AM.”

Thomas wrote the lyrics for “Smooth” thinking about his then-wife Marisol, a Puerto Rican lady (which explains the Latin references) as well as songs of his youth that he loved like Elton John’s “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters.” He wrote the lyrics thinking George Michael should sing them, but Arista figured he was perfect himself, but “if you listen to the melody and the cadence, it’s an attempt to emulate (Michael) in many ways,” Thomas says.

Whoever he was thinking about or singing like, it worked. The song hit #1 in the U.S. for a remarkable 12-straight weeks (and also topped Canadian charts) the first top 10 single he’ d had since “Black Magic Woman” nearly three decades earlier. It managed to end up among the 50 biggest-sellers of both the 1990s and the 2000s. Santana was clearly back. “Smooth” went on to win the Record of the Year Grammy, and the album, the Album of the Year one.

Santana is still busy, but hasn’t had quite the “Supernatural” level of success since. He put out his latest album, Blessings and Miracles, last fall. 

November 1 – Reception For Future Star’s Debut Was Chilly

Another example of “from humble beginnings”. Fifty years ago, one of the greats of American rock/pop made his debut in record stores … but as often is the case, very few noticed it. Billy Joel‘s Cold Spring Harbor came out this day in 1971…to a rather chilly reception.

By then, Billy was a young but developing talent with a decent following around the Big Apple, where he’d been playing piano and singing for a year or two. However, he was unable to get any of the major record companies interested, so he signed a long-term contract with a small California company called Family Productions. The terms of it weren’t terribly good for the artist. Family was run by a record producer called Artie Ripp. Joel would later recall that the corporate offices were in Ripp’s house, and “there was a chair that looked like an oversize hand. That should have been a dead giveaway – you were literally sitting in the palm of his hand.”

Nonetheless, studio time in Los Angeles was booked, and Ripp brought in some decent help to fill out Billy’s basic piano/harmonica and vocals song framework. Amongst the session players were future-Wings member Denny Seiwell on drums and bassist Joe Osborn, part of the famous Wrecking Crew. Joel’s songs showed promise, with hints of the great story-telling sing-alongs and touching love ballads he’s famous for showing up. But they weren’t his best, and Ripp, self-appointed producer, was seemingly a fan of Phil Spector and the “wall of sound.” He layered on many overdubs and brought in a string section for a number of the ten tracks. “I hated the strings! The whole thing is over-produced,” Joel says.

That in itself wouldn’t have been a terrible problem, if it was at least recorded right. But something went wrong in the studio and the master tapes were sped up somewhat. Billy thought he ended up sounding like The Chipmunks but “Artie had run out of money to fix it.” They shipped out copies of the album running in overdrive speed and Billy’s voice apparently rodent-like.

On the album, one could hear a glimpse of his talent in songs like “Falling of the Rain” and “Everybody Loves You Now,” but only one really became well-known to his fans …and that took a decade. “She’s Got A Way” was perhaps the best song on Cold Spring Harbor, and one he apparently would play routinely through much of the ’70s in concert, and a live version was released as a single in 1981, eventually making it to #23 on the charts. Cold Spring Harbor, a poorly mastered album on a small label, was more or less dead in the water when it floated to the public, failing to chart or make any significant impact on most.

The one exception was Clive Davis, boss of Columbia Records at the time. He knew Ripp, and heard some of Billy’s music, then at Ripp’s request went to see him play live. “That was enough for me,” Davis would say. “He was clearly a triple threat – a gifted singer/songwriter, a torrid piano player and a sensational live performer.” Davis was able to buy out his contract from Family Productions and sign Joel to Columbia. That turned out well for all, with his first album on that label, Piano Man, vaulting him into the public eye.

As for Cold Spring Harbor though, it still didn’t sail far. Columbia eventually re-mastered it, recording a few new bits, eliminating an overdub here and there and fixing the speed, but it still failed to do much. To date, it’s the only Joel album of new pop/rock material not to have gone gold or better in the States. It has its fans though. Allmusic rate it a so-so 3-stars, but note it boasts “a score of flawed but nicely crafted songs” and that he “never made an album as vulnerable or intimate again.” Probably because he never sat in the palm of a producer’s hand again.

June 10 – Kinks Went Dancing Back Up Charts

Never quite as successful or legendary as their contemporaries fronted by Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger, The Kinks were still one of the most-respected and long-lasting bands from the first “British Invasion.” Formed back in 1964 by brothers Ray and Dave Davies, they had a string of hits in the ’60s like “Sunny Afternoon” and “All Day and All of the Night” but by 1983 they hadn’t been heard of much on radio or on charts since 1970’s “Lola.”

They had a comeback on this day in ’83, putting out the State of Confusion album. The album had some of the characteristic rockers the band were well-known for – the title track in particular – but also had a number of more mellow, nostalgic numbers which harkened back to their finer pop tunes of the past like “Sunny Afternoon.” Don’t Forget To Dance” , was one of those tracks and it made the top 30 in North America, but the standout of the record was “Come Dancing”. The lively and lovely homage to war-era dances at the Palais was written in honor or, and remembering Ray’s older sister Rene who did indeed love going out dancing on a Saturday night when Ray was young. Sadly Rene died of a heart attack, while out dancing on Ray’s 13th birthday. She’d given him a guitar as a birthday gift earlier in the day. Ray says of it, “I wanted to regain some of the warmth I thought we’d lost doing those arena tours.”

He succeeded. The single hit #6 in both the U.S. and Canada, their best showing in the latter since 1970’s “Lola” and in the States, it tied their best-ever showing on the singles chart. Remarkably, one person who wasn’t a fan of it was their label boss, Clive Davis who thought them unsuccessfully over releasing it as a single. He says he liked the song in its own right but felt it wasn’t a good choice for a single and wouldn’t fit radio formats. Allmusic were among many who disagreed with Clive, saying the album “Came to life on its quieter moments.” State of Confusion climbed to #12 in the U.S., a peak only one of their 20+ previous albums had matched, and won mostly great reviews for its witty, at times wistful lyrics and varied melodies.

The Kinks split up in 1997, but three years ago reported that Ray and Dave Davies, along with drummer Mick Avory, were working on a new record, however we’re still waiting in rather a “state of confusion” as to whether or not anything will come from that.

March 20 – Joplin Hit The Top…A Little Too Late

A lot of the music world figured out what they’d lost 50 years ago. It was on this day in 1971 that Janis Joplin hit #1 on the singles chart for the only time. And posthumously. The song was “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Joplin had risen to prominence rapidly after appearing with Big Brother and the Holding Company at Woodstock and other large festivals towards the end of the ’60s. Her laid-back Hippie demeanor off-stage contrasting with her dynamic stage presence and tiger-like soulful voice won her legions of fans…much more so than the band’s music did. So in 1970, she left them, assembled a new bunch of musicians (the Full Tilt Boogie Band) and set off across Canada on the Festival Express. After that she set to work on her first album without Big Brother, Pearl. Columbia Records, and their boss Clive Davis were very big on her. “I believed Janis could have a long, productive career,” he says of a musician who was among his closest friends at the time. They brought in producer Paul Rothchild, who’d won acclaim with the Doors, to produce.

While Janis participated in the writing of several tracks on Pearl, this one was written by Kris Kristofferson (with additional credit going to his label boss, Fred Foster.) The song about a hitchiking couple seemed to fit the times perfectly and with its name, could be sung as well by a woman as a man, with “Bobby” being rather gender-neutral. The real Bobby McGee, it turns out, was Barbara McKee, the secretary at Kristofferson’s record company. While Roger Miller had recorded it to some degree of popularity in 1969, once Janis touched it, it became her own. Her signature tune, as it would turn out. “She just loved it,” Davis says.

Unfortunately of course, Joplin would join the infamous “27 Club” of celebrities who died of unnatural circumstances at age 27, some four months before Pearl was ready for release. It hit #1 and went 4X platinum in the U.S., her best-seller, and by getting to #1 on the singles chart, “Me and Bobby McGee”, it became only the second song released posthumously to top the charts. Otis Redding had the unfortunate distinction of being first with “Dock of the Bay.”

While Janis died young, her music and especially this song, live on. And in the case of “Me and Bobby McGee’, probably better than the song it replaced at #1 – “One Bad Apple” by the Osmonds.

January 17 – Well At Least He Sang The Songs

Sometimes it’s good to take advice from the boss. Barry Manilow found that to be true on this day in 1976, when his single “I Write The Songs” hit #1 in the U.S. …even though he hated the song!

Manilow was at the time nearly 33 years old but was still a relative newcomer to the recording industry. He went to the Julliard School for Performing Arts and spent a good chunk of the ’60s writing commercial jingles. His first album had come out in 1973, on Bell Records, which didn’t seem to see his full potential. He’d moved over to Arista Records, and this song was from his first album recorded for them, Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again. Although he got to write four of the albums 11 songs and be a minor co-writer on four more, conflicts arose with Arista boss Clive Davis. Davis felt Manilow had the voice of a star, good talent on the piano…but didn’t have “it” as a songwriter. Manilow felt otherwise. thus he was already a bit perturbed at not getting to do all his own songs when Davis suggested this song to him.

“To say the absolute least,” Davis wrote in his autobiography, “his response was not positive…the suggestion truly offended him.” Manilow felt it would make him look like he was on a “monumental ego trip”, besides which, there was something quirky about singing he wrote the songs when he didn’t actually write the one he was singing!

“I Write the Songs” was written by a pretty talented writer, Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. He states that the “I” in it was supposed to be “God”, who imbues people with the “spirit of creativity.” The track was first recorded a year earlier by the Captain and Tennille, but remained a fairly unnoticed album track with them.

Not only did Manilow relent and record it, Davis put it out as the lead single of the album. The song became Manilow’s second #1 hit, a bit over a year after “Mandy”, and is to date among the 200 biggest-selling singles in the rock era, according to Billboard. It helped the album go double platinum. It got Johnston the Grammy for Song of the Year.

So, Barry didn’t write it, but he made it his own, and made fans from it. Not long after that, Frank Sinatra simply declared “he’s next!”… the next great American singer/crooner.

September 23 – A ‘Boss’ Birthday

“God help Bruce Springsteen when they decide he’s no longer God. They’ll turn on him and I hope he survives it.” – John Lennon

Well, Lennon knew a thing or two about how quickly reputations could be made and destroyed. Public opinion may have turned his way again, unfortunately he wasn’t alive to see it. Springsteen may never have been quite as revered as the Beatles were in the ’60s, but neither has he seen the masses turn against him like Lennon predicted. It got me thinking about today’s Birthday Boy though. Bruce Springsteen turns 71 today. Hopefully it will be a happy one for “the Boss.” I’m sure many fans out there will be digging out the old vinyl and reliving his “Glory Days.”

That Lennon quote caught my eye, so I figured why not look at Bruce through some other people’s eyes to celebrate him. For instance : “What’s in my I-pod? Well, certainly Bruce Springsteen” – potential First Lady Jill Biden.

Sting says “my friends are Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen. We’re singing about mortality, getting older. It’s an interesting time.” It’s been so long it now seems hard to remember when those two weren’t household names, or that they both began scoring radio hits around the same time a little over 40 years ago.

“My life changed because Bruce Springsteen got a mic in front of me,” says Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records, a label known primarily for un-Boss-like rap music.

“I like movies and radio, Bruce Springsteen and New Jersey. That’s what I like,” declares Brian Fallon of the Gaslight Anthem (one of the under-rated rock bands of the past decade we might add.)

“A lot of political music can be rather pedantic and corny, but when it’s done right like Bruce Springsteen or Jackson Browne, there’s nothing better,” declared Bonnie Raitt.

Speaking of Browne, he wrote in Rolling Stone ”in many ways, Bruce Springsteen is the embodiment of rock & roll. He’s got his feet planted on either side of that great divide between rebellion and redemption.”

“I would say from an all-around point of view, Bruce Springsteen is one of the two great poet lords of America. Bob Dylan (the other); the two of them.” one of ‘The Boss’s” first bosses, Clive Davis, president of Columbia Records when Bruce was starting out.

“Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen. These are soul guys. Bruce doesn’t sing like Otis Redding, but he sings with White soul. He’s singing and writing from the bottom of his gut.” – Robin Thicke.

And one last great quote: “the greatest challenge of adulthood is holding onto your idealism after you lose your innocence.” Yep, that one is from Bruce himself. Happily he seems to have done that.

July 30 – Davies Hit Danced Circles Around Davis

The Kinks proved their record label boss Clive Davis wrong this day in 1983, as “Come Dancing” hit #6 in Canada, a week after being top 10 in the States. As such it was their first top 10 single in the Great White North since “Lola” 13 years prior and their biggest hit in the U.S. since 1965!

Ray Davies had written the song more or less from memories of growing up in post-war England. He had six older sisters who liked to go out dancing on dates, but as was the norm back then, would “reward” their boys with little more than a platonic kiss. He has variously said it was about Gwen, a sister seven years his elder, or Rene, 18 years older than him. Rene was said to have bought him his first guitar and sadly, died on the dance floor (she had heart troubles) when he was still a teen.

Clive Davis famously admits to arguing with Davies about the single, thinking it a nice song but a terrible fit for rock radio. The label boss admits “MTV loved it” but thought it cost Arista album sales. It’s unlikely to be the case, since the album State of Confusion was the Kinks third-straight top 20 in the U.S., after not scoring one that popular in their first 15 years of existence. Davies on the other hand says the song is the “lyrics I’m most proud of” and to whit, he wrote a play based on the song in 2008.