May 18 – Turntable Talk 14 : Elton Was Worth A Few Weeks Allowance

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! Thanks once again to all the regular readers and welcome to any new ones. If you’re keeping count, this is our 14th instalment…if you’re wondering about past topics, I indexed the first dozen here. For any new readers, briefly, on Turntable Talk we have a number of guest columnists from other music sites, sounding off on one particular topic. This month, our topic is Feels Like The First Time. No, no, we’re not going X-rated here, we’re talking about a different kind of first – the first album our guests ever bought.

Today we wrap it up and I look back at …the first!

Thanks to all the guest writers for the great trips down memory lane! Interestingly, four mentioned Beatles-related records (themselves or solo works by Paul McCartney) among their very firsts. Not me, though I do think a Wings album made it into my first half dozen or so LPs.

I was lucky, I grew up in a house where there was often music playing. My parents both liked music and seemed to appreciate a range of styles. My Mom was more pop-oriented, liked the Beatles, Tom Jones I think – probably partly because he was Welsh like her, but probably partly because she was a woman with eyes and most women back then seemed to think Tom had “it”. My dad, when I was young, seemed to like older country music and often had that on in the car; he’d also soon get to appreciate some more traditional music like marching bands, anthemic pieces. He didn’t go in for much rock or pop, but he did like Seals & Crofts, and a few other acts of the ’70s. Then there was my older brother, old enough to like more of what would be “FM” rock – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Led Zep, some Alice Cooper to annoy my mom if nothing else. If I had a leaning back when I was really young, it would probably be for easy-listening pop songs I heard in the background, and would later find to be things done by artists like Classics IV (whom I still like listening to), Dionne Warwick, the Mamas & the Papas.

I was “stuck” with listening to whatever happened to be on in the house until, I think, Christmas 1971. Or sometime around then. I was given a little transistor radio of my own… one that was about the size of a thick celphone by today’s standards, with a tiny gnurled dial on one side to change the AM stations and a volume on it somewhere. It came with a single earbud, if I wanted to listen in privacy. That’s when everything changed.

I quickly found Chum radio in Toronto, at the time the most popular radio station in the land. It was a typical AM, top 40 (although they put out a weekly chart that was actually top 30 instead as seen in the example below) music. And I listened a lot. It was one of the very few perks of being sick a lot. I had a bit more time to listen when other kids would be out playing, or even at school some days. I seem to remember all the music that came from ’72 more clearly than many years and much more so than any year prior. “Summer Breeze” (one my dad liked), “American Pie”, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, “Brandy”, “Long Cool Woman” … so many great singles to enjoy and sing along with. I still enjoy them now, but sing along a whole lot less frequently!chumchart_InPixiosm

My parents gave me an allowance – probably 50 cents a week, maybe equivalent to two or three bucks now. Not much, but it made five or six year old me feel rich. I wasn’t a candy fan generally, and didn’t share my brother’s love of comic books, so for me, my money went to two things – baseball (infrequently hockey) cards and records. At the time, I didn’t have anything to play records on, but my brother had a portable record player he sometimes left out, and there was a good one in the living room that was part of my dad’s stereo. Somewhere along the way Dad taught me how to switch that on and turn it to the turntable. So many a trip to the mall with my mom were highlights to me, because I could go to the Eatons department store and go to their records section downstairs, and buy a 45. If I’d been saving for a few weeks, maybe two. I think the 7” singles were about 59 cents each then. I couldn’t tell you exactly what one I bought first but I do remember having and loving “Tightrope” by Leon Russell and “Nice To Be With you” by Jim Gold & the Gallery from that year. And “Rocketman”, by Elton John of course.

Elton became my first “favorite” musician and was everywhere on Canadian radio back then. Canucks loved him and there was lots of material to love – between November ’71 and October ’73, he put out four new albums, one of them a double-LP. That’s a fast clip! By 1974, there was another and, more significantly for me, I was given my first stereo of my own! It was an all-in-one that I loved; gaudy looking in a way that would now be considered retro-cool. White plastic, with rounded corners, silver knobs for volume, bass, treble (something on a kids’ stereo back then not found on half the mainstream units these days – go make sense out of that!), a light up orange display for sliding the channel tuner up and down. It had an 8-track player in it, and a turntable on top, with a smoked-glass looking cover. I wish I could find a photo of it, but even Google seems stumped by that search. Anyway, that went on my bedroom dresser and opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me, including making tapes (8-track) from the radio and playing my records whenever I wanted. By then I had a lot of singles, but sometime around then, end of ’74 or early ’75, I bought my very first LP … Elton John’s Greatest Hits.

Why not ? Ten of his singles all in one package, and I loved all of them. Well, nine of them off the bat, the tenth, “Border Song”, his very first single (which was a top 40 in Canada still) was new to me, but I quickly grew to like it a lot. Oddly, for some reason I can’t recall, as much as I loved his music, I think by then I only had “Rocketman” and “Bennie and the Jets” as 45s, so it was getting a lot of songs I absolutely loved all at once – “Crocodile Rock”, “Honky Cat”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Your Song”… My brother disapproved. He scorned Elton because he figured he was a gay man . My bro’ used a slightly less polite term. That was only rumored back then, but turns out he was right. But I didn’t care, I loved his music, and that was that. Neither did most Canadians or Americans care, it seemed. The album was #1 in Canada for 14 weeks in total and in the U.S. was the top-seller of 1975. It’s diamond-status in both and has sold well over 20 million copies, and would probably be above that had MCA not eventually discontinued it and put out more extensive greatest hits packages instead.

After that, I can’t remember my second album purchase, but it might have been going backwards to get his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or forward to his Captain Fantastic that came out later in ’75. Or a K-tel … who didn’t love those 20-song hit compilations back then?

Not too long after 1975, my enthusiasm for a lot of Elton’s new work diminished, but his Greatest Hits was a record I played and played and played for years. Making it a pretty good expenditure of a month or so’s worth of allowance , close to 50 years ago.

That’s our memories – I’d love to hear your firsts . Feel free to comment on them.


April 20 – Mercury Memorial A Cadillac Of Concerts

As website DW speculated, it would take some kind of special event for us to see “openly gay Elton John and allegedly homophobic Axl Rose hugged (and) David Bowie knelt down and prayed.” That type of event happened on this day in 1992 with the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in London.

Freddie as you doubtless know, was the charismatic, powerful-voiced leader of Queen, and had died of AIDS a few months earlier. The remaining trio of band members – John Deacon, Brian May and Roger Taylor – weren’t sure where they would be headed, or even if the band still existed, but they decided Freddie would’ve wanted one last big spectacle of a show. And they set out to give it.

May and Taylor announced the planned concert during the Brit Awards in February. The tickets for the 72 000 capacity show at Wembley Stadium sold out in three hours despite Queen being the only announced performers at the time. Around the same time, Mercury’s friends and estate established the Mercury Phoenix Trust, a charity to promote AIDS safety and awareness as well as medical research. Profits from the concert were given over to it.

A huge amount of work was needed to pull it off only two months after it was first conceptualized, but they did it. Not only did they get the stadium ready and sell it out, arrangements were made to televise it in over 70 countries. That Easter Monday, guitarist Brian May took to the stage and announced “Good evening Wembley, and the world! We are here tonight to celebrate the life and work and dreams of one Freddie Mercury! We’re gonna give him the biggest send-off in history!” And if that was hyperbole, it wasn’t by very much.

The four hour-plus concert was basically broken down into two parts, the first being sets by other artists, sometimes with members of Queen joining them, and the latter being basically a Queen concert but with guest singers taking Freddie’s place for the night. It kicked off with Metallica doing three hits off their then-hot self-titled album. They actually released the set as an EP for the diehard fans. Next up were Extreme who did a medley of about ten Queen songs before their own hit “More than Words.” Def Leppard followed, getting a little help from May; benefit concert superstar Bob Geldof did a number, as did one of the more curious acts to appear, Spinal Tap who played “The Majesty of Rock.” U2 weren’t there in person but did “Til The End of the World” via satellite from California while Guns’N’Roses set up for their set which included a cover of Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” Mango Groove a “township band” popular in their native South Africa played, Elizabeth Taylor read a speech and a video montage of Freddie was played, leading to part two.

Queen didn’t have their beloved friend and singer, but seemed in fine form as they kicked into “Tie Your Mother Down” with Slash helping out and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott singing, then did numbers like “Pinball Wizard” with the Who’s Roger Daltrey and “Las Palabras de Amor”, an obscure track off Hot Space with Italian singer Zucherro. James Hatfield of Metallica was back with Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, doing “Stone Cold Crazy” before Robert Plant took the stage. A voice fitting of doing Mercury’s operatic parts, but his set was underwhelming by most reports, as he struggled to remember the lyrics to “Innuendo” before redeeming himself on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Paul Young and Lisa Stansfield each did a number before one of the show’s highlights, David Bowie and Annie Lennox dueting for “Under Pressure.” Bowie stuck around to do “All the Young Dudes” with Ian Hunter and members of Def Leppard before saying the Lord’s Prayer to the surprise of some. That led to what Entertainment Weekly (and some others) called “the best performance of the evening,” George Michael taking the mic to do “These Are the Days of Our Lives” and “Somebody to Love.” A number of people at the time speculated Michael would take over Freddie’s spot permanently but as we would find through the years, the show was a one-time only appearance for him.

If George Michael was considered the highlight, a close second was Elton John – a close friend of Freddie’s – joining Queen. They kicked off with “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with Axl adding his voice to dubbed in backing vocals from Mercury. The show went on with “The Show Must Go On” and “We Will Rock You”, before Liza Minnelli finished that with “We Are The Champions.” The night was nothing if not an eclectic collection of musicians, but then again, Freddie Mercury was a rather eclectic sort of talent. The lights dimmed with a tape of Queen playing “God Save the Queen.”

The night was noteworthy on an addition level as it would mark John Deacon’s last full concert with the band. Unlike May and Taylor, he felt that the death of Freddie should also mean the death of Queen.

The concert was said to have raised about $35 million for the AIDS charity, though others have speculated that expenses ate up a lot of that and $8 million was more realistic. Either way, Brian May says the “emphasis was always made that this was not a fund-raising event. The accent was on awareness.” And sending one of rock’s great front men out in style. On that they succeeded.

The concert has been released at various times both on VHS and DVD, although some parts (typically including the Mango Groove and Robert Plant’s set) usually aren’t included. Queen are still going with Adam Lambert being the current singer.

February 24 – A Song About A King, An Honor From The Queen

A red-letter day on Elton John‘s calendar. Or, make that “Sir” Elton John, because as of this day in 1998, that’s what he officially is. And it also marks the anniversary of one of his biggest, and best, hits coming out. “Philadelphia Freedom” was released this day in 1975.

We’ve looked at that song here before, but to recap, it was a standalone single he released between the Caribou and Captain Fantastic… albums and was a tribute to his friend Billie Jean King. As well as to the sounds of Philadelphia, which Elton loved – bands like the O’Jays and Spinners were very hot at the time. Billie Jean was a tennis star who’d become one of the premier names in a new team tennis league, and her team, the Philadelphia Freedoms. Elton wanted something to celebrate her, but Bernie Taupin had difficulty putting together lyrics about tennis, so he made it a bit more wide-ranging, a sort of love song to her as well as to the city and the American concept of freedom and liberty in general. The song went on to be one of his biggest, and most enduring, topping North American charts and being one of a remarkable 10 platinum-selling singles he’d release in the States during that decade alone (the Bee Gees, the kings of disco, had four for comparison’s sake.)

Jumping forward a little over two decades, we come to his being knighted by the Queen. Being made a knight is an honorary thing in Britain, although Famous Daily note “knighthood does not mandate royal duties or responsibilities.” So, despite what Monty Python skits might suggest, if attacked, being a knight doesn’t mean you have to don armor, pick up a sword and say “ni” repeatedly. Rather, it’s just a show of respect from the nation which allows you to be referred to officially as “Sir”, or “Dame” if you happen to be female.

Elton received the honor for “outstanding service to music and charitable services.” Elton had long been very involved in various AIDS charities, among the most prominent and earliest celebrities to do so. He wasn’t the lone rock star to be given the honor, in fact it’s not all that rare. Paul McCartney had been dubbed “Sir Paul” the year before, and Cliff Richard before that. Even Mick Jagger would make the grade, in 2003.

Being knighted requires kneeling down in front of the monarch, who typically touches a sword to your shoulder and gives you a medal. Perhaps disappointing some of his fans, he wore a conservative dark jacket and tie rather than a chicken suit or flamboyant head dress. It wasn’t the first time he’d met Queen Elizabeth mind you; his being friends with Lady Di – her death the previous year and his charity single “Candle in the Wind ’97” in her memory might have dictated the timing of his award – had him moving in similar circles to her at times. In fact, he met her as far back as 1981, at a royal birthday party where Princess Anne asked him to dance despite the fact “the (music) was turned down about as low as you could get without switching it off”. He said he “ended up just shuffling awkwardly from foot to foot, trying to make as little noise as I could so I didn’t drown out the music.” Was that what was going through his mind as he took his place in front of Her Majesty?

Turns out no. He says he was thinking of Groucho Marx! That was because he was erroneously introduced to the queen as “Sir John Elton”…and he’d had a signed Marx Brothers poster which had also been dedicated to “John Elton”.

February 3 – Reptile Record Scaled New Heights For Elton

This is the “Day the Music Died”, the anniversary of the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens. Ironically then, it was also the day that a song essentially about ’50s music topped the chart in 1973. “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John hit #1 in the U.S. 50 years ago today.

Elton’s career had certainly been skyrocketing for the previous couple of years and he’d had a massive hit the year before with “Rocket Man”, which got into the top 10 almost everywhere. But this throwback rocker was his first #1 single. He’d have five more in the ’70s alone in the States. Another first for it, it was the first #1 hit on the MCA Records label. That gave them a pretty good batting average at the time, since it was the very first record released on “MCA”, after the company dissolved its various brands like Decca and merged them all into the one MCA. The Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, presumably was the first LP issued on MCA, with it following the single by a couple of weeks, and also going straight to #1.

Like almost all Elton’s songs of that era, Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics while EJ himself came up with the music. His regular, top-flight band backed him on it, guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, while Elton played piano and the prominent Farfisa organ on it. Elton also did all the vocals, high-pitched falsetto backing ones included. Unlike most of his songs, this one was deliberately retro-feeling and “derivative.” To which he’s replied “of course it’s derivative!…I wanted it to be about all the things I grew up with.” Those included songs like “At the Hop”, “Little Darlin’” and “See You Later Alligator”, which likely inspired his choice of animal in the title. It also was a bit of a nod to “Eagle Rock”, an Australian hit by a band called Daddy Cool that both he and Taupin liked. Despite its incredibly chirpy, upbeat sound, Songfacts picked up on the fact that it was a “really catchy little song with very sad lyrics.” After all, in it Elton’s looking backwards pining for days of sockhops, old Chevys and his girl Susie that “went and left me for another guy.”

Happy or sad, the song caught on in a big way. It spent three weeks at #1 in the U.S., and four weeks to the north in Canada. It also went to the top in New Zealand and made the top 5 in his homeland and Australia. The same week it went to #1 it was certified gold in the U.S., and soon it was platinum, one of an impressive 14 singles of his to reach that summit.

For all that, you might think he’d love the tune. Turns out it’s not the case. Taupin says it was “something fun at the time” but “not something I would listen to” now. And Elton says he doesn’t like it and can’t stand playing it anymore, but will perform it on his lengthy current “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” tour because “fans enjoy it.” He sums it up as “a huge hit record (that) in the long run became a negative for me.” Fans might disagree.

If you want to see a Crocodile Rock, turns out you can… if you want to go to tropical Asia. There’s a large formation in the Philippines named the Crocodile Rock, because, well, it’s a rock that looks like a big croc!

December 8 – Ironically, Record Would Have Allowed Elton To Pave Driveway In Gold

For a time that should be so festive, a lot of music and music news from this time of year has been downbeat, or reflected the theme of “the end of the innocence.” From the Altamont concert 53 years back to the Eagles superb album Hotel California, which really first seemed to bring up the concept that Don Henley would use as a title years later (“The End of the Innocence”) to, of course the senseless killing of John Lennon 42 years ago today. Yet another tie to that theme, Elton John‘s great single which peaked at #2 in the U.S. this day in 1973“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

It was the theme song off his rather-epic double album released that fall, and the second single released from it. Elton doesn’t specifically make mention of the song in his biography, Me, but does say that recording the album was “torturous”, with a botched go of it in Jamaica resulting in lots of work being scrubbed and relocating to the Chateaux d’ Herouville in France, where he’d done Honky Chateau previously. He said the album “took off in a way none of us expected…it kept selling and selling and selling…songs about sadness and disillusion.” Sell it did, to the tune of some 30 million copies to date, in no small part due to the title track.

Elton wrote the great piano melody of the song while Bernie Taupin penned the lyrics with some input from the singer. Elton was already growing weary of the star lifestyle and was perhaps yearning for a simpler life or time. Taupin was a huge fan of the movie Wizard of Oz and of course therefore likened it to Dorothy on her trip down the Yellow Brick Road. At first strange and fun and exciting, full of wonderful new characters but then wearying and frightening, leaving her just wanting to go back to Kansas and her old routine life. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

With one of the best soft-rock melodies of the decade and words reflecting one of literature – and life’s – great themes, it’s little surprise the song resonated then and still. While it was blocked from the top of Billboard by songs by The Carpenters and Charlie Rich, it went to #1 in New Zealand and Canada, where it was his third chart-topper of that year alone. It’s remained one of his most requested songs on radio and in his concerts and is on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time. And of course, one thinks it’s special to Elton too. He named his lengthy farewell tour (he’s currently midway through) the “Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour.”

How good, and popular is the song? Ben and Jerry’s put out an ice cream for it at one time named “Goodbye Yellow Brickle Road”, with profits going to Elton’s AIDS Foundation. A song with an ice cream – now that’s a hit!

November 18 – Captain Fantastic Saluted Sgt. Pepper

One good turn deserves another. So it was fitting that two of Britain’s biggest icons would help one another out. The biggest Brit act of the ’60s were The Beatles and the biggest of the ’70s, Elton John. As it worked out, Elton’s rein on the charts really took off right about when The Beatles broke up. We don’t know if Elton was friends with Paul, George or Ringo but we do know he and John Lennon struck up quite a friendship.

In 1974, Elton helped John out with the song “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” which became John’s first American #1 single. So Lennon decided to return the favor, double-fold. He visited Elton that summer at the Caribou Ranch in Colorado and worked on Elton’s version of the Beatles’ favorite, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Lennon played guitar and sang the backing vocals on it and then did the same on the song “One Day at a Time” an album cut off his Walls and Bridges album. While neither was used on the album Elton was cutting at the time, Caribou, they were released as a 7” single on this day 45 years back. The timing was perfect for Elton as his Greatest Hits was newly released and dominating sales charts but it lacked any new material that would have kept Elton front and center on the radio over the Christmas season.

Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” did just that. It quickly got to #1 in the U.S. and Canada and #3 in Australia. In the States, it was his third chart-topping single; in Canada where it spent four weeks on top, it became his sixth #1.

This of course bested The Beatles version in at least as much as the Fab Four original wasn’t released as a single, although it was an immensely popular album track off Sgt. Pepper… While credited to Lennon and McCartney as writers, history suggests that John had a lot more to do with writing it than Paul did. And while speculation runs rampant to this day about the song being a hidden ode to acid – note the initials, L.S.D. in the title – John always denied it. He says he got the idea from a picture young Julian Lennon drew for him with a flying girl, and when he asked his son what it was the reply was the song title. Lennon says he filled out the lyrics by drawing on Alice In Wonderland . Now, where Lewis Carroll got the inspiration for the shrinking girl, smoking caterpillar, top-hatted rabbit and so on is an entirely different story!

It wasn’t the only tie between the two superstars that year. Elton had apparently liked “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” so much he said to Lennon that it was a sure-fire #1 song. Lennon doubted it and bet Elton about it. The song was, so Lennon lost the bet… but the fans won. As “payment” Lennon appeared during an Elton John concert in New York City that fall and the pair played three songs together: “Whatever Gets You Through the Night”, this one, and “I Saw Her Standing There.” Sadly, it was the last concert appearance for Lennon. While not a hit in its own right, the three songs on the concert were made available as part of both Elton and Lennon compilations later on in their careers.

August 31 – The Candle Went Out In Paris

A sad news event led to a smash record a quarter-century ago . On this day in 1997, the world lost a legend in the early morning hours. Lady Di was killed in a car crash in France, at age 36. Whether it was a simple case of drunk driving, harassment from paparazzi or a murder planned by the Royal Family remains a great topic of debate, but what isn’t debatable is her legacy.

As for us, it resonated because unlike other Royals at the time, Diana was a confirmed fan of pop/rock music…a decided rarity among Royal family members. As such it’s no surprise that years later a concert in her memory would have Duran Duran (reportedly her favorites), Elton John, Bryan Ferry, Fergie and others perform nor that Elton John would attend her funeral. There he played a reworked version of his classic “Candle in the Wind”, originally written about Marilyn Monroe and appearing on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. It had been released as a single in Britain in 1974, getting to #11 there. But shortly after Di’s death, the BBC began playing it again in tribute, and Richard Branson called Elton to ask if he could change the lyrics and play it at the funeral. John called Diana “ a very dear friend for years” and wanted to, but given the time frame knew it was a “tough gig” to come up with meaningful new lyrics. He asked Bernie Taupin, who’d written the original words and Taupin faxed over the new set the following day. Elton played it at the televised funeral, “on autopilot” and panicking “what if I sang the wrong lyrics?” He got it right, was rushed to a studio, played and sang it twice, then left leaving Beatles-producer George Martin to dub in strings and other enhancements later.

The new lyrics for Diana touched a nation, and when it was released as a single (with money – in the range of 37 million pounds or $45M – going to her favorite charities) it was a smash. “Candle in the Wind ’97” was a #1 hit almost everywhere. It topped U.S. charts for 14 weeks, was among the top 20 selling singles for over two years in Canada and won Elton a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal. When all was said and done, it had sold 33 million copies, the most for any Rock Era single but John’s never performed it with the Di-lyrics since.

July 26 – The Turntable Talk, Round 5 : Cover Me

Welcome back to Turntable Talk! By now, if you’re a regular reader here – and if you are, thank you, I appreciate your time here – you know how this runs. We’ve invited several interesting and talented music writers to sound off on the same topic. In the past we’ve looked at topics like why the Beatles are still relevant, whether MTV and the video sensation helped or harmed music and great debut records which took them by surprise. This time around, it’s “Cover Me”. Much of what we hear and love is songs which aren’t original to the artists we hear. So we’re asking what makes a great cover song? Are there any that stand out as being very good, or even better than the original? (I add that we’re restricting this to cover songs in which the original was fairly popular or well-known. Thus ones which are cover songs but where the original was obscure, like perhaps The Clique’s “Superman,” made a hit by R.E.M., wouldn’t be counted.)

Leading off today, we have Christian from Christian’s Music Musings. There he regularly writes about new music which might have escaped your attention, concerts attended, and other cool music topics. Here’s what he’s got to say on cover songs:

When Dave recently reached out to introduce the new topic for this round of “Turntable Talk,” I didn’t hesitate one minute to participate again. Thanks, Dave, for having me back and your continued efforts to host this fun series!

When it comes to music, I think it’s fair to say we generally like to focus most of our attention on original tracks. That’s certainly the case for me. I always like to explore new songs, especially if they are written by an artist or a band I dig. But a good cover can also get my attention.

What’s a good cover? I think there’s no standard definition here. However, what it doesn’t mean, at least in my opinion, is that a cover has to be a faithful rendition of the original. In fact, one could argue what’s the point of covering a song when it exactly sounds like the original. As such, I tend to find it more intriguing when an artist or a band take some liberties and put their own spin on a song. In this case I prefer to use the term remake rather than cover.

There are some excellent remakes. My all-time favorite is Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Two other terrific remakes that come to mind are “Love Hurts” by Nazareth andProud Mary by Ike & Tina Turner. Not only did Cocker, Nazareth and Ike & Tina Turner make the respective songs their own, but they took them to the next level. I like all three renditions better than the originals!

In some cases, the original tunes are so great that tampering doesn’t make much sense. Two good examples I thought of are the covers of If I Needed Someone and “Hard to Handle by Roger McGuinn and The Black Crowes, respectively.

Yet another rendition I think is absolutely killer is Elton John’s version of The Who’sPinball Wizard.” To me, this falls somewhere in-between a straight cover and a remake. In any case, John did what I always wished The Who should have done – make this fantastic song longer instead of fading it out in a seemingly arbitrary fashion!

Finally, this brings me to my “bold cover” I’d like to select for this post. I deliberately wanted to go with a tune that looked like an unlikely pick by any of the other participants. In fact, it’s not even a remake of a rock tune but a jazz standard: Al Jarreau’s amazing rendition of Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve heard it last or if you haven’t listened to it at all, here’s the original. Composed by saxophonist Paul Desmond, the track was first released by the Dave Brubeck Quartet in December 1959 on their album Time Out. This was one of the first jazz tunes I ever heard many moons ago. Even though I wasn’t into jazz at the time, I’ve always loved it!

And here’s where Al Jarreau took the tune on his December 1977 live album Look to the Rainbow: Live In Europe. When I heard his rendition for the first time, I was blown away. How Jarreau used his voice here as an instrument is just super cool. In fact, this type of rendition is called scat singing, which per Wikipedia is “vocal improvisation with wordless vocables, nonsense syllables or without words at all.”

Songfacts notesTake Five is one of the rare jazz tunes that became a hit. In the U.S., it peaked at no. 25 on the pop chart in October 1961. Elsewhere it did even better, especially in the UK (no. 6), Australia (no. 7), New Zealand (no. 8) and The Netherlands (no. 8). Take Five has also been used in movies, including Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Pleasantville (1998) and Constantine (2005). And it’s one of the most compelling remakes.

July 15 – Elton Began His Radio Reign 50 Years Ago

Maybe this was the day Elton John became a superstar 50 years ago. Because it was on this day in 1972, Honky Chateau, his sixth album hit #1 in the U.S. It was his first, but most definitely not his last chart-topper in the huge market where he first really made a name for himself.

Mind you, Elton was already well-known and a star on the rise by then. The previous year, his Madman Across the Water hit the American top 10 and delivered the now-classic “Tiny Dancer”; that came months after his first major hit song, “Your Song.” But with Honky Chateau, and its singles “Rocketman” and “Honky Cat”, his popularity was taken to the next level.

To get to #1, it had to dethrone the Rolling Stones, knocking their Exile on Main Street from the top spot. It would spend five weeks – most of that summer – as the top-seller in the land before Chicago finally knocked it out of #1. But he wouldn’t be out of the top spot for long. In fact Honky Chateau was the first of six-straight albums he put out to go to #1 in the U.S. It was followed by Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player , Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Caribou, his Greatest Hits package, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in fact was the top album of all of 1974; Greatest Hits #1 for 1975. In fact, by the end of 1975, he’d spent a remarkable 39 weeks at #1. In that time span, he put out 14 hit singles, plus “Candle in the Wind” which of course later became a smash hit in the ’90s.

How does that compare to other all-time greats? Well, it doesn’t eclipse the records of the Beatles. They put together a string of nine-straight #1 albums, from Beatles 65 through “the White Album”; the streak only ended with the Yellow Submarine soundtrack which got stalled at #2. But compared to his contemporaries, Elton was king of the hill. For instance, the Eagles, perhaps the next-biggest act of the ’70s, only had four #1s total, including their Greatest Hits. Later on, the “King of Pop”, Michael Jackson took his Thriller to #1 (his first) as well as his next four, upto and including 2001’s Invincible. Neither Bruce Springsteen, nor Madonna equaled it either.

All good things must come to an end though, and for Elton it was his late-1976 Blue Moves, an album generally regarded as only “so-so”. It topped out at #3 and it would be 18 years until he had another #1, that being the Lion King soundtrack.

June 6 – Empty Sky Didn’t Exactly Empty Record Racks

From humble beginnings, we recall the obscure start for someone who’d soon be ranked as a superstar – Elton John. The pianist formerly known as Reggie Dwight released Empty Sky, his first album on this day in 1969 – to overwhelming disinterest!

Things would change considerably with his next 29 albums (and 7 soundtracks). Empty Sky was released both in mono and stereo and had Tony Murray from the Troggs playing bass but had little to distinguish it. Rather like the cover, it was only a sketchy impression of the man who’d go on to be arguably the biggest hit-maker of the entire decade following. The highlight was “Skyline Pigeon” a song Elton plays periodically in his concerts to this day and still refers to as the album’s one real redeeming feature. The album was noteworthy both in being the first for Elton and the beginning of his amazing work with lyricist Bernie Taupin, but not so much the actual product. Elton himself may have forgotten tracks like “Lady What’s Tomorrow?” or “Gulliver/It’s Hay Chewed,” let alone his fans.

As Ultimate Clasic Rock say, it’s “A great example of a debut album that only hints at the brilliance to come… it’s not a bad record” but, neither is it very memorable. Allmusic would give it just 2-stars, worst among his first 13 albums (it would be tied by 1978’s A Single Man). They said of it “there are no hidden gems on the record,” although they note it did have “ambitious arrangements and lyrics” framed by a “vaguely psychedelic” sound.  Elton says of the album, “I remember when we finished work on the title track, it just floored me! I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard!” Few shared his enthusiasm… Rolling Stone would later go on to list it as one of “20 Terrible Debut Albums by Great Artists” (he was in good company, the list included Billy Joel and Genesis as well.)

The album would eventually become a top 30 hit in North America, but not until it was re-released in 1975 at the peak of his popularity. But even if it was a flop, it got Elton onto the musical map, and pointed him in the right direction. Only a year later he was out with his self-titled album that had his first worldwide hit, “Your Song” as well as near-classics like “Bad Side of the Moon.”