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.”

August 12 – The Sultan Of Six-strings

Happy birthday to a man who took everyday experiences like dropping into a neighborhood bar or shopping at an electronics store and turned them into memorable rock anthems! Mark Knopfler turns 73 today.

Knopfler is more than just Dire Straits – but that’s a pretty good place to start the conversation. As the singer, guitarist and primary writer for the band he’s responsible for some of the most memorable hits of the late-’70s and ’80s like “Sultans of Swing”, “Industrial Disease”, “Twisting By the Pool”  and of course “Money For Nothing” from the Britain’s biggest-selling album of the ’80s, Brothers In Arms. But after he, his brother David and the rest of Dire Straits called it a day (for the most part) in 1988 he’s had a pretty good run as well. He’s put out eight solo albums, seven of which have hit the top 10 at home in his UK; done movie soundtracks for several popular films including The Princess Bride and Wag the Dog, and has helped out on numerous other artists’ records. That list includes the likes of John Fogerty, Tina Turner (co-producing her Break Every Rule album), Jeff Healey, Steely Dan and Bob Dylan, as well as country star Chet Atkins with whom he’s won a trio of Grammys. He has another in the rock category for “Money for Nothing” with his name band! It all adds up to being made a Member of the Order of the British Empire and being ranked as the 44th greatest guitarist of all-time by Rolling Stone in 2011. they call him an “intensely creative virtuoso” and note how he’s unusual in playing guitar without a pick (bound to give you a blister on your finger!) “Playing with your fingers has something to do with immediacy and soul,” he believes. Curiously, Knopfler is a southpaw but plays a normal, right-handed guitar. That is workin’!

Although possibly, it’s now retirement time for Mark. He toured in 2019 and suggested that would be his last one. But if so, he leaves with quite a legacy – not only has he won Brit Awards, he has Grammys in both Rock and Country fields as well as Juno (Canadian) and Edison (Dutch) Awards as well as a Lifetime Achievement one from the Ivor Novellos.

August 4 – Duo Exited On A High Note

Talk about going out in style. Simon & Garfunkel pulled off a rare feat with their swan song album, Bridge over Troubled Waters. It was the #1 LP this day two years running – 1970 and ’71 – in the UK, all part of an incredible 33 weeks the album would spend on top of the British charts between Feb. 1970 and Sep. 1971. Not surprisingly then it was the biggest-selling album of not only those two years but the whole decade in the UK, where it sold enough copies to go 10X platinum (putting it into the lofty heights generally reserved for the Beatles at that point.)

It did pretty well elsewhere too; it hit #1 in their U.S. for ten weeks and was the year’s biggest there, as well as Canada, Australia and several other countries and sold in the range of 20 million copies in total. No wonder. As journalist Bruno MacDonald put it, “like Dylan, (Paul) Simon wrote literate lyrics. But like Smokey Robinson, he wrote lovely songs that everyone…could sing.” The album featured the popular “Only Living Boy in New York” plus the hits “The Boxer”, “Cecilia”, “El Condor Pasa” and the powerful title track.

However, it also marked the rapid approach of the end for the duo whom were a personal fave of their record label’s boss, Clive Davis . Garfunkel isn’t credited with any writing on the album as Paul Simon wrote it while staying in New York as Art Garfunkel went off to film a movie in Mexico for months. After this album came out, Garfunkel went off to work on another film while Simon began getting stuff ready for his solo career which blossomed soon after. But as MacDonald put it, they “exited with more grace” than The Beatles. And a bunch of trophys. It ended up winning six Grammy Awards – Album of the Year, Best Engineered Album, Song of the Year , Best Contemporary song and Record of the Year (for the title track) and Best Vocal Arrangements. As successful as Paul Simon was on his own, he never came close to that kind of acclaim, although he did take home a pair of Grammys for both of Still Crazy After All these Years and Graceland.

Not surprisingly, no other album for the rest of the 20th Century could claim the #1 spot in Britain on days one year apart.

August 3 – People Began To Wonder How Much Better Stevie Could Get

He was, and remains, a wonder. The great Stevie Wonder put out his highly-regarded Innervisions album this day in 1973. Stevie was by that time an almost-household name and a ten year veteran of the music scene despite only being 23. It was his fifth studio album of the decade, and he’d added a couple of live ones as well. and that was on top of his extensive recording as a teen “wonder” in the ’60s!

The child protege of the ’60s had turned into a fully accomplished musician and this album continued to prove it. He wrote all the songs, co-produced it and played the vast majority of instruments on it, from piano to synthesizers (it was the first hit album to use an ARP brand synth), to tambourines and even drums! And what songs he wrote!

The album was about half and half between solid love songs and very socially-aware rants. As Rolling Stone put it, “Stevie Wonder may be blind but he reads the national landscape.” For every beautiful “Golden Lady” or “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” there was a scathing “Too High” or “Living for the City,” or “Mistra Know-it-all” a thinly veiled barb aimed at then-president Nixon.

The album did well for Wonder. The great singles “Higher Ground” and “Living for the City” each topped R&B charts, his eighth and ninth toppers there. Overall, they reached #4 and #8 respectively in the U.S. and both were in the Canadian top 20, while the third single “Don’t You Worry ’bout A Thing” made it three-straight top 20s in North America. “Living for the City” got to #15 in Britain, which had been lukewarm to Stevie to that point. the album itself hit #4 in the U.S. and was his first top 10 in the UK.

Critics liked it then, love it now. It won him his first Album of the Year Grammy (he’d win two more in the next three years) . The album seems to have grown in import though through the years, with Slant, Music Hound and allmusic each grading it a perfect 5-stars. Allmusic say of it “when Stevie applied his tremendous songwriting talents to the unsettled social morass that was the early-’70s, he produced one of the greatest, most important works (of the era).” Rolling Stone seem to agree, ranking it among the 30 greatest albums of all-time, saying he was “expressing color in irresistible funk”. VH1 ranked it among their greatest albums ever, noting in a 2001 summary that seems even more apt today, “Wonder seems to be warning the Black community to be aware of their own plight, strive for improvement.”

Innervisions came uncomfortably close to being Wonder’s swan song. Only three days after it was released, he was the passenger in a major car crash that left him in a coma for days and without a sense of smell for a long time. thankfully he recovered and amazingly, put out his next album less than a year later. Michael Sembello, who sometimes played guitar with Stevie said “he’d always had some awareness of the spiritual side of life. but after the accident (it) made him recognize God…he got really intense.” And by the grace of God, for awhile his music seemed to get even better with that intensity. A “wonder” in many senses.

July 8 – People Relish-ed Joan’s First Course

There was a little surge in interest in songs about God and spirituality in the midst of the otherwise grungy-’90s. A few days back we mentioned Dishwalla and their hit “Counting Blue Cars” that rubbed some people the wrong way. Today we wish a happy birthday to a singer who had a big hit around the same time that also dealt with God…and rubbed some people the wrong way. Joan Osborne turns 60 today.

Joan is widely considered a ’90s “one hit wonder”, and commercially that’s entirely true. But there’s more to her than “One of Us.” She was born near Louisville in a very Catholic household (hence the interest in God, perhaps) and at one time wanted to be a priest. When she found out Catholic rules against women in clergy and some of their other practices which clearly favored men, she left that church but she still considers herself “deeply spiritual” and drawing on both Christian and Buddhist influences.

She moved to the Big Apple to study film at NYU, but somehow found herself singing at a lot of bar open nights and coffee shops. Soon that overtook her interest in film-making and she devoted herself to music full-time, playing guitar and singing and before long opening for bands like Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler in New York.

In 1991 she started her own record company, Womanly Hips (which her two most recent albums have come out on) but she somehow fell in with the band The Hooters. They helped her get signed to Mercury Records for her debut album, 1995’s Relish and helped her along on making it. Rick Chertoff, a producer who was friends with that band and had produced Cyndi Lauper records produced her album and got Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian from it to play on it (as well as bassist Mark Egan from the Pat Metheny Band.) Bazilian was a particularly useful contact for her. He’d written the song “One of Us” to impress his girlfriend (who soon became his wife) and had recorded it but not released it. Osborne liked it and decided to do it herself

And that made all the difference for Joan and her career. The song described by allmusic as “ a simple, direct statement of faith, honest and unadorned, one framed in a near-perfect chorus and delectable Neil Young-ish guitar riff” (played by Bazilian on a vintage Les Paul guitar.) But needless to say, that didn’t impress some. Lyrics about what if God was “a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus” irked some no end, although unlike the Dishwalla song there seemed to at least be no threats on her life as a result!

What did result was her making a big splash on her arrival on the scene. The song hit #1 in Australia and Canada and #4 in the U.S., where it went gold. It almost single-handedly made Relish one of the season’s most in-demand tasty ear treats, going top 10 in most Western countries and selling triple-platinum at home. The follow-up single, “St. Theresa” made the UK top 40 but elsewhere, “One of Us” was all she wrote when it came to Osborne on radio or TV. That was enough though, one would think. It got her nominated for five Grammys including Best New Artist (which she lost to Hootie and the Blowfish) and Record of the Year (which she lost to Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.”)

It also helped her be a headliner for the 1997 and ’98 Lilith Fair tours. What it didn’t do was prompt her to go back to the studio; five years passed before she put out an album of new material, 2000’s well-reviewed Righteous Love, which had her cover of Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive” as a single. Sales however, were far from righteous and soon she’d be recording on her own label, or other equally small indie ones. Which seemed to suit her fine; in an appearance on Austin City Limits around that time she said she was “happy to have gotten out of the limelight.”

She’s kept busy since, recording eight more studio albums (including one of Bob Dylan covers) as well as dueting at times with the likes of Stevie Wonder and even Luciano Pavarotti. As well she’s produced records for the respected Gospel/Soul act The Holmes Brothers and toured with Motown’s great session players, The Funk Brothers. In 2015, she toured with Mavis Staples.

Currently she lives in Brooklyn with her partner and 17 year-old daughter, and just put out an album called Radio Waves, consisting of live performances she’s done on radio including KROQ in L.A. and a version of ‘One of Us” done on Dutch radio. That follows hot on the heels of the more political Trouble and Strife, an album Rolling Stone picked as one of “18 great albums you might have missed” in 2020. She’ll be touring late this summer and fall, largely in the Northeast and Colorado. One place she won’t show up at will apparently be Houston’s Woodlands Ampitheater. That venue allegedly banned her after she talked about and promoted Planned Parenthood at a show there. Which makes one wonder if God was “one of us” if he wouldn’t tell us all to calm down a little and be more tolerant of different beliefs?

May 30 – New Philosophy Put Winwood Back In Charts High Life

A Change Will Do You Good” is a Sheryl Crow tune from the ’90s but it might as well have been the personal anthem for Steve Winwood about a decade earlier. He managed to change his philosophy on life and music, as well as his home and partner all in a short span of the mid-’80s and the result was his biggest solo work, Back in the High Life. That, his fourth solo album, came out this day in 1986.

Winwood at the time was 38, but had already been a fixture in rock for over two decades, being a young prodigy in the band Spencer Davis Group, then in Traffic and Blind Faith. However, his pace had slowed down as a solo artist, owing to a couple of things. A nearly fatal case of peridonitis (a side effect of a burst appendix) in ’72 had made him re-evaluate his priorities and begin a healthier, non-”rock and roll” lifestyle and as Rolling Stone note, his being both “a loner and a perfectionist.” Indeed, on the prior album, Talking Back to the Night, he played all the instruments himself and recorded it at home.

For this one, the project originally began similarly but he had a change of heart. In more ways than one. His marriage had begun to fail and he’d met someone new (whom he’d soon marry), an American called Eugenia. So he decided on a change of venue, left for New York and recorded most of the album there, inviting in a number of talented helpers. While Steve still composed the album and played most of the keyboards (plus guitars and mandolins at times), he did involve a host of session musicians including Nile Rodgers on guitar, Joe Walsh (who co-wrote “Split Decision” with him) on slide guitar and Chaka Khan and James Taylor, among others, for backing vocals.

It was a conscious decision by Steve to change courses. He said back then “ a recent thing that I’ve realized (is) music being entertainment.” Before, he says he thought “I’m a musician, I’m not an entertainer” but he began to realize that fan appreciation mattered too. “I spent a lot of years doing stuff where people would say ‘that’s brilliant’ but nobody bought it. That’s also a bad situation… you want to be heard.”

Heard he was. Back in the High Life rocketed up the charts and became his biggest-seller. So ready for radio was it that seven out of the eight tracks were released as singles in one market or another. Pity “My Love’s Leavin’”, the only track on the album not available as a vinyl 45! The lead single, “Higher Love” , with Chaka Khan behind him vocally, became his first American #1 single and also topped Canadian charts, and is to date his only top 10 in Australia. Strangely it only made it to #13 in the UK, where he oddly seems considerably less popular than in North America, despite being British. Subsequent singles “The Finer Things”, “Freedom Overspill” and the title track all made it into the U.S. top 20 as well and the album got to #3 there. It was also a top 10 in Canada, the UK and most “western” markets, eventually selling around 6 million copies, half in the U.S. where it’s triple platinum.

If the public adored the new version of Steve, critics were varied in their opinions. Robert Christgau rated it only “C” and called him “a wunderkind with more talent than brains” who churned out “well-wrought banalities.” Rolling Stone, on the other hand called it his “first undeniably superb record” who finally “found the knack of shining without awkwardness.” Down the road, allmusic would rate it 4.5-stars, as good as any of his calling it his “pinnacle” of the ’80s, “melding a range of aesthetics in ways that invariably connect with the listener.”

Grammy voters figured the same. The album won three Grammys, including Best Engineered as well as Best Male Pop Performance for Steve and Best Record for “Higher Love.”

May 7 – The Hotel We Can Never Leave

The following year’s Grammy award winner for Record of the Year hit #1 this day in 1977. That was “Hotel California”, the title track of the Eagles massive hit album about “the dark underbelly of the American dream,” (according to Don Henley) which showed that radio will play a close-to-7-minute single if it’s good enough and from a known commodity.

The Eagles were certainly that; it marked the band’s fourth U.S. #1, following hot on the heels of “New Kid in Town”, the first single off the album. The last album of new material to chart a pair of #1’s was KC & the Sunshine Band’s self-titled album two years prior. Curiously, Leo Sayer duplicated the feat when his “When I Need You” bumped this one off the #1 spot, his second chart-topper from Endless Flight.

Don Felder remembered, “all of us kind of drove into L.A. at night. Nobody was from California, and if you drive into L.A. at night, you can just see this glow on the horizon…the images start running through your head of Hollywood and all the dreams.” Henley didn’t see it as brightly, saying that the album in general was “a concept album, but it’s not set in the Old West. It’s more an urban thing…using California as a microcosm for the whole United States…saying ‘we’ve been OK so far for 200 years, but we’re gonna have to change if we’re going to continue to be around.” The song itself might last 200 years. It hit #1 in Canada as well, earned them a platinum single at home and remains one of the ’70s most-played songs on radio and streaming devices. Guitarist magazine picked the guitar solo on it (by Don Felder and Joe Walsh in a sort of ‘dueling guitars’) as the best in rock history. And if you perhaps think you’re just a tiny bit tired of hearing it so frequently…well, the band might be too. They’ve played it over 1000 times in concert to date…and it’s the theme for their current concert tour!  Maybe they really can never leave the Hotel California!  

March 10 – You May Be Right… Joel Rocked A Little In 1980

Pink Floyd released one of rock’s biggest-ever albums to the American public this day in 1973. Another March 10th album release was this biggie, albeit not Dark Side.. big. And not as well-liked by Rolling Stone! Billy Joel released his seventh studio album, Glass Houses on this day in 1980.

It was his second-straight #1 in North America and ended up being 7X platinum in the U.S. largely on the strength of the four hit singles including “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (his first #1 single) and “You May Be Right”  With songs like “Sometimes A Fantasy” the album was a bit more rock than his previous works, and inspired a little by the “new wave” acts like Blondie and the Cars which he said “I like it but it’s not particularly new.”

The (slightly ) different sound was an obvious attempt by Joel to keep up with the times. He said when he was recording the record, at the tail-end of the ’70s, “everything was being recategorized, because they needed to define it against something.” He said the punk acts of the Big Apple and post-punk acts starting to appear reminded him of ’60s garage rock and he didn’t care much for the term “punk.” “In my neighborhood, you didn’t call yourself a punk,” he recalls, “other people called you a punk.” Still, he saw the change in sounds as a good thing. “the music business needed an enema, and punk rock was that enema,” he says. While hardly “punk” or “new wave”, the album did sound a bit more contemporary than some of his ’70s work and allmusic give it a strong 4.5 star rating noting it is the “closest Joel ever got to a pure rock album” and the Grammys concurred awarding Billy the “Best Rock Vocal- Male”. Rolling Stone however panned it, comparing Joel to an “obnoxious frat boy whose hoisted one too many” and calling “Close to the Borderline” on it a “godawful Eagles-go-punk state of the union message.”

Godawful or not – and we’d vote “not” – Glass Houses has sold past nine million copies and remains one of the most popular in Joel’s catalog. It was one of several of his recently remastered in a new vinyl edition marketed exclusively by Walmart.

March 8 – Mellow Then, Physical Later

She’d be the video vixen in legwarmers a few years later, but she was already hot on the charts on this day in 1975. Olivia Newton-John hit #1 on Billboard 47 years ago today, with a song initially inspired by just one word. When Australian John Farrar, her long-time friend and frequent producer had been in California not long before that, he noticed a lot of the musicians there used the word “mellow” incessantly.

From that, “Have You Never Been Mellow?” came about, and that became her second #1 hit in both the U.S. and Canada, a few months after “I Honestly Love You” had been her first. It helped her sixth album, also named Have You Never Been Mellow? hit #1 in the States – at that point her newly adopted home country – and earn her a gold record, as well as a platinum one in Canada. Her appeal was very wide at the time. Not only was it the top-selling single in the land, it was the #1 song on adult contemporary radio and #3 on country charts. It would win her a nomination for a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance, an award she’d won the previous year for her first #1 song.

She’d go on to have three more #1’s in the U.S., two of them written by Farrar – “You’re the One That I Want” and “Magic.”

Olivia is 73 now and has famously been battling cancer on and off for over a decade. In 2019 she auctioned off some of her memorabilia to raise funds for cancer research. It raised nearly $2.5 million. Among the hotly sought after items were the tight black pants she wore as “Sandy” in Grease. They fetched over $160 000, appropriately enough from the founder of Spanx.

February 27 – Five Years In, Eagles Still Felt Like The New Kids

The Eagles were flying high 45 years back…but were self-aware enough to know that they might not be forever. That was the approximate idea behind the lead single from their best-selling (studio) album, Hotel California. “New Kid In Town” became their third #1 single in the States this week in 1977.

It was the lead single from the epic album that had been released about two months earlier and which would go on to see an incredible 26 million copies in the U.S. alone. While Glenn Frey sang lead on it, it took him, Don Henley and J.D. Souther to collaborate and get it written. J.D. Souther thought of it rather as a gunslinger kind of reference – always a new gun coming to town trying to put the old champ out of the way for good. He also noted “as you approach 30, you begin to see that things don’t stay the same forever… there’s a lot of other guys that are coming up, they want their moment too… it’s as it should be.”

Henley concurred. He described it as being “about the fickle nature of love and romance. It’s also about the fleeting nature of fame, especially in the music business.”

Fame’s more fleeting for some than others, but “New Kid In Town” helped the Eagles hang onto theirs for some time longer. It became their third U.S. #1 (after “Best of My Love” and “One of These Nights”) and also topped Canadian charts. Meanwhile, it became their first top 10 hit in such far flung places as Norway and ended up winning them a Grammy for Best Vocal Arrangement, one of two the album would score them; the title track took home the prestigious Record of the Year. “New Kid In Town” became their first American gold single, and remains one of their most popular tunes to this day. Fitting, as like Rolling Stone says, it’s an “exquisite piece of south-of-the-border melancholia.”

An oddity about the recording. It featured both Randy Meisner and Don Felder on different guitars but renowned guitar-slinger Joe Walsh put his down and played electric piano on it instead.