January 16 – Swayze Followed In Travolta’s Cut A Rug Footsteps

A “one hit wonder” whose star blazed for far more than just one hit single. Patrick Swayze hit the American top 40 this day in 1988 with his only real hit song, “She’s Like the Wind.” For Swayze, it was a case of “third time’s the charm.”

Swayze was by then 35 years old and a reasonably established actor. He’d come to the public’s attention in 1983 in the film Outsiders, and had success in Youngbloods as well as being in several lesser-known movies to that point. He was trained in dance too, which no doubt helped him get the male lead in the small-budget retro film Dirty Dancing. Little was expected of it when it came out in the summer of ’87, but it became one of the year’s breakout hits and established Swayze as a major star. And as a singer.

He came about that honestly, he played a little guitar and sang and had been on Broadway in Grease. He likely thought “hey, if John Travolta can do it, why can’t I?” Not to mention that the late-’80s seemed a perfect time for crossover actor-singers. In the previous couple of years before “She’s Like the Wind”, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson and movie & TV star Bruce Willis had both put out records that had some success and they were trailing soap opera star Rick Springfield who’d had a string of pop hits through the decade. So it wasn’t a stretch for Swayze to do so too, especially when starring in a film about dancing. However, “She’s Like the Wind”, which he co-wrote went back far further.

While only beginning to make a name for himself he’d been in acting classes in L.A. and met Stacy Widelitz, a man who was more musician than actor. Widelitz, his girlfriend Wendy Fraser and Swayze became friends and would hang out “talk about music, dance, acting and we became good friends,” Stacy recalled. They came up with the song together circa 1983, with Swayze writing the lyrics and “two chords” which his friend built upon for the tune. Swayze pitched it to the producers of the film Grandview USA, which he was in. They passed. A couple of years later he tried to sell the makers of Youngbloods on it, they too declined. Finally in 1987, he pitched it to the makers of Dirty Dancing, they liked it. So they recorded it, with Widelitz on synthesizer, Fraser doing the female backing vocals and studio musicians including guitarist Laurence Juber – briefly a membr of Wings – filling in the rest.

It was added to the soundtrack which was a mix of existing oldies befitting the movie’s early-’60s setting, like “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes and Maurice William’s “Stay” and new songs recorded for it. Notable among those were the singles “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen and “The Time of My Life”, played over the film’s exuberant finale, by Bill Medley (of the Righteous Brothers) and Jennifer Warnes.

With the movie’s runaway success, the soundtrack followed. It went to #1 and stayed there for 18 weeks in the States, and eventually sold better than 30 million copies worldwide. Swazye’s single, the third off the album, was a major adult contemporary hit and got to #3 on the singles chart, and #4 in Canada and Ireland.

However, that was about it for Patrick the singing sensation. He did record a few songs for movies like Roadhouse and Next of Kin, but they drew little attention. He might not have minded much though; he was by then a major film star and would have blockbuster success in Ghost soon after as well as be named “sexiest man alive” by People in 1991.

Sadly however, he died of cancer in 2009.

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December 22 – Hazy? Perhaps. Winter? Most Definitely.

Welcome to winter! Today marks the first complete day of winter, and boy, for most of North America, it feels it too! So, that in mind, what better day to look at a “winter” song so nice, it was on the charts this day twice – once in 1966, and again in 1987. We’re talking about “A Hazy Shade of Winter.”

The slightly gloomy song was written by Paul Simon, at the time barely in his 20s, but looked ahead to a character entering the “winter” of their life, lamenting “time, time, time, see what’s become of me”. It was recorded by Simon & Garfunkel, and released as a standalone single late in ’66; in fact on this day that year it was enjoying its final week in the top 40. The song was later incorporated into their 1968 album Bookends, which essentially was a concept album tracing a man’s lifetime. It was, by their standards, a bit uptempo and “rock” …allmusic for instance described it as “one of the toughest and most rock-oriented” songs of the duo’s career. Radio DJ Pete Fornatale thought it , with Decembery lines like “leaves are brown, there’s a patch of snow on the ground” as the perfect counterpoint to the more optimistic winter tune “California Dreaming” which was a hit around the same time. Cashbox thought it was “a strong session bound for Biggiesburg!”

Fast forward some 20 years and the producers of the movie Less than Zero, a dour look at college aged kids sinking into the drug culture and despair were piecing together a soundtrack. They invited The Bangles to take part, and gave them some freedom to pick a song. The ladies chose to cover “A Hazy Shade of Winter” , a song they’d played regularly in their live shows for four years. With Rick Rubin producing the soundtrack, they got to make it a bit faster and more rock-oriented still than the original, although omitting one verse about drinking vodka and lime which the record label had worried about. Michael Steele of the band said “we sounded the most on this record (like) the way we actually sound live.” Making it a bit different for them, all four harmonized on much of the song, instead of having Susanna Hoffs sing lead.

Whether or not it hit “Biggiesburg”, it did well for Simon & Garfunkel, hitting #13 in the U.S., and #11 I Canada. Later it would make the British top 30. However, the public took to the Bangles take of it better. It was in its third week on the top 40 charts this day in ’87 and would make it to #2 at home, #3 in Canada and #11 in the UK despite the soundtrack album itself posting mediocre results.

The Bangles were happy with their recording, and with getting to meet Paul Simon…after their cover of it had been a hit. “We had loved Simon & Garfunkel, and naturally we also loved Paul as a solo artist” Hoffs explained, “we were really happy to see them perform and then go backstage for a meet and greet.” But they were a bit hesitant to mention the song, which they’d done better (commercially at least, though many would argue artistically too) than the writer. “I don’t think we talked about it very much,” she said, ”I remember he was very sweet.”Better than being cold like a hazy winter day.

November 29 – The Ode To The Golden Age Of The Silver Screen

Yesterday we talked about J.Geils Band who hit the charts this week in 1981; if you were wondering, at the time “Physical” by Olivia Newton John had the #1 spot in the U.S. but the Canadian chart-topper was something more unusual – the cinematic “Friends of Mr. Cairo” by Jon and Vangelis.

The duo were Jon Anderson, singer of Yes (although on leave from that band at the time) and composer, keyboardist Vangelis – Evangelos Papathanassiou – best known for his Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire soundtrack that same year. They’d met when Vangelis tried out, unsuccessfully, for Yes some seven years earlier.

The single was the title track to their second album together. The quirky song, edited down from a 12-minute piece on the album, pays homage to the film noirs of the ’30s and ’40s – “Mr. Cairo” was a character in The Maltese Falcon, appropriately enough. It features not only Anderson’s trademark high-pitched voice narrating but a number of his impersonations of old-time movie stars and the sound of an old movie projector running to complete the effect. Apparently, it came about coincidentally. Anderson said in a 2012 interview they “started every song spontaneously. when Vangelis played it, it sounded like an old-style movie” and so he started doing Douglas Fairbanks impressions for a laugh. They found it worked so he kept going with it! The song apparently inspired Michael Jackson to add the Vincent Price bits to “Thriller” a couple of years later and captivated Canuck ears. The single hit #1 there, and the album went platinum, but was only really a big hit elsewhere in Switzerland. In Britain, the title track was ignored but the song “I’ll Find My Way Home” – which allmusic single out as “breathtaking”- was a top 10 hit. Two years later, Anderson would find some American success with his return to Yes and their 90125 album.

November 17 – It Took A Quarter Century, But It Got To #1

Just as the new Brit band Inspiral Carpets made the American charts this day in 1990, the #1 song in their Britain was a throwback which went in the opposite direction – an old American hit. “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers was on top there 32 years back. The ’60s love song had a renewed popularity because of the movie Ghost in which it appeared during a pivotal scene.

The song was originally written as a theme for a 1955 movie, Unchained, about a lovelorn convict who thinks of breaking out of jail and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original song (it lost to “Love is a Many-splendored Thing”). The Righteous Brothers had originally released it in 1965, but as a b-side to the song “Hung on You.” Bobby Hatfield sang lead on it, apparently because he won a coin toss with Bill Medley who also wanted to sing it. Medley got to produce it though, which ended up irking Phil Spector. Spector produced their singles (including their first smash, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”) but couldn’t be bothered to work on album cuts or b-sides of singles. He was thus apparently quite irate that radio much preferred it to the a-side he produced! In ’65 it only got to #14 in Britain, although it hit #4 in the U.S.

The 1990 re-release also went to #1 in Australia. Jimmy Young and Al Hibbler both had #1 hits in the UK with “Unchained Melody” it in the ’50s (at one point in 1955 there were four different versions of it on the British chart simultaneously) and when Robson & Jerome did it again in 1995, it made it one of only two songs to ever hit the top of the pops by four different artists there! (Asterisk – the other song to do so is “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which was recorded by 4 different versions of Band-Aid.) As a pointer to how popular and enduring “Unchained Melody” is, it’s worth noting over 600 artists have recorded it so far, including Elvis Presley.

November 16 – R.E.M. Ended 20th Century In ‘Great’ Fashion

Although not quite as emphatically as say Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, R.E.M. were primarily an “album” band rather than a “singles” band. Although they had their share of hit singles – “Losing My Religion”, “The One I Love” etc – generally their albums did better on the charts and their legion of fans typically bought the LP or CD instead of just the singles. All that made this day in 1999 a bit unusual for them, when they released something close to a standalone single – “The Great Beyond.”

The Great Beyond” wasn’t absolutely a standalone; it was in fact the single off the Man on the Moon soundtrack, which the band produced with Pat McCarthy, who’d done their previous album, Up. As the title suggests, it was the movie soundtrack to the film about Andy Kaufman, the avant garde comic who’d loosely inspired the band’s 1992 hit “Man on the Moon.” Michael Stipe says of “The Great Beyond”, he was trying to “revisit a character that you’ve written a classic song about and try to one-up yourself. Bowie pulled it off for real “ (with “Ashes to Ashes” following-up “Space Oddity”). So the second R.E.M. song about Kaufman was “about attempting the impossible, which I think Andy Kaufman did with his entire career,” according to the singer. He noted many of the lyrics he wrote, about pushing elephants up stairs and so on, came from an old Laurel and Hardy gag since Kaufman adored that duo.

The album is credited to R.E.M., but it’s an unusual one. It contained the previous hit of theirs, as well as the ’70s Exile hit “Kiss You All Over”, plus the theme from Taxi, the TV show Kaufman was a part of, various sound bites from the movie and a number of instrumental, orchestral bits scored by the band (or seemingly Mike Mills, the bassist who performed parts of it with the Mike Mills Orchestra.)

The video, fitting for one about such an off-the-wall character, was an odd one with the band appearing to break the “fourth wall” and come out at the viewers… one of their more creative ones, but at a time when video was on the wane. Overall, the song did OK but wasn’t able to “one-up” the ’92 hit, except in the British Isles. There it rose to #3, technically their highest-charting single ever, and it topped Irish charts. In Canada it hit #16, while at home, the single missed the top 40 but did make the Alternative Rock charts up to #11. The song became a staple of their live shows thereafter, and Stipe suggests he likes their live versions of it better than the studio one.

Maybe somewhere in the great beyond, Kaufman is looking down or smiling… “if you believe.”

November 8 – People Thought Sultry Song Was Wicked Good

One of the sexiest songs with one of the sexiest videos came to widespread notice this day in 1990. “Wicked Game” launched Chris Isaak to stardom when it came out as a single 32 years back. A handful of people – his early fanbase – had been enjoying it for well over a year already, as it was on his Heart Shaped World album released early the year before. However, that album initially went almost unnoticed and might have stayed that way if not for movie-maker David Lynch.

Lynch was a fan of the California, retro-style guitarist and singer Isaak and had used some of his music in the Blue Velvet movie. He used an instrumental of this one on his ’90 action-romance Wild at Heart, with Nic Cage and Laura Dern. And thankfully for Chris, one Atlanta DJ was a fan of both him and Lynch. He recognized the tune and began spinning it on his radio station – don’t we all yearn for the days when radio DJs could do that! -and it became a regional hit. Reprise Records took note and decided they’d better jump on it and put it out as a single, and suddenly Chris Isaak was no longer anonymous.

The song single-handedly pushed the album back up the charts to #7 in the U.S. – his best to date – and quickly shot it to double-platinum status. The single itself was a #6 hit by sales (his only top 40), and #3 in Canada as well as a chart-topper in Belgium, but was popular enough across a range of music genres to win ASCAP’s award for the Most Performed Song (on radio) for the 1991 year. The video didn’t do badly either.

Initially there was a video for it using clips from the Lynch movie and Isaak playing guitar but the label quickly decided a great, hot song deserved a great hot video and shot a new one. They put Chris and model Helena Christensen on a beach in Hawaii to “cavort” and had famous photographer Herb Ritts make the video of it. The heat of it topped the heat coming off the nearby volcanoes and would eventually be named the Sexiest Video Ever by Rolling Stone who said “a man, a woman, a beach. But under the guidance of Ritts, that equation added up to the steamiest video of all-time.” MTV gave it three of their Video Awards in one of the last years when music videos still seemed relevant.

As for the song itself with the haunting guitar, Isaak said it was inspired by “what happens when you have a strong attraction for people that aren’t necessarily good for you”and he got the idea after a girl called him and wanted to drop on by. He says he had the song “pretty much finished” when she arrived at his door and “we didn’t do much guitar playing when she got there.” Allmusic describe the song as “wounded pop of the ’60s” made in the ’80s. Of course, the retro sound with a nod to early Elvis and Orbison became Isaak’s trademark and his video looks helped him launch a decent acting career, including a short-lived sitcom of his own. Among his first roles was in a David Lynch movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Isaak never quite matched the success of “Wicked Game” but has kept putting out records to this day and seems especially popular in Australia. There he had two more top 10 songs in the ’90s – “Somebody’s Crying” and “Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing” –  and his Best Of is triple platinum.

October 22 – When Paul Thought Writing Movies Was More Fun Than New Songs

Ambition is a necessary quality for an artist. Big ambitions often result in big, bold results…unless they are overshadowed by even bigger egos. This might well be the case in one of the ’80s oddest musical projects – Give My Regards To Broad Street. The album arrived this day in 1984.

Give My Regards To Broad Street was a huge multi-media vision of Paul McCartney. He wrote a screenplay, starred in it and made the soundtrack to boot. Which, one might think could’ve been great. Yet few would argue that it was anything but.

The film is a somewhat confusing to even read about thing with Paul, his wife Linda and even Ringo Starr all playing themselves. But he’s got to deliver some master tapes to the record company and they’re missing and we go through a “day” of Paul’s including various dreams. We won’t say what herbs might have inspired the dreams. As allmusic put it, it was a “disastrous 1984 film …a nearly impenetrable ‘farce’ involving stolen tapes, ghosts and funny moustaches.” The film flopped, losing money and scoring a rating of 21% at Rotten Tomatoes.

Still, there was the music…and it was Paul. It couldn’t be bad, right? Especially when he’s supplemented by a veritable All Star team of musicians including David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Dave Edmunds, several members of Toto, Eric Stewart of 10CC and Anne Dudley of Art of Noise, among others. Not to mention Ringo Starr. Well, actually it wasn’t bad so much as pointless to the ears of most fans. It was a collection of songs leaning heavily on older, existing ones from his catalog including Beatles gems like “Good Day Sunshine” and “Eleanor Rigby” and ones from his past glories like “Silly Love Songs”. But rather than use the originals, he re-recorded them all, trying to sound very close to the originals. As allmusic noted about that, “if he reinterpreted them, this would at least be interesting.” Ultimate Classic Rock point out that the “affable Ringo…refused to drum on any of the reworked Beatles songs.” Paul did create a few new songs for it; “No Values”, “Not Such a Bad Boy” , the moderately well-received, retro-sounding  “Goodnight Princess” which only showed up on the CD (the LP contained shorter versions of several songs plus lacked this one due to time limitations of vinyl) and “No More Lonely Nights”, the album’s single and to many, one redeeming point.

Rolling Stone, allmusic and Q are in agreement with their ratings of 2-stars for it, a rather across-the-board bad score. Ultimate Classic Rock decided it stalled McC’s career and suggested “to say it didn’t work is an insult to anything that’s ever worked.” For all that, “No More Lonely Nights” with Herbie Flowers taking over the bass from Paul himself and David Gilmour on guitar, was a fine song and to allmusic a “lovely mid-tempo tune” that saved the record from being an “unmitigated disaster.”

And the public agreed, the single getting to #2 in Britain, #6 in the States, and #11 in Canada, making it one of his last notable real “hits”. The album did go to #1 at home but made lacklustre appearances on North American charts – #21 in the U.S., and #23 in Canada. The UK was the only market where it went platinum, and it hastened his departure from Columbia Records whom he’d been with for a few years on this side of the ocean. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, George Martin never worked on a McCartney record again either.

October 14 – With Friends Like Ben…

Long before the plastic surgery, long before the rumors and innuendo, long before he was arguably the most popular entertainer in the world, Michael Jackson was a cute little kid with a good voice and big future. That Michael Jackson had his first solo #1 hit on this day in 1972, with “Ben” … a song about a rat with a case of bloodlust (which when you think of it might be as creepy as the whole Bubbles the chimp thing…)

Jackson had been the voice of four-straight #1 hits earlier in the decade with his brothers, the Jackson 5. But at just 14 with this one he became the third youngest performer ever to have a #1 on Billboard – only Stevie Wonder and Donny Osmond had bested that. Osmond’s name comes up in this story as well. He was the original choice to sing “Ben”, which was from a movie of the same name, but turned it down. He says “Michael and I would talk about this (and laugh)…I had a hit about a puppy and he had a hit about a rat!”

Ben was believe it or not, a sequel to another movie about a boy and his violent pet rats, Willard. Even more incredible, the movie was put out by Bing Crosby Productions.

When Jackson got the job doing the title track, the soundtrack record was handed off to Motown and they had Jackson do the entire album, including covers of several Motown hits like “My Girl” and the Stylistics “People Make the World go Round.”

Surprisingly, not everything the ‘Gloved one’ touched turned to gold… Ben, the album was a comparative flop. However, the sweet-sounding single was one of the year’s biggies, also topping the charts in Australia and being a top 10 in Canada and Britain. It was even nominated for an Academy Award for Song of the Year, losing out eventually to “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure.

Although songs have been written by scorned women about men who act like rats, one would imagine this was the only #1 song ever about a real rat…but Songfacts remind us Captain and Tennille would later score a top 10 with a song about a different rodent …”Muskrat Love.”

September 25 – Bobby Wonders Why This Was His One Hit

September 25 is designated “National One Hit Wonder Day” so in honor of that we look at one of the best examples of that from the 1980s. Don’t worry, this day shows your dreams can come true – but maybe also become your nightmare! Bobby McFerrin was at #1 on Billboard this day in 1988 with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The bumper-sticker philosophy knocked Guns’N’Roses out of the top spot and also went to the top in Canada. Quite a shift in gears there – from one of the few heavy metal #1s to a wacky, acapella one driven by whistling! He got the idea from a philosophy espoused by Indian spiritualist Meher Baba, who counted Pete Townshend among his followers. “It’s pretty neat philosophy in four words,” McFerrin says. One which won McFerrin Grammys for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Male. One would think this would be a wonderful thing, but McFerrin might have had regrets. He’s a pretty well-respected jazz pianist and singer, who’d won three-straight Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammys before (by now he’s collected 10 Grammys in total) and had worked on records for the likes of Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock and Chick Correa. But after this song, he has largely been written off as a novelty act – a rich one though, given the revenue from this gold single and its use in commercials and the Cocktail movie.

It wasn’t that movie’s only cheery contribution to the top of the charts. A few weeks later the Beach Boys had a remarkable comeback with their first #1 since the ’60s with “Kokomo” off the same soundtrack.

August 26 – Valli Hit One More Peak In His Career

If you were a musician in 1978, you’d have only one logical dream – to be friends with a “Gibb.” Because that year, the Bee Gees could do no wrong. Robin, Maurice and Barry (the Bee Gees) were white hot themselves, and younger brother Andy was quickly rivaling their success with his own rather sound-alike disco/pop. And as Frankie Valli found out, even being at arm’s length with them could rocket your career upwards. He had the #1 song in the U.S. this day 42 years back with “Grease.”

The title track of the popular John Travolta/Olivia Newton John song may seem unconnected to the Bee Gees. But not so fast…

The movie’s director, Robert Stigwood, wanted a new theme song. He utilized some of the songs which had been used in the ’50s-set stage show but added some new ones in and didn’t like the original live theater theme. So he did what any sensible movie maker back then working on a musical would do – he called the Bee Gees. Conveniently, they were the biggest stars on the RSO label he owned.

While he wanted their magic touch, he didn’t want their exact sound. He didn’t want people to get confused or lump the movie in with Saturday Night Fever. So he got Barry Gibb to write a title song, but didn’t get the band to perform it (although later on they did perform it in concert quite often.) So they turned to a performer who seemed to have an authentic voice for the movie’s era – Valli. Frankie had been a major star just after the time period Grease was set in, scoring four #1 singles (including work with the Four Seasons) by 1964. He’d then virtually disappeared for a decade before having a bit of a career resurgence with his solo hit “My Eyes Adored You” in 1974 and “December 1963” with his old band the following year. But the song still had the Bee Gees midas touch in more ways than one. Not only did Barry write it, he did add some backing vocals and got musicians working with Andy Gibb at the time, including Peter Frampton, play the music which was recorded in Miami between tracks for Andy’s album.

Stigwood was ecstatic right? Well, actually no. He didn’t like the song, thinking it far too modern sounding and disco for a movie about high schoolers in the ’50s. But he was sensible enough to leave it in. Good thing for him and Valli. The song followed “You’re the One That I Want” by John & Olivia to #1, and ended up being a #1 hit in Canada as well as the States. Eventually it would sell a remarkable seven million copies as a single and push the album into the realm of Saturday Night Fever for total sales – over 30 million. And due to the sad death of Olivia Newton John earlier this month, it’s actually popped back up in the top 10 list of sellers in several countries.

As for the Bee Gees, the “gee” could have stood for gold that year. By Labor Day, “Grease” was still on top and songs written by or performed by the Gibbs had spent 25 weeks of the year to date at #1.