September 5 – The ‘Other’ Famous Scottish Stewart Storyteller

Maybe we’ll hear a song on the radio by this guy today. After all, it’s the day of the year of the cat…happy birthday Al Stewart! The literate Scottish folkie turns 77 today.

Last week we mentioned how there were two fine bands – the Proclaimers and Jesus & Mary Chain – that were built around a pair of Scottish brothers with the name “Reid.” Well, turns out there were also two highly successful Scottish singer/songwriters named “Stewart” who came into their own in the ’70s – Rod and Al. Rod sold more records and likely had more women swooning over him, but Stewart may have been the one who won critic’s hearts. He’s put out 19 studio albums from 1967 through 2008 but is best known for the album and single “Year of the Cat.” That album and its follow-up, Time Passages, both went platinum in the U.S. and gave him top 10 hits in the States and Canada with the title tracks. Stewart developed his musical chops as part of the London folk scene of the late-’60s along with Van Morrison and Cat Stevens, Andy Summers (who was in the Police years later) as well as briefly being Paul Simon’s roommate when the New Yorker moved to England. Along the way he played the first Glastonbury Festival, and met Alan Parsons, who produced a trio of his records including the two smash hit ones. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, when he switched producers in ’80 for 24 Carrots, sales dropped significantly.

Stewart’s singles seldom sound like conventional pop hits. He’s said “I don’t like repetition” when it comes to music and while others are singing about love and old Chevys, Stewart has written songs about things like travel (his two best known songs, “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” both refer to travel and being in exotic places) World War I battles, the Spanish Basque separation movement, Lord Mountbatten, Kurt Vonnegut novels and the French Revolution. As he puts it, “making a leap forward often entails taking a step backward.”

77 or not, he’s currently on the road, playing shows in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois later this month and in Britain in October.

August 13 – Fans Thought Donovan Was Super, Man

Psychedelia met folk and the world met the “new Dylan.” Donovan Leitch’s “Sunshine Superman” hit the U.S, top 40 this day in 1966 ; his first significant hit in North America.

The 20 year-old Scot had already scored a trio of top 10 hits in the UK the previous year and had just signed to Epic Records, the first artist signed by then-young Clive Davis (who recalls Donovan being “like his music – gentle, smart and engaging”). Although many compared him to Bob Dylan, Donovan – who went by just his first name – had a voice of his own and blended musical genres in a way highly-appropriate for a year when #1 songs ranged from Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night” to Motown to “96 Tears”. This record had some star power making people feel good – John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page were studio musicians on it! Little wonder then that later Donovan referred to it as “my masterwork” and admitted he was worried about The Beatles hearing it because he thought Paul McCartney would plagiarize it. He may have been close on that; The Beatles were fans and showed the record on a turntable in a video they made for “A Day in the Life.” Like many songs in the psychedelic ’60s, it was one with multiple interpretations. While on one hand it was a simple love song he wrote for his new girlfriend at the time and an expression of joy at a nice day with her, on the other there was a counter-culture aspect as well. “Sunshine is a nickname for acid,” he admitted, “and the superman is the person capable of entering the higher state because it’s not easy to go into the fourth dimension.”

Probably not Honda had in mind when they used it in a car ad years later! The song would end up being Donovan’s only #1 hit in the U.S. (it topped out at #2 in the UK, Canada and other countries) although he came ever-so-close months later with the #2 hit “Mellow Yellow.”

June 22 – ‘Blue’ Mood Reverberated With Fans

Why feel “blue” all alone while you can share it with millions of others and, if you’re talented, be acclaimed as one of the best singer/songwriters of all-time. And Joni Mitchell is talented. Her much acclaimed fourth album, Blue, came out this day in 1971.

Canadian by birth, but happily residing in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon at the time, Joni liked men…but wasn’t great at relationships, it might seem. That’s the basic background to Blue, a record Pitchfork calls “possibly the most gutting breakup record ever.” While she was preparing it, she’d just broken up with Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash), so she decided to take a break and sightsee across Europe for a little. While there she met Cary Raditz, a hot-tempered Greek variously described as a hippie and a cook. She wrote “Carey” , the album’s hit, for him, but soon tired of him, scorning him as a “red red rogue” in “California.” “He seemed fierce,” he’d later recall. “He was a bit of a scoundrel.” Raditz for his part said “I liked Joni a lot and didn’t like losing her company. But on the road you already know the friendships you develop will be short-lived.” She soon returned to California, hooked up with James Taylor (one of the few musicians to help out on this self-produced record; Joni even learned to play the dulcimer to add a bit of that to “Carey”) while recording it.

The result was a mainly acoustic, ten-song folk record that can’t be described as anything but “open” or “honest.” Mitchell said “there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals…I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world.”

The quiet and revealing sounds won her a whole batch of new fans. Songs like “Little Green”, “My Old Man” and the pair of singles, “Carey” and “California” became fan favorites and she discovered fans in an unexpected place when Nazareth turned a very rockin’ version of her “This Flight Tonight” into a European hit. Apparently they liked listening to Blue in buses on the road and she approved of their treatment of it.

Although “Carey” was the biggest hit on it, and only got to #27 in Canada (faring less well elsewhere), the album was a must-have for folkies and college types, making it to #3 in the UK, #9 in Canada and #15 in the States where it soon went platinum.

Reasonably well-reviewed when it came out, its impact has grown steadily though the years. The New York Times ranked it among the “25 albums that represented turning points or pinnacles in 20th Century music.” The NPR rank it as the finest female album ever, something now echoed by Rolling Stone which jumped it up to #3 on their greatest albums of all-time in 2020, up from #30 the previous time they did a similar exercise. Entertainment Weekly put it at 11th greatest ever, sandwiched between the Beatles “White Album” and Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Pitchfork and allmusic both give it perfect-scores. The former “the album’s suffused with melancholy for all that’s missing – her daughter (“Little Green”), innocence (“The Last Time I saw Richard”) and connection (“All I Want.” ) Allmusic call it the “quintessential singer/songwriter album.”

Interestingly, for an album so deeply personal to her, she veered a little on the album cover itself. The photo by well-known album cover designer Gary Burden was the first one of hers not to feature a painting by her on front.

June 14 – DeBurgh Sailed Into Widespread Success

One of pop and rock’s more interesting characters begun to be known to the masses this week in 1983. That’s when Chris deBurgh hit the U.S. top 40 for the first time with “Don’t Pay the Ferryman”.

DeBurgh’s musical style is a little hard to pin down…as is his nationality. He was born in Argentina while his dad, an English diplomat, worked there. His mom was Irish; he took her maiden name for the stage rather than his dad’s Davison. He spent his childhood in various, often exotic locales in Africa and Malta where his father was assigned. Eventually the family moved to Ireland, bought a 12th Century castle and turned it into a hotel. Chris apparently sang for the entertainment of the guests. He then crossed the Irish Channel to go to college in England, where he met Nick Drake. Drake however turned down deBurgh’s request to join his band. Nonetheless, he was quite good at guitar and at writing songs which stood out from the crowd – often larger-than-life tales drawn from history or mythology, set to music that perhaps could be described as “goth pop”. As allmusic put it, he “either specialized in pretentious, bombastic art rock or is a master at penning soaring and majestic compositions” depending on your point of view.

Those soaring compositions won him a fair fan base in parts of Europe (notably Ireland and Scandinavia) and South America, and even a smattering of success in Canada. However, the prized U.S. and UK markets remained aloof to him until ’83. The secret was perhaps getting mainstream hit-making producer Rupert Hine to produce his sixth album, The Getaway from which the single was drawn.

Don’t Pay the Ferryman” was an urgent-sounding tune, ostensibly about taking a ferry across a body of water in a raging storm, with deBurgh urging the passenger not to pay for the passage until he reached the other side (which might actually at face value make little sense, since if somehow the ferry failed to get across the water and deliver you safely, the little extra money you’d have would probably be of no use to you anymore!) However, it’s generally been seen as a mythological metaphor, with the Ferryman (described by the singer as “the hooded old man at the rudder”) being the Grim Reaper and the journey the subject “spent preparing for” being the transition from life to death…and whatever waited beyond on the other side. It ties into some ancient stories referring to paying the Reaper to cross the River Styx and get to an afterlife; those who didn’t pay the toll would be left to roam the world forever a “restless spirit.” He even had British actor Anthony Head read a passage from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the song bridge, although that part got cropped out for the 7” single. All in all, a lot to dissect in the lyrics and hidden meanings compared to other ’83 hits like, say, “Sharp-dressed Man”.

The song was a decently popular hit worldwide. It did well in his traditional markets but also got to #5 in Australia, #32 in Canada (where he’d had marginal chart success before) and #34 in the U.S. (where he’d had no chart success before.) In Britain it was his first top 50 hit. It also pushed the album to the top of the charts in various European countries like Germany and platinum status in both the UK and Canada. And, of course, it made his name known in time to open doors for the massive success he’d have three years later with the “Lady in Red.”

Chris still apparently lives in Ireland and records periodically (he’s released 23 studio albums to date)…and reads the media. So beware what you say about him – it’s been noted he’s successfully sued for “defamation of character” 16 times!

April 23 – Harry’s Tales From The Stage

Billy Joel’s a great story-teller singer. So is Bruce Springsteen. But one guy both tip their caps to is the late Harry Chapin. The talkative New York bard put out some great records, but to many was best experienced playing live, so this day in 1976 was a treat for his fans. That’s when he put out his first live album, Greatest Stories Live. As the name suggests, it was largely a collection of his previous best loved songs, recorded live over a three night span the previous winter in California. The original double-LP did have three new, studio tracks on it, “She’s Always Seventeen”, “Love Is Just Another Word” and “The Shortest Story,” though the first two of those are omitted from the CD release (presumably for length, as the CD still clocks in over 70 minutes).

The record showcases him at his chatty, hyper best, with his usual backing band (including Tim Scott on cello, one of the primary reasons Elektra Records’ boss Jac Holtzman had been so determined to sign him; he felt that cello was the perfect accompaniment to sad rock music) plus his musical brothers, Tom, on piano and banjo plus Steve on piano. Steve also co-produced the record.

The album included his best-loved songs to that point, including his hits “Taxi” and “Cats in the Cradle.” As well there was “WOLD”, about a radio DJ, and “I Wanna Learn A Love Song,” like many of his tunes, semi-autobiographical in nature. That one describes, more or less, how he met his wife Sandy who was originally just a student taking guitar lessons from him. (He got to be a bit more ribald live, changing “crazy” in the lyrics to “horny.”) The album’s centerpiece however, was the black humor of “30 000 pounds of Bananas.” Unusual title for an unusual song, about an out of control truck hauling bananas, faster and faster, down a hill in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This too was based largely on real life, though not Harry’s. There was a crash in 1965 in Scranton, with a tractor-trailer, a 35-foot trailer loaded with bananas, that lost its brakes driving down a steep hill. It ran into a house at the bottom, and sadly the driver was killed, but witnesses say he did a brilliant job of avoiding pedestrians and a gas station along the way down. The 11-minute live version lets him try out alternate endings, like a take on the Chiquita banana jingle because his brothers had told him his original one “sucks.”

the album barely made it into the top 50, but sold steadily, indicative of his almost under-the-radar popularity. Eventually it went double platinum, his second-best seller behind 1974’s Verities and Balderdash.

People with Amazon Prime might want to check out the new movie Harry Chapin – When in Doubt, Do Something on their service. The movie highlights his music, energy and his remarkable dedication to helping put an end to hunger and poverty – he was doing over a hundred benefit shows a year for some time and got himself named to be an advisor to President Carter on the matter. Among his vocal fans who show up in the movie are the aforementioned Joel and Springsteen, as well as Pat Benatar, Harry Bellafonte, some U.S. senators, Bob Geldof (who more or less suggests Live Aid came out of ideas Harry had for alleviating world starvation), movie maker Michael Moore (whom Harry helped out when he was an unknown Flint journalist and novice film-maker) and perhaps most surprisingly, rappers from Run DMC. Sadly, the spoiler alert most already know, Harry was killed in a car crash driving to one of his many charity events in 1981.

March 23 – Songs To Seagulls And With Eagles

A few days back we looked at Bob Dylan’s first album and noted while it was the debut of a great artist, it wasn’t necessarily a great debut. Today, the same could be said about the first one from an artist Pitchfork call “Mary Magdalene to Dylan’s folk rock messiah” – Joni Mitchell. Her debut, Song To A Seagull, came out this day in 1968.

By this time, Joni was 24 and had become something of a star in her native Canada, with her spending time in Toronto’s hot Yorkville folk scene, then relocated to the U.S., living briefly in Detroit then “found” and relocated to L.A.’s artsy Laurel Canyon by David Crosby . She’d already established herself as a decent songwriter, with several artist recording her work, including Judy Collins’ who had a hit with her “Both Sides Now” right around the time this album was hitting the stores.

Crosby helped Mitchell get a good contract with Reprise Records, with an unusual amount of control over her own music. The downside was he also got to produce Song to a Seagull, a rather simple, 10-song, 38-minute effort of her own songs with limited outside help. Mitchell played guitar and piano, even painted the cover as she usually did with her records, and Stephen Stills added bass in places. (To top it off, at the time she was living with the other member of CSN, Graham Nash, which prompted him to write the song “Our House (Is A Very, Very Fine House.)” The problem was Crosby didn’t seem to have the knack of producing at that point. He placed mics oddly in the studio and ended up with a lot of ambient noise and hiss on the masters. He sought to eliminate that, mainly by wiping out the high end treble… resulting in what Joni would say made it “sound like it was recorded under a jello bowl”. Wikipedia term it sound with a “flat feel.” (In case you’re wondering, Mitchell eventually re-mixed and mastered it herself, and the better result came out last year on Rhino Records.)

She dedicated the record to “Mr. Kratzmann,” her grade 7 teacher, “who taught me to love words.” And while the album, seemingly her first impressions of L.A., didn’t have any hit songs or ones which live on widely – unlike the one she wrote for Collins – it got her noticed as a fine singer/songwriter, with songs like “Night In the City”, “Pirate of Penance” and the title track for the seabird. Although it barely even nicked the top 200 album chart and was one of only a few of her early records not to go gold anywhere, it got her on her way and by her next album, Clouds, with the single “Chelsea Morning” she began to become a significant artist on the charts and radio.

Perhaps Joni felt a bit sentimental about March 23, because 20 years to the day after Song To A Seagull, she put out her 13th studio album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm. The 1988 album was quite a departure from the first (and many of Joni’s albums), because it had some glossy production, courtesy Larry Klein who co-produced it and co-wrote several of the songs with her . For it she called on a number of her famous friends… Tom Petty, members of Prince’s backing band, Benjamin Orr of the Cars and more. Particularly of note were Willie Nelson, who sang with her on “Cool Water”, Billy Idol and his guitarist Steve Stevens, who appeared on “Dancing Fool” (“it was for the contrast he provided,” she said about having Idol on the record. “He brings real life to the part”) , Don Henley, who sang on “Snakes and Ladders” and Peter Gabriel. Gabriel joined her on the single “My Secret Place”, a song she recorded in Gabriel’s studio in England. The album mixed straight-forward love songs like that one with more socially-aware ones like “Lakota”, about disappearing American Indian culture, and “Beat of Black Wings”, a lament of Vietnam vets with PTSD.

This one got middling reviews. Both Rolling Stone and allmusic rate it 3-stars.The former noted that somehow “as Mitchell has grown older…the assumed priority of words over music has reversed,” suggesting the music was largely for the tunes and beats more than her poetry. Allmusic note “Mitchell uses vocal firepower over spare tracks, heavy on percussion” which now “already begins to sound dated.”

That notwithstanding, the public took to it better than some of her releases. It got to #23 in Canada and #26 in the UK, with “My Secret Place” being a minor hit single in Canada, where the album did go gold, no doubt to the relief of Geffen Records. That made her first gold record anywhere since she’d joined that label at the start of the decade.

Alas, Joni didn’t keep the trend going and release an album on this day in 2008. In fact, her last album of new material came out in 2007 and she’s said she’s retired from music, lately splitting her time between L.A. and Canada and spending much of her spare time painting or drawing.

February 9 – A Tip Of The (Cowboy) Hat To Tom, Eh

It’s easy, and appropriate, to consider acts like The Beatles or Elvis Presley as “legendary”. It’s more of a stretch to call an artist who’s barely known outside his homeland and who measured his record sales in thousands rather than millions as one. Nevertheless, today we remember a Canadian music legend, Stompin’ Tom Connors who was born this day in 1936. Despite having only one charting single, by the time he died at age 77, the Prime Minister would eulogize him and Britain’s BBC noted his passing, calling him “one of Canada’s biggest cultural figures.” Not too shabby for a man who was jumping boxcars at 13 and playing his guitar for beer soon after!

Connors was born in New Brunswick, but to a rather dysfunctional family and ended up being passed around various family members across eastern Canada as a lad. By 13 he ran away from home, hitch-hiking or jumping freight trains to get from place to place. Within a year he’d gotten an old guitar and learned to play a little while moving around, picking crops here and working in a mine for a few weeks there. While still a teen, he went for a few beers to a bar in Timmins – an Ontario mining town – but found himself a few cents short. The bartender told him he’d give him his beer if he’d sing a song. So he did that, making up songs about the country he’d seen as he went along. He spent over a year at the hotel, performing nightly and getting a spot on the local radio station. He apparently stayed friends with that barkeep for the rest of his life.

He soon became a popular local musician, known for his cowboy hat and boots. He had a habit of pounding his left boot on the floor to keep time, which led to his “Stomping” nickname. After awhile, some clubs complained he was damaging their floor with all that stomping, he in turn began carrying his own piece of lumber to stand on as part of his gear! His sound was all his own, basically a rollicking form of country music where the words were always king. With the Americana music movement to the south, some have dubbed him the father of “Canadiana” music.

By the 1960s he was recording and becoming familiar on Canadian country stations. In time he’d write over 300 songs, many quite humorous and almost all reflecting Canada and its people. As the National Post put it, “he sang of a nation without politics, (but) of its proud history, reminding us that we’ve built something amazing here and must not take it for granted.” If Gordon Lightfoot could periodically tell stories about the country and its history, like the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, Connors made a career of it. “Fire in the Mine”, was aptly enough about a fire in a Timmins mine that killed 39. “Algoma Central 69” about the Algoma Central railway, a northern lumber and iron ore route. “Big Joe Mufferaw” was about a legendary lumberjack… something most Canucks probably didn’t know existed! And there were his best-known ones. “Bud the Spud”, the title track of his first album to go gold in Canada about the potatoes he grew up surrounded by; “Sudbury Saturday Night” about another Ontario mining city; “Tillsonburg” a humorous look back at a summer he spent picking tobacco in Canada’s most-southerly reaches and “The Hockey Song.” What would a Canadian story-teller be without one about hockey? The song was adopted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and played at every home game; after his death it actually hit the Canadian top 30.

All the while, he gradually became a household name in his country. The CBC network had him do the theme song for a public affairs show, which led to him also getting a 26-episode travelogue, Stompin’ Tom’s Canada. When he married , the TV network broadcast the wedding, one of the few times anyone saw him without his Stetson. And he was passionate about Canadian music.

This country is the most under-written country in the world as far as songs,” he once said and he did his part to rectify that. He started a trio of record labels including Canada’s first classical one. He didn’t like classical music but lamented that Canadian orchestras lacked a good outlet for their recorded music. He once returned six Juno Awards “I once felt honored to have received” because he was mad at the “border jumpers” who won the majority of the Canadian awards, artists who were born in Canada but lived and worked in the States (or occasionally Britain.) He did accept a lifetime achievement award from SOCAN in 2009 however, that being the legal arm representing Canadian musicians.

After he passed away from kidney disease, network hockey showed a tribute to him and flags in Tillsonburg were flown at half-mast, Sudbury commissioned a statue of him playing his guitar for use in the city square.  Prime Minister Harper called him “a true Canadian original…RIP Stompin’ Tom, you played the best game that could be played.” Two members of parliament, including ’80s alt rock artist-turned-politician Andrew Cash sang “Bud the Spud” in his memory in Parliament. An amazing life from humble beginnings. And if he didn’t do everything he’d wanted, well that would be alright by him. “I think that people should die without their dreams being fulfilled,” he’d said. “So maybe they can have an excuse for coming around again.”

February 7 – Johns Song Was Aspirational To Groovy ’70s Van Fans

Oh those happy-go-lucky 1970s; days of one night stands, vans with far out murals and easy-listening rock and all those other good things that preceded Reaganism, AIDS and Generation X. Today we look at a guy who put the three together iconicly in 1975 Sammy Johns. Johns was born 76 years ago today, in North Carolina.

Not a whole lot is on record about Sammy, but we know he learned to play guitar as soon as he was given one at nine years of age, and he was in a band in high school. He moved to Atlanta in his early 20s and got a record contract with a small label, GRC. Although the label was a minor one, they brought in some fine help to make his first record, the self-titled debut album. L.A.’s Larry Knetchel, one of the key members of the Wrecking Crew in its latter days, co-produced the album and played bass and guitars on it; Jim Gordon from Derek and the Dominoes drummed.

The album was pure early-’70s. “That was the era of hippies,” Johns recalls, “free love and all that. I was sort of a hippie – a conservative hippie.” Some of his song titles suggest just as much – Sammy Johns included tracks called “Way Out, Jesus” and “Early Morning Love.” However, it got lost in the shuffle of other soundalike soft rock albums for the first year or more after it hit the shelves. Then suddenly, somehow, the dusty single from it “Chevy Van” began to take off. It zipped up the charts to #5 in the States in early 1975, and eventually sold better than three million copies. He was awarded a gold single for it, seemingly the only one GRC Records ever received.

The song had a distinctive guitar sound with wah-wah pedal played by Knetchel who used the same tool to great effect on Bread’s “Guitar Man” a year or two before. “Chevy Van” was pretty much every young guy’s fantasy back then; a guy with a cool van picks up a sexy hitchhiker who then seduces him in the back of his ride before walking off down the street in a town he doesn’t plan to ever return to. Rhino Records (who included the song on a ’70s compilation album years later) point out that the line “let’s get some sleep and dream of rock’n’roll” “must have seemed ridiculous even to the most blissed-out hippie spreading good vibes, good Columbian and VD across America.” Ridiculous perhaps, but a fantasy to many and an irresistible hit record. For the record, Johns said the song was a product of his imagination. “It never happened,” he explained to Classic Bands, “I thought it might be a neat idea. I never was that lucky.”

Maybe not in fast love, but lucky he was on the record shelves. The multi-million seller made him a fair bit of cash and had GM calling. “Chevrolet did want to do a commercial, but some kind of problem did crop up with the record company,” he says. Nonetheless, the song – and custom vans themselves – were popular enough that it inspired a 1977 movie, The Van which Johns did much of the soundtrack for. The movie would be forgettable if not for one thing – it was one of the first starring roles for Danny Devito.

As luck would have it, GRC Records went bankrupt not long after and before they could get Sammy’s next album done. Thus it essentially consigned him to the category of “one hit wonder”, something he takes in stride. “I’m just thankful for that one,” he said pointing out that he really was a bit more than that. He wrote songs for a number of country artists in the ’80s, including Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings and John Conlee who took his song “Common Man” to #1 on country charts. “That’s given me a lot of gratification. That’s what I really wanted to be – a writer,” he said not long before he passed away at age 66 in 2013.

February 3 – Farrah Was An Angel For Jim’s – And Gladys’ – Career

People often call George Martin the “Fifth Beatle.” Then again, some refer to Billy Preston as that. But there’d be no arguing who the “Fifth Pip” was, if that was something people pondered. That would be Jim Weatherly, who we remember a year after he passed away near Nashville. Weatherly might not be a household name…but some of his music is and he helped Gladys Knight become one as well. And, indirectly, numerous other musical types will benefit through the path he forged.

Weatherly was born and grew up in Mississippi. As a teen he loved music, and football. He actually played quarterback for the Ole Miss college team in two championship seasons and was named an “All American” in 1964. However, he decided to focus on music for a career instead, and moved out to L.A. There, he got a recording contract with Verve Records, but seemed to excel more in writing songs than recording them.

However, he kept playing football recreationally, which happened to indirectly “make” his career in music! He played with actor Lee Majors in an adult league and they became friends. Major was dating none other than Farrah Fawcett at the time, but she was far from a star then. Weatherly called them up one night and talked to future Charlie’s Angel star Farrah, who said she was taking “the midnight plane to Houston” that night, to go back and spend time with her family. Weatherly loved the phrase and wrote a song around it (ironically then, “a superstar but (she) didn’t get far” was thus written about Farrah Fawcett, who in fact did go far …and onto millions of teen boys walls …a few years later) . It was originally good, and kind of country-ish. But Cissy Houston wanted to record it, and someone at the record company decided a train would be more evocative than a plane and Georgia trumped Houston. Smart moves! Although Cissy’s version flopped, it did get noticed by Gladys Knight. The rest, as they say, is history. She and the Pips recorded it and made it a Grammy-winning smash, ranked as the 29th best song of the 20th Century by the RIAA. She must have wondered if the song was a fluke, and met up with Weatherly to find out.

The pair hit if off, and Buddah Records (whom Knight was signed to then) gave Weatherly a contract of his own. He had some minor success. “The Need To Be” was a top 20 hit in North America in ’74, a year after the “Midnight Train to Georgia”, and he had another country hit with “I’ll Still Love You.” But mainly, his success came through his writing, particularly for Knight. “He’d start playing his guitar, and I’d start humming, and was magic,” the singer said. He wrote their hits “Neither One Of Us” and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” as well, and moved to Nashville. There, a number of artists recorded his songs including Garth Brooks, Lynn Anderson, Neil Diamond and Glen Campbell who got to #4 on country charts with his “A Lady Like You.”

Although he’d be named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, his career slowed in this century. Nevertheless, he made an impact for musicians everywhere when he successfully sued Universal Music for royalties he was due. He argued they had badly underpaid him royalties for “Midnight Train to Georgia,” they countered not so much by disputing it as saying they had put a one year limitation on the contract and he’d passed the Statute of Limitations. The courts disagreed and ruled writers or musicians could sue for unpaid royalties any amount of time after the fact.

Weatherly passed away this day in 2021, from natural causes at his suburban Nashville home. B.J. Thomas said of him “One of the great ones, (he) wrote a lot of beauties.” Knight said the day after his passing “I’m missing Jim Weatherly already. He was about life, and love…we were just made for each other. We grew our lives together.”

Of course, Weatherly is far from the most famous musician to have died on Feb. 3 because this day in 1959 was “the day the music died” with Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper dying in a plane crash.

January 24 – Diamond A National Gem

Happy birthday to a performer who really is a “living legend.” Billboard‘s 25th most-successful artist of all-time, an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame plus a lifetime award winner from the Grammys and a career that spanned almost 60 years – Neil Diamond is musical gem, and he’s 81 today.

Granted, he’s not a singer now considered edgy or ground-breaking, although he might have been that when young. Nonetheless, not only has he put out 32 studio albums of his own, plus two film soundtracks and had 25 top 20 singles in “America” – to name-check one of his trademark songs – but he’s penned songs made into hits from acts as diverse as Elvis Presley to UB40. Not many resumes in music equal that.

Diamond was born and mainly raised in New York City, being a classmate of Barbra Streisand no less. He began writing poetry as a youth and found it helped him impress girls, always a winning incentive to young artists! When he turned 16, he was given a guitar, learned to play it a bit and happened to see Pete Seeger in concert. It planted the seeds in his head that grew into an unquenchable desire for a career in music. So much so that he quite university (where he was studying medicine but attending on a fencing scholarship!) to write songs for a living. Initially, he did OK, in terms of popularity, selling a song a week often in the early-’60s. But in the Big Apple, and as an unknown, that barely paid his bills. He signed briefly to Columbia Records, and recorded a few well-reviewed but flop singles with his school buddy Jack Packer. They quickly dropped him, and he went back to writing full-time in the famous Brill Building, with increasing success. One thing that made him unusual was that he mostly wrote entire songs by himself. Many of the best writers of the day worked in pairs (like Carole King and Gerry Goffin) with one doing mostly lyrics and the other the composing. Before long The Monkees did his “I’m a Believer” and “A Little Bit You, A Little Bit Me” and he was off and running.

Lulu and Deep Purple were soon covering his tunes and he was recording himself again, this time with a division of MCA. Although good as a songwriter, obviously, he says “I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting. I love it because it’s so satisfying when it works. I hate it because it forces you to dig inside yourself.” “Solitary Man” was the first one he recorded himself that charted at all (although surprisingly, it peaked at #21 in the U.S. in its best, second run up the charts) so he says it’s always been a personal favorite. Another is 1980’s “America,” from the Jazz Singer, a soundtrack to a movie he starred in. “It’s the story of my grandparents. It’s my gift to them,” he explains, “it’s very real to me.” It gained import through the years when it was used in the 100th Anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty, played at Vietnam veteran’s assemblies and taken on as an unofficial “anthem” for New York after the 9-11 attacks. And of course, we can’t forget “Sweet Caroline,” a song Boston and its Red Sox have made their own. As the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame put it, “his ability to put words to the human experience explains his commercial success, his fans of all stripes and his timelessness.”

Along the way, he was highly successful through the ’70s, and he re-signed to Columbia for a then-record million dollars an album, minimum. The label boss Clive Davis said “he was handsome, he moved well on stage and a real sense of drama. It was all there – real star quality.” Apparently so, as he quickly scored over a dozen hits including #1 singles “Song Sung Blue” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a duet with his old schoolmate Barbra, following his first “Cracklin’ Rosie”). Although sales dipped some in the ’80s after his 5X platinum The Jazz Singer, he had established himself as one of the top stage draws, both in Las Vegas and on the road. In 1986, for example, Billboard listed him as the top solo concert draw, despite not having a major hit since 1982.

Sadly, Diamond essentially retired in 2018 because of worsening Parkinson’s Disease. The same year the Grammys awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award.