Listen to this track by former Wrecking Crew stalwart, one-time stand-in Beach Boy, and unimpeachable Southern Pop hit-maker Glen Campbell. It’s “Wichita Lineman”, a huge hit from his 1968 record of the same name, Wichita Lineman, his twelfth. Written by Jimmy Webb specifically for Campbell, this song perfectly suits the singer’s talents as a vocalist with a sense of the cinematic in his delivery which adds to the epic scale of the material.
The song topped the pop charts all over the world in the fall of 1968, supported by a cadre of top flight sessioners including James Burton and Carole Kaye on guitars, Jim Gordon on drums, soaring strings arranged by producer Al DeLory, and Jimmy Webb himself playing the organ. Besides his emotionally connected vocal, Glen Campbell utilizes his years of experience as a sessioner himself by playing the desolate baritone guitar solo that seems to add streaks of shadow to the twilight-coloured landscape that sets the scene in this song.
Here it is: “Wichita Lineman” is one of the greatest pop songs ever recorded and for so many reasons. Even when it was released, the song seemed to defy categorization, and with a late-in-the-day melancholy that lends it undeniable gravitas. Webb’s skill at creating these kinds of effects at the songwriting level are important to note; the song never returns “home” to the tonic established at its beginning, which adds to its deep well of wistful sadness. Ultimately though, the credit for the emotional punch of this song must go to Glen Campbell himself, reinforcing a vital principle that is common to the arsenal of every skilled vocalist who seeks to tell a story; the ability to convey a vivid portrayal of a character that listeners can relate to immediately. Read more
Listen to this track by serial hit single pure pop vocalist and future Solid Gold/Psychic Friends Network TV personality Dionne Warwick. It’s “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, her ginormous 1968 hit song as written by herculean songwriting team Burt Bacharach and Hal David with whom Warwick famously collaborated during the 1960s and into the early seventies. The song appears on her LP Dionne Warwick in the Valley of the Dolls.
Lyricist David penned the words to this song after Bacharach wrote the melody. He decided to write about the town of San Jose, California where he’d once been stationed in the navy, having good memories of his time there. Warwick was initially unconvinced of the song’s hit potential. After all, she was following up “I Say A Little Prayer”, yet another huge smash hit, so the pressure was on. Bacharach and David convinced her to record it anyway, and it scored her a third consecutive number one song on the Billboard charts.
Even after decades of performing it, and despite the success it represented for her, Warwick never really warmed to it. She considered it to be fluff. Yet, this song isn’t all that it seems. It’s one of those songs that sounds happy, but isn’t, full of all kinds of pain and heartache under its supremely breezy exterior. Read more
Listen to this track by Crescent City R&B singer, radio personality, and self-styled “R&B Emporer of New Orleans” Ernie K-Doe. It’s “Mother-in-Law” his 1961 number one single that would become his signature tune.
The song was written and produced by indispensable musical renaissance man Allen Toussaint, although it was something of a throwaway tune from him almost literally. The right take on the song proved to be very elusive during the three-hour recording session. In frustration, Toussaint took the songsheet and threw it away. Luckily for Ernie K-Doe and also for Allen Toussaint, backing singer Willie Hopper fished it out of the trash and encouraged the singer to give it another shot, convinced that the song was a hit. It was.
“Mother-in-Law” scored the number one spot on the R&B charts in May of 1961 and stayed there for a week. Ernie K-Doe (born Ernest Kador, Jr.) would trade on this song for decades, singing it during live appearances until the end of his life in 2001. As much as it was signature for him, being his best chart showing by far, the song itself can be viewed as a mark of the times out of which it came, too. Read more
Listen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem. The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.
The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.
Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too. Read more
Listen to this track by mighty Motown hit machine Diana Ross & The Supremes. It’s “Someday We’ll Be Together”, a smash hit single from 1969 and found on their LP Cream Of The Crop.
The song has the distinction of being the last number one single on the R&B charts of the 1960s, while also being the first number one single of the next decade, too. It was also the group’s swan song, with Diana Ross leaving for a solo career by 1970. This gave the song’s refrain a kind of weightiness that seemed to go beyond the story depicted in it.
The song had actually been recorded previously in 1961 by doo-wop group Johnny (Bristol) & Jacky (Beavers), the team who also wrote it. Bristol oversaw the Supremes recording too. You can hear him singing backup, although that session was meant to be a demo with Bristol’s interjections as vocal encouragement in order to get the right take. When Motown honcho Berry Gordy heard it, he liked Bristol’s backing that offset Ross’ lead voice. Ironically for a swan song of a massive pop group like the Supremes, or “Diana Ross & The Supremes” as they became known, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson aren’t featured on the track. This was indicative of the state of the union of the group at the time. Besides that though, this song always struck me as a swan song of another kind; that of childhood itself. Read more
Listen to this track by enduring multimedia phenomenon that featured ex-jockey and Artful Dodger Davy Jones as a lead singer, The Monkees. It’s “Daydream Believer”, one of their biggest hits and appearing on the 1968 album The Birds, The Bees, and The Monkees.
As with many songs that The Monkees recorded, “Daydream Believer” was sourced from an outside writer. In this case, the writer is John Stewart who was a one-time member of folk group The Kingston Trio. That folk connection seems like kind of an odd fit on the surface of things where The Monkees were concerned, maybe. But producer Chip Douglas, who was a friend of Stewart’s, helped the band turn this into a smash pop single. This is in no small part thanks to Peter Tork, who came up with and plays the bright piano line that helps to define the song so sharply. Additionally, both Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz add their own parts (guitar and backing vocals respectively), making this a full-band effort.
But the one who really shines on this is Davy Jones himself, striking a balance between joy and melancholy that’s as good as any of the best pop songs of the decade. Beyond the era in which it was made, I think this song says a lot about it’s lead singer too, and continues to do so even beyond his time spent on earth singing it. Yet initially, Davy Jones just didn’t get this song. Read more
Listen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”, the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.
On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”. This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.
This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. Read more
Listen to this track by enduring four-man multimedia phenomenon Micky, Davy, Mike, and Peter; The Monkees. It’s “Sometime In The Morning”, a deep cut and favourite track off of their mega-selling second album More Of The Monkees, released in January of 1967. The album remained at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 for a big 18 weeks. Meanwhile, this song would appear multiple times in their concurrent and very popular TV show The Monkees including in one of my favourite episodes “Monkee Mother”, guest starring Rose Marie.
Nineteen sixty-seven was a banner year for the group for a number of reasons. First, the TV show was an Emmy-winning hit. Second, their first live appearances as a group starting at tail-end of 1966 were going swimmingly during a time when they were taking heat for being just a pretend group who couldn’t play their own instruments. As far as the “pretend” part of that equation, this was true in one sense; the group they played on TV really was fictional, even though its members had the same names as the four principle cast. In real life though, they were as real as any other band playing shows in front of live audiences. The differences between their two identities, one fictional and one real, may explain the confusion around The Monkees’ authenticity. No one else was doing this sort of thing in quite this way at the time.
Further to that, this dynamic blurred the lines about who was responsible and who should be credited for the music people were hearing and buying. So, when More Of The Monkees hit the racks in January of 1967 to the surprise of The Monkees themselves who had no idea it was even coming out, things were about to get real ugly, real fast. Read more
Listen to this track by London R&B quintet you wouldn’t let your daughter go out with, The Rolling Stones. It’s “Paint It Black”, a number one record released as a stand-alone single in the UK in May of 1966 as the harbinger to their landmark LP Aftermath. In North America, it was added to a modified version of the record as the opening track.
This song by the Stones remains to be one of the most sonically varied and innovative tracks in their now very extensive catalogue. Sure, there’s that undeniable sitar part. But there’s so much more happening around it so as to make that part just one of many important aspects of this song, which seemed to foresee post-punk even before the word “punk” was applied as a musical term.
Of course, this song also caught the band at a crucial point in their career, reaching new compositional heights. It also was a time when the dynamics within the band were shifting greatly, and not completely comfortably, either. Read more
Listen to this track by funk-soul giant and musical Godfather to soul and her many children, James Brown. It’s “I Got The Feelin'”, a key track as taken from the album of the same name, I Got The Feelin’ released in the spring of 1968.
This song was one of a few key singles that would help to establish James Brown as a true innovator. The year before, he’d released “Cold Sweat”, a song of such importance to so many musical streams down through the years and up until today that its value cannot be measured. It helped to open up several musical directions for everyone from seventies funk, to electro, and hip hop in the eighties and sampled heavily ever since. But it initially set James Brown and his band on a path to create some of his most memorable and musically innovative songs of his career, like this one.
Among the most important elements that this song builds upon is the idea of what a lead vocal means, and how traditional singing is adapted to a new paradigm that has less to do with literal meaning or even straight melody, and more to do with something that only the body can express. Read more