Friday, March 30, 2012

The Midnight Special

toTelevision producer Burt Sugarman had the idea in 1973 to capitalize on the huge audiences that Johnny Carson's Tonight Show consistently brought to NBC's 11:30 to 1:00 time slot. He pitched the idea to his bosses of a variety show featuring the contemporary musical artists of the period. even though at the time none of the Big Three TV channels had programming after 1 a.m., which meant no competition existed for such a program, NBC initially rejected Sugarman's pitch. This led Sugarman to buy the airtime on his own, also persuading Chevrolet to sponsor the premier. The pilot aired on August 19,1972 as a 90-minute special encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming election. The ratings were high enough for NBC to reconsider and buy the program. On February 2,1973 the show began its run as a weekly series from 1 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. When Carson cut his show from 90 to 60 minutes, The Midnight Special was moved up to 12:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.
The show was probably the the biggest televised showcase for popular music ever. Acts were presented From varied genres, Rock, R&B, country and jazz were represented usually all within a single show. Another attraction was that with few exceptions the artists performed live. It was only in the final period of the show's run that more and and more acts performed to backing tracks.
The show also featured the occasional comedian such as Richard Pryor and Andy Kaufman. In addition from time to time the show would air vintage footage of early rock and roll acts such as Bill Haley And The Comets and Eddie Cochran. Guest hosts were utilized, but Helen Reddy and Wolfman Jack served as regular hosts during different periods. The Midnight Special aired its final show on May 1, 1981. To follow is a sampling of the types of acts featured on the show.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Curtis Mayfield

nsn"Not only a pioneer of funk, Curtis Mayfield, through his music with  The Impressions during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, was also a pioneer in the realm of social activism through song. Born Curtis Lee Mayfield , June 3, 1942  in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield utilized two distiguishing qualities that informed his work. One was his falsetto voice, not just a falsetto, but an eerily distinctive falsetto that has yet to be duplicated. The second thing was that being a self-taught guitarist, he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano, giving him an open F# tuning (F#,A#,C#,F#,A#,F#) that he used his entire career. He also played piano, saxophone, bass and drums, and deserves due credit for the popularization of  "message music". When left to handle lead vocals for the Impressions due to the departing of Jerry Butler, Mayfield wrote hit after hit for the group. There were love songs like "Gypsy Woman"(top 10) and "I'm So Proud", gospel reworkings such as "Amen"(top 20)  and "People Get Ready"(top 10)  and  Black Pride anthems like "Choice Of Colors" and the top 20 hit "We're A Winner"

Not one to sit idle, Mayfield was a prolific writer even in the early days of his career, writing and producing for many artists along with his work with the Impressions. These artists included Gene Chandler, Major Lance, The Five Stairsteps and Jerry Butler. He was also the owner of the Mayfield and Windy C record labels which were distributed by Cameo-Parkway, and was a partner in the Curtom label which was at first independent, then distributed by Buddah then by Warner brothers and finally by RSO.
After leaving the Impressions for a solo career in 1970, Mayfield founded the then-independent Curtom Records which in addition to recording his major work also featured acts such as Leroy Hutson, The Staple Singers and Baby Huey And The Babysitters who at the time featured Chaka Khan. But Mayfield's critical and commercial peak came with the release of Super Fly , a soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name, and one of the most infuential films in cinema history.

Both of the singles "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly" each sold over a million copies and were awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A.
The success of his Superfly soundtrack resulted in him being tapped for others where he wrote and produced with other artists actually performing them. Gladys Knight And The Pips sang on the soundtrack for the film Claudine in 1974, while his soundtrack for 1976's Sparkle was performed by Aretha Franklin. Later on his music would appear in the movies I'm Gonna Get You,Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle and Short Eyes , where he had a cameo role as a prisoner.

Mayfield's social activism came with a price, one that he was more than willing to pay. His uncompromising expression of his beliefs resulted in radio airplay bans and loss of revenue. Through it all he remained a staunch advocate for equality and black empowerment through his music and otherwise, paving the way for later politically conscious artists, Gil Scott-Herron, Public Enemy and Fishbone to name a few.
He remained active into the 1980s though with a somewhat lower public profile. On August 13, 1990 Mayfield suffered an injury when a section of lighting equipment fell on him during a concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. The injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. Unable to play guitar, he nonetheless wrote, sang and produced his last album, New World Order. He accomplished this task painstakingly, at times singing line-by-line while laying flat on his back.

Curtis Mayfield received  The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In February of 1998 he had to have his right leg amputated due to complications from diabetes. He was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame March 15,1999, but was unable to attend because of his poor health. A two-time inductee, he had already been inducted as a member of The Impressions in 1991.
On December 26,1999 Mayfield died having succumbed to steadily declining health following his paralysis.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Joe Jackson

"Bursting onto the popular music scene in 1979 with his ode to male envy and obsession, "Is She Really Going Out With Him", a hit then and still a perennial FM radio fixture, Joe Jackson had begun a lengthy and eclectic musical career. Born David Ian Jackson in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire U.K. August 11,1954. After learning the violin at a young age, he persuaded his parents to get a piano for the house which he promptly went to work on. He began plying his trade at the age of 16 playing in local bars while winning a scholarship to study musical composition at London's Royal Academy Of Music. His first band was named Edward Bear which was changed to Edwin Bear, changed again to Arms And Legs then to nothing as the band had broken up. It was at this point that Jackson adopted the name "Joe" due to a perceived resemblance to the British television science fiction puppet character Joe 90. He then put in some time in the cabaret circuit to raise money to make his own demo, which was eventually heard by A&M Records who signed him and subsequently released his debut album Look Sharp featuring the aforementioned "Is She Really Going Out With Him".  It was released in 1979.

The follow-up album, I'm The Man was recorded straightaway, in time for release later that same year. Along with the title track, this LP contained a song that showcased early on how immensely gifted he was in terms of pure composition, the exquisitely crafted "It's Different For Girls".  His third album, Beat Crazy hit the racks in 1980. Jackson, along with that original band line-up consisting of bassist Graham Maby, guitarist Gary Sandford and drummer David Houghton toured extensively before eventually disbanding.

Jackson's next recorded offering was a sharp turn from new wave pop into the realm of old style jazz and blues a'la Lous Jordan, Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller. This collection, released in 1981, was called Jumpin' Jive. His next album, 1982's Night And Day, continued in this direction as a tribute to the music of Cole Porter. Also seen as paying homage to  the city of New York, it was the first of his albums to reach the top 10 in the U.K. ( #3 ) and the U.S. ( #4 ). Two tracks from the collection, "Slow Song" and "Real Men" were oblique references to New York's early 80's gay culture. The album also included two of the finest pop compositions ever written in my humble opinion,  the chart hits "Steppin' Out" and "Breaking Us In Two.

For the next 20 years Jackson lived in New York City, which he credits for influencing his music through and beyond the 1980s. In 1984 he released Body And Soul, also heavily influened by jazz and pop standards as well as salsa music. The album featured the hit "You Can't Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)" The album went to #14 with the single peaking at #15. The live album Big World followed, a three sided double disc LP. Its showcase instrumental "Will Power" set the theme for his future work, although he came out with two final new wave pop albums. Blaze Of Glory and Laughter And Lust before leaving the rock genre behind.

In 1997 Jackson was signed by Sony Classical which released his album Symphony No.1 in 1999. He received a Grammy Award For Best Pop Instrumental for the album in 2001.  He reunited his original quartet of himself, Sandford, Maby and Houghton for an album, Volume 4, and a lengthy tour in 2003. A collaborative tour with Todd Rundgren and the string quartet Ethel followed in 2005, then a tour featuring a piano-bass-drums format in 2007 and again in 2008. Jackson also actively campaigned against smoking bans in the U.S. and the U.K. He moved back to England in 2003 after New York enacted its ban on smoking and in 2007 he moved to Berlin, Germany. He has had five Grammy nominations from 1979 to 2001 and has had his songs covered by a range of artists including Tori Amos, Sugar Ray and Anthrax. His song "Steppin' Out" is featured in the popular video game Grand Theft Auto:Vice City.
Joe Jackson continues to be active in business to this day touring with various formats.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Joe Tex

Joseph Arrington,Jr. , born August  8,1933,  in Baytown, Texas, was the possessor of a perfectly suitable name, all things considered. Fortunately for us all, he realized early in his chosen career that a truly proper show biz name was needed...something along the lines of, well, Joe Tex. His professional career began when he won first place in a talent show at the famed Apollo Theatre, an accomplishment that led to a record deal with King Records, the label of James Brown. The early going was rocky,to say the least. His releases on King and later on the Ace and Anna labels were disappointing sales-wise, and were generally considered derivative and uninspired. He released 30 singles in the first ten years without once hitting the top 100. After labelmate James Brown scored a hit with a cover of Tex's "Baby You're Right", sending it to #2 in 1962, Tex signed to Nashville, Tennessee-based Dial Records by producer Buddy Killen where his fortunes changed dramatically.
Under Killen's guidance, Tex recorded his first hit in 1965 at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals,  Alabama. It was distributed by Atlantic Records on Killen's Dial label, spent 11 weeks in the Hot 100, peaking at #5 and sold a million copies by 1966. It was a hauntingly beautiful ballad titled "Hold On To What You Got".

Two more ballads followed, "A Woman Can Change A Man" and "The Love You Save ( May Be Your Own )" with neither matching the success of his first hit. Tex would begin to release more uptempo songs with favorable results such as 1966's  "S.Y.S.L.J.F.M. ( The Letter Song) " and the often-covered 1967 classic "Show Me".

Tex's career was distinguished in one respect by the extensive number of single releases. In 1965 alone he released seven singles, six singles in 1967 and five in 1968. In fact, Tex had released close to thirty singles prior to the release of his first album in 1965. His next major hit came in 1967 with the release of "Skinny Legs And All" which spent 15 weeks on the charts getting to #10 and selling a million copies.

"Skinny Legs And All" along with another hit, "Men Are Getting Scarce" were included on a partially live album titled Live And Lively which was awarded a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association Of America ( RIAA ) in August of  1968. His last major hit of the period was "I Gotcha", a Tex composition released in 1972. It spent 20 weeks on the charts, two of those weeks at the #2 spot, selling two million copies by August of that year. Following its release Tex decided to retire.

Returning to music in 1975, Tex had a comeback hit with "I Ain't Gonna Bump No More ( With No Big Fat Woman ). This song got to #12 in the U.S. charts. By the 1980s He had again retired from performing full-time to devote his time to his Texas ranch and
the Islam faith he had converted to in 1966. He changed his name to Yusuf Hazziez and began touring as a spiritual lecturer.
On August 13, 1982 Joe Tex succumbed to a fatal heart attack at his home in Navasota,Texas just five days after his 49th birthday.
Joe Tex and his trademark combination of good-natured humour and flawless funk would go on to inspire many.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

One Hit Wonders # 5 - Thunderclap Newman

The latest entry into this blog's series of one hit wonders comes to us from the band Thunderclap Newman, a group organized and produced by The Who's Pete Townshend to showcase the singing and songwriting abilities of one Thomas "Speedy" Keene, at the time The Who's chauffeur and composer of the song "Armenia In The Sky" , which appeared on the Who Sell Out  album.   The recording featured Keene on drums,guitar and lead vocals, Andy "Thunderclap" Newman ,an engineer and college buddy of Townshend's, and 15-year-old prodigy Jimmy McCullough on lead guitar. Townshend himself played bass guitar on the recording credited as "Bijou Drains". The band's line-up was augmented for touring by bassist James Pitman-Avery and drummer Jack  McCullough (no relation) in 1969 and by bassist Ronnie Peel and drummer Roger Felice in 1971. The band folded in April of 1971 and was resurected for a short time in 2007. As with many one-hit wonders, the song is quite an achievement. A sweeping, majestic mid-tempo anthem driven by Keene's rhythm guitar and falsetto vocals and the surprising highlight of Newman's delightfully eccentric piano solo. Wunderkind Jimmy McCullough's lead guitar licks are perfectly placed and executed. The young guitarist would go on to grace the line-ups of John Mayall's Blues Breakers, Stone The Crows and Paul McCartney's Wings before tragically succumbing to a heroin-induced fatal heart attack September 27, 1979 at the all-too-early age of 26 .                  

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Foundations

Having the distinction of being the first multi-racial group to have a hit in the U.K., The Foundations were also diverse in their ages. Saxophonist Mike Elliot was 38 years old, while drummer Tim Harris was barely out of school at 18 years of age. Formed in London in 1967, the band was rounded out by Pat Burke also on saxophone, Eric Allendale on trombone, Peter Macbeth on bass guitar, Allen Warner on guitar, keyboardist Tony Gomez and vocalist Clem Burke. The band practiced in a basement club called The Butterfly Club, which interestingly enough, they owned and operated while playing nightly. They eventually signed on to Pye Records and released their first single "Baby Now That I Found You" which went to #1 in the U.K. and to #11 in the U.S.

The success of the single was well-timed, given that the U.K. was undergoing a huge interest in American soul music with American soul acts visiting the country often. This gave The Foundations the opportunity to tour with acts such as Edwin Starr and The Toys, thus increasing the band's visibility. Their second single "Back On My Feet Again", while not as successful as their previous outing , did reach #18  in the U.K.

After the band's third single "Any Old Time (you're Lonely And Sad)" was released getting only to #48 U.K., vocalist Clem Curtis and sax man Mike Elliott left the group due to those pesky "creative differences". Elliott was never replaced. Curtis hung around until his replacement was found, a gentleman by the name of Colin Young. It was 1968.
Young's debut single with the group "Build Me Up Buttercup" went to #2 in the U.K. and to #3 in the U.S., the band's second biggest release. The follow-up "In The Bad Bad Old Days (Before You Loved Me)" climbed to #8 on the U.K. charts.

(my apologies for the poor synchronization,but this vid had the best sound quality.)

These hits came in 1969. when 1970 rolled around the bassist Peter MacBeth left the band to be replaced by Steve Bingham. Management changes ensued and a Bill Graham-sponsored tour supporting The Temptations followed. The band broke up later that year.
Their last single, "My Little Chickadee" barely touched the top 100.

Since the break-up many different permutations of the band with old and new members came and went. Clem Curtis still performs as Clem Curtis And The Foundations at various oldies revues as does Colin Young using the name The Foundations performing new material along with the group's old hits.