Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Pretenders

In 1973 Chrissy Hynde, a native of Akron, Ohio and student at Kent State University relocated to London, England where in between working for the weekly music newspaper New Musical Express and at a music store owned by Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, she found the time to record a demo of her music. In 1978 Anchor Records A&R (artists and repetoire) executive Dave Hill heard the demo while in the process of forming his own label Real  Records, and was impressed enough to arrange for Hynde to record more material enlisting future Motorhead drummer Phil Taylor and Chrissy Hynde's former bandmate in The Moors Murders Mal Hart on bass. At Hill's suggestion Hynde formed a more permanent band consisting of bassist Pete Farndon, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers, all three U.K.-born. Up to this point nameless, Hynde named the band The Pretenders after The Platters' classic song "The Great Pretender". Included on this band's initial studio effort was a cover of The Kinks' song "Stop Your Sobbing".

This song was released as the band's first single, produced by Nick Lowe in January of 1979. It garnered much positive critical attention despite the fact that it didn't exactly burn up the charts. It was pretty much the same situation with their second single release of one of my own personal favorites, "Kid".

Even a casual observation revealed this band to be something special. In Hynde and Farndon you had two of the coolest looking rock musicians to grace a stage, Farndon had the look everybody wanted to pull off with the same gum-chewing nonchalant presence. Hynde was the prototype rock and roll bad-girl-with-a-gutar, spit and vinegar vocals, topped off with her Jeff Beck haircut paving the way for the likes of Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson. Honeyman-Scott perfected that jangly, new wave guitar sound while Chambers' drumming was savage yet impeccable. The songs, mostly written by Hynde were nail-on-the-head dead wicked.There was no way this bunch could go much longer without a hit. And so it was with their third single release that the proverbial jackpot was hit. Reaching #1 on the U.K. charts and  #14 on Billboard's Top 100, in conjunction with the band's self-titled debut album, also critically acclaimed, this would prove to be the band's signature song to this day as well as a perennial FM radio fixture. The song was titled "Brass In Pocket".

In March of 1981 the band released an EP titled most literally Extended Play which contained a live version of "Precious" and two more hits, "Message Of Love" and "Talk Of The Town". this was followed by their second full-length album The Pretenders II in August that same year. June 14, 1982 Pete Farndon was fired due to assorted misbehaviours, then two days later James Honeyman-Scott died due to a cocaine overdose. While in the process of forming a new band with former Clash drummer Topper Headon, on April 14, 1983, Farndon was found dead by his wife, having drowned in the bathtub, passing out while on heroin. This left only two surviving
members .  

Carrying on, Hynde and Chambers recruited Rockpile guitarist Billy Bremner and Bassist Tony Butler of Big Country to record their next single, "Back On The Chain Gang". This became their biggest hit, released in October of 1983 and staying at #5 on the U.S. charts for three consecutive weeks. The b-side, "My City Was Gone" was used as theme music for The Rush Limbaugh Show, much to Hynde's chagrin.

That particular line-up was not meant to be a permanent one, so in came guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Mal Foster for 1984's album Learning To Crawl which featured the top 20 hit "Middle Of The Road". After the band's appearance at the 1985 Live Aid Concert ,Chambers and Foster werer replaced by T.M. Stevens on bass and ex-Haircut One Hundred drummer Blair Cunningham. The album Get Close was the released in 1986 containing the two top 10 singles "Hymn To Her" and "Don't Get Me Wrong".
Following a hiatus in musical activity,The 1990 album Packed was released, and although credited as a Pretenders album, it was done with session musicians leaving Chrissy Hynde as the only official group member. This was fitting enough given that since the band's formation in Hereford,England in 1978, Hynde was always the driving creative force of the band. This collection contained a song that was very reminiscent of the band's early days and another favorite of mine called "Never Do That". It was a big hit in Canada but was only fairly successful elsewhere.                                                                       

In 1993 Hynde formed a new Pretenders line-up with ex-Katydids guitarist Adam Seymour, ex-Primitives bassist Andy Hobson and returning original drummer Martin Chambers, a line-up that would last over a decade  and would produce the album Last Of The Independents. songs from The Pretenders appeared on the soundtracks of the James Bond film Living Daylights and the Demi Moore film G.I. Jane.
The Pretenders were inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in March of 2005. Only the surviving original members Hynde and Chambers attended, though in her acceptance speech Hynde thanked all past members of the band with a special tribute to Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott . Hynde and the band remain active in various projects to this day.

Monday, April 23, 2012

So You Think You Know Michael Bolton...

If you are a Michael Bolton fan today, chances are you don't know that he wasn't the blue-eyed soul ballads crooner we know and love. Fact is, Mr. Bolton was making a very different kind of music during the late 70s and early 80s with a guitar oriented heavy metal band called Blackjack (above left). It was in the late 80s that he embarked on the extreme stylistic change of direction that made him a super star. Always a big fan of classic RnB, one of the first hits for him was a rendition of the Otis Redding classic "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay", a rendition so impressive it drew compliments from none other than Otis's widow Velma Redding. Presented here for comparison's sake is first a performance of "Everybody's Crazy" by Bolton with Blackjack followed by Bolton performing a song that won him a Grammy Award in 1991, a cover of the great Percy Sledge's hit "When A Man Loves A Woman". Very often in this business versatility is a virtue, and change is good.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Jackie Wilson

I have a personal list of five 60s-era solo RnB male vocalists that in my opinion were the best. Jack Leroy "Jackie" Wilson, Jr. is definitely one of them. (said list appears elsewhere in this blog, by the way) Born June 9, 1934 in Detroit, Michigan, he grew up rough in the very rough section of Highland Park, ran with a local street gang and was often finding himself in many varieties of trouble. Hoping to tame the young man, his mother took him to church where he sang in the choir. In his early teens he joined The Eveready Gospel Singers, a quartet popular in the churches of the area. Young Mr. Wilson however was hardly the religious type, he loved to sing because the group made a bit of money. He was fond of the money because he was also fond of the cheap wine he developed a taste for at the age of nine (yes, nine). Dropping out of school at fifteen, he'd been sentenced twice to the Lansing Juvenile Corrections System. During his second stint in juvie he took up boxing and fought as an amateur achieving a less-than-stellar Golden Gloves record of two wins, eight losses. Returning to music, He joined The Falcons, a local group that also included his cousin, future Four Tops lead singer Levi Stubbs. Later discovered by the legendary Johhny Otis, Wilson cut a few tracks on Dizzy Gillespie's Dee Gee Records
before he was recruited by Billy Ward And The Dominoes to replace the great Clyde McPhatter.

McPhatter coached Wilson and became an influence on the young singer. Already blessed with an operatic tenor and easy stage presence, Wilson became a fine addition to the group, and while not matching the group's former success, served them well for the three years he was a member. He then left to become a solo act and signed with Brunswick Records, a subsidiary of Decca Records. Nat Tarnopol became Wilson's manager and Wilson's first single "Reet Petite" was released from the album She's So Fine to moderate success . The song was written by another former boxer, Berry Gordy, Jr. along with Roquel Davis and Gordy's sister Gwendolyn. The trio wrote six more singles for Wilson, "To Be Loved", "I'm Wandering", "We Have Love", "That's Why I Love You So", "I'll Be Satisfied" and his 1958 signature song "Lonely Teardrops".

"Lonely Teardrops" went to #7 on the pop charts, #1 on the RnB charts and established Wilson as a bonafide superstar. His incredible multi-octave range was accompanied by electrifying stagecraft. Splits, knee drops, spins and one-footed slides inspired  artists such as James Brown, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley. Presley in fact was so impressed he sought Wilson out and the two became good friends. Wilson also incorporated basic boxing moves in his dancing. He even acknowledged coppng a few stage tricks from Elvis as well. He was also a savvy stage poser, making it easy for photograpers to capture him in countless performing images.

In 1958 Gordy and Davis parted ways with Brunswick Records due to disputes over royalties. The success of their work with Jackie Wilson did pay off for Gordy who used $800 in borrowed money along with the composer royalties from Wilson's hits to build his own recording studio, Hitsville, U.S.A. The rest of that particular story has been well chronicled, to say the least. Meanwhile, Wilson entered the 60s with more hits co-written by himself and Alonzo Tucker, a member of Hank Ballard And The Midnighters. These top 10 hits included "I'm So Lonely" "No Pity (In The Naked City)", "Alone At Last", "My Empty Arms" and the popular dance number "Baby Work Out".

In 1961 Wilson released a tribute to Al Jolson, of all people, called  Nowstalgia...You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet. While such a departure showcased the singer's impressive versatility, it was a commercial failure. He hit a slump in his career between 1964 and 1966 with a series of poorly selling singles. He did make critical and artistic gains with an album recorded with Count Basie and a series of duets with gospel singer Linda Hopkins and blues great Lavern Baker. He made a comeback in 1966 with the help of Chicago producer Carl Davis, releasing "Whispers Getting Louder" and 1967's  #5 pop hit, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher", one of his last and perhaps best-known top 10 hits.

As with  many of society's truly gifted artists, the personal life of Jackie Wilson was tainted by misfortune...some self-inflicted, some not. Known well as a quick-tempered man at the best of times, he was arrested in 1960 for assaulting a policeman when fans tried to climb the stage at one of his shows. On February 15, 1961 Wilson was injured in a shooting that left one bullet lodged too close to his spine to remove and another bullet that caused the loss of a kidney. He was shot twice in the back by an overzealous fan trying to commit suicide or a jealous girlfriend, depending on who happens to be telling the story. Having had all she could take from his notorious womanizing, his first wife Freda Hood divorced Wilson after 14 years of marriage in 1965. His son, Jackie Jr. was shot and killed on a neighbor's porch in 1971 sending Wilson into a deep depression for the next two years, as he consumed large amounts of marijuana and cocaine. His daughter died in 1977 of  an apparent heart attack at age 24, and in 1988 another daughter Jaqueline was shot to death in a drug-related incident in Highland Park. On September 9, 1975 Wilson was performing at The Latin Casino near Cherry Hill, New Jersey as a featured act in Dick Clark's Good Old Rock And Roll Revue. In the middle of performing "Lonely Teardrops", the singer collapsed onstage from a massive heart attack. Cornell Gunter of The Coasters was able to recuscitate him and he was rushed to the hospital. Despite medical personell working for 30 minutes to stabilize Wilson, lack of oxgen to his brain caused him to slip into a coma in which he laid for nine years until finally passing away due to complications of pneumonia on January 21, 1984. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Westlawn Cemetary near Detroit until a fund raiser purchased a headstone in 1987.

"Mr Excitement", as he was known throughout his career, was a two-time Grammy Hall Of Fame inductee. He was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. Popular music still benefits to this day from the awesome standard set by Jackie Wilson.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Status Quo

Definitely in the running for The Fleetwood Mac Award For Band Re-Invention, these gentlemen started out as cute purveyors of twee psychedelic pop and ended up as one of the most enduring balls-out blues 'n' boogie board stompers in the history of all things rockin'. The British band was founded by guitarist Francis Rossi and bassist Alan Lancaster, two students at The Sedgehill Comprehensive School
in Catford in 1962. The band's name at the time was The Spectres. In 1963 drummer John Coghlin joined and a year later guitarist Rick Parfitt was recruited. The Spectres signed a deal with Picadilly Records and released three singles, "I Who Have Nothing", Hurdy Gurdy Man" (written by Lancaster) and a cover of the Blues Magoos' song "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet". All three failed to make the charts. By 1967 the band's style took a psychedelic turn wth the addition of Roy Lynes on keyboards. The band changed their name to Traffic and later to Traffic Jam to avoid being confused with Stevie Winwood's band. Another single, "Almost But Not Quite There" was released and also flopped. In late 1967 the band took the name The Status Quo and in 1968 finally hit the mark with the release of  "Pictures Of Machstick Men" which hit #7 on the U.K. singles chart and was the band's only U.S. top 40 hit.

The band had a second U.K. hit with "Ice In The Sun", which climbed to #8. Though the band consistently released albums in the U.S. for their entire career, they never came close in the U.S. to the success they enjoyed in the U.K. The second album Spare Parts was released with disappointing sales.
At this point the band became disillusioned with their musical direction, discarded the Carnaby Street clothing and psychedelic pop and replaced the lot with faded denim, t-shirts and a guitar-oriented hard rock/boogie sound that has served them well ever since. In 1971 Roy Lynes left the band and from then used keyboard players such as Andy Bown, Jimmy Horowitz and Tom Parker only for studio and stage support. The core line-up became two guitars, bass and drums. The finishing touch was to drop the "The" in front of their name and become simply Status Quo.

After releasing two more well-received but poor selling albums, Status Quo's breakthrough came  when they signed with Vertigo Records. The first album for the label, 1972's Piledriver, with its heavier,self-produced sound became the blueprint for all future albums from the band. Throughout the 1970s they became one the U.K.'s leading rock bands, due in no small part to their relentless touring and high-energy live shows.

Status Quo has had several line-up changes through the years. Ultimately, the band to date is composed of Rossi, Parfitt, keyboardist Andy Bown, bassist John Edwards and drummer Matt Letley. All told, they have released twenty-nine albums and sold 128 million records worldwide. Needless to say,you don't have to conquer the U.S. to make it big.