Saturday, July 28, 2012

Swing Out Sister

The band's name was chosen because it was the only one they all agreed that they all hated it! Named for a 1945 film starring the late Arthur Treacher (yes,he started the fish and chips franchise, and yes again he was an actor.) Swing Out Sister, currently a duo, began as a trio made up of keyboardist Andy Connell, drummer Martin Jackson and vocalist Corinne Drewery. While Connell and Jackson were career musicians, Drewery was a fashion designer and model who happened to possess a remarkable alto voice. Along with producer Paul Stavely O'Duffy, the band signed with Mercury Records and released a single, "Blue Mood" in 1985 which failed to chart. Their next single, 1986's "Breakout" was a different story altogether, as the aptly named release went to #4 in the U.K. and to #6 on the U.S. Billboard charts. To follow is a performance of the song at the 1989 Prince's Trust Concert with the added attraction of Level 42's mighty Mark King on bass guitar.

When they released their debut LP, It's Better To Travel in 1987, It found its way to #1 on the U.K. album charts. This was due in no small part to the collection's blend of jazz and pop influences, real instruments combined with tasteful synthesizer effects and the smoky seduction of Drewery's voice. The bubbly "Breakout" was followed by the brooding "Surrender" and the jazzy "Twilight World".

Two Grammy nominations were earned by the group for Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Performance By A Group Or Duo both for "Breakout" in 1988.
Significant changes accompanied the 1989 release of their second album Kaleidoscope World. Original member Jackson left the group during the album's production to pursue other projects, among them work with Frank Zappa. He was thanked in the liner notes for his contributions and his writing credits were plainly noted. This left Drewery and Connell as the core group from then on. Soundwise, the incorporation of an orchestra provided a much fuller sound overall and a perfect compliment to Drewery's voice. The album, with its easy-listening pop influences was rightly received well by critics as well as hitting the U.K. top 10.  Less synthesizer and more sophistication was the order of the day as evidenced by the album's lead-off single, the exquisite "You On My Mind".

More change was evident with the release of the group's next album, 1992's Get In Touch With Yourself. Visually speaking, Drewery grew out her trademark page boy hairstyle. I, for one missed that distinctive look and was glad when she brought it back, but musically this was made up for with this collection's 60s and 70s RnB influences. This offering was shot through with breezy danceable songs, not the least of which was a nicely executed cover of Barbara Acklin's classic "Am I The Same Girl ?". This was released as a single and became a crossover hit, enjoying heavy airplay on smooth jazz and adult contemporary radio. It went to #1 in the U.S. and would prove to be their last big  U.S. success chartwise.

The Living Return followed with more of the same, including a cover of the Delfonics' hit "La La Means I Love You", also rendered respectfully and confidently. The song was included on the soundtrack for the film Four Weddings And A Funeral.

Many albums followed, and while nothing ever matched their chart success in the Western countries, they became a huge success in Japan and other Eastern countries. The group's live tours remain popular to this day, with the group performing in a variety of formats, sometime as a small jazz combo, and other times as a big band and yet other occasions with a full orchestra. All the while they have been a smooth jazz radio staple. The year 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the group's first album, It's Better To Travel.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Great Performances # 4

Definitely one of the Great Performances in All Things Rockin', we see here two enormous talents now gone from us and sorely missed...the late greats Phil Lynott and Gary Moore. This performance, on the steps of The Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia from 1978, Is a stunning example of a truly great rock unit led by an uncommonly charismatic front man. The first part is "Cowboy Song", one of Thin Lizzy's underappreciated gems. As to the second part, "The Boys Are Back In Town" is Lizzy's signature song. Highly regarded author of some of the best books about rock music ever written, David Thompson said in his book I Hate New Music that "The Boys Are Back In Town" is the last great rock song of the 70s which makes it the last great rock song ever. Hyperbole? Perhaps... but close enough to the truth for me.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Billy Preston

Although Billy Preston is one of a very few people to ever be referred to as "The Fifth Beatle", His career and accomplishments began well before his affiliation with The Fab Four. Born September 2, 1946 in Houston, Texas, Preston at the age of ten was playing organ backing up such gospel greats as Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland and Andrea Crouch. At the age of 12 he appeared in the W.C. Handy film biography which starred Nat "King " Cole ,where he portrayed Handy as a youngster. A year before that, he appeared on Cole's variety show performing a duet with Cole of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill". By 1962 he had joined Little Richard's band on organ and it was while on tour in Hamburg, Germany that he first met The Beatles.

Preston, in addition to his service with Little Richard's band, had made quite a name for himself as a session musician, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Barbara Streisand, Sly And The Family Stone and of course, The Beatles are part of a long list of session credits to his name. He also played and sang as a member of the house band for the 60s-era rock and roll weekly series Shindig, playing alongside such future greats as Leon Russell, James Burton, Delaney Bramlett and Glen Campbell.

His meeting with The Beatles led to the group asking him to contribute to their recordings of Get Back and Abbey Road. At one point during the Get Back sessions John Lennon proposed having him join the band officially, which as time has shown never was carried through. He is, however the only musician besides Tony Sheridan to be share billing with the band as the single "Get Back" was credited to "The Beatles With Billy Preston". He also portrayed Sgt. Pepper in the Robert Stigwood film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a film loosely based on The Beatles' album of the same name.

After signing with The Beatles' Apple Records in 1969 and the subsequent break-up of the band, he released a solo album, That's The Way God Planned It. Preston maintained a close working relationship with George Harrison, appearing on the Harrison single "My Sweet Lord" and making major contributions in both The Concert For Bangladesh album and film. He also worked on albums by John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Soon after, Preston left Apple and signed with A&M Records where his solo career became quite successful, beginning with the 1972 single "Outta Space", which went to #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the RnB charts. It was awarded a gold record and a Grammy Award that year for best pop instrumental.

Preston kept it going by following up in the next two years with the singles "Nothing From Nothing" and  "Will It Go Round In Circles", both  #1 hits. A third hit, "Space Race" topped at #4  and was so liked by Dick Clark that he used it for his show American Bandstand's mid-show bumper music for the remainder of the show's run. All three of these singles sold in excess of  a million copies. On the anecdotal side, Stephen Stills heard Preston use a particular  phrase several times while in his company. Stills liked the phrase so much he asked Preston if he could use it in a song he was writing. The phrase, "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" found its way to the top of the charts as the chorus and title of Stills' hit solo song.

Although Preston is often referred to as "the fifth Beatle", in terms of sheer man-hours he should more accurately be thought of as 'the sixth Rolling Stone". He appears on the Stones' albums Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock And Roll, and Black And Blue. As Mr. Carson stated in the preceding video, he supported The Stones on their 1973 European Tour. After taking a break to compose Joe Cocker's hit "You Are So Beautiful" , and along with Janis Ian being a musical guest on the premiere episode of  Saturday Night Live, he toured again with The Stones in 1976, this time playing with the band. They featured two of Preston's songs in the middle of each show. He played on solo records by the Stones and appeared on 1981's Tattoo You and 1997's Bridges To Babylon.

 Time will have its way no matter how gifted or successful one can be. In 1976 Preston's solo career started the decline that happens to all things sooner or later. After many years with A&M he left the label and signed with Motown Records. On that label he had a top 10 duet with Syreeta Wright, a song and performance of uncommon beauty titled "When I'm With You I'm Born Again". Unfortunately, Preston was unable to repeat that success and he left Motown to spend the rest of his career in session work.

Legal problems? Health issues? Rumours? Yes to all three, this is rock and roll after all. Preston's brushes with the law included no-contest pleas for seperate cocaine and sexual assault charges. Not to mention insurance fraud for setting his house on fire. Community service and house arrest followed. These complications prevented him from accepting an invitation to become a member of The Band after the death of their keyboardist Stan Szelest. Also, even though Keith Richards saw fit to state in his autobiography Life that Preston was an openly gay man, given that Preston himself never made a statement on the subject, I'm satified to consider this Billy's business and not Keith's, unassailably reliable source that he may be. (Where's the sarcasm button on this thing?)
What IS true is that Preston went on to tour with The Funk Brothers, Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton. He was also on albums by Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Norah Jones, Neil Diamond and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. He has also appeared on American Idol. Jazz legend Miles Davis was heavily influenced by Preston and his 1974 album Get Up With It includes a song titled "Billy Preston" in his honor.
Having battled kidney disease in his later years, William Everett Preston left this earth on June 6, 2006 due to kidney failure...but only after having in his 59 years a musical career anyone would be proud of.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Paul Revere And The Raiders

Now to my mind, these gentlemen aside from the Revolutionary War gimmick, struck me as America's answer to The Dave Clark Five. Both bands played a rough-hewn, proto-hard rock with the occasional ballad, both had a rough-voiced lead singer, they even had among their ranks a guy named Mike Smith. not to mention a saxophonist in each band. I could easily imagine either band blasting out "Glad All Over" and "Kicks" with an equal amount of comfort. Fact of the matter is Paul Revere And The Raiders choice of costume and comedic antics tended to obscure the fact that they were underneath it all purveyors of no-nonsense straight up 60s-era rock and roll with quality songs to boot.
They began as an instrumental group called The Downbeats based in Boise, Idaho led by organist Paul Revere Dick, a name he early on, thankfully, shortened to simply Paul Revere. An owner of several area restaurants, Revere met up with vocalist Mark Lindsay, who worked at a bakery that supplied Revere's eateries. Lindsay joined Revere's  band and just prior to their first release for Gardena Records changed their name to Paul Revere And The Raiders. Their first hit was  a song entitled "Like Long Hair" which went to #38 on the Billboard charts in 1961.

When Revere was drafted soon after, he claimed conscientious objector status and performed deferred duty as a cook. On the strength of their top 40 hit Lindsay and the band toured the U.S. that summer with replacement Leon Russell ( yes, THAT Leon Russell !)  on keyboards. By the summer of 1962 Revere was back with Lindsay in a band that included Mike "Smitty" Smith on drums, guitarist Drake Levin and bassist Mike "Doc" Holliday. A series of events got them noticed by KISN disc jockey Roger Hart who booked the band for one of his teen dance events.Hart subsequently became the band's manager and suggested they record "Louie,Louie". The question of whether or not The Kingsmen recorded the song first is a matter of some argument, but what is known is that both groups recorded the song at the same studio and that Paul Revere And The Raiders' version got the attention of Columbia Records who signed the band. By this time bassist Holliday was replaced by Phil "Fang" Volk. (yes, these fellas liked their nicknames,it seemed) Now with Columbia, the hits began. Garage-rock classics such as their second hit "Just Like Me" whch featured one of the earliest double-tracked guitar solos (by Levin) and "Kicks", which went to #4. Columbia in-house producer Terry Melcher, son of actress Doris Day, was instrumental in honing the band's signature recorded sound.

"Kicks" became the band's best -known song, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil containing an anti-drug message and originally intended to be given to Eric Burdon And The Animals to record. guitarist Levin left the band at this point to be replaced by Jim "Harpo" Valley, his nickname referred to a perceived facial resemblance to the silent Marx brother. Another band trademark was choreography performed during songs, a gimmick that lasted throughout the band's heyday up until the 70s when it was gradually phased out. The band made many television appearances, most notably the Dick Clark-produced Where The Action Is, where they were regulars, and as the hosts of two later Clark-produced shows, Happening 68 and It's Happening. In between, they visited various TV variety shows. Despite the
band's success, Volk, Valley and Smith decided to leave the band. Drake Levin returned to finish the current tour and ther obigations which included an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Revere, however was angered at the trio for quitting and blamed Levin for influencing the others' departure. Without telling anyone, Revere hired a new guitarist, one Freddy Weller, to perform on the show. Gentleman that he was, Levin stepped aside and even showed Weller the chords to the songs. He was then forced to watch from backstage while the band, including Volk and Smith, made their only appearance on Ed Sullivan's stage. It was the only time this line-up was ever seen together, as immediately after Volk and Smith were replaced by drummer Joe Correro and bassist Charlie Coe.

The band scored a couple of commercial deals during its lifetime, one was as endorsers of Vox Musical Instruments with Revere's use of the company's Continental organ and Volk's Phantom basses, while the band used Vox Super Beatle amplifiers. Another was the recording of a TV ad for Pontiac's Judge Gto muscle car with a band-performed theme song, a re-working of the 1969 band track "Time After Time" with changed lyrics.

As the 70s approached, audiences tastes changed and the band's schtick and style required reworking, The Revolutionary War drag gave way to simply matching clothes and finally no uniforms at all. The choreography went away and with Lindsay's increasing control of the band, more emphasis was put on harder rocking pop with a nod toward their RnB roots. The last major line-up change was the departure of Charlie Coe who was replaced by Paul McCartney lookalike Keith Allison. In an effort to change the band's image and direction. the band's name was shortened to simply The Raiders in 1971. this was followed by the release of the band's biggest hit, "Indian Reservation" which peaked at #1 in July of that year. Its success was mostly due to the band's self-promotion, as Columbia was beginning to put more money into newer acts such as Blue Oyster Cult and Aerosmith.
 After a few more personell changes, the Raiders' fortunes dwindled an they were forced to play lounges and state fairs as a nostalgia act. While this suited Revere just fine, the same could not be said for Lindsay who quit to begin a solo career that in addition to recording, included film and commercial scoring and A&R (artists and repetoire) work. You can still catch Revere on the road with an all new band of Raiders.

Mike "Smitty" Smith passed away of natural causes in Hawaii on March 6, 2001 three weeks before his 59th birthday
Drake Levin died at his home in San Francisco after a long battle with cancer on July 4, 2009 at age 62.