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Traffic Jam

(Pictured: Steve Winwood dressed with a bit more color at Red Rocks in Colorado last fall than he did in Milwaukee on Sunday night.)

Last Sunday night, we went to the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee to see Steve Winwood. We’d seen him once before, in 2003, on one of the grounds stages at Summerfest in Milwaukee, but since then, I’ve become a far bigger Winwood fan than I was 12 years ago. My laptop music stash includes tons of Traffic, official releases and bootlegs, and as much of Winwood’s other work, in groups and solo, as I can lay my hands on. So I was a little better equipped to appreciate him Sunday night.

If you go to a Steve Winwood concert because you liked his hits in the 80s, “While You See a Chance” and “Roll With It” and “The Finer Things” and the like, you’re going to be disappointed, because he doesn’t seem particularly interested in playing those songs. In 2003, he did “Back in the High Life Again,” and on Sunday night, he closed the main part of the show with “Higher Love,” but they were the only songs from his 80s catalog. It’s clear he’d rather play stuff that lets him and his bandmates stretch out—and nothing’s better for that than songs made famous by Traffic, one of the original jam bands. So he opened with “Rainmaker” and played “Pearly Queen,” “Glad,” “The Low-Spark of High-Heeled Boys,” and a blazing version of “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” that allowed each band member a lengthy solo. Guitarist José Neto and multi-instrumentalist Paul Booth really stood out—at one point, Booth was playing a keyboard with one hand and holding a sax in the other, periodically blowing a couple of notes in the midst of providing backing vocals. Another time, he was alternating soprano sax and tenor sax on the same song.

When Winwood strapped on a guitar, Booth moved over to Winwood’s keyboard spot—and when Winwood strapped on a guitar, the highlights of the show followed. He did a terrific plugged-in version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” and he burned through the solos on “Dirty City” that were originally played by Eric Clapton on the 2008 album Nine Lives. But his best moment was on the first encore, “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” in which he and the band reduced the theater to a smoking pile of rubble. Then it was a quick segue into “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and the show was over barely 90 minutes after it had begun.

Give the man credit: he must have grown sick of playing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “Gimme Some Lovin'” long, long ago, but far from going through the motions (as he did on “Gimme Some Lovin'” when we saw him in 2003), he seemed to be fully engaged in both of them Sunday night. In 2003, he barely spoke to the audience or acknowledged us before disappearing backstage at the end. This time, he was more talkative, and he seemed genuinely pleased by the ovation the band received while taking its bows at the end.

The Riverside was built in 1928 and renovated in 1984. We’ve seen several shows there in the last four or five years, but honesty compels me to report that the sound isn’t always great. We would have appreciated a little more attention to mixing—the one thing that should never be swamped at a Steve Winwood show is the organ, and it often was—and a little less volume. But the venue is easy to get to, easy to get around in, and in close proximity to many fine bars, so it’ll always be a favorite of ours.

Winwood’s daughter Lilly opened the show, as she’s doing for just a couple of shows this week. She was born in Nashville and relocated there in 2010 to pursue her own career in roots music. She played half-a-dozen songs, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She sounds like she’s still figuring out a style, but that’s OK. She’s 19. Her old man had it figured out by the time he was 19 (in 1967), but not everybody’s Steve Winwood.

Freberg on 45

stan-freberg-shboom-1954-78

(Edited.)

The death of humorist Stan Freberg yesterday hit a lot of radio people hard. Many of us either wanted to get into radio, or wanted to be creative in a particular way, because of an early exposure to Freberg’s work. A lot of us (and I put myself in this category) admired him because his vision was so uniquely bent, and his critiques of media, music, and advertising were so perfect. I’ll let other people on the Interwebs talk about his brilliant radio commercials or his groundbreaking album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. Instead, I’ll write about Freberg’s appearances on the singles chart over the years.

Freberg scored with both comedy bits and parody songs. His first chart single, “John and Marsha,” (1951) was the former; his next four were the latter. His biggest hit came in 1953, when the Dragnet parody “St. George and the Dragonet” spent three weeks at #1. Freberg employed two of the most famous voice actors in history, Daws Butler and June Foray, who also appear on the single’s B-side, “Little Blue Riding Hood.” Only a few weeks after “St. George” hit #1, Freberg went back to the Dragnet well with Butler for “Christmas Dragnet,” and he started 1954 by recycling his first hit into “John and Marsha Letter,” which charted briefly. Later in 1954, the topical “Point of Order” would parody the Army/McCarthy hearings.

(Late edit: Joel Whitburn misidentifies “John and Marsha Letter.” It’s actually “A Dear John and Marsha Letter,” which does revisit Freberg’s 1951 hit, but also parodies the 1953 country hit “A Dear John Letter” by Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard.)

At the end of 1954, Freberg charted with a parody of “Sh-Boom,” the original of which had become one of first big hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era. Freberg plays a record producer who repeatedly warns his singers that if they expect to have a hit, they need to mumble. Freberg would frequently skewer the kids’ music, releasing versions of “Heartbreak Hotel” and “The Great Pretender.” Freberg’s last chart hit, “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” (1960) is explicit in its belief that rock ‘n’ roll success requires no real talent—just a smart producer and payments to disc jockeys.

In 1957, Freberg hit with a single that most people (of a certain age) have heard: “Banana Boat (Day-O),” a takeoff on the Harry Belafonte hit that features another famous voice, that of Peter Leeds, as a man who keeps interrupting the singer for being too loud, shrill, and/or piercing. It made #25 on Billboard‘s Best Sellers chart and #43 on the Hot 100.

Freberg starred in a radio sitcom in 1954, but his creative vision was constrained by the sitcom format. The Stan Freberg Show, co-starring Butler, Foray, and Leeds, ran briefly in 1957, but couldn’t attract a sponsor and ran only 15 episodes. The show was the launching pad for the Lawrence Welk parody “Wun’erful, Wun’erful,” which charted at the end of 1957. It’s my favorite Freberg record, featuring a runaway bubble machine and an irreparably damaged accordion.

Although he would win lot of honors and make a lot of money from advertising, he could also take a dim view of it. He turned down tobacco advertising for his 1957 radio show, contributing to its eventual cancellation. And at Christmas 1958, “Green Chri$tma$” sharply criticized companies trying to cash in on Christmas, suggesting they’d forgotten the real meaning of the season. Radio jocks, who knew how clever it was, loved it; radio sales executives did not. According to Wikipedia (so who the hell knows), a DJ in New York City who played it was told he’d be fired if he played it again, and a station in Los Angeles made sure it didn’t air within 15 minutes of any commercial break. Twenty-five years later, the radio station I worked for played it a few times, but only after a great deal of soul-searching, and, if I’m recalling correctly, with a disclaimer.

It really is remarkable how harsh Freberg’s criticism of Christmas commercialism is. “Green Chri$tma$” simply destroys the cynicism of advertisers looking to make a buck on the holiday. (It still hits pretty hard today—or it would, if anyone still cared about such a thing, which no one does.) Despite the record’s merciless tone—it ends with the ringing of cash registers—Coca-Cola and Marlboro, both recognizably satirized in it, responded by asking Freberg to design ad campaigns for them. Freberg had done parody commercials on his 1957 radio show—and the lengthy career in advertising that resulted would win him 21 Clio awards, the highest honor in the ad game.

Stan Freberg started as a voice actor in animation before his 20th birthday, and he was still doing it in the 21st century. He was 88 years old.

A Terrible Place

Forty years ago, in the winter of 1975, I was a freshman in high school. My first girlfriend and I were falling for each other, and on Valentine’s Day, we would pledge our devotion. I had discovered FM radio the previous fall, and so I frequently listened to my new favorite stations on Mom and Dad’s gigantic console stereo. I know I must have had day-to-day concerns, but they’re forgotten now. All that remains is another treasured season of my childhood, safe and protected in a world that seemed manageable, and that held out to me the promise that I could do and be whatever I chose. There were a lot of seasons like that in the middle of the 1970s. Collectively, they were the Best Time of My Life.

Rick Perlstein’s book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is the second of a trilogy that will ultimately tell the story of the unraveling of the post-World War II liberal consensus and the more fractious, more conservative state that arose in its wake. (Perlstein’s first book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, covers the years 1965 through 1972; a future volume will tell about the Carter years and Ronald Reagan’s eventual election to the presidency.) The Invisible Bridge is a political history of the period between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter, but it also paints a vivid picture of American culture in the middle of the 1970s.

And in the middle of the 1970s, Americans weren’t just in a terrible place—America was a terrible place. Culture wars threatened to crack society wide open, over textbooks in West Virginia and school busing in Boston, to name but two places where liberal notions about progress were coming into direct conflict with people who had no desire for that kind of progress. Crime rates rose. The economy shuddered and shook—food and energy prices skyrocketed, growth stopped, unemployment rose, and President Ford (pictured) told New York to drop dead. The superpower that had once stood astride the world was forced out of Vietnam with its tail between its legs. Between 1973 and 1976, Americans came face-to-face with the likelihood that its best days were behind it.

The Invisible Bridge traces Ronald Reagan’s life story from his Illinois boyhood to Hollywood to the California governor’s mansion and afterward, when he used a nationally syndicated radio program and newspaper column to argue that no, America’s best days were not behind it, and ultimately, that his leadership could restore America’s greatness. The climax of the book involves Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. After Ford was defeated by Carter, most commentators believed Reagan’s political career was over. But as we know, it was not. Reagan would harness the resentments unleashed in the middle of the 1970s—and, to be fair, the hopes of Americans battered by the cultural and economic storms—and ride into the White House four years later.

I have said, and may even have written here, that I always felt as though nothing bad would happen while Jerry Ford was in office; in Perlstein’s telling, Ford was a well-meaning man for whom the presidency was probably too much. In other words, a lot of bad stuff really did happen, and we were lucky there wasn’t more. Even though I heard the news on the radio every day, watched it on TV every night, and read the paper most days, the creeping awfulness of that time somehow escaped me then. What The Invisible Bridge made clear to me that the Best Time of My Life was not nearly so safe and secure as I felt it to be.

Forty years ago this week, a record called “Please Mr. President,” written (apparently) by a news reporter at CKLW in Detroit and recorded by a 10-year-old girl named Paula Webb, debuted on the Hot 100. It would reach #60 in a four-week run. Little Paula explains how times are hard for her family, and she asks Ford to do something to help her unemployed father get his job back. It’s probably a more truthful snapshot of American reality in February 1975 than anything you’re going to read from me.

I’d Love You to Want Me

Going through my journal, I found this from 2001. It was music blogging before I ever had—or likely read—a music blog. I’ve added some links to it and edited it a little bit.

Today was as gray and gloomy as yesterday was clear and bright. I drove through the rain to Oregon Middle School to observe a teacher at work in a classroom this morning.

The kids were seventh graders, but they looked so impossibly young. Most voices were still high and soft, most features still childlike. They are the same age I was in the fall of 1972. That fall I was in seventh grade. I was going to manage the basketball team, mostly because I liked the coach, who was also my English teacher. I had probably begun writing a sports column for the school newspaper. But what frames the period most is what always frames the period—music.

That fall, I bought Lobo’s “I’d Love You To Want Me” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” on 45s—my taste was just as eclectic then as it is now. If I’d scan the charts from that season, I’d stop on “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” by Danny O’Keefe, a song I recall having liked, but a song I couldn’t possibly have understood until much later (“You know my heart keeps telling me / You’re not a kid at 33”). The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool,” which is on my Desert Island tape today, was hitting recurrents. Michael Jackson’s “Ben” would enter my personal mythology the next spring—it was on for my first slow dance with a girl. Climbing the charts were the Stylistics’ exquisite “I’m Stone in Love With You,” and the infinitely singable “Operator” by Jim Croce and “Something’s Wrong With Me” by Austin Roberts. Songs I have since come to admire were on the radio late that fall as well—Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” which didn’t have much of an impact on me then, sounds pretty good now. “Dialogue” by Chicago is one of my all-time favorites today, one of the most monumental records of the 1970s. And while I wouldn’t have heard Clean Living’s “In Heaven There is No Beer” back then, it would become a Friday-morning fixture years later on my radio shows in Macomb. . . .

If the paranormal researcher and author T.C. Lethbridge is correct, inanimate objects can record powerful emotions felt in their presence. Rocks on a battlefield, for example, can be found using his methods to have recorded pain and fear. And if Lethbridge is correct, the walls of my junior high school—indeed, of every junior high or middle school—would have to be literally alive with pain and fear, and lust and confusion and heartbreak and bravado and mirth and every other emotion adolescents can experience. . . .

So anyway—I felt empathy for those kids this morning, awkward and geeky and unsure of themselves. Although they face very different challenges in a world so different from mine as to be unrecognizable, I’m wagering some very universal, very human stuff is happening to them now, just as it happened to me. And some of it will linger in their hearts and minds years from now, when they’re not young anymore.

Coincidentally, about the time I found this old journal entry, I listened to an American Top 40 show from mid-November 1972, which contained most of these songs. Read about that in a future installment.

Essential Songs and Official Positions

(Pictured: John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash in 2013.)

We are in pre-holiday mode at the blog this week. Longtime readers may remember that our pre-holiday mode is not much different than our regular mode, except we worry less about the things we should otherwise be doing that we are not.

Over the weekend, The Mrs. and I returned to our much-missed former home of Iowa City, where we saw Rosanne Cash and her husband/guitarist/collaborator John Leventhal perform live. The last time we saw Rosanne she had a full band; this time it was just her and Mr. L doing what she calls “the old soft shoe.” They performed several songs from her latest album The River and the Thread, and she interspersed them with stories about what inspired their creation. She noted that the grave of blues pioneer Robert Johnson, the store where Emmett Till ran into trouble with the people who murdered him (and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement), and the Tallahatchie Bridge, made famous in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” are located only a few miles apart—a testimonial to the mysterious and outsized influence of Southern culture on American history.

“Ode to Billie Joe” must certainly be on the fabled list of essential songs Rosanne’s father gave her when she was a teenager, and which inspired her 2009 album The List. It was one of her best individual performances Saturday night. (Hear a 2013 performance of it here.) So was “Blue Moon With Heartache,” one of her first hit singles over 30 years ago. “When I wrote this, I was younger than my oldest daughter,” she said. (2011 performance here.)

(Digression: although it will probably be shunted off to the Americana category at the Grammys in favor of a bunch of albums with nine producers and eight songwriters on each track, The River and the Thread should be nominated for Album of the Year, and it damn well ought to win.)

I think we’re gonna make a roundup of links that have appeared on my Twitter feed, which we’ve done here several times recently, into a regular thing. Whatever it takes to feed the content monster, and two dozen of you who are still reading this blog. Let’s get it on:

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Music From No-Man’s Land

(Pictured: sheet music for one of the popular songs of World War I.)

The rise of jazz, which began in earnest shortly after World War I, is responsible for our modern conception of rhythm and how pop music should sound. Critic Gary Giddins is blunt: he credits Louis Armstrong, who first rose to fame in the 1920s, with inventing “modern time.” After Armstrong arrives, popular music of every style, not just jazz, relaxes and feels more “natural”—at least to our ears, which can’t remember a time when music didn’t have that feeling. But practically everything that precedes Armstrong’s innovations sounds bizarre to us: stiff and mannered performances, painfully sentimental lyrics and arrangements, and in the case of the “coon songs,” idiotically racist content. Add to that the primitive tech of the times, acoustic recordings reproduced on Edison cylinders, and the music of what is known as the Pioneer Era of Recording (pre-1920) sounds like it came from another planet.

That said, however, people of a century ago were about as interested in pop music as we are now, even without radio and other modern mass media to proliferate it. Popular songs would be born in the publishing houses of Tin Pan Alley and make their way to vaudeville stages in New York, and from there to vaudeville stages in smaller cities. By the time a hit song reached a purchaser, it was often in the form of sheet music, which was cheaper than cylinders. And 100 years ago, the song was more important than the performance anyhow. You’d play it yourself, on your zither or your spinet or your parlor organ or whatever you had.

I’m reading a book right now called The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. Beginning in 2003, author Richard Rubin set out to interview as many surviving World War I veterans as he could find, and he found dozens, ranging in age from 101 to 113. His book tells their stories and recreates their world. One early chapter talks about the music of World War I, and how quickly Tin Pan Alley responded once the war in Europe began. Tin Pan Alley was good at that, according to Rubin. Popular songs 100 years ago were a form of news media. If something significant happened, from a political assassination to a natural disaster, songs about it would hit the stores almost immediately.

So songs about the war were plentiful. In 1914 and 1915, there was a certain ambivalence about it, expressed in songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” but after 1916, and especially after the United States formally entered the war in 1917, popular songs about the war were universally supportive of it. There were songs that promised to smash the Germans, like “When the Yankees Yank the Kaiser Off His Throne” and “It’s a Long Way to Berlin But We’ll Get There.” There were songs that promised support for France, like “France, We’ll Rebuild Your Towns for You.” There were love songs made topical by referring to the war, such as “While You’re Over There in No Man’s Land, I’m Over Here in Lonesome Land.” And there were maudlin numbers like “When a Boy Says Goodbye to His Mother (And She Gives Him to Uncle Sam)” and “He Sleeps Beneath the Soil of France.” Not to mention George M. Cohan’s famous “Over There,” and the English songs “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (a marching song actually written in 1912, before the war began) and “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” And dozens of others, many with the bizarrely long titles so fashionable back then.

Just as the First World War is overshadowed in 20th century history by World War II, the cultural history of First World War pop has been overshadowed by other, later events. Archeophone Records, which has as its mission excavating and retelling the history of the Pioneer Era, is just out with a series called The Great War: An American Musical Fantasy, collecting popular songs from the World War I era. The companion website is a fabulous work of scholarship, describing the propaganda value of the songs, revealing how the American public thought—and how they were being encouraged to think—of the war in Europe, the enemy, and their fellow citizens on the homefront. It describes an era that is both quite different from and significantly similar to our own.

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