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Last Tango

(Pictured: Boz Scaggs, onstage in 2014.)

How long would it take for an artist who’s been recording regularly and successfully for over 45 years to encapsulate his entire career on the concert stage? For Boz Scaggs, it took 90 minutes.

Last Sunday night’s show at the Northern Lights Theater of Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee was technically the third time I’ve seen Boz perform: once on an unusual bill with Ben Sidran and once with Donald Fagen and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September. Nevertheless, a full Boz show has been on my bucket list for quite a while, so I was glad to finally have the chance to cross it off.

The purpose of Boz’s tour, which is the most extensive one he’s undertaken in years, is to promote his new album A Fool to Care, so he included the title song, a Fats Domino original, along with “Hell to Pay,” which appears on the album as a duet with Bonnie Raitt, and the beautiful “Last Tango on 16th Street.” His 2013 album Memphis was represented by “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” He went back to the dawn of his career to open and close the show, with “Runnin’ Blue” and “Loan Me a Dime.” His band sounded great—most notably backup singer Ms. Monét, and especially her solo performance of Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back to Me.” She was spectacular.

Based on the long arc of Boz Scaggs’ career, blues and soul music is what comes most directly from his heart. But anyone who knows that long arc knows that for a long time, Boz took a detour from that music, which lasted almost two decades.

Slow Dancer (1974) was his first largely pop-oriented album, followed by Silk Degrees and its long list of classics. His soul leanings were still on display on Down Two Then Left (1977), but by 1980, and the release of Middle Man, he was all in on being a pop star. Before he played “Jojo” on Sunday night, he joked that it was a song he’d written during “the Hollywood years.” After Middle Man, Boz took an eight-year hiatus from recording. When he returned with Other Roads, the blues-and-soul man was completely absent—Other Roads chased every last late-80s pop trend, and sounds remarkably dated as a result.

But something happened between 1988 and the release of Some Change in 1994—the wisdom that comes to us when we start pushing 50, perhaps. Some Change marked the return of the blues and soul man, with the best songs he’d put on an album since Silk Degrees. (The title song was one of the highlights of his show on Sunday night.) Since 1994, Boz has detoured into intimate small-combo jazz (But Beautiful and Speak Low, your fondness for which will be in direct proportion to how fond you are of Boz’s unadorned voice), and he veered back into a pop direction for Dig in 2001, but he’s always returned to blues and soul. And now, at the age of 71 (!), he’s making the best music of his long career.

Because people come to hear the hits, Boz gave us plenty of Silk Degrees on Sunday night—five songs, including “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle” to close the main part of the show, and “What Can I Say” as his first encore. After a smoking “Loan Me a Dime,” the show was over a mere 90 minutes after it began. Oddly enough, however, it didn’t feel incomplete. As a portrait of the man’s career, it was almost perfect.

Almost. “Breakdown Dead Ahead” would have been nice, but we don’t always get what we want. And that’s OK.

Summer Has Its Way

(Pictured: aftermath of the New York City blackout of July 14, 1977, and a metaphor for my own summer of 1977.) 

I have written many times about how the summer and fall of 1976 are the two seasons in which I would live forever if I could. The winter and spring of 1977 were the happy hangover from those few golden months. But the summer of 1977 ended up having its way with me, and not the good way.

I had a job in town, thus freeing me from having to drive a tractor on the farm. I pumped gas, checked oil, and topped off wiper fluid at a station owned by a friend’s father. A significant percentage of our receipts came from selling smokes, chips, and candy. The job was OK when the place wasn’t busy, or on busy nights when two of us were scheduled to work. The job was at its worst when I was scheduled to work alone on a busy night. And many nights were busy.

As summer began, I got a job at a new grocery store in town, so now I had two jobs. One of my friends had been regaling me for months with stories about how great his grocery store job was. So I went into my job with visions of big fun and big money, only to find it involved big physical labor. I started before the store’s grand opening, and I spent my first weeks cleaning filthy display cases, swabbing filthy floors, and stocking miles of shelves. When the store finally opened, I bagged groceries, which meant hours of continuous motion and heavy lifting.

The worst part of the job, however, involved the people who worked there. Most of my co-workers treated me with undisguised scorn, for reasons I never understood. My boss was an awful man who seemed to take pleasure in making people feel two inches tall and miserable. Especially me.

On July 14, 1977, a little after 10:00, I was coming home from one of my jobs, behind the wheel of my AMC Hornet, getting up onto Highway 69. The radio was on— because the radio was always on—and as I drove, I heard about the New York City blackout. “Wow, that’s weird,” I thought, and then another song came on and I went back to thinking about my own life, the jobs I didn’t like, and about my girlfriend, who had left for Europe the weekend before. Because that’s what matters when you’re 17.

It wouldn’t be very many more nights before my summer fell apart, although not as spectacularly as New York City’s did. In early August, I quit the grocery store, so discouraged by the work and my co-workers that I didn’t even bother to pick up my last paycheck. Shortly thereafter, the gas station mysteriously stopped scheduling me; I wasn’t fired, but I never worked there again. And although the reunion with my girlfriend after her month in Europe was joyous, we were only a couple of months away from beginning a protracted period of splitting up and getting back together that confused and exhausted the both of us.

So: my specific memory of that July night is not much, but it has stuck with me for 38 years now, by whatever alchemy such a thing happens. The blackout is part of the mental furniture whenever I revisit that summer—a summer in which I learned that nothing lasts forever, that everything sweet and glorious eventually becomes sour and small. New York was learning that lesson in slow motion throughout its painful 1970s. My lesson didn’t take quite so long.

(If you’d like to read a better essay about the summer of 1977, Michele Catalano wrote a wonderful piece yesterday at Medium about growing up on Long Island during that summer, and how it affected her and her fellow teenagers.)

Famous Days

(Pictured: in place of a more thematically appropriate piece of art, please enjoy this photograph of an accordion being tossed out of a high window.)

Tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of this blog’s creation. In keeping with anniversary custom, here’s a rundown of my favorite posts since July 11 of last year. Yearly best-of posts are aggregated at the top of the page under jb’s Greatest Hits. Taken together, they represent the best I can do.

This year featured the usual string of tributes to those now departed. Some losses were personal: a general manager who was more like a general and a radio man who gave me some good advice I didn’t take. Some were from the broader world of radio. When Gary Owens died this past spring, American Top 40 paid tribute by repeating a show he guest-hosted in 1982, and I live-blogged it (here and here). Other tributes were to artists I like: Stan Freberg and Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown.

In addition to that post about my former general manager, there were several other posts touching on my early radio days: about the mad scientists in the engineering department in Macomb, and about the day I nearly killed an engineer in Dubuque. My Dubuque radio past came back in an unusual way this past spring when my 1982 face popped up on network TV. There was a post about the once-ubiquitous homemaker shows and one about the day I became the PD of a real Top 40 station.

In addition to writing about radio, we listened to some of it, including small-town radio advertising and all-night broadcasts. And I took you behind a microphone of a different kind.

We listened to some music, too: Elton John’s forgotten first album, a band from small-town Wisconsin, the new styles of country music, and hits from 100 years ago. On the latter subject, Archeophone Records invited me to review a compilation by Pioneer Era recording star Dan W. Quinn.

I also reviewed a forthcoming novel by a longtime friend of the blog.

We watched some TV this year, too, and spotted one of the most famous figures of the 70s in an unusual place.

My favorite thing to write has always been One Day in Your Life posts, or posts similar to them. This year, I wrote about a famous day in American history, and two significant dates in my personal history, three weeks apart, 50 years ago (here and here). I also went back to a significant season and found that it wasn’t as idyllic as seemed while I was living through it.

This blog occasionally went off topic, as in this post about why I don’t go to the zoo anymore, and this one, about a subject of grave interest to young boys (and the old men they become, if you want to know the damn truth about it).

I wrote about one summer day in no specific year, and about a transformation that happened sometime later.

And as usual, I have overused the editorial “we,” but only a bit.

My plan for the coming year is to keep on, not just here, but on Twitter and on Tumblr, and less often on Facebook, if you swing that way. I hope you’ll connect in one place or another, and continue reading here. My thanks to all.

“I Want to Show You Another Way”

(Pictured: John and Yoko perform “Instant Karma” in 1970 with former Beatles roadie Mal Evans on tambourine and Klaus Voorman on bass.)

I have read Peter Lee’s stuff for several years, and maybe you have too, at his blog Hooks and Harmony. He doesn’t post often, but when he does, he always offers a fresh perspective. As it happens, we now know what’s been keeping him from blogging (apart from a family and a career and the need to mow the lawn and such): he’s about to publish a novel called The Death and Life of Mal Evans.

Evans is often described as the Beatles’ roadie. He was that, but he was also personal aide, errand-boy, and fixer for each of the Beatles individually. Evans took the whole ride, from the Cavern Club to the Sullivan show to the days with the Maharishi and onward to the bitter end. He’d bang a wood block in the recording studio and he’d run to the pub for bottles of beer. In his post-Beatle years, he stayed on the fringes at Apple before separating from his wife and moving to Los Angeles in 1973. On January 5, 1976, a week before he was to deliver the manuscript of an autobiography to a publisher, he got into a tussle with his live-in girlfriend. She called the police, and when they arrived, Evans pointed a gun at them. The cops shot him to death. After the shooting, it was discovered that he’d been holding an air rifle. He was 40 years old.

The Death and Life of Mal Evans begins with the shooting, but instead of dying, Evans hears a voice that tells him, “I want to show you another way.” And with that, he’s transported back to September 1969, where he gets the chance to change history through a simple act nobody will know about but him, and thereby keep the Beatles from breaking up. Over the next several years, he and the Beatles (and their fans) live through an alternate timeline in which there are more Beatles albums, and in which the members’ careers take unexpected turns.

Unexpected, maybe, but not unpredictable. What makes counterfactual history hard to do well is the amount of research and the level of craft it takes to plausibly project into a different reality the lives people lived in our reality, without rendering those people unrecognizable as themselves. You can’t just throw people into a different timeline and have at it. That’s just writing fiction with familiar names. Peter says the novel is the product of a decade’s work. What John, Paul, George, and Ringo say and do, and how they act, in their alternate 1970s, rings true. The albums they make as a quartet in the 70s ring true as well, and one of the novel’s major pleasures is seeing those albums come together. It’s been meticulously planned and is scrupulously written. It’s terrific entertainment, too. It moves quickly, and that’s a good thing, because once you’re into the story, you want to know what happens next.

I have been blogging in one forum or another for over 12 years now, 500 or 700 or 1,000 words at a time. It’s easy: I think about something for few minutes, type up whatever half-assed conclusions I choose to draw, and hit “publish.” It’s the perfect diversion for somebody with a short attention span and a poor work ethic. For that reason, I have tremendous admiration for Peter and The Death and Life of Mal Evans. He’s channeled his passion for the Beatles into an involving story, which is going to be a real book with pages and covers and everything. It will be available at Amazon next month, and you should buy it.

(Note From the Proprietor: Even after all this time, I’m never entirely sure what will strike a chord with the readership. Tuesday’s post clearly did. Thanks for your kind words about it. They’re greatly appreciated.)

Every 1’s a Winner

(Pictured: Hot Chocolate plays Top of the Pops in 1974. Errol Brown is second from left.)

I was saddened to hear of the death earlier this week of Errol Brown, lead singer of Hot Chocolate. I don’t write about every musician who passes, but this particular passing is one that smacked me harder than most, because I have been a Hot Chocolate fan from the first time I ever heard them, 40 years ago this spring, when “Emma” climbed into the American Top 10.

By 1975, Hot Chocolate was already well established in the UK. They’d hit the British charts seven times between the summer of 1970 and the end of 1974. “Emma” and three other singles made the Top 10. Between 1975 and 1998, they would chart 29 more times in the UK (including remakes and reissues). Their lone British #1 was “So You Win Again” in 1977, but “You Sexy Thing” had the distinction of making the Top 10 three different times: in 1975, 1987, and 1997, the last time thanks to its inclusion in the movie The Full Monty. They made the British charts every year between 1970 and 1982, a feat managed by only two other acts: Elvis and Diana Ross (and Hot Chocolate’s streak lasted through 1984).

Hot Chocolate’s tally of hits in the States is far smaller: eight Hot 100 singles between 1975 and 1982, three hitting the Top 10: “Emma” and “You Sexy Thing” along with “Every 1’s a Winner” in 1979. “So You Win Again,” which ran three weeks at #1 in the UK, managed only #31 in the States. The ferocious “Disco Queen” got only to #28 on the Hot 100. The group’s other three singles failed to make the Top 40.

Hot Chocolate was the first to hit with two songs that became familiar in the United States by others. “You Could Have Been a Lady,” which was a modest American hit for the Canadian band April Wine in 1972, had been a modest UK hit for Hot Chocolate almost exactly one year before. (Go watch the video and notice how incredibly hard their version rocks. Notice also the deeply weird setting for the video.) Their “Brother Louie” made the UK Top 10 a few weeks before Stories’ version hit #1 in the States. Where Stories hints at racist reactions to “Brother Louie”‘s interracial romance, Hot Chocolate’s version is explicit about them. We hear the fathers tell their children, “I don’t want no honky/no spook in my family.”

If you do not love “You Sexy Thing,” we should probably stop seeing each other. Likewise “Emma.” But if you’re looking for good songs you don’t know, I can recommend “It Started With a Kiss,” which hit #5 in the UK in 1982. “No Doubt About It,” which went to #2 in 1980, is an oddball in the Hot Chocolate catalog—not a love song or a song about dancing—it’s sung by a guy who’s seen a flying saucer. “I’ll Put You Together Again,” which reached #12 in the UK at the end of 1978, is the classic that got away, at least from American audiences. It’s simple and lovely and a tremendous performance.

Errol Brown’s story is quite interesting: a native of Jamaica, he got his first break in music when he cut a reggae version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and got it released with Lennon’s blessing. Brown and his songwriting partner, Tony Wilson, were signed to Apple’s publishing arm, and the name of the group they formed was suggested by Apple executive Derek Taylor’s secretary. Hot Chocolate performed at a pre-wedding reception held for Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981. Brown left Hot Chocolate in 1985 to spend more time with his family, although he also worked as a solo artist. In 2003, he was awarded an MBE. He’s survived by his wife of 35 years and two daughters. He was 71 years old.

Dissimilar Adaptations

(Pictured: azure choker hero Bob Seger.)

(Slight edit since first posted)

I was noodling around on the Internet the other morning, doing a bit of research about “More Than a Woman,” the Bee Gees song also recorded by Tavares. My searching brought me a Google Books link to Bee Gees 194 Success Facts: Everything You Need to Know About Bee Gees by Francis Dejesus. The bit of the book pertinent to my research read as follows:

Such was the reputation of Saturday Night Fever that 2 dissimilar adaptations of “More Than a Woman” (Bee Gees song) experienced airplay, one by the Bee Gees, that was demoted to collection trail, and one other by Tavares that was the hit. The Gibb sound was ineluctable. During an 8-month time starting in the Christmas season of 1977, 6 tunes authored by the bros held the #1 placing on the US graphs for 25 of 32 successive weeks—three of their personal deliverances, 2 for male sibling Andy Gibb, and Yvonne Elliman sole.

Fueled by the movie’s triumph, the sound recording smashed numerous business records, getting to be the highest-selling collection in transcriptioning past to that point. With further compared to 40 million duplicates traded, Saturday Night Fever is amid music’s highest 5 finest vending sound recording collections.

The book went on like this for 114 pages.

What the hell?

As it turns out, there are dozens of books in the Success Facts series, published by an outfit called Emereo Publishing. They are mostly musician and showbiz biographies, but I was also able to find titles about Nikola Tesla and Haile Selassie. Further googling reveals that Emereo’s stock is text harvested from Wikipedia, dumped into a spambot blender, and regurgitated as e-books for sale at Amazon.com, without ISBN numbers, and selling for $15. They appear under many different generic author names—Linda MacIntosh, Diane Sanders, Steven Steele, Kevin Hammond—but they’re the same hash. The books sometimes start like a legitimate bio—“Close acquaintances via youth, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel matured up in the mainly Jewish Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, New York, simply 3 blocks as of every one other”—before veering off into lists of nuclear holocaust fiction, hitchhiking in popular culture, and everything else that’s linked in the Simon and Garfunkel Wikipedia entry. Some don’t even do that. The Kenny Loggins, Neil Diamond, and Lou Rawls volumes start with lists of Wikipedia articles and never even try to assemble a narrative.

Emereo’s website entries for various volumes do specify that the text consists of “relevant selected content from the highest-rated wiki entries,” and that “a portion of the proceeds of each book will be donated to the Wikimedia Foundation to support their mission.” Nevertheless, the whole thing comes off pretty skeevy. Emereo, as you would expect, is a shadowy operation, doing lots of print-on-demand and vanity publishing, in addition to the Wikipedia scams. Amazon has tried to police these quickie content mill books, although it’s not clear whether Wikipedia has. Nevertheless, as of last fall, there were over 2,400 Success Facts books for sale at Amazon. The likely market for these “books” are people who want to read something about a favorite star but aren’t too picky as to what.

Just as it is possible to appreciate the accidental poetry of Internet spam, one can occasionally find intriguing bits of verbiage in these books too. Explaining Bob Seger’s waning popularity in the 1990s, “Paul Hart” writes: “Heartland rock weakened off as an acknowledged category by the first 1990s, as rock tunes in common, and azure choker and white functioning grade subjects in specific, missed impact with junior viewers, and like heartland’s creators, turned to further private functions.” I couldn’t figure out what “azure choker and white functioning grade subjects” meant until I googled “azure choker” and found it also appears in Emereo books about John Mellencamp, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Milwaukee.

Then I got it: “blue-collar and white working classes.”

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