April 12 is David Cassidy’s birthday, so a few of his tracks (solo and with The Partridge Family) are sprinkled in today’s playlist.
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There’s the voice. In its 2008 survey of the greatest singers of all time, Rolling Stone placed Sam Cooke (born January 22, 1931) at number four.
There are the songs. “You Send Me,” “Wonderful World,” “Cupid,” and many others are classics, known to generations. Cooke not only sang these songs; he composed them as well. I think that when you listen to the Sam Cooke playlist below, you’ll recognize a lot more songs of his than you realized.
There’s the business acumen. Cooke was among the first African American entrepreneurs in the music business, starting his own record label, SAR Records, in 1961. Artists signed to the label included Bobby Womack, Johnnie Taylor and Mel Carter. He founded a song publishing imprint. He created a management firm.
There’s the civil rights activist. Cooke took an active role in the civil rights movement. Inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cooke composed and recorded “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Released as a single in December 1964, less than two weeks after he was shot to death at age 33, the recording is considered by many to be his finest work and a classic protest song.
There’s the legacy. Sam Cooke was among the charter inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s actually in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – once as a solo artist and once as a member of the gospel group The Soul Stirrers. He’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner. He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In addition to his ranking on their Greatest Singers survey, Rolling Stone also placed him at number sixteen on their Greatest Artists of All Time list.
Today’s playlist pays tribute to the great Sam Cooke, with two dozen of his best recordings plus covers of a few of his hits.
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One day in the late 1990s, while in my office at Sony Music, I received a call from the security desk in the lobby. “Art Garfunkel is here to see you.”
I wasn’t expecting Art Garfunkel. I’d never met Art Garfunkel, though we spoke on the phone a few times. I worked in the International Licensing department and received a fair number of requests to have Simon & Garfunkel and Art Garfunkel solo tracks included on compilations. “Send him up, please.”
A few minutes later, Art Garfunkel walked into my office. We shook hands and then both sat down and chatted. I don’t recall our entire conversation, though I do remember him telling me that he is particular about the artists with whom he is to be coupled on compilations, saying he wouldn’t want a track of his to be next to one performed by Iggy Pop. It wasn’t meant as a slight to Iggy; he meant the transition from one of his ballads to a heavy rocker would be jarring to the listener. He said he and Paul Simon used to argue about the running order of the tracks on their albums.
He hung out in my office for around fifteen minutes, during which time I got him to laugh more than once (about what I have no recollection). When he got up to leave he shook my hand again and told me “You are my favorite person at Sony Music.”
A decade later I met k.d. lang at a small party meant to celebrate her latest release. I’ve seen many concerts over the years; only twice has a singer so thrilled me that the hair on my arms stood up. The first time was when I attended the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls and Jennifer Holliday sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The other time was when I saw k.d. lang at Radio City Music Hall and she covered Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Spectacular!
My interaction with k.d. at this party was very brief. A hello and a handshake. My only memory of this encounter is that she had the firmest handshake of anybody with whom I’ve ever shaken hands, including my step-uncle Steve. Damn, girl!
In 2012 I attended Warner Music Group’s pre-Grammy bash. Sean Combs a/k/a Puff Daddy a/k/a Puffy a/k/a P. Diddy a/k/a Diddy…now I forgot what I was going to write. Oh, yeah – he was at that party. I didn’t chat with him or shake his hand.
I’ve never chatted with Glenn Frey of Eagles nor have we both attended the same party, though I occasionally licensed his music while working at Warner.
k.d. lang’s birthday was this past Sunday, Diddy/Puffy/whatever’s birthday is today, Art Garfunkel’s is tomorrow and Glenn Frey’s is Thursday. Unlike Garfunkel I like compilations with jarring transitions. As such Tunes du Jour celebrates the birthdays of these four folks in today’s playlist.
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As a songwriter, Jimmy Webb scored his first hit in 1967 at age twenty when The 5th Dimension took “Up, Up and Away” to the top ten. Later that year Glen Campbell had a hit with Webb’s composition “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
Webb then wrote a 22-minute cantata. His friend Bones Howe, with whom Webb worked on The 5th Dimension’s Up, Up and Away album, invited Webb to play the new piece for The Association, who Howe was then producing. Their reaction was less than enthusiastic. Per Howe, one group member said “Any two guys in this group could write a better piece of music than that.”
Sometime after, Webb received a telegram from actor Richard Harris, who he met at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. Harris was nominated for an Academy Award in 1963 for This Sporting Life and again in 1990 for The Field. He later went on to play Professor Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. The telegram read “Jimmy Webb, come to London and make a record. Love, Richard.”
Webb flew to London, bringing a satchel of songs he’d written. He played each for Harris, but nothing struck the actor. Webb recalled “I looked down with some dread because there was only one thing left.” That one thing was the last movement of the cantata he presented to The Association. He called it “MacArthur Park.”
Here are the lyrics to “MacArthur Park.” Raise your hand when they get confusing.
The opening lines are “Spring was never waiting for us, girl / it ran one step ahead, as we followed in the dance.”
I see some hands raised. The next line should help you understand: “Between the parted pages and were pressed in love’s hot fevered iron, like a striped pair of pants.” Now you got it! Harris, who is from the UK, where “pants” means underwear, uses an iron, a hot fevered iron, on his striped underwear. You may be asking: Does he iron his solid-colored underwear? Does he have solid-colored underwear? Boxers or briefs? Relax – there are still six and a half minutes left in the song, so maybe you’ll find out.
Moving on, we learn that MacArthur Park, which Harris calls MacArthur’s Park for the duration of the song, is melting. In the dark. Its icing is flowing down. Who hasn’t been there?
We now arrive at the classic lines about a cake left out in the rain, which appears to be causing Harris to have a breakdown. “I don’t think that I can take it ‘cause it took so long to bake it and I’ll never have that recipe again. Oh no!” Calm down. It’s just a cake. Bake another one. I know – this song was recorded in the pre-Internet age when finding a cake recipe required one to open a cook book, but come on! This cake can’t be that special if you chose to leave it out during inclement weather.
By the end of verse one we have learned several things: 1) Harris is singing to a girl; 2) Harris irons his striped underwear; 3) a park is melting; 4) if you bake a cake and wish to leave it outside, check The Weather Channel first; and 5) never write a song while you are on an acid trip.
As the song continues it gets more bizarre. The melody changes and Harris threatens us by singing “There will be another song for me, for I will sing it.” Luckily, this other song never became a hit. (And may I add, he is being rather presumptuous by calling his performance on this record “singing.”)
The song clocks in at nearly seven and a half minutes, and though it reached #2 on the US pop charts, most listeners had no idea why Harris was singing about a melting park, ironed underwear and a waterlogged dessert.
Songwriter Webb didn’t understand the confusion. He told Q Magazine that the song is “clearly about a love affair ending, and the person singing it is using the cake and the rain as a metaphor for that.” Clearly. Clear as mudcake.
The love affair was one from Webb’s own life. He and his girlfriend would meet for lunch at MacArthur Park, where there would sometimes be birthday parties, with cake. Their breakup devastated Webb, who wrote “Mac Arthur Park” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” based on their relationship. (Bonus trivia – the woman went on to marry Linda Ronstadt’s cousin.)
In 1993, humorist Dave Barry surveyed his readers to find the worst song. The clear winner for Worst Overall Song and Worst Lyrics was “Mac Arthur Park.” Culture critic Joe Queenan disagreed with the results “because ‘Ebony and Ivory’ exists, as do ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,’ ‘Baby, I’m-a Want You,’ ‘Feelings,’ ‘Benny and the Jets,’ ‘Witchy Woman’ and ‘Sussudio,’” adding “On a planet where somebody thought it would be a good idea to write ‘Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,’ the best ‘MacArthur Park’ is ever going to earn in the sucky-song sweepstakes is a tie.”
Good or bad, the song is a classic. A 1968 Grammy winner for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist, the song has been recorded by top artists in diverse genres, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, the Four Tops, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. Waylon Jennings’ 1969 version won a Grammy. In 1978, Donna Summer’s rendition became her first #1 pop record and stands as the only US #1 pop song for Jimmy Webb, who also wrote “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Worst That Could Happen” and “All I Know.”
It has been rumored that Webb and Harris had a falling out due to the song’s success. Harris promised Webb his Rolls Royce if the song went top ten. When the record did, Harris offered Webb a different Rolls Royce. It is because of this that people named Richard are often called Dick. Allegedly, the pair stopped speaking.
Today Jimmy Webb turns 68 years old. Hopefully he’s somewhere celebrating with a nice piece of wet cake. We kick off our weekly dance party with Donna Summer’s version of “MacArthur Park,” which she, like Harris, insists on calling “MacArthur’s Park” for the duration of the song.
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Among the things I discussed is improv’s most fundamental concept, that of “Yes, and” – accepting your scene partner’s idea and building upon it – and how this idea can be applied to one’s work life.
There is an improv game called Conducted Story. We get a title from the audience; then the conductor points to someone who starts the story, then someone who continues, etc. You want to progress the story and have it make sense. Yes, and.
As the head of the licensing department at Rhino Entertainment, I often did conducted stories in staff meetings. Not literally, but as music sales slipped, we looked for new ways to increase revenue. “We could license to other media besides CDs” “such as greetings cards” “which Hallmark would sell and pay us a royalty” “and we can suggest licensable songs for each holiday” “and expand that into other things sold at Hallmark shops, such as gift boxes and Christmas tree ornaments.” Despite CD sales plummeting during the second half of the last decade, my licensing department’s revenue rose each year.
For those of us who have struggled with shyness, performing improv, even in a classroom setting, increases self-confidence. It worked for me. I used to be shy. Incredibly shy. Painfully shy. Music was my best friend. While other kids were doing Little League, I’d be home listening to my Four Seasons records. I went to therapist after therapist, but they didn’t help me get over my shyness.
Once people got to know me they would tell me “You know you’re very funny.” That gave me an idea. I’ll overcome my shyness by becoming a stand-up comedian. I’ll stand in front of strangers and express my thoughts and feelings, and they’ll have to listen, as I have a mic and a spotlight.
For me, the stand-up helped. I wrote out my sets and memorized them, word for word. I got laughs and more gigs, but was still shyer than I wished. A fellow comedian suggested I take an improv class.
Studying improv gave me the courage to get on stage with topic bullet points memorized, but not each word. It freed me and took my stand-up to another level. An agent liked my set and represented me. I got more bookings and made a little money.
Mind you, my goal was not to become a famous stand-up comic. It was to gain self-confidence. Within five years of starting improv, I went from this shy music geek making a meager salary to a Vice President at a major record company, Warner Music Group, where I made a six-figure salary and negotiated complex deals with artists and attorneys.
Over the course of my music biz career I’ve met many of my favorite all-time artists, including Prince, Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz of Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads, Art Garfunkel, Jack White, Kate Bush, Smokey Robinson, Tina Turner, Donna Summer, Rufus Wainwright, Boy George, Joan Jett, Frankie Valli and Chaka Khan.
I started getting into Sam Cooke in 1978. That year, Art Garfunkel had a hit with his version of “Wonderful World,” while Sam Cooke’s original version appeared on the soundtrack to the movie National Lampoon’s Animal House. I was familiar with Cat Stevens’ hit version of “Another Saturday Night” and Dr. Hook’s hit version of “Only Sixteen.” I bought Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits to hear the original versions of these songs.
Starting his career by singing gospel music, Cooke moved into the secular market in 1956. The Soul Stirrers, the gospel group for which Cooke was singing lead, were signed to Specialty Records. The label’s head, Art Rupe, didn’t like the secular music Cooke was recording, so in 1957 Cooke left for Keen Records, where his first single was the classic “You Send Me.” It went to #1 on the pop and r&b charts. Cashing in on this success, Specialty released a single of one of the Cooke recordings they had in their vault, “I’ll Come Running Back to You.” It also went to #1 on the r&b chart and went top 20 pop.
In 1960 Cooke moved to RCA Records. As Specialty did before them, Keen looked through their vaults to find a Cooke recording to release as a single. They found “Wonderful World.” Like many of his hits, Cooke wrote the song, this one with Lou Adler and Herb Alpert. The composition initially was credited to Barbara Campbell, Cooke’s fiancée, as Cooke was engaged in a dispute with Art Rupe about publishing royalties.
The song wasn’t recorded to be a single. It was done at an impromptu session. Cooke’s regular drummer wasn’t there, so he recruited the sixteen year-old nephew of one of the other musicians to play on the track. Lou Rawls was in the studio with Sam, singing the last word of each line with Cooke in the same mic.
“Wonderful World” became another hit for Cooke on the pop and r&b charts. In all, he had 29 top 40 pop hits and 34 top 40 r&b hits. In addition to singing and writing hit songs, he started SAR Records in 1960, producing recordings for Billy Preston, Bobby Womack and Johnny Taylor, in the process becoming one of the first African-American entrepreneurs in the music business.
Sam Cooke died on December 11, 1964, from a gunshot wound. He was 33.
Today Tunes du Jour remembers the great Sam Cooke on what would have been his 83rd birthday.