Tag Archives: Four Tops

Throwback Thursday – 1965 (Part II)

Winston + Dylan
No other pop song so thoroughly challenged and transformed the commercials laws and artistic conventions of its time, for all time.
Rolling Stone, naming Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” the greatest song of all time

If it came out now, it would still be radical. For 1965, it was mind-blowing, as was its success. Six minutes long, sung by a guy who sounded nothing like the other singers on the radio, with confrontational often insulting lyrics. Somehow, it went all the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, kept from the top spot by The Beatles’ “Help!” As Rolling Stone wrote, “Just as Dylan bent folk music’s roots and forms to his own will, he transformed popular song with the content and ambition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Thanks in part to “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Help!” and Motown and Stax and the Rolling Stones and other British Invasion acts, 1965 was one of the best years for pop music. Tunes du Jour celebrates Throwback Thursday with a second playlist of tracks from this stellar year (the first playlist can be found here), kicking off with a Bob Dylan record that changed the rules.


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Throwback Thursday – 1964

Between the British invasion, the growth of Motown, and the girl group sound, many arguments could be made as to why 1964 was the best year for pop music. Here are twenty:


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Throwback Thursday – 1983

Winston + MJ
MTV debuted on August 1, 1981. Back then it was a music video network. It positioned itself as a rock station. Most of the videos shown were of songs made by Caucasian performers, though rock-leaning black acts such as Joan Armatrading and the Bus Boys got some play.

Then came “Billie Jean.” The second single from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, “Billie Jean” was accompanied by a stylish video featuring a mesmerizing performance from Jackson. However, it wasn’t a rock song. It didn’t fit the format of rock radio stations, and it didn’t fit the format of MTV either.

But there is a big difference between radio and music television. There were plenty of radio stations and many different formats. You may not hear “Billie Jean” on the rock stations, but you could hear it on r&b stations and pop stations and dance-leaning stations. However, there was only one music television – MTV.

In his autobiography, Howling at the Moon, Walter Yetnikoff, head of CBS Records, for whom Jackson recorded (and where I worked in my first music business job), wrote “I screamed bloody murder when MTV refused to air [Jackson’s] videos. They argued that their format, white rock, excluded Michael’s music. I argued they were racist assholes – and I’d trumpet it to the world if they didn’t relent. I’ve never been more forceful or obnoxious. I’ve also never been as effective, threatening to pull all our videos. With added pressure from [Thriller producer] Quincy Jones, they caved in, and in doing so the MTV color line came crashing down.”

Jackson’s video for “Billie Jean” aired on MTV, followed just weeks later by his video for “Beat It,” a song whose guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen helped make it a hit on rock radio. These two videos made Jackson, already a superstar, a worldwide phenomenon with a humongous fan base that transcended race, age and location in a way never seen before. These two videos made MTV, a year and a half old and fairly popular in white suburban areas, a cultural institution. These two videos made the music video, then not something done for many singles, particularly those performed by artists of color, an art form and a necessary marketing tool.

Some people tuned in to MTV to see the Michael Jackson videos, and while watching the channel, discovered other acts. Some people tuned in to MTV to watch “white rock” videos, and while watching the channel, discovered Michael Jackson.

MTV went to showcase more “non-rock” videos. In 1988, they launched their hugely popular program Yo! MTV Raps, something that would have been completely unexpected just five years earlier, pre-“Billie Jean.”

While MTV deserves credit for making “Billie Jean” and Thriller successful, the person most responsible is Jackson himself. He wrote the song. He sang the song. He danced the song. Quincy Jones did not want “Billie Jean” to appear on Thriller. He didn’t like the title. He didn’t like the bassline. He felt the song’s introduction was too long. Jackson argued “But that’s the jelly!…That’s what makes me want to dance.” Jones wasn’t ready for this jelly, but Jackson stood his ground.

In May of 1983, NBC aired a tribute to Motown Records. Motown: Yesterday, Today, Forever featuring many legends who recorded for the storied label performing their classics. We saw Diana Ross, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, Mary Wells, Junior Walker and then some. It was a terrific show, but the talk of the town following its airing was the performance of a song not from the Motown catalogue – Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The iconic performance, during which Jackson brought the famous moonwalk to the world at large, pushed him that much more ahead of any other performer working in music back then.

Following “Beat It,” CBS Records released four more singles from Thriller. All seven of the singles released (the album had only nine songs!) went top ten, breaking the record of most top ten hits from a single-artist album that was set a few years earlier by…Michael Jackson, whose Off the Wall gave us four. Before Thriller, four singles for one album was considered a lot. Thriller raised the bar for blockbuster albums, and subsequent releases such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Prince’s Purple Rain, Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Janet Jackson’s Control each produced more than four hits.

“Billie Jean” changed everything.

On this week’s Throwback Thursday playlist, Tunes du Jour spotlights 1983, kicking off with Michael Jackson’s classic “Billie Jean.”


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Throwback Thursday – 1982

As a songwriter, Gloria Jones charted with Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman,” the Four Tops’ “Just Seven Numbers (Can Straighten Out My Life),” and Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross’ “My Mistake (Was to Love You).” As a producer, Gloria Jones hit the top ten on the disco chart with Gonzalez’s “Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.” But as a lead singer, Jones failed to make the pop, r&b or dance charts.

In 1973, while on a trip to the United States, British DJ Richard Searling purchased a copy of a Gloria Jones single from 1965. The A-side was a song called “My Bad Boy’s Comin’ Home,” but it was the B-side that really got Searling’s attention.

Northern soul music (uptempo American soul music in a sixties Motown vein yet without commercial success) had a large cult following in the northern England at that time, and Searling played the Gloria Jones b-side during his sets.

Northern soul fan David Ball loved the song. When he and his musical partner, Mark Almond, who together comprised the duo Soft Cell, were looking for a song to cover, they went with the Jones song, thinking it would be interesting for a synth band to cover a soul tune. Their record label asked them to add guitar, bass and drums to the track, but the duo refused. Despite this, the label put out the singer. Almond told Rolling Stone magazine “We thought if we were really lucky, we’d scrape into the top 75 in Britain. We didn’t think anything would happen over here [in the US].”

Soft Cell’s recording of “Tainted Love” became a smash worldwide. In the US, it spent 43 weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, a record at that time. Said Gloria Jones of the Soft Cell recording “Their version was far better than mine.”

Winston + Soft Cell
This week, Tunes du Jour celebrates Throwback Thursday with twenty great tunes from 1982, kicking off with Soft Cell’s version of “Tainted Love,” but first, check out Gloria Jones’ original:



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Throwback Thursday – 1971

At the end of the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was a huge star, having had more than two dozen top 40 hits before 1970. However, the singer was having a crisis of conscience, wanting to sing about the ills of the world he saw around him as opposed to perform nothing but love songs.

Inspired by the horrific stories told to him by his brother of what he witnessed serving three years in Viet Nam, Gaye, who hadn’t a hand in writing most of his hits up to this point, added lyrics to an unreleased song written by Obie Benson of the Four Tops and Al Cleveland.

He presented the song to Motown head Berry Gordy, who supposedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Gaye’s response? “Basically, I said ‘Put it out or I’ll never record for you again.’ That was my ace in the hole, and I had to play it.”

“What’s Going On” became the fastest-selling single in the history of Motown Records. Rolling Stone magazine has since placed it at #4 on their ranking of the greatest songs of all-time.

This week’s Throwback Thursday playlist consists of twenty hits from 1971, kicking off with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”


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Throwback Thursday – 1966

me - 1966001The blogger in 1966

“My mother used to tell me about vibrations. I didn’t really understand too much of what she meant when I was a boy. It scared me, the word ‘vibrations’ – to think that invisible feelings existed. She also told me about dogs that would bark at some people, but wouldn’t bark at others, and so it came to pass that we talked about good vibrations.”
– The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Rolling Stone magazine

“The concept of spreading goodwill, good thoughts and happiness is nothing new, but it is our hope. The ideas are there in ‘Good Vibrations,’ ‘God Only Knows,’ ‘Heroes and Villains,’ and it is why the new LP is called Smile.”
– The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson

According to Brian Wilson, Capitol Records didn’t want to release “Good Vibrations” as a single because of its duration: three and a half minutes. Reportedly, executives at the label were also concerned about the psychedelic overtones of the lyrics. Wilson pleaded with Capitol to release the 45.

The song went to #1 and earned the Beach Boys a Grammy nomination in the category of Best Contemporary Group Performance, in which they were pitted against three fine recordings plus “Guantanamera” by the Sandpipers. The Beach Boys lost, thankfully not to the Sandpipers but to the Mamas & the Papas for “Monday, Monday.” Mojo magazine placed “Good Vibrations” at #1 on their Top 100 Records of All Time list, and Rolling Stone magazine had it at #6 on their 500 Greatest Songs of All Time survey.

The crowning achievement of “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys was followed by an abrupt reversal of fortune for the group. While “Vibrations” was their 14th top ten single in just over four years, they would have to wait another ten years before cracking the top ten again, with their not-that-great remake of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” in 1976. It would be twenty-two years after “Good Vibrations” that the group hit #1 again, with the classic bad song “Kokomo.” The Smile album Carl Wilson referred to in the quote above went unfinished. Instead, the group released an album entitled Smiley Smile in 1967. Between 1963 and 1966 the group scored nine top ten albums; Smiley Smile peaked at #41. The following year’s Friends album only got as high as #126.

On this Throwback Thursday, Tunes du Jour listens to twenty of the finest singles from 1966, kicking off with the classic “Good Vibrations.”


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Throwback Thursday – 1965

me - 1966001The blogger in 1965

For this week’s Throwback Thursday playlist, Tunes du Jour revisits the year 1965.


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A Soulful Christmas Playlist

TRIVIA QUESTION: Who was the first woman to hit the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 with a song she wrote herself?

ANSWER: Carla Thomas. She was 16 years old when she wrote “Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes),” which hit #10 in 1961. Today she turns 72.

In 1963, Thomas incorporated the title of her first hit into a seasonal offering, “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas.”

“Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas” inspires today’s playlist – fifty great soul and r&b Christmas jams, with some fun extra treats thrown in.

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It’s Friday And I Need To Dance!

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.

Ringo + Harris 2014-08-15 12.17
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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When Smokey Sings Or Writes

doggies + Smokey 004

In 2011, I attended the Society of Singers’ tribute to Smokey Robinson. The award was well-deserved, as anyone who has heard him sing knows that Smokey Robinson possesses a sweet, soulful voice, one that he has used to beautiful effect on records going back more than fifty years. The British band ABC paid tribute to him on their top ten single “When Smokey Sings.” In their hit “Genius of Love,” Tom Tom Club sing “No one can sing quite like Smokey, Smokey Robinson.”

doggies + Smokey 005

In addition to his singing talent, Smokey is a writer on many classics in the great American songbook. Chances are you know “The Tracks of My Tears,” “My Girl” (click here for more about that song), “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” (originally recorded by Smokey’s group The Miracles as the b-side of a 45), “The Tears of a Clown,” “My Guy,” “Shop Around,” “Ooo Baby Baby,” “I Second That Emotion,” “Cruisin’,” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.”

doggies + Smokey 006Here’s my cocktail napkin from the Society of Singers event. I need to wash that placemat.

I met Smokey one time in the late 1980s. I was working at CBS Records in midtown Manhattan. Our offices were in the Black Rock building, which was also home to WCBS radio. Smokey had just done an interview at the radio station when I bumped into him in the building’s lobby. I told him I enjoyed the article about him in the new issue of Rolling Stone, which I was holding. He said he hadn’t seen it yet and took my magazine from me to look at it. I wouldn’t let him keep my issue – I was a poor office clerk, after all – but he was gracious enough to sign an autograph for me.

Smokey autograph

Today is Smokey’s 74th birthday. Enjoy this playlist comprised of songs Smokey sings and songs Smokey wrote or co-wrote, songs you know and songs you should know.

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