Single of the week

Gloria (Laura Branigan)

This week, I look at a song that began life in Italy – as a love song which never charted in the UK. The song has since been a hit twice and on both occasions had a different translation of its lyrics by two different people. That song is called Gloria.  Van Morrison, with his group Them, recorded a song called Gloria in 1964 which appeared on the B side of Baby Please Don’t Go. In 1981, U2 recorded a different song with the same title but it’s neither of those that are this week’s subject. It’s the song that was a hit for both Jonathan King in 1979 and Laura Branigan in 1982, but let’s head to Italy to find out about its origins.

The song was written by Turin-born singer/songwriter Umberto Tozzi along with the Italian composer Giancarlo Bigazzi and was originally a love song, although if you translate the original Italian lyrics into English, the song begins ‘I miss you in the air, I miss you in my hand that works slowly, I miss that lips that I don’t touch anymore’ which sort of works, but then it continues, ‘ Gloria on your wings the morning gives the sun, hatred comes in and love comes out with the name of Gloria.’ OK, whatever! The Italians obviously thought highly of it as it as it spent 16 weeks in their top 10 including six at number two. It topped the chart in Switzerland and Spain, went to number four in Austria and number three in both Belgium and France. In Germany, a rival version by Gerd Christian was released at the same time, but Tozzi’s got higher peaking at number eight. The following year, two more versions were recorded, both with different translations, an Estonian version by Mait Maltis and a Czech version by Vítězslav Vávra under the slightly altered title Divka Gloria.

In the UK, the first version came in 1979 from Jonathan King, under his own name who also wrote his own English lyric which went, ‘Gloria, every time I see ya, but only when I see you, only when I’m dreaming, all my days are lonely so cloudy grey without ya and when they get too much for me, I only think of Gloria’ which are not a literal translation, but certainly more of a love song. His version stalled at number 65 in the chart.

In 1981, a Canadian songwriter called Trevor Veitch, who had worked with Toni Basil, wrote another English lyric for a version that was to be recorded, most famously, by Laura Branigan (although, bizarrely he wasn’t credited on the label) She was a New York-born singer who had a very academic approach to her music. She had studied at the Academy of Dramatic Arts and got her first break when she joined Leonard Cohen on a European tour. It was when she was performing in a club in Manhattan that she got spotted by a promoter called Sid Bernstein. Laura once explained in an interview with Todd Everett, “I was doing Barry Manilow songs and some Edith Piaf numbers as well as some of my own material and Sid put me in touch with Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic records. I think he appreciated the fact that I had a real voice and wasn’t some gimmick, I remember him saying that I had so much emotion in my voice.”

Veitch’s lyrics, again changed the song’s meaning, and rather than being a love song, it portrayed Gloria as a woman whose looks are no longer what they were but in her head she is still beautiful and everyone still lusts after her. In reality she is getting older and still cannot find a stable relationship; ‘Gloria, you’re always on the run now, running after somebody, you gotta get him somehow, I think you’ve got to slow down before you start to blow it, I think you’re headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it.’ “We basically took the same arrangement and just gave it an American Kick,” Laura explained in an interview with Billboard magazine. “The original Italian version was structured the same but much softer; mine had more guts and a lot more punch.” She also told People Weekly, “We originally attempted an English version in the same romantic mode of the original, changing the title to Mario, but this seemed ineffective. To me it was about a girl that’s running too fast for her own steps.” The song peaked at number two in America ironically held off by Toni Basil’s Mickey. The song was heard during the skating scene in the 1983 movie Flashdance.

It wasn’t Branigan’s highest charting UK hit, although it did reach number six, but it certainly became here signature tune. She once said, “I always get the same reaction wherever I go and whenever I perform it. I have to end every show with that song and people just go crazy. Gloria was just a great girl!” It earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance for a Female but she lost out to Melissa Manchester’s You Should Hear How He Talks about You.

In America it spent 36 weeks on the chart and the same week it dropped off, Laura entered with her follow-up, Solitaire, which also made the top 10. Her next top 10 hit was also the UK follow-up, Self Control, which was originally recorded by RAF.

In 1985 Laura recorded the original version of I Found Someone which stalled at number 90 in the States, but served Cher greatly as her comeback single reaching number five in 1987 after a 13-year absence from the UK chart.

In 1996 Branigan retired from the music industry to spend more time with her husband Larry Kruteck after he was diagnosed with colon cancer, he died later the same year. She struggled to come to terms with his death and it took five years until she felt ready to make a return. Her comeback was cut short after she broke both legs when she fell off a ladder at home whilst she was hanging Wisteria out of her window. She eventually recovered and landed the role portraying Janis Joplin in an off-Broadway musical, Love, Janis.

In August 2004 she died in her sleep at home in New York. It transpired that she’d been suffering severe headaches but failed to get medical attention and her cause of death was reported as a brain aneurysm. She was just 47.

Tozzi, who is now 65, still records and occasionally tours Europe. In a more recent interview he said, “Gloria was a character in my head with long red hair and designer jeans who ruled the roller rink. She was also a spy who travelled the world on ‘very important’ missions, like a cooler, female version of James Bond, with a hefty dose of Wonder Woman and all three Charlie’s Angels thrown in. All the boys adored her, followed her around, worshiped her, chased after her to ask for each and every ‘couple’s skate’. I wanted her to be something fierce. I do think I missed quite a bit in my translation, though my ‘version’ of the song still makes me smile.”

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Pata Pata (Miriam Makeba)

Nelson Mandela is certainly the most famous South African to be exiled but a close second has to be a singer who was an outspoken opponent of apartheid and as a result was exiled for 30 years. From a very young age, she witnessed things most people would never have to endure. She was unique in her sound which America and its people appreciated and it’s her most famous song I look at this week. Her name is Miriam Makeba and the song is Pata Pata.

She was born Zensi Miriam Makeba in Johannesburg in March 1932. Her mother was a housemaid and her father was a teacher of Xhosa, the second most popular language after Zulu. Its name came from King uXhosa and originated from an ethnic group of people from the eastern side of South Africa. Miriam’s real first name derives from the Xhosan word Uzenzile, which translates as ‘you have no one to blame but yourself.’ Nice! When Miriam was just two and half weeks old, her mother was arrested for the heinous crime of selling a beer which she brewed herself and was sentenced to six months in prison. Instead of the authorities taking Miriam away her mother was allowed to take her to the prison and thus Miriam spent her first six months of her life in jail. Her father died when she was just six years old and Miriam was forced to do jobs for local people to help her mother to support the family. She also began singing in a choir at a training institute in Pretoria where she had moved to live with her grandmother.

In 1949 she married and the following year, at the age of 17, gave birth to her daughter Bongi. She was then diagnosed with breast cancer, which was treated rather unconventionally, but, nonetheless, successfully, by her mother. Her husband left shortly after. Miriam would go on to marry a further four times, her second being the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela who later topped the American chart with Grazing in the Grass. Her third marriage was to the Trinidad-born civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who changed his name to Kwame Touré, which caused controversy in America and she suffered when her record deals and tours were cancelled.

In 1953, after a short stint with a local group called The Sunbeams, she was invited to join a jazz group called the Manhattan Brothers who sang a mix of South African songs as well as popular American ones. Whilst on tour in 1955 she met a young man, a lawyer at the time, called Nelson Mandela. She went on tour with the Manhattan Brothers and her natural stage presence and dynamic vocal range as well as an emotional awareness in song raised the group’s profile which led, in 1962, to an invitation to appear alongside Marilyn Monroe at John F. Kennedy’s birthday party. In 1959 she landed the lead female role of shebeen queen of the Back of the Moon in the 1959 jazz-influenced musical King Kong which portrayed the life and times of the heavyweight boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini. The show’s cast, despite being entirely black, was seen by millions of white people which would enhance her reputation. Later that year she attended the Venice Film Festival and was then refused re-entry back into South Africa.

She went to America where she befriended Harry Belafonte, who took her under his wing and helped her build a solo career. In 1960, shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, Miriam learned that her mother had died, but because her passport had been withdrawn and she was unable to return home for the funeral and that’s when she began her 30 years of exile. That ban was finally lifted once Nelson Mandela got into power in the mid-nineties. She and Belafonte often sang together and she earned herself the nickname Mama Africa.

Her singing was unique, she could soar like an opera singer as well as plummet to a roar, she could even growl like Eartha Kitt, but it was the clicking sounds she could produce with her mouth that became a topic of fascinating talk and wonderment. The clicks are very prominent on the 1967 song Pata Pata where the noises are interspersed with the words. It sounds like a drum rimshot, but as Miriam once said, “Everywhere we go, people often ask me, ‘How do you make that noise,’ and it used to offend me because it isn’t a noise, it’s my language,” she explained in a television interview in the Netherlands in 1979.

The song was written by the jazz saxophonist Reggie Msomi and first performed by The Sunbeams with Makeba on vocals and Spokes Mashiyane on the penny whistle under the original title Phatha Phatha which translates as Touchy Touchy in Xhosa and is quite an erotic dance. The clicks are an art and in the Xhosa language there are three types of clicks, which are known as dental, lateral, and alveolar, and are written, confusingly, with the letters C, X, and Q.

In early 1985 her daughter died in childbirth following which she decided to move to Brussels. On 4th March that same year, the day of her 53rd birthday, she came to London and performed at Royal Festival Hall. She addressed the audience, many who had seen her the previous time some 11 years earlier, where she explained the criticism she had received about turning her back on the west and had made insulting comments to the white people; “People have accused me of being a racist, but I am just a person for justice and humanity. People say I sing politics, but what I sing is not politics, it is the truth. I’m going to go on singing, telling the truth.”

The following year her former husband, Hugh Masekela, introduced her to Paul Simon who invited her on his Graceland tour. Two years later she took part in the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium.

She continued touring until 2005 when she announced her retirement, at that point she realised how popular she was in her homeland by the older generation, she said, “Everyone keeps calling me and saying ‘you have not come to say goodbye to us!'” So, despite announcing her retirement, she occasionally made appearances until 2008 when she decided to announce a final farewell tour which ended in Naples. After the tour ended she made one last appearance when she performed in Castel Volturno, near Caserta, following an invitation to support a member in his stand against the Camorra which was a mafia type local organisation. Whilst on stage she performed Pata Pata and then suffered a heart attack and was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was pronounced dead on arrival. She was 76 and, apart from being affectionately known as Mama Africa, she was also acknowledged as the Empress of African song.

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Rice is Nice (Lemon Pipers)

In 1968 one particular band were outselling acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Monkees with one song that topped the US chart and made number seven in the UK. The song was Green Tambourine by the Lemon Pipers. Your average music person will swear blind they only had one hit, but there was a minor follow-up, Rice Is Nice, so let’s find out about it.

The Lemon Pipers were a psychedelic band formed in 1966 in Oxford, Ohio and comprised singer Ivan Browne, guitarist Bill Bartlett, bassist Steve Walmsley, keyboardist R.G. Nave and drummer William Albaugh. They were students at the time and most had played in various student bands before all getting together to form The Lemon Pipers. A chance meeting with impresario Mark Barger pointed them in the direction of Buddah records where they signed a deal.

Their debut released was called Turn Around and Take a Look which went nowhere, but their next two did and were both written by musician Paul Leka and lyricist Shelley Pinz. Shelley, who was born Rochelle Pinz, was inexperienced at the time and decided to head to New York’s Brill Building with a stack of lyrics in her bag. She walked in, got into the lift where a man already in there offered her a cigarette to which she replied, “I wouldn’t like a cigarette, I would like a music writer.” That man was Stan Costa, son of producer and music arranger Don and he took her to an office where Paul Leka was working away and introduced the pair. “I never saw anybody with so many lyrics,” recalled Leka in an interview with Billboard, “But I like them and we ended up writing about 20 songs together.”

The Lemon Pipers’ debut hit, Green Tambourine, was based on a newspaper article Pinz spotted about an elderly gentleman busking in London and collecting his donations in a green tambourine that lay on the pavement and that image inspired Shelley to write the song. The band actually hated it because they wanted to make psychedelic music but their record label preferred them to fit in with the bubblegum genre that the label formed for and they only agreed to record Green Tambourine otherwise the label threatened to drop them. In the UK their hits were released on Pye International. They were contracted for two albums which they made, Green Tambourine and Jungle Marmalade, both of which were a mixture of established songs, Leka tunes and their own penned originals. Nave, they keyboard player recalled, “The albums sounded like two different bands – Leka’s sound and our sound. We were the Jekyll and Hyde band of the late 60s.”

On the back of the song’s huge success the obligatory follow-up was required and as Nave recalled in an interview with Cincinnati Magazine, “I distinctly remember being in an 80th floor office in New York saying to myself ‘I don’t want to record these stupid songs.” Browne, in the same interview said, “It wasn’t long before it showed and that applied to most of us.” Rice is Nice was a ridiculous song about matrimony with the cheesiest of lyrics, ‘Rice is nice, that’s what they say, rice is nice, throw some my way, rice is nice on any day.’ Clearly the record-buying public were equally unimpressed as it stalled at number 46 in America and 41 over here. By now they didn’t care because at a New York Awards ceremony where they received a gold disc for Green Tambourine the band purposely slaughtered Rice is Nice in the presence of all the label’s top brass. One further single, Jelly Jungle (Of Orange Marmalade) was already earmarked and was as bad as the title sounds and by the spring of 1970 the Lemon Pipers broke up.

The sad point is that the band were very happy with their own ‘sound’ and were never really given the chance to showcase it. If they had been given that opportunity and maybe even signed to a record label that let them have artistic control, their career could have been very different. That’s probably one upside to today’s technology where you don’t necessarily need a record label to launch a career and make a name for yourself.

So, what happened to the band; Browne moved back to California and is a postman by day and he and his wife have been making music for over 30 years and is available to download at Walmsley continues to play bass and is currently a member of Second Nature. Meanwhile Bartlett formed the short-lived band Starstuck, but then joined Ram Jam who recorded a funk/rock version of Leadbelly’s Black Betty and were rewarded with a UK number seven hit in 1977. Bill Albaugh died in January 1999 and Leka passed away in October 2011. Shelley Pinz became a psychotherapist specialising in the use of music, art and poetry. She also gained a Master’s degree in social work, and in 2001 she published a volume of poetry and lyrics called Courage to Think.

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Europa and the Pirate Twins (Thomas Dolby)

“I think something that set me apart was that I could have been a conventional songwriter, with piano and voice. I’m nothing special as a pianist or as a vocalist, so I needed a wider palette to express myself with. I’m not a song and dance man, like Elton John,” admitted Thomas Dolby, the man behind the Europa and the Pirate Twins which is this week’s Single of the Week.

Thomas was a sound pioneer in the early eighties daring to try things that few others dared back in the analogue era. He was born Thomas Robertson in London and not Cairo as NME and Smash Hits once stated. His father was a professor and a young Thomas was moved around between Greece, France and Italy as a child. He knew by the time he’d reached his teens years that he wanted to work in a creative field, but was unsure in which field be it a writer, actor, musician, producer or director. Wikipedia states that he completed his A-levels but Thomas once said, “I sang in a choir and learned to sight-read single lines, but other than that I don’t have a formal education.” He continued, “I kind of fell into music because it didn’t require a lot of entry qualifications. I picked up the guitar initially, playing folk tunes—Dylan mostly, then I graduated to piano when I got interested in jazz, listening to people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and so on. The first electronic instruments started to become accessible in the mid-70s and I got my hands on a kit built synthesizer and never looked back.

He wanted to change his name because Tom Robertson sounded too much like Tom Robinson who was already making a name for himself. He kept his full first name, but it was friends who nicknamed him Dolby after the audio noise-reduction process created for tapes in the 1970s. He signed a deal with EMI Records and his debut single was Europa and the Pirate Twins. “People thought electronic music was a novelty, so I felt it was my role to show them its potential,” he exclaimed. Even though technology was much more limited back then he never felt limited as to what he could do. He explained how it was back then, “I did have the background, and I did have that compositional and arranging skill. Whereas a lot of people who play with machines got into it without much of a musical background, and were able to get the machine to express something to get themselves across in that way. In my case, I could have written conventional music on musical instruments, but instead I chose to work with these devices. The difference, really, was my songs were really songs. You’re hearing unusual sounds and arrangements, but the underlying compositional backdrop was quite a conventional one.”

Europe and the Pirate Twins’ inspiration came from World War II and tells the story of two young sweethearts, one 12 and the other 14 who, because of the circumstances, are forced to part company. On that fateful day he vowed that one day they would be together again. Nine years passed and one day he sees her…..on the cover of a magazine. She is now 21 and is an actress and singer. He so wants to be back with her, but he can’t get to her. The infatuation is still there and he goes out and buys all her music and sees all her films but he knows it’s not the same. One day he caught a glimpse of her in London and while he ran towards her he gets stopped by her bodyguard who obviously thinks he’s some kind of nutcase and then she was gone…forever.

The song, which features XTC’s Andy Partridge on harmonica, only reached number 48 in the UK chart and its parent album, The Golden Age of Wireless, stalled at number 65. In 2009, a greatest hits called The Singular Thomas Dolby was released and in the sleeve notes Europa was referred to as ‘a semi-autobiographical romp’.

Thomas turned his hand to writing a couple of films; in 1985 he composed the score to Fever Pitch which starred Ryan O’Neal and the following year scored Ken Russell’s Gothic. In 1992 he founded the computer software company Headspace in Silicone Valley, releasing The Virtual String Quartet as its first program, and also pioneered technology for music on mobile phones. Did he enjoy doing film work? Thomas: “You can spend days writing one little theme for a love scene, and then the love scene has to go so it’s on the cutting room floor and the studio owns it, so it’s kind of tough. When you’re working on a computer game, the team is smaller and the budget is smaller, you tend to be left to your own devices more.” Two years later he released The Gate to the Mind’s Eye, a soundtrack to the animated short film Mind’s Eye. For most of the 90s Thomas was occupied with his software company although did return to live performing in 2006.

These days he still makes music, but still wants to be involved with films but is fussy as to what he takes on, “It’s really hard because it looks good on paper but at the end of the day it’s not something you want to be involved in and it makes me appreciate how lucky I am with my records, that I can just have this vision and a year later it’s in the stores on the shelves. I really appreciate that freedom, which in a movie you just never have.”

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Fantasy (Earth, Wind and Fire)

Last month we lost the great jazz musician Al Jarreau, but as I noted in his obituary, the general public would not class him as jazz. On the late seventies he made his sound more commercial and that’s when he became commercially acceptable. The same goes for both George Benson and the band that provides this week’s Single of the Week subject – Earth Wind and Fire.

The man who assembled the band was Memphis-born Maurice White who learned drums as a kid and played in a school band with his friend Booker T. Jones who later led his own group, The M.G’s. The White family made regular trips to Chicago to visit his mother and eventually moved there in the late-fifties. After graduating he became a session drummer for Chess records in the mid-sixties where his first visit to the UK chart was on Fontella Bass’ 1965 hit Rescue Me, the following year he could be heard drumming on Billy Stewart’s hit Summertime. Later that same year he was invited to join the Ramsey Lewis Trio and can be heard on their two biggest hits Wade in the Water and The In Crowd. He left in 1969 to form his own band The Salty Peppers and decided to head south to Los Angeles to explore a new journey in music. In 1970 Maurice changed the name of the band to Earth, Wind and Fire which came about because of his fascination in cosmology and astrology. He chose the name from his astrological sign – Sagittarius, which has the primary elemental quality of Fire and the seasonal qualities of Earth and Air. He once said, “Earth, Air & Fire didn’t sound right, so I changed Air to Wind.”

Over the years more than 50 musicians have passed through the ranks of the band, but this week I look at their second UK hit, Fantasy from 1978 of which the line up at the time was vocalist Maurice White and Philip Bailey, Maurice’s brother Verdine (bass), Larry Dunn (keyboard), Johnny Graham (lead guitar), Al McKay (rhythm guitar), Andrew Woolfolk (sax and flute) and drummers Fred White (another brother of Maurice’s) and Ralph Johnson.

The music for Fantasy was written by Verdine White and a keyboard player and composer Eddie del Barrio, the lyrics were penned by Maurice. He explained how they became successful and how he came to write Fantasy, “Basically we were a jazz band and we converted a jazz band into a pop band so we covered all areas because we wanted to be universal. Universal means appealing to everyone. We got the music down first and then it was time to write the lyrics and it took me a long time to write those lyrics. Nothing was coming. I eventually went to see the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was an extra-terrestrial movie and I was so inspired after seeing it that I came back to the hotel and wrote all the lyrics and it happened in one night and it all just came out, it was like someone was talking to me. He said, in an interview with Melody Maker, “The song is motivated about escapism in the sense of living on a world that is untrue, a world that is unjust, and a world that is very selfish and envious, there is a place that everyone can escape to which is their own fantasy. I had to write the song in the sense of sharing this place with people. It’s an escape mechanism.”

When it came to recording it, Maurice reflected, “The whole idea is that you build a pyramid, where you have different sections playing things and everyone makes a contribution. It’s a multi-layer, we had an orchestra behind us then we had a rhythm section.” The studio engineer was George Massenburg who added, “We always said just throw things on tape, if the guitarist had an idea we’d throw in on tape and if the percussionist played something interesting, we’d throw it on tape and it was kind of my job to separate these and I made sure you could hear everything, you could hear the guitar here and the drummer there rather than just one great big wall of noise. I used to separate them by equalisation by bringing up parts of instruments to make then shine, but Maurice always wanted more kick and when he asked for more vocal or more kick then that changed everything and I had to play around with everything to keep it balanced. Thomas ‘Tom Tom’ Washington was the string and horns arranger on the session and really gave the song lots of colour.”

One thing that gave the band their distinctive sound is an African instrument that Maurice discovered call the Kalimba. It is an African hand-held thumb type keyboard and is a modern addition to the ancient African lamellaphones family of instruments. Its name fascinated Maurice as he named an interlude called Kalimba Tree after it as the opening track on side two of their 1981 album Raise.

The band scored 15 further UK hits including September, Boogie Wonderland (alongside Maurice’s protégé group The Emotions), After the Love Has Gone and Let’s Groove through to 1984 when they took a three year hiatus. They returned in 1987 with five original members still intact. In 1989 Maurice was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which stopped him touring, but he retained executive control of the band up until in death in February 2016.

The current line-up still includes three original members – Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson – Bailey’s son is also now a member of the band and plays percussion as well backing vocals. I was lucky enough to see them at Hammersmith in 1981 and again at the o2 just a few months ago and they still a great live attraction with the same sound and energy they’ve always had. The highlight for me was that Philip Bailey’s falsetto voice, which, at the age of 65, is still crystal clear and can still get all the high notes. He even does a 10 minute acapella falsetto set which was mesmerising.

Fantasy is a song few would have the guts to cover, but Black Box, with Martha Wash on lead vocals, brought it to a new audience in 1990 and took it to number five.

Following 9/11, Earth, Wind & Fire performed at a benefit concert in Virginia to raise money for the American Red Cross. The show raised $25,000 for the charity. They also performed at the closing ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. President Obama was a fan too because in 2009, by invitation, they became first musical acts to play at the White House since Obama took office.

Maurice said of the song’s success, “The key to writing a good song is to come up with a good melody that sounds like you’ve heard it before when you haven’t. You get lost in the music and when you’re lost you’re found and that’s not so bad.”

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