Single of the week

While You See A Chance (Steve Winwood)

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Not too many musicians make a living over so many years and cover so many genres. In the last 46 years, Steve Winwood has done blues, jazz, folk, prog-rock, rock and pop.

Two groups with back to back number ones in 1966 were led by young singers with very mature voices. Scott Walker led the Walker Brothers and Steve Winwood led the Spencer Davis Group. Winwood was just 15 when the band formed in 1963 and they got their break after Island record label owner Chris Blackwell, saw them supporting  Carl Wayne & The Vikings in Birmingham and then signed them, but licensed them to the Phillips label.

After the group broke up, Steve formed Traffic who had two successful years, but when that fell apart, he left to form the Supergroup Blind Faith. In 1970 he attempted a solo career with his first album being Mad Shadows, but after he enlisted the help of former Traffic members Chris Wood and Jim Capaldi, the album was re-titled John Barleycorn Must Die and was released as Traffic thus forcing them to reform.

When that didn’t work out, Winwood effectively retired to Gloucestershire where he built his own studio and spent the following two years writing songs but also helping fellow musicians Sandy Denny and the Sutherland Brothers on various sessions.

He released his first solo album proper in 1977, but due to the onslaught of punk it got overlooked and the reviews dismissed it as Passé, despite this it still reached number 12 in the UK.  The following year he began work on his next album which he wanted to be a real solo project and so he played all the instruments, arranged it, produced and engineered it. It took two years and the result was Arc of A Diver. The only contributions were from songwriters George Fleming and Will Jennings and former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band leader Vivian Stanshall who co-wrote the title track.

Prior to recording the album, Jennings and Winwood became good friends and spent a lot of time socially. It helped with the writing as Jennings explained, “If you’re writing a play, you’re writing for a particular persona, a particular character, and you try to feel as deeply inside them as you can – where are they coming from and what they’ve been through. It’s the same with Steve, While You See A Chance because he was coming out of a whole period with Spencer Davis and Traffic, and then where else do you go? I was up there at his place in rural England, and I was in his life so to speak, and trying to see through his eyes as well as mine. And that’s what all those things were about, all the songs we wrote.”

The song has often been regarded as an inspirational song, but one of the lines says, ‘While you see a chance take it, find romance, fake it’, which seems negative, Jennings explained, “Well the next line explains it: ‘Because it’s all on you.’ There’s an old English expression called ‘Fake it till you make it.’ If you don’t have romance in your life, meaning in the broader sense, really, something to make life interesting, just imagine it until it’s there.” Jennings’ logic can also be spotted in Whitney Houston’s 1987 hit Didn’t We Also Have It All which he co-wrote with Michael Masser.

During the recording process, Winwood accidentally erased part of the drum track in the intro. He spent many, many hours trying to replicate it and piece what he had left back together, but in the end decided to leave it without the drum track for the first 29 seconds. Personally I think it makes it more atmospheric and show cases Steve’s brilliant keyboard abilities. Steve’s comment about it was, “The mother of invention in music is necessity, not Frank Zappa!” The song reached number 45 in the UK but the album reached number 13. Steve’s contract with Island records had lapsed but because of the success of Arc of A Diver, he was now in a position to renegotiate his contract.

On Steve Winwood’s 1988 album Roll With It, there is a track called Hearts On Fire which describes a boy who is out with his friends when he sees a girl at the bar who he fancies. He chats her up and she comes back with the line ‘baby while you see a chance, you better take it’. Rumour has it that this was a true story about how he met his second wife Eugenia.

Steve released further albums, Refugees of the Heart (1990), Junction Seven (1997), About Time (2003) and Nine Lives (2008). He is still writing, recording and performing live. When I met him in 2009 he looked in great shape and was a lovely man to chat to and came across as a genuine passionate musician and not a ‘rock star’.

He is currently touring the USA until June but will make one appearance in the UK this year which will be at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in May. It would have been quite handy for him as he only lives up the road from it, but this year he will be popping back from the States.

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I Saw The Light (Todd Rundgren)

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“I saw Bat Out Of Hell as a spoof on Bruce Springsteen, I thought it would be just a cult thing” says Todd Rundgren, the man who produced one of the biggest selling albums of all time.

Philadelphia-born Todd, after cutting his teeth in a band called Woody’s Truck Stop, formed a garage band called Nazz in 1967 in which Todd wrote most of the songs most notably Hello It’s Me (which he later cut as a solo single). They also released three albums, the imaginatively titled Nazz (1968), Nazz Nazz (1969) and Nazz III (1971). He was influence by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Yardbirds and Cream, but it was after hearing Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and Dionne Warwick’s first album, which he describes as, “The sensibility of Burt Bacharach” that made him change his writing style and use of harmonies. He recalled, “It always rankled with me when my album Something/Anything? came out and people said, ‘He’s the male Carole King’ which is someone I appreciated as a songwriter but never emulated.”

In 1970 Todd had gone solo and released his first two albums, Runt and Runt: The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, but it was his third album, the aforementioned, Something/Anything? that brought him to the mainstream. The album, in which Todd played all the instruments and overdubbed scores of vocals, opened with I Saw the Light, a 1960s pastiche and a homage to Laura Nyro. He recalled, “I wrote this song in 15 minutes from start to finish. It was one of the reasons that caused me to change my style of writing. It doesn’t matter how clever a song is – if it’s written in 15 minutes, it is such a string of clichés that it just doesn’t have lasting impact for me. And for me, the greatest disappointment in the world is not being able to listen to my own music and enjoy it.”

The song is about a mixed-up teenage boy who stumbles into his first affair and doesn’t know if he loves the girl or not. Was it based on a personal experience? Todd revealed, “I Saw the Light is just a string of clichés. It’s absolutely nothing that I ever thought, or thought about, before I sat down to write the song.”

Todd liked the way Berry Gordy operated at Motown and decided to copy the idea of putting a track that he thought would be a hit at the beginning of the album. The song reached number 16 in the US, but it was his solo remake of Hello It’s Me that became his biggest hit reaching number five. In the UK, I Saw the Light was his only hit and only just made the top 40. The song has been used in the TV shows Six Feet Under, Beavis and Butthead and That ’70s Show and also in the films Kingpin and My Girl.

Todd enjoyed making records but was equally comfortably producing. By 1977 he’d got together with Meat Loaf and they started work on Bat Out Of Hell. Looking back on that, he recalled, “the best thing about that album was that you had three egos – three huge egos – in me, Jim Steinman and Meat. That, of course was also the worst thing about that record – and you can still hear that today – the best and the worst. None of us thought it would be a success – it was such a crazy idea, as the record unfolded. I mean, can you believe we just wanted to get it done? We just wanted to hand it in – to have it finished.”

Beyond that he worked with XTC and even did some backing vocals for Celine Dion. Throughout the 80s, 90s & 2000s, Todd has released a string of cult albums with the most recent being 2011’s (Re) Production which contains covers of Hall & Oates’ Is It A Star, Badfinger’s Take It All and even his own version of Meat Loaf’s  Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad.

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Elusive Butterfly (Bob Lind)

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This week’s song is another in the case of a B side being flipped by a radio DJ to become worldwide smash. Cheryl’s Goin’ Home made no impact at all, but thanks to the drive time DJ on WQAM in Miami, Florida who decided to play the other side, Elusive Butterfly, and that kickstarted Bob Lind’s musical career.

Bob was born in the East coast state of Maryland who began playing with a school friend Jerry Valdez and before long started a band called the Moonlighters. After a year Bob split from Jerry and formed Bob Lind & the Misfits. They began touring coffee houses performing rock ‘n’ roll classics like Bony Moronie, Rip It Up and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. During the early 60s Lind turned to folk and gradually moved west.

Bob explained how easy it was for him to get his first recording contract, “I seemed to come to Los Angeles at a time when the music world was ready for me. No patience or persistence necessary. I took a Greyhound bus to L.A. from San Francisco on a Tuesday and the next morning I took a tape of four of my songs in to World Pacific Records (a division of Liberty) and played it for the head of the company, Dick Bock. He played the songs for the suits at Liberty that afternoon, and on Thursday morning there was a recording contract waiting for me.”

Once signed, he was originally teamed with Sonny Bono, but Sonny didn’t have the time to commit so he recommended Jack Nitzsche who had worked with the Rolling Stones and P.J. Proby. “I gladly and happily surrendered all say-so about how the recordings would be done,” remembered Bob, “Two simple reasons: 1) I knew Jack loved my songs as much as I did and would do nothing to ruin them. His heart was in what I was doing. 2) He just happened to be the best arranger in the world and had spent five years learning record production as right-hand man to the best producer in the world, Phil Spector.”

Bob, who wrote Elusive Butterfly as the sun was coming up after staying up all night, saw himself as a butterfly hunter. He is looking for romance, but he finds it as elusive as butterflies are to capture. He says the song is about “The magic of the quest, the thrill of searching, even when that which is sought is hard to see.” What also makes the song unusual is that no two lines rhyme.

The song features Leon Russell on piano and Carol Kaye on bass and Carol remembered the session, “It was at Sunset Sound and it was kind of a boring tune. I think it was D-flat or something and it stays a long time in that chord and then it moves in a funny way to the next chord, it’s like a sidebar phrase or something like that. I missed it and I went to go up to the G-flat or whatever and I missed it and I came right back down. I did a slide up and down. And they stopped and I thought, ‘Uh oh, he caught me.’ He said, ‘Do more of those!’ So the slide was born, then. I’d stick that slide in here and there on the records I cut.”

The parent album’s title borrowed a line from the song to be called Don’t Be Concerned and it featured the track Mister Zero which was covered in the UK by the former Yardbirds frontman Keith Relf as his only solo hit. Elusive Butterfly’s original A side, Cheryl’s Goin’ Home was covered in the UK by Adam Faith becoming his final hit in 1966, but just missed the UK top 40.

A cover version of Elusive butterfly was released by Irish crooner Val Doonican and on week ending 31st March 1966 both versions were back to back in the top ten and amazingly both peaked at number five. Other artists who have covered the song include Cher, Petula Clark, Four Tops, Dolly Parton and Aretha Franklin.

Lind followed up Elusive Butterfly with Remember the Rain which petered out at number 46. He spent the next few years battling drugs and alcohol and by the early 80s was no longer in the spotlight although he did continue to write wistful folk songs. Two decades later he returned, reformed and provided a series of one man shows and radio interviews about his life and career. If you happen to be the USA in the next three months you can catch him at various venues in California, Arizona and Wyoming.

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Someone Like You (Adele)

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The songs that generally sell the most and stand the test of time are the songs about relationships, whether it be about endless love or the parting forever, the biggest selling song of the 21st century is about the latter.

Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, as she was born, first came to prominence in 2006 when she supported Jack Penate. That led to an appearance on Later With Jools Holland alongside Bjork and Paul McCartney. That, in turn, led to a contract with XL Recordings and Chasing Pavements, her debut single, zoomed up to number two in the UK chart. Her next two singles, Cold Shoulder and Hometown Glory both just crept into the top 20, but a cover of Bob Dylan’s Make You Feel My Love put her back in the Top five. All these tracks featured on her debut album, 19 – her age when she recorded it – which went to number one had so far notched up 130 weeks and counting.

Too many acts spend months, if not years, working on a debut album because they’ve usually had time to do so, then it becomes massively successful and the record company are pestering them for a follow-up, that’s sometimes when the trail can run dry. To make a successful follow-up you need mammoth inspiration, Adele had it.

Two years had passed since 19 and Adele came back with 21. She had just split up from her boyfriend and that was enough for her to write more or less a whole album. The debut single, Rolling in the Deep was her letting rip into him. She stated in an interview with Q magazine, “It’s me making a bit of a statement, people will hear it and go, Wow, she ain’t mucking around.” It was her kiss-off to her unfaithful lover, “Get the f_ _ K out of my house instead of me begging him to come back. It’s my reaction to being told my life was going be boring and lonely and rubbish, and that I was a weak person if I didn’t stay in a relationship. I wrote it as a sort of ‘F_ _k you.”

Her next single, Someone Like You, resonated with so many people when she show cased it at the Brits in 2011 that it was an instant smash all around the world. She sat on the end of her bed one day and began pouring her heart out, but not in the aggressive way she did in Rolling in the Deep. It was on producer Rick Rubin’s suggestion that she got together with singer / songwriter Dan Wilson, the former leader of 90s band Semisonic. Dan explained what happened on their first meeting in the studio, “Adele came to the session with lyrics and melody for the first half of the verse at least – there was a real vibe and idea already. She told me she wanted to write a song about her heartbreak, that was how she put it. She told me a little bit about the guy who broke up with her, and I think maybe part of my contribution was to help keep the song really simple and direct. After we listened to a bunch of Wanda Jackson songs on YouTube, we went to the main room of the studio where the piano is. There Adele showed me the idea for the verse. She was playing it on the guitar, and she taught me the part, but when I switched to piano, she lit up. “That’s way more inspiring!” she said. So I played piano for the rest of the session. Adele knew exactly what she wanted to say, and my role was much more in composing the music and creating chord changes for the various sections. Once we decided on the melody, she very quickly came up with that amazing line, ‘I hate to turn up out of the blue, uninvited.’ Once you have a line that great, the rest of the section is easy to finish.” Dan remembered what happened on the second day of recording, “Her voice had a rougher, more ragged edge than the day before, and I suggested we go back and re-record the last chorus so it would sound more emotional. And it did. It was heartbreaking.”

Adele was pleased with the end result, “It’s simple – just letting go. It makes me really upset. It’s my most articulate song. It’s just to the point, it’s not trying to be clever, I think that’s why I like it so much, because it’s just so honest, no glitter on it.” she added. She explained her thought on making the album in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, “The experience of writing this record was quite exhausting, because I would go from being a bitch to being completely on my knees, it was like the stages of my recovery. I was trying to explain to myself why the relationship broke down, to the point that I actually forgot about people hearing it. When I did ‘Someone Like You’ live on Jools Holland, I got so upset wondering and hoping and wishing that my ex would be watching it, I went back to my dressing room and sobbed. Making a record is like standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square naked, you let everyone see your good bits and bad bits. I don’t know what possesses me to do that, but I’m not good at anything else.”

Although Adele has never publicly revealed who her ex is, she feels he may not know he was the inspiration, “I have no idea if he’s heard the record, or is kind of clever enough to link it to think it’s him. I’m not saying he’s dim it’s just that toward the end I don’t think he felt like I loved him enough to write a record about him. But I did.”

When the single topped the UK singles chart on 20 February, she matched a record set by The Beatles in 1964. With Rolling in the Deep at number four, she became only the second living act (and only female) to have two songs in the top five of the singles and album chart at the same time. In the U.S a stunning performance at the MTV Music Awards in August saw the song leap to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and stay there for five weeks. It was also only the second U.S chart topper to feature voice and piano since Elton John’s 1997 version of Candle In The Wind.

In just seven months, Adele broke another record when 21 sold over three million copies in the UK alone which supersedes the likes of Sgt Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon and Thriller. In March 2012, Adele won a Grammy for album of the Year with 21 which has since topped the album chart in 28 countries, become the biggest selling download album in the UK and is the seventh best-selling album of all time in UK history. Not bad for a lass from Tottenham who still has her feet firmly on the ground.

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Abraham Martin & John (Dion/Marvin Gaye)

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There aren’t too many songwriters who could adapt their style of writing to both novelty and serious songs with a good degree of success. Bob Merill was certainly one of them having written classic novelty songs like She Wears Red Feathers, How Much Is That Doggie In The Window and Where Will The Dimple Be and the standards like People, If I Love Ya, Then I Need Ya, If I Need Ya, I Want’cha Around and When The Boys Talk About The Girls. Dick Holler, a rockabilly singer, was another with songs like Snoopy vs The Red Baron and Abraham Martin & John to his name.

The latter is an evocative folk/soul anthem written as a tribute to not only Abraham (Lincoln), Martin (Luther King) and John (F. Kennedy) but also John’s brother Bobby. Phil Gernhard was an ex-law student and producer who had worked on Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ Stay and The Royal Guardsmen’s Snoopy vs The Red Baron and when he signed Dick Holler to his label he was impressed with the first song that Holler had showed him.

Holler wrote the song the day after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on 6th June 1968 expressing his sadness of the tragedy and equating it to the tragedy of the other three figure heads.  It’s the last verse that relates to Robert although he remains uncredited in the title. Interestingly, despite the order of names in the title the verses are in the order of Abraham, John and Martin. Dick played the song to Gernhard who turned round and said to him, “That is very moving and what you’ve written there is the history of the civil rights movement.” Holler relied, “Well, no. The man in the White House at that moment, Lyndon B. Johnson, accomplished more for the civil rights of American blacks than any elected official of the 20th century. But no one in 1968 was going to buy a song called Abraham, Martin & Lyndon. Furthermore, the roots of the civil rights movement can be found as much in citizen activism as in top-down decisions.”

Gernhard decided nonetheless to record it but then took several months to find the right singer. The Royal Guardsmen did a demo but Gernhard wasn’t happy with it as he wanted someone more laid back. Gernhard received a phone call from an old friend Gene Schwartz who had been and A&R man for Laurie records between 1958 and 1962 and had Dion (& The Belmonts) signed to his label. He said that Dion was making a comeback and asked if he had anything for him.

Dion and Phil Gernhard got together in 1968 at Dion’s Florida home where he auditioned a few folkish-type numbers by Leonard Cohen and Nilsson. When Gernhard heard him sing he thought, “Oh my God, this guy’s voice is perfect for Holler’s song because he won’t telegraph it!”

Gernhard brought out Holler’s sheet music and asked the singer to work on the song and see what he thought. Dion’s response after seeing it was; “I hate this song, I don’t want to cut it, I don’t like it.” Gernhard refused to take no for an answer and worked hard on the reluctant artist. Even Dion’s wife endorsed the song and eventually he relented and in the summer of 1968 flew to New York to record the number even though he still didn’t like it. On the day of the session, Gernhard was in the producer’s chair working alongside arranger John Abbott. Dion walked into the studio, sang the song once, beautifully, and departed.

When released in the USA it reached number four. It was no only popular, but really made people sit up and take notice. High school teachers played it in classrooms and got teary-eyed, and were amazed at how quiet and thoughtful their students suddenly became. Later in ’68 Dion sang it on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with Gernhard in the audience. After the show, “Dion seemed upset,” recalled Gernhard in a 2000 interview “But he wouldn’t say what was wrong. We went out and grabbed some dinner and headed back to the hotel. Eventually he spoke up and although Dion will never, ever acknowledge this publicly, he suddenly turned to me and he said, ‘I didn’t know it was about those guys.'”

Dion wrote in his 1988 memoir, The Wanderer, “If it had been up to me, Abraham, Martin and John would have stayed just a young songwriter’s dream. I was recovering from a long addiction to drugs and working to get my career back on track and just didn’t see the message of the song until my mother-in-law pointed it out to me. “I realised that what these four guys – Lincoln, King and the Kennedys — had in common was a dream. It was like they had the courage to believe that a state of love really can exist…’Abraham, Martin and John’ was a way of reminding people that they could aspire to great things, even in the midst of tragedy and confusion.”

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