Single of the week

Right Back Where We Started From (Maxine Nightingale)

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In this day and age there are reality television shows to find stars for the London stage, but up until a few years ago it was the other way round where many singers cut their teeth on the stage before finding themselves in the chart, Paul Nicholas, Michael Ball, Marsha Hunt and Maxine Nightingale are just some of the names, with both the latter two starring in the stage production of Hair.

Maxine Nightingale was born in November 1952, in Wembley and when she was 16 years old she began singing in her school band. Enjoying the spotlight so much, she swiftly made the transition to singing in a more professional capacity, appearing in a handful of local clubs and quickly coming to the attention of Pye Records which she signed with and recorded a handful of singles, including Do Not Push Me Baby and the 1971 track Love on Borrowed Time. When neither song became a commercial successful she turned her attention to the West End.

As well as Hair, Maxine spent the early 70s exploring her vocal development through roles in the era’s hottest musical stage shows, including Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and the well-received London play Savages. She was spotted by the songwriter/production team of J. Vincent Edwards and Pierre Tubbs. In early 1975 they were writing a song called Fool (not to be confused with the Elvis Presley song of two years earlier) for a new signing called Al Matthews and were looking for a backing singer and so enlisted the help of Ms Nightingale.

Vincent’s first burst of fame came as one of the original cast members of the London production of Hair singing and recording the hit song Aquarius. He played the part of Vince, which he performed almost 2.000 times at the Shaftesbury Theatre London. Tubbs had been a songwriter in the 60s and had success with the Pretty Things’ Come See Me.

Tubbs and Edwards wrote Right Back Where We Started From in about seven minutes while driving to the hospital where Tubbs’ wife was about to give birth. The song heavily reflects Edwards’ admiration for the Motown songwriting team of Holland–Dozier–Holland. A rough demo featuring Edwards’ vocal was cut the next day and it was Edwards who approached Nightingale with an offer for her to record the song.

Nightingale initially refused but was eventually persuaded by Edwards on the understanding it be released under a pseudonym. Edwards also had to convince her to accept a royalty payment rather than a one-time session fee equivalent to $45. Right Back Where We Started From was eventually released under her real name and she was also awarded a more substantial royalty than she’d originally agreed to.

According to Edwards consideration was given to the song being recorded as a duet between him and Nightingale, but this possibility ended when Private Stock Records recruited Edwards to record a remake of the song The Worst That Could Happen. Nightingale herself had opined to Rolling Stone magazine that Edwards’ vocal on the demo was pretty horrendous. He stuck to writing and has since written for other movie scores including Down and out in Beverly Hills, The World is Full of Married Men, Whatever Happened to Harold Smith?, and the Disney Movie Cleopatra.

The track was laid down at Central Sound Studio in Camden. The musicians on the track were two former members of the Electric Light Orchestra, Mike de Albuquerque on bass and Wilf Gibson on violin, Ex Status Quo member Pete Kircher played drums and the keyboardist was Dave Rowberry of the Animals. Additionally Tubbs played guitar and Edwards provided some percussion. Nightingale said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, “I disliked Tubbs’ utilisation of both a crashing keyboard arrangement and heavy handclaps and I also wasn’t comfortable singing in a higher key than I was accustomed to.”

Mike de Albuquerque recalled: “We were doing one of those demo sessions where everybody goes and sits down with music in front of you and you try and get through as many tunes as possible. I remember Pierre Tubbs saying, listen guys, ‘I want to record it in its entirety, the four pieces in this three hour session’ and we recorded two pieces with Maxine and two with somebody else.

Although Tubbs and Edwards are credited as the sole writers, the intro bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1974 northern soul track Goodbye Nothin’ To Say by The Javells featuring Nosmo King. It seems that no action was taken by Nosmo – alias writer Stephen Jameson and John Doctors.

Later that same year she was paired with Jimmy Ruffin for the beautiful duet Turn to Me. The song failed to make the UK or US singles chart but did gave her her first US R&B Top 20 debut. In 1977 her follow up UK hit was Love Hit Me which was written and originally recorded by Edwards and just fell short of the top ten. In 1989 Sinitta recorded a version of Right Back Where We Started From and took the song to number four in the UK – four places higher than the original.

Edwards is still in great demand for TV shows throughout Europe and also performed last year at the Café Royal in London with his good friend and songwriter Jimmy Webb. Vincent is also host of the American TV show Buskers which was filmed in New York. He is currently in Chicago recording with the Bluesman singer Boogie Bob.

Maxine continues to perform live but her focus shifted in the 1980s and 1990s from disco and pop to sultry laidback jazz. But as her real fans continue to catch her live shows she always includes the old favourites.

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Beyond The Sea (Bobby Darin)

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Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George and Ira Gershwin’s are some of the biggest and most successful names in songwriting history, but there are stacks more, almost unknown names, who wrote equally as popular, everlasting and memorable songs. Jack Lawrence is one such name.

Among his penned credits you will find songs like Tenderely (Nat King Cole), Hold My Hand (UK number one for Don Cornell), No One But You (Billy Eckstein), Yes My Darling Daughter (Eydie Gorme) and La Mer (Beyond The Sea) (Bobby Darin).

The original title, La Mer (which means ‘The sea’), with its French lyric was written by Charles Trenet on a train with musician Léo Chauliac in 1943 while travelling along the French Mediterranean coast on his way back to Narbonne after holidaying in Paris. It is also said that he wrote it in 15 minutes on a piece of railway toilet paper. It was an evocative song about seaside resorts where he imagined white horses and heavenly angels coming out of the changing moods of the sea and then comments on what he sees in its reflection. It would be three years until Trenet actually recorded the song. Trenet explained in an interview that he was told that it was not swing enough to be a hit and for this reason it sat in a drawer for three years, but when he did it became an unexpected hit. It was made even more popular when it was used in the 1948 movie Every Girl Should Be Married which starred Cary Grant. The song wasn’t quite so imaginative when it was given an English lyric interpretation by Jack Lawrence, but none the less it earned Bobby Darin a gold disc.

Jack Lawrence was born Jacob Louis Schwartz in Brooklyn, New York on 7th April 1912 and grew up an orthodox Jew as the third of four sons. With practically no musical training he began writing songs at the age of eight. Due to parental pressure after he graduated he enrolled in the First Institute of Podiatry and matriculated with a doctorate in 1932, the same year that saw the publication of his first song Play Fiddle Play.

During World War II, Jack served in the Coast Guards and later, at his request, was transferred to the United States merchant marine. After the war, he went to Hollywood, where he began writing songs for a number of movies.

In 1947 he wrote a song called Linda which was notably recorded by Ray Noble and his Orchestra and went to number one in America. The Linda in question was his lawyer’s daughter Linda Eastman who later became Mrs Paul McCartney. Alongside Sammy Fain, Lawrence wrote Once Upon a Dream as performed in Disney’s 1959 film Sleeping Beauty and although uncredited, he said that he collaborated with Frank Churchill to write Never Smile at a Crocodile and with Victor Young and Oliver Wallace composed the title tune for 1953 film Peter Pan.

Jack wrote the English lyric to La Mer but originally without success. Michael Feinstein, a close friend of Lawrence’s said, “After the first lyric failed to impress, Jack wrote a new English lyric, it was more successful with an anthemic sort of lyric that matched the majesty of the tune. But when Bobby Darin found the song and swung it, it became an instant classic, and people only perform it a la Bobby Darin.” The new lyrics written in 1948 bore no relation to the original ones but by adding the word ‘Beyond’ it turned the meaning of the song into a story about a lover pining for their lost love. Benny Goodman recorded a version in 1948 and Roger Williams charted in the USA in 1955.

Other notable versions among the 4000 that have been recorded are George Benson in 1985 who briefly graced the lower end of the UK chart and Robbie Williams included it on his 2001 album Swing When You’re Winning and it was his version that was used over the closing credits of the 2003 movie Finding Nemo. In 2005 it was used in a French TV commercial for Carnival Cruises. additionally Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz sang it in the film A Life Less Ordinary, Kevin Spacey sang it in the wonderful Bobby Darin biopic in 2004 and Moby did a techo remix which featured on the soundtrack to the 2007 video game Bioshock.

Lawrence was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 1975. In the 80’s, he was actively engaged as a Broadway producer and the owner of two theatres in the Broadway district which were named the Jack Lawrence and the Audrey Wood. He was co-producer of off-Broadway’s long running success, Other People’s Money and on Broadway with Lena Horne, The Lady and Her Music. Lawrence. He had worked with Quincy Jones in the 60s on the film The Pawnbroker and was writing new songs for him at the time of his death in 2009 at the age of 96. Bobby Darin died in 1973 after failing to take his medication for a weak heart before attending a dental appointment and Charles Trenet died in 2001 after suffering complications following a stroke.

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Watching The Detectives (Elvis Costello & The Attractions)

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Elvis Costello first hit the UK chart towards the end of 1977 with the voyeuristic Watching The Detectives, but he’d been singing for a few years before that. If you are of a certain age, you may well have heard him on television in 1973 but unlikely to have recognised him.

His father Ronald ‘Ross’ McManus was born in Liverpool in 1927 and was a song writer and trumpeter with the Joe Loss orchestra which he joined in 1955. He wrote a song called Patsy Girl in 1964 which was credited to Ross McManus and the Joe Loss Blue Beats. It was released on HMV but failed to trouble the record buyers of the day. He released two further singles one being a cover of Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You backed with a rather unusual version of If I Were a Rich Man. He also released one single in 1970 under the pseudonym Day Costello and was a cover of The Long and Winding Road.

His son, Declan, was born in 1954 and looked likely he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps. In 1973 commercial television stations screened an advert depicting a man in stripy pyjamas creeping downstairs to surreptitiously get a glass of lemonade from the fridge. The music it used was called The Secret Lemonade Drinker which was written and sung by Ross and featured a 19-year-old Elvis getting his break as a backing singer.

“I’ve been writing songs since I was 14,” remembered Elvis, “Although if I went back now and looked at them I’d find them pretty embarrassing. By the time I was 22 I’d had several false starts at getting bands together some of them are well documented and some were so fleeting that no-one knows about them.” To earn money Elvis had been working as a computer operator housed next door to a lipstick factory. Eventually things happened and I was the first artist signed to the new Stiff label in 1976. “Nick Lowe was the first artist on the label, but he wasn’t actually signed,” Elvis remembered, “and despite that I was the 11th release with the song Less Than Zero. I had stacks of material and then Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson (the bosses at Stiff) asked me to turn pro. I said ‘Only if I can earn as much money doing this as I do in my job as I have responsibilities’. I had a family and so they agreed to pay me the same.” His next single the following year was Alison whose chorus was based on the Detroit Spinners hit Ghetto Child. He has never revealed who it was about, in fact in the sleeve notes to his Girls Girls Girls compilation album, he wrote, ‘Much could be undone by saying more.’ Later the same year he released Red Shoes which did nothing, but finally Stiff’s 20th release, Watching the Detectives, gave him his first hit.

The track was credited solely to Elvis Costello although the B sides, Blame It On Caine and Mystery Dance were both credited to Elvis Costello & The Attractions, a name that a staff member at Stiff came up with even though they are not the same Attractions who backed him later. That line up was a group called the Clovers and featured keyboard player Steve Nieve (who did later become at Attraction!), Andrew Bodnar on bass and Steve Goulding on drums. The latter two were both in Graham Parker’s Rumour. The more classic line up of the Attractions saw the unrelated Bruce and Pete Thomas replacing Bodnar and Goulding on bass and drums respectively.

Watching The Detectives, which was produced by Nick Lowe, is a dark song about a lover who would rather watch television, but what inspired it? Elvis explained, “I was in my flat in the suburbs of London before I was a professional musician, and I’d been up for 36 hours and I was actually listening to the Clash’s first album. When I first put it on, I thought it was just terrible. Then I played it again and I liked it better. By the end, I stayed up all night listening to it on headphones, and I thought it was great. Then I wrote Watching the Detectives.” Rolling Stone magazine described the song as ‘a clever but furious burst of cynicism, but also an indisputably classic’.

The parent album, My Aim Is True, was made over the course of four six and a hour sessions with Elvis recording his parts in a room the size of a telephone booth and cost £1000. The single reached number 15 in the UK chart and was the first of, so far, 36 hit singles. In 2006 Elvis appeared on Later With Jools Holland and performed Watching the Detectives with a big band arrangement, which he admitted was “A desecration to people who love the tenseness of the original recording and the musical allusions in the original arrangements, relate very much to the realisation of this song as an orchestral piece using the film music feeling and the swing rhythms of 50s detective shows.”

The song has been covered a couple of times to good effect by Duran Duran in 1995 on their Thank You album and by Toto in 2002 on their Through the Looking Glass album.

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Cry Boy Cry (Blue Zoo)

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In the early eighties, a new genre of music hit scene in a big way. It was called new romantic and was emphasized by bright colour outfits, make up, neckwear and crazy hairstyles. Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran were the mainstays, but there were others who weren’t quite as successful.

One such group was Modern Jazz who formed in 1980 and featured the line up on Andy O (Overall) on vocals, Tim Parry on guitar, Mike Ansell on bass and Mike Sparrow on drums.

In early 1981 the band signed to Magnet records and went into Mickie Most’s RAK studios to record their first single with Mickie’s son Calvin. The track was called In My Sleep (I Shoot Sheep) which failed to gain airplay for two reasons, one is that Dave Lee Travis refused to play it because he believed the sentiment of the song was doing a disservice to sheep and secondly because some presenters who may have had a long liquid record company lunch might have had trouble pronouncing it! The band did send a letter to DLT which he read out on air and explained that the song was nothing more than a dream sequence, and that resulted in some airplay. Incidentally Calvin became Calvin Hayes and was a member of Johnny Hates Jazz.

Within a few months they changed their name to Blue Zoo, Andy explained why, “The word zoo conjures up a nice atmosphere. It means the environment outside and the band observing from the inside of it. We don’t see ourselves as animals trapped in a cage or anything like that.” Why blue? “It’s my emotional frame of mind most of the time.”

They began recording at Alaska studios in Waterloo which was damp and dank but it was the owner of these studios, Pat Collier, original bass player for punk band The Vibrators, who produced the bands next single, Ivory Towers. Their first TV appearance was a live performance on the Oxford Road Show in Manchester where they performed, Love Moves in Strangeways, The Attic and what was to be their third single I’m your Man. This was their debut UK hit which, despite being championed by Peter Powell, stalled at number 55.

Tim Friese Green was a producer who had first worked with the rock band Praying Mantis and Irish rockers Stiff Little Fingers. He then struck lucky when he produced the UK number one The Lion Sleeps Tonight for Tight Fit.

He began working with Blue Zoo and collaborated at Battery studios in Willesden which resulted in the recording of two tracks, the provocative John’s Lost and the catchy Cry Boy Cry which was a re-working of a song previously named Turn and Face The Wall. It reached number 13 in the UK and a respectable number six in Israel which led to a short tour taking in a run of shows at the Coliseum in central Tel Aviv. They even had a future star in the audience on the first night when actress Brooke Shields turned up.

Andy was a Bowie fan and Cry Boy Cry was inspired by him from his Ziggy Stardust period, he even has Bowie tattooed on his arm. They had one further UK hit called (I Just Can’t) Forgive and Forget which reached a lowly number 60 in May 1983.

Interests within the band were divided but they decided to record on more track and went into the studio with producers Colin Campsie and George McFarlane and came up with the wonderfully entitled Somewhere in The World There’s A Cowboy Smiling, it got very limited exposure, in fact one solitary appearance on Crackerjack and so the band decided to split. Andy was tied into his contract with Magnet and was groomed as a solo artist without success and was finally released from his contract in 1985.

Years later Andy discovered an interest in wild mushrooms. He said recently, “I started the Fungi To Be With Mushroom Club’ back in 1996 recognising that I wasn’t the only one interested in wild mushrooms and the need to re-connect people with their natural environment.” He launched a business under the same name and began supplying the vegetable to various London restaurants. Tim Parry went into production and worked with Yazz and De La Soul, Sparrow worked with Neneh Cherry and Ansell moved into the property market. In 2010, Blue Zoo played their first concert in 28 years at the Ginglik in Shepherd’s Bush Green. Only Parry is missing from the current line up, he’s been replaced by ex-Spear Of Destiny guitarist Neil Pyzer and they’ve added Graham Noone on Keyboards and they are currently recording new tracks soon to be released later this year on iTunes.

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Excerpt From A Teenage Opera (Keith West)

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Four songs reached number two in the 1960s that don’t mention the title of the song within the lyrics, the first was The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride in 1967, then Alternate Title by the Monkees the following year and the last was Ain’t Got No-I Got Life by Nina Simone in 1969. The other is the subject of today’s Single of the Week which, despite often being referred to as Grocer Jack, is actually called Excerpt From A Teenage Opera.

Although sung by Keith West, it was the brainchild of the German-born EMI staff producer Mark Wirtz. The song is rarely heard on radio these days except for the odd bland Gold station but when it is heard it stands up today, just like it did 45 years ago. In the year of flower-power the song arrived just in time to be part of the soundtrack of the summer of love and it brought a certain innocence enhanced by the sound of a children’s choir.

When it arrived, it heralded the arrived of what many thought would be the grand Teenage Opera which many eagerly awaited. Two further singles followed but the full opera did not. It was much like the British equivalent of the Beach Boys’ Smile. It became a holy grail as fans tried for years to find out what happened to it and where to track it down.

Wirtz arrived in the UK in 1962. He had grown up with comedy and wanted to be a comedian. He explained, “Germany was hardly the humour capital of the world, so I picked up a guitar and learnt piano standing up and then I moved to England and planned on becoming a rock idol who came to the attention of movie producers who’d sign up me. I would let them know I was funny and they would put me in a comedy and the rest was history.” Hmmm, not quite! He had based himself in Surrey and formed a rock’n’roll covers band called the Beatcrackers. He wrote one tune which he included in his set, it was a instrumental called Bubble Pop. A rep from EMI was at a gig one night and was so impressed that he was signed to the label as Mark Rogers and The Marksmen as a replacement for Russ Conway. He became fascinated with the business and soon formed his own production company and began leasing tracks to other record labels.

“In January 1967, I had a dream. Not a daydream, or a fantasy, but a real dream in my sleep,” explained Wirtz. “Actually, it was more like a dreamlette- about an ageing door-to-door grocer named Jack in a small, turn of the century village, who was as mocked by the children as he was taken for granted by the town folk. When Jack unexpectedly died, the town folk reacted with anger about the inconvenience of now having to be self reliant about their staple provision, while the children were heartbroken, in truth having loved and appreciated Jack all the while. That was it, simple as that. Little did I know, that this innocent dream would turn into The Teenage Opera, which soon twisted my fate into a real life opera far more dramatic and plot filled than the musical one could ever have been. Its life altering impact and consequences not only resonate and haunt me to this day, but the saga is a still ongoing one – 30 years later. ”

To trace the true moment of birth of the Teenage Opera, we go back to January 1966, when Mark, in a small studio on London’s Bond Street, tried something new. “I experimented with a musical vision by independently producing my composition A Touch Of velvet – A Sting Of Brass under the moniker Mood Mosaic. My vision was as simple as it was ambitious, and evolved as a theme which formed the core of my music work throughout my career.”

In 1965 a group called Four + One had signed to EMI’s subsidiary label Parlophone and released one single, a cover of Irma Thomas’ Time Is on My Side. Their lead singer, maracas and harmonica player was Keith West. After one single they changed their name to The In Crowd and released a cover of Otis Redding’s That’s How Strong My Love Is which just scraped into the UK chart. The follow up, a cover of the Byrds’ Eight Miles High failed to chart. In 1967 they changed their name again to Tomorrow after a suggestion by Junior, their bass player, who made the comment New music, tomorrow’s music.

“Mark approached me to write some lyrics for this backing track he had,” remembered West. “It was a bit odd with lots of mandolins, and orchestra but no choir, it wasn’t my type of music but it flowed nicely and it reminded me of Pet Sounds. He went out for a while and left me writing, when he returned a couple of hours later he thought I’d done a good job but told me he wanted the name Grocer Jack to feature in it. When we’d finished we decided to bring Steve Howe in to play guitar but we speeded it up to sound like a mandolin, session guitarist Big Jim Sullivan was brought in too but this time on banjo, session drummer Clem Cattini on drums and the Ivy League on backing vocals.”

“The clavioline intro was laid down then strings were added and finally the brass was layered on top. As the track grew and grew it became obvious that a vocalist had to be found,” West continued,” They took me into the studio late one night and I noticed there were some session singers. Being naive I thought I was there to arrange it, but I ended up singing the demo. There was talk of Cliff Richard being brought in but they all said that my vocal suited the song so I was asked if it was ok and thought no more about it.” The finishing touches were added with the children’s choir from Hammersmith Corona stage school led by a girl called Charmaine. “I was unable to hide the expense of the children’s fee within the official paperwork,” remembered Wirtz, “So I paid for the kids’ performance out of my own pocket. Best money I ever spent!

When it was finished, Wirtz remembered Kim Fowley’s buzzword, ‘teenager’ and Grocer Jack quickly became Excerpt From A Teenage Opera. Why? Wirtz explained, “The reason was, that if the single was a hit then people would want an LP of the whole opera. Before all that, though we had to admit to the bosses at EMI that we’d abused the company’s time, which I did and then played them the track. They were horrified and silence followed. All of a sudden the dam of silence was broken with condemning phrases like ‘Absurd record’, ‘Four minutes long?’, ‘Have you gone mad’ and ‘you think anyone is going to buy a rock record with children on it?’ The committee’s final verdict was to shelve the project. That would have been the end of it if it hadn’t been for John Peel on Radio Caroline. I took it to John in the studio and he played it on his headphones. Before it had reached the end, John opened the microphone and with a big grin on his face told the listeners, ‘I’ve got a marvellous surprise for you’ and put the needle back to the start.” The phones lit up and, to cut a long story short, EMI were forced to rush release the track. It entered the chart and climbed to number two behind Engelbert Humperdinck’s The Last Waltz.

The follow up single, Sam, only just managed a top 40 placing but as West says, after that the rest of the Teenage Opera material wasn’t really up to standard so I passed.” Wirtz went to on to be a producer at Page One and Chapter 1 records before moving to Los Angeles in 1971.

In 1997, thirty years after its conception, Wirtz decided to finish the project. “I finally decided to exorcise the haunting which had cursed me for three decades. I spent nine months day and night working, composing and recording the complete Teenage Opera. I created a fully dramatic story and script – a romantic fantasy revolving around H.G Wells’ abduction into the future by a villainous time master. It now exists as a double CD called Tempo but is unlikely to see the light of day.” At least for Mark, but not for his fans, the Teenage opera will be laid to rest forever, but the spirit of it will live on forever.

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