Single of the week

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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The Last Film (Kissing The Pink)

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When Kissing the Pink hit the chart in 1983 with their catchy song The Last Film, there was confusion over what the name meant, what the full title was and even what the song was about! It was even produced by a man who bluffed his way into the recording industry.

Kissing The Pink were a synth/pop band formed in 1980 in London and comprised lead singer Nick Whitecross, John Kingsley-Hall, George Stewart, Josephine Wells, Pete Barnett and Steve Cusack. Pete, John and George used to practise in a studio in London. The flat above the studio lived Nick and his mum and that’s how Nick was recruited. Nick’s mum was taking an active interest in the band and after she heard Charlie Gillett on the radio advertising for bands to record on a small label, so she promptly sent off a demo tape which then led to a deal with Magnet records.

Their debut single Don’t Hide in the Shadows in 1981 was produced by Martin Hannett whose previous chart successes were Jilted John, John Cooper Clarke’s Gimmix Play Loud and more credibly Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart. When it came to their debut album, Naked, they told the record company that they wanted Brian Eno to produce it, but Magnet advised them that Colin Thurston (who’d produced Duran Duran’s and Bow wow wow’s first run of hits) would have more impact and be more commercial. Thurston had played in several small bands and bluffed his way into production in the 70s after faking past experience, but he did work on David Bowie’s Heroes album and Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life.

So where did the name come from? When John was asked, he claimed, “It was nothing to do with snooker”. OK, we’ll take it that is a sexual reference then! So how did the song come about? John explained, or tried to! “We’re not sure! It’s confusing because nick wrote the lyrics. I think it’s about a soldier setting off to war (hence the marching drums) and then realises that he’s been fed a constant stream of propaganda.” So what did Nick have to say about it? “I’m not sure whether pop is the right medium for heavy statements” he admitted. “Most of what we do is just a reflection of what we see all around us. The Last Film (or Last Film as it was on the label)  is just about a soldier who sat in a tent watching one of those 40s or 50s Hollywood war films just before he’s about to go out and fight for real. It’s not controversial, war is horrible and unglamorous.” He also asserted in 1982 that, “We’ll get it right soon and then we’ll be brilliant.”

John was the resident loon and the most unlikely looking of pop stars who seemingly had no idea of dress sense, mind you, in was the New Romantic era. Just prior to their debut Top Of The Pops appearance John sat in his dressing room in a creased Oxfam jacket, a green tartan kitchen apron over his trousers, odd socks, a pair of Doc Marten Boots and a drawn-on moustache.

The review for the single in Smash Hits stated that it was definitely desirable, not too long and a memorable tune but would stand a better chance of success if the words were clearer. The song reached number 19 in the UK chart, and the band toured the UK extensively to promote the Naked album. “I hope people don’t judge us on the basis of one single,” Nick adds, “I hope they will be pleasantly surprised to hear an album with so much variety on it. If anyone is expecting to hear 12 re-hashes of The Last Film they are going to be disappointed.” Maybe not enough people saw them live as the album petered out at number 54. The album What Noise followed in 1984 but failed to make any impact. In 1985 there was a line-up change and they shortened their name to KTP with little effect. In 1986 released another album called Certain Things Are Likely of which the title track topped the US dance chart and was heard in the 1987 film Can’t Buy Me Love. 1993 saw the released of their final album Sugarland which sank without trace.

They split in 1993, but having tested the dance market with a degree of success Kingsley-Hall, Stewart and Whitecross had one further success in 1994 with the bizarrely titled Twangling Three Fingers in a Box under the moniker Mike which peaked at number 40. In 2003 the trio made an album with Dutch jazz saxophonist Candy Dulfer and in 2007 contributed three tracks to Gareth Gates’ album Pictures On The Other Side including the Top 20 hit Changes. More recently they have been working with Rob Harvey from The Music and for the last two years they been busy writing new material in their own London studio.

In 1989 Jo Wells was a guest at her cousin’s birthday party aboard the Marchioness when it hit a barge and crashed killing 51 people. She was plunged into the freezing cold River Thames and was under water for three minutes. It was only her skill as a sax player and knew how to do the right breathing exercises that saved her life. She thought she was about to die, but surfaced suddenly and emerged from the river with only minor physical injuries. But Wells had endured seven years of trauma. Since the night she has lost the control of her lip that is essential to players of brass instruments. She is now unable to work, has sold two of her saxophones, and lives on income support.

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Never Never Never (Shirley Bassey)

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Many big pops hits of particularly the 60s began in Europe and sung in their native language, but there were a band of elite lyricists who converted the songs to English with great aplomb and were thus rewarded with big hit singles. Petula Clark’s Sailor, Tom Jones’ Love Me Tonight, Dusty Springfield’s You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me and Ken Dodd’s Promises are all good examples of this.

Tony Renis was a successful Italian composer, producer and occasional actor. He was born in Milan and got his break when he appeared alongside Adriano Celentano impersonating Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. His cabaret act included covers of American and Italian songs and in 1961 entered the prestigious San Remo Festival with the song Pozzanghere.

The following year he collaborated with Alberto Testa on a song called Quando Quando Quando which translates as When When When. Tony recorded the original version but it was covered with more success later the same year by Pat Boone who gave himself a writing credit claiming he wrote the English lyric, but a source at the songwriters Hall Of Fame claim it was translated by Ervin Drake. The song was given extra kudos when it featured in the 1962 Italian film The Easy Life.

In the late 60s, Tony met with a successful Italian pop singer called Anna Maria Quaini who performed under the professional name Mina. She dominated the Italian charts for fifteen years racking up 77 albums and 71 singles. Mina was a Catholic girl and in 1963 fell pregnant after an affair with a married actor and Italian radio stations tried to ban her music. Her image of shaved eyebrows and song content about sex appeal and smoking went against her, but her three-octave range voice reigned supreme and her fans continued to buy her music. In 1972 Tony wrote a song for her called Grande Grande Grande. The song zoomed up the Italian chart and eventually dethroned John Lennon’s Imagine to give her another chart topper.

Norman Newell was head of EMI’s Columbia subsidiary as well as a producer and songwriter. He produced songs for Edmund Hockridge, Petula Clark, Anne Shelton, Alma Cogan and Danny Williams. He began writing songs in the mid-50s including Wait For Me and By The Fountains Of Rome. Under the pseudonym David West he wrote Portrait Of My Love for Matt Monro, Reach For The Stars for Shirley Bassey and the 1962 UK entry to the Eurovision Song Contest, Say Wonderful Things by Ronnie Carroll.

In 1973, he heard Mina’s Grande Grande Grande and fell in love with it and decided to write the English lyric and rename it Never Never Never but kept the original title in brackets. He had worked for many years alongside Shirley Bassey and thought the song would be perfect for her. He called her to his office where he played it to her and she fell in love with it too. The song zoomed up the UK chart coming to rest at number eight. It performed well in many countries including number one in Australia and South Africa.

In America, Shirley is classed as a one-hit wonder! Her only brush with the US Top 20 was with Goldfinger in 1965 for which she won a Grammy. “I suppose I should feel hurt that I’ve never been really big in America on record since Goldfinger”, she once remembered, “But, concert-wise, I always sell out.”

Shirley still performs Never Never Never to this day alongside her catchy hits from the fifties and the three James Bond Themes she has recorded.

Tony Renis, who is a personal friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, continued to write songs for Diana Ross, Julio Iglesias and Lionel Richie and in the mid 90s launched the career of Nikki Costa – the daughter of the 50s bandleader Don Costa. He now organises the annual San Remo festival in Italy and organises concerts for Andrea Bocelli

Earlier this month, it was confirmed that Shirley will perform at Buckingham Palace alongside Elton John, Paul McCartney, Tom Jones and Cliff Richard as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

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Telephone Man (Meri Wilson)

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The 1970s was certainly the decade for double entendre songs. It arguably began in the reggae scene with a number of Trojan artists and then commercially withMax Romeo’s 1969 hit Wet Dream which he still claims was about a leaky roof (yeah right!), but Judge Dream certainly led the way throughout the decade which resulted in none of his songs getting any airplay. The Starland Vocal band’s Afternoon Delight and John Inman’s Are You Being Served Sir both managed to avoid the airplay ban as did the breathy, giggly Telephone Man by one-hit-wonder singer Meri Wilson because one the face of it, they were harmless enough.

There was more to Meri than met the eye! She was born in Nagoya in Japan at a U.S military base where her father served, but was raised in Marietta, Georgia. She attended the Indiana University of Music where she gained a Masters Degree in Musical Education. In 1975 she suffered major injuries in a car accident and was forced to wear a body cast for many months. On the upside she discovered her natural talent for song writing. After making a full recovery she began singing in clubs and restaurants. One night whilst singing she was spotted by the owner of the Texas restaurant chain Daddy’s Money. He asked her to relocate to Dallas which she did and continued singing in clubs. Money was minimal so to make ends meet she began modelling and singing jingles for radio commercials.

After moving into her own apartment in Dallas, an A T & T engineer came to install her new phone. “I swore for years that I’d never admit in public that I dated that telephone man”, Meri revealed years later, “But the truth is, yes, I did and wrote a silly song about it. I don’t want to say anymore because I’m now happily married, but not to the telephone man.”

When she was growing up in Georgia she learned to play classical music on the piano, flute and cello. “I was hung up on writing music that was music but I did write some novelty songs just for the fun of it and kept them in a notebook.” she said.

So he was the inspiration, but how did the song take shape? Meri explains, “As I was getting the telephone installed, I remembered the line from a Laura Nyro song that goes, ‘I met him on a Sunday and kissed him on a Monday’, the rest of it just came naturally and the double meanings were just for fun.”

One night she was performing in a club and showed the lyrics to her backing musicians who liked it and encouraged her to perform it live. Eventually she was persuaded and as she says, “In clubs people aren’t very attentive, but I started noticing every time I did Telephone Man people sat up and took notice.” Another producer Allen Reynolds heard it and liked it and she recorded some demo’s for him including Telephone Man originally as an acapella with just fingersnaps. “Allen loved it but he couldn’t figure out what to do it with so the idea of recording it was dropped” Meri remembered. Six months had passed and Meri was singing it in another club when a musician called Owen Castleman dropped by. He introduced himself to her and told her he liked the song and wanted to take her into the studio the next day and record it and that’s exactly what they did. She also cut some straight songs in the style of Crystal Gayle and Anne Murray who she cited as her influences. Castleman introduced her to a singer called Jim Rutledge from the hard rock group Bloodrock (who had one U.S Top 40 hit in 1971 called D.O.A) and after hearing her the pair agreed to produce the song.

Once it was finished Castleman took the song to 17 different record companies who just laughed him out the door. She said, “I didn’t see the likelihood of it becoming a hit and I certainly didn’t realise how unique it was.” So Castleman created his own label and pressed up hundreds of copies loaded them into his car and went off around Texas distributing them to radio stations and record stores. Meri remembered, “I was in a store in Dallas with Owen and we heard Telephone Man over the speaker which was from a local radio station, so we kept phoning up the station and pretended we were listeners and asked for the song to be played again and again thinking we would have an impact on the radio play.”

The song cost just $228 to record and as Meri said, “What you hear on the record was the first take.  We did a few but the tempo was getting faster and faster so we decided to stick with the first one.”  She did record a couple of follow up novelty songs like Dick The DJ and Peter the Meter Reader, but none managed to follow up the UK number 6 and U.S number 18 peak of Telephone Man. In the 90s she said, “I wish my claim to fame had been a serious one rather than with a novelty song. It was fun to have a hit record but in my heart I was disappointed that I couldn’t have had a real piece of music out there.”

In 1993 she became the choral director of a high school in Atlanta and sang in a professional jazz band called the Hotlanta Jazz Singers alongside a singer who was once a member of the Four Freshmen.

In 1999 she attempted a comeback with an updated version called Internet Man which got a little airplay but did lead to a deal with Time-Warner records. On December 28th 2002 Meri died when her car lost control during an ice storm along a Georgia interstate road.

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