Single of the week

The Young New Mexican Pupeteer (Tom Jones)

Tom Jones, like Elvis Presley, was not a songwriter, but both were masters of showcasing other people’s tunes because they carefully picked and chose what songs they wanted to sing. They put their own stamp on those songs and they will forever be associated with them regardless of any cover versions. This week’s choice is one of Tom’s more unusual songs and one he wasn’t initially keen on.

Virtually everything Tom released in the UK in the 1960s made the top 10 and he was riding on cloud nine with a powerful, yet smooth voice which he’s always acknowledged he was blessed with and earning an absolute fortune via his many appearance in Las Vegas it seemed nothing could go wrong, and to be fair, in over 50 years, it never really has. But for the first couple of years in the 1970s he was falling short; I (Who Have Nothing) peaked at number 16, She’s a Lady climbed to 13 and Puppet Man disastrously stalled at number 49 but towards the end of 1971 he was back on track with Till reaching number two and, the follow-up, this week’s choice, The Young New Mexican Puppeteer making number six.

The Young New Mexican Puppeteer was written by two people from a previous generation – Pennsylvania-born Leon Carr (1910-1976) who was also a conductor, arranger and pianist who initially made his name writing jingles for television commercials and Earl Shuman who was born in 1923 in Boston, Massachusetts and who will be 94 later this year. Carr moved to New York and began writing songs, including some parodies, his first UK hit, as a co-writer, was Alma Cogan’s 1954, number four hit, Bell Bottom Blues which he penned with Hal David. Shuman had written Seven Lonely Days which was a 1953 hit for Giselle McKenzie and then, a couple of years later, The Banjo’s Back in Town also for Alma Cogan. In 1965 he wrote the English lyric to Ken Dodd’s The River, then the pair teamed up to write Des O’Connor’s I’ll Go on Hoping in 1970 followed by The Young New Mexican Puppeteer.

Tom is of the opinion that music and current affairs/politics should be kept separate from each other. In a 1972 interview with Melody Maker he was asked how he felt about songs that convey a social commentary to which he replied, “I don’t believe in it. I don’t think popular singers should use their influence to convey political messages when they probably don’t know enough about a situation.” So, having said that, in early 1972 he was preparing to head out on tour and so recorded the song to showcase as his new single whilst on tour. That song was The Young New Mexican Puppeteer which was all about a puppeteer from New Mexico telling the story of a young boy from Albuquerque who noticed changes in his city and how people were becoming restless and fed up with change and thus decided to used puppets to highlight political changes and making references to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. What changed Tom’s mind as it was a far cry from his usual material? In an interview with the TV Times a few years later he said, “I liked the song at the times but it didn’t work, and then I thought ‘Hell, there’s no sex in this!’ Like all his songs, he made this one his own and said, “I didn’t see why I had to be sexy all the time, but it didn’t make women twitch, see, and that’s what works. You can’t bite the hand that feeds you.” The main melody of the song was inspired by Disney’s 1940 film Pinocchio.

Although Carr died in 1976, both Tom’s and Earl’s careers have long since continued. I don’t think I need to say much about Tom, but Earl, well, he continued writing songs that have been recorded by Gene Pitney, Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and many others, but he also wrote the Broadway show (later a film) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and, in 2014 he published a book called Songs for Sale. Later the same year he wrote a song called Let Children Just Be Children which Michael Feinstein recorded and tells the story of how Earl thinks that children are growing up too fast these days and too much is by-passing them.

If we didn’t live in such a PC era, I’m sure The Young New Mexican Puppeteer would be used to today to convey the same message it did back then, but you just know it’s going to offend someone!

Please follow and like us:

Billy Don’t Be A Hero (Paper Lace)

On week-ending 6th April 1974, there was something unique about the top three UK singles that week. There was Emma by Hot Chocolate which had moved up to number three, Paper Lace’s Billy Don’t Be A Hero had just come down from number one and Terry Jacks rose to the top with Seasons In The Sun – any ideas?  Well, they were all on the subject of death. This week I look at the song that had just dropped from number one.

Billy Don’t Be A Hero was written by the songwriters Peter Callander and Mitch Murray who had met in the mid-sixties. Mitch had previously had success as the writer of How Do you Do It and I Like It for Gerry & The Pacemakers as well as the top three hits I’m Tellin’ you Now and You Were Made For Me by Freddie & The Dreams whereas Peter had co-written, with other songwriter, hits for Tom Jones, Cilla Black and Paul and Barry Ryan, but the first hit they wrote together was The Tremeloes’ 1967 number four hit Even The Bad Times Are Good. In January 1968 their song The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, as sung by Georgie Fame, rose to the top slot giving them their first chart-topper and their first real story song. Just over three years later, another quality story song went to number two courtesy of Tony Christie’s I Did What I Did for Maria. Story songs seemed to be the way forward and in 1974, after seeing a film about the War between the States, came up with the idea of writing a song about a the American Civil War and a guy who wants to go off to war despite his fiancé begging him to stay.

“We’re both Yankophiles who were exposed to American music,” they said to Billboard at the time, “Most of our songs are slanted toward the United States because that’s also where the money is. We approach our business the same way as if we were selling nuts and bolts.”

The song was recorded by Paper Lace, but who were they and how did an unknown band, at the time, get the song? Formed in Nottingham in 1967, they were originally called Music Box and comprised lead singer and drummer, Phil Wright, bassist, Cliff Fish, guitarists, Michael Vaughan, Chris Morris and, sounding like a tribute act, Carlo Santanna. They struggled for seven years despite being the house band at Tiffany’s in Rochdale but gained valuable working experience. Eventually they got the break they needed when they auditioned for a slot on the TV talent show, Opportunity Knocks. According to Phil Wright, “Opportunity Knocks was pretty much the 1970s version of The X-Factor. There was a huge audition week in 1970 at the Bridgford Hotel, which is now the Rushcliffe Borough Council building near the City Ground and there were thousands of people queuing up. We turned up in our best suits, did a few numbers, and were told that they liked us but not to expect to go on straight away. When they finally got back to us in 1973, we thought ‘do we really need this now?’ But they were getting viewing figures of seven million, so we went for it and we won five weeks on the trot!”

Once the song was written it was a case of finding the right act to do it, Mitch Murray wanted to give the song to a major artist, but Peter Callander’s wife, Connie, saw Paper Lace win Opportunity Knocks and told Peter about them and got in touch with them. Phil Wright continued, “Peter Callander got in touch with our management and offered us the songs with the possibility of more songs if it took off. We went down, recorded it, and they said “Hey, this is a great song, it’s going to be a hit”. The song was then released on Callander and Murray’s own newly launched Bus Stop label and the song went to number one. They had three further hits on the label and The Brothers with Sing Me were the only other act to chart on their label.

Paper Lace’s version was released in the States, but unbeknown to them at the time, a cover version had already been recorded by Bo Donaldson and The Heywards, which went on the top the Billboard singles chart whereas the Paper Lace version peaked at number 96. In order not to fall fowl again, Paper Lace’s follow-up, The Night Chicago Died, also written by Callander and Murray, was rushed released before anyone had a chance to cover it and thankfully rewarded with their very own number one. What did Mitch think about Paper Lace’s version not really hitting big in the States? “It might not have been number one if it was Paper Lace’s version,” Mitch told Brian Nash and Allan Zullo, “People took notice of us because we were beaten to the post as it made more of a story for DJs to talk about.”

The song carried a powerful, anti-war message and the comedian and campaigner Spike Milligan made media appearances saying how significant this record was and how he admired the poignancy of its pay-off, ‘I heard she threw the letter away’.

Their third and final hit, The Black Eyed Boys reached number 11, but then law suits followed as Paper Lace objected to Mitch and Peter’s control. Paper Lace went to Warner’s and had a further chart single with We’ve Got the Whole World in His Hands with Nottingham Forest FC.

The band split in 1980, but three years later Chris Morris formed a new line-up and went out touring the oldies circuit. ‘Billy…’ is still a popular attraction and appealed to a younger crowd following its inclusion in the films Reservoir Dogs and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Original member Carlo Santanna also re-joined the line-up in 2011.

 

They are apparently still active and their Twitter account and website both invite you to click here if you want to see them live, but on their gigs tab the latest message says ‘Please check back for more information on 2015 Tour dates’! Hmmmm, I’ll wait and continue to wonder if I’ve missed the boat!

Please follow and like us:

Shake It Out (Florence + The Machine)

The Specials featuring Rico were the first to do it, Queen Latifah and Del La Soul, together, did it 11 years later, Nick Cave & Kylie did it five years after that. Queen have done it four times but Florence and the Machine have done it the most, nine times so far. Done what? Used the + symbol in the artist credit. A few others have done it as a one-off and Ed Sheeran has certainly had the most success with it for his 2011 album title. This week I’ll be focusing on Florence + the Machine’s 2011, number twelve hit, Shake It Out.

They started out in 2007 originally as the duo Florence Welch and her friend Isabella Summers, Florence explained how the name came about, “The name Florence and the Machine started off as a private joke that got out of hand. I made music with my friend, who we called Isabella Machine to which I was Florence Robot. When I was about an hour away from my first gig, I still didn’t have a name, so I thought ‘okay, I’ll be Florence Robot/Isa Machine’, before realising that name was so long it’d drive me mad.”

Before long, the band grew and its line-up was guitarist Robert Ackroyd, bass player Mark Saunders, harpist Tom Monger and drummer Chris Hayden. They released their debut album, Lungs in 2009 which went to number one and spent 155 weeks on the chart. In 2010 they released four stand-alone single including the number two hit You Got the Dirtee Love in collaboration with Dizzee Rascal. Their second album, Ceremonials, came in 2011, a title which was inspired by some 70s video art, Florence explained, “Years and years ago, I saw an art exhibition and there was this video art piece called Ceremonials. It was made in the 70s and was done in Super-8 and is kind of Coquette-sy – there’s that documentary called Coquette about this 70s theatre troupe that lives in San Francisco and I came kind of obsessed with it.” The lead single was What the Water Gave Me which peaked at number 24. The follow-up, Shake It Out, halved that and peaked at number 12.

“I feel weird because I’m always talking about how I’m writing songs when I’m hung over,” Florence revealed, “and most of the songs weren’t but Shake It Out was. It became the ultimate hangover cure. All the songs I write are a bit of fun with each one lurking in my mind. I was with Paul (Epworth, producer) and he came out with these chords on the organ, and they sounded optimistic and sad at the same time. And I was thinking of regrets, like, you know when you feel like you’re stuck in yourself, you keep repeating certain patterns of behaviour, and you kind of want to cut out that part of you and restart yourself. I kept thinking about wanting to shake something out, you know, shake out the things that haunt you like hangover ghouls. Basically, it’s about getting through something or seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re on tour and things can get worrying, that song’s always a good one. Sometimes I have to write songs for myself, reminding me to let it go. But then, the end refrain of ‘what the hell’ is really important as well, because you’ll dance with the devil again at some point, and maybe it will be fun. I’ve heard he does a really good foxtrot.”

As always, once you’ve had some commercial success many writers and particularly producers queue up to work with you, but when it came to recording the album Florence knew exactly what she wanted. “I chose Paul Epworth because I like what he did and it was important to me to have just one producer,” she said. It was all recorded at Abbey Road in studio three and the songs were all written over a period of the previous year when we’d been touring America and we finished them together in London especially in Soho as it was so nice to be back in a city that is so close to my heart.”

The accompanying video was partly inspired by the album’s title, “ceremonies got stuck in my head,” Florence said. It was filmed at Eltham Palace in South East London and depicts Florence attending an old-fashioned masked ball, similar to something like The Great Gatsby. “We were kind of going for a sort of ‘Gatsby at West Egg’-style house party but with maybe slightly ritualistic and sort of satanic undertones and séances,” she explained.

At the 2012 NME Awards, Welch also won the title of best solo artist and Shake It Out was voted Best Track. In her acceptance speech she said, “It is slightly strange because I’ve never been quite sure myself about whether I’m a solo act or a band. I’ve always thought of it as a project that I’ve started.”

Florence herself is already an inspiration, in a 2011 interview with Billboard, Beyoncé said, “My album, 4, was inspired by listening to Florence + the Machine, as well as the likes of Adele, Prince and The Jackson 5.” On learning this, Florence replied, “It’s amazing. I was listening to 4 and trying to figure out where the influence might be, but it’s incredible. She’s a really wonderful person, it’s a surreal thing to hear, but really nice.”

Please follow and like us:

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 American 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.” Sid Bernstein hada slightly different story to that.

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 52.

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.”

Please follow and like us:

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.

Please follow and like us: