Category: Single of the week

Ma Baker (Boney M)

If you came along to one of my quizzes and I asked you which seventies hit was written about Kate Barker, a woman who was, shall we say, was a bit dodgy and bought up four boys who all turned out to be gangsters, would you know? No? Then read on just in case I do ask that question one day.

Well, it was Boney M who sang about her in a song written by the man who produced all and wrote the majority of their hits Frank Farian, and he called it Ma Baker.

Ma Barker was known as Kate Barker although she was born Arizona Donnie Clark in Ash Grove, Missouri on the 9th October 1873. At the age of 19, she married George Barker and together they had four sons who grew up to become notorious gangsters.

The song open with the announcement, ‘Freeze I’m Ma Baker, put your hands in the air and give me all your money’ – those words are actually uttered by Linda Blake although all the Billboard books claim it’s Linda Pollock. Some of the story is true and some is fabricated to fit the song like the title for example. Ma Baker flowed better than Ma Barker. The picture is painted that she was the ‘meanest cat from old Chicago town’ but in reality, it was her sons who were the real criminals and she was there more to assist them. Focusing on a ‘tough’ woman clearly makes for a better story than four sons.

The four sons were called Herman (b: 1893 d: 1927), Lloyd (b: 1897 d: 1949), Arthur (b: 1899 d: 1939) and Fred (b: 1901 d: 1935)  and with their parents not at all bothered about their education they never attended school and took up crime at an early age. Her husband, George did not engage in any of his wife and son’s activities, he had a number of low paid jobs. All their crimes involved robbery and murder but none of them were clever enough to avoid being caught. In 1927, Herman was involved in a bungled robbery in Wichita, Kansas which left a police officer dead when Herman shot him in the mouth at point blank range. A short while after Herman crashed his car and to avoid being prosecuted he killed himself. The following year, brothers Lloyd and Fred her jailed in Kansas and Arthur served time in a prison in Oklahoma. George and Kate were last known as a couple in 1928 but it’s unclear as to whether she threw him out or he left, but the stronger evidence indicates he left after being unable to cope being surrounded by a family who indulged in a life of crime. His eldest son’s death and his sibling’s jail sentences was the final straw.

The sons were in prison for around three years so for that time Ma Barker lived alone in poverty with no family around her and gained herself a reputation as a loose woman according to an F.B.I. statement at the time. Fred was released from prison first in 1931, but immediately teamed up with a former prison inmate Alvin Karpis to form the Barker-Karpis gang and continue their crime spree. Following another shooting, Alvin, Fred and Ma moved to Chicago and were eventually tracked down by the police in January 1936. A week later the police surrounded the house where they were hiding but unbeknown to the police, Alvin had disappeared a few days earlier. The police asked them to surrender but Fred began a shooting match which resulted in both Barkers losing their lives. Ma with a single bullet wound, Fred with several.

One verse in the song says, ‘Then came a man she liked, she thought she’d stay with him, when he informed on them, they did away with him’ – this refers to a man named Arthur Dunlop whom Ma had met whilst in poverty but had travelled with them to Chicago, but he had no job and drank a lot. When he was drunk he seemingly was unable to keep his mouth shut and thus the police managed to get some information from him.

The bridge of the song is the spoken announcement, ‘Here is a special bulletin, Ma Baker is the FBI’s most wanted woman. Her photo is hanging on every post office wall. If you have any information about this woman, please contact the nearest police station’, that announcement was the voice of Bill Swisher, an American soldier friend of Frank Farian’s who had served in Germany. Bill was married to Linda Blake.

The last verse states, ‘They didn’t want to hang, they died with blazing guns’ a true statement and the song ends with the lines ‘She never could cry’ and ‘but she knew how to die’ and that she did at the age of 61 – older than all of her sons.

Although the lyrics are original, the tune itself is based on an old Tunisian tune called Sidi Mansour which is named after a small town in Tunisia. An updated version was recorded by Mohamed Hanesh in 1975 and it was his version that Boney M’s was based on.

Ma Baker did well around the world where is made the top five in 20 countries including number one in Belgium, Austria, Germany, France, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. In the UK, it made number two and the b-side was a cover of the Yardbirds’ 1965 hit Still, I’m Sad.

Frank Farian later went on to work with Milli Vanilli and produced their big hits but was not involved with the lip-syncing atrocities in 1988. Their 1988 album All or Nothing contains a version of Ma Baker but who is actually singing it is anyone’s guess.

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Steppin’ Out (Joe Jackson)

Since the video age, which began in the early eighties, the record companies try to promote an act not only on their sound, but their image as well. A good image, especially to young teenage girls, will help sell records. Prior to all that records generally sold on what was played on the radio so it didn’t matter too much what you looked like. People like Demis Roussos and Shane MacGowan were/are no oil paintings but they made some really good songs. That also applies to the man behind this week’s choice, Joe Jackson.

Joe is an amazing live performer too, I had the good fortune to see him at Hammersmith Palais in 1984 when he was a double header with Gary Glitter – they both put on good show but Joe, being more of a musician shone through.

He was born David Ian Jackson in August 1954 in Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire but grew up in Portsmouth. At school he learned violin, but soon realised he preferred piano. In his late teens, he joined a local band called Edward Bear who then changed their name to Arms and Legs.

Before he left that band he changed his name to Joe which he chose after people told him he looked like the cartoon character Snoopy in his student guise and known as Joe Cool.

After leaving the band, he toured the cabaret circuit with the hope of making enough money to record a demo. One night a record producer from A&M records saw him and took his demo to the company who them signed him. In 1978, he recorded the song Is She Really Going Out with Him? at Eden studios in London and on its initial release in August 1978 it failed to chart. It was re-issued a year later where it reached number 13. Six months later he followed it with It’s Different for Girls which became his highest charting UK hit when it peaked at number five. Joe’s only other visit to the UK top 10 was exactly three years later when Steppin’ Out reached number six.

Steppin’ Out, a phrase coined in New York City in the 1930s, is more piano led than his previous hits and had more of a jazz-feel. Joe was just coming out of a divorce and headed to New York to record the parent album Night And Day. New York is known as the city that never sleeps and that’s why the album sleeve shows both a light and dark image to represent night and day. It’s essentially a concept album with side one telling us stories of his visit during a taxi ride in Manhattan opening with Another World (his thoughts on the place) and then taking us to Chinatown. Side one closes with Steppin’ Out which described Joe’s anticipation of a night out on the town.

He described how it happened in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “I took a sublet in the East Village and went out to jazz and Latin clubs. One of the first songs I wrote was Steppin’ Out. I was inspired by New York. I envisioned playing a diverse range of keyboards. I wanted them to conjure up the dazzle of neon lights and the feel of cabbing from club to club to take it all in. It would be a romantic ballad set to a disco beat. As soon as I finished the music, I wrote the words. I thought of a couple who had just fought and were making up. They were telling each other, “Let’s forget it and take advantage of the city. Let’s just throw ourselves into the night.”

Joe is very meticulous about his song writing as he explained in that same interview to Marc Myers, “For me, lyrics have always been the hardest part of writing a song. I sweat over words. I don’t want them to sound dumb and clumsy and meaningless. So I did a lot of editing. Except for the first verse, I started each with a different pronoun—me, we, you. I used them as cues for the narratives that followed. The lyrics were intuitive and had nothing to do with my personal life. They just felt right.

The first verse set the scene, ‘Now, the mist across the window hides the lines, But nothing hides the colour of the lights that shine, Electricity so fine, Look and dry your eyes.’ The next verse urged the other person to forget the argument, ‘We, so tired of all the darkness in our lives, with no more angry words to say can come alive, get into a car and drive, to the other side.’

The rest is about heading out and the anticipation of arriving at a club, ‘And in a yellow taxi you turn to me and smile, we’ll be there in just a while, If you follow me.’ Even though the song is set in late ’81, I viewed it as a trip through New York of another era. I imagined the couple going to CBGB or the Village Gate but dressed up, as if in a movie set in 1940s New York.”

MTV was well underway and Joe was advised to make a video which he did but wasn’t happy with it. He said in an interview with Time Out, “Rock ‘n’ roll is degenerating into a big circus, and videos and MTV are very much part of that. People who are seriously interested in making music as an end in itself are going to have to split away and forge a different path.” The video showed a housekeeper dressed as Cinderella and was filmed at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. It also received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year in 1983 but lost out to Toto’s Rosanna.

After the hit, Joe returned to the UK, but realised he preferred New York so returned there for a while. In an interview in 2019 he said, “I don’t like New York much these days. It’s as if the city and I had a hot love affair and now we’re just friends, but we still have to see each other to remain friends. Today I live in Berlin. I often rework my original arrangement of Steppin’ Out before we go on tour. I’m currently performing the slow version that works really well in concert. I may try a Latin version next.

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Keeping The Dream Alive (Freiheit)

East 17’s Stay Another Day, David Essex’s A Winter’s Tale, Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry and various versions of Let It Snow are all good examples of Christmassy-feel songs that having nothing at all to do with Christmas, most of them don’t even reference the ‘C’ word! This week’s suggestion is another. It features on most festive compilations and like all of the aforementioned, it get heavy radio rotation in December but virtually nothing the rest of the year. Let’s find out about Keeping the Dream Alive by Freiheit.

The band formed in 1980 and their original name was Münchner Freiheit which takes its name from a square in Munich’s Schwabing district, near the English Garden. During the winter it is home to one of Munich’s largest Christmas markets which is a huge tourist attraction. The original line up comprised singer Stefan Zauner, guitarist Aron Strobel, bass player Michael Kunzi, keyboardist Alex Grünwald and drummer Rennie Hatzke. The only personnel change was when Stefan left the band in 2010 and permanently replaced two years later by Tim Wilhelm. Although that is still their full name it’s often shortened to just Freiheit.

Their debut album, Umsteiger was released in 1982 and followed a year later by Licht. They toured around Europe successfully and in 1985 did 80 concerts in Germany alone and on the back of that released the single Ohne Dich which charted in Austria, Switzerland and made number two in their native country. The parent album, From the Beginning, followed a few months later.

In 1987, they recorded the song As long as you can still live dreams and in my exclusive interview with the bass player Michael Kunzi he explained its origins, “I didn’t write the song, but Stefan, our singer at the time who wrote the song, told me that he had the first idea in the bathroom whilst taking a shower. First, we made a normal band version, and there is one on the Album Fantasy, but our record label CBS at this time said, ‘the composition is so huge, that it recommended the production of the London Symphony Orchestra with conductor Andrew Powell.” The backing vocals are performed by the Jackson Singers and it was all recorded at Abbey Road Studios with producer Armand Volker. The German-language version reached number two in Germany and both the ARD and ZDF, who are German public-​service television broadcasters,  recognised their achievements by naming them Best Band of the Year with the Golden Tuning Fork and the Berolina.

The song was re-recorded in 1988 with an English lyric but the original master was used and thus the LSO were kept on the recording we know but they were still not credited. It reached the top 20 in Ireland and number 14 in the UK.

As the nineties arrived, the band slowed a little; they released the single Love at First Sight in 1992. They continued touring and released an album every couple of years but it all remained fairly low key until 2009 when, with the help of a huge advertising campaign made a big comeback with the album Eigenwege which put them back in the German top 10 for the first time in 18 years.

Michael told me, “We are still touring and playing a lot of our big hits, in Germany, our biggest hit was Everytime and we are also still recording new stuff.”

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Doop (Doop)

The UK singles chart was introduced in November 1952 when Percy Dickens decided to telephone a number of record shops in the UK to find out what their best-selling singles of that week were and list them in the New Musical Express (NME). It was a passing thought he had with no plans to make it a regular thing, but it proved so useful and popular that it stay and 68 years on it’s still here albeit largely irrelevant to most people outside the industry because of the ridiculous rules the Official Charts Company use to compile it. Anyway, it took 41 years for it to have its first eponymous number one hit and, like buses, the second, and last – to date – followed swiftly after and it’s that song we look at this week.

The track in question is Doop by two Dutch producers and keyboard players, Ferry Ridderhof and Peter Garnefski who called themselves Doop. Seventy years of music came full circle when they released this techno version of the Twenties dance, the Charleston.

The Charleston is thought to have originated in a small island near Charleston in South Carolina as early as 1903. It’s done by performing outward heel kicks combined with an up-and-down movement achieved by bending and straightening the knees in time to the syncopated 4/4 rhythm of ragtime jazz.

In an exclusive interview, Peter Garnefski told me that the pair met at school and both studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. “We wanted to fulfil the ambition of making music and our first collaboration was under the name Doop. We decided on that name because we liked the sound of it when Ferry was singing the ‘Doop-be-doop-be-doop-be-doop’ bits.” Ferry added, “I always do the vocals. It was very funny to see how people make those kind of up-tempo moves. In the Twenties the Charleston was a big dance craze,” continued Peter. “I thought it had a similar tempo and speed to the house music scene, so I tried it and it worked.”

Ridderhof reiterated to Mojo in April 2012 that the song reflected similarities between 1920s jazz and 1990s house music and was inspired by the crowds at raves, who looked like they were dancing the Charleston. “We started to experiment with the Charleston and big bands. Then we added my vocal. Everybody liked the track, it changed mood when it was played. It was obviously new. England embraced the record.”

The song made the top 20 in Austria and France and top 10 in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands but their greatest success was in the UK where it spent three weeks at number one. On the back of that they had to up their stage show, “We were booked as an act,” Ridderhof said. “You wonder what will we do on stage. We were really studio guys. Doop got us a lot of opportunities and we realised we could do what we wanted to do, we bought a beautiful house by a canal in Amsterdam and built a studio.”

They followed-up Doop with Huckleberry Jam, Wan Too and Ridin’ and although they had reasonable success across Europe, they failed to connect in the UK leaving them a one-hit-wonder. All the tracks appeared on the album Circus Doop, which also attracted few music collectors in the UK.

Ridderhof and Garnefski had further success in Europe under various guises including Hocus Pocus, Vicious Delicious, Boobytrax and Waxattack. In 1997 they formed two record labels, Mr. Cheng’s Quality tunes and Proudly. That same year they teamed up with Hans Weekhout, who had the minor UK hit 20Hz under the moniker Capricorn, and Edward Boellaart to form Peblab. Their first single, Ride the Pony was a club favourite on the continent.

Whilst they continue to record under the moniker, Peblab, Peter and Ferry made it back into the UK chart in 2002 under another moniker, Kioki. The single Do & Don’t For Love reached number 66. Their last single, in 2014, was called Tequila and failed to chart anywhere in Europe.

Ferry seems to be quiet at the moment, his last Tweet was in July 2013 and Peter Garnefski still records at the moment under the guise Qbrick.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, the first eponymous UK number one was Mr Blobby. Says it all really!

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Heartlight (Neil Diamond)

Films and their title or characters have been many an inspiration for a song and Steven Spielberg’s 1982 alien character is no exception. Michael Jackson was a fan as he narrated the story, which was released as a box set and was also inspired to record and song about it called Someone in the Dark which was written by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Rod Temperton. In 2011, Katy Perry had a UK top three hit with E.T. and some bizarre spin-off’s include E.T. & Me by The Chipmunks, E.T. Boogie by the Extra T’s and I Had Sex with ET by Barnes & Barnes. One you may not have known was a minor UK hit for Neil Diamond called Heartlight.

When Neil first saw the film, he was so enthralled by it that he immediately wrote the song. For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, E.T – standing for Extra Terrestrial – it is about an alien who came to Earth but missed the spaceship to take him back and ends up being adopted by a family and befriends a little boy called Elliot. When he flies his heart glows hence the song’s title.

Diamond was invited to a promotional screening of the film and there was the husband and wife couple Carole Bayer Sager and Burt Bacharach. Once the film had finished the three of them went straight back to Carole and Burt’s apartment to write the song. Neil said of it, “We wanted to express how all of us felt about the little alien who suddenly appears in a strange world and to create a simple musical statement that we all felt very sincerely.”

Once he had recorded the song he suddenly wondered how the younger generation would perceive it so Neil played it to his son Jesse using him as a sounding board to which he gave it the thumbs up.

Heartlight also became the title of the parent album which spent 10 weeks on the UK album chart but just missed the top 40. In his homeland, it reached number nine. As a single it became Neil’s last of eight number one hits on the US Adult Contemporary Hits chart.

Seemingly totally inoffensive the song did cause Neil one hindrance. The MCA company who was in charge of merchandising for the film threatened to sue Neil which seemed a slightly odd move given the song does not mention the film by title, nor any of its characters, but in order to avoid any court proceedings, he agreed to pay the company $25,000.

After the mid-eighties, Neil’s chart career dropped off, but had constantly remained a massive crowd puller when playing arenas and stadiums all over the world. He still wears that glittery silver and blue jacket from the 70s but he can be forgiven for that I guess.

Neil, who is just coming up to his 79th birthday, announced this time two years ago that he would retire from live performances with immediately effect due to having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he was in the middle of a 50th anniversary tour at the time and dates in Australia and New Zealand were cancelled.

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The Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Midler)

This week’s single has been recorded by hundreds of people and some under a different title entirely. It’s a selfless song about letting someone else take all the credit and yet it’s a funeral favourite too that was written by a man who was the lead singer with a group who had two UK hits – seven years apart.

The group who had the two hits were The Newbeats, their first hit was Bread and Butter which peaked at number 15 in 1964 and the other was Run Baby Run (Back In My Arms) which was recorded in 1965 but failed to chart until it was discovered on the Northern Soul scene six years later thus becoming a hit then. It fared better than the first hit by getting to number 10 in December 1971.

Lead singer Larry Henley was born in Texas in 1937 and formed the Newbeats in 1964 alongside brothers Dean and Mark Mathis. Henley had a distinctive falsetto voice much like Frankie Valli. In 1981, he teamed up with the Los Angeles-born songwriter Jeff Silbar to write The Wind Beneath My Wings which became hugely successful around the world and far bigger than either of them had imagined.

The original idea was that it would be a love song from a male to a female, but when they had finished they realised that it was much more universal and could apply to anybody, related or otherwise. It began as a poem Henley had written. He gave it the title and it wasn’t just on a whim as he was learning to fly aeroplanes at the time. He told Jeff who loved the idea and the pair sat down and wrote it start to finish in one day. The Henley/Silbar demo was at a much faster pace than the song we know and it was only when someone as Warner Brothers Music suggested slowing down it became a ballad.

This song had a similar start in life to Release Me in as much as the writer (in this case Eddie Miller) has so much trouble trying to find someone to record his song that he ended up recording it himself. He wrote it in 1946 and got turned down by many singers and record companies alike that he finally laid down the track in 1949 on the B side of a song called Motel Time. Country radio DJ’s began playing the other side and it eventually took off and all and sundry recorded it, most famously Engelbert Humperdinck who took it to number one.

So after Henley and Silbar had recorded their demo no one seemed interested. Barbra Streisand was the first to give it a go but for reasons unknown, halfway through the session she decided not to continue and walked out. The first fully recorded version was by a Malaysian-born country singer called Kamahl in 1982 for a country album he was making, but it never got released. Eventually, a full year after the demo, the first singer to tackle it and get a release was Roger Whittaker later in 1982. This was followed a few months later by Sheena Easton who included it on her album Madness Money and Music. In 1983, Gladys Knight (without the Pips) recorded it but changed the title to Hero. Other country singers who have given it a go were Gary Morris, Lee Greenwood, Willie Nelson and Ray Price. Also in 1983, Lou Rawls gave it a friendly soul treatment and in 1992 Patti Labelle did it justice too.

By far the best-known version is the one by Bette Midler that was used in the 1988 film Beaches that starred Bette as CC Bloom. The song appears towards the end of the film in a dramatic scene after Hillary Whitney Essex, played by Barbara Hershey died of cancer. It was not the first time this song had appeared in a film. Two years previous Gladys Knight’s version was used in The George McKenna Story that starred Denzel Washington.

When Midler first heard the song she wasn’t too impressed with it as she revealed in an interview with The Times in 2009 saying “It’s really grown on me. When I first heard it, I said, ‘I’m not singing that song,’ but the friend who gave it to me said, ‘If you don’t sing it I’ll never speak to you again’, so of course I had to sing the damned song. Whatever reservations I might have had I certainly don’t have any more.”

Before Midler recorded her version, other artists had given it a go including the crooner Perry Como who, in 1987 was recording the album Today. He wanted it released as a single but his record label, RCA refused which angered Como so much that he said he would never record for the label again.

Wind Beneath My Wings, which is in the top 10 list of favourite funeral songs, won the Song of the Year and Record of the Year awards at the Grammy in 1990. Bette also sang it at the Oscars in 2014. In 2013, when Idina Menzel was auditioning for the voice of Elsa in Frozen, this is the song she rendered.

Larry Henley passed away at his home in Nashville, Tennessee in December 2014, he had been suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, he was 77. Silbar, who has just turned 65, boasts on his website, ‘Wind… has received seven ASCAP awards, including a Song of the Century award, and was recognised as one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Songs.’

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