Category: Single of the week

Sam (Olivia Newton-John)

This week’s suggestion came out of a conversation with someone who believed, quite rightly, that I am a fan of Olivia Newton-John and so the discussion was about her music and I was asked who the Sam was in the song of the same name. I gave my answer and then came the suggestion of doing a Single of the Week feature on it, so here goes.

Olivia, who has recently turned 73, and looks incredible, has, by her own admission, been very lucky with the songs she’s recorded. She is not a song writer and has managed to sustain a career spanning over 50 years thanks to the old days of writers who wrote for other people rather than themselves. “It’s very hard to get good songs because a lot of writers record their own; they keep the best for themselves,” she explained, “I’m fortunate that I have fantastic writers around me who give me first choice. John Farrar has written some of the best songs that I’ve ever sung.”

Farrar is a Melbourne-born songwriter who had been a member of various groups in the sixties and more famously one third of the trio Marvin, Welch & Farrar in the early seventies. Marvin was Hank Marvin and Welch was Bruce both from the Shadows. Despite a few appearances on Top of the Pops, none of their singles charted in the UK and only one album, the eponymous one, stalled at number 30.

He began producing Olivia in 1971 beginning with her debut UK hit, If Not for You and then writing for Olivia in the early/mid-seventies including her second American chart-topper, Have you Never Been Mellow gave him his first number one. His biggest success came in 1978 when he wrote the majority of song for the film Grease.

Sam was Olivia’s seventh UK hit and was the only one credited to three songwriters, Farrar, Hank Marvin and the great lyricist Don Black. The song is rare in as much is it’s in 3/4 time – waltz like, how come? “It wasn’t planned, it just worked that way,” Farrar explained. “I had done a lot of the song long before it was finished, I think Hank had a couple of verses and I did the chorus on it. First Hank and I came up with the music and later Don Black was invited to help with the words.”

So, who is Sam? Simple answer, no one. “Sam did not refer to anyone,” Farrar said, “it just scanned well and sounded good but as soon as I heard it in the studio it struck me as a hit. I remember when we recorded it in Nashville, it went down great.”

It was released on the album Don’t Stop Believin’ in October 1976 and as a single in May 1977 where it went to number one on the Adult Contemporary chart giving Olivia her ninth of 10 numbers on that chart. It also went on to the top of the Easy Listening chart as well as topping the charts in Ireland and Canada. In the UK it reached number six. Not many have covered the song but certainly one to avoid is the Des O’Connor version from 1978.

Hold My Hand (Don Cornell)

 

This week’s suggestion comes from a long-forgotten singer who charted two songs in the 1950s. One was a virtually never-played number one and the follow up was a much more well-known song that’s played even less. What’s more the number one hit came from a long-forgotten movie even if it did star Debbie Reynolds. Let’s revisit the year 1954 and Don Cornell’s hit Hold My Hand.

Don Cornell was born Luigi Francisco Varlaro in New York on 21st April 1919. In the 1940s and 1950s, a clutch of Italian-American balladeers, most of them from New York, achieved international success. They included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Vic Damone, Tony Bennett and Don Cornell. Cornell’s warm baritone was appreciated by millions.

As a teenager, Luigi Varlaro was a singing waiter at the Embassy Club, a haunt for noted jazz musicians opposite the Bronx Zoo, said Spencer Leigh in The Independent. He hoped to be discovered, and he was, but not as he expected. He fought someone over a racist remark and a boxing promoter was so impressed by his innate skill that he invited Varlaro to be a sparring partner for his clients. He proved better than his opponents and was soon fighting professionally. He won 20 fights and then, in what could have been the inspiration for the film Pulp Fiction, he walked away when he was asked to throw a fight for gambling money.

He turned to music and worked as a guitarist in Red Nichols’ Five Pennies, but he was soon concentrating on singing. He was spotted by the bandleader, Sammy Kaye, but Kaye thought his name was cumbersome and introduced him one night as ‘Don Cornell’ without telling him first. He based the name on his former trumpet player, Dale Cornell. Cornell sang on a succession of Kaye’s hit records including That’s My Desire, The World Is Waiting for The Sunrise, Careless Hands (later a UK hit for Des O’Connor), It Isn’t Fair and Room Full of Roses. “I have always believed a song tells a story,” Don recalled, “it must be interpreted through feelings, the message must be conveyed by the singer to the listener.”

Don Cornell went solo in 1950 and signed with Coral records in 1952 but they did not have a UK outlet for their releases. As a result, Eddie Fisher had a UK hit with Cornell’s American success, I’m Yours. Eventually, in 1954, Coral found a distributor and Hold My Hand went to number one.

Jack Lawrence and Richard Meyers wrote the song for a light-hearted film called Susan Slept Here, about a Hollywood scriptwriter (Dick Powell) and a delinquent girl (Debbie Reynolds). Cornell’s record is played by Reynolds as she makes breakfast in Powell’s apartment. The powerful ballad received an Oscar nomination, but lost to Three Coins in The Fountain.

Hold My Hand wasn’t without its share of criticism; it was condemned by Geoffrey Fisher, the-then Archbishop of Canterbury and, in turn, the BBC objected to the line, ‘This is the kingdom of heaven’, although now it is hard to fathom why they thought it profane. An amended line, ‘This is the wonder of heaven’, was agreed and, by overdubbing, Cornell recorded a revised version for airplay. The commercially available record still contained the original words, but the sheet music gave the lyric as ‘This is the wonder of heaven’.

When Cornell came to the UK, he learnt that the Archbishop of Canterbury had been criticising his record; “It was all over the newspapers,” said Cornell, “and I was so annoyed that I broke some furniture in front of the press. The headline was ‘Archbishop of Canterbury angers US singing star’. The audiences were wonderful: they would shout out, ‘Sing your banned song, Donny boy!'”

Don’s only other UK hit was a pleasing version of Stranger in Paradise which petered out at number 19. “This was now the rock ‘n’ roll era,” said Cornell, “and Coral had the bright idea that I should be recording for teenagers. I did some horrible songs; Sittin’ In the Balcony, for instance – and it was humanly impossible for me to do these well.”

When the hits stopped, Cornell toured the States in The Pajama Game, A Streetcar Named Desire and other well-known productions. In 1963 he was among the first stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, in 1993, he was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame. Throughout the sixties and seventies, he was performing in nightclubs and making occasional guest appearances including the TV series, Miami Vice.

In 1979 Cornell moved to Florida in semi-retirement and spent his time playing golf with his old friend Perry Como. Don passed away in February 2004 in Aventura, Florida, from emphysema and diabetes. He was 84.

Native New Yorker (Odyssey)

How disheartening must it be for a songwriter to write a song they really believe in and love then to be told it’s not very good and have to move on? I can’t imagine not being a song writer myself, but I’ve heard a similar story many times and this week is one of them. The lyrics to Native New Yorker were written by Sandy Linzer but if Sandy had listened to other people we may never have heard this song.

The song’s co-writer was Denny Randell and both of them have written a number of well-known songs including A Lover’s Concerto by the Toys, The Four Seasons’ songs Working My Way Back to You, Let’s Hang on and Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout Me), The Bandwagon’s Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache and Wigan’s Ovation’s Skiing in The Snow. Linzer has also written other hits with and without other songwriters.

Native New Yorker was first recorded by Frankie Valli – presumably through Linzer’s Four Seasons connection – for his 1977 solo album Lady Put the Light Out, but it was made famous by Odyssey with Lillian Lopez from the group, telling us of the life of a clued-up city lady who’s is well known in her home town; ‘There you are, lost in the shadows, searching for someone to set you free from New York City,’ but the twist is not how good New York is, but what a pain it was for her and her longing to escape even for a short while. It was made for effective when sung by a woman, ‘No one opens the door for a native New Yorker,’ she sighs, having explained that she’s young and pretty.

The song was Linzer’s first real foray into disco but how did he make the switch? “It’s just a normal transition that a lot of songwriter go through,” he explained. “You just go with the flow and the key elements so I can adapt any kind of music because I like all kinds, so I never had a problem changing direction.”

Linzer was born in New Jersey, so what inspired him to sing about New York? “That came from an album I had produced about a year before by Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and while I was working on that eponymous album the title just came to me. I didn’t know what to do with it at the time. When it came to the follow-up album, the band wanted to do it alone and head off to Los Angeles and didn’t think much was going to come of it and I moved on and found Odyssey. That’s when I caught up with Denny and suggested we write together again. I mentioned the idea of Native New Yorker to him which I had started writing on the piano at first but I wasn’t crazy about the direction I was going and I told him I wanted to do something like Papa Was A Rolling Stone. After a few days he tried a few things but nothing came of it. We wrote some other tracks for the first Odyssey album and then Denny played a riff on the piano. I said, ‘what is that’? he said, ‘nothing, it’s just a riff and I said, ‘I like that – that’s Native New Yorker’. As soon as I heard that I immediately had the lyrics and the melody in my head so I wrote them down and then the second verse came easily too. Within an hour I said I think it’s done, let’s take it from the top, I want to sing the whole thing and when I finished we both were both rolling on the floor hysterical, we knew we had a monster.”

They tried to produce the album for Odyssey but Linzer felt is wasn’t working so told Randell that he was going to produce it with Charlie Calello who was my mentor and he’s had over 100 hits on Billboard including being the arranger on my Four Seasons hits. He was so good, he hired the best musicians including Richard Tee piano and Freddy Becker who plays the distinctive saxophone.

The finished album was then sent over to Tommy Mottola at RCA and a few weeks later I got a call from the head of A&R at the label and Tommy said, ‘You just got nominated for a Grammy for the album which is fabulous, but there’s one song on there you should take off I swear to God it’s an embarrassment,’ I said, ‘what song’? he said, ‘Native New Yorker’. I said, really? You don’t like Native New Yorker, he said, ‘Nobody likes Native New Yorker.’ I thought they were crazy.”

As for Odyssey, well none of them were from New York. The sisters Lillian and Louise Lopez were both born in the Virgin Islands but raised in Stamford, Connecticut. The male member, Tony Reynolds was a Filipino but he joined soon after Native New Yorker was recorded and left after the first album.

The song, which was featured in the 1978 film The Eyes of Laura Mars, was Odyssey’s debut hit on both side of the Atlantic reaching number 21 Stateside and number five on these shores.

Odyssey’s biggest UK hit was the 1980 chart-topper Use It Up, Wear It Out, a cover of Lamont Dozier’s Going Back to My Roots reached number four in 1981 and their final top 10 hit was Inside Out which peaked at number three the following year. A cover of Native New Yorker by Black Box charted in 1997, but missed the top 40.

Although the band are still going, it’s not the sound it once was as Lillian passed away in September 2015 at the age of 77 (she was 42 when Native New Yorker charted) and her sister Louise died in January 2015 aged almost 82. The group are now led by Lillian’s son Steven Collazo and supported by KayJay Sutherland and Michelle John.

Love On the Rocks (Neil Diamond)

Cover versions of songs done in a very different style from the acts who made them famous can often be a nice surprise. This week’s choice was made famous in a film in 1980 and if you’ve seen the film you’ll probably remember that Love on the Rocks was performed in a punk style by Paul Nicholas and even when its writer and originator explained how it should be done but just wasn’t interested. You can’t beat a good ballad.

Neil Diamond co-wrote the song with the French song writer Gilbert Becaud especially for the film The Jazz Singer that Diamond also starred as a Cantor which followed in his father’s footsteps. His father was played Laurence Olivier, but Diamond was also a singer/songwriter in the film and preferred that lifestyle but couldn’t let his father down so, for a while, remained attached to the Synagogue. Eventually he decides to up sticks and go on tour and gives everything to his music in the hope of becoming a famous and successful pop star. Didn’t someone tell him he already was?!

He meets a group of black musicians and writes some songs for them. One night, one of them got arrested and Diamond blacked himself up to cover for him at a night club gig, but all hell broke loose when one member of the audience spotted Diamond’s hands which he forgot to black up. Bubba, from the group, tells Diamond that they had a gig booked in L.A. backing a popular musician called Keith Lennox (Paul Nicholas) and Diamond begin writing a song for the show which will eventually become Love on the Rocks. He gives the song to Bubba who takes it Los Angeles and before long called Diamond to tell him that Lennox loves the song and they need him there to oversee the recording session. Despite the fact both his father and wife don’t want him to go, he sees his big chance and off he went.

It was Diamond’s first acting role and he recalled a few years later, “Making The Jazz Singer was an extraordinary experience for me and I still haven’t really absorbed all of it. It was one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had not only in a creative way but also in a personal way. I was forced to do things I’d never done before including the discipline to work certain hours every day which is basically what the movie business is all about and learning to memorise pages and pages of dialogue and to be able to do it some kind of confidence.”

He meets a girl called Molly (Lucie Arnaz) who soon becomes his manager and they eventually fall in love. The song was not written about the eventual separation from his wife, but instead about the co-writer, Becaud’s, favourite tipple. “Gilbert and I were working with my band in our L.A studio,” Diamond told Christopher Feldman. “Gilbert’s favourite drink was scotch on the rocks so I started fooling around with a dummy lyric with that title. The song was very frivolous and so we started to play it with a reggae feel. When the verse was formed Gilbert and I felt the song had more serious possibilities and so we tried it as a straight two and four ballad. With the addition of an emotional chorus section, it became the full-fledged musical expression.”

The film was not well received at the box office despite being an updated take on the classic 1927 Al Jolson version, the soundtrack, which included all songs written or co-written by Diamond, went multi-platinum.

In the U.S. it reached number two and in the UK number 17. The follow-up, Hello Again, didn’t even crack the UK top 50. If the movie had been better received the latter probably would have been more successful as it’s the song Diamond sings when he comes back to see Molly who he also left. To find out why, you’ll have to watch the film.

The song was also recorded by Gilbert who did so in his native French for his eponymous album in 1981 and also recorded by Millie Jackson the same year, Shirley Bassey (1995), Bill Tarmey (1996), Michael Ball (1998) and Russell Watson (2007)

It’s not Diamond’s only movie related song; in 1982 he was invited by Burt Bacharach to the premier of the film E.T. and that inspired him to write the song Heartlight which he co-wrote with Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager.

In January 2018, Diamond announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and was retiring from live performances with immediate effect but he would continue to write and record and work on developing his new projects.

Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs (Brian & Michael)

Artists, of the painting type, are not an obvious subject to sing about but Matt Monro praises Michelangelo in Portrait of My Love, Don McLean sang about Vincent van Gogh, Paul McCartney sang about Picasso’s Last Words on the 1973 album Band on the Run, Peter Sarstedt, in his 1969 chart-topper, Where Do You Go to My Lovely and Donna Summer, in her 1987 hit Dinner with Gershwin, both give a mention to Picasso. Kanye West namechecks Dali in his 2013 hit Mercy and this week’s subject throws the spotlight on Lancashire’s finest.

The Stretford-born artist Laurence Stephen Lowry had a full-time job as a rent collector, and this inspired bleak, industrial landscapes of northern England in which everyone is depicted as tiny matchstalk figures hurrying about their business. Many art critics dismissed his work as naïve and he certainly lacked the reputation of Francis Bacon or David Hockney. However, the public at large knew his distinctive style and it was front-page news when he died in 1976.

His obituary which was read by, among many others, Michael Coleman and it inspired him to write a song about him. “It was a simple song about someone we loved,” Mick explained in an interview with Louise Cohen. “I’ve always loved Lowry and his paintings. It was an affection more than knowing anything about art, really.”

It was on a school trip that Michael first learned about Lowry. He, his mother and siblings lived in Britain’s last workhouse. “We were there for seven years,” he explained, “So when you see the poorer areas that Lowry painted, it takes me back to those days that were even quite painful. There were cripples, people with no arms and no legs, and you think, what kind of picture is that of Manchester? Well, it was a true picture of the Manchester I lived in.”

Once he had penned Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs he took it to the producer, Kevin Parrott, and they recorded it themselves after Parrott borrowed some money to pay for studio time at Pluto Studios in Stockport. Kevin had a very uncool name so he changed it to Brian and so the duo was born. Technically not the first time they were performers as both of them had been in a soul band called The Big Sound in the 1960s where they worked a lot in Europe. If you look at the record label after their names it has Burke and Jerk in brackets because that’s what they were originally known as. They went into the studio in September 1977 to record the song and featured the Tintwistle Brass Band who are named after the small village in Derbyshire where Parrott then lived. The Children’s choir on it are the St Winifred’s School choir. The choir were formed in the Roman Catholic Primary School in Stockport in the late 60s and had been recording material since 1972 under the direction of Miss Olive Moore who conducted them.

The intro to song also dips into the northern heritage as it is based on William Rimmer’s brass band march, Punchinello. To Brian and Michael’s surprise, Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs became controversial. Instead of being delighted that Lowry was being recognised in such a populist way (which Lowry would have loved), many pundits took the opportunity to dismiss both Lowry and the song. “We had a lot of criticism in the early days. There were people who treated the song as by two guys who really didn’t know anything about Lowry and his painting. Who were we to write about art?” he revealed to Louise Cohen.

Exactly two years after Lowry’s death, Brian and Michael entered the chart and went to number one in March 1978 knocking off the literary work of Emily Bronte as portrayed by Kate Bush in Wuthering Heights. It stayed on the listing for 19 weeks. Two years later the St. Winifred’s School Choir had the limelight to themselves when they topped the chart over Christmas with No One Quite Like Grandma.

The duo performed as Brian & Michael for some time, and when Brian left, Michael continued with a replacement. Michael also wrote Ken Dodd’s 1981 minor hit, Hold My Hand and Ken himself also recorded a version of Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs. Michael has written a musical about Lowry. The painter’s reputation has increased with the years, especially since the opening of the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays in 2000.

The song made headlines again in 2015 when Michael Thornton, a 51-year-old Manchester Council tenant, made his neighbours’ lives hell by belting out the song whilst drunk. The Birmingham Mail reported, ‘he would sing it at the top of his voice along with a selection of Irish rebel songs. He would also invite friends back to his ground floor flat after the pubs had closed for rowdy gatherings where they would shout, swear and sing into the early hours of the morning. He was sentenced at Birmingham Country Court to 20 weeks in prison after breaking an anti-social behaviour injunction under which he was required to keep the peace.

The Immigrant (Neil Sedaka)

Neil Sedaka, alongside Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to name a few all began their musical career as staff song writers at the famous Brill Building on Broadway in New York. The two Neil’s were really the only two to successfully forge a career as singers and amass a string of hits. Sedaka clocked up 18 UK hits between I Go Ape in 1959 to The Queen of 1964 in 1975, but has continued to write and perform to this day. During the COVID pandemic, he recorded a couple of YouTube videos which consisted of a medley of his well-known songs. In his native States, his career as a singer expanded 1958 – 1980. This week’s suggestion was a modest Billboard hit but missed the chart completely in the UK.

Neil was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1939 and studied piano at the Juilliard School of Music. It was whilst he was at Lincoln High School he met lyricist Howard Greenfield and formed a partnership which lasted over 20 years and together wrote 14 of Neil’s 18 UK hits.

His career dipped towards the late 1960s and by the early 70s almost gave up hope of having a comeback and moved to the UK. He began playing in working men’s club’s in the north of England and was desperate to get a recording contract so he can be heard on the radio again. It all changed when he recorded an album with a couple of members of 10cc and, in-turn, met Elton John who signed him to his Rocket record label.

The last song Sedaka and Greenfield wrote together was called Our Last Song Together and then Sedaka began a collaboration with Phil Cody one of which included The Immigrant. Cody said in an interview with Songfacts: “I wanted to write a song for my dad. My dad came to this country, he wanted to be a singing star. He worked in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera before he got married, and then put down his singing career to become a tradesman. My dad and I, up until I was about 28, were constantly at each other’s throats. He wasn’t real happy with the direction I’d taken. He thought I was destined to be a bum for the entirety of my life. And then he actually went into a recording studio in Sicily and did a version of Solitaire (which Cody co-wrote with Sedaka) in Italian. And then I said, Wow, I’ve scored with my dad. My dad thinks I’m cool now. So, I thought as payback I would try to write about my dad’s point of view of coming to this country and how much promise there was.”

The song is probably more relevant today than it was back then. Immigration was important factor to both Sedaka and Cody because both Sedaka’s parents came from Jewish families who emigrated to New York but going back a further generation, his mother’s roots were Russian and Polish and his father’s were Turkish. As for Cody’s parents, they came from Sicily so they were both very aware of immigration. The lyrics tell of when America were happy to welcome ‘strangers’, The opening line, ‘Harbours open their arms to the young searching foreigner come to live in the light of the beacon of liberty’ is Cody’s vision of what his country was like when his father arrived. He then gives his own view, ‘Plains and open skies billboards would advertise’ and then asks, ‘Was it anything like that when you arrived?’ The remainder of the first verse, ‘Dream boats carried the future to the heart of America, people were waiting in line for a place by the river,’ with the second verse continuing, ‘It was a time when strangers were welcome here’ It goes on to give the point of view of the immigrant by saying, ‘Now he arrives with his hopes and his heart set on miracles. Come to marry his fortune with a hand full of promises’ then things change with the next line to prove it’s not like that now, ‘To find they’ve closed the door they don’t want him anymore, there isn’t any more to go around.’

Neil Sedaka also dedicated the song to John Lennon. On his Facebook page he said, “I wrote this song for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, ‘Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful. ‘”

London’s Capital Radio gave it so much airplay that it’s surprising it didn’t even get a whiff of the UK chart. He won’t, however be short of a bob or two, as a songwriter his first UK hit was Stupid Cupid, a chart-topper for Connie Francis and his last was in 2005 as his fortunes were revived again when in 2005, Peter Kay recorded a video where he mimed to Tony Christie’s 1971 hit (Is This the Way to) Amarillo. The song was re-issued and the video featured a number of cameo appearances by various stars including Michael Parkinson, Shaun Ryder, Jim Bowen, Shakin’ Stevens, Keith Harris & Orville, Danny Baker and Ronnie Corbett among others and all money raised went to Comic Relief. Jimmy Savile appeared in the original video and was wisely edited out later on.

During his career as a songwriter, Sedaka has written hits for Tom Jones, Andy Williams, The Captain & Tennille and the Carpenters. He also wrote the English lyric to the 1973 Swedish entry to the Eurovision Contest. The song was Ring Ring which was recorded by Abba and was a UK hit the following year.

His mini concerts on YouTube came to a halt at the end of 2020 due to contracting COVID-19 himself, but recovered quickly with no symptoms and his performances resumed at the beginning of this year. At 82, he shows no signs of giving up yet!