Category: Single of the week

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (Neil Sedaka)

This week’s suggestion is, again, a relationship song – the ones that have mass appeal and ones that are better remembered. Neil Sedaka was one-half of brilliant song writing partnership that came out of New York’s famous Brill Building. Such names as Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich and Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman – all whom have written memorable classics that have all stood the test of time. Sedaka, and his writing partner, Howard Greenfield, collectively wrote over 25 UK hits in 20 years. The majority were sung by Neil and Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, from 1962, is one of them.

Sedaka, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1939, became a classical pianist having studied at the Julliard School of Music, but it was only when he met a boy from a few streets away that he became interested in pop music and he and Howard Greenfield formed their song writing partnership.

Their first ‘success’ came in 1956 when they wrote a track for the Tokens of which Sedaka was briefly a member. They wrote song for the Cookies, The Clovers and Cardinals. Their first major worldwide hit was in 1958 when Connie Francis took Stupid Cupid to the top of the chart. That song was originally intended for the Shepherd Sisters but Francis turned up at the Brill Building, heard it and told Sedaka and Greenfield she wanted it, and she got it.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do was Sedaka’s ninth UK hit and reached number seven in September 1962. “I was travelling through California and while I was driving in Los Angeles I heard a local hit called It Will Stand by The Showmen,” Neil explained in an interview with Chicken Soup for The Soul. “I felt harmonically it was an exciting recording. The marriage of the voice and melody and the energy in the record inspired me.”

He went back to the Brill Building, wrote a melody and gave it a title. He then took it to Howard who was fairly unimpressed. Neil believed in it because he was convinced that the title would have wide appeal realising that the song had a happy upbeat feel with a more sentimental lyric.

He kept taking it back to Howard pressing him to write a lyric. He eventually did and then Neil played it, along with a few other songs, to his friend, songwriter Barry Mann he too thought it was just OK.

They booked a studio slot to record the song, but the night before when Neil was lying in bed, an idea hit him and he called up an arranger Allan Lorber in the middle of the night and started singing, ‘come-a come-a down, dooby doo down down’. Allan, after the initial shock of being woken up and sung to down a phone, liked it and the song was cut the next day.

It gave Neil his first American chart-topper and the song has been covered by a number of people including The Happenings, Lenny Welch and the Partridge Family who took their version four places higher in the UK exactly 10 years after Sedaka. Neil also covered the song, well he re-recorded it in 1975 in a much slower tempo and made it a heart-felt ballad. That took him back into the US top 10 and thus he became the first act to remake a number one and take the same song back into the top 10.

Years later, Neil’s son had an interesting experience with the song. Neil explained, “He was going out with a lovely girl and she gave him an ultimatum, ‘marry me or we’re breaking up.’ He left to determine his future and when he got in his car, my song was playing on the radio and so he turned back and they got married and are still married to this day.”

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Little Bitty Pretty One (Thurston Harris)

This week’s request is one of those songs that few people in the UK will know the singer, but the song you may because of numerous cover versions as well as a stack of appearances in various films. The instant foot tapper’s opening bar is reminiscent of Chubby Checker’s Dancin’ Party but then turns into a very individual song.

Little Bitty Pretty One was written by Bobby Day under his real name Robert James Byrd. Bobby is more famous on these shores for recording the original versions of Over and Over as covered by the Dave Clarke 5 and Rockin’ Robin as made famous by Michael Jackson.

Thurston was born in Indianapolis in 1931 and his love of music came from being a member of a couple of different church choirs. He served in the Army in the early fifties and after being demobbed he moved to Los Angeles and joined a group called The Lamplighters, a local group that had been performing in local nightspots including Barrelhouse, a club owned by Johnny Otis. This is where he met Bobby Day who was also working in clubs in the same area. The Lamplighters evolved into the Tenderfoots and later The Sharps. The label credit on Little Bitty Pretty One credits Thurston Harris & The Sharps. After Harris left, the group renamed themselves The Rivingtons and had a U.S hit with Papa Oom Mow Mow. The Sharps also supplied some yells on various Duane Eddy hits.

It’s all confusing with the same, but different group names; Bobby recorded his original version for the Class label just a couple of weeks before Harris did his cover. Day’s version featured backing from The Satellites who were really Day’s own backing group, The Hollywood Flames. Don’t ask!

Lyrically there isn’t much to the song. It beings with the Sharps humming in unison to a decent dance beat. Take a look at any lyrics sheet and you’ll see it opens with 178 ‘m’s. The first verse is simple, ‘Little bitty pretty one, come on and talk-a to me, Lovey dovey lovey one, come sit down on my knee’ This is followed by 29 ‘ah’s’ and then the second version comprises, ‘Tell you a story, happened long time ago, A-little bitty pretty one, I’ve been watchin’ you grow’. This is followed by 29 more ‘ah’s’ and a repeat of the first verse and, wait for it, to finish the song, it’s another 178 ‘m’s leading into 54 more ‘ah’s’. That’s it. So, in a nutshell two minutes and 18 seconds of two short verses and 356 ‘m’s’ and 112 ‘a’s’, what more could you want.

Harris’ career never really flew; he had one further U.S R&B top 20 hit with of What You Did but its Little Bitty Pretty One he’ll be remembered for. Over 60 years on, it is still being played and cover versions include Cliff Richard, The Jackson 5, Frankie Avalon and Huey Lewis & The News among many others. As for its film appearances, you’ll spot it in Christine (1983), Matilda (1996), The Princess Diaries (2001 sung by Aaron Carter) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Additionally some will have spotted it a various television commercials including Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables and various Heinz soups.

Despite the success of ‘Pretty One, Harris, effectively, remains a one hit wonder. He chopped and changed to various different record labels but without the success he quit the music business and took a job as a bus driver. He also had a job as a bus guide at Universal studios, but possibly due to the lack of success in the music industry he turned to alcohol and in 1990, suffered a heart attack and a bout of acute alcoholism left him dead at the age of 58.

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In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins)

Relationship breakups are always a good source of material for song writing. The Eurythmics are a good example as most of their hits were about David and Annie’s relationship with a lot of them containing little snipes. This week’s choice is another where a whole album was made up of private messages of trying to lure someone back but then changing direction when it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. The album was Face Value and the song in question is Phil Collins’ debut solo hit In the Air Tonight that, for a million younger readers, will only be known and remembered for a drumming gorilla!

Phil Collins was the original drummer with Genesis and when Peter Gabriel left the band auditioned stack of singers, none of which they deemed suitable, so Collins got the job. The first hit that featured his vocals was Follow You Follow Me which saw them have commercial success and gave them their first top 10 hit in the spring of 1978. Most of their hits were penned by Collins and band members Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford but their 1980 hit Misunderstanding was solely written by Collins and that was inspired by his failing first marriage.

In the Air Tonight was the first single lifted from the debut solo album Face Value which has become one of the top 10 all-time best-selling albums in the UK. The song is all about the anger and frustration Phil felt during the breakdown of his marriage to Andrea Bertorello in 1980. It is full of messages once written about ways to correct the relationship, but the lingering tension and uncertainty eventually gave the album its title.

“That song has a life of its own,” Phil said, “It will outlive me. In 1977, we did a long tour with Genesis and the result of that was my marriage breaking up. I was angry at the time, sometimes you’re on the phone and you’re talking and ‘I love you I love you I love you’ and thinking to yourself ‘don’t hang up’ and then they hang up and you’re like, ‘f*** you.’ When I came back, Mike and Tony were working on other stuff and I had some time on my hands. We’d all bought home studios so I started to fiddle about. I had a really nice local pub that I had friends in and I was going through a bit of a hard time so I’d go down there and have a few drinks and talk and then come back and ready to work. I had no one to answer to, I had a wife, two children and two dogs and then nothing. The lyrics were all improvised and I don’t really know what it’s about. All I know is there is a lot of anger in there but I didn’t really ever intend it to be that way. It was spontaneous and I wasn’t afraid to show my feelings.”

One of the song’s iconic moments is the drum break at three minutes and 39 seconds in. “Barking seals, that’s what it sounds like,” said Phil. “On the original demo the drums just come in. I recorded some drums at my house and they just enter but you know that drummers like to busy themselves so by the time we got to record it I just did the fill into it. The take before, if we’d used it, would have been something different and the if I’d done another take after that would have been something different again. Myself and [engineer] Hugh Padgham just decided to keep that take and it’s what I’ve become known for, but it was just real luck.”

So how did Phil’s ex-wife feel when she learned about the album? “She got very mad,” Phil explained, “because she felt I was capitalising on the sadness. Some people were surprised that I would write about it, but that really is what writing songs is all about.” She said in a Daily Mail interview in 2015 that she was “sick of her ex-husband saying that she left him for someone else, leaving him to write the song in his misery.”

The single went to number two on the UK chart but got stuck behind John Lennon’s Woman because the world were still mourning the death of the late Beatle. The next two hits, I Missed Again and If Leaving Me Is Easy which both made the top 20 carry the same message.

By the time Face Value was released in February 1981, Phil was with Jill Tavelman who became his second wife. When Phil split with her some 10 years later, that breakdown became the inspiration for his 1993 album Both Sides which Phil cites as his best work.

In The Air Tonight has been a UK top 20 hit three times. As well as its initial number two peak, a barely recognisable and seemingly pointless re-mix in 1988 by Ben Liebrand reached number four. Some 19 years later the song featured in a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk TV ad with the gorilla miming the drum fill and that sent the song back to number 14. Artists need to be contacted if their song is chosen for advertising purposes and in a London newspaper interview when Phil was asked if it was made clear about the drums being performed by a gorilla, he replied, “As much as it’s possible for such a thing to be made clear.”

When Phil performed his song on Top of the Pops, he’d recently learned that Andrea was in a new relationship with a painter/decorator and so on stage next to him was a pot of paint and a brush next to the piano. Andrea said in that Daily Mail interview, “When I saw that I felt sick and betrayed, I knew straight away it was a message to me.”

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Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye (Ella Fitzgerald)

Cole Porter, who was not Jewish, must have been influence by one somewhere along the line because he once claimed that songs were Jewish because of the way he wrote them. Let’s find out what he meant by that.

Porter was born in June 1891 in Indiana to a wealthy family and he became a classically trained musician having learned to play violin at the age of six and piano two years later. As was typical in those days, the family tried to steer him away from the music industry, but he was determined and, with his mother’s help, he wrote his first operetta at the age of 10. He later attended Yale University and whilst there wrote over 300 songs.

In 1915, he contributed the song Esmeralda to the Broadway revue Hands Up that was his first and the following year he had his first Broadway production, See America First, which wasn’t well received as it closed after two weeks.

From the early forties, his Broadway shows, Panama Hattie (1940), Let’s Face It! (1941), which starred Danny Kaye, Something for the Boys (1943) and Mexican Hayride (1944) all had reasonable runs but all lacked durable Porter songs which the critics had picked up on. Next came the show, Seven Lively Arts for which Porter wrote Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye. It featured songs as well as sketches from a cast comprising Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr. Benny Goodman was heard and seen playing jazz clarinet and the dancer Alicia Markova performed to the 15-minute ballet suite, Scenes de Ballet, which was specially commissioned from Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It ran for a menial 200 performances and was considered a flop. Once again, the critics held nothing back in delightfully announcing that Porter had had his day.

Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye had stood the test of time and becomes part of the Great American Songbook because of its appeal telling the story of how happy the protagonist is when they are with the love of their life and how sad when they go away, a situation millions can relate to. It also came at a time when the Second World War had just ended and many soldiers being reunited with their wives and girlfriends. Given the criticism he had received a couple of years earlier, he may have related the song to himself and his career.

Musicians will know that a major key makes for a happier song where a minor one has more of a sadder feel and this is a great analogy he employs when using the line, ‘how strange the change from major to minor’ thus indicating sadness when the pair part. It was noted in Songfacts that whilst singing that line, the chord change actually goes from minor to major. Porter’s little joke. Many of the great American songsmiths of his generation were Jewish and they had a tendency to write in a minor key. Although Porter is not Jewish, he did comment to Richard Rodgers that his most successful songs were Jewish.

The song was first introduced in Seven Lively Arts by Nan Wynn in a sketch with Jeri McMahon. The oldest known recording is by Benny Goodman in 1944 with a vocal performance by Peggy Mann. Many have covered this standard most famously by Ella Fitzgerald for her 1956 album Ella Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. Other versions include, Eddy Arnold and Tony Bennett (1958), Julie London (1959), Nina Simone (1960), Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan and Shirley Bassey (1961), Sammy Davis Jr (1966) and Sandie Shaw (1967). In 1987 Simply Red did a faithful note for note cover of Ella’s version that reached number 11 and is the only time in its 75-year history the song made the UK chart. It doesn’t stop there, in 1990, Annie Lennox contributed the song to an album called Red Hot + Blue which was a Cole Porter tribute album for an anti AIDS benefit. Other versions include Robbie Williams (1997), Rod Stewart (2002) and in 2004, Natalie Cole’s version was recorded for the film De-Lovely which starred Kevin Kline.

Porter lost his beloved mother in 1952 and his wife of 35 years in 1954 from emphysema. His own health suffered and suffered from leg ulcers. After over 30 operations to remove them, he eventually had it amputated. During this time he was regularly visited by his friend Noel Coward. Porter died of kidney failure in 1964 at the age of 73.

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Itchycoo Park (Small Faces)

The year 1967 was the Summer of Love and those who were there will know what went on, well some might anyway. It was also the year of writing songs about drugs and then denying it. The Beatles did it with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the Small Faces did it with Itchycoo Park. I mean,’What did you do there? I got high’ seems quite blatant and that’s why the BBC banned it at the time but the band were adamant it wasn’t. So, what was it about?

The Small Faces were formed in 1965, inspired by the arrival of American soul music, in particular, by the Memphis sound that was driven by the rhythm section of Booker T & the M.G.’s with an organ-sound they wanted to emulate. They were having fun doing exactly what they wanted to do, but it got even better when they joined the Immediate record label who were a management company as well as a record label which was set up by Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Steve Marriott, the group’s lead singer, explained in a BBC interview how fortunate they were, “We were in a very funny position where our management was also out record label so whereas before you’d have a record company, a manager and an agent and they would all kind of work against each other in some ways. One would schedule when you went in the studio, another wanted you out on tour and the other wanted you to do interviews etc. so this way they were more interested, being a record company, in making records which is what we enjoyed. They just wanted the records and publishing because that’s where the dough was.”

Their first hit, Whatcha Gonna Do About It? which ‘borrowed’ a riff straight out of Solomon Burke’s Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, got to number 14. That was followed by Sha-La-La-La-Lee in February 1966, next came Hey Girl followed by their only number one All or Nothing. They had four hits in 1967, I Can’t Make It (26), Here Comes the Nice (12) and then Itchycoo Park which took them to number three.

The band comprised Marriott, a former child actor who had played the Artful Dodger in the stage version of Oliver! He first met guitarist Ronnie Lane in 1964 at a gig where Marriott’s then-band, The Moments, were playing. They briefly lost contact but hooked up again the following year when they re-met in a London record store called J60. There they also met Jimmy Winston who became their keyboard player, Kenney Jones, who had been in a band called The Outcasts, became their drummer and they finally recruited Ian McLagan via an advert in a music magazine and he replaced Winston.

Itchycoo Park was written by Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane. Marriott said of it in an interview with Creem magazine, “The thing about Itchycoo Park was that the era was wrong, and the word ‘high’ freaked everybody out especially all the radio stations. But that song was real. Ronnie Lane and I used to go to a park called Itchycoo Park. I swear to God. We used to bunk off school and groove there. We got high, but we didn’t smoke. We just got high from not going to school. Itchycoo Park is the nickname of Little Ilford Park in London. An “Itchycoo” is slang for a flower found in the park called a Stinging Nettle, which can burn the skin if touched. Said Lane, “It’s a place we used to go to in Ilford years ago. Some bloke we know suggested it to us because it’s full of nettles and you keep scratching.”

Ronnie had this to say about it in a 1991 interview with Record Hunter, “Itchycoo Park basically came from me. I lifted it from a hymn, God Be in My Head, and I also got the theme to the words in a hotel in Bath or Bristol. There was a magazine in the room with a rambling account of some place in the country and it was about ‘dreaming spires’ and a ‘bridge of sighs’ – there was a write-up on this town – and I just thought they were nice lines.”

The song uses a trick called phase shifting or phase reversing as I learned it at my days at the BBC. It’s a technique where the vocals become distorted. This can be achieved by playing two versions of the same track at the same time. The first hit to use this sound was Toni Fisher’s The Big Hurt back in 1960. Record producer Glyn Johns, who produced Itchycoo Park, added, “It was a staff producer at Olympic Studios named George Chkiantz who came up with the effect, and I was looking for a place to use it. The Faces were always looking for new sounds and encouraged me to use the technique on this song.” Like Bohemian Rhapsody, which also uses that effect briefly, it doesn’t work live as Ian McLagan explained to Uncut magazine: “We tried to replicate the phasing effect when we played it live. It was hopeless.”

As I mentioned the BBC, in their wisdom were quite naive because, as Small Faces manager, Tony Calder, explained in All Too Beautiful, Steve Marriott’s biography by Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier, “We told the BBC Itchycoo Park was waste ground in the East End which the band had played on as kids. We put the story out at 10 in the morning and by lunchtime we were told the ban was off.” The same thing happened in 1984 with Grandmaster Flash’s White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It) – they banned it and I mentioned to a producer that the lyrics talk about not taking drugs and suddenly they started playing it.

Itchycoo Park was re-issued in 1975 where it made the top 10 again then a cover by Manchester dance group M People peaked at number 11 in 1995.

Ronnie Lane suffered from multiple sclerosis from around 1978 and died in June 1997. Steve Marriott died in a fire in his home in 1991, McLagan died in December 2004 and Kenney Jones well he replaced Keith Moon in The Who and has done session work for numerous acts including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Rod Stewart, Rolling Stones and Joan Armatrading and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

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Spread your Wings (Queen)

Songs that deal with an everyday, real life, situations that so many can identify with should be, and often are, big hits, but this week’s suggestion wasn’t a big hit at all. The song is Spread your Wings by Queen and tells the story of a bar worker living a mundane life but dreaming of making something of his life.

Up until 1986, John Deacon, Queen’s then-bass player, had only written five hit singles for Queen but in 1989, it was decided that all members would get equal credit on all Queen songs. He is an underestimated songwriter, but just look at his catalogue; he wrote the 1976 hit You’re My Best Friend, 1980s Another One Bites The Dust, 1982s Back Chat and the one which, no doubt, keeps his retirement up the standard he would expect, I Want to Break Free in 1984.

His 1978 hit Spread Your Wings tells the tale of Sammy who works at the Emerald Bar sweeping the floor and serving some drinks, whilst dreaming of making something of himself and hoping for a better life. ‘He’d made up his mind, to leave his dead life behind,’ but the trouble is, his boss tries to discourage him by saying ‘Boy you’d better begin to get those crazy notions right out of your head’ and then belittles him by saying, ‘Sammy who do you think that you are, you should’ve been sweeping up the Emerald bar. Freddie’s meaningful and emotional natation advises him to, ‘Spread your wings and fly away’ but he doesn’t have it in him to go after his dreams.

The protagonist tells us a little about his early life, ‘Since he was small had no luck at all, nothing came easy to him.’ Sammy made up his mind, ‘Now it was time he’d made up his mind his could be my last chance,’ to which his boss once again knocks him back by saying, ‘Now listen boy, you’re always dreaming you’ve got no real ambition you won’t get very far.’ Despite the knock backs, Sammy really tries, but there is no clue that he succeeded by the end of the song.

The song was featured on Queen’s sixth album News of the World and was the first to feature two songs by John; the other was Who Needs You? In the UK it peaked at number 34? however, in America it was relegated to the flip side of the chart-topping Crazy Little Thing Called Love.

The song, which has no backing vocals, is a fan favourite and has a memorable accompanying video. It was filmed in (the drummer) Roger Taylor’s back garden in Surrey where the ground was covered in snow and ice and the band was noticeably uncomfortable. Brian May commented, “Looking back, it couldn’t be done there – you couldn’t do that! During the shoot, the ice and snow on the ground complicated matters, and Freddie Mercury consumed more alcohol than he probably should have.”

John Deacon quit the band in 1997 and retired from the public eye to privately raise his six children. He lives in South West London in a home he bought with his first Queen royalty cheque.

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