Category: Single of the week

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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Dreaming (Blondie)

Everyone has a musical hero, I have two and they are both drummers; The Who’s Keith Moon and Blondie’s Clem Burke. Surely I must the only person who has seen Blondie live twice and never looked at Debbie Harry?! The Blondie song where Clem excels himself is this week’s choice, the 1979 number two hit, Dreaming.

Blondie formed in 1974 having taken their name from chants that lead singer, Debbie Harry, was called by leering men. Chris Stein, Debbie’s then-long term partner (they never married) recruited keyboard player Jimmy Destri, bass player Gary Valentine and drummer Clem Burke the following year. They signed to Private Stock records in the States and Chrysalis in the UK and became regular performers at the CBGB club in New York’s Manhattan borough. Within a couple of years, Valentine left and was replaced with Frank Infante and their only British member, Nigel Harrison.

Their breakthrough and best-selling album, Parallel Lines was released in 1978 and spawned two UK number one hits, Heart of Glass and Sunday Girl as well as Hanging on the Telephone and Picture This.

Their next album was Eat to the Beat and the lead single from that was Dreaming. That song, according to guitarist Chris Stein, who co-wrote the song, is supposed to be based on a classic number one hit from three years previous, but I fail to see any resemblance. Which song? Let’s find out.

Many of their songs were written by both Stein and Harry. Often Stein would come up with the tune and maybe an idea for a lyric and then share it with Harry, “Sometimes Chris will come up with a track or a feel and pass it on to me,” said Harry in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “He would say, ‘I was thinking dreaming/dreaming is free, and then I’ll fill it out with a story line or some more phrases. A lot of times it’s the rhythm track that suggests what the lyric is going to be. I like working like that.” In that same interview, Stein revealed what Dreaming was based on, “Dreaming is pretty much a cop of Abba’s Dancing Queen. I don’t know if that was where we started, or if it ended just happening to sound like that.” Can anyone else spot a resemblance?

It tells the story of a woman meeting a man wondering whether it’s going to be the real thing or not. It’s been said that it was very loosely based on Harry and Stein’s first meeting, but never clarified. He asks her what her pleasure is, movie or measure meaning a film or a drink. She then retorts with ‘I’ll have a cup of tea and tell you of my dreaming’. I’m not convinced her ‘measure’ is a cup of tea. Then during the bridge, she makes you wonder whether the experience is real or in her head as she sings, ‘I never met him, I’ll never forget him.’ The third verse pretty much confirms the latter and she explains, ‘I sit by and watch the river flow, I sit by and watch the traffic go’ indicating a dreamy effect whilst explaining, ‘Imagine something of your very own, something you can have and hold’ followed by the ridiculous thought, ‘I’d build a road in gold just to have some dreaming.’

Without doubt, for many, the song’s appeal is Clem’s drumming, but as he explained in a YouTube interview, it’s not particularly what he had in mind revealing, “That take of Dreaming was just me kind of blowing through the song. It’s not like I expected that to be the take. I was consciously overplaying just for the sake of it because it was a run-through.” Everyone was happy with it, including producer Mike Chapman and so it stayed.

Dreaming was a hit in numerous countries making the top 10 in Ireland, Norway, Canada and New Zealand, but its best position was in the UK where it made number two behind The Police’s Message in a Bottle. Their next hit was Union City Blue which had peaked at number 13 and was actually their lowest charting hit to date, but then 1980 brought them three chart-toppers, Atomic, Call Me and The Tide Is High, so even though Clem Burke thought they might have lost their touch when Dreaming ‘only’ peaked at number two, he was obviously wrong.

The band split in 1983 when Stein was diagnosed with a rare skin disease called pemphigus vulgaris and Harry spent much time caring for him before embarking on her solo career. In 1997, they reformed and two years later landed their sixth UK number one when the Jimmy Destri-penned Maria topped the chart some 18 and half years after their last, a record that still stands for new material. However, Leo Sayer could contest that as he waited 29 years between his first number one, When I Need You in 1977 and his second, Thunder In My Heart Again which was re-mixed by Meck but did feature a new vocal contribution by Sayer.

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He’s Misstra Know It All (Stevie Wonder)

Can you believe it? In the same week, I get requests for two different songs by the same artist. Last Week I wrote about Superstition by Stevie Wonder and this week mummybear wants to know all about He’s Misstra Know It All. Well, this might be slightly more complex and not as definitive as last week, but I’ll give it a go.

Stevie Wonder is quite well known for writing songs with a political stance and indeed, in the 1980s, he campaigned to have a national holiday in America known as Martin Luther King Day. There had been attempts from 1979 but not enough votes were registered, but its success came when Stevie released the single Happy Birthday in 1980 in America (1981 in the UK) and it’s observed on the third Monday in January.

By the early seventies, Stevie Wonder had proved his worth to Motown. He’d been with them about 10 years, he wrote and produced his own material as well as doing the same for other acts and played multiple instruments. He’d married another Motown singer, Syreeta Wright and things were looking good. Berry Gordy, the label’s founder had to make sure he kept his genius and so negotiated a new contract that would grant Stevie full artistic control over all his music, allow him to have his own publishing company and an unparalleled royalty rate was agreed. No one else, certainly at that time, had been granted that much freedom. It was revolutionary. The only person who came close was Dave Clark.

In 1972, Stevie, now with a new contract, got to work on his 15th album, Talking Book and for many it’s said to be the start of his classic period. Although it spent nearly a year on the UK chart it climbed no higher than number 16. The following year he released Innervisions, that spent just over a year on the chart and gave Stevie his first top 10 UK album. Higher Ground, which all about reincarnation, was the first single from it followed by Living for the City, a funky but serious song examining systemic racism and in April 1974, He’s Misstra Know It All was released and peaked at number 10.

It’s a song with some mystery. Who is it about? Why Misstra? Was he a real person? Well, there are no definitive answers because Stevie has never really revealed, but it has been cited over the years that it was having a dig at the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon. Just bear in mind that Nixon’s nickname to those close to him was Tricky Dicky.

Now the character portrayed in the song is, to say the least, a little shady. He comes across as untrustworthy and devious – the opening line, ‘He’s a man with a plan, got a counterfeit dollar in his hand’ really set the scene. Each short version adds a line to raise an eyebrow, verse two – ‘talking fast, making sure that he won’t be the last’, verse three ‘Makes a deal, with a smile knowing all the time that his lie’s a mile and verse four, ‘He’s the coolest one with the biggest mouth’, you get the picture. He’s learning along the way that the more clued up people will not deal with him and only the stupid will. Any of this sound familiar in 2019 politics?! Another clue that Stevie Wonder was way ahead of his time.

You might also get the feeling that Stevie himself might have been on the receiving end and you can tell as the song moves on that Stevie is getting irritated by the conman. The lyrical comment, ‘If we had less of him don’t you know we’d have a better land’ makes him realise how bad things have got and that he can’t abide someone who doesn’t honour a handshake and someone who can’t accept criticism. It all comes to a head at two minutes 55 seconds in when Stevie starts to growl. He has had enough.

As for the title, if someone is so bad to you might find you can’t bring yourself to address them properly by name or title. There’s certainly one pop star that I find hard to call by name, but that’s a different story. In this case, there is no name given but maybe calling him Mister which is a title of respect and Stevie couldn’t bring himself to say that so a little jig around to still make it fit with the melody. This is not unheard of for songwriter to do that.

The parent album, Innervisions, was released on 3rd August 1973 and just three days later, whilst on his way to a radio station in North Carolina to promote the album, Stevie was involved in a serious car accident that left him in a coma for four days. It was only when his friend and singer of the lead gospel group The Dixie Hummingbirds, went to visit him did he get a response. Ira Tucker recalled at the time, “I got right down in his ear and sang Higher Ground. His hand was resting on my arm and after a while his fingers started going in time with the song. I said yeah, yeah! This dude is going to make it!”

As previously mentioned, President Nixon’s spurious Tricky Dicky nickname was earned for a reason and it’s because he had a bit of a reputation for not being a man of his word and having other people’s best interests at heart. Harry Truman said of Nixon, “If he caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in”.

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Superstition (Stevie Wonder)

This week’s song is by an artist who has won 25 Grammy Awards which is more than any other solo artist, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. He was Motown’s youngest signing at the age of 11 and its most enduring artist. But, like Chuck Berry, he had to wait a number of years for his only UK number one hit which was far from his best music. But it is one of his most infectious hits.

Stevie Wonder was a clever man and well looked after in his younger days. In May 1971, he just turned 21 and his 10-year contract with Motown expired and all the royalties he’d earned that had been in ‘safe keeping’ were released to him so, in short, he was rich and a free agent. He used his influence to renegotiate a new contract which he signed in 1972 and it gave him complete control over his music and earned him some favourable royalties.

Work began on his next album Talking Book and one of the tracks was Superstition. How did it come about? “That song started with me playing drums,” Stevie explained, “and all of a sudden I started singing ‘very superstitious, wash your face and hands’ and I started singing that because as a boy I remembered singing Shake, Rattle and Roll. The song was really talking about the things people believed in like breaking a mirror meaning seven years of bad luck and it talks about believing in things you don’t really understand.”

The song was originally intended for Jeff Beck and Jeff explained how in John Tobler and Stuart Grundy’s The Guitar Greats, “There was a time when I was pretty bored with my music, and I think somebody at CBS asked me what I wanted to do and I said I loved Stevie’s stuff, so they quietly broke it to him that I was interested in doing something together, and he was really receptive. The original agreement was that he’d write me a song, and in return, I’d play on his album, and that’s where Superstition came in.”

They recorded a rough version of the song with Jeff Beck, but an album Beck was making was delayed so much that Stevie recorded his version and Motown got it out first. Stevie explained his side of the story in Ultimate Classic Rock, “Motown decided they wanted to release Superstition. I said Jeff wanted it, and they told me I needed a strong single in order for the album to be successful. My understanding was that Jeff would be releasing Superstition long before I was going to finish my album. I was late giving them Talking Book. Jeff recorded Superstition in July, so I thought it would be out.”

Beck wasn’t happy and made it known to the press who published his thoughts which Stevie was upset by. In the same interview Beck said, “Basically he wrote it for me, but the story goes that he loved it a bit too much. No, he played it to Motown, and they said, ‘No way is Beck getting this song, it’s too good’ and, as they had the right to say what Stevie released at that time, I lost the song as an original.” A year after Stevie charted, Beck finally recorded his own version with bass player Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice under the moniker Beck, Bogert and Appice.

The song has a funky but also rock feel which was possibly inspired by the fact that prior to recording it he had toured with the Rolling Stones.

Stevie’s version was released at the end of 1972 and went to number one in the States giving him his second chart-topper there after Fingertips (Part 2) some 10 years earlier.

Stevie played drums, bongos, keyboards and harmonica but if you were one of his musicians it could be a nightmare. Stevie often booked a studio for much longer than he needed because he could only record when he had inspiration. Scott Edwards was Stevie’s bass player at the time and he said this to Songfacts, “It was not always convenient for the band. Because he does not have sight, he’s not controlled by daylight, so he may begin his night at midnight. Which is bad, because if they want you to come do an overdub or something, he may call you at 4 a.m. and say, ‘Come on in.'”

The ‘Talking Book’ album, which has a rare sighting of Stevie without glasses on, was so called because wonder considered the songs to be like chapters in a book that tell a whole story.

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Perfect (Fairground Attraction)

Three weeks ago, I wrote the story of In the Air Tonight which was inspired by Phil Collins’ marriage break up. Phil said, “Some people were surprised that I would write about it, but that really is what writing songs is all about.” The writer of this week’s choice was in a similar boat regarding a relationship and went on to say, “There is no such thing as a bad break-up,” I guess that’s true if it help write a successful song and it makes you rich.

That songwriter was the Ebbw Vale-born Mark E. Nevin the founding member of Fairground Attraction in 1987 alongside Glaswegian lead singer Eddi Reader, guitarist Simon Edwards and drummer Roy Dodds. Edwards had previously been a member of Red Box who had a top three hit in 1985 with Lean on Me.

Eddi, who was born Sadenia Reader, never craved the limelight and said, “I used to hide behind big glasses, wear wigs and silly plastic skirts. The idea was to distract attention from me, but of course it did exactly the opposite.” She was the daughter of a welder and grew up listening to The Beatles and Elvis. It was only when the family moved to Irvine, that she realised what she wanted to do. “When I was 17, I went to an Irvine folk club. I had never heard folk music before. I had never heard unaccompanied singing and storytelling songs, certainly not in a Scottish accent. That’s when I realised it was something I could do.” After studying at Glasgow Art School, she became a busker and travelled around Europe with a circus. On her return, she moved to London and became a backing singer for the Eurythmics and Alison Moyet before meeting guitarist Mark Nevin.

Mark recalled, “I was in a band called Jane Aire & the Belvederes and one night there was a fight at this club and all the band got beaten up except me and the singer. We then needed a new backing singer, so Eddi turned up, but she was better than our lead singer.”

Mark wrote Perfect long before Fairground Attraction formed. He was living in a grotty bedsit in Cricklewood, north London with a girlfriend. He explained in an interview with Songwriting how the song came about, “I was lying in bed in the middle of the night thinking ‘She’s got to go, she’s just not the one for me. You know that horrible, gnawing feeling when you know you’ve got to do that ‘thing’? So I’m lying there looking at the ceiling and thinking, ‘I don’t want this half-hearted thing. Next time I’m going to get it right’ so the next morning I went to my notebook and wrote some of those thoughts. I had a melody but it wasn’t quite right, it was a bit reggae-ish and not very good and was never going to amount to anything so I left it there in that book.”

Not long after, Mark was in American staying in an apartment in Akron, Ohio and found himself in the same situation, “I was with another girlfriend and thought, ‘Oh no, she’s got to be fired as well!’ then I remembered the song in the book and this time the melody came straight away and that’s when I finished the song.” His girlfriend at that time was a singer and he got her to sing the demo. He returned to the UK and hooked up with Eddi and began doing a few gigs around the London area. One night at a gig in a pub on the Balls Pond Road in Islington, everyone was singing the chorus and Mark thought at that point that he must have plagiarised the song. Someone in that audience said to Mark, if you release that as a single it’ll be number one. A year later it was.

In the early days that song closed the set, Eddi explained why, “We used it at the end of the set to cheer everyone up because the rest of the songs were full of angst, break-up and love gone wrong, so Perfect was thrown in at the end of the hour to make everyone dance a little bit.”

They recorded the album, The First of a Million Kisses in 1987, which went to number two, and Mark was surprised it became so popular. “It’s just about having girlfriends that haven’t really worked out. You get into a relationship and go along with it in a half-hearted attitude and then you think, well, it’s time to stop messing about and get it right this time. Find that perfect one.”

The follow-up single, Find My Love, reached number seven but A Smile in a Whisper and Clare failed to reach the same audience and when the next album, Any Fond Kiss, failed to make the Top 50, the band broke up. Mark returned to writing songs and penned hits for Morrissey, Carleen Anderson and Kirsty MacColl. Eddi had two children before launching a solo career and had two Top 40 hits, Patience of Angels and a cover of Gene Pitney’s Town without Pity. In 2003, she moved back to Glasgow declaring she was sick of the music business. 10 years later, she married John Douglas, a songwriter and member of The Trashcan Sinatras.

Perfect didn’t really crack America however, in 1990, Baillie & the Boys, a country band from New Jersey, took Perfect into the top 30 in the US country chart. The song won a Brit Award, and was also used in a TV ad campaign for ASDA which earned Mark a reputed £100,000 a year for four years.

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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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