EML’s Favorite Songs – MARTY ROBBINS: “El Paso”

Marty-Robbins-El-Paso-1518727629-640x623

I’ve always liked songs with great stories, and no music genre excels at storytelling more than Country. One of the best story songs of all time has to be the haunting ballad “El Paso” by Country legend Marty Robbins. My parents had his greatest hits album, so as a young kid I heard a lot of Marty Robbins. Born Martin David Robinson in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Glendale, he was one of the most popular artists of what back then was called ‘Country and Western’ music. In addition to his singing career, he also acted in several films and was a successful race car driver, competing in 35 NASCAR national races, with six top 10 finishes.

“El Paso” was written by Robbins, and tells the story of a guy who meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman named Felina in an El Paso cantina. Even though she resists his advances, he becomes jealous when another guy hits on her, and challenges him to a duel, ending up shooting and killing the man. He flees for his life, but can’t stop thinking about Felina. And so, despite the danger, he decides to return to El Paso to see her, only to be shot and killed by cowboys on the lookout. The song was released in October 1959 and shot (no pun intended) to the top of both the Billboard Country and Pop charts in early 1960. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Country & Western Recording in 1961, and remains Robbins’ biggest hit and best-known song.

It’s considered one of the greatest Country music classics for its gripping narrative that ends in the death of its protagonist, Robbins’ beautiful vocals, as well as the sublime backing harmonies by Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser, and the distinctive Spanish guitar accompaniment by Grady Martin that gives the song a Tex-Mex feel (having grown up in Arizona, Robbins was fond of Mexican music, and wanted the flavor of a Mexican guitar used in the song).

The song runs well over four minutes, far longer than most singles played on the radio at the time, which generally ran 2:30-3 minutes. Robbins’ label Columbia Records was unsure whether radio stations would play it, so released a shorter, three-minute-long version which obviously omitted quite a few lyrics. Most of the record-buying public, however, as well as most DJs, overwhelmingly preferred the full-length version. An interesting aspect of the song is that it has no chorus, but rather one stanza following the next as the saga unfolds.

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s cantina
Music would play and Felina would whirl

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina
Wicked and evil while casting a spell
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden
I was in love, but in vain I could tell

One night a wild young cowboy came in
Wild as the West Texas wind
Dashing and daring, a drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina, the girl that I loved

So in anger I challenged his right for the love of this maiden
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore
My challenge was answered in less than a heartbeat
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor

Just for a moment I stood there in silence
Shocked by the foul evil deed I had done
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there
I had but one chance and that was to run

Out through the back door of Rosa’s I ran
Out where the horses were tied
I caught a good one, it looked like it could run
Up on its back and away I did ride
Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the badlands of New Mexico

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless
Everything’s gone in life nothing is left
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death

I saddled up and away I did go
Riding alone in the dark
Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me
Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart

And at last here I am on the hill overlooking El Paso
I can see Rosa’s Cantina below
My love is strong and it pushes me onward
Down off the hill to Felina I go

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys
Off to my left ride a dozen or more
Shouting and shooting, I can’t let them catch me
I have to make it to Rosa’s back door

Something is dreadfully wrong, for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side
Though I am trying to stay in the saddle
I’m getting weary, unable to ride

But my love for Felina is strong and I rise where I’ve fallen
Though I am weary, I can’t stop to rest
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest

From out of nowhere Felina has found me
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side
Cradled by two loving arms that I’ll die for
One little kiss, then Felina good-bye

EML’s Favorite Songs – PATSY CLINE: “Crazy”

I’ve really been enjoying the Ken Burns series Country Music that’s been airing on PBS the past few weeks, and it’s reminded me of several classic country songs that I love. So, over the next week or two, I’ll be writing about a few of my personal favorites, the first of which is “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. The beautiful but heartbreaking song was Cline’s highest-charting single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #9 and reaching #2 on the Country Chart, and has endured as one of the most popular and beloved songs of all time in the 58 years since its release. It was stated in the Country Music series that it’s the most-played jukebox track of all time.

Patsy_Cline-1962_EP

Born Virginia Patterson Hensley in 1932, Cline is considered one of the most important and influential female vocalists of the 20th Century, and one of the first country music artists to successfully crossover onto the pop charts. With her deep, resonant singing voice and ability to convey strong feelings of emotional pain and longing, she could bring even the biggest cynic to their knees. The Washington Star magazine beautifully described the essence of her vocal style: “She creates the moods through movement of her hands and body and by the lilt of her voice, reaching way down deep in her soul to bring forth the melody. Most female country music vocalists stand motionless, singing with a monotonous high-pitched nasal twang. Patsy’s come up with a throaty style loaded with motion and E-motion.

After a slow start, with a series of singles she recorded for Four Star Records failing to become hits, Cline finally had her first break-out hit “Walkin’ After Midnight” on the Decca Records label in 1957. Then, surprisingly, she didn’t have another chart hit until 1961’s “I Fall to Pieces”. In June of that year, she and her brother were in a near-fatal head-on car crash in which she was thrown through the windshield, suffering a severe cut to her forehead that narrowly missed her eyes and left her with a huge scar. After recovering well enough from the accident, though still in pain, she recorded “Crazy”. And oh man, that pain seems to emanate from her very core when she delivers those poignant lyrics with such conviction that we believe every word.

Like with many classic songs, “Crazy” has an interesting back story.  Cline’s husband Charlie Dick actually first heard the song one night on a jukebox while waiting for her in a bar. It was a recording by Paul Buskirk and His Little Men, featuring Hugh Nelson – now known as Willie Nelson – who wrote the song. Dick thought it would be a perfect song for her, and approached Nelson about them recording his song, to which he agreed. He then pitched it to Cline, who didn’t like it, and didn’t want to record it. She considered herself a country singer, and didn’t particularly like the vulnerable heartbroken sound of songs like “Crazy.” But her record producer Owen Bradley believed those songs were exactly right for her, and ultimately convinced her to record it.

Bradley wanted to produce a new and more sophisticated form of country music by adding more instrumentation and background vocals to create a fuller, richer sound. He brought in The Jordanaires, who also sang backup on a lot of Elvis Presley’s songs, and hired young piano player Floyd Cramer, as well as bass guitarist Bob Moore. Cline listened to Buskirk & Nelson’s version of “Crazy” and decided she would perform it differently, removing a spoken section that was featured on the original recording.  When the song was set to be recorded on August 17, 1961, Cline first performed some other material, and by the time they got to “Crazy”, she was tired and had difficulty singing the song’s higher notes due to residual rib pain from the car accident. Bradley sent her home to rest while the musicians laid down the instrumentals without her. A week later she returned and recorded her vocal in a single take. As we can all attest, it was perfect, and the rest is history.

Her untimely death less than two years later was a terrible loss, and we can only imagine how many more wonderful songs she could have given the world.

Crazy
I’m crazy for feeling so lonely
I’m crazy
Crazy for feeling so blue

I knew
You’d love me as long as you wanted
And then some day
You’d leave me for somebody new

Worry
Why do I let myself worry?
Wondering
What in the world did I do?

Oh, crazy
For thinking that my love could hold you
I’m crazy for trying
And crazy for crying
And I’m crazy for loving you

Crazy
For thinking that my love could hold you
I’m crazy for trying
And crazy for crying
And I’m crazy for loving you

EML’s Favorite Songs – EDDIE MONEY: “Take Me Home Tonight”

EDDIE MONEY AT TOY FAIR TO PROMOTE THE ALEKEN GAMES, NEW YORK, AMERICA - 14 FEB 2006
Photo by Dave Allocca/Starpix/Shutterstock (5633649d)

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of Eddie Money yesterday from a heart attack at the age of 70. He’d recently been diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer, but his death was apparently related to complications from heart valve surgery a few months ago. He was a great artist who had a long career with its ups and downs, but I’m safe in saying he was beloved by many. I have a special fondness for him because he actually followed me on Twitter! Money had a string of hits, beginning with “Baby Hold On” in 1978, but my favorite of all his songs was “Take Me Home Tonight“. I loved it from the first moment I heard it, and it remains one of my favorite songs of the 80s.

Born Edward Mahoney in Brooklyn, New York, Money started out as a police offer for the NYPD. He relocated to Berkeley, California in the late 60s, where he began his music career performing in Bay Area clubs. In 1976, he met Bill Graham, then a major music impresario and concert promoter in San Francisco who would eventually become his manager. Money landed his first record deal with Columbia Records, who released his debut self-titled album Eddie Money in 1977. The album generated his first two big hits “Baby Hold On” and “Two Tickets to Paradise”, both of which charted in 1978. Later that year, he released his follow up album Life For the Taking. The album did not perform quite as well, but it did produce one modest hit “Maybe I’m A Fool”, which is among my favorites of his songs.

Beginning in the late 70s and continuing on and off for many years, Money struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, including a 1981 incident in which he nearly died from an overdose of fentanyl. Still, he turned out some great work, most notably his albums No Control in 1982 and his 1986 comeback album of sorts Can’t Hold Back, which featured what would turn out to be his biggest hit – “Take Me Home Tonight”. His 1988 release Nothing to Lose was also very good, producing another of his greatest songs “Walk On Water”.

“Take Me Home Tonight” is a sexy, exhilarating song that’s brilliant on so many levels. Not only is it a spectacular pop-rock song from a musical standpoint, the lyrics are powerful and raw, and Money never sounded better. But perhaps the greatest thing about the song is the added performance by the legendary Ronnie Spector, who samples her 1963 Ronettes hit “Be My Baby”, taking the song into the sonic stratosphere.

From the moment we first hear those dramatic strings,  guitar licks and pounding drumbeats, the song hooks us in and never lets go. As Money begins to croon with a palpable sexual urgency, the music expands with more guitar, bass, heavier drumbeats and aggressive tinkling piano keys. When Ronnie Spector finally enters with “Be my little baby”, the sexual tension between her and Money is positively electrifying. The music continues to build to a crescendo with a wailing sax riff, and I’m covered from head to toe with goosebumps! “Take Me Home Tonight” is a masterpiece, and a classic for the ages.

I feel a hunger, it’s a hunger that tries to keep a man awake at night
Are you the answer? I shouldn’t wonder when I feel you whet my appetite
With all the power you’re releasing
It isn’t safe to walk the city streets alone
Anticipation is running through me
Let’s find the key and turn this engine on

I can feel you breathe
I can feel your heart beat faster, faster, oh
Take me home tonight
I don’t want to let you go till you see the light
Take me home tonight
Listen honey just like Ronnie sang: “Be my little baby”

I get frightened in all this darkness
I get nightmares I hate to sleep alone
I need some company
A guardian angel to keep me warm when the cold winds blow

I can feel you breathe
I can feel your heart beat faster, faster, oh

Take me home tonight
I don’t want to let you go till you see the light
Take me home tonight
Listen honey just like Ronnie sang:
“Be my little baby Be my little baby”

Just like Ronnie sang, I said just like Ronnie sang:
“Be my little baby, baby my darling. Oh oh oh oh oh”
I feel a hunger it’s a hunger

Take me home tonight
I don’t want to let you go till you see the light
Take me home tonight
Listen honey just like Ronnie sang: “Be my little baby”
Take me home tonight
I don’t want to let you go till you see the light
Take me home tonight
Listen honey just like Ronnie sang: “Be my little baby
Oh be my darling, oh oh oh oh

EML’s Favorite Songs – THE BROTHERS JOHNSON: “Strawberry Letter 23”

Strawberry Letter 23

One of my favorite songs from the 1970s, or of all time for that matter, is “Strawberry Letter 23” from R&B/funk band The Brothers Johnson. It was one of the defining songs of my summer of 1977, when I spent two glorious months in Portland, Oregon before starting college. The track was written by the brilliant singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Shuggie Otis in 1971, whose own original version was featured on his album Freedom Flight.

It’s a romantic song with a dreamy, almost mystical vibe, thanks to the whimsical lyrics and his use of chiming guitars, xylophone, calliope and other sparkling synth instrumental sounds. For their recording of the song, which was masterfully produced by the legendary Quincy Jones, The Brothers Johnson embellished on all those lovely instruments and added their own funky guitar, bass, beats and smooth vocal harmonies, along with a dreamy backing vocal chorus. The result was a gorgeous and captivating track that took the song to the next level.

The song was included on their 1977 album Right On Time, and reached #1 on the Billboard R&B Chart and #5 on the Hot 100. It’s been featured in several films and TV shows, including Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Six Feet Under and Nip/Tuck. Otis’ version was featured in the film Munich.

I’d originally wondered why the song was titled “Strawberry Letter 23” when the lyrics speak of “Strawberry Letter 22” instead. The reason is that Otis intended for the song to be about a couple exchanging love letters in the form of songs. The singer is creating “Strawberry Letter 23” as a reply to the “Strawberry Letter 22” song he received from his lover and refers to in the song.

Hello my love, I heard a kiss from you
Red magic satin playing near, too
All through the morning rain I gaze, the sun doesn’t shine
Rainbows and waterfalls run through my mind
In the garden, I see
West purple shower bells and tea
Orange birds and river cousins dressed in green

Pretty music, I hear
So happy and loud
Blue flowers echo from a cherry cloud
Feel sunshine sparkle pink and blue
Playgrounds will laugh
If you try to ask “Is it cool? Is it cool?”
If you arrive and don’t see me
I’m going to be with my baby
I am free, flying in her arms
Over the sea

Stained window, yellow candy screen
See speakers of kite
With velvet roses diggin’ freedom flight
A present from you
Strawberry letter 22
The music plays I sit in for a few

Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh

For comparison, here’s the original version by Shuggie Otis:

EML’s Favorite Songs – LESLEY GORE: “You Don’t Own Me”

Lesley Gore You Don't Own Me

I heard something on the radio today about how the defiant – and now iconic – anthem of female empowerment “You Don’t Own Me“, which was a big hit for young pop singer Lesley Gore, was actually written by two men, John Madara and David White. It reminded me of how much I’ve always loved this song.

Gore possessed a remarkable voice with a maturity beyond her young age, and had a string of hits while still in high school. She recorded her first breakout single “It’s My Party” when she was only 16 (the song went on to become a #1 hit), and followed in quick succession with “Judy’s Turn to Cry”, “She’s a Fool” and “You Don’t Own Me”, which she recorded at the age of 17. For a brief time period, she was one of the most popular female singers in the U.S.

As good as Gore’s vocals were, the song’s greatness must partly be attributed to the flawless production by a young Quincy Jones, who also produced her other hits. He used lush, sweeping orchestration to great effect, enhancing the drama of the mesmerizing melody. “You Don’t Own Me” peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February-March 1964, where it spent three weeks, held down by the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, which spent seven weeks at #1.

Despite her youth, Gore’s commanding vocals make her sound totally credible when she sings the lyrics telling a lover that they do not own her, that they can’t tell her what to do or say, and that they are not to put her on display.

You don’t own me, I’m not just one of your many toys
You don’t own me, don’t say I can’t go with other boys

And don’t tell me what to do
And don’t tell me what to say
And please when I go out with you
Don’t put me on display, ’cause
You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way
You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay

Oh, I don’t tell you what to say
I don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you
I’m young and I love to be young
I’m free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please

And don’t tell me what to do
Oh… don’t tell me what to say
And please, when I go out with you
Don’t put me on display

I don’t tell you what to say
Oh-h-h-h don’t tell you what to do
So just let me be myself
That’s all I ask of you
I’m young and I love to be young
I’m free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please

The song has been covered many times, most notably by Dusty Springfield, Joan Jett, the Blow Monkeys and, more recently, in a darker and interesting version by Australian singer/songwriter Grace, featuring American rapper G-Eazy. The song was also a highlight of the 1996 film The First Wives Club, where in a delightfully gratifying scene at the end of the film, Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn perform the song as they leave the building.

Cover photo by David Redfern.

EML’s Favorite Songs – CARPENTERS: “Superstar”

Superstar-Carpenters

From the moment I first heard “(They Long to Be) Close to You” in the early summer of 1970 until the mid-1970s, the Carpenters were one of my favorite acts. Their music was beautiful, with the kind of lush orchestration I’ve always loved, and Karen Carpenter had the voice of an angel. I loved them so much I actually wrote a paper about them for my 11th grade English class – perhaps an early presage to my much later calling as a music blogger? They had a successful run of huge hits from 1970-1975, and one of my favorites is the bittersweet “Superstar“.

The song was written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, and originally titled “Groupie Song”. But when it was recorded by Delaney & Bonnie and released as a B-side on their single “Comin’ Home” in December 1969, it was re-titled “Groupie (Superstar)”. The song tells the story of a female groupie’s one-night stand with a rock star, whom she hopes will return to her. It was covered by a number of artists, including Joe Cocker (on his Mad Dogs & Englishmen Live Tour album, with vocals sung by Rita Coolidge), Bette Midler (on her debut album The Divine Miss M), Cher, and Australian rock group McPhee, among others. But it was the Carpenters version that stands head and shoulders above the rest, and became one of their biggest hits, peaking at #2 (Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” had a 5-week run at #1 in the fall of 1971, preventing “Superstar” from reaching the top).

The story goes that Richard Carpenter first became aware of “Superstar” after hearing it sung by a relatively unknown Bette Midler on The Tonight Show in 1971. He loved the song and thought it would be perfect for Karen, and wrote a new arrangement to fit their style. Shockingly, when he played it for her, she wasn’t thrilled with the song. She later recalled “For some reason that tune didn’t hit me in the beginning. It’s the only one. Richard looked at me like I had three heads. He said: ‘Are you out of your mind!‘” But after they recorded the song, she grew to love it too.

“Superstar” was produced by Richard Carpenter with Jack Daugherty, and recorded with members of The Wrecking Crew, the famed collective of Los Angeles area session musicians. As the song’s storyline was originally more risqué than what was typical for the Carpenters, Richard changed a lyric in the second verse “And I can hardly wait to sleep with you again” to the somewhat less suggestive “And I can hardly wait to be with you again.”

The song is breathtakingly beautiful, with rich orchestral instrumentation highlighted by a soaring horn section, gorgeous oboe played by Earle Dumler, a somber, understated bassline by Joe Osborn, drums by the legendary Hal Blaine (even though Karen was herself an accomplished drummer), and a lovely keyboards by Richard Carpenter. Karen’s distinctive contralto vocals never sounded better or more resonant, beautifully conveying the fervent longing for someone you love to return and ease your loneliness. “Superstar” is one of my favorite songs of the 1970s, and for all time.

Long ago and oh so far away
I fell in love with you before the second show
Your guitar it sounds so sweet and clear
But you’re not really here
It’s just the radio

Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby
You said you’d be coming back this way again baby
Baby, baby, baby, baby oh baby
I love you, I really do

Loneliness is such a sad affair
And I can hardly wait to be with you again
What to say to make you come again…ooh baby
Come back to me again…baby
And play your sad guitar

Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby
You said you’d be coming back this way again baby
Baby, baby, baby, baby oh baby
I love you, I really do

I still remember the exact moment in February 1983 when I heard that Karen Carpenter had died from heart failure at the age of only 32, as a result from years of suffering with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. I was in my car on the way to a meeting, and nearly burst into tears. Like so many other great artists and musicians who passed away far too soon, Karen’s death was a tremendous loss to the music world.

EML’s Favorite Songs – JUNIOR WALKER & the ALL STARS: “What Does it Take (To Win Your Love)”

Jr Walker What Does It Take

Few popular artists of the 1960s – or any other decade for that matter – could play the saxophone like Autry DeWalt Mixon Jr., better known as Junior Walker. Along with with his band the All Stars, Junior Walker had a string of hits from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, including the fantastic “Shotgun” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” (Walker also went on to play sax on the great Foreigner song “Urgent” in 1981.) But my absolute favorite was “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)”, which was a big hit for them in 1969. It has one of the best intros of any song ever. That opening bass riff, followed by Walker’s wailing sax, are fucking incredible, sending chills up and down my spine that remain there through the song’s entire two and a half minute run time.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Harvey Fuqua and Vernon Bullock and, shockingly, was initially rejected for single release by a Motown quality control group. Thankfully, several radio station DJs chose to play the song, making it gain popularity, and prompted Motown executives to reverse their decision and ultimately release it as a single. It became a huge hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B chart. It’s one of my favorite songs of 1969.

What does it take to win your love for me?
How can I make this dream come true for me?
Oh, I just got to know
Ooh baby, cause I love you so
Gonna blow for you

I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried, I’ve tried in every way I could
To make you see how much I love you
Ooh I thought you understood
So you gotta make me see
What does it take to win your love for me?
Gonna blow again for you

EML’s Favorite Songs – ROY ORBISON: “Running Scared”

Roy Orbison Running Scared record

One of my favorite songs from the 1960s is “Running Scared” by the legendary Roy Orbison, who was one of the biggest recording artists from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Written by Orbison and Joe Melson, the powerfully moving ballad was released by Monument Records in March 1961 and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that June. The song was written in the bolero style, starting off calmly then gradually building to a dramatic finish. And, unlike most other songs written both then and now, it contains no chorus.

It opens with just a simple strummed guitar as Orbison plaintively sings to a woman he loves, but fearing she’s still in love with an old flame. With each new verse, layers of lush instrumentation in the form of drums, piano, strings and horns, as well as backing vocals, are added to the mix as both the music and Orbison’s beautiful resonant vocals build to a heart-wrenching climax. By the song’s end, with Orbison jubilant over the woman’s decision to go with him, I’m completely covered in goosebumps. I defy anyone to listen to “Running Scared” and not feel moved. The song lasts barely more than two minutes, but it’s monumental nevertheless. Everything about it is absolute perfection.

Just running scared each place we go
So afraid that he might show
Yeah running scared what would I do
If he came back and wanted you
Just running scared feeling low
Running scared you loved him so
Just running scared afraid to lose
If he came back which one would you choose

Then all at once he was standing there
So sure of himself his head in the air
My heart was breaking which one would it be
You turned around and walked away with me

EML’s Favorite Songs – THE CURE: “Just Like Heaven”

I’m starting a new blog feature “EML’s Favorite Songs”, in which I post an old classic that’s an all-time favorite of mine. A few weeks ago, I wrote about “Nature Boy” by Nat “King” Cole, and today my pick is the brilliant “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure. The song is from their 7th studio album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and along with “Lovesong” is my favorite among their scores of great songs. It was released in October 1987, and was the band’s first song to break the top 40 in the U.S. though, shockingly, only peaked at #40 on the Billboard Hot 100! Over time, the song has come to be recognized as one of The Cure’s finest, and Pitchfork ranked it as the 12th best song of the 1980s. It certainly ranks among my favorites of the 1980s.

Band frontman Robert Smith was inspired to write “Just Like Heaven” after a trip to the seashore with his girlfriend and future wife Mary Poole, who he met in high school and to whom he’s been married for over 30 years. The song immediately grabs hold with Boris Williams’ fantastic opening drumroll, then Smith’s jangly descending guitar line enters, chiming its way through waves of glittery synths, tinkling piano keys and crashing cymbals, sweeping us headlong into a gorgeous and dreamy soundscape. Simon Gallup’s pulsating bass line and Williams’ powerful thumping drumbeat provide a solid rhythmic vibe, propelling the song into the sonic stratosphere. It’s a masterpiece!

Smith’s distinctive vocals, which occasionally sound off-kilter on some of their songs, are perfection here as he sings of the dizzying love and lust two people feel for each other:

‘Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream’ she said
‘The one that makes me laugh’ she said
And threw her arms around my neck
‘Show me how you do it and I promise you
I promise that I’ll run away with you
I’ll run away with you’

Spinning on that dizzy edge
I kissed her face and kissed her head
And dreamed of all the different ways I had to make her glow
‘Why are you so far away?’ she said
‘Why won’t you ever know that I’m in love with you?
That I’m in love with you?’

You, soft and only
You, lost and lonely
You, strange as angels
Dancing in the deepest oceans
Twisting in the water
You’re just like a dream…

Daylight licked me into shape
I must have been asleep for days
And moving lips to breathe her name
I opened up my eyes
And found myself alone, alone, alone above a raging sea
That stole the only girl I loved
And drowned her deep inside of me

You, soft and only
You, lost and lonely
You, just like heaven

The Cure are finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame today, March 29, 2019.

NAT “KING” COLE – “Nature Boy”

Nature Boy record

One of the most enchanting songs of all-time has to be “Nature Boy”, especially the original version recorded by the legendary Nat “King” Cole. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it as a young teenager, and being absolutely enthralled by its haunting beauty. I recognized the singer as Nat “King” Cole – arguably one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th Century – but was not familiar with the song. I asked my father “What is that song?!“, and he told me it was called “Nature Boy”. My father was himself still a teen when the song came out in March 1948. It was a massive hit, spending eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard number-one singles chart from May to July 1948.

The song has a rather interesting back story. It was written in 1947 by a man named eden ahbez. Originally born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn, NY in 1908, one of 13 children in a poor family, he spent his early childhood in an orphanage. He was eventually adopted at the age of nine by a family in Kansas and raised under the name George McGrew. During the 1930s, McGrew lived in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a pianist and dance band leader. He moved to Los Angeles in 1941 and began playing piano at a small health food store/raw food restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard owned by John and Vera Richter, who followed the German Naturmensch and Lebensreform philosophies of veganism and living with nature. Their followers, who came to be known as “nature boys”, wore long hair and beards and ate only raw fruits and vegetables, and were precursors to what would later be called hippies. McGrew changed his name to “eden ahbez”, spelling his name with lower-case letters because he believed only the words “God” and “Infinity” were worthy of capitalization.

Some years later, while living in a cave near Palm Springs, ahbez wrote “Nature Boy”. The song was semi-autobiographical, but also partly a tribute to his mentor Bill Pestor, another Naturmensch advocate who was known locally as “the Hermit of Palm Springs”. ahbez wanted Nat “King” Cole to record the song, and went to see him one night while Cole was performing at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles. Cole’s manager refused to talk with him, however, ahbez managed to leave his sheet music for “Nature Boy” with Cole’s valet, but neglected to include his contact information. Cole loved the song, and began performing it at shows, but couldn’t record it as a single without ahbez’s permission. ahbez was finally tracked down living in a shack under the Hollywood sign, and soon found himself at the center of a media frenzy after “Nature Boy” became a #1 hit. His curious story was covered simultaneously in Life, Time and Newsweek magazines during the summer of 1948, and he finally got the chance to meet Cole during the television show We The People. (Bryan Thomas, Night Flight)

eden ahbez nat king cole
ahbez and Cole in 1948 (source unknown)

The song was recorded by Cole in August 1947, backed by an orchestra conducted by Frank De Vol, the in-house arranger of Capitol Records. Also a legend in his own right, De Vol went on to write and conduct soundtracks for numerous films (Pillow Talk, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush…Hush…Sweet Charlotte, Cat Ballou, The Dirty Dozen) and TV shows (Family Affair, Gidget, The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons). For “Nature Boy”, De Vol used lush strings and flute to create the beautiful enchanting soundscape that makes the song so indelible. The gorgeous fluttering notes of the flute evoke sounds of birds singing in a Shangri-La setting. The track’s arrangement is absolute perfection, and the piano keys are stunning as well. And of course, Cole’s famed velvety-smooth vocals are captivating as he croons the poetic lyrics that are simple but profound:

There was a boy
A very strange, enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far, over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return

Cole eventually considered “Nature Boy” one of his favorite recordings, and the song helped give him crossover appeal to white audiences. In his book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, author Ted Gioia noted that all the musicians “who had created the golden age of American popular song had their quirks and idiosyncrasies, but eden ahbez demands pride and place as the most eccentric of them all“. He added that, in addition to promoting the hippie culture, with “Nature Boy”, ahbez enabled Cole to be instrumental in introducing a new era of black artists in an industry dominated by white popular music. (Wikipedia)

The song was awarded the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, a special Grammy Award honoring recordings that are at least 25 years old and have “qualitative or historical significance”. I think it’s a masterpiece, and one of the greatest songs ever written.