Friday Five: Covering Otis

Who’s the man? Otis Redding is the man.

Proof of this truth lies in the fact that when other musicians listen to Otis they are so moved by what they hear that they become infected with his soul. The only thing they want to do is what Otis does. But most of them also know that they can’t do what Otis does. They’re simply not as good, or as soulful, and so they translate what they felt into something that is true to them.

Here are five great covers of great Otis Redding songs. Each one tries to harness something from the master, but most do so in ways unique to themselves.

5. “Hard to Handle” (Black Crowes)
Chris Robinson and the Black Crowes were young and stupid in 1990, when they released their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. Lucky they were massively talented, too. The album’s first single “Hard to Handle” and, in some ways, Robinson tries to one-up Otis. Wrapped up in the bluesy, rock style of the band, what could have been a failed impersonation turns into something fantastic.

4. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” (Ike & Tina Turner)
If there’s a duo who could give Otis a run for his money when it comes to soul it just might be Ike and Tina Turner. In this cover (and in many ways some of their greatest performances were covers), both Tina and Ike change it up to convert a sweet ballad into something gritty and pained.

3. “Security” (Mavis Staples)
Mavis Staples knows what she can do. Here she takes the original and turns it into something more. Part of that is the guitar lick that drives the cover (and gives us the feel of times) but the rest is Ms. Staples’ powerful vocals elevating us to new heights.

2. “Try A Little Tenderness” (Frank Sinatra)
There are many covers of this song–perhaps the greatest performance Otis ever gave us–but most try to do what Otis did and, in so doing, they fall short. Sinatra takes romantic lyrics and a sweet melody and makes it all his.

1. “Respect” (Aretha Franklin)
Let’s not beat around the bush–this is the greatest cover of all time and one of the greatest things ever recorded. Aretha is the exception to the rule in that she can do what Otis can do…and then some. Here she gives us some of that, converting a song about an upset man into a Muscle Shoals infused feminist and civil rights anthem. It’s nothing short of greatness!

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Friday Five: 1978

5. Warren Zevon, “Werewolves of London” (January 1978)
The older I get the more I enjoy and respect the body of work Warren Zevon left behind. For the longest time this was the only song of his I knew, his biggest hit from his best-selling album.

4. Van Halen, “Running with the Devil” (May 1978)
The debut album from the LA-area rockers. Van Halen are an okay band with an extraordinary guitarist. He’s what makes every song into something novel, although by now it seems common. This is the leadoff track, and a standard for their live shows.

3. The Who, “Who Are You” (August 1978)
It’s one of their biggest US hits, and arguably the most recognized song by the band because of its use as the theme song to CSI. From the album of the same name, their last release before the death of Keith Moon.

2. Chic, “Le Freak” (September 1978)
From the second studio album of these disco/R&B/funk legends, the song was their first chart topper and remains among the most memorable of era.

1. The Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden” (September 1978)
The greatest rock and roll band put out another great album in 1978 and on it, one of their greatest songs.

My Happiness

Elvis Presley was born 83 years ago today. It’s a good time to take a little taste of what made the man special, musically speaking.

Here’s a recording of the song “My Happiness” made by Elvis on July 18, 1953. It’s his first ever recording, an acetate press made for $3.98 at the Memphis Recording Service at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Company.

There’s no producer here. No technological tricks. No band even. No nothing, really, just Elvis and his guitar and a style made up of the diverse musical upbringing he had.

It’s a great example of Elvis in an unadulterated form. Maybe we can think of it as a “pure” Elvis, before he gets marketed as a “product” and long before that process makes it so that many other forces are involved in what his music is.

To put that specialness into context, here are some popular recordings of the song made before Elvis walked into Sun Studios. This is “My Happiness” by the Marlin Sisters, a 1947 recording that is believed to be the first:

Here are Jon and Sondra Steele, whose May 1948 recording was the first “hit” version of the song:

Competing versions by the Pied Pipers and none other than the great Ella Fitzgerald also came out in 1948:

There are elements of all of these in Elvis’ version. Perhaps he’s closest to the last two, which are a touch slower than the earlier ones. But Elvis’ phrasing and vocal shifts are his all alone. He’s more than an imposter, even at this early stage in his career. He was a hybrid, a part of this and that, mixed with something from here and something from there. The resulting style brought together white and black musical styles, along with specific trends from different genres (like country and gospel and rhythm & blues) and made them into something else.

Elvis certainly wasn’t the only one doing this. I’m willing to admit he might not even have been the best. But he certainly wasn’t something to be dismissed. The tradition of that hybridity, mixed with raw talent, and even mixed with the commodification of the marketplace, all that is the history of rock ‘n roll.

So happy birthday to the King!

Friday Five: Eighteen

Happy New Year! We’re 18 years into the 21st century. I guess that means we’re all grown up.

5. “I’ve Lived My Life” (Dolly Parton, 1967)
“I’ve lived my life and I’m only eighteen / Only eighteen but its all over / I ruined my life to please my lover / I made him happy, he made me cry / Then said goodbye”

4. “School Days” (The Runaways, 1977)
“Used to be the trouble maker / Hated homework, was a sweet heart breaker / But now I have my dream / I’m so rowdy for eighteen”

3. “Like a Rock” (Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, 1986)
“I was eighteen / Didn’t have a care / Working for peanuts / Not a dime to spare / But I was lean / And solid everywhere / Like a rock”

2. “Mama Kin” (Aerosmith, 1973)
“Said you’re as bald as an egg at eighteen / And workin’ for you dad is just a drag / He still stuffs your mouth with your dreams / You better check it out / Or someday soon you’ll have to climb back on the wagon”

1. “I’m Eighteen” (Alice Cooper, 1970)
“Eighteen / I get confused every day / Eighteen / I just don’t know what to say”

They Made it to 2018

Happy New Year! The start of 2018 gives me a chance to update my list of celebrities who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. As I’ve said in earlier posts, think of this as a chance to experience the “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” feeling before reading their obituaries.

A good number of past spotlighted celebrities are still kicking. Carol Channing (96), Hal Holbrook (92), Henry Silva (89), and the private Doris Day (93) are alive. Olivia de Havilland continues to be the standout celebrity for my list. At 101, the former actress who had a lead role in Gone With the Wind is likely the oldest living Oscar winner. Of course, former “Lollipop Guild” member and oldest living “Munchkin” Jerry Maren (98) is also a noteworthy mention.

The passing of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in 2017 make legends like Little Richard (85) and Jerry Lee Lewis (82) worth mentioning. Carl Reiner (95) recently made a documentary for HBO called If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast spotlighting nonagenarians like himself. Friends Dick Van Dyke (92), Betty White (95), Mel Brooks (91), and Norman Lear (95) were all among the folks featured.

That’s already a lot of celebrities, but let me draw attention to three you might not know about:

Larry Storch (94)
Comedian and former star of the show “F-Troop” will turn 95 on January 8. He had a full career in television as a frequent guest star in notable shows of the 60s and 70s and as a voice actor in cartoons later on in life.

Charolette Rae (95)
Mrs. Garret is now 95. She announced last year that she has cancer, but she’s made it to 2018 despite the disease. She is most famous for playing one character on two television shows. Edna Garret began as the housekeeper for the Drummond family of “Diff’rent Strokes” and then became the lead adult in the show “Facts of Life,” which ran from 1980-1988.

Kirk Douglas (101)
The star of Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and The Bad and the Beautiful is perhaps the most famous “Gold Era” Hollywood star still with us. He reached the century mark in December 2016 and is now 101. Father to Michael Douglas, the elder Kirk is arguably the most prominent oldest living celebrity.

Dodgers 2017

We lost the World Series. I’m sad and disappointed in the outcome and, at the same time, so grateful for being so sad and disappointed.

Every spring for as long as I can remember I’ve  hoped and wished the Dodgers would end the season as World Series champs. Sometimes it happens. But most of the time it doesn’t. And those many times when it doesn’t you don’t stop being a fan as a result. If that were the case Houston wouldn’t have had any fans left to enjoy this, their first championship.

When you’re a fan you’re in it for the long haul. You ride the drama of every pitch, every hit, and every game along the way. When you’re lucky, you get more joy than disappointment.

It’s hard to feel like this year wasn’t more joyous than disappointing. It was without a doubt the most fun I’ve had in a Dodger season since 1988. It wasn’t just the steady march to the postseason (well, steady except for that mid-August to September slump) it was the way the Dodgers came together as a team and gave me more fun afternoons and evenings than I can count.  The walkoff wins; the dominating pitches; the sheer energy of a young team having fun. It was all a blast.

These past few weeks I was telling everyone how amazed I was at how affected I was by every game, the wins and the losses. It was a physical experience for me and, to an extent, for my whole family. What a wonderous thing to rise so high and fall so low all on a bunch of grown men trying to hit a ball with a stick!

That’s what brings us back each time. It’s not just the possibility that this year might be our year, it’s the journey to find out whether it is or not.  I wish I was celebrating a World Series win right now but I know what I feel will eventually fade and leave me right back where I started—in love with the Dodgers and ready to enjoy the ride to find out.

Hats off to Houston. And hats off to my Dodgers. It was a hell of a year and a hell of a series. Even better—next season is only 5 months away.