Friday Five: January 1959

It’s a brand new year so let’s try a brand new way of doing things. Each week I’ll move year-by-year and post 5 songs that cracked the Billboard top 5 for the month in which I post. Why don’t we start with 1959 because, well, why not?

5. “One Night” by Elvis Presley
The King started 1959 at the #5 spot with this song, originally recorded by Smiley Lewis in 1956. Lewis’ version begins “One night of sin / Is what I’m now paying for,” a line too suggestive for RCA and Elvis’ handlers. The cleaned up version was released in ’58 and peaked at #4 before working it’s way downward in the following year.

4. “Sixteen Candles” by The Crests
Comprised of three African Americans, an Italian American, and one Puerto Rican, The Crests were the first interracial doo-wop group to achieve any chart success. This song was their biggest hit, reaching #4 in January 1959 before peaking at #2 the following month (they were kept out of the top spot by the next song on this list). I suspect we’ll see some cinematic representation of the 50s more than a century from now (or whatever cinema becomes by then) where this song will be played. I’m not sure that make its timeless but, rather, more “time bound” and iconic.

3. “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price
It’s a song about a real life event——the 1895 Christmas night murder of a man (Billy Lyons) by a St. Louis pimp (“Stag” Lee Shelton) all over a Stetson hat. A song evolved over time, “corrupting” the name of the assailant into we have now. Lloyd Price’s version would reach the top spot the following month but it peaked at the #5 position in January 1959. As a young teenager I loved to listen to this on an old 45 my folks had. Even then it sounded like a game changer to me. I can only imagine what this sounded like in 1959.

2. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters
This is why you slow dance. The Platters reached #1 with this gem in January 1959. It was originally written for a musical named Roberta in 1933 and had grown into something of a standard over the next two decades for everyone from Glen Miller to Nat King Cole. The Platters were already established after hits like “Only You” and “(You’ve Got) The Magic Touch” when they started reworking older tunes and making them their own. The widow of the original composer stirred some controversy when she expressed her displeasure with the reboot of her husband’s work by a rock ‘n roll group. It’s a peak into the window of time when rock ‘n roll meant something bad.

1. “Donna” by Ritchie Valens
How can I not put this at my top spot? The seventeen-year-old Chicano named Richard Valenzuela had a professional musical career that lasted less than a year. He only released three singles in his lifetime. The first was a song he wrote, “Come On, Let’s Go.”  It was his first hit record (the B-side was the Lieber/Stoller song “Framed”). His second was this song, a tune he wrote about the girl he loved. The B-side was “La Bamba,” Valens’ reworking of a Mexican folk ballad. Side A peaked at #3 in January 1959.  On February 2, Valens (along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. “The Big Bopper”) would perish in a plane crash.  “Donna” would peak at #2 a couple of weeks later.  “La Bamba” at #22.


They Made It to 2019

Happy New Year! Another new year brings another chance to revisit my running list of celebrities who are still alive but whom we might have thought were dead. As I’ve said in years passed, my goal with this commemoration is to enjoy the “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” thought without having to read the obituary of the celebrity in question.

First, we should mark the passing of a few folks who have been spotlighted in years passed. Charlotte Rae died in 2018 at the age of 95. So did Jerry Maren, former member of the “Lollipop Guild” and the last (verified) living “Munchkin” from The Wizard of Oz. He was 98 years old.

Now for the good news. A whole host of stars from the stage and big screen are still with us in 2019. The legendary Carol Channing is 97; Doris Day is 94; and Hal Holbrook is 93. Though he may not be as well-known as that bunch, the iconic (to me) Henry Silva is now 90.

They all seem to be spring chickens compared to Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas, both of whom turned 102 in 2018. One of the leads in Gone With the Wind, de Havilland is the oldest living Oscar winner. Douglas, the star of Spartacus and Paths of Glory the greatest living celebrity of Hollywood’s “Golden Era.”

Two music legends deserve mention. The legendary Little Richard is 86 and Jerry Lee Lewis is 82. Both men are the last of the greats of the founding generation of rock ‘n roll. With the passing of Aretha last year, they may be the most significant living musical artists, too.

Finally, television was the creative home to a slew of nonagenarians. Producer Norman Lear (96) is still doing well. Actors Larry Storch (95) and William Daniels (91) are still alive. Comedic legends Carl Reiner (96), Dick Van Dyke (93), and Mel Brooks (92) continue to thrive. Van Dyke even had a role in the recent Mary Poppins movie. Comedian Bob Newhart is 89 right now, but he’ll turn 90 in September.

And, of course, Betty White is still with us. At 96, White isn’t the oldest on the list, but she might be the most well-known senior citizen of the bunch. She is often an internet meme for her longevity, as well as for her rumored (or feared) passing. She’s also occasionally still seen on TV, lately in simple appearances rather than in acting roles.

Here’s to good health and a happy 2019 for each and every one on this year’s list!

Friday Five: December 1968

If I had more time to write here, I would have written a lot more about 1968. This year was the 50th anniversary of a so many significant events, whether we’re talking about history (MLK and RFK assassinations, Chicano walkouts, repression at Tlatelolco, Nixon election) or culture (Elvis’ “comeback” special, the release of 2001, the start of “60 Minutes” and the end of “Batman”).

So, in honor of the many anniversaries I didn’t commemorate, let’s give props to my 5 favorite songs from albums released 50 years ago this month.

5. “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder
The title track of Stevie Wonder’s tenth studio album is a pop gem from a period when he seemed to record those on a regular basis. Stevie was only 18, but he was already a veteran of the industry. His legendary greatness was still to come, but his brilliance was still on display in these and other tunes.

4. “Something in the Way She Moves” by James Taylor
The source of inspiration for George Harrison’s “Something” a year later (Harrison actually takes his first line from Taylor), this song was from James Taylor’s debut album, released on Apple Records (the Beatles label). This album version is different than the single track that plays today.  He had better ahead of him, but this flirts with perfect a couple of times.

3. “Anything” by the Mothers of Invention
When we moved to Claremont, there was this old man with a super long beard who just hung around the Village everyday. He’d say hi to folks on most days, but he could keep to himself, too. What stood out most, was that when my infant son would see him, even from a block away, he’d start to freak out like he was staring down a hungry dire wolf. That man was Ray Collins, the Pomona-born, original member of the Mothers of Invention, what would become the band most associated with Frank Zappa’s early career. The album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets is the last Collins participated in (he actually left before everything they recorded became “the album”), and it’s one of their most interesting. An homage to 50s/60s doo-wop, the songs (especially under Collins writing) are little bits of Chicano culture from a non-Chicano guy who grew up in a very Chicano area. The conceit of the album is that they’re a group called Ruben & the Jets. Early pressings had that band listed as the talent on the 45 records.

2. “Spinning Wheel” by Blood, Sweat & Tears
The bands eponymous second album, released December 11, was their biggest hit. It won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1970 (it was released to late in ’68 for the ’69 awards) and generated three hit singles, this one included.  This is my favorite of their songs, an audio panoply of 1968.

1. “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones
Beggar’s Banquet was released in December 1968, the latest album in a string of albums where the Rolling Stones top themselves each time. Upon listening you’d easily say this band is at the top of their game. You’d be right, too, until you’d hear their next. While some of the best was still to come, there’s a 1968 sound here that feels pretty special.

Friday Five: Sha-la-la-la

La Familia Summers Sandoval has the song “Shallow” in heavy rotation these days.  The song, performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is from their critically-acclaimed remake of A Star is Born.

In the chorus, while the pair sing the word that gives the song its name, they break into a “sha-la-la” that reminded me of Tom Waits’ beautiful song “Jersey Girl.”

That brought us to a string of songs featuring “sha-la-la” in some form or fashion. So let’s round out our list of five.

First, my middle kid immediately called out “Kiss the Girl” from the soundtrack to Little Mermaid. Props to her. I first thought of Al Green’s “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy).” Both are worthy, but there’s so many more.

There’s one of the most memorable and iconic “sha-la-la’s in R&B history with Billy Stewart’s “Sitting in the Park”:

And then I was transported to my senior year in college when “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows topped the charts. It’s the first line, after all:

But a list of “sha-la-la” songs couldn’t be complete without the most famous of them all.


“You were the first creator whose voice I knew before I’d ever actually heard it. You dreamed up some of my favorite modern myths and created characters that instilled in me a moral barometer, teaching me right from wrong and showing me it’s always better to be a hero instead of a villain. Your characters represented us: yes, they had extraordinary, unbelievable abilities, but they were also reflections of a world we knew, where a Spider-Man is really just a boy who wants to help.” (Kevin Smith)

“He was a powerhouse of energy and enthusiasm, and his death ends an era when giants walked the Earth and made up new kinds of stories.” (Neil Gaiman)

“Thank you Stan Lee for making people who feel different realize they are special.” (Seth Rogan)

There’s a lot more out there, and together they say it better than any one of us could.

All I can say is that I owe a lot to Stan Lee. I found my corner of the universe early in life. It was a space shared by Darth Vader, the Hulk, and Spider-man. I didn’t buy my first Spider-man comic until 1983 (The Amazing Spider-man #239) but I had already fallen in love with his magic through TV——cartoons and Electric Company and made-for-TV movies. It’s a love I still have.

When I heard he passed the first thing I thought is it’s a such a gift to live to be 95. And then I thought it’s even a greater gift to spend those years giving joy and creativity and acceptance and wonder to so many. After spending the day reading so many people’s thoughts, I can’t help thinking what an amazing thing it is to live to see your impact and receive your due accolades and——even at that advanced age——still leave at the peak of other’s regard for you.

Stan Lee helped create the modern comic book art form and carried it all (and us) from the margins right into the mainstream. That’s some kind of life. One that’s going to outlive us all.

World Series (again)

This blog isn’t much of a reflection of what’s going on in my life, or for that matter what’s important to me. These days it’s mostly a space to write about music once a week. And while music is important to me, there are other things that occupy most of my daily life——namely, my family and my job.

And then there’s baseball. From April to October I watch a lot of Dodger baseball. When I can’t watch, I listen on the radio or follow along on my phone. It’s a rare Dodgers’ game that goes by where I haven’t participated in at least an inning or two of it.

Baseball is one of those things that balances out the bad stuff in life. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about (read about, talk about, learn about, teach about) the current war against Latinx migrants and families. Not a day goes by that I’m not equally involved in the consequences of a racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic regime ruling this country.  Baseball is my relief from those horrid reminders of the shortcomings of the human species. It’s my escape and my positive connection to those same flawed humans, my community of fellow fans.

I know it’s “just” baseball. That said, it never fails to amaze me how much a bunch of grown men playing a kid’s game can affect me, both positively and negatively. It’s also an excuse for me to work on perspective. After all, if winning the World Series is the goal of every team every year, 29 of us are going to come up short.  It’s been 30 years since we’ve won a series.  We’re getting good at perspective.

So you learn to appreciate the steps along the way.  I love a good game.  I love it when the Dodgers win.  I love it when the players I like turn in amazing days at their jobs.  I enjoy talking about baseball with other Dodgers’ fans.   At the end of the day, it’s the little things.

Of course, I care about the big things, too.  I often say baseball is one of those sports where, at the end of the season, you get to see who the best teams are.  We play 162 games.  I think the teams sitting on top of each division and each league at the end of that road have something to be proud of.  They’re the best.  I’m fortunate that the team I love has won the Western Division for six years running.  It’s a great achievement, one that I can use to console myself since being the best is different than being successful during the playoffs.

Playoff baseball is a different beast than the regular season. The best team doesn’t always win. It’s not about being the best——it’s about being the best on the field that day.  Sure, better teams have an advantage.  But it’s way more complicated than that.

The Dodgers are about to play in their 20th World Series competition in their storied history. Our very first was in 1916 against the Boston Red Sox. (At that time we were the Brooklyn Robins.) We lost that one, as we did the next six we played in. The Brooklyn Dodgers would lose 7 World Series before winning their first and only title in 1955. The next year they’d get there again, but lose. That’s a 1-8 record.
(Six of those losses were against one team——the New York Yankees. So was their only victory.  Perspective.)

We’ve won five World Series since moving to Los Angeles. We’ve been in the Series another 5 times and lost. That’s a 5-5 record for us. Not bad. And I know I’m lucky to have a team that’s made it to the big show for two years running. We’re back-to-back National League Champions. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Of course, I still want the Dodgers to win it all.

Last year I was confident but also pretty realistic. Houston was playing at their best for much of the playoffs and they had momentum. The Dodgers were a better team, but even with their massive winning streak and killer winning percentage for a chunk of the season, they were still a tricky bunch. After all, this was a team that went on a 1-16 losing streak. Needless to say, I was hopeful they’d win game 7 last year but I was emotionally prepared if they did not. Perspective.

This year is different. The Dodgers are not as good a team as Boston. Boston is better by almost any measure that matters. And while the Dodgers have some degree of last year’s weaknesses, they are a much more seasoned group of guys. Perspective matters there, too. And then there’s our offense, which only matters when it does, and it often does.

Over the next week, I’m going to be really happy and really stressed and really sad, just not all at the same time or in the same measure. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the achievements——the sixth in a row Western Division title and the back-to-back National League titles. Whatever happens, I’m lucky to be a fan of one of the last two teams playing ball right now. And I’m prepared for whatever may come.

Especially if that’s a World Series title.

Friday Five: Niles Rodgers

While I was driving around this week I stumbled upon a Sirius XM show spotlighting the life and career of Niles Rodgers. I’ve already got mad respect for the man. That respect, and my love of his music and musical sensibilities, only grew as I listened to him tell the story behind some of the songs that have made him a musical legend.

His body of work as the founder and leader of the band Chic is enough of a reason to love the man and his work. But he has been a producer on an amazing number of significant tracks in musical history, too. The diversity and depth of those songs was the standout piece of that show to me.

So here are my five favorite Niles Rogers productions (that are not songs by Chic).

5. “Material Girl” by Madonna (1984)
Rodgers produced this track from the legend-making album Like a Virgin. His synth pop skills define the song, a perfect harmony between the lyrics and music (for a song most people missed as being a critique of the materialism of the day). Of course, the video is as iconic as the Marilyn Monroe number is pays homage to.

4. “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross (1980)
Rodgers wrote and produced this song with his Chic partner Bernard Edwards. He got the idea for the song after seeing a series of drag queens dressed as Diana Ross. Ross had hired Rodgers and Edwards to help her reinvent herself for her first album after leaving Motown. As the story goes, she was mortified when she found out “coming out” was a phrase related to the queer community. I’m sure she’s fine with it now. The song became a gay/lesbian anthem and they gave her a new career. My favorite part of it is the definitive Niles Rodgers guitar riffing.

3. “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge (1979)
Another classic written and produced by Rodgers and Edwards. This was the first song they wrote together for a band other than Chic. What can you say about it? It never made it to #1 in the US (it peaked at #2) but it gained a significance over time that eclipses that shortcoming. It’s a classic, one that is such a rich example of the sounds of the era while also being, somehow, timeless.

2. “The Reflex” by Duran Duran (1983)
Niles Rodgers wasn’t a part of the original album recording of this Duran Duran song, featured on the new wave band’s 1983 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger. His remixed version was the one they released as a single, however. It was their last #1 in the UK and their first of many in the US. All I can say——as a 12 year-old person who lived through this song’s popularity——is that people liked it. A lot.

1. “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie (1983)
There’s that guitar riff again, and so, so much more. Bowie wrote the song but Niles Rodgers made it. From the way he talked about it, it’s still something he is proud of. He has every reason to be.