Friday Five: August 1985

This week’s playlist is 5 songs that made it to the Billboard top 5 in August 1985.

That said, a few non-1985 things deserve mention today. August 15-18 marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Today——August 16th——is the day Santana played, which is epic in so many ways. I loved learning about Woodstock in my teen years and was blown away by the film when I saw it on the 20th anniversary of the legendary music festival.

Today is also the 42nd anniversary of the death of Elvis. It’s always been a day for me to remember the actual day (unlike Woodstock, I was alive for that). Elvis was only 42 when he died, so in about eight months he will have been dead longer than he was alive.

But today is about 1985. So here are some songs that drip, scream, and ooze that glorious year.

5. “Freeway of Love” by Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul even had some hits in the 1980s! This was her last #1 single——it topped the the R&B charts for the entire month of August. It even reached the #3 spot on the Hot 100, where she’d hit #7 later in the year with “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” Aside from the greatest American singer on the mic, this hit features swinging sax by Clarence Clemons.

4. “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits
As iconic a song of the 80s video era as there ever was. With vocal assistance from Sting (“I want my MTV…”) and one of the most memorable guitar licks of the 80s, the song was the biggest pop success for a rock band that had been making a name for themselves in the UK since the 70s. The original song and video (below) even features a taste of the homophobic masculinity of a lot of rock. (The “faggot” verse was cut from later airings and radio play.) It hit #1 on the rock charts for three weeks in August ’85 and did the same in late September on the Hot 100.

3. “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & the News
This hit single was from the soundtrack to the even bigger hit of a film Back to the Future released that same summer. It preceded “Money for Nothing” at the #1 spot on the rock charts (it was #1 for two weeks in July) and stayed in the top 5 there for most of August——the same month it topped the Hot 100 for two weeks. It was the first time the Bay Area rockers topped the US pop charts.

2. “Saving All My Love for You” by Whitney Houston
It peaked at #2 on the R&B charts in mid-August and then dropped to #3 by the end of the month, only to hit the top spot in the first week of September. It would do the same on the Hot 100, but not until October. The second single from her debut album, Houston was just at the start of a career of hits. For my money, this is one of her best and one of my favorites. The song was part of the plot of an episode of the TV show Silver Spoons——the show starring Ricky Schroder——on which she also guest starred. That was one of my shows, but it’s the story of the song (told through the vantage point of “the other woman”) and her vocals that stuck with me even then.

1. “Shout” by Tears for Fears
I put this song at the top of my list specifically because I never really liked it. That’s because at the same time, the song was hard not to hear on Top 40 radio. It was on all the time! And that means I had to think about how much I didn’t like the song frequently, which means it’s a big part of my 1985. When I hear the song today, I don’t change the channel. It’s an alright song (kind of basic but undeniably catchy) that really deserves respect for being a part of most people’s version of 1985. It was #1 on the Hot 100 for three weeks, just before Huey Lewis.

Friday Five: March 1969

5. “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe
Tommy Roe was more than a one-hit wonder. He had eight gold records and two number one pop hits——”Sheila” in 1962 and “Dizzy” in 1969. That’s an interesting spread considering the evolution in pop music in that time period. This song sat at the top of the charts for four weeks and sold more than two million copies in the US. It became a chart topper in the UK and Canada, too. I hope he’s still living off some of that success today.

4. “Give It Up or Turnit A Loose” by James Brown
James Brown was making some amazing music in the late 60s and early 70s and this hit is no exception. It hit the top of the R&B charts in March 1969. It has that soul groove that just sounds like the soundtrack for young, urban, Black folks on the move. Without many words he manages to communicate heaps of meaning when placed in the context of the moment.

3. “The Weight” by Aretha Franklin
I love that Aretha is covering songs that haven’t even been out that long and hitting the charts as she does. The Band released “The Weight” in August 1968 as the first single from their debut album. It started to make them a known entity in the world of rock but it didn’t do much in the US (it peaked at #63). Aretha released it the next spring and went to #3 on the R&B charts with her cover. It might be The Band’s signature tune, a reflection of their rural storytelling lyrics and, in the original, the raw beauty of Levon Helm’s voice and the group’s exquisite musicianship. Aretha makes the song her own, aided by her sheer force and presence, and the guitar work of the legendary Duane Allman behind her.

2. “Time of the Season” by the Zombies
I wasn’t alive in 1969 but this song makes me think I can feel what it was like to have been. The bass and off beat clap got it going on. Add the guitar riff, vocals, and keyboard, and you’ve got quite a little sample of psychedelic pop. It peaked at #3 in March 1969.

1. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by The 5th Dimension
Talk about feeling like the 60s. Although this one is more contrived than the other. It’s a medley from a broadway production about hippies sung by an African American vocal group. I’ll leave it to somebody who was around back then to explain the rest. It peaked at #4 in March 1969 and reigned at #1 for six weeks between April and May. The Beatles would finally knock them out of the top spot with “Get Back.”

Aretha

Word is that Aretha Franklin is “gravely ill.” I’m saddened to hear the news.  There’s no disputing the argument that she is the greatest female singer of the 20th century.  Perhaps aside from Ella Fitzgerald, there is none more significant.

I’m sure an avalanche of thoughtful and loving pieces commemorating her life and legacy are on their way. I’m spending my work day with her music. If you’re in a listening mood, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)–her first with Atlantic records–is one of the best albums ever. Here are my other favorites of her albums and collections:

Lady Soul (1968)
Aretha Now (1968)
Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
Soul ’69 (1969)
The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962)

Aretha is a much more powerful single track artist than an album one, so compilations of her work are often the surest way to go. Here are my favorites:

The Very Best of Aretha, Vol. 1: the 60s (1994)
Aretha Sings the Blues (1985)
Queen of Sou: The Atlantic Recordings (1994)

And here’s a killer live performance that always stands out in my memory:

Friday Five: Favorites (part 2)

Here are five more favorite songs missing from my “impact albums” listing on Facebook. There’s probably a lot of repeats in here from lists of the past, but so be it:

5. “One” by Metallica (1988)
This song changed my life. From an album that’s about as solid as any the band put out…

4. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1970)
The impact of this song on me is hard to measure. It keeps growing over time.

3. “Galileo” by the Indigo Girls (1992)
The best of what the Indigo Girls do is in the song. It also brings up fond memories of 1992.

2. “I Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin (1968)
The amazing Aretha Franklin is far more amazing on any number of songs she’s recorded. There’s something about this that always captivated me though.

1. “The Weight” by The Band (1968)
When I first heard it, I felt like I had to hear it again. When I bought the album, I don’t think I got passed this one song for about three days.

Friday Five: I got the funk

Let’s take a journey through some of the funky sounds of the 60s and 70s. The dynamism of African American politics, the consciousness shaped by the Black Freedom Struggle and a heightened awareness of the injustices the movement targeted, all fed an equally dynamic culture.

Let’s visit some expansive jams that captured the times, and served as the roots for so many more times to come.

5. “Darkest Light” by Lafayette Afro Rock Band (1975)
They were from Long Island but they came together as a band in France. This song is from their third album, 1975’s Malik, and features saxophonist Leon Gomez. It’s a famously and frequently sampled piece of music, ranging from Public Enemy to Jay-Z.

4. “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band (1974)
This is a cover, but it’s really so much more than the original. The band is a makeshift rhythm band put together to score a B-movie in the 70s. What they produce here has been called the national anthem of hip hop.

3. “Let A Woman Be A Woman – Let A Man Be A Man” by Dyke and the Blazers (1969)
A short-lived band that ended with the 1971 murder of founder and leader Arlester Christian.

2. “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin (1971)
From one of my favorite albums by the First Lady of Soul (Young, Gifted and Black), this is a funk masterpiece. While I’m only projecting (since I wasn’t born until the year after), I’ve always felt like it was one of those songs that captured the feeling of the times.

1. “Funky Drummer” by James Brown (1970)
It don’t get much more funky than this, James Brown directing the great Clyde Stubblefield on the drums as he produces a back beat that is the groove of so much later hip hop.

Friday Five: Clapton the Guest

I watched the 2017 documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars on Showtime this week. I enjoy just about anything related to Clapton, and this was a mix of both interesting, sad, and even sadder aspects of his life and career. It’s mostly a story of addiction, really, and you’re left wondering what could have been if one of the world’s greatest guitarists wasn’t constantly at war with himself and his talent.

Anyway, there were some great stories related to Clapton playing guest guitar on amazing recordings by other people. Looking up a bit more of his history as a guest guitarist, I thought it would make an interesting Friday Five.

5. “Here in the Dark” (Taj Mahal, 1996)
Taj Mahal and Clapton–what’s not to like?

4. “That’s the Way God Planned It (Parts 1 & 2)” (Billy Preston, 1969)
Billy Preston was charmed. He doesn’t just have has Eric Clapton on guitar. He has George Harrison (guitar), Keith Richards (bass), Ginger Baker (drums), and Doris Troy (vocals) backing him, too.

3. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (The Beatles, 1968)
Undoubtedly, this is Clapton’s most famous guest appearance, on a song written and sung by his most famous friend for whom he played with and recorded for often. (I don’t know how long this video will be up.)

2. “Wang-Dang-Doodle” (Howlin’ Wolf, 1970)
This might be a bit of a cheat since Clapton was one big reason this album got made. Counted as a “super session” album, Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts (among others) brought the blues master into Olympic Studios in London and got to play blues with him. Here, Howlin’ Wolf sings a classic from the great Willie Dixon. It’s a treat from one of the best blues albums you can buy.

1. “Good to Me as I Am to You” (Aretha Franklin, 1968)
This recording is the inspiration for this list. It’s covered well, in context, in the documentary. What they don’t mention is that this is from the Lady Soul album, the giver of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” It’s a masterful work–for both Aretha and Eric–on a masterful work of an album.

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!

Friday Five: Ladies of Soul

Aretha Franklin is going to live forever.

Not literally, of course.  But centuries from now, some people somewhere on Earth will know who she is.  They will be listening to and talking about Aretha Franklin.  Not only is she a significant figure in the history of 20th century popular music, but she’s recognized as such by just about everybody who knows who she is.

Many more centuries in the future, there will come a time when the aliens visit our completely destroyed planet and start to rummage through our cultural remains in order to retrieve artifacts for some kind of museum on their home planet.  Whether they know enough of the larger context to make informed and discerning decisions or not, who knows.  What I do know is that if they stumble across any of the following recordings, they just might name another woman “queen of soul.”

The following five songs are recorded by women who made some of the most amazing blues, R&B, and soul music of the last century…and they’re not named Aretha.

5. Irma Thomas, “Time Is On My Side” (1964)
Both Thomas and the Rolling Stones covered this song in 1964. It was originally written by Jerry Ragovoy (the man behind “The Hit Factory” recording studio) and recorded by jazz musician Kai Winding in 1963. Irma Thomas covered it before the Stones. The original was light on lyrics (“Time is on my side” and “You’ll come running back” were the only lyrics in Ragovoy’s version) and so songwriter Jimmy Norman expanded the song for Thomas’ recording. In a sense, the Rolling Stones covered her.

4. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, “Humble Me” (2006)
Born in 1956 in Augusta, Georgia, and raised primarily in New York City, Sharon Jones grew up listening to some of the best music ever made. While she tried to break into the music industry for most of her life, it wasn’t until she was 40 years old that it ended up working out for her. Known for her stupendous live performances, Jones passed away from cancer in 2016.  She was only 60.  She leaves us with 20 years of records crafted in the sound style of the best of the 60s and 70s, and made all the better by her talent.  This song, a play on the Otis Redding sound, is among my favorites.

3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (1945)
She was the first bonafide gospel recording star who climbed to fame during the Depression.  Her fame was the product of her moving voice but even more moving rhythm guitar.  She is often hailed as one of the most influential people of modern US music, one of a small group most responsible for giving birth to rock n’ roll. This 1945 hit of hers–featuring her electric guitar play–is some of the best evidence of that.

2. Ruth Brown, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1952)
I love Ruth Brown.  Aside from her music (some of her songs I knew though I knew not who she was), I first came to know her through “The History of Rock n’ Roll,” a 1995 PBS series.  She was one of the stand out interviewees in the series, not only because of who she was but because she was there, through it all.  I’m never disappointed when I put on her music, a constant source of new “discoveries” and growing appreciation for her timeless classics. This was the first pop hit for this habitual maker of R&B greatness.

1. Big Maybelle, “Candy” (1956)
Mabel Louise Smith only lived 47 years on this planet. A gospel singer by upbringing (as were most), she struggled here and there in her recording career, achieving her greatest success in the 50s, when she changed her name to Big Maybelle and began recording for Okeh Records. “Candy” is perhaps her most well-regarded hit (it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999). She’s also known as the original performer of the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” a song she recorded before Jerry Lee Lewis made it famous.