Holidays #1

“River”

As I mentioned in my last post to begin my series on Holiday/Christmas Songs I am starting with the more unconventional. Joni Mitchell’s “River” has been adopted as a Seasonal/Christmas song. Mitchell wrote the song with inspiration from her breakup with Graham Nash. Yes, it starts with a little “Jingle Bells” on the piano and references Christmas but not in a celebratory way. It’s essentially about missing someone and wanting to escape or “skate away” from the lonely feelings. There are many such songs that reflect the reality that not everyone is completely happy, just because the calendar shows it’s Christmastime. Those feeling lonely or missing a loved one, or anyone for that matter may find solace in this song. Typical of Joni Mitchell’s work it is deeply personal and at the same time relatable to millions of others in their own private struggles.

The song was not released as a single and is from her 1971 masterpiece Blue. As with many of her songs it went somewhat unnoticed and under appreciated for many years. It was first covered in 1974 by a friend and fellow Folk Singer Dave Van Ronk who was part of the Greenwich Village scene with Mitchell, Dylan, Phil Ochs and others. Mitchell has been quoted as saying his version of “Both Sides Now” is her favorite. It was then covered a few more times and never reached the charts but the first connection to a Christmas theme for the song was a version by Canadian Opera Singer Riki Turofsky where it appeared on her 1994 album A River So Long as it was paired with another non-Christmas song, this time written by Harry Nilsson titled “Remember (Christmas)” from his Son of Schmilsson released in 1972, it has been covered 20 times and it’s first Christmas theme appearance was on a Compilation album Cabaret Noël – A Broadway Cares Christmas in 1993. “Remember / Toyland” by K.T. Sullivan.

However, most of the credit for the connection seems to come from the appearance of “River” on Songs of the Season, a 1997 release by British Jazz guitarist Peter White. The album contained among other songs, “Jingle Bells”, “Silent Night” and “White Christmas”. Next it was on a Christmas Compilation assembled as a freebie insert by the renowned Dutch literary magazine De Gids in 1998. From there on it just grew from more ‘seasonal’ cover versions and appearances on more Christmas Albums, a bit of radio airplay and choirs including it in their Holliday repertoire. You will now hear it from your favorite streaming service when you request “Christmas Songs”.

Ellie Goulding covered this song and her 2019 Youtube release reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart. There are over 300 documented covers and according to secondhandsongs.com she is #14 on the list of of most covered singer songwriters with almost 2400 versions (of all her songs) being recorded. Needless to say that JoniMitchell.com is focused solely on her songs and they list 900 versions making it her second most covered song after “Both Sides Now” with 1573 covers.

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh, I wish I had a river
I could skate away on …

References: 1, 2, 3, 4,

Holiday #5

Lady Sings the Blues

This is the song that many will first associate with Billie Holiday. Written with Jazz pianist and band leader Herbie Nichols it was recorded in sessions from August of 1955 but released in 1956 on the five track album of the same name. This is also the title of a biopic that came out in 1972 with the legend Diana Ross playing Holiday. The movie did not receive the greatest of reviews and is loosely based on Holiday’s autobiography which has the same title as well if you’re sensing a theme here – but as often the case with these films, it’s not very factually accurate. However it is quite enjoyable from my standpoint and well worth watching just to see Ross perform the songs.

Billie herself would record over 200 cover songs and many memorable versions from The American Songbook/American Standards. Of her 40 original songs, “Lady Sing the Blues” has not been covered as often and coincidentally there are currently 40 versions. The first one appeared in a medley by Susan Carter in 1970. This next clip is from one of the many tribute albums to Billie Holiday, interestingly it so happens to have been assembled by the versatile actor Peter Stormare. As I understand the story, Peter, who has his own record label named Stormvox was grieving the death of Jimi Hendrix back in 1970 and his mother gave him a Billie Holiday album which helped him to the point of him promising his mother he would do a tribute album.

Rocco DeLuca sings here, more recently he has been working with legendary producer/musician Daniel Lanois.

This is the instrumental track from the co-writer Herbie Nichols and it was released at about the same time as the vocal track in 1956.

References: 1, 2, 3,

Holiday #4

“Don’t Explain”

Written by Billie Holiday and as she did on most of her songs collaborated with Arthur Herzog. The lyrics are deeply personal, coming from her knowledge that her husband Jimmy Monroe was sleeping with other women. Always delivered with that haunting intensity this song has inspired 260 versions to date. It was recorded in 1945 and released in June of 1946. It would be the last song she wrote.

There are so many remarkable covers of this song that it was impossible for me to choose just one to post. However, Nina Simone is where I often land, I don’t think I have to “explain” that…

This song has dozens of instrumentals, once again there are so many versions from artists on my favorites list.

You may recognize the name Don Shirley if you watched The Green Book, here he plays a medley of her songs including “Don’t Explain” and is accompanied by bassist Ken Fricker and cellist Juri Taht.

I will provide a couple of links at the end to other covers but as I said it was so hard to chose; here are the sublime Chet Baker from his tribute album, Bakers Holiday (1965) and Saxophone great Dexter Gordon from 1964.

More links: Herbie Hancock feat. Lisa Hannigan and Damien Rice, Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, Grover Washington Jr. and the always amazing Molly Johnson.

Holiday #3

“God Bless The Child”

When I write about cover songs, I like to look and talk about numbers. As we all know there are many ways to look at statistics. My major source is Secondhandsongs.com. For example there are categories such as the most covered songs by title, there is the most covered singer songwriters and the most covered authors (lyricists and composers). There is also a category for the most covered performers, which does not take into account who wrote the song, just who sang it. As many of these lists are, it is dominated by male performers, The Beatles being at the top. The first female is Judy Garland at #11 and the next is Billie Holiday at #23.

As an author of songs Billie may not rank as high on the lists but for writing her own songs Holliday is best known for “God Bless the Child” (co-written with her oft collaborator Arthur Herzog Jr.) from 1939, first recorded in 1941. There are over 500 versions of this remarkable song. In her autobiography Billie said the inspiration for the song came from an argument with her mother over money. Billie had said to her “God Bless the Child that got his own”. The lyrics start with a reference to the Book of Matthew from the New Testament. She took the draft lyrics to Arthur Herzog and they fleshed out the rest of the song.

Cover by Dee Dee Bridgewater (2010).

Andra Day won a Golden Globe for her portrayal in the 2021 biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Long before she got the role Cassandra Monique Batie, had taken the stage name as an homage to Billie Holiday who’s’ nickname was Lady Day. Billie gave the nickname “Prez” to Saxophone player and longtime friend Lester Young, in return he called her Lady Day.

Holiday #1

As promised I am posting a series on Billie Holiday.

There have been other names but you can connect the dots of important women in Blues and Jazz music with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Most of my readers will know about Holiday but since this is the first in a short series I will give you this link to her bio from BillieHoliday.com.

From Wikipedia I gathered a few things everyone should know about her. She was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, and to say she overcame horrendous circumstances is and understatement. She was abandoned by her father (believed to be Clarence Halliday) and then passed around by her mother to live among relatives throughout her early life. By the time she was 12 she had been sexually assaulted and was running errands for money at a brothel or scrubbing floors. She re-joined her mother who had left for Harlem by 1929. She began singing in nightclubs as a young teen and her first recordings, with the help of John Hammond were in 1933 at age 18. From there she would work with the leading names in Jazz and Blues including Count Basie and Artie Shaw.

She would rise to the highest height of success and not unlike many in the business she had her issues with alcohol and drug abuse. No doubt a combination of past trauma and getting caught up in the fast life of an entertainer she would struggle with addiction the rest of her life. At a pivotal point in her career she came to the attention of the FBI. This would lead to her incarceration on a drug charge. The song that brought her great success but also got her labeled a subversive or worse was “Strange Fruit”. From her first live performance in 1939 the evocative song about lynching and racism in the South would always stun the audience and serve as an education to many. Her insistence on recording it and continuing to sing it despite the warnings was likely the reason she came to the attention of law enforcement in the first place. Anyone singing protest songs and in this case about racism or lynching, in the late 1930’s and 1940’s attracted unwanted attention from authorities. Particularity for an outspoken Black woman.

Strange Fruit” is a courageous recording by the legendary Billie Holiday from 1939. This song makes an appearance on my “25 of the Greatest Cover Songs #51-75” post. It is from a poem by another brave soul, Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol) as a protest against racism and lynchings in the American South. He put the poem to a tune and his wife and others sang it at protest rallies. The lyrics are dark and disturbing. Eventually the song made its way to Holiday who first added it to close her Nightclub act. It was only recorded after her efforts to find a label willing to do it. Her delivery is haunting and deeply emotional. Covered over 100 times. Here is  Nina Simone  with an equally amazing version from 1965.

You can find my post on Nina Simone from 2019 here.

Loretta Lynn

Upon the passing of this music icon there have been many well deserved tributes to her amazing life and career. As my area of expertise if I may be so bold to say lies in the arena of cover songs, I’d like to take a look at her songs through that lens. She was a rarity in her time for more than one reason but mostly because she wrote her own songs. Not many women in music get that chance. Oh I know you will be able to mention dozens of examples from Dolly Parton to Joni Mitchell but I am here to say they are rare individuals. Loretta defied the convention of Country Music that songwriters write and singers sing. For the most part, again Dolly aside the few that were ‘allowed’ the opportunity to sing their own songs were men. We can all name many of the male contemporaries of Loretta Lynn, all are legendary singer songwriters of County Music, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and so many more. For women the list is much shorter. Aside from Loretta and again Dolly Parton, if you look at many lists of Country Music writers most of the rest of the women are well out of the top 50. I have talked about Cindy Walker and although she is a capable singer and musician she is mostly known for the hundreds of songs she wrote/co-wrote, but she is well down the lists, as is Rosanne Cash.

So for this reason alone Loretta has accomplished something quite exceptional. She and another legend Conway Twitty combined to win a Grammy with a song written by L.E. White, “After the Fire is Gone” and it is a Country Classic. Let’s take a look at some of the covers of her more memorable self penned hits. She wrote over 100 songs and recorded most of them, to date 87 have been covered by other artists, this is including the few songs she originally recorded but did not write. She herself recorded 262 cover songs. Her most covered song at 76 versions is “You Ain’t Woman Enough” from 1966. Most famously sung by Sissy Spacek from the movie and Soundtrack Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). The list of names that covered this song is like a who’s who list of Country greats like Dottie West, Skeeter Davis, Lynn Anderson and Martina McBride. But this list is not exclusive to women, nor the Country genre. In 1967 Warner Mack reworked the song (as was common) to come from the male perspective “There Ain’t No Woman Enough (To Take Your Man)”, and both the Grateful Dead and Asleep at the Wheel covered it. Outside of Country there was Connie Stevens and Tina Turner. A one album wonder from Japan Yoshie Sakamoto did an amazing job on her album Someday from 2013.

Coal Miner’s Daughter” has been covered 22 times, Norma Jean has covered many of Loretta’s songs and does an exceptional job from her 1971 album Norma Jean. Perhaps my favorite Loretta song is “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” from 1966 and it has been covered 21 times. Her sister Peggy Sue co-wrote the song and recorded it in 1970. I am a Terri Clark fan so here is her cover from 2012, she is awesome btw. Another great song “Fist City” has been covered 16 times, here is one from The Little Willies with the great Norah Jones on lead vocals. So many amazing songs to talk about but I will leave you with “Honky Tonk Girl” which was the first song she released in 1960. Covered by Elvis Costello in 1982.

Rest in Peace Loretta.

References 1, 2, 3.

Isn't it Ironic

Isn’t it Ironic?

Sorry, I’m not talking about Alanis Morissette! But there are artists who have been eclipsed by their own songs. Many of them are amazing songwriters but, ironically, their chart-topping hits were written by someone else. As I pointed out in my series, I Write the Songs, many great songwriters are not well-known, yet their songs are easily recognized by most people. Today I will point out the contrasts in popularity for some singer/songwriters. When I say ironic, I mean that things turned out the opposite or in an unexpected way from what one might have expected.

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I Write the Songs Part 3

 

I Write the Songs (part 3)

Jerry Leiber (April 25, 1933 – August 22, 2011) and Mike Stoller (born March 13, 1933) This pair met in Los Angeles and by age 17 their songs were being recorded. With the success of “Hound Dog” by Big Mama Thornton in 1953, they, along with their mentor Lester Sill, formed Spark Records which was the first of many businesses. Though they were not initially fans of Elvis’s rendition of Hound Dog, they grew to have a great relationship with him and wrote some of his #1 hits such as Don’t” (1958) and “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) as well as several other top tens. They wrote “There Goes My Baby” and “On Broadway” for The Drifters, and “Stand By Me” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” for Ben E. King, which would go on to be a hit song for at least five other artists. Their favorite group were The Coasters who had four #1 R&B songs and a dozen other hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 and the R&B charts. They hit  #1 with “Yakety Yak” in 1958. Jerry Leiber also co-wrote two very memorable songs without Stoller: “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King, later a #1 R&B hit for Aretha Franklin, and “Jackson” by The Kingston Trio, later a #2 hit for June Carter and Johnny Cash. Read More »

I Write the Songs

I Write the Songs

Part 1

Carrie Jacobs-Bond

Well I don’t write the songs but I am about to feature some people who did. And yes I stole the (song) title from Captain & Tennille’s “I Write the Songs” written by Beach Boy Bruce Johnson and popularized by Barry Manilow. I have talked about many singer songwriters like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Taylor Swift who are famous for writing their own songs. We know Stevie Wonder writes most of his own songs and for other artists, then there are the Springsteens and Madonna’s of the world not to mention the iconic duo of Lennon and McCartney. But these artists are all known for their singing and/or instrumental talents. So today I am focusing on people who may have all these talents and more but are primarily known for songwriting.Read More »