Sunday, November 28, 2010

All Out of Sync

The clip of B.J. Thomas performing on The Ed Sullivan Show that I posted here the other day was obviously a lip-sync job. I don't think anyone watching that show over the age of ten was supposed to think B.J. was actually singing. I get the sense that such performances were prevalent during the heyday of the variety show, and of course the technique was revived in the glory days of MTV.

The alternative to lip-synced TV performances would seem to be a full live run-through of the song, a la The Midnight Special or Saturday Night Live if you're not Ashlee Simpson. But there's a choice between these two that seems to have fallen by the wayside, wherein a band sings live vocals to the original backing tracks. The Beatles may have invented this (although all that means is that the earliest example I can find is of the Beatles): For the famous televised performance of "All You Need Is Love," in 1967, the boys performed to a prerecorded backing rhythm track, with drums, piano and background vocals. (Unhappy with his vocals, John Lennon overdubbed the verses for the single release.) I'm sure there was probably a heyday for this sort of thing, maybe on Soul Train? I don't really know.

But it's the best choice, isn't it? Most groups just try to re-create their music onstage with as much fidelity as possible anyway, with the exception maybe of the guitar solo. The vocals are the only thing that generally benefits from being done in the moment.

Check out this video of Badfinger, doing the great "No Matter What" with live vocals over the recorded backing track. It really works well. Besides, it's always a good day for some Badfinger:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Keeping Up with the Joneses

The Monkees' Davy Jones is probably the most famous person in the world who goes by that name, but he's not the most famous person in the world who was born with the name David Jones. My guess is that honor would go either to David Bowie or to the onetime Los Angeles Rams defensive end and Multiblade pitchman Deacon Jones.

Monday, November 15, 2010

(Hey Won't You Play) Another B.J. Thomas Song

This Thursday, November 18, the country-pop singer B.J. Thomas will make an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Heaven only knows why. Not that there's anything wrong with B.J. Thomas, who has become a popular favorite around here, but it seems like kind of a funny choice to me.

Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, but his family moved to Houston when he was very young (which didn't prevent the 1982 New Rolling Stone Record Guide from calling him "Oklahoma-based"). He decided he wanted to be a musician after seeing Hank Williams in concert: "I remember him getting on his knees and playing that guitar," Thomas said later. "And I'll never forget the look on my daddy's face at that show. I guess that's the night I decided I was going to communicate with my daddy through the music he loved."

Thomas befriended another Texas singer named Roy Head, whose band the Traits served as a rival for Thomas' Triumphs. Roy Head hit nationally first, with "Treat Her Right," which went to Number Two in the fall of 1965. B.J. and the Triumphs also got a deal and recorded their own album, on the little Texas label Pacemaker, run by Huey P. Meaux, the Crazy Cajun. Most of the album was straight rock & roll, but B.J.'s father had told him, "Don't come back till you record something country," so the last song they lay down was Hank's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." It became the title track of the album and a regional hit, going to Number One on whatever charts Houston had at the time.

One of Thomas' high school friends, a dude named Steve Tyrell, had become the head A&R man for Scepter Records, which had signed Roy Head in 1964. (Tyrell was still in his teens at the time; Scepter was rather bootstrappy.) Scepter re-released "I'm So Lonesome" nationally and turned it into a smash. B.J.'s version was the biggest hit anyone ever had of that song, going to Number Eight in the spring of 1966 (although Terry Bradshaw [!] took it to Number 17 on the country charts in 1977).

With that hit under his belt, Thomas was asked to go out and perform on a Dick Clark package tour, not unlike the Motown tours that were going around at that time. Other acts on the tour included Len "1-2-3" Barry, Chad and Jeremy, and the inimitable Norma Tanega, riding semi-high on the semi-success of "Walkin' a Cat Named Dog." To hear Thomas tell the story now, the Triumphs were asked to go along on the tour, and be the backing band not only for B.J. but for the other solo singers as well. B.J. now claims that they didn't want to play for any other vocalists, but he also admits they were going to college and had day jobs and such, and didn't want to ride a bus around the country with the terminally twee Chad and Jeremy.

Anyway, B.J. Thomas was now a solo act. Thomas knocked around in the nether regions of the Top Forty for a couple of years. One of these was "The Eyes of a New York Woman," by another old Houston friend named Mark James, who was working as a staff songwriter for the Memphis producer Chips Moman. "New York Woman," featuring the electric sitar Moman had come to love so well, was the first single from Thomas' 1968 album On My Way, and it went to Number 28. But the big mover was the album's second single, another James song, "Hooked on a Feeling." The two songs had the same electric sitar (playing seemingly the same parts), and even similar lyrics ("Lips as sweet as honey" in "New York Woman" becomes "Lips as sweet as candy" in "Hooked"); the less energetic "New York Woman" seemed like a dry run for "Hooked on a Feeling." It went all the way to Number Five early in 1969.

Thomas' labelmate Dionne Warwick recommended Thomas to her house songwriters, Hal David and Burt Bacharach, for a song they were writing for the soundtrack of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ray Stevens had already turned down "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," as did, purportedly, Bob Dylan, but Thomas took it. He cut the song live, to the scene in the movie where Paul Newman and Robert Redford are riding bicycles around their ranch in the Old West, for use in the film, then re-recorded it for the single version. On January 3, 1970, the single went to Number One, where it stayed for four weeks; it also won an Academy Award for best song. Along the way, Thomas was asked to perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, in front of people dancing around with umbrellas and complete with a bunch of water dumped on his head partway through. Thomas later called it "the most singular dumbest thing that anybody ever had to do."

In the summer of 1970, Thomas was back in the Top Ten with "I Just Can't Help Believin'," written by the legendary Brill Building team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. His string of hits ended with another Mann/Weil song, "Rock and Roll Lullaby," which went to Number 15 in 1972. (Incidentally, on American Top Forty, Casey Kasem introduced this song as being by "Billy Joe Thomas," but I can't find any record of him being officially credited as anything but "B.J.") By that time, Thomas was addicted to speed and began missing live shows; one report had him burning through $13 million. He left Scepter and released two dud albums for Paramount. He also turned in a supporting role in the 1973 Robby Benson starrer Jory.

Thomas seemed to be at the end of his career, but he signed with ABC and recorded an album called Reunion - the reunion was with Chips Moman, who produced the record and co-wrote the first single, "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song." It was the biggest hit of Thomas' career, going to Number One on not just the pop charts but the country and adult contemporary charts as well. Shortly thereafter, though, Thomas found Jesus, probably to the consternation of his record label. Thomas became a huge star on the Christian charts, recording for the Myrrh label and winning a couple of Dove awards, but his only subsequent pop Top Forty hit was a cover of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," which he took to Number 17 in 1977.

(Thomas rewrote one of the verses, though: Instead of singing, "I guess I should've kept my mouth shut when I start to brag about my car," his version goes, "Each morning I awake and find the sunlight softly shining in her hair." What I see as the whole genius of the song, the way you're never sure whether the singer is trying not to worry about his car or his girl - and the singer is probably not sure either - has been lost.)

B.J. Thomas wasn't quite done, though. In 1985, he sang the theme song to the TV sitcom Growing Pains, "As Long as We've Got Each Other," re-recording it as a duet with Jennifer Warnes for season 2, then with Dusty Springfield (!) for season 4. The B.J. and Dusty version was released as a single, which went to Number Seven on the AC charts in 1988, although it didn't place on the pop charts.

Interestingly enough, Thomas today describes himself as "not a religious person." "God is a big sea, and all the rivers go to the sea," he says. "So there's lots of ways to find your faith and your spirituality." When I look back at the career of Billy Joe Thomas, what strikes me is that he put his distinctive and versatile baritone to work with the artistry of so many great songwriters: Hank Williams, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Brian Wilson. Mark James isn't well-remembered today, but in addition to "Hooked on a Feeling," he wrote "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis Presley and "Always on My Mind," perhaps the saddest song in the modern canon. That's a killer resume.

"I'm like the mailman," Thomas said. "I deliver what the guys write and hope it has a lasting effect when I get it there."

We'll see what he does on Letterman; it's gotta be better than this appearance in the same theater forty years ago:

Keith Richards, Jerk

I have not read Keith Richards' memoir, Life, as of yet, but I did read the New York Times Book Review by Liz Phair (apparently, the Times has decided that all the big male rock-star bios should be reviewed by girl singers, following Suzanne Vega on Paul McCartney and Nellie McKay's embarrassing "writty" on John Lennon). About 60 percent of the way through this really long review, Phair writes that "Keith acquires a taste for working unholy hours in the studio that damn near kill his colleagues. He goes round the clock and considers it mutiny if anyone toiling with him leaves the deck."

"I realized, I'm running on fuel and everybody else isn't," she quotes Richards as saying. "They're trying to keep up with me and I'm just burning." I'm sure that this is how Keith remembers things, and at some points in the Rolling Stones' career, it was probably even true.

On the other hand, there are many stories from the Exile on Main St. days of the other band members assembled in the basement of Keith's home in the South of France, wondering if Keith was ever going to come down and get to work. Sometimes he'd show up for a six p.m. session at two in the morning; sometimes he'd be too heroined out to come down the stairs at all. And they were in his freaking house. Imagine if Keith had had to go down the block to a studio; he never would have shown up at all.

But when Keith was ready to work, he'd work all night and all day, if that's what it took. Great. I'm sure the rest of the guys in the band would have traded that for not leaving them all sitting there picking their noses, waiting for their musical leader to decided he was ready to get something done.

I remember a story from more recent times, when the Stones were playing a show at some outdoor venue, and Keith just wasn't "feeling it." It started pouring rain outside, and the fans were drenched and ankle-deep in mud, but Keith just wasn't in the mood yet. Finally, at three in the morning, he took the stage with the rest of the Stones, who finished their set as the sun was coming up. I wonder if any of those fans then headed straight to work.

The fact is, Keith Richards may have a strong internal motor that allows him to work rings round his colleagues - as long as he's in the mood to do so. When he's not in such a mood, he's more than willing to be extremely lazy, and let down the people around him. As I said, I haven't read Keith's book, and I don't know if he addresses his willingness to to be extraordinarily selfish, even to his closest friends and business partners. Having read Phair's review, though, I kind of doubt it.

Look, I love Keith Richards' music, and I could listen to it all day long (and have done exactly that). I love reading about his adventures and his bon mots, and I find his persona somewhat endearing. But I'm sure glad I don't have to put up with him firsthand for any great length of time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Vagaries of Rock Criticism

In November 1970, writing in the New York Times, Greil Marcus declared, "Bob Dylan's New Morning is his best album in years." In August 1978, writing in Rolling Stone, that same Greil Marcus mentioned New Morning in passing as part of his panoply of "bad Dylan albums."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Don't fear the reaper!
Don't stop thinking about tomorrow!
Don't go back to Rockville!
Don't try to live your life in one day!
Don't sleep in the subway; don't stand in the pouring rain!
Don't mess with Bill!
Don't stand so close to me!
Don't let the sun catch you crying!
Don't say you don't remember!
Don't cross the river if you can't swim the tide!
Don't come around here no more!
Don't dream it's over!
Don't stop til you get enough!
Don't pay the ferryman until he gets you to the other side!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Art From Big Pink

Special thanks to my Aunt Colleen, the biggest Band fan in the entire Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, for passing along the news that Bob Dylan's original painting of the cover art for the Band's Music From Big Pink is now up for sale. The asking price is a cool $18 million. Dylan, canny businessman that he has always been, has hung onto the painting himself all these years, so if you want to pony up the money, you might even get a chance to meet the Bard of Hibbing himself. You'd at least get his autograph on the back of your check.

In the arena of holding on to your original artwork, Dylan far outpaces Julian Lennon, who let an original drawing called "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" slip through his fingers many years ago. The piece ended up in the hands of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, via a process that I'm dying to have explained to me. Julian would probably like to have it explained to him as well.