What’s In A Name: Thurston Harris, “Little Bitty Pretty One”

A couple of Sunday mornings ago I was walking the dog, listening to a stream of the 5/13/72 AT40 being rebroadcast by Premiere, on a station in Halifax (as one does—the upside being that one is not subjected to the Noxitril ads that are in the pre-packaged commercial load sent to U.S stations). Toward the end of hour two, Casey spun the Jackson 5’s cover of “Little Bitty Pretty One,” sitting at #17. On the intro, he noted it’d made the charts four times before, listing artist and peak position (more on that later). The most successful version was by Thurston Harris, which reached #6 in late 1957 on both the Best Sellers and Top 100 charts; this reminded me I’m overdue for another installment in the series where I highlight the biggest hit by folks with whom I share a surname (as I’ve mentioned before, there were only nine such solo acts through 2002, eight of whom hit the Top 40 but none more than once).

I’ve spent some time since then trying to learn what I can about Thurston Harris. There’s not a lot readily available, mostly a few short biographical sketches centered around his big hit and an obituary in the Los Angeles Times that appeared right after his passing in April 1990. The basic outline of Harris’s life: born in Indianapolis in the summer of 1931 (less than three weeks after my father’s birth), did time in the Army, worked his way to LA by the early 50s, joined and recorded with a vocal group called the Lamplighters, went solo, cut “LBPO” and tasted success briefly, spent a few years futilely chasing additional glory, died frustrated and bitter at age 58.

A few observations and elaborations might be worth making.

–Harris was a volatile man who lived hard, suffering addictions to drugs and alcohol (reportedly overcoming the first but not the second). He made very little money from his big hit, apparently having naively signed an unfavorable contract with Aladdin Records.

–I found mention of and brief quotes from interviews with Goldmine and People magazines. I would love to get my hands on one or both.

–“LBPO” was written by Robert Byrd, known to the world as Bobby Day. Harris recorded his version of the song (backed by his old Lamplighter friends who now called themselves the Sharps) very soon after Day had; both were quickly released as singles. Listening to them back-to-back, I understand why the public sent Harris’s take into the Top 10 while Day could only muster a #57 peak—I think Harris just took a more spontaneous approach to the vocals (and his background support is better, too).

(Aside: I gained quite an appreciation for Day in putting this together. His other primary writing credits are for “Over and Over,” later a #1 hit for the Dave Clark Five, and “Buzz-Buzz-Buzz,” a #11 hit by the Hollywood Flames, of which Day was a member. They’re both great songs—I first encountered “BBB” via its cover on Huey Lewis and the News’s album Picture This. Of course, Day may be best known for singing “Rockin’ Robin,” a song he didn’t write. As fate would have it, Michael Jackson had his version of “Robin” on the 5/13/72 countdown that inspired this post.)

–Harris soon followed up his hit with “Do What You Did,” a song he penned himself. Subject-wise it reminds me of Sam & Dave’s “I Thank You,” but it’s a MUCH more rousing number. It did reach #20 on the R&B chart and #57 on the Top 100. Other than a one-week appearance on the Hot 100 in August 1958 with “Over and Over,” he never reached a pop chart again.

–The Sharps later changed names one final time, to the Rivingtons. Under that moniker they experienced chart success with “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” (#48, 1962) and “The Bird’s the Word” (#52, 1963) and later songwriting royalties when the Trashmen combined the two into “Surfin’ Bird.”

–Despite “LBPO” being lyrically slight (two short verses placed in and amongst a lot of mmm-ing and ah-ing), it’s quite a catchy piece, an irresistible lure for others to cover over the years. You can imagine I’ve been checking many of them out. Frankie Lymon made it to #58 in August 1960 with his only charting solo single, adding a syncopated “WO-WO-WO-WO-WO” going into the between-verse ahs. Almost two years later, Clyde McPhatter reached #25 with an arrangement not unlike Lymon’s, with background horns joining in throughout. The Jackson 5’s take is effervescent and polished, with Jermaine, Jackie, and Michael taking turns at the lead—it was on its way to #13 in that spring of 1972.

Two non-pop-charting versions by well-known acts come from Cliff Richard and Huey Lewis and the News. Richard recorded the song in 1983 as part of a special disk marking his 25th year in the music biz; he retains the Lymon “WO” but changes some of the lyrics (for instance, “come sit down on my knee” is now “I never want you to leave,” as maybe was appropriate for a forty-something to do). Lewis and company did it for their Four Chords and Several Years Ago, a natural fit given their affinity for the songs of that era. They do it a cappella, with Huey tossing in the occasional “heh” as the only embellishment (and it did make the Adult Contemporary chart).

–But back to Thurston Harris. He recorded a few singles in the early 60s that went nowhere. My secondary sources (which clearly have access to primary sources I can’t find) discuss extended homelessness, bouts of institutionalization, work as a tour bus guide, and the above-mentioned alcoholism and drug abuse. While much of his unhappiness appears to be self-inflicted, I can’t help but wonder how things might have gone differently had Harris gotten a fair shake from his record company.

–The Times obit says Harris died of a heart attack in a “rest home,” while other sources say his death occurred at his sister’s house. The Times also mentions a scheduled performance at the Greek Theater that would have taken place in October 1990. It’s clear that despite all his issues, he harbored hopes through the years of mounting a comeback.

–The irony: a happy, snappy tune, sung across fifteen years by four Black men (Harris, Lymon, McPhatter, Michael Jackson) who all struggled mightily with this thing called life. I’m not finding any references to similar issues for Bobby Day; however, his life was cut short by prostate cancer, just months after Harris had died.

This Is My Story (tims.blackcat.nl/messages/thurston_harris.htm)
Way Back Attack (www.waybackattack.com/harristhurston.html)
Jon Kutner (www.jonkutner.com/little-bitty-pretty-one-thurston-harris/)
Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-04-15-mn-1907-story.html)
One Hit Wonders (onehitwondersthebook.com/?page_id=2893)

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/14/88: Times Two, “Strange But True”

Martha Lutz spent her first year after graduating from college in Hamburg on the German equivalent of a Fulbright Award, mostly studying the history of mathematics (she’d double-majored in math and German). She knew she wanted to do graduate work in math but arrived back in the States too late for the 1985-86 academic year; in August 1986, she enrolled in the master’s program on a teaching assistantship at the University of Louisville, across the river from her hometown of New Albany, IN. Martha received her degree in a ceremony held at Freedom Hall thirty-five years ago today, on May 14, 1988. In attendance were her parents, her sister, and her then-boyfriend (the picture above was taken just after she’d received her diploma). That summer she began a job at Midway College (now University), a two-year women’s college in the process of converting to a bachelor’s-granting institution, with the intention that eventually she’d return to school to get a doctorate.

During those twenty-one months, my future wife and I were charting the same course (unbeknownst to each other, of course).  I was three-and-a-half hours northwest of Louisville, at the University of Illinois, and my master’s ceremony, held in a hall of the fine arts center, was just eight days after hers. In attendance were my parents and my sister (I wasn’t dating anyone at the time). I would be staying to work on a Ph.D., but a number of folks in my initial cohort were departing Urbana-Champaign, some to teach at a community college, others to take a position that required quantitative chops, and a couple or so to pursue doctoral work elsewhere. I also have a photo from the day of the ceremony, taken as I’m about to enter the apartment near downtown Urbana I shared with friends John and Jim. Note the cheesy mustache and scraggly growth on my cheeks and chin; that was the last time I made any sort of attempt at facial hair, and I’m pretty sure I got rid of it within a few days.

What to do for this slightly odd tale of two math nerds doing the same thing at the same time in different places for a couple of years who then met two-thirds of a decade later and really got a thing for one another? I’m going with the only Top 40 hit for a duo out of California. Times Two released one album and one EP before splitting in the early 90s. “Strange But True” is sitting at #23 on this countdown, two slots shy of its peak. (They tried to follow it up with a Club Nouveau-ified cover of “Cecilia,” but the public voted against it.) Be warned: the video contains a severe case of late 80s fashion.

At some point—it was before I came on the scene—Martha let go of the idea of going back to school. Inertia may have played a role. That decision clearly paid off, for both of us, in one big way.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 5/1/71: The Fuzz, “I Love You for All Seasons”

I’ve said it before, and likely will say it again someday: one of the greatest things to come from listening to old AT40s over the past decade has been discovering Soul hits from the first half of the 1970s (when I was between six and ten years old) that failed to make the pop canon. This weekend, Premiere is playing the 5/1/71 show, and fully a quarter of its tunes went Top 10 on Billboard‘s R&B chart. A few are still well-known today; perhaps others deserved to be. Let’s investigate. (Note: any omissions are due to less-than-crack research on my part.)

33. Brenda & the Tabulations, “Right on the Tip of My Tongue” (peaked at #10 R&B)
An all-time great group name, notable enough to receive mention in Reunion’s fall 1974 stream-of-consciousness hit “Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me).” (Trivia question: in checking “Rock”‘s lyrics for mentions of other acts, I discovered that indeed there’s another group in this post who got name-checked in it–do you know which one?)

32. Honey Cone, “Want Ads” (#1)
I learned a lot when Casey started recapping the #1 songs of the 1970s in October 1978, but not enough. While I’m pretty sure I was passingly familiar with “Want Ads” by then, I didn’t know the name of the performers–my chart from 12/9/78 shows I thought they were called “The Honey Combs.”

29. King Floyd, “Baby Let Me Kiss You” (#5)
I did not know until writing this: 1) King was Floyd’s given name; 2) he and I share(d) a birthday. As was the case for Brenda & the Tabulations, we’re being treated to the second of two forays onto AT40.

25. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “I Don’t Blame You at All” (#7)
The 27th and final Top 40 hit by the Miracles while Smokey was with them.

23. The Fuzz, “I Love You for All Seasons” (#10)
Like Honey Cone, the Fuzz was a female vocal trio. I should have known this song well during the 70s. One deeply abiding mystery from that period is why I rarely flipped over K-Tel’s 20 Power Hits Volume 2 after side one (which I listened to frequently) finished. Had I done so, I’d be singing along this weekend instead of trying recover from a lost opportunity.

13. Stevie Wonder, “We Can Work It Out” (#3)
One great cover of a former #1 song…

12. Aretha Franklin, “Bridge over Troubled Water/Brand New Me” (#1)
…deserves another.

9. The Temptations, “Just My Imagination” (#1)
Another final turn for a legendary vocalist before striking out on his own: Eddie Kendricks bowed out from the Temps after recording this classic.

4. Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (#1)
I’ve never tried to rank my favorite 70s songs that peaked at #2; my initial reaction is that it’d be hard to pick anything over “What’s Going On.”

3. The Jackson 5, “Never Can Say Goodbye” (#1)
“Mama’s Pearl” had also broken their streak of #1 R&B hits; “Never Can Say Goodbye” temporarily righted that ship, though it’d be another three years before they had another #1 R&B (“Dancing Machine”).

Doing penance for past sins by embedding “I Love You for All Seasons.” It took a 12-position leap in this show, perhaps suggesting it might also go Top 10 Pop. The early 70s Hot 100 was a capricious place, though, one in which a song’s momentum could quickly prove ephemeral. From here, it’d go 22-22-21-28-33-off the chart. The Fuzz disbanded the following year.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 4/30/83: OXO, “Whirly Girl”

I spent a chunk of Saturday morning listening to the Premiere rebroadcast of the 4/30/83 AT40. What did I learn? In no special order:

–Both songs requested as Long Distance Dedications have a Jefferson Airplane/Starship connection: in hour two we hear “Be My Lady” from the Starship proper, while the final hour gives us original Airplaner Marty Balin’s “Hearts.”

–Casey plays a snippet of Falco’s original version of “Der Kommissar” leading into After the Fire’s remake, sitting at its peak of #5. Three years hence in late April 1986, Falco would be in the top 10 himself, coming off a trio of weeks at the top with “Rock Me Amadeus.”

–We hear about the time the Doobie Brothers came under severe scrutiny for the multiple unlabeled bags of vitamins discovered on their private jet right before Patrick Simmons sings “So Wrong” (#32).

–I didn’t know that Boy George had spent a bit of time in Bow Wow Wow prior to forming Culture Club. That tidbit allows Casey to talk about provocateur extraordinaire Malcolm McLaren prior to spinning “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (#18).

–Toto wanted “Waiting for Your Love” to be the fourth single from Toto IV; Columbia ignored them and went with “I Won’t Hold You Back” (#11) instead. Score one for the suits–when “Waiting for Your Love” (which reminds me a bit of their 1988 hit “Pamela”) was released subsequently in the summer, it only climbed to #73.

–Bob Seger’s “Even Now” (#13) is the only song in the same position as the previous week (thanks for tipping us off about a brand new #1, Case). This was quite the novelty, given how constipated the charts had been for more than a year. A quick check of AT40 lists for the previous sixteen weeks (going back to the beginning of the year) yields an average of just over ten songs staying put each week (if I’m counting right, the low was five, on 3/19, and the high was twenty, on 4/2). I’m not saying this sudden shift was related to a new chart director coming on board with the 4/30 issue of Billboard, but I’m not saying it wasn’t related, either.

–My favorite story came just before OXO’s “Whirly Girl” (#36, down from a #28 peak), spilling the beans as to why OXO leader Ish Ledezma broke up his old band Foxy. The claim is that Ish became disturbed hearing kids on a playground singing the “off color” title phrase of Foxy’s late 1978 hit “Get Off,” and he decided he no longer wanted to take part in being such a bad influence. I’d give this a little more credence if “Whirly Girl” didn’t include the line, “She’s sitting in the latest styles with open legs and mysterious smiles.”

I’m Gonna Bite Down and Swallow Hard

If you’ve been around these parts for a while, you’ll recall that I loved making mix tapes for about a decade, roughly 1985-95. Many I kept for myself, but pretty early on I began regularly showering them upon James. We called them “stuff tapes,” since I’d simply written “Stuff” on the label of the inaugural edition. At first he’d receive a couple a year; by the 90s the practice had evolved into an annual year-end summary of faves from the previous calendar year. For years afterward, “Will songs” would crop up as a topic of conversation in emails or Facebook messages every so often. I hadn’t been smart enough to write down playlists before I mailed them off, so occasionally I’d suggest getting together at his place to listen to them one more time, to jog my memory about what I’d elected to share.

James was game, but of course, we never found a time to make it happen.

Judy spent quite a bit of time last summer helping go through things at James’s house. I joined her once, in early August; my charge was to browse the stacks and stacks of vinyl in the basement. I’d already mentioned the tapes to Judy and she had some to show me when I arrived. Others popped up over the course of the afternoon, mostly on his workbench. (It’s oddly comforting to know there was a time when he’d throw one of them in a player while puttering around down there.) It felt a little weird to take them home with me, but as Judy pointed out, they mean more to me at this point than anyone else.

We didn’t find them all–Stuff and Son of Stuff were missing, as was the tape with highlights of 1993. I’m sure there are others. That’s quite okay. Maybe my grief is assuaged a little by knowing again what was filling the air from time to time at his office, in his home, while driving his car.

For reasons that will become clear, the 1994 tape has been rattling around my head for much of the time since. You can see the whole playlist below, but I’ll highlight a few songs from each side.

US3, “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”
Kicking things off with a Top 10 rap-jazz hit from the beginning of the year. Sampling never sounded so good.

Eve’s Plum, “I Want It All”
The lead singer’s name is Colleen Fitzpatrick, not Jan Brady. I couldn’t tell you now how “I Want It All” came to my attention, as I don’t think it was a big alternative radio hit. I do love the ferocity of the guitar and grit of the vocals.

Tori Amos, “Past the Mission”
The official title of the tape was “1994: A Pretty Good Year,” a nod to the opening track of Under the Pink. While it’s not as even or as thoroughly good as Little Earthquakes, highlights from Pink such as “Past the Mission” are welcome any time.

I saw Tori Amos in concert for the first time last May, in Cincinnati. Greg flew in from VA just for the show, arriving early enough for me to take him on a tour of my old haunts, including my high school and the house where I’d lived in Walton. The show was very good, but since it took place on the day of the Uvalde school shooting, a pall of sorts formed and lingered, particularly in the days following as more and more ugly details emerged (Amos acknowledged the tragedy early on and in my view semi-dedicated one of the songs to affected folks).

Magnapop, “Texas”
Obscure band out of Atlanta that seems to be still chugging along in some form today. The embed below, from the album Hot Boxing, is a different version from that on the CD-single I had picked up on spec somewhere along the way. I prefer that one, but alas, it’s not available on YouTube. Still a rockin’ tune in this form.

Smashing Pumpkins, “Disarm”
I’m not too big of a Pumpkins fan, but “Disarm” is off-the-charts excellent, and I’ll crank it every time.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore, “Where You Going”
Gilmore is a country artist popular in some circles, plenty unknown in many others. Maybe his best-known composition is “Dallas”–Natalie Merchant sang a duet version with David Byrne in 10,000 Maniacs’ MTV Unplugged concert.

There are many fine songs on Spinning Around the Sun. “Where You Going” is track #1 and one of its best.

Lush, “Hypocrite”
One of Lush’s very finest. Should’ve been a worldwide smash.

Frente!, “Accidently Kelly Street”
Yes, that’s really how the first word of the title is spelled. THE highlight on Marvin the Album, even above their re-invention of “Bizarre Love Triangle.” It went Top 5 in the band’s native Australia, and while the video is a bit goofy, the tune absolutely pegs the charm-o-meter.

Iris DeMent, “No Time to Cry”
After listening to DeMent’s My Life disk a few times, I’d decided that two of its songs stood out above the others. The title track had gone on a tape I’d made for myself back in the spring. When it came time to dub songs for James, I elected as I often did not to repeat myself–he received “No Time to Cry,” a meditative piece about shouldering the responsibilities of adulthood and grappling with the cruelties of an often capricious world. I slotted it in the penultimate position on the tape.

You can’t predict when, or how, an innocuous decision such as that might echo through the years.

James’s wife Amy had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in the summer of 2018 and had succumbed the following January, a senseless loss. I offered occasional advice on dealing with paperwork and probate in the ensuing months given my relatively recent experiences following my parents’ deaths. Most of our communication was over Facebook Messenger. By early December, I believe things had mostly been sorted out, and I received a question of a different nature.

(His response is a college-era inside joke, a reference to our friend Warren’s experiences on the high school academic team.)

I didn’t want to make any assumptions about or probe his state of mind, but I did wonder and worry about life weighing too heavily on him, that the phrase under inquiry reflected too closely how he was feeling. I should have gently investigated.

I thought back to that exchange after learning of James’s death, one year ago today. Once I realized I had to dedicate one of my radio shows to my friend, I knew that “No Time to Cry” would be on the playlist.

And so it was, a little more than ninety minutes in. I scripted everything carefully, but ten minutes before I’d be reciting what I wrote about Amy’s death and the Messenger exchange, I knew I would be breaking down when it came time to read it. The irony of crying over an introduction to a song called “No Time to Cry” wasn’t lost on me. But you know, I really did have all the time I needed for tears.

No song has weighed on my mind more over the last year.

What could follow that to close things out?

Nirvana, “All Apologies”
The choice at the time, in light of Cobain’s suicide in early April, was obvious. These two songs form a devastating ending combination, one that suits my mood all too well right now.

I and so many others miss you, James.

Modern Rock Tracks, 4/3/93

The second weekend of March 1993 was notable on a couple of levels. Up and down the east coast, it’s remembered for the late winter Storm of the Century/”bomb cyclone,” a massive low pressure system that formed over Florida and spent a couple of days wreaking havoc as it headed north. Lexington was relatively spared, though travel east and south were well nigh impossible due to snow and high winds.

More locally, I had a blind date that Friday evening, arranged by a friend from college. We met at a record store in the mall, drove to a nearby restaurant for dinner, and wound up renting a movie and watching it back at my apartment (Sister Act, I believe). On Saturday, I was able to drive north on I-75 amid the flying flakes to attend the afternoon wedding of a(nother) college friend.

The date went well enough; she and I wound up seeing each other with varying frequency for a little more than a year. She was certainly nice, but in retrospect it should have been–and maybe was–clear pretty early on (to both of us) there was insufficient long-term compatibility. For whatever reason, it took more time than it should have (at least for me) to fully acknowledge that. I think we more or less made a successful transition to “just friends” before completely losing touch.

Anyway, on to the MRT chart from earlier this month:

29. Dada, “Dim”
I like this driving track much better than “Dizz Knee Land.” Gotta love a line like “Can’t this car go ’cause I can still see where I am.”

28. Ween, “Push Th’ Little Daisies”
I’m on record as being a fan of Pure Guava‘s “The Stallion Pt . 3.” A little of these guys does go plenty far in my world, though.

27. The Candyskins, “Wembley”
Another British troupe that came and went so quickly I didn’t quite notice. Fun little number, I will say.

22. The Tragically Hip, “Courage”
You know, it’s a blot of my record that I know essentially nothing about the Hip. That’ll be changing soon.

18. World Party, “Is It Like Today?”
Right or wrong, I didn’t get into Bang! the way I had the excellent Goodbye Jumbo. I probably like “Give It All Away,” which won’t be discussed in a future installment, better than “Is It Like Today?”

17. David Bowie, “Jump They Say”
Black Tie White Noise was Bowie’s first solo release in six years, a reunion collaboration with Nile Rodgers. At the least it wasn’t nearly the commercial success they’d enjoyed a decade earlier with Let’s Dance.

14. Hothouse Flowers, “Thing of Beauty”
If I heard this thirty years ago I don’t remember, and that’s a shame. “Thing of Beauty” describes the song itself, an uplifting, joyous romp. Hothouse Flowers didn’t come close to getting the Stateside attention they should have.

12. Tasmin Archer, “Sleeping Satellite”
I bought only three of the albums represented in this post–those from World Party, Belly, and Tasmin Archer. That feels a little low for this series?

I think my friends Greg and Katie were the ones to put me on to “Sleeping Satellite.” Really nice tune, and it even went Top 40, reaching #32 in early June.

10. Lenny Kravitz, “Are You Gonna Go My Way”
One of the more memorable opening riffs from this period, and maybe the song among those mentioned here (it’s either this or #4 below) that’s best remembered today?

6. Living Colour, “Leave It Alone”
Vernon Reid and compatriots were back for a third time with Stain, which would turn out to be their last album for a decade. “Leave It Alone” is a more-than-worthy entry in their canon.

4. Sting, “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You”
Don’t know why but it felt to me like it’d been only about a year since The Soul Cages, instead of two. Here’s another sign that my sense of what makes a Top 10 hit was out of kilter, as I would have pegged this as reaching higher than #17 on the Hot 100.

2. Belly, “Feed the Tree”
Easily my favorite song in this post. Tanya Donelly showed, at least for a few shining moments, why she deserved attention outside of her work with Throwing Muses.

1. Depeche Mode, “I Feel You”
Speaking as someone who only knows DM singles (so take what I say with an appropriate amount of salt), “I Feel You” didn’t impress nearly as much as the stuff on Violator. My sense is that Songs of Faith and Devotion was their first post-peak release; you’re welcome to tell me how wrong I am.

Stereo Review In Review: March 1989

In the summer of 1987 I converted to Rolling Stone for album reviews—I was living out of state, Dad probably stopped his Stereo Review subscription around then as a result, etc. Soon after he and I had become roommates, John suggested we go in on a subscription to RS, which I probably kept for most of the rest of the time I was in Illinois. It’s interesting (to me, anyway) to look at a Stereo Review issue from the period when I was all about RS and note that SR was highlighting some of the same records (both Best of the Month selections and two others given featured treatment below have long been in my collection).

The New Jazz by Chris Albertson
Albertson takes us on a whirlwind history of the twists and turns jazz had undergone over the previous thirty years, from free jazz through fusion to new age (failing to write approvingly of much of it). He sees hope, though in a new wave (so to speak) of practitioners, including Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison.

This month’s reviewers are Chris Albertson, Phyl Garland, Ron Givens, Roy Hemming, Alanna Nash, Parke Puterbaugh, and Steve Simels. Mark Peel, a stalwart for much of the decade, had departed the scene; Puterbaugh had come over recently from, wouldn’t you know, Rolling Stone.

Best of the Month
–Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked (AN) “…a writer and performer of sizzling personality and power…(t)he instrumental framework shimmers with ingenuity and intrigue, mirroring the lyrics, and Shocked’s somewhat subversive view of life, in superb little unexpected turns and trills…” It’s indeed a fabulous and fascinating record—I’m just sorry there aren’t any clips available on YouTube to share.
–Lucinda Williams, S/T (SS) “She has the kind of voice that suggests the rise and fall of empires as witnessed through the bottom of a shot glass. It’s an instrument worthy of the Bonnie Raitt comparisons it most often draws, but there’s an edge to Williams’s singing, a raw, wounded, and utterly soulful quality, that also suggests a male honky-tonker like Gram Parsons.”

Featured Reviews
–Anita Baker, Giving You the Best That I Got (PG) “Anita Baker’s much anticipated new album…has everything—superbly lustrous and passionate singing, polished arrangements that include occasional flashes of fine jazz piano, and a high-quality production—everything, that is, except songs that immediately knock you off your feet.”
–Gary Burton, Times Like These (RG) “Gary Burton is a smart man, and he’s made a smart record, but he can burn a little, too, when he wants to.”
–Fairground Attraction, The First of a Million Kisses (RG) “An utterly contemporary throwback, the quartet plays a glorious fusion of swing jazz and heartthrob pop. Their new album sounds as fresh today as it would have thirty years ago.” I adore this record and it’s now become next in the queue for the Forgotten Albums series.
–They Might Be Giants, Lincoln (SS) “…repeated listening…reveals a clever, quirky, often brilliantly arranged and produced piece of postmodern art (yes, art) that just might be the Pet Sounds of the Eighties.”

Other Disks Reviewed
–Steve Earle, Copperhead Road (AN) “But as ambitious as this project is, the album comes off more like a country singer’s Led Zeppelin fantasy than a legitimate rock effort.”
–Sheena Easton, The Lover in Me (RG) “The treatment may have achieved the desired result, dance hits, but (this album) has all the individuality and flavor of processed cheese.”
–Nanci Griffith, One Fair Summer Evening (AN) “While Griffith here presents much of her best-loved material, she diminishes its beauty and impact by rushing through most of the performances in a manner surprisingly devoid of feeling.”
–The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Radio One (SS) “These are performances (they) did for British radio in 1967, fairly early in the band’s career, when they were still young and hungry and relatively unscathed by drug abuse…(w)onderful stuff, and not just for Hendrix completists, either.”
–Etta James, Seven Year Itch (PG) “(This album) offers anyone too young to have been around…when Etta James was one of the ruling queens of rhythm-and-blues, a new opportunity to savor the gritty reality, strutting spirit, and downright infectiousness of her music.”
–James P. Johnson, Carolina Shout (CA) “…Johnson was the first black artist to cut piano rolls of his own compositions. Starting in 1916, before the first jazz phonograph recording was made (he) cut one or two rolls a month…some of which have been assembled by the Biograph label for (this disc)…”
–Cleo Laine, Cleo Sings Sondheim (RH) “And if there’s anything that will destroy a Sondheim song, it’s not sticking to his lyrics and his music as written. But this time Laine sings all sixteen songs as straight as she’s ever sung anything, but with passion, bite, compelling dramatic insights, and (where appropriate) a wonderful sense of fun.”
–Pet Shop Boys, Introspective (PP) “(They) make danceable pop that is not without charm, but between the lines their real gift is for intimating the void in the life of the modern urban ‘party animal.’”
–Pink Floyd, Delicate Sound of Thunder (PP) “Why would anyone who has the superior studio versions need this?”
–Pretty Poison, Catch Me I’m Falling (RG) “Dancers may like what they hear, but more stationary folks needn’t bother.”
–Lee Ritenour, Festival (PG) “He hasn’t done a Brazilian album in ten years, so perhaps that’s why he sounds so fresh here…(t)his is a musical travelogue bound to lift late-winter spirits.”
–Luther Vandross, Any Love (PG) “The songs seem catchier and more imaginatively shaped than earlier efforts…(s)weet, soulful singing doesn’t get any better than this.”

Modern Rock Tracks, 2/6/93

I’ve let things get away from me in this series, so I better quickly play catchup so that I can tackle the next installment sometime in April.

I’d opened 1993 up by traveling to San Antonio for the big, annual national mathematics conference. I attended two workshops, hung out with friends from Illinois who were on the job market, and did a tiny bit of sightseeing (including the Riverwalk and yes, the Alamo). By early February I was engrossed in teaching lots of statistics and getting my first shot at first-semester calculus (I’m amused to realize as I write this that three-quarters of my teaching load this semester is the same as thirty years ago).

As for the music on the MRT chart around that time? Let’s dive in…

29. Black 47, “Funky Céili (Bridie’s Song)”
I don’t think I knew until assembling this post that Black 47 was an American band (though vocalist Larry Kirwan is Irish-born)?

The EP I have with “Funky Céili” on it also contains the epic “Maria’s Wedding,” in which our narrator/hero drunkenly ruins his ex-lover’s nuptials in the hopes of getting back together with her. Yeah, that’s a workable plan…

26. King Missile, “Detachable Penis”
One I regularly heard on WRFL (Lexington’s eclectic college radio station) on my commute to and from work that first year at Georgetown. In this spoken-word piece, our narrator/hero owns the title object, loses it while partying at a friend’s house, and subsequently suffers the indignity of having to buy it back from a street vendor.

24. Suzanne Vega, “99.9° F”
One of two songs I could have written up in the previous installment but passed on because I knew I’d have another chance to highlight them in February (the other is #6). Another thing they share is I like other songs on the respective albums much better–in Suzy V’s case, I’m more of a fan of “In Liverpool,” “As Girls Go,” and “When Heroes Go Down.”

21. Daniel Ash, “Get Out of Control”
Love and Rockets turned out to be only on hiatus; Foolish Thing Desire would be Ash’s last solo venture for a decade. “Get Out of Control” is pretty tasty, though I’m seeing what feels like a sly and subtle homage to “Addicted to Love” in the video, with women playacting as musicians.

16. Michael Penn, “Long Way Down”
Free-for-All didn’t grab me at first listen the way March had, and I never wound up giving it much of a chance. I’ll admit that “Long Way Down” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the earlier album.

15. The Sundays, “Goodbye”
My favorite song in this post. Grateful for the three albums the Sundays put out; wouldn’t have minded at all had there been a few more.

13. Starclub, “Hard to Get”
I do this exercise as much to uncover gems I missed back in the day as to revisit old friends (with the proliferation of alternative radio stations as the 90s progressed, slipping past my radar may be harder going forward, though). Here’s a UK band that lasted only for one release. “Hard to Get” has some pleasing hooks and jangle; I think I would have liked it.

10. Soul Asylum, “Black Gold”
The Twin Cities represent with this second notable track from Grave Dancers Union. The third would break things wide open for a while for Dave Pirner and company.

9. Stereo MCs, “Connected”
This one just screams big hit to me, so I’m surprised to see it only reached #20 on the Hot 100 (and #18 in the band’s native Britain). My days as a tastemaker, if there ever were any, apparently were already past.

6. 10000 Maniacs, “Candy Everybody Wants”
Connecting back to what I said at #24, give me “Noah’s Dove,” “Eden,” and “Jezebel” any day over “Candy Everybody Wants.”

3. R.E.M., “Man on the Moon”
What would they have titled Andy Kaufman’s biopic if R.E.M. hadn’t written and recorded this song?

2. Duran Duran, “Ordinary World”
I was caught completely off-guard by this comeback single, hitting the U.S. almost exactly a decade after “Hungry Like the Wolf” had (and also peaking at #3 Pop).

1. Jesus Jones, “The Devil You Know”
There aren’t going to be many #1 songs on this chart in the coming years that are brand new to me, but somehow Perverse, the followup LP to breakthrough Doubt, eluded my attention. Truth be told, based on initial impressions here, that’s okay.

I Can Never Quit

This is the final installment of a three-parter. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Three days after the Billy Joel concert, two days after the record store trip that scored Marshall Crenshaw and War, I turned 20 years old. There’s only one thing about the day that now remains with me.

It was a Monday, so I would have traipsed off to differential equations and computer architecture class at the appropriate moments. I wouldn’t be shocked if you told me that my parents drove in to take me to dinner that evening, as it’s exactly the sort of thing they would do. They were well aware that I’d been very low about the breakup for over a month and no doubt would have wanted to check on my state in person, especially since I hadn’t gone home for the weekend. I don’t remember any of the presents they gave me that year.

It’s the gift from James, likely received before we went to breakfast, that turned out to be the day’s highlight. I guess the Joel ticket I’d given him for Christmas had raised the bar for such occasions, but even so I think I was surprised or flattered (or both) to be handed a twelve-inch square package, obviously an LP. A black, textured cover, with bright green block lettering in the upper left corner. Fear of Music, by Talking Heads.

This was probably not a lucky stab in the dark on his part. Music was of course a frequent topic in our conversations, and it’s reasonable to believe I had expressed interest in learning more about the Heads. After all, “Burning Down the House” had been a Top 10 hit the previous year; this could have led me to relate how much I liked “Take Me to the River” and to recall an extremely favorable writeup of Fear of Music in Stereo Review.

It didn’t take long to throw it on the turntable. I loved it, and maybe just as importantly, James loved it too. While our individual musical explorations wouldn’t always move in the same direction, Talking Heads effectively became our band, the one group we seemed to enjoy equally. Within months I bought More Songs about Buildings and Food and Remain in Light, while James scored ’77. We saw Stop Making Sense multiple times when it was the Friday midnight showing at the Kentucky Theater those last couple of years of college.

So, how do I feel about the eleven songs on Fear of Music today?

11. “Animals”
I don’t get into the groove from the first half of the song. Things pick up when Byrne starts chanting about the titular creatures setting a bad example and living on nuts and berries.

10. “Drugs”
The most atmospheric piece on the album, which almost makes it feel out of place.

9. “Heaven”
The “we’re going to slow things down for you couples out there” piece on the album, which almost makes it feel out of place. A bit odd that “Heaven” is the second-best known song on the album but was not released as a single.

8. “Electric Guitar”
James and I came to interject snippets of Byrne’s lyrics into our daily interactions, such as “Warning sign…warning sign” and “Don’t get upset—it’s not a major disaster.” I’m disappointed now that “This is a CRIME…against the STATE” never rose to that level.

Hmm…side two just isn’t measuring up to side one.

7. “I Zimbra”
That moment just as the needle dropped on side one was always exciting, assuming the leadoff track wasn’t already a hit single. This time I got a real winner, with strong hints of what was to come on the band’s next album, Remain in Light.

6. “Air”
My grad school friend Greg doesn’t suffer fools all that well, particularly other drivers. I’ve heard him quip, “Some people never had experience with air,” complete with falsetto on the last word, when someone in his vicinity does something he considers (to put it nicely) lacking in good judgment.

5. “Paper”
I used how often the songs on FoM run through my head as a first-order approximation for these rankings. “Paper” may be the shortest song on the album but it has one of its best guitar riffs, and it definitely rocks the hardest.

4. “Mind”
I knew from “Take Me to the River” that Byrne was an unconventional vocalist, though from how early on and to what degree I couldn’t know fully until hearing those first two albums later in 1984. Still, I think he took it up another notch on FoM, first evident with the various ways he attacks the title word in “Mind.”

My friend Kevin, WTLX’s station manager, hosted a weekly interview show called Transy Talks each Monday evening during our sophomore year. That spring I was asked to run the control board when Kevin interviewed Dr. Humphries, the Academic Dean. I brought Fear of Music down to the studio with me and queued up side one as Kevin was getting the mic set up in the adjacent room (there was a window over the board allowing you to see into it). There’s no telling what Dr. Humphries, who knew me as well as he did any decently performing student, thought when “Mind” played.

(Aside: It’s occurred to me that I considered the Dean to be plenty old when I was a student, so I’ve looked for mention of him online. Turns out he was 59—my current age—the day of that interview.)

3. “Cities”
Fantastic groove they elected to fade in, punctuated by Weymouth’s ascending bass line. Byrne’s feral growling of “find myself a city to live in” at the end sure is something to behold.

2. “Life During Wartime”
It’s just two four-bar riffs interspersed and played over and over, but what a hypnotizing sound. I’ll take this as an excuse to mention again the parody I wrote based on this song about the four-week period at the end of the year we called May Term.

1. “Memories Can’t Wait”
The most sublime moment on the album—if you’re familiar with the song, you know what I’m going to say—comes two-thirds of the way through “Memories Can’t Wait,” that resolution and modulation right before the line, “Everything is very quiet.” Prior to that the sound is constantly driving and swirling (I have no idea how some of it was created), while afterward…well, it’s not very quiet, but it is more conventionally structured, building back up to the satisfying conclusion. This is a strong contender for my favorite Talking Heads song; if I’d had half a brain five-plus years ago, I would have made “These memories can’t wait” this blog’s tag line (but better late than never, I suppose).

FYI: Side two of the very slab of vinyl James gave me (its cover is pictured at the top) is playing on the turntable in my basement as this is being published.

Keeping American Top 40 charts between the ages of 12 and 18 was formative, but I’d point to getting these three albums over a little more than 36 hours in February 1984 as my origin story, when I started becoming that dude who wants to share his musical tastes and the associated stories with the world. There’s the fellow who critics loved but could never break through, the up-and-coming band who’d soon conquer the world, and the group that had already enjoyed their commercial and artistic peak but became so important to two guys on the fourth floor of Clay Hall. I guess the only thing that’s missing from the tale is a female singer-songwriter; alas, Suzanne Vega’s debut album was still a year-and-a-half away.

James was very kind to think of me on my birthday with this present, especially given what a turkey I’d been over the previous month. I couldn’t have been—and still wouldn’t be for another few weeks—enjoyable to live with. When the time came to discuss roomie situations for the next school year, he initially hesitated to commit to continue with me. I gave him time and space to think and decide. In the meantime, another friend checked in on the possibility of rooming with him. My preference was for the status quo—maybe I was wanting to hold on to some degree of continuity in my life. One night some time later, James was ready to talk about it again. He said some very nice things about me, that I was cool to room with, that he’d like to remain roommates. We never considered an alternate arrangement after that. I’m still appreciative of the grace he showed me, deserved or otherwise.

Postscript: My ex-girlfriend and I had another class together in the fall of our junior year, but managed to live essentially parallel lives on our small campus over the last 1.5 years, only rarely interacting. We were in the same place a very few times over the next three decades, a wedding here, a reunion there. At our 30th year reunion in 2016, she and I were part of a group that spent much of the day together; since then, we’ve reestablished a friendship, emailing and/or texting one another periodically. A nontrivial percentage of our correspondence in recent years had to do with James and his declining health. Even though I’d already heard, I really appreciate that she called me that Thursday afternoon last April to make sure I knew he had passed.

I Will Begin Again

This is the middle entry of a three-part series. You can find Part 1 here.

I didn’t go by myself to Cut Corner Records that early evening Saturday in February 1984.

I was hanging out by myself in the dorm room when a freshman swung by. I’ll call him M, which isn’t related to his name. We didn’t know each other that well but had certainly hung out from time to time in the cafeteria the previous fall. A genuinely funny guy, M was a denizen of the Fine Arts building, his academic interests quite different from mine. He took me up on the offer to tag along on my quest for vinyl. Heaven only knows now what we talked about, but the conversation was in part subtext; to an extent each of us was sizing up the other.

Some number of days after this foray, M and my former girlfriend began dating.

From a distance, I’d been getting vibes that something of the sort was possibly developing. I’d never thought of it this way until recently, but it occurs to me now that M sought me out the night after the Billy Joel concert to confirm that she and I weren’t exploring a restart. Assured by whatever I said and/or however I said it, he soon moved forward in gauging her interest. Who knows at this point if that’s what was going on, though? I’m not going to try to find out.

This plot twist probably didn’t help my frame of mind, but, since there wasn’t anything to do except deal with life as it was, I continued climbing out of my hole. By this point my reputation as the Eeyore of Transy was hardening among those in my social network (not unjustifiably, I realize). One way I tried to move beyond that was by getting a t-shirt made at a shop in a local mall. The front was a transfer, a drawing of colorful hot air balloons; the back screamed, “I’M HAPPY!” I think I wore it on three occasions over the rest of the semester, which may have been two times too many.

Regardless, during March I became much more often than not a close approximation of okay to be around. M and my ex continued as a couple through the rest of the school year but not much longer than that, IIRC.

The other LP I’d purchased on 2/11/84 was U2’s War. In the comments below I’ll address how it had landed on my radar, but just like Marshall Crenshaw, it was an A+ selection—it remains, easily, my favorite album from Bono and the boys. There’s no reason to delay any further discussing how I feel about its songs.

10. “The Refugee”
The one that I might not miss if it weren’t here. Maybe just a little too screamy for my tastes?

9. “Drowning Man”
And the tough choices begin in earnest.

It’s clearly a Christian piece, with God or Jesus reaching out to a lost soul in trouble, trying to reassure, I suppose even save. It’s moving, and the haunting electric violin line only amplifies its power.

8. “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
Putting this iconic song so low speaks (I hope) to the quality of the competition. One of my first exposures to U2 came from MTV, Bono skipping around the stage at Red Rocks, marching forth with a white flag to plant at the front of the stage.

7. “ ’40’ ”
A suitable closing track, inspired by Psalm 40, of course. (As it happens, today is the 40th anniversary of War’s release, a happy accident.) I will say that the version on Under a Blood Red Sky, with its audience participation at the end, is better.

6. “Red Light”
There aren’t many contributions on those early U2 albums from outside the band. Roping in the Coconuts (of Kid Creole and… fame, who happened to be touring in Ireland during War’s recording) for three songs, including “Red Light,” worked out exquisitely. Equally inspired here was the addition of a searing trumpet solo.

5. “Two Hearts Beat as One”
The second single released here in the States, it Bubbled Under for four weeks in July 1983, reaching #101. The frenzied, repeated “I can’t stop the dance/Maybe this is my last chance” at the end is yet another true highlight on the album.

4. “Seconds”
I don’t know why it’s only now that I’m realizing that the Edge is doing lead vocals here—it never did quite sound the same as other songs on the album. Nuclear anxiety was certainly the order of the day when “Seconds” was written.

3. “Like A Song…”
The energy and passion astound.  I attend church regularly, though in many regards I don’t consider myself particularly religious. Nonetheless, “A new heart is what I need/Oh God, make it bleed” feels like the message I should be hearing as I advance beyond middle age.

2. “Surrender”
Maybe this was the beginning of the distinctive, hypnotic Edge sound? The atmosphere he creates here, from the opening, on through the bridge (Bono’s “TO-NIGHT!” at its end? Magnifico.) and into the fadeout perhaps hints at what’s on the horizon for the band.

1. “New Year’s Day”
Here’s another time that the first song you hear from an album winds up being your favorite. While references to “the chosen few” have always—ALWAYS—made me very uncomfortable, I can’t shake my affinity for this tune; the piano part, simple as it is, plays a big role in that. Would only reach #53 on the Hot 100 in May 1983.

While by early 1984 I’d heard “New Year’s Day” and the live version of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” on the radio and seen “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on MTV, I was ultimately moved to purchase War via a review I’d come across in a magazine that belonged to James. He had grown up in a Southern Baptist church; with that came involvement in summer mission trips and ongoing exposure to (and I presume enjoyment of) contemporary Christian music. I have no idea now the name of the magazine, but it was an Evangelical publication of some type. Perhaps I was restless one weekend afternoon during my extended January funk and decided to thumb through it. The music review section naturally attracted my attention. Their pick for Christian Album of the Year for 1983? You guessed it. The reviewer went out of his/her way, maybe multiple times, to reassure the reader that War really was a Christian album. It should be clear by now that I don’t disagree, and even if the CCM scene never appealed to me, the review added enough intrigue to what I already possessed to put War on my “to add” list.