Song of the Day, July 5: Love Song by Lesley Duncan

DuncanLoveSongToday we celebrate a famous song by a largely unknown musician. Lesley Duncan intended to be a songwriter, but the label she offered her demos to decided to make her a singles star. While that career struggled, she became well-known as a versatile backing vocalist, working with a wide variety of performers. By 1970, one of her regular session colleagues had begun a successful career in his own right. Elton John asked Duncan to pitch in on his third LP, Tumbleweed Connection. She provided more than vocals, offering John one of her original songs.

EltonLoveSongHe was so impressed with Love Song that he recorded it for the album, with Duncan providing harmonies. While he has worked with many songwriting partners — most famously lyricist Bernie Taupin — Elton John almost never records songs written entirely by others. That makes this inclusion all the more remarkable. As a thank you, he sat in on the sessions for Duncan’s solo debut, the charming Sing Children Sing. This included John’s distinctive piano work on her own version of what would become her most famous song.

Love Song is deceptively simple, a quiet, moving ode to the power of love in all its forms. The centerpiece of Duncan’s album, it captures the fragmenting optimism of the late 60s, reflecting the effort it takes to help love heal the world. Duncan’s smoky vocal is perfect, and Elton and the band provide just the right accompaniment.

Love is the opening door
Love is what we came here for
No-one could offer you more
Do you know what I mean
Have your eyes really seen

In the decades since, over 100 artists — as diverse as David Bowie and Olivia Newton-John — have offered their versions of the song. Nobody matches the calm majesty of Elton’s first cover of it or the quiet assurance of its writer’s definitive rendition.

Enjoy this song in both its finest versions, by Lesley Duncan and Elton John.

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Song of the Day, April 19: Sunshine (Send Them Away) by Lesley Duncan

DuncanSingCSToday’s song shines a light on the forces of darkness. Lesley Duncan’s Sing Children Sing is a lost gem of singer-songwriter magic, featuring her socially conscious observations. One of its finest moments is Sunshine (Send Them Away). Unlike most songs that invoke the light of the sun, this track has a dark, brooding feel. Duncan turns in one of her deepest, roughest vocals, pondering the people that make the world a worse place. She calls on sunshine to banish them, shining the light of truth. It’s a smart twist on a standard pop trope and makes for a compelling listen. As a bonus, Duncan’s longtime friend Elton John — just beginning his career — provides a nice piano line.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, February 16: Grey Seal by Elton John

EJohnGreySealToday’s song is an old track rebuilt for a classic album. Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote Grey Seal in 1970 and used an early version as the B-side to Rock and Roll Madonna. While assembling tracks for their masterpiece, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, they dusted it off and breathed powerful new life into it. By this time John’s band were a tight, well-honed unit, and they invest the mini-epic with subtle rock power.

It’s an oddly mystical song for Taupin, who noted two decades later, “I hadn’t a clue what I was writing about.” Despite that obscure origin, the lyric contains some fine imagery — notably

On the big screen they showed us the sun
But not as bright in life as the real one
It’s never quite the same as the real one

The result is a celebration of heroism, contrasting reality with illusion. John gives it his vocal all, and the result is a highlight of a long, illustrious career.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending November 9, 1985

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart Title Act Weeks
Hot 100 Miami Vice Theme Jan Hammer 1
R & B Part-Time Lover Stevie Wonder 4
Country Can’t Keep A Good Man Down Alabama 1
Adult Contemporary Part-Time Lover Stevie Wonder 3
Rock Sleeping Bag ZZ Top 1
Album Miami Vice Soundtrack / Jan Hammer 2

DionneFriendsThis week sees a superstar performance enter the Hot 100, destined to be its lead vocalist’s biggest hit. Throughout the 60s, Dionne Warwick was a major star on the Pop and R&B charts, achieving most of her success with songs written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. The three were so musically linked that Warwick recorded at least a demo of almost everything the pair wrote, even for songs that were hits for other performers. Warwick and Bacharach had a falling out in the earl 70s and did not work together again for over a decade.

Enter That’s What Friends Are For, originally written by Bacharach and wife Carol Bayer Sager as a Rod Stewart track on the Night Shift soundtrack. Warwick decided to record a charity single to raise money for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and thought the song would be perfect. She brought together some famous collaborators and recorded the single as Dionne & Friends. Those friends brought real star power to the project, with vocals from Gladys Knight, Elton John on piano, and harmonica by Stevie Wonder. Their effort debuted at #67 this week, bound for a four-week stay at #1 in early 1986. It also spent three weeks atop the R&B chart and two as the Adult Contemporary champ. It was the #1 Billboard Hot 100 song of 1986 and won two Grammys, best Pop Performance and Song of the Year.

That makes it Warwick’s biggest hit and an impressive performance in the careers of the others involved. That’s saying something, since their total Hot 100 #1 performance to that point included 17 songs for 39 weeks at the top. (Toss in Bacharach and Bayer Sager and the numbers go up to 23 and 58!) It proved to be the last Hot 100 #1 for all but Elton John. He managed two more, both of which also raised money for charity: a remake of Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me with George Michael in 1991 and his rewrite of Candle In the Wind for the late Princess Diana in 1997.

Bacharach managed one more chart-topper as well, penning On My Own with Bayer Sager, a #1 Pop and R&B duet for Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald two months after Friends. Later in 1986, Bayer Sager managed one more with Groovy Kind of Love, a Phil Collins remake of her #2 hit (written with Toni Wine) for the Mindbenders 20 years prior.

All four performers were big cross-over stars as well. All told, the quartet  notched 28 Adult Contemporary #1s for a total of 78 weeks and 35 R&B #1s for an impressive 107 weeks. (In fact, Wonder was sitting on top of BOTH those charts as Friends entered the Hot 100.)

The single was a chart and charitable success. Sadly, Warwick came under fire for follow-up activities. Her “That’s What Friends Are For” ball to raise AIDS research money ran up huge costs and only contributed $56,000 out of over $2,100,000 raised, casting a cloud over her reputation and the good work of the recording project.

Song of the Day, March 19: Bad Blood by Neil Sedaka

SedakaBadBloodToday’s song is Neil Sedaka’s Bad Blood. Sedaka got into music young, displaying an aptitude for piano that landed him in Julliard’s Preparatory Division for Children before he was 10. He trained classically but was drawn to pop music and went straight from high school to the Brill Building. Sedaka and long-time friend Howard Greenfield began a very successful songwriting career while Sedaka began flirting with his own singing career. After a Top 10 hit (Oh! Carol [#9, 1959], inspired by former girlfriend and Brill Building colleague Carole King), he stumbled briefly, then launched a three-year string that included the smash Breaking Up Is Hard to Do [#1, 1962].

The British invasion changed public tastes, and Sedaka found decreasing success in the U.S. He and Greenfield suspended their partnership and he moved to the U.K. where — ironically — he had bigger success. After a decade abroad, he was contemplating returning to the States when he ran into Elton John at a party. John signed Sedaka to his new Rocket Records and they arranged to release a compilation of his best tracks from his British albums. A new song, Laughter In the Rain written with lyricist Phil Cody, became his comeback hit, topping the Hot 100 and the Adult Contemporary charts. Sedaka was white hot again, penning singles for other artists and working up a new album for Rocket.

That album includes his biggest hit. Bad Blood is a classic pop gem. A smart kiss-off to a dangerous woman, it showed off a darker side to Sedaka’s writing while maintaining the bright sheen and hooky smarts. It also had a good dance beat, helping propel it to the top of the charts. A guest vocal from label owner Elton John probably didn’t hurt; his brash harmonies on the chorus work brilliantly with Sedaka’s fun delivery.

Enjoy this delightful pop classic today as well as this charming live performance from Midnight Special.

INTERESTING CHART NOTE: Sedaka’s biggest hit spent three weeks at #1 on the Hot 100, making it one of the biggest hits of 1975. The two tracks that beat him both had Sedaka connections. Bad Blood was dethroned by the three week run of Island Girl, Elton John’s fifth #1 and the year’s #2 smash. The biggest hit of the year was the debut single by the Captain and Tennille, a great pop confection called Love Will Keep Us Together. That song spent four weeks at #1 and was written by Howard Greenfield and Neil Sedaka. (Toni Tennille even ad libbed the celebratory line “Sedaka is back” toward the end of the song.)

Song of Day, September 17: Tiny Dancer by Elton John

EltonTinyDToday’s song is the Elton John classic Tiny Dancer. It was recorded for his fourth album, Madman Across the Water, a strong set of songs that helped establish his talent and range before his big commercial breakthrough.

John’s regular collaborator, Bernie Taupin, wrote the lyrics to reflect his early impressions of California culture in 1970. As a skilled outsider, Taupin managed to capture the free spirit and diverse communities he found in a way that many local SoCal writers couldn’t. The resulting lyric inspired John to construct one of his early masterpieces, and arranger Paul Buckmaster provides a stirring string section that elevates the last half of the song into true epic territory. John’s vocal is lovely, showing off his dynamic and emotional range.

Although it has become a standard in his live sets and is considered one of his finest tracks, it met with limited initial success. It was not released as a single in the UK and missed the US Top 40 by one notch. In retrospect, however, it’s one of the best examples of a talent that was about to take over the pop music world.

Enjoy this moving live for broadcast version of a pop classic today.

Song of the Day, March 27: Roy Rogers by Elton John

EltonRoyToday’s song is Roy Rogers by Elton John, another standout track from his 1973 masterpiece, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The song is a perfect marriage of the themes of the album, merging cinematics and nostalgia with just the right note of grim realism. It also works as one of the best reflections of lyricist Bernie Taupin’s obsession with the American West, despite happening at a safe and sanitized remove.

Blending the myth of celebrity — a powerful statement given Elton John’s rising and very public star — and the sad, quiet ways ordinary people both rely on and suffer from it, Taupin writes some of his best lines. John’s music is a perfect blend of yearning and celebration, proving just how powerful this team could be at their best.

And Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screens
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories were told
Oh the great sequined cowboy who sings of the plains
Of roundups and rustlers and home on the range
Turn on the T.V., shut out the lights
Roy Rogers is riding tonight

Enjoy this celebration of simple heroism that never truly was today.

Song of the Day, October 8: Rocket Man by Elton John

elton-john-rocket-manWorldSpaceWeekCelebrating World Space Week, October 4 – 10!

Today’s song is Rocket Man (I Think It’s Gonna Be A Long, Long Time) by Elton John. Composed with long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin, it is one of a curious series of lonely astronaut songs by diverse artists. While somewhat similar to David Bowie’s Space Oddity in theme, Taupin drew his inspiration from a Ray Bradbury short story. Curiously, John’s regular 70s producer, Gus Dudgeon, had also produced the Bowie single.

As with the best of the John/Taupin tracks, it’s a song of real humanity and emotion. The framework of the astronaut — who treats his amazing opportunity as a typical job and misses his family while he’s gone — works well as a metaphor for all kinds of alienation and loneliness. It’s a beautiful song, and John sings it with real passion.

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long, time
‘Til touchdown brings me ’round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Ah, no no no…
I’m a rocket man

Rocket Man was an early hit for Elton John. His fourth US Top 40, it went to #6; in the UK it made it to #2. Enjoy this classic track today.

Album of the Week, July 21: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

EltonGYBRBy 1973, Elton John’s star was clearly ascendant. Reginald Kenneth Dwight was born in Middlesex in 1947. By the age of 15 he was playing piano and singing in pubs. His first band, Bluesology, became the backing group for Long John Baldry. When the band broke up, Dwight partnered with lyricist Bernie Taupin in 1967 as staff songwriters for Dick James; he assumed a new name, honoring his former bandmates Elton Dean and Long John Baldry. The songwriting team was fairly successful and the newly minted Elton John decided to pursue his own career with his lyrical partner. From 1969 to 1972, he recorded seven albums and released a number of singles with good success in the UK and US. Both Honky Chateau and Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player went to #1 on the Album chart and Crocodile Rock from the latter became his first US chart-topping single. In May 1973, he went to Jamaica to work on his next album, taking a stack of lyrics from Taupin. Circumstances on the island were not conducive to recording, so he took his music back to France, where he had recorded his last two discs and created a tour de force.

Title Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Act Elton John
Label RCA Release Date Oct. 5, 1973
Producer Gus Dudgeon
U.S. Chart  #1 U.K. Chart  #1
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]

Disc One

  1. Funeral For A Friend /
    Love Lies Bleeding
  2. Candle In the Wind
  3. Bennie and the Jets [#1]
  4. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road [#2]
  5. This Song Has No Title
  6. Grey Seal
  7. Jamaica Jerk-Off
  8. I’ve Seen That Movie Too

Disc Two

  1. Sweet Painted Lady
  2. The Ballad of Danny Bailey
  3. Dirty Little Girl
  4. All the Girls Love Alice
  5. Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock’n’Roll)
  6. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting [#12]
  7. Roy Rogers
  8. Social Disease
  9. Harmony

By this point, Elton John had worked consistently with producer Gus Dudgeon and lyricist Bernie Taupin. His backing band — guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson — were a cohesive unit at this point, perfectly attuned to his singing and keyboard work. They settled in for a few days and quickly created nearly two dozen songs, eighteen of which made it onto his masterpiece. While not truly a concept album, it focuses clearly on nostalgia, often using metaphors drawn from cinema.

Funeral For A Friend is a sweeping anthem that John composed while considering what he might want played at his own funeral. The synthesizer lead was unusual for the time, creating a nearly prog-rock feel. It segues into the boisterous Love Lies Bleeding, an angry breakup song that uses funeral imagery fitting nicely with the opening instrumental. Clocking in at eleven minutes, this opener sets the cinematic tone for the rest of the album and shows off Elton and his band at their best.

Candle In the Wind is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, later redone as an ode to Princes Diana. It’s a bittersweet song that avoids being maudlin, a wonderful celebration of the actress and a look at the pressures stardom that would prove eerily prophetic for John as the decade progressed. The next track is an ode to a fictional star, Bennie and the Jets. Proving that silly can be successful, the track became John’s second #1 in the US. It’s a great rocker, showing off his piano work to great effect and celebrating show business with tongue-in-cheek delight.

The title track comes next. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is one of Taupin’s best lyrics and Elton provided the perfect music for it. Looking at the tradeoffs made on the path to success, it completes the opening section of the album brilliantly. It also features some of his best singing and is one of the finest singles in an illustrious career.

The witty This Song Has No Title comes next, a lovely celebration of the power of music. Grey Seal follows nicely. It’s a look at heroism that forms a nice dyad with This Song, both celebrating the power of the human spirit. Jamaica Jerk-Off is a knock-off novelty inspired by the album’s origins. A well-crafted bit of fun, it celebrates the sound of the islands and provides some musical diversity.

The first disc of the original vinyl ends with the centerpiece of the album, I’ve Seen That Movie Too. The most explicit expression of the cinematic themes of the album, it’s one of John’s best songs. Building slowly, he dismantles a broken relationship using theatrical images as a perfect backdrop.

Disc two opens with a set of character sketches. Sweet Painted Lady is a charming ode to a hooker with a heart of gold. The Ballad of Danny Bailey celebrates the life of a fictional gangster in stunning pop-operatic style. Both harken to John and Taupin’s fondness for Americana, especially outlaws and the old west. Dirty Little Girl dismantles the celebration of Sweet Painted Lady,  looking at the darker aspects of the profession. All the Girls Love Alice is a more specific depiction of a young lesbian trading on her looks. This quartet of songs is powerful, showing Taupin’s skill as a lyricist (and avoiding his occasional overblown mystery) and underscored by John’s great music and amazing vocals.

Your Sister Can’t Twist is another knock-off, a fun if insubstantial song that evokes the era of American Bandstand. Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting picks up that theme and darkens it. Taupin set it in a pub from his youth, and the song does a great job of capturing the perilous side of youthful exuberance. The pair of songs works well together, demonstrating how this much talent can take apparent fluff and make something powerful out of it.

Roy Rogers is another overt cinematic celebration. A nostalgic look at the simple heroism that never truly was, it’s a fine song delivered lovingly. Social Disease is a white trash anthem, letting the band cut loose and have a bit of fun.

The album ends, fittingly, with Harmony, an ode to music and a celebration of human spirit. It was intended as the final single from the album, but Elton was so prolific that his next disc was ready to go, so it remained unreleased. It’s a beautiful song and another perfect vocal, capping off a fantastic musical journey in high style.

FURTHER LISTENING: Sir Elton ruled the 1970s, following up this album with four more #1s including one of the biggest greatest hits albums ever and the first album to debut at #1 on the Billboard Album chart. He’s the #1 Billboard artist of the 1970s and in the Top 10 of the following two decades. As a master of the rock single, much of his best work is captured on his variety of greatest hits compilations. The four-disc To Be Continued… is a great single collection, highlighting his biggest hits and some great albums tracks. His work in the 70s was remarkable, and Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy are all solid albums. Of his later work, 1983’s Too Low For Zero is easily his strongest.

Song of the Day, June 10: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John

EltonGYBRToday’s song is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John. Recognized as one of the performer’s finest songs, it also served as the title track of his brilliant seventh album. By the time he recorded both in 1973, Elton John was a major star. His singing was finer than ever and his writing — with lyricist Bernie Taupin — had become remarkably consistent and powerful. His regular band were on hand to make the equation complete. The result was a powerhouse soft rock classic that rocks just enough and has just enough ballad in it to make its appeal nearly universal.

The lyrics are as much Sunset Boulevard as Wizard of Oz, as the singer prepares to leave behind a powerful benefactor and find himself again. Opening with a beautiful, simple piano-and-vocal approach, it shows off a remarkably less is more side of Elton before welcoming the full band. John’s delivery is amazing, and the layered vocals that end each verse are simply stunning.

You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Entering the chart on October 27, 1973, the song hit #2 in its seventh week. It narrowly missed becoming his second #1; the album was already his third consecutive chart-topper.

Enjoy this classic song today.

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