Wednesday, March 26, 2014

TMFW 29 - Beat the Drum, and Hold the Phone

Though snow is still on the ground in some places from a brutal winter, this Monday will mark the traditional "Opening Day" for baseball.  Opening Day has a deep meaning for many (myself included), to the point that Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith is championing a (beer-company-backed, facetious) petition to make it a national holiday.  The petition on notes that Opening Day is "a symbol of rebirth" and the "coming of spring," and seeks to "make sure every American can exercise their inalienable right to celebrate the day those two magical words are uttered for the first time: "PLAY BALL!"

So in honor of Opening Day - where even the hapless Cubs are tied for first place - this post highlights three of my favorite baseball songs, with some short trivia to go with each.

(1)  John Fogerty - "Centerfield" - The "roundin' third, and headed for home, it's a brown eyed handsome man" lyrics from "Centerfield" are lifted from the Chuck Berry song "Brown Eyed Handsome Man." In that song, Berry refers to a "2-3 count, with nobody on," which makes no sense.

(2)  Terry Cashman - "Willie, Mickey, and the Duke (Talkin' Baseball)" - the original version of this song was written and recorded in 1981 by Terry Cashman, and was inspired by a picture of Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Duke Snider standing together at an old timers' game in 1980.  Per the interview at the link, it was actually a picture of Mays, Mantle, Snider, and Joe DiMaggio together, but Cashman couldn't find a way to fit DiMaggio into the song in a graceful way.  As a result, on the cover of the single, DiMaggio has been "photoshopped" out.  "Joltin' Joe has left and gone away," indeed.

Since the modest success of the original version, Cashman has made custom versions of the song tailored to just about every team in the major leagues; a quick YouTube search turns up versions for the Cardinals, the Baltimore Orioles, the San Francisco Giants, the New York Mets, the California Angels, the Chicago White Sox, the Cincinnati Reds, the late Montreal Expos, the Kansas City Royals, the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Diego Padres, the New York Yankees, the Minnesota Twins (and a short version for a Target Field commercial), the Chicago Cubs, the Toronto Blue Jays, the LA Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians, the Detroit Tigers, and the Philadelphia Phillies.  There are on Amazon's mp3 service additional versions for the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Boston Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves, the Colorado Rockies, the Seattle Mariners, and the Oakland A's.  In some cases, there are multiple versions for the same team, updated only to include more modern roster members (and to wring out a few more dollars from the tune.)  In fact, to protect the cash cow, Cashman has, for nearly 20 years, held a federal trademark on the term "Talkin' Baseball".

(3)  Chuck Brodsky - "Dock Ellis' No-No" - Brodsky is a folk singer and baseball fanatic.  My wife will tell you that he is an acquired taste, but I love him.  Brodsky has two albums dedicated to only baseball songs, and many of them are just terrific. Try "Bonehead Merkle" or "Letters in the Dirt" for good baseball stories, or seek out "Whitey and Harry" for a great tribute to Richie Ashburn and the days of lifelong team radio voices.  But "Dock Ellis' No-No" has the added bonus of telling the story of one of the strangest no-hitters in history.  Ellis started his day in Los Angeles, thinking that his Pittsburgh Pirates had the day off.  He dropped some acid, and learned shortly thereafter that not only were the Pirates playing that day, but they were in San Diego and he was the slated starting pitcher.  He caught a quick flight, rushed to the ballpark, and pitched 9 no-hit innings while high on LSD.  (He walked 8 and hit a guy in the process, but a no-hitter is a no-hitter.)  Here is a wonderful animation telling the story in Dock's own words.

(4)  Steve Goodman - "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request" - Goodman's song is just about the perfect encapsulation of Cubs fandom, with lyrics like "the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant / was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan."  30 years later, it still holds up! Goodman died of cancer in 1984 at age 36, and some of his ashes were scattered at the "ivy-covered burial ground" he references so lovingly in his song.

There are dozens of other great baseball songs, but for time constraints let's end it here.  Maybe I can save some for TMFW 81, right in time for Opening Day 2015.


BONUS FACT: For fans of a certain age, the most famous "Talkin' Baseball" version is most likely "Homer, Ozzie, and the Straw (Talkin' Softball)," from the all-time great episode of The Simpsons where Mr. Burns puts together an all-star softball team.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

TMFW 28 - The Gentrys Big Hit, Stretched Out for Radio

Today's TMFW is a combination of two facts about The Gentrys, a Memphis band that had a top-5 hit in 1965 with "Keep on Dancing." The song is one of my all time favorites, ever since I saw it on a toy commercial in 1987
First, if "Keep on Dancing" sounds repetitive, that's because it is.  Quite literally.  The Gentrys recording of the song came in at a very short 1:30, which the record label wisely figured was too short for the song to be a commercial hit.  They needed to get past the 2:00 mark, so they took the opening verse of the song and stuck it on the back.  To be clear, the band didn't re-record the opening verse or play it again at the end - the producers simply took the tape of the opening and appended that same recording to the end.  The "false fade" was in that sense unintentional; it actually marked the real fade out of the original song.  (To me, that false fade is one of the most endearing parts of the record.)
Second, the song "Keep on Dancing" was sung by the Gentrys guitarist Larry Raspberry, who was not one of the two regular lead singers in the band.  The two regular singers were Bruce Bowles and Jimmy Hart.  After The Gentrys, Hart went on to a second career that made him much more famous than his rock star past: WWF wrestling manager.  After managing his high school friend Jerry "The King" Lawler, Hart adopted the persona "The Mouth of the South," and went on to manage Hulk Hogan, "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, and The Honky Tonk Man, among others.  Hart was a key part of the WWF stable of characters in the 80s and 90s, and was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2005.  As a wrestling-obsessed kid, I hated him for his loud mouth and his cheating ways.
BONUS FACT:  Not unlike the fictional one-hit band The Wonders' appearance in Weekend at Party Pier, near the end of their first iteration The Gentrys appeared in the teen beach movie It's a Bikini World (trailer here).  They performed their song "Spread it On Thick."
BONUS FACT 2:  "Keep on Dancing" was first recorded in 1963 by The Avantis.  Their version is a bit slower, with a doo-wop influence, and name checks the dance move the twist (as opposed to the Gentrys naming the more-popular-in-1965 "jerk.")
BONUS FACT 3:  After the initial incarnation of the band broke up, Hart reformed them in 1969, and they recorded two Billboard Hot 100 songs - "Why Should I Cry" (a not-subtle ripoff of Midnight Confessions) and a cover of Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl." 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

TMFW 27 - The Mega-Star Studded "Masked Marauders,​" Deity Records' First and Only Release

In October 1969, Rolling Stone magazine published a review of the eponymous record The Masked Marauders.  The double LP was set to be released by Deity Records right at the height of the "supergroup" phase in rock music that started with Cream and included groups like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The review wasted no time in identifying the band's surprising lineup, saying that:
[The] two-record set may evoke an agonizing, tip-of-the-tongue, lobe-of-the-ear recognition in some, or cries of "No, no, it can't be true" in others. But yes, yes it is - a treasured, oft-xeroxed sheet of credits (which, for obvious contractual reasons, will not be reproduced on the album), and the unmistakable vocals make it clear that this is indeed what it appears to be: John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan, backed by George Harrison and a drummer as yet unnamed - the "Masked Maurauders." (sic)
The review goes on to note that the record was recorded over only three days, "with impeccable secrecy in a small town near the site of the original Hudson Bay Colony in Canada."  It describes the tracklist, which includes a Dylan-lead cover of "Duke of Earl" and "Mick Jagger's new instant classic, 'I Can't Get No Nookie.'"  Finally, the review breathlessly ends with "[i]t can truly be said that this album is more than a way of life; it is life."
If a double album from three Beatles, a Rolling Stone, and Bob Dylan sounded too good to be true, that's because of course it was.  The review had been written by a real Rolling Stone critic (under a pseudonym), who thought he had left enough clues to make it easy to figure out that the review was a work of satire and a commentary on the supergroup fad. 
But he was wrong.  After the review was published, fan interest and rumors spread rapidly; it was as though people wanted it to be true so badly that they would not accept that it could not possibly be so.  So, Rolling Stone did what any responsible group of journalists would: they invented the record out of whole cloth.  Hiring the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band out of Berkeley, California, they commissioned the aforementioned "I Can't Get No Nookie" and "Cow Pie," a Dylan-lead song about, well, a cow pie.  They pressed a few records and sent them to big rock stations in LA and San Francisco, who played them and gave even more credence to the myth. 
Eventually, Warner Brothers fronted $15,000 for a full-length record.  The final product was only two sides rather than four - there's only so much Dylan imitation a skiffle band can do, I suppose - but included a number of the tracks from the original review.  In keeping with the gag, Warner Brothers actually invented a music label so that the album could be released by Deity Records.  It was the one and only release by that label.  Accounts differ (including this great, playful Brian Williams story about how he was duped), but it seems that by the time the record came out the joke was mostly well-understood.  Astonishingly, though, 100,000 copies of the record were sold. Writing in The Village Voice in 1970, the famous rock critic Robert Christgau ruminated on the hoax and its larger message, and called the record his "Album of the Year."
If you are interested, the whole record is available on Rdio and Spotify.  Or you can hear a poor imitation of Bob Dylan doing "Duke of Earl" at the link.
BONUS FACT:  This one is in the category of "trivia everyone knows," but Dylan and a Beatle actually did team up as part of a supergroup much later in their careers: Bob "Lucky Wilbury" Dylan and George "Nelson Wilbury" Harrison played in The Traveling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, and Roy Orbison.  The band put out two studio records: Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, and the brilliantly-named second album Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3.  Here's the Wilburys doing "Handle With Care."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

TMFW 26 - The Michael Jordan of Commercial Jingles

This past weekend, the Philadelphia 76ers retired Allen Iverson's jersey number 3.   In his speech, Iverson thanked a number of people, including of course his teammates, his family, and the 76s fans.  But he also affirmatively thanked Michael Jordan, who Iverson credited for inspiring him to excel in basketball.  Iverson said "I was one of those kids who wanted to be like Mike."

Iverson's phrasing was borrowed from an iconic 1991 Gatorade ad, which was the introduction of Jordan as a Gatorade spokesman.  The 1 minute spot featured a song with the simple, catchy refrain "like Mike, if I could be like Mike," and ended with the tagline "Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade."

According to this story from Darren Rovel, the song was born after the creative director of Gatorade's advertising firm got inspired by a home movie viewing of Disney's The Jungle Book.  The executive heard "I Wanna Be Like You" and decided that it would be perfect for the commercial.  He planned to put together some footage of Jordan working his magic, then run the song over it. 

But Disney allegedly demanded $350,000 for a five-week commercial run, and the Quaker Oats people (who owned Gatorade) balked.  So the creative director went to Plan B - he wrote the lyrics himself and then hired some jingle writers to make a recording that Gatorade would own.  Facing a time crunch to deliver the commercial, the song was written and recorded in under 48 hours.  It's unclear whether the creative director suggested that the jingle writers might be "inspired" by "I Wanna Be Like You," but the resulting song has some clear similarities. 

The commercial, and its song, became breakout hits.  "Be Like Mike" quickly became a part of the cultural lexicon, and the jingle was so popular that Gatorade turned it into a full-length single complete with a rap at the end, which they both released to radio stations and also sold as a cassingle to support Jordan's charitable foundation.  It is on my iPod and makes a pretty good workout song.

In the years since the initial commercial, "Be Like Mike" has been used as the title of a book about the "life lessons" that can be learned from Jordan, as a movie about some magic shoes that give Lil' Bow Wow amazing basketball skills (and a direct-to-video sequel), and has even been worked into sermons, with Jesus standing in for Mike. Googling the phrase "Be Like Mike" returns over 6 million results. The commercial itself was so famous that ESPN included it as one of "Michael Jordan's 50 Greatest Moments."

In 1999, in Jordan's last year with the Chicago Bulls, Gatorade released an updated version of the commercial, featuring a bevy of celebrities and Jordan friends.  (At 0:44, the commercial features Blues Traveler's John Popper, star of a previous TMFW.)


BONUS FACT:  The first line of "Be Like Mike" actually makes no sense when taken literally.  The singer offers that "[s]ometimes I dream, that he is me." But if Michael Jordan was the singer, he would have none of his basketball skill.  Though it would have been a lyrical stretch, perhaps the first line should have been "sometimes I dream, that I am heem."

BONUS FACT 2:  The co-star of  the movie Like Mike is Jonathan Lipnicki, whose claim to fame is his recitation in Jerry Maguire that "the human head weighs 8 pounds." 

BONUS FACT 3:  My friend Micaela, who grew up in San Francisco and is ostensibly a Golden State Warriors fan, can do a pretty faithful version of the rap at the end of the full length "(I Wanna) Be Like Mike" single. 

BONUS FACT 4:  (This is mostly an excuse to pander to my wife, but) Allen Iverson and a number of other Sixers greats are name-checked in G. Love and Special Sauce's excellent song "I-76."