Wednesday, August 26, 2015
[NOTE - Like TMFW 28, today's entry is really two related facts stuck together. And did you see the 3...2...1 thing I did in the title? Pretty clever, eh?]
My grandpa used to preach the value of persistence by telling me the story of Milton Hershey, whose first two candy companies failed before his third became world-famous and made him rich. Today's TMFW is two musical stories of "third time's a charm."
First up is the Norwegian band A-ha. You know them for their #1 hit (and all-time great song) "Take on Me." But you probably don't know that the song totally flopped on its first two releases and that it took a big gamble by the record company to finally make it big.
Here's the story. When A-ha was first in search of a record deal in the early 80s, they took an apartment in London and recorded some songs at a studio there. One of those was a first studio version of "Take On Me." After the band signed to Warner Brothers Records, a producer lightly remixed the tracks with an eye toward releasing music quickly. The label took that first version of "Take On Me," made a standard-issue "band plays the song" music video to go with it, and released the record and video in the UK and Norway in September 1984. Though it reached #3 in Norway, it flopped in the UK, selling less than 500 copies and failing to break the top-100.
Even in the face of that flop, Warner Brothers' team in the US was keen on the band, and so they sent them back into the studio to re-record the song with a new producer. That second version of the song is the one you know, and the label released it again in the UK in April 1985. But the London office of Warner Brothers didn't do much to promote the single, and the second release flopped too.
Even in the face of two failures with the same track, Warner Brothers committed a big pile of money to make a groundbreaking (and still cool 30 years later) music video for the song. The video used an animation technique called rotoscoping that required hand-tracing of over 3000 frames of film to create the combination of live-action and animation. It took four months to complete and cost $100,000.
When the video was ready, Warner Brothers released it to MTV in August 1985, a full month before they made the record available for purchase. The video got heavy airplay on MTV, and by the time the record showed up in stores it went to #1 in the US in just a few weeks. The rest of the world followed, and the record made #1 in 12 countries. It is remarkable to think that it took three releases for it to hit, and perhaps even more remarkable that the label was willing to take such an expensive bet on a song that had already failed twice. I am glad that they did.
Twelve years after "Take on Me," The Verve Pipe had their own version of A-ha's story, this time with three separate recordings of their big song.
The Verve Pipe was from East Lansing, Michigan, and made their name playing frequent and lively shows around the Michigan State campus and Detroit clubs. In 1992, they self-produced and released their first album I've Suffered a Head Injury, a 10-song LP that included as track 10 an acoustic song called "The Freshmen" (as a fun bonus, that link has a wonderful, random collection of pictures from a young man's freshman year at Michigan State in the mid-90s).
But shortly after the release of the 10-song record, and before it sold in any real quantity, the band formed a label and reshaped I've Suffered a Head Injury into a 7-song EP. One of the three songs that dropped off was "The Freshmen."
The band kept recording and building its following, and by 1995 they had signed a major label contract with RCA Records. Their first RCA release was the album Villains, which featured a totally new recording of "The Freshmen" as an album track. RCA released two singles from Villains - "Cup of Tea" and "Photograph" - but neither of them made the Hot 100 and it seemed that the band's first big record might not go anywhere.
For the third single off of Villains, the label chose "The Freshmen," but for reasons that I cannot figure out from my research they decided to record a brand new third version of the song and release that as the single rather than the actual track from the record. So there was a sort of bizarre moment where the record label was promoting an album with a song that wasn't even actually on the album.
But it worked. The third version of "The Freshmen" reached #5 on the Hot 100 and #1 on the US Alternative chart. After it hit, that final version was substituted in for the original album version of the song on subsequent pressings of Villains. It propelled the record to platinum status.
So there's your TMFW - and a life lesson - for today: if you believe in something enough, don't let failure, or even two failures, keep you down. (Caveat: unless your idea is stupid. Then just forget it.)
BONUS FACT: In late 1911, Milton Hershey planned a trip to Europe for his wife and himself. For their return trip, Hershey paid a $300 deposit to the White Star Line for a first-class cabin on the maiden voyage of their luxury ship the RMS Titanic. But business called Hershey back to the US three days early, and he and his wife ended up taking the German liner SS Amerika instead. Hershey lived another 33 years after the Titanic sank.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Remarkably, the SS Amerika (with Hershey aboard) spotted two big icebergs in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912 and telegraphed their location to the U.S. "Hydrographic Office" at the Department of the Navy in Washington, D.C. But the Amerika did not have a strong enough transmitter to get the message all the way to land, so they relayed the message through a boat that did: the RMS Titanic and its state-of-the-art Marconi transmitter. Though the location of the icebergs was near the path of the Titanic, the message was passed right on through and the information never made it out of the"Marconi room" of the ship. The very next day, the Titanic hit a big iceberg in the North Atlantic and down she went.
BONUS FACT 2: The evolution of "Take On Me" is well more complex than simply three releases of two finished products. In fact, the hit single was actually the fifth version of the song. As this Sound on Sound entry details, the song started as the "Juicy Fruit Song" by the band Bridges, which featured A-ha's guitar player and keyboardist before they left to form A-ha. From there, it evolved to "Lesson One," a half-baked but more noticeably "Take On Me" rough cut by the full band. Next, the song grew into a full demo of the "Take On Me" that we know today. The two proper versions followed, with the fifth one finally hitting on the third release.
BONUS FACT 3: It's accurate to call A-ha "one-hit wonders" in the US, as they reached the top-40 only one other time in their career (hitting #20 with "The Sun Always Shines on TV," right on the heels of "Take on Me.") But in their native Norway, the story is different. The band has put out 10 albums, and 8 of them have reached #1 on the charts. They've had 17 top-10 singles, and 8 #1s. So the next time you are in Norway, be sure to show proper respect. Those guys are legends there.
BONUS FACT 4: When I was in college, one of the bands I played in (TMFW 82 subject The Meteors) covered "The Freshmen" for a freshman class dinner that we played. The song - being a supreme downer with no real hook that repeats itself for what feels like about 16 minutes from the stage - was an unmitigated disaster. That was the same show where we inexplicably tried to cover "Boot-Scootin' Boogie," which was equally bad.
BONUS OBSERVATION 4.5: But still: those were the days, man.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Last week, we showed The Karate Kid (trailer) to our children for the first time. I loved that movie when I was a boy, and it was fun to see them go through all of the same emotions I did back then as they watched Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi on their journey.
If you know The Karate Kid, you likely are familiar with its famous tournament montage near the climax of the movie, in which Daniel-san finds his rhythm and successfully works his way through a number of tournament challengers. And if you are of a certain age, you probably already have the iconic song that plays over the montage starting up in your brain: "you're the best...around...nothing's gonna ever keep you down!" It's a great song, and fits perfectly in the film.
But here's the twist (and today's TMFW): it was originally meant for a different fighter.
"You're the Best" was written by Bill Conti, who was a composer for Rocky and who wrote the all-time great theme song "Gonna Fly Now," which was a #1 hit in 1977. Conti - among dozens and dozens of other films - went on to serve as composer for Rocky(s) II, III, and V, and for Rocky Balboa.
It was for Rocky III that Conti originally wrote "You're the Best." That would explain the lyrics "history repeats itself" and "you've reached the final bell," which make no sense for a teenager who is fighting in his first karate tournament but apply perfectly to a prior boxing champion who is famous for his ability to go deep in fights.
As the story goes, Sylvester Stallone did not think it was the right fit, and asked the band Survivor to write him a song instead. That song of course was "Eye of the Tiger," which opens the film beautifully. The song was #1 for six weeks in 1982 and was top-5 in 17 countries. Pretty good choice by Mr. Stallone.
Two years after Rocky III, Conti served as composer for The Karate Kid, and offered "You're The Best" to director John Avildsen. He loved the song, and the rest is history.
BONUS FACT: In 2007, the website popdose.com featured an interview with Joe Esposito, who sang "You're The Best." He seems like a cool dude. In the interview, Esposito claims that he also sang background on Irene Cara's #1 hit "Flashdance (What a Feeling)." (I have no reason to disbelieve this but I say "claims" because it sounds like a chorus of women in the background...)
I never really thought about it before reading that interview, but it's funny to imagine background singers in the studio, sitting quietly for two-and-a-half minutes and nodding along with the tune, then suddenly belting out "I AM...RHYTHM NOW!"
BONUS FACT 1.5: In the interview above, Joe Esposito mentions that his son plays AAA baseball. That made me wonder whether his boy ever made it to the bigs. The good news: he did! He was called up to the Rockies in 2005. The not-as-good news: he only made 3 career starts, and ended with a record of 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA. He did get one hit at the plate, though, and he is now in the books forever as a major leaguer.
BONUS FACT 2: When Sylvester Stallone sent Survivor a cut of the Rocky III opening so that they could understand where their song would go, it was synced with "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen. Jim Peterik (Survivor's founding member and the writer of "Eye of the Tiger") recounted in an interview: "Frankie [Survivor guitarist] and I are watching this, the punches are being thrown, and we're going, 'Holy crap, this is working like a charm.' We called Stallone and said, 'Why aren't you using that?' He goes, 'Well, we can't get the publishing rights to it.' Frankie and I looked at each other and went, 'Man, this is going to be tough to beat.'"
BONUS FACT 2.5: Through the magic of the internet, here is the Rocky III opening set to "Another One Bites the Dust." It does work pretty nicely, but I am glad that we got "Eye of the Tiger" instead.
BONUS FACT 2.75: So long as we are watching alternate-soundtrack Rocky III clips, here's the training scene from Rocky III with "You're The Best" swapped in. It sounds good. (Here's the original training scene for good measure.)
BONUS FACT 3: If you ever felt like Johnny Lawrence deciding to run headlong into the crane kick to end the tournament in The Karate Kid was kind of a silly strategic decision, you might enjoy this stand-up bit from Gary Gulman about it (relevant part starts at 3:43). His album No Can Defend is funny.
BONUS FACT 4: In the lead-up to filming The Karate Kid, the director John Avildsen rehearsed (and taped) virtually every scene in the movie. Starting in 2010, he put the rehearsal videos on YouTube in 13 parts. If you watch them sequentially, you get a sort of amateur home video version of the movie. Here they are: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13.
BONUS FACT 4.5: Avildsen also has a number of other The Karate Kid videos on his YouTube channel, including audition tapes edited to create a dialogue between Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita and Macchio in early readings with Elisabeth Shue.
BONUS FACT 5: In 2007, the band No More Kings put out a video to their song "Sweep the Leg," which is named after a famous line from The Karate Kid. William Zabka - who played the bad guy Johnny Lawrence - directed it. The video features almost all of the male cast of The Karate Kid (though Pat Morita had died 2 years earlier), and has Dennis "Mr. Belding" Haskins in there, too. Because why not, I guess.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Jim Croce was just 30 years old when he died in a plane crash in September 1973. He was already a successful artist: his first singles "You Don't Mess Around With Jim" and "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)" were a top-10 and top-20 hit, respectively, and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" spent two weeks at #1 in July 1973. It was still on the charts when he died.
Less than three months after his death, Croce's final studio album I Got a Name was released, which featured the title track "I Got a Name" and the singles "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song," and "Workin' At the Car Wash Blues." All three were top-40 hits (the first two were top-10), and by the end of 1973 each of Croce's three major studio records were certified Gold.
All of that introduction is a way of saying that Croce's career was short, but it was prolific. Today's TMFW is that, if it had been up to his parents, Croce's career would have been even shorter.
Croce was a struggling and poor musician and was only 23 years old when he married his wife Ingrid in August 1966. In college, he had played at fraternity parties and coffee houses, but while he had a passion for music he apparently didn't approach music as a profession with any real seriousness. His parents wanted their son to use his college degree to find success in a more mainstream line of work, and thought that if Croce tried and failed to make a record that might get the music business out of his system. So for Jim and Ingrid's wedding (or maybe engagement), Croce's parents gave the couple $500, with the stipulation that the money had to be used to make an album. As Ingrid recalls in her book about Croce's songs, "Jim's mom and dad gave Jim the opportunity to make an album, as our engagement gift. They hoped that if Jim completed this project he would be finished with his childhood dream of becoming a musician and get a 'real job.'"
The result of the $500 investment was Croce's first album Facets. The record, a collection of mostly traditional and cover songs, was completed in one 3-hour studio session. Most songs were finished on the first take, and you can hear the unpolished, ad-hoc character in each of the tracks. Croce pressed 500 copies of the album, and offered them for sale for $5 at his gigs. They sold out almost immediately. Inspired by his success and his nice profit, and no doubt to his parents' dismay, Croce dove headlong into a music career and never looked back.
So there's your TMFW for today: Jim Croce's parents made a bet against his success, and accidentally started his career. We are all better for it.
BONUS FACT: Today's TMFW was inspired by an appreciation my wife and I were sharing over Mr. Croce's excellent oeuvre. Croce is a favorite of hers, ever since as a young girl she bought a used cassette of his greatest hits, on a lark, with her paper route money. (That's a true story.)
BONUS FACT 2: After his modest success with Facets in 1966, Croce struggled for several years and didn't find larger commercial success until 1972. In the meantime, he worked as a truck driver and a construction worker while writing music on the side. His time in those fields gave him inspiration for some of his more blue collar songs.
BONUS FACT 3: The plane crash that killed Croce was probably the result of the aircraft hitting a lonely pecan tree a few hundred yards from the runway. According to a contemporary news report of the crash, "[i]nvestigators said the tree, a large pecan, was the only tree for hundreds of yards."
As for why the pilot was flying low enough to hit it that far off of the runway? Well, according to the NTSB accident report he had run 3 miles from a nearby motel to the airport just before the flight, and had "severe coronary artery disease." A theory is that the stress of the run caused the pilot to have a heart attack during takeoff. What a bizarre accident.
BONUS FACT 4: The all-time great wrestler Junkyard Dog (R.I.P.) got his name from the line "meaner than a junkyard dog" in "Bad Bad Leroy Brown." For a time, that song was JYD's entrance music.
BONUS FACT 5: On a road trip a couple of years ago, my wife and I were singing along with "Operator (That's Not The Way It Feels)." Our daughter asked us what the lyrics meant, and we found ourselves explaining the idea of making a call from a pay phone and seeking live directory assistance to find someone's number. That blew her 8-year-old mind, as did Croce's offer at the end of the call that "you can keep the dime." Nowadays, it might be called "OK Google (That's Not The Way It Feels)."
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
Today's TMFW covers the songwriter Doc Pomus and the story behind his biggest hit.
Pomus was a fascinating character. Born Jerome Felder to two Jewish immigrants in 1925 in Brooklyn, he was crippled by polio as a child and spent recovery time in an iron lung and full body cast. As a young man, he fell in love with blues music, and though he was a short white Jewish kid on crutches he pursued a career as a blues shouter. (This is how he got his stage name: he wisely guessed that "Jerry Felder" might not be very marketable in New York City blues clubs.)
Pomus' intro to show business is an excellent story. Allegedly, he was at a New York City club called George's in 1943 (that would make him 18 years old at the time) to hear some blues. He was poor and could only afford one drink, so he sat at the bar with an empty glass enjoying the music. The owner demanded that he either spend some more money or leave the club, and Pomus responded that he was a blues singer and was not there to drink but instead to perform. When the owner called his bluff, Pomus took the stage and performed a rendition of "Piney Brown Blues" by Big Joe Turner, to the crowd's delight. And Pomus figured out right then that despite some obvious differences between him and his contemporaries he could make a go at the blues.
Remarkably, he had some success: over the next twelve years, Pomus recorded several dozen records for famous blues/jazz labels like Chess and Apollo. Songs like "Give it Up," "Lonely Avenue," "Send for the Doctor," and the barely-veiled drug anthem "My Good Pott" fit right into the genre and hold up well.
Pomus was, by all accounts, a spirited and gregarious performer. But he was not going to be huge on the blues scene, and he knew it. So Pomus started writing songs. In 1957, he formed a songwriting partnership with a young piano player named Mort Shuman, with Pomus supplying the lyrics to Shuman's music. They clicked, and for nearly 10 years they had a great run of hits. Nine of their songs made the top 10 and another fifteen made the top 40. They included Dion and the Belmonts' "A Teenager In Love," The Drifters' "This Magic Moment," and Elvis Presley's "Little Sister."
That latter song was one of 18 songs (or maybe 25?) that Pomus wrote for Elvis Presley, primarily with Mort Shuman. Most of them were forgettable B-sides or album fodder for Elvis movie soundtracks, but they did have a #1 song with "Surrender" and they wrote the title song for "Viva Las Vegas."
All of that is a pretty cool TMFW all by itself - a crippled Jewish kid from Brooklyn who made a career as a blues shouter and then as a huge songwriter. But the story of Pomus's biggest hit is what puts it over the top.
Pomus was sufficiently successful that in 1957 he was married to Willi Burke, a broadway actress and dancer. His experience at their wedding reception lead to his biggest hit as a songwriter. Confined alternately to crutches and a wheelchair, Pomus was not able to dance with his bride that night. Burke initially refused to dance with anyone else, but Pomus wanted her to have a good time and encouraged her to dance with his brother Raoul. Years later, Pomus thought back to that night and what it felt like to watch his bride dancing with another man. Inspiration struck, and he wrote some lyrics on the back of one of their old wedding invitations. He gave the finished song to Ben E. King and The Drifters: "Save the Last Dance for Me."
Ben E. King's performance on the song is emotional, and was authentic. As King himself explains in this WNYC Soundcheck clip, "just before I recorded it in the studio [the owner of Atlantic Records] told me the story about it...and when I was signing it I could envision him sitting there and his wife is dancing and he's saying 'it should be me there doing what he's doing.'"
The song was a big hit for Atlantic and for the Drifters, and spent three weeks at #1. Unfortunately, Pomus and Willi Burke did not live happily ever. They divorced, and the unwinding of their marriage is said to have inspired the song "Can't Get Used to Losing You," which was a hit for Andy Williams in 1969.
Pomus died in 1991 at age 65.
FURTHER READING/WATCHING: Pomus is the subject of a book by Alex Halberstadt: Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus, and the 2012 documentary AKA Doc Pomus. And this appreciation by his friend Josh Alan Friedman is a good read.
BONUS FACT: "Save the Last Dance for Me" inspired an answer song by Damita Jo called "I'll Save the Last Dance for You," which uses substantially the same melody and structure as the original but sings it from the woman's perspective instead. It hit #22 on the charts in 1960, and was her second-biggest hit.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Damita Jo's biggest hit was "I'll Be There," which reached #12 in 1961. That too is an answer song, this time to "Stand by Me" by the Drifters' singer Ben E. King. There is more to come on answer songs - including the song that inspired some of the most famous ones - in a future TMFW.
BONUS FACT 2: Ben Folds and Nick Hornby have a song that pays tribute to Pomus - appropriately named "Doc Pomus" - on their Lonely Avenue record (which gets its title from a Pomus tune).