The old songs never end

I just love doing these occasional posts about lost classics.

Radio has always failed us.   When it comes to keeping alive so many of the truly great songs of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s that appeared on albums but never got the appropriate amount of appreciation, it was always up to us.

Some of these spectacular tracks appeared on well-known albums, and they were merely underexposed against their more popular brothers.  But so many great tunes showed up on otherwise forgettable albums, and they were therefore in danger of being lost to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Until now.

One of my jobs here at Hack’s Back Pages is to shine a light on some of these amazing songs that escaped the attention of even the most ardent music fans of that period.

This week, I offer another dozen really strong recordings you should (and can) check out, via the Spotify list at the bottom of this entry.

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220px-Saynomore“Old Judge Jones,” Les Dudek, 1977

Dudek is unknown to all but the most dedicated rock enthusiasts.  Neither the singles nor the albums released under his name have made a ripple in the Top 40 waters, but he has been present for some of the great tracks of the 1970s with The Allman Brothers Band, Steve Miller Band, Boz Scaggs, Maria Muldaur and more.  Most notably, he’s the guy playing the harmonic lead guitar behind Dickey Betts on the 1973 huge hit “Ramblin’ Man.”  Although his solo career went nowhere, his underrated 1977 LP “Say No More” included the infectious “Old Judge Jones,” which got some FM airplay at the time but deserves far wider exposure.

Roger_daltrey_solo_cover“Giving It All Away,” Roger Daltrey, 1973

The Who’s titanic lead vocalist could very possibly have had a strong solo career outside The Who, but he seemed to prefer working with Pete Townshend and his enigmatic rock operas and street anthems.  Still, he dabbled in solo recordings through the years, beginning with “Daltrey,” recorded in early 1973 during a lull in The Who’s touring schedule, prior to the release of “Quadrophenia.”  Daltrey had met struggling singer-songwriter Leo Sayer, who provided a batch of songs co-written with David Courtney, the best of which was the dramatic “Giving It All Away.”  Daltrey’s powerful voice helped push the song to #5 in England, although it stiffed at #83 in the US.  Still, if you were to put this tune on a playlist of Who tracks, it would fit in beautifully.

john-stewart-bombs-away-dream-babies“Midnight Wind,” John Stewart, 1979

Stewart was a California-born singer-songwriter who joined the folk group The Kingston Trio in 1961, then wrote the well-known “Daydream Believer,” a huge hit for The Monkees (#1) in 1967 and Anne Murray (#12) in 1979.  Meanwhile, Stewart pursued a solo career bouncing around between multiple labels until he scored a hit in 1979 with the LP “Bombs Away Dream Babies.”  The single “Gold” (“People out there turning music into gold”) went to #5, which utilized the vocals and guitar of Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, but even more impressive was his song “Midnight Wind,” which also featured Buckingham and Nicks and reached a respectable #28 here.

220px-LeonRussellAlbum“Roll Away the Stone,” Leon Russell, 1970

Leon Russell was a huge figure in ’60s rock, having played keyboards and handled arrangements on dozens of Top 40 hits as a member of the famed “Wrecking Crew” gang of L.A. session musicians.  When he went out on his own, the masses didn’t exactly embrace him, but his work was widely admired by others, including Joe Cocker (“Delta Lady”), Rita Coolidge (“Superstar”), The Carpenters (“A Song for You”), George Benson (“This Masquerade”) and others, who turned his songs into mainstream hits.  Elton John so worshipped Russell that he teamed up with him in 2010 on the #3 collaborative LP “The Union,” which demonstrates Russell’s considerable skills.  His unmistakable vocal delivery on tracks like his early classic “Roll Away the Stone” made him an FM favorite.

1973-wake-of-the-flood“Eyes of the World,” Grateful Dead, 1973

The Dead had their legendary “Deadheads” following, who guaranteed packed venues wherever they played in the 1970s and 1980s.  Their albums, though full of great material, were never big sellers (except the #6 hit LP “In the Dark” with its #9 hit “Shades of Gray” in 1987).  Back in 1973, the group’s otherwise unremarkable LP “Wake of the Flood” included the bonafide gem “Eyes of the World,” which The Dead continued to play in concert for many years afterwards.  Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia’s vocals and guitar are at their best on this marvelous song.

Bonnie_Raitt_-_Nine_Lives“Who But a Fool (Thief Into Paradise),” Bonnie Raitt, 1986

In the mid-1980s, Columbia Records chose to “clean house” of older artists whose work wasn’t selling as it once had, and Raitt, a reliable blues talent for a decade, was caught up in that purge.  She had just completed an album, but it sat on the shelves for nearly three years before Columbia belatedly released it, retitled “Nine Lives.”  It didn’t sell either, and she ended up changing to Capitol, where she won multiple Grammys for her “Nick of Time” LP in 1989.  On “Nine Lives,” though, there’s a hidden beauty called “Who But a Fool (Thief into Paradise)” that mustn’t be allowed to escape attention any longer.

surrealisticpillow“She Has Funny Cars,” Jefferson Airplane, 1967

In 1965, singer-songwriters Marty Balin and Paul Kantner worked their way through a few preliminary lineups for their band, The Jefferson Airplane, before settling on guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and singer Signe Anderson.  They cut one record before Anderson left to raise a family, and her replacement was the fiery Grace Slick, who brought two killer songs with her — “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”  While those two tracks still get major airplay on classic rock radio, the rest of the “Surrealistic Pillow” album is overlooked these days, which is a shame.  In particular, “She Has Funny Cars,” the leadoff song, has the crucial elements of the Airplane’s trademark sound:  Kaukonen’s guitar work and the Balin-Slick vocal interplay.

Emitt_Rhodes_1970_cover“With My Face on the Floor,” Emitt Rhodes, 1970

This multi-talented instrumentalist got screwed by the record industry, plain and simple.  He’d been part of a failed ’60s band called Merry-Go-Round, but he was still tied to A&M Records when he took matters into his own hands and recorded a batch of songs at home on his own equipment (way before that kind of thing was common).  The demos were so good that ABC/Dunhill leaped on them, and the debut LP ended up at #29.  But still, most people remained unfamiliar with his work, which is tragic.  Check out the opening track, “With My Face on the Floor,” plus others like “Live Till You Die,” “Somebody Made for Me,” “Lullaby” and “Fresh as a Daisy.”  They sound like a cross between Paul McCartney and Eric Carmen.

R-1424836-1319782297-1.jpeg“Hurt,” Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 1978

The late great Tom Petty and his band were still struggling early in their career, trying to move beyond the minor success of “Breakdown” on their debut LP the year before.  It wouldn’t be until the “Damn the Torpedos” album and its hit single “Refugee” that they would break into the big time in 1979.  But meanwhile, their second album, the criminally underrated “You’re Gonna Get It!”, slipped by in 1978, despite being chock full of great songs like “I Need to Know'” and “Listen to Her Heart.”  In my opinion, the most underrated track was “Hurt,” which deserves a place on any Petty setlist that’s being composed in the wake of his death in 2017.

Jethro_Tull_Songs_from_the_Wood“Velvet Green,” Jethro Tull, 1977

Although Tull was known as a band with progressive rock complexities and hard rock leanings, they always had an acoustic side as well, thanks to leader Ian Anderson’s fondness for delicate melodies.  The 1977 LP “Songs From the Wood” signaled a definitive left turn in that direction, with songs full of Elizabethan motifs and keyboard arrangements.  “The Whistler” and the title song featured prominent flute passages, as did perhaps the album’s best track, “Velvet Green,” which offered erotic and pastoral lyrical phrases to complement the gentler music.

KinksWordofMouth“Living on a Thin Line,” The Kinks, 1984

Singer/frontman Ray Davies wrote virtually all of the songs in The Kinks’ lengthy catalog (1964-1995), from the early raucous “You Really Got Me” to the prissy Brit number “Sunny Afternoon” to the transgender huge hit “Lola.”  But brother/guitarist Dave Davies wrote a handful, and “Living on a Thin Line,” his contribution to their 1984 LP “Word of Mouth,” is not only his best, but one of  The Kinks’ best tracks as well.  It has a wonderful groove, which saw a resurgence in 2001 when it was used to great effect in the celebrated “University” episode of “The Sopranos.”

“Skateaway,” Dire Straits, 1980  Sleeve_of_Making_Movies.svg

The huge impact of Dire Straits’ 1978 classic “Sultans of Spring” seemed to color everything they did afterwards, at least for a while.  But guitarist/songwriter Mark Knopfler had grander plans, and when he came up with the outstanding material that comprised 1980’s “Making Movies,” he was off and running, mostly due to the gorgeous “Romeo and Juliet” and the cinematic “Tunnel of Love.”  Often forgotten is “Skateaway,” a fabulous pastiche about an alluring rollerblading girl who clearly mesmerizes the songwriter, to a point where we’re all a bit entranced by her.

 

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The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll

“If you don’t know the blues, there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll, or any other music, for that matter.” — Keith Richards

When people are feeling down and out, they get depressed.  They get sad.  It happens to everyone.  They get what has often been known as The Blues.

How do we deal with these negative feelings?  As is often the case, we turn to music to put salve on our psychic wounds.  We just sing.  We just play the guitar, or fiddle, or harmonica, and let the music take us to a better place.

bradfordville_540x242And yet, at its purest sense, blues music has been largely ignored by the mainstream public at large.  For instance, there aren’t more than a handful of truly blues songs that have found their way on to the Top 40 pop charts.  Back in 1958, Eddie Cochran’s smoldering cover of  “Summertime Blues” reached #8 on the pop charts, and The Who’s live version ended up at #27 in 1970.   But those are exceptions to the rule.

Still, blues has played a pivotal role in the evolution of rock music, and most major rock bands have included pure blues tunes in their repertoire.  Witness “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” or “For You Blue” by The Beatles, or “Roadhouse Blues” by The Doors, or “One Way Out” by The Allman Brothers, or “Black Limousine” by The Rolling Stones, even “Steamroller” by James Taylor.

Blues music is soulful.  It’s full of deep emotion.  It attempts to address the pain of those who suffer, yet it gives hope and support as well.  And it’s important to acknowledge the fact that the blues emerged from the Southern U.S. cotton fields, where slaves and indentured blacks toiled, looking for a break in their bleak existence.  They found solace in song, and put melody, rhythm and words to their misery.

The first appearance of the blues is usually dated after the end of the Civil War, between 1870 and 1900, a period that also saw the rise of so-called “juke joints” where blacks went to listen to music and dance after a hard day’s work.

9772_b-b-kingsAs blues guitar legend B.B. King put it:

“Blues was started by the slaves, and I think everyone thinks it should all be sad.  But even the slaves had fun with it.  Blues began out of feeling misused, mistreated, feeling like they had nobody to turn to.  But blues don’t have to be sung by people from Mississippi, like me.  There are people having problems all over the world.” 

Icons like Robert Johnson, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the first to record early blues songs in the 1920s in the Delta, at the same time country legends were doing the same thing in Memphis and elsewhere.  The two genres have had a lot in common, and have merged many times in their mutual evolution.  In fact, in the first half of the 20th Century, blues was known as “country blues,” played on acoustic guitars, harmonicas and pianos.  Later, after blacks migrated to St. Louis, Chicago and other Northern cities, “urban blues” developed, which featured electric guitars, basses, organs and brass instruments.

Robert_Johnson

Robert Johnson

But let’s really look at The Blues.  Let’s look at Sonny Boy Williamson (“Bring It on Home,” “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’,” “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” “One Way Out”),  and Lightnin’ Hopkins (“Baby Please Don’t Go”), and Big Bill Broonzy (“Key to the Highway”), and Willie Dixon (“Spoonful,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster”), and so many other legends who wrote and played heartfelt songs that were popular not only in blues circles at the time but were later interpreted to greater success by others like Cream, Sam Cooke, Johnny Winter, Derek and the Dominos, Steppenwolf, Dave Mason and The Doobie Brothers.

 

We ought to thank the sailors on the postwar merchant ships who brought early blues records with them on their long voyages to England, where youngsters like John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton got their hands on them and had a spiritual awakening.  They formed bands, and  cranked out electric versions of these same blues — records like The Stones’ “Not Fade Away” and The Beatles’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Bad Boy.”

MaRainey

Ma Rainey

“When we started playing in London in 1962,” notes Keith Richards, “we started off with Chicago blues.  If you wanted stardom and fame, clearly that was not the way to go.”

 

By the late ’60s, American musicians had also become reacquainted with the blues, and they joined the blues revival:  Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and so on.  Still, it was the Brits who continued to be the main source of blues music interpretations, thanks to artists like Led Zeppelin and Jeff Beck.

Here’s the thing about The Blues:  The best blues you’ve heard, or will ever hear, is not in some domed stadium, arena or large venue.  It will come instead in some dive joint down a dark street in some sketchy neighborhood, where seasoned veterans will play blues music all night long.

chi-muddy-waters-home-museum-20140128-001

Muddy Waters

Perhaps that’s why many music lovers I know have only a small window of appreciation for the blues.  “I’ll enjoy two or three songs, but then I want something else,” says my wife, while I’d be happy to sit in that blues club and groove along until four in the morning.

 

Blues artists have always seemed to be satisfied cruising along just under the radar, gaining just enough attention for people to keep packing the clubs and buying an album or two, but not necessarily seeking top-of-the-charts fame.

I’d like call out the blues music artists, and their albums, that I believe are the ones you should explore.  These are blues legends, or more recent artists who have embraced blues music and are worthy of your consideration.

 

Eric_Clapton_UnpluggedEric Clapton has probably done more to promote the blues than anyone in the music industry.   His work with Cream (1966-1969) revitalized names like Willie Dixon (“Spoonful”), Albert King (“Born Under a Bad Sign”), Chester Burnett (“Sitting on Top of the World”), and Robert Johnson (“Crossroads”).  And the “Layla” album, where he played in tandem with Duane Allman, is one of the best blues albums of all time (“Key to the Highway,” “Have You Ever Loved a Woman”).  In his solo career, he explored many non-blues forms, but he always returned to the blues, his true love.  His bluesiest albums to check out:  John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers “Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton” (1965).  Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” (1967) and “Wheels of Fire” (1968).   Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla” (1970).   Solo albums:  “Just One Night” (1980), “Money and Cigarettes” (1983), “Unplugged,” (1992),  “From the Cradle” (1994), “Riding With the King” (2000), “Me and Mr. Johnson” (2004).

 

Buddy_Guy_SRV

Stevie Ray Vaughan (left) with Buddy Guy

Stevie Ray Vaughan was the heir apparent to the blues guitar throne in the late 1980s.  He emerged from an Austin, Texas, scene with smoldering tracks like “Texas Flood” and “Pride and Joy,” and even had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.  His work made him an attraction to stars like David Bowie, who featured him on his monumental “Let’s Dance” LP in 1983.  Vaughan died in a freak helicopter crash in 1990, just as his career was gaining momentum.  Albums to check out:  “Texas Flood” (1983) “Soul to Soul” (1985), “In Step” (1989).

 

0001132301Buddy Guy is a true legend, and a man Clapton describes as “the best blues guitar player ever, bar none.”  Now 81, Guy has been an explosive force in concert for more than 60 years, and has influenced most of the better known guitarists in the business.  Check out “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues” (1991).

Jimmy Page, first with The Yardbirds and then Led Zeppelin, has been at the top of everyone’s list of great blues guitarists, and Zeppelin’s debut “Led Zeppelin” (1969) is the best place to hear it.

John Lee Hooker was a towering blues guitarist and songwriter from his teens in the early ’30s until his death in 2001.  He was a multiple Grammy winner and a major influence on blues music for seven decades.  Try “The Healer” (1989) and “Mr. Lucky” (1991).

Jimi Hendrix recorded only two pure blues songs on his official releases — “Voodoo Chile” and “Red House” — but he did more to reinvent the blues than any guitarist in history.  “Are You Experienced?” (1967) and “Electric Ladyland” (1968) showcase Hendrix’s unique style of blues-based originals.

008811164614BB King, rightly dubbed “King of the Blues” in most music polls, lived to the ripe age of 89, and continued performing upwards of 250 shows a year right up until the end in 2015.  His string-bending guitar style influenced dozens of electric blues guitarists who followed.  I recommend “Live at The Regal” (1965) and “Completely Well” (1969), and his collaboration with Clapton, “Riding With the King” (2000).

Peter Green, founder of the venerable Fleetwood Mac, was in charge of the group for its first three years, when they were known as Britain’s best blues band.  It was Green’s outstanding blues guitar and songwriting that put them at the top of the charts there.  Check out “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac” (1968) and “Mr. Wonderful” (1968).

617gSnp3ovL._SL500_Duane & Gregg Allman are among the top two or three blues guitarists and singers, respectively, in the business.  Duane died at only 24 but laid down some of the best blues recordings ever in his short life.  Gregg just died this year, and contributed great vocals, organ and songwriting throughout his lengthy career.  Check out “Live  at Fillmore East” (1971), “Eat a Peach” (1972) and “Laid Back” (1973).

Joe Bonamassa was a guitar prodigy, playing electric guitar before he entered kindergarten!  Now 40, Bonamassa puts on a virtual guitar clinic with every performance.  He has such a passion for the blues that he devotes time and treasure to a non-profit called Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation, which funds music scholarships and music education all over the country.  I would recommend “Beacon Theater:  Live From New York” (2012) and “Blues of Desperation” (2016).

Janis Joplin had perhaps the most dynamic blues voice of all, but we only got to hear it for a few years.  Fortunately, records like “Cheap Thrills” (1968) and “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!” (1969) captured her spine-tingling vocals at their best.

John Mayall was and still is a sort of “father figure” to blues musicians from 1960 on.  Consider that Clapton, Green, and The Stones’ Mick Taylor all spent time as guitarists for Mayall’s band The Bluesbreakers.  “John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton” (1965) is an absolute must, as are “The Turning Point” (1969) and “Chicago Line” (1988).

Jeff_Beck-TruthJeff Beck is still blowing people’s minds today at age 73 with his innovative guitar playing.  While he also delved into jazz fusion and progressive rock, he cut his teeth on the blues, as evidenced by his work with The Yardbirds on “Roger the Engineer” (1966) and his stunning solo debut, “Truth” (1968).

John Mayer writes beautiful melodies and sings them with a sweet voice, but until you see him live, you may not realize what a phenomenal blues guitarist he is.  The best album to illustrate this is “Where the Light Is:  Live in Los Angeles” (2008).

Paul Rodgers, former lead singer of Free and Bad Company, was nominated for a Grammy for his superlative album “Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters” (1993), which features some of the top guitarists guesting on Waters’ best songs.

Robert Cray, starting in the mid-’80s and continuing to this day, has released new blues albums every couple of years, highlighting his smooth blues guitar work and vocals.  “Strong Persuader” (1986) and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (1988) are excellent LPs from his strong catalog.

j1523_stones_packshot-digital-4000x4000-layered-f23ca9df-dee7-4b99-a7d4-a18b920f3501Jonny Lang was only 15 when he astounded blues music lovers with his debut LP “Lie to Me” (1997).  He continues to amaze concertgoers with his talents on blues guitar.

The Rolling Stones, for more than 50 years, have wanted to make a blues album, playing the music they did when they were just starting out.  They finally did, and it’s a revelation:  “Blue and Lonesome” (2016).

 

 

While blues music only occasionally shows up at the top of the pop charts, and its popularity waxes and wanes over the years, it’s durable.  There’s always a place for the blues.  In a 1968 interview, Willie Dixon was philosophical about the role that the blues play in the larger musical picture:  “The blues are the roots, and the other musics are the fruits.  It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on.  The blues are the roots of all American music — country, jazz, rock.  As long as American music survives, so will the blues.”