I’m gonna wait ’til the midnight hour

Last year, I put together a playlist of great songs with titles and/or lyrics about the morning time.  A friend whose profession as a tax accountant occasionally requires him to work the late shift suggested that I come up with a playlist of songs about midnight to Unknown-71help him endure the many hours burning the midnight oil, so I’ve done just that.

It’s a diverse group of 15 songs here, reaching back into the late ’40s and (among the honorable mentions) ahead into the late 1980s.  There are always more candidates to choose from in the 1990s and beyond, but as usual, I specialize in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s here at Hack’s Back Pages.

I hope you enjoy these tunes and their back stories.

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“Midnight Special,” Johnny Rivers, 1965

hqdefault-18This traditional folk song about a passenger train called the Midnight Special is more than a century old, when prisoners in the American South would refer fondly to the Illinois Central train and “its ever-lovin’ light” that might someday take them to freedom.  Blues legend Lead Belly recorded a version in 1934, and early rockabilly singer Paul Evans achieved the song’s highest chart success in 1960.  Many rock fans may know Johnny Rivers’ 1965 rendition, which peaked at #20, and others may be more familiar with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover from 1971, which was used as the theme to the Midnight Special TV music showcase in the ’70s.

“Midnight Rambler,” The Rolling Stones, 1969

41B95VAQ5BLThis violent track from the Stones’ 1969 LP “Let It Bleed” refers to the grisly deeds of Albert DeSalvo, the ’60s serial killer better known as The Boston Strangler.  Curiously, Mick Jagger and Richards wrote the song while on vacation in a picturesque town in Italy earlier that year.  “Why we should write such a dark song while in a beautiful, sunny place, I don’t know,” Jagger said.  The original studio version is plenty great, but the in-concert rendition from the 1970 live album “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!” is considered the definitive one, so that’s the one you’ll hear on the Spotify playlist.

“Midnight at the Oasis,” Maria Muldaur, 1973

413C1RCP90LThe Puerto Rican girl born Maria Grazia Rosa Domenica D’Amato grew up in New York City and became a part of the Sixties music scene in Greenwich Village, singing behind Bob Dylan, John Sebastian and others.  She joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and later was an integral part of the Jerry Garcia Band, a side project of the Grateful Dead’s guitarist.  Muldaur had her one and only hit with songwriter David Nichtern’s “Midnight at the Oasis,” which reached #6 in the spring of 1974 and was nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy.  At 76, she still performs occasionally.

“Midnight Confessions,” The Grassroots, 1968

61sQNoHEN9LWith bassist Rob Grill on lead vocals, The Grassroots first took hold in 1967 with the psychedelic folk hit single “Let’s Live for Today.” When follow-ups failed, Dunhill Records mogul Lou Adler resumed the reins and steered the band in a more horns-oriented direction, a year or two before Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago popularized horns-dominant rock.  The first attempt was the million-selling “Midnight Confessions,” written by Lou Josie and first recorded by the Ever-Green Blues.  Its lyrics are about a man who has a secret crush on a married woman, so he keeps his midnight confessions to himself.

“Midnight Wind,” John Stewart, 1979

c9643030e27d5baf42e1b2a436e67a98A veteran singer-songwriter from his folkie days with The Kingston Trio, Stewart also wrote The Monkees’ 1967 #1 hit “Daydream Believer.”  In 1979, he collaborated with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who took a break from their recording sessions for Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” double album.  Buckingham produced and played guitar and Nicks added vocals to several tracks on Stewart’s “Bombs Away Dream Babies” LP, most notably the #5 hit “Gold” and the fantastic tune “Midnight Wind.”  The album doesn’t seem to be available on Spotify, but a later re-recording by Stewart offers a satisfying alternative to the original.

“In the Midnight Hour,” Wilson Pickett, 1965

51SwOoG2ZGL._SX355_Pickett was one of the gritty soul singers signed to Stax/Volt Records, Memphis’s answer to Detroit’s Motown label.  “In the Midnight Hour,” the tune that became Pickett’s signature song, was written in 1964 by Pickett and Stax session guitarist Steve Cropper during a session in the infamous Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated four years later.  The tune reached #1 on the R&B charts and peaked at #21 on the pop charts, and was later covered by such artists such as The Young Rascals, Mitch Ryder, Archie Bell & The Drells, Tom Jones and Bryan Ferry.

“Midnight Rider,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1970

Allman-Brothers-Band-Idlewild-SouthOrganist-vocalist Gregg Allman wrote many of the band’s finest early songs, most notably “Whipping Post” and “It’s Not My Cross to Bear” from their debut LP, and the haunting “Midnight Rider,” which appears on the group’s 1970 second album “Idlewild South.”  The tune became a popular favorite and a regular of the Allman Brothers in-concert repertoire, and later, when Gregg Allman went out on a solo tour in 1973, he performed a rearranged version that ended up on his “Laid Back” solo debut LP and even charted as a #19 hit single that year.

“Midnight Train to Georgia,” Gladys Knight and The Pips, 1973

midnight-trainSongwriter Jim Weatherly, a friend of actor Lee Majors, called him one evening to hear that his wife, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, was “leaving on a midnight plane to Houston.”  Weatherly liked the sound of that phrase and used it as the title for his soon-to-be-famous song.  By the time it was presented to Gladys Knight as a great choice for her next single, the plane had been replaced by a train, and the destination had changed from Houston to Georgia.  The song went on to reach #1 on both the pop charts and R&B charts in the fall of 1973, won a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance.

“Midnight Cowboy,” John Barry, 1969

R-1097409-1443930393-7930.jpegBarry is one of the more accomplished film score composers of the 20th Century, responsible for the first dozen James Bond movies as well as Oscar nominees like “Born Free,” “Out of Africa” and “Dances With Wolves,” among many others.  The languid, melancholy melody he came up with for 1969’s Best Picture winner “Midnight Cowboy” is especially effective, thanks in no small part to the warm harmonica solo by the legendary Toots Thielemans.  A rendition by piano duo Ferrante and Teicher did better on the charts, but I think the original is far superior.

“South City Midnight Lady,” The Doobie Brothers, 1973

The-Captain-and-Me-2In its original incarnation, The Doobies were a rough-and-tumble biker bar band from San Jose, churning out serious boogie tunes by Tom Johnston like “China Grove,” “Long Train Runnin’,” “Listen to the Music” and “Jesus is Just Alright.”  The more melodious, understated songs in the group’s repertoire were provided by second guitarist/vocalist Pat Simmons, gems like “Toulouse Street,” “Clear as the Driven Snow” and the shimmering “South City Midnight Lady.”  This track from 1973’s “The Captain and Me” includes some sweet pedal-steel work by eventual full-time Doobie Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

“Midwest Midnight,” Michael Stanley Band, 1977

0001265787Cleveland’s own Michael Stanley Band is perhaps the best example of an excellent rock band that should’ve made it big but didn’t.  Between 1974 and 1984, they bounced from Epic to Arista to EMI America, writing and recording so many great songs and touring relentlessly, but MSB never achieved the well-deserved chart success their fans think they should have.  On their 1977 live LP “Stagepass,” you can find the only version of the great rocker “Midwest Midnight,” which tells Stanley’s tale of listening to music late at night as a teen and dreaming about a career as a rock musician.

“Midnite Cruiser,” Steely Dan, 1972

220px-Cant_buy_a_tcant_buy_a_thrillFrom the pop craftwork of “Pretzel Logic” and “Katy Lied” to the jazzier arrangements on “Aja” and “Gaucho,” Steely Dan’s seven superlative albums were essentially a soundtrack to the styles and moods of the ’70s.  Their later work sold better, but when I’m asked which album is my favorite, I keep coming back to their remarkable debut, “Can’t Buy a Thrill.”  Beyond the radio hits “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” are irresistible tracks like “Kings,” “Dirty Work,” “Only a Fool Would Say That,” “Brooklyn” and the quirky “Midnite Cruiser,” the only Dan tune featuring original drummer Jim Hodder on vocals.

“‘Round Midnight,” Thelonious Monk, 1947

s-l300-7Monk, one of the two or three finest jazz pianists in music history, wrote this marvelous song in 1944, performing it in clubs for years before finally recording it in 1947.  It went on to become the most recorded jazz standard composed by a jazz musician; many covers exist but Miles Davis’s rendition in 1955 is worth seeking out.  Later on, torch singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Linda Ronstadt let the world know the song came with a great set of sad lyrics as well (also by Monk):  “It begins to tell ’round midnight, midnight, I do pretty well till after sundown, supper time I’m feelin’ sad, but it really gets bad ’round midnight…”

“Midnight Moodies,” Joe Walsh, 1973

walsh02-2Walsh got his start as guitarist, singer and songwriter for Cleveland’s The James Gang, then embarked on a solo career in 1972.  Perhaps my favorite track from Walsh’s masterpiece album “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” is this mesmerizing instrumental piece.  Piano, guitar, bass, drums and flute combine to create a compelling piece that features multiple moods and styles in only 3:39.  Walsh’s LP was a big seller thanks to the huge hit single “Rocky Mountain Way,” but I urge you to listen to the rest of the album, starting with this track, “Dreams,” “Meadows” and “Wolf.”

 “After Midnight,” Eric Clapton, 1970

Eric_Clapton_Album_CoverIn the wake of Cream’s breakup and then the short-lived Blind Faith, Clapton chose to finally stick his toe in solo waters with the self-titled debut LP in the summer of 1970.  He recruited friends like Stephen Stills, Leon Russell, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett and his bandmates from Derek and the Dominos to work on blues, soul and rock tunes like “Let It Rain,” “Blues Power,” “Easy Now” and “Bottle of Red Wine.” The album’s best known track was J. J. Cale’s blues shuffle “After Midnight,” which Eric and company cut in an uptempo arrangement.  For the Spotify playlist, I chose to feature an alternate take that prominently features a horn section.

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Honorable mention:

Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968;  “Midnight Man,” The James Gang, 1971;  “It’s Midnight,” Elvis Presley, 1975;  “Minutes to Midnight,” Midnight Oil, 1984;  “Saturday at Midnight,” Cheap Trick, 1982;  “Midnight Flyer,” The Eagles, 1974;  “Moanin’ at Midnight,” Howlin’ Wolf, 1958;  “Midnight Blue,” Lou Gramm, 1987;  “Rockin’ at Midnight,” The Honeydrippers, 1984;  “Isn’t It Midnight,” Fleetwood Mac, 1987;   “Rockin’ After Midnight,” Marvin Gaye, 1982;  “Midnight Wind,” Charlie Daniels Band, 1977;  “Fire at Midnight,” Jethro Tull, 1977.

The playlist on Spotify includes the 15 featured selection, a couple of alternate versions and the 13 honorable mention tracks.

 

Let your voice ring back my memories

When I go deep diving for “lost classics” in my collection of 1,800 vinyl albums and CDs, I often lean more toward the uptempo rock music I favored much of the time.  Just as important to me, though, were the acoustic strains of the early ’70s singer-songwriter era, a time when I was learning to play guitar so I could perform them at parties and school variety shows.

Popular-Guitar-Chord-SongsI certainly didn’t learn how to play all of them, but the songs of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens and others will always have a soft spot in my heart.  They wrote such lovely melodies and piercing lyrics that speak so tenderly of the human condition we all must navigate.

For this week’s post on the blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on songs from that genre and that period.  The forgotten deep tracks from these artists’ albums were great then and are just as mesmerizing now as I’m helping you rediscover them.  Crank up the Spotify playlist and pay attention as these tunes gently wash over you.

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“One Man Parade,” James Taylor, 1972

536d9e4fe675fabdea3ff2be2348bc23.800x800x1Both his “Sweet Baby James” and “Mud Slide Slim” albums had been recorded in L.A. studios, but for his next effort, “One Man Dog,” he decided to record in his new homemade studio in a barn next to his homemade house on Martha’s Vineyard.  He had written a dozen or so short songs, intending to tie them together in an “Abbey Road”-like manner, and the result was compelling, but he also had a couple of standard-length tunes that might get Top 40 radio play.  Sure enough, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” reached #12 on the charts, but the follow-up single, “One Man Parade,” inexplicably died on the vine at #67.  It’s one of Taylor’s most carefree tunes, with a charming melody and lyrics about how his dog is exactly the kind of friend he’s looking for — loyal, easygoing, enjoying life’s simple pleasures.

“To Each His Own,” America, 1972

AmericaHomecomingDewey Bunnell, Dan Peek and Gerry Beckley comprised America, a talented trio of singer-songwriters who had great success on the charts in the early ’70s — “A Horse With No Name,” “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Lonely People,” “Sister Golden Hair.”  The albums these songs came from were chock full of more acoustic melodies and CSN-like harmonies that have pretty much been forgotten over the years.  On their second LP “Homecoming,” you can find the amazing John Martin song “Head and Heart” and Peek’s minor hit “California Revisited” and country-inflected “Don’t Cross the River,” but my favorite is the simple melody of “To Each His Own,” Beckley’s song of a romance that is ending even though the love endures.

“The Lonely One,” Dave Mason, 1973

it-s-like-you-never-left-albums-photo-u1As one of the founders of the British folk-jazz-rock group Traffic, Mason was quickly overshadowed by Steve Winwood and decided to head out on his own instead.  His solo debut LP “Alone Together” is considered one of the finer albums of 1970, but Mason found himself mired in a struggle with his foundering label Blue Thumb, losing career momentum in the process.  When he signed with Columbia and released “It’s Like You Never Left” in 1973, he began a run of six successful albums and nearly non-stop touring throughout the ’70s, peaking with the platinum “Let It Flow” LP and Top Ten single “We Just Disagree” in 1977.  At least a dozen Mason tracks qualify as lost classics, and this go-around, I’ve picked the acoustic gem “The Lonely One” from the 1973 album.  Dig Stevie Wonder’s excellent harmonica here!

“Barangrill,” Joni Mitchell, 1972

image_10135e2c-0d61-4e71-8787-061f9ee8e993In every discussion of Mitchell’s repertoire, everyone focuses on her confessional masterpiece “Blue” from 1971 or her pop-jazz pinnacle “Court and Spark” from 1974.  Me, I’ve always been partial to the album in between these two, 1972’s “For the Roses,” mostly because I discovered it during an emotional time when I was able to absorb her music non-stop through headphones.  Again, I could have selected any of nine of the 12 tunes on this amazing record (“Banquet,” “For the Roses,” “See You Sometime”), but I was moved to go with “Barangrill,” a perceptive study of the regulars and employees at the nation’s truck-stop diners.

“Where Do the Children Play?”, Cat Stevens, 1970

51yt4ogh5wL._SX466_So many of my generation were instantly captivated by the music of Cat Stevens when his “Tea for the Tillerman” album arrived in late 1970, sparked by the hit single “Wild World.”  Stevens (who later embraced Islam and changed his name to Yusef) had released three earlier albums that were ignored in the U.S., but that changed in a hurry with “Tillerman.”  “Father and Son” emerged as an underground favorite, and pretty much every song here qualifies as a lost classic.  My candidate would have to be “Where Do the Children Play?”, one of the first songs I remember hearing that decried the spoiling of the planet and our environment.

“One Of These Things First,” Nick Drake, 1971

220px-Bryter_LayterDrake’s tragic story of sublime talent tortured by stage fright and clinical depression wasn’t well known during his short life, which ended in suicide in 1974.  He made just three albums, all critically acclaimed, but he wasn’t appreciated more deeply until the new millennium.  Like many folks, I discovered Drake from the use of his song “Pink Moon” in a TV commercial ten years ago, and consequently picked up a wonderful anthology CD featuring a robust cross-section of his repertoire.  The song that grabbed me instantly, originally found on his “Bryter Later” album, is “One of These Things First,” a beautiful piano-and-guitar melody carried by Drake’s feather-light voice.  If you’re not familiar with Drake’s work, here’s a great place to start.

“Peace Like a River,” Paul Simon, 1972

R-3055486-1372780911-7597.jpegAs a huge fan of Simon and Garfunkel, I was very disappointed when Simon chose to give his partner the heave-ho and go solo following the stratospheric success of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  Their friendship endured in an on-again-off-again way, but Simon was far more interested in exploring the rhythms and musical textures of other lands than Garfunkel was.  The reggae feel of “Mother and Child Reunion” and the peppy Latino beat of “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” are the two most notable examples to be found on the “Paul Simon” solo debut LP.  Buried on side 2 is “Peace Like a River,” which sounded to me like the album track that would have fit quite nicely on any S&G album.

“Minstrel Of the Dawn,” Gordon Lightfoot, 1970

R-1361049-1285558009.jpegThe acoustic guitar work, strong vocals and delightful songwriting that have marked Lightfoot’s lengthy career as a recording artist were at their most simple and direct on his breakthrough LP, “If You Could Read My Mind.”  That album’s title tune reached #5 and made a fan out of me, but there were another 4-5 songs on the LP that I found just as engaging.  One is “Minstrel of the Dawn,” a lovely piece that describes the life of a traveling troubadour, offering a lively string arrangement that augments Lightfoot’s dextrous finger-picking and strong baritone vocals.

“Johnny’s Garden,” Manassas, 1972

Manassas-by-Stephen-StillsCritics called Stephen Stills’ band’s double LP “a sprawling masterpiece,” with an impressive diversity of rock, folk, country, blues, Latin and bluegrass music.  Side 3 of “Manassas” focuses on folk and folk rock, and the centerpiece is the lost classic “Johnny’s Garden,” written by Stills in honor of the gardener who tended to the extensive grounds at the English manor Stills once owned.  The song is perhaps the simplest on the album, with an arrangement limited to Stills’ guitar, Fuzzy Samuels’ bass and some light drums from Dallas Taylor.  It’s one of Stills’ most engaging songs, harking back to the tunes he was writing when with Crosby, Nash and Young.

“Seagull,” Bad Company, 1974

220px-BadCompanyBadCompanyKnown far and wide as a straightforward British rock band, Bad Company hit a home run with their debut LP in 1974, which topped the charts in the U.S. and spawned three singles.  Buried amidst the solid rock and roll of “Can’t Get Enough,” “Ready for Love” and “Movin’ On” is an evocative track called “Seagull” that features vocalist Paul Rodgers humming and singing along to his own acoustic guitar accompaniment.  I always wondered if Rodgers might have had any more songs like this tucked up his sleeve that were never recorded…  A tip of the hat to my friend Ray for turning me on to this fine song when he sang it often around the campfire.

“Bitter With the Sweet,” Carole King, 1972

220px-CKRhymesKing’s “Tapestry” LP was the early ’70s biggest success story, selling 20 million copies and reigning supreme on the charts for most of 1971.  The two albums that followed — “Music” and “Rhymes and Reasons” — carried on in the same vein as “Tapestry,” with similar heartfelt lyrics and easygoing piano-based melodies.  The singles “Sweet Seasons” and “Been to Canaan” did well, and the albums reached #1 and #2 respectively, but how often do you hear Carole King any more, besides “It’s Too Late”?  Such a treasure trove of fine tunes on these albums.  I’ve always been fond of “Bitter With the Sweet,” carried by Charles Larkey’s bouncing bass line and Bobbye Hall’s spritely bongos, congas and tambourine.  King’s lyrics tell of the importance of learning how to accept the bad with the good that life has to offer.

“Warmth of Your Eyes,” Lazarus, 1971

603497980567-1Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary was on tour in 1971 supporting his solo debut LP when a struggling singer-songwriter named Bill Hughes approached him after a gig and invited him to his home nearby.  Yarrow agreed and was then exposed to a demo tape of Hughes’ music, performed by his three-piece group Lazarus.  “I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the songs — music and lyrics — and the stunning harmonies,” said Yarrow, who helped the group secure a recording contract.  Sadly, inexplicably, Lazarus never did break through, throwing in the towel after only two albums, but I’m here to tell you their music is superb, and well worth your time.  I could have selected any of a half-dozen tracks from their debut LP, but I’m going with “Warmth of Your Eyes” for its gentle, spiritual vibe and gorgeous harmonies.

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