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.

 

Seasons change and so did I

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I delve into the work of a group that is considered royalty in its native Canada, and revered among many U.S. fans as one of the best Top 40 hit bands of the late ’60s and early ’70s:  The Guess Who.

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Some of my readers will no doubt be scratching their heads as to why I would spend much time and space on a group that frankly isn’t in the same league as previous artists I have profiled (Jimi Hendrix, Paul Simon, Genesis, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd).

The answer is simple:  I have always loved the songs of The Guess Who, and the amazing rock vocals of Burton Cummings.  When tunes like “Undun” or “Hand Me Down World”

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Clockwise from top:  Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, Garry Peterson, Jim Kale

or “Albert Flasher” come on the radio, I am instantly transported to 1970-71, hanging with friends and driving with my girl around the east side suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio.

To me, their records were perfect little pop songs, carried either by Cummings’ rollicking piano and distinctive voice or the stinging guitar riffs of Randy Bachman (at first) or Kurt Winter.  Between 1969 and 1974, The Guess Who was Canada’s biggest success story, scoring 10 Top 20 hits in the US and twice that number in their native country.  Their albums performed less well (only three reached Top 20 status in the US), which isn’t really all that surprising, as the group was, from the outset, a singles band.

“We had our eye on the Top 40 charts,” Cummings reflected.  “That was our goal, to have a hit single in the US.  Once we did that with ‘These Eyes’ in early 1969, Randy and I gained the confidence to write more in the same vein, and then they became hits too.”

Soon, recalls Bachman, “It was like we were finishing each other’s sentences.  I’d play Burton a whole song of mine, he’d play me a song of his, and we’d say,  ‘Let’s make mine the verse and make yours the chorus,’ and vice versa.  Sometimes we had heard songs we wanted to imitate, something by Lennon and McCartney, or Brian Wilson, or even Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  We liked to rock, but we enjoyed writing ballads too.”

Few people would claim that The Guess Who catalog had a lot of emotional depth.  The lyrics were often quirky, sometimes even a bit lame, but when put to irresistible melodies as sung by Cummings, it didn’t seem to matter.  Consider, for instance, “Rain Dance.”  What are we to make of these words?  “Fifi said to Don the baker, ‘Can you show burton-cummings-in-1969me how to make another bun, Don?’, And I’m still standing with my next door neighbor saying, ‘Where’d you get the gun, John?’…”  Cummings fashioned such a memorable melody line that the song ended up at #19  (in Canada, it reached #3).

There were instances, though, when Cummings came up with lyrics that had substance, like on the melancholy piano ballad “Sour Suite,” a minor hit which touched on the sad feelings of an off night and depressing memories the next morning (“I don’t want to think about a runaway dad that took away the only thing that I’ve never had, don’t even miss him this morning, I don’t want to think about a cold goodbye, or a high school buddy got a little too high, I can’t help him out this morning…”)

So let’s answer the question many people have always been curious about:  Why “The Guess Who”?

Originally, Bachman (then only 16) had formed a group in 1962 with drummer Garry Peterson and bassist Jim Kale, with singer/guitarist Chad Allan as the front man.  Using the common naming format of many rock bands of that period, they called themselves Allan and The Silvertones.  They soon morphed into Chad Allan and The Reflections, and gained some notoriety in Canada, mostly in and around their home base of Winnipeg in the central Canadian province of Manitoba.  By 1965, they changed their name to Chad Allan and The Expressions because a US band called The Reflections had scored a Top 10 hit with “Just Like Romeo and Juliet.”

As Chad Allan and The Expressions, things started happening when they recorded a cover version of “Shakin’ All Over,” a 1960 hit in England by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. R-5451335-1393701861-1746.jpegThe Expressions’ label, Quality Records, frustrated by the inability of Canadian groups to break into the American market, came up with an idea:  They chose to credit the record to (Guess Who?), hoping it would be better received if it was thought to be by a British Invasion act.  Sure enough, the song reached #22 in the US in early 1965 and went all the way to #1 in Canada.  The band’s real name was revealed a few months later, but disc jockeys continued to announce the group as The Guess Who, which effectively forced the official name change.

In 1966, Cummings was added on keyboards and backing vocals, but then Chad Allan chose to leave the band, which put Cummings at the forefront as lead singer.  This new lineup kept the momentum going in Canada with several Top 20 singles, including Neil Young’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” the eventual Carpenters’ hit “Hurting Each Other” and two Bachman compositions, “Believe Me” and “Clock on the Wall,” but they all stiffed in the US and elsewhere.

Once Bachman and Cummings put their songwriting talents together in 1968, something clicked.  “These Eyes” zoomed to #6 in the US, followed by “Laughing at #10 (a chart topper in Canada).  “Undun” did less well, stalling at #22, but “No Time” reached #5 in the US and was another #1 in Canada.  This was all in the space of 10 months.

(“No Time” had actually been first recorded in ’68 with a weird intro, a longer guitar break and an extended vocal section at the end.  This version rarely gets heard, but you’re in for a real treat — you can hear it on the Spotify playlist at the end of this essay.  Cummings’ vocals and Bachman’s guitar are both amazing here).

Then came the strange case of “American Woman.”  The band had returned to Canada after a long string of American shows, and at a small hall in Ontario, they were taking the stage after a brief break.   Bachman was tuning his guitar after replacing a broken

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(Clockwise from left):  Jim Kale, Greg Leskiw, Garry Peterson, Burton Cummings, Kurt Winter

string and realized he was playing a new riff.  The other members returned to the stage and joined in, creating a jam session in which Cummings improvised lyrics about how homegrown Canadian women were preferable to American girls.  A couple of lines (“I don’t need your war machine, I don’t need no ghetto scenes”) were interpreted as anti-American, but as Cummings said, “It was just a sentiment I ad libbed that night.  The Vietnam war was raging at the time, and we had a lot of draft dodgers in the audience.”

The band recorded the song a week later and, despite the apparent putdown (“American woman, stay away from me”), the song zoomed to #1 in the US and Canada, as did its flip side, “No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature.”

Festering underneath this success, though, was increased tension between Bachman and Cummings.  Bachman had chosen to avoid drink and drugs and had even converted to Mormonism, while Cummings was more of a wild child (as were Kale and Peterson). cshf_05_randy_bachman-1According to “Bachman,” the recently released documentary, “I had become the group’s de facto manager.  I was handling our business affairs, counting the money, constantly up in the morning, going to the bank when it opened, coming back, and then getting [the other band members] out of bed, nursing their hangovers and driving them to the next gig.  When you do that 300 days a year, it takes its toll.”

Bachman had been suffering painful gallbladder problems and needed surgery, but the touring prevented him from getting the care he needed.  Things came to a head in May 1970, when Bachman played his last show with The Guess Who at New York City’s Fillmore East. “We hit No. 1 with the American Woman album and single, and now we’re suddenly headlining. I said, ‘Okay, guys, I need to go home for two weeks.  I have an operation scheduled.’  They said, ‘Great, well, we’re gonna keep going.’  I said, ‘Am I coming back?’  They said, ‘No, we’re kind of glad you’re gone.’  They were into the drug culture, I wasn’t.  So I was glad to leave, but I was sad to leave.  This had been my life.  I had run this band.”

Bachman’s place was quickly filled by guitarist Kurt Winter, an old Winnipeg friend who offered not only great guitar work but wrote some memorable tunes like “Bus Rider” and “Hand Me Down World.”  Because The Guess Who’s radio hits kept on coming almost

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From their “Live at the Paramount” album cover, 1972

seamlessly, the casual listener took no notice of Bachman’s departure.  Winter became Cummings’ new songwriting collaborator, and they teamed up on “Hang On To Your Life,” “Rain Dance,” “Heartbroken Bopper” and “Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon.”  Alone, Cummings came up with “Share the Land,” “Albert Flasher,” “Glamour Boy” and my personal favorite, 1974’s “Star Baby.”

I couldn’t help but feel sad that The Guess Who’s final chart success was the insipid “Clap for the Wolfman,” a tribute of sorts to the radio legend Wolfman Jack.  To my ears, it’s boring, and pales in comparison to almost any other track in The Guess Who’s repertoire.

By 1975, Cummings decided to give a solo career a try, effectively ending the band’s run.  Kale bought the rights to the name and continued assembling various Guess Who lineups to hit the road and even record albums over the ensuing years, but none could manage much success.

Cummings’ first attempts at going it alone did all right, with “Stand Tall” (#10 in the US), “I’m Scared,” “Break It to Them Gently” and “You Saved My Soul” all reaching the charts, but it didn’t last long.  Still, he stayed active in the business, writing and producing and occasionally performing.  He even participated in a few Guess Who reunion concerts,

bachman_and_cummings_at_grey_cup

Bachman and Cummings in the late ’80s

with and without Bachman in the lineup, which is fairly remarkable, considering the way they parted ways in 1970.  Naturally, those shows generated the most enthusiasm from the public.

 

Said Cummings in 1986, “Sometimes when you leave a well-known band, it’s almost immediate death.  Lots of people have tried it and fallen by the wayside.  I’m pleased that there are still people who like me or my songs or the way I sing them.  Some of them like me well enough to come see me perform.  And I do sing quite a few Guess Who tunes.  Hey, those were some great songs.  I was the band’s singer, and I wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, so why would I avoid performing them?  Certainly the audience wants to hear them.”

As for Bachman, he struggled upon leaving The Guess Who in 1970 because industry folks couldn’t understand why he would leave a group just as it had attained a #1 album and single.  But he soldiered on, first putting together a country rock band called Brave Belt with old colleague Chad Allan, and when that didn’t pan out, he recruited his brothers Tim and Robbie and bassist/vocalist Fred Turner to form Bachman-Turner

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The Guess Who, 1968

Overdrive in 1973.

BTO enjoyed a very successful run for a few years, churning out solid pop rock hits like “Takin’ Care of Business,” “Let It Ride,” “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” and “Hey You.”  (Me, I always favored the sultry, jazz-inflected “Blue Collar” featuring Turner’s vocals.)

So… Is the story of The Guess Who compelling?  Perhaps not.  Is their body of work “extraordinary, influential or consistently excellent”?  Hmmm, not so much.  But nevertheless, I just go crazy when I hear “These eyes have seen a lot of loves but they’re never gonna see another one like I had with you” and “I was a workshop owner in the gulch for the people and I offered myself to the world,” dammit!  And I have a hunch that many of my readers share my affection for the songs of The Guess Who.  I hope the Spotify playlist I’ve assembled below (which includes a few solo Cummings and BTO selections) hits the spot for you this week.

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