Sing a song, play guitar, make it snappy

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell. This week and next, I’ll be examining the careers of two multi-talented singer/songwriters whose musical arcs briefly overlapped in the ’60s and then went in different directions through the ’70s and ’80s and beyond. This week in Part One, we’ll take a look at the amazing Steve Winwood. Next week in Part Two, we’ll explore the interesting path taken by the great Dave Mason.

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Summer 1969. Over the previous six months, I had become a huge fan of Cream, the British blues power trio featuring guitarist Eric Clapton, drummer Ginger Baker and bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce. The group had already disbanded, but that didn’t stop me from immersing myself in their albums. As a budding guitarist myself, I idolized Clapton and was eager to find out what he was going to do next.

By August, the record stores were touting a new album by a new “supergroup” called Blind Faith, comprised of Clapton and Baker with a keyboardist/singer named Steve Winwood, and bassist Ric Grech. I bought the LP immediately and, while I was at first disappointed by the absence of firepower Cream had been known for, I was particularly taken by the vocals of this guy Winwood. Haunting and beautiful, soaring and bluesy, his voice was a revelation to me, as was the fact that he’d been in not one but two successful groups previously, even though he was then only 21.

I am sheepish to admit that, at that time, I knew almost nothing of Traffic, the band Winwood had put together in 1967. It took another couple of years before I truly became familiar with the group through their albums in the early ’70s, and longer still to appreciate the fine work from the first three Traffic albums, or his contributions to the Spencer Davis Group before that, while still just a teenager.

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Winwood, a product of Birmingham, England, had been something of a boy wonder, learning piano early and developing his voice as he absorbed many different types of music. “I was a chorister in the High Anglican Church,” he said in a 2017 interview with Classic Rock, a British music magazine. “That music got under my skin somehow. Then along came skiffle and early rock ‘n roll and Buddy Holly. And later on came Ray Charles, who had a big influence on me and introduced me to this crossover from bebop and jazz into rock and R&B. I was so engrossed with learning all these different types of music, and trying to play them all, and realizing that being on stage was just part of it. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything I should shy away from.”

Spencer Davis Group, with Winwood at far right

Nevertheless, both Winwood brothers joined up and became key cogs in the Spencer Davis Group. Clapton, in his 2007 autobiography, recalls hearing Winwood for the first time in 1963. “He was only 15,” he recalled. “If you closed your eyes, you’d swear it was Ray Charles up there. He was like a much older man in a boy’s skin.”

By 1965, the group was making a huge splash, first on the British charts with the #1 R&B-flavored singles “Keep On Running” and “Somebody Help Me,” and then in the US in 1966 with the Top Ten hits “Gimme Some Lovin'” and “I’m a Man,” both written by Winwood. His outstanding vocals and organ dominated the group’s sound, and gave him the confidence to think about branching out.

Interestingly, Cream was just forming at that time, and Clapton was keen on asking Winwood to join, but Baker and Bruce stood firm on wanting the trio format. “There was a lack of synchronization at the time,” said Winwood, “and I guess the offer to be a part of Cream never came through. I certainly would’ve taken the job.” The mind reels at the thought of how different Cream would’ve sounded with Winwood in the fold…

Traffic in 1967. Dave Mason and Winwood in front, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood in back

The music that came out of those sessions turned a lot of heads. First came Winwood’s infectious single, “Paper Sun,” followed soon after by Mason’s trippy “Hole in My Shoe.” Both songs reached the Top Five in the UK. The debut LP, “Mr. Fantasy,” which peaked at #16, was dominated by songs written by Winwood (music) and Capaldi (lyrics), including “Heaven Is In Your Mind,” “No Face, No Name, No Number” and the anthemic “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” There was an alluring stew of soulful blues, strange psychedelia and blues rock. (In the US, the time apparently wasn’t right yet for Traffic; the album stalled at #88 and the singles went nowhere.)

Mason, spooked by the early immediate success in England, chose to leave, although he would return in time for sessions for the next LP, titled simply “Traffic.” The Capaldi/Winwood axis came up with great tracks like “Pearly Queen” and “40,000 Headmen,” and Mason brought well-crafted songs like “You Can All Join In” and perhaps his most famous tune, “Feelin’ Alright?” which ended up being covered by dozens of artists over the years, most notably Joe Cocker, whose definitive rendition reached the Top 40 in the US.

But Mason then split again — as his lyric states, “Seems I’ve got to have a change in scene…” — so Traffic soldiered on as a trio, expanding their touring to include their first visit to the US. Live recordings from those shows were used to augment several stray studio tracks like “Medicated Goo” and “Shanghai Noodle Factory” to produce a third Traffic LP, “Last Exit,” which sounded decidedly inferior to the first two.

At that point, Winwood concluded he needed a change as well and pulled the plug on Traffic — for now. He accepted Clapton’s overture to at last pool their talents to see what might come of it. They squirreled away in the same rural Berkshire cottage, jamming and trying out new song ideas. Baker heard about this and showed up too, and Winwood called his friend Ric Grech to join them on bass and violin, and Blind Faith was born.

Winwood, Ric Grech, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton

The media hype surrounding the band doomed them from the get-go. “Blind Faith was pretty murky, really,” Winwood remembers. “That didn’t really work out quite as well as Eric and I had intended. I don’t think there was any one reason for that, but Eric didn’t want to carry on doing what he’d been doing with Cream. We were both looking for something else. The music that we started off doing was acoustic and jangly. It had a sort of folk element to it, which is not something that goes down too well in the arena rock environment. We had pressures from the business to start recording before we were ready, and we were suddenly playing big places. Neither of us were into that. We were starting to lose interest at different points and were drifting apart.”

The album reached #1 in the US and the UK, but after the tour, the group parted ways. But as we will see, the world hadn’t heard the last of the Winwood/Clapton collaboration.

Winwood thought the time was ripe for his first solo LP, and he began writing and recording songs for it. As sessions continued, though, he found himself missing input from Wood and Capaldi, particularly Wood’s flute and sax, so he invited them to participate. It became obvious that this was now going to become another Traffic album, and so it was: “John Barleycorn Must Die,” released in the summer of 1970, would become the highest charting Traffic LP in the US, peaking at #5. FM rock stations played it relentlessly, especially the jazzy instrumental “Glad,” the sax-driven rocker “Freedom Rider” and the more accessible “Empty Pages.”

Incredibly, Mason returned yet again (briefly) as part of a US tour, recordings from which comprised the so-so live album “Welcome to the Canteen.” Traffic’s lineup expanded at that point to include Grech on bass,

 

Traffic in 1971, from left: Wood, Grech, Gordon, Baah, Capaldi, Winwood

second drummer Jim Gordon (formerly with Derek and the Dominos) and Ghanaian percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah, which accentuated their tendency toward unusual rhythms and longer jams.

Late in 1971 came what many people (including me) feel is Traffic’s finest moment, the captivating “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” LP. The mesmerizing, 12-minute title track is still a classic rock favorite, and “Many a Mile to Freedom” and “Hidden Treasure” show the group still in command of their original semi-trippy sound. Two other tracks — “Light Up or Leave Me Alone” and “Rock and Roll Stew” — offered Traffic doing straightforward rock, with Capaldi handling lead vocals.

Winwood had been suffering occasional bouts of peritonitis (inflammation of the abdomen), which affected his stage performances and his interest in music in general, so after two rather uneven albums (1973’s “Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory” and 1974’s “When the Eagle Flies”) and another live LP, Traffic called it quits.

“In the mid-to-late Seventies,” he said, “I dropped out a little from the rock’n’roll world. I made a conscious effort to do a lot of sessions and work as a sideman, to try to learn how other people were putting music together. Then later on, of course, punk emerged. I found that tricky, because punk rock was almost a reaction against what I’d been doing. It was difficult for me to grasp that, so I suppose I sort of went underground a little.”

Winwood finally released his first solo album in late 1977, with help from a variety of session men, and reaction was decidedly mixed. It had its moments, like the mid-tempo “Vacant Chair” and “Time is Running Out” with its galloping rhythm, but it wasn’t the killer album everyone had been anticipating.

Instead, that album came in late 1981, when “Arc of a Diver” kickstarted his solo career big time. He teamed up with Texan songwriter Will Jennings to provide lyrics for a batch of great songs like “Second Hand Woman,” “Night Train” and the melodic title song. It was truly a one-man tour de force, with Winwood playing all the instruments himself. The leadoff track, “While You See a Chance,” peaked at #7 in the US, beginning his decade-long commercial success here, and the album reached #3. A retrospective review on AllMusic gushed, “Utterly unencumbered by the baggage of his long years in the music business, Winwood reinvented himself as a completely contemporary artist on this outstanding album.”

I never quite understood why the 1982 follow-up LP, “Talking Back to the Night,” didn’t equal its predecessor’s success, at least in the US, where it stalled at #28. Songs like “Big Girls Walk Away,” “Help Me Angel” and the amazing title song deserved more attention, as did “Valerie,” which did finally reach #9 five years after initial release when it was remixed and included on Winwood’s “Chronicles” collection.

A period of soul-searching and a divorce resulted in a move to New York, where he teamed up with some marquis players like Nile Rodgers, Joe Walsh, Chaka Khan and James Taylor and veteran producer Russ Titelman to make the outstanding, award-winning “Back in the High Life” album. Three hit singles — “The Finer Things,” “Back in the High Life Again” and the Grammy winner “Higher Love” — helped put the album at #3 in 1986. I loved this album for its crisp production and satisfying songs.

He concluded his commercial period in 1988 with his only #1 album, “Roll With It,” and another trio of Top Ten singles: “Roll With It” (strongly reminiscent of Junior Walker’s ’60s hit “Shotgun”), “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do” and “Holding On.”

By this point, I was starting to tire of him because of overexposure, and apparently I wasn’t alone, for his sales and popularity (and, consequently, his recorded output) dropped off dramatically in the ’90s and beyond. I continued to buy his stuff — 1990’s “Refugees of the Heart,” 1997’s “Junction Seven” and 2003’s “About Time” — but rarely played them.

It was big news in some circles when Winwood announced a Traffic reunion in 1994, although it didn’t include Mason nor Grech or Baah, and Wood had passed away in 1983. So it was pretty much just Winwood and Capaldi who collaborated on the excellent “Far From Home” album, which reached the Top 30 in both the US and the UK. Some said it sounded like another Winwood solo album, and while it’s true that the majority of tracks wouldn’t have been out of place on “Roll With It,” at least two — “Here Comes a Man” and the superb “Far From Home” — recall the “Low Spark” era of Traffic.

Winwood asked Clapton in 2008 to play a solo on the track “Dirty City” from his final solo LP to date, “Nine Lives,” and it’s a beauty. Other songs also received airplay, like the beautiful “Fly” and “Secrets,” which helped send the album to #12 (although that kind of rating doesn’t have the same clout or meaning in the age of downstreaming).

That small project brought the two veterans together in a much larger way in 2009 for “Live From Madison Square Garden,” where Clapton and Winwood offered a dizzying set list of songs from Cream, Traffic, Blind Faith and both of their solo albums. That live album was so well received that the duo went on world tour for a year.

Today, at age 72, Winwood still performs periodically and had planned a tour with Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen (wow!) this year that was cancelled like every other tour because of the coronavirus. As a 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with Traffic, and ranked #33 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, Winwood’s stature in the business is secure.

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Hey mister, don’t play it no more

The things I’ll do for my readers…

It’s been a huge pleasure to seek out and write about all the great music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s for this rock music blog.  

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What is NOT a huge pleasure is to look for the truly awful songs.  I’ve subjected myself to this torture twice before, in 2015 and 2017.  It seems appropriate, in this shitty year of 2020, to once again compile a short list of what I call “cringeworthy” songs.  These are tunes that make you cringe whenever you hear them.  They make you want to lunge for the radio knob and turn it off or change the channel.

A song might be considered cringeworthy for different reasons.  It might be just inherently annoying.  It might have idiotic lyrics.  It might be too saccharine sweet, or too harshly noisy.  It might just rub you the wrong way.

Unknown-534I asked a few friends to offer their cringeworthy candidates, and some mentioned songs I happen to like.  Similarly, when I’ve played these songs at a party just to get a reaction, someone would invariably say, “Oh I love this song!!!”  Go figure.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…

Here are the songs I selected in my previous “cringeworthy” blogs:

Billy Don’t Be a Hero,” Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods, 1974;  “My Ding-a-Ling,” Chuck Berry, 1972; “Something Stupid,” Frank & Nancy Sinatra, 1966;  “Afternoon Delight,” Starland Vocal Band, 1976;  “The Candy Man,” Sammy Davis Jr.,1972;  “The Night Chicago Died,” Paper Lace, 1974;  “Seasons in the Sun,” Terry Jacks, 1974;  “Winchester Cathedral,” 1966; The New Vaudeville Band;  “Convoy,” C.W. McCall, 1976;  “Honey,” Bobby Goldsboro, 1968.

Yummy Yummy Yummy,” Ohio Express, 1968;  “We Will Rock You,” Queen, 1978;  “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” Tony Orlando and Dawn, 1973;  “Physical,” Olivia Newton-John, 1981;  “Babe,” Styx, 1979;  “Lovin’ You,” 1975;  “Sing,” The Carpenters, 1973;  “One Bad Apple,” The Osmonds, 1970;  “Muskrat Love,” The Captain and Tennille, 1978;  “MacArthur Park,” Unknown-535Richard Harris, 1968;  “Torn Between Two Lovers,” Maureen MacGregor, 1977;  “Song Sung Blue,” Neil Diamond, 1972; “In the Year 2525,” Zager and Evans, 1969;  “Don’t Give Up on Us,” David Soul, 1977;  “The Girl is Mine,” Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney, 1982. 

Sad to say, there are many more songs in the pop music catalog that qualify — probably enough for another ten blog entries.  Today, I have selected a dozen more stinkers that you almost certainly won’t want to listen to (but I built a Spotify playlist anyway!).

I suggest you avoid these “songs” at all costs:

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“Having My Baby,” Paul Anka, 1974

Unknown-539This one’s a no-brainer.  It has appeared on, and even topped, many “worst songs” lists over the decades.  It was voted the #1 “Worst Song of All Time” in a poll conducted by CNN in 2006.  Feminists loathed the song because of its sexist theme and lyrics.  It should be “Having OUR Baby,” they reasonably point out.  Anka wrote the song only a few months after abortion was made legal, and he made no bones about the fact that the woman had a choice, which irked the pro-life crowd:  “Didn’t have to keep it… Could’ve swept it from your life…”  Despite all this, the song somehow reached #1, but Anka soon stopped singing it in concert.   No wonder.

“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Bonnie Tyler, 1982

Unknown-540Some collaborations of artists from different backgrounds have proven to be artistically creative.  Some, however, have not.  Tyler, a Welsh singer who’d had a hit in the US in 1977 with “It’s a Heartache,” decided to team up with Jim Steinman, the songwriter behind the showy, Broadway-like “Bat Out of Hell” album by Meat Loaf.  Steinman, prone to writing overly dramatic songs, went full Monty on “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which lacks any of the melodic flair that lifted the Meat Loaf material.  That didn’t stop Tyler and her husky, inferior voice from recording it.  The infernal, unpredictable US music-buying public made it a big #1 hit in 1983.  BORING.  

“Worst that Could Happen,” Brooklyn Bridge, 1969

Unknown-541There are two large stains on the reputation of otherwise brilliant songwriter Jimmy Webb (who wrote great stuff like “Wichita Lineman,” “All I Know,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” and dozens more).  One is the already discussed “MacArthur Park,” the interminable 1968 tune where someone left the damn cake out in the rain, and the other is this treacly tune recorded by Johnny Maestro and The Brooklyn Bridge.  They took the tune exactly as recorded earlier by The Fifth Dimension (who loved Webb’s songs, even this one) and released it with even more melodrama, and watched it reach #3.  What is wrong with people?  Holy smokes, this is really bad.

“You Light Up My Life,” Debby Boone, 1977

Unknown-542Are you sitting down?  This icky tune actually won the Song of the Year Grammy, and the Best Original Song at the Oscars AND Golden Globes.  Inexplicably, it maintained hold of the #1 spot on the pop charts for TEN consecutive weeks.  I don’t care about any of that.  People are morons with no taste, evidently.  I find this so cloying that I’m afraid of getting diabetes from listening to it.  Debby Boone, the daughter of Fifties lily-white pop performer Pat Boone, doesn’t bear the brunt of the blame.  That goes to Joseph Brooks, a sleazeball film director who wrote it, and was later charged with several “casting-couch rapes.”  Well, isn’t that special.  

“One More Night,” Phil Collins, 1985

Unknown-543A lot of pop songs repeat lyrics ad nauseam, especially in the chorus.  Even acts as universally admired as The Beatles had some repetitive tunes in their catalog.  But let’s get serious.  In this sluggish ballad from Collins’s third solo album, “No Jacket Required,” he sings the title 26 times.  By the third time you hear the tune, you’re screaming, “All right already, we get it!  One more night without her!  Get over it!”  For a couple years in the mid-’80s, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Collins’ voice.  Solo songs, duets, Genesis tracks — he was inescapable.  No one can survive that kind of overexposure, so a song like this was doomed to be on cringeworthy lists.  

“I’m Not Lisa,” Jessi Colter, 1975

Unknown-544It’s monotonous.  It’s annoying.  Some guy used to date Lisa, who fell for someone else, and he can’t get over it, even though new girl Julie is more than ready to take Lisa’s place.  The lyrics are kind of pathetic.  All of this translated into a #1 song on the country charts and #4 on the pop charts in early 1975.  It was written by the artist, Jessi Colter, and the record was produced by her husband, the great Waylon Jennings.  WTF??  Too many strings, not a bad voice, but just a crappy song.  The good news is Colter never had a chance to annoy us again, as she disappeared from the pop charts (although she had a couple more hits on the country chart).

“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” The New Seekers, 1971

Unknown-545Over the years, there have been TV show theme songs that ended up becoming pop hits — “Happy Days,” “Welcome Back Kotter,” “Secret Agent Man,” to name a few.  But there are only a couple pop hits, thank God, that got their start as TV commercials.  In 1970, Coca-Cola came up with its iconic ad campaign “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” with people of all races, ages and ethnicities converging on a hillside to sing together “in perfect harmony.”  Okay, all well and good.  But then a vocal group called The New Seekers (a spinoff from the earlier Seekers) recorded the song without the product references, and it sold millions.  Ugh.  Really?? 

“Love Hurts,” Nazareth, 1976

Unknown-546Songwriter Boudleaux Bryant wrote numerous hits in rock and roll’s early days, mostly for The Everly Brothers (“Bye Bye Love,” “All I Have to Do is Dream,” “Wake Up Little Susie”).  Another one was “Love Hurts,” which The Everlys didn’t release as a single… but it was recorded by quite a few others, including Roy Orbison, Cher, Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.  None of these are any good except maybe Emmylou’s.  Any chances the song had were forever ruined by the Scottish band Nazareth, who released an electric rendition with truly wretched vocals by singer Dan McCafferty.  The UK and the US audiences dug it anyway, for reasons unknown.   

“Ring My Bell,” Anita Bell, 1979

Unknown-547Well, isn’t that interesting:  My research discovered the fact that songwriter Frederick Knight wrote this obnoxious ditty as a teenybopper tune about kids talking on the phone.  When the intended artist, Stacy Lattislaw, signed with a different label, he changed the lyrics and arrangement to make it more of a disco number, and newcomer Anita Ward took it to #1 in the US and Top Ten in 15 other countries.  People seemed to like the sexual suggestion as to what “ringing my bell” meant.  Ward and Knight had disagreements and disco was on the wane, so she ended up a one-hit wonder.  You’ll hear no complaint from me.

“Hooked on a Feeling,” Blue Swede, 1974

Unknown-548Here’s an example of a perfectly decent song that had already been a hit in its original rendition and should’ve been left alone.  B.J. Thomas had a fun, catchy #5 hit with his 1969 version of “Hooked on a Feeling,” written by songwriter Mark James, also famous for writing “Suspicious Minds” for Elvis Presley and “Always on My Mind,” a 1978 smash for Willie Nelson.  End of story?  Nope.  A Swedish outfit called Blue Swede recorded a full album of covers, including “Hooked on a Feeling,” on which they chose to use a relentless “ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga” chant that rendered the track unlistenable.  I mean, UNLISTENABLE.  It was #1 for a week in 1974.  WHY?

“Float On,” The Floaters, 1977

Unknown-549I think the best way to illustrate the degree of bad we’re dealing with here is to show you the lyrics.  The (spoken) verses introduced The Floaters and their zodiac signs and offered a couple lines describing their perfect woman.  For instance:  “Cancer, and my name is Larry, /And I like a woman that loves everything and everybody, /Because I love everybody and everything…”  “Libra, and my name is Charles, /Now I like a woman that’s quiet, /A woman who carries herself like Miss Universe…”  OMG…and it reached #2!  Stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong felt the need to record the parody “Bloat On,” and needless to say, we never heard from The Floaters again.

“Rock Me Amadeus,” Falco, 1986

Unknown-550Johann Holzel, a popular Austrian singer who went by the name Falco, recorded mostly German-language songs, which made sense in Europe, especially his native Austria.  In 1985, capitalizing on the Oscar-winning film “Amadeus,” Falco wrote the punky-techno tune “Rock Me Amadeus” about Mozart and his meteoric rise and fall.  His producers felt correctly that the timing might be right for breaking into the US market, and sure enough, it reached #1.  But go ahead and try to listen to it today.  Go on, I dare you.  It’s absolutely dreadful.  Mozart himself would’ve laughed out loud at how abysmal it is.

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Honorable mentions:

Cat Scratch Fever,” Ted Nugent, 1975;  “Endless Love,” Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, 1983;  “Kung Fu Fighting,” Carl Douglas, 1974;  “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod Stewart, 1977;  “Another One Bites the Dust,” Queen, 1980; “Clap For the Wolfman,” The Guess Who, 1974; “Love is Thicker Than Water,” Andy Gibb, 1977;  “Da Da Da,” TRIO, 1982;  “Cat’s in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin, 1974;  “I Believe in Miracles (You Sexy Thing),” Hot Chocolate, 1975.